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The Barrier By Rex Beach Characters: 22379

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04

When the steamer had gone Napoleon Doret went to look for Necia, and found her playing with the younger Gales, who revelled in the gifts he had brought. Never had there been such a surprise. Never had there been such gorgeous presents for little folks. This was a land in which there were no toys, a country too young for babes; and any one whose youth had been like that of other children would have seen a pathos in the joy of these two. Poleon had been hard put to it to find anything suitable for his little friends, for although there was all manner of merchandise coming into Dawson, none of it was designed for tiny people, not even clothes.

It was evident that he had pleased them, for when he appeared they ran at his legs like twin cubs, incoherent and noisy, the pleasure within them too turbulent for expression. They had never played with a toy that Poleon had not built for them, nor worn a garment that Alluna had not made. This, then, was a day of revelations, for the first thing they beheld upon opening their packs was a pair of rubber boots for each. They were ladies' knee-boots, the smallest size in stock, but the Gales entered them bodily, so to speak, moccasins and all, clear to their hips, like the waders that duck-hunters use. When they ran they fell down and out of them, but their pride remained upright and serene, for were not these like the boots that Poleon wore, and not of Indian make, with foolish beads on them? Next, the youthful heir had found a straw hat of strange and wondrous fashion, with a brim like a board and a band of blue, which Poleon had bought from a college man who had retained this emblem of his past to the final moment. Like the boots, it was much too large for little John, and hard to master, but it made a brave display, as did a red cravat, which covered his front like a baseball catcher's harness. Molly had also two sets of side-combs, gorgeously ornamented with glass diamonds, and a silver-handled tooth-brush, with which she scrubbed the lame puppy. This puppy had three legs and the mange, and he was her particular pride.

There were certain other things, the use of which they did not understand, like queer-smelling, soft, yellow balls which Necia said were oranges and good to eat, although the skins were leathery and very bitter, nor were they nearly so pleasant to the nose as the toilet soap, which Necia would not allow them even to taste. Then there was a box of chocolate candies such as the superintendent at St. Michael's sent them every spring, and an atomizer, which Necia had filled with Florida Water. This worked on the puppy even better than the tooth-brush.

The elder girl laughed gladly as Poleon entered, though her eyes were wet with the pity of it.

"You seem to bring sunshine wherever you go," she said. "They have never had things to play with like other children, and it makes me cry to watch them."

"Ho, ho!" he chuckled, "dis ain'no time for cryin'. Ba gosh! I guess you don' have so much present w'en you was li'l' gal you'se'f, w'at? Mebbe you t'ink I forget you. Wal, I didn't."

He began to undo the fastenings of a parcel he carried in his arms, for Napoleon Doret had brought other things from Dawson besides his gifts to the children. Necia snatched at the package.

"Don't you dare open it! Why, that's half the fun." She was a child herself now, her face flushed and her hands a-tremble. Taking the package to the table, she hurriedly untied the knots while he stood watching her, his teeth showing white against his dark face, and his eyes half shut as if dazzled by the sight of her.

"Oh, why didn't you tie more knots in it?" she breathed as she undid the last, and then, opening the wrappings slowly, she gasped in astonishment. She shook it out gently, reverently-a clinging black lace gown of Paris make. Next she opened a box and took from it a picture hat, with long jet plumes, which she stroked and pressed fondly against her face. There were other garments also-a silken petticoat, silk stockings, and a pair of high-heeled shoes to match, with certain other delicate and dainty things which she modestly forbore to inspect before the Frenchman, who said no word, but only gazed at her, and for whom she had no eyes as yet. Finally she laid her presents aside, and, turning to him, said, in a hushed, awe-stricken voice:

"It's all there, everything complete! Oh, Poleon-you dear, dear Poleon!" She took his two big hands by the thumbs, as had been her custom ever since she was a child, and looked up at him, her eyes wet with emotion. But she could not keep away from the dress for long, and returned to feast her eyes upon it, the two children standing beside her, sprouting out of their rubber boots, with eyes and mouths round and protruding.

"You lak' it, eh?" pressed Poleon, hungry for more demonstrative expression.

"Oh-h," she sighed, "can't you SEE? Where on earth did you get it?" Then suddenly realizing its value, she cried, "Why, it must have cost a fortune!" A quick reproach leaped into her face, but he only laughed again.

"Wan night I gamble in beeg saloon. Yes, sir! I gamble good dat night, too. For w'ile I play roulette, den I dance, den I play some more, an' by-an'-by I see a new dance gal. She's Franche gal, from Montreal. Dat's de one I tol' you 'bout. Ba Gar! She's swell dress', too. She's name' Marie Bourgette."

"Oh, I've heard about her," said Necia. "She owns a claim on Bonanza Creek."

"Sure, she's frien's wit' Charlie McCormack, dat riche feller, but I don' know it dis tam', so I ask her for dance wit' me. Den we drink a bottle of champagne-twenty dollar."

"'Mamselle,' I say, 'how much you charge for sell me dat dress?'"

"'For w'y shall I sell im,' she say; 'I don' wear 'im before till to-night, an' I don' get no more dress lak' dis for t'ousan' dollar.'"

Necia exclaimed excitedly.

'"For w'y you sell 'im?' I say. 'Biccause I'll tak' 'im down to Flambeau for Necia Gale, w'at never had no dress lak' dat in all her life.' Wal, sir, dat Marie Bourgette, she's hear of you before, an' your dad, too-mos' all dose Cheechakos know 'bout Old Man Gale-so she say:

"'Wat lookin' kind of gal is dis Necia?' An' I tell her all 'bout you. Wen I'm t'rough she say:'"

"'But maybe your little frien' is more bigger as I am. Maybe de dress won't fit.'"

"'Ha! You don' know me, mamselle,' I say. 'I can guess de weight of a caribou to five poun'. She'll be same size la'kin' one inch 'roun' de wais'.'"

"'Poleon Doret,' she say, 'you ain' no Franchemans to talk lak'dat. Look here! I can sell dis dress for t'ousan' dollar to-night, or I can trade 'im for gol'-mine on El Dorado Creek to some dose Swede w'at want to catch a gal, but I'm goin' sell 'im to you for t'ree hondred dollar, jus' w'at I pay for 'im. You wait here till I come back.'"

"'No, no, Mamselle Marie, I'll go 'long, too, for so you don' change your min',' I say; an' I stan' outside her door till she pass me de whole dam' works."

"' Don' forget de little shoes,' I say-an' dat's how it come!"

"And you paid three hundred dollars for it!" Necia said, aghast. The Canadian shrugged.

"Only for de good heart of Marie Bourgette I pay wan t'ousan'," said he. "I mak' seven hondred dollar clean profit!"

"It was very nice of both of you, but-I can't wear it. I've never seen a dress like it, except in pictures, and I couldn't-" She saw his face fall, and said, impulsively:

"I'll wear it once, anyhow, Poleon, just for you. Go away quick, now, and let me put it on."

"Dat's good," he nodded, as he moved away. "I bet you mak' dose dance-hall women look lak' sucker."

No man may understand the girl's feelings as she set about clothing herself in her first fine dress. Time and again she had studied pictures from the "outside" showing women arrayed in the newest styles, and had closed her eyes to fancy herself dressed in like manner. She had always had an instinctive feeling that some day she would leave the North and see the wonderful world of which men spoke so much, and mingle with the fine ladies of her picture-books, but she never dreamed to possess an evening-gown while she lived in Alaska. And now, even while she recognized the grotesqueness of the situation, she burned to wear it and see herself in the garb of other women. So, with the morning sun streaming brightly into her room, lighting up the moss-chinked walls, the rough barbarism of fur and head and trophy, she donned the beautiful garments.

Poleon's eye had been amazingly correct, for it fitted her neatly, save at the waist, which was even more than an inch too large, notwithstanding the fact that she had never worn such a corset as the well-formed Marie Bourgette was accustomed to.

She pondered long and hesitated modestly when she saw its low cut, which exposed her neck and shoulders in a totally unaccustomed manner, for it struck her as amazingly indecent until she scurried through her magazines again and saw that its construction, as compared with others, was most conservative. Even so she shrank at sight of herself below the line of sunburn, for she was ringed about like a blue-winged teal, the demarcation being more pronounced because of the natural whiteness of her skin. The year previous Doret had brought her from the coast a Spanish shawl, which a salt-water sailor had sold him, and which had lain folded away ever since. She brought it forth now and arranged it about her shoulders, but in spite of this covering the fair flesh beneath peeped through its wide interstices most brazenly. She had never paid marked attention to the fairness of her skin till now, and all at once this difference between herself and her little brother and sister struck her. She had been a mother to them ever since they came, and had often laughed when she saw how brown their little bodies were, rejoicing in blushing quietude at her own whiteness, but to-day she neither laughed nor felt any joy, rather a dim wonder. She sat down, dress and all, in the thick softness of a great brown bear-skin and thought it over.

How odd it was, now that she considered it, that she needed no aid with these alien garments, that she knew instinctively their every feature, that there was no intricacy to cause her more than an instant's trouble. This knowledge must be a piece with the intuitive wit that had been the wonder of Father Barnum and had enabled her to absorb his teachings as fast as he gave them forth.

She was interrupted in her reverie by the passing of a shadow across her window and the stamp of a man's feet on the planks at the door. Of course, it was Poleon, who had come back to see her; so she rose hastily, gave one quick glance at the mirror above her washstand, choosing the side that distorted her image the least, and, hearing him still stamping, perfunctorily called:

"Come in! I'll be right out."

She kicked the train into place behind her, looped the shawl carelessly about her in a way to veil her modesty effectively, and, with an expectant smile at his extravagance of admiration, swept out into the big room, very self-conscious and very pleasing to the eye. She

crossed proudly to the reading-table to give him a fair view of her splendor, and was into the middle of the room before she looked up. Taken aback, she uttered a little strangled cry and made a quick movement of retreat, only to check herself and stand with her chin high in the air, while wave after wave of color swept over her face.

"Great lovely dove!" ejaculated Burrell, fervently, staring at her.

"Oh, I-I thought you were Poleon. He-" In spite of herself she glanced towards her room as if to flee; she writhed at the utter absurdity of her appearance, and knew the Lieutenant must be laughing at her. But flight would only make it worse, so she stood as she was, having drawn back as far as she could, till the table checked her. Burrell, however, was not laughing, nor smiling even, for his embarrassment rivalled hers.

"I was looking for your father," he said, wondering if this glorious thing could be the quaint half-breed girl of yesterday. There was nothing of the native about her now, for her lithe young figure was drawn up to its height, and her head, upon which the long, black braids were coiled, was tipped back in a haughty poise. She had flung her hands out to grasp the table edge behind her, forgetful of her shawl, which drooped traitorously and showed such rounded lines as her ordinary dress scarce hinted at. This was no Indian maid, the soldier vowed; no blood but the purest could pulse in such veins, no spirit save the highest could flash in such eyes as these. A jealous rancor irked him at the thought of this beauty intended for the Frenchman's eyes.

"Can't you show yourself to me as well as to Poleon?" he said.

"Certainly not!" she declared. "He bought this dress for me, and I put it on to please him." Now she was herself again, for some note in the Lieutenant's voice gave her dominance over him. "After he sees it I will take it off, and-"

"Don't-don't take it off-ever," said Burrell. "I thought you were beautiful before, because of your quaintness and simplicity, but now-" his chest swelled-"why, this is a breath from home. You're like my sister and the girls back in Kentucky, only more wonderful."

"Am I?" she cried, eagerly. "Am I like other girls? Do I really look as if I'd always worn clothes like these?"

"Born to them," said he.

A smile broke over her grave face, assuming a hundred different shades of pleasure and making a child of her on the instant; all her reserve and hauteur vanished. Her warmth and unaffected frankness suffused him, as she stood out, turning to show the beauties of her gown, her brown hands fluttering tremulously as she talked.

"It's my first party-dress, you know, and I'm as proud of it as Molly is of her rubber boots. It's too big in here and too small right there; that girl must have had a bad chest; but otherwise it fits me as if it had been made for me, doesn't it? And the shoes! Aren't they the dearest things? See." She held her skirts back, showing her two feet side by side, her dainty ankles slim and shapely in their silk.

"They won't shed water," he said.

"I know; and look at the heels. I couldn't walk a mile to save my life."

"And they will come off if they get wet."

"But they make me very tall."

"They don't wear as well as moccasins." Both laughed delightedly till he broke in, impulsively:

"Oh, girl, don't you know how beautiful you are?"

"Of course I do!" she cried, imitating his change of voice; then added, naively, "That's why I hate to take it off."

"Where did you learn to wear things like that?" he questioned. "Where did you get that-well-that air?"

"It seems to me I've always known. There's nothing strange about it. The buttons and the hooks and the eyes are all where they belong. It's instinct, I suppose, from father's side-"

"Probably. I dare say I should understand the mechanism of a dress-suit, even if I'd never seen one," said the man, amused, yet impressed by her argument.

"I've always had visions of women dressed in this kind of clothing, white women-never natives-not dressed like this exactly, but in dainty, soft things, not at all like the ones I wear. I seem to have a memory, although it's hardly that, either-it's more like a dream-as if I were somebody else. Father says it is from reading too much."

"A memory of what?"

"It's too vague and tantalizing to tell what it is, except that I should be called Merridy."

"Merridy? Why that?"

"I'll show you. See." She slipped her hand inside the shawl and drew from her breast a thin gold chain on which was strung a band ring. "It was grandmother's-that's where I got the fancy for the name of Merridy, I suppose."

"May I look?"

"Of course. But I daren't take it off. I haven't had it off my neck since I was a baby." She held it out for him to examine, and, although it brought his head close to hers, there was no trace of coquetry in the invitation. He read the inscription, "From Dan to Merridy," but had no realization of what it meant, for he glimpsed the milk-white flesh almost at his lips, and felt her breath stirring his hair, while the delicate scent of her person seemed to loose every strong emotion in him. She was so dainty and yet so virile, so innocent and yet so wise, so cold and yet so pulsating.

"It is very pretty," he said, inanely.

At the look in his eyes as he raised his head her own widened, and she withdrew from him imperceptibly, dismissing him with a mere inflection.

"I wish you would send Poleon here. It's time he saw his present."

As Burrell walked out into the air he shut his jaws grimly and muttered: "Hold tight, young man. She's not your kind-she's not your kind."

Inside the store he found Doret and the trader in conversation with a man he had not met before, a ragged nondescript whose overalls were blue and faded and patched, particularly on the front of the legs above the knees, where a shovel-handle wears hardest; whose coat was of yellow mackinaw, the sleeves worn thin below the elbows, where they had rubbed against his legs in his work. As the soldier entered, the man turned on him a small, shrewd, weather-beaten face with one eye, while he went on talking to Gale.

"It ain't nothin' to git excited over, but it's wuth follerin'. If I wasn't so cussed unlucky I'd know there was a pay streak som'ere close by."

"Your luck is bound to change, Lee," said the trader, who helped him to roll up a pack of provisions.

"Mebbe so. Who's the dressmaker?" He jerked his bushy head towards Burrell, who had stopped at the front door with Poleon to examine some yellow grains in a folded paper.

"He's the boss soldier."

"Purty, ain't he?"

"If you ain't good he'll get you," said Gale, a trifle cynically, at which Lee chuckled.

"I reckon there's several of us in camp that ain't been a whole lot too good," said he. "Has he tried to git anybody yet?"

"No, but he's liable to. What would happen if he did? Suppose, for instance, he went after you-or me?"

The one-eyed man snorted derisively. "It ain't wuth considerin'!"

"Why not?" insisted Gale, guardedly. "Maybe I've got a record-you don't know."

"If you have, don't tell me nothin' about it," hastily observed Lee. "I'm a God-fearin' citizen myself, leanin' ever towards peace and quietudes, but what's past is dead and gone, and I'd hate to see a lispin' child like that blue-and-yeller party try to reezureck it."

"He's got the American army to back him up-at least five of them."

"Five agin a hundred. He aims to overawe us, don't he?" snickered the unregenerate Lee, but his wrinkles changed and deepened as he leaned across the counter confidentially.

"You say the word, John, and I'll take some feller along to help me, and we'll transfer this military post. There's plenty that would like the job if you give the wink."

"Pshaw! I'm just supposing," said the trader. "As long as they play around and drill and toot that horn, and don't bother anybody, I allow they're not in the way."

"All right! It's up to you. However, if I happen to leap down on this pay streak before it sees me comin', I'm goin' to put my friends in first and foremost, and shut out these dressmakers complete. So long!" He thrust his arms beneath the legs of a new pair of blue overalls that formed his pack-straps, wriggled the burden comfortably into place between his shoulders, and slouched out past Doret, to whom he nodded, ignoring the "dressmaker."

Having given Necia's message to Poleon, the Lieutenant took up his business with the trader. It concerned the purchase of certain supplies that had been omitted from the military outfit, and when this was concluded he referred to the encounter of that morning.

"I don't want you to think I bungle everything in that manner," he said, "for I don't. I want to work with you, and I want to be friends with you."

"I'm willing," said Gale.

"Nobody dislikes playing policeman more than I do, but it's a part of my duty, and I'll have to do it," continued the young man.

"I reckon you simply aim to keep peace, eh? You ain't lookin' for nobody in particular?"

"Of course not-outside of certain notorious criminals who have escaped justice and worked north."

"Then there is a few that you want, eh?"

"Yes, certain old-timers. The officers at every post have descriptions of a few such, and if they show up we will take them in and hold them till courts are established."

"If you've got their names and descriptions, mebbe I could help you," said the trader, carelessly.

"Thank you, I'll bring up the list and we'll go over it together. You must have been here a good while."

"About ten years."

"Then Miss Necia was born out in the States?"

Gale shot a startled glance at the soldier before he answered in the affirmative, but Burrell was studying a pattern of sunlight on the floor and did not observe him. A moment later he inquired, hesitatingly:

"Is this your first marriage, Mr. Gale?" When the other did not answer, he looked up and quickly added:

"I beg your pardon, sir. What led me to ask was Miss Necia-she is so-well-she is such a remarkable girl."

Gale's face had undergone a change, but he answered, quietly:

"I 'ain't never been married."


"When I took Alluna it wasn't the style, and neither one of us has thought much about it since."

"Oh, I see," exclaimed Burrell, hurriedly. "I'll bring that list with me the first time I think about it," and, nodding amiably, he sauntered out. But his mind was in a whirl, and even after he had reached his quarters he found himself repeating:

"The other was bad enough. Poor little girl! Poor little girl!"

Gale likewise left the store and went into his house, the odd look still strong in his eyes, to find Necia posing in her new regalia for Poleon's benefit. At sight of her he fell into a strange and unexpected humor, and to their amazement commanded her roughly to take the things off. His voice and manner were harsh and at utter variance with any mood he had ever displayed before; nor would he explain his unreasoning fury, but strode out again, leaving her in tears and the Frenchman staring.

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