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Title: A Girl of the Klondike
Author: Cross, Victoria, 1868-1952
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "A Girl of the Klondike" ***

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A GIRL OF THE KLONDIKE

By

VICTORIA CROSS

"_Quid non mortalia pectora cogis
Auri sacra fames?_"

NEW YORK
THE MACAULAY COMPANY

_A Girl of the Klondike is now issued
in America for the first time
by arrangement with the author._



CONTENTS


                                        PAGE

  CHAPTER I     A NIGHT IN TOWN            9

  CHAPTER II    AT THE WEST GULCH         49

  CHAPTER III   KATRINE'S NEIGHBOURS      99

  CHAPTER IV    GOD'S GIFT               167

  CHAPTER V     GOLD-PLATED              211

  CHAPTER VI    MAMMON'S PAY             265

                L'ENVOI                  314



CHAPTER I

A NIGHT IN TOWN


Night had fallen over Alaska--black, uncompromising night; a veil of
impenetrable darkness had dropped upon the snow wastes and the
ice-fields and the fettered Yukon, sleeping under its ice-chains, and
upon the cruel passes where the trails had been made by tracks of blood.
Day by day, as long as the light of day--God's glorious gift to man--had
lasted, these trails across the passes, between the snowy peaks, the
peaks themselves, had been the theatre of hideous scenes of human
cruelty, of human lust and greed, of human egoism. Day by day a slow
terrible stream of humanity had wound like a dark and sluggish river
through these passes, bringing with it sweat and toil and agony, torture
and suffering and death. As long as the brilliant sun in the placid
azure of the summer heavens above had guided them, bands of men had
laboured and fought and struggled over these passes, deaf to all pity or
mercy or justice, deaf to all but the clamour of greed within them that
was driving them on, trampling down the weak and the old, crushing the
fallen, each man clutching and grasping his own, hoarding his strength
and even refusing a hand to his neighbour, starving the patient beasts
of burden they had brought with them, friends who were willing to share
their toil without sharing their reward, driving on the poor staggering
strengthless brutes with open knives, and clubbing them to death when
they fell beneath their loads with piteous eyes, or leaving them to
freeze slowly where they lay, pressing forward, hurrying, fighting,
slaughtering, so the men went into the gold camps all the summer, and
the passes were the silent witnesses of the horror of it all and of the
innocent blood shed. Then Nature herself intervened, and winter came
down like a black curtain on the world, and the passes closed up behind
the men and were filled with drifts of snow that covered the bones and
the blood and the deep miry slides, marked with slipping tracks where
struggling, gasping lives had gone out, and the river closed up behind
the men and the ice thickened there daily, and the men were in the camps
and there was no way out.

And now, in the darkness of the winter night, in the coldness in which
no man could live, there was peace. There was no sound, for the snow on
the tall pines never melted and never fell, the water in the creeks was
solid as the rocks and made no murmur, there was no footfall of bird nor
beast, no leaf to rustle, no twig to fall.

But beyond the silent peaks and the desolate passes, beyond the rigid
pines, low down in the darkness, there was a reddish glow in the air, a
strange, yellowish, quivering mist of light that hovered and moved
restlessly, and yet kept its place where it hung suspended between white
earth and black sky. All around was majestic peace and calm and
stillness, nature wrapped in silence, but the flickering, wavering mist
of light jumped feverishly in the darkness and spoke of man. It was the
cloud of restless light that hung over the city of Dawson.

Within the front parlour of the "Pistol Shot," the favourite and most
successful, besides being the most appropriately named saloon in Dawson,
the cold had been pretty well fought down; a huge stove stood at each
end of the room, crammed as full as it would hold with fuel, all windows
were tightly closed, and lamps flared merrily against the white-washed
walls.

At this hour the room was full, and the single door, facing the bar,
was pushed open every half minute to admit one or two or more figures to
join the steaming, drinking, noisy crowd within. It was snowing outside.
As the door swung open one could see the white sheet of falling flakes
in the darkness; the air was full of snow--that cruel, light, dry snow,
fine and sharp like powdered ice, borne down on a North wind. The
figures that entered brought it in with them, the light frosty powder
resting on their furs and lying deep in the upturned rims of their seal
caps.

There had been a successful strike made that afternoon, and the men were
all excited and eager about it. Every one pressed to the "Pistol Shot"
to hear the latest details, to discuss and gossip over it. There was as
much talk as digging done in Dawson. Men who had no chance and no means
to win success, who owned no claims and never saw gold except in another
man's hands, loved to talk work and talk claims and talk gold with the
rest. It was exhilarating and exciting, and there was only that one
topic in the world for them. They were like invalids in a small
community afflicted by a common disease who never meet without
discussing their symptoms. They were all invalids in reality, all
suffering from the same horrible plague and fever, the gold fever that
was eating into their brains.

At one end of the bar counter, between it and the back wall, a girl was
standing idly surveying with indifferent eyes the animated crowd that
moved and swayed round her, the men jostling each other in their efforts
to push up to the thickly surrounded counter. She was tall rather than
short, and her figure well made, showing good lines even in the rough
dress she was wearing; long rubber boots came to her knees, where they
met her short buckskin skirt, and above this, in place of bodice, she
wore merely a rough straight jacket drawn into the waist by a broad
leather belt, in which was stuck, not ostentatiously but still
sufficiently conspicuously a brace of revolvers. Her hair was cut short,
and only a few dark silky rings showed themselves beneath the edge of
her sealskin cap, pushed down close to her dark eyebrows. The dark eyes
beneath looked out upon the scene before her with a half-disdainful,
half-wearied expression which deepened into scorn now and then as she
watched the bar-tender rake over the counter double and three times the
price of a drink in the generous pinch of gold dust laid there by some
miner almost too drunk to stagger to the bar. She had a very attractive
face, to which one's eyes would wander again and again trying to
reconcile the peculiar resolution, even hardness of the expression with
the soft, well-moulded features and the sweet youthful lips full of
freshness and colour. The miners took very little notice of her, and she
certainly made no effort to attract it, leaning listlessly against the
bar with one elbow on the counter, a silent and motionless spectator of
all this excited eager humanity. There was no thought in their mind, no
word on their lips just then but gold. Gold! gold! The thought possessed
them with a grip on their brains like the grip of fever on the body, and
the word sounded pleasant as the sweetest music to their ears. Gold! The
syllable went round and passed from mouth to mouth, till the very air
seemed to be getting a yellow tint above the grey fumes of tobacco.

Amongst the last batch of incomers was a slim young fellow of twenty odd
years, and when he had worked his way with difficulty up to the crowded
counter, he found himself near the girl's corner. She looked at him,
letting her dark eyes wander critically over his face. He formed a
strong contrast to the figures around him, being slight and delicate in
build, with a pale good-looking face that had a tender sympathetic
expression like a woman's. Feeling the girl's gaze upon him, he glanced
her way, and then having looked once, looked again. After a series of
glances between drinks from his glass, the furtive looks began to amuse
the girl, and the next time their eyes met she laughed openly, and they
both spoke simultaneously.

"You're a new comer, aren't you?" she said.

"I haven't seen you here before," was his remark.

"You might have done, I should think," answered the girl carelessly;
"but I don't come here very often, although my father is running this
place."

"Are you Poniatovsky's daughter?" he asked in surprise, unable to
connect this splendid young creature with the ugly little Pole he knew
as the proprietor of the saloon.

The girl nodded. "Yes, Katrine Poniatovsky is my name--what's yours?"

"Stephen Wood," he answered meekly.

"What have you come here for--mining?" she asked next. Although her
queries were direct there was nothing rude in the fresh young voice
making them.

The young fellow coloured deeply, the rush of blood passed over his face
up to his light smooth hair and deep down into his neck till it was lost
beneath his coat collar.

"No--yes--that is--well, I mean--I do mine now," he stammered after a
minute.

The girl said nothing, and when Stephen glanced around at her he saw she
was regarding him with astonished eyes under elevated eyebrows. This
expression made the pretty oval face fairly beautiful, and the young
man's heart opened to her.

"I came with the intention of doing some good here amongst the
people--in a missionary, religious way I mean, but"--and he stopped
again in painful embarrassment.

Katrine laughed.

"For the present you've laid religion aside and you're going to do a
little mining and make a fortune, and then the religion can be taken up
again," she said.

The young fellow only flushed deeper and turned his glass around
nervously on the counter.

"That's all right," the girl said soothingly, after a second. "This
place is a corner of the world where we all are different from what we
are anywhere else. As soon as men come here they get changed. They
forget everything else and just go in for gold. It's a sort of madness
that's in the air. You'd be able to missionise somewhere else all right,
but here you are obliged just to dig like the rest, you can't help it.
Got a claim?"

The young man's face paled again.

"Yes," he answered in a low tone. "It was the claim that tempted me.
It's one of the best, I believe, over in the west gulch, only about ten
miles from here."

There was a pressing movement round them as some fresh miners came
pushing their way through to the bar, and Stephen and Katrine moved
away, to make room for them, towards the wall of the room; they put
their backs against it and looked over the mass of moving heads towards
the door.

"Look at this fellow coming in now," Stephen said to his companion
suddenly, as the door swung open, to a mist of whirling whiteness, and
two or three men entered: "Henry Talbot. He has the claim next mine in
the gulch. He has just struck a fresh lot of gold, and he'll soon be one
of the richest men here."

The girl craned her neck to get a good view between the intervening
heads, and though she had not been told which of the incoming figures
to look at, she fixed her eyes as if by instinct on the right one. A man
of rather tall, slight figure, pale face, and marked features. He made
his way towards the bar, and then catching Stephen's signals to him, he
smiled and came their way.

"What are you doing down here?" he said, speaking to Stephen but looking
at Katrine, who in her turn was scanning his face closely.

"Why, enjoying Miss Poniatovsky's society," answered Stephen, with a
bow. His friend bowed too, and then they all three laughed and felt
instinctively they were friends. There is nothing truer than the saying,
"Good looks are perpetual letters of introduction." These three carried
their letters of introduction on their faces, and they were all mutually
satisfied.

"I know your father quite well," remarked Talbot to her. "This 'Pistol
Shot' has been an institution longer than I have been here, but I never
knew he had a daughter."

"No," said Katrine, tranquilly, "I daresay not. Father and I quarrelled
a little while ago, and since then I have been living by myself in one
of those little cabins in Good Luck Row. Do you know it?"

"No," answered Talbot. "I come into town very seldom, only when I want
fresh supplies. I stay up at the claim nearly all the time. Do you live
all by yourself then?" he added, wondering to himself as he looked at
her, for her beauty was quite striking, and she was certainly not over
twenty, yet there was something in the strong, noble outlines of her
figure, in the tranquil calm of her manner, the self-reliance of her
whole bearing, and the business-like way those pistols were thrust in
her belt, that modified the wonder a little.

"Quite," she said, with a laugh. "Oh, I've always been accustomed to
take care of myself."

"But don't you feel very dull and lonely?"

"Sometimes," answered the girl; "but then I would much rather live alone
than with some one I can't agree with."

Both the men knew the drunken habits of old Poniatovsky, so that they
silently sympathised with her, and there was a pause as they watched
other miners coming in.

"Well," said Katrine after a few seconds, straightening herself from her
leaning attitude, "I think I will go home now; this place is getting so
full, we shan't be able to breathe soon."

The men looked at each other, and then spoke simultaneously: "May we see
you as far as your cabin?"

Katrine smiled, such a pretty arch smile, that dimpled the velvet cheeks
and illumined the whole face.

"Why yes, do, I shall be delighted."

They all three went out together: the cold outside seemed so deadly that
Talbot drew his collar up over his mouth and nose, unable to face it;
the girl, however, did not seem to notice it, but laughed and chatted
gaily in the teeth of the wind, as they made their way down the street.
It was still snowing--a peculiar fine powdery snow, light and almost
imperceptible, filled the whole air. Katrine walked fast with springing
steps down the side-walk, and the two men plunged along beside her. Such
a side-walk it was: in the summer a mere mass of mud and melted snow and
accumulated rubbish--for in Dawson the inhabitants will not take the
trouble to convey their refuse to any definite spot, but simply throw it
out from their cabins a few yards from their own door, with a vague
notion that they may have moved elsewhere before it rots badly,--now
frozen solid but horribly uneven, and worn into deep holes. On the top
of this had been laid some narrow planks, covered now by a thick glaze
of ice, which rendered them things to be avoided and a line of danger
down the middle of the path. Katrine made nothing of these slight
inconveniences of the ground, but went swinging on in her large rubber
boots, and talking and jesting all the way. At the bottom of the street,
at the corner, there was a large wooden building, a double log-cabin
turned into a saloon. Lights were fixed outside in tin shades, and the
word "Dancing" was painted in white letters on the lintel. Katrine
stopped suddenly.

"Let's go in and have a dance," she said, and turned towards Talbot, as
if she felt instinctively he was the more likely to assent.

"If you like," he answered from behind his collar. "But can you dance in
those boots?"

"Oh, I can dance in anything," said Katrine, laughing.

"Oh, don't go in, come on," remonstrated Stephen, trying to push on past
the saloon.

"Why not?" said Katrine; "it's too early to go to bed. Come in, I'll
pay," and before either of them could answer she had pushed open the
door, and was holding it for them with one hand, while with the other
she laid down three quarters on a small trestle inside, where an old man
was sitting as doorkeeper.

It was a large oblong room, with a partition running half-way down the
middle, dividing it into the front part, where they were standing and
where the bar was, and the back part, which was strictly the dancing
portion. Stephen sat down on a bench that faced the inner portion, with
the determination of a man who was not to be moved from his seat. At the
other side of the room was a low raised platform, where some very
seedy-looking musicians were sawing out a jerky tune from their feeble
violins. The room was fairly full, and a more heterogeneous collection
of human beings Stephen thought he had never seen. There were miners in
the roughest and thickest clothing, labourers, packers, a few Indians,
some youths in extraordinary attempts at evening dress, some negro
minstrels with real dress shirts on and diamond studs, girls with old
velvet skirts and odd bodices that didn't match; and here and there,
idling against the wall, looking on with absent eyes, one could find a
different figure--that of student, or artist, or newspaper
correspondent, or gentleman miner; one need not despair of finding
almost any type of humanity in that room.

Talbot looked at the girl's bright sparkling face as they entered, and
then without a word slipped his arm round her waist and they started
over the rough wooden floor.

"You dance fine," observed Katrine, after a long silence, in which they
had both given themselves up to the pleasure of mere motion. "I guess
you have had lots of practice before you came out here."

Talbot smiled down into her admiring eyes.

"Yes," he said, thinking of the foreign embassies, the English
ball-rooms, the many polished floors his feet had known, "in England."

"My! I expect you're a great swell!" remarked the saloon-keeper's
daughter.

"All the same," he answered, laughing, "I have never had a partner that
danced so perfectly as you do."

"Now that's real kind of you," answered Katrine, with a flush of
pleasure, and then they gave themselves up to silent enjoyment again.

At the end of the dance they came back to Stephen, and found him in the
same corner, watching the room with a doleful sadness on his face.
Katrine, flushed and with sparkling eyes, sat down on the corner of the
step beside him.

"You look so miserable," she said. "Come and have a dance with me to
cheer you up."

"I can't dance," said Stephen, shortly.

"I'll teach you," volunteered Katrine, leaning her chin on her hands and
looking up at him.

Stephen flushed angrily.

"It's not that--my conscience won't allow me to."

"I'll make you forget your conscience," with a very winning smile on her
sweet scarlet lips.

Stephen turned towards her and looked at her with a sudden horror in his
eyes. The girl looked back at him quite undisconcerted and unmoved. She
saw nothing in what she had said. To her, conscience was a tiresome
possession, that might, she knew, trouble you suddenly at any time, and
if any one could succeed in making you forget you had one, he was surely
entitled to your gratitude. Words failed Stephen, he only looked at her
with that silent horror and fear growing in his eyes. Katrine waited
what she considered a reasonable time for him to reply or to accept her
offer, and then she rose and turned to Talbot, who had been standing
looking down upon them both with amusement.

"I'm very thirsty, let's go and have a drink," she said, and they both
strolled across the room, and then down into the farther end where the
bar was. They elbowed their way to the counter and stood there waiting
to be served. Most of the men seemed to know Katrine and made way for
her, and she had a word of chaff, or a nod, or a smile or laugh or
friendly greeting, for nearly all of them. Talbot noted this, and noted
also that though the men seemed familiar, none of them were rude, and
though rough enough, there was apparently no disrespect for her. Talbot
wondered whether this was due to her morals or her pistols.

"Who's your friend?" asked two or three voices at her side while they
stood waiting.

"Mr. Talbot--one of the lucky ones!" replied Katrine promptly. "He has a
claim up the gulch that's bringing him in millions--or going to," she
added mischievously. The men looked Talbot up and down curiously. Even
in his rough miner's clothes, he looked a totally different figure from
themselves. Slim and tall and trim, with his well-cut head and figure,
with his long neck and refined quiet face, he was a type common enough
in Bond Street, London, or on Broadway, New York, but not so common in
the Klondike.

"Well, if that's so, pardner," slowly observed a thick-set, crop-haired
man, edging close up to him, "you won't mind standing a drink for us?"

"Delighted," returned Talbot, with a pleasant smile. "Give it a name."

The result of taking votes on this motion was the ordering of ten hot
whiskies and two hot rums, the latter for himself and Katrine. Talbot
never drank spirits at all, and the terrible concoctions of the cheap
saloons were an abomination to him. He took his glass, however, to show
his friendliness, had it filled nearly to the brim with water, and then
could hardly drink it. The fluid seared his throat like red-hot
knife-blades. Katrine took hers straight as it was handed across the
counter and tossed it down her throat at one gulp, seeming to enjoy it.

"Well, Jim," she said to the young miner next her, "what luck have you
had lately?"

"None," he replied gloomily. "Since I left the old place, I've lost all
along in the 'Sally White.'"

Talbot thought they were speaking of claims and that the man was
referring to his work, and the next minute when Katrine turned her head
to him and said rapidly, "The 'Sally White' is the third in the next
street," he was rather mystified. He came so little into town, and
mixed so little with the uncongenial life and company it offered, that
he was ignorant of its prevailing fashion, pastime, and vice--gambling.
Fortunes were made and lost across the trestle tables of the saloons
quicker and easier than up on the claims. He did not now take much
notice of what she had said, nor ask her for an explanation. The girl
was handsome and a beautiful dancer, but the company at the bar he did
not appreciate at all, and his only idea was to withdraw her from it.

"Are you not ready for another dance?" he said, as the violin began to
squeak out another tune.

Katrine nodded, and they had already turned away, when a voice said over
her shoulder, "You won't quite forget me this evening, will you?"

Katrine, without turning her head, answered, "You shall have the next,
if you come for it."

Then they started, and for the next ten minutes Talbot tried to forget,
to be oblivious of the sordid common scene around him, to get a glimpse
back into his old life, which seemed so far away now, as one tries to
re-dream a last night's dream.

Stephen, sitting in his corner, whence he had never stirred, watched her
sullenly. She was not dancing with Talbot now. Stephen could see that
he, too, was watching her from the other side of the room, standing with
his back to the wall. She was waltzing with a man Stephen had not seen
before, evidently a stranger in every way to the place and the
surroundings. He was a young fellow, sufficiently good-looking, and
danced with as much ease as if he were in a New York ball-room. His left
hand clasped Katrine's and drew it high up close to his neck and
shoulder, his right arm enclosed her waist and drew her to him so firmly
that the two figures seemed fused into one as they glided together over
the imperfect floor. Katrine was giving herself up wholly to the
pleasure of the dance. Stephen saw, as her face turned towards him, that
her eyes were half closed, and a little smile of deep satisfaction
rested on her lips. The young fellow's face showed he was equally
absorbed and lost to his surroundings, and there was something in its
expression, coupled with the peculiar ease and sway of the two blent
forms, which raised a savage and jealous anger in Stephen's breast. To
an absolutely unprejudiced eye, and one that saw only the extreme grace
of the movement, which neither their rough clothes, the uneven floor,
nor the wretched music could spoil, those two figures made a harmonious
and fascinating picture; to Stephen's view, naturally narrow and now
darkened by the approaching blindness of a nascent passion, it was a
sinful and abhorrent sight. When they floated silently close by him the
second time, still lost in their dream of pleasure, and the girl's eyes
fell upon him beneath their drooping lids, obviously without seeing him,
he started up as if to plant himself in their way, then checked himself,
and when they had passed went across the room to where Talbot was
standing.

"You see her dancing?" he said excitedly, without any preface.

Talbot nodded.

"Did you notice how they are dancing? that's what I mean."

Talbot laughed slightly. "That's not dancing, that's--"

Stephen flushed a dull red. "It's disgraceful; I'm going to stop her,"
he muttered.

"My dear fellow, remember you only met her this evening."

"I don't care; she ought not to dance like that."

"I don't like it myself," answered Talbot, "but _you_ can't interfere."

"I'm going to."

"You'd much better not make an ass of yourself," returned Talbot,
putting his hand on the other's arm.

"Leave me alone," said Stephen, roughly shaking it off, as the two
delinquents, still in the same manner, came moving up towards them.

Stephen waited till they were just opposite him, then he stepped forward
and seized the girl's arm and dragged it down from the level of the
young fellow's neck where he had drawn it. Both the dancers stopped
abruptly, and the man faced Stephen with an angry flush and kindling
eyes.

"What the devil do you mean, sir?" he said angrily, advancing close to
Stephen, who had his eyes fixed on Katrine's face, all warm tints and
smiling, as a child's roused from a happy dream.

He ignored the man and addressed her.

"You are not going to dance any more to-night," he said with sombre
emphasis.

The young man's face went from red to purple. He put his hand to his hip
with an oath, and had half drawn his pistol, when Katrine sprang forward
and seized his wrist.

"Now don't be silly; I'm tired anyway, Dick. I'll dance with you
to-morrow night. This is Mr. Stephen Wood. Mr. Wood--Mr. Peters. Now
let's go and have some drinks. I'm not going to have any fighting over
me."

She put herself, smiling, between the two men, who stood glaring at each
other in silence. She was annoyed at the dance being broken off, but she
saw in Stephen's interference the great tribute paid to her own
attraction, and therefore forgave him. At the same time she had no wish
to have her vanity further gratified by bloodshed. There was a certain
hardness but no cruelty in her nature. She turned from the men and
strolled very slowly in the direction of the bar, and they followed her
as if her moving feet were shod with magnets and theirs with steel.
Talbot went too, and in a few minutes the four were standing at the
counter with glasses in their hands.

Peters kept close beside Katrine, and he and Stephen did not exchange a
word. Katrine kept up the chatter between herself and the two other men.

"May I see you home?" Peters said abruptly to her, interrupting the
general talk.

"No," returned Katrine, lightly; "to-morrow night, not to-night. I have
my escort," and she smiled at Stephen and Talbot.

"I will say good-night then," and Peters, after a slight bow to Talbot,
withdrew, taking no notice of Stephen, who since the girl's surrender of
the dance had looked very self-contented and happy, and was now standing
glass in hand, his eyes fixed upon her face.

"I think I really will go home now," she said. "We've had a jolly time.
I only wish you'd have joined us. Are you always so very good?" she said
innocently to Stephen. He flushed angrily and said nothing.

A few seconds later they were on the way to Good Luck Row. One of the
neatest-looking cabins in it had a light behind its yellow blind, and
here Katrine stopped and thanked them for their escort. They would both
have liked to see the interior, but she did not suggest their coming in.
She wished them good-night very sweetly, and before they had realised it
had disappeared inside.

They walked on down the row slowly, side by side. The next thing to do
was to find a lodging for the night, and they both felt about ready to
appreciate a bed and some hours' rest.

"There's Bill Winters," said Stephen, after a moment's silence. "He said
he'd always put us up when we came down town; let's go and try him."

"Do you know where his cabin is?"

"I think so. Turn down here; now it is the next street, where those
little black cabins are."

They walked on quickly, following Stephen's directions, and made for a
block of cabins that had been pitched over and shone black and glossy in
the brilliant moonlight. When they got up to them the men were puzzled,
each was so like its neighbour, and Stephen declared he had forgotten
the number, though Bill had given it to him.

"Well, try any one," said Talbot, impatiently, as Stephen stopped
bewildered. They were standing on the side-walk, now a slippery arch of
ice, between two rows of the low black cabins. There was no light in any
of them; it was two o'clock; the moon alone shone up and down the
street. Talbot felt his moustache freezing to his face, and his left eye
being rapidly closed by the lashes freezing together, and that's enough
to make a man impatient. Stephen did not move, and Talbot went up
himself to the nearest cabin and knocked at the door. They waited a long
time, but at last a hand fumbled with the catch inside, and the door was
opened a little way; through the crack came out a stream of warm air,
the fumes of tobacco and wood smoke; within was darkness.

"Is this Bill Winters'?" Talbot asked, and the door opened wider.

"I guess it is," said a voice in reply. "Why, it's Mr. Talbot and Mr.
Wood--come in, sirs."

Talbot and Wood stepped over the threshold into the thick darkness, and
the door closed behind them. There was a shuffling sound for an instant
as Mr. Winters groped for a light, then he struck a match and lighted up
a little tin lamp on the wall. The light revealed a good-sized cabin
with a large stove in the centre, round which, with their feet towards
it, four or five men rolled up in skins or blankets were lying asleep.

"You want a bed for the night, I expect," Winters went on; "we've all
turned in already, but I guess there's room for two more."

Wood and Talbot both expressed their sense of contrition at disturbing
him, but Winters would not listen.

"Oh, stow all that," he said, as he set about dragging forward two
trestles and covering them with blankets. "You two fellows are so damned
polite, you don't seem suited to this town, you don't seem natural here,
that's a fact."

He was stepping over and about amongst the prostrate forms, and
sometimes on them, but none of them roused themselves sufficiently to do
more than utter a sleepy ejaculation and turn into a fresh position.
Wood and Talbot stood waiting close against the door. It was
half-an-hour before Bill had prepared their beds just as he wanted them,
extinguished the lamp again, and retreated to his own corner. Then
darkness and stillness reigned again over the smoky interior.

The low trestles on which the men lay were hard and unyielding, and a
doubled-up blanket makes a poor mattress; the air of the cabin was thick
and heavy, and the stove, which was close to Talbot's head, having been
stuffed to its utmost capacity with damp wood that it might burn through
the night, let out thin spirals of acrid smoke from all its cracks.
Stephen did not close his eyes long after they had lain down, and there
was utter silence in the place except for heavy breathings. He lay with
open eyes staring into the thick darkness, a thousand painful wearying
thoughts stinging his brain. Talbot, tired and worn out with bodily
fatigue, but with that mental calm that comes from an absolute
singleness of aim and hope and purpose, fell into a deep and tranquil
sleep the moment his head touched the pillow. He lived now but to work;
the night had come when he could not work, therefore he slept that he
might work again on the morrow.

When the faint grey light of morning came creeping into the low and
narrow room, which was not very early, as the nights now were far longer
than the days, Talbot was the first of the sleepers to awake. He
refilled the stove, which had burned down in the long night hours, and
then let himself out.

When he returned Bill and the other men were all stirring, and Stephen
sitting up on his trestle rubbing his red and weary-looking eyes.

"Well, pardner, what are you going to do to-day?" he asked a few minutes
later, when they had the cabin to themselves for a moment.

"Going to do?" replied Talbot in astonishment, looking up from turning
the coffee into the coffee-pot, according to Bill's orders. "Why, if we
collect together all the stores we want, and get back to the diggings
this afternoon, we shall have about enough to do."

"Oh, I meant about the girl."

"What girl?" queried Talbot, now standing still and staring Stephen in
the face.

"The girl you danced with last night--the saloon-keeper's daughter,
Katrine Poniatovsky--do you want any more identification?" returned
Stephen, sarcastically, opening his heavy lids a little wider.

"Well, _what_ about her?" returned Talbot, looking at him expectantly.

"Oh, well, I didn't know; I thought perhaps we wouldn't go back to-day,
that's all," answered Stephen, rather sheepishly.

To his sympathetic, impulsive nature, open to every new impression,
easily distracted like the butterfly which may be caught by the tint of
any chance flower in its path, the incident of last night was much. To
Talbot, self-concentrated, determined, and absorbed, it was nothing. He
looked at his friend now with something like contempt.

"She's so handsome, and dances so well," Stephen went on hurriedly,
feeling foolish and uncomfortable before the other's gaze.

"I did not come here to dance with girls," remarked Talbot shortly,
going over to the stove, and the entry of the other men at that moment
stopped the conversation.

They had breakfast together at the rough wood table in the centre of the
room. The coffee was the redeeming feature of the meal: from that bright
brown stream of boiling liquid the men seemed to gain new life; they
watched it lovingly, expectantly, eagerly, as Bill poured it out into
their thick cups.

The moment the meal was over Talbot crushed his hat on to his eyes, but
before he left the cabin he glanced at Stephen, who was standing
irresolutely by the stove.

"I shall get all I want," he said, "and be back here by two at the
latest. If you're here then, we can start up together; if not, I shall
go ahead;" and he went out.

Stephen lingered by the stove, then he and Bill drifted into a
discussion over some of the latest discoveries of gold in Colorado, and
they both fell to wondering how much more had been found since their
last news, seven months old; and they had a pipe together, and then Bill
thought he'd drop down to the "Pistol Shot," and Stephen crushed on his
fur cap as determinedly as Talbot had done and went out--to Katrine's
number in Good Luck Row.



CHAPTER II

AT THE WEST GULCH


Talbot made his start back to the cabin later than he intended; he had
knocked at Winters' cabin before leaving the town, but all the occupants
were out, and there had been no response.

It was afternoon, and already the uncompromising cold of evening had
entered into the air; the sky was grey everywhere, and dark, almost
black, in front of him; it seemed to hang low, frowning and ominous,
over the desolate snowy waste that stretched before him: there was no
snow falling yet, only the threat of it written in the black and dreary
sky that faced him. His cheeks and chin felt stiff and frozen already,
as if a thin mask of ice were drawn over them, and his eyes were sore
and tired from the continuous glare of the snow. The little pony beside
him plodded along the path patiently, and his master at intervals drew a
hand from a comfortable pocket to lay it encouragingly on his neck, at
which familiar caress the pony would throw up his head and step out
faster for some paces. Talbot felt sorry for the little beast toiling
along under his heavy though carefully packed burden of stores, cans of
oil, loaves, and every sort of miscellaneous provisions, and would have
spoken cheeringly to it, but his lips felt too stiff and painful to form
the words, and so man and brute toiled along in silence over the trail
under the angry sky. As he walked, Talbot's thoughts went back
involuntarily to the picture of Stephen sitting smoking by the stove in
the snug interior of Bill Winters' cabin; he felt instinctively, as
surely as if he had seen it, that he would so sit through the
afternoon, and by evening he would be finding his way down to the
nearest saloon and pass the hours there with Katrine; and he compared
him vaguely with himself, tired with tramping through the town from
store to store, half frozen while he stood to pack the pony, and now
labouring up alone to his cabin in the gulch.

He wondered dimly whether it would turn out that he should ever realise
a reward for his toil, whether he should live to get out of this icy
corner of the world, or whether he should die and rot here, caught in
this great snow-trap, in this open grave, where the living were buried.
He wondered a little, but his mind was not one inclined to abstract
thought. He spent very little time in retrospection, reflection, and
contemplation, very little time in thinking of any sort, and on this
account possessed so great a stock of energy for acting. Each human
being has only a certain amount of energy supplied him with which to do
the work of his life. Thinking, speaking, and acting are all portions of
this work, and whatever of his energy he consumes in any one, so much
the less has he for the others. Thinking, the formation of ideas, is
hard work; speaking, the expression of ideas, is hard work; and acting,
the carrying out of ideas, is hard work. It is false to suppose that the
first two are natural, instinctive, involuntary movements of the brain,
and that only the last requires effort.

Talbot thought very little and spoke very little. His ideas came to him
in simple form; they were not elaborated in his mind nor in his speech,
they turned into actions immediately or died quietly without giving him
any trouble or wasting his time. A decision once made he carried out. He
never thought about it afterwards, or frittered away his strength in
hours of torturing doubt as to whether it was a good one to have made,
or whether some other might not have been better. Once made, he kept to
it, good or bad, leaving it to chance whether he died or succeeded in
his attempt to carry it out. And this conservation of energy in all
other mental processes resulted in a splendid strength for action and a
limitless endurance in the carrying out of his decisions.

And as he walked now he thought very little, except in a resigned way,
of the physical discomfort he was enduring, and of the time when he
should reach his cabin. Dusk had already fallen before he came to the
gulch, and he had to strain his eyes to find the narrow trail which
descended the side of the gorge. His log cabin, carefully and solidly
constructed, stood half-way down the northern slope of the gulch, on a
sort of natural platform formed by the vagaries of the now narrowed
stream in its younger and wilder days. Beneath the cabin stretched his
claims, 500 feet of dry soil on the slope of the hill, 100 feet this
side of the stream and fairly in the creek, and 100 feet on the farther
side, a stretch of 700 feet in all, and of a quality that made it at
that time the richest claim for fifty miles round. Shafts, reaching down
to bed rock, were sunk all over it, and great mounds of frozen gravel
beside them showed how untiringly they had been worked. In addition to
these, the man's native energy had prompted him to drive a tunnel
horizontally for some distance into the side of the hill that rose
steeply behind the cabin. The tunnel pierced the hill for 100 feet, and
at the end a shaft had been sunk to bed rock, and it was from here at
present that the highest grade ore was coming. Moved by an instinct to
protect what he intuitively felt would be his richest possession, Talbot
had built his tunnel in one solid block with the cabin, and closed its
outer end with a huge door, well provided with bars and bolts. So long
as this door was successfully held, no claim-jumper could penetrate into
the tunnel or reach the shaft at the end. By this means, too, a double
protection was afforded the living cabin, though of this he thought
comparatively little, for the face of the cabin presented nothing but
its one small window and this huge solid door. Upon opening this you
found yourself in the tunnel; if you kept straight on you reached the
shaft; if you entered the small door upon your left hand you found
yourself in the interior of the living cabin.

The gulch ran east and west, and at sunset at some times in the year a
red light from the dying sun would fall into it, like a tongue of flame,
and the whole gulch would seem on fire. At such moments Talbot would
cease his work and stand looking up the gorge, with the red light
falling on his face and banishing its careworn pallor. No one knew what
he was thinking of in those moments, whether he was recalling Italian
or Egyptian skies that had been as fair, or whether for a moment some
vanished face seemed to look at him from out those brilliant hues, or if
merely the great sheets of gold that spread above the gulch brought
visions of that wealth he was giving his best years to attain. No one
who met him knew much about him, except that he was an Englishman, had
travelled much and experienced many different forms of life, and finally
come to the Klondike,--but why this last? He was believed to have been
rich before he came: was it merely to increase his wealth, or was there
some other reason? Was there any one awaiting his return? There were
several portraits in his cabin of soft and lovely faces, but then the
number was confusing, and the most curious of the men who worked under
him could not come to any satisfying conclusion. All they knew was that
he worked harder than any common miner, that his reserve was unbroken,
and his life one continual self-denial. There were thirty men in all who
worked for him, and by them all he was respected and feared rather than
liked. There was a chilling reserve wrapped about him, an utter absence
of ingenuousness and frankness of character, that prevented any
affection growing up amongst the men for their master, and his attitude
towards them was summed up in the answer he gave to an acquaintance who
once asked him how he got on with his men, if he had any friends amongst
them. Talbot had raised his dark, marked eyebrows and merely said
coldly, "I don't make friends of miners."

Stephen Wood's cabin was a little higher up the gulch by several yards,
and the claims of the two men had been staked out side by side. A great
friendship had grown up between the two, such a friendship as common
danger, common privations, common aims, and Nature's awful loneliness
drives any two human beings in each other's proximity into. But besides
this friendship there was a quiet liking on Talbot's part for this weak,
impulsive, boyish character, so unlike his own, and on Stephen's side a
warm admiration for all Talbot's qualities that he could not and yet
wished to emulate. He, as others, was completely excluded from the elder
man's confidence, and knew nothing of his past or what was likely to be
his future; but then Stephen was one of those people always so deeply
absorbed in himself, his own aims and views, that he really never
noticed that his manifold confidences were never returned in the
smallest degree. He would come over to Talbot's cabin in the evening,
seat himself on the opposite side of the fire, and talk incessantly.
Talbot would allow him to do so until he felt too much bored, when he
would rise and quietly tell him to go. Stephen would hastily apologise
and retire, to return the following night quite unabashed, with more
views and aims to impart. In the first week of their acquaintance Talbot
had heard all about his home life--about the little English village, and
the red brick, ivy-covered school-house, where he had been master since
he was eighteen; of the village schoolmistress he had loved, because she
was so good, and had abandoned, presumably for the same reason; of his
doubts, fears, hopes, wishes, and intentions,--and after ten months he
knew no more of Talbot than he did the day of their first meeting.

The cabins of the men employed by both Stephen and Talbot were dotted
over the gulch, some higher and some lower than their own; while a
number of the men lived some distance off, a few of them even having
lodgings in the town.

When at last Talbot reached his cabin door this evening darkness had
completely fallen; there was no light from within to guide him, but
with his half-frozen fingers he managed to unlock the outer door, and he
and his tired beast went in together. The first thing he thought of when
he had closed the great door behind him and lighted up the passage, was
to unpack the animal and put him up in the stable which he had built
opposite his own cabin door; and it was fully an hour before, having
seen the beast comfortably installed, he turned into his own room and
struck a light. Here there was only one living thing to greet him, and
that was a shabby little black cat that leaped off the bed in the corner
and came purring to meet him. One morning he had found this cat lying on
his claim with a broken leg and carried it back to his cabin, where he
had set the leg and nursed the miserable little creature into recovery.
Denbigh, his foreman, who had seen Talbot sitting up for two whole
nights to watch the helpless animal, had carried away the impression
that the cold, quiet, hard and selfish man, as he appeared to the
miners, had another side to his character that they never saw. It was
this other side that the kitten was familiar with, and she came mewing
and purring with delight towards him. Talbot, who was ready to sink to
the floor with exhaustion, stooped and stroked the animal, which
followed his steps everywhere as he set about lighting up his stove. It
was very quiet, there was absolute silence all round him, and every step
of his heavy boots on the wooden floor, every crackle of the igniting
wood in the stove, seemed a loud and important sound in the stillness.
It was always very quiet at the gulch, Nature's own solemn quiet, except
in the summer time, when she filled it with the laughing voices of a
thousand streams and rills.

That evening, when his domestic arrangements were all put into working
order, his fire blazing, his coffee boiling on the hob, and his table
laid, he sank back in his chair with a weary sigh, his hand idly
stroking the cat, which had jumped purring on his knee. It seemed lonely
without Stephen, and he foresaw that probably many evenings would pass
now without his society.

The next morning, when it was yet barely light, and the gulch was
holding still all its damp black shadows of the night, Talbot was out
tramping over the claims, showing his men where to start new fires, and
carefully scanning the fresh gravel as it was thawed and dug out. All
his men had a pleasant salutation for him as he passed by, except one,
who merely leaned over his work and threw out his spadeful of gravel
savagely, as Talbot stopped by the fire. He took no notice apparently of
the man, and after a second's survey passed on to the next fire. The man
looked after him a moment sulkily and returned to his work. He was a
huge fellow, some six feet four, and with a massive frame and head to
suit his height. He had been working for many months with Talbot now,
and was a valuable labourer on account of his great strength and
capacity for work. At first he had been rather a favorite with Talbot,
and there hung now in his cabin a first-class six-shooter, the gift of
his master when he first came up to the gulch.

Dick Marley had had a devoted admiration for Talbot until the last few
months, when it had turned into a bitter, sullen resentment over a
matter with which in reality Talbot had absolutely nothing to do. Dick,
being a hard and constant worker, had managed to save out of his liberal
wages quite a considerable sum, and this he had entrusted to a man on
his way to Seattle to invest for him in securities. After a time the man
disappeared, and Dick discovered his securities had never been bought,
and that he was in fact robbed and cheated. In his first rage and
disappointment he cast about unconsciously in his mind for some one
besides himself to lay the blame upon, and finding no one he grew daily
more and more morose. Hour after hour, as he worked upon the claims, his
thoughts would revolve sullenly round his loss, and the offender being
beyond his reach, his anger burned against any and every man near him,
and apparently chiefly against his employer.

A week passed before Stephen reappeared at the gulch, then one evening
after dark, when Talbot was sitting back in his chair, dozing after the
cold and fatigue of the day's work, a loud banging came on his outer
door, and when he opened it, Stephen, looking very flushed and animated,
came into the quiet little room, laden with packages and with a general
air of city life about him.

"Well, old man, how are you? Hello, Kitty!" this as he stumbled over the
little black cat at his feet. "Well, I've had such a glorious time! I
wish you'd stayed down there too: that girl is just the finest creature
I've ever seen. Have you anything for a fellow to eat?--I'm perfectly
famished. Look here, I've brought you up some cans of things and a
bottle of rye, the very best. I say, you look dreadfully blue--what's
the matter?"

"Life in the west gulch in the winter isn't particularly exhilarating,"
answered Talbot, quietly, as he went about his preparations for
Stephen's supper.

"How have the men been--all right?" questioned Stephen, as he took off
his coat and settled himself in the best chair.

"They have been working pretty steadily, but I notice a difference in
them since that fellow Marley has been here. He has been stirring them
up, doing a lot of mischief, I think."

"You must assert your authority, I suppose," remarked Stephen
pompously, stretching his feet out comfortably in the cheerful blaze.
"Perhaps he doesn't know who's master here."

"He will very soon find out then," returned Talbot, so grimly that
Stephen looked at him sharply. "Well, what's all your news?" asked
Talbot, as if desirous to get away from the question of his men.

"I don't know that there is much, except I've been having a good time.
You've looked after my ground and seen to the workings, haven't you?
Thanks, I knew you would, and so I felt I could stay down town a little:
you're a better hand at managing men than I am, any way,--women too, for
that matter; do you know that you impressed Katrine awfully? She has
talked about you to me--you are so good-looking, so distinguished, she
wants to know whether you are a Count or a Prince in disguise, and all
sorts of things."

Talbot smiled. "It is extremely kind of her," he said quietly.

"Oh, I know she's not the kind of girl you admire," said Stephen, in
rather a nettled tone. "You wouldn't look at a saloon-keeper's daughter
simply because she _is_ a saloon-keeper's daughter; you like a girl in
your own rank, all grace and dignity and good manners, and awfully
clever and intellectual, and gifted and educated, and all that."

Talbot merely laughed and remained silent, a habit he had which
successfully baffled questions, innuendoes, and suppositions alike.

"And any way your passions are engaged somehow, somewhere."

"How do you know that?" asked Talbot, with a hardening of his mouth.

"Know it! why, otherwise you could not lead this dog's life as you do,
and you could not be indifferent to a beautiful girl like Katrine,--for
she is beautiful, she's not 'pretty' or 'nice,' but she's downright
beautiful," returned Stephen, emphasising his remarks by striking the
table.

Talbot said nothing, but put more wood in the stove in silence.

"Your supper is ready now; if you are famished, as you said, you'd
better have it, and discuss Miss Poniatovsky afterwards," he remarked.

Stephen turned to the table. "Won't you have something too?" he said.

Talbot shook his head. "No, thanks; I'm not hungry."

"You ascetic creature, you never are," replied Stephen, as he began to
carve into the cold bacon.

"Well, you know how I detest her surroundings," he began again after a
few minutes, "and drinking, and saloons, and almost everything she does,
but then I can't help liking her. She's so different from any girl I've
ever seen. She attracts me, she holds my thoughts so, and if I could get
her to give up all that, if I could alter her views--"

"You would be doing away with that difference from others that is the
basis of your attraction," put in Talbot, dryly.

"Well," returned Stephen after a minute, in a sulky tone, "we are all
like that,--a man falls in love with a girl, because she _is_ a girl,
and then immediately wants to turn her into a married woman."

Talbot laughed. "Good!" he said. "You are quite right."

"It's the altering process we like, and we want to do the alteration
ourselves. I showed her my pocket Greek testament yesterday," he
continued.

"And was she interested?" inquired Talbot, dryly.

"Not so much as she was in the shooting gallery," admitted Stephen. "I
told her how a bible at a man's heart had often saved his life, and she
said a pistol had done that too, and she'd rather trust the pistol."

Talbot laughed. "You say you like altering. I should think in Katrine
you've a splendid field. If you want to get her down to the
schoolmistress pattern, you've employment for a lifetime!"

Stephen flushed, as he always did at any allusion to the girl he had
loved as the type of all virtues, and yet had tired of. Good people are
always more or less interested in and attracted by the wicked, while the
wicked are not generally the least interested in nor attracted by the
good. Stephen was drawn towards this reckless daughter of the saloons
partly through the sense of her general badness, it formed unconsciously
a sort of charm for him, whereas his goodness did not act at all in the
same way upon her. To her eyes it was his one great drawback, an
overwhelming disadvantage.

He finished his supper in silence, and the two men drew in close to the
fire to smoke. That is to say, Stephen did the smoking, as he did the
talking. He consumed Talbot's tobacco, and filled Talbot's cabin with
its fumes. Talbot himself did not smoke.

Stephen's return to his own claim freed Talbot from the double share of
work he had been doing for the last week, and he remained on his own
claims all day, tramping from one end to the other, directing where a
new shaft should be made, overseeing closely all the work that went on,
and doing a good deal of it himself; and in those days he became more
clearly conscious than ever of the difference that was growing up in his
men's manner towards him. There was a veiled insolence in their replies
to his questions, a certain want of promptness in obeying his orders,
which caused a curious gleam to come into the quiet grey eyes as,
apparently without noticing it, he passed on.

He did not speak of it, not even to his foreman, Denbigh, the man whom
he liked and trusted most. He was accustomed to manage his own affairs,
and rarely took counsel with any one. He was one of those men who are
born with the gift of governing others. He was an organiser, an
administrator, by nature. Had he been born to a throne, his kingdom
would have been well ruled from end to end, and rarely if ever embroiled
with other nations; and the same spirit that would have ruled a kingdom
showed itself here in the ruling and management of his seven hundred
feet of ground.

He never bullied, never swore, no one had ever seen him in a passion. He
gave his orders in a pleasant friendly voice, his manner was quiet, even
to gentleness, but he had a way of getting those orders invariably
carried out that was hard to analyse. If he said a thing was to be done,
it was done, and no one knew of an instance where it was not. He never
countermanded an order, and never receded from a position once taken,
even if in his own heart he recognised later it was an unwise one. But
the forethought and caution, the deliberation in decision that were his
by nature, made the occasions on which he regretted an order very
seldom, and if such there were, no matter, the order stood. He himself
looked upon his word as irrevocable, whether given in promise or
command, and instinctively all who came in contact with him looked upon
it in the same light. The men, when they made engagements with him and
stipulated certain terms for certain work, and other details, never
asked for paper, and even refused it when offered. Whatever came from
those silent, resolute lips they knew unalterable, unanswerable, final,
and absolute; they all trusted his word completely, and it passed
amongst them as other men's bond.

Everything on the claims was well organised, all was kept in smooth
working order. The men had exact hours of work, exact time for changing
off, each his specified work and place on the ground, each his tools,
for which he was accountable as long as he worked there.

Talbot's forethought even went far enough to provide for the
happy-go-lucky and mostly ungrateful creatures who had no idea of
providing for themselves. He established a sick fund, and to this each
of the men who worked for him was obliged to subscribe a trifle out of
his weekly wages. Then in their not infrequent sickness there was
alleviation and comfort waiting for them. If the miners were not his
friends they were his dependents, and as such he cared for them and
looked after them. He was always friendly in manner to them, always
ready to help and assist them, to attend to their wants, to listen to
their complaints, and settle the frequent disputes amongst themselves,
which they invariably brought to him for decision. If he had not
instilled affection into them, they felt an unlimited faith and
confidence in his absolute justice.

"He's hard, real hard," they said amongst themselves, "but he'll never
go back on you;" and that was the received opinion amongst them.

Although he was conscious now of the feeling growing up amongst his men,
he appeared to ignore it entirely. As long as his instructions and
commands were carried out, he affected to be in ignorance whether it was
with a smiling or a scowling face. He felt certain that the disaffection
owed its origin to the man Marley, and he expected every day that some
matter would bring this man and himself into a personal conflict, in
which he meant to conquer, and he preferred to wait for this to happen
than to, in any way, take an initiative step in bringing the covert
hostility to light.

It was his method. On the same principle, when one of his debtors,
having completely lost his head in blind rage against a quiet order that
he should pay what was due, shook his fist in the other's face and
threatened to wipe the floor with him, Talbot did not knock the man
down, as some might have done. He simply remarked in his dryest tone,
"You'd better try it," and for some reason or other the man did not.
Shortly after the money was paid.

So now he simply stood his own ground, saw that his work was properly
done, and waited until the man courted his own punishment. In the
meantime, the men mistook his forbearance, his quietness, his smoothness
of tones and manner for weakness, and Marley, a bully by nature, and
quite incapable of understanding his employer, grew elated and
triumphant.

Stephen had been back at the gulch a fortnight or more, when Talbot
found late one afternoon some of his tools broken, and this, combined
with other work he had to do in town, decided him to go down that
afternoon and return the following day before daylight failed. He got
ready, locked up his house, and called upon Stephen to say he was going.
Stephen looked quite surprised, Talbot went to town so seldom, and then
began to chaff him upon his motives and intentions.

"As it happens, I'm going about some mending of spades," Talbot
returned.

"Are you sure it's not the breaking of hearts?" Stephen laughed back
from the fire by which he was sitting. "Well, you'll see Katrine any
way. Tell her--"

"My dear fellow," interrupted Talbot, impatiently, "I'm not going to see
her. I shall have as much as I can do to be back here before mid-day
to-morrow," and he went out before the amazed Stephen could say another
word.

"Going down town and not going to see Katrine! why, he must be mad,"
ejaculated Stephen mentally; "wonder what his own girl's like anyway."
Then he tossed himself back on the rug and looked at a little
postage-stamp photograph Katrine had given him of herself, which he had
stuck on the fly-leaf of his Greek testament.

The following morning, before it was fully light, found Talbot toiling
up to the west gulch on foot. He had made an early start, as he wanted
to be back before the men began work, and the air hung round one and
against one's cheek like a sodden blanket in the dusky dawn. It took him
over three hours to make the distance, and when he reached his cabin he
felt chilled through. All his muscles were stiff and numb from the long
climb. He felt a longing to sit down and rest and get a little warmth
kindled in his half-frozen limbs. The first thing that encountered him
at the main door, which led into the block composed of his own cabin and
the tunnel, was a sheet of smooth ice, only an inch deep perhaps, but
glazing over the ground from where he stood to his own door. He saw at
once what had happened: the waste water from the workings had been
diverted from its proper outlet, and had simply run freely at its own
will over the level ground. Talbot's face darkened as his eyes rested on
it. It was Marley's business to see that the egress for the water was
kept free and unblocked with ice, and only yesterday he had given him
orders to attend to it. It was the second or third time he had returned
to find the entrance to his own house almost impassable. Crossing over
with difficulty the frozen stream, he looked into his cabin. There was
about a foot of muddy water and ice covering the floor and floating his
slippers and some pairs of socks he had left by the hearth. The fire was
out, and the lower part of the stove filled with mud and water. The bed
was completely soddened, the blankets and quilt dabbling in the water.
He did not go beyond the threshold. After a minute's survey he turned
and walked down the tunnel leading to the shaft where he knew the men
were working.

"Marley!" he called down the shaft.

"What is it?" came up from below in a surly tone.

"You have allowed the waste to run into the tunnel again, and my cabin
is flooded."

"Well, clean it out then!"

"I think that is your business," answered the dry cutting tones from
above. "Come up at once, and see to it."

"I'm not going to swab out your blasted, dirty old cabin," shouted
Marley hoarsely from the bottom of the shaft. "Do it yourself."

A strange look came over Talbot's quiet face. It whitened and set in the
darkness. He knew his men were gathered about Marley, listening to what
passed, and this open defiance of his authority, this public insult
before them, angered him excessively. He made his answer very quietly,
however, only his voice was peculiarly hard, and the words seemed to
drop like ice on the men standing listening below.

"I allow no one to speak to me like that here," he said. "This is the
last day that you work on the claim."

"I'll work here as long as it suits me," retorted Marley, with an oath.
"You can't turn me out."

"We will see about that," returned Talbot, in the same even, frigid
tone, and he turned away from the pit and walked back to his flooded
cabin.

He found Denbigh had arrived there. It was close to the luncheon hour by
this time, and he was doing what he could to get rid of the water. He
looked up, and saw at once from the other's face there had been some
unusual incident.

"What's up?" he inquired, standing still, with his mop in his hand.

"That fellow Marley is making all the trouble he can," returned Talbot.
"I have just told him he has got to get out, that's all."

Denbigh's face fell. "I think it's a bad job," he remarked after a
minute. "You know what a desperate devil he is; he would kill you, I
believe, if he had to give up his work."

"Well, he has been trying to boss this business for some time now,"
returned Talbot, "and I am tired of it. To-day he finished with a gross
insult before a lot of the men, and it's time, I think, to show him and
them who is boss here."

"Couldn't you overlook it?" replied Denbigh, tentatively, with a scared
look on his thin face.

"I have no wish to," replied Talbot, coldly. "There is bound to be
trouble some time. It may just as well come now as later."

Denbigh opened his mouth to make a further protest, but Talbot stopped
him.

"Don't let us discuss it any further, please," he said curtly, and
Denbigh closed his mouth and dropped back on his knees to his
floor-mopping.

Talbot drew out his pistol, glanced over it, and buckled it round his
waist.

When the room was reduced to some appearance of dry comfort again, the
two men sat down to their luncheon in silence. Talbot was too excited to
swallow a mouthful of the food. Although so calm outwardly, and with
such absolute command over his passion, anger was with him, like a flame
at white heat, rushing through his veins.

As they sat they heard the miners tramping by the cabin door, and saw
their heads pass the window as they went out to get their mid-day food.
Denbigh himself, as soon as he had finished, made an excuse and
departed. He was eager to join his companions before they came back to
work and hear some more delectable details of the row than he could get
from Talbot. When all his men had filed out from the tunnel, Talbot went
into the passage and walked up to the heavy wooden door and shut it,
barring it with a steady hand. This was the main entrance to the shaft,
and at the present time the only one. The door was never, under ordinary
circumstances, closed, but stood open all day for the men to pass in and
out to their work. When he had fastened it he walked back, turned into
his own cabin, and took up his place at the window. From here he could
see the men as they came back. They began to return earlier than was
their wont, knowing that trouble was in the air, and each one was
anxious to be on the spot for the crisis. All through the lunch hour
Talbot's words and the possibility of Dick Marley being obliged to
"quit" was the sole topic of conversation.

Dick talked largely, and with a great many of the miners his oaths, and
the imputations of cowardice he heaped on his employer, carried the day.
Some of the others, quieter men with keener perceptions, merely listened
in silence, and shook their heads when appealed to for an opinion.

"I dunno. He's got grit," remarked one between mouthfuls of bread and
bacon, in response to a sanguinary burst of Dick's.

"He's a slip," answered Dick, contemptuously.

"But a dead sure shot."

"He'd funk it," said Dick, his face paling a little. "He'd never stand
up to me. He's got no fight in him. Why, he's managed that claim there
now for two years and he's never so much as fired a shot over it. Now
that fellow Robinson wot's got the claim a mile farther up the creek,
he's the boy for me. Why, he hadn't been there two days before there was
trouble, and at the end of the week we was reckoning up he had made five
corpses over it."

He looked round the circle, and there was a murmur of admiring assent.

The old miner nodded his head slowly as he munched his beans.

"Yes, that's Talbot's way; he's just as smooth as butter as long as you
know he's the boss and act accordin', but jest as soon as you begin to
try and boss him, you'll know you have your hands full."

Dick took another pull at the tin whisky bottle, and tightened his belt.

As the men returned to their work they were surprised to see their
employer leaning idly against his window, and still more surprised when
they passed round to the main entrance to find the great door shut.
Talbot came himself and let each man in, in turn as they came up,
shutting the door afterwards. Their curiosity at this unusual state of
things was great, but there was a look on the pale, stern face they
encountered on the threshold that froze all open question or comment,
and each man went by silently to his work. When they got down towards
the shaft and out of hearing, however, their tongues were loosened
again.

"'E's waiting for Dick to come back, that's what he is," volunteered one
of the miners; "and somehow or other I don't feel jest dying to be in
Dick's shoes when he do come."

There was no dissent openly offered to this guarded opinion. Most of the
men hung about in the tunnel, and seemed unwilling to quit the scene of
the coming contest.

At last, among the final batch of men, Marley came sauntering past the
window. Talbot's eyes flashed as the tiger's when the brush crackles.
He walked out to the great door and flung it wide open. Dick fell back a
step, and the little crowd of miners who accompanied him closed in round
the two, open mouthed and eyed, to see the battle.

"You can't come in," and the sentence had an accent of inflexibility
that made it seem like a drawn sword across the entrance.

"To hell I can't!" returned Dick, a dull red flush coming over his face.

"No, you can't," Talbot replied in the same calm, incisive way, that
contrasted strongly with the coarse, whisky-thickened tone of the other.

"Oh well, I guess I'm coming in any way," answered Marley, and he made a
step forward. A slight motion of Talbot's right hand to his belt was his
only answer.

Marley stopped, put his own hand, half involuntarily, to his hip,
remembered he had no revolver with him, and turned pale and red in
confusion.

By this time the loud voices and talking at the door had brought the
remainder of the men upon the scene. Those who had already passed into
the shaft left their work and came up behind Talbot in the tunnel; those
in front pressed a little nearer. Talbot stood now completely surrounded
by the crowd of rough working men. Marley's adherents were in full
force. He was quite alone. He did not glance round them. He did not
think of himself, nor of his own danger should two or three of them back
up their fellow and commence to hustle him. He felt nothing but a cool
though intensely savage determination to subdue this burly brute, to
defend his position and title, though it cost him his life.

"There can be only one boss here," he said coldly, as Marley hesitated
before him. "If you are not satisfied who it is, go to your cabin and
get your six-shooter, and we will settle it here on the dump."

There was a movement and a murmur of satisfaction amongst the men. Now
this was coming down to business and giving them something they could
understand. Here was a man willing to defend his rights in a good,
square stand-up fight on the spot, and they one and all agreed in their
own minds that he was the right sort. They glanced at Dick expectantly,
and some said to themselves he weakened. They were not going to take
sides with either party. One of the men was their friend and
fellow-worker, the other was their employer. The two had a difference,
and they could settle it between themselves. They had no business to
interfere. All they had to do was to stand round and see a square fight
and "with'old their judgment," as they said afterwards, talking it over
in the bar of the "Pistol Shot." They waited, and Dick hesitated. He
felt his opponent's eyes upon him; he glanced round the men, they were
watching him.

"Fetch your six-shooter," commanded Talbot again, with increasing
sternness, and Dick, feeling he must do something, nodded sullenly and
turned away towards his cabin. He strode up the incline in the direction
of the miners' dwellings, and Talbot, whose brain seemed to himself half
splitting with nervous, angry excitement, began to pace up and down a
short length before the door, waiting for him to come back. He did not
order his men away, and they stayed in their places.

The excitement was intense amongst them as they waited; not one of them
shifted his place on the log or bank where he had sat down; they hardly
seemed to draw their breath. All their eyes were fixed upon Talbot. He
walked up and down in front of the door, his arms folded, his revolver
still in its case on his hip. The men watched him curiously. His face
was very white and exceedingly determined.

The afternoon was placid and lovely. The temperature was not within many
degrees of zero, but the gold of the sunshine was bright, and the air
dazzlingly clear. It was absolutely still, not a leaf rustled, not a
breath stirred. Nature was in her calmest, gentlest mood; nowhere could
there have been a more tranquil arena to witness the passions of men.
There was perfect silence, except for the crack of the ice sometimes as
it split beneath the firm, resolute steps of the man pacing up and down.
His face was set as a stone mask, as immovable and as calm, but the
passion of anger increased within him as he waited; a mad impatience for
his adversary to return grew at each step that he walked to and fro,
with the insult of the morning echoing in his ears.

At last he stopped in his walk and fixed his gaze on the road which led
to the miners' cabins. All the men's eyes followed his, and they saw
the figure of their fellow-worker coming slowly down towards them. A
huge, hulking form, contrasting strongly with the slim one of the man
waiting for him. Some of the miners glanced up at Talbot, wondering
silently if he "funked it," but there was something in that attitude and
that iron countenance that reassured them and stirred a dull admiration
in their hearts. Talbot ceased to walk up and down. He planted himself
directly in front of the wide open door and waited there. Passion and
excitement had dilated his pupils until the usually calm light grey eyes
looked black; his nostrils quivered slightly as he watched his enemy
coming up. As Marley drew nearer, the miners noted with satisfaction his
enormous six-shooter swinging in his belt; the sunlight caught the steel
at every other step forward he made. Their hearts beat fast with keen
anticipation. There would soon be some fine shooting, and one dead man
perhaps, or two, for Marley meant business; and as for the other, he
looked like the devil himself as he stood there. And he was a fine shot,
there was no mistake about that. Denbigh stared hard at him with round
fixed eyes. He was thinking of the nights when he had watched Talbot
teaching Dick to shoot straight--teaching the very man he had sent off
now to get his pistol to shoot himself with! He remembered how Talbot
had stood with Marley at this very tunnel's mouth and showed him how to
snuff a candle at thirty yards! And Denbigh stared and glowed with
admiration. Marley drew nearer down the path, his heavy crunching steps
echoing through the serene and frosty air. A few minutes more and he was
close upon the eager, expectant, silent circle; the men watched him with
their breath suspended. On he came, sullenly, filled with a sort of
dogged, brutal animosity against the man he had wronged and insulted. He
stepped between the men, who made a short line, and then into the clear
open space, facing Talbot.

For the first time he looked him full in the face, with a fugitive,
fleeting glance, and his eyes shifted away. His pace slackened, but he
did not stop; his feet dragged loosely over the rough snow and gravel,
his huge form seemed to shrink together, to lessen; while to the
fascinated eyes of the men watching the two, that slight figure at the
doorway, motionless as a statue, seemed to dominate the scene. Marley
felt a peculiar, sick paralysis stealing over him, a curious tugging
back of his muscles when he tried to get his hand to his hip, a
strangling feeling in his throat: that glance seemed petrifying him. The
absolute fearlessness, the indomitable will that filled it, seemed to
overcome him.

The very fact, perhaps, that Talbot had not even yet drawn his pistol,
the extreme coolness that relied upon the swiftness of his wrist to
draw it at a second's notice, staggered and scared him. He remembered
the skill that had long been his admiration, and that he had at last
learned to imitate, the sureness of aim and eye, the dexterity and
quickness of that hand, and his tongue fairly cleaved to the roof of his
dry mouth. He struggled to draw his revolver, but his arm refused to
obey his will. Yet it was not wholly cowardice that swept over him in a
sickly tide. As he had met those scornful, indignant eyes, there had
rushed back to his mind a thousand small benefits conferred upon him by
this man, a thousand instances of friendliness, the memory of the first
days they had worked together, how he had slept under his roof, fed at
his table, how, more than all, he had been given by him and instructed
in the use of this very weapon that now would be turned to the giver's
own breast. A horror of killing this man, of wounding him, firing upon
him, combined with his terror of being killed, swept over him, and
between these he felt cowed and beaten, unable to stand up and face him,
unable to do anything but drag one trembling foot behind the other and
go by, keeping watch from the side of his eye that that deadly pistol
was not drawn upon him. But Talbot never moved, simply stood and watched
him too, with fixed eyes; and Marley, overwhelmed by some power he did
not understand, as if dragged forward against his will, without another
look at his opponent, passed by them all and went on slowly down the
road leading to the town. Not a word was spoken, not a breath was drawn,
no one moved. They watched his retreating figure, some half hoping, half
expecting, some half fearing, he would turn and shoot from a
distance,--all wondering greatly, and a little overawed. Then, as he
neither turned nor looked back, but kept steadily ahead, his large
figure well outlined against the stretches of white snow, his
six-shooter glistening in the sun, his head hanging down, till at last
by a turn in the road he was lost to view, there was a long-drawn breath
of surprise and wonder, a general turning of the eyes to Talbot. It was
a victory, though a bloodless one, and they felt it. Each one felt that
the conqueror was before them. Talbot said nothing. He simply stood
aside from the door, to let the miners who were outside enter. The men
took it as a signification that they were to recommence work, and
hastened to obey. They did not dare to speak to him, not even to
congratulate him. They were awed into submissive silence before him. Not
a sound was uttered. The men filed silently into the tunnel like cowed
sheep into their pen, leaving their master standing motionless in the
sunshine.



CHAPTER III

KATRINE'S NEIGHBOURS


Good Luck Row was a little row of small, insignificant cabins towards
the back of the city, and at right angles to the direction of the main
street. Dawson faces the Yukon, and its main thoroughfare lies parallel
with the river. In the summer, when the Yukon and the Klondike, that
joins it just above, are free, the waters of the two rivers united come
rolling by in jubilant majesty, tossing loose blocks of ice, the
remnants of their winter chains, on their swelling tide. They form a
little eddy in front of the city, and their waters roll outward and
swirl back again to their course, as if the great stream made a bow to
the city front as it swept past. Here in the summer, with the steamboats
ploughing through the rocking green water, and the sun streaming down
upon the banks crowded with active human beings, glinting on the gay
signs of the saloons and the white and green painted doors of the
warehouses, with the brilliant azure sky stretched above, and far off
the tall green larches piercing it with their slender tops,--in the
summer this main street is a pleasant, cheerful sight; but now, with the
river solid and silent, the banks black and frozen, and the bleak,
bitter sky above, it looked more desolate than the inner streets of the
town, more uninviting than Good Luck Row, which had little cabins on
each side, and where the inhabitants overlooked their opposite
neighbours' firelit interior instead of the frozen river. The side-walks
of the row were like the other side-walks of the city, a wealth of soft
mud and slush and dirt through the warm weather, and now frozen hard
into uneven lumps, big depressions, and rough hummocks. The cabins were
uniform in size, small, with one fair-sized window in the front, beside
the door, which opened straight into the main room, where the front
window was. At the back there was another smaller room with a tiny
window, looking out over a black barren ice-field, for Good Luck Row was
on the edge of the town.

Katrine lived at No. 13. This cabin had been the last to be occupied on
account of its unlucky number, but Katrine only laughed at it, and
painted it very large in white paint upon the door. Here Katrine lived
alone, though her father, the little stunted Pole who kept the "Pistol
Shot," was one of the richest men in the city.

And because she lived alone some of her neighbours declared she was not
respectable. As a matter of fact, she was more respectable than many of
the married women living in the row, and Katrine knew many a story with
which she could have startled an unsuspecting husband when he came into
town after a week or two's absence prospecting or at work on the claims;
but she did not trouble about other people's affairs; she gave her
friendship to those who sought it, and heeded not at all those who
condemned her.

On an afternoon about three weeks after her first meeting with Stephen,
Katrine stood in front of her little glass in the corner of her cabin,
smoothing her short glossy hair; when this was flattened with
mathematical exactness to her well-shaped head--for Katrine was always
trim and neat in her appearance--she turned to the table and wrote on a
slip of paper, "I'm next door;" this she pinned to the outside of her
door, and then locking it went into the next cabin in the row. She had
grown quite accustomed to Stephen's visits now, and generally left a
note on her door when she went out, in case he should come unexpectedly
in her absence. The cabin she entered presented a different appearance
from her own. There was the same large stove opposite the door, the same
rough table in the centre and wooden chairs round, but the floor was
dirty and gritty, quite unlike Katrine's, which always maintained a
white and floury look from her constant attentions, and the stove looked
rusty and uncleaned. The small square panes of the window, too, hardly
let in any light, they were so obscured by dust inside and snow frozen
on to them without. By the stove sat a young woman, in whose face
ill-health and beauty struggled together for predominance. Her hair,
twisted into a loose knot at the back of her head, was of the lightest
gold colour, like a young child's, and her face brought to one's mind
the idea of milk and violets, the skin was so white and smooth and the
eyes so blue. This was the beauty which no disease could kill, but
ill-health triumphed in the livid circles round the eyes, the drawn
lines round the faded lips. Katrine entered with her brightest smile.

"Well, Annie, are you better to-day?" she asked.

The woman rose with an unsteady movement from the chair, and before she
could answer burst suddenly into a rain of tears. "Better? Oh, Katie, I
shall never be any better! But I wish I could go home to die!"

Katrine advanced and put her arms round her, drawing the frail
attenuated form close against her own warm vigorous frame.

"What nonsense!" she said gently. "You are not going to die at home or
anywhere yet. Why, Will is going to make a big strike, and take you home
to live in style all the rest of your life."

"No," sobbed the girl,--for she was no more than a girl in age,--falling
back in her chair again. "No, it won't come in time for me."

"Where is Will?" asked Katrine, looking round.

"He's just got a job up at the west gulch on Mr. Stephen Wood's claim,"
returned the other. "Oh, I am that thankful he's found some one to
employ him at last."

"Yes, it's delightful," returned Katrine, absently, as she sat down on
the other side of the rusty stove and looked round the dirty, cheerless
room. It was due to her urgent pleading with Stephen that Will had
obtained the place on the claim, but his wife did not seem to know, and
Katrine did not tell her.

"But then it don't lead to nothing," continued Annie, despairingly. "He
can't look out for himself if he's working another man's ground."

"Well, he only does a few hours' work, I believe, and has the rest of
the day to look round for himself," returned Katrine.

"It don't amount to much, anyway; this time of the year there ain't no
day to speak of," replied the other, gazing plaintively through the dim
glass of the window. "And then if he do see a bit of land he fancies,
why, he can't buy it, he's got no money."

"I think Mr. Wood will advance him enough to buy any ground he thinks
well of," replied Katrine, gently.

"Mr. Wood!" repeated Annie, opening her sunken eyes wide with the first
display of interest she had shown. "Why should he help my man along?"

"I don't know," returned Katrine, evasively, with heightened colour;
"but he told me he would do so, and I know he will. How is Tim to-day?"
she added suddenly, to divert the conversation.

The mother looked round.

"Tim!" she called; "where is that child? Katie, you go and look if you
can see him in the wood-shed."

Katrine crossed the room to the lean-to attached to the cabin and looked
in. On the floor of the wood-shed, with the happy indifference to the
cold usually displayed by Klondike infants, little Tim sat on the floor
with a pile of chips beside him. Great icicles hung from the rafters
above him, and his tiny hands were blue with cold, but he was
contentedly and silently piling up the wood on the frozen ground.
Katrine picked him up and carried him into the next room, and put him by
the fire at his mother's feet. He did not cry nor offer any resistance,
but when put in his new location looked round for a few minutes, and
then calmly leaned towards the stove and began to play with the cinders
in place of his vanished wood chips.

"What a good little fellow he is!" said Katrine, leaning over him.

"Yes; he's his mother's darling, that's what he is!" returned the other,
stooping to smooth the curly head that was only a shade lighter than
her own.

"Will you have some coffee?" asked Annie presently, looking helplessly
towards the dirty stove, where a feeble fire was burning sulkily amongst
the old wood ash.

"No," returned Katrine, cheerfully; "you must be getting tired of
coffee. I brought you some tea for a change," and she extracted a neat
little packet from one of her pockets. "May I do up the fire and make
some for you?"

"Why, it will make you so dirty; that stove is in an awful state,"
replied Annie, looking over the other's neat dress and figure dubiously.

"I don't mind that. Pick up the baby," Katrine answered, rolling up her
sleeves and displaying two rounded muscular arms white as the snow
outside. "You'd better move farther out of the dust," she added, going
down on her knees before the stove. Annie picked up the child and
retreated to a chair by the window, from where she watched the other
with a sort of helpless envy.

"Lord! I've grown that weak lately I can't do nothing," she said after a
minute. "You know how nice I used to keep the place for Will when we
first came."

Katrine nodded in silence, and two bright tears fell amongst the wood
ash she was taking from the stove. She did remember the bright, active
young wife, the united little family moving into the cabin next her only
a year ago; she remembered the interior that had always been so neat and
clean and cheerful to receive Will when he came home, the unceasing
devotion of his wife, and the mutual love and hope that had buoyed them
up and made them face all hardships smilingly. Then she had watched
sorrowfully the gradual deterioration of the man under the constant
disappointment; she had met him more and more frequently in the
saloons, less and less at his home. She had seen day by day the rapid
decline of the bright, beautiful young creature he had brought with him
into this poor faded wraith dragging herself about in the neglected,
cheerless cabin.

"You'll get stronger again in the warm weather," she said after a
minute, when her voice was steady.

"You wouldn't say that if you'd seen what I saw on the snow this morning
when I'd been coughing there back of the wood-shed," returned Annie,
drearily leaning her tired head against the dingy pane.

"What do you mean?" asked Katrine, looking up apprehensively. "Blood?"

The other nodded in silence, and there was quiet in the cabin except for
the crooning of the child. Then Katrine rose from the hearth impulsively
with a flushed, lovely face and the ash dust on her hair and dress. She
went over to Annie and drew her head on to her strong, warm bosom.

"Oh, you poor, poor thing! What can we do?" she said desperately.

"Nothing," murmured Annie, closing her eyes in the girl's soothing
embrace, "unless you could persuade Will to take me home, and nobody
could do that now, he's so set upon the gold. That's the second bleeding
from the chest that I've had this month; now the third'll do for me."

She shivered as if from cold, and Katrine kissed her and hastened back
to her work at the fire. It is not a pleasant nor an easy thing to do to
clean out a stove that has been left to itself for a week or more and
fresh fires kindled on the old ashes every day, but in a few minutes
Katrine had the work completed and the fresh wood crackling and filling
the stove with red flame. Then she made the tea rapidly, and neither of
them spoke again till Annie held a great tin mug of it to her white
lips. Katrine pulled her chair close to the stove again, and took Tim on
her own lap, where he found a new toy in her cartridge belt. Annie
sipped from her mug and gazed absently into the flames.

"Lord, we were so happy," she said musingly, a little colour coming into
her face under the influence of the hot tea and the warmth from the
re-invigorated fire. "We had the nicest little home down in Brixham. I
daresay you don't know where that is?" Katrine shook her head. "It's
just the prettiest, sweetest village in the world, down in Devonshire;
and we had a cottage there, quite in the country, with pink roses all
over the front,--I can smell those roses now. Oh, it was lovely; and
Will had regular work all the time, and he was the best husband woman
ever had. He used to bring his wages in Saturdays, and say to me,
'Annie, old girl, ain't there enough there to get you a new ribbon for
Sunday or a fresh sash for the baby?' He never spent a penny for drink
nor tobacco. And Sunday we'd go out on the downs and stand looking at
the sea; it do come in so splendid there, and the wind from it seems to
put new life in yer. We was as happy and as well as could be, all of us;
and then them newspapers got to printing all those tales of the gold in
the Klondike, and Will he just got mad like, and nothing would do but he
must sell the house and come out here. He thought he'd come back so
rich; well, so he may, but he won't have no wife to go back with."

She lay back in her chair, and Katrine, gazing at her white face and
transparent hands, said nothing.

"I'm glad I stuck to Will, though," the woman went on softly after a
minute, "and didn't let him come out here alone. A wife's place is by
her husband wherever he goes, and I'd rather die with him than be
separated. But there, I do hate the name of gold. It broke up our home,
it's broke up our lives, and it's just killed me, that's what it's done.
And what's the good of it? Why, as I said to Will before we came, 'We
can't be no more than happy, and we're that now.'"

Katrine said nothing. She was one of those women who in society would
have gained the name of a good conversationalist, for she always
listened attentively and spoke hardly at all.

It grew rapidly darker outside and began to snow a little, the peculiar
sharp, small snow of Alaska. The two women could hardly see each other's
faces in the gloom, when Katrine rose and offered to light the lamp.

"There ain't no oil left," returned Annie, drearily. "I just sit in the
dark most of the time; I don't mind as long as I have a bit of fire. It
do seem more lonesome though when you've no light," she added with a
sigh.

"Haven't you any money to buy it with?"

Annie shook her head. "Not till Will comes back."

"Well, here's enough to keep you in oil for the next three months," said
Katrine, taking a little object from her belt which looked like a
well-filled tobacco pouch and putting it on the shelf above her head.

"What's that? dust?" said Annie. "Where-ever do you get so much money?"
she added, staring at her.

"I won that last night," returned Katrine, lightly. "I do have such
luck. I wish you could come, Annie, and see the fun we have down town of
a night, instead of moping up here; and I do have such luck," she
repeated again with a half sigh. "I don't know what I'd do if it should
change. I'd have to be bar-keep for a living, I suppose. Think I'd make
a good bar-keep?" she said, getting up and stretching her arms above her
head. All her full lissom figure was revealed to advantage by the
attitude, and the firelight fell softly on the gay, bewitching face,
slanted over to one shoulder as she put the question.

"I do that," replied Annie, with emphasis. "Your bar would always be
crammed by all the chaps in the place, my dear."

Katrine laughed. "I'm glad you think so. I'll bring you some of my oil
to burn for to-night, and then I must be off earning my living."

She went into her own cabin and brought back a can of oil with her,
trimmed and cleaned and lit Annie's lamp, and then with a kiss bade her
good-bye till next day, and took her way down to the main street. She
had only a little dust in her belt, just enough to start playing with,
and if luck should go against her she would have to return empty handed;
but then she always trusted to luck, and it had never forsaken her. Her
mode of life, precarious and uncertain, dangerous and unsatisfactory as
it might seem to an onlooker, never troubled her. She was in that state
of glorious physical health and strength which lends an unlimited
confidence to the mind, a sense of being able to cope with any
difficulty which might suddenly present itself, when every present or
possible trouble looks small, and when mere life itself, the mere
sensation of the blood being warm in one's veins, is a joy. She loved
the excitement, even the uncertainty of her life, and she had more
friends in the town than she could count, who would be glad to lend her
all she needed if her luck failed.

That night, when Katrine lay fast asleep in her small inner room, her
curly head tucked down comfortably under the rugs, she dreamed she heard
a knocking on her door. The sound seemed faint at first, but grew
louder, and after a minute she woke up, lifted her head, and listened.
Yes, there was a tapping on her door, she heard it quite distinctly.
She got up immediately, slipped into her fur coat and boots, and taking
one of her pistols in her hand, went to the door. That there was danger
in answering such a summons at such an hour she knew quite well, but
that did not hinder her. She was accustomed to live with her life in her
hand, and she felt instinctively confident of being able so to hold it,
and meant to keep a tight grip on it. When she opened the door it was to
a vivid moonlight, clear and brighter than day; the whole white world
was shining under it.

"Annie!" she exclaimed as her eyes fell on the slight, feeble figure
muffled in a blanket that stood on her steps. "What is the matter? Come
in," and she put the door wide open and stood back for her to pass.

"Oh, Katie," she said, seizing the other's hands when they stood inside
the room, "forgive me for waking you, but I want Will. I feel I'm going
to die to-night, and I can't without him--I can't," and she burst into a
flood of tears broken by short sobbing coughs. She had slipped to her
knees and was holding Katrine's hands in a feverish clutch. The blanket
had fallen from her head and shoulders, and showed to Katrine that she
was still in her day dress; it did not seem as if she had been to bed at
all. There was a dark, half-dried stain upon the front of her bodice.

"I'm dying! Oh, Katie, it's so dreadful all alone there. Will you go and
bring Will to me? Oh, do."

Katrine looked down upon her as she tried to raise her to her feet. The
fire was still burning brightly and filled the room with light. Many
people older than Katrine would have laughed at the woman's statement in
face of her ability to come to them and make it, but Katrine's keen
perceptions read much, too much, in the bright glazed eyes that looked
up at her, in the hoarse grating tones that came from the sunken chest,
and the feverish grasp of those burning fingers. She stooped down and
put her arms round the kneeling figure and drew her up.

"Why, of course I will. I will bring him to you. But you are only ill,
dear; you're not dying."

"Oh, I may not, I know; but if I should, and he not here! Katie, can you
go now?--it's so late, and so cold, and so far. I don't see how you
can."

"He's working up on Mr. Wood's claim at the west gulch. I suppose if I
go to Mr. Wood's cabin he can tell me where to find Will."

"Oh, yes, yes," returned Annie, eagerly, a crimson flush now lighting up
each cheek; "go straight to Mr. Wood and ask him for Will. One of Will's
ponies is down here, back of our house; you can take him and ride up.
Oh, it may kill you to go; I ought not to ask it. Oh, what shall I do?"

Katrine laughed. "Kill me!" she said. "It would take more to kill me
than that, I think. I shall be up there and Will down here before you
know where you are. Now you've just got to drink this brandy while I go
and get some things on. You're just fretting for Will, that's what is
the matter with you. I believe you will feel all right when you see him
again."

She put the trembling woman into a chair, and went back to her room to
put her clothes on. She noticed that her boots, which had been damp the
night before, had frozen to the ground, and she had to break them from
it by force.

"I shall be lucky if I get back with my feet unfrozen," she thought to
herself, looking regretfully at the warm bed she had left; but it never
once, even remotely, occurred to her to refuse the unwelcome mission.
She put on all her thickest garments, buckled her pistols on her hip,
and went back to Annie, who was crouching over the fire in the next
room.

"I had better take the pony," she said; "he'll get me there and back
quicker than I can walk, if you think the little animal is up to it."

Annie nodded. "He's well fed," she said, "and has had nothing to do
since Will's been gone."

Katrine shut the stove up, and the two women went out together.

It was a still dead cold without, the sort of night on which your limbs
might freeze beyond recovery, and without your knowing it, so insidious
and so little aggressive was the cold.

"You go in and keep warm," said Katrine; "I'll find the pony and manage
him," and she pushed Annie gently within her own door, and went round to
the shed at the back of the cabin where the pony was. Her hands in that
short time had grown so stiff with cold she could hardly put the saddle
on and fasten the girth and straps. The pony knew her, and pricked his
ears and snorted while she was getting him ready; he had been idle in
his stable two days, and by this time was willing to welcome any change
in the monotony of life. When she had adjusted everything carefully by
the light of the strong moon falling through the little window, she
threw herself cross leg upon his back and rode him out of the shed.
Annie had her face pressed eagerly against the back window of her cabin,
watching for her to appear. Katrine smiled at her, lifted her fur cap
above her head for an instant as a man would do, and then the next
moment was cantering away over the snowy waste that stretched behind
Good Luck Row. She went at a good pace, urged on by that last glimpse of
the pale face, with the terrible look of haunted fear on it, pressed to
the window.

The temperature was very low, but the absence of wind and dampness in
the air made the cold bearable. Katrine, haunted by the fear of
frostbite, kept pinching her nose and pulling her ears and banging her
feet against the pony's side to keep the blood stirring in them. Inside
the first half-hour she was away some distance from the lights of
Dawson, and nothing but great snowy stretches lay around her.

That night up at the west gulch it happened that neither Stephen nor
Talbot had gone to bed. There is little to choose between night and day
there, since half of the day hours are dark as the blackest night, and a
man can sleep in them as profitably or more so than in the moonlit hours
of the night. Three o'clock in the morning had come, and the two men
were still sitting talking on each side of the stove, with an opened
whisky bottle on the table between them, in Stephen's cabin, when the
dull sound of a horse's footfall broke the blank silence of the gulch.
Both sprang to their feet on the instant, and Talbot drew his pistol
from his belt and stood listening with it in his hand.

"I always said we oughtn't to keep our gold up here," said Stephen, and
his face whitened.

Talbot held up his hand to enjoin silence, and they waited while the
sound of hoofs moving slowly over the treacherous and uneven soil came
nearer. Then there was a pause, which seemed to the men inside endless.
Then two distinct taps at the door. Talbot, who was nearer it, made a
forward movement, but Stephen caught his arm.

"What are you going to do?" he whispered.

"Open it and fire," returned Talbot, laconically, and he pushed back the
latch and raised his revolver as he opened the door.

Stephen was close behind him, and Talbot almost stepped upon him as he
drew back with astonishment the next instant. Katrine jumped from the
pony's back and stepped over the threshold without invitation.

"How lucky I am to find you up!" she exclaimed, and then seeing Talbot's
hastily lowered revolver in his right hand she burst out laughing. "So
you were going to shoot, were you?" she said, drawing out her own.
"Well, I was quite ready; I have been all the ride. I am sorry I
frightened you."

"Frightened us!" repeated the two men in a breath, with an indignant
glance.

"Oh no, of course I didn't mean that," rejoined Katrine, laughing.
"Disturbed you, I should say. Oh, Stephen, give me some of that whisky;
I am almost dead with cold."

Her face did indeed look frozen white with cold under her fur cap, and
her dark eyes shone in it with a liquid splendour that made Stephen's
heart beat tumultuously against his side. He poured out some of the
spirit for her and pushed her gently into a chair, commencing to pull
off her thick gloves for her.

"I want Will Johnson," she said, with her customary directness.
"Stephen, I've come up to fetch him. He's one of your men. Tell me where
I can find him."

"What do you want with him at this time of night?" questioned Stephen,
while Talbot silently extracted a plate of bread and bacon from the
cupboard and put it on the table at her elbow.

"I don't want him for myself," she answered mischievously. "His wife has
sent me up to find him; she thinks she is dying, and wants to see him
to-night. Where can I find him?"

"His cabin is a little higher up the gulch, but you mustn't go there; I
will go after him," said Stephen hastily.

"I don't know," replied Katrine; "I'd better ride up there and then take
him on home with me, hadn't I?"

"Ride back again to-night!" exclaimed Stephen. "What madness! It was
bad enough to make the ride once. She mustn't think of it, must she,
Talbot?" and he turned to his friend for corroboration.

"Certainly not, I should say," returned Talbot, in his quiet but final
way. "I will ride up to Johnson's place and send him down home, and you
can make Katrine comfortable here."

The girl sprang to her feet.

"Why, what an idea!" she said, with a flush on her pale cheeks. "I only
came to you to find Will. Of course I can't stay here all night."

"Your mission will be accomplished, won't it, if Will goes to his wife?"
returned Talbot quietly. "There is no need to risk your life again.
There is no good in it; besides, it will save time if you let Will have
the pony at once to take him back. You can have one of ours in the
morning."

She looked up at him. She admired Talbot exceedingly. His voice was so
invariably gentle and quiet, so different from all the voices that she
heard round her daily. Stephen's, though his resembled it, had not the
same curious accent of refinement. His manner, too, had the same extreme
gentleness; and yet beneath this apparent softness she knew there
existed a courage that equalled any in the whole camp. He looked very
handsome too, she thought, at this moment, as she met a soft smile in
his eyes, and her tones were more hesitating as she repeated--

"I think I ought to return."

"Well, I'm going to despatch Will for you," replied Talbot, turning
away. "I leave it to you, Stephen, to persuade her to stay," and he
walked out. A second later they heard the pony's hoofs going up the
narrow trail past the cabin.

"You can have my room; I'll sleep here on the floor," remarked Stephen.

The girl got up.

"No," she said in her most decided tone. "I'll stay if you let me sleep
here on the floor, or I'll go home. Turn you out of your own comfortable
bed I will not."

"Go home you can't," said Stephen in an equally decided tone, "so I'll
make you up a bed here just in front of the stove."

He went into the next room, and Katrine, left alone, drank up her whisky
and gazed round the cabin. It was not at all an interesting interior,
and had not the faint suggestions of artistic taste that redeemed
Talbot's. A few prints were on the walls, seemingly cut from illustrated
papers and principally consisting of views of cathedrals and school
buildings, which Katrine's eyes wandered over without interest. At the
farthest end from her there were some stout shelves nailed against the
wall, and on these rested a row of flat tin pans; between the pans were
pushed one or two books, and she recognised amongst them his Greek
testament. She rose and strolled over to the shelf, and standing on
tiptoe looked into the pans. As she thought, they contained thin layers
of gold dust. She was standing there looking into them when Stephen
returned and came up behind her.

"They look fine, don't they?" he said. "That's a thirty dollar pan."

Katrine turned, and looking up was startled by the eager light in his
face and the greed written in every line of it. For herself, reckless,
happy-go-lucky gambler that she was by nature, gold had little value for
her except to toss by the handful on the tables to buy half-an-hour's
excitement. With a sudden movement she seized the fullest pan by the rim
in one hand and the Greek testament beside it in the other, and danced
away from him to the other side of the room. Stephen turned with an
involuntary cry, and followed her with anxious eyes.

"Now which would you rather lose?" she said, laughing.

His eyes were fixed upon the pan, which was heavy and as much as she
could support with one hand. He dreaded each minute to see it tip up and
its golden treasure pour out on the floor.

"Oh, I don't know. Don't be foolish," he said in a vexed tone.

Katrine sidled up to the window.

"Answer, or I'll--"

Stephen turned white. He felt she was capable of doing any mad thing
when he met those mocking, sparkling eyes.

"Oh--I--I--would rather lose the book," he stammered, in an agony to see
the gold safely put back. "I could replace that, you know."

Katrine advanced to him, balancing the pan as if weighing it.

"Stephen, this is very heavy," she said, looking him straight in the
eyes.

"Let me take it from you," he said, eagerly stretching out his hands.

"Do you know what makes it so?" she said, still balancing it and still
looking at him. "Your soul is in it!" and she gave it back to him.

Stephen reddened angrily, and took both the book and the gold from her
and replaced them sulkily on the shelf. Katrine had turned her back and
walked over to the fire, humming.

"What a royal couch you've made me!" she remarked, breaking the awkward
silence that followed, and looking down on the pile of red blankets he
had spread in front of the stove.

He had, in fact, stripped his own bed and collected blankets from every
corner to make a comfortable resting-place for her. Before Stephen could
answer he was summoned to the door. Talbot looked in upon them, but
would not come inside.

"I've sent Will off," he said; "he swore like anything, but he is gone.
No, thanks, Steve, I won't come in. I'm tired, and going to my own cabin
now. See you at breakfast. Good-night," and before Katrine could thank
him he was gone.

The two thus left entirely alone in the deep quiet of the gulch to pass
the night together looked at each other for a moment with a shade of
silent embarrassment. But the girl, accustomed as she was to take care
of herself in all sorts of situations and surroundings, and endued with
a certain fierce chastity of nature, recovered herself instantly and
spoke quite naturally.

"I feel tired too, and would like to go to sleep now, if I may."

"Certainly," said Stephen. "You have this room to yourself. The stove
will burn till daylight, and you have the whisky if you feel cold in the
night. Good-night."

His tone was very formal, for he would so much have liked it to be
otherwise, and without looking at her he took a match from his pocket
and went into the other room, shutting the door after him. The girl
waited a moment, then she shut the door of the stove and threw herself
down on the soft pile of blankets, and drawing one of them over her to
her ears, drew a deep, contented sigh, and was peacefully asleep in a
few seconds.

The next morning Stephen rose stiff and cramped from his denuded bed.
When he was completely dressed he silently opened his door and crept
noiselessly into the adjoining room. The girl was not yet awake, and he
stole softly over to the bed on the hearth and looked down at her. She
lay warm and sleeping comfortably amongst the blankets. She was fully
dressed, just as she had been the previous evening, except that two or
three buttons were unfastened at the collar of her dress, and allowed
the solid white neck to show beneath the rounded chin. The little head,
with its mass of dark silky curls, lay inclined towards the stove, and
the curled rosy lips had a softer smile than they generally wore in the
daytime. Stephen leaned over her, entranced and breathless. As his eyes
followed the dark arch of the eyebrows, the sweet delicate contour of
the cheek, he forgot the horror he felt of her sometimes in her waking
moments, forgot the hideous background of the saloons, forgot all the
evil there might be in her, and bowed before that supreme power that
human beauty has over us; he worshipped her as he had never worshipped
his God. For a few seconds it was enough for him to gaze on her, then
came an overwhelming impulse to stoop and kiss the soft youthful lips,
to touch them even if ever so lightly. If he could without awakening
her! But no, she was his guest, under his roof and protection. All that
was best in his nature rose and held him motionless like a hand of
iron. After a few seconds Katrine stirred, and Stephen, feeling she was
about to awake, would have moved away, but his eyes seemed fixed and as
impossible to remove from her face as one's hands are from an electric
battery. The next minute her lids were lifted, and her eyes, two wells
of living light, flashed up at him.

"Good-morning," she said, sitting up. "How dreadfully pale you look,
Stephen! What is the matter?"

"Do I?" he answered, with a forced laugh, feeling the blood, which had
seemed to rest suspended in his veins for those few seconds, rush to his
heart again in great waves.

"You do indeed," she said, getting up. "I expect you want your
breakfast. Tell me what I can do to make myself useful."

She shook her hair straight, fastened the collar of her bodice, and, was
dressed. She needed no toilet apparently, but looked as clean and fresh
as a rose waking up in its garden.

"Nothing," returned Stephen hastily. "Go over and tell Talbot to come in
to breakfast, if you like; I'll have it ready when you come back."

Katrine looked round regretfully, as if she would have liked to stay and
help him; then concluding she had better do as she was told, she took up
her fur cap and went out.

The west gulch looks magnificent in the first early light, with all
degrees of shadows, some black, some dusky, some the clearest grey,
lingering in its snowy recesses, and the first glimpse of gold falling
down it from the east. Katrine stopped and gazed up at the impressive
beauty above and around her: trees in the gulch, now covered with a
thick snowy mantle, stood assuming all sorts of grotesque forms, and
extending their arms as if calling the spectator to their cold embrace.
It was beautiful, but to Katrine it seemed so silent, so overawing, and
so death-like, that she shivered as she looked up and down from the
flat plateau where she stood, and hurried on the few necessary yards to
Talbot's cabin.

When they came back together they found Stephen had all in readiness,
the fire blazing on the hearth and the breakfast waiting on the table.
He made Katrine sit at the head and pour out the coffee for them, which
she did with pleased, smiling eyes. Talbot said good-bye to her and went
out to his claim immediately it was over, and Katrine and Stephen were
left alone. He said he would go and get a pony for her and Katrine rose,
but then Stephen hesitated and did not go after all. He turned to her
instead, and came back from the door to where she was standing.

"Will you listen to something I want to say to you?" he said, his heart
beating wildly.

"Why, certainly I will," the girl answered simply, and she sat down in
the chair behind her and folded her hands. Then she looked up
inquiringly, waiting for him to begin, but Stephen's voice was dried up
in his throat. He stood in front of her, one damp hand nervously
clasping the back of a chair, unable to articulate a word. Confusion and
excitement overwhelmed him, and he stood turning paler and paler,
staring at the proud, handsome face framed in the living yellow sunshine
before him. At last he felt he could not even stand, and he turned away
with a groan and sank down on the nearest chair with his face in his
hands. Katrine, who had been watching him anxiously for the last few
seconds, sprang up and went over to him.

"What is the matter?" she said, laying her hand on his shoulder. "Are
you ill?"

"No, oh no," said Stephen, catching the little hand in both of his. "No,
I want to tell you I love you. Do you care for me? Will you marry me
right away, and come up and live here with me?"

His voice had come back to him all right now, and he turned and gazed
eagerly up at her.

Katrine did not answer immediately, but she did not withdraw her hand
that he was pressing hotly between his own, and a faint smile that came
over her face showed she was not displeased; and here Stephen missed his
cue--he should have taken the hesitating figure into his arms and kissed
the undecided lips. In the sudden awakening of womanly feeling, in the
momentary excitement, in the glimpse into passion, Katrine would have
consented, welcoming as her nature did any new emotion; but Stephen was
embarrassed and afraid. Fear and uncertainty held him back, the kiss
burned ungiven on his own lips, and Katrine uninfluenced by passion
could think clearly.

What! come up here and live in this deathly quiet, away from even such
amusement as the camp offered? Submit to all his tiresome religious
conversations, and, above all, give up those feverish nights of
excitement? the hazard and the stimulus of the long tables and the
little heaps of gold dust? and her free life, her incomings and
outgoings, with no one to question her? No, it was an impossibility.

The next thing Stephen knew was that she was smiling and looking down
into his eyes, shaking her head.

"No, Stephen, I can't do that. I like you awfully, and should like you
to come and see me; but I wouldn't do for your wife at all, and if you
knew all about me you wouldn't want it either."

Stephen clung fast to her hand.

"What is it that I don't know?" he said desperately, putting, as people
always do, the worst construction he could upon her words, and at the
same time feeling he would forgive her everything, and in a sort of
background in his brain contemplating the figure of the forgiven
Magdalen at the feet of Christ.

Katrine dragged her hand away suddenly. She was not going to tell him
she was a gambler and devoted to the excitement of the tables. She knew
that if she did their pleasant talks in the evenings would be at an end.
He could never come to see her without thinking it his duty to try to
reform her; and as she knew she was not going to reform, what would be
the good of it?

"What does it matter to you? I am not your wife, and am not going to be;
I am an acquaintance. If you like me as I am, very good; if you don't,
no one cares."

Stephen got up and faced her. He was as white as the snow outside.

"You make me think the worst by refusing to confide in me."

Katrine laughed contemptuously.

"I don't care a curse what you think! Haven't I just told you so? Great
heavens," she added, with a burst of conviction, "it would never do for
us to marry! Never! Your one idea is to curtail a person's liberty."

"No," answered Stephen quietly, "not liberty in a general way; only the
liberty to sin and do evil, the liberty to be ignorant and do things
which have terrible consequences that you don't know."

He looked very well at this moment, his pale ascetic face and
sympathetic eyes lighted up with enthusiasm. Katrine looked at him and
then smiled with her quick, impulsive smile.

"Stephen, you are a good man, and perfectly charming at times; but I am
not a good woman, and don't want to be, and we should never get on. So
don't let's bother any more about this question at all."

An exceedingly pained expression came over Stephen's face, and Katrine
was quick enough to feel that from her words he judged her errors to be
other than they were. In a few words she might have cleared his mind
from the idea of her actual immorality, but she was too proud to stand
upon her own defence before him; besides, if her faults were not of that
class, he would want to know what they were, and in his eyes a girl that
gambled and drank and swore, and preferred the dance halls and variety
shows to the mission church any day, was quite bad enough; so she
concluded in her thoughts, "It doesn't matter if he is mixed."

Stephen at the moment was afraid to press her further, and did not know
quite how to treat her; but he was not wholly discouraged, and he
thought it best to retain the ground he already had.

"Well, I shall be in town in a few days," he said, "and I shall come to
see you as usual, mayn't I?"

"Of course," returned Katrine, and they did not speak again till they
were outside and she was mounted at the head of the trail.

What a morning it was! The crisp air was like a bath of sparkling
sunlight; the untrodden snow glittered everywhere. Far above the trail a
ridge of dark green pine broke against the pale azure of the sky.
Stephen leaned against the pony's side and gazed into the warm, lustrous
eyes.

"Good-bye, my darling--my own darling perhaps some day."

"I don't think so," she answered, with a mischievous smile, and set the
pony at a trot down the trail.

She had to pass Talbot's cabin on her way back, and as she approached
she saw him a little way up the creek surrounded by his men. She reined
in her horse to a walk as she passed, and contemplated him. His figure
always pleased and arrested her eyes--it had a certain height and
strength and grace that marked it out distinctly from others; and then
what an advantage it was, she thought, he had no religion and believed
in none of those things, and, in short, was quite as bad or worse than
she herself was. She walked her horse on slowly, thinking. Somehow it
seemed to her that life in his cabin would be far more piquant and
amusing than in Stephen's. Yet he neither drank nor gambled, and as for
the dance halls and theatre,--well, he had told her he liked dancing;
and what a waltz that had been they had had together! But life with
Stephen! He would be too good for her, and too stupid. She had a vague
sense that what she lived for, excitement, he condemned in all its
forms. Just what she cared for in drink, in play, in the dance, the
electric pleasure of them, was just what he shrank from as a wile of the
Evil One. Even the religious services of the High Church he condemned
for the same reason. No, it would never do; life with him would be as
cold as the snow around her. She was glad that her answer had been as it
had. There was a level place in the trail here, and she put the horse
to a gallop, and so came into town with her cheeks stung into rich
crimson by the keen air, and her spirits exhilarated and ready for any
mischief going.

She went at once to No. 14 in the row, and found Will sitting by his
wife's bedside like a model husband. The girl was lying down, her weak
white hand clasped in and nearly hidden by the swollen, rough red hand
of the miner. She gave a little cry as Katrine entered, and buried her
head under the blanket.

"You are not angry with me for sending you up when it wasn't really
necessary?" came a smothered voice.

Katrine flung herself on her knees beside the bed and put her arms
impetuously round the thin form under the coverlet.

"Angry with you for not dying!" she said, between laughing and crying.
"Why, I think you're the best girl in the world, and Will's a pretty
good doctor, too!" she added, glancing up at him.

Will coloured and looked a little uneasy, remembering his oaths of last
night when he was roused to a ten-mile ride; but Katrine couldn't or
wouldn't notice anything amiss. She said sweet things to both of them,
and then, unwilling to rob Annie of any part of Will's company, she
withdrew to her own cabin.

Two or three weeks passed, and dreary weeks they were. The temperature
fell below the zero mark and stayed there, the sun hardly ever shone,
the whole sky being blotted out as behind a thick grey curtain. The few
hours of daylight that each twenty-four hours brought round was little
more than a dismal twilight. Times were dreary, too, provisions ran
scarce and very high, and the cheerless cold and darkness seemed to
paralyse the energies of the strongest and lay a grip upon the whole
town. Many months of the winter had already gone by, and strength and
spirits were beginning to flag; health and courage had worn thin, and
men who had faced the bitterness of the cold with a joke when it had
first set in felt it keenly now like the rest. In Good Luck Row matters
were worse than anywhere else in the town; the occupants were mostly
very poor, and the pressure of the high prices was sharpest upon them.
In addition to all else they had to suffer, typhoid broke out amongst
them, and another horrible fear was added to the terror of the cold. In
the universal gloom that hung over the city, under the mantle of
darkness, want and starvation and fear and disease wrangled together,
while Death walked silently and continually about the darkened streets.
During all this time Katrine was about the only one who kept up her
spirits and courage. She was the light and comfort of the row, there was
not a cabin in it that had not been brightened and cheered by her
smiles and benefited by her gifts. She was absolutely without fear
herself. The quality seemed to have been left out of her composition, or
perhaps it was only that her great physical health and strength made her
feel unconsciously that it was impossible for any harm to come to her.
She went in and out of the fever-stricken cabins all day, doing what she
could for each one of the inmates, and always with her brilliant smile,
which was a tonic in itself, and half the night she would sit gambling
in the saloons, winning the money to spend upon her sick patients the
following day.

As soon as Stephen learned that typhoid had broken out in the row, he
came down to her and urged her to marry him and come away to the west
gulch, if only as an asylum. But Katrine simply laughed and joked, and
would not listen to him. Then he begged her to look upon herself merely
as his tenant; he and Talbot would share the same cabin, and she could
occupy his in perfect peace and security, and be safely away from the
depressing influences of the town and its disease-laden atmosphere. Then
she grew very grave, and said simply in a sweet tone that echoed through
all the chambers of his heart--

"Dear Stephen, you are very good to be so anxious for me, but I'm not a
bit anxious for myself. I should feel like a coward if I went away from
the row now. These people are so dependent upon me, and I can do so many
little things for them. I feel it's a duty to stay here, and I'd rather
do it;" and Stephen had kissed her hand passionately and gone back to
the gulch, more in love with her than ever.

She saw very little of him, and was too busy to think about him or note
whether he came or not, having so many anxieties on her mind just then,
of which the heaviest was the girl-wife Annie in the next cabin. Since
the semi-crisis in her illness, over which Katrine had helped her, there
seemed to be little change in her condition from day to day. That is,
the change did not show itself externally; within the delicate
structure, the disease, aided by the cold, the foul damp air of the
town, and hopeless spirits, crept steadily and quickly on, but gave
little or no outward sign, and Katrine hoped against hope that she could
possibly tide her over the time till Will perhaps made a strike and
could take her away. She knew how the sick woman clung to this idea. For
months now she had been shut off from all communication with the outer
world, she never saw a paper or a book, she could not move from her
cabin, her whole sphere was bounded now by its four rough walls, and so
the one idea that was left to her starved brain and heart was that Will
should make a strike. And as a weed runs over a bare and neglected
garden, so will one single idea completely absorb and fill a neglected
brain, and grow and grow to gigantic strength. This was Annie's one
idea; she brooded over it, pondered over it, nursed it, slept with it,
and talked to Katrine of it with burning eyes, till the latter felt if
it could only be fulfilled the joy of it would almost cure her. And it
might be fulfilled, she knew, any day. It was early days in the Klondike
then, and plenty of good ground lay around waiting to be discovered. She
heard from Stephen that Will was steady and energetic, had given up
drink, and was set upon the idea of prospecting for land of his own.
Katrine's heart beat hard with pure sympathy as she heard, and she
begged Stephen as the one thing he could do for herself to facilitate
Will's efforts in every way and aid him for her sake. Meanwhile, her own
care was to keep the fragile creature who was living upon hope still on
this side of the Great Divide. And to this end she worked night and
day. She kept her cabin clean and well lighted and well warmed. She
bought and made soup, and gave fabulous prices for meat and wine, and
sat with her long hours cheering her with stories heard in the saloons
and picked up in the streets, and scraps of news from the gulch and
farther points.

The disease seemed so quiescent that Katrine began to hope more and more
that she should be rewarded, and one morning a hurried note scribbled in
pencil was brought in to Annie while Katrine was scrubbing the cabin
floor, telling her in a few ill-spelt words that Will thought he might
get in to town that night. A bright flame of colour leaped over the
woman's pale face, and then the next moment faded as her hands with the
note in them fell listlessly to her lap.

"He ain't made no strike yet," Katrine heard her mutter to herself.

"You don't know," rejoined Katrine, looking up flushed and warm from her
hard work. "He may have some good news to tell you any way."

Annie merely shook her head and gazed out of the window.

"He'd have told me," she murmured, and that was all.

Katrine had a long and heavy round of visits to make that day, and for
two long hours she sat motionless by a dying woman's bedside, fearing to
withdraw her hand, to which the poor terrified enterer into the Valley
of the Shadow was clinging. In her arms, and with her tired head on
Katrine's young bosom, the woman drew her last breath; and Katrine,
feeling her own soul wrenched asunder and her body aching with strain
and shock, came round in the afternoon to Annie. She would not say a
word to her of the death-bed from which she had come. With an effort she
talked of cheerful things, of the spring-time that was on its way to
them, of the pleasure of seeing Will again, and so on, till her head
ached. She did a few domestic offices for the girl, and then feeling she
must break down herself if she stayed longer, she said she needed sleep,
and if Annie could take care of herself for a time she would go and lie
down. Annie noticed how heavy the lids were over her eyes and begged her
to go at once, though a strange fear, like a child's of the dark, came
over her.

"Will will be soon with you now--the best company," Katrine said, with a
tired smile; "and if you want me, a knock on the wall here will bring me
to you," and Annie was left alone.

As the afternoon closed in her cough seemed to grow more and more
troublesome; the pain in her chest, too, had never been so bad; she had
to keep her hand there all the time as she laboured round the room
putting everything to rights, making sure that the cabin was neat and
tidy against Will's return. At last she sat down in the circle of hot
light round the fire, and little Tim crawled into her lap. She put her
arms round him and held him absently. She was thinking over Katrine's
words. The Spring! were they really near it? "so near," she had said,
"it was almost here." Her eyes looking upwards to the darkening windows
caught the old and smoke-hued almanac pinned up to the wall beside it.
She set the child down, and getting up walked slowly over to it and ran
one trembling finger down the dates. Each one from December, when they
had first hung it up, had a heavy black line against it, where she had
scratched it out with eager fingers; only the last days had no mark
against them. She had been too weary, too heart sick, to note them any
longer. What did it matter to her when the Spring came? the almanac for
her would have come to an end before that. But now a fresh gleam of
hope seemed to have entered her heart, and with a feverish movement she
drew the old stump of pencil from her pocket and scratched off the
unmarked days, and then stood gazing at the date of that day; they were
still far, far from the Spring--too far. Oh, to go back in the Spring,
to escape from this prison of darkness, this country of horror and
starvation and misery, to be back once more in her home in the Spring!
Her mind fled away from the dreary interior of the darkening cabin. She
stood once more in the rich grassy meadow with the golden sunlight of an
evening summer sky warm around her, the song of the birds in her ears,
the hot scent of the meadow-sweet in her nostrils, before her the little
narrow path leading to the cottage that seemed to bask sleepily in the
yellow glow. She made a step forward with dilated eyes, then the cough
seized her, the vision dissolved and fled. Again the cabin with its
blackened rafters enclosed her. She turned from the calendar. What was
the Spring's coming? It might come, but they would not go back. What
right had she to think of it? They had made no strike, and had not Will
sworn he would never go back without the gold? This accursed gold! If
they could but have found it as others had! She put her hands to her
head to drive away the thoughts, they were familiar and so useless. She
had thought them over and over again so often. As she went back to the
fire she noticed one of Will's woollen shirts lying on a chair. Why,
that was the one she had meant to wash that morning! How could she have
forgotten it? And now perhaps she would not get it done before he
returned. Her heart began to beat, her limbs trembled. How weak and
queer she felt this afternoon! Still, she would do it somehow. There was
hot water on the fire that Katrine had put there. She lifted with an
effort the great iron kettle from the fire, and with that in one hand
and the shirt in the other she went into the adjoining sloping roofed
compartment that served as scullery, wood-shed, pantry, and wash-house.
It was many degrees colder here, and the long iron nails that kept the
boards together overhead had sparkling icicles on them that glittered as
the firelight from the inner room touched them, and she could hardly
draw her breath. Nevertheless she walked over to the wash-tub and poured
in the water, and set to work with shaking hands. "Had ever shirt seemed
so large?" she wondered vaguely, and her thin arms moved slowly, lifting
it up and down with difficulty. It seemed getting so dark, too. She
should have lighted the candles, it wouldn't look so cheery for Will if
he came back to find the cabin dark. But was this only the twilight
falling? No, it was in her eyes. She leaned heavily on the edge of the
wooden tub, trembling, the floor unsteady beneath her, a strangling
suffocation in her throat, a swimming darkness before her eyes. A sense
of terrible loneliness pressed in upon her, and then suddenly she knew
that in the chill of that dark twilight she was alone with Death. He had
come for her at last.

Oh, to have had Will's strong arms round her, a human breast to lay her
head down upon, and so die! A nameless terror possessed her, overwhelmed
her; she started from the wash trestle. There was a sudden cry, "Will!
Will!" and she fell forward on the damp flooring, a little eager scarlet
stream of blood pouring out from the nerveless lips to stain the
soap-suds under the trestle.

The child sitting playing in the ring of warm firelight in the adjoining
room heard that last cry, and startled, dropped his toys, looking with
round eyes to the blackness beyond the open door. He listened with one
tiny finger in his mouth for many minutes, but no further sound came to
disturb him from the wash-house, and he went on playing.

An hour passed perhaps before Will set foot in Good Luck Row, and he
tramped up it with a sounding pace. There was fire in his eyes, the
blood ran hard in all his veins, his rubber boots had elastic springs in
their soles. Yet he carried an extra weight with him. There was
something in his pocket in a buckskin bag that burned his hand as if it
had been red-hot iron when he touched it. As he came to No. 14 and saw
the windows dark he merely hurried his pace, and hardly stayed to lift
the door latch, but just burst through the half-opened door and brought
his huge burly frame over the threshold.

"Well, Annie, my girl, we've struck it at last," he shouted at the top
of his voice, "and you shall come home right away. Where are you, Annie?
Didn't I say wait a bit for me?"

He had entered by the wash-house, but the darkness was thick, almost
palpable, before his face and revealed nothing. He went forward to the
open door, beyond which the burned-down fire gave only a faint red
light, and his foot kicked something heavy on the floor. With a curious
feeling gripping his heart, he stopped dead short where he stood and
fumbled for a match. Then he struck it, and in its sickly glare looked
down. "Annie, my dear!" he called in a shaking voice, and bent down
holding the match close to the upturned face. The light played for an
instant upon it and went out. "Annie!" he called again, and the word
broke in his throat.

A thin wail went up from little Tim in the dusk of the inner room. Where
the man stood was silence and darkness. His strike had come too late.
His wife was dead.

       *       *       *       *       *

Half-an-hour later a man burst into the "Pistol Shot." It was between
hours, and the bar-tender was just going round lighting the lamps; the
place was nearly empty, only a few miners were standing at the end of
the counter, talking together. The new customer staggered across the
floor as if already under the influence of drink, kicking up the fresh
sawdust on the ground; then he reached the counter and demanded drink
after drink. He tossed the whiskies handed to him down his throat, and
then retreated to a bench that stood against the wall and sat down
staring stupidly in front of him. The little group of men looked at him
once or twice curiously, and then one said--

"Why, it's Bill Johnson, who's just made a strike. Come up, boys, let's
congratulate him."

The men moved up to the motionless, staring figure, and one of them
slapped him on the shoulder.

"Say, Bill, old man, you're in luck, and we'll all drink your health.
Got any gold to show us?"

The sitting figure seemed galvanised suddenly out of its stupor. Will
raised his head with a jerk, and the men involuntarily drew back from
the glare of his bloodshot eyes. He put his hand to his pocket and drew
out a small dirty buckskin bag. He dashed it suddenly on the ground with
all his force, so that the sawdust flew up in a little cloud.

"Curse the gold!" he said, and got up and tramped heavily out of the
saloon.



CHAPTER IV

GOD'S GIFT


They buried Mrs. Johnson very soon. As one of the neighbours sensibly,
if rather crudely, remarked, "Their cabins were too small for them to
keep corpses knocking around in them." And so the second day after her
death, in a flood of thin, sweet sunshine, they buried her who had so
loved the light and the sun, and had longed so wearily for them through
so many days.

Katrine and Talbot stood side by side at the open grave. He had been in
the town that day and met Katrine on the street, learned from her where
she was going, and accompanied her. He knew something of all she had
done for the dead woman, and he watched her now with interest and
surprise at her composure. Katrine's face was unmoved, and her eyes
were dry through it all.

"Another that gold has killed," she said to him as they turned away, and
her face looked grave and grey in the flood of the cold sunlight.

Will was not present. He was down at the "Pistol Shot." He had been on a
big drunk for the past two days, not even returning to his cabin at
night, and the body of his wife would have lain unguarded had not
Katrine brought her fur bag and slept beside it each night on the
deserted hearth. Little Tim had been taken in by a neighbour, all the
mothers round seeming anxious for the honour after it was known that
Will had "made his strike."

They walked in absolute silence for some time up the incline. Talbot was
going back to the west gulch, and Katrine said she would walk a little
of the way in that direction too. The afternoon was bright and clear,
and the air singularly still, so still that the intense cold was hardly
realised. The rays of sunshine struck warmly across the snow banks piled
on each side of the narrow path they were treading. The sky was pale
blue, and the points of the straight larches on the summit of the ridges
cut darkly into it like the points of lances. There was something in the
atmosphere that recalled a day in late autumn in England. They were
nearing the top of the ridge, and both had their gaze bent on the narrow
ascending path before them, when suddenly a tiny object darted into the
middle of it and ran up the opposite bank. On the instant Katrine drew
one of the pistols from her belt and fired. The little dark form rolled
down the bank, dropped back into their path, and lay there motionless.
It was a fine shot, for the tiny moving thing was fully thirty yards
from them and looked hardly the size of a dollar. Talbot glanced at her
with startled admiration. He himself never shot except for food or
other necessity, and wanton killing rather annoyed him than otherwise,
but here the skill and the correctness of wrist and eye were so obvious
that they compelled him to an involuntary admiration.

"You are a good shot!" he exclaimed, looking at the bright, clear-cut
face beside him, warmed into its warmest tints by the keen air and the
continuous mounting of their steps.

"But not a good woman," she answered shortly, quickly reading the
thoughts that accompanied his words. She did not look at him, but
straight ahead.

"You might be both," he said, with a sudden impulse of interest and
regret.

Katrine laughed.

"I don't know," she said lightly. "Good women are not usually good
shots. You don't generally find them combined. But any way, what have I
to do with goodness? I don't need it in my business."

He did not answer, and they walked on in silence till they came up to
the little dark lump in the road. It was a small marmot. Katrine glanced
at it and passed on. Talbot stooped and picked up the scrap of
blood-stained fur.

"What did you do it for?" he asked curiously.

"Practice, that's all," she answered.

"Don't you feel sorry to kill merely for the sake of practice?"

"No. I should have been sorry if I had wounded it; but it's a good thing
to be dead, I think. I wouldn't have shot unless I had been almost
entirely sure I should kill it."

There was another silence, and then she said suddenly, "One must keep up
one's practice here, going about as I do in all sorts of places and
making my living as I do. These," and she tapped her pistols, "are my
great protection. Only last night a great brute leaned over me and
wanted to kiss me--would have done, only he saw I should shoot him if he
did."

"Would you shoot a man for kissing you?" replied Talbot in an astonished
tone, elevating his eyebrows.

"Yes. Why, I'd rather be shot than kissed!" exclaimed the girl fiercely,
with an angry flush on her smooth cheek.

Talbot looked at the contemptuous, curling lips, at the whole beautiful
hard face beside him, and walked on in silence, wondering. Her momentary
anger was gone directly, and they were good comrades all the rest of the
way.

At the point where she stopped to say good-bye to him, she held out her
hand: "Thank you for coming to the burial with me, it was good of you,"
and she pressed his hand with a grateful smile.

It was about a fortnight later on, one of those dreary grey afternoons
of late winter, nearly dark already, though still early by the clock,
and the mercury in the thermometers had gone out of sight and stayed
there. Katrine came tripping along a side street on her way back to the
row, warm in her skin coat, and her face all aglow and abloom under her
fur cap. She had turned into the "Swan and Goose" saloon on her way up,
had put in half-an-hour over a game, and won a fat little canvas bag
stuffed with gold dust; had thinned it out somewhat in hot drinks across
the bar, and now, warmed through with rum, and light-hearted, she was
returning with the bag still well lined in her waist-belt.

She had recovered from the great shock of Annie's death. Her nature,
though essentially kind, was not of that soft, tender stamp that
receives deep and painful impressions from other's sufferings. She would
exert herself strenuously for another, as she had done for Annie, but
it was not in her nature to sorrow long or deeply for the irrevocable.
There was a certain hardness and philosophy in her temperament that her
life and surroundings and all her experience had tended to develop. And
in Annie's death there was nothing striking or unusually sad in this
corner of the world, so crowded with scenes of suffering, so filled with
pathos of every form. There were women hoping and waiting, and longing
and starving, in every street of the town, she knew; sickness and sorrow
and death looked her in the eyes from some poor face at every corner.
Annie had been but one poor little unit in the crowd of sufferers, but
one example of the misery of the town, the plague-stricken town, the
town stricken with a curse--the curse of the greed of gold.

Matters had brightened very much in Dawson lately, a new feeling of hope
and fresh life had gone through the town. The weather was less severe,
the days were lengthening, the skies were brighter, the sickness had
died out, and people went about their work looking cheerful again; and
Katrine, freed from her anxieties and nursing, felt her elastic spirits
bound upwards in response to the general brightness of the camp.

She came along humming behind her closed lips, and then suddenly turning
a corner, stopped dead short with a horrified stare in her eyes. She had
come round by one of the lowest dens in the city. Katrine knew it both
inside and out, for there was no place from hut to hut in Dawson that
she was afraid to enter. The door was standing open. It opened inwards,
and there was a group of men, some inside and some outside, and amongst
them they were forcing into the street a drunken woman. The entry to the
place was beneath the level of the ground, and reached by a few uneven,
miry steps, and up these the unfortunate was blindly stumbling under a
rain of blows, pushes, and curses. She was old, and her hair streamed in
ragged streaks across her bloodshot eyes, her tawdry skirt was long, and
got under her unsteady feet. Just as she had managed to totter to the
topmost step, a young man in the group behind her struck her a heavy
blow between the shoulders. She tripped in the long skirt and trod on
it, tearing it with a ripping sound from the waist, and fell forward,
striking her face on the uneven frozen ground. Katrine sprang forward,
but before she could reach her the woman had staggered to her feet and
turned to face her tormentors, the blood streaming now from her cut
lips, her trembling hands vaguely grasping at her torn skirt and trying
to keep it to her waist. A roar of laughter burst from the men at the
pitiful sight, and then died suddenly as they recognised Katrine. She
stepped in front of the old woman, and faced them with a scorn in her
eyes beyond all words. Then she turned in silence, put her arm round the
helpless creature's waist, and supported her frail, tottering steps over
the slippery, uneven ground. For an instant the men stood abashed and
ashamed, then when the spell of those great fearless, scornful eyes was
removed, their natures reasserted themselves, and a general laugh went
round.

"Birds of a feather!" shouted one, mockingly, as the two retreating
figures disappeared in the gathering darkness. Katrine heard it, and
winced; but she did not relax the hold of her supporting arm, and by
gentle and repeated questioning managed to elicit from the helpless old
being where she lived. Katrine turned her steps in the given direction,
and drawing out her handkerchief wiped the blood from the old woman's
face, and smoothed her straggling grey hair back behind her ears. When
they reached her cabin at last, Katrine saw that the stove was black
and empty. There was no light of any sort in the place, and the freezing
darkness of the interior chilled her through. She would not leave the
old woman until she had lighted a fire and candle for her and got her to
bed; then, without waiting to listen to the mumbled and incoherent
thanks showered upon her, she went out gently and on to her own place.
She felt in a very serious mood as she made her cup of coffee and cooked
herself a plate of bacon, and then sat down in the red glow of her
well-tended hearth to her solitary meal.

"Birds of a feather!" that hateful sentence echoed round her, until the
silent walls themselves seemed taunting her. Was she not, after all,
really akin to that old woman, and might she not some day end like her?
What was all her own drinking and card-playing and knocking about in the
saloons to end in? She shivered, and threw a frightened glance round
her. This girl, who would have laughed all sermons, advice, and
admonitions scornfully aside, was almost startled now into a sudden
reformation by the chance object-lesson of this afternoon. She could not
forget it, and in the silence the whole scene rose up vividly before
her. She began to long for Stephen to come and break the silence, and
glanced impatiently at the clock many times. He was coming in to town
that night, she knew. It was a relief such as she had never experienced
when at last he arrived, and she had not her own company only any
longer.

She was unusually silent all the evening. Stephen did not try to force
her into conversation; he was content to sit on the opposite side of the
hearth and let his eyes rest upon her in silence. She was paler, he
thought, as he watched the orange light from the flames play over the
oval face and throw up its regular lines. She was sitting sideways to
him, gazing absently into the heart of the glowing coals, and her
shadow, formed by the lamp between her and Stephen, fell strongly and
clearly outlined upon the opposite wall. Stephen sat in his corner and
gazed at it through half-closed eyes. He had been working hard all day,
and in the keen, biting air; the warmth and the rest were grateful to
him. The silence in the room had lasted so long that he began to feel
drowsy under the influence of this quiet warmth. He watched the shadow
sleepily, and dreamy fancies floated across his brain. The clean-cut,
delicate profile was magnified to colossal proportions on the blank
wall. So it seemed to Stephen that beautiful presence would dominate his
life, fill in completely the blank of his colourless existence, as the
large shadow filled the wall. Then, as his gaze followed its outlines,
he saw what his eyes had not found before: a huge upright line of shade,
formed by her chair back, ran up beside and mingling with the other
lines. It seemed to curve over towards her shoulder, and then a few
seconds more, and to Stephen's drowsy gaze, the harsh line expanded into
a hideous grotesque figure. Out of those few shades upon the wall there
leaped a picture to his eyes: the girl, and at her side, bending over
her, a hideous devil, a strange vampire, hovering nearer or farther, in
blacker or lighter shades, as the flames in the fire rose and fell.
Stephen watched in a fascinated stupor, and then suddenly, as the light
died down in the grate and the shade leaped out nearer and blacker, he
started to his feet with a sudden exclamation.

The girl started too, and looked up. "What is it?" she asked.

Stephen pointed to the wall. Katrine turned, the blaze sprang up on the
hearth, the shadows were gone, the illusion vanished.

"What is it?" she said again, wonderingly.

"Oh, nothing--a hideous shape on the wall," stammered Stephen. "I was
watching your shadow, and another seemed to come up and threaten it.
Imagination, I suppose--perhaps I had fallen into a dream," he added
hurriedly, fearing she would laugh at him.

But Katrine did not laugh: she looked at him gravely and in silence. In
her mind she was pondering a question, hesitating, half fearing to speak
to him, half impelled to, and half held back, and the equal opposite
forces acting on her mind kept her silent.

Stephen, unused to her present mood, felt perhaps she was annoyed or
wearied, and drew out his watch. It was past ten.

"I will say good-night," he said, rising.

Katrine got up too. Her face paled yet more, her bosom rose and fell
quickly. "Take me away from here," she said abruptly and suddenly.

She had been thinking all the evening how she would approach the subject
with him, and then at last his leave-taking had startled away all her
circuitous phrases and left her only the crudest words at her command to
express her meaning.

Stephen was startled and confused, but his voice was very tender as he
took her hand in his and said, "I don't understand, dear; what do you
mean?"

He felt her hand tremble in his. She looked up at him appealingly. Her
eyes seemed frightened and uncertain. She was more womanly at this
moment than she had ever been. To Stephen she was infinitely more
fascinating than she had ever been. Accustomed to her bright, fearless
independence, admire that as he might, in this weakness, whatever its
cause, she was irresistible.

"Well, I mean," she said, speaking nervously, but with an effort to
control her excitement, "the other day you spoke of our being married,
and I said I couldn't stand a quiet life. Stephen, I will marry you now,
and go anywhere with you. I will be content with any life, any
monotony--only take me from here at once! I loathe this place, this
life." She stopped suddenly, and a wave of crimson blood swept over the
white face. "I want to be taken away," she repeated.

Stephen looked at her a moment in silence, with a sense of apprehension
and alarm. He could not do as she asked; he was not free--his claim held
him.

"I don't know quite what you mean," he said, a little stiffly, though he
felt he did know. "It would be quite impossible for me to go away now;
my whole heart's in the work, and I've sunk all I had in it."

"Yes; and your soul too," said Katrine suddenly, looking at him with
shining eyes and a calm face. "You're a slave now to your gold, the
same as we all are here--a community of slaves," and she laughed.

Stephen grew red, and looked confused, alarmed, and angry, all at the
same time.

"Nobody would go now," he said, remonstratingly, "and leave ground like
that. It would be insanity. Ask Talbot, ask anybody if they would."

"Talbot!" repeated Katrine, scornfully; "he's the worst slave of all;
but then he never preached about his soul, and wanting to reform
people."

"No one can reform you if you won't reform yourself," replied Stephen,
coldly; and there he spoke the truth.

"Who was it who has put in our prayer, 'Lead us not into temptation, but
deliver us from evil'? Here I live in temptation: I am always thrown
into evil. If I were not--" Her voice was very quiet, and had a strange
pathetic note in it. It ceased, and then there was silence.

Stephen felt as if a hand were laid on his lips and crushed down the
voice that kept struggling from his heart. A second more, and then the
girl laughed suddenly.

"Oh, I was stupid! I did not know what I was saying, did not mean it
anyway. It's quite right for you to stick to your claim and the idea you
started with, and so on. You will make a great success if you do, and
that is all you want!"

Her tone was jesting and cynical as ever now--the usual hardness had
come back to her face. The moment of submission, of confidence, of
repentance, had passed--a moment when she could have been moved and won
to any life he wished, and he had lost it. He felt it. Yet how could he
have done otherwise?

"Forget what I said--quite," she added; "and go now. It's getting late,
and I want to get down to the saloons."

A thrill of horror went through Stephen, as she knew it would. He gazed
at her blankly with a horrible feeling, as if he were murdering
somebody, clutching at his heart.

"What are you waiting for?" she said, impatiently. "Why don't you hurry
back to your claim?"

"Katrine ... I--" he stammered, staring at her, but even as he looked a
great wall of gold seemed to rise between them and shut her from him.
"Forgive me," he muttered brokenly; "I can't give it up now."

"Good-night," said Katrine, and he turned and fumbled for the door
handle and went out.

When he was gone Katrine turned to her small square of looking-glass
that hung beneath the lamp on the wall.

"What a fool I was to-night!" she said, looking at the sweet reflection
and smiling lips.

A few minutes after Stephen had gone, a slight figure, muffled up to the
eyes, slipped out of No. 13 and hurried with quick steps down the
uneven footway of Good Luck Row.

That night Stephen climbed to his cabin with his head on fire and a
singing in his ears. A terrific struggle was going on in his breast. He
felt the path of duty was clear to him now, and equally that he did not
want to follow it. He had tried to shut his eyes to it; tried to believe
that it was not clear, that he did not know what was right or necessary
to do, and therefore that he might be excused if he did not do it, but
he could close his eyes no longer. They had been dragged open to-night,
and he could not wilfully close them again. As he strode up the narrow
little snow path leading to his cabin he felt that he knew his duty, and
he groaned out aloud in the silent icy night.

To leave now meant to endanger, perhaps to sacrifice, the million
dollars that he felt in a month or two he could take out of his claim;
and to stay meant to endanger, perhaps to sacrifice, a human soul! A
million dollars, a human soul! These two ideas possessed him. A million
dollars, a human soul! the two thoughts rang alternately through his
brain until it seemed as if voices were crying them out upon the
soundless air. According to his religion, spirits combated for the soul
of man, and it seemed to Stephen that night as he mounted the solitary
path under the far-seeing eyes of the frosty stars above him, that
spirits really fought around him, good and evil, for the victory. "A
million dollars!" shouted the evil ones, "do not throw them away." "A
human soul!" wailed the others, "do not let it fall into evil." His
sensitive, excitable mind trembled before the crisis. His own soul
shuddered and sickened, for he seemed to see the hosts of greed of gold,
and they were stronger than the hosts of light. And Stephen himself now
was badly equipped for the conflict. He felt and recognised with dismay
he had not the strength and the fervour now that had brought him
through former battles. He was as a warrior that has fallen asleep and
awakened to find his arms grown rusty while he has been sleeping.

Gradually for the last six months the lust for gold had been eating into
his spirituality and destroying it. You cannot serve God and mammon: had
he not entered into the services of mammon, and been held there by the
rich rewards?

He thought of the rich pans he had been getting out. There was no claim
like his in the camp. There was no man more envied nor considered more
lucky than he. Yes, mammon had paid him well in the six months he had
served it, showered upon him more than God had done in six-and-twenty
years; and here was God's gift, a human soul, a sweet human life, he
could save and make his own--and Stephen groaned again, for he felt that
the gold was dearer to him. How could he have so changed, he wondered.
A year ago he would have laughed at the idea of a million dollars being
a bribe for him to sin. He looked into his heart now and found there was
nothing there but a passion for gold, gold! It was a yellow rust that
had eaten into his Christian's sword.

Then his thoughts strayed to the girl he had just left, and her bright
fresh face seemed to sway before him as he walked. His excited fancy
painted it upon the snow banks at his side. She was so young, she seemed
so fresh and lovely, it was impossible to think of her as tainted
already with vice and sin. It was only if she were kept in this
snow-bound prison, this mournful land of darkness and suffering, where,
as she said, she had no place nor aim, that she would fall as those
bright meteors were falling now far in the distant darkness. He could be
her deliverer, her saviour, if--if he could.

In the icy cold of that arctic night, great drops of sweat broke out
hotly on Stephen's forehead as his brain was wrenched to and fro in the
struggle. He tried to bribe even himself, tried to let his thoughts
dwell on his passion for the girl, tried to think of the mere human
sweetness that would go hand in hand with his victory over evil. If he
won that bright clean soul for God, would he not also win that loved
human form for himself? But even the voice of passion was drowned in the
clamour of the greater greed.

The next morning, as soon as it was light, Stephen went out to his
claims. None of his men had come up to work yet. Stephen stood and
looked over the stretch of ground beneath which he believed his fortunes
lay. A light covering of snow had fallen on it during the night and lay
about a foot deep in one unbroken sheet, not even the mark of a bird's
foot disturbed its blank evenness: the claims looked very cold and
drear in the dull dusky grey light of the dawn under that leaden sky.
But Stephen's heart beat quickly as he gazed upon them. What did it
matter that cold, dreary, surface, when the gold lay glowing underneath!

Stephen felt as only a man of his sensitive conscience could feel his
defeat of the previous night. His heart, all his better nature was
crushed under a sickening load of mortification, and he sought
desperately to find relief and justification for himself in
contemplating the treasure for whose sake he had accepted it. As in
other circumstances a man would solace himself for all sacrifices by
gazing on the face of a mistress for whom he had relinquished worldly
ambitions, and find excuses for himself in her beauty, telling himself a
hundred times she was worth it all; so Stephen now gazed upon his
claims, for which he had given up his scruples, his principles, his
conscience, and his God, and tried to hug to himself the comfort that
they were worth it. After a few seconds he tramped across the frozen
snow to the line marked out by the banks of gravel where they had been
at work the previous day.

That evening he could not stay in his cabin, he felt restless and ill at
ease. A nervous sense of anxiety hung over him. He seemed to himself to
be expecting some misfortune. His nerves, weakened by the lonely life he
had been living for the past months, and exhausted by the sleepless
hours of the previous night, kept presenting picture after picture of
possible ills. He looked over both his revolvers, to make sure they were
in good order for defence if he were attacked that night. Then he drew
his fur cap tightly down on his forehead and went out. The stillness of
his own cabin and the clamour of his own thoughts were unbearable. The
night was still and starlit, the air keen and thin as a knife-blade.
Stephen strode along the narrow frosty path, and took the road down into
the town. On his way he passed Talbot's cabin. It was lighted up. The
little window made a square of yellow light in the darkness; the blind
over it was drawn only half-way down. Stephen stepped up over the bank
of frosted snow and looked in. The great fire lighted up the whole of
the small interior, and threw its red light up to the cross logs in the
roof. In the centre of the room, at a table. Talbot sat working. There
were some sheets of paper before him, and he held a pen in his hand with
which he was checking off some figures. His face was turned to the
window; it looked pale and tired, but there was a curious expression of
extreme tranquillity upon it--a settled, serene patience that struck the
onlooker. He sat there working on steadily, motionless, calm as a figure
in stone; and poor Stephen, torn in the struggle of his desires,
slipping into the cold slough of self-condemnation, and burnt with the
fever of greed, groaned aloud as he stood outside. Then he turned from
the window and plunged back through the snow to the path that led to the
town. He wanted to see Katrine, and yet he hated the thought of facing
her after their parting of last night. What must she think of him? With
her quick mental perceptions she would have seen through and through his
miserable mind; seen that the gold had got hold of him, held him now,
and that his boasted religion had no power against it. No, he thought,
he could not face her--he was still some distance from the town; then as
he drew nearer, the unappeasable desire to see her and hear her fresh
bright voice came over him. When he reached Good Luck Row he went
straight to No. 13. He might have saved himself the trouble of his
decisions. Katrine had decided for him whether he should see her that
night or not. The window was dark; he tried the door, it was fastened;
she was evidently not there. A chill ran over Stephen from head to foot,
and then he recognized how much he had really wanted to see her. He
stood outside the door a long time; the row was quiet, there were few
passers. He waited, hoping to see her come up each minute--perhaps she
had only gone out on some errand; but the minutes passed and he grew
cold standing there, still she did not come. At last Stephen moved away
from the door and wandered disconsolately down the row. He went on
mechanically, not heeding where his footsteps took him, and found
suddenly that he had reached the main street down by the river. There
was no darkness nor quiet here, all the stores had their windows wide
open, and the light from them poured out upon the black slippery mass of
ice and melted snow that lay over the frozen ground. The saloons were in
full blast, brilliantly lighted and filled with noisy crowds of miners.
The dance halls, of which there were some dozen along the street, seemed
doing a good business. A shooting gallery that had been fixed up in a
tent was not only filled inside, but a crowd of men and some women were
gathered round the tent entrance, pushing and pressing each other in
their efforts to get in; the glare from the flaming lights inside fell
on their faces, and Stephen glanced eagerly over them to see if Katrine
was amongst them. He passed on, disappointed. There was another tent a
little farther on, where a cheap band was playing, and a board outside
announced in pen-and-ink characters the attraction of a "Catherine Wheel
Dance." The crowd here was even larger, and lights were fixed outside
flaring merrily in the frosty air. Stephen walked on, past the stores
and warehouses, past the noisy crowded saloons, past the brilliant dance
halls and the variety show tents. It was to him all a hideous, tawdry,
glaring mockery of merriment; and on the other side of him was the
sullen blackness of the frozen river. He walked on until he had
outwalked the town front, outwalked the straggling tents, till he had
left the noise, and light, and laughter behind him. When he glanced
round he saw he had nothing but the river and a waste of darkness beside
him. There was an old log in his path; he sat down upon it and looked
back to the mist of light that hung over the town, then his gaze
wandered back disconsolately and rested on the ice-bound river.

Katrine had passed that day wretchedly too. She had been down idling in
one of the saloons through the afternoon, but the old resorts seemed to
have lost their charm. The old pleasure had gone, and the stimulus would
not come back. The cards looked greasy and dirty and revolted her, and
the drink seemed to turn to carbolic acid in her mouth. She left at
last, and went home to her lonely cabin and flung herself down in the
dark in the chimney corner and tried to sleep, but horrible faces danced
before her, and women with grey hair and wrinkles, with her own face,
stared at her from the walls.

She was still lying face downwards on the skins, half dozing now after
that long conflict with horrible visions, when a light and very timid
tap came on the door outside. She got up and went straight to it; her
face was flushed and tear-stained, and her hair ruffled and in disorder,
but she never thought to go first to the little square mirror that hung
in the corner to improve her appearance before admitting visitors. As
she threw open the door, the stream of hot light showed Stephen upon the
threshold white as a spectre, chilled almost to death by his vigil at
the river, with a strained smile on his lips and a great hunger in his
eyes. His conscience reproached him: he knew he had not come bravely
with his hands full of the sacrifice, having conquered himself, and
ready to lay down all for her sake; but like a coward, still in the
thrall of his money-lust and yet longing to attain her too, unable to
give her up. He knew all this, and stood timidly as the friendless dogs
will gaze through an open hut-door, wistfully, expecting to be driven
away with blows; but Katrine met him with neither harsh words nor looks,
she just simply put out both her warm hands and drew him in over the
threshold. The welcome, the smile, the warm touch overcame him.

"Katrine," he muttered suddenly, as she closed the door and barred it,
"if I--if--I gave--up," and then the words died, strangled in his
throat. Katrine held up her hand.

"Don't begin to talk about anything like that," she said, gently pushing
him down on the chair by the hearth, "till you are warm again. Where
have you been freezing yourself like this?"

She was busy lighting the lamp and setting her little old blackened
coffee-pot over the flames. Stephen told her of his long lonely tramp by
the river, and watched her with keen eager eyes as she made the coffee
and poured him out a cup.

"Now drink it all quick," she said imperatively, handing him the boiling
mixture, from which the steam came furiously.

"It's like the ordeal by fire," answered Stephen, meekly taking the cup.
With a heroic effort he swallowed three parts of it, and colour began to
come back to his face.

Katrine observed this, and sat down contentedly on the floor in front of
the ambitious fire, that seemed trying to leap up the chimney through
the roof.

"Stephen," she said very slowly and gently after a minute, "it was
selfish of me to ask you to leave your claims. I've been thinking of it
all day. I won't do it, and I will come and help you work them."

Stephen felt the room whirl round him as he heard. Was he not in some
rich, warm dream that would dissolve and leave him suddenly? His claims,
those golden claims! and Katrine too--he seemed to see her dressed in
gold, framed in gold, gold in her eyes and hair. Her movement, as she
turned to look at him, brought him back to realities.

"Do you mean it?" he said, stooping over her and catching her hands
almost roughly in his. She met his feverish eyes with a bright, tranquil
smile. He looked at her keenly for an instant, and involuntarily an
exclamation broke from his lips: "Katrine! it's too much happiness for
any man!"

Perhaps the gods above, who eye jealously the lives of mortals, here
made a note of this remark in their pocket-books.

Katrine knitted her brows angrily. "I don't think so," she said. "You
had better hear what sort of girl I am."

Stephen turned pale, and leaned down over her as she sat on the hearth,
her head against his knees. The cabin was full of the warm red
firelight, that leaped over the walls and up to the rough blackened
rafters above them. It glistened on the silky dark hair beneath his
hand, and fell ruddily over the smooth oval face turned up to him.
Stephen looked down at her and felt content.

"No, no," he said hastily; "never mind anything in the past; we will
efface it all; we make a fresh start from to-night." He would have
stooped and silenced her with a kiss, but an arrogant look came over her
pale face, and she pushed him back with her hand.

"No, I don't like that idea. We must have things cleared up and tidy
before we marry. You must know the truth from me, and then you will
know how to meet any one who comes to you with talk about me afterwards;
and they may come, for I'm known in all the saloons of Dawson."

Stephen shuddered.

"If they keep to the truth about me, you must just accept it; if they
tell lies, you'll just shoot them."

Again a cold thrill passed through her lover. To talk of
shooting--taking a human life--murder--as though it were no more than a
snapping of the fingers! His mind flew on a sudden bound of remembrance
back to the little school teacher in the village of Arden, who could not
bear the sight of a rabbit's blood on the trap, and whose quiet days
were spent between the village schoolroom and the village church; yet he
knew he had never loved that little teacher as he loved Katrine, that
she could never rouse him as this woman did whom he believed to be an
epitome of evil, who, as she lay now in the firelight by his feet,
reminded him of the emblem of sin that crept into man's Eden. Yet it was
a pleasure--what pleasure to be near her, to touch that smooth skin! But
what was this pleasure?--was it also evil? What was this passion? His
thoughts flew onward feverishly, and then Katrine's voice struck across
them and brought him back to outer consciousness again.

"Listen," she was saying, "while I tell you all, and _then_ we can start
afresh, as you say."

Stephen put his hand over his eyes, and waited in silence. He dreaded
unspeakably what he thought he was going to hear, and with a man's moral
cowardice would have deferred her confession, slurred over and tried to
forget her wrong-doing, rather than hear and forgive it. They had
changed places since he had asked her that morning in his cabin to
confide in him.

"Well, to begin with," went on her clear, soft voice, "I drink--I like
drinking. You think it wrong to drink anything but water; I like wine
and spirits, anything that excites me, and I can drink with any man in
town. But I have never been drunk, Stephen, you understand that. Then I
like all kinds of gaiety, and like to spend all my time dancing and
laughing, and what your friend Talbot calls 'fooling.' And I gamble,"
Katrine paused a second before she said the decisive words, and then
went on rapidly, "oh, Stephen, you don't know, I haven't told you, but I
love the tables. I can sit up all night and play with the boys; I love
excitement, I love the winning and raking in the gold dust. I spend all
my nights playing; it's what I live for in this awful place."

There was silence, then Katrine's voice broke it again--

"Now you think that so wicked, I bet you don't want to marry me now."

There was a half laugh with a sad ring in it as she looked up to his
covered face. Now Stephen heard, but the words fell on his ears dully;
he was waiting in strained painful tension for what was to come. It was
true he loathed gambling as a hated vice, and but for the apprehension
that gripped his mind her confession so far would have been horrible to
him. Still it was as a Christian that he abhorred these things. What he
expected to hear he would have abhorred as a man and a lover; and the
former abhorrence is considerably milder than the latter.

"Go on," he said at last, in a stifled voice.

"There is nothing more," returned Katrine, dejectedly.

She thought she was being condemned and despised, and to none is that a
cheering feeling. Stephen sat up suddenly, and then bent over, clasping
his hands round her waist, lithe and supple even in her rough clothing,
and drew her up to him.

"Is there nothing?" he whispered eagerly in her ear. "Have you nothing
more to confess to me?"

Katrine gave herself up to his embrace, a delicious sense of peace and
protection and warm comfort stealing over her such as she had never
known.

"Nothing," she murmured, with her soft lips close to his ear and her
silky curls touching his neck. She felt Stephen grasp her close to him,
and a tremor ran through his whole frame.

"Have you never lain like this in a man's arms before? never felt a kiss
on your lips?" he persisted, holding her to him with a fierce intensity
of growing passion.

"Never, never," Katrine answered, opening her calm dark eyes and looking
straight up to his.

Stephen met their gaze for one long second, a proud, tranquil, fearless
look that sunk deep into his soul and poured balm into every wound she
had ever made there. The next moment she felt a torrent of hot kisses on
her face, a pressure that almost stifled her on her breast, a murmur of
"Darling, my darling," and knew nothing very clearly any more except
that she was loved and very happy.



CHAPTER V

GOLD-PLATED


The next afternoon, when Stephen returned to the west gulch and Talbot
heard his news, he said he was glad, and meant it. Life at the gulch was
very desolate and dreary, and such a bright glad presence as the girl's
would alleviate the monotony and disperse the gloom.

For the following week both men were busy preparing Stephen's cabin for
her reception and trying to impart to it a bridal appearance. The hands
were left to do the work on the claims, and Talbot and Stephen were too
busy indoors to even oversee them. The cabin was large and well built.
It stood looking across the gulch, and half-way down it, over the tops
of the dark green pines and facing towards the western horizon, where
the pink lights played and the little sundogs gambolled in the fall of
the short grey snowy afternoons. Stephen was down in town once in the
week, and came back with his pony laden with mysterious packages, and
when Talbot came in in the evening he found Stephen on his knees,
tacking down strips of carpet by the bed in the inner room. Narrow
curtains had also been nailed up beside the window, and altogether the
cabin presented a luxurious appearance.

"This is quite magnificent," remarked Talbot, strolling about with an
admiring air.

"D'ye think so?" replied Stephen in a pleased tone, lifting a flushed
face from his tacks and sitting back on his boot heels. "She's awfully
handsome, isn't she? Say, it's strange to come to a hole like this and
meet the handsomest girl you've ever seen!"

"She is very handsome," assented Talbot, sitting down by the stove and
stretching out his frozen feet before it. He was in the other room, but
close to the open door leading into the bedroom, and facing Stephen as
he sat on the floor with the screw of tacks by his side that had been
paid for in gold.

"And good, too, eh? good at heart, don't you think? Only not exactly
religious, of course," he continued.

"No, she's not very religious," returned Talbot, with the dry, hard tone
in his voice that his subordinates knew and hated.

"But it's not every one who says, 'Lord, Lord, that shall enter the
kingdom of heaven,'" quoted Stephen; "you remember, Christ said that,"
he pursued in an anxious tone, peering up at the other for
encouragement.

Talbot gave his slight, quiet laugh.

"You've got the handsomest girl in the place," he said, "and a very
nice, charming one, too. I don't see what more you want."

To his strong, determined character this perpetual straining after a
religion that was cast to the winds first at the temptation of gold, and
then at a saloon-keeper's daughter's smile, was rather contemptible.

"And 'there's more joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth,' etc.,"
Stephen continued, anxious to persuade himself into a comfortable frame
of mind.

"Has Miss Poniatovsky repented?" asked Talbot, still more dryly.

"Why, yes; I told you all she said. She won't gamble any more."

Talbot was silent; through his mind was running a line of Latin to the
effect that wool once dyed scarlet can never recover its former tint,
but he said nothing.

It did not take Katrine long to prepare for her wedding. There was no
such thing as buying a trousseau in Dawson. She gathered together her
coarse woollen underclothes, her stout short dresses, and thick boots,
and packed them in two flat cases, such as can be strapped to a burro's
side, and these were to be all she would take up to the cabin in the
gulch besides her wealth of natural beauty. She did go to many of the
stores around, buying trifles such as might happen to find themselves
there and suit her: a small looking-glass here, a ribbon or a piece of
lace there, and as she leaned across the rough trestle counter she
generally remarked to the storekeeper, "I'm going to be married." She
said it in the shyest, happiest tone imaginable, and a little blush
stole over her smooth cheeks. In this way the news got round to
Katrine's old friends and associates. She would have liked to have told
them herself, but the old hunting grounds were forbidden to her now, and
Stephen's wishes made a barrier between her and the entrance of all the
saloons. He had tried to make her give him a solemn promise never to
enter one again, but this Katrine would not do.

"I can't be tied like that," she had said. "Something might occur to
make it necessary for me to go into one of those places; and if I had
promised you in this way, I could not. You have said you don't wish me
to go; I have said I won't. Isn't that enough?" And Stephen had looked
into the clear dark eyes and had said "Quite."

The day of Stephen's marriage, the day when Katrine was to arrive as a
bride at the west gulch, was calm and still. There was no wind and no
snow falling. The sky stretched black and gloomy above the plains of
snow; it was a day of the Alaskan winter, but still a good day for that.
Stephen had gone down the previous day, and slept the night in Dawson.
Talbot was waiting at the cabin to receive them on their return. As he
stood at the little window that overlooked the trail, waiting for the
first glimpse of them, and staring across the dismal waste that ran into
grey and dreary mist in the distance, a great revolt stirred in his
usually calm and philosophic breast--a sudden longing swept over him for
the blue skies and warm air of the lands he was accustomed to, and a
wilder longing still for a glimpse of the sunlight held in two eyes that
were fairer than any sky. He shut his teeth hard, and his hand closed
tightly on the window frame. "Only a little longer," he muttered to
himself, and then far in the distance came a soft silvery tinkle of
bells. Recalled to himself, he relaxed his face in a pleasant smile, and
went to the door and opened it. In a second or two they came in sight,
riding single file up the narrow trail, the girl first and Stephen
following. She wore a large skin coat of some shaggy fur which concealed
her figure, though not its splendid upright pose, and on her head was a
small fur cap of some light colour, white fox or rabbit. Beneath showed
her dark glossy hair curling upwards over the brim, and her glowing
face rich and fresh as a Damascus rose.

Talbot was greatly struck. The realisation of her beauty came home to
him very forcibly in this cold, envious light of open day. "Stephen's
not such a fool, after all," was his inward comment as he went forward
to meet them. As he lifted her from her pony and bade her welcome to the
cabins and the west gulch, she smiled down upon him. What a mysterious,
magic thing human beauty is, and the human smile! It seems to light the
dreariest sky, people the loneliest landscape. Where there is a human
smile to reflect one's own, not even a desert seems desolate, not even a
prison cell seems cold. Talbot felt this very strongly in that moment.
As the warm, bright, laughing, youthful face looked into his, the sun
seemed to have suddenly burst out upon that dreary snowy plain, and as
the two men escorted her over the threshold it seemed to both that they
were throwing open the door not only to her concrete self but to the
abstracts, warmth and light, and gaiety and laughter, and that these all
flowed in with her into the simple rough interior, transforming and
illumining it.

Katrine was delighted with her new home; she walked about examining
every detail and showing her joy and pleasure in each little trifle that
had been prepared for her. She had a very soft voice and manner when she
chose,--she was too young yet for her gambling, drinking, and rough
associates to have spoiled,--and Stephen stood in the centre of the
room, flushed and silent with the fulness of his pleasure, following her
eagerly with his eyes. After all, in this world of ours, everything
stands in such close relation to its surrounding objects and
circumstances that there is no absoluteness left. Or you may consider it
the other way, that the feelings are absolute and always the same. A
millionaire bridegroom could not receive more pleasure from the
pleasure of his bride when viewing the mansion he had prepared for her,
than Stephen did now from Katrine's approval of his log hut, and her
thanks and smiles were as sweet over a little wooden shelf tacked
against the wall, as if a two thousand dollar chandelier had called them
forth.

Then Stephen took her arm and drew her into the next room, and here she
was so shy and nervous she could not look about at all. Stephen took off
her cloak and all her outer wraps, and then made her come and see her
reflection in a little square looking-glass that he had obtained for her
at quite a high price; but Katrine could not face the mirror, and hid
her blushing cheeks and downcast eyes on his shoulder instead. Stephen
put his arm round her. "You don't regret what you have done?" he asked
in alarm, pressing her close to him.

"No, oh no, dear Steve, only it's all so strange; let's go back to the
other room."

They returned, as she wished, and found that Talbot had laid the dinner
for them,--a dinner he had spent all the morning in preparing,--and they
sat down to it with a gaiety that made up for the shortness of supplies.
After dinner they drew close round the fire and prolonged the roasting
and eating of chestnuts and drinking whisky throughout the
afternoon,--for whisky was there, strongly as Stephen objected to see
her drink it; still it was their wedding day, and he let it pass. As
darkness came down a whirling snow-storm swept through the gulch; they
could see the thin sharp flakes fly past the window on the cutting wind,
and hear the whistling roar of the storm as it struck and beat upon the
cabin. They only flung more logs into the stove, and gave a backward
glance over their shoulders from time to time towards the window. By
nine in the evening, when Talbot was leaving them to go to his own
cabin, it had calmed down a little, though the wind still moaned in the
hollows of the gulch.

Stephen and Katrine stood at the window a second after he had gone,
looking out into the curious misty whiteness and blackness commingled of
the night.

"I am sorry there should be such a storm the first day you are here,
darling," said Stephen softly, putting his arm round her waist.

"Why, what does that matter? I do not mind, I have you to protect me.
You will always now, Steve, won't you, from everything? I don't want
ever to go back to that gambling life again."

He drew her into his arms.

"Of course, of course I will," he said, kissing her. "I will always take
care of you."

Her arms were interlaced about his neck, they looked into each other's
eyes, and neither knew any more whether it was a storm or a calm in the
night outside.

For the first few weeks after their marriage Katrine was more than
happy, and it seemed to those lonely beings, sheltered from the savage
siege of Nature only by those frail little cabins built by their own
hands on the edge of the snow-filled gulch, that a new life had
blossomed for them suddenly--a perfect spring in winter. The girl's
wonderful health and unfailing spirits were in themselves a delight, and
she was possessed of such a sweet and even temper, that it seemed to
smooth out and round off the hard edges of their rough, comfortless
existence. Nothing seemed to have the power to disturb her, the most
irritating and annoying incident never even brought a frown to her face;
it filled her with consternation for the men, and an immediate desire to
smooth it over for them, if possible to prevent their being ruffled by
it. For herself, she seemed above the reach of any circumstance to
disconcert. One morning the men had an instance of this. They were all
three living together in Stephen's cabin now. That is to say, Talbot
took all his meals there, and used it as his own home in every way,
except that he still went back to his cabin to sleep. It had seemed
cheerless to both Katrine and Stephen for Talbot to be eating alone a
few yards from them, and though it gave the girl more work, and for that
reason Talbot was slow to accept the arrangement, she herself coaxed him
into it. They came in late from the claims to lunch, and found her
bending over the fire, with flushed cheeks and happy eyes. She was
stirring a great saucepan of inviting looking and smelling stew, that
she had spent the whole morning in preparing. The large handle of the
pan projected from the stove some distance, and as Stephen threw off his
overcoat he managed in some way to tip up the saucepan with a sudden
jerk that sent the contents half into the fire, half over the girl's
bare arm, from which her sleeve was rolled to the elbow. She did not
utter a sound as the scalding liquid ran burning over her flesh, but
Talbot saw her face grow deadly pale with the sickening pain. After a
second of agony, when she found her voice, and Stephen was remorsefully
spreading fat over the blistered, cracking flesh, the first thing she
said, with her eyes full of disappointed tears, was, "Oh dear! how
unlucky! Now you won't get anything hot for lunch." And as soon as a
bandage was twisted round her scalded arm, she was over at the cupboard
collecting all the best of her cold supplies and laying them out on the
table.

There was not a word of anger or reproof to Stephen for his
carelessness, not a word of her own pain. The great sorrow that she was
anxious to smooth over and atone for to them was that they would have to
put up with a cold luncheon!

Her one idea, the sole thought that occupied her, was to make these two
men happy, at any cost to herself. All day she studied how she could
make their life, so hard and rough smoother for them, how she could
alleviate the labour and monotony of it. She rose in the morning long
before either was awake, and had the fires blazing, wood brought in,
water melted out, and the coffee made by the time they came into the
sitting-room, looking white and sleepy in the flare of the common
candles. All the house work they had formerly found hard, when counted
in addition to their outside labour, she took entirely upon herself, and
insensibly they both felt the relief very great. There was no coming
home now, worn out and frozen, to a cheerless cabin, and being obliged
to chop wood and light fires and split ice before they could get warm
and rested. A glowing hearth, a laid table, a smiling face, always
awaited them. Often coming up from the dump at the lower end of the
claim, they could see the square patch of red light flung out from the
window on the snow, bidding them hurry in to the welcome warmth and
light inside.

The daylight only lasted them now from ten to two, and for these hours
the men worked out of doors. During their absence the girl went out on
shooting expeditions of her own. She had invented a modified snow-shoe,
broad and short, with slightly curved-up ends, and with these strapped
on to her lithe feet, her fur coat fastened up to her chin, and her fur
cap drawn over her ears and to her brows, she defied the fall of the
mercury, and skimmed over the snow as silently and swiftly as a shadow
moving.

She enjoyed these long, lonely excursions, with her heart kept warm by
the hope of discovering something she could bring down with her pistol
or her shot-gun, and carry back as a surprise and a treat for the men
for supper. There was not much indeed to be found; but a small breed of
snow-bird was prevalent, and quite a flock of these would very often
follow or precede a snow-storm, and whenever Katrine's keen eye caught
sight of the little dark patch that a cluster of them made against the
snow, she would glide swiftly over in that direction, and have eight or
ten of them swinging at her belt to take home. They were small, but
cooked as she knew how to cook them, they were a delicacy beyond price
to the men who for months had tasted little but beans and hard bacon.
Katrine felt quite happy if she could return through the suddenly
falling gloom of the afternoon and cross the darkened threshold just as
the men came back, half frozen, from the creek, and show her cluster of
victims swinging by their long-necked heads from her waist.

She thought of them, planned for their comfort, and worked for them all
day; while to her husband she was absolutely devoted, and one would
think that for such devotion a few smiles, a kiss, and some kind words
was a small price to pay. Yet after the first few weeks, and even during
them, Stephen, who worked all day to secure his mining gains, would not
even exert himself to that degree to return the affection that was worth
all his claims put together. One kiss given before he went out to his
work in the morning would have made Katrine happy all day, one tender
inquiry on his return would have amply rewarded her for all her labours,
yet he invariably went out to the claims without bestowing the one, and
returned without making the other. Hard work, privations, loneliness,
even the absence of all the amusements she had delighted in, would not
have broken her spirits; she would have accepted them all cheerfully, if
her husband had only thrown over them the little light and warmth of his
affection that she longed for. Each day she hoped it might be
different; but no, he grew more and more absorbed by the gold fever that
was eating away his heart and brain, and the girl grew more and more
depressed and resentful. "It would be no trouble to him," she murmured
to herself over and over again, as she stood at the wash-tub, wringing
out his shirts, or knelt on the floor of the cabin scrubbing the boards,
"just a kiss or a smile."

She did not in the meantime relax any of her attention to him. Her smile
for him was always as sweet when he returned, her efforts to please him
as untiring, but in her heart her thoughts turned more and more
constantly day by day to the idea of leaving him, of returning to her
own life, where at least she had not been tormented by this perpetual
hope and expectation and disappointment.

Stephen never dreamed that the girl's thoughts were as they were; though
if he had done so, he probably would not have altered his own
course--for Katrine in several angry outbursts had appealed to him, had
told him how she hungered after, not great and difficult proofs of his
love, but the little ones, the trifles, how he was starving and killing
her love for him by his neglect of it, and he either could not, or would
not, understand. But that she contemplated ever leaving him never
crossed his brain, any more than the conception of the passionate hate
she felt for him at times when he left undone some trifling thing, that
if done, would have roused an equally passionate access to her love. He,
jaundiced with this mental yellow fever, thought his rich claims, his
great wealth, had probably had some influence on the daughter of the
Polish Jew when she accepted him. He relied, in fact, on his wealth, and
on the material advantages she would gain by clinging to him, to hold
her to him. And with Katrine this was a rope of sand. She cared no more
for Stephen's wealth and for his claims than if they had been ash
heaps. There was not a touch of avarice, of calculating greed, in her
whole character, and to gratify her own impulse she would have cast all
material advantages aside. From Stephen she wanted love, and that only,
and this was the only chain that could hold for an instant her proud,
independent, reckless will.

There were the makings of a splendid character in the girl, all the
foundations of all the best qualities in her: a little care, a little
culture bestowed on them, and she would have developed into a fine and
noble woman; but Stephen's eyes were blinded by the glare of the gold he
saw in his visions, and the far greater and more wonderful treasure, the
living human soul, that chance had given over to his care, unfolded
itself slowly before him in all its beauty, and he could no longer see
it. To Talbot it seemed incredible that Katrine through her mere
physical beauty did not obtain a greater hold upon him, that she seemed
so unable to absorb him, that she could not triumph over him by the road
of the senses. Talbot himself was absorbed in his work, but even he, the
onlooker, the outsider, felt the influence of this brilliant young
presence that had come suddenly into their sordid life, like the sun
rising in radiant majesty over a barren plain. The common table at which
they sat seemed no longer the same now that she was at the head, with
her beautiful figure rising above it, and her laughing, lovely
nineteen-year-old face looking down it. To him, those liquid flashing
eyes, and arching brows, and curled red lips seemed to light, positively
light, the small and common room. But the eye grows accustomed to beauty
and ceases to heed it, just as it grows accustomed to, and ceases to
heed, ugliness and deformity, especially where there is no standard, no
measure for it, no comparison with other objects. Just as any
shortcoming, any mental or physical defect that a man hardly notices in
a woman he loves, when alone with her, becomes painfully apparent to him
when he sees her surrounded by others, so does her beauty strike him
when reflected in other eyes, and pass unheeded when seen only by his
own. Katrine was alone, there was no other woman's face to either rival
or be a foil to hers, and after the first six weeks her beauty ceased to
sting and surprise Stephen's senses. She, as it were, became the
standard, since there was no other. And there is no absoluteness about
beauty, nor our admiration for it. When we say we admire a woman because
she is beautiful, we mean we admire her because she is more beautiful
than other women. If all others were the same as she, she would cease to
be called a beautiful woman, and if there were none others than she,
then she would simply be a woman for us. We could not know whether she
was beautiful or not. Man's senses are made not to perceive, but to
compare, and he cannot judge except by comparison. Talbot knew all this,
and he could not help feeling sorry that a girl such as this should be
so isolated with them, and that the man who possessed her should realise
his good fortune so little. He suggested often, for the girl's sake,
excursions down into the town; but Stephen, partly from his religious
views, and more from his anxiety not to waste a minute of his literally
golden time, always frowned down the question, and though the girl
looked at him wistfully she never complained against his decisions. She
seemed to have completely accepted the idea that her marriage meant the
renunciation of all the things she had delighted in, and if her marriage
had given her more of what she had hoped for, she would have been
contented with the change.

One evening, when Stephen was out in the shed at the back of the cabin
stacking up some wood by the light of a candle stuck in a chink of the
logs, Talbot and the girl were sitting idle on each side of the stove,
and somehow, though Talbot seldom opened his lips on such matters,
seldom in his life offered opinion or advice to others, they had now
been speaking of her marriage, and Stephen's attitude towards her.

There were tears in her great eyes, and her under lip quivered and
turned downwards like a wet rose-leaf.

"He is so _very_ wrapped up in all this digging business, why did he
want to marry me at all?" she said, in a sort of helpless childish
wonder.

Talbot was silent, looking at her, and then instead of answering her
question, said--

"Why don't you make him notice you more? why can't you appeal to him?"

"Appeal to him!" she repeated; "it's no use. Why, he is
gold-plated--eyes, ears, touch, everything, all plated over; you can't
reach him through it."

"Have men nothing like affection in them?" she said, after a minute.
"Have they nothing between their mad bursts of passion and a cold
incivility? What do they do with all the charming ways they have before
they possess a woman? Stephen was so gentle, so nice, so interested,
when he used to visit me down town; and now you see how rude and hateful
he is very often. Why do they change? I have not changed. I am still as
attentive, as eager to please him, more so, than when he came to my
cabin. Oh," she added, after a minute, "I'm getting so tired of it all,
I feel I'd like to throw it all up and go back to my own life and
freedom. All the men are so civil and so nice and so devoted as long as
a woman does nothing for them," she said simply, not fully realising
perhaps the terrible ironical truth she was half-unconsciously uttering.

"I could love him immensely," she added, stretching out her arms; "oh,
he could have such a love from me, if he wanted it; but as it is, I
don't see much use in my staying with him. I feel I'd like to go back to
my own life and forget I ever married him."

"Oh, you must not do that," said Talbot, startled out of his usual calm,
and fixing his eyes on her; "pray don't think of such things."

"Do you think he would care?" she said, opening her eyes in her turn.

"I'm sure he would," Talbot answered, with so much emphasis and decision
that the girl sat silent and impressed for some seconds.

"Why is he not more amiable then?" she asked.

"It's men's way," returned Talbot, not knowing exactly what to say, and
accidentally hitting the truth completely.

"They're fools," replied Katrine, angrily, while the hot tears fell
thickly into her lap.

Stephen came in at the moment, and though Katrine made no attempt to
conceal the fact that she was crying, he took no notice of her, but
began talking to Talbot about the wood.

"We shall have to take the sleigh to-morrow and go up the gulch and get
some more wood somehow, if we can. There's only a few bundles left," he
said, blowing out the candle and dragging some heavy logs over to the
fire.

"Can I come with you?" asked Katrine, looking at him with her soft
pathetic eyes, still brimming with tears.

"Why--yes--I suppose so," returned Stephen, slowly opening the stove and
looking in.

"I shall enjoy it so much," answered Katrine, her face beginning to
sparkle with its accustomed smiles. "We have not had a sleigh ride
together once, have we? I'd like to go with you better than anything.
You'll like it too, won't you?"

"I don't know; it's a confounded nuisance having to leave the claims a
whole afternoon, I think."

Katrine got up suddenly from where she was sitting and walked into the
next room without a word. Her tears were dried, her smiles killed.

The following day was clear and bright, and a cold, pinky-looking winter
sunlight filled the air. Katrine and Stephen started early, and Talbot
did not expect them back till dark. He was out on the claims all the
morning, and came in to his lunch late and did not go out again
immediately. It was a day for a half-holiday, and all his men left
early; the claims were deserted, and Talbot found himself in solitary
possession of the gulch. He felt restless and unsettled, and walked
about his little bare room in an aimless way quite unusual to him, and
the early part of the afternoon had passed away before he realised it.

In one of his walks he went up to the window and stood looking out. The
gulch always impressed him; it had a solemn melancholy majesty and
desolate grandeur that is not easy to define in words: an icy splendour
by moonlight, and a horrible gloomy beauty towards the fall of the day.
It was at this time that Talbot stood looking out at its rugged edges
and the snow-drifts turning grey as the sunlight left them, and
listening with a sort of mechanical tension to the unbroken and
oppressive stillness round him, when his eye caught sight of a man's
figure, moving slowly towards the house. It had appeared so suddenly
where for hours there had reigned unbroken silence and loneliness, that
Talbot started a little with sheer surprise; and then another appeared,
and another. They were coming, one behind the other, singly, round the
corner of the house, and as they emerged into view on the level platform
in front of it Talbot looked them over and saw at a glance to what order
they belonged.

"As tough a crowd of claim-jumpers as I have seen," he murmured to
himself as he watched their movements. They did not seem very decided or
certain, nor well agreed amongst themselves. There were six in all, and
they advanced towards the house in a loitering way, pausing once or
twice to talk with each other, and glancing over the cabin. They were
all dressed alike, in large slouch hats, thick boots and high leggings,
and short coats with a belt round the waist, from which depended their
enormous six-shooters. As they finally, in their loitering fashion,
neared the door, Talbot walked to it, threw it wide open, and asked them
what they wanted. They hung back from the door a little and looked at
each other, and then one said he had a lease on the claims from General
Marshall.

"I am the only person who has power or authority to give a lease on
these claims," returned Talbot in a short, hard voice.

The men hesitated. Talbot looked pretty tough himself as he stood there
facing them, clothed in buckskin from head to foot, his head nearly
touching the lintel of the doorway above him, his revolver on his side,
and behind him looming the tunnel, a gaping mouth of blackness.

The men shuffled their feet on the snow and grinned at each other
uneasily. It did not seem they could work the game of bluff here that
they had thought out in the town.

"Well, that's your opinion," returned the leader in a bantering tone,
while the others closed in nearer the threshold in a jeering circle;
"but a lease from General Marshall's good enough for us, and I guess
we're coming in."

"You'd better try it," returned Talbot, and he slammed to the heavy door
in their faces, and fastened it on the inside.

He expected them to force it, and he hastily dragged together some sacks
of rich dirt that were lying in the tunnel and piled them up, forming
quite a respectable barricade. Behind these he took his stand, his
revolver in his hand. With six against one he felt they must win in the
end, but he thought he could put a bullet through half of their number
as they advanced, and he'd sell his claim and his life dear.

He waited some moments, but nothing happened. There was silence outside,
and after a second or two he stepped back to his sitting-room and looked
out of the window. A council of war was taking place seemingly. The men
had all withdrawn to a little distance, where there was some old tin
piping. They had seated themselves on this, and were now in earnest
conversation. Talbot stood at the window and watched them with a dry
smile. He could tell their talk almost from their expressions and their
gestures. It was one thing to come up and bluff a man out of his
property, and walk in and take it as he walked out; and another to force
a narrow tunnel against the straight, steady fire of a fearless devil
like this. They could overpower him in the end, there was no doubt of
that; but then when they walked in it would be over his dead body, that
was clear, and several others besides him, for he was known to be the
quickest, straightest shot in the district, and could certainly get away
with some of them. It was this part they did not like, for each man felt
he might be the one to be picked off and stretched stiff in the tunnel.
So there was considerable parleying and hesitation amongst them, and
Talbot stood motionless at the window watching them as they sat there,
and noting the length of their six-shooters that dangled down the sides
of their legs. At last there was a concerted movement amongst them: they
got up with one accord, and without another glance at the cabin walked
slowly away across the plateau in front of the house and round the
corner of it towards the town trail, the way they had come. Talbot
watched them disappear in the grey light of the gulch with surprise, and
then drew a deep breath. He hardly knew whether he felt relieved or
disappointed. His blood was up then, and he would have liked to send a
bullet through a few of them. He roamed about restlessly for some time,
and went to the back of the house to a little square window, and from
there watched the last of them mount the trail and disappear from the
gulch. Then all was silence and solitude again, in the swiftly falling
darkness. He turned into his sitting-room, and stirred the fire into a
blaze and lighted up the lamps--his lamps always burned well and
brightly, being kept scientifically clean and trimmed with his own
hands,--then he flung himself into a chair and sat there gazing into the
flames, his revolver beside him on the table. He half expected the men
to return, and his ears remained attentive to the slightest sound
without. But there was nothing, absolute stillness reigned all around
him; not a crackle of the frosted snow nor the fall of a leaf broke the
grave-like silence.

When the other two came in, he told his afternoon's adventure in the
quietest, simplest way possible, and the fewest words. The girl listened
with flushing cheeks and sparkling eyes.

"What fun!" she said at last when he had finished, and kicking off her
snow-laden boots as she sat by the stove. "And you held off six men by
the 'power of your eye?' what a convenient eye that is! I don't see
you've any need to carry a six-shooter! I wish they'd come back
to-night, we'd give them something of a reception."

Talbot laughed, and looked pleased at the praise from her bright young
lips. Stephen only looked anxious.

That night they sat up rather later than usual, and Katrine was quite in
a pleased state of expectation. No visitors made their appearance,
however, and at last Talbot left to go to his own cabin.

"Now, if they come in the night," remarked Katrine, laughing, as she
said good-night, "don't slay them all with your eye, mind, but give me a
chance."

Talbot promised to use his eye mercifully, and Katrine and Stephen put
their lights out and went to bed.

It seemed to Katrine she had been asleep some time, when she awoke
suddenly and put her hand on her husband's arm. "Steve, I hear steps."

"Nonsense," murmured Stephen, drowsily; "it's your fancy. Go to sleep."

But Katrine's ears were like those of a wild animal, quick and not to be
deceived.

"Go to sleep yourself, if you can," she retorted, and sprang up in the
darkness, found her day clothes, and hustled them on. There was silence
now outside, but Katrine hurried all she could, and then with one
revolver in her belt and one in her hand went into the other room.
Suddenly, and without the slightest warning, there was a crash, a sound
of tearing and splitting wood, and the door was crushed inward, letting
in a blast of icy air. There was pitch darkness within and without.
Katrine answered immediately by two shots fired in succession; there was
a heavy groan, a muttered curse, and some shuffling of feet outside.
Katrine, standing flat against the wall to avoid offering a mark for
wandering shots, chuckled inwardly and waited. A second later a shot
came in return, but the bullet went high. Katrine heard it whizz into
the wood somewhere between the wall and roof.

She stood motionless, listening. Just in front of her, on the other side
of the room, was the stove, and in this there still glowed an
unextinguished portion of log, making one small spot of blood red in
the surrounding darkness. Katrine fixed her eye on this glowing spot. To
enter farther into the cabin the men must pass between it and her. She
raised one of her revolvers into a line with it. When that spot was
obliterated, she would know, however silently they moved, the enemy had
advanced, and in that second she meant to fire; the stove was high, and
a man passing in front of it would have that red spot in a line with his
heart.

With her heart beating fast with exultation, and not a tremor in her
steady fingers, she waited motionless as a statue against the wall. She
was not a girl of a cruel nature, but her husband lay behind that slim
partition on her right, and unarmed, for Stephen would never carry a
pistol, and she would have shot unhesitatingly each man in succession
that tried to pass her to him. There seemed to be some talking outside
and a trampling of feet on the broken wood of the door, and then
suddenly the soft red fire spot was eclipsed in the total darkness
around, and on the instant Katrine's finger had pulled the trigger.
There was no groan this time after the shot, only a heavy thud and a
crash as a falling body struck some fire-irons by the stove. The red
spot glowed out of the darkness again and stared Katrine cheerfully in
the eyes. There was a confusion of voices outside: Katrine could hear
the thick oaths and one man apparently enjoining another to come out of
there and have done with the business. Katrine smiled as she heard. She
guessed that the man addressed was the one that lay now between her and
the stove, and his ears were for ever closed. In the same moment she
heard the inner door open, and for an instant Stephen appeared, pale and
in his night clothes and with a flaring candle in his hand. With a
spring like a leopard Katrine had reached him and put her hand over the
flame of the candle, crushing it out beneath her palm. The darkness she
knew was their only shield. By their voices and their footsteps she
could tell the men without numbered not less than four or five. Once let
a light reveal to them that the house was held only by a single girl,
they could overpower her in a few seconds. It was only that horrible
pitchy darkness, out of which those deadly shots came ringing with such
precision and promptness, that filled them with the idea that the cabin
was protected by a body of desperate and straight-shooting miners. It
was the fears of the besiegers now simply that was protecting the
besieged.

"Go back," she said, with her lips on his ear, "unless you can find a
pistol, and be ready to shoot," and she pushed him within the door
again.

She stood as before, in an even line with the red bull's-eye of the
stove, and listened; there was still a scraping of feet and muttering
of voices outside, but not so near the door, and she wondered if the
enemy were going round the cabin to attack it from another side.
Suddenly a shot rang out in the stillness outside, then another, and the
ball came through the window behind her and passed over her shoulder;
there seemed to be a rush and stampede towards the door. She turned and
faced it, raising both revolvers, and as she heard the wood of the
fallen door split under the trampling feet, her fingers had almost drawn
the triggers to welcome the incomers, when out of that cold blackness
beyond the door came a slight cough. Katrine's hand dropped to her side,
a sick, cold horror came over her as she realised what she would have
done in the next instant. That was Talbot's cough. One second more of
silence, one more step forward, and her shot would have found his heart.
She reeled where she stood, against the wall, with the sickness of the
thought. She could not shoot again now: he was there outside amongst
them--and Stephen, was he there too, or inside? Talbot, she supposed,
roused by the noise, had come out and attacked them between the two
cabins. Then what she had said to Stephen recurred to her. Suppose he
had searched and found a gun, and should come out from the inner room,
he would not count upon Talbot's presence any more than she had done; he
would naturally shoot at the first who crossed the threshold, as she
herself had done; he would shoot in the dark, by her orders. The
thoughts flashed quicker than lightning through her brain. The horror of
the situation, this uncertainty, this killing blindly in the confusion
and the darkness, was too great to be borne. The danger now was greater
than even the light could bring. She dropped the pistols on to a stool
beside her, drew a match from her pocket, and heedless of the perfect
mark she herself offered now, struck it and held it over her head. In a
second, the body across the hearth, the wrecked door, and two pale faces
looking in at her from the opening, leaped into sight; the enemies, the
living ones, were gone. A pool of blood beyond the threshold, and blood
on the splintered wood, and their dead companion, only remained. For a
moment the three faces, all pale with fear and anxiety, not for
themselves, but for each other, stared nervously into each other's eyes
in silence. Then Katrine broke it with a laugh, and brought down the
match from over her head and put it to the lamp on the table.

"Oh, you frightened me so," she said, as she turned up the wick and made
it burn, and the men stepped over the door and came in. "I thought I
might kill you."

She looked up at them both in the lamplight, as if to reassure herself
they were really there alive.

Talbot laid his six-shooter on the table.

"You frightened me," he returned, jestingly. "I wouldn't come under that
straight fire of yours for anything. The men outside were easier to deal
with, they got so scared with you shooting in here and me shooting in
their rear; they thought we were a band of a dozen at least."

"I'd no idea you were there," murmured Katrine, shuddering still, as she
moved from the lamp to the fire, and began drawing the half-burnt logs
together.

"Stephen climbed out of the back window and came round to me, but the
first shot had already wakened me; I was getting my clothes on when he
came," answered Talbot, walking over to where the dead man lay between
the hearth and the door, and surveying him. "Some of your good work, I
see," he said, after a minute. "This is one of the lot that came up
yesterday afternoon. Tough-looking chap, isn't he? Well, you see I did
not kill them all. I gave you the chance you asked for," he added,
looking at her with admiring eyes.

"And haven't I made the most of it?" she returned, lifting her flushed
face, sparkling with smiles, from the fire.

Stephen had crept in, pale-faced as the corpse itself, and stood now
staring at it in a dumb horror. He could not understand how Talbot and
his wife could laugh and jest with that terrible object lying motionless
between them. Had the danger and excitement turned her brain, he
wondered, and looked at her apprehensively, but Katrine gave no sign of
mental or physical collapse. She looked smiling and well pleased with
herself, and was stirring the fire and settling the coffee-pot over the
flames as if nothing the least startling or disconcerting had occurred,
as if no cold body was lying stretched there by the threshold. Stephen,
reassured for her, let his eyes travel to the corpse, and then, with a
sort of groan of horror, sank back on a chair with his face covered in
his hands. Katrine looked up quickly from the fire, and then went over
to him, putting an arm softly round his neck.

"What is it, Steve, dear? you weren't hurt, were you?"

"Oh, to have killed him! to have killed a man, how horrible!" muttered
Stephen, without lifting his head.

Katrine looked amazed. "Well, but he would have killed us if he could,"
she answered. "You kill a mosquito if it annoys you, and that's right.
You only kill a man if he tries to kill you, that's quite fair."

"But a murderer!" and Stephen shuddered. She felt the shiver of horror
under her hand.

"Isn't it better to be a murderer than murdered?" she asked, with a
little smile, feeling she had an unanswerable argument.

"Murdered, your body is killed, murderer, your soul," came back in the
same stifled voice.

Katrine was silent. She was thinking what a nuisance it was to have a
soul that needed so much looking after, never seemed to do any good, and
was always obtruding itself and spoiling your best moments of fun in
this life.

"We'll take him away," she said softly, after a minute, noticing that
Stephen kept his fingers closely locked over his eyes, as if to shut out
some fearful sight. "Talbot, let's take him out," she said to their
companion, who stood with his back to the fire watching them. Stephen
made no sign.

Talbot and the girl walked over to the body. It was stiffening rapidly,
and the wide-open eyes glared up glassily to the black rafters of the
cabin.

"Might this be useful?" said Talbot, stooping over the man and half
drawing the second large revolver from his belt.

"No, take nothing," answered Katrine, hastily; "we want nothing."

Talbot let the weapon slide back to its place, and they both bent down
and lifted the corpse between them. Talbot walked backwards over the
cabin door behind him. It was dark outside--a thick, pitchy darkness,
with only a grey glare close to the ground from the snow.

"Let's take him to the gulch," whispered Katrine, "and send him down it;
it will worry Stephen so if he sees him again."

It was only a few yards to the edge of the ravine; they moved towards it
cautiously and stopped upon the brink.

"Are you ready?" Talbot asked in a low tone, and Katrine whispered back
"Yes." There was a heavy thud, then a soft rolling sound, and then
silence, as the drift snow in the bottom of the gulch received and
closed over its gift. They waited a second, then Talbot stretched out
his hand towards her, found her arm in the darkness, and they both
walked back together.

"It's a pity Steve is so sensitive," said Katrine, plaintively. "I just
saved him, and his house, and his precious gold, and everything,
to-night, and he does not like me a bit for it."

"I think you are a very brave little girl," said Talbot, softly.

"Do you?" returned Katrine, in a pleased voice; and Talbot felt that she
turned her face and looked up at him in the darkness. "Steve and I don't
fit very well, do we?" she added, with a sigh; "and he does not fit this
life. Somehow, I don't believe we shall ever leave this place alive--I
have a presentiment we shan't. You will--you'll make a success and go
back; but we shan't."

Talbot did not answer, as they were at the cabin.

Stephen met them at the door as they came in, with a white stricken
face. "Where have you put it?" he asked in an awed, trembling whisper.

"Down the gulch," replied Katrine, composedly. "Now, Steve, you're not
to worry about it any more--it was a necessity."

She glanced round the room and saw that Stephen had been too much shaken
to think of putting it in order. The coffee-pot stood where she had left
it, and the coffee was boiling over and wasting itself in the fire. She
ran to it, took it off, and began pouring it into the cups on the table;
as she did so the men noticed blood dripping from her wrist into one of
the saucers.

"Oh, yes," she said indifferently, in answer to Stephen's startled
exclamation, "I thought I felt my sleeve getting very damp and sticky;
there's a graze on the shoulder, I think, and the blood has been
crawling slowly down my arm, tickling me horribly. Let's see how it
looks!"

She unfastened her bodice and took it off, seemingly unconscious of
Talbot's presence. He stood silently by the hearth watching her, and
thought, as he saw her bare white arms and full, strong white neck, how
well she would look in a London ball-room. Stephen, all nervous anxiety,
was examining her shoulder. A bullet had gone over it, leaving a furrow
in the flesh, where the blood welled up slowly. Katrine turned her head
aside and regarded it out of one eye, as a bird does. Stephen bent over
her and kissed her, murmuring incoherent words of remorseful sorrow.
Katrine flung her arms round him and laughed.

"Why, I am delighted! it's been quite worth it, the fun we've had
to-night. That's all right--it will be healed in a couple of days; just
tie it up with your handkerchief."

It was an easy place to bind, by passing the bandage under the arm, and
this, by Katrine's directions, Stephen did, with trembling fingers.
Talbot had turned away from them, and occupied himself by fixing up the
door and stuffing the chinks where the wood had broken. When this was
done and the bandaging finished, Stephen brought a shawl from the other
room and wrapped it round the girl's shoulders, and they all drew in
round the fire in a close circle with their cups in their hands.

Their common danger and the sudden realisation of how much they were,
each of this lonely trio, to the other; how easily any one of them might
have been taken from the circle that night, and how irreparable would
have been the loss, drew them all closely together as they had never
been before--that delicious chord of sweet human sympathy that lies deep
down, but ever present, in the human breast, vibrated strongly in their
hearts, and they sat round the cheery blaze, talking and laughing
softly, and looking at one another, and then smiling as their eyes met,
for mere lightheartedness.



CHAPTER VI

MAMMON'S PAY


This little excitement quite delighted and pleased Katrine. She had
spoken just the truth when she said she wished something like it would
happen every day; and the only thing that spoilt the fun of it was
Stephen's dejection and the persistently depressed way he looked and
felt over it. After a day or two the pleasant sense of life having
something worth living for passed away again, and the time seemed
heavier and slower than ever. Day followed day in a dreadful monotony,
and the girl visibly lost health and spirits. She changed a good deal,
and both men noticed it. She lost her wonderful sweetness and evenness
of temper and her bright smiles, and became fretful and irritable,
discontented, and sharp in her replies. In the long winter mornings now
she would not spring up in the early darkness as formerly, but try to
fall asleep again after waking, and put her arm across Stephen and tell
him there was no use of getting up, that the day was long enough anyway,
and it was too dark to do anything; and then she would abuse him if he
insisted on getting up in spite of her, and let the breakfast wait so
long, that after a time the men drifted into the habit of having it
alone, and going out without seeing her. Katrine had grown to hate the
day, to hate every minute in fact when she was not sleeping, and to try
to make the night last as long as possible. Stephen noticed all this,
and spoke to Talbot about it in distress. Talbot merely said, "Perhaps
it's her health; you'd better ask her." Stephen did so, and found there
was a reason for her apparent illness, which delighted and consoled him;
but when Katrine flew into a passion, declared it was detestable, that
it would take away her freedom and her power to ride and enjoy herself,
Stephen was shocked and grieved, and said he was disappointed in her;
whereupon Katrine replied she hated him, and Stephen quoted scripture
texts to her till she ran out of the cabin and rushed across to Talbot's
in a passion of sobs and tears. At least, she knew he would not quote
texts to her. Talbot did all he could to smooth out matters between the
two, and after that Katrine spoke very little; she took refuge in a
dejected silence, and grew paler each day. It was only when the men had
gone out to work, and she was left alone with a great pile of things to
mend, work which she hated, that she would go to the door and stand
looking out over the grey waste under the snow-filled lowering sky, with
the tears rolling silently down her checks. From where she stood she
could see, through the greyish air, the men working far down at the
other end of the claims, and the long line of trenches and the banks of
frozen gravel; sometimes, in the light fog, made of the tiny sharp
snow-flakes, sifting through the air, they would look misty, like ghosts
or shadows; and sometimes the dulled click and scrape of the spades
would reach her.

"Slaves, slaves, just like slaves," she would think, watching the
muffled-up figures continually bending over their work; "and they're
digging graves, graves." And she would think of Annie, and the grave
Will had been digging for her while he dug for gold. A red sun, dull as
copper, hung above them, and sometimes the great Northern Lights would
send up a red flame behind the horizon; and to Katrine it seemed like a
blood-covered sword held up by Nature to warn them off a land not fit
for men. One afternoon, when the sun looked more sullen and the sky more
threatening than ever, and the men moving at the end of the claim
looked no more than mere blots in the cold mist, she stood watching the
steady red blade shoot up in the ashen sky, and began comparing its
colour to other things. "It's as red," she said to herself softly, "as
Hearts and Diamonds;" and then her thought wandered to the cards
themselves, and she thought of the hot saloons at nights crowded with
faces, and the tobacco smoke in the air, and the jabber of voices, and
the laughter of the miners, and their oaths and jokes and stories, and
their friendly ways to her, and the admiration on their rough and
sometimes honest faces, and the long tables and the spat, spat of the
falling cards as they were dealt, and the chink of the glasses and the
hot spirits burning your throat, and then the feeling of jollity, and
then the warmth and life and cheeriness of it all. Her eyes brightened
and her chest heaved a little as she leaned against the lintel. If she
could have one night of it again! And here, what would it be when the
men came back? Supper, and then Talbot and Stephen talking of their
work, and the probable value of the claims, and the pans they could
make, and what the dirt would run to, and then dismissing the whole
subject as impossible to decide till the spring came and they could wash
the gravel, and then having so dismissed it, they would fall to
speculating again what the spring would show them the dirt was worth,
and so on all over again from the beginning. Oh, she had heard it so
often, nothing, nothing but the same topic night after night, and after
that, cups of coffee, of which she was sick, or water, and then reading
a chapter of the Testament, and then going to bed, and Stephen too dead
tired to give her a good-night kiss. If they had had a game of cards in
the evening now, all together, and become interested in that and
forgotten to talk of their claims, and some good whisky after it, or
cleared out one of the cabins and had a dance there with some of the
hands who lived near, and a man to whistle tunes for them if there was
no other orchestra; but no! Stephen thought that cards were wrong and
wouldn't have them in his house, and whisky too, and dancing worst of
all, and only the sin of avarice and the lust of gold was to be connived
at there. As she stood there, the thought slipped into her mind quite
suddenly, so suddenly that it surprised herself, "Why not go down to
town and have a good time as she used?" Her heart beat quickly, and the
old colour came into her cheek. She glanced at the dull, coppery sun
growing dimmer and dimmer behind the thickening snow fog, and the pink
light flickering on the horizon, at the dim figures of the men and the
grey wastes on every side. There was a thick silence, broken only by a
faint far-off click of a shovel from the trenches. There would be
half-an-hour's more daylight, half-an-hour before the men returned to
miss her. She would get a good start anyway. She turned into the cabin
again, her face aglow and her eyes sparkling. She knew that Stephen
would be fearfully angry with her--she had not been once to the town
since her marriage--but she had a stronger nature than Stephen's, and
felt no fear of his anger.

"He thinks I am a reformed character," she muttered contemptuously to
herself, as she put on her thick rubber boots. "Well, I told him there
was only one chance to reform me, and that was to take me away from
here, and he wouldn't do it."

She built up the fire in an enormous bank, and left the men's slippers
and dry socks beside it. Then she slipped into her long skin coat, and
crushed the fur cap down on her eyebrows and pulled it over her ears. As
she went out she took a long look at the claims--the men were still busy
there. "Slaves," she muttered. She closed the door with a sharp snap and
left the key hanging on it, as was usual when she was inside. Then she
turned her face to the town trail, and set off at a long steady stride
through the dead silent air. The town was within easy walking distance
for her, and though it would be dark before she reached it, that
mattered very little, her eyes were strong and almost as good as a wild
cat's in the dark. On every hand the sky seemed to hang low and
threatening over the earth, and the air had the grip of iron in it, but
Katrine pushed on at the same even pace without even an apprehensive
glance round. Her spirits rose as she walked. She felt the old sense of
gladness in her youth and strength and health, and in her freedom, and
she bounded along over the hard, glittering snow, full of a mere
irresponsible animal pleasure, such as moves the young chamois in his
bounds from rock to rock. Darkness had come like a blot upon the earth
before she had done half the distance, but now she had the twinkling
lights and the reddish haze of Dawson before her. Her own eyes
brightened as she caught sight of them, and she hastened her steps. By
the time night had fairly settled down she came into the side streets of
the town. Dawson is an all-night town, and things were in full
blast--saloons, shooting-galleries, dance-halls, and dog-fights going on
just as usual. She noted with satisfaction that nothing seemed to have
altered a little bit since she saw it last, and as she turned into Good
Luck Row, to walk down it for old acquaintance' sake, a big,
disreputable old yellow dog she had fed through last winter, came
bounding up and leaped all over her in delighted recognition. Katrine
was pleased at this welcome, and spent quite a time at the corner with
him, asking how many dog-fights he had had lately, and being answered
with short triumphant barks that she took to mean he had demolished all
the small dogs of that quarter. Then she went on and passed her own
former house, and saw to her surprise it was vacant, and so was Annie's
next it. That looked as if Dawson was not pressed for space. As she was
turning out of the row she saw ahead of her another old acquaintance,
this was a human one, and Katrine felt as if she had quite slipped back
into her own life as she hailed him.

"Sam!" she called gently. "Hello, Sam!"

The miner turned, and as soon as he saw her a broad, genial smile
overspread his countenance and stretched his mouth from one edge of his
fur ear-flaps to the other.

"Why, Kate, you down here again; you've cut the parson fellow, eh?"

"Oh, no," said Katrine hastily, reddening a little; "I'm just in town
for a day or so. How's your wife?"

"Well," answered Sam slowly, as he put himself at her side and slouched
heavily along the side-walk with her. "She's all right--leastways I
reckon she ought to be; she's in 'eaven now."

"Oh, Sam!" said Katrine, in a shocked voice, "is she dead? How did she
die? when?"

"Why, I reckon it was the cold like, she kind of froze to death. When I
got home one night the fire was out, and she was just laying acrost the
hearth; the room was awful cold, and there warn't no food neither--I
'spect that helped it. I'd bin away three or four days, and the food
give out quicker than I thought, and the firin'. I arst a doctor here
wot it was, and he said it was sincough or sumthin'."

"Syncope?" suggested Katrine.

"Yes, that's what 'e said; but I sez it was just the cold a ketchin' of
her heart like, and stopping it."

"What were you doing?" asked Katrine.

"Why, I was out arter gold, o' course."

Katrine shivered. They passed the "Sally White" at that moment, with
its flaring lights and noise of merriment within.

"Let's go in, Sam, and get a drink. Your tale has pretty near frozen
me."

They turned in, and as Katrine pushed open the door there was a shout of
recognition and welcome from the men round the bar. The door fell to
behind them, shutting out the icy night.

       *       *       *       *       *

When the light failed, and the night had come down on the claims like a
black curtain let fall suddenly, the men left the ground, and stiff with
cold, their muscles almost rigid, plodded slowly and silently back to
the cabin. The hired men dispersed in different directions, some going
down town and some to their cabins near. When Stephen and Talbot entered
they found the fire leaping and crackling as if it had just been tended,
and both men sat down to change their boots in the outer room. The door
into the bedroom was shut, and they supposed Katrine was within. They
were too tired and frozen to speak, and not a word was exchanged between
them. After a time Stephen got up and went into the inner room; there
was no light in it, and the door swung to behind him. Talbot, with a
white drawn face, leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes.

When Stephen entered he thought Katrine was probably asleep upon the
bed, and crossed the room to find a light. When the match was struck and
a candle lighted, he stared round stupidly--the room was empty. He
looked at the bed, Katrine was not there; then his eyes caught a little
square of white paper pinned on to the red blanket. He went up to it,
unpinned it slowly, and read it with trembling fingers. Talbot, waiting
in the other room, hungry and thirsty, got up after a time and began to
lay the supper. This done, he made the coffee, and when that was ready
and still Stephen had not reappeared, he rapped at the door. There
seemed a muffled sound from within, and Talbot pushed the door a little
open. Inside, he saw Stephen sitting on the edge of the bed, staring at
the paper in his hand.

"What's the matter?" said Talbot.

Stephen handed him the paper in a blank silence, and Talbot took it and
held it near the candle. This is what he read:--

"I have gone down to the town to get a little change and to relieve the
dreadful monotony of this life. Don't follow me; just leave me alone,
and I'll come back in a day or two. There's no need to be anxious. You
know I can take care of myself."

Talbot laughed quietly, and walked back into the sitting-room.

"Well, she gives you good advice," he said; "I should follow it. Let her
have a day or two to herself--a day or two of liberty. She'll come back
at the end all the better for it."

Stephen followed him into the firelight; his face was the colour of wood
ash, and his eyes looked haggard and terrified. With all his faults he
really loved his wife, in his own narrow, limited, selfish way,
intensely.

"Oh, Talbot! to think she's gone back to it all! How awful!"

Talbot gave a gesture of impatience. He understood the girl so much
better than Stephen ever had that his methods seemed unreasonably
foolish to him. And now he was excessively tired and cold and hungry,
and his supper seemed of more importance than a world full of injured
husbands.

"You can't wonder at it, old man," he said. "This life must be
intolerable for a girl like that."

"Why? how?" questioned Stephen, blankly.

"Oh, so quiet; no excitement."

"But women ought to like quiet, and excitement's sinful," returned
Stephen hotly, becoming the Low Church missionary school-teacher at
once.

Talbot merely laughed and shrugged his shoulders, but his laugh was not
friendly, and there was an angry light in his eyes.

"What am I to do?" asked Stephen mechanically, still standing, the
pallor and the horror of his face growing each minute.

"I've told you. Let her have the few days' enjoyment she asks for; then
her heart will reproach her, and she will come back to you."

"But she might think me indifferent," murmured Stephen, his voice almost
choked in his throat.

"I shouldn't leave her long. If she does not return the day after
to-morrow, then you might go; but if you go now and attempt to force her
back, you'll probably make a mess of it."

"But think--my wife--"

"That's all right," returned Talbot, looking at him and understanding
what he was thinking of. "In one way, at least, you know she is a good
girl. She will only gamble a little and drink and get very jolly, and
she'll come back to you in a day or two with no harm done--what are you
doing?" he broke off suddenly, as Stephen began to tear off his slippers
and socks and get his thick wet boots on.

"I'm going after her," he said sullenly, in a thick voice, "to bring her
back home here--alive or dead."

"It will be dead probably, and you'll be exceedingly sorry," returned
Talbot in a cutting tone.

Stephen made no answer, but continued fastening his boots.

"You'd better have your supper before you go out again," remarked
Talbot, sarcastically.

Stephen made no reply. When he had his boots on he put an extra
comforter inside his fur collar, put his cap on, and walked over to the
door. There he hesitated and looked back. Talbot sat unmoved by the
fire, his profile to the door. Stephen stood for an instant, then came
back to the hearth.

"Talbot!" he said, standing in front of him.

The other looked up. "Well?"

"Come with me. Help me to find her and bring her back."

Talbot compressed his lips.

"Aren't you capable of managing your own 'wife yourself?" he asked.

"You have so much influence with her," said Stephen, pleadingly.

"I suppose I only have that influence because I am not quite a fool,"
returned Talbot angrily, commencing to pull off his slippers.

He was angry with Stephen, and feeling excessively wearied and
disinclined for further effort. He hated to turn out again, and his
whole physical system was craving for food and rest. But he was not the
man to resist an appeal in which he saw another's whole soul was
thrown, and angry and annoyed as he was with Stephen, he still disliked
the idea of letting his friend go out alone in the Arctic night on such
an errand. It seemed to him supremely ridiculous for Stephen to have to
call in another man's aid in these personal matters, but then he was
more than twice Stephen's age, and had got into the habit of making
excuses for him. So, tired and exhausted though he was, he dragged on
his frozen boots again, and prepared to accompany Stephen.

"You'd better have some of this first," he said, pouring out a cup of
the coffee he had made, which stood ready on the stove.

They each took a cup standing, and then turned out of the cabin, locking
the door behind them. The atmosphere and aspect, the whole face of the
night, had changed since the girl started. The fog had lifted itself and
rolled away somewhere in the darkness. The air was now clear and keen
as the edge of steel. The stars were of a piercing brilliance, and all
along the black horizon flickered and leaped a faint rosy light. The two
men, stiff, tired, and aching, took much longer to accomplish the
distance than the girl had done with her light, eager feet, and when
they got down to the town the night was well on its way. At the bottom
of Good Luck Row, which is, as explained already, one of the first
streets you come to, on the edge of the town, they halted and took
counsel as to where they would be most likely to find the object of
their search.

"Perhaps she's gone up to the 'Pistol Shot,'" suggested Stephen. "We'd
better go up to old Poniatovsky."

"She hasn't come down to see her father, I should imagine," remarked
Talbot, in his dryest tone.

But Stephen persisted she might be there, and so they tramped straight
across towards the main street and turned into the "Pistol Shot." They
pushed their way unheeded through the idle, lounging, gossiping crowd
within, found their way behind the bar, and asked for Poniatovsky. The
little Pole came out of his back parlour and met them in the passage. He
listened to their story, his long pipe in one hand, his mouth open, and
his own vile whisky obscuring and clouding his brain.

"Wot! she haf run away?" he exclaimed, as Stephen paused; "and who is de
cause? Is it this shentleman here?" and he stared up at Talbot's slight,
tall figure, imposing in its furs, and at the finely-cut, determined
features that presented such a contrast to Stephen's weak boyish face.

"No, no," said the latter angrily; "she hasn't run away at all. She has
only come down here for an hour or so. I thought she might have come
here to see you."

"No," replied the Pole deprecatingly, shrugging his shoulders and
spreading out his hands, "I haf not seen her. If she come here, I shut
the door upon her. I say, 'I vil haf no runaway wives here.' My fren,
before you vos marrit did not I say, a truant daughter make a truant
wife. She haf left me first, now she haf left you."

He had taken Stephen by the front of his coat, and was pushing in his
words by the aid of a dirty forefinger.

Talbot abandoned Stephen to argue the matter out with his drunken
father-in-law, and strolled back through the passage, through the
bar-room, and then stood, with his gloved hands deep in his fur-lined
pockets, at the saloon door, looking up and down the street. Presently
one of the wrecks of the night came drifting by, a girl of nineteen or
so, with her cheeks blue and pinched in the terrible cold under their
coat of coarse paint. He signalled to her, and she drifted across to
him, and stood, with her hands thrust up her sleeves, in the light from
the "Pistol Shot."

"I expect you've seen the inside of most of the drinking-houses
to-night," he said, speaking in a kind voice, for the pitiful, cold face
of the girl touched him; "have you seen anything of Katrine Poniatovsky,
a girl who used to live here?"

"Wot's she like?" the girl asked sullenly. She was so hoarse that she
could hardly make the words audible.

"A tall girl, dark, and very handsome."

"Yes, I seed her, not more'n an hour ago, in the 'Cock-pit.' She's
a-makin' more money in there than I can make if I walk all night. Curse
her! She sits there, and the devil sits behind her, a-playing for her, I
know; but she'd better look out--you don't play with that partner long."

"The 'Cock-pit.' That's on the other side, isn't it, away from the
river?" Talbot's heart sank a little as he recognized the name of the
worst den for gambling in the whole town.

"Go down here, and turn to your left. Any one will tell you where the
'Cock-pit' is," said the girl, with a hollow laugh.

Then she lingered in the light, and looked at Talbot wistfully. He put
some money into her hand. "Go into the warmth," he said kindly, "and get
yourself something."

Then he turned back into the saloon to find Stephen. He met him, having
broken away at last from the fatherly advice of the Pole, and brushing
the front of his coat down with his hand. He was very flushed and angry.

"You'd better waste no more time," remarked Talbot, calmly. "She is down
at the 'Cock-pit,' playing."

Stephen gasped. "How did you find out that?" he asked.

"I've just been told by one of the habitués. Come along at once." Both
the men went out, and Talbot, following the girl's directions, marched
on decidedly, scarcely noticing Stephen's questions, which he could not
answer.

"I don't know," he said, for the fiftieth time, to Stephen's last absurd
query as to how long she had been there.

The houses became poorer and shabbier as they walked. Even in log-cabins
there is a great difference marked between the respectable and the
disreputable. And the figures that passed them from time to time, though
more rarely here in this quarter, looked of the toughest, most
cut-throat class.

"How can she like to come here alone?" exclaimed Stephen, with a
shudder. "I wonder she is not afraid. I'm surprised she has not come to
some harm long ago."

Talbot smiled to himself inside his fur collar and said nothing. The
girl's absolute fearlessness was the point which he admired most in her
character, and the immunity from danger seemed in her case, as in
others, the natural accompaniment of it. Fortune is said to favour the
brave. Misfortune certainly seems to spare them.

"I think this is the place," said Talbot at last, and they stopped
before a large, but old and dirty-looking cabin. It was sunk beneath the
usual level of the ground, and reached by some crooked, slippery steps.
At the foot of these steps was a sort of yard, which you had to cross
before reaching the cabin door itself. What was in the yard, or what its
condition was, it was too dark to see, but a sickening smell came from
it as the men descended the steps, and the ground seemed slippery or
miry in places above the frozen snow. The windows of the cabin in front
gave out no light whatever, but that there was light inside, and very
bright light, was evidenced by that which burst through the chinks all
over it.

"I shouldn't wonder if I stumbled over a corpse next," muttered Talbot,
as he slipped and almost fell in the darkness on a slimy something under
his feet that reminded him of blood. They got up to the door and tried
the latch. It would not yield; then they thumped on it with their gloved
fists.

The latch was drawn back by some hand inside, and the door opened just
wide enough to admit them, and was pushed to again. Stephen and Talbot
found themselves in a crowd of loiterers inside the door, who apparently
took no notice of them beyond a sodden stare.

It was a long, low room that they entered, so low that it seemed to
Talbot the ceiling was almost upon their heads. The atmosphere was
stifling, evil-smelling beyond endurance, and so clouded with tobacco
smoke that they could not see the farther end.

A long table covered with green cloth took up the centre of the room,
and all round the walls were ranged smaller ones. The place was full
when the two men entered, all space at the centre table was occupied,
the side tables were filled, and men standing up between blocked the way
up the room. The windows at the end were barred and shuttered, not a
breath of outer air could enter. The cheap lamps nailed at intervals
along the grimy walls were mostly black and smoking, adding their acrid
fumes to the thick atmosphere. There were very few women present, some
painted, worn, unhappy-looking creatures, hovering like restless
phantoms round the tables where the thickest crowds were, that seemed
all. Stephen looked round on every side with haggard face and anxious
eyes. She was nowhere near the door, and after a hurried survey of all
those lower tables they forced and pressed and pushed their way towards
the other end. At last they caught sight of her. She was sitting at a
small table, with her face turned towards the room, intent upon the
game. Her cheeks were flushed with excitement. She had flung her fur cap
aside, and her ruffled black hair lay loose upon her forehead. The
collar of her bodice was open and turned back a little from her round
white neck. She looked, with her soft young face, like a fresh flower
dropped by chance into this evil, tainted den. Talbot gave her a keen
scrutiny as they approached, and understood Stephen's infatuation. As
for Stephen himself, his heart went out to her, and he was filled with a
bitter self-reproach and sudden resolutions. His love and his darling!
How could he have let her be found here! His claims and his gold, they
might all go. He would take her away in safety at once. He would not
hesitate again.

When they reached the table they saw there was a large stake on the
cloth between the two players. Her companion was a youngish man,
seemingly a miner, dressed in the roughest clothes. Neither looked up
till both men were close by them and between them and the lights. Then
Katrine raised her eyes and started violently as she recognised them.
Her face flushed deeper, and her eyebrows contracted with annoyance.
Stephen went round to the back of her chair and laid his hand on her
shoulder.

"Come away; oh pray, come away," he said, in an imploring tone. It was
all he seemed able to articulate.

"I'm just in the middle of a game," she answered petulantly. "You
mustn't interrupt me."

"But it isn't safe for you to be here."

"Stuff! I used to be here every night before I married you!"

A death-like pallor overspread the man's face as he heard. He could not
believe her, could not realise it. Had she indeed been here night after
night?

"Why do you come here and interfere?" she continued pettishly, looking
up from Talbot to his companion. "I always have such luck, and I'm
likely to lose it if you worry me."

The young miner sat back in his chair, thrust both hands in his pockets,
and stared rudely at the intruders. He did not mind the interruption as
much as she did, since he was losing, and had been steadily ever since
he sat down to play with Katrine, and doubts and angry questionings of
his opponent's methods began to stir in his dull, clouded brain, as
toads stir the mud in some thick pool.

"You ought not to be here at all," said Stephen hotly.

"Well, why shouldn't I make money as well as you?" returned the girl
quickly, with a flash of scorn in her dark eyes, and Stephen whitened
and winced.

"Haven't you made enough for one night, in any case?" interposed Talbot
quietly.

"Yes, I think I have," she answered, with a glance at the glistening
pile on the cloth. "I'll come," she added suddenly, "if Jim's no
objection. What do you say, Jim?" she asked, looking across to the young
fellow, who had been a sulky, silent spectator of the whole scene.
"Shall we quit for to-night?"

"If you give me back my money," he answered. "That's mine," he said,
pointing to the pile. "It's my money, gentlemen; she's been winning all
the evening."

"Yes, I always do have luck," retorted Katrine. "I told you so when we
began."

"You may call it luck; I don't," muttered the miner, his face turning a
dusky purple.

"And what do you call it?" returned Katrine, white with anger in her
turn at the insinuation, while Talbot, who saw what was coming, tried to
draw her away.

"What does it matter? Come away; leave him the money."

No one in the room noticed what was going on in their corner. The others
were all too busy with their own play, absorbed in their own greed;
besides, squabbles over the tables were of such common occurrence, they
ceased to excite any curiosity.

"I shan't," returned Katrine, shaking herself free.

The oily, smoky light from above fell across her face; it seemed to
bloom through the foul, dusky air like a rose.

"It's my money--I won it."

"Yes, by cheating," shouted the miner, forgetting everything but the
approaching loss he foresaw of the shining pile.

"You lie," said Stephen, hoarsely. "She has not cheated you."

The miner staggered to his feet, and before any of them realised it he
had drawn his pistol and fired. His hand was unsteady from drink and
rage, and the ball passed over Stephen's shoulder and went into the
wall behind him. Talbot tried to draw Stephen to one side. The miner,
blind with anger, half conscious only of what he was about, and drawing
almost at random, turned his revolver on Talbot. Like a flash Katrine
interposed between them, and Jim's bullet found a lodgment in her lungs.
She had fired also. The shots had been simultaneous, and the miner fell,
without a groan, without a murmur, forward across the table, carrying it
with him to the floor. The gold pile scattered amongst the filthy
sawdust on the ground. Katrine sank backwards into Talbot's arms, and
her head fell to his shoulder like that of a tired child falling to
sleep.

In an instant they were surrounded by an eager inquiring throng. All the
tables, with some few exceptions, were deserted; the players all crowded
up to the end of the room, and Stephen and Talbot were carried back to
the wall by the pressing crowd. Some of the men raised the body of the
miner; he was dead. The people pressed round, and one glance at the set
face told them. A momentary awe spread amongst them, and the men who had
raised the body carried it to a bench and laid it there. Stephen, pallid
as the dead man himself, looked round in desperation on the staring
crowd.

"Is there a surgeon or a doctor here?" he asked.

Katrine heard him, and raised herself a little in Talbot's arms; he was
standing against the wall now. She turned her eyes towards Stephen and
stretched out her hand.

"It's no use, Steve, dear," she said; "I'm done for. Don't worry with a
doctor. I shall be gone in five minutes."

Stephen dropped on his knees and seized the little soft brown hand
extended to him, covering it with kisses.

"Oh no, no, don't say it," he said in a voice suffocated with anguish,
heedless of the staring faces around. Some of the mob looked on with
interest, some turned back to their own tables, others went down on
their hands and knees to scrape up the scattered gold dust that had
mixed in the trampled sawdust.

"Lay me a little flatter," she murmured to Talbot, and he sank on one
knee and so supported her, her head resting on his arm.

"If we could get her to the air," Stephen exclaimed.

"No, the moving pains me; let me be," she replied. "I tell you I'm
dying."

Stephen groaned.

"Pray then, pray now. Oh, Katie dear, pray before it is too late. Aren't
you afraid to die like this, in this place?"

Katrine shook her head wearily. "No, I don't think I've ever been
afraid," she murmured.

"Did I kill him?" she asked a second later, opening her eyes.

Talbot looked down and nodded. Stephen's voice was too choked for
utterance.

"I'm glad of that," she murmured, letting her eyes close again; "I never
missed a shot yet."

"Oh, Katie, Katie," moaned Stephen. The room was black to him; it seemed
as if he saw hell opening to swallow up for ever his beloved one.

Katrine opened her eyes at his agonised cry.

"Now, Steve, it can't be helped; I'm dying, and it's all right. I only
don't want you to worry over it. Nothing is worth worrying for in this
world. And I guess we'll all meet again very soon in a warmer place than
Alaska."

Stephen, utterly broken down, could only sob upon her hand.

Talbot felt a sort of rigor passing through the form he held, and
thought she was dying. He was stirred to the innermost depths of his
being by her act. She had stepped so calmly between him and death, given
up her life with the free generous courage of a soldier or a hero.

"Why did you come between us?" he asked, suddenly bending over her; "why
did you do it?"

The calm light eyes looked down into the dark passionate depths of the
dying girl's pupils, and a long gaze passed between them. What secrets
of her soul were revealed to his in that instant when they stood face to
face with only Death between? Then Katrine turned her head wearily.

"I don't know," she answered faintly; "mere devilry, I think." And she
laughed.

The laugh shook the wounded lung. Her face turned from white to grey,
her teeth clenched. There was a spasm as of a sudden wrenching loose
from the body, then it sank back, collapsed, motionless, against
Talbot's breast.

The two men carried her out between them. The crowd made way for them,
standing on either side in respectful silence. Such incidents were not
uncommon, and excited nothing more than a dull and transient interest.
They took her out, and the gold for which two lives had been sacrificed
was left unheeded, scattered in the dust. They went out the way they had
come, through the noisome court, up the narrow flight of rotten,
slippery stairs into the pure icy air.

Stephen turned to Talbot and took the girl's body wholly into his arms.

"I want to carry her up to my cabin," he said in a choking voice, and
the other nodded.

The night was glorious with the deadly glory of the Arctic regions; the
air was still, and of a coldness that seemed to bite deep into the
flesh; but overhead, in the impenetrable blackness of the sky, the
stars shone with a brilliance found only in the north, throwing a cold
light over the snowy ground. To the south and east, low down, burned two
enormous planets, like fiery eyes watching them over the horizon.

Slowly the two men walked over the hard ground. Not another living being
was within sight.

Stephen walked first with heavy, uneven steps, and his breath came
quickly in suppressed and sobbing gasps. Talbot followed closely, deep
in painful thought. All had happened so suddenly. The whole horrible
tragedy had swept over them in a few minutes; she had passed away from
them both for ever. His brain seemed dazed by the shock. He could not
realise it. He saw her dark head lying on Stephen's shoulder. It seemed
as if she must lift it every second. He could not believe that she was
lifeless, lifeless, this creature who had always been life itself, with
her gay smiles, and light tones, and quick movements. Now, she and they
were blotted out for all time. She had died against his breast, and for
him. That was the horrible thought; it came into his brain after all the
others, suddenly, and seemed as if it must burst it. And why, why should
she have done it? Her last words rang in his ears, "mere devilry." So
she had always been; reckless, open-handed, generous, she had often
risked her life for another, and now she had given it for him. And in
her last words she had tried to minimise her own act, tried to relieve
him of the burden of a hopeless gratitude. But for all that he would
have to bear it, and it seemed crushing him now. That she should have
given her life, so young, less than half his own, so full of value and
promise, for his! It seemed as if a reproach must follow him to the end
of his days.

He walked as in a dream. He had no sense of the distance they were
going, hardly any of the direction, except that he was following
mechanically Stephen's slow, uneven, halting footsteps, and watching
that little head that lay on his shoulder. Once when Stephen paused, he
stretched out his arms and offered to take the burden from him, but
Stephen repulsed him fiercely, and then the two went on slowly as
before, how long he did not know, it seemed a long time. Suddenly, in
the middle of the narrow pathway before him, Talbot saw Stephen stagger,
fall to his knees, and then sink heavily sideways in the snow, his arms
still tightly locked round the rigid body of the girl. Talbot hurried
forward and bent over him, feeling hastily in his own pockets for his
flask. Stephen's eyes were wide open and gazed up at him with a
hopeless, despairing determination that went to Talbot's heart and
chilled it.

"I can't go any farther, not another step," he muttered.

Talbot had been searching hurriedly through all his pockets for the
flask he always carried.

"Good God!" he exclaimed, "I haven't got it; I must have dropped it
coming up here, or they stole it in that hell down town."

Stephen feebly put up his hand.

"Don't trouble, I don't want it. I am just going to lie here and wait
with her. Was she not lovely?" he muttered to himself, raising himself
on his knees and laying the body before him on the snow.

The sky above them arched in pitchy blackness, but the starlight was so
keen and brilliant that it lighted up the white silence round them.
Stephen, on his hands and knees, hung over the still figure and gazed
down into the marble face. The short silky black hair made a little blot
of darkness in the snow, the white face was turned upward to the
starlight. Talbot, looking down, caught for an instant the sight of its
pure oval, its regular lines, and the sweet mouth, and the passionate,
reasonless face of the man crouching over it, and then looked
desperately up and down the narrow lonely trail. They were five miles
from the town, a little over three from the cabins. Glistening whiteness
lay all around, till the plains of snow grew grey in the distance;
overhead, the burning, flashing, restless stars; and far off, where the
two planets guarded the horizon, the red lights of the north began to
quiver and flicker in the night.

The man on the ground noticed them, and straightening himself suddenly,
looked towards them.

"The flare of hell!" he muttered, with staring, straining eyes; "it's
coming very near."

Talbot saw that his reason had gone, failed suddenly, as a light goes
down under a blast; he was delirious with that sudden delirium born of
the awful cold that seizes men like a wolf in the long night of the
Arctic winters.

For a second the helplessness of his situation flashed in upon Talbot's
brain--alone here at midnight on the frozen trail, with a madman and a
corpse!

He saw he must get help at once, and the cabins were the nearest point
where help could be found. He could get men who would carry Stephen by
force if necessary, but would he ever live in the fangs of this pitiless
cold till they could return to him? He stood for one moment irresolute,
unwilling to leave him to meet his death, and that horrible fear that he
read in those haggard eyes watching the horizon, alone; and in that
moment Stephen looked up at him and met his eye, and the madness rolled
back and stood off his brain for an instant. He beckoned to Talbot, and
Talbot went down on his knees beside him on the snow.

"My claims," muttered Stephen; "those claims will be yours now, do you
understand? I've arranged it all with that lawyer Hoskins, down town.
They were to be hers if anything happened to me, but we shall both go
to-night, and they will be yours. She said I had sunk my soul in them,
Talbot; she was right. The gold got me, I neglected her; I let her slip
back into evil; I've murdered her for the claims. They are the price
hell paid me. But you keep them. All turns to good in your hands. They
can't harm you. Keep them. They are my grave."

"Stephen, rouse yourself! You are alive! you've got to live," said
Talbot desperately, shaking him by the shoulder. "I am going now to
bring men back with me to help you home. You've got to live till I
return, do you hear?"

Stephen had turned from him again and put his arms round the motionless
form before them.

"They are coming nearer," Talbot heard him mutter; "but they shall burn
through me first, little one;" and he stretched himself across the
corpse as if to shield it from the approaching flames, and far off the
red eyes of the planets sank nearer the horizon, but still seemed to
watch them across the snowy waste.

Talbot felt the only one thin thread of hope was to go as fast as his
fatigue-clogged feet could move up to the cabins, and he rose and faced
the homeward trail. He felt the hope of saving Stephen was just the
least faintest flicker that ever burned within a heart; still there was
the chance--the chance that, even should he be already in the sleep that
ends in death when he returned, they could rouse him from it and drag
him into life again. He forced his heavy feet along, and with a great
effort started into a run. His limbs felt like lead, and all his body
like paper. The long hours of cold and fatigue, the excitement, the rush
of changing emotions he had gone through, had been draining his
vitality, but he called upon all that he had left and put it all into
the effort to save his friend. He knew that any one second lost or
gained might be the one to turn the balance of life or death, and he
urged himself forward till a dull pain filled all his side, and his
temples seemed bursting, and the great lights before him swam in a
blood-red mist.

Stephen, left alone, raised his head and gazed round him once, then he
laid his cheek down on the cold cheek, pressed his lips to the cold
lips, and his breast upon the cold breast just over where the bullet had
ploughed its way through the flesh and bone. The night gripped him
tighter and tighter, and slowly he sank to sleep.



_L'ENVOI._


Noontide in June. A sky of the clearest, palest azure, and a rollicking,
swelling, tumbling sea, full of smooth billowy waves chasing each other
over its deep green surface--waves with their white crests blown
backwards, throwing their spray high in the air and seeming to laugh and
call to each other in gurgling voices; and between sea and sky the
liquid golden sunlight filling the warm, throbbing air, spreading itself
in dazzling sheets upon the water, and glinting in ten thousand
glittering points on the flying spray thrown up by a steamer's screw. It
was the steamer _Prince_, homeward-bound from Alaska, carrying
passengers and a cargo as rich and yellow as the sunshine. And as if it
knew of its precious and costly charge, the steamer cut proudly through
the turbulent water, cleaving its straight passage homeward, homeward.
On the deck of the boat, leaning back idly in a long chair, his calm,
grey eyes fixed on the receding shores, where the golden sunshine seemed
palpitating on their perilous loveliness, Talbot was sitting, with the
freshening breeze stirring his hair and bringing to him the breath of a
thousand spring flowers on the land. He was returning, and returning
successful, with his work accomplished, his toil over, his aim achieved,
and amongst all the lines of pain stamped on his pale and quiet face
there was written a certain triumph, that yet perhaps was not so much
triumph as relief. It was just four months since that terrible night
when he had lost both his comrades, just a little less than four months
since he had seen them both laid side by side in their lonely grave in
the west gulch; and those four months would ever be a blot of horrible
blackness on his life. Should he ever be able to forget the blank
desolation that had closed in upon him night after night as he sat by
his lonely hearth or paced the floor, his steps alone breaking the awful
stillness? Yet he had forced himself to stay and face it, had continued
his work and his method of life unchanged. His men had noted little
difference in him. He had stayed the time he had appointed for himself,
had accomplished his self-appointed task, and at last, when the summer
burst in upon the gulch and loosened all Nature's fetters, he found
himself also free; and now, like a black curtain rent in twain and torn
from the bright face of a picture, the clouds of the past seemed falling
away, leaving his future clear to his gaze. It stretched before him
bright as the laughing sunlit sea beneath his eyes. If they could but
have shared his joy, if they could have had their home-coming, his
fellow-toilers, his fellow-prisoners! and the salt tears stung his lids
until he closed them, shutting out the vivid yellow light, as he
thought of the desolate grave in the gulch.

The fresh, cool air fanned his face and the sun smiled upon him, a loose
piece of canvas of an awning near him flapped backwards and forwards
with a monotonous musical sound, the plash and gurgle of the tumbling
waves fell soothingly on his ears. Gradually sleep came over him gently,
and enwrapped his strained, wearied body, his sore bruised mind.

When he opened his eyes again it was afternoon. The steamer was still
flying onward, but the sea was quiet and smooth, and lay still on every
side in the sun's rays as a pool of liquid gold, and the shores of
Alaska had vanished, lost in a burnished haze of light.


THE END.





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