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   Chapter 7 No.7

The Flaming Forest By James Oliver Curwood Characters: 12769

Updated: 2017-12-04 00:03


Afterward Carrigan wondered to what depths he had fallen in the first moments of his disillusionment. Something like shock, perhaps even more than that, must have betrayed itself in his face. He did not speak. Slowly his outstretched arm dropped to the white counterpane. Later he called himself a fool for allowing it to happen, for it was as if he had measured his proffered friendship by what its future might hold for him. In a low, quiet voice Jeanne Marie-Anne Boulain was saying again that she was St. Pierre's wife. She was not excited, yet he understood now why it was he had thought her eyes were very dark. They had changed swiftly. The violet freckles in them were like little flecks of gold. They were almost liquid in their glow, neither brown nor black now, and with that threat of gathering lightning in them. For the first time he saw the slightest flush of color in her cheeks. It deepened even as he held out his hand again. He knew that it was not embarrassment. It was the heat of the fire back of her eyes. "It's-funny," he said, making an effort to redeem himself with a lie and smiling. "You rather amaze me. You see, I have been told this St. Pierre is an old, old man-so old that he can't stand on his feet or go with his brigades, and if that is the truth, it is hard for me to picture you as his wife. But that isn't a reason why we should not be friends. Is it?"

He felt that he was himself again, except for the three days' growth of beard on his face. He tried to laugh, but it was rather a poor attempt. And St. Pierre's wife did not seem to hear him. She was looking at him, looking into and through him with those wide-open glowing eyes. Then she sat down, out of reach of the hand which he had held toward her.

"You are a sergeant of the police," she said, the softness gone suddenly out of her voice. "You are an honorable man, m'sieu. Your hand is against all wrong. Is it not so?" It was the voice of an inquisitor. She was demanding an answer of him.

He nodded. "Yes, it is so."

The fire in her eyes deepened. "And yet you say you want to be the friend of a stranger who has tried to kill you. WHY, m'sieu?"

He was cornered. He sensed the humiliation of it, the impossibility of confessing to her the wild impulse that had moved him before he knew she was St. Pierre's wife. And she did not wait for him to answer.

"This-this Roger Audemard-if you catch him-what will you do with him?" she asked.

"He will be hanged," said David. "He is a murderer."

"And one who tries to kill-who almost succeeds-what is the penalty for that?" She leaned toward him, waiting. Her hands were clasped tightly in her lap, the spots were brighter in her cheeks.

"From ten to twenty years," he acknowledged. "But, of course, there may be circumstances-"

"If so, you do not know them," she interrupted him. "You say Roger Audemard is a murderer. You know I tried to kill you. Then why is it you would be my friend and Roger Audemard's enemy? Why, m'sieu?"

Carrigan shrugged his shoulders hopelessly. "I shouldn't," he confessed. "I guess you are proving I was wrong in what I said. I ought to arrest you and take you back to the Landing as soon as I can. But, you see, it strikes me there is a big personal element in this. I was the man almost killed. There was a mistake,-must have been, for as soon as you put me out of business you began nursing me back to life again. And-"

"But that doesn't change it," insisted St. Pierre's wife. "If there had been no mistake, there would have been a murder. Do you understand, m'sieu? If it had been some one else behind that rock, I am quite certain he would have died. The Law, at least, would have called it murder. If Roger Audemard is a criminal, then I also am a criminal. And an honorable man would not make a distinction because one of them is a woman!"

"But-Black Roger was a fiend. He deserves no mercy. He-"

"Perhaps, m'sieu!"

She was on her feet, her eyes flaming down upon him. In that moment her beauty was like the beauty of Carmin Fanchet. The poise of her slender body, her glowing cheeks, her lustrous hair, her gold-flecked eyes with the light of diamonds in them, held him speechless.

"I was sorry and went back for you," she said. "I wanted you to live, after I saw you like that on the sand. Bateese says I was indiscreet, that I should have left you there to die. Perhaps he is right. And yet-even Roger Audemard might have had that pity for you."

She turned quickly, and he heard her moving away from him. Then, from the door, she said,

"Bateese will make you comfortable, m'sieu."

The door opened and closed. She was gone. And he was alone in the cabin again.

The swiftness of the change in her amazed him. It was as if he had suddenly touched fire to an explosive. There had been the flare, but no violence. She had not raised her voice, yet he heard in it the tremble of an emotion that was consuming her. He had seen the flame of it in her face and eyes. Something he had said, or had done, had tremendously upset her, changing in an instant her attitude toward him. The thought that came to him made his face burn under its scrub of beard. Did she think he was a scoundrel? The dropping of his hand, the shock that must have betrayed itself in his face when she said she was St. Pierre's wife-had those things warned her against him? The heat went slowly out of his face. It was impossible. She could not think that of him. It must have been a sudden giving way under terrific strain. She had compared herself to Roger Audemard, and she was beginning to realize her peril-that Bateese was right-that she should have left him to die in the sand!

The thought pressed itself heavily upon Carrigan. It brought him suddenly back to a realization of how small a part he had played in this last half hour in the cabin. He had offered to Pierre's wife a friendship which he had no right to offer and which she knew he had no right to offer. He was the Law. And she, like Roger Audemard, was a criminal. Her quick woman's instinct had told her there could be no distinction between them, unless there was a reason. And now Carrigan confessed to himself that there had been a reason. That reason had come to him with the first glimpse of her as he lay in the hot sand. He had fought against it in the canoe; it had mastered him in those thrill

ing moments when he had beheld this slim, beautiful creature riding fearlessly into the boiling waters of the Holy Ghost. Her eyes, her hair, the sweet, low voice that had been with him in his fever, had become a definite and unalterable part of him. And this must have shown in his eyes and face when he dropped his hand-when she told him she was St. Pierre's wife.

And now she was afraid of him! She was regretting that she had not left him to die. She had misunderstood what she had seen betraying itself during those few seconds of his proffered friendship. She saw only a man whom she had nearly killed, a man who represented the Law, a man whose power held her in the hollow of his hand. And she had stepped back from him, startled, and had told him that she was not St. Pierre's daughter, but his wife!

In the science of criminal analysis Carrigan always placed himself in the position of the other man. And he was beginning to see the present situation from the view-point of Jeanne Marie-Anne Boulain. He was satisfied that she had made a desperate mistake and that until the last moment she had believed it was another man behind the rock. Yet she had shown no inclination to explain away her error. She had definitely refused to make an explanation. And it was simply a matter of common sense to concede that there must be a powerful motive for her refusal. There was but one conclusion for him to arrive at-the error which St. Pierre's wife had made in shooting the wrong man was less important to her than keeping the secret of why she had wanted to kill some other man.

David was not unconscious of the breach in his own armor. He had weakened, just as the Superintendent of "N" Division had weakened that day four years ago when they had almost quarreled over Carmin Fanchet.

"I'll swear to Heaven she isn't bad, no matter what her brother has been," McVane had said. "I'll gamble my life on that, Carrigan!"

And because the Chief of Division with sixty years of experience behind him, had believed that, Carmin Fanchet had not been held as an accomplice in her brother's evildoing, but had gone back into her wilderness uncrucified by the law that had demanded the life of her brother. He would never forget the last time he had seen Carmin Fanchet's eyes-great, black, glorious pools of gratitude as they looked at grizzled old McVane; blazing fires of venomous hatred when they turned on him. And he had said to McVane,

"The man pays, the woman goes-justice indeed is blind!"

McVane, not being a stickler on regulations when it came to Carrigan, had made no answer.

The incident came back vividly to David as he waited for the promised coming of Bateese. He began to appreciate McVane's point of view, and it was comforting, because he realized that his own logic was assailable. If McVane had been comparing the two women now, he knew what his argument would be. There had been no absolute proof of crime against Carmin Fanchet, unless to fight desperately for the life of her brother was a crime. In the case of Jeanne Marie-Anne Boulain there was proof. She had tried to kill. Therefore, of the two, Carmin Fanchet would have been the better woman in the eyes of McVane.

In spite of the legal force of the argument which he was bringing against himself, David felt unconvinced. Carmin Fanchet, had she been in the place of St. Pierre's wife, would have finished him there in the sand. She would have realized the menace of letting him live and would probably have commanded Bateese to dump him in the river. St. Pierre's wife had gone to the other extreme. She was not only repentant, but was making restitution, for her mistake, and in making that restitution had crossed far beyond the dead-line of caution. She had frankly told him who she was; she had brought him into the privacy of what was undeniably her own home; in her desire to undo what she had done she had hopelessly enmeshed herself in the net of the Law-if that Law saw fit to act. She had done these things with courage and conviction. And of such a woman, Carrigan thought, St. Pierre must be very proud.

He looked slowly about the cabin again and each thing that he saw was a living voice breaking up a dream for him. These voices told him that he was in a temple built because of a man's worship for a woman-and that man was St. Pierre. Through the two western windows came the last glow of the western sun, like a golden benediction finding its way into a sacred place. Here there was-or had been-a great happiness, for only a great pride and a great happiness could have made it as it was. Nothing that wealth and toil could drag up out of a civilization a thousand miles away had been too good for St. Pierre's wife. And about him, looking more closely, David saw the undisturbed evidences of a woman's contentment. On the table were embroidery materials with which she had been working, and a lamp-shade half finished. A woman's magazine printed in a city four thousand miles away lay open at the fashion plates. There were other magazines, and many books, and open music above the white keyboard of the piano, and vases glowing red and yellow with wild-flowers and silver birch leaves. He could smell the faint perfume of the fireglow blossoms, red as blood. In a pool of sunlight on one of the big white bear rugs lay the sleeping cat. And then, at the far end of the cabin, an ivory-white Cross of Christ glowed for a few moments in a last homage of the sinking sun.

Uneasiness stole upon him. This was the woman's holy ground, her sanctuary and her home, and for three days his presence had driven her from it. There was no other room. In making restitution she had given up to him her most sacred of all things. And again there rose up in him that new-born thing which had set strange fires stirring in his heart, and which from this hour on he knew he must fight until it was dead.

For an hour after the last of the sun was obliterated by the western mountains he lay in the gloom of coming darkness. Only the lapping of water under the bateau broke the strange stillness of the evening. He heard no sound of life, no voice, no tread of feet, and he wondered where the woman and her men had gone and if the scow was still tied up at the edge of the tar-sands. And for the first time he asked himself another question, Where was the man, St. Pierre?

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