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   Chapter 19 No.19

The Hunted Woman By James Oliver Curwood Characters: 14865

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Joanne's white lips spoke first.

"The tunnel is closed!" she whispered.

Her voice was strange. It was not Joanne's voice. It was unreal, terrible, and her eyes were terrible as they looked steadily into his. Aldous could not answer; something had thickened in his throat, and his blood ran cold as he stared into Joanne's dead-white face and saw the understanding in her eyes. For a space he could not move, and then, as suddenly as it had fallen upon him, the effect of the shock passed away.

"The tunnel is closed," she whispered.... "That means we have just forty-five minutes to live.... Let us not lie to one another."

He smiled, and put out a hand to her.

"A slide of rock has fallen over the mouth of the tunnel," he said, forcing himself to speak as if it meant little or nothing. "Hold the lantern, Joanne, while I get busy."

"A slide of rock," she repeated after him dumbly.

She took the lantern, her eyes still looking at him in that stricken way, and with his naked hands John Aldous set to work. Five minutes and he knew that it was madness to continue. Hands alone could not clear the tunnel. And yet he worked, tearing into the rock and shale like an animal; rolling back small boulders, straining at larger ones until the tendons of his arms seemed ready to snap and his veins to burst. For a few minutes after that he went mad. His muscles cracked, he panted as he fought with the rock until his hands were torn and bleeding, and over and over again there ran through his head Blackton's last words-Four o'clock this afternoon!--Four o'clock this afternoon!

Then he came to what he knew he would reach very soon, a solid wall! Rock and shale and earth were packed as if by battering rams. For a few moments he fought to control himself before facing Joanne. Over him swept the grim realization that his last fight must be for her. He steadied himself, and wiped the dust and grime from his face with his handkerchief. For the last time he swallowed hard. His soul rose within him almost joyously now in the face of this last great fight, and he turned-John Aldous, the super-man. There was no trace of fear in his face as he went to her. He was even smiling in that ghostly glow of the lantern.

"It is hard work, Joanne."

She did not seem to hear what he had said. She was looking at his hands. She held the lantern nearer.

"Your hands are bleeding, John!"

It was the first time she had spoken his name like that, and he was thrilled by the calmness of her voice, the untrembling gentleness of her hand as it touched his hand. From his bruised and bleeding flesh she raised her eyes to him, and they were no longer the dumb, horrified eyes he had gazed into fifteen minutes before. In the wonder of it he stood silent, and the moment was weighted with an appalling silence.

It came to them both in that instant-the tick-tick-tick of the watch in his pocket!

Without taking her eyes from his face she asked:

"What time is it. John?"

"Joanne--"

"I am not afraid," she whispered. "I was afraid this afternoon, but I am not afraid now. What time is it, John?"

"My God-they'll dig us out!" he cried wildly. "Joanne, you don't think they won't dig us out, do you? Why, that's impossible! The slide has covered the wires. They've got to dig us out! There is no danger-none at all. Only it's chilly, and uncomfortable, and I'm afraid you'll take cold!"

"What time is it?" she repeated softly.

For a moment he looked steadily at her, and his heart leaped when he saw that she must believe him, for though her face was as white as an ivory cross she was smiling at him-yes! she was smiling at him in that gray and ghastly death-gloom of the cavern!

He brought out his watch, and in the lantern-glow they looked at it.

"A quarter after three," he said. "By four o'clock they will be at work-Blackton and twenty men. They will have us out in time for supper."

"A quarter after three," repeated Joanne, and the words came steadily from her lips. "That means--"

He waited.

"We have forty-five minutes in which to live!" she said.

Before he could speak she had thrust the lantern into his hand, and had seized his other hand in both her own.

"If there are only forty-five minutes let us not lie to one another," she said, and her voice was very close. "I know why you are doing it, John Aldous. It is for me. You have done a great deal for me in these two days in which one 'can be born, and live, and die.' But in these last minutes I do not want you to act what I know cannot be the truth. You know-and I know. The wires are laid to the battery rock. There is no hope. At four o'clock-we both know what will happen. And I-am not afraid."

She heard him choking for speech. In a moment he said:

"There are other lanterns-Joanne. I saw them when I was looking for the scarf. I will light them."

He found two lanterns hanging against the rock wall. He lighted them, and the half-burned candle.

"It is pleasanter," she said.

She stood in the glow of them when he turned to her, tall, and straight, and as beautiful as an angel. Her lips were pale; the last drop of blood had ebbed from her face; but there was something glorious in the poise of her head, and in the wistful gentleness of her mouth and the light in her eyes. And then, slowly, as he stood looking with a face torn in its agony for her, she held out her arms.

"John-John Aldous--"

"Joanne! Oh, my God!--Joanne!"

She swayed as he sprang to her, but she was smiling-smiling in that new and wonderful way as her arms reached out to him, and the words he heard her say came low and sobbing:

"John-John, if you want to, now-you can tell me that my hair is beautiful!"

And then she was in his arms, her warm, sweet body crushed close to him, her face lifted to him, her soft hands stroking his face, and over and over again she was speaking his name while from out of his soul there rushed forth the mighty flood of his great love; and he held her there, forgetful of time now, forgetful of death itself; and he kissed her tender lips, her hair, her eyes-conscious only that in the hour of death he had found life, that her hands were stroking his face, and caressing his hair, and that over and over again she was whispering sobbingly his name, and that she loved him. The pressure of her hands against his breast at last made him free her. And now, truly, she was glorious. For the triumph of love had overridden the despair of death, and her face was flooded with its colour and in her eyes was its glory.

And then, as they stood there, a step between them, there came-almost like the benediction of a cathedral bell-the soft, low tinkling chime of the half-hour bell in Aldous' watch!

It struck him like a blow. Every muscle in him became like rigid iron, and his torn hands clenched tightly at his sides.

"Joanne-Joanne, it is impossible!" he cried huskily, and he had her close in his arms again, even as her face was whitening in the lantern-glow. "I have lived for you, I have waited for you-all these years you have been coming, coming, coming to me-and now that you are mine-mine-it is impossible! It cannot happen--"

He freed her again, and caught up a lantern. Foot by foot he examined the packed tunnel. It was solid-not a crevice or a break through which might have travelled the sound of his voice or the explosion of a gun. He did not

shout. He knew that it would be hopeless, and that his voice would be terrifying in that sepulchral tomb. Was it possible that there might be some other opening-a possible exit-in that mountain wall? With the lantern in his hand he searched. There was no break. He came back to Joanne. She was standing where he had left her. And suddenly, as he looked at her, all fear went out of him, and he put down the lantern and went to her.

"Joanne," he whispered, holding her two hands against his breast, "you are not afraid?"

"No, I am not afraid."

"And you know--"

"Yes, I know," and she leaned forward so that her head lay partly against their clasped hands and partly upon his breast.

"And you love me, Joanne?"

"As I never dreamed that I should love a man, John Aldous," she whispered.

"And yet it has been but two days--"

"And I have lived an eternity," he heard her lips speak softly.

"You would be my wife?"

"Yes."

"To-morrow?"

"If you wanted me then, John."

"I thank God," he breathed in her hair. "And you would come to me without reservation, Joanne, trusting me, believing in me-you would come to me body, and heart, and soul?"

"In all those ways-yes."

"I thank God," he breathed again.

He raised her face. He looked deep into her eyes, and the glory of her love grew in them, and her lips trembled as she lifted them ever so little for him to kiss.

"Oh, I was happy-so happy," she whispered, putting her hands to his face. "John, I knew that you loved me, and oh! I was fighting so hard to keep myself from letting you know how happy it made me. And here, I was afraid you wouldn't tell me-before it happened. And John-John--"

She leaned back from him, and her white hands moved like swift shadows in her hair, and then, suddenly, it billowed about her-her glorious hair-covering her from crown to hip; and with her hands she swept and piled the lustrous masses of it over him until his face, and head, and shoulders were buried in the flaming sheen and sweet perfume of it.

He strained her closer. Through the warm richness of her tresses his lips pressed her lips, and they ceased to breathe. And up to their ears, pounding through that enveloping shroud of her hair came the tick-tick-tick of the watch in his pocket.

"Joanne," he whispered.

"Yes, John."

"You are not afraid of-death?"

"No, not when you are holding me like this, John."

He still clasped her hands, and a sweet smile crept over her lips.

"Even now you are splendid," she said. "Oh, I would have you that way, my John!"

Again they stood up in the unsteady glow of the lanterns.

"What time is it?" she asked.

He drew out his watch, and as they both looked his blood ran cold.

"Twelve minutes," she murmured, and there was not a quiver in her voice. "Let us sit down, John-you on this box, and I on the floor, at your feet-like this."

He seated himself on the box, and Joanne nestled herself at his knees, her hands clasped in his.

"I think, John," she said softly, "that very, very often we would have visited like this-you and I-in the evening."

A lump choked him, and he could not answer.

"I would very often have come and perched myself at your feet like this."

"Yes, yes, my beloved."

"And you would always have told me how beautiful my hair was-always. You would not have forgotten that, John-or have grown tired?"

"No, no-never!"

His arms were about her. He was drawing her closer.

"And we would have had beautiful times together, John-writing, and going adventuring, and-and--"

He felt her trembling, throbbing, and her arms tightened about him.

And now, again up through the smother of her hair, came the tick-tick-tick of his watch.

He felt her fumbling at his watch pocket, and in a moment she was holding the timepiece between them, so that the light of the lantern fell on the face of it.

"It is three minutes of four, John."

The watch slipped from her fingers, and now she drew herself up so that her arms were about his neck, and their faces touched.

"Dear John, you love me?"

"So much that even now, in the face of death, I am happy," he whispered. "Joanne, sweetheart, we are not going to be separated. We are going-together. Through all eternity it must be like this-you and I, together. Little girl, wind your hair about me-tight!"

"There-and there-and there, John! I have tied you to me, and you are buried in it! Kiss me, John--"

And then the wild and terrible fear of a great loneliness swept through him. For Joanne's voice had died away in a whispering breath, and the lips he kissed did not kiss him back, and her body lay heavy, heavy, heavy in his arms. Yet in his loneliness he thanked God for bringing her oblivion in these last moments, and with his face crushed to hers he waited. For he knew that it was no longer a matter of minutes, but of seconds, and in those seconds he prayed, until up through the warm smother of her hair-with the clearness of a tolling bell-came the sound of the little gong in his watch striking the Hour of Four!

In space other worlds might have crumbled into ruin; on earth the stories of empires might have been written and the lives of men grown old in those first century-long seconds in which John Aldous held his breath and waited after the chiming of the hour-bell in the watch on the cavern floor. How long he waited he did not know; how closely he was crushing Joanne to his breast he did not realize. Seconds, minutes, and other minutes-and his brain ran red in dumb, silent madness. And the watch! It ticked, ticked, ticked! It was like a hammer.

He had heard the sound of it first coming up through her hair. But it was not in her hair now. It was over him, about him-it was no longer a ticking, but a throb, a steady, jarring, beating throb. It grew louder, and the air stirred with it. He lifted his head. With the eyes of a madman he stared-and listened. His arms relaxed from about Joanne, and she slipped crumpled and lifeless to the floor. He stared-and that steady beat-beat-beat-a hundred times louder than the ticking of a watch-pounded in his brain. Was he mad? He staggered to the choked mouth of the tunnel, and then there fell shout upon shout, and shriek upon shriek from his lips, and twice, like a madman now, he ran back to Joanne and caught her up in his arms, calling and sobbing her name, and then shouting-and calling her name again. She moved; her eyes opened, and like one gazing upon the spirit of the dead she looked into the face of John Aldous, a madman's face in the lantern-glow.

"John-John--"

She put up her hands, and with a cry he ran with her in his arms to the choked tunnel.

"Listen! Listen!" he cried wildly. "Dear God in Heaven, Joanne-can you not hear them? It's Blackton-Blackton and his men! Hear-hear the rock-hammers smashing! Joanne-Joanne-we are saved!"

She did not sense him. She swayed, half on her feet, half in his arms, as consciousness and reason returned to her. Dazedly her hands went to his face in their old, sweet way. Aldous saw her struggling to understand-to comprehend; and he kissed her soft upturned lips, fighting back the excitement that made him want to raise his voice again in wild and joyous shouting.

"It is Blackton!" he said over and over again. "It is Blackton and his men! Listen!--you can hear their picks and the pounding of their rock-hammers!"

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