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   Chapter 5 Beauty-Proof

Philip Steele of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police By James Oliver Curwood Characters: 12217

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


It was Pierrot who aroused Philip in the morning.

"Mon, Dieu, but you have slept like a bear," he exclaimed. "The storm has cleared and it will be fine traveling. Eh-you have not heard? I wonder why they are firing guns off toward Lac Bain!"

Philip jumped from his bed, and his first look was in the direction of the box. He was criminal enough to hope that Jacques would not discover that the scarf was missing.

"A moose-probably," he said. "There were tracks close up to the post a day or two ago."

He was anxious to begin their journey, and assisted Pierrot in preparing breakfast. The sound of guns impressed upon him the possibility of some one from Lac Bain calling at the half-breed's cabin, and he wished to avoid further association with people from the post-at least for a time. At nine o'clock Pierrot bolted the door and the two set off into the south and west. On the third day they swung to the eastward to strike the Indians living along Reindeer Lake, and on the sixth cut a trail by compass straight for Nelson House. A week later they arrived at the post, and Philip found a letter awaiting him calling him to Prince Albert. In a way the summons was a relief to him. He bade Pierrot good-by, and set out for Le Pas in company with two Indians. From that point he took the work train to Etomami, and three hours later was in Prince Albert.

"Rest up for a time, Steele," Inspector MacGregor told him, after he had made a personal report on Bucky Nome.

During the week that followed Philip had plenty of leisure in which to tell himself that he was a fool, and that he was deliberately throwing away what a munificent fortune had placed in his hands. MacGregor's announcement that he was in line for promotion in the near future did not stir him as it would have done a few weeks before. In his little barracks room he laughed ironically as he recalled MacGregor's words, "We're going to make a corporal or a sergeant of you." He-Philip Steele-millionaire, club man, son of a western king of finance-a corporal or a sergeant! For the first time the thought amused him, and then it maddened him. He had played the part of an idiot, and all because there had been born within him a love of adventure and the big, free life of the open. No wonder some of his old club friends regarded him as a scapegrace and a ne'er-do-well. He had thrown away position, power, friends and home as carelessly as he might have tossed away the end of a cigar. And all-for this! He looked about his cramped quarters, a half sneer on his lips. He had tied himself to this! To his ears there came faintly the thunder of galloping hoofs. Sergeant Moody was training his rookies to ride. The sneer left his lips, and was replaced by a quick, alert smile as he heard a rattle of revolver shots and the cheering of voices. After all, it was not so bad. It was a service that made men, and he thought of the English remittance-man, whose father was a lord of something-or-other, and who was learning to ride and shoot out there with red-headed, raucous-voiced Moody. There began to stir in him again the old desire for action, and he was glad when word was sent to him that Inspector MacGregor wished to see him in his office.

The big inspector was pacing back and forth when Philip came in.

"Sit down, Steele, sit down," he said. "Take it easy, man-and have a cigar."

If MacGregor had suddenly gone into a fit Philip could not have been more surprised than at these words, as he stood with his cap in his hand before the desk of the fiery-mustached inspector, who was passing his box of choice Havanas. There are tightly drawn lines of distinction in the Royal Mounted. As Philip had once heard the commissioner say, "Every man in the service is a king-but there are different degrees of kings," and for a barracks man to be asked to sit in the inspector's office and smoke was a sensational breach of the usual code. But as he had distinctly heard the invitation to sit, and to smoke, Philip proceeded to do both, and waited in silence for the next mine to explode under his feet. And there was a certain ease in his manner of doing these things which would have assured most men that he was not unaccustomed to sitting in the presence of greatness.

The inspector seemed to notice this. For a moment he stood squarely in front of Steele, his hands shoved deep into his pockets, a twinkle in the cold, almost colorless eyechuckling, companionable laugh, such as finds its vent in the fellowship of equals, but which is seldom indulged in by a superior before an inferior in the R.N.W.M. Police.

"Mighty good cigars, eh, Steele?" he asked, turning slowly toward the window. "The commissioner sent 'em up to me from Regina. Nothing like a good cigar on a dreary day like this. Whew, listen to the wind-straight from Medicine Hat!"

For a few moments he looked out upon the cheerless drab roofs of the barracks, with their wisps of pale smoke swirling upward into the leaden sky; counted the dozen gnarled and scrubby trees, as had become a habit with him; rested his eyes upon the black and shriveled remnants of summer flower-beds thrusting their frost-shrunken stalks through the snow, and then, almost as if he were speaking to himself, he said, "Steele, are you beautyproof?"

There was no banter in his voice. It was low, so low that it had in it the ring of something more than mere desire for answer, and when the inspector turned, Philip observed a thing that he had never seen before-a flush in MacGregor's face. His pale eyes gleamed. His voice was filled with an intense earnestness as he repeated the question. "I want to know, Steele. Are you beauty-proof?"

In spite of himself Philip felt the fire rising in his own face. In that moment the inspector could have hit on no words that would have thrilled him more deeply than those which he had spoken. Beauty-proof! Did MacGregor know? Was it possible- He took a step forward, words came to his lips, but he caught himself before he had given voice to them.

Beauty-proof!

He laughed, softly, as the inspector had l

aughed a few moments before. But there was a strange tenseness in his face-something which MacGregor saw, but could not understand.

"Beauty-proof?" He repeated the words, looking keenly at the other. "Yes, I think I am, sir."

"You think you are?"

"I am quite sure that I am. Inspector. That is as far as I can go."

The inspector seated himself at his desk and opened a drawer. From it he took a photograph. For some time he gazed at it in silence, puffing out clouds of smoke from his cigar. Then, without lifting his eyes from the picture, he said: "I am going to put you up against a queer case, Steele, and the strangest thing about it is its very simplicity. It's a job for the greenest rookie in the service, and yet I swear that there isn't another man in Saskatchewan to whom I would talk as I am about to talk to you. Rather paradoxical, isn't it?"

"Rather," agreed Philip.

"And yet not when you come to understand the circumstances," continued the inspector, placing the photograph face down on the table and looking at the other through a purple cloud of tobacco smoke. "You see, Steele, I know who you are. I know that your father is Philip Steele, the big Chicago banker. I know that you are up here for romance and adventure rather than for any other thing there is in the service. I know, too, that you are no prairie chicken, and that most of your life has been spent where you see beautiful women every hour of the day, and where soft voices and tender smiles aren't the most wonderful things in the world, as they sometimes are up here. Fact is, we have a way of our own of running down records-"

"And a confounded clever one it must be," interrupted Philip irreverently. "Had you any-any particular reason for supposing me to be 'beauty-proof,' as you call it?" he added coldly.

"I've told you my only reason," said the inspector, leaning over his desk. "You've seen so many pretty faces, Steele, and you've associated with them so long that one up here isn't going to turn your head. Now-"

MacGregor hesitated, and laughed. The flush grew deeper in his cheeks, and he looked again at the photograph.

"I'm going to be frank with you," he went on. "This young woman called on me yesterday, and within a quarter of an hour-fifteen minutes, mind you!-she had me going like a fool! Understand? I'm not proof-against her-and yet I'm growing old in the service and haven't had a love affair since-a long time ago. I'm going to send you up to the Wekusko camp, above Le Pas, to bring down a prisoner. The man is her husband, and he almost killed Hodges, who is chief of construction up there. The minimum he'll get is ten years, and this woman is moving heaven and earth to save him. So help me God, Steele, if I was one of the youngsters, and she came to me as she did yesterday, I believe I'd let him give me the slip! But it mustn't happen. Understand? It mustn't happen. We've got to bring that man down, and we've got to give him the law. Simple thing, isn't it-this bringing a prisoner down from Wekusko! Any rookie could do it, couldn't he? And yet-"

The inspector paused to light his cigar, which had gone out. Then he added: "If you'll do this, Steele-and care for it-I'll see that you get your promotion."

As he finished, he tossed the photograph across the desk. "That's she. Don't ask me how I got the picture."

A curious thrill shot through Philip as he picked up the bit of cardboard. It was a wondrously sweet face that looked squarely out of it into his eyes, a face so youthful, so filled with childish prettiness that an exclamation of surprise rose to his lips. Under other circumstances he would have sworn that it was the picture of a school-girl. He looked up, about to speak, but MacGregor had turned again to the window, clouds of smoke about his head. He spoke without turning his head.

"That was taken nearly ten years ago," he said, and Philip knew that he was making an effort to keep an unnatural break out of his voice. "But there has been little change-almost none. His name is Thorpe. I will send you a written order this afternoon and you can start to-night."

Philip rose, and waited.

"Is there nothing more?" he asked, after a moment. "This woman-"

"There is nothing more," interrupted the inspector, still looking out through the window.

"Only this, Steele-you must bring him back. Whatever happens, bring back your prisoner."

As he turned to leave, Philip fancied that he caught something else-a stifled, choking breath, a sound that made him turn his head again as he went through the door. The inspector had not moved.

"Now what the deuce does this mean?" he asked himself, closing the door softly behind him. "You're up against something queer this time, Philip Steele, I'll wager dollars to doughnuts. Promotion for bringing in a prisoner! What in thunder-"

He stopped for a moment in one of the cleared paths. From the big low roofed drill enclosure a hundred yards away came the dull thud of galloping hoofs and the voice of Sergeant Moody thundering instructions to the rookies. Moody had a heart like flint and would have faced blazing cannon to perform his duty. He had grown old and ugly in the service and was as beauty-proof as an ogre of stone. Why hadn't MacGregor sent him?

Beauty-proof! The words sent a swift rush of thought, of regret, of the old homesickness and longing through Philip as he returned to his quarters. He wondered just how much MacGregor knew, and he sat down to bring up before him for the thousandth time a vision of the two faces that had played their part in his life-the face of the girl at home, as beautiful as a Diane de Poitiers, as soulless as a sphinx, who had offered herself to him in return for his name and millions, and of that other which he had met away up in the frozen barrens of Lac Bain. Beauty-proof! He laughed and loaded his pipe. MacGregor had made a good guess, even though he did not know what had passed that winter before he came north to seek adventure, or of the fight he had made for another woman, with Mr. Bucky Nome-deserter!

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