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
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
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.
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
"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."
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,
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
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
"You are in pain, m'sieu," she exclaimed, turning toward him
"A little," he said, smiling at her. "Will you help me to sit up,
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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,
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
"You are sure—it was Francois Breault?" she said at last.
"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
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
"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
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
"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
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
"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
"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,
"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,
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.
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:
"Yes. Put up your gun, Corporal. Have you got Jan Thoreau?"
"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."