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   Chapter 16 No.16

The Hunted Woman By James Oliver Curwood Characters: 24076

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Plunged from one extreme of mental strain to another excitement that was as acute in its opposite effect, John Aldous stood and stared at the tent-flap that had dropped behind Joanne. Only a flash he had caught of her face; but in that flash he had seen the living, quivering joyousness of freedom blazing where a moment before there had been only horror and fear. As if ashamed of her own betrayal, Joanne had darted into the tent. She had answered his question a thousand times more effectively than if she had remained to tell him with her lips that MacDonald's proofs were sufficient-that the grave in the little box canyon had not disappointed her. She had recognized the ring and the watch; from them she had shrank in horror, as if fearing that the golden serpent might suddenly leap into life and strike.

In spite of the mightiest efforts she might have made for self-control Aldous had seen in her tense and tortured face a look that was more than either dread or shock-it was abhorrence, hatred. And his last glimpse of her face had revealed those things gone, and in their place the strange joy she had run into the tent to hide. That she should rejoice over the dead, or that the grim relics from the grave should bring that new dawn into her face and eyes, did not strike him as shocking. In Joanne his sun had already begun to rise and set. He had come to understand that for her the grave must hold its dead; that the fact of death, death under the slab that bore Mortimer FitzHugh's name, meant life for her, just as it meant life and all things for him. He had prayed for it, even while he dreaded that it might not be. In him all things were now submerged in the wild thought that Joanne was free, and the grave had been the key to her freedom.

A calmness began to possess him that was in singular contrast to the perturbed condition of his mind a few minutes before. From this hour Joanne was his to fight for, to win if he could; and, knowing this, his soul rose in triumph above his first physical exultation, and he fought back the almost irresistible impulse to follow her into the tent and tell her what this day had meant for him. Following this came swiftly a realization of what it had meant for her-the suspense, the terrific strain, the final shock and gruesome horror of it. He was sure, without seeing, that she was huddled down on the blankets in the tent. She had passed through an ordeal under which a strong man might have broken, and the picture he had of her struggle in there alone turned him from the tent filled with a determination to make her believe that the events of the morning, both with him and MacDonald, were easily forgotten.

He began to whistle as he threw back the wet canvas from over the camp outfit that had been taken from Pinto's back. In one of the two cow-hide panniers he saw that thoughtful old Donald had packed materials for their dinner, as well as utensils necessary for its preparation. That dinner they would have in the valley, well beyond the red mountain. He began to repack, whistling cheerily. He was still whistling when MacDonald returned. He broke off sharply when he saw the other's face.

"What's the matter, Mac?" he asked. "You sick?"

"It weren't pleasant, Johnny."

Aldous nodded toward the tent.

"It was-beastly," he whispered. "But we can't let her feel that way about it, Mac. Cheer up-and let's get out of this place. We'll have dinner somewhere over in the valley."

They continued packing until only the tent remained to be placed on Pinto's back. Aldous resumed his loud whistling as he tightened up the saddle-girths, and killed time in half a dozen other ways. A quarter of an hour passed. Still Joanne did not appear. Aldous scratched his head dubiously, and looked at the tent.

"I don't want to disturb her, Mac," he said in a low voice. "Let's keep up the bluff of being busy. We can put out the fire."

Ten minutes later, sweating and considerably smokegrimed, Aldous again looked toward the tent.

"We might cut down a few trees," suggested MacDonald.

"Or play leap-frog," added Aldous.

"The trees'd sound more natcherel," said MacDonald. "We could tell her--"

A stick snapped behind them. Both turned at the same instant. Joanne stood facing them not ten feet away.

"Great Scott!" gasped Aldous. "Joanne, I thought you were in the tent!"

The beautiful calmness in Joanne's face amazed him. He stared at her as he spoke, forgetting altogether the manner in which he had intended to greet her when she came from the tent.

"I went out the back way-lifted the canvas and crawled under just like a boy," she explained. "And I've walked until my feet are wet."

"And the fire is out!"

"I don't mind wet feet," she hurried to assure him.

Old Donald was already at work pulling the tent-pegs. Joanne came close to Aldous, and he saw again that deep and wonderful light in her eyes. This time he knew that she meant he should see it, and words which he had determined not to speak fell softly from his lips.

"You are no longer afraid, Ladygray? That which you dreaded--"

"Is dead," she said. "And you, John Aldous? Without knowing, seeing me only as you have seen me, do you think that I am terrible?"

"No, could not think that."

Her hand touched his arm.

"Will you go out there with me, in the sunlight, where we can look down upon the little lake?" she asked. "Until to-day I had made up my mind that no one but myself would ever know the truth. But you have been good to me, and I must tell you-about myself-about him."

He found no answer. He left no word with MacDonald. Until they stood on the grassy knoll, with the lakelet shimmering in the sunlight below them, Joanne herself did not speak again. Then, with a little gesture, she said:

"Perhaps you think what is down there is dreadful to me. It isn't. I shall always remember that little lake, almost as Donald remembers the cavern-not because it watches over something I love, but because it guards a thing that in life would have destroyed me! I know how you must feel, John Aldous-that deep down in your heart you must wonder at a woman who can rejoice in the death of another human creature. Yet death, and death alone, has been the key from bondage of millions of souls that have lived before mine; and there are men-men, too-whose lives have been warped and destroyed because death did not come to save them. One was my father. If death had come for him, if it had taken my mother, that down there would never have happened-for me!"

She spoke the terrible words so quietly, so calmly, that it was impossible for him entirely to conceal their effect upon him. There was a bit of pathos in her smile.

"My mother drove my father mad," she went on, with a simple directness that was the most wonderful thing he had ever heard come from human lips. "The world did not know that he was mad. It called him eccentric. But he was mad-in just one way. I was nine years old when it happened, and I can remember our home most vividly. It was a beautiful home. And my father! Need I tell you that I worshipped him-that to me he was king of all men? And as deeply as I loved him, so, in another way, he worshipped my mother. She was beautiful. In a curious sort of way I used to wonder, as a child, how it was possible for a woman to be so beautiful. It was a dark beauty-a recurrence of French strain in her English blood.

"One day I overheard my father tell her that, if she died, he would kill himself. He was not of the passionate, over-sentimental kind; he was a philosopher, a scientist, calm and self-contained-and I remembered those words later, when I had outgrown childhood, as one of a hundred proofs of how devoutly he had loved her. It was more than love, I believe. It was adoration. I was nine, I say, when things happened. Another man, a divorce, and on the day of the divorce this woman, my mother, married her lover. Somewhere in my father's brain a single thread snapped, and from that day he was mad-mad on but one subject; and so deep and intense was his madness that it became a part of me as the years passed, and to-day I, too, am possessed of that madness. And it is the one greatest thing in the world that I am proud of, John Aldous!"

Not once had her voice betrayed excitement or emotion. Not once had it risen above its normal tone; and in her eyes, as they turned from the lake to him, there was the tranquillity of a child.

"And that madness," she resumed, "was the madness of a man whose brain and soul were overwrought in one colossal hatred-a hatred of divorce and the laws that made it possible. It was born in him in a day, and it lived until his death. It turned him from the paths of men, and we became wanderers upon the face of the earth. Two years after the ruin of our home my mother and the man she had married died in a ship that was lost at sea. This had no effect upon my father. Possibly you will not understand what grew up between us in the years and years that followed. To the end he was a scientist, a man seeking after the unknown, and my education came to be a composite of teachings gathered in all parts of the world. We were never apart. We were more than father and daughter; we were friends, comrades-he was my world, and I was his.

"I recall, as I became older, how his hatred of that thing that had broken our home developed more and more strongly in me. His mind was titanic. A thousand times I pleaded with him to employ it in the great fight I wanted him to make-a fight against the crime divorce. I know, now, why he did not. He was thinking of me. Only one thing he asked of me. It was more than a request. It was a command. And this command, and my promise, was that so long as I lived-no matter what might happen in my life-I would sacrifice myself body and soul sooner than allow that black monster of divorce to fasten its clutches on me. It is futile for me to tell you these things, John Aldous. It is impossible-you cannot understand!"

"I can," he replied, scarcely above a whisper. "Joanne, I begin-to understand!"

And still without emotion, her voice as calm as the unruffled lake at their feet, she continued:

"It grew in me. It is a part of me now. I hate divorce as I hate the worst sin that bars one from Heaven. It is the one thing I hate. And it is because of this hatred that I suffered myself to remain the wife of the man whose name is over that grave down there-Mortimer FitzHugh. It came about strangely-what I am going to tell you now. You will wonder. You will think I was insane. But remember, John Aldous-the world had come to hold but one friend and comrade for me, and he was my father. It was after Mindano. He caught the fever, and he was dying."

For the first time her breath choked her. It was only for an instant. She recovered herself, and went on:

"Out of the world my father had left he had kept one friend-Richard FitzHugh; and this man, with his son, was with us during those terrible days of fever. I met Mortimer as I had met a thousand other men. His father, I thought, was the soul of honour, and I accepted the son as such. We were much together during those two weeks of my despair, and he seemed to be attentive and kind. Then came the end. My father was dying. And I-I was ready to die. In his last moments his one thought was of me. He knew I was alone, and the fear of it terrified him. I believe he did not realize then what he was asking of me. He pleaded with me to marry the son of his old friend before he died. And I-John Aldous, I could not fight his last wish as he lay dying before my eyes. We were married there at his bedside. He joined our hands. And the words he whispered to me last of all were: 'Remember-Joanne-thy promise and thine honour!'"

For a moment Joanne stood facing the little lake, and when she spoke again there was a note of thankfulness, of subdued joy and triumph, in her voice.

"Before that day had ended I had displeased Mortimer FitzHugh,"

she said, and Aldous saw the fingers of her hands close tightly. "I told him that until a month had passed I would not live with him as a wife lives with her husband. And he was displeased. And my father was not yet buried! I was shocked. My soul revolted.

"We went to London and I was made welcome in the older FitzHugh's wifeless home, and the papers told of our wedding. And two days later there came from Devonshire a woman-a sweet-faced little woman with sick, haunted eyes; in her arms she brought a baby; and that baby was Mortimer FitzHugh's!

"We confronted him-the mother, the baby, and I; and then I knew that he was a fiend. And the father was a fiend. They offered to buy the woman off, to support her and the child. They told me that many English gentlemen had made mistakes like this, and that it was nothing-that it was quite common. Mortimer FitzHugh had never touched me with his lips, and now, when he came to touch me with his hands, I struck him. It was a serpent's house, and I left it.

"My father had left me a comfortable fortune, and I went into a house of my own. Day after day they came to me, and I knew that they feared I was going to secure a divorce. During the six months that followed I learned other things about the man who was legally my husband. He was everything that was vile. Brazenly he went into public places with women of dishonour, and I hid my face in shame.

"His father died, and for a time Mortimer FitzHugh became one of the talked-about spendthrifts of London. Swiftly he gambled and dissipated himself into comparative poverty. And now, learning that I would not get a divorce, he began to regard me as a slave in chains. I remember, one time, that he succeeded in laying his hands on me, and they were like the touch of things that were slimy and poisonous. He laughed at my revulsion. He demanded money of me, and to keep him away from me I gave it to him. Again and again he came for money; I suffered as I cannot tell you, but never once in my misery did I weaken in my promise to my father and to myself. But-at last-I ran away.

"I went to Egypt, and then to India. A year later I learned that Mortimer FitzHugh had gone to America, and I returned to London. For two years I heard nothing of him; but day and night I lived in fear and dread. And then came the news that he had died, as you read in the newspaper clipping. I was free! For a year I believed that; and then, like a shock that had come to destroy me, I was told that he was not dead but that he was alive, and in a place called Tête Jaune Cache, in British Columbia. I could not live in the terrible suspense that followed. I determined to find out for myself if he was alive or dead. And so I came, John Aldous. And he is dead. He is down there-dead. And I am glad that he is dead!"

"And if he was not dead," said Aldous quietly, "I would kill him!"

He could find nothing more to say than that. He dared trust himself no further, and in silence he held out his hands, and for a moment Joanne gave him her own. Then she withdrew them, and with a little gesture, and the smile which he loved to see trembling about her mouth, she said:

"Donald will think this is scandalous. We must go back and apologize!"

She led him down the slope, and her face was filled with the pink flush of a wild rose when she ran up to Donald, and asked him to help her into her saddle. John Aldous rode like one in a dream as they went back into the valley, for with each minute that passed Joanne seemed more and more to him like a beautiful bird that had escaped from its prison-cage, and in him mind and soul were absorbed in the wonder of it and in his own rejoicing. She was free, and in her freedom she was happy!

Free! It was that thought that pounded steadily in his brain. He forgot Quade, and Culver Rann, and the gold; he forgot his own danger, his own work, almost his own existence. Of a sudden the world had become infinitesimally small for him, and all he could see was the soft shimmer of Joanne's hair in the sun, the wonder of her face, the marvellous blue of her eyes-and all he could hear was the sweet thrill of her voice when she spoke to him or old Donald, and when, now and then, soft laughter trembled on her lips in the sheer joy of the life that had dawned anew for her this day.

They stopped for dinner, and then went on over the range and down into the valley where lay Tête Jaune. And all this time he fought to keep from flaming in his own face the desire that was like a hot fire within him-the desire to go to Joanne and tell her that he loved her as he had never dreamed it possible for love to exist in the whole wide world. He knew that to surrender to that desire in this hour would be something like sacrilege. He did not guess that Joanne saw his struggle, that even old MacDonald mumbled low words in his beard. When they came at last to Blackton's bungalow he thought that he had kept this thing from her, and he did not see-and would not have understood if he had seen-the wonderful and mysterious glow in Joanne's eyes when she kissed Peggy Blackton.

Blackton had come in from the work-end, dust-covered and jubilant.

"I'm glad you folks have returned," he cried, beaming with enthusiasm as he gripped Aldous by the hand. "The last rock is packed, and to-night we're going to shake the earth. We're going to blow up Coyote Number Twenty-seven, and you won't forget the sight as long as you live!"

Not until Joanne had disappeared into the house with Peggy Blackton did Aldous feel that he had descended firmly upon his feet once more into a matter-of-fact world. MacDonald was waiting with the horses, and Blackton was pointing over toward the steel workers, and was saying something about ten thousand pounds of black powder and dynamite and a mountain that had stood a million years and was going to be blown up that night.

"It's the best bit of work I've ever done, Aldous-that and Coyote Number Twenty-eight. Peggy was going to touch the electric button to Twenty-seven to-night, but we've decided to let Miss Gray do that, and Peggy'll fire Twenty-eight to-morrow night. Twenty-eight is almost ready. If you say so, the bunch of us will go over and see it in the morning. Mebby Miss Gray would like to see for herself that a coyote isn't only an animal with a bushy tail, but a cavern dug into rock an' filled with enough explosives to play high jinks with all the navies in the world if they happened to be on hand at the time. What do you say?"

"Fine!" said Aldous.

"And Peggy wants me to say that it's a matter of only common, every-day decency on your part to make yourself our guest while here," added the contractor, stuffing his pipe. "We've got plenty of room, enough to eat, and a comfortable bed for you. You're going to be polite enough to accept, aren't you?"

"With all my heart," exclaimed Aldous, his blood tingling at the thought of being near Joanne. "I've got some business with MacDonald and as soon as that's over I'll domicile myself here. It's bully of you, Blackton! You know--"

"Why, dammit, of course I know!" chuckled Blackton, lighting his pipe. "Can't I see, Aldous? D'ye think I'm blind? I was just as gone over Peggy before I married her. Fact is, I haven't got over it yet-and never will. I come up from the work four times a day regular to see her, and if I don't come I have to send up word I'm safe. Peggy saw it first. She said it was a shame to put you off in that cabin with Miss Gray away up here. I don't want to stick my nose in your business, old man, but-by George!--I congratulate you! I've only seen one lovelier woman in my life, and that's Peggy."

He thrust out a hand and pumped his friend's limp arm, and Aldous felt himself growing suddenly warm under the other's chuckling gaze.

"For goodness sake don't say anything, or act anything, old man," he pleaded. "I'm-just-hoping."

Blackton nodded with prodigious understanding in his eyes.

"Come along when you get through with MacDonald," he said. "I'm going in and clean up for to-night's fireworks."

A question was in Aldous' mind, but he did not put it in words. He wanted to know about Quade and Culver Rann.

"Blackton is such a ridiculously forgetful fellow at times that I don't want to rouse his alarm," he said to MacDonald as they were riding toward the corral a few minutes later. "He might let something out to Joanne and his wife, and I've got reasons-mighty good reasons, Mac-for keeping this affair as quiet as possible. We'll have to discover what Rann and Quade are doing ourselves."

MacDonald edged his horse in nearer to Aldous.

"See here, Johnny, boy-tell me what's in your mind?"

Aldous looked into the grizzled face, and there was something in the glow of the old mountaineer's eyes that made him think of a father.

"You know, Mac."

Old Donald nodded.

"Yes, I guess I do, Johnny," he said in a low voice. "You think of Mis' Joanne as I used to-to-think of her. I guess I know. But-what you goin' to do?"

Aldous shook his head, and for the first time that afternoon a look of uneasiness and gloom overspread his face.

"I don't know, Mac. I'm not ashamed to tell you. I love her. If she were to pass out of my life to-morrow I would ask for something that belonged to her, and the spirit of her would live in it for me until I died. That's how I care, Mac. But I've known her such a short time. I can't tell her yet. It wouldn't be the square thing. And yet she won't remain in Tête Jaune very long. Her mission is accomplished. And if-if she goes I can't very well follow her, can I, Mac?"

For a space old Donald was silent. Then he said, "You're thinkin' of me, Johnny, an' what we was planning on?"

"Partly."

"Then don't any more. I'll stick to you, an' we'll stick to her. Only--"

"What?"

"If you could get Peggy Blackton to help you--"

"You mean--" began Aldous eagerly.

"That if Peggy Blackton got her to stay for a week-mebby ten days-visitin' her, you know, it wouldn't be so bad if you told her then, would it, Johnny?"

"By George, it wouldn't!"

"And I think--"

"Yes--"

"Bein' an old man, an' seein' mebby what you don't see--"

"Yes--"

"That she'd take you, Johnny."

In his breast John's heart seemed suddenly to give a jump that choked him. And while he stared ahead old Donald went on.

"I've seen it afore, in a pair of eyes just like her eyes, Johnny-so soft an' deeplike, like the sky up there when the sun's in it. I seen it when we was ridin' behind an' she looked ahead at you, Johnny. I did. An' I've seen it afore. An' I think--"

Aldous waited, his heart-strings ready to snap.

"An' I think-she likes you a great deal, Johnny."

Aldous reached over and gripped MacDonald's hand.

"The good Lord bless you, Donald! We'll stick! As for Quade and Culver Rann--"

"I've been thinkin' of them," interrupted MacDonald. "You haven't got time to waste on them, Johnny. Leave 'em to me. If it's only a week you've got to be close an' near by Mis' Joanne. I'll find out what Quade an' Rann are doing, and what they're goin' to do. I've got a scheme. Will you leave 'em to me?"

Aldous nodded, and in the same breath informed MacDonald of Peggy Blackton's invitation. The old hunter chuckled exultantly. He stopped his horse, and Aldous halted.

"It's workin' out fine, Johnny!" he exclaimed. "There ain't no need of you goin' any further. We understand each other, and there ain't nothin' for you to do at the corral. Jump off your horse and go back. If I want you I'll come to the Blacktons' 'r send word, and if you want me I'll be at the corral or the camp in the coulee. Jump off, Johnny!"

Without further urging Aldous dismounted. They shook hands again, and MacDonald drove on ahead of him the saddled horses and the pack. And as Aldous turned back toward the bungalow old Donald was mumbling low in his beard again, "God ha' mercy on me, but I'm doin' it for her an' Johnny-for her an' Johnny!"

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