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the whip hung over you. Why, you did not even attempt to raise a hand
and shield yourself."

"I notice the dogs your whip falls among come nevertheless to lick your
hand and to be petted."

"Ergo?" she queried, audaciously.

"Ergo, it all depends," he equivocated.

"And, notwithstanding, I am forgiven?"

"As I hope to be forgiven."

"Then I am glad - only, you have done nothing to be forgiven for. You
acted according to your light, and I to mine, though it must be
acknowledged that mine casts the broader flare. Ah! I have it,"
clapping her hands in delight, "I was not angry with you yesterday; nor
did I behave rudely to you, or even threaten you. It was utterly
impersonal, the whole of it. You simply stood for society, for the
type which aroused my indignation and anger; and, as its
representative, you bore the brunt of it. Don't you see?"

"I see, and cleverly put; only, while you escape the charge of
maltreating me yesterday; you throw yourself open to it to-day. You
make me out all that is narrow-minded and mean and despicable, which is
very unjust. Only a few minutes past I said that your way of looking
at it, theoretically considered, was irreproachable. But not so when
we include society."

"But you misunderstand me, Vance. Listen." Her hand went out to his,
and he was content to listen. "I have always upheld that what is is
well. I grant the wisdom of the prevailing social judgment in this
matter. Though I deplore it, I grant it; for the human is so made.
But I grant it socially only. I, as an individual, choose to regard
such things differently. And as between individuals so minded, why
should it not be so regarded? Don't you see? Now I find you guilty.
As between you and me, yesterday, on the river, you did not so regard
it. You behaved as narrow-mindedly as would have the society you
represent."

"Then you would preach two doctrines?" he retaliated. "One for the
elect and one for the herd? You would be a democrat in theory and an
aristocrat in practice? In fact, the whole stand you are making is
nothing more or less than Jesuitical."

"I suppose with the next breath you will be contending that all men are
born free and equal, with a bundle of natural rights thrown in? You
are going to have Del Bishop work for you; by what equal free-born
right will he work for you, or you suffer him to work?"

"No," he denied. "I should have to modify somewhat the questions of
equality and rights."

"And if you modify, you are lost!" she exulted. "For you can only
modify in the direction of my position, which is neither so Jesuitical
nor so harsh as you have defined it. But don't let us get lost in
dialectics. I want to see what I can see, so tell me about this woman."

"Not a very tasteful topic," Corliss objected.

"But I seek knowledge."

"Nor can it be wholesome knowledge."

Frona tapped her foot impatiently, and studied him.

"She is beautiful, very beautiful," she suggested. "Do you not think
so?"

"As beautiful as hell."

"But still beautiful," she insisted.

"Yes, if you will have it so. And she is as cruel, and hard, and
hopeless as she is beautiful."

"Yet I came upon her, alone, by the trail, her face softened, and tears
in her eyes. And I believe, with a woman's ken, that I saw a side of
her to which you are blind. And so strongly did I see it, that when
you appeared my mind was blank to all save the solitary wail, _Oh, the
pity of it_! _The pity of it_! And she is a woman, even as I, and I
doubt not that we are very much alike. Why, she even quoted
Browning - "

"And last week," he cut her short, "in a single sitting, she gambled
away thirty thousand of Jack Dorsey's dust, - Dorsey, with two mortgages
already on his dump! They found him in the snow next morning, with one
chamber empty in his revolver."

Frona made no reply, but, walking over to the candle, deliberately
thrust her finger into the flame. Then she held it up to Corliss that
he might see the outraged skin, red and angry.

"And so I point the parable. The fire is very good, but I misuse it,
and I am punished."

"You forget," he objected. "The fire works in blind obedience to
natural law. Lucile is a free agent. That which she has chosen to do,
that she has done."

"Nay, it is you who forget, for just as surely Dorsey was a free agent.
But you said Lucile. Is that her name? I wish I knew her better."

Corliss winced. "Don't! You hurt me when you say such things."

"And why, pray?"

"Because - because - "

"Yes?"

"Because I honor woman highly. Frona, you have always made a stand for
frankness, and I can now advantage by it. It hurts me because of the
honor in which I hold you, because I cannot bear to see taint approach
you. Why, when I saw you and that woman together on the trail, I - you
cannot understand what I suffered."

"Taint?" There was a tightening about her lips which he did not
notice, and a just perceptible lustre of victory lighted her eyes.

"Yes, taint, - contamination," he reiterated. "There are some things
which it were not well for a good woman to understand. One cannot
dabble with mud and remain spotless."

"That opens the field wide." She clasped and unclasped her hands
gleefully. "You have said that her name was Lucile; you display a
knowledge of her; you have given me facts about her; you doubtless
retain many which you dare not give; in short, if one cannot dabble and
remain spotless, how about you?"

"But I am - "

"A man, of course. Very good. Because you are a man, you may court
contamination. Because I am a woman, I may not. Contamination
contaminates, does it not? Then you, what do you here with me? Out
upon you!"

Corliss threw up his hands laughingly. "I give in. You are too much
for me with your formal logic. I can only fall back on the higher
logic, which you will not recognize."

"Which is - "

"Strength. What man wills for woman, that will he have."

"I take you, then, on your own ground," she rushed on. "What of
Lucile? What man has willed that he has had. So you, and all men,
have willed since the beginning of time. So poor Dorsey willed. You
cannot answer, so let me speak something that occurs to me concerning
that higher logic you call strength. I have met it before. I
recognized it in you, yesterday, on the sleds."

"In me?"

"In you, when you reached out and clutched at me. You could not down
the primitive passion, and, for that matter, you did not know it was
uppermost. But the expression on your face, I imagine, was very like
that of a woman-stealing cave-man. Another instant, and I am sure you
would have laid violent hands upon me."

"Then I ask your pardon. I did not dream - "

"There you go, spoiling it all! I - I quite liked you for it. Don't
you remember, I, too, was a cave-woman, brandishing the whip over your
head?

"But I am not done with you yet, Sir Doubleface, even if you have
dropped out of the battle." Her eyes were sparkling mischievously, and
the wee laughter-creases were forming on her cheek. "I purpose to
unmask you."

"As clay in the hands of the potter," he responded, meekly.

"Then you must remember several things. At first, when I was very
humble and apologetic, you made it easier for me by saying that you
could only condemn my conduct on the ground of being socially unwise.
Remember?"

Corliss nodded.

"Then, just after you branded me as Jesuitical, I turned the
conversation to Lucile, saying that I wished to see what I could see."

Again he nodded.

"And just as I expected, I saw. For in only a few minutes you began to
talk about taint, and contamination, and dabbling in mud, - and all in
relation to me. There are your two propositions, sir. You may only
stand on one, and I feel sure that you stand on the last one. Yes, I
am right. You do. And you were insincere, confess, when you found my
conduct unwise only from the social point of view. I like sincerity."

"Yes," he began, "I was unwittingly insincere. But I did not know it
until further analysis, with your help, put me straight. Say what you
will, Frona, my conception of woman is such that she should not court
defilement."

"But cannot we be as gods, knowing good and evil?"

"But we are not gods," he shook his head, sadly.

"Only the men are?"

"That is new-womanish talk," he frowned. "Equal rights, the ballot,
and all that."

"Oh! Don't!" she protested. "You won't understand me; you can't. I
am no woman's rights' creature; and I stand, not for the new woman, but
for the new womanhood. Because I am sincere; because I desire to be
natural, and honest, and true; and because I am consistent with myself,
you choose to misunderstand it all and to lay wrong strictures upon me.
I do try to be consistent, and I think I fairly succeed; but you can
see neither rhyme nor reason in my consistency. Perhaps it is because
you are unused to consistent, natural women; because, more likely, you
are only familiar with the hot-house breeds, - pretty, helpless,
well-rounded, stall-fatted little things, blissfully innocent and
criminally ignorant. They are not natural or strong; nor can they
mother the natural and strong."

She stopped abruptly. They heard somebody enter the hall, and a heavy,
soft-moccasined tread approaching.

"We are friends," she added hurriedly, and Corliss answered with his
eyes.

"Ain't intrudin', am I?" Dave Harney grinned broad insinuation and
looked about ponderously before coming up to shake hands.

"Not at all," Corliss answered. "We've bored each other till we were
pining for some one to come along. If you hadn't, we would soon have
been quarrelling, wouldn't we, Miss Welse?"

"I don't think he states the situation fairly," she smiled back. "In
fact, we had already begun to quarrel."

"You do look a mite flustered," Harney criticised, dropping his
loose-jointed frame all over the pillows of the lounging couch.

"How's the famine?" Corliss asked. "Any public relief started yet?"

"Won't need any public relief. Miss Frona's old man was too forehanded
fer 'em. Scairt the daylights out of the critters, I do b'lieve.
Three thousand went out over the ice hittin' the high places, an' half
ez many again went down to the caches, and the market's loosened some
considerable. Jest what Welse figgered on, everybody speculated on a
rise and held all the grub they could lay hand to. That helped scare
the shorts, and away they stampeded fer Salt Water, the whole caboodle,
a-takin' all the dogs with 'em. Say!" he sat up solemnly, "corner
dogs! They'll rise suthin' unheard on in the spring when freightin'
gits brisk. I've corralled a hundred a'ready, an' I figger to clear a
hundred dollars clean on every hide of 'em."

"Think so?"

"Think so! I guess yes. Between we three, confidential, I'm startin'
a couple of lads down into the Lower Country next week to buy up five
hundred of the best huskies they kin spot. Think so! I've limbered my
jints too long in the land to git caught nappin'."

Frona burst out laughing. "But you got pinched on the sugar, Dave."

"Oh, I dunno," he responded, complacently. "Which reminds me. I've
got a noospaper, an' only four weeks' old, the _Seattle
Post-Intelligencer_."

"Has the United States and Spain - "

"Not so fast, not so fast!" The long Yankee waved his arms for
silence, cutting off Frona's question which was following fast on that
of Corliss.

"But have you read it?" they both demanded.

"Unh huh, every line, advertisements an' all."

"Then do tell me," Frona began. "Has - "

"Now you keep quiet, Miss Frona, till I tell you about it reg'lar.
That noospaper cost me fifty dollars - caught the man comin' in round
the bend above Klondike City, an' bought it on the spot. The dummy
could a-got a hundred fer it, easy, if he'd held on till he made
town - "

"But what does it say? Has - "

"Ez I was sayin', that noospaper cost me fifty dollars. It's the only
one that come in. Everybody's jest dyin' to hear the noos. So I
invited a select number of 'em to come here to yer parlors to-night,
Miss Frona, ez the only likely place, an' they kin read it out loud, by
shifts, ez long ez they want or till they're tired - that is, if you'll
let 'em have the use of the place."

"Why, of course, they are welcome. And you are very kind to - "

He waved her praise away. "Jest ez I kalkilated. Now it so happens,
ez you said, that I was pinched on sugar. So every mother's son and
daughter that gits a squint at that paper to-night got to pony up five
cups of sugar. Savve? Five cups, - big cups, white, or brown, or
cube, - an' I'll take their IOU's, an' send a boy round to their shacks
the day followin' to collect."

Frona's face went blank at the telling, then the laughter came back
into it. "Won't it be jolly? I'll do it if it raises a scandal.
To-night, Dave? Sure to-night?"

"Sure. An' you git a complimentary, you know, fer the loan of yer
parlor."

"But papa must pay his five cups. You must insist upon it, Dave."

Dave's eyes twinkled appreciatively. "I'll git it back on him, you
bet!"

"And I'll make him come," she promised, "at the tail of Dave Harney's
chariot."

"Sugar cart," Dave suggested. "An' to-morrow night I'll take the paper
down to the Opery House. Won't be fresh, then, so they kin git in
cheap; a cup'll be about the right thing, I reckon." He sat up and
cracked his huge knuckles boastfully. "I ain't ben a-burnin' daylight
sence navigation closed; an' if they set up all night they won't be up
early enough in the mornin' to git ahead of Dave Harney - even on a
sugar proposition."




CHAPTER XI

Over in the corner Vance Corliss leaned against the piano, deep in
conversation with Colonel Trethaway. The latter, keen and sharp and
wiry, for all his white hair and sixty-odd years, was as young in
appearance as a man of thirty. A veteran mining engineer, with a
record which put him at the head of his profession, he represented as
large American interests as Corliss did British. Not only had a
cordial friendship sprung up between them, but in a business way they
had already been of large assistance to each other. And it was well
that they should stand together, - a pair who held in grip and could
direct at will the potent capital which two nations had contributed to
the development of the land under the Pole.

The crowded room was thick with tobacco smoke. A hundred men or so,
garbed in furs and warm-colored wools, lined the walls and looked on.
But the mumble of their general conversation destroyed the spectacular
feature of the scene and gave to it the geniality of common
comradeship. For all its _bizarre_ appearance, it was very like the
living-room of the home when the members of the household come together
after the work of the day. Kerosene lamps and tallow candles glimmered
feebly in the murky atmosphere, while large stoves roared their red-hot
and white-hot cheer.

On the floor a score of couples pulsed rhythmically to the swinging
waltz-time music. Starched shirts and frock coats were not. The men
wore their wolf- and beaver-skin caps, with the gay-tasselled ear-flaps
flying free, while on their feet were the moose-skin moccasins and
walrus-hide muclucs of the north. Here and there a woman was in
moccasins, though the majority danced in frail ball-room slippers of
silk and satin. At one end of the hall a great open doorway gave
glimpse of another large room where the crowd was even denser. From
this room, in the lulls in the music, came the pop of corks and the
clink of glasses, and as an undertone the steady click and clatter of
chips and roulette balls.

The small door at the rear opened, and a woman, befurred and muffled,
came in on a wave of frost. The cold rushed in with her to the warmth,
taking form in a misty cloud which hung close to the floor, hiding the
feet of the dancers, and writhing and twisting until vanquished by the
heat.

"A veritable frost queen, my Lucile," Colonel Trethaway addressed her.

She tossed her head and laughed, and, as she removed her capes and
street-moccasins, chatted with him gayly. But of Corliss, though he
stood within a yard of her, she took no notice. Half a dozen dancing
men were waiting patiently at a little distance till she should have
done with the colonel. The piano and violin played the opening bars of
a schottische, and she turned to go; but a sudden impulse made Corliss
step up to her. It was wholly unpremeditated; he had not dreamed of
doing it.

"I am very sorry," he said.

Her eyes flashed angrily as she turned upon him.

"I mean it," he repeated, holding out his hand. "I am very sorry. I
was a brute and a coward. Will you forgive me?"

She hesitated, and, with the wisdom bought of experience, searched him
for the ulterior motive. Then, her face softened, and she took his
hand. A warm mist dimmed her eyes.

"Thank you," she said.

But the waiting men had grown impatient, and she was whirled away in
the arms of a handsome young fellow, conspicuous in a cap of yellow
Siberian wolf-skin. Corliss came back to his companion, feeling
unaccountably good and marvelling at what he had done.

"It's a damned shame." The colonel's eye still followed Lucile, and
Vance understood. "Corliss, I've lived my threescore, and lived them
well, and do you know, woman is a greater mystery than ever. Look at
them, look at them all!" He embraced the whole scene with his eyes.
"Butterflies, bits of light and song and laughter, dancing, dancing
down the last tail-reach of hell. Not only Lucile, but the rest of
them. Look at May, there, with the brow of a Madonna and the tongue of
a gutter-devil. And Myrtle - for all the world one of Gainsborough's
old English beauties stepped down from the canvas to riot out the
century in Dawson's dance-halls. And Laura, there, wouldn't she make a
mother? Can't you see the child in the curve of her arm against her
breast! They're the best of the boiling, I know, - a new country always
gathers the best, - but there's something wrong, Corliss, something
wrong. The heats of life have passed with me, and my vision is truer,
surer. It seems a new Christ must arise and preach a new
salvation - economic or sociologic - in these latter days, it matters
not, so long as it is preached. The world has need of it."

The room was wont to be swept by sudden tides, and notably between the
dances, when the revellers ebbed through the great doorway to where
corks popped and glasses tinkled. Colonel Trethaway and Corliss
followed out on the next ebb to the bar, where fifty men and women were
lined up. They found themselves next to Lucile and the fellow in the
yellow wolf-skin cap. He was undeniably handsome, and his looks were
enhanced by a warm overplus of blood in the cheeks and a certain mellow
fire in the eyes. He was not technically drunk, for he had himself in
perfect physical control; but his was the soul-exhilaration which comes
of the juice of the grape. His voice was raised the least bit and
joyous, and his tongue made quick and witty - just in the unstable
condition when vices and virtues are prone to extravagant expression.

As he raised his glass, the man next to him accidentally jostled his
arm. He shook the wine from his sleeve and spoke his mind. It was not
a nice word, but one customarily calculated to rouse the fighting
blood. And the other man's blood roused, for his fist landed under the
wolf-skin cap with force sufficient to drive its owner back against
Corliss. The insulted man followed up his attack swiftly. The women
slipped away, leaving a free field for the men, some of whom were for
crowding in, and some for giving room and fair play.

The wolf-skin cap did not put up a fight or try to meet the wrath he
had invoked, but, with his hands shielding his face, strove to retreat.
The crowd called upon him to stand up and fight. He nerved himself to
the attempt, but weakened as the man closed in on him, and dodged away.

"Let him alone. He deserves it," the colonel called to Vance as he
showed signs of interfering. "He won't fight. If he did, I think I
could almost forgive him."

"But I can't see him pummelled," Vance objected. "If he would only
stand up, it wouldn't seem so brutal."

The blood was streaming from his nose and from a slight cut over one
eye, when Corliss sprang between. He attempted to hold the two men
apart, but pressing too hard against the truculent individual,
overbalanced him and threw him to the floor. Every man has friends in
a bar-room fight, and before Vance knew what was taking place he was
staggered by a blow from a chum of the man he had downed. Del Bishop,
who had edged in, let drive promptly at the man who had attacked his
employer, and the fight became general. The crowd took sides on the
moment and went at it.

Colonel Trethaway forgot that the heats of life had passed, and
swinging a three-legged stool, danced nimbly into the fray. A couple
of mounted police, on liberty, joined him, and with half a dozen others
safeguarded the man with the wolf-skin cap.

Fierce though it was, and noisy, it was purely a local disturbance. At
the far end of the bar the barkeepers still dispensed drinks, and in
the next room the music was on and the dancers afoot. The gamblers
continued their play, and at only the near tables did they evince any
interest in the affair.

"Knock'm down an' drag'm out!" Del Bishop grinned, as he fought for a
brief space shoulder to shoulder with Corliss.

Corliss grinned back, met the rush of a stalwart dog-driver with a
clinch, and came down on top of him among the stamping feet. He was
drawn close, and felt the fellow's teeth sinking into his ear. Like a
flash, he surveyed his whole future and saw himself going one-eared
through life, and in the same dash, as though inspired, his thumbs flew
to the man's eyes and pressed heavily on the balls. Men fell over him
and trampled upon him, but it all seemed very dim and far away. He
only knew, as he pressed with his thumbs, that the man's teeth wavered
reluctantly. He added a little pressure (a little more, and the man
would have been eyeless), and the teeth slackened and slipped their
grip.

After that, as he crawled out of the fringe of the melee and came to
his feet by the side of the bar, all distaste for fighting left him.
He had found that he was very much like other men after all, and the
imminent loss of part of his anatomy had scraped off twenty years of
culture. Gambling without stakes is an insipid amusement, and Corliss
discovered, likewise, that the warm blood which rises from hygienic
gymnasium work is something quite different from that which pounds
hotly along when thew matches thew and flesh impacts on flesh and the
stake is life and limb. As he dragged himself to his feet by means of
the bar-rail, he saw a man in a squirrel-skin parka lift a beer-mug to
hurl at Trethaway, a couple of paces off. And the fingers, which were
more used to test-tubes and water colors, doubled into a hard fist
which smote the mug-thrower cleanly on the point of the jaw. The man
merely dropped the glass and himself on the floor. Vance was dazed for
the moment, then he realized that he had knocked the man
unconscious, - the first in his life, - and a pang of delight thrilled
through him.

Colonel Trethaway thanked him with a look, and shouted, "Get on the
outside! Work to the door, Corliss! Work to the door!"

Quite a struggle took place before the storm-doors could be thrown
open; but the colonel, still attached to the three-legged stool,
effectually dissipated the opposition, and the Opera House disgorged
its turbulent contents into the street. This accomplished, hostilities
ceased, after the manner of such fights, and the crowd scattered. The
two policemen went back to keep order, accompanied by the rest of the
allies, while Corliss and the colonel, followed by the Wolf-Skin Cap
and Del Bishop, proceeded up the street.

"Blood and sweat! Blood and sweat!" Colonel Trethaway exulted. "Talk
about putting the vim into one! Why, I'm twenty years younger if I'm a
day! Corliss, your hand. I congratulate you, I do, I heartily do.
Candidly, I didn't think it was in you. You're a surprise, sir, a
surprise!"

"And a surprise to myself," Corliss answered. The reaction had set in,
and he was feeling sick and faint. "And you, also, are a surprise.
The way you handled that stool - "

"Yes, now! I flatter myself I did fairly well with it. Did you
see - well, look at that!" He held up the weapon in question, still


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Online LibraryJack LondonA Daughter of the Snows → online text (page 7 of 20)