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   Chapter 11 No.11

The Flaming Forest By James Oliver Curwood Characters: 11853

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


For a space there was silence between Carrigan and St. Pierre's wife. He knew what she was thinking as she stood with her back to the door, waiting half defiantly, her cheeks still flushed, her eyes bright with the anticipation of battle. She was ready to fight for the broken creature on the other side of the door. She expected him to give no quarter in his questioning of her, to corner her if he could, to demand of her why the deformed giant had spoken the name of the man he was after, Black Roger Audemard. The truth hammered in David's brain. It had not been a delusion of his fevered mind after all; it was not a possible deception of the half-breed's, as he had thought last night. Chance had brought him face to face with the mystery of Black Roger. St. Pierre's wife, waiting for him to speak, was in some way associated with that mystery, and the cripple was asking for the man McVane had told him to bring in dead or alive! Yet he did not question her. He turned to the window and looked out from where Marie-Anne had stood a few moments before.

The day was glorious. On the far shore he saw life where last night's camp had been. Men were moving about close to the water, and a York boat was putting out slowly into the stream. Close under the window moved a canoe with a single occupant. It was Andre, the Broken Man. With powerful strokes he was paddling across the river. His deformity was scarcely noticeable in the canoe. His bare head and black beard shone in the sun, and between his great shoulders his head looked more than ever to Carrigan like the head of a carven god. And this man, like a mighty tree stricken by lightning, his mind gone, was yet a thing that was more than mere flesh and blood to Marie-Anne Boulain!

David turned toward her. Her attitude was changed. It was no longer one of proud defiance. She had expected to defend herself from something, and he had given her no occasion for defense. She did not try to hide the fact from him, and he nodded toward the window.

"He is going away in a canoe. I am afraid you didn't want me to see him, and I am sorry I happened to be here when he came."

"I made no effort to keep him away, M'sieu David. Perhaps I wanted you to see him. And I thought, when you did-" She hesitated.

"You expected me to crucify you, if necessary, to learn the truth of what he knows about Roger Audemard," he said. "And you were ready to fight back. But I am not going to question you unless you give me permission."

"I am glad," she said in a low voice. "I am beginning to have faith in you, M'sieu David. You have promised not to try to escape, and I believe you. Will you also promise not to ask me questions, which I can not answer-until St. Pierre comes?"

"I will try."

She came up to him slowly and stood facing him, so near that she could have reached out and put her hands on his shoulders.

"St. Pierre has told me a great deal about the Scarlet Police," she said, looking at him quietly and steadily. "He says that the men who wear the red jackets never play low tricks, and that they come after a man squarely and openly. He says they are men, and many times he has told me wonderful stories of the things they have done. He calls it 'playing the game.' And I'm going to ask you, M'sieu David, will you play square with me? If I give you the freedom of the bateau, of the boats, even of the shore, will you wait for St. Pierre and play the rest of the game out with him, man to man?"

Carrigan bowed his head slightly. "Yes, I will wait and finish the game with St. Pierre."

He saw a quick throb come and go in her white throat, and with a sudden, impulsive movement she held out her hand to him. For a moment he held it close. Her little fingers tightened about his own, and the warm thrill of them set his blood leaping with the thing he was fighting down. She was so near that he could feel the throb of her body. For an instant she bowed her head, and the sweet perfume of her hair was in his nostrils, the lustrous beauty of it close under his lips.

Gently she withdrew her hand and stood back from him. To Carrigan she was like a young girl now. It was the loveliness of girlhood he saw in the flush of her face and in the gladness that was flaming unashamed in her eyes.

"I am not frightened any more," she exclaimed, her voice trembling a bit. "When St. Pierre comes, I shall tell him everything. And then you may ask the questions, and he will answer. And he will not cheat! He will play square. You will love St. Pierre, and you will forgive me for what happened behind the rock!"

She made a little gesture toward the door. "Everything is free to you out there now," she added. "I shall tell Bateese and the others. When we are tied up, you may go ashore. And we will forget all that has happened, M'sieu David. We will forget until St. Pierre comes."

"St. Pierre!" he groaned. "If there were no St. Pierre!"

"I should be lost," she broke in quickly. "I should want to die!"

Through the open window came the sound of a voice. It was the weird monotone of Andre, the Broken Man. Marie-Anne went to the window. And David, following her, looked over her head, again so near that his lips almost touched her hair. Andre had come back. He was watching two York boats that were heading for the bateau.

"You heard him asking for Black Roger Audemard," she said. "It is strange. I know how it must have shocked you when he stood like that in the door. His mind, like his body, is a wreck, M'sieu David. Years ago, after a great storm, St. Pierre found him in the forest. A tree had fallen on him. St. Pierre carried him in on his shoulders. He lived, but he has always been like that. St. Pierre loves him, and poor Andre worships St. Pierre and follows him about like a dog. His brain is gone. He does not know what his name is, and we call him Andre. And always, day and night, he is asking that

same question, 'Has any one seen Black Roger Audemard?' Sometime-if you will, M'sieu David-I should like to have you tell me what it is so terrible that you know about Roger Audemard."

The York boats were half-way across the river, and from them came a sudden burst of wild song. David could make out six men in each boat, their oars flashing in the morning sun to the rhythm of their chant. Marie-Anne looked up at him suddenly, and in her face and eyes he saw what the starry gloom of evening had half hidden from him in those thrilling moments when they shot through the rapids of the Holy Ghost. She was girl now. He did not think of her as woman. He did not think of her as St. Pierre's wife. In that upward glance of her eyes was something that thrilled him to the depth of his soul. She seemed, for a moment, to have dropped a curtain from between herself and him.

Her red lips trembled, she smiled at him, and then she faced the river again, and he leaned a little forward, so that a breath of wind floated a shimmering tress of her hair against his cheek. An irresistible impulse seized upon him. He leaned still nearer to her, holding his breath, until his lips softly touched one of the velvety coils of her hair. And then he stepped back. Shame swept over him. His heart rose and choked him, and his fists were clenched at his side. She had not noticed what he had done, and she seemed to him like a bird yearning to fly out through the window, throbbing with the desire to answer the chanting song that came over the water. And then she was smiling up again into his face hardened with the struggle which he was making with himself.

"My people are happy," she cried. "Even in storm they laugh and sing. Listen, m'sieu. They are singing La Derniere Domaine. That is our song. It is what we call our home, away up there in the lost wilderness where people never come-the Last Domain. Their wives and sweethearts and families are up there, and they are happy in knowing that today we shall travel a few miles nearer to them. They are not like your people in Montreal and Ottawa and Quebec, M'sieu David. They are like children. And yet they are glorious children!"

She ran to the wall and took down the banner of St. Pierre Boulain. "St. Pierre is behind us," she explained. "He is coming down with a raft of timber such as we can not get in our country, and we are waiting for him. But each day we must float down with the stream a few miles nearer the homes of my people. It makes them happier, even though it is but a few miles. They are coming now for my bateau. We shall travel slowly, and it will be wonderful on a day like this. It will do you good to come outside, M'sieu David-with me. Would you care for that? Or would you rather be alone?"

In her face there was no longer the old restraint. On her lips was the witchery of a half-smile; in her eyes a glow that flamed the blood in his veins. It was not a flash of coquetry. It was something deeper and warmer than that, something real-a new Marie-Anne Boulain telling him plainly that she wanted him to come. He did not know that his hands were still clenched at his side. Perhaps she knew. But her eyes did not leave his face, eyes that were repeating the invitation of her lips, openly asking him not to refuse.

"I shall be happy to come," he said.

The words fell out of him numbly. He scarcely heard them or knew what he was saying, yet he was conscious of the unnatural note in his voice. He did not know he was betraying himself beyond that, did not see the deepening of the wild-rose flush in the cheeks of St. Pierre's wife. He picked up his pipe from the table and moved to accompany her.

"You must wait a little while," she said, and her hand rested for an instant upon his arm. Its touch was as light as the touch of his lips had been against her shining hair, but he felt it in every nerve of his body. "Nepapinas is making a special lotion for your hurt. I will send him in, and then you may come."

The wild chant of the rivermen was near as she turned to the door. From it she looked back at him swiftly.

"They are happy, M'sieu David," she repeated softly. "And I, too, am happy. I am no longer afraid. And the world is beautiful again. Can you guess why? It is because you have given me your promise, M'sieu David, and because I believe you!"

And then she was gone.

For many minutes he did not move. The chanting of the rivermen, a sudden wilder shout, the voices of men, and after that the grating of something alongside the bateau came to him like sounds from another world. Within himself there was a crash greater than that of physical things. It was the truth breaking upon him, truth surging over him like the waves of a sea, breaking down the barriers he had set up, inundating him with a force that was mightier than his own will. A voice in his soul was crying out the truth-that above all else in the world he wanted to reach out his arms to this glorious creature who was the wife of St. Pierre, this woman who had tried to kill him and was sorry. He knew that it was not desire for beauty. It was the worship which St. Pierre himself must have for this woman who was his wife. And the shock of it was like a conflagration sweeping through him, leaving him dead and shriven, like the crucified trees standing in the wake of a fire. A breath that was almost a cry came from him, and his fists knotted until they were purple. She was St. Pierre's wife! And he, David Carrigan, proud of his honor, proud of the strength that made him man, had dared covet her in this hour when her husband was gone! He stared at the closed door, beginning to cry out against himself, and over him there swept slowly and terribly another thing-the shame of his weakness, the hopelessness of the thing that for a space had eaten into him and consumed him.

And as he stared, the door opened, and Nepapinas came in.

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