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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Courage Of Captain Plum - Chapter 5. The Mystery
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The Courage Of Captain Plum - Chapter 5. The Mystery Post by :gabby Category :Long Stories Author :James Oliver Curwood Date :May 2012 Read :2134

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The Courage Of Captain Plum - Chapter 5. The Mystery

CHAPTER V. THE MYSTERY

Hardly had Nathaniel fought his way through the thin crowd of startled spectators about the whipping-post before the enormity of his offense in interrupting the king's justice dawned upon him. He was not sorry that he had responded to the mute appeal of the girl who had entered so strangely into his life. He rejoiced at the spirit that had moved him to action, that had fired his blood and put the strength of a giant in his arms; and his nerves tingled with an unreasoning joy that he had leaped all barriers which in cooler moments would have restrained him, and which fixed in his excited brain only the memory of the beautiful face that had sought his own in those crucial moments of its suffering. The girl had turned to him and to him alone among all those men. He had heard her voice, he had felt the soft sweep of her hair as he severed the prisoner's thongs, he had caught the flash of her eyes and the movement of her lips as he dashed himself into the crowd. And as he sped swiftly up the slope he considered himself amply repaid for all that he had done. His blood was stirred as if by the fire of sharp wines; he was still in a tension of fighting excitement. Yet no sooner had he fought himself clear of the mob than his better judgment leaped into the ascendency. If danger had been lurking for him before it was doubly threatening now and he was sufficiently possessed of the common spirit of self-preservation to exult at the speed with which he was enabled to leave pursuit behind. A single glance over his shoulder assured him that the man whom he had saved from the prophet's wrath was close at his heels. His first impulse was to direct his flight toward Obadiah's cabin; his second to follow the path that led to his ship. At this hour some of his men would surely be awaiting him in a small boat and once aboard the _Typhoon he could continue his campaign against the Mormon king with better chances of success than as a lone fugitive on the island. Besides, he knew what Casey would do at sundown.

At the top of the slope he stopped and waited for the other to come up to him.

"I've got a ship off there," he called, pointing inland. "Take a short cut for the point at the head of the island. There's a boat waiting for us!"

Neil came up panting. He was breathing so hard that for a moment he found it impossible to speak but in his eyes there was a look that told his unbounded gratitude. They were clear, fearless eyes, with the blue glint of steel in them and, as he held out his hands to Nathaniel, they were luminous with the joy of his deliverance.

"Thank you, Captain Plum!"

He spoke his companion's name with the assurance of one who had known it for a long time. "If they loose the dogs there will be no time for the ship," he added, with a suggestive hunch of his naked shoulders. "Follow me!"

There was no alarm in his voice and Nathaniel caught the flashing gleam of white teeth as Neil smiled grimly back at him, running in the lead. From the man's eyes the master of the _Typhoon had sized up his companion as a fighter. The smile--daring, confident, and yet signaling their danger--assured him that he was right, and he followed close behind without question. A dozen rods up the path Neil turned into a dense thicket of briars and underbrush and for ten minutes they plunged through the pathless jungle. Now and then Nathaniel saw the three red stripes of the whipper's lash upon the bare shoulders of the man ahead and to these every step seemed to add new wounds made by the thorns. As they came out upon an old roadway the captain stripped off his coat and Neil thrust himself into it as they ran.

Even in these first minutes of their flight Nathaniel was thrilled by another thought than that of the peril behind them. Whom had he saved? Who was this clear-eyed young fellow for whom the girl had so openly sacrificed herself at the whipping-post, about whom she had thrown her arms and covered with the protection of her glorious hair? With his joy at having served her there was mingled a chilling doubt as these questions formed themselves in his mind. Obadiah's vague suggestions, the scene in the king's room, the night visits of the girl to the councilor's cabin--and last of all this incident at the jail flashed upon him now with another meaning, with a significance that slowly cooled the enthusiasm in his veins. He was sure that he was near the solution of the mysterious events in which he had become involved, and yet this knowledge brought with it something of apprehension, something which made him anticipate and yet dread the moment when the fugitive ahead would stop in his flight, and he might ask him those questions which would at least relieve him of his burden of doubt. They had traveled a mile through forest unbroken by path or road when Neil halted on the edge of a little stream that ran into a swamp. Pointing into the tangled fen with a confident smile he plunged to his waist in the water and waded slowly through the slough into the gloom of the densest alder. A few minutes later he turned in to the shore and the soft bog gave place to firm ground. Before Nathaniel had cleared the stream he saw his companion drop to his knees beside a fallen log and when he came up to him he was unwrapping a piece of canvas from about a gun. With a warning gesture he rose to his feet and for twenty seconds the men stood and listened. No sound came to them but the chirp of a startled squirrel and the barking of a dog in the direction of St. James.

"They haven't turned out the dogs yet," said Neil, holding a hand against his heaving chest. "If they do they can't reach us through that slough." He leaned his rifle against the log and again thrusting an arm into the place where it had been concealed drew forth a small box.

"Powder and ball--and grub!" he laughed. "You see I am a sort of revolutionist and have my hiding-places. To-morrow--I will be a martyr." He spoke as quietly as though his words but carried a careless jest.

"A martyr?" laughed Nathaniel, looking down into the smiling, sweating face.

"Yes, to-morrow I shall kill Strang."

There was no excitement in Neil's voice as he stood erect. The smile did not leave his lips. But in his eyes there shone that which neither words nor smiling lips revealed, a reckless, blazing fury hidden deep in them--so deep that Nathaniel stared to assure himself what it was. The other saw the doubt in his face.

"To-morrow I shall kill Strang," he repeated. "I shall kill him with this gun from under the window of his house through which you saw Marion."

"Marion!" exclaimed Nathaniel. "Marion--" He leaned forward eagerly, questioning. "Tell me--"

"My sister, Captain Plum!"

It seemed to Nathaniel that every fiber in his body was stretched to the breaking point. He reached out, dazed by what he had heard and with both hands seized Neil's arm.

"Your sister--who came to you at the whipping-post?"

"That was Marion."

"And--Strang's wife?"

"No!" cried Neil. "No--not his wife!" He drew back from Nathaniel's touch as if the question had stabbed him to the heart. The passion that had slumbered in his eyes burst into savage flame and his face became suddenly terrible to look upon. There was hatred there such as Nathaniel had never seen; a ferocious, pitiless hatred that sent a shuddering thrill through him as he stood before it. After a moment the clenched fist that had risen above Neil's head dropped to his side. Half apologetically he held out his hand to his companion.

"Captain Plum, we've got a lot to thank you for, Marion and I," he said, a tremble of the passing emotion in his voice. "Obadiah told Marion that help might come to us through you and Marion brought the word to me at the jail late last night--after she had seen you at the window. The old councilor kept his word! You have saved her!"

"Saved her!" gasped Nathaniel. "From what? How?" A hundred questions seemed leaping from his heart to his lips.

"From Strang. Good God, don't you understand? I tell you that I am going to kill Strang!"

Neil stood as though appalled by his companion's incomprehension. "I am going to kill Strang, I tell you!" he cried again, the fire burning deeper through the sweat of his cheeks.

Nathaniel's bewilderment still shone in his face.

"She is not Strang's wife," he spoke softly, as if to himself. "And she is not--" His face flushed as he nearly spoke the words. "Obadiah lied!" He looked squarely into Neil's eyes. "No, I don't understand you. The councilor said that she--that Marion was Strang's wife. He told me nothing more than that, nothing of her trouble, nothing about you. Until this moment I have been completely mystified. Only her eyes led me to do--what I did at the jail."

Neil gazed at him in astonishment.

"Obadiah told--you--nothing?" he asked incredulously.

"Not a word about you or Marion except that Marion was the king's seventh wife. But he hinted at many things and kept me on the trail, always expecting, always watching, and yet every hour was one of mystery. I am in the darkest of it at this instant. What does it all mean? Why are you going to kill Strang? Why--"

Neil interrupted him with a cry so poignant in its wretchedness that the last question died upon his lips.

"I thought that the councilor had told you all," he said. "I thought you knew." The disappointment in his voice was almost despair. "Then--it was only accidentally--you helped us?"

"Only accidentally that I helped _you_--yes! But Marion--" Nathaniel crushed Neil's hand in both his own and his eyes betrayed more than he would have said. "I've got an armed ship and a dozen men out there and if I can help Marion by blowing up St. James--I'll do it!"

For a time only the tense breathing of the two broke the silence of their lips. They looked into each other's face, Nathaniel with all the eagerness of the passion with which Marion had stirred his soul, Neil half doubting, as if he were trying to find in this man's eyes the friendship which he had not questioned a few minutes before.

"Obadiah told you nothing?" he asked again, as if still unbelieving.

"Nothing."

"And you have not seen Marion--to talk with her?"

"No."

Nathaniel had dropped his companion's hand, and now Neil walked to the log and sat down with his face turned in the direction from which their pursuers must come if they entered the swamp.

Suddenly the memory of Obadiah's note shot into Nathaniel's head, the councilor's admonition, his allusion to a visitor. With this memory there recurred to him Obadiah's words at the temple, "If you had remained at the cabin, Nat, you would have known that I was your friend. She would have come to you, but now--it is impossible." For the first time the truth began to dawn upon him. He went and sat down beside Neil.

"I am beginning to understand--a little," he said. "Obadiah had planned that I should meet Marion, but I was a fool and spoiled his scheme. If I had done as he told me I should have seen her this morning."

In a few words he reviewed the events of the preceding evening and of that morning--of his coming to the island, his meeting with Obadiah, and of the singular way in which he had become interested in Marion. He omitted the oaths but told of Winnsome's warning and of his interview with the Mormon king. When he spoke of the girl as he had seen her through the king's window, and of her appealing face turned to him at the jail, his voice trembled with an excitement that deepened the flush in Neil's cheeks.

"Captain Plum, I thank God that you like Marion," he said simply. "After I kill Strang will you help her?"

"Yes."

"You are willing to risk--"

"My life--my men--my ship!"

Nathaniel spoke like one to whom there had been suddenly opened the portals to a great joy. He sprang to his feet and stood before Neil, his whole being throbbing with the emotions which had been awakened within him.

"Good God, why don't you tell me what her peril is?" he cried, no longer restraining himself. "Why are you going to kill Strang? Has he--has he--" His face flamed with the question which he dared not finish.

"No--not that!" interrupted Neil. "He has never laid a hand on Marion. She hates him as she hates the snakes in this swamp. And yet--next Sunday she is to become his seventh wife!"

Nathaniel started as if he had been threatened by a blow.

"You mean--he is forcing her into his harem?" he asked.

"No, he can not do that!" exclaimed Neil, the hatred bursting out anew in his face. "He can not force her into marrying him, and yet--" He flung his arms above his head in sudden passionate despair. "As there is a God in Heaven I would give ten years of my life for the secret of the prophet's power over Marion!" he groaned. "Three months ago her hatred of him was terrible. She loathed the sight of him. I have seen her shiver at the sound of his voice. When he asked her to become his wife she refused him in words that I had believed no person in the kingdom would dared to have used. Then--less than a month ago--the change came, and one day she told me that she had made up her mind to become Strang's wife. From that day her heart was broken. I was dumfounded. I raged and cursed and even threatened. Once I accused her of a shameful thing and though I implored her forgiveness a thousand times I know that she weeps over my brutal words still. But nothing could change her. On my knees I have pleaded with her, and once she flung her arms round my shoulders and said, 'Neil, I can not tell you why I am marrying Strang. But I must.' I went to Strang and demanded an explanation; I told him that my sister hated him, that the sight of his face and the sound of his voice filled her with abhorrence, but he only laughed at me and asked why I objected to becoming the brother-in-law of a prophet. Day by day I have seen Marion's soul dying within her. Some terrible secret is gnawing at her heart, robbing her of the very life which a few weeks ago made her the most beautiful thing on this island; some dreadful influence is shadowing her every step, and as the day draws near when she is to join the king's harem I see in her eyes at times a look that frightens me. There is only one salvation. To-morrow I shall kill Strang!"

"And then?"

Neil shrugged his shoulders.

"I will shoot him through the abdomen so that he will live to tell his wives who did the deed. After that I will try to make my escape to the mainland."

"And Marion--"

"Will not marry Strang! Isn't that plain?"

"You have guessed nothing--no cause for the prophet's power over your sister?" asked Nathaniel.

"Absolutely nothing. And yet that influence is such that at times the thought of it freezes the blood in my veins. It is so great that Strang did not hesitate to throw me into jail on the pretext that I had threatened his life. Marion implored him to spare me the disgrace of a public whipping and he replied by reading to her the commandments of the kingdom. That was last night--when you saw her through the window. Strang is madly infatuated with her beauty and yet he dares to go to any length without fear of losing her. She has become his slave. She is as completely in his power as though bound in iron chains. And the most terrible thing about it all is that she has constantly urged me to leave the island--to go, and never return. Great God, what does it all mean? I love her more than anything else on earth, we have been inseparable since the day she was old enough to toddle alone--and yet she would have me leave her! No power on earth can reveal the secret that is torturing her. No power can make Strang divulge it."

"And Obadiah Price!" cried Nathaniel, sudden excitement flashing in his eyes. "Does he not know?"

"I believe that he does!" replied Neil, pacing back and forth in his agitation. "Captain Plum, if there is a man on this island who loves Marion with all of a father's devotion it is Obadiah Price, and yet he swears that he knows nothing of the terrible influence which has so suddenly enslaved her to the prophet! He suggests that it may be mesmerism, but I--" He interrupted himself with a harsh, mirthless laugh. "Mesmerism be damned! It's not that!"

"Your sister--is--a Mormon," ventured Nathaniel, remembering what the prophet had said to him that morning. "Could it be her faith?--a message revealed through Strang from--"

Neil stopped him almost fiercely.

"Marion is not a Mormon!" he said. "She hates Mormonism as she hates Strang. I have tried to get her to leave the island with me but she insists on staying because of the old folk. They are very old, Captain Plum, and they believe in the prophet and his Heaven as you and I believe in that blue sky up there. The day before I was arrested I begged my sister to flee to the mainland with me but she refused with the words that she had said to me a hundred times before--'Neil, I must marry the prophet!' Don't you see there is nothing to do--but to kill Strang?"

Nathaniel thrust his hand into a pocket of the coat he had loaned to Neil and drew forth his pipe and tobacco pouch. As he loaded the pipe he looked squarely into the other's eyes and smiled.

"Neil," he said softly. "Do you know that you would have made an awful fool of yourself if I hadn't hove in sight just when I did?"

He lighted his pipe with exasperating coolness, still smiling over its bowl.

"You are not going to kill Strang to-morrow," he added, throwing away the match and placing both hands on Neil's shoulders. His eyes were laughing with the joy that shone in them. "Neil, I am ashamed of you! You have worried a devilish lot over a very simple matter. See here--" He blew a cloud of smoke over the other's head. "I've learned to demand some sort of pay for my services since I landed on this island. Will you promise to be--a sort of brother--to me--if I steal Marion and sail away with her to-night?"

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CHAPTER IV. THE WHIPPINGScarce had the words fallen from his lips when there sounded a slow, heavy step on the stair outside. The young girl snatched her hand free and caught Nathaniel by the wrist."It is the king!" she whispered excitedly. "It is the king! Quick--you still have time! You must go--you must go--"She strove to pull him across the room."There--through that door!" she urged.The slowly ascending steps were half way up the stairs. Nathaniel hesitated. He knew that a moment before there had passed through that door one who carried with her the odor of lilac and his heart leaped
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