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   Chapter 6 No.6

The Hunted Woman By James Oliver Curwood Characters: 10508

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Silent, his head bowed a little, John Aldous stood before her after those last words. A slight noise outside gave him the pretext to turn to the door. She was going to Tête Jaune-to find her husband! He had not expected that. For a breath, as he looked out toward the bush, his mind was in a strange daze. A dozen times she had given him to understand there was no husband, father, or brother waiting for her at the rail-end. She had told him that she was alone-without friends. And now, like a confession, those words had come strangely from her lips.

What he had heard was one of Otto's pack-horses coming down to drink. He turned toward her again.

Joanne stood with her back still to the table. She had slipped a hand into the front of her dress and had drawn forth a long thick envelope. As she opened it, Aldous saw that it contained banknotes. From among these she picked out a bit of paper and offered it to him.

"That will explain-partly," she said.

It was a newspaper clipping, worn and faded, with a date two years old. It had apparently been cut from an English paper, and told briefly of the tragic death of Mortimer FitzHugh, son of a prominent Devonshire family, who had lost his life while on a hunting trip in the British Columbia Wilds.

"He was my husband," said Joanne, as Aldous finished. "Until six months ago I had no reason to believe that the statement in the paper was not true. Then-an acquaintance came out here hunting. He returned with a strange story. He declared that he had seen Mr. FitzHugh alive. Now you know why I am here. I had not meant to tell you. It places me in a light which I do not think that I can explain away-just now. I have come to prove or disprove his death. If he is alive--"

For the first time she betrayed the struggle she was making against some powerful emotion which she was fighting to repress. Her face had paled. She stopped herself with a quick breath, as if knowing that she had already gone too far.

"I guess I understand," said Aldous. "For some reason your anxiety is not that you will find him dead, Ladygray, but that you may find him alive."

"Yes-yes, that is it. But you must not urge me farther. It is a terrible thing to say. You will think I am not a woman, but a fiend. And I am your guest. You have invited me to supper. And-the potatoes are ready, and there is no fire!"

She had forced a smile back to her lips. John Aldous whirled toward the door.

"I will have the partridges in two seconds!" he cried. "I dropped them when the horses went through the rapids."

The oppressive and crushing effect of Joanne's first mention of a husband was gone. He made no effort to explain or analyze the two sudden changes that swept over him. He accepted them as facts, and that was all. Where a few moments before there had been the leaden grip of something that seemed to be physically choking him, there was now again the strange buoyancy with which he had gone to the Otto tent. He began to whistle as he went to the river's edge. He was whistling when he returned, the two birds in his hand. Joanne was waiting for him in the door. Again her face was a faintly tinted vision of tranquil loveliness; her eyes were again like the wonderful blue pools over the sunlit mountains. She smiled as he came up. He was amazed-not that she had recovered so completely from the emotional excitement that had racked her, but because she betrayed in no way a sign of grief-of suspense or of anxiety. A few minutes ago he had heard her singing. He could almost believe that her lips might break into song again as she stood there.

From that moment until the sun sank behind the mountains and gray shadows began to creep in where the light had been, there was no other reference to the things that had happened or the things that had been said since Joanne's arrival. For the first time in years John Aldous completely forgot his work. He was lost in Joanne. With the tremendous reaction that was working out in him she became more and more wonderful to him with each breath that he drew. He made no effort to control the change that was sweeping through him. His one effort was to keep it from being too apparent to her.

The way in which Joanne had taken his invitation was as delightful as it was new to him. She had become both guest and hostess. With her lovely arms bared halfway to the shoulders she rolled out a batch of biscuits. "Hot biscuits go so well with marmalade," she told him. He built a fire. Beyond that, and bringing in the water, she gave him to understand that his duties were at an end, and that he could smoke while she prepared the supper. With the beginning of dusk he closed the cabin door that he might have an excuse for lighting the big hanging lamp a little earlier. He had imagined how its warm glow would flood down upon the thick soft coils of her shining hair.

Every fibre in him throbbed with a keen and exquisite satisfaction as he sat down opposite her. During the meal he looked into the quiet, velvety blue of her eyes a hundred times. He found it a delightful sensation to talk to her and look into those eyes at the same time. He told her more about himself than he had ever told another soul. It was she who spoke firs

t of the manuscript upon which he was working. He had spoken of certain adventures that had led up to the writing of one of his books.

"And this last book you are writing, which you call 'Mothers,'" she said. "Is it to be like 'Fair Play?'"

"It was to have been the last of the trilogy. But it won't be now, Ladygray. I've changed my mind."

"But it is so nearly finished, you say?"

"I would have completed it this week. I was rushing it to an end at fever heat when-you came."

He saw the troubled look in her eyes, and hastened to add:

"Let us not talk about that manuscript, Ladygray. Some day I will let you read it, and then you will understand why your coming has not hurt it. At first I was unreasonably disturbed because I thought that I must finish it within a week from to-day. I start out on a new adventure then-a strange adventure, into the North."

"That means-the wild country?" she asked. "Up there in the North-there are no people?"

"An occasional Indian, perhaps a prospector now and then," he said. "Last year I travelled a hundred and twenty-seven days without seeing a human face except that of my Cree companion."

She had leaned a little over the table, and was looking at him intently, her eyes shining.

"That is why I have understood you, and read between the printed lines in your books," she said. "If I had been a man, I would have been a great deal like you. I love those things-loneliness, emptiness, the great spaces where you hear only the whisperings of the winds and the fall of no other feet but your own. Oh, I should have been a man! It was born in me. It was a part of me. And I loved it-loved it."

A poignant grief had shot into her eyes. Her voice broke almost in a sob. Amazed, he looked at her in silence across the table.

"You have lived that life, Ladygray?" he said after a moment. "You have seen it?"

"Yes," she nodded, clasping and unclasping her slim white hands. "For years and years, perhaps even more than you, John Aldous! I was born in it. And it was my life for a long time-until my father died." She paused, and he saw her struggling to subdue the quivering throb in her throat. "We were inseparable," she went on, her voice becoming suddenly strange and quiet. "He was father, mother-everything to me. It was too wonderful. Together we hunted out the mysteries and the strange things in the out-of-the-way places of the earth. It was his passion. He had given birth to it in me. I was always with him, everywhere. And then he died, soon after his discovery of that wonderful buried city of Mindano, in the heart of Africa. Perhaps you have read--"

"Good God," breathed Aldous, so low that his voice did not rise above a whisper. "Joanne-Ladygray-you are not speaking of Daniel Gray-Sir Daniel Gray, the Egyptologist, the antiquarian who uncovered the secrets of an ancient and wonderful civilization in the heart of darkest Africa?"

"Yes."

"And you-are his daughter?"

She bowed her head.

Like one in a dream John Aldous rose from his chair and went to her. He seized her hands and drew her up so that they stood face to face. Again that strange and beautiful calmness filled her eyes.

"Our trails have strangely crossed, Lady Joanne," he said. "They have been crossing-for years. While Sir Daniel was at Murja, on the eve of his great discovery, I was at St. Louis on the Senegal coast. I slept in that little Cape Verde hotel, in the low whitewashed room overlooking the sea. The proprietor told me that Sir Daniel had occupied it before me, and I found a broken fountain pen in the drawer of that sickly black teakwood desk, with the carved serpent's head. And I was at Gampola at another time, headed for the interior of Ceylon, when I learned that I was travelling again one of Sir Daniel's trails. And you were with him!"

"Always," said Joanne.

For a few tense moments they had looked steadily into each other's eyes. Swiftly, strangely, the world was bridging itself for them. Their minds swept back swiftly as the fire in a thunder-sky. They were no longer strangers. They were no longer friends of a day. The grip of Aldous' hands tightened. A hundred things sprang to his lips. Before he could speak, he saw a sudden, startled change leap into Joanne's face. She had turned her face a little, so that she was looking toward the window. A frightened cry broke from her lips. Aldous whirled about. There was nothing there. He looked at Joanne again. She was white and trembling. Her hands were clutched at her breast. Her eyes, big and dark and staring, were still fixed on the window.

"That man!" she panted. "His face was there-against the glass-like a devil's!"

"Quade?"

"Yes."

She caught at his arm as he sprang toward the door.

"Stop!" she cried. "You mustn't go out--"

For a moment he turned at the door. He was as she had seen him in Quade's place, terribly cool, a strange, quiet smile on his lips. His eyes were gray, smiling steel.

"Close the door after me and lock it until I return," he said. "You are the first woman guest I ever had, Ladygray. I cannot allow you to be insulted!"

As he went out she saw him slip something from his pocket. She caught the glitter of it in the lamp-glow.

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