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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesPhilip Steele Of The Royal Northwest Mounted Police - Chapter 2. A Face Out Of The Night
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Philip Steele Of The Royal Northwest Mounted Police - Chapter 2. A Face Out Of The Night Post by :Dusty13 Category :Long Stories Author :James Oliver Curwood Date :May 2012 Read :2940

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Philip Steele Of The Royal Northwest Mounted Police - Chapter 2. A Face Out Of The Night

Chapter II. A Face Out Of The Night

Steele came up to the Hudson's Bay Company's post at Lac Bain on the seventh day after the big storm, and Breed, the factor, confided two important bits of information to him while he was thawing out before the big box-stove in the company's deserted and supply-stripped store. The first was that a certain Colonel Becker and his wife had left Fort Churchill, on Hudson's Bay, to make a visit at Lac Bain; the second, that Buck Nome had gone westward a week before and had not returned. Breed was worried, not over Nome's prolonged absence, but over the anticipated arrival of the other two. According to the letter which had come to him from the Churchill factor. Colonel Becker and his wife had come over on the last supply ship from London, and the colonel was a high official in the company's service. Also, he was an old gentleman. Ostensibly he had no business at Lac Bain, but was merely on a vacation, and wished to see a bit of real life in the wilderness.

Breed's grizzled face was miserable.

"Why don't they send 'em down to York Factory or Nelson House?" he demanded of Steele. "They've got duck feathers, three women, and a civilized factor at the Nelson, and there ain't any of 'em here--not even a woman!"

Steele shrugged his shoulders as Breed mentioned the three women at Nelson.

"There are only two women there now," he replied. "Since a certain Bucky Nome passed that way, one of them has gone into the South."

"Well, two, then," said Breed, who had not caught the flash of fire in the other's eyes. "But I tell you there ain't a one here, Steele, not even an Indian--and that dirty Cree, Jack, is doing the cooking. Blessed Saints, I caught him mixing biscuit dough in the wash basin the other day, and I've been eating those biscuits ever since our people went out to their traplines! There's you, and Nome, two Crees, a 'half' and myself--and that's every soul there'll be at Lac Bain until the mid-winter run of fur. Now, what in Heaven's name is the poor old Mrs. Colonel going to do?"

"Got a bed for her?"

"A bunk--hard as nails!"

"Good grub?"

"Rotten!" groaned the factor. "Every trapper's son of them took out big supplies this fall and we're stripped. Beans, flour, sugar'n'prunes--and caribou until I feel like turning inside out every time I smell it. I'd give a month's commission for a pound of pork. Look here! If this letter ain't 'quality' you can cut me into jiggers. Bet the Mrs. Colonel wrote it for her hubby."

From an inside pocket Breed drew forth a square white envelope with a broken seal of red wax, and from it extracted a folded sheet of cream-tinted paper. Scarcely had Steele taken the note in his hands when a quick thrill passed through him. Before he had read the first line he was conscious again of that haunting sweetness in the air he breathed--the perfume of hyacinth. There was not only this perfume, but the same paper, the same delicately pretty writing of the letter he had burned more than a week before. He made no effort to suppress the exclamation of astonishment that broke from his lips. Breed was staring at him when he lifted his eyes.

"This is a mighty strange coincidence, Breed," he said, regaining his composure. "I could almost swear that I know this writing, and yet of course such a thing is impossible. Still, it's mighty queer. Will you let me keep the letter until to-night? I'd like to take it over to the cabin and compare it--"

"Needn't return it at all," interrupted the factor. "Hope you find something interesting to tell me at supper--five sharp. It will be a blessing if you know 'em."

Ten minutes later Steele was in the little cabin which he and Nome occupied while at Lac Bain. Jack, the Cree, had built a rousing fire in the long sheet-iron stove, and as Steele opened its furnace-like door, a flood of light poured out into the gathering gloom of early evening. Drawing a chair full into the light, he again opened the letter. Line for line and word for word he scrutinized the writing, and with each breath that he drew he found himself more deeply thrilled by a curious mental excitement which it was impossible for him to explain. According to the letter. Colonel and Mrs. Becker had arrived at Churchill aboard the London ship a little over a month previously. He remembered that the date on the letter from the girl was six weeks old. At the time it was written, Colonel Becker and his wife were either in London or Liverpool, or crossing the Atlantic. No matter how similar the two letters appeared to him, he realized that, under the circumstances, the same person could not have written them both. For many minutes he sat back in his chair, with his eyes half-closed, absorbing the comforting heat of the fire. Again the old vision returned to him. In a subconscious sort of way he found himself fighting against it, as he had struggled a score of times to throw off its presence, since the girl's letter had come to him. And this time, as before, his effort was futile. He saw her again--and always as on that night of the Hawkins' ball, eyes and lips smiling at him, the light shining gloriously in the deep red gold of her hair.

With an effort Steele aroused himself and looked at his watch. It was a quarter of five. He stooped to close the stove door, and stopped suddenly, his hand reaching out, head and shoulders hunched over. Across his knee, shining in the firelight, like a thread of spun gold, lay a single filament of a woman's hair.

He rose slowly, holding the hair between him and the light. His fingers trembled, his breath came quickly. The hair had fallen upon his knee from the letter--or the envelope, and it was wonderfully like HER hair!

From the direction of the factor's quarters came the deep bellowing of Breed's moose-horn, calling him to supper. Before he responded to it, Steele wound the silken thread of gold about his ringer, then placed it carefully among the papers and cards which he carried in his leather wallet. His face was flushed when he joined the factor. Not since the night at the Hawkins' ball, when he had felt the touch of a beautiful woman's hands, the warmth of her breath, the soft sweep of her hair against his lips as he had leaned over her in his half-surrender, had thought of woman stirred him as he felt himself stirred now. He was glad that Breed was too much absorbed in his own troubles to observe any possible change in himself or to ask questions about the letter.

"I tell you, it may mean the short birch for me, Steele," said the factor gloomily. "Lac Bain is just now the emptiest, most fallen-to-pieces, unbusiness-like post between the Athabasca and the Bay. We've had two bad seasons running, and everything has gone wrong. Colonel Becker is a big one with the company. Ain't no doubt about that, and ten to one he'll think it's a new man that's wanted here."

"Nonsense!" exclaimed Steele. A sudden flash shot into his face as he looked hard at Breed. "See here, how would you like to have me go out to meet them?" he asked. "Sort of a welcoming committee of one, you know. Before they got here I could casually give 'em to understand what Lac Bain has been up against during the last two seasons."

Breed's face brightened in an instant.

"That might save us, Steele. Will you do it?"

"With pleasure."

Philip was conscious of an increasing warmth in his face as he bent over his plate. "You're sure--they're elderly people?" he asked.

"That is what MacVeigh wrote me from Churchill; at least he said the colonel was an old man."

"And his wife?"

"Has got her nerve," growled Breed irreverently. "It wouldn't be so bad if it was only the colonel. But an old woman--ugh! What he doesn't think of she'll remind him of, you can depend on that."

Steele thought of his mother, who looked at things through a magnifying lorgnette, and laughed a little cheerlessly.

"I'll go out and meet them, anyway," he comforted. "Have Jack fix me up for the hike in the morning, Breed. I'll start after breakfast."

He was glad when supper was over and he was back in his own cabin smoking his pipe. It was almost with a feeling of shame that he took the golden hair from his wallet and held it once more so that it shone before his eyes in the firelight.

"You're crazy, Phil Steele," he assured himself. "You're an unalloyed idiot. What the deuce has Colonel Becker's wife got to do with you--even if she has golden hair and uses cream-tinted paper soaked in hyacinth? Confound it--there!" and he released the shining hair from his fingers so that the air currents sent it floating back into the deeper gloom of the cabin.

It was midnight before he went to bed. He was up with the first cold gray of dawn. All that day he strode steadily eastward on snowshoes, over the company's trail to the bay. Two hours before dusk he put up his light tent, gathered balsam for a bed, and built a fire of dry spruce against the face of a huge rock in front of his shelter. It was still light when he wrapped himself in his blanket and lay down on the balsam, with his feet stretched out to the reflected heat of the big rock. It seemed to Steele that there was an unnatural stillness in the air, as the night thickened beyond the rim of firelight, and, as the gloom grew still deeper, blotting out his vision in inky blackness, there crept over him slowly a feeling of loneliness. It was a new sensation to Steele, and he shivered as he sat up and faced the fire. It was this same quiet, this same unending mystery of voiceless desolation that had won him to the North. Until to-night he had loved it. But now there was something oppressive about it, something that made him strain his eyes to see beyond the rock and the fire, and set his ears in tense listening for sounds which did not exist. He knew that in this hour he was longing for companionship--not that of Breed, nor of men with whom he hunted men, but of men and women whom he had once known and in whose lives he had played a part--ages ago, it seemed to him. He knew, as he sat with clenched hands and staring eyes, that chiefly he was longing for a woman--a woman whose eyes and lips and sunny hair haunted him after months of forgetfulness, and whose face smiled at him luringly, now, from out the leaping flashes of fire--tempting him, calling him over a thousand miles of space. And if he yielded--

The thought sent his nails biting into the flesh of his palms and he sank back with a curse that held more of misery than blasphemy. Physical exhaustion rather than desire for sleep closed his eyes, at last, in half-slumber, and after that the face seemed nearer and more real to him, until it was close at his side, and was speaking to him. He heard again the soft, rippling laugh, girlishly sweet, that had fascinated him at Hawkins' ball; he heard the distant hum and chatter of other voices, and then one loud and close--that of Chesbro, who had unwittingly interrupted them, and saved him, just in the nick of time.

Steele moved restlessly; after a moment wriggled to his elbow and looked toward the fire. He seemed to hear Chesbro's voice again as he awoke, and a thrill as keen as an electric shock set his nerves tingling when he heard once more the laughing voice of his dream, hushed and low. In amazement he sat bolt upright and stared. Was he still dreaming? The fire was burning brightly and he was aware that he had scarce fallen into sleep.

A movement--a sound of feet crunching softly in the snow, and a figure came between him and the fire.

It was a woman.

He choked back the cry that rose to his lips and sat motionless and without sound. The figure approached a step nearer, peering into the deep gloom of the tent. He caught the silver glint in the firelight on heavy fur, the whiteness of a hand touching lightly the flap of his tent, and then for an instant he saw a face. In that instant he sat as rigid as if he had stopped the beat of his own life. A pair of dark eyes laughing in at him, a flash of laughing teeth, a low titter that was scarce more than a rippling throat-note, and the face was gone, leaving him still staring into the blank space where it had been.

With a cough to give warning of his wakefulness, Steele flung off his blanket and drew himself through the low opening of the tent. On the extreme right of the fire stood a man and woman, warming themselves over the coals. They straightened from their leaning posture as he appeared.

"This is too bad, too bad, Mr. Steele," exclaimed the man, advancing quickly. "I was afraid we'd make a blunder and awaken you. We were about to camp on a mountain back there when we saw your fire and drove on to it. I'm sorry--"

"Wouldn't have had you miss me for anything," interrupted Steele, gripping the other's proffered hand. "You see, I'm out from Lac Bain to meet Colonel and Mrs. Becker, and--" He hesitated purposely, his white teeth gleaming in the frank smile which made people like him immensely, from the first.

"You've met them," completed the laughing voice from across the fire. "Please, Mr. Steele, will you forgive me for looking in at you and waking you up? But your feet looked so terribly funny, and I assure you that was all I could see, though I tried awfully hard. Anyway, I saw your name printed on the flap of your tent."

Steele felt a slow fire burning in his cheeks as he encountered the beautiful eyes glowing at him from behind the colonel. The woman was smiling at him. In the heat of the fire she had pushed back her fur turban, and he saw that her hair was the same shining red gold that had come to him in the letter, and that her lips and eyes and the glorious color in her face were remarkably like those of which he had dreamed, and of which waking visions had come with the hyacinth letter to fill him with unrest and homesickness. In spite of himself he had reasoned that she would be young and that she would have golden hair, but these other things, the laughing beauty of her face, the luring depth of her eyes.

He caught himself staring.

"I--I was dreaming," he almost stammered. He pulled himself together quickly. "I was dreaming of a face, Mrs. Becker, It seems strange that this should happen--away up here, in this way. The face that I dreamed of is a thousand miles from here, and it is wonderfully like yours."

The colonel was laughing at him when he turned. He was a little man, as straight as a gun rod, pale of face except for his nose, which was nipped red by the cold, and with a pointed beard as white as the snow under his feet. That part of his countenance which exposed itself above the top of his great fur coat and below his thick beaver cap was alive with good cheer, notwithstanding its pallor.

"Glad you're good humored about it, Steele," he cried with an immediate tone of comradeship. "We wouldn't have ventured into your camp if it hadn't been for Isobel. She was positively insistent, sir. Wanted to see who was here and what it looked like. Eh, Isobel, my dear, are you satisfied?"

"I surely didn't expect to find 'It' asleep at this time of the day," said Mrs. Becker. She laughed straight into Philip's face, and so roguishly sweet was the curve of her red lips and the light in her eyes that his heart quickened its beating, and the flush deepened in his cheeks.

"It's only six," he said, looking at his watch. "I don't usually turn in this early. I was tired to-night--though I am not, now," he added quickly. "I could sit up until morning--and talk. We don't often meet people from outside, you know. Where are the others?"

"Back there," said the colonel, waving an arm into the gloom. "Isobel made 'em sit down and be quiet, dogs and all, sir, while we came on alone. There are Indians, two sledges, and a ton of duff."

"Call them," said Steele. "There's room for your tent beside mine, Colonel, close against the face of this rock. It's as good as a furnace."

The colonel moved a little out into the gloom and shouted to those behind. Philip turned to find Mrs. Becker looking at him in a timid, questioning sort of way, the laughter gone from her eyes. For a moment she seemed to be on the point of speaking to him, then picked up a short stick and began toying with the coals.

"You must be tired, Mrs. Becker," he said. "Now that you are near a fire, I would suggest that you throw off your heavy coat. You will be more comfortable, and I will bring you a blanket to sit on."

He dived into his tent and a moment later reappeared with a blanket, which he spread close against the butt of a big spruce within half a dozen feet of the fire. When he turned toward her, the colonel's wife had thrown off her coat and turban and stood before him, a slim and girlish figure, bewitchingly pretty as she smiled her gratitude and nestled down into the place he had prepared for her. For a moment he bent over her, tucking the thick fur about her feet and knees, and in that moment he breathed from the heavy coils of her shining hair the flower-like sweetness which had already stirred him to the depths of his soul.

Colonel Becker was smiling down upon them when he straightened up, and at the humorous twinkle in his eyes, as he gazed from one to the other, Steele felt that the guilt of his own thoughts was blazing in his face. He was glad that the Indians came up with the sledges just at this moment, and as he went back to help them with the dogs and packs he swore softly at himself for the heat that was in his blood and the strange madness that was firing his brain. And inwardly he cursed himself still more when he returned to the fire. From out the deep gloom he saw the colonel sitting with his back against the spruce and Mrs. Becker nestling against him, her head resting upon his shoulder, talking and laughing up into his face. Even as he hesitated for an instant, scarce daring to break upon the scene, he saw her pull the gray-bearded face down to hers and kiss it, and in the ineffable contentment and happiness shining in the two faces in the firelight Philip Steele knew that he was looking upon that which had broken for ever the haunting image of another woman in his heart. In its place would remain this picture of love--love as he had dreamed of it, as he had hoped for it, and which he had found at last--but not for himself--in the heart of a wilderness.

He saw now something childishly sweet and pure in the face that smiled welcome to him as he came noisily through the snow-crust; and something, too, in the colonel's face, which reached out and gripped at his very heartstrings, and filled him with a warm glow that was new and strange to him, and which was almost the happiness of these two. It swept from him the sense of loneliness which had oppressed him a short time before, and when at last, after they had talked for a long time beside the fire, the colonel's wife lifted her pretty head drowsily and asked if she might go to bed, he laughed in sheer joy at the pouting tenderness with which she rubbed her pink cheek against the grizzled face above her, and at the gentle light in the colonel's eyes as he half carried her into the tent.

For a long time after he had rolled himself in his own blanket Philip lay awake, wondering at the strangeness of this thing that had happened to him. It was Her hair that he had seen shining this night under the old spruce, lustrous and soft, and coiled in its simple glory, as he had seen it last on the night when Chesbro had broken in on them at the ball. It was very easy for him to imagine that it had been Her face, with soul and heart and love added to its beauty. More than ever he knew what had been missing for him now, and blessed Chesbro for his blundering, and fell asleep to dream of the new face, and to awaken hours later to the unpleasant realization that his visions were but dream-fabric after all, and that the woman was the wife of Colonel Becker.

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