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The World is Yours

Chapter Seven

page 161

Chapter Seven

Chief Bill Boss's launch took Kirk down to the Landing where about midnight the little boat from Kesikat stopped to wood-up before going on down to the Yukon River. Kirk went aboard her, stiffly conscious of cold hunger and the smell of dogs. The breeds moving about on the cut-bank went like dark thoughts in a clouded mind— his own mind, he thought, and stumbled aft among hay-bales and stacked white-fish and bundles of furs to the galley.

Here he found the cook, son of a Toronto lawyer, who was putting himself through his winter course at Victoria College by the earnings of difficult summers. To him these hard-fleshed, far-eyed men who walked out of the horizon with gun in the armpit and walked off again as lightly as men board and leave trolley-cars in cities were a matter of constant wonder and respect. He greeted Kirk gladly.

"Have some coffee? I've just made pailfuls for the hands. You know how the Indians won't do one darn thing unless you feed 'em. Here's johnny-cake…."

Kirk ate ravenously. He had a dim notion that the emptiness which seemed to pervade the whole of him might somehow be stopped in this way. The cook, ladling out coffee, talked duck-shooting, botany, the colour on the hills. He showed Kirk some white gull-feathers which he had dyed a shabby purple.

"I'm experimenting in dyes with lichens and things. Chemistry, that's what I'm going in for," he said, enthusiastically.

"Fine," said Kirk, absently. What was life but experiment, anyway? One experiment after another until something blew you up or did for you somehow.

The captain and engineer came in for coffee. The captain, page 162who rarely spoke and sang Tannhauser and Lohengrin to the hills as he stood at his wheel, nodded briefly. The engineer said: "Hello., Regard. Didn't know you were in these parts," and buried his face in a mug of coffee without waiting for an answer. To these men passengers were of infinitely less interest than the freight, for they were responsible for the freight. Kirk, stimulated by food into the beginnings of thought, discovered in himself a dull inclination to be responsible for nothing. A casual and satiric Fate had used old Mat—perhaps the person who loved him best—to wrench Kirk's life from its sockets, and there was no longer, it seemed, any use in trying to bluff Fate.

"Well," said the engineer hotly, in answer to something, "don't blame me if her boiler goes through the roof next time we hit a sandbank. She's only tied together with twine, anyway."

He went out grumbling, and presently the engines took up their crazy clanking again, while the captain, his meditative wild eyes fixed on vacancy and his hair flowing back as though blown by the wind of his imaginings, conned his tiny craft through the shallows of the drying river like a soul wandering among clouds in the night. The cook said:

"I'm trying to get an orange feather. I've tried calcium and the Lord knows what, but something always goes wrong, I guess."

Kirk got up, suddenly furious. Something always does go wrong, he wanted to tell the cook. That's what we are here for. Playthings for the power Tamsin called Nature and old Mat, The Truth, and Mrs. Sheridan, God. He went on deck drearily, feeling that he desired huge and destructive pleasures; sloughs of iniquity into which he could cast himself and drown. Once he had read in a Whitehorse paper something about "This game of consequences to which we must all sit down." What had happened to him now was the direct consequence of his flirtation with Ooket at Macpherson, and that page 163was the more or less direct consequence of his thrashing on the Kluane which had come on him through the purest moment of idealism he had ever had in his life. His mind went heavily back to Tamsin there, and the grinning devil in his blood asked him what would have been the result of his taking Tamsin to the shack? Something ugly would have come out of it, undoubtedly—and there was your reverence and idealism for you! Everything wrong everywhere.

He sat on deck, huddled in a pile of clean sacks, and watched the morning come, feeling the oppression of the centuries on him. The world was chill and desolate. The river grew from grey to paper-white, and either side it the squat hills looked like faces. Cloud-shadows brought changing grins to their crooked mouths and their leathery cheeks wrinkled under patches of greyish scrub. Mysteriously and almost as rapidly as pantomime-changes colour and glory were going from the North, and it was commencing to wrap its stark old bones in its winter coverlet of snow.

Kirk wondered why he stayed in the North when it had such power to make him fear and hate it. Destiny, he supposed. Those forefathers of whom he did not know anything must have lived here to put it in his blood like this. Tamsin had been born at Carcross in the Yukon, and drew in understanding of it with her first consciousness. His fathers must have suffered here, Kirk felt. Sons of those Gentleman Adventurers who went with Prince Rupert to the first trading in the North-West, perhaps: sons of the wild-eyed Russians who hunted the fur-otters along the frozen coasts when Baranoff was king in Sitka; sons of those Frenchmen who made the fur trail from Montreal to Vermillion through two thousand miles of forest and lake and mountain in the early seventeenth century, when Indians and wild animals had all that wilderness for their own. Some among dauntless or terrified forgotten men must have fathered him, he felt, leaving him as an unescapable legacy their fear and defiance page 164of the North and their sense of being irretrievably bound up with it.

The Kesitkat steamer dropped him at Gopher on the Yukon River and scuttled off again, hoping to make another trip before the side-streams began throwing ice in quantities. Kirk watched her go with disgust. It seemed a special brutality of Fate to have sent him out into chaos on a tin-can like that. Still struggling to keep Tamsin from his mind, he went into the store—which with a few Indian huts and a telegraph shack made the whole of Gopher—and there found Doctor O'Kane smoking over the black stove. Kirk had no wish to see him, for he would certainly speak of Tamsin, but the old man looked up, his rheumy eyes glittering with relief.

"You have come to prevent a suicide, I think, Mr. Regard," he said, courteously. "I have been considering my sins here alone for the last three days, waiting for the outgoing steamer, and they have become somewhat oppressive." He laughed noiselessly, looking more like a starved ghoul than ever, Kirk thought. "Are you coming my way, Mr. Regard?"

"No," said Kirk. He pulled an oil-drum forward and sat down, opening the stove door. The red leaping glow was like returning to life after the blank negation outdoors. "I wish I could," he said, suddenly. Any of those places Outside— Juneau, Vancouver, Ketchikan—had plenty of foulness where a man could wallow to the forgetfulness of everything. "God! I wish I could!"

O'Kane rubbed his bony chin with a bony hand, looking shrewdly. He had heard a good deal of this young man and Tamsin Macdonald, and Regard did not look like an accepted lover. "Who is she waiting for?" he thought. "To play Danae to some Jove among her hill-gods? For this is a personable bit of flesh with a gamey enough flavour to him to attract women." It was said that young Regard had attracted many women, and perhaps that was the trouble. Tamsin had more than a streak of old Macdonald's Puritanism. page 165"Why don't you come?" he asked, silkily. "I would be very glad of a mate to help me see life a little in Ketchikan after my penance at Aroya."

"Can't. Got to take the Mackenzie-Dawson Patrol over a new way."

"Someone tried that a few years ago and lost the whole bunch, I remember. That Mounty-Fergurson of Hershel— was too good for an end like that. But men will try the impossible. Once off the trail in those ranges and it's finish, I understand."

"I won't lose it." Kirk sat frowning, playing with the thought that he could—if he tried. Lead to death all those men of the Law who would give death to him if they knew what he knew. My! What a gamble! What an exit!

"Soon they'll make connection by aeroplane. Did you see the first one that ever came North in Dawson this summer?"

"No. They'll never use them in those mountains, I guess. You dunno the first things 'bout the storms they get or you'd see that."

He felt quarrelsome, dazedly trying to fight off that great tragedy in the back of his mind beside which what he was going to on the Patrol was a small matter. Tamsin … how was it with Tamsin …? He tossed off the fiery drink the storekeeper brought him, and took another.

"Ah! That's better," he said.

The storekeeper mixed his permit with stuff distilled by himself. It had red ink and tobacco and bay rum in it, and O'Kane sniffed and put it aside. But the woodsmen, coming in from hauling and stacking the wood-pile for the river steamers, swallowed it down in great thankful gulps. It made them talkative and noisy, and the small dirty store soon filled up with the smell of tobacco and wood smoke and of heated men and raw pelts hanging in the rafters, and all the other miscellanies of a Northern store. One of the woodsmen was an English officer known along the rivers as "The Army," page 166just as O'Kane was largely known by tradition as "The Navy." Each had the spruceness and decision of their birth and trade, and each hated the other for the disgrace they had severally brought on England.

As it grew dark and the air outside colder the men crowded round the stove and talk took on the hard horse-radish flavour of the country. Tobacco smoke, thick as incense, dulled the gaudy mackinaws and the wind-reddened faces and the eyes grown dreamy with long looking over vast distances. Gold and the North was their world, and for them there was now no other.

"Take the Mounties now," said an old miner. "They look after Yukon like they was its granny. Ten Mounties keep Yukon in better shape than five times their number in U.S.A. Police over the Alaskan border, and the Yanks air the first to say so. I've heard 'em. My! I'd just hate one of your Mounties on my trail, I've heard 'em say."

"Sometimes," said an engineer who had been in Labrador with Grenfell, "we got away with it in Yukon, spite o' the Mounties. Me an' another chap—name o' Darrow—ran four launches on the Yukon built out of truck picked up on the Klondyke trail. You remember that, Doc.? You was tinkerin' folk down at Whitehorse, an' Darrow an' me used to go along White Pass an' Lake Lindeman every night, gatherin' up machinery the chechakos chucked away an' buildin' it into boats. They looked some funny, but they sure hauled the freight all right."

O'Kane nodded. The chechakos also had usually looked some funny by the time they came under his hands. Bank-clerks, office-boys, shop-hands staggering with their unset limbs and untried bodies over that awful Pass, dying of starvation and dysentery and frost-bite around his doors. But where were the men who had won through the gainers? It amused him to tell the end of Darrow. "… It was Bill Hunt found him out on the Pelly. Called in at his shack one winter page 167evening and found that the coyotes had had most of Darrow and all the tobacco. Bill expressed his annoyance to me later. He had been counting on a smoke for the whole week."

"Bill was not quite a brute," said The Army coldly. "He packed out all Darrow's personal stuff and sent it to his people."

"Quite likely. It was just that streak of sentimentality which ruined him." O'Kane pulled his long moustaches reflectively, leering a little at The Army, who sat straight as a ramrod still—damn him. "Distraction is the panacea, sir, for us all, and poor old Bill was always an admirer of the ladies. But we are all liable to go yapping after it into our neighbour's pocket or"—there was a little raillery at The Army now— "sniffing after it into our neighbour's kennel."

The Army turned dull red, but before he could speak Kirk suddenly roused out of a half-daze and said hotly:

"If a feller don't look after his possessions he has a right to lose 'em, I guess. All history ain't much more than stealin' o' some sort, an' I reckon most everything we get is taken from someone else first. A man'd never get anywhere if he always acted plumb straight."

"Quite! Oh, quite!" said O'Kane, delightedly. Something had apparently touched the quick in young Regard. He was all ablaze and full of fight again, and—lord, what a beauty he was with his colouring and his springy movements like a young bull-moose in the woods! "Now, what has happened between him and Tamsin?" he thought. Aloud he said: "I agree that the man who lives placidly within his own boundaries never makes history. Rarely a living. Far more fame has been achieved by breaking laws than by making them. You, I take it, Regard, are a legitimate descendent of Virus Behring, the Dane; Captain George Vancouver; and other heroes who founded their careers on more or less gentlemanly piracy."

"If he'd sailed with Behring," said The Army, and Kirk's page 168excited mind had a sudden vision of that rough wild voyaging over green seas and past smoking headlands of savage foam, "he would have called the landfalls he made Mercy Bay and Thank God Harbour just as they did. Pirates they might have been, but they had their religion."

"Sure. And they knew how to use it, too," said Kirk. He laughed. "Like them I guess I'd have bartered a prayer an' a handful of beads for a dozen priceless sea-otter pelts any day. Mighty fine thing, religion—when you know how to use it."

Drink, heat, the sudden rush of a new idea were jostling in him. He wanted to cross swords with something, tumble into a fight. He looked at The Army expectantly, but that bald elderly man with the still eyes shook his head.

"Aftermath of the war—that's what's the matter with you young men. You've improved on the old maxim, 'The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God,' by adding: 'But the wise man saith it with his lips.' All wrong, you know. All wrong."

"Ah, yes," said O'Kane indifferently. "Turned Christian Scientist, haven't you, Army? I remember now."

"Every land has need of religions before it can build a nation."

"Yukon will never build a nation, my dear sir. Far from it. Speaking broadly, there are no young men and no old women up here, and you can't build a nation without both of these. Classify the inhabitants, Army. Classify them. Who are they? The men who work for the Whitehorse & Yukon Line. Miners and prospectors—a naturally homeless lot. The few who, like yourself, live here and there as chance takes you. Tourists, and the handful who, like Regard and the storekeepers, live on them. The inhabitants are in no shape to improve or cultivate. Many go Outside every winter, anyway. Those who stay have no ambition. If they had they wouldn't be here. A dead land, Army. A dead land."

The one oil-lamp was burning badly, filling the place with page 169a red smoky glare through which everything showed like the collection of some rakish devils in a dissolute purgatory. Shelves full of canned foods, white cartons of ammunition, dull grey shirts, drab underwear. Corners full of molasses and apple barrels, boxes of potatoes and machinery. Rafters hung with dog-harness, uncured pelts, iron-shod canoe-poles, folded tents and bunches of jack-knives. Round the fire crowded the tired men with their hard disillusioned faces, and ironstone cups in their rough hands, smoking, chewing, spitting. Bottles of the doctored stuff they drank stood on an upended barrel among them.

"And if there ever was religion," ended O'Kane, quietly, "mankind had killed it."

"Aw! What's the matter wi' you?" burst out the storekeeper, suddenly. A quiet man usually, he seemed galvanized by this. "What's the matter wi' all you clever duds … beatin' us up this way? Why don't some o' you feel once in a while? Feel … an' git busy at helpin' us along? What are your sort lyin' around like you was half-dead for? The world's got enough dead men livin' in it to-day, a'ready."

"You're right, it has," said a deep voice out of the shadows. O'Kane smiled. He enjoyed baiting the natives.

"I have no desire to help you because I don't believe in the divinity of mankind. Nothing is real after we cease to believe in it, just as everything is real while we believe in it. There you have your reason for the rise and fall of religions. Like everything else that is purely imaginative creation they depend entirely upon our belief at the moment. Good, evil, enterprise, our bodies … the moment we cease to believe in them they cease to exist."

The men were silent. Mostly uneducated and full of blundering confusions, they were abashed before this keen, sophisticated brain that ranged where they could not follow. O'Kane was a wizard with his hands, as half the North knew, and he could bewitch with his tongue, too. Now he had given page 170them gloomy discomfort in place of the cheer engendered by the whiskey; and he leaned back with a little cough of content, pulling at his long moustache, watching the grotesque shadowy things in the rafters with half-closed rheumy eyes.

"Worse than any of his poisons," thought The Army, getting up in relief as the whistle of a steamer sounded long and shrilly out of the night. "Jump for it, you fellows," he said, and led them out to the wood-pile.

Kirk stood watching the steamer from Dawson sweep up, her three tiers arrogant with white paint and brasses, her searchlight swinging full ashore. Planks came out like a tongue, and then the usual ritual of a Northern wooding-up began. Back and forth pattered the laden breeds on noiseless feet. The night was full of pretty women, well-dressed men, crowding into the store to buy curios, staring with amused curiosity on the natives.

Kirk lounged by the door in the full gleam, defiant, returning stare for stare. Seen in the full light of O'Kane's experienced talk, men and women were futile things. All life was futile, for where did it get a man, anyway? These laughing girls … and what was Tamsin but a girl? A while back he had been dreaming of going straight to Tamsin and pouring out his confession in the belief that she could make him whole.

She couldn't. Nothing could. These fragile rose-petals dropping in a shower each time he moved his shoulder could do as much. And what did it matter? What, thought Kirk, with the poison of O'Kane still working in him, did anything matter? A slim woman in filmy black paused by him.

"Are you a hunter? I've always wanted to see a hunter," she said.

She had a light cloak over polished arms and shoulders, and she spoke as though he were a new animal at a zoo. Kirk said, sulkily:

"What for?"

page 171

"They're so cute. Oh, my! I do think a hunter must be cute," said the lady. "Are you a hunter?"

"Anyways, I ain't a lady. I don't hunt men," said Kirk, violently.

He crashed off into the scrub, hearing her little squeak of dismay.

"That'll learn 'em to stare at me," he thought.

O'Kane came by, carrying his neat grip. He said in his thin courteous tones:

"I regret extremely that you are not coming out with us. It would have done you good." He peered round into Kirk's face. "Bluff the world if it owes you anything," he said. "Don't let it bluff you, Regard. You're far too clever. Goodbye. Remember me to the Dawson ladies."

He dissolved into the shadows, chuckling. Kirk was thinking of Dierdre when he went aboard the boat for Dawson which passed some hours later.

He slept without dreams, and awoke next morning to a flurry of snow on driving wind and an aching longing for Tamsin. It seemed incredible that he had left her; gone tamely away and left her to face the music—and Aggie Colom. He had not thought of that before, and the shock of it almost made him cry out. He walked the Texas deck in the blinding snow, feeling as mentally blind. The boxed-compass feeling which had possessed him since Mat Colom's decision would not pass. He knew that it had been fear drove him out: the fear which shook men's souls in the war-trenches, which had shaken him often enough in this implacable land. The shadow of it was on him yet, and sudden cold sweat broke on him at the thought that the fanatic in Colom might send him to Challis in any case. And behind and over all was that crying, tearing longing for Tamsin.

The idea came that he would wire to her when the steamer swung inshore where a lonely telegraph-shack stood on a strip of bare beach and unloaded a distressed-looking youngster page 172who would encounter his intimate devils there through the long winter when the river was locked in ice. But he gave that up, as he gave up one plan after another. He could neither write nor wire to Tamsin anything but the truth, and he dared not tell her that. "I'll write to Mat. He'll come round. He must come around to it," he thought, and then went back over the whole matter again.

The shrunk river was muddy and full of snags and sandbanks. The sky was muddy, letting fall occasional flurries of snow. Heavily and with hoarse breathings the steamer threaded the tricky channels, pushing her two barges laden with Dawson's winter food ahead of her. The hills either side grew barer and more rocky: a pair of bony jaws sucking the steamer in. They passed a long raft of chained logs, and the man on it stood by a little stove, his shoulders covered with snow. He was going perhaps a hundred miles to sell his wares, and he had stuck up his flag—the torn crimson sleeve of a silken bath-robe—to cheer him or to defy the world. They left him behind, his little bright banner floating. "A man needs be at peace with himself," Kirk thought, "to travel like that."

They stopped to wood-up where the wood-pile stood lonely against bare willows, and a young policeman walked out of the willow-bluff with a prospector whom he had brought from somewhere back of beyond.

"Quite a nice old chook," he explained airily to the officer who came ashore to superintend the work. "Just forgets everything, y'know, so he'll have to go Outside and be put in a Home. Here … oh, I say, Regard. You're pretty well wised up to the North. Ever run across this old gink anywhere?"

He snapped open his pocket-book briskly. In his service blue-and-khaki and jaunty stetson he looked as though he had just come from Barracks instead of a month's tramp through the hills. Kirk remembered meeting him once in page 173Dawson, but his old bit of salvage he did not know. Perched on a fallen log like a beetle in a mackinaw coat, it was silent, with grey-bearded mouth dropping open and a wealth of content in its faded eyes. Almost certainly an old-timer and a Klondyker who had possibly given his poke to Lily Maud at the Tinky-Tink when Kirk was a little boy. Undoubtedly he had lived hard and made history and abolished himself so completely that he had forgotten even his name. Oblivion. That was what the Yukon had forced on this man who came stealing her gold.

"Not a stiver of identification about him," complained the policeman in his fresh English voice. "Oh, hell! I wish someone would tattoo these fellows before they're let loose Inside. And dickens only knows what year he came in. I reckon my report is liable to be a bit sketchy."

"I've seen him around ever since I came in," said the officer. "Don't know his name, though. He never talked of himself."

"These chaps never do. One would imagine they were all bigamists or escaping from some other kind of justice. Come along, my pet. We're going on the pretty steamer."

The awful sublimity of this land seemed to trouble the Mounty as little as the future joys and sorrows of his captives ever did. Kirk thought of the tragic twilight which would shortly be cast by eternal doors and houses on this blurred and simple spirit used to the night winds and the breath of spring across the hills, and he felt a moment's pity. Better have left him to die among his cradles and pans, where perhaps in dreams he still washed gold for a ghostly Lily Maud.

Later, when he sat alone on the Texas deck, soft steps came round the corner, and the old prospector looked at him with those bleared and gentle eyes.

"What have you lost?" he whispered. "I've lost my name. What have you lost?"

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Kirk did not answer. He knew what he had lost too well. The ancient peered at him through dim veils of time. He murmured:

"A woman used to sing once, and there will always be to-morrow night. I guess she called me Dear once. Maybe that's my name. Anybody ever call you Dear?"

"A thousand times."

"Oh!" A film of disappointment spread over the tawny-grey face so like that of a mild lioness. "Then likely I just dreamt it. I do' know." He shuffled away; turned back with withered hand curved to his bearded lips. "I've lost my name. What have you lost?" he whispered, and drifted off down the stairs.

Kirk returned to Dawson in a dangerous mood. He had quarrelled and laughed and sung and played cards in the stifling little smoke-room all the way down, and his mouth had a bad taste and his eyes were reddened and sullen. He felt that there was no more vice or virtue in him. Nothing but a permanent dry-rot. And again he was a savage rebel against circumstance, and of nights he lay awake in his bunk and writhed and sweated, thinking of Tamsin and the curse on him. Once he wished that Mat Colom was dead, but that mood did not last. He could still see something fine in old Mat denouncing him to his own grief; standing, a crumpled old sagging figure, on the cut-bank as Bill Boss's launch carried Kirk away.

Dawson was dreary, with snow-covered slushy flats and the trees on the Dome fading into a brown dullness. Soon they would be bare, as Kirk himself felt bare. And there would be several months to get through here before he could take out the Patrol, although on the slips a few small boats were already snugged down for the winter. He knew that he must find work; plenty of it, or unusual evil would befall him. Possibly he would even marry Dierdre if left to himself.

A bitter Adam flung out of Eden without the woman, he page 175reported at the Barracks, and then went up to the Livery from which the stages would run later down to Whitehorse.

"We brought down a big bunch of horses on the Alice. Can you give me a job with 'em?" he asked, and Payne, the man in charge, hailed him with delight.

"No one I'd like better. But we didn't expect you down so soon. Heard you'd fixed it up with MacDonald's daughter up on the Kanana, didn't we, you fellows?"

"Fixed nothing," said Kirk, hastily. If old Mat got hold of that story he'd likely go to Challis yet. Mat was a fool, but so true it is that the fools are the best hell-makers.

"Not planning double harness, eh?" said Payne, with a grin at the stablemen.

"No. Never. Can you give me a couple of months' contract? Right. I'll be down in the morning."

He went to the Arcade Cafe for dinner; but there was no one to whom he cared to talk, and again his mind began to run on Dierdre. Well, he thought, why not? She could not be hurt, and she might help cauterize the hurt in him. He remembered her one frosty evening down the river, crouched over a camp-fire like some little forest animal in her furs, her slender brown hands like naked paws weaving an incantation before the flame. He remembered her mushing along by the lonely Klondyke, a small inscrutable idol packed into the sled with her triangular haunting face. He remembered her kisses, and flung on his mackinaw suddenly and turned out into the brittle white silence.

Good family-wise Dawson was at home with its doors shut. The streets were empty as Kirk passed. The sound of his footsteps and of a distant dog barking echoed loud and clear. On the side-path stood a sled with its high curved nose for holding firewood, and the smell of sap from bleeding logs was sharp and clean. After childhood a man or a woman cannot go on living without wondering what it is all for. Kirk wondered what it would mean when all this mess of page 176days and doings came out in the wash. The making of fires to warm the house, the marriage-bed, the kissing of lovers under the trees of summer, the grim struggles of the long trails, the lonely deaths … and the new generations eternally arising to do it all over again.

Cass lived close to his dredges near the Klondyke side. Kirk passed his house and went over the bridge into that dying cluster of dwellings which had been the first Klondyke City. Here, where that mighty forest of tents had once sprung in a night, chasing the Indians to the hills, only the Brewery and a few stores remained. It was certain that prohibition was already dooming the Brewery; the stores would pass as a natural consequence, and another of man's efforts would crumble, like man himself, back into the uncaring earth.

It was not a good place for a man to think in unless his courage was high, but Kirk, who had never felt less brave, stayed there a long time. All about him were the old rotting scaffoldings where cranes had once swung the stuff freighted down off Bonanza into the lading scows below; and he remembered how monstrous and full of strength and life they had seemed to him as a child, and what excitement it had been to see the steamers round the point of Billy Chicken's Island, bringing fresh swarms of men to the teeming city. All noise and colour and strain here then, and now only grey silence with a few crows flying, and an old Indian dug-out in a roofless shed where he and Tamsin once used to play. Nothing here now but these grim forgotten altars once raised to - that insatiable spirit in man which, like a restless wind, blows back and forth upon the earth for ever.

He thought of Tamsin, with her blue torn pinafore and tumbled red hair and shining eyes, climbing in and out of the dug-out, and could not bear it. He must find resource in other women to take him out of his ache for Tamsin. He went back to Cass's small frame-house standing desolately among the grey scrub, knocked on the kitchen door, and pulled it page 177open at once. Dierdre was there, beating batter in a thick green bowl by the window. Her thin body looked like something cut from black paper and pasted on a pale-yellow background. She looked at him silently out of the corner of her eyes, and half reluctantly he felt that she moved him with a twinge of the old desire.

"Ain't you surprised to see me?" he said, roughly jocular.

"No. I knew you were back." She moved towards the stove. "Will you stay to supper, Kirk? Pop and Charlie will be pleased to see you."

"Charlie?" he asked, flinging his cap and rough short jacket into a corner. Dierdre glanced at him again. There were Indians down on the Alaskan Coast who claimed that she had been born in some mysterious fashion of the Raven Totem-Bird, and the men who knew her liked to play with that notion. She laid the bowl aside and wiped her hands on her checked apron, deliberately, like that bird of her reputed dark ancestry whetting his beak.

"Didn't you know I was married to Charlie Wagner last month, Kirk?"

"Married? Like hell you're not!"

He stared, feeling bitterly outraged, disappointed, baffled in some way. For years now Dierdre had always been on hand for a man to amuse himself with, and he felt that he needed that amusement now, could not do without it. Dierdre laughed softly, mysteriously. She was soft, dark, mysterious always, with a suggestion of secret power which brought men back to her again and again, although rarely with love. She held up her thin hand now, showing the broad band on the finger, and then that hand brushed his arm as she reached a billet of wood for the stove, and the touch went through him like an electric shock. He caught at her.

"Why?" he asked, hotly.

Her narrow lids drooped over the dark glimmer of her eyes.

"You mustn't ask me that. Likely I thought Tamsin page 178MacDonald would never let you go again. Likely I didn't think of you, anyway. Pop wants we should live here for a while now. It's convenient, Charlie being on the dredge, too. Let me go, Kirk. They'll be in for supper presently."

He flung himself into a chair like a sulky boy.

"So you're gain' to chuck all your old friends," he grumbled.

"I need them more than ever," she said, quietly. "Charlie's away most of the time now he's engineer on No. Two Dredge. They're planning to work double shifts till the snow stops 'em."

Kirk considered that. Wagner was a dull clumsy fellow who had worshipped Dierdre for years and would never attempt to control her. She could not live without men about her, and a flirtation now would be less dangerous, would not commit him to anything seriously. Not wanting to think this way, he thought it just the same. His arm went round her waist. He said, half jestingly:

"Well, one kiss to show you mean that." And their lips met as the sound of heavy boots came tramping up to the door.

At Knife Kirk had not been missed until Aggie Colom went to call him for breakfast and found his bed undisturbed and all his clothes gone. She hurried Mat in from his feeding of the foxes, sat him in a chair and questioned him hotly. Trying weakly to evade her, he hardly knew what he said, and she was putting her own interpretation to his answer when Tamsin came in glowing and asked for Kirk. Aggie turned, looking at her in silence, and there was something so portentous in the big woman's manner, something so terrifying in old Mat's crushed attitude in the chair, that Tamsin suddenly felt the earth sinking under her feet.

"What's happened?" she cried, high and shrilly. "Where's Kirk? Is he… dead?"

"Dead?" cried Aggie, with a screech of laughter. "I'll lay he's not! Mighty fly an' alive Kirk is, sure. Live enough to git up and git out with all his kit by Bill Boss's launch las' page 179night. My, my! the joke sure is on to you this time, Tamsin MacDonald. Reckoned you could catch our boy an' tie him up, did you? Well, I'll say you got him that worried he had to run for't…."

"Now, Aggie! Now, now …"

Aggie took the words from Mat's trembling lips.

"Now! What's the matter wi' you? You've told me you don't know nothing about it an' I believe you. When did you ever?" She seemed to swell until she filled the tiny room, glaring at the girl who had deprived her of the only creature she had ever really cared for. Suddenly she spread her hands, smirking, until her fiery face seemed more grotesque than human. "So good an' pleased with yourself you always are, Tamsin, but I guess you've missed this bus. I guess Kirk had to show you where you got off an' you've alighted right there…."

"Uncle Mat," said Tamsin, feeling that she began very loud, and dropped to a whisper, "why has Kirk gone?"

"I dunno, dearie. I dunno. I dun …"

"He's kep' saying that right along," said his wife contemptuously. "I can tell you if you …"

"Uncle Mat! Listen to me! Why did he go?"

"Why now, why now, Tamsin," said Mat desperately. "Mebbe he felt it was about time. Mebbe he thought things was pilin' up … an' he thought it safer to go. I dunno, dearie. I dunno."

"Yeah! You said it!" cried Aggie triumphantly. "Safer to go like a thief in the night 'thout sayin' good-bye to the folk that reared him. Do you see what that means, Tamsin? He's had all he wants of you an' then some. He never did like what's easy got, an' likely you've heard him say it."

"You are a very stupid woman," said Tamsin, distinctly. "Too stupid for anyone to get angry with." She stepped out of the door with her head high. "There will be a wire for me the minute Kirk gets some place where he can send it, and page 180I'll get feyther to bring it around, for I don't choose to talk to you any more."

She walked off without seeing where she went. Soon she was on the flanks of Tall Thing, where the clean bitter odour of pine-woods blew on her and red squirrels scolded in the dark boughs. Already cottonwood gold was tarnished and the yellow circles of poplar leaves blackening. There was a sweet remote chill in the air. She walked down a trail and came on an open space spread with the grey ghosts of anemone-whorls and the pale shrunk faces of rock-cistus. They seemed watching her like beings of this strange in-between world where she moved. She whispered:

"Kirk is gone. He thought it safer to go. He never did like what was easy got." She stood listening for some denial of that, but none came. He was not dead—her mind felt along the ways heavily. He had been alive enough to get up and get out with all his kit, leaving no message for her. "Perhaps," she said, slowly, "I'd understand if I could feel. Funny. I'm all sort of dead-feeling." She struck the back of her hand against the rough bole of a balsam whose harsh green shadowed her. "Why don't I feel that?" She went on striking. "Now … I feel that. Soon I'll understand. Kirk has gone because … because … soon I'll understand…."

Later, finding herself sunk down at the foot of the tree, she was startled. "Gracious! The sun's low, and here I am, and Kirk surely trying to get me on the wire from somewhere, and Stewart raising the town for me."

She hurried back through the clear and frosty evening, remembering with relief that MacDonald was off for the day, duck-shooting. No one would know but that she had been quietly at home, doing her work and trusting Kirk. She brushed twigs off her dress, called up a smile, and went into the telegraph shack. Stewart came from the inner room, where he had been brooding over this news which Aggie Colom had already trumpeted about Knife.

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"I came …" began Tamsin cheerfully. Then, seeing his grey grave face, she went whiter. And yet Stewart had thought her white before. "I expect a wire from Kirk," she said, trying to keep her voice from shaking. "Has it come yet?"

"No … I'm sorry. Later on, perhaps…."

"It doesn't matter. I only just … Thanks; it doesn't matter at all."

Stewart stood to watch her go down the board-walk and saw her sway once or twice. Then he shut his door smartly and went back to think of what Aggie Colom and Mrs. Sheridan had said. And finally he thought of Ooket and Olafssen's gilt ear-rings.

Macdonald came back through a wine-coloured windless evening to hear of Kirk's departure almost before he set his foot ashore. Challis told him, thinking to spare Tamsin; and MacDonald, after one grey stare, went off at a great pace to the fox-farm, where he found old Mat in the outhouse, boiling up mush for the foxes. Through the steam in that dark place the two long-tried friends looked at each other, and Mat Colom knew that they had come to the parting of the ways. Flat ignorance of everything had served with Aggie, who was hungrily ready to spread the news in her own way. It would not serve with MacDonald, that old grey wolf so jealous for his child.

"Whaur's Kirk?" said MacDonald; and Mat's soft old legs gave under him and he collapsed heavily on an upturned box.

"I dunno, Mac. I dun——"

"Why did he go awa?"

"I dunno. I——"

"You can swallow that lie. I hanna kenned ye all these years not tae ken when ye're lying. Now … ye'll tell me why he went."

"No, Mac. No. Don't ever ask me to do that. I can't do it. You wouldn't want to know, Mac. It'd only hurt you bad."

His own hurt was so deep that he could not think clearly, page 182and it was not the fault of his old blundering sorrowful soul if MacDonald began to get his values wrong. For a moment MacDonald stood motionless, as though something had struck him hard. Then he said, harshly:

"When did he go?"

"It warn't so late, Mac. No, I guess it warn't so late at all." Mat spoke eagerly, as though this were a palliative. "Him an' me were jest settin' talkin' a spell, and Aggie was around visitin' Mrs. Sheridan, an' … an' … Kirk reckoned he'd go right now, an' … I helped him take his kit along to Bill Boss's launch an' … he went, I guess. Leastways, he ain't around now as I knows of."

"Did ye talk aboot—Tamsin?"

"I can't tell you, Mac. An' I won't. Ask me till Doomsday an' I'll never tell you."

Although the force which had defied Kirk last night was long spent, MacDonald recognized the quality of determination in the old shaking face and voice. Nor would pride and fear allow him to press the matter.

"You've helped your boy to put shame on my daughter," he said, slowly. "How much more there is to it I dinna ken yet, but I'll find oot. Never fear for that. She's weel rid o' him, onyways, an' I'm weel rid o' you. Never ca' me friend ony mair in this warld, Mat Colom."

As he went out he heard Mat cry, and turned to see him standing with raised hands in the steaming place.

"Mac, Mac! I had enquired o' the Lord all day long about this, but He won't answer me…."

MacDonald walked on, his head low between his gaunt shoulders. It was not the Lord of whom he meant to enquire, but Tamsin. "Thrash the rights o't oot o' her gin there's no ither way," he said between his teeth. Under these chilly stars, amid the wandering scent of stricken herbs and grasses, he remembered that first winter in Dawson after Maggie died. "Wull ye be a good girl noo, Tamsin?" "Aye, feyther … if page 183I can," and a gulp and a smile along with it. Lord God A'mighty! Who'd choose to have a woman child?

He walked into the house and latched the double doors after him.

"Tamsin," he barked, hearing her move in the kitchen; "come your ways in here. I want speakin' to ye." Then, as she stood between the parted curtains, he softened in spite of himself. "Sit ye doon, lassie. Ye look … tired."

"I'm not tired," said Tamsin. Holding the dark curtains, she stood there in the green cotton frock that Kirk had liked her to wear. Shadows about her neck and the loose hair on her temples were greenish. She looked very ill, MacDonald thought.

"I hear 'twas ye're Auntie Ag told ye Kirk was gone. She's an ill wumman. I'll lay she gave ye hell. Sit doon, noo … aye, I wush ye would…."

"Have you anything important to say? I'm getting supper."

Her quiet voice seemed to remove him miles away. He cleared his throat, spat, pulled his grizzled beard. Then he said, jerkily:

"Did ever he talk tae ye of mairrage?"

"I …" She looked momentarily startled. "I don't remember."

"Ye'd remember if he putt it in straight words. Did he?"


"Do ye ken why he went?"


"Can ye give a guess? … Can't ye? Dom it, Tamsin, ye must have a notion. Ye're no blate. Why would ye come tellin' me ye were hand-fast if there was naething said and naething … dune?"

Tamsin came forward slowly and sat on the piano-stool. She glanced at the music, struck a note or two. MacDonald felt baffled. He began again:

"Mat Colom says he helped Kirk cairry his dunnage to the page 184launch. He winna tell me mair. Weel … what hae ye got tae tell me yersel?"

"Nothing," said Tamsin, flatly. She struck a few more notes, then a chord which sounded defiant to MacDonald. Muttering in his beard, he turned down the smoking lamp and came nearer.

"When I start oot anywheres I'm liable to keep right on goin' till I git there, Tamsin. Ye ken that weel. Noo, a young mon's not apt tae rin aff an' leave the girl he's been keepin' company with till all the warld's talkin' withoot there's something gaed almichty wrang. Can ye no give a guess at it? Come noo. Tell me."

"There's nothing to tell."

"Ain't there? Ain't there, by God!" He caught her shoulder, giving it a shake. "What happened at Sagish? Think now. That night ye never came hame? What happened then? Come through with it."

"We sat in the shack. We made a fire."

"Ye made love, too. Didn't ye?" He shook her again.


"Weel? What else? Do ye no hear me? Oot wi't, an' we'll catch him yet. I'll send Challis ayfter him. I'll get Stewart chasing him on the wire if ye're a richt tae have him back…."

"Oh!" Tamsin looked straight up at him now with her white brow in a pucker. She did not flush, but her lips drew disdainfully down. "You've been reading too much modern literature, feyther. I'm not that modern."

"Well, weel, weel!" said MacDonald, relieved and awkward. He sought for his pipe and dropped into a chair. Tamsin went on striking chords, and as he watched her his relief left him. Fool, dommed auld fool that he was! Why did the world consider one thing only the tragedy of love? It was the highest of Tamsin and not the lowest that Kirk Regard had betrayed, and if her love had had more of the physical in it she might have been suffering less. The drops came on his forehead now, page 185watching that silent suffering, and then he saw that her hand on the keys was bruised and slightly bleeding.

"For ony sake, lassie! What ha' ye dune tae you hond?"

"I don't know." Tamsin glanced down. "Oh … I went in the woods … and I didn't seem able to feel myself, somehow. So I hit it against a tree until I could. It's all right."

"God ha' maircy!" said MacDonald. He took his head in his hands. "Why ever did I hae a wumman bairn! A rough auld deil like me!"

Tamsin came over and patted his shoulder. For the first time her voice shook.

"Poor old feyther! It's all right, feyther." She tried to laugh. "I no Waly, waly up the bank female, feyther. I'll do fine. Just let me be a wee whilie … with the hills. We'll do fine, the hills and I. And … I love you, feyther. We'll do fine …"

She went slowly back into the kitchen, dropping the curtains behind her.