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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesPhilip Steele Of The Royal Northwest Mounted Police - Chapter 1. The Hyacinth Letter
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Philip Steele Of The Royal Northwest Mounted Police - Chapter 1. The Hyacinth Letter Post by :Dusty13 Category :Long Stories Author :James Oliver Curwood Date :May 2012 Read :1665

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Philip Steele Of The Royal Northwest Mounted Police - Chapter 1. The Hyacinth Letter

Chapter I. The Hyacinth Letter

Philip Steele's pencil drove steadily over the paper, as if the mere writing of a letter he might never mail in some way lessened the loneliness.

The wind is blowing a furious gale outside. From off the lake come volleys of sleet, like shot from guns, and all the wild demons of this black night in the wilderness seem bent on tearing apart the huge end-locked logs that form my cabin home. In truth, it is a terrible night to be afar from human companionship, with naught but this roaring desolation about and the air above filled with screeching terrors. Even through thick log walls I can hear the surf roaring among the rocks and beating the white driftwood like a thousand battering-rams, almost at my door. It is a night to make one shiver, and in the lulls of the storm the tall pines above me whistle and wail mournfully as they straighten their twisted heads after the blasts.

To-morrow this will be a desolation of snow. There will be snow from here to Hudson's Bay, from the Bay to the Arctic, and where now there is all this fury and strife of wind and sleet there will be unending quiet--the stillness which breeds our tongueless people of the North. But this is small comfort for tonight. Yesterday I caught a little mouse in my flour and killed him. I am sorry now, for surely all this trouble and thunder in the night would have driven him out from his home in the wall to keep me company.

It would not be so bad if it were not for the skull. Three times in the last half-hour I have started to take it down from its shelf over my crude stone fireplace, where pine logs are blazing. But each time I have fallen back, shivering, into the bed-like chair I have made for myself out of saplings and caribou skin. It is a human skull. Only a short time ago it was a living man, with a voice, and eyes, and brain--and that is what makes me uncomfortable. If it were an old skull, it would be different. But it is a new skull. Almost I fancy at times that there is life lurking in the eyeless sockets, where the red firelight from the pitch-weighted logs plays in grewsome flashes; and I fancy, too, that in the brainless cavities of the skull there must still be some of the old passion, stirred into spirit life by the very madness of this night. A hundred times I have been sorry that I kept the thing, but never more so than now.

How the wind howls and the pines screech above me! A pailful of snow, plunging down my chimney, sends the chills up my spine as if it were the very devil himself, and the steam of it surges out and upward and hides the skull. It is absurd to go to bed, to make an effort to sleep, for I know what my dreams would be. To-night they would be filled with this skull--and with visions of a face, a woman's face--

Thus far had Steele written, when with a nervous laugh he sprang from his chair, and with something that sounded very near to an oath, in the wild tumult of the storm, crumpled the paper in his hand and flung it among the blazing logs he had described but a few moments before.

"Confound it, this will never do!" he exclaimed, falling into his own peculiar habit of communing with himself. "I say it won't do, Phil Steele; deuce take it if it will! You're getting nervous, sentimental, almost homesick. Ugh, what a beast of a night!"

He turned to the rude stone fireplace again as another blast of snow plunged down the chimney.

"Wish I'd built a fire in the stove instead of there," he went on, filling his pipe. "Thought it would be a little more cheerful, you know. Lord preserve us, listen to that!"

He began walking up and down the hewn log floor of the cabin, his hands deep in his pockets, puffing out voluminous clouds of smoke. It was not often that Philip Steele's face was unpleasant to look upon, but to-night it wore anything but its natural good humor. It was a strong, thin face, set off by a square jaw, and with clear, steel-gray eyes in which just now there shone a strange glitter, as they rested for a moment upon the white skull over the fire. From his scrutiny of the skull Steele turned to a rough board table, lighted by a twisted bit of cotton cloth, three-quarters submerged in a shallow tin of caribou grease. In the dim light of this improvised lamp there were two letters, opened and soiled, which an Indian had brought up to him from Nelson House the day before. One of them was short and to the point. It was an official note from headquarters ordering him to join a certain Buck Nome at Lac Bain, a hundred miles farther north.

It was the second letter which Steele took in his hands for the twentieth time since it had come to him here, three hundred miles into the wilderness. There were half-a-dozen pages of it, written in a woman's hand, and from it there rose to his nostrils the faint, sweet perfume of hyacinth. It was this odor that troubled him--that had troubled him since yesterday, and that made him restless and almost homesick to-night. It took him back to things--to the days of not so very long ago when he had been a part of the life from which the letter came, and when the world had seemed to hold for him all that one could wish. In a retrospective flash there passed before him a vision of those days, when he, Mr. Philip Steele, son of a multimillionaire banker, was one of the favored few in the social life of a great city; when fashionable clubs opened their doors to him, and beautiful women smiled upon him, and when, among others, this girl of the hyacinth letter held out to him the tempting lure of her heart. Her heart? Or was it the tempting of his own wealth? Steele laughed, and his strong white teeth gleamed in a half-contemptuous smile as he turned again toward the fire.

He sat down, with the letter still in his hands, and thought of some of those others whom he had known. What had become of Jack Moody, he wondered--the good old Jack of his college days, who had loved this girl of the hyacinth with the whole of his big, honest heart, but who hadn't been given half a show because of his poverty? And where was Whittemore, the young broker whose hopes had fallen with his own financial ruin; and Fordney, who would have cut off ten years of his life for her--and half-a-dozen others he might name?

Her heart! Steele laughed softly as he lifted the letter so that the sweet perfume of it came to him more strongly. How she had tempted him for a time! Almost--that night of the Hawkins' ball--he had surrendered to her. He half-closed his eyes, and as the logs crackled in the fireplace and the wind roared outside, he saw her again as he had seen her that night--gloriously beautiful; memory of the witchery of her voice, her hair, her eyes firing his blood like strong wine. And this beauty might have been for him, was still his, if he chose. A word from out of the wilderness, a few lines that he might write to-night--

With a sudden jerk Steele sat bolt upright. One after another he crumpled the sheets of paper in his hand and tossed all but the signature page into the fire. The last sheet he kept, studied it for a little--as if her name were the answer to a problem--then laid it aside. For a few moments there remained still the haunting sweetness of the hyacinth. When it was gone, he gave a last searching sniff, rose to his feet with a laugh in which there was some return of his old spirit, hid that final page of her letter in his traveling kit and proceeded to refill his pipe.

More than once Philip Steele had told himself that he was born a century or two after his time. He had admitted this much to a few of his friends, and they had laughed at him. One evening he had opened his heart a little to the girl of the hyacinth letter, and after that she had called him eccentric. Within himself he knew that he was unlike other men, that the blood in him was calling back to almost forgotten generations, when strong hearts and steady hands counted for manhood rather than stocks and bonds, and when romance and adventure were not quite dead. At college he took civil engineering, because it seemed to him to breathe the spirit of outdoors; and when he had finished he incurred the wrath of those at home by burying himself for a whole year with a surveying expedition in Central America.

It was this expedition that put the finishing touch to Philip Steele. He came back a big hearted, clear minded young fellow, as bronzed as an Aztec--a hater of cities and the hothouse varieties of pleasure to which he had been born, and as far removed from anticipation of his father's millions as though they had never been. He possessed a fortune in his own right, but as yet he had found no use for the income that was piling up. A second expedition, this time to Brazil, and then he came back--to meet the girl of the hyacinth letter. And after that, after he had broken from the bondage which held Moody, and Fordney, and Whittemore, he went back to his many adventures.

It was the North that held him. In the unending desolations of snow and forest and plain, between Hudson's Bay and the wild country of the Athabasca, he found the few people and the mystery and romance which carried him back, and linked him to the dust-covered generations he had lost. One day a slender, athletically built young man enlisted at Regina for service in the Northwest Mounted Police. Within six months he had made several records for himself, and succeeded in having himself detailed to service in the extreme North, where man-hunting became the thrilling game of One against One in an empty and voiceless world. And no one, not even the girl of the hyacinth letter, would have dreamed that the man who was officially listed as "Private Phil Steele, of the N.W.M.P.," was Philip Steele, millionaire and gentleman adventurer.

None appreciated the humor of this fact more than Steele himself, and he fell again into his wholesome laugh as he placed a fresh pine log on the fire, wondering what his aristocratic friends--and especially the girl of the hyacinth letter--would say if they could see him and his environment just at the present moment. In a slow, chuckling survey he took in the heavy German socks which he had hung to dry close to the fire; his worn shoe-packs, shining in a thick coat of caribou grease, and his single suit of steaming underwear that he had washed after supper, and which hung suspended from the ceiling, looking for all the world, in the half dusk of the cabin, like a very thin and headless man. In this gloom, indeed, but one thing shone out white and distinct--the skull on the little shelf above the fire. As his eyes rested on it, Steele's lips tightened and his face grew dark. With a sudden movement he reached up and took it in his hands, holding it for a moment so that the light from the fire flashed full upon it. In the left side, on a line with the eyeless socket and above the ear, was a hole as large as a small egg.

"So I'm ordered up to join Nome, the man who did this, eh?" he muttered, fingering the ragged edge. "I could kill him for what happened down there at Nelson House, M'sieur Janette. Some day--I may."

He balanced the skull on his finger tips, level with his chin.

"Nice sort of a chap for a Hamlet, I am," he went on, whimsically. "I believe I'll chuck you into the fire, M'sieur Janette. You're getting on my nerves."

He stopped suddenly and lowered the skull to the table.

"No, I won't burn you," he continued, "I've brought you this far and I'll pack you up to Lac Bain with me. Some morning I'll give you to Bucky Nome for breakfast. And then, M'sieur--then we shall see what we shall see."

Later that night he wrote a few words on a slip of paper and tacked the paper to the inside of his door. To any who might follow in his footsteps it conveyed this information and advice:

NOTICE!

This cabin and what's in it are quasheed by me. Fill your gizzard but not your pockets.

Steele, Northwest Mounted.

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