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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesIsobel: A Romance Of The Northern Trail - Chapter 18. The Fulfilment Of A Promise
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Isobel: A Romance Of The Northern Trail - Chapter 18. The Fulfilment Of A Promise Post by :gabby Category :Long Stories Author :James Oliver Curwood Date :May 2012 Read :856

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Isobel: A Romance Of The Northern Trail - Chapter 18. The Fulfilment Of A Promise

CHAPTER XVIII. THE FULFILMENT OF A PROMISE

In the space of silence that followed Isobel's whispered words there came to Billy a realization of the crisis which he faced. The thought of surrendering himself to his first impulse, and of taking Deane's place in these hours of Isobel's fever, filled him instantly with a revulsion that sent him back a step from the bed, his hands clenched until his nails hurt his calloused palms.

"No, no, I am not David," he began, but the words died in his throat.

To tell her that, to make her know the truth-- that her husband was dead-- might kill her now. Hope, belief that he was alive and with her, would help to make her live. So quickly that he could not have spoken his thoughts in words these things flashed upon him. If Deane were alive and at her side his presence would save her. And if she believed that he was Deane he would save her. In the end she would never know. He remembered how Pelliter had forgotten things that had happened in his delirium. To Isobel, when she awakened into sanity, it would only seem like a dream at most. A few words from him then would convince her of that. If necessary, he would tell her that she had talked much about David in her fever and had imagined him with her. She would have no suspicion that he had played that part.

Isobel had waited a moment, but now she whispered again, as if a little frightened at his silence.

"David-- David--"

He stepped back quickly to the bed and his hands met those reaching up to him. They were hot and dry, and Isobel's fingers tightened about his own almost fiercely, and drew his hands down on her breast. She gave a sigh, as though she would rest easier now that his hands were touching her.

"I have been making some broth for you," he said, scarcely daring to speak. "Will you take some of it, Isobel? You must-- and sleep."

He felt the pressure of Isobel's hands, and she spoke to him so calmly that for a breath he thought that she must surely be herself again.

"I don't like the dark, David," she said. "I can't see you. And I want to do up my hair. Will you bring in a light?"

"Not until you are better," he whispered. "A light will hurt your eyes. I will stay with you-- near you--"

She raised a hand in the darkness, and it stroked his face. In that touch were all the love and gentleness that had lived for the man who was dead, and the caress thrilled Billy until it seemed as though what was in his heart must burst forth in a sobbing breath. Suddenly her hand left his face, and he heard her moving restlessly.

"My hair-- David--"

He put out a hand, and it fell in the soft smother of her hair. It was tangled about her face and neck, and he lifted her gently while he drew out the thick masses of it. He did not dare to speak while he smoothed out the rich tresses and pleated them into a braid. Isobel sighed restfully when he had done.

"I am going to get the broth now," he said then.

He went into the outer room where the lamp was lighted. Not until he took up the cup of broth did he notice how his hand trembled. A bit of the broth spilled on the floor, and he dropped a piece of the toast. He, too, was passing through the crucible with Isobel Deane.

He went back and lifted her so that her head rested against his shoulder and the warmth of her hair lay against his cheek and neck. Obediently she ate the half-dozen bits of toast he moistened in the broth, and then drank a few sips of the liquid. She would have rested there after that, with her face turned against his, and Billy knew that she would have slept. But he lowered her gently to the pillow.

"You must go to sleep now," he urged, softly. "Good night--"

"David!"

"Yes--"

"You-- you-- haven't-- kissed-- me--"

There was a childish plaint in her voice, and with a sob in his own breath he bent over her. For an instant her arms clung about his neck. He felt the sweet, thrilling touch of her warm lips, and then he drew himself back; and, with her "Good night, David" following him to the door, he went into the outer room, and with a strange, broken cry flung himself on the cot in which Couchée had slept.

It was an hour before he raised his face from the blankets. Yet he had not slept. In that hour, and in the half-hour that had preceded it in Isobel's room, there had come lines into his face which made him look older. Once Isobel had kissed him, and he had treasured that kiss as the sweetest thing that had come to him in all his life. And to-night she had given him more than that, for there had been love, and not gratitude alone, in the warmth of her lips, in the caress of her hands and arms, and in the pressure of her feverish face against his own. But they brought him none of the pleasure of that which she had given to him on the Barren. Grief-stricken, he rose and faced the door. In spite of the fact that he knew there was no alternative for him, he regarded himself as worse than a thief. He was taking an advantage of her which filled him with a repugnance for himself, and he prayed for the hour when sanity would return to her, though it brought back the heartbreak and despair that were now lost in the oblivion of her fever. Always in the northland there is somewhere the dread trail of le mort rouge, the "red death," and he was well acquainted with the course it would have to run. He believed that the fever had stricken Isobel the third or fourth day before, and there would follow three or four days more in which she would not be herself. Then would come the reaction. She would awaken to the truth then that her husband was dead, and that he had been with her alone all that time.

He listened for a moment at the door. Isobel was resting quietly, and he went out of the cabin without making a sound. The night had grown blacker and gloomier. There was not a rift in the sullen darkness of the sky over him. A wind had risen from out of the north and east, just enough of a wind to set the tree-tops moaning and fill the closed-in world about him with uneasy sound. He walked toward the tent where little Isobel had been, and there was something in the air that choked him. He wished that he had not sent all of the dogs with McTabb. A terrible loneliness oppressed him. It was like a clammy hand smothering his heart in its grip, and it made him sick. He turned and looked at the light in the cabin. Isobel was there, and he had thought that where she was he could never be lonely. But he knew now that there lay between them a gulf which an eternity could not bridge.

He shuddered, for with the night wind it seemed to him that there came again the presence of Scottie Deane. He gripped his hands and stared out into a pit of blackness. It was as if he had heard the Wild Horsemen passing that way, panting and galloping through the spruce tops on their mission of gathering the souls of the dead. Deane was with him, as his spirit had been with him on that night he had returned to Pelliter after putting the cross over Scottie's grave. And in a moment or two the feeling of that presence seemed to lift the smothering weight from his heart. He knew that Deane could understand, and the presence comforted him. He went to the tent and looked in, though there was nothing to see. And then he turned back to the cabin. Thought of the grave with its sapling cross brought home to him his duty to the woman. From the rubber pouch he brought forth his pad of paper and a pencil.

For more than an hour after that he worked. steadily in the dull glow of the lamp. He knew that Isobel would return to Deane. It might be soon-- or a long time from now. But she would go. And step by step he mapped out for her the trail that led to the little cabin on the edge of the Barren. And after that he wrote in his big, rough hand what was overflowing from his heart.

"May God take care of you always. I would give my life to give you back his. I won't let his grave be lost. I will go back some day and plant blue flowers over it. I guess you will never know what I would do to give him back to you and make you happy."

He knew that he had not promised what he would fail to do. He would return to the lonely grave on the edge of the Barren. There was something that called him to it now, something that he could not understand, and which came of his own desolation. He folded the pages of paper, wrapped them in a clean sheet, and wrote Isobel Deans's name on the outside. Then he placed the packet with the letters on the shelf over the table. He knew that she would find it with them.

What happened during the terrible week that followed that night no one but MacVeigh would ever know. To him they were seven days of a fight whose memory would remain with him until the end of time. Sleepless nights and almost sleepless days. A bitter struggle, almost without rest, with the horrible specter that ever hovered within the inner room. A struggle that drew his cheeks in and put deep lines in his face; a struggle during which Isobel's voice spoke tenderly and pleadingly with him in one hour and bitterly in the next. He felt the caress of her hands. More than once she drew him down to the soft thrill of her feverish lips. And then, in more terrible moments, she accused him of hunting to death the man who lay back under the sapling cross. The three days of torment lengthened into four, and the four into seven, To the bottom of his soul he suffered, for he understood what it all meant for him. On the third and the fifth and the seventh days he went over to McTabb's cabin, and Rookie came out and talked with him at a distance through a birchbark megaphone. On the seventh day there was still no news of Indian Joe and his mother. And on this day Billy played his last part as Deane. He went into her room at noon with broth and toast and a dish of water, and after she had eaten a little he lifted her and made a prop of blankets at her back so that he could brush out and braid her beautiful hair. It was light in the room in spite of the curtain which he kept closely drawn. Outside the sun was shining brightly, and the pale luster of it came through the curtain and lit up the rich tresses he was brushing. When he was done he lowered her gently to her pillow. She was looking at him strangely. And then, with a shock that seemed to turn him cold to the depths of his soul, he saw what was in her eyes. Sanity and reason. He saw swiftly gathering in them the old terror, the old grief-- recognition of his true self! He waited to hear no word, but turned as he had done a hundred times before and left the room.

In the outer room he stood for a few silent minutes, gathering strength for the ordeal that was near. The end was at hand-- for him. He choked back his weakness, and after a time returned to the inner door. But now he did not go in as he had entered before. He knocked. It was the first time. And Isobel's voice bade him enter.

His heart was filled with a sudden throbbing pain when he saw that she had turned so that she lay with her face turned away from him. He bent over her and said, softly:

"You are better. The danger is past."

"I am better and-- and-- it is over ?" he heard her whisper.

"Yes."

"The-- the baby?"

"Is well-- yes."

There was a moment's silence. The room seemed to tremble with it. Then she said, faintly:

"You have been alone?"

"Yes-- alone-- for seven days."

She turned her eyes upon him fully. He could see the glow of them in the faint light. It seemed to him that she was reading him to the depths of his soul, and that in this moment she knew! She knew that he had taken the part of David, and suddenly she turned her face away from him again with a strange, choking sob. He could feel her trembling. She seemed, struggling for breath and strength, and he heard again the words "You-- you-- you--"

"Yes, yes-- I know-- I understand," he said, and his heart choked him. "You must be quiet-- now. I promised you that if you got well I would go. And-- I will. No one will ever know. I will go."

"And you will never come to me again?" Her voice was terribly quiet and cold.

"Never," he said. "I swear that."

She had drawn away from him now until he could see nothing of her but the shimmer of her thick braid where it lay in a ray of light. But he could hear her sobbing breath. She scarcely knew when he left the room, he went so quietly. He closed her door after him, and this time he latched it. The outer door was open, and suddenly he heard that for which he had been waiting and listening-- the short, sharp yelping of dogs, and a human voice.

In three leaps he was out in the open. Halfway across the narrow clearing Indian Joe had halted with his team. One glance at the sledge showed Billy that Joe's mother had not failed him. A thin, weazened little old woman scrambled from a pile of bearskins as he ran toward them. She had sunken eyes that watched his approach with a ratlike glitter, and her naked hands were so emaciated that they looked like claws; but in spite of her unprepossessing appearance Billy almost hugged her in his delight at their coming. Maballa was her name, Rookie had told him, and she understood and could talk English better than her son. Billy told her of the condition in the cabin, and when he had finished she took a small pack from the sledge, cackled a few words to Indian Joe, and followed him without a moment's hesitation. That she had no fear of the plague added to Billy's feeling of relief. As soon as she had taken off her hood and heavy blanket she went fearlessly into the inner room, and a moment later Billy heard her talking to Isobel.

It took him but a few moments to gather up the few things he possessed and put them in his pack. Then he went out and took down his tent. Indian Joe had already gone, and he followed in his trail. An hour later McTabb appeared at the door of his cabin, summoned by Billy's shout. He circled about and came up with the wind, until he stood within fifty paces of MacVeigh. Billy told him what he was going to do. He was going to Churchill, and would leave Isobel and the baby in his care. From Fort Churchill he would send back an escort to take the woman and little Isobel down to civilization. He wanted fresh clothes-- anything he could wear. Those he had on he would be compelled to burn. He suggested that he could get into one of Indian Joe's outfits, if he had any spare garments, and McTabb went back to the cabin, returning a few minutes later with an armful of clothes.

"Here's everything you'll need, except an undershirt an' drawers," said McTabb, placing them in a pile on the snow. "I'll wait a little while you're changing. Better burn those quick. The wind might change, and I don't want to be caught in a whiff of it."

He moved to a safe distance while Billy secured the clothes and went into the timber. From a birch tree he pulled off a pile of bark, and as he stripped he put his old clothes on it. McTabb could hear the crackling and snapping of the fire when Billy reappeared arrayed in Indian Joe's "second best"-- buckskin trousers, a worn and tattered fur coat, a fisher-skin cap, and moccasins a size too small for him. For fifteen minutes the two men talked, McTabb still drawing the dead-line at fifty paces. Then he went back and brought up Billy's dogs and sledge.

"I'd like to shake hands with you, Billy," he apologized, "but I guess it's best not to. I don't suppose-- we'd dare-- bring out the kid?"

"No," said Billy. "Good-by, Mac. I'll see you-- sometime-- later. Just go back-- an' bring her to the door, will you? I don't want her to know I'm here, an' I'll take a look at her from the bush. She wouldn't understand, you know, if she knew I was here an' wouldn't come up an' see her."

He concealed himself among the spruce as McTabb went into the cabin. A moment later he reappeared. Isobel was in his arms, and Billy gulped back a sob. For an instant she turned her face his way, and he could see that she was pointing in his direction as Rookie talked to her, and then for another instant the sun lit up the child's hair with a golden fire, as he had first seen it on that wonderful day at Fullerton. He wanted to cry out one word to her-- at least one-- but what came was only the sob he had fought to keep back. He turned his face into the forest. And this time he knew that the parting was final.

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