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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesGod's Country And The Woman - Chapter 3
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God's Country And The Woman - Chapter 3 Post by :best4you Category :Long Stories Author :James Oliver Curwood Date :May 2012 Read :2625

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God's Country And The Woman - Chapter 3

CHAPTER THREE

That he had actually passed through the experience of the last few minutes, that it was a reality and not some beautiful phantasm of the red and gold world which again lay quiet and lifeless about him, Philip could scarcely convince himself as he made his way back to the canoe and the fire. The discovery of this girl, buried six hundred miles in a wilderness that was almost a terra incognita to the white man, was sufficient to bewilder him. And only now, as he kicked the burning embers from under the pails, and looked at his watch to time himself, did he begin to realize that he had not sensed a hundredth part of the miracle of it.

Now that he was alone, question after question leapt unanswered through his mind, and every vein in his body throbbed with strange excitement. Not for an instant did he doubt what she had said. This world--the forests about him, the lakes, the blue skies above, were her home. And yet, struggling vainly for a solution of the mystery, he told himself in the next breath that this could not be possible. Her voice had revealed nothing of the wilderness --except in its sweetness. Not a break had marred the purity of her speech. She had risen before him like the queen of some wonderful kingdom, and not like a forest girl. And in her face he had seen the soul of one who had looked upon the world as the world lived outside of its forest walls. Yet he believed her. This was her home. Her hair, her eyes, the flowerlike lithesomeness of her beautiful body--and something more, something that he could not see but which he could FEEL in her presence, told him that this was so. This wonder-world about him was her home. But why-- how?

He seated himself on a rock, holding the open watch in his hand. Of one thing he was sure. She was oppressed by a strange fear. It was not the fear of being alone, of being lost, of some happen- chance peril that she might fancy was threatening her. It was a deeper, bigger thing than that. And she had confessed to him--not wholly, but enough to make him know--that this fear was of man. He felt at this thought a little thrill of joy, of undefinable exultation. He sprang from the rock and went down to the shore of the lake, scanning its surface with eager, challenging eyes. In these moments he forgot that civilization was waiting for him, that for eighteen months he had been struggling between life and death at the naked and barbarous end of the earth. All at once, in the space of a few minutes, his world had shrunken until it held but two things for him--the autumn-tinted forests, and the girl. Beyond these he thought of nothing except the minutes that were dragging like thirty weights of lead.

As the hand of his watch marked off the twenty-fifth of the prescribed thirty he turned his steps in the direction of the pool. He half expected that she would be there when he came over the ridge of rock. But she had not returned. He looked up the coulee, end then at the firm white sand close to the water. The imprints of her feet were there--small, narrow imprints of a heeled shoe. Unconsciously he smiled, for no other reason than that each surprise he encountered was a new delight to him. A forest girl as he had known them would have worn moccasins--six hundred miles from civilization.

As he was about to leap across the narrow neck of the pool he noticed a white object almost buried in the dry sand, and picked it up. It was a handkerchief; and this, too, was a surprise. He had not particularly noticed her dress, except that it was soft and clinging blue. The handkerchief he looked at more closely. It was of fine linen with a border of lace, and so soft that he could have hidden it in the palm of his hand. From it rose a faint, sweet scent of the wild rock violet. He knew that it was rock violet, because more than once he had crushed the blossoms between his hands. He thrust the bit of fabric in the breast of his flannel shirt, and walked swiftly up the coulee.

A hundred yards above him the stream turned abruptly, and here a strip of forest meadow grew to the water's edge. He sprang up the low bank, and stood face to face with the girl.

She had heard his approach, and was waiting for him, a little smile of welcome on her lips. She had completed her toilet. She had braided her wonderful hair, and it was gathered in a heavy, shimmering coronet about her head. There was a flutter of lace at her throat, and little fluffs of it at her wrists. She was more beautiful, more than ever like the queen of a kingdom as she stood before him now. And she was alone. He saw that in his first swift glance.

"You didn't eat the prunes?" she asked, and for the first time he saw a bit of laughter in her eyes.

"No--I--I kicked the fire from under them," he said.

He caught the significance of her words, and her sudden sidewise gesture. A short distance from them was a small tent, and on the grass in front of the tent was spread a white cloth, on which was a meal such as he had not looked upon for two years.

"I am glad," she said, and again her eyes met his with their glow of friendly humour. "They might have spoiled your appetite, and I have made up my mind that I want you to have dinner with me. I can't offer you pie or doughnuts. But I have a home-made fruit cake, and a pot of jam that I made myself. Will you join me?"

They sat down, with the feast between them, and the girl leaned over to turn him a cup of tea from a pot that was already made and waiting. Her lovely head was near him, and he stared with hungry adoration at the thick, shining braids, and the soft white contour of her cheek and neck. She leaned back suddenly, and caught him. The words that were on her lips remained unspoken. The laughter went from her eyes. In a hot wave the blood flushed his own face.

"Forgive me if I do anything you don't understand," he begged. "For weeks past I have been wondering how I would act when I met white people again. Perhaps you can't understand. But eighteen months up there--eighteen months without the sound of a white woman's voice, without a glimpse of her face, with only dreams to live on--will make me queer for a time. Can't you understand--a little?"

"A great deal," she replied so quickly that she put him at ease again. "Back there I couldn't quite believe you. I am beginning to now. You are honest. But let us not talk of ourselves until after dinner. Do you like the cake?"

She had given him a piece as large as his fist, and he bit off the end of it.

"Delicious!" he cried instantly. "Think of it--nothing but bannock, bannock, bannock for two years, and only six ounces of that a day for the last six months! Do you care if I eat the whole of it--the cake, I mean?"

Seriously she began cutting the remainder of the cake into quarters.

"It would be one of the biggest compliments you could pay me," she said. "But won't you have some boiled tongue with it, a little canned lobster, a pickle--"

"Pickles!" he interrupted. "Just cake and pickles--please! I've dreamed of pickles up there. I've had 'em come to me at night as big as mountains, and one night I dreamed of chasing a pickle with legs for hours, and when at last I caught up with the thing it had turned into an iceberg. Please let me have just pickles and cake!"

Behind the lightness of his words she saw the truth--the craving of famine. Ashamed, he tried to hide it from her. He refused the third huge piece of cake, but she reached over and placed it in his hand. She insisted that he eat the last piece, and the last pickle in the bottle she had opened.

When he finished, she said:

"Now--I know."

"What?"

"That you have spoken the truth, that you have come from a long time in the North, and that I need not fear--what I did fear."

"And that fear? Tell me--"

She answered calmly, and in her eyes and the lines of her face came a look of despair which she had almost hidden from him until now.

"I was thinking during those thirty minutes you away," she said. "And I realized what folly it was in me to tell you as much as I have. Back there, for just one insane moment, I thought that you might help me in a situation which is as terrible as any you may have faced in your months of Arctic night. But it is impossible. All that I can ask of you now--all that I can demand of you to prove that you are the man you said you were--is that you leave me, and never whisper a word into another ear of our meeting. Will you promise that?"

"To promise that--would be lying," he said slowly, and his hand unclenched and lay listlessly on his knee. "If there is a reason-- some good reason why I should leave you--then I will go."

"Then--you demand a reason?"

"To demand a reason would be--"

He hesitated, and she added:

"Unchivalrous."

"Yes--more than that," he replied softly. He bowed his head, and for a moment she saw the tinge of gray in his blond hair, the droop of his clean, strong shoulders, the SOMETHING of hopelessness in his gesture. A new light flashed into her own face. She raised a hand, as if to reach out to him, and dropped it as he looked up.

"Will you let me help you?" he asked.

She was not looking at him, but beyond him. In her face he saw again the strange light of hope that had illumined it at the pool.

"If I could believe," she whispered, still looking beyond him. "If I could trust you, as I have read that the maidens of old trusted their knights. But--it seems impossible. In those days, centuries and centuries ago, I guess, womanhood was next to--God. Men fought for it, and died for it, to keep it pure and holy. If you had come to me then you would have levelled your lance and fought for me without asking a question, without demanding a reward, without reasoning whether I was right or wrong--and all because I was a woman. Now it is different. You are a part of civilization, and if you should do all that I might ask of you it would be because you have a price in view. I know. I have looked into you. I understand. That price would be--ME!"

She looked at him now, her breast throbbing, almost a sob in her quivering voice, defying him to deny the truth of her words.

"You have struck home," he said, and his voice sounded strange to himself. "And I am not sorry. I am glad that you have seen--and understand. It seems almost indecent for me to tell you this, when I have known you for such a short time. But I have known you for years--in my hopes and dreams. For you I would go to the end of the world. And I can do what other men have done, centuries ago. They called them knights. You may call me a MAN!"

At his words she rose from where she had been sitting. She faced the radiant walls of the forests that rolled billow upon billow in the distance, and the sun lighted up her crown of hair in a glory. One hand still clung to her breast. She was breathing even more quickly, and the flush had deepened in her cheek until it was like the tender stain of the crushed bakneesh. Philip rose and stood beside her. His shoulders were back. He looked where she looked, and as he gazed upon the red and gold billows of forest that melted away against the distant sky he felt a new and glorious fire throbbing in his veins. From the forests their eyes turned-- and met. He held out his hand. And slowly her own hand fluttered at her breast, and was given to him.

"I am quite sure that I understand you now," he said, and his voice was the low, steady, fighting voice of the man new-born. "I will be your knight, as you have read of the knights of old. I will urge no reward that is not freely given. Now--will you let me help you?"

For a moment she allowed him to hold her hand. Then she gently withdrew it and stepped back from him.

"You must first understand before you offer yourself," she said. "I cannot tell you what my trouble is. You will never know. And when it is over, when you have helped me across the abyss, then will come the greatest trial of all for you. I believe--when I tell you that last thing which you must do--that you will regard me as a monster, and draw back. But it is necessary. If you fight for me, it must be in the dark. You will not know why you are doing the things I ask you to do. You may guess, but you would not guess the truth if you lived a thousand years. Your one reward will be the knowledge that you have fought for a woman, and that you have saved her. Now, do you still want to help me?'

"I can't understand," he gasped. "But--yes--I would still accept the inevitable. I have promised you that I will do as you have dreamed that knights of old have done. To leave you now would be" --he turned his head with a gesture of hopelessness--"an empty world forever. I have told you now. But you could not understand and believe unless I did. I love you."

He spoke as quietly and with as little passion in his voice as if he were speaking the words from a book. But their very quietness made them convincing. She started, and the colour left her face. Then it returned, flooding her cheeks with a feverish glow.

"In that is the danger," she said quickly. "But you have spoken the words as I would have had you speak them. It is this danger that must be buried--deep--deep. And you will bury it. You will urge no questions that I do not wish to answer. You will fight for me, blindly, knowing only that what I ask you to do is not sinful nor wrong. And in the end--"

She hesitated. Her face had grown as tense as his own.

"And in the end," she whispered, "your greatest reward can be only the knowledge that in living this knighthood for me you have won what I can never give to any man. The world can hold only one such man for a woman. For your faith must be immeasurable, your love as pure as the withered violets out there among the rocks if you live up to the tests ahead of you. You will think me mad when I have finished. But I am sane. Off there, in the Snowbird Lake country, is my home. I am alone. No other white man or woman is with me. As my knight, the one hope of salvation that I cling to now, you will return with me to that place--as my husband. To all but ourselves we shall be man and wife. I will bear your name--or the one by which you must be known. And at the very end of all, in that hour of triumph when you know that you have borne me safely over that abyss at the brink of which I am hovering now, you will go off into the forest, and--"

She approached him, and laid a hand on his arm. "You will not come back," she finished, so gently that he scarcely heard her words. "You will die--for me--for all who have known you."

"Good God!" he breathed, and he stared over her head to where the red and gold billows of the forests seemed to melt away into the skies.

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CHAPTER FOURThus they stood for many seconds. Never for an instant did her eyes leave his face, and Philip looked straight over her head into that distant radiance of the forest mountains. It was she whose emotions revealed themselves now. The blood came and went in her cheeks. The soft lace at her throat rose and fell swiftly. In her eyes and face there was a thing which she had not dared to reveal to him before--a prayerful, pleading anxiety that was almost ready to break into tears.At last she had come to see and believe in the strength and wonder
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CHAPTER TWOA face like that into which Philip looked might have come to him from out of some dream of paradise. It was a girl's face. Eyes of the pure blue of the sky above met his own. Her lips were a little parted and a little laughing. Before he had uttered a word, before he could rise out of the stupidity of his wonder, the change came. A fear that he could not have forgotten if he had lived through a dozen centuries leaped into the lovely eyes. The half-laughing lips grew tense with terror. Quick as the flash of
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