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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Alaskan: A Novel Of The North - Chapter 5
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The Alaskan: A Novel Of The North - Chapter 5 Post by :gabby Category :Long Stories Author :James Oliver Curwood Date :May 2012 Read :2790

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The Alaskan: A Novel Of The North - Chapter 5

CHAPTER V

Breakfast hour was half over when Alan went into the dining-room. There were only two empty chairs at his table. One was his own. The other belonged to Mary Standish. There was something almost aggressively suggestive in their simultaneous vacancy, it struck him at first. He nodded as he sat down, a flash of amusement in his eyes when he observed the look in the young engineer's face. It was both envious and accusing, and yet Alan was sure the young man was unconscious of betraying an emotion. The fact lent to the eating of his grapefruit an accompaniment of pleasing and amusing thought. He recalled the young man's name. It was Tucker. He was a clean-faced, athletic, likable-looking chap. And an idiot would have guessed the truth, Alan told himself. The young engineer was more than casually interested in Mary Standish; he was in love. It was not a discovery which Alan made. It was a decision, and as soon as possible he would remedy the unfortunate omission of a general introduction at their table by bringing the two together. Such an introduction would undoubtedly relieve him of a certain responsibility which had persisted in attaching itself to him.

So he tried to think. But in spite of his resolution he could not get the empty chair opposite him out of his mind. It refused to be obliterated, and when other chairs became vacant as their owners left the table, this one straight across from him continued to thrust itself upon him. Until this morning it had been like other empty chairs. Now it was persistently annoying, inasmuch as he had no desire to be so constantly reminded of last night, and the twelve o'clock tryst of Mary Standish with Graham's agent, Rossland.

He was the last at the table. Tucker, remaining until his final hope of seeing Mary Standish was gone, rose with two others. The first two had made their exit through the door leading from the dining salon when the young engineer paused. Alan, watching him, saw a sudden change in his face. In a moment it was explained. Mary Standish came in. She passed Tucker without appearing to notice him, and gave Alan a cool little nod as she seated herself at the table. She was very pale. He could see nothing of the flush of color that had been in her cheeks last night. As she bowed her head a little, arranging her dress, a pool of sunlight played in her hair, and Alan was staring at it when she raised her eyes. They were coolly beautiful, very direct, and without embarrassment. Something inside him challenged their loveliness. It seemed inconceivable that such eyes could play a part in fraud and deception, yet he was in possession of quite conclusive proof of it. If they had lowered themselves an instant, if they had in any way betrayed a shadow of regret, he would have found an apology. Instead of that, his fingers touched the handkerchief in his pocket.

"Did you sleep well, Miss Standish?" he asked politely.

"Not at all," she replied, so frankly that his conviction was a bit unsettled. "I tried to powder away the dark rings under my eyes, but I am afraid I have failed. Is that why you ask?"

He was holding the handkerchief in his hand. "This is the first morning I have seen you at breakfast. I accepted it for granted you must have slept well. Is this yours, Miss Standish?"

He watched her face as she took the crumpled bit of cambric from his fingers. In a moment she was smiling. The smile was not forced. It was the quick response to a feminine instinct of pleasure, and he was disappointed not to catch in her face a betrayal of embarrassment.

"It is my handkerchief, Mr. Holt. Where did you find it?"

"In front of my cabin door a little after midnight."

He was almost brutal in the definiteness of detail. He expected some kind of result. But there was none, except that the smile remained on her lips a moment longer, and there was a laughing flash back in the clear depths of her eyes. Her level glance was as innocent as a child's and as he looked at her, he thought of a child--a most beautiful child--and so utterly did he feel the discomfiture of his mental analysis of her that he rose to his feet with a frigid bow.

"I thank you, Mr. Holt," she said. "You can imagine my sense of obligation when I tell you I have only three handkerchiefs aboard the ship with me. And this is my favorite."

She busied herself with the breakfast card, and as Alan left, he heard her give the waiter an order for fruit and cereal. His blood was hot, but the flush of it did not show in his face. He felt the uncomfortable sensation of her eyes following him as he stalked through the door. He did not look back. Something was wrong with him, and he knew it. This chit of a girl with her smooth hair and clear eyes had thrown a grain of dust into the satisfactory mechanism of his normal self, and the grind of it was upsetting certain specific formulae which made up his life. He was a fool. He lighted a cigar and called himself names.

Someone brushed against him, jarring the hand that held the burning match. He looked up. It was Rossland. The man had a mere twist of a smile on his lips. In his eyes was a coolly appraising look as he nodded.

"Beg pardon." The words were condescending, carelessly flung at him over Rossland's shoulder. He might as well have said, "I'm sorry, Boy, but you must keep out of my way."

Alan smiled back and returned the nod. Once, in a spirit of sauciness, Keok had told him his eyes were like purring cats when he was in a humor to kill. They were like that now as they flashed their smile at Rossland. The sneering twist left Rossland's lips as he entered the dining-room.

A rather obvious prearrangement between Mary Standish and John Graham's agent, Alan thought. There were not half a dozen people left at the tables, and the scheme was that Rossland should be served tete-a-tete with Miss Standish, of course. That, apparently, was why she had greeted him with such cool civility. Her anxiety for him to leave the table before Rossland appeared upon the scene was evident, now that he understood the situation.

He puffed at his cigar. Rossland's interference had spoiled a perfect lighting of it, and he struck another match. This time he was successful, and he was about to extinguish the burning end when he hesitated and held it until the fire touched his flesh. Mary Standish was coming through the door. Amazed by the suddenness of her appearance, he made no movement except to drop the match. Her eyes were flaming, and two vivid spots burned in her cheeks. She saw him and gave the slightest inclination to her head as she passed. When she had gone, he could not resist looking into the salon. As he expected, Rossland was seated in a chair next to the one she had occupied, and was calmly engaged in looking over the breakfast card.

All this was rather interesting, Alan conceded, if one liked puzzles. Personally he had no desire to become an answerer of conundrums, and he was a little ashamed of the curiosity that had urged him to look in upon Rossland. At the same time he was mildly elated at the freezing reception which Miss Standish had evidently given to the dislikable individual who had jostled him in passing.

He went on deck. The sun was pouring in an iridescent splendor over the snowy peaks of the mountains, and it seemed as if he could almost reach out his arms and touch them. The _Nome appeared to be drifting in the heart of a paradise of mountains. Eastward, very near, was the mainland; so close on the other hand that he could hear the shout of a man was Douglas Island, and ahead, reaching out like a silver-blue ribbon was Gastineau Channel. The mining towns of Treadwell and Douglas were in sight.

Someone nudged him, and he found Stampede Smith at his side.

"That's Bill Treadwell's place," he said. "Once the richest gold mines in Alaska. They're flooded now. I knew Bill when he was worrying about the price of a pair of boots. Had to buy a second-hand pair an' patched 'em himself. Then he struck it lucky, got four hundred dollars somewhere, and bought some claims over there from a man named French Pete. They called it Glory Hole. An' there was a time when there were nine hundred stamps at work. Take a look, Alan. It's worth it."

Somehow Stampede's voice and information lacked appeal. The decks were crowded with passengers as the ship picked her way into Juneau, and Alan wandered among them with a gathering sense of disillusionment pressing upon him. He knew that he was looking with more than casual interest for Mary Standish, and he was glad when Stampede bumped into an old acquaintance and permitted him to be alone. He was not pleased with the discovery, and yet he was compelled to acknowledge the truth of it. The grain of dust had become more than annoying. It did not wear away, as he had supposed it would, but was becoming an obsessive factor in his thoughts. And the half-desire it built up in him, while aggravatingly persistent, was less disturbing than before. The little drama in the dining-room had had its effect upon him in spite of himself. He liked fighters. And Mary Standish, intensely feminine in her quiet prettiness, had shown her mettle in those few moments when he had seen her flashing eyes and blazing cheeks after leaving Rossland. He began to look for Rossland, too. He was in a humor to meet him.

Not until Juneau hung before him in all its picturesque beauty, literally terraced against the green sweep of Mount Juneau, did he go down to the lower deck. The few passengers ready to leave the ship gathered near the gangway with their luggage. Alan was about to pass them when he suddenly stopped. A short distance from him, where he could see every person who disembarked, stood Rossland. There was something grimly unpleasant in his attitude as he fumbled his watch-fob and eyed the stair from above. His watchfulness sent an unexpected thrill through Alan. Like a shot his mind jumped to a conclusion. He stepped to Rossland's side and touched his arm.

"Watching for Miss Standish?" he asked.

"I am." There was no evasion in Rossland's words. They possessed the hard and definite quality of one who had an incontestable authority behind him.

"And if she goes ashore?"

"I am going too. Is it any affair of yours, Mr. Holt? Has she asked you to discuss the matter with me? If so--"

"No, Miss Standish hasn't done that."

"Then please attend to your own business. If you haven't enough to take up your time, I'll lend you some books. I have several in my cabin."

Without waiting for an answer Rossland coolly moved away. Alan did not follow. There was nothing for him to resent, nothing for him to imprecate but his own folly. Rossland's words were not an insult. They were truth. He had deliberately intruded in an affair which was undoubtedly of a highly private nature. Possibly it was a domestic tangle. He shuddered. A sense of humiliation swept over him, and he was glad that Rossland did not even look back at him. He tried to whistle as he climbed back to the main-deck; Rossland, even though he detested the man, had set him right. And he would lend him books, if he wanted to be amused! Egad, but the fellow had turned the trick nicely. And it was something to be remembered. He stiffened his shoulders and found old Donald Hardwick and Stampede Smith. He did not leave them until the _Nome had landed her passengers and freight and was churning her way out of Gastineau Channel toward Skagway. Then he went to the smoking-room and remained there until luncheon hour.

Today Mary Standish was ahead of him at the table. She was seated with her back toward him as he entered, so she did not see him as he came up behind her, so near that his coat brushed her chair. He looked across at her and smiled as he seated himself. She returned the smile, but it seemed to him an apologetic little effort. She did not look well, and her presence at the table struck him as being a brave front to hide something from someone. Casually he looked over his left shoulder. Rossland was there, in his seat at the opposite side of the room. Indirect as his glance had been, Alan saw the girl understood the significance of it. She bowed her head a little, and her long lashes shaded her eyes for a moment. He wondered why he always looked at her hair first. It had a peculiarly pleasing effect on him. He had been observant enough to know that she had rearranged it since breakfast, and the smooth coils twisted in mysterious intricacy at the crown of her head were like softly glowing velvet. The ridiculous thought came to him that he would like to see them tumbling down about her. They must be even more beautiful when freed from their bondage.

The pallor of her face was unusual. Possibly it was the way the light fell upon her through the window. But when she looked across at him again, he caught for an instant the tiniest quiver about her mouth. He began telling her something about Skagway, quite carelessly, as if he had seen nothing which she might want to conceal. The light in her eyes changed, and it was almost a glow of gratitude he caught in them. He had broken a tension, relieved her of some unaccountable strain she was under. He noticed that her ordering of food was merely a pretense. She scarcely touched it, and yet he was sure no other person at the table had discovered the insincerity of her effort, not even Tucker, the enamored engineer. It was likely Tucker placed a delicate halo about her lack of appetite, accepting daintiness of that sort as an angelic virtue.

Only Alan, sitting opposite her, guessed the truth. She was making a splendid effort, but he felt that every nerve in her body was at the breaking-point. When she arose from her seat, he thrust back his own chair. At the same time he saw Rossland get up and advance rather hurriedly from the opposite side of the room. The girl passed through the door first, Rossland followed a dozen steps behind, and Alan came last, almost shoulder to shoulder with Tucker. It was amusing in a way, yet beyond the humor of it was something that drew a grim line about the corners of his mouth.

At the foot of the luxuriously carpeted stair leading from the dining salon to the main deck Miss Standish suddenly stopped and turned upon Rossland. For only an instant her eyes were leveled at him. Then they flashed past him, and with a swift movement she came toward Alan. A flush had leaped into her cheeks, but there was no excitement in her voice when she spoke. Yet it was distinct, and clearly heard by Rossland.

"I understand we are approaching Skagway, Mr. Holt," she said. "Will you take me on deck, and tell me about it?"

Graham's agent had paused at the foot of the stair and was slowly preparing to light a cigarette. Recalling his humiliation of a few hours before at Juneau, when the other had very clearly proved him a meddler, words refused to form quickly on Alan's lips. Before he was ready with an answer Mary Standish had confidently taken his arm. He could see the red flush deepening in her upturned face. She was amazingly unexpected, bewilderingly pretty, and as cool as ice except for the softly glowing fire in her cheeks. He saw Rossland staring with his cigarette half poised. It was instinctive for him to smile in the face of danger, and he smiled now, without speaking. The girl laughed softly. She gave his arm a gentle tug, and he found himself moving past Rossland, amazed but obedient, her eyes looking at him in a way that sent a gentle thrill through him.

At the head of the wide stair she whispered, with her lips close to his shoulder: "You are splendid! I thank you, Mr. Holt."

Her words, along with the decisive relaxing of her hand upon his arm, were like a dash of cold water in his face. Rossland could no longer see them, unless he had followed. The girl had played her part, and a second time he had accepted the role of a slow-witted fool. But the thought did not anger him. There was a remarkable element of humor about it for him, viewing himself in the matter, and Mary Standish heard him chuckling as they came out on deck.

Her fingers tightened resentfully upon his arm. "It isn't funny," she reproved. "It is tragic to be bored by a man like that."

He knew she was politely lying to anticipate the question he might ask, and he wondered what would happen if he embarrassed her by letting her know he had seen her alone with Rossland at midnight. He looked down at her, and she met his scrutiny unflinchingly. She even smiled at him, and her eyes, he thought, were the loveliest liars he had ever looked into. He felt the stir of an unusual sentiment--a sort of pride in her, and he made up his mind to say nothing about Rossland. He was still absurdly convinced that he had not the smallest interest in affairs which were not entirely his own. Mary Standish evidently believed he was blind, and he would make no effort to spoil her illusion. Such a course would undoubtedly be most satisfactory in the end.

Even now she seemed to have forgotten the incident at the foot of the stair. A softer light was in her eyes when they came to the bow of the ship, and Alan fancied he heard a strange little cry on her lips as she looked about her upon the paradise of Taiya Inlet. Straight ahead, like a lilac ribbon, ran the narrow waterway to Skagway's door, while on both sides rose high mountains, covered with green forests to the snowy crests that gleamed like white blankets near the clouds. In this melting season there came to them above the slow throb of the ship's engines the liquid music of innumerable cascades, and from a mountain that seemed to float almost directly over their heads fell a stream of water a sheer thousand feet to the sea, smoking and twisting in the sunshine like a living thing at play. And then a miracle happened which even Alan wondered at, for the ship seemed to stand still and the mountain to swing slowly, as if some unseen and mighty force were opening a guarded door, and green foothills with glistening white cottages floated into the picture, and Skagway, heart of romance, monument to brave men and thrilling deeds, drifted out slowly from its hiding-place. Alan turned to speak, but what he saw in the girl's face held him silent. Her lips were parted, and she was staring as if an unexpected thing had risen before her eyes, something that bewildered her and even startled her.

And then, as if speaking to herself and not to Alan Holt, she said in a tense whisper: "I have seen this place before. It was a long time ago. Maybe it was a hundred years or a thousand. But I have been here. I have lived under that mountain with the waterfall creeping down it--"

A tremor ran through her, and she remembered Alan. She looked up at him, and he was puzzled. A weirdly beautiful mystery lay in her eyes.

"I must go ashore here," she said. "I didn't know I would find it so soon. Please--"

With her hand touching his arm she turned. He was looking at her and saw the strange light fade swiftly out of her eyes. Following her glance he saw Rossland standing half a dozen paces behind them.

In another moment Mary Standish was facing the sea, and again her hand was resting confidently in the crook of Alan's arm. "Did you ever feel like killing a man, Mr. Holt?" she asked with an icy little laugh.

"Yes," he answered rather unexpectedly. "And some day, if the right opportunity comes, I am going to kill a certain man--the man who murdered my father."

She gave a little gasp of horror. "Your father--was--murdered--"

"Indirectly--yes. It wasn't done with knife or gun, Miss Standish. Money was the weapon. Somebody's money. And John Graham was the man who struck the blow. Some day, if there is justice, I shall kill him. And right now, if you will allow me to demand an explanation of this man Rossland--"

"_No_." Her hand tightened on his arm. Then, slowly, she drew it away. "I don't want you to ask an explanation of him," she said. "If he should make it, you would hate me. Tell me about Skagway, Mr. Holt. That will be pleasanter."

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