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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Alaskan: A Novel Of The North - Chapter 23
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The Alaskan: A Novel Of The North - Chapter 23 Post by :Dusty13 Category :Long Stories Author :James Oliver Curwood Date :May 2012 Read :3535

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The Alaskan: A Novel Of The North - Chapter 23

CHAPTER XXIII

For a Space they stood apart, and in the radiant loveliness of Mary Standish's face and in Alan's quiet and unimpassioned attitude were neither shame nor regret. In a moment they had swept aside the barrier which convention had raised against them, and now they felt the inevitable thrill of joy and triumph, and not the humiliating embarrassment of dishonor. They made no effort to draw a curtain upon their happiness, or to hide the swift heart-beat of it from each other. It had happened, and they were glad. Yet they stood apart, and something pressed upon Alan the inviolableness of the little freedom of space between them, of its sacredness to Mary Standish, and darker and deeper grew the glory of pride and faith that lay with the love in her eyes when he did not cross it. He reached out his hand, and freely she gave him her own. Lips blushing with his kisses trembled in a smile, and she bowed her head a little, so that he was looking at her smooth hair, soft and sweet where he had caressed it a few moments before.

"I thank God!" he said.

He did not finish the surge of gratitude that was in his heart. Speech seemed trivial, even futile. But she understood. He was not thanking God for that moment, but for a lifetime of something that at last had come to him. This, it seemed to him, was the end, the end of a world as he had known it, the beginning of a new. He stepped back, and his hands trembled. For something to do he set up the overturned table, and Mary Standish watched him with a quiet, satisfied wonder. She loved him, and she had come into his arms. She had given him her lips to kiss. And he laughed softly as he came to her side again, and looked over the tundra where Rossland had gone.

"How long before you can prepare for the journey?" he asked.

"You mean--"

"That we must start tonight or in the morning. I think we shall go through the cottonwoods over the old trail to Nome. Unless Rossland lied, Graham is somewhere out there on the Tanana trail."

Her hand pressed his arm. "We are going--_back? Is that it, Alan?"

"Yes, to Seattle. It is the one thing to do. You are not afraid?"

"With you there--no."

"And you will return with me--when it is over?"

He was looking steadily ahead over the tundra. But he felt her cheek touch his shoulder, lightly as a feather.

"Yes, I will come back with you."

"And you will be ready?"

"I am ready now."

The sun-fire of the plains danced in his eyes; a cob-web of golden mist rising out of the earth, beckoning wraiths and undulating visions--the breath of life, of warmth, of growing things--all between him and the hidden cottonwoods; a joyous sea into which he wanted to plunge without another minute of waiting, as he felt the gentle touch of her cheek against his shoulder, and the weight of her hand on his arm. That she had come to him utterly was in the low surrender of her voice. She had ceased to fight--she had given to him the precious right to fight for her.

It was this sense of her need and of her glorious faith in him, and of the obligation pressing with it that drove slowly back into him the grimmer realities of the day. Its horror surged upon him again, and the significance of what Rossland had said seemed fresher, clearer, even more terrible now that he was gone. Unconsciously the old lines of hatred crept into his face again as he looked steadily in the direction which the other man had taken, and he wondered how much of that same horror--of the unbelievable menace stealing upon her--Rossland had divulged to the girl who stood so quietly now at his side. Had he done right to let him go? Should he not have killed him, as he would have exterminated a serpent? For Rossland had exulted; he was of Graham's flesh and desires, a part of his foul soul, a defiler of womanhood and the one who had bargained to make possible the opportunity for an indescribable crime. It was not too late. He could still overtake him, out there in the hollows of the tundra--

The pressure on his arm tightened. He looked down. Mary Standish had seen what was in his face, and there was something in her calmness that brought him to himself. He knew, in that moment, that Rossland had told her a great deal. Yet she was not afraid, unless it was fear of what had been in his mind.

"I am ready," she reminded him.

"We must wait for Stampede," he said, reason returning to him. "He should be here sometime tonight, or in the morning. Now that Rossland is off my nerves, I can see how necessary it is to have someone like Stampede between us and--"

He did not finish, but what he had intended to say was quite clear to her. She stood in the doorway, and he felt an almost uncontrollable desire to take her in his arms again.

"He is between here and Tanana," she said with a little gesture of her head.

"Rossland told you that?"

"Yes. And there are others with him, so many that he was amused when I told him you would not let them take me away."

"Then you were not afraid that I--I might let them have you?"

"I have always been sure of what you would do since I opened that second letter at Ellen McCormick's, Alan!"

He caught the flash of her eyes, the gladness in them, and she was gone before he could find another word to say. Keok and Nawadlook were approaching hesitatingly, but now they hurried to meet her, Keok still grimly clutching the long knife; and beyond them, at the little window under the roof, he saw the ghostly face of old Sokwenna, like a death's-head on guard. His blood ran a little faster. The emptiness of the tundras, the illimitable spaces without sign of human life, the vast stage waiting for its impending drama, with its sunshine, its song of birds, its whisper and breath of growing flowers, struck a new note in him, and he looked again at the little window where Sokwenna sat like a spirit from another world, warning him in his silent and lifeless stare of something menacing and deadly creeping upon them out of that space which seemed so free of all evil. He beckoned to him and then entered his cabin, waiting while Sokwenna crawled down from his post and came hobbling over the open, a crooked figure, bent like a baboon, witch-like in his great age, yet with sunken eyes that gleamed like little points of flame, and a quickness of movement that made Alan shiver as he watched him through the window.

In a moment the old man entered. He was mumbling. He was saying, in that jumble of sound which it was difficult for even Alan to understand--and which Sokwenna had never given up for the missionaries' teachings--that he could hear feet and smell blood; and that the feet were many, and the blood was near, and that both smell and footfall were coming from the old kloof where yellow skulls still lay, dripping with the water that had once run red. Alan was one of the few who, by reason of much effort, had learned the story of the kloof from old Sokwenna; how, so long ago that Sokwenna was a young man, a hostile tribe had descended upon his people, killing the men and stealing the women; and how at last Sokwenna and a handful of his tribesmen fled south with what women were left and made a final stand in the kloof, and there, on a day that was golden and filled with the beauty of bird-song and flowers, had ambushed their enemies and killed them to a man. All were dead now, all but Sokwenna.

For a space Alan was sorry he had called Sokwenna to his cabin. He was no longer the cheerful and gentle "old man" of his people; the old man who chortled with joy at the prettiness and play of Keok and Nawadlook, who loved birds and flowers and little children, and who had retained an impish boyhood along with his great age. He was changed. He stood before Alan an embodiment of fatalism, mumbling incoherent things in his breath, a spirit of evil omen lurking in his sunken eyes, and his thin hands gripping like bird-claws to his rifle. Alan threw off the uncomfortable feeling that had gripped him for a moment, and set him to an appointed task--the watching of the southward plain from the crest of a tall ridge two miles back on the Tanana trail. He was to return when the sun reached its horizon.

Alan was inspired now by a great caution, a growing premonition which stirred him with uneasiness, and he began his own preparations as soon as Sokwenna had started on his mission. The desire to leave at once, without the delay of an hour, pulled strong in him, but he forced himself to see the folly of such haste. He would be away many months, possibly a year this time. There was much to do, a mass of detail to attend to, a volume of instructions and advice to leave behind him. He must at least see Stampede, and it was necessary to write down certain laws for Tautuk and Amuk Toolik. As this work of preparation progressed, and the premonition persisted in remaining with him, he fell into a habit of repeating to himself the absurdity of fears and the impossibility of danger. He tried to make himself feel uncomfortably foolish at the thought of having ordered the herdsmen in. In all probability Graham would not appear at all, he told himself, or at least not for many days--or weeks; and if he did come, it would be to war in a legal way, and not with murder.

Yet his uneasiness did not leave him. As the hours passed and the afternoon lengthened, the invisible something urged him more strongly to take the trail beyond the cottonwoods, with Mary Standish at his side. Twice he saw her between noon and five o'clock, and by that time his writing was done. He looked at his guns carefully. He saw that his favorite rifle and automatic were working smoothly, and he called himself a fool for filling his ammunition vest with an extravagant number of cartridges. He even carried an amount of this ammunition and two of his extra guns to Sokwenna's cabin, with the thought that it was this cabin on the edge of the ravine which was best fitted for defense in the event of necessity. Possibly Stampede might have use for it, and for the guns, if Graham should come after he and Mary were well on their way to Nome.

After supper, when the sun was throwing long shadows from the edge of the horizon, Alan came from a final survey of his cabin and the food which Wegaruk had prepared for his pack, and found Mary at the edge of the ravine, watching the twilight gathering where the coulee ran narrower and deeper between the distant breasts of the tundra.

"I am going to leave you for a little while," he said. "But Sokwenna has returned, and you will not be alone."

"Where are you going?"

"As far as the cottonwoods, I think."

"Then I am going with you."

"I expect to walk very fast."

"Not faster than I, Alan."

"But I want to make sure the country is clear in that direction before twilight shuts out the distances."

"I will help you." Her hand crept into his. "I am going with you, Alan," she repeated.

"Yes, I--think you are," he laughed joyously, and suddenly he bent his head and pressed her hand to his lips, and in that way, with her hand in his, they set out over the trail which they had not traveled together since the day he had come from Nome.

There was a warm glow in her face, and something beautifully soft and sweet in her eyes which she did not try to keep away from him. It made him forget the cottonwoods and the plains beyond, and his caution, and Sokwenna's advice to guard carefully against the hiding-places of Ghost Kloof and the country beyond.

"I have been thinking a great deal today," she was saying, "because you have left me so much alone. I have been thinking of _you_. And--my thoughts have given me a wonderful happiness."

"And I have been--in paradise," he replied.

"You do not think that I am wicked?"

"I could sooner believe the sun would never come up again."

"Nor that I have been unwomanly?"

"You are my dream of all that is glorious in womanhood."

"Yet I have followed you--have thrust myself at you, fairly at your head, Alan."

"For which I thank God," He breathed devoutly.

"And I have told you that I love you, and you have taken me in your arms, and have kissed me--"

"Yes."

"And I am walking now with my hand in yours--"

"And will continue to do so, if I can hold it."

"And I am another man's wife," she shuddered.

"You are mine," he declared doggedly. "You know it, and the Almighty God knows it. It is blasphemy to speak of yourself as Graham's wife. You are legally entangled with him, and that is all. Heart and soul and body you are free."

"No, I am not free."

"But you are!"

And then, after a moment, she whispered at his shoulder: "Alan, because you are the finest gentleman in all the world, I will tell you why I am not. It is because--heart and soul--I belong to you."

He dared not look at her, and feeling the struggle within him Mary Standish looked straight ahead with a wonderful smile on her lips and repeated softly, "Yes, the very finest gentleman in all the world!"

Over the breasts of the tundra and the hollows between they went, still hand in hand, and found themselves talking of the colorings in the sky, and the birds, and flowers, and the twilight creeping in about them, while Alan scanned the shortening horizons for a sign of human life. One mile, and then another, and after that a third, and they were looking into gray gloom far ahead, where lay the kloof.

It was strange that he should think of the letter now--the letter he had written to Ellen McCormick--but think of it he did, and said what was in his mind to Mary Standish, who was also looking with him into the wall of gloom that lay between them and the distant cottonwoods.

"It seemed to me that I was not writing it to her, but to _you_" he said. "And I think that if you hadn't come back to me I would have gone mad."

"I have the letter. It is here"--and she placed a hand upon her breast. "Do you remember what you wrote, Alan?"

"That you meant more to me than life."

"And that--particularly--you wanted Ellen McCormick to keep a tress of my hair for you if they found me."

He nodded. "When I sat across the table from you aboard the _Nome_, I worshiped it and didn't know it. And since then--since I've had you here--every time. I've looked at you--" He stopped, choking the words back in his throat.

"Say it, Alan."

"I've wanted to see it down," he finished desperately. "Silly notion, isn't it?"

"Why is it?" she asked, her eyes widening a little. "If you love it, why is it a silly notion to want to see it down?"

"Why, I though possibly you might think it so," he added lamely.

Never had he heard anything sweeter than her laughter as she turned suddenly from him, so that the glow of the fallen sun was at her back, and with deft, swift fingers began loosening the coils of her hair until its radiant masses tumbled about her, streaming down her back in a silken glory that awed him with its beauty and drew from his lips a cry of gladness.

She faced him, and in her eyes was the shining softness that glowed in her hair. "Do you think it is nice, Alan?"

He went to her and filled his hands with the heavy tresses and pressed them to his lips and face.

Thus he stood when he felt the sudden shiver that ran through her. It was like a little shock. He heard the catch of her breath, and the hand which she had placed gently on his bowed head fell suddenly away. When he raised his head to look at her, she was staring past him into the deepening twilight of the tundra, and it seemed as if something had stricken her so that for a space she was powerless to speak or move.

"What is it?" he cried, and whirled about, straining his eyes to see what had alarmed her; and as he looked, a deep, swift shadow sped over the earth, darkening the mellow twilight until it was somber gloom of night--and the midnight sun went out like a great, luminous lamp as a dense wall of purple cloud rolled up in an impenetrable curtain between it and the arctic world. Often he had seen this happen in the approach of summer storm on the tundras, but never had the change seemed so swift as now. Where there had been golden light, he saw his companion's face now pale in a sea of dusk. It was this miracle of arctic night, its suddenness and unexpectedness, that had startled her, he thought, and he laughed softly.

But her hand clutched his arm. "I saw them," she cried, her voice breaking. "I saw them--out there against the sun--before the cloud came--and some of them were running, like animals--"

"Shadows!" he exclaimed. "The long shadows of foxes running against the sun, or of the big gray rabbits, or of a wolf and her half-grown sneaking away--"

"No, no, they were not that," she breathed tensely, and her fingers clung more fiercely to his arm. "They were not shadows. _They were men_!"

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