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invading mosquitoes; the pleasant smell of tobacco, adding to the
enjoyment of the crisp Northern air; the resplendent sunset, slashing a
broken sky with a sea of multitudinous colours, and lighting a prospect
of verdant woods at the foot of a line of distant hills; a wide,
sheltered stoop with deep-seated rocking-chairs; these things were the
key to the deeper recesses of the hearts of men who have learned to play
the great game of life upon the lonely wastes of a Northern world.

Ian Ross raised a warning finger as the sounds of laughter came from
some distant part of the house behind him. There was a child's laughter,
fresh, happy, and the light laugh of a woman, who has learned, through
her own, the perfect happiness which childhood can inspire in those
whose instincts remain unimpaired.

"Do you need to ask me?" he said, in reply to the other's question.
"That kiddie is just crazy with happiness - so's Millie. Guess she'll be
down along after awhile, when she's quit fooling with him in his bath."

Steve breathed deeply, and his far gazing eyes rested unblinkingly upon
the sunset of a myriad hues. The reek of tobacco hung upon the still
air, and the light veil of smoke from the "smudge" sailed gently across
the view beyond the veranda.

He was full healed now - outwardly. There was little change in him as he
sat back in his deep rocker on the veranda of Ian Ross's house at
Deadwater. His steady eyes looked out with their uncompromising
directness. But there were lines about his eyes and mouth, and between
his level brows, which had been less noticeable twelve months ago. This
was the front which he set up before the eyes of the little world he
knew. In moments of solitude, when no eyes were there to observe, it may
have been different. But he desired neither sympathy nor support. He
desired only to be left to himself, to those purposes which he would
permit nothing to change or interfere with.

He had rid himself of all signs of his connection with the police force
as though he had determined to cut himself off from a period of his life
which had only yielded bitter memories. Nor had he anything about him
reminiscent of the trail, which had been so much a part of his life. He
was clad in the tweeds of civilization, which robbed him of some of that
distinction which the rougher wear had always pronounced.

"I'm glad," he said, and went on smoking in the silent fashion which
only real companionship understands.

After a few moments of voiceless contemplation of the wide view over the
Reservation the Scotsman stirred in his chair. The thoughtful knitting
of his heavy brows relaxed, and he glanced at the preoccupied face of
his companion.

"There's a heap of things I'd like to ask you, Steve," he said bluntly.
"And a whole heap I wouldn't. It's the sort of position I don't
generally reckon to find myself in," he added, with a twinkle in his
deep-set eyes. "You see, I mostly know the things I want to say. Maybe
you've got things you want to tell me, as well as things you don't. It's
up to you."

Steve nodded.

"It's best that way," he said. "Yes, there's things I want to say. And
it's mostly about the boy, and - An-ina. There's other things, too." He
paused. Then he went on: "You see, Doc, I haven't made a heap of
friends. There's about no one, except you. I'd like to talk straight
out. McDowell's a decent enough citizen, but he's not the sort you can
hand out some things to. Jack Belton and those others, well, they're
good enough boys, but - Anyway, it don't cut any ice. You're just
different and I want to hand you what'll maybe make you wish I hadn't.
The first is just this. I want you to forget the things that's
happened - to me. I want you just to tell yourself 'He don't care a
curse.' It won't be the truth, but I want you to act as if it were.
Those things are mine. Just mine. I've set them in a sort of grave, and
it's only going to be my hands that open it, and my eyes that look into
it. You don't need to avoid talk of Nita and little Coqueline if you
feel that way. You can't open that grave. It's mine. And it's deep. You
can't add hurt to that already done."

Steve's eyes were gazing unflinchingly into his companion's, and Ross's
feelings were stirred to their depths by the stern courage underlying
his words. He knew. He understood.

"Yes," he said. "I get that. It's best that way for - the man who can
stand it."

"I'm going East," Steve went on, "and I'll be away maybe a year. Maybe
less, maybe more. I can't say. You see, there's a big lot to be done,
and it depends on how quick I get through. There's my father's affairs
to fix up and - other things."

"Other things?"

"Yes."

Steve's eyes were on the rapidly softening colours of the sunset. Their
far-off look of pre-occupation had returned to them.

"I don't know how I'll come back," he went on after a moment. "Maybe in
a hurry." His brows suddenly depressed. "I can't say. But it'll be for
the boy and An-ina, and, anyway, it'll likely be the last time you'll
see me on this earth. I don't need to tell you more on this thing. Maybe
a time'll come when you'll feel glad you didn't know any more."

"I think - I understand."

Ross breathed heavily through his pipe. He was thinking of the man,
Garstaing. He was thinking of himself in Steve's place. And he felt it
was more than likely that in that case he, too, might desire to return
to his home _in a hurry_, and, perhaps, leave it again for the - last
time.

"Sure. I guessed you'd understand," Steve said. "That's why I'm
talking."

Again followed a brief, thoughtful pause.

"That boy," he went on. "It's him I want to tell you about. He's shown
me how to get a grip on myself. He's a sort of anchor that's held me
safe till the storm's blown itself out. He's been a sort of act of
Providence and the life that's left to me is for him. You get that?"

"I've had it all the time. Maybe you don't remember I tried to take him
from you when you crawled out of that darn canoe."

A shadowy smile hovered in Steve's eyes.

"I remember it - good," he said. "Well, if things should happen so I
don't get back I'll fix it so the boy gets all the stuff my father's
handed me, and I'll ask you to raise him as if he was your own. You
haven't a son, Doc. He won't be a worry. An-ina's his nurse, and he
couldn't have a better. If I come back I'm hoping your Millie won't be
too grieved at parting from him. Can you fix that, too? You see," he
added, "I'm asking you a whole heap."

"You can't ask too much, boy."

Steve's nod thanked the bluff heartiness of the big man.

"Good. Now for the things you don't know, Doc," he went on, his manner
relaxing as he felt that his difficulties were lessening. "You didn't
read the report I'd written. It told the whole story of the boy right. I
tore it up after you'd - told me. I had to. If I hadn't, why, I'd have
lost that anchor God Almighty flung out to me in my trouble. Next to my
own little kiddie I love that boy. He's got into my heart good - what's
left of it. You see, he's white, and he's no folks. That means the State
handing him over to the folks set to deal with the 'strays' of God's
world. It means his being out of my life when I most need him. I
couldn't stand for that. If Nita and my little girl had been here it
wouldn't have been that way. I'd have persuaded them to leave him with
me. With no home to take him to I'd have no case. So I got busy on a
report that made him out the bastard of An-ina and the dead trader. They
can't claim him from his mother, even though she's a squaw. And anyway
I've fixed it with McDowell they both remain with you."

Ross nodded prompt agreement.

"He's a bright kid and I'm glad. Glad for him and glad for you," he said
heartily.

"I hoped that way," Steve went on quickly. "You see, Doc, I didn't tell
you a thing till it was done. I was scared to take a chance." He sighed
a deep relief. "The other things come easy with that fixed. I cut that
report to the bone, and hid up all that concerned the boy. The work they
asked of me was investigation into the death of two white men who were
thought to be traders up in Unaga, where they didn't reckon there were
any white folk. So I told them a yarn that's simple truth, but which
hid up all the things I didn't see putting them wise to. They guessed
these men had been murdered by the Eskimo. Well, they weren't. They
fought to the death for the mother of this boy, and she was a white
woman, and the wife of his father. It was the old game. A game I hope to
play. Only the other man was a partner in the enterprise, and not the
Indian Agent of the Allowa Reserve. I told them of the Indians, too. A
race that sleeps half the year."

"The boy's been talking of them."

Ross sat up. A pair of keen eyes were shrewdly questioning.

Steve nodded.

"I guessed he'd be talking of them."

"The old yarn of hibernating folks," the Scotsman said, his eyes alight
with tolerant amusement.

"Just that. Only, it's no - yarn."

Steve had no responsive smile. His eyes were serious with a conviction
that promptly changed the other's attitude. He searched an inner pocket
and drew forth a neatly tied packet. This he unfastened while the other
watched him curiously.

The wrappings removed, a bunch of something that looked rather like
dried seaweed lay revealed. And a curious sweet odour made itself
apparent on the still air.

Steve passed it across to his companion without comment. And Ross took
it, and, for some thoughtful moments, sat gazing upon the strange
product of the hidden Unaga. Then he gingerly picked up some of the
shrivelled weed for a closer examination, and, a moment later, pressed
it against his nose and inhaled deeply. As he did so, Steve, watching
him, beheld a sudden excited lighting of his eyes.

"You know it, Doc," he said. "I don't need to ask."

Steve spoke quite quietly, and the other continued to contemplate the
stuff in the intent, absorbed fashion of a suddenly startled scientific
mind. At last he withdrew his fascinated gaze.

"'Adresol!'" he exclaimed. And his tone was thrilling with the joy of
the enthusiast.

"Yes."

"You knew it?"

The Scotsman's sharp question was accompanied by the searching of
astonished eyes.

"Sure."

Ross made no attempt to return the weed. It seemed as though he found it
impossible to deny its fascination.

"Tell me about it," he said, fingering the stuff with the tenderness of
an artist contemplating some precious work of delicate craftsmanship.

"It's the key to the hibernating yarn," Steve said. "Yes, I need to hand
it you all. That way you'll understand the things I've got in my mind."

It was a long enough story. Steve was anxious that nothing should be
omitted that could convince the only man who could assist him in
carrying out his plans. Sunset had nearly faded out of the sky by the
time it was finished. He told everything as he knew it both from An-ina
and the mother of Marcel. Also that which he had learned first hand, and
from the diaries of Marcel Brand. The story of the dead chemist who had
abandoned everything, even life itself, in the pursuit of the elusive
weed lost nothing from his wide sympathy. And the crude use of the drug
by the Indians formed a picture full of colour and romance.

Ross absorbed it all, and wonder and interest grew in his mind as he
listened to the story of it.

At the conclusion he re-lit his forgotten pipe.

"And it grows there - in plenty?" he said, in profound amazement.
"Steve, boy, do you know what it means to find a big source of that
stuff? Oh," he cried with a rush of enthusiasm, "it means - it means the
greatest thing for suffering humanity that's been discovered in a
thousand years. Here, I'll tell you. Oh, it's known to us folk, who've
studied dope as a special study. It's been found in places, but not in
much bigger quantities than would dope a fair-sized litter of piebald
kittens. It's sort of like radium, and half a pint of the distilled drug
would be worth over twenty-five thousand dollars. Maybe that'll tell you
how much there is of it on the market. But it's not that. Oh, no, it's a
heap bigger than that, boy. The plant itself is deadly in the green
state. It exhales a poison you couldn't stand for ten seconds. Dried,
its poison is killed stone dead. But it leaves behind it its priceless
narcotic properties. And these are perfectly innocuous, and even
health-giving. I don't need to worry you with the scientific side of it,
but it'll tell you something of what it means when I say it suspends
life, and you don't need to worry about the condition of the person
who's doped with it. You said those darn Indians live to a great age. I
believe it. You see, they live only _six months of the year_. They're
dead the rest. Or anyway their life is suspended. I seem to know the
name of that man Brand. I seem to recall it in association with
'Adresol.' Anyway, the work he's done mustn't be wasted. We'll have to
get an outfit. A big outfit that can't fail to grab the secret of those
neches upon Unaga. There's no small crowd of folk has any right to deny
the rest of the world the benefits of this wonderful drug. We - - "

"That's how I reckon," Steve broke in quickly. "But the thing's to be
done the way I've figured."

"How's that?"

Steve was sitting up in his rocking-chair.

"I didn't hand you that stuff and my story of these things for pastime,
Doc. I guess I'd learnt all you've told me from the books and papers of
the boy's father. Knowing you for the man you are, and the way you most
generally try to make a ten-pound heart look like a sparrow's egg by
shouting at folks, I reckoned you'd see with me in this thing. That poor
feller Brand. As you say, his work isn't to be wasted. He's left behind
him a kiddie which hasn't a thing in the world, and if I'm any judge of
things that kiddie was the whole sun, moon, and stars of his life. I'm
thinking of that kiddie now. And I'm thinking of him alone. You're
thinking of a suffering world. If there's twenty-five thousand dollars
for a half pint of that dope the money belongs to the helpless kid of
the man who's given his life to locate it. We don't need an outfit to
get the neches' secret. We don't need a thing. There's just one man
knows how to locate the place where Marcel Brand lived, and that's me.
There's not a living soul, not even Julyman, or Oolak, or An-ina, could
ever make it without me. And I tell you right here there's no one ever
learns it from me. That secret is for Marcel, and I figure to hand it to
him, and all that's coming out of it. That's why I've told you these
things. Now you'll understand what's in my mind when I say that I'm
coming along back when I've settled with Garstaing, or failed to locate
him. If I've settled with him I'll be in a hurry. And I'm going up
north - north where no one can ever hope to follow me, with An-ina, and
Marcel, and maybe Julyman and Oolak again, and I'm going to work this
thing for the rest of my life for - Marcel. It's his, all of it. And
what's left over is for the suffering humanity you're thinking about.
See, here, Doc, you and me, we aren't any sort of twin brothers of
friends. We haven't been raised together. I hadn't a notion of you till
I took charge of this station. But I know a man - a real man. And if
you've the guts I reckon you have, then you'll help me to do the thing
that's going to shut the gates of the hell that's opened to swallow me
up."

"You mean the care of the boy and An-ina?"

"Till I get back. Then you'll hand 'em over without - a kick."

Ross ran his great fingers through his hair, while he sought the last
glow of sunset for inspiration.

"It's a hell of a country - up there," he protested, after a moment. He
was thinking of the child. He was thinking of Millie's possible protests
at sacrificing the child to the terrors of Unaga.

"He was bred there." Steve's eyes were urgent. "It's handing to him the
things his father would have wanted him to have. Think, Doc. By every
moral right the 'Adresol' secret is his. It cost him a father. It cost
him a mother. It would have cost him his life - a white man's life - if it
hadn't been for the hand of Providence sending me along to him. Besides,
it's all here, Doc," he went on tapping his breast. "He's been my
anchor, my small, little anchor, but a mighty powerful one. He's saved
me from all sorts of hell, and I want to hand him the life he's saved in
return. I want to raise him to a great manhood, and hand him a future
that'll stagger half the world. And if I fail I'll have done all a
mortal man can."

The rustle of a woman's dress in the hallway behind them heralded
Millie's approach. Ross stood up hastily. He was just a shade relieved
at the interruption. In a moment the atmosphere was changed from Steve's
passionate urgency to the domestic lightness of a happy wife's presence.

"Why, Mac," she cried, as she stood framed in the doorway, "you two boys
still doping yourselves with smudge and tobacco smoke? That kiddie's
only just gone off to sleep. He's a terrible tyrant, Steve, and just
the sweetest ever."

She glanced quickly from one to the other, and in a moment the smile
died out of her eyes in response to the seriousness she beheld in the
faces confronting her.

"You've got around in the nick o' time," the husband said. "Steve's
going away - East. He'll be back in awhile. Maybe a year. Maybe more. And
when he comes back he - wants the boy. He wants to take him right away,
and to raise him as his own. He reckons he's kind of adrift now, and the
kiddie looks like handing him an anchor. He's yearning to make good for
him, in a way that, maybe we, with our own two, couldn't hope to. We're
guessing it's up to you. A year or so, and then you - hand him to his
'Uncle Steve.'"

Millie turned to the man who had battled for the boy's life. Her kindly
eyes were promptly lit with all a good woman's sympathy. She remembered
the man's passionate devotion to his own. She remembered the terrible
disaster that had overtaken him. Her thought went no further. At the
moment it was incapable of going further.

She turned to the husband awaiting her reply, and there was a suspicious
moisture in her clear smiling eyes.

"Say, Mac," she cried in her half tender, half humourous way, "by the
way you talk folk might guess you were scared to death of the wife who
didn't know better than to take you for better or worse. Steve doesn't
need to worry a thing. You know that. I don't know the rights of his
claim by the laws of the folks who're set to worry us. But there's God's
claim that don't need lawyers to make plain. Little Marcel, bless him,
is his. If he comes, night or day, one year's time or ten, God willing,
he'll be here waiting for him, and I'll hand him over with two of
everything for the comfort of his sweet little body."




CHAPTER XIV

MALLARD'S


The ladder of crime has its bottom rung in Mallard's. Those who essay
the perilous descent inevitably gravitate, sooner or later, at
Mallard's. It was Saney who was responsible for the statement; and Saney
was a shrewd "investigator," and certainly one of the most experienced
amongst those whose lives were spent in an endeavour to beat the
criminal mind of Eastern Canada.

Mallard's was somewhere on the water front of Quebec. It stood in a
backwater where the busy tide of seafaring traffic passed it by. But it
was sufficiently adjacent to permit its clientele swift and convenient
access to the docks, at once a safety valve and the source of its
popularity.

It was nominally a sailors' boarding-house. Heredity also conferred upon
it the dignity of "hotel." Furthermore, its licence carried with it the
privileges of a saloon. But its claims were by no means exhausted by
these things.

According to Saney's view there was no criminal in the country, and very
few of those who were worth while in the criminal world of the United
States, who, at some time in their careers, had not passed through one
of its many concealed exits. It might, in consequence, be supposed that
Mallard's was a more than usually happy hunting-ground for the
investigator of crime. But here again Saney must be quoted. Mallard's,
he said, was a life study, and, even so, three score and ten years was
no more than sufficient for a very elementary apprenticeship. Further,
he considered that Mallard's was the cemetery of all reputations in
criminal investigation.

Outwardly Mallard's was no different from the other houses which
surrounded it. It was part of a block of buildings which had grown up
and developed in the course of a century or more. Its floors were
several, and its windows were set one over the other without any
pretence other than sheer utility. Its main doorway always stood open,
and gave on to a passage, narrow and dark, and usually deserted. The
passage ran directly into the heart of the building where rose a short
staircase exactly filling the breadth of the passage. At the top of the
eight treads of this staircase was a landing of similar width, out of
which turned two corridors at right angles. Beyond these the landing
terminated in a downward stairway, exactly similar to the one by which
it was approached. Beyond this, all description of this celebrated haunt
of crime would be impossible, for the rest was a labyrinth of apparently
useless passages and stairways, ascending and descending, the following
of which was only to invite complete and utter confusion of mind. The
legend ran that the cellars, many floors deep, undermined half a dozen
adjacent streets, and, in the block in which the place stood, no one had
ever been found who could say where the house began and where it ended.

As a refuge for its benighted guests there was always a bed, of sorts, a
meal and drink - at a price. If the visitor were legitimate in his claims
on its hospitality he would fare no worse than a lightened purse at the
time of his departure. If he were other than he pretended then it would
have been better for him to have shunned the darkened passage as he
would a plague spot.

The owner of the place was never seen by the guests. It was
administered, as far as could be judged, by a number of men who only
intruded upon their clients when definite necessity arose. Then the
intrusion was something cyclonic. On these occasions the police were
never called in, and the nature of the disturbance, and the result of
it, was never permitted to reach the outside. Mallard's was capable of
hiding up anything. Its own crimes as well as the crimes of others.

On one of the many floors was a large sort of office and lounging-room.
It had been extended, as necessity demanded, by the simple process of
taking down partition walls. It was low-ceiled and dingy. Its walls were
mostly panelled with dull, shabby graining over many coats of paint. The
floor was bare and unscrubbed, and littered with frowsy-looking wooden
cuspidors filled with cinders. There were many small tables scattered
about, and the rest of the space seemed to be filled up with Windsor
chairs, which jostled one another to an extent that made passage a
matter of patient effort. At one end of the room was a long counter with
an iron grid protecting those behind it. And, in this region there were
several telephone boxes with unusually heavy and sound-proof doors.

For the rest it was peopled by the hard-faced, powerful-looking clerks
behind the iron grid of the counter, and a gathering of men sitting
about at the small tables, or lounging with their feet on the anthracite
stove which stood out in the centre of the great apartment.

It was a mixed enough gathering. There were well-dressed men, and men
who were obviously of the sea. There were the flashily dressed crooks,
whose work was the haunt of sidewalk, and trains, and the surface cars.
There were out and out toughs, careless of all appearance, and with
their evil hall-marked on harsh faces and in their watchful eyes. Then
there were others whom no one but the police of the city could have
placed. There were Chinamen and Lascars. There were square-headed
Germans, and the Dagos from Italy and other Latin countries. There were
niggers, too, which was a tribute to the generosity of Mallard's
hospitality.

Those at the tables were mostly drinking and gambling. Poker seemed to
be the favoured pastime, but "shooting craps" was not without its
devotees. There were one or two groups in close confabulation over their
drinks. While round the stove was a scattering of loungers.

A dark good-looking man, with an ample brown beard, was amongst the
latter. He was reclining with little more than his back resting on the



Online LibraryRidgwell CullumThe Heart of Unaga → online text (page 11 of 30)