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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe River's End - Chapter 11
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The River's End - Chapter 11 Post by :cclittle Category :Long Stories Author :James Oliver Curwood Date :May 2012 Read :1385

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The River's End - Chapter 11

CHAPTER XI

Stunned by a shock that for a few moments paralyzed every nerve center in his body, John Keith stood with the slip of white paper in his hands. He was discovered! That was the one thought that pounded like a hammer in his brain. He was discovered in the very hour of his triumph and exaltation, in that hour when the world had opened its portals of joy and hope for him again and when life itself, after four years of hell, was once more worth the living. Had the shock come a few hours before, he would have taken it differently. He was expecting it then. He had expected it when he entered McDowell's office the first time. He was prepared for it afterward. Discovery, failure, and death were possibilities of the hazardous game he was playing, and he was unafraid, because he had only his life to lose, a life that was not much more than a hopeless derelict at most. Now it was different. Mary Josephine had come like some rare and wonderful alchemy to transmute for him all leaden things into gold. In a few minutes she had upset the world. She had literally torn aside for him the hopeless chaos in which he saw himself struggling, flooding him with the warm radiance of a great love and a still greater desire. On his lips he could feel the soft thrill of her good-night kiss and about his neck the embrace of her soft arms. She had not gone to sleep yet. Across in the other room she was thinking of him, loving him; perhaps she was on her knees praying for him, even as he held in his fingers Shan Tung's mysterious forewarning of his doom.

The first impulse that crowded in upon him was that of flight, the selfish impulse of personal salvation. He could get away. The night would swallow him up. A moment later he was mentally castigating himself for the treachery of that impulse to Mary Josephine. His floundering senses began to readjust themselves.

Why had Shan Tung given him this warning? Why had he not gone straight to Inspector McDowell with the astounding disclosure of the fact that the man supposed to be Derwent Conniston was not Derwent Conniston, but John Keith, the murderer of Miriam Kirkstone's father?

The questions brought to Keith a new thrill. He read the note again. It was a definite thing stating a certainty and not a guess. Shan Tung had not shot at random. He knew. He knew that he was not Derwent Conniston but John Keith. And he believed that he had killed the Englishman to steal his identity. In the face of these things he had not gone to McDowell! Keith's eyes fell upon the card again. "With the compliments of Shan Tung." What did the words mean? Why had Shan Tung written them unless--with his compliments--he was giving him a warning and the chance to save himself?

His immediate alarm grew less. The longer he contemplated the slip of paper in his hand, the more he became convinced that the inscrutable Shan Tung was the last individual in the world to stage a bit of melodrama without some good reason for it. There was but one conclusion he could arrive at. The Chinaman was playing a game of his own, and he had taken this unusual way of advising Keith to make a getaway while the going was good. It was evident that his intention had been to avoid the possibility of a personal discussion of the situation. That, at least, was Keith's first impression.

He turned to examine the window. There was no doubt that Shan Tung had come in that way. Both the sill and curtain bore stains of water and mud, and there was wet dirt on the floor. For once the immaculate oriental had paid no attention to his feet. At the door leading into the big room Keith saw where he had stood for some time, listening, probably when McDowell and Mary Josephine were in the outer room waiting for him. Suddenly his eyes riveted themselves on the middle panel of the door. Brady had intended his color scheme to be old ivory--the panel itself was nearly white--and on it Shan Tung had written heavily with a lead pencil the hour of his presence, "10.45 P.M." Keith's amazement found voice in a low exclamation. He looked at his watch. It was a quarter-hour after twelve. He had returned to the Shack before ten, and the clever Shan Tung was letting him know in this cryptic fashion that for more than three-quarters of an hour he had listened at the door and spied upon him and Mary Josephine through the keyhole.

Had even such an insignificant person as Wallie been guilty of that act, Keith would have felt like thrashing him. It surprised himself that he experienced no personal feeling of outrage at Shan Tung's frank confession of eavesdropping. A subtle significance began to attach itself more and more to the story his room was telling him. He knew that Shan Tung had left none of the marks of his presence out of bravado, but with a definite purpose. Keith's psychological mind was at all times acutely ready to seize upon possibilities, and just as his positiveness of Conniston's spiritual presence had inspired him to act his lie with Mary Josephine, so did the conviction possess him now that his room held for him a message of the most vital importance.

In such an emergency Keith employed his own method. He sat down, lighted his pipe again, and centered the full resource of his mind on Shan Tung, dissociating himself from the room and the adventure of the night as much as possible in his objective analysis of the man. Four distinct emotional factors entered into that analysis--fear, distrust, hatred, personal enmity. To his surprise he found himself drifting steadily into an unusual and unexpected mental attitude. From the time he had faced Shan Tung in the inspector's office, he had regarded him as the chief enemy of his freedom, his one great menace. Now he felt neither personal enmity nor hatred for him. Fear and distrust remained, but the fear was impersonal and the distrust that of one who watches a clever opponent in a game or a fight. His conception of Shan Tung changed. He found his occidental mind running parallel with the oriental, bridging the spaces which otherwise it never would have crossed, and at the end it seized upon the key. It proved to him that his first impulse had been wrong. Shan Tung had not expected him to seek safety in flight. He had given the white man credit for a larger understanding than that. His desire, first of all, had been to let Keith know that he was not the only one who was playing for big stakes, and that another, Shan Tung himself, was gambling a hazard of his own, and that the fraudulent Derwent Conniston was a trump card in that game.

To impress this upon Keith he had, first of all, acquainted him with the fact that he had seen through his deception and that he knew he was John Keith and not Derwent Conniston. He had also let him know that he believed he had killed the Englishman, a logical supposition under the circumstances. This information he had left for Keith was not in the form of an intimidation. There was, indeed, something very near apologetic courtesy in the presence of the card bearing Shan Tung's compliments. The penciling of the hour on the panel of the door, without other notation, was a polite and suggestive hint. He wanted Keith to know that he understood his peculiar situation up until that particular time, that he had heard and possibly seen much that had passed between him and Mary Josephine. The partly opened window, the mud and wet on curtains and floor, and the cigarette stubs were all to call Keith's attention to the box on the table.

Keith could not but feel a certain sort of admiration for the Chinaman. The two questions he must answer now were, What was Shan Tung's game? and What did Shan Tung expect him to do?

Instantly Miriam Kirkstone flashed upon him as the possible motive for Shan Tung's visit. He recalled her unexpected and embarrassing question of that evening, in which she had expressed a suspicion and a doubt as to John Keith's death. He had gone to Miriam's at eight. It must have been very soon after that, and after she had caught a glimpse of the face at the window, that Shan Tung had hurried to the Shack.

Slowly but surely the tangled threads of the night's adventure were unraveling themselves for Keith. The main facts pressed upon him, no longer smothered in a chaos of theory and supposition. If there had been no Miriam Kirkstone in the big house on the hill, Shan Tung would have gone to McDowell, and he would have been in irons at the present moment. McDowell had been right after all. Miriam Kirkstone was fighting for something that was more than her existence. The thought of that "something" made Keith writhe and his hands clench. Shan Tung had triumphed but not utterly. A part of the fruit of his triumph was still just out of his reach, and the two--beautiful Miss Kirkstone and the deadly Shan Tung--were locked in a final struggle for its possession. In some mysterious way he, John Keith, was to play the winning hand. How or when he could not understand. But of one thing he was convinced; in exchange for whatever winning card he held Shan Tung had offered him his life. Tomorrow he would expect an answer.

That tomorrow had already dawned. It was one o'clock when Keith again looked at his watch. Twenty hours ago he had cooked his last camp-fire breakfast. It was only eighteen hours ago that he had filled himself with the smell of Andy Duggan's bacon, and still more recently that he had sat in the little barber shop on the corner wondering what his fate would be when he faced McDowell. It struck him as incongruous and impossible that only fifteen hours had passed since then. If he possessed a doubt of the reality of it all, the bed was there to help convince him. It was a real bed, and he had not slept in a real bed for a number of years. Wallie had made it ready for him. Its sheets were snow-white. There was a counterpane with a fringe on it and pillows puffed up with billowy invitation, as if they were on the point of floating away. Had they risen before his eyes, Keith would have regarded the phenomenon rather casually. After the swift piling up of the amazing events of those fifteen hours, a floating pillow would have seemed quite in the natural orbit of things. But they did not float. They remained where they were, their white breasts bared to him, urging upon him a common-sense perspective of the situation. He wasn't going to run away. He couldn't sit up all night. Therefore why not come to them and sleep?

There was something directly personal in the appeal of the pillows and the bed. It was not general; it was for him. And Keith responded.

He made another note of the time, a half-hour after one, when he turned in. He allotted himself four hours of sleep, for it was his intention to be up with the sun.

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