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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesPhilip Steele Of The Royal Northwest Mounted Police - Chapter 13. The Great Love Experiment
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Philip Steele Of The Royal Northwest Mounted Police - Chapter 13. The Great Love Experiment Post by :codebluenj Category :Long Stories Author :James Oliver Curwood Date :May 2012 Read :1422

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Philip Steele Of The Royal Northwest Mounted Police - Chapter 13. The Great Love Experiment

Chapter XIII. The Great Love Experiment

For a full half minute after the other's words Philip stared in astonishment. Then, with a joyful shout, he suddenly reached out his hand across the stove.

"By thunder," he cried, "you're from home!"

"Home!" exclaimed the other. There was a startled note in his voice. "You're--you're a Chicago man?" he asked, staring strangely at Philip and gripping his hand at the same time.

"Ever hear of Steele--Philip Egbert Steele? I'm his son."

"Good Heavens!" drawled the doctor, gazing still harder at him and pinching the ice from his beard, "what are you doing up here?"

"Prodigal son," grinned Philip. "Waiting for the calf to get good and fat. What are you doing?"

"Making a fool of myself," replied the doctor, looking at the top of the stove and rubbing his hands until his fingers snapped.

At the North Pole, if they had met there, Philip would have known him for a professional man. His heavy woolen suit was tailor made. He wore a collar and a fashionable tie. A lodge signet dangled at his watch chain. He was clean-shaven and his blond Van Dyke beard was immaculately trimmed. Everything about him, from the top of his head to the bottom of his laced boots, shouted profession, even in the Arctic snow. He might have gone farther and guessed that he was a physician--a surgeon, perhaps--from his hands, and from the supple manner in which he twisted his long white fingers about one another over the stove. He was a man of about forty, with a thin sensitive face, strong rather than handsome, and remarkable eyes. They were not large, nor far apart, but were like twin dynamos, reflecting the life of the man within. They were the sort of eyes which Philip had always associated with great mental power.

The doctor had now finished rubbing his hands, and, unbuttoning his under coat, he drew a small silver cigarette case from his waistcoat pocket.

"They're not poison," he smiled, opening it and offering the cigarettes to Philip. "I have them made especially for myself." A sound outside the door made him pause with a lighted match between his fingers. "How about dogs and Indian?" he asked. "May they come in?"

Philip began hobbling toward the door.

"So exciting to meet a man from home that I forgot all about 'em," he exclaimed.

With three or four quick steps the doctor overtook him and caught him by the arm.

"Just a moment," he said quickly. "How far is Fort Smith from here?"

"About sixty miles."

"Do you suppose I could get there without--his assistance?"

"If you're willing to bunk here for a few days--yes," said Philip. "I'm going on to Fort Smith myself as soon as I am able to walk."

An expression of deep relief came into the doctor's eyes.

"That's just what I want, Steele," he exclaimed, unfeignedly delighted at Philip's suggestion. "I'm not well, and I require a little rest. Call him in."

No sooner had the Indian entered than to Philip's astonishment the little doctor began talking rapidly to him in Cree. The guide's eyes lighted up intelligently, and at the end he replied with a single word, nodded, and grinned. Philip noticed that as he talked a slight flush gathered in the doctor's smooth cheeks, and that not only by his voice but by the use of his hands as well he seemed anxious to impress upon his listener the importance of what he was saying.

"He'll start back for Chippewayan this afternoon," he explained to Philip a moment later. "The dogs and sledge are mine, and he says that he can make it easily on snow-shoes." Then he lighted his cigarette and added suggestively, "He can't understand English."

The Indian had caught a glimpse of Philip's belt and holster, and now muttered a few low words, as though he were grumbling at the stove. The doctor poised his cigarette midway to his lips and looked quickly across at Philip.

"Possibly you belong to the Northwest Mounted Police," he suggested.

"Yes."

"Heavens," drawled the doctor again, "and you the son of a millionaire banker! What you doing it for?"

"Fun," answered Philip, half laughing. "And I'm not getting it in sugar-coated pellet form either. Doctor. I came up here to get a man, found him, and was gloriously walloped for my trouble. I'm not particularly sorry, either. Rather glad he got away."

"Why?" asked the doctor.

In spite of their short acquaintance Philip began to feel a sort of comradeship for the man opposite him.

"Well," he said hesitatingly, "you see, he was one of those criminals who are made criminals. Some one else was responsible--a case of one man suffering because of another man's sins."

If the doctor had received the thrust of a pin he could not have jumped from his chair with more startling suddenness than he did at Philip's words.

"That's it!" he cried excitedly, beginning to pace back and forth across the cabin floor. "It's more than a theory--it's a truth--that people suffer more because of other people than on account of themselves. We're born to it and we keep it up, inflicting a thousand pricks and a thousand sorrows to gain one selfish end and it isn't once in a hundred times that the boomerang comes home and strikes the right one down. But when it does--when it does, sir--"

As suddenly as he had begun, the doctor stopped, and he laughed a little unnaturally. "Bosh!" he exclaimed. "Let's see that head of yours, Steele. Speaking of pains and pricks reminds me that, being a surgeon, I may be of some assistance to you."

Philip knew that he had checked himself with an effort, and as his new acquaintance began to loosen the bandage he found himself wondering what mysterious mission could have sent a Chicago surgeon up to Fort Smith. The doctor interrupted his thoughts.

"Queer place for a blow," he said briskly. "Nothing serious--slight abrasion--trifle feverish. We'll set you to rights immediately." He bustled to his greatcoat and from one of the deep pockets drew forth a leather medicine case. "Queer place, queer place," he chuckled, returning with a vial in his hand. "Were you running when it happened?"

Philip laughed with him, and by the time the doctor had finished he had given him an account of his affair with DeBar. Not until hours later, when the Cree had left on his return trip and they sat smoking before a roaring fire after supper, did it occur to him how confidential he had become. Seldom had Philip met a man who impressed him as did the little surgeon. He liked him immensely. He felt that he had known him for years instead of hours, and chatted freely of his adventures and asked a thousand questions about home. He found that the doctor was even better acquainted with his home city than himself, and that he knew many people whom he knew, and lived in a fashionable quarter. He was puzzled even as they talked and laughed and smoked their cigarettes and pipes. The doctor said nothing about himself or his personal affairs, and cleverly changed the conversation whenever it threatened to drift in that direction.

It was late when Philip rose from his chair, suggesting that they go to bed. He laughed frankly across into the other's face.

"Boffin--Boffin--Boffin," he mused.

"Strange I've never heard of you down south, Doctor. Now what the deuce can you be doing up here?"

There was a point-blank challenge in his eyes. The doctor leaned a little toward him, as if about to speak, but caught himself. For several moments his keen eyes gazed squarely into Philip's, and when he broke the silence the same nervous flush that Philip had noticed before rose into his cheeks. to go roughing it down in South America. I believe you're honest--on the square."

Philip stared at him in amazement.

"If I didn't," he went on, rubbing his hands again over the stove, "I'd follow your suggestion, and go to bed. As it is, I'm going to tell you why I'm up here, on your word of honor to maintain secrecy. I've got a selfish end in view, for you may be able to assist me. But nothing must go beyond yourself. What do you say to the condition?"

"I will not break your confidence--unless you have murdered some one," laughed Philip, stooping to light a fresh pipe. "In that event you'd better keep quiet, as I'd have to haul you back to headquarters."

He did not see the deepening of the flush in the other's face.

"Good," said the doctor. "Sit down, Steele. I take it for granted that you will help me--if you can. First I suppose I ought to confess that my name is not Boffin, but McGill--Dudley McGill, professor of neurology and diseases of the brain--"

Philip almost dropped his pipe. "Great Scott, and it was you who wrote--" He stopped, staring in amazement.

"Yes, it was I who wrote Freda, if that's what you refer to," finished the doctor. "It caused a little sensation, as you may know, and nearly got me ousted from the college. But it sold up to two hundred thousand copies, so it wasn't a bad turn," he added.

"It was published while I was away," said Philip. "I got a copy in Rio Janeiro, and it haunted me for weeks after I read it. Great Heaven, you can't believe--"

"I did," interrupted the doctor sharply. "I believed everything that I wrote--and more. It was my theory of life." He sprang from his chair and began walking back and forth in his quick, excited way. The flush had gone from his face now and was replaced by a strange paleness. His lips were tense, the fingers of his hands tightly clenched, his voice was quick, sharp, incisive when he spoke.

"It was my theory of life," he repeated almost fiercely, "and that is the beginning of why I am up here. My theory was that there existed no such thing as 'the divine spark of love' between men and women not related by blood, no reaching out of one soul for another--no faith, no purity, no union between man and woman but that could be broken by low passions. My theory was that man and woman were but machines, and that passion, and not the love which we dream and read of, united these machines; and that every machine, whether it was a man or a woman, could be broken and destroyed in a moral sense by some other machine of the opposite sex--if conditions were right. Do you understand me? My theory was destructive of homes, of happiness, of moral purity. It was bad. I argued my point in medical journals, and I wrote a book based on it. But I lacked proof, the actual proof of experience. So I set out to experiment."

He seemed to have forgotten now that Philip was in the room, and went on bitterly, as if arraigning himself for something which he had not yet disclosed.

"It made me a--a--almost a criminal," he continued. "I had no good thoughts for humanity, beyond my small endeavors in my little field of science. I was a machine myself, cold, passionless, caring little for women--thus proving, if I had stopped to consider myself, the unreasonableness of my own theory. Coolly and without a thought of the consequences, I set out to prove myself right. When I think of it now my action appalls me. It was heinous, for the mere proving of my theory meant misery and unhappiness for those who were to prove it to me. I was not cramped for money. So I determined to experiment with six machines--three young men and three young women. I planned that each person should be unconscious of the part he or she was playing, and that each pair should be thrown constantly together--not in society, mind you, for my theory was that conditions must be right. Through a trusted and highly paid agent I hired my people--the men. Through another, who was a woman, I hired those of the opposite sex. One of the young women was sent to an obscure little place a hundred miles back from the Brazilian coast, ostensibly to act as governess for the children of an American family which did not exist. To this same place, through the other agent, was sent a man, whose duty was to get information about the country for a party of capitalists. Do you begin to understand?"

"Yes, I begin to understand," said Philip.

"This place to which they went was made up of a dozen or so hovels," continued the doctor, resuming his nervous walk. "There was no one there who could talk or understand their language but these two. The consequence--conditions were right. They would be constantly together. They would either prove or disprove my theory that men and women were but machines of passion. I knew that they would stay at this place during the three months I had allotted for my experiment, for I paid them a high price. The girl, when she found no American family, was told to wait until they arrived. The man, of course, had plenty of supposed work to keep him there."

"I understand," repeated Philip.

"The second couple," continued the doctor, forcing himself into a chair opposite Philip, "were in a similar way sent up here--to an obscure northern post which I have reason for not naming. And the third couple went to a feverish district down in Central America."

He rose from his chair again, and Philip was silent while the doctor went to his great-coat and from somewhere within its depths brought out fresh cigarettes. His hand trembled slightly as he lighted one and the flare of the match, playing for an instant on his face, emphasized the nervous tension which he was under.

"I suppose you think it all very strange--and idiotic," he said, after a few moments. "But we frequently do strange things, and apparently senseless ones, in scientific work. Madmen have made the world's greatness. Our most wonderful inventors, our greatest men of all ages, have in a way been insane--for they have been abnormal, and what is that but a certain form of insanity?"

He looked at Philip through his cigarette smoke as if expecting a reply, but Philip only wet his lips, and remained silent.

"I got six months' leave of absence," he resumed, "and set out to see the results of my experiments. First I went to Rio, and from there to the place where the first couple had gone. As a consequence, five weeks passed between the date of the last letters of my experimenters and the day I joined them. Heavens, man! When I made it known that I wanted them, where do you think they took me?"

He dropped his half-burned cigarette and his voice was husky as he turned on Philip. "Where--where do you think they took me?" he demanded.

"God knows!" exclaimed Philip, tremulously. "Where?"

"To two freshly made graves just outside the village," groaned the doctor. "I learned their story after a little. The girl, finding herself useless there, had begun to teach the little children. I'm--I'm--going to skip quickly over this." His voice broke to a whisper. "She was an angel. The poor half-naked women told me that through my interpreter. The children cried for her when she died. The men had brought flowering trees from miles away to shade her grave--and the other. They had met, as I had planned--the man and the girl, but it didn't turn out--my way. It was a beautiful love, I believe, as pure and sweet as any in the whole world. They say that they made the whole village happy, and that each Sunday the girl and the man would sing to them beautiful songs which they could not understand, but which made even the sick smile with happiness. It was a low, villainous place for a village, half encircled by a swampy river, and the terrible heat of the summer sun brought with it a strange sickness. It was a deadly, fatal sickness, and many died, and always there were the man and the girl, working and singing and striving to do good through all the hours of day and night. What need is there of saying more?" the doctor cried, his voice choking him. "What need to say more--except that the man went first, and that the girl died a week later, and that they were buried side by side under the mangum trees? What need--unless it is to say that I am their murderer?"

"There have been many mistakes made in the name of science," said Philip, clearing his throat. "This was one. Your theory was wrong."

"Yes, it was wrong," said the doctor, more gently. "I saved myself by killing them. My theory died with them, and as fast as I could travel I hurried to that other place in Central America."

A soft glow entered into his eyes now, and he came around the stove and took one of Philip's hands between his own, and looked steadily down into his face, while there came a curious twitching about the muscles of his throat.

"Nothing had happened," he said, barely above a whisper. "I found her, and I thank God for that I loved her, and my theory was doubly shattered, a thousand times cursed. She is my wife, and I am the happiest of men--except for these haunting memories. Before I married her I told her all, and together we have tried to make restitution for my crime, for I shall always deem it such. I found that the man who died was supporting a mother, and that the girl's parents lived on a little mortgaged farm in Michigan. We sent the mother ten thousand dollars, and the parents the same. We have built a little church in the village where they died. The third couple," finished the doctor, dropping Philip's hand, "came up here. When I got back from the south I found that several of my checks had been returned. I wrote letter after letter, but could find no trace of these last of my experimenters. I sent an agent into the North and he returned without news of them. They had never appeared at Fort Smith. And now--I have come up to hunt for them myself. Perhaps, in your future wanderings, you may be of some assistance to me. That is why I have told you this--with the hope that you will help me, if you can."

With a flash of his old, quick coolness the doctor turned to one of Pierre Thoreau's bunks.

"Now," he said, with a strained laugh, "I'll follow your suggestion and go to bed. Goodnight."

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