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   Chapter 5 No.5

The Hunted Woman By James Oliver Curwood Characters: 8391

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


As soon as he had passed from the view of the cabin door Aldous shortened his pace. He knew that never in his life had he needed to readjust himself more than at the present moment. A quarter of an hour had seen a complete and miraculous revolution within him. It was a change so unusual and apparently so impossible that he could not grasp the situation and the fact all at once. But the truth of it swept over him more and more swiftly as he made his way along the dark, narrow trail that led up to the Miette Plain. It was something that not only amazed and thrilled him. First-as in all things-he saw the humour of it. He, John Aldous of all men, had utterly obliterated himself, and for a woman. He had even gone so far as to offer the sacrifice of his most important work. Frankly he had told Joanne that she interested him more just now than his book. Again he repeated to himself that it had not been a surrender-but an obliteration. With a pair of lovely eyes looking quietly into him, he had wiped the slate clean of the things he had preached for ten years and the laws he had made for himself. And as he came in sight of the big Otto tent, he found himself smiling, his breath coming quickly, strange voices singing within him.

He stopped to load and light his pipe before he faced Mrs. Otto, and he clouded himself in as much smoke as possible while he explained to her that he had almost forced Joanne to stop at his cabin and eat partridges with him. He learned that the Tête Jaune train could not go on until the next day, and after Mrs. Otto had made him take a loaf of fresh bread and a can of home-made marmalade as a contribution to their feast, he turned back toward the cabin, trying to whistle in his old careless way.

The questions he had first asked himself about Joanne forced themselves back upon him now with deeper import. Almost unconsciously he had revealed himself to her. He had spread open for her eyes and understanding the page which he had so long hidden. He had as much as confessed to her that she had come to change him-to complete what he had only half created. It had been an almost inconceivable and daring confession, and he believed that she understood him. More than that, she had read about him. She had read his books. She knew John Aldous-the man.

But what did he know about her beyond the fact that her name was Joanne Gray, and that the on-sweeping Horde had brought her into his life as mysteriously as a storm might have flung him a bit of down from a swan's breast? Where had she come from? And why was she going to Tête Jaune? It must be some important motive was taking her to a place like Tête Jaune, the rail-end, a place of several thousand men, with its crude muscle and brawn and the seven passions of man. It was an impossible place for a young and beautiful woman unprotected. If Joanne had known any one among the engineers or contractors, or had she possessed a letter of introduction to them, the tense lines would not have gathered so deeply about the corners of Aldous' mouth. But these men whose brains were behind the Horde-the engineers and the contractors-knew what women alone and unprotected meant at Tête Jaune. Such women floated in with the Horde. And Joanne was going in with the Horde. There lay the peril-and the mystery of it.

So engrossed was Aldous in his thoughts that he had come very quietly to the cabin door. It was Joanne's voice that roused him. Sweet and low she was singing a few lines from a song which he had never heard.

She stopped when Aldous appeared at the door. It seemed to him that her eyes were a deeper, more wonderful blue as she looked up at him, and smiled. She had found a towel for an apron, and was peeling potatoes.

"You will have some unusual excuses to make very soon," she greeted him. "We had a visitor while you were gone. I was washing the potatoes when I looked up to find a pair of the fiercest, reddest moustaches I have ever seen, ornamenting the doorway. The man had two eyes that seemed about to fall out when he saw me. He popped away like a rabbit-and-and-there's something he left behind in his haste!"

Joanne's eyes were flooded with laughter as sh

e nodded at the door. On the sill was a huge quid of tobacco.

"Stevens!" Aldous chuckled. "God bless my soul, if you frightened him into giving up a quid of tobacco like that you sure did startle him some!" He kicked Stevens' lost property out with the toe of his boot and turned to Joanne, showing her the fresh bread and marmalade. "Mrs. Otto sent these to you," he said. "And the train won't leave until to-morrow."

In her silence he pulled a chair in front of her, sat down close, and thrust the point of his hunting knife into one of the two remaining potatoes.

"And when it does go I'm going with you," he added.

He expected this announcement would have some effect on her. As she jumped up with the pan of potatoes, leaving the one still speared on the end of his knife, he caught only the corner of a bewitching smile.

"You still believe that I will be unable to take care of myself up at this terrible Tête Jaune?" she asked, bending for a moment over the table. "Do you?"

"No. You can care for yourself anywhere, Ladygray," he repeated. "But I am quite sure that it will be less troublesome for me to see that no insults are offered you than for you to resent those insults when they come. Tête Jaune is full of Quades," he added.

The smile was gone from her face when she turned to him. Her blue eyes were filled with a tense anxiety.

"I had almost forgotten that man," she whispered. "And you mean that you would fight for me-again?"

"A thousand times."

The colour grew deeper in her cheeks. "I read something about you once that I have never forgotten, John Aldous," she said. "It was after you returned from Thibet. It said that you were largely made up of two emotions-your contempt for woman and your love of adventure; that it would be impossible for you not to see a flaw in one, and that for the other-physical excitement-you would go to the ends of the earth. Perhaps it is this-your desire for adventure-that makes you want to go with me to Tête Jaune?"

"I am beginning to believe that it will be the greatest adventure of my life," he replied, and something in his quiet voice held her silent. He rose to his feet, and stood before her. "It is already the Great Adventure," he went on. "I feel it. And I am the one to judge. Until to-day I would have staked my life that no power could have wrung from me the confession I am going to make to you voluntarily. I have laughed at the opinion the world has held of me. To me it has all been a colossal joke. I have enjoyed the hundreds of columns aimed at me by excited women through the press. They have all asked the same question: Why do you not write of the good things in women instead of always the bad? I have never given them an answer. But I answer you now-here. I have not picked upon the weaknesses of women because I despise them. Those weaknesses-the destroying frailties of womankind-I have driven over rough-shod through the pages of my books because I have always believed that Woman was the one thing which God came nearest to creating perfect. I believe they should be perfect. And because they have not quite that perfection which should be theirs I have driven the cold facts home as hard as I could. I have been a fool and an iconoclast instead of a builder. This confession to you is proof that you have brought me face to face with the greatest adventure of all."

The colour in her cheeks had centred in two bright spots. Her lips formed words which came slowly, strangely.

"I guess-I understand," she said. "Perhaps I, too, would have been that kind of an iconoclast-if I could have put the things I have thought into written words." She drew a deep breath, and went on, her eyes full upon him, speaking as if out of a dream. "The Great Adventure-for you. Yes; and perhaps for both."

Her hands were drawn tightly to her breast. Something about her as she stood there, her back to the table, drew John Aldous to her side, forced the question from his lips: "Tell me, Ladygray-why are you going to Tête Jaune?"

In that same strange way, as if her lips were framing words beyond their power to control, she answered:

"I am going-to find-my husband."

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