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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe River's End - Chapter 19
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The River's End - Chapter 19 Post by :codebluenj Category :Long Stories Author :James Oliver Curwood Date :May 2012 Read :2318

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The River's End - Chapter 19

CHAPTER XIX

In those ten days all the wonders of June came up out of the south. Life pulsed with a new and vibrant force. The crimson fire-flowers, first of wild blooms to come after snow and frost, splashed the green spaces with red. The forests took on new colors, the blue of the sky grew nearer, and in men's veins the blood ran with new vigor and anticipations. To Keith they were all this and more. Four years along the rim of the Arctic had made it possible for him to drink to the full the glory of early summer along the Saskatchewan. And to Mary Josephine it was all new. Never had she seen a summer like this that was dawning, that most wonderful of all the summers in the world, which comes in June along the southern edge of the Northland.

Keith had played his promised part. It was not difficult for him to wipe away the worst of McDowell's suspicions regarding Miss Kirkstone, for McDowell was eager to believe. When Keith told him that Miriam was on the verge of a nervous breakdown simply because of certain trouble into which Shan Tung had inveigled her brother, and that everything would be straightened out the moment Shan Tung returned from Winnipeg, the iron man seized his hands in a sudden burst of relief and gratitude.

"But why didn't she confide in me, Conniston?" he complained. "Why didn't she confide in me?" The anxiety in his voice, its note of disappointment, were almost boyish.

Keith was prepared. "Because--"

He hesitated, as if projecting the thing in his mind. "McDowell, I'm in a delicate position. You must understand without forcing me to say too much. You are the last man in the world Miss Kirkstone wants to know about her trouble until she has triumphed, and it is over. Delicacy, perhaps; a woman's desire to keep something she is ashamed of from the one man she looks up to above all other men--to keep it away from him until she has cleared herself so that there is no suspicion. McDowell, if I were you, I'd be proud of her for that."

McDowell turned away, and for a space Keith saw the muscles in the back of his neck twitching.

"Derwent, maybe you've guessed, maybe you understand," he said after a moment with his face still turned to the window. "Of course she will never know. I'm too Old, old enough to be her father. But I've got the right to watch over her, and if any man ever injures her--"

His fists grew knotted, and softly Keith said behind him:

"You'd possibly do what John Keith did to the man who wronged his father. And because the Law is not always omniscient, it is also possible that Shan Tung may have to answer in some such way. Until then, until she comes to you of her own free will and with gladness in her eyes tells you her own secret and why she kept it from you--until she does that, I say, it is your part to treat her as if you had seen nothing, guessed nothing, suspected nothing. Do that, McDowell, and leave the rest to me."

He went out, leaving the iron man still with his face to the window.

With Mary Josephine there was no subterfuge. His mind was still centered in his own happiness. He could not wipe out of his brain the conviction that if he waited for Shan Tung he was waiting just so long under the sword of Damocles, with a hair between him and doom. He hoped that Miriam Kirkstone's refusal to confide in him and her reluctance to furnish him with the smallest facts in the matter would turn Mary Josephine's sympathy into a feeling of indifference if not of actual resentment. He was disappointed. Mary Josephine insisted on having Miss Kirkstone over for dinner the next day, and from that hour something grew between the two girls which Keith knew he was powerless to overcome. Thereafter he bowed his head to fate. He must wait for Shan Tung.

"If it wasn't for your promise not to fall in love, I'd be afraid," Mary Josephine confided to him that night, perched on the arm of his big chair. "At times I was afraid today, Derry. She's lovely. And you like pretty hair--and hers--is wonderful!"

"I don't remember," said Keith quietly, "that I promised you I wouldn't fall in love. I'm desperately in love, and with you, Mary Josephine. And as for Miss Kirkstone's lovely hair--I wouldn't trade one of yours for all she has on her head."

At that, with a riotous little laugh of joy, Mary Josephine swiftly unbound her hair and let it smother about his face and shoulders. "Sometimes I have a terribly funny thought, Derry," she whispered. "If we hadn't always been sweethearts, back there at home, and if you hadn't always liked my hair, and kissed me, and told me I was pretty, I'd almost think you weren't my brother!"

Keith laughed and was glad that her hair covered his face. During those wonderful first days of the summer they were inseparable, except when matters of business took Keith away. During these times he prepared for eventualities. The Keith properties in Prince Albert, he estimated, were worth at least a hundred thousand dollars, and he learned from McDowell that they would soon go through a process of law before being turned over to his fortunate inheritors. Before that time, however, he knew that his own fate would be sealed one way or the other, and now that he had Mary Josephine to look after, he made a will, leaving everything to her, and signing himself John Keith. This will he carried in an envelope pinned inside his shirt. As Derwent Conniston he collected one thousand two hundred and sixty dollars for three and a half years back wage in the Service. Two hundred and sixty of this he kept in his own pocket. The remaining thousand he counted out in new hundred-dollar bills under Mary Josephine's eyes, sealed the bills in another envelope, and gave the envelope to her.

"It's safer with you than with me," he excused himself. "Fasten it inside your dress. It's our grub-stake into the mountains."

Mary Josephine accepted the treasure with the repressed delight of one upon whose fair shoulders had been placed a tremendous responsibility.

There were days of both joy and pain for Keith. For even in the fullest hours of his happiness there was a thing eating at his heart, a thing that was eating deeper and deeper until at times it was like a destroying flame within him. One night he dreamed; he dreamed that Conniston came to his bedside and wakened him, and that after wakening him he taunted him in ghoulish glee and told him that in bequeathing him a sister he had given unto him forever and forever the curse of the daughters of Achelous. And Keith, waking in the dark hour of night, knew in his despair that it was so. For all time, even though he won this fight he was fighting, Mary Josephine would be the unattainable. A sister--and he loved her with the love of a man!

It was the next day after the dream that they wandered again into the grove that sheltered Keith's old home, and again they entered it and went through the cold and empty rooms. In one of these rooms he sought among the titles of dusty rows of books until he came to one and opened it. And there he found what had been in the corner of his mind when the sun rose to give him courage after the night of his dream. The daughters of Achelous had lost in the end. Ulysses had tricked them. Ulysses had won. And in this day and age it was up to him, John Keith, to win, and win he would!

Always he felt this mastering certainty of the future when alone with Mary Josephine in the open day. With her at his side, her hand in his, and his arm about her waist, he told himself that all life was a lie--that there was no earth, no sun, no song or gladness in all the world, if that world held no hope for him. It was there. It was beyond the rim of forest. It was beyond the yellow plains, beyond the farthest timber of the farthest prairie, beyond the foothills; in the heart of the mountains was its abiding place. As he had dreamed of those mountains in boyhood and youth, so now he dreamed his dreams over again with Mary Josephine. For her he painted his pictures of them, as they wandered mile after mile up the shore of the Saskatchewan--the little world they would make all for themselves, how they would live, what they would do, the mysteries they would seek out, the triumphs they would achieve, the glory of that world--just for two. And Mary Josephine planned and dreamed with him.

In a week they lived what might have been encompassed in a year. So it seemed to Keith, who had known her only so long. With Mary Josephine the view-point was different. There had been a long separation, a separation filled with a heartbreak which she would never forget, but it had not served to weaken the bonds between her and this loved one, who, she thought, had always been her own. To her their comradeship was more complete now than it ever had been, even back in the old days, for they were alone in a land that was strange to her, and one was all that the world held for the other. So her possessorship of Keith was a thing which--again in the dark and brooding hours of night--sometimes made him writhe in an agony of shame. Hers was a shameless love, a love which had not even the lover's reason for embarrassment, a love unreserved and open as the day. It was her trick, nights, to nestle herself in the big armchair with him, and it was her fun to smother his face in her hair and tumble it about him, piling it over his mouth and nose until she made him plead for air. Again she would fit herself comfortably in the hollow of his arm and sit the evening out with her head on his shoulder, while they planned their future, and twice in that week she fell asleep there. Each morning she greeted him with a kiss, and each night she came to him to be kissed, and when it was her pleasure she kissed him--or made him kiss her--when they were on their long walks. It was bitter-sweet to Keith, and more frequently came the hours of crushing desolation for him, those hours in the still, dark night when his hypocrisy and his crime stood out stark and hideous in his troubled brain.

As this thing grew in him, a black and foreboding thunderstorm on the horizon of his dreams, an impulse which he did not resist dragged him more and more frequently down to the old home, and Mary Josephine was always with him. They let no one know of these visits. And they talked about John Keith, and in Mary Josephine's eyes he saw more than once a soft and starry glow of understanding. She loved the memory of this man because he, her brother, had loved him. And after these hours came the nights when truth, smiling at him, flung aside its mask and stood a grinning specter, and he measured to the depths the falseness of his triumph. His comfort was the thought that she knew. Whatever happened, she would know what John Keith had been. For he, John Keith, had told her. So much of the truth had he lived.

He fought against the new strain that was descending upon him slowly and steadily as the days passed. He could not but see the new light that had grown in Miriam Kirkstone's eyes. At times it was more than a dawn of hope. It was almost certainty. She had faith in him, faith in his promise to her, in his power to fight, his strength to win. Her growing friendship with Mary Josephine accentuated this, inspiring her at times almost to a point of conviction, for Mary Josephine's confidence in him was a passion. Even McDowell, primarily a fighter of his own battles, cautious and suspicious, had faith in him while he waited for Shan Tung. It was this blind belief in him that depressed him more than all else, for he knew that victory for himself must be based more or less on deceit and treachery. For the first time he heard Miriam laugh with Mary Josephine; he saw the gold and the brown head together out in the sun; he saw her face shining with a light that he had never seen there before, and then, when he came upon them, their faces were turned to him, and his heart bled even as he smiled and held out his hands to Mary Josephine. They trusted him, and he was a liar, a hypocrite, a Pharisee.

On the ninth day he had finished supper with Mary Josephine when the telephone rang. He rose to answer it. It was Miriam Kirkstone.

"He has returned," she said.

That was all. The words were in a choking voice. He answered and hung up the receiver. He knew a change had come into his face when he turned to Mary Josephine. He steeled himself to a composure that drew a questioning tenseness into her face. Gently he stroked her soft hair, explaining that Shan Tung had returned and that he was going to see him. In his bedroom he strapped his Service automatic under his coat.

At the door, ready to go, he paused. Mary Josephine came to him and put her hands to his shoulders. A strange unrest was in her eyes, a question which she did not ask.

Something whispered to him that it was the last time. Whatever happened now, tonight must leave him clean. His arms went around her, he drew her close against his breast, and for a space he held her there, looking into her eyes.

"You love me?" he asked softly.

"More than anything else in the world," she whispered.

"Kiss me, Mary Josephine."

Her lips pressed to his.

He released her from his arms, slowly, lingeringly.

After that she stood in the lighted doorway, watching him, until he disappeared in the gloom of the slope. She called good-by, and he answered her. The door closed.

And he went down into the valley, a hand of foreboding gripping at his heart.

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CHAPTER XXWith a face out of which all color had fled, and eyes filled with the ghosts of a new horror, Miriam Kirkstone stood before Keith in the big room in the house on the hill."He was here--ten minutes," she said, and her voice was as if she was forcing it out of a part of her that was dead and cold. It was lifeless, emotionless, a living voice and yet strange with the chill of death. "In those ten minutes he told me--that! If you fail--"It was her throat that held him, fascinated him. White, slim, beautiful--her heart seemed pulsing
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