Story type: Literature
“And thou shalt be brought down and shalt speak out of the ground, and thy speech shall be low out of the dust, and thy voice shall be as of one that hath a familiar spirit out of the ground, and thy speech shall whisper out of the dust.”
The harvest was all in, and, as far as eye could observe, nothing remained of the golden sea of wheat which had covered the wide prairie save the yellow stubble, the bed of an ocean of wealth which had been gathered. Here the yellow level was broken by a dark patch of fallow land, there by a covert of trees also tinged with yellow, or deepening to crimson and mauve–the harbinger of autumn. The sun had not the insistent and intensive strength of more southerly climes; it was buoyant, confident, and heartening, and it shone in a turquoise vault which covered and endeared the wide, even world beneath. Now and then a flock of wild ducks whirred past, making for the marshes or the innumerable lakes that vitalized the expanse, or buzzards hunched heavily along, frightened from some far resort by eager sportsmen.
That was above; but beneath, on a level with the unlifted eye, were houses here and there, looking in the vastness like dolls’ habitations. Many of the houses stood blank and staring in the expanse, but some had trees, and others little oases of green. Everywhere prosperity, everywhere the strings of life pulled taut, signs that energy had been straining on the leash.
Yet there was one spot where it seemed that deadness made encampment. It could not be seen in the sweep of the eye, you must have travelled and looked vigilantly to find it; but it was there–a lake shimmering in the eager sun, washing against a reedy shore, a little river running into the reedy lake at one end and out at the other, a small, dilapidated house half hid in a wood that stretched for half a mile or so upon a rising ground. In front of the house, not far from the lake, a man was lying asleep upon the ground, a rough felt hat drawn over his eyes.
Like the house, the man seemed dilapidated also: a slovenly, ill-dressed, demoralized figure he looked, even with his face covered. He seemed in a deep sleep. Wild ducks settled on the lake not far from him with a swish and flutter; a coyote ran past, veering as it saw the recumbent figure; a prairie hen rustled by with a shrill cluck, but he seemed oblivious to all. If asleep, he was evidently dreaming, for now and then he started, or his body twitched and a muttering came from beneath the hat.
The battered house, the absence of barn or stable or garden, or any token of thrift or energy, marked the man as an excrescence in this theatre of hope and fruitful toil. It all belonged to some degenerate land, some exhausted civilization, not to this field of vigor where life rang like silver.
So the man lay for hour upon hour. He slept as though he had been upon a long journey in which the body was worn to helplessness. Or was it that sleep of the worn-out spirit which, tortured by remembrance and remorse, at last sinks into the depths where the conscious vexes the unconscious–a little of fire, a little of ice, and now and then the turn of the screw?
The day marched nobly on toward evening, growing out of its blue and silver into a pervasive golden gleam; the bare, grayish houses on the prairie were transformed into miniature palaces of light. Presently a girl came out of the woods behind, looking at the neglected house with a half-pitying curiosity. She carried in one hand a fishing-rod which had been telescoped till it was no bigger than a cane; in the other she carried a small fishing-basket. Her father’s shooting and fishing camp was a few miles away by a lake of greater size than this which she approached. She had tired of the gay company in camp, brought up for sport from beyond the American border where she also belonged, and she had come to explore the river running into this reedy lake. She turned from the house and came nearer to the lake, shaking her head, as though compassionating the poor folk who lived there. She was beautiful. Her hair was brown, going to tawny, but in this soft light which enwrapped her she was in a sort of topaz flame. As she came on, suddenly she stopped as though transfixed. She saw the man–and saw also a tragedy afoot.
The man stirred violently in his sleep, cried out, and started up. As he did so, a snake, disturbed in its travel past him, suddenly raised itself in anger. Startled out of sleep by some inner torture, the man heard the sinister rattle he knew so well, and gazed paralyzed.
The girl had been but a few feet away when she first saw the man and his angry foe. An instant, then, with the instinct of the woods and the plains, and the courage that has habitation everywhere, dropping her basket she sprang forward noiselessly. The short, telescoped fishing-rod she carried swung round her head and completed its next half-circle at the head of the reptile, even as it was about to strike. The blow was sure, and with half-severed head the snake fell dead upon the ground beside the man.
He was like one who has been projected from one world to another, dazed, stricken, fearful. Presently the look of agonized dismay gave way to such an expression of relief as might come upon the face of a reprieved victim about to be given to the fire or to the knife that flays. The place of dreams from which he had emerged was like hell, and this was some world of peace that he had not known these many years. Always one had been at his elbow–“a familiar spirit out of the ground”–whispering in his ear. He had been down in the abysses of life.
He glanced again at the girl, and realized what she had done: she had saved his life. Whether it had been worth saving was another question; but he had been near to the brink, had looked in, and the animal in him had shrunk back from the precipice in a confused agony of fear. He staggered to his feet.
“Where do you come from?” he said, pulling his coat closer to hide the ragged waistcoat underneath, and adjusting his worn and dirty hat–in his youth he had been vain and ambitious, and good-looking also.
He asked his question in no impertinent tone, but in the low voice of one who “shall whisper out of the dust.” He had not yet recovered from the first impression of his awakening, that the world in which he now stood was not a real world.
She understood, and half in pity and half in conquered repugnance said:
“I come from a camp beyond”–she indicated the direction by a gesture. “I had been fishing”–she took up the basket–“and chanced on you–then.” She glanced at the snake significantly.
“You killed it in the nick of time,” he said, in a voice that still spoke of the ground, but with a note of half-shamed gratitude. “I want to thank you,” he added. “You were brave. It would have turned on you if you had missed. I know them. I’ve killed five.” He spoke very slowly, huskily.
“Well, you are safe–that is the chief thing,” she rejoined, making as though to depart. But presently she turned back. “Why are you so dreadfully poor–and everything?” she asked, gently.
His eye wandered over the lake and back again before he answered her, in a dull, heavy tone, “I’ve had bad luck, and, when you get down, there are plenty to kick you farther.”
“You weren’t always poor as you are now–I mean long ago, when you were young.”
“I’m not so old,” he rejoined, sluggishly–“only thirty-four.”
She could not suppress her astonishment. She looked at the hair already gray, the hard, pinched face, the lustreless eyes.
“Yet it must seem long to you,” she said, with meaning.
Now he laughed–a laugh sodden and mirthless. He was thinking of his boyhood. Everything, save one or two spots all fire or all darkness, was dim in his debilitated mind.
“Too far to go back,” he said, with a gleam of the intelligence which had been strong in him once.
She caught the gleam. She had wisdom beyond her years. It was the greater because her mother was dead, and she had had so much wealth to dispense, for her father was rich beyond counting, and she controlled his household and helped to regulate his charities. She saw that he was not of the laboring classes, that he had known better days; his speech, if abrupt and cheerless, was grammatical.
“If you cannot go back, you can go forward,” she said, firmly. “Why should you be the only man in this beautiful land who lives like this, who is idle when there is so much to do, who sleeps in the daytime when there is so much time to sleep at night?”
A faint flush came on the grayish, colorless face. “I don’t sleep at night,” he returned, moodily.
“Why don’t you sleep?” she asked.
He did not answer, but stirred the body of the snake with his foot. The tail moved; he stamped upon the head with almost frenzied violence, out of keeping with his sluggishness.
She turned away, yet looked back once more–she felt tragedy around her. “It is never too late to mend,” she said, and moved on, but stopped, for a young man came running from the woods toward her.
“I’ve had a hunt–such a hunt for you!” the young man said, eagerly, then stopped short when he saw to whom she had been talking. A look of disgust came upon his face as he drew her away, his hand on her arm.
“In Heaven’s name, why did you talk to that man?” he said. “You ought not to have trusted yourself near him.”
“What has he done?” she asked. “Is he so bad?”
“I’ve heard about him. I inquired the other day. He was once in a better position as a ranchman–ten years ago; but he came into some money one day, and he changed at once. He never had a good character; even before he got his money he used to gamble, and was getting a bad name. Afterward he began drinking, and he took to gambling harder than ever. Presently his money all went and he had to work; but his bad habits had fastened on him, and now he lives from hand to mouth, sometimes working for a month, sometimes idle for months. There’s something sinister about him, there’s some mystery; for poverty, or drink even–and he doesn’t drink much now–couldn’t make him what he is. He doesn’t seek company, and he walks sometimes endless miles talking to himself, going as hard as he can. How did you come to speak to him, Grace?”
She told him all, with a curious abstraction in her voice, for she was thinking of the man from a standpoint which her companion could not realize. She was also trying to verify something in her memory. Ten years ago, so her lover had just said, the poor wretch behind them had been a different man; and there had shot into her mind the face of a ranchman she had seen with her father, the railway king, one evening when his “special” had stopped at a railway station on his tour through Montana–ten years ago. Why did the face of the ranchman which had fixed itself on her memory then, because he had come on the evening of her birthday and had spoiled it for her, having taken her father away from her for an hour–why did his face come to her now? What had it to do with the face of this outcast she had just left?
“What is his name?” she asked at last.
“Roger Lygon,” he answered.
“Roger Lygon,” she repeated, mechanically. Something in the man chained her thought–his face that moment when her hand saved him and the awful fear left him and a glimmer of light came into his eyes.
But her lover beside her broke into song. He was happy with her. Everything was before him, her beauty, her wealth, herself. He could not dwell upon dismal things; his voice rang out on the sharp, sweet, evening air:
“Oh, where did you get them, the bonny, bonny roses
That blossom in your cheeks, and the morning in your eyes?’
‘I got them on the North Trail, the road that never closes,
That widens to the seven gold gates of paradise.’
‘Oh, come, let us camp in the North Trail together,
With the night-fires lit and the tent-pegs down.’”
Left alone, the man by the reedy lake stood watching them until they were out of view. The song came back to him, echoing across the waters:
“‘Oh, come, let us camp on the North Trail together,
With the night-fires lit and the tent-pegs down.’”
The sunset glow, the girl’s presence, had given him a moment’s illusion, had absorbed him for a moment, acting on his deadened nature like a narcotic at once soothing and stimulating. As some wild animal in a forgotten land, coming upon ruins of a vast civilization, towers, temples and palaces, in the golden glow of an Eastern evening, stands abashed and vaguely wondering, having neither reason to understand nor feeling to enjoy, yet is arrested and abashed, so he stood. He had lived the last three years so much alone, had been cut off so completely from his kind–had lived so much alone. Yet to-night, at last, he would not be alone.
Some one was coming to-night, some one whom he had not seen for a long time. Letters had passed, the object of the visit had been defined, and he had spent the intervening days since the last letter had arrived, now agitated, now apathetic and sullen, now struggling with some invisible being that kept whispering in his ear, saying to him: “It was the price of fire and blood and shame. You did it–you–you–you! You are down, and you will never get up. You can only go lower still–fire and blood and shame!”
Criminal as he was, he had never become hardened, he had only become degraded. Crime was not his vocation. He had no gift for it; still, the crime he had committed had never been discovered–the crime that he did with others. There were himself and Dupont and another. Dupont was coming to-night–Dupont, who had profited by the crime, and had not spent his profits, but had built upon them to further profit; for Dupont was avaricious and prudent, and a born criminal. Dupont had never had any compunctions or remorse, had never lost a night’s sleep because of what they two had done, instigated thereto by the other, who had paid them so well for the dark thing.
The other was Henderley, the financier. He was worse perhaps than Dupont, for he was in a different sphere of life, was rich beyond counting, and had been early nurtured in quiet Christian surroundings. The spirit of ambition, rivalry, and the methods of a degenerate and cruel finance had seized him, mastered him; so that, under the cloak of power–as a toreador hides the blade under the red cloth before his enemy the toro–he held a sword of capital which did cruel and vicious things, at last becoming criminal also. Henderley had incited and paid; the others, Dupont and Lygon, had acted and received. Henderley had had no remorse, none at any rate that weighed upon him, for he had got used to ruining rivals and seeing strong men go down, and those who had fought him come to beg or borrow of him in the end. He had seen more than one commit suicide, and those they loved go down and farther down, and he had helped these up a little, but not near enough to put them near his own plane again; and he could not see–it never occurred to him–that he had done any evil to them. Dupont thought upon his crimes now and then, and his heart hardened, for he had no moral feeling; Henderley did not think at all. It was left to the man of the reedy lake to pay the penalty of apprehension, to suffer the effects of crime upon a nature not naturally criminal.
Again and again, how many hundreds of times, had Roger Lygon seen in his sleep–had even seen awake, so did hallucination possess him–the new cattle trail he had fired for scores of miles. The fire had destroyed the grass over millions of acres, two houses had been burned and three people had lost their lives; all to satisfy the savage desire of one man, to destroy the chance of a cattle trade over a great section of country for the railway which was to compete with his own–an act which, in the end, was futile, failed of its purpose. Dupont and Lygon had been paid their price, and had disappeared and been forgotten–they were but pawns in his game–and there was no proof against Henderley. Henderley had forgotten. Lygon wished to forget, but Dupont remembered, and meant now to reap fresh profit by the remembrance.
Dupont was coming to-night, and the hatchet of crime was to be dug up again. So it had been planned.
As the shadows fell, Lygon roused himself from his trance with a shiver. It was not cold, but in him there was a nervous agitation, making him cold from head to foot; his body seemed as impoverished as his mind. Looking with heavy-lidded eyes across the prairie, he saw in the distance the barracks of the Riders of the Plains and the jail near by, and his shuddering ceased. There was where he belonged, within four stone walls; yet here he was free to go where he willed, to live as he willed, with no eye upon him. With no eye upon him? There was no eye, but there was the Whisperer whom he could never drive away. Morning and night he heard the words: “You–you–you! Fire and blood and shame!” He had snatched sleep when he could find it, after long, long hours of tramping over the plains, ostensibly to shoot wild fowl, but in truth to bring on a great bodily fatigue–and sleep. His sleep only came then in the first watches of the night. As the night wore on the Whisperer began again, as the cloud of weariness lifted a little from him and the senses were released from the heavy sedative of unnatural exertion.
The dusk deepened. The moon slowly rose. He cooked his scanty meal and took a deep draught from a horn of whiskey from beneath a board in the flooring. He had not the courage to face Dupont without it, nor yet to forget what he must forget if he was to do the work Dupont came to arrange–he must forget the girl who had saved his life and the influence of those strange moments in which she had spoken down to him, in the abyss where he had been lying.
He sat in the doorway, a fire gleaming behind him; he drank in the good air as though his lungs were thirsty for it, and saw the silver glitter of the moon upon the water. Not a breath of wind stirred, and the shining path the moon made upon the reedy lake fascinated his eye. Everything was so still except that whisper, louder in his ear than it had ever been before.
Suddenly, upon the silver path upon the lake there shot a silent canoe, with a figure as silently paddling toward him. He gazed for a moment dismayed, and then got to his feet with a jerk.
“Dupont,” he said, mechanically.
The canoe swished among the reeds and rushes, scraped on the shore, and a tall, burly figure sprang from it and stood still, looking at the house.
“Qui reste la–Lygon?” he asked.
“Dupont,” was the nervous, hesitating reply.
Dupont came forward quickly. “Ah, ben, here we are again–so,” he grunted, cheerily.
Entering the house, they sat before the fire, holding their hands to the warmth from force of habit, though the night was not cold.
“Ben, you will do it to-night–then?” Dupont said. “Sacre, it is time!”
“Do what?” rejoined the other, heavily.
An angry light leaped into Dupont’s eyes. “You not unnerstan’ my letters–bah! You know it all right, so queeck.”
The other remained silent, staring into the fire with wide, searching eyes.
Dupont put a hand on him. “You ketch my idee queeck. We mus’ have more money from that Henderley–certainlee. It is ten years, and he t’ink it is all right. He t’ink we come no more becos’ he give five t’ousand dollars to us each. That was to do the t’ing, to fire the country. Now we want another ten t’ousan’ to us each, to forget we do it for him–hein?“
Still there was no reply. Dupont went on, watching the other furtively, for he did not like this silence. But he would not resent it till he was sure there was good cause.
“It comes to suit us. He is over there at the Old Man Lak’, where you can get at him easy, not like in the city where he lif’. Over in the States, he laugh mebbe, becos’ he is at home, an’ can buy off the law. But here–it is Canadaw, an’ they not care eef he have hunder’ meellion dollar. He know that–sure. Eef you say you not care a dam to go to jail, so you can put him there, too, becos’ you have not’ing, an’ so dam seeck of everyt’ing, he will t’ink ten t’ousan’ dollar same as one cent to Nic Dupont–ben sur!”
Lygon nodded his head, still holding his hands to the blaze. With ten thousand dollars he could get away into–into another world somewhere, some world where he could forget, as he forgot for a moment this afternoon when the girl said to him, “It is never too late to mend.”
Now, as he thought of her, he pulled his coat together and arranged the rough scarf at his neck involuntarily. Ten thousand dollars–but ten thousand dollars by blackmail, hush-money, the reward of fire and blood and shame! Was it to go on? Was he to commit a new crime?
He stirred, as though to shake off the net that he felt twisting round him, in the hands of the robust and powerful Dupont, on whom crime sat so lightly, who had flourished while he, Lygon, had gone lower and lower. Ten years ago he had been the better man, had taken the lead, was the master, Dupont the obedient confederate, the tool. Now, Dupont, once the rough river-driver, grown prosperous in a large way for him–who might yet be mayor of his town in Quebec–he held the rod of rule. Lygon was conscious that the fifty dollars sent him every New Year for five years by Dupont had been sent with a purpose, and that he was now Dupont’s tool. Debilitated, demoralized, how could he, even if he wished, struggle against this powerful confederate, as powerful in will as in body? Yet if he had his own way he would not go to Henderley. He had lived with a “familiar spirit” so long, he feared the issue of this next excursion into the fens of crime.
Dupont was on his feet now. “He will be here only three days more–I haf find it so. To-night it mus’ be done. As we go I will tell you what to say. I will wait at the Forks, an’ we will come back togedder. His check will do. Eef he gif at all, the check is all right. He will not stop it. Eef he have the money, it is better–sacre–yes. Eef he not gif–well, I will tell you, there is the other railway man he try to hurt, how would he like–But I will tell you on the river. Maint’nant–queeck, we go.”
Without a word Lygon took down another coat and put it on. Doing so he concealed a weapon quickly, as Dupont stooped to pick a coal for his pipe from the blaze. Lygon had no fixed purpose in taking a weapon with him; it was only a vague instinct of caution that moved him.
In the canoe on the river, in an almost speechless apathy, he heard Dupont’s voice giving him instructions.
Henderley, the financier, had just finished his game of whist and dismissed his friends–it was equivalent to dismissal, rough yet genial as he seemed to be, so did immense wealth and its accompanying power affect his relations with those about him. In everything he was “considered.” He was in good-humor, for he had won all the evening, and with a smile he rubbed his hands among the notes–three thousand dollars it was. It was like a man with a pocketful of money chuckling over a coin he had found in the street. Presently he heard a rustle of the inner tent-curtain and swung round. He faced the man from the reedy lake.
Instinctively he glanced round for a weapon, mechanically his hands firmly grasped the chair in front of him. He had been in danger of his life many times, and he had no fear. He had been threatened with assassination more than once, and he had got used to the idea of danger; life to him was only a game.
He kept his nerve; he did not call out; he looked his visitor in the eyes.
“What are you doing here? Who are you?” he said.
“Don’t you know me?” answered Lygon, gazing intently at him.
Face to face with the man who had tempted him to crime, Lygon had a new sense of boldness, a sudden feeling of reprisal, a rushing desire to put the screw upon him. At sight of this millionaire with the pile of notes before him there vanished the sickening hesitation of the afternoon, of the journey with Dupont. The look of the robust, healthy financier was like acid in a wound; it maddened him.
“You will know me better soon,” Lygon added, his head twitching with excitement.
Henderley recognized him now. He gripped the armchair spasmodically, but presently regained a complete composure. He knew the game that was forward here, and he also thought that if once he yielded to blackmail there would never be an end to it. He made no pretence, but came straight to the point.
“You can do nothing; there is no proof,” he said, with firm assurance.
“There is Dupont,” answered Lygon, doggedly.
“Who is Dupont?”
“The French Canadian who helped me–I divided with him.”
“You said the man who helped you died. You wrote that to me. I suppose you are lying now.”
Henderley coolly straightened the notes on the table, smoothing out the wrinkles, arranging them according to their denominations with an apparently interested eye; yet he was vigilantly watching the outcast before him. To yield to blackmail would be fatal; not to yield to it–he could not see his way. He had long ago forgotten the fire and blood and shame. No Whisperer reminded him of that black page in the history of his life; he had been immune of conscience. He could not understand this man before him. It was as bad a case of human degradation as ever he had seen–he remembered the stalwart, if dissipated, ranchman who had acted on his instigation. He knew now that he had made a foolish blunder then, that the scheme had been one of his failures; but he had never looked on it as with eyes reproving crime. As a hundred thoughts tending toward the solution of the problem by which he was faced flashed through his mind, and he rejected them all, he repeated mechanically the phrase “I suppose you are lying now.”
“Dupont is here–not a mile away,” was the reply. “He will give proof. He would go to jail or to the gallows to put you there, if you do not pay. He is a devil–Dupont.”
Still the great man could not see his way out. He must temporize for a little longer, for rashness might bring scandal or noise; and near by was his daughter, the apple of his eye.
“What do you want? How much did you figure you could get out of me, if I let you bleed me?” he asked, sneeringly and coolly. “Come now, how much?”
Lygon, in whom a blind hatred of the man still raged, was about to reply, when he heard a voice calling, “Daddy, Daddy!”
Suddenly the red, half-insane light died down in Lygon’s eyes. He saw the snake upon the ground by the reedy lake, the girl standing over it–the girl with the tawny hair. This was her voice.
Henderley had made a step toward a curtain opening into another room of the great tent, but before he could reach it the curtain was pushed back and the girl entered with a smile.
“May I come in?” she said; then stood still, astonished, seeing Lygon.
“Oh!” she exclaimed. “Oh–you!”
All at once a look came into her face which stirred it as a flying insect stirs the water of a pool. On the instant she remembered that she had seen the man before.
It was ten years ago in Montana, on the night of her birthday. Her father had been called away to talk with this man, and she had seen him from the steps of the “special.” It was only the caricature of the once strong, erect ranchman that she saw; but there was no mistake, she recognized him now.
Lygon, dumfounded, looked from her to her father, and he saw now in Henderley’s eyes a fear that was not to be misunderstood.
Here was where Henderley could be smitten, could be brought to his knees. It was the vulnerable part of him. Lygon could see that he was stunned. The great financier was in his power. He looked back again to the girl, and her face was full of trouble.
A sharp suspicion was in her heart that somehow or other her father was responsible for this man’s degradation and ruin. She looked Lygon in the eyes.
“Did you want to see me?” she asked.
She scarcely knew why she said it; but she was sensible of trouble, maybe of tragedy, somewhere; and she had a vague dread of she knew not what, for, hide it, avoid it, as she had done so often, there was in her heart an unhappy doubt concerning her father.
A great change had come over Lygon. Her presence had altered him. He was again where she had left him in the afternoon.
He heard her say to her father: “This was the man I told you of–at the reedy lake. Did you come to see me?” she repeated.
“I did not know you were here,” he answered. “I came”–he was conscious of Henderley’s staring eyes fixed upon his helplessly–“I came to ask your father if he would not buy my shack. There is good shooting at the lake; the ducks come plenty, sometimes. I want to get away, to start again somewhere. I’ve been a failure. I want to get away, right away south. If he would buy it, I could start again. I’ve had no luck.”
He had invented it on the moment, but the girl understood better than Lygon or Henderley could have dreamed. She had seen the change pass over Lygon.
Henderley had a hand on himself again, and the startled look went out of his eyes.
“What do you want for your shack and the lake?” he asked, with restored confidence. The fellow no doubt was grateful that his daughter had saved his life, he thought.
“Five hundred dollars,” answered Lygon, quickly.
Henderley would have handed over all that lay on the table before him, but he thought it better not to do so. “I’ll buy it,” he said. “You seem to have been hit hard. Here is the money. Bring me the deed to-morrow–to-morrow.”
“I’ll not take the money till I give you the deed,” said Lygon. “It will do to-morrow. It’s doing me a good turn. I’ll get away and start again somewhere. I’ve done no good up here. Thank you, sir–thank you.”
Before they realized it, the tent-curtain rose and fell, and he was gone into the night.
The trouble was still deep in the girl’s eyes as she kissed her father, and he, with an overdone cheerfulness, wished her a good-night.
The man of iron had been changed into a man of straw once at least in his lifetime.
* * * * *
Lygon found Dupont at the Forks.
“Eh, ben, it is all right–yes?” Dupont asked, eagerly, as Lygon joined him.
“Yes, it is all right,” answered Lygon.
With an exulting laugh and an obscene oath, Dupont pushed out the canoe, and they got away into the moonlight. No word was spoken for some distance, but Dupont kept giving grunts of satisfaction.
“You got the ten t’ousan’ each–in cash or check, eh? The check or the money–hein?“
“I’ve got nothing,” answered Lygon.
Dupont dropped his paddle with a curse.
“You got not’ing! You said eet was all right!” he growled.
“It is all right. I got nothing. I asked for nothing. I have had enough. I have finished.”
With a roar of rage Dupont sprang on him, and caught him by the throat as the canoe swayed and dipped. He was blind with fury.
Lygon tried with one hand for his knife, and got it, but the pressure on his throat was growing terrible.
For minutes the struggle continued, for Lygon was fighting with the desperation of one who makes his last awful onset against fate and doom.
Dupont also had his knife at work. At last it drank blood, but as he got it home he suddenly reeled blindly, lost his balance, and lurched into the water with a groan.
Lygon, weapon in hand and bleeding freely, waited for him to rise and make for the canoe again.
Ten, twenty, fifty seconds passed. Dupont did not rise. A minute went by, and still there was no stir, no sign. Dupont would never rise again. In his wild rage he had burst a blood-vessel on the brain.
Lygon bound up his reeking wound as best he could. He did it calmly, whispering to himself the while.
“I must do it. I must get there if I can. I will not be afraid to die then,” he muttered to himself.
Presently he grasped an oar and paddled feebly.
A slight wind had risen, and, as he turned the boat in to face the Forks again, it helped to carry the canoe to the landing-place.
Lygon dragged himself out. He did not try to draw the canoe up, but began this journey of a mile back to the tent he had left so recently. First, step by step, leaning against trees, drawing himself forward, a journey as long to his determined mind as from youth to age. Would it never end? It seemed a terrible climbing-up the sides of a cliff, and, as he struggled fainting on, all sorts of sounds were in his ears, but he realized that the Whisperer was no longer there. The sounds he heard did not torture, they helped his stumbling feet. They were like the murmur of waters, like the sounds of the forest and soft, booming bells. But the bells were only the beatings of his heart–so loud, so swift.
He was on his knees now, crawling on–on–on. At last there came a light, suddenly bursting on him from a tent he was so near. Then he called, and called again, and fell forward on his face. But now he heard a voice above him. It was her voice. He had blindly struggled on to die near her, near where she was, she was so pitiful and good.
He had accomplished his journey, and her voice was speaking above him. There were other voices, but it was only hers that he heard.
“God help him–oh, God help him!” she was saying.
He drew a long, quiet breath. “I will sleep now,” he said, clearly.
He would hear the Whisperer no more.