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   Chapter 9 No.9

The Flaming Forest By James Oliver Curwood Characters: 12423

Updated: 2017-12-04 00:03

For perhaps a minute Carrigan made no sound that could have been heard three feet away from him. It was not fear that held him quiet. It was something which he could not explain afterward, the sensation, perhaps, of one who feels himself confronted for a moment by a presence more potent than that of flesh and blood. BLACK ROGER AUDEMARD! Three times, twice in his sickness, some one had cried out that name in his ears since the hour when St. Pierre's wife had ambushed him on the white carpet of sand. And the voice was now in his room!

Was it Bateese, inspired by some sort of malformed humor? Carrigan listened. Another minute passed. He reached out a hand and groped about him, very careful not to make a sound, urged by the feeling that some one was almost within reach of him. He flung back his blanket and stood out in the middle of the floor.

Still he heard no movement, no soft footfalls of retreat or advance. He lighted a match and held it high above his head. In its yellow illumination he could see nothing alive. He lighted a lamp. The cabin was empty. He drew a deep breath and went to the window. It was still open. The voice had undoubtedly come to him through that window, and he fancied he could see where the screen netting was crushed a bit inward, as though a face had pressed heavily against it. Outside the night was beautifully calm. The sky, washed by storm, was bright with stars. But there was not a ripple of movement that he could hear.

After that he looked at his watch. He must have been sleeping for some time when the voice roused him, for it was nearly three o'clock. In spite of the stars, dawn was close at hand. When he looked out of the window again they were paler and more distant. He had no intention of going back to bed. He was restless and felt himself surrendering more and more to the grip of presentiment.

It was still early, not later than six o'clock, when Bateese came in with his breakfast. He was surprised, as he had heard no movement or sound of voices to give evidence of life anywhere near the bateau. Instantly he made up his mind that it was not Bateese who had uttered the mysterious words of a few hours ago, for the half-breed had evidently experienced a most uncomfortable night. He was like a rat recently pulled out of water. His clothes hung upon him sodden and heavy, his head kerchief dripped, and his lank hair was wet. He slammed the breakfast things down on the table and went out again without so much as nodding at his prisoner.

Again a sense of discomfort and shame swept over David, as he sat down to breakfast. Here he was comfortably, even luxuriously, housed, while out there somewhere St. Pierre's lovely wife was drenched and even more miserable than Bateese. And the breakfast amazed him. It was not so much the caribou tenderloin, rich in its own red juice, or the potato, or the pot of coffee that was filling the cabin with its aroma, that roused his wonder, but the hot, brown muffins that accompanied the other things. Muffins! And after a deluge that had drowned every square inch of the earth! How had Bateese turned the trick?

Bateese did not return immediately for the dishes, and for half an hour after he had finished breakfast Carrigan smoked his pipe and watched the blue haze of fires on the far side of the river. The world was a blaze of sunlit glory. His imagination carried him across the river. Somewhere over there, in an open spot where the sun was blazing, Jeanne Marie-Anne was probably drying herself after the night of storm. There was but little doubt in his mind that she was already heaping the ignominy of blame upon him. That was the woman of it.

A knock at his door drew him about. It was a light, quick TAP, TAP, TAP-not like the fist of either Bateese or Nepapinas. In another moment the door swung open, and in the flood of sunlight that poured into the cabin stood St. Pierre's wife!

It was not her presence, but the beauty of her, that held him spellbound. It was a sort of shock after the vivid imaginings of his mind in which he had seen her beaten and tortured by storm. Her hair, glowing in the sun and piled up in shining coils on the crown of her head, was not wet. She was not the rain-beaten little partridge that had passed in tragic bedragglement through his mind. Storm had not touched her. Her cheeks were soft with the warm flush of long hours of sleep. When she came in, her lips greeting him with a little smile, all that he had built up for himself in the hours of the night crumbled away in dust. Again he forgot for a moment that she was St. Pierre's wife. She was woman, and as he looked upon her now, the most adorable woman in all the world.

"You are better this morning," she said. Real pleasure shone in her eyes. She had left the door open, so that the sun filled the room. "I think the storm helped you. Wasn't it splendid?"

David swallowed hard. "Quite splendid," he managed to say. "Have you seen Bateese this morning?"

A little note of laughter came into her throat. "Yes. I don't think he liked it. He doesn't understand why I love storms. Did you sleep well, M'sieu Carrigan?"

"An hour or two, I think. I was worrying about you. I didn't like the thought that I had turned you out into the storm. But it doesn't seem to have touched you."

"No. I was there-quite comfortable." She nodded to the forward bulkhead of the cabin, beyond the wardrobe closets and the piano. "There is a little dining-room and kitchenette ahead," she explained. "Didn't Bateese tell you that?"

"No, he didn't. I asked him where you were, and I think he told me to shut up."

"Bateese is very odd," said St. Pierre's wife. "He is exceedingly jealous of me, M'sieu David. Even when I was a baby and he carried me about in his arms, he was just that way. Bateese, you know, is older than he appears. He is fifty-one."

She was moving about, quite as if his presence was in no way going to disturb her usual duties of the day. She rearranged the damask curtains which he had crumpled with his hands, placed two or three chairs in their usual places, and moved from this to that with the air of a housewife who is in the habit of brushing up a bi

t in the morning.

She seemed not at all embarrassed because he was her prisoner, nor uncomfortably restrained because of the message she had sent to him by Bateese. She was warmly and gloriously human. In her apparent unconcern at his presence he found himself sweating inwardly. A bit nervously he struck a match to light his pipe, then extinguished it.

She noticed what he had done. "You may smoke," she said, with that little note in her throat which he loved to hear, like the faintest melody of laughter that did not quite reach her lips. "St. Pierre smokes a great deal, and I like it."

She opened a drawer in the dressing-table and came to him with a box half filled with cigars.

"St. Pierre prefers these-on occasions," she said, "Do you?"

His fingers seemed all thumbs as he took a cigar from the proffered box. He cursed himself because his tongue felt thick. Perhaps it was his silence, betraying something of his mental clumsiness, that brought a faint flush of color into her cheeks. He noted that; and also that the top of her shining head came just about to his chin, and that her mouth and throat, looking down on them, were bewitchingly soft and sweet.

And what she said, when her eyes opened wide and beautiful on him again, was like a knife cutting suddenly into the heart of his thoughts.

"In the evening I love to sit at St. Pierre's feet and watch him smoke," she said. "I am glad it doesn't annoy you, because-I like to smoke," he replied lamely.

She placed the box on the little reading table and looked at his breakfast things. "You like muffins, too. I was up early this morning, making them for you!"

"You made them?" he demanded, as if her words were a most amazing revelation to him.

"Surely, M'sieu David. I make them every morning for St. Pierre. He is very fond of them. He says the third nicest thing about me is my muffins!"

"And the other two?" asked David.

"Are St. Pierre's little secrets, m'sieu," she laughed softly, the color deepening in her cheeks. "It wouldn't be fair to tell you, would it?"

"Perhaps it wouldn't," he said slowly. "But there are one or two other things, Mrs.-Mrs. Boulain-"

"You may call me Jeanne, or Marie-Anne, if you care to," she interrupted him. "It will be quite all right."

She was picking up the breakfast dishes, not at all perturbed by the fact that she was offering him a privilege which had the effect of quickening his pulse for a moment or two.

"Thank you," he said. "I don't mind telling you it is going to be difficult for me to do that-because-well, this is a most unusual situation, isn't it? In spite of all your kindness, including what was probably your good-intentioned endeavor to put an end to my earthly miseries behind the rock, I believe it is necessary for you to give me some kind of explanation. Don't you?"

"Didn't Bateese explain to you last night?" she asked, facing him.

"He brought a message from you to the effect that I was a prisoner, that I must make no attempt to escape, and that if I did try to escape, you had given your men instructions to kill me."

She nodded, quite seriously. "That is right, M'sieu David."

His face flamed. "Then I am a prisoner? You threaten me with death?"

"I shall treat you very nicely if you make no attempt to escape, M'sieu David. Isn't that fair?"

"Fair!" he cried, choking back an explosion that would have vented itself on a man. "Don't you realize what has happened? Don't you know that according to every law of God and man I should arrest you and give you over to the Law? Is it possible that you don't comprehend my own duty? What I must do?"

If he had noticed, he would have seen that there was no longer the flush of color in her cheeks. But her eyes, looking straight at him, were tranquil and unexcited. She nodded.

"That is why you must remain a prisoner, M'sieu David, It is because I do realize, I shall not tell you why that happened behind the rock, and if you ask me, I shall refuse to talk to you. If I let you go now, you would probably have me arrested and put in jail. So I must keep you until St. Pierre comes. I don't know what to do-except to keep you, and not let you escape until then. What would you do?"

The question was so honest, so like a question that might have been asked by a puzzled child, that his argument for the Law was struck dead. He stared into the pale face, the beautiful, waiting eyes, saw the pathetic intertwining of her slim fingers, and suddenly he was grinning in that big, honest way which made people love Dave Carrigan.

"You're-doing-absolutely-right," he said.

A swift change came in her face. Her cheeks flushed. Her eyes filled with a sudden glow that made the little violet-freckles in them dance like tiny flecks of gold.

"From your point of view you are right," he repeated, "and I shall make no attempt to escape until I have talked with St. Pierre. But I can't quite see-just now-how he is going to help the situation."

"He will," she assured him confidently.

"You seem to have an unlimited faith in St. Pierre," he replied a little grimly.

"Yes, M'sieu David. He is the most wonderful man in the world. And he will know what to do."

David shrugged his shoulders. "Perhaps, in some nice, quiet place, he will follow the advice Bateese gave you-tie a stone round my neck and sink me to the bottom of the river."

"Perhaps. But I don't think he will do that I should object to it."

"Oh, you would!"

"Yes. St. Pierre is big and strong, afraid of nothing in the world, but he will do anything for me. I don't think he would kill you if I asked him not to." She turned to resume her task of cleaning up the breakfast things.

With a sudden movement David swung one of the' big chairs close to her. "Please sit down," he commanded. "I can talk to you better that way. As an officer of the law it is my duty to ask you a few questions. It rests in your power to answer all of them or none of them. I have given you my word not to act until I have seen St. Pierre, and I shall keep that promise. But when we do meet I shall act largely on the strength of what you tell me during the next tea minutes. Please sit down!"

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