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The Fiddling Man by James Oliver Curwood

Breault's cough was not pleasant to hear. A cough possesses manifold and almost unclassifiable diversities. But there is only one cough when a man has a bullet through his lungs and is measuring his life by minutes, perhaps seconds. Yet Breault, even as he coughed the red stain from his lips, was not afraid. Many times he had found himself in the presence of death, and long ago it had ceased to frighten him. Some day he had expected to come under the black shadow of it himself—not in a quiet and peaceful way, but all at once, with a shock. And the time had come. He knew that he was dying; and he was calm. More than that—in dying he was achieving a triumph. The red-hot death-sting in his lung had given birth to a frightful thought in his sickening brain. The day of his great opportunity was at hand. The hour—the minute.

A last flush of the pale afternoon sun lighted up his black-bearded face as his eyes turned, with their new inspiration, to his sledge. It was a face that one would remember—not pleasantly, perhaps, but as a fixture in a shifting memory of things; a face strong with a brute strength, implacable in its hard lines, emotionless almost, and beyond that, a mystery.

It was the best known face in all that part of the northland which reaches up from Fort McMurray to Lake Athabasca and westward to Fond du Lac and the Wholdais country. For ten years Breault had made that trip twice a year with the northern mails. In all its reaches there was not a cabin he did not know, a face he had not seen, or a name he could not speak; yet there was not a man, woman, or child who welcomed him except for what he brought. But the government had found its faith in him justified. The police at their lonely outposts had come to regard his comings and goings as dependable as day and night. They blessed him for his punctuality, and not one of them missed him when he was gone. A strange man was Breault.

With his back against a tree, where he had propped himself after the first shock of the bullet in his lung, he took a last look at life with a passionless imperturbability. If there was any emotion at all in his face it was one of vindictiveness—an emotion roused by an intense and terrible hatred that in this hour saw the fulfilment of its vengeance. Few men nursed a hatred as Breault had nursed his. And it gave him strength now, when another man would have died.

He measured the distance between himself and the sledge. It was, perhaps, a dozen paces. The dogs were still standing, tangled a little in their traces,—eight of them,—wide-chested, thin at the groins, a wolfish horde, built for endurance and speed. On the sledge was a quarter of a ton of his Majesty's mail. Toward this Breault began to creep slowly and with great pain. A hand inside of him seemed crushing the fiber of his lung, so that the blood oozed out of his mouth. When he reached the sledge there were many red patches in the snow behind him. He opened with considerable difficulty a small dunnage sack, and after fumbling a bit took there-from a pencil attached to a long red string, and a soiled envelope.

For the first time a change came upon his countenance—a ghastly smile. And above his hissing breath, that gushed between his lips with the sound of air pumped through the fine mesh of a colander, there rose a still more ghastly croak of exultation and of triumph. Laboriously he wrote. A few words, and the pencil dropped from his stiffening fingers into the snow. Around his neck he wore a long red scarf held together by a big brass pin, and to this pin he fastened securely the envelope.

This much done,—the mystery of his death solved for those who might some day find him,—the ordinary man would have contented himself by yielding up life's struggle with as little more physical difficulty as possible. Breault was not ordinary. He was, in his one way, efficiency incarnate. He made space for himself on the sledge, and laid himself out in that space with great care, first taking pains to fasten about his thighs two babiche thongs that were employed at times to steady his freight. Then he ran his left arm through one of the loops of the stout mail-chest. By taking these precautions he was fairly secure in the belief that after he was dead and frozen stiff no amount of rough trailing by the dogs could roll him from the sledge.

In this conjecture he was right. When the starved and exhausted malamutes dragged their silent burden into the Northwest Mounted Police outpost barracks at Crooked Bow twenty-four hours later, an ax and a sapling bar were required to pry Francois Breault from his bier. Previous to this process, however, Sergeant Fitzgerald, in charge at the outpost, took possession of the soiled envelope pinned to Breault's red scarf. The information it bore was simple, and yet exceedingly definite. Few men in dying as Breault had died could have made the matter easier for the police.

On the envelope he had written:

Jan Thoreau shot me and left me for dead. Have just strength to write this—no more.

Francois Breault.

It was epic—a colossal monument to this man, thought Sergeant Fitzgerald, as they pried the frozen body loose.

To Corporal Blake fell the unpleasant task of going after Jan Thoreau. Unpleasant, because Breault's starved huskies and frozen body brought with them the worst storm of the winter. In the face of this storm Blake set out, with the Sergeant's last admonition in his ears:

"Don't come back, Blake, until you've got him, dead or alive."

That is a simple and efficacious formula in the rank and file of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police. It has made volumes of stirring history, because it means a great deal and has been lived up to. Twice before, the words had been uttered to Blake—in extreme cases. The first time they had taken him for six months into the Barren Lands between Hudson's Bay and the Great Slave—and he came back with his man; the second time he was gone for nearly a year along the rim of the Arctic—and from there also he came back with his man. Blake was of that sort. A bull-dog, a Nemesis when he was once on the trail, and—like most men of that kind—without a conscience. In the Blue Books of the service he was credited with arduous patrols and unusual exploits. "Put Blake on the trail" meant something, and "He is one of our best men" was a firmly established conviction at departmental headquarters.

Only one man knew Blake as Blake actually lived under his skin—and that was Blake himself. He hunted men and ran them down without mercy—not because he loved the law, but for the reason that he had in him the inherited instincts of the hound. This comparison, if quite true, is none the less unfair to the hound. A hound is a good dog at heart.

In the January storm it may be that the vengeful spirit of Francois Breault set out in company with Corporal Blake to witness the consummation of his vengeance. That first night, as he sat close to his fire in the shelter of a thick spruce timber, Blake felt the unusual and disturbing sensation of a presence somewhere near him. The storm was at its height. He had passed through many storms, but to-night there seemed to be an uncannily concentrated fury in its beating and wailing over the roofs of the forests.

He was physically comfortable. The spruce trees were so dense that the storm did not reach him, and fortune favored him with a good fire and plenty of fuel. But the sensation oppressed him. He could not keep away from him his mental vision of Breault as he had helped to pry him from the sledge—his frozen features, the stiffened fingers, the curious twist of the icy lips that had been almost a grin.

Blake was not superstitious. He was too much a man of iron for that. His soul had lost the plasticity of imagination. But he could not forget Breault's lips as they had seemed to grin up at him. There was a reason for it. On his last trip down, Breault had said to him, with that same half-grin on his face:

"M'sieu, some day you may go after my murderer, and when you do, Francois Breault will go with you."

That was three months ago. Blake measured the time back as he sucked at his pipe, and at the same time he looked at the shadowy and half-lost forms of his dogs, curled up for the night in the outer rim of firelight.

Over the tree-tops a sudden blast of wind howled. It was like a monster voice. Blake rose to his feet and rolled upon the fire the big night log he had dragged in, and to this he added, with the woodman's craft of long experience, lengths of green timber, so arranged that they would hold fire until morning. Then he went into his silk service tent and buried himself in his sleeping-bag.

For a long time he did not sleep. He listened to the crackle of the fire. Again and again he heard that monster voice moaning and shrieking over the forest. Never had the rage of storm filled him with the uneasiness of to-night. At last the mystery of it was solved for him. The wind came and went each time in a great moaning, half shrieking sound: B-r-r-r-r—e-e-e-e—aw-w-w-w!

It was like a shock to him; and yet, he was not a superstitious man. No, he was not that. He would have staked his life on it. But it was not pleasant to hear a dead man's name shrieked over one's head by the wind. Under the cover of his sleeping-bag flap Corporal Blake laughed. Funny things were always happening, he tried to tell himself. And this was a mighty good joke. Breault wasn't so slow, after all. He had given his promise, and he was keeping it; for, if it wasn't really Breault's voice up there in the wind, multiplied a thousand times, it was a good imitation of it. Again Corporal Blake laughed—a laugh as unpleasant as the cough that had come from Breault's bullet-punctured lung. He fell asleep after a time; but even sleep could not drive from him the clinging obsession of the thought that strange things were to happen in this taking of Jan Thoreau.

With the gray dawn there was nothing to mark the passing of the storm except freshly fallen snow, and Blake was on the trail before it was light enough to see a hundred yards ahead. There was a defiance and a contempt of last night in the crack of his long caribou-gut whip and the halloo of his voice as he urged on his dogs. Breault's voice in the wind? Bah! Only a fool would have thought that. Therefore he was a fool. And Jan Thoreau—it would be like taking a child. There would be no happenings to report—merely an arrest, a quick return journey, an affair altogether too ordinary to be interesting. Perhaps it was all on account of the hearty supper of caribou liver he had eaten. He was fond of liver, and once or twice before it had played him tricks.

He began to wonder if he would find Jan Thoreau at home. He remembered Jan quite vividly. The Indians called him Kitoochikun because he played a fiddle. Blake, the Iron Man, disliked him because of that fiddle. Jan was never without it, on the trail or off. The Fiddling Man, he called him contemptuously—a baby, a woman; not fit for the big north. Tall and slim, with blond hair in spite of his French blood and name, a quiet and unexcitable face, and an air that Blake called "damned superiority." He wondered how the Fiddling Man had ever screwed up nerve enough to kill Breault. Undoubtedly there had been no fight. A quick and treacherous shot, no doubt. That was like a man who played a fiddle. POOF! He had no more respect for him than if he dressed in woman's clothing.

And he DID have a wife, this Jan Thoreau. They lived a good twenty miles off the north-and-south trail, on an island in the middle of Black Bear Lake. He had never seen the wife. A poor sort of woman, he made up his mind, that would marry a fiddler. Probably a half-breed; maybe an Indian. Anyway, he had no sympathy for her. Without a doubt, it was the woman who did the trapping and cut the wood. Any man who would tote a fiddle around on his back—

Corporal Blake traveled fast, and it was afternoon of the second day when he came to the dense spruce forest that shut in Black Bear Lake. Here something happened to change his plans somewhat. He met an Indian he knew—an Indian who, for two or three good reasons that stuck in the back of his head, dared not lie to him; and this tribesman, coming straight from the Thoreau cabin, told him that Jan was not at home, but had gone on a three-day trip to see the French missioner who lived on one of the lower Wholdaia waterways.

Blake was keen on strategem. With him, man-hunting was like a game of chess; and after he had questioned the Indian for a quarter of an hour he saw his opportunity. Pastamoo, the Cree, was made a part of his Majesty's service on the spot, with the promise of torture and speedy execution if he proved himself a traitor.

Blake turned over to him his dogs and sledge, his provisions, and his tent, and commanded him to camp in the heart of a cedar swamp a few miles back, with the information that he would return for his outfit at some time in the indefinite future. He might be gone a day or a week. When he had seen Pastamoo off, he continued his journey toward the cabin, in the hope that Jan Thoreau's wife was either an Indian or a fool. He was too old a hand at his game to be taken in by the story that had been told to the Cree.

Jan had not gone to the French missioner's. A murderer's trail would not be given away like that. Of course the wife knew. And Corporal Blake desired no better string to a criminal than the faith of a wife. Wives were easy if handled right, and they had put the finishing touch to more than one of his great successes.

At the edge of the lake he fell back on his old trick—hunger, exhaustion, a sprained leg. It was not more than a quarter of a mile across the snow-covered ice of the lake to the thin spiral of smoke that he saw rising above the thick balsams on the island. Five times in that distance he fell upon his face; he crawled like a man about to die. He performed an arduous task, a devilish task, and when at last he reached the balsams he cursed his luck until he was red in the face. No one had seen him. That quarter-mile of labor was lost, its finesse a failure. But he kept up the play, and staggered weakly through the sheltering balsams to the cabin. His artifice had no shame, even when played on women; and he fell heavily against the door, beat upon it with his fist; and slipped down into the snow, where he lay with his head bowed, as if his last strength was gone.

He heard movement inside, quick steps—and then the door opened. He did not look up for a moment. That would have been crude. When he did raise his head, it was very slowly, with a look of anguish in his face. And then—he stared. His body all at once grew tense, and the counterfeit pain in his eyes died out like a flash in this most astounding moment of his life. Man of iron though he was, steeled to the core against the weaknesses of sudden emotions, it was impossible for him to restrain the gasp of amazement that rose to his lips.

In that stifled cry Jan Thoreau's wife heard the supplication of a dying man. She did not catch, back of it, the note of a startled beast. She was herself startled, frightened for a moment by the unexpectedness of it all.

And Blake stared. This—the fiddler's wife! She was clutching in her hand a brush with which she had been arranging her hair. The hair, jet black, was wonderful. Her eyes were still more wonderful to Blake. She was not an Indian—not a half-breed—and beautiful. The loveliest face he had ever visioned, sleeping or awake, was looking down at him.

With a second gasp, he remembered himself, and his body sagged, and the amazed stare went out of his eyes as he allowed his head to fall a little. In this movement his cap fell off. In another moment she was at his side, kneeling in the snow and bending over him.

"You are hurt, m'sieu!"

Her hair fell upon him, smothering his neck and shoulders. The perfume of it was like the delicate scent of a rare flower in his nostrils. A strange thrill swept through him. He did not try to analyze it in those few astonishing moments. It was beyond his comprehension, even had he tried. He was ignorant of the finer fundamentals of life, and of the great truth that the case-hardened nature of a man, like the body of an athlete, crumbles fastest under sudden and unexpected change and strain.

He regained his feet slowly and stupidly, assisted by Marie. They climbed the one step to the door. As he sank back heavily on the cot, in the room they entered, a thick tress of her hair fell softly upon his face. He closed his eyes for a space. When he opened them, Marie was bending over the stove.

And SHE was Thoreau's wife! The instant he had looked up into her face, he had forgotten the fiddler; but he remembered him now as he watched the woman, who stood with her back toward him. She was as slim as a reed. Her hair fell to her hips. He drew a deep breath. Unconsciously he clenched his hands. SHE—the fiddler's wife! The thought repeated itself again and again. Jan Thoreau, MURDERER, and this woman—HIS WIFE.

She returned in a moment with hot tea, and he drank with subtle hypocrisy from the cup she held to his lips.

"Sprained my leg," he said then, remembering his old part, and replying to the questioning anxiety in her eyes. "Dogs ran away and left me, and I got here just by chance. A little more and—"

He smiled grimly, and as he sank back he gave a sharp cry. He had practised that cry in more than one cabin, and along with it a convulsion of his features to emphasize the impression he labored to make.

"I'm afraid—I'll be a trouble to you," he apologized. "It's not broken; but it's bad, and I won't be able to move—soon. Is Jan at home?"

"No, m'sieu; he is away."

"Away," repeated Blake disappointedly. "Perhaps sometime he has told you about me," he added with sudden hopefulness. "I am John Duval."

"M'sieu—DUVAL!"

Marie's eyes, looking down at him, became all at once great pools of glowing light. Her lips parted. She leaned toward him, her slim hands clasped suddenly to her breast.

"M'sieu Duval—who nursed him through the smallpox?" she cried, her voice trembling. "M'sieu Duval—who saved my Jan's life!"

Blake had looked up his facts at headquarters. He knew what Duval, the Barren Land trapper, had once upon a time done for Jan.

"Yes; I am John Duval," said. "And so—you see—I am sorry that Jan is away."

"But he is coming back soon—in a few days," exclaimed Marie. "You shall stay, m'sieu! You will wait for him? Yes?"

"This leg—" began Blake. He cut himself short with a grimace. "Yes, I'll stay. I guess I'll have to."

Marie had changed at the mention of Duval's name. With the glow in her eyes had come a flush into her cheeks, and Blake could see the strange little quiver at her throat as she looked at him. But she did not see Blake so much as what lay beyond him—Duval's lonely cabin away up on the edge of the Great Barren, the hours of darkness and agony through which Jan had passed, and the magnificent comradeship of this man who had now dragged himself to their own cabin, half dead.

Many times Jan had told her the story of that terrible winter when Duval had nursed him like a woman, and had almost given up his life as a sacrifice. And this—THIS—was Duval? She bent over him again as he lay on the cot, her eyes shining like stars in the growing dusk. In that dusk she was unconscious of the fact that his fingers had found a long tress of her hair and were clutching it passionately. Remembering Duval as Jan had enshrined him in her heart, she said:

"I have prayed many times that the great God might thank you, m'sieu."

He raised a hand. For an instant it touched her soft, warm cheek and caressed her hair. Marie did not shrink—yes, that would have been an insult. Even Jan would have said that. For was not this Duval, to whom she owed all the happiness in her life—Duval, more than brother to Jan Thoreau, her husband?

"And you—are Marie?" said Blake.

"Yes, m'sieu, I am Marie."

A joyous note trembled in her voice as she drew back from the cot. He could hear her swiftly braiding her hair before she struck a match to light the oil lamp hanging from the ceiling. After that, through partly closed eyes, he watched her as she prepared their supper. Occasionally, when she turned toward him as if to speak, he feigned a desire to sleep. It was a catlike watchfulness, filled with his old cunning. In his face there was no sign to betray its hideous significance. Outwardly he had regained his iron-like impassiveness; but in his body and his brain every nerve and fiber was consumed by a monstrous desire—a desire for this woman, the murderer's wife. It was as strange and as sudden as the death that had come to Francois Breault.

The moment he had looked up into her face in the doorway, it had overwhelmed him. And now even the sound of her footsteps on the floor filled him with an exquisite exultation. It was more than exultation. It was a feeling of POSSESSION.

In the hollow of his hand he—Blake, the man-hunter—held the fate of this woman. She was the Fiddler's wife—and the Fiddler was a murderer.

Marie heard the sudden deep breath that forced itself from his lips, a gasp that would have been a cry of triumph if he had given it voice.

"You are in pain, m'sieu," she exclaimed, turning toward him quickly.

"A little," he said, smiling at her. "Will you help me to sit up, Marie?"

He saw ahead of him another and more thrilling game than the man-hunt now. And Marie, unsuspicious, put her arms about the shoulders of the Pharisee and helped him to rise. They ate their supper with a narrow table between them. If there had been a doubt in Blake's mind before that, the half hour in which she sat facing him dispelled it utterly. At first the amazing beauty of Thoreau's wife had impinged itself upon his senses with something of a shock. But he was cool now. He was again master of his old cunning. Pitilessly and without conscience, he was marshaling the crafty forces of his brute nature for this new and more thrilling fight—the fight for a woman.

That in representing the Law he was pledged to virtue as well as order had never entered into his code of life. To him the Law was force—power. It had exalted him. It had forged an iron mask over the face of his savagery. And it was the savage that was dominant in him now. He saw in Marie's dark eyes a great love—love for a murderer.

It was not his thought that he might alienate that. For that look, turned upon himself, he would have sacrificed his whole world as it had previously existed. He was scheming beyond that impossibility, measuring her even as he called himself Duval, counting—not his chances of success, but the length of time it would take him to succeed.

He had never failed. A man had never beaten him. A woman had never tricked him. And he granted no possibility of failure now. But—HOW? That was the question that writhed and twisted itself in his brain even as he smiled at her over the table and told her of the black days of Jan's sickness up on the edge of the Barren.

And then it came to him—all at once. Marie did not see. She did not FEEL. She had no suspicion of this loyal friend of her husband's.

Blake's heart pounded triumphant. He hobbled back to the cot, leaning on Marie slim shoulder; and as he hobbled he told her how he had helped Jan into his cabin in just this same way, and how at the end Jan had collapsed—just as he collapsed when he came to the cot. He pulled Marie down with him—accidentally. His lips touched her head. He laughed.

For a few moments he was like a drunken man in his new joy. Willingly he would have gambled his life on his chance of winning. But confidence displaced none of his cunning. He rubbed his hands and said:

"Gawd, but won't it be a surprise for Jan? I told him that some day I'd come. I told him!"

It would be a tremendous joke—this surprise he had in store for Jan. He chuckled over it again and again as Marie went about her work; and Marie's face flushed and her eyes were bright and she laughed softly at this great love which Duval betrayed for her husband. No; even the loss of his dogs and his outfit couldn't spoil his pleasure! Why should it? He could get other dogs and another outfit—but it had been three years since he had seen Jan Thoreau! When Marie had finished her work he put his hand suddenly to his eyes and said:

"Peste! but last night's storm must have hurt my eyes. The light blinds them, ma cheri. Will you put it out, and sit down near me, so that I can see you as you talk, and tell me all that has happened to Jan Thoreau since that winter three years ago?"

She put out the light, and threw open the door of the box-stove. In the dim firelight she sat on a stool beside Blake's cot. Her faith in him was like that of a child. She was twenty-two. Blake was fifteen years older. She felt the immense superiority of his age.

This man, you must understand, had been more than a brother to Jan. He had been a father. He had risked his life. He had saved him from death. And Marie, as she sat at his side, did not think of him as a young man—thirty-seven. She talked to him as she might have talked to an elder brother of Jan's, and with something like the same reverence in her voice.

It was unfortunate—for her—that Jan had loved Duval, and that he had never tired of telling her about him. And now, when Blake's caution warned him to lie no more about the days of plague in Duval's cabin, she told him—as he had asked her—about herself and Jan; how they had lived during the last three years, the important things that had happened to them, and what they were looking forward to. He caught the low note of happiness that ran through her voice; and with a laugh, a laugh that sounded real and wholesome, he put out his hand in the darkness—for the fire had burned itself low—and stroked her hair. She did not shrink from the caress. He was happy because THEY were happy. That was her thought! And Blake did not go too far.

She went on, telling Jan's life away, betraying him In her happiness, crucifying him in her faith. Blake knew that she was telling the truth. She did not know that Jan had killed Francois Breault, and she believed that he would surely return—in three days. And the way he had left her that morning! Yes, she confided even that to this big brother of Jan, her cheeks flushing hotly in the darkness—how he had hated to go, and held her a long time in his arms before he tore himself away.

Had he taken his fiddle along with him? Yes—always that. Next to herself he loved his violin. Oo-oo—no, no—she was not jealous of the violin! Blake laughed—such a big, healthy, happy laugh, with an odd tremble in it. He stroked her hair again, and his fingers lay for an instant against her warm cheek.

And then, quite casually, he played his second big card.

"A man was found dead on the trail yesterday," he said. "Some one killed him. He had a bullet through his lung. He was the mail-runner, Francois Breault."

It was then, when he said that Breault had been murdered, that Blake's hand touched Marie's cheek and fell to her shoulder. It was too dark in the cabin to see. But under his hand he felt her grow suddenly rigid, and for a moment or two she seemed to stop breathing. In the gloom Blake's lips were smiling. He had struck, and he needed no light to see the effect.

"Francois—Breault!" he heard her breathe at last, as if she was fighting to keep something from choking her. "Francois Breault—dead—killed by someone—"

She rose slowly. His eyes followed her, a shadow in the gloom as she moved toward the stove. He heard her strike a match, and when she turned toward him again in the light of the oil-lamp, her face was pale and her eyes were big and staring. He swung himself to the edge of the cot, his pulse beating with the savage thrill of the inquisitor. Yet he knew that it was not quite time for him to disclose himself—not quite. He did not dread the moment when he would rise and tell her that he was not injured, and that he was not M'sieu Duval, but Corporal Blake of the Royal Mounted Police. He was eager for that moment. But he waited—discreetly. When the trap was sprung there would be no escape.

"You are sure—it was Francois Breault?" she said at last.

He nodded.

"Yes, the mail-runner. You knew him?"

She had moved to the table, and her hand was gripping the edge of it. For a space she did not answer him, but seemed to be looking somewhere through the cabin walls—a long way off. Ferret-like, he was watching her, and saw his opportunity. How splendidly fate was playing his way!

He rose to his feet and hobbled painfully to her, a splendid hypocrite, a magnificent dissembler. He seized her hand and held it in both his own. It was small and soft, but strangely cold.

"Ma cheri—my dear child—what makes you look like that? What has the death of Francois Breault to do with you—you and Jan?"

It was the voice of a friend, a brother, low, sympathetic, filled just enough with anxiety. Only last winter, in just that way, it had won the confidence and roused the hope of Pierrot's wife, over on the Athabasca. In the summer that followed they hanged Pierrot. Gently Blake spoke the words again. Marie's lips trembled. Her great eyes were looking at him—straight into his soul, it seemed.

"You may tell me, ma cheri," he encouraged, barely above a whisper. "I am Duval. And Jan—I love Jan."

He drew her back toward the cot, dragging his limb painfully, and seated her again upon the stool. He sat beside her, still holding her hand, patting it, encouraging her. The color was coming back into Marie's cheeks. Her lips were growing full and red again, and suddenly she gave a trembling little laugh as she looked up into Blake's face. His presence began to dispel the terror that had possessed her all at once.

"Tell me, Marie."

He saw the shudder that passed through her slim shoulders.

"They had a fight—here—in this cabin—three days ago," she confessed. "It must have been—the day—he was killed."

Blake knew the wild thought that was in her heart as she watched him. The muscles of his jaws tightened. His shoulders grew tense. He looked over her head as if he, too, saw something beyond the cabin walls. It was Marie's hand that gripped his now, and her voice, panting almost, was filled with an agonized protest.

"No, no, no—it was not Jan," she moaned. "It was not Jan who killed him!"

"Hush!" said Blake.

He looked about him as if there was a chance that someone might hear the fatal words she had spoken. It was a splendid bit of acting, almost unconscious, and tremendously effective. The expression in his face stabbed to her heart like a cold knife. Convulsively her fingers clutched more tightly at his hands. He might as well have spoken the words: "It was Jan, then, who killed Francois Breault!"

Instead of that he said:

"You must tell me everything, Marie. How did it happen? Why did they fight? And why has Jan gone away so soon after the killing? For Jan's sake, you must tell me—everything."

He waited. It seemed to him that he could hear the fighting struggle in Marie's breast. Then she began, brokenly, a little at a time, now and then barely whispering the story. It was a woman's story, and she told it like a woman, from the beginning. Perhaps at one time the rivalry between Jan Thoreau and Francois Breault, and their struggle for her love, had made her heart beat faster and her cheeks flush warm with a woman's pride of conquest, even though she had loved one and had hated the other. None of that pride was in her voice now, except when she spoke of Jan.

"Yes—like that—children together—we grew up," she confided. "It was down there at Wollaston Post, in the heart of the big forests, and when I was a baby it was Jan who carried me about on his shoulders. Oui, even then he played the violin. I loved it. I loved Jan—always. Later, when I was seventeen, Francois Breault came."

She was trembling.

"Jan has told me a little about those days," lied Blake. "Tell me the rest, Marie."

"I—I knew I was going to be Jan's wife," she went on, the hands she had withdrawn from his twisting nervously in her lap. "We both knew. And yet—he had not spoken—he had not been definite. Oo-oo, do you understand, M'sieu Duval? It was my fault at the beginning! Francois Breault loved me. And so—I played with him—only a little, m'sieu!—to frighten Jan into the thought that he might lose me. I did not know what I was doing. No—no; I didn't understand.

"Jan and I were married, and on the day Jan saw the missioner—a week before we were made man and wife—Francois Beault came in from the trail to see me, and I confessed to him, and asked his forgiveness. We were alone. And he—Francois Breault—was like a madman."

She was panting. Her hands were clenched. "If Jan hadn't heard my cries, and come just in time—" she breathed.

Her blazing eyes looked up into Blake's face. He understood, and nodded.

"And it was like that—again—three days ago," she continued. "I hadn't seen Breault in two years—two years ago down at Wollaston Post. And he was mad. Yes, he must have been mad when he came three days ago. I don't know that he came so much for me as it was to kill Jan, He said it was Jan. Ugh, and it was here—in the cabin—that they fought!"

"And Jan—punished him," said Blake in a low voice.

Again the convulsive shudder swept through Marie's shoulders.

"It was strange—what happened, m'sieu. I was going to shoot. Yes, I would have shot him when the chance came. But all at once Francois Breault sprang back to the door, and he cried: 'Jan Thoreau, I am mad—mad! Great God, what have I done?' Yes, he said that, m'sieu, those very words—and then he was gone."

"And that same day—a little later—Jan went away from the cabin, and was gone a long time," whispered Blake. "Was it not so, Marie?"

"Yes; he went to his trap-line, m'sieu."

For the first time Blake made a movement. He took her face boldly between his two hands, and turned it so that her staring eyes were looking straight into his own. Every fiber in his body was trembling with the thrill of his monstrous triumph. "My dear little girl, I must tell you the truth," he said. "Your husband, Jan, did not go to his trap-line three days ago. He followed Francois Breault, and killed him. And I am not John Duval. I am Corporal Blake of the Mounted Police, and I have come to get Jan, that he may be hanged by the neck until he is dead for his crime. I came for that. But I have changed my mind. I have seen you, and for you I would give even a murderer his life. Do you understand? For YOU—YOU—YOU—"

And then came the grand finale, just as he had planned it. His words had stupefied her. She made no movement, no sound—only her great eyes seemed alive. And suddenly he swept her into his arms with the wild passion of a beast. How long she lay against his breast, his arms crushing her, his hot lips on her face, she did not know.

The world had grown suddenly dark. But in that darkness she heard his voice; and what it was saying roused her at last from the deadliness of her stupor. She strained against him, and with a wild cry broke from his arms, and staggered across the cabin floor to the door of her bedroom. Blake did not pursue her. He let the darkness of that room shut her in. He had told her—and she understood.

He shrugged his shoulders as he rose to his feet. Quite calmly, in spite of the wild rush of blood through his body, he went to the cabin door, opened it, and looked out into the night. It was full of stars, and quiet.

It was quiet in that inner room, too—so quiet that one might fancy he could hear the beating of a heart. Marie had flung herself in the farthest corner, beyond the bed. And there her hand had touched something. It was cold—the chill of steel. She could almost have screamed, in the mighty reaction that swept through her like an electric shock. But her lips were dumb and her hand clutched tighter at the cold thing.

She drew it toward her inch by inch, and leveled it across the bed. It was Jan's goose-gun, loaded with buck-shot. There was a single metallic click as she drew the hammer back. In the doorway, looking at the stars, Blake did not hear.

Marie waited. She was not reasoning things now, except that in the outer room there was a serpent that she must kill. She would kill him as he came between her and the light; then she would follow over Jan's trail, overtake him somewhere, and they would flee together. Of that much she thought ahead. But chiefly her mind, her eyes, her brain, her whole being, were concentrated on the twelve-inch opening between the bedroom door and the outer room. The serpent would soon appear there. And then—

She heard the cabin door close, and Blake's footsteps approaching. Her body did not tremble now. Her forefinger was steady on the trigger. She held her breath—and waited. Blake came to the deadline and stopped. She could see one arm and a part of his shoulder. But that was not enough. Another half step—six inches—four even, and she would fire. Her heart pounded like a tiny hammer in her breast.

And then the very life in her body seemed to stand still. The cabin door had opened suddenly, and someone had entered. In that moment she would have fired, for she knew that it must be Jan who had returned. But Blake had moved. And now, with her finger on the trigger, she heard his cry of amazement:

"Sergeant Fitzgerald!"

"Yes. Put up your gun, Corporal. Have you got Jan Thoreau?"

"He—is gone."

"That is lucky for us." It was the stranger's voice, filled with a great relief. "I have traveled fast to overtake you. Matao, the half-breed, was stabbed in a quarrel soon after you left; and before he died he confessed to killing Breault. The evidence is conclusive. Ugh, but this fire is good! Anybody at home?"

"Yes," said Blake slowly. "Mrs. Thoreau—is—at home."

End.

 
 
 
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