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   Chapter 24 No.24

The Flaming Forest By James Oliver Curwood Characters: 16923

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

With the going of Black Roger also went the oppressive loneliness which had gripped Carrigan, and as he stood listening to the low voices outside, the undeniable truth came to him that he did not hate this man as he wanted to hate him. He was a murderer, and a scoundrel in another way, but he felt irresistibly the impulse to like him and to feel sorry for him. He made an effort to shake off the feeling, but a small voice which he could not quiet persisted in telling him that more than one good man had committed what the law called murder, and that perhaps he didn't fully understand what he had seen through the cabin window on the raft. And yet, when unstirred by this impulse, he knew the evidence was damning.

But his loneliness was gone. With Audemard's visit had come an unexpected thrill, the revival of an almost feverish anticipation, the promise of impending things that stirred his blood as he thought of them. "You will understand strange things then," Roger Audemard had said, and something in his voice had been like a key unlocking mysterious doors for the first time. And then, "Wait, as patiently as you can!" Out of the basket on the table seemed to come to him a whispering echo of that same word-wait! He laid his hands upon it, and a pulse of life came with the imagined whispering. It was from Marie-Anne. It seemed as though the warmth of her hands were still there, and as he removed the cloth the sweet breath of her came to him. And then, in the next instant, he was trying to laugh at himself and trying equally hard to call himself a fool, for it was the breath of newly-baked things which her fingers had made.

Yet never had he felt the warmth of her presence more strangely in his heart. He did not try to explain to himself why Roger Audemard's visit had broken down things which had seemed insurmountable an hour ago. Analysis was impossible, because he knew the transformation within himself was without a shred of reason. But it had come, and with it his imprisonment took on another form. Where before there had been thought of escape and a scheming to jail Black Roger, there filled him now an intense desire to reach the Yellowknife and the Chateau Boulain.

It was after midnight when he went to bed, and he was up with the early dawn. With the first break of day the bateau men were preparing their breakfast. David was glad. He was eager for the day's work to begin, and in that eagerness he pounded on the door and called out to Joe Clamart that he was ready for his breakfast with the rest of them, but that he wanted only hot coffee to go with what Black Roger had brought to him in the basket.

That afternoon the bateau passed Fort McMurray, and before the sun was well down in the west Carrigan saw the green slopes of Thickwood Hills and the rising peaks of Birch Mountains. He laughed outright as he thought of Corporal Anderson and Constable Frazer at Fort McMurray, whose chief duty was to watch the big waterway. How their eyes would pop if they could see through the padlocked door of his prison! But he had no inclination to be discovered now. He wanted to go on, and with a growing exultation he saw there was no intention on the part of the bateau's crew to loiter on the way. There was no stop at noon, and the tie-up did not come until the last glow of day was darkening into the gloom of night in the sky. For sixteen hours the bateau had traveled steadily, and it could not have made less than sixty miles as the river ran. The raft, David figured, had not traveled a third of the distance.

The fact that the bateau's progress would bring him to Chateau Boulain many days, and perhaps weeks, before Black Roger and Marie-Anne could arrive on the raft did not check his enthusiasm. It was this interval between their arrivals which held a great speculative promise for him. In that time, if his efficiency had not entirely deserted him, he would surely make discoveries of importance.

Day after day the journey continued without rest. On the fourth day after leaving Fort McMurray it was Joe Clamart who brought in David's supper, and he grunted a protest at his long hours of muscle-breaking labor at the sweeps. When David questioned him he shrugged his shoulders, and his mouth closed tight as a clam. On the fifth, the bateau crossed the narrow western neck of Lake Athabasca, slipping past Chipewyan in the night, and on the sixth it entered the Slave River. It was the fourteenth day when the bateau entered Great Slave Lake, and the second night after that, as dusk gathered thickly between the forest walls of the Yellowknife, David knew that at last they had reached the mouth of the dark and mysterious stream which led to the still more mysterious domain of Black Roger Audemard.

That night the rejoicing of the bateau men ashore was that of men who had come out from under a strain and were throwing off its tension for the first time in many days. A great fire was built, and the men sang and laughed and shouted as they piled wood upon it. In the flare of this fire a smaller one was built, and kettles and pans were soon bubbling and sizzling over it, and a great coffee pot that held two gallons sent out its steam laden with an aroma that mingled joyously with the balsam and cedar smells in the air. David could see the whole thing from his window, and when Joe Clamart came in with supper, he found the meat they were cooking over the fire was fresh moose steak. As there had been no trading or firing of guns coming down, he was puzzled and when he asked where the meat had come from Joe Clamart only shrugged his shoulders and winked an eye, and went out singing about the allouette bird that had everything plucked from it, one by one. But David noticed there were never more than four men ashore at the same time. At least one was always aboard the bateau, watching his door and windows.

And he, too, felt the thrill of an excitement working subtly within him, and this thrill pounded in swifter running blood when he saw the men about the fire jump to their feet suddenly and go to meet new and shadowy figures that came up indistinctly just in the edge of the forest gloom. There they mingled and were lost in identity for a long time, and David wondered if the newcomers were of the people of Chateau Boulain. After that, Bateese and Joe Clamart and two others stamped out the fires and came over the plank to the bateau to sleep. David followed their example and went to bed.

The cook fires were burning again before the gray dawn was broken by a tint of the sun, and when the voices of many men roused David, he went to his window and saw a dozen figures where last night there had been only four. When it grew lighter he recognized none of them. All were strangers. Then he realized the significance of their presence. The bateau had been traveling north, but downstream. Now it would still travel north, but the water of the Yellow-knife flowed south into Great Slave Lake, and the bateau must be towed. He caught a glimpse of the two big York boats a little later, and six rowers to a boat, and after that the bateau set out slowly but steadily upstream.

For hours David was at one window or the other, with something of awe working inside him as he saw what they were passing through-and between. He fancied the water trail was like an entrance into a forbidden land, a region of vast and unbroken mystery, a country of enchantment, possibly of death, shut out from the world he had known. For the stream narrowed, and the forest along the shores was so dense he could not see into it. The tree-tops hung in a tangled canopy overhead, and a gloom of twilight filled the channel below, so that where the sun shot through, it was like filtered moonlight shining on black oil. There was no sound except the dull, steady beat of the rowers' oars, and the ripple of water along the sides of the bateau. The men did not sing or laugh, and if they talked it must have been in whispers. There was no cry of birds from ashore. And once David saw Joe Clamart's face as he passed the window, and it was set and hard and filled with the superstition of a man who was passing through a devil-country.

And then suddenly the end of it came. A flood of sunlight burst in at the windows, and all at once voices came from ahead, a laugh, a shout, and a yell of rejoicing from the bateau, and Joe Clamart started again the everlasting song of the allouett

e bird that was plucked of everything it had. Carrigan found himself grinning. They were a queer people, these bred-in-the-blood northerners-still moved by the superstitions of children. Yet he conceded that the awesome deadness of the forest passage had put strange thoughts into his own heart.

Before nightfall Bateese and Joe Clamart came in and tied his arms behind him, and he was taken ashore with the rumble of a waterfall in his ears. For two hours he watched the labors of the men as they beached the bateau on long rollers of smooth birch and rolled it foot by foot over a cleared trail until it was launched again above the waterfall. Then he was led back into the cabin and his arms freed. That night he went to sleep with the music of the waterfall in his ears.

The second day the Yellowknife seemed to be no longer a river, but a narrow lake, and the third day the rowers came into the Nine Lake country at noon, and until another dusk the bateau threaded its way through twisting channels and impenetrable forests, and beached at last at the edge of a great open where the timber had been cut. There was more excitement here, but it was too dark for David to understand the meaning of it. There were many voices; dogs barked. Then voices were at his door, a key rattled in the lock, and it opened. David saw Bateese and Joe Clamart first. And then, to his amazement, Black Roger Audemard stood there, smiling at him and nodding good-evening.

It was impossible for David to repress his astonishment.

"Welcome to Chateau Boulain," greeted Black Roger. "You are surprised? Well, I beat you out by half a dozen hours-in a canoe, m'sieu. It is only courtesy that I should be here to give you welcome!"

Behind him Bateese and Joe Clamart were grinning widely, and then both came in, and Joe Clamart picked up his dunnage-sack and threw it over his shoulder.

"If you will come with us, m'sieu-"

David followed, and when he stepped ashore there were Bateese, and Joe Clamart and one other behind him, and three or four shadowy figures ahead, with Black Roger walking at his side. There were no more voices, and the dog had ceased barking. Ahead was a wall of darkness, which was the deep black forest beyond the clearing, and into it led a trail which they followed. It was a path worn smooth by the travel of many feet, and for a mile not a star broke through the tree-tops overhead, nor did a flash of light break the utter chaos of the way but once, when Joe Clamart lighted his pipe. No one spoke. Even Black Roger was silent, and David found no word to say.

At the end of the mile the trees began to open above their heads, and they soon came to the edge of the timber. In the darkness David caught his breath. Dead ahead, not a rifle shot away, was the Chateau Boulain. He knew it before Black Roger had said a word. He guessed it by the lighted windows, full a score of them, without a curtain drawn to shut out their illumination from the night. He could see nothing but these lights, yet they measured off a mighty place to be built of logs in the heart of a wilderness, and at his side he heard Black Roger chuckling in low exultation.

"Our home, m'sieu," he said. "Tomorrow, when you see it in the light of day, you will say it is the finest chateau in the north-all built of sweet cedar where birch is not used, so that even in the deep snows it gives us the perfume of springtime and flowers."

David did not answer, and in a moment Audemard said:

"Only on Christmas and New Year and at birthdays and wedding feasts is it lighted up like that. Tonight it is in your honor, M'sieu David." Again he laughed softly, and under his breath he added, "And there is some one waiting for you there whom you will be surprised to see!"

David's heart gave a jump. There was meaning in Black Roger's words and no double twist to what he meant. Marie-Anne had come ahead with her husband!

Now, as they passed on to the brilliantly lighted chateau, David made out the indistinct outlines of other buildings almost hidden in the out-creeping shadows of the forest-edges, with now and then a ray of light to show people were in them. But there was a brooding silence over it all which made him wonder, for there was no voice, no bark of dog, not even the opening or closing of a door. As they drew nearer, he saw a great veranda reaching the length of the chateau, with screening to keep out the summer pests of mosquitoes and flies and the night prowling insects attracted by light. Into this they went, up wide birch steps, and ahead of them was a door so heavy it looked like the postern gate of a castle. Black Roger opened it, and in a moment David stood beside him in a dimly lighted hall where the mounted heads of wild beasts looked down like startled things from the gloom of the walls. And then David heard the low, sweet notes of a piano coming to them very faintly.

He looked at Black Roger. A smile was on the lips of the chateau master; his head was up, and his eyes glowed with pride and joy as the music came to him. He spoke no word, but laid a hand on David's arm and led him toward it, while Bateese and Joe Clamart remained standing at the entrance to the hall. David's feet trod in thick rugs of fur; he saw the dim luster of polished birch and cedar in the walls, and over his head the ceiling was rich and matched, as in the bateau cabin. They drew nearer to the music and came to a closed door. This Black Roger opened very quietly, as if anxious not to disturb the one who was playing.

They entered, and David held his breath. It was a great room he stood in, thirty feet or more from end to end, and scarcely less in width-a room brilliant with light, sumptuous in its comfort, sweet with the perfume of wild-flowers, and with a great black fireplace at the end of it, from over which there stared at him the glass eyes of a monster moose. Then he saw the figure at the piano, and something rose up quickly and choked him when his eyes told him it was not Marie-Anne. It was a slim, beautiful figure in a soft and shimmering white gown, and its head was glowing gold in the lamplight.

Roger Audemard spoke, "Carmin!"

The woman at the piano turned about, a little startled at the unexpectedness of the voice, and then rose quickly to her feet-and David Carrigan found himself looking into the eyes of Carmin Fanchet!

Never had he seen her more beautiful than in this moment, like an angel in her shimmering dress of white, her hair a radiant glory, her eyes wide and glowing-and, as she looked at him, a smile coming to her red lips. Yes, SHE WAS SMILING AT HIM-this woman whose brother he had brought to the hangman, this woman who had stolen Black Roger from another! She knew him-he was sure of that; she knew him as the man who had believed her a criminal along with her brother, and who had fought to the last against her freedom. Yet from her lips and her eyes and her face the old hatred was gone. She was coming toward him slowly; she was reaching out her hand, and half blindly his own went out, and he felt the warmth of her fingers for a moment, and he heard her voice saying softly,

"Welcome to Chateau Boulain, M'sieu Carrigan."

He bowed and mumbled something, and Black Roger gently pressed his arm, drawing him back to the door. As he went he saw again that Carmin Fanchet was very beautiful as she stood there, and that her lips were very red-but her face was white, whiter than he had ever seen the face of a woman before.

As they went up a winding stair to the second floor, Roger Audemard said, "I am proud of my Carmin, M'sieu David. Would any other woman in the world have given her hand like that to the man who had helped to kill her brother?"

They stopped at another door. Black Roger opened it. There were lights within, and David knew it was to be his room. Audemard did not follow him inside, but there was a flashing humor in his eyes.

"I say, is there another woman like her in the world, m'sieu?"

"What have you done to Marie-Anne-your wife?" asked David.

It was hard for him to get the words out. A terrible thing was gripping at his throat, and the clutch of it grew tighter as he saw the wild light in Black Roger's eyes.

"Tomorrow you will know, m'sieu. But not to-night. You must wait until tomorrow."

He nodded and stepped back, and the door closed-and in the same instant came the harsh grating of a key in the lock.

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