A STORY OF THE MOUNTED POLICE by James Oliver Curwood
THE FIDDLING MAN -- A Story of the Royal North-West Mounted Police
By James Oliver Curwood
James Oliver Curwood was born in Owosso, Michigan on June 12, 1878. In 1909, Curwood took his first trip into the Canadian Northwest. For the next 18 years he would spend up to six months of each year in the wilderness, exploring, writing, and building log cabins. An avid conservationist, he travelled extensively thoughout the Canadian Northwest.
His first published book set in Canada was THE WOLF HUNTERS: A Tale of Adventures in the Northwest, published in 1908. In 1911, he published PHILIP STEELE OF THE ROYAL NORTHWEST MOUNTED POLICE. From then on, the Mounties would appear in a lot of his major works. In 1915, GOD'S COUNTRY -- AND THE WOMAN appeared. He coined the phrase from the English meaning of the Cree Indian name, "Manitoba," not knowing that "God's Country" would soon become a popular phrase for all of the Canadian wilderness -- and beyond.
James Oliver Curwood was an avid hunter of wild game. But as he aged -- especially after a thrilling encounter with a savage grizzly bear that decided not to kill Curwood -- the author chose to shoot his prey with a camera, not a hunting rifle. His encounter with the grizzly became the basis for his book THE BEAR.
Although KAZAN THE WOLF DOG is now remembered as his masterwork, he had many bestsellers in the 1920's, including THE RIVER'S END: A New Story of God's Country, THE VALLEY OF SILENT MEN: A Story of the Three River Country and THE FLAMING FOREST: A Novel of the Canadian Northwest. His autobiography is SON OF THE FORESTS.
To learn more about KAZAN THE WOLF DOG, and his other animal stories, see DOGS IN LITERATURE & HOLLYWOOD
"The Fiddling Man" first appeared in bookform in his collection BACK TO GOD'S COUNTRY.
THE FIDDLING MAN
Breault's cough was not pleasant to hear.
A cough possesses manifold and almost unclassifiable diversities.
But there is only one cough when a man has a bullet through his lungs...
And is measuring his life by minutes, perhaps seconds.
Yet Breault, even as he coughed the red stain from his
lips, was not afraid. Many times he had found himself in the presence of
death, and long ago it had ceased to frighten him. Some day he had
expected to come under the black shadow of it himself--not in a quiet and
peaceful way, but all at once, with a shock. And the time had come. He
knew that he was dying; and he was calm. More than that--in dying he was
achieving a triumph. The red-hot death-sting in his lung had given birth
to a frightful thought in his sickening brain. The day of his great
opportunity was at hand. The hour--the minute.
A last flush of the pale afternoon sun lighted up his black-bearded face
as his eyes turned, with their new inspiration, to his sledge. It was a
face that one would remember--not pleasantly, perhaps, but as a fixture
in a shifting memory of things; a face strong with a brute strength,
implacable in its hard lines, emotionless almost, and beyond that, a
It was the best known face in all that part of the northland which
reaches up from Fort McMurray to Lake Athabasca and westward to Fond du
Lac and the Wholdais country. For ten years Breault had made that trip
twice a year with the northern mails. In all its reaches there was not a
cabin he did not know, a face he had not seen, or a name he could not
speak; yet there was not a man, woman, or child who welcomed him except
for what he brought. But the government had found its faith in him
The police at their lonely outposts had come to regard his
comings and goings as dependable as day and night. They blessed him for
his punctuality, and not one of them missed him when he was gone. A
strange man was Breault.
With his back against a tree, where he had propped himself after the
first shock of the bullet in his lung, he took a last look at life with a
passionless imperturbability. If there was any emotion at all in his face
it was one of vindictiveness--an emotion roused by an intense and
terrible hatred that in this hour saw the fulfilment of its vengeance.
Few men nursed a hatred as Breault had nursed his. And it gave him
strength now, when another man would have died.
He measured the distance between himself and the sledge. It was, perhaps,
a dozen paces. The dogs were still standing, tangled a little in their
traces,--eight of them,--wide-chested, thin at the groins, a wolfish
horde, built for endurance and speed.
On the sledge was a quarter of a
ton of his Majesty's mail. Toward this Breault began to creep slowly and
with great pain. A hand inside of him seemed crushing the fiber of his
lung, so that the blood oozed out of his mouth. When he reached the
sledge there were many red patches in the snow behind him. He opened with
considerable difficulty a small dunnage sack, and after fumbling a bit
took there-from a pencil attached to a long red string, and a soiled
For the first time a change came upon his countenance--a ghastly smile.
And above his hissing breath, that gushed between his lips with the sound
of air pumped through the fine mesh of a colander, there rose a still
more ghastly croak of exultation and of triumph. Laboriously he wrote. A
few words, and the pencil dropped from his stiffening fingers into the
snow. Around his neck he wore a long red scarf held together by a big
brass pin, and to this pin he fastened securely the envelope.
This much done,--the mystery of his death solved for those who might some
day find him,--the ordinary man would have contented himself by yielding
up life's struggle with as little more physical difficulty as possible.
Breault was not ordinary. He was, in his one way, efficiency incarnate.
He made space for himself on the sledge, and laid himself out in that
space with great care, first taking pains to fasten about his thighs two
babiche thongs that were employed at times to steady his freight. Then he
ran his left arm through one of the loops of the stout mail-chest. By
taking these precautions he was fairly secure in the belief that after he
was dead and frozen stiff no amount of rough trailing by the dogs could
roll him from the sledge.
In this conjecture he was right. When the starved and exhausted malamutes
dragged their silent burden into the Royal North-West Mounted Police outpost
barracks at Crooked Bow twenty-four hours later, an ax and a sapling bar
were required to pry Francois Breault from his bier.
Previous to this process, however, Sergeant Fitzgerald, in charge at the outpost, took
possession of the soiled envelope pinned to Breault's red scarf. The
information it bore was simple, and yet exceedingly definite. Few men in
dying as Breault had died could have made the matter easier for the
On the envelope he had written:
"Jan Thoreau shot me and left me for dead. Have just strength to write
It was epic--a colossal monument to this man, thought Sergeant
Fitzgerald, as they pried the frozen body loose.
To Corporal Blake fell the unpleasant task of going after Jan Thoreau.
Unpleasant, because Breault's starved huskies and frozen body brought
with them the worst storm of the winter. In the face of this storm Blake
set out, with the Sergeant's last admonition in his ears:
"Don't come back, Blake, until you've got him, dead or alive."
That is a simple and efficacious formula in the rank and file of the
Royal North-West Mounted Police. It has made volumes of stirring history,
because it means a great deal and has been lived up to. Twice before, the
words had been uttered to Blake--in extreme cases.
The first time they had taken him for six months into the Barren Lands between Hudson's Bay
and the Great Slave--and he came back with his man; the second time he
was gone for nearly a year along the rim of the Arctic--and from there
also he came back with his man. Blake was of that sort. A bull-dog, a
Nemesis when he was once on the trail, and--like most men of that
kind--without a conscience.
In the Blue Books of the service he was credited with arduous patrols and unusual exploits. "Put Blake on the
trail" meant something, and "He is one of our best men" was a firmly
established conviction at departmental headquarters.
Only one man knew Blake as Blake actually lived under his skin--and that
was Blake himself. He hunted men and ran them down without mercy--not
because he loved the law, but for the reason that he had in him the
inherited instincts of the hound. This comparison, if quite true, is none
the less unfair to the hound. A hound is a good dog at heart.
In the January storm it may be that the vengeful spirit of Francois
Breault set out in company with Corporal Blake to witness the
consummation of his vengeance. That first night, as he sat close to his
fire in the shelter of a thick spruce timber, Blake felt the unusual and
disturbing sensation of a presence somewhere near him. The storm was at
its height. He had passed through many storms, but to-night there seemed
to be an uncannily concentrated fury in its beating and wailing over the
roofs of the forests.
He was physically comfortable. The spruce trees were so dense that the
storm did not reach him, and fortune favored him with a good fire and
plenty of fuel. But the sensation oppressed him. He could not keep away
from him his mental vision of Breault as he had helped to pry him from
the sledge--his frozen features, the stiffened fingers, the curious twist
of the icy lips that had been almost a grin.
Blake was not superstitious. He was too much a man of iron for that. His
soul had lost the plasticity of imagination. But he could not forget
Breault's lips as they had seemed to grin up at him. There was a reason
for it. On his last trip down, Breault had said to him, with that same
half-grin on his face:
"M'sieu, some day you may go after my murderer, and when you do, Francois
Breault will go with you."
That was three months ago. Blake measured the time back as he sucked at
his pipe, and at the same time he looked at the shadowy and half-lost
forms of his dogs, curled up for the night in the outer rim of firelight.
Over the tree-tops a sudden blast of wind howled. It was like a monster
voice. Blake rose to his feet and rolled upon the fire the big night log
he had dragged in, and to this he added, with the woodman's craft of long
experience, lengths of green timber, so arranged that they would hold
fire until morning. Then he went into his silk service tent and buried
himself in his sleeping-bag.
For a long time he did not sleep. He listened to the crackle of the fire.
Again and again he heard that monster voice moaning and shrieking over
the forest. Never had the rage of storm filled him with the uneasiness of
to-night. At last the mystery of it was solved for him. The wind came and
went each time in a great moaning, half shrieking sound:
It was like a shock to him; and yet, he was not a superstitious man. No,
he was not that. He would have staked his life on it. But it was not
pleasant to hear a dead man's name shrieked over one's head by the wind.
Under the cover of his sleeping-bag flap Corporal Blake laughed. Funny
things were always happening, he tried to tell himself. And this was a
mighty good joke. Breault wasn't so slow, after all. He had given his
promise, and he was keeping it; for, if it wasn't really Breault's voice
up there in the wind, multiplied a thousand times, it was a good
imitation of it. Again Corporal Blake laughed--a laugh as unpleasant as
the cough that had come from Breault's bullet-punctured lung. He fell
asleep after a time; but even sleep could not drive from him the clinging
obsession of the thought that strange things were to happen in this
taking of Jan Thoreau.
With the gray dawn there was nothing to mark the passing of the storm
except freshly fallen snow, and Blake was on the trail before it was
light enough to see a hundred yards ahead. There was a defiance and a
contempt of last night in the crack of his long caribou-gut whip and the
halloo of his voice as he urged on his dogs. Breault's voice in the wind?
Bah! Only a fool would have thought that. Therefore he was a fool. And
Jan Thoreau--it would be like taking a child. There would be no
happenings to report--merely an arrest, a quick return journey, an affair
altogether too ordinary to be interesting. Perhaps it was all on account
of the hearty supper of caribou liver he had eaten. He was fond of liver,
and once or twice before it had played him tricks.
He began to wonder if he would find Jan Thoreau at home. He remembered
Jan quite vividly. The Indians called him Kitoochikun because he played a
fiddle. Blake, the Iron Man, disliked him because of that fiddle. Jan was
never without it, on the trail or off. The Fiddling Man, he called him
contemptuously--a baby, a woman; not fit for the big north. Tall and
slim, with blond hair in spite of his French blood and name, a quiet and
unexcitable face, and an air that Blake called "damned superiority." He
wondered how the Fiddling Man had ever screwed up nerve enough to kill
Breault. Undoubtedly there had been no fight. A quick and treacherous
shot, no doubt. That was like a man who played a fiddle. POOF! He had no
more respect for him than if he dressed in woman's clothing.
And he DID have a wife, this Jan Thoreau. They lived a good twenty miles
off the north-and-south trail, on an island in the middle of Black Bear
Lake. He had never seen the wife. A poor sort of woman, he made up his
mind, that would marry a fiddler. Probably a half-breed; maybe an Indian.
Anyway, he had no sympathy for her. Without a doubt, it was the woman who
did the trapping and cut the wood. Any man who would tote a fiddle around
on his back--
Corporal Blake traveled fast, and it was afternoon of the second day when
he came to the dense spruce forest that shut in Black Bear Lake. Here
something happened to change his plans somewhat. He met an Indian he
knew--an Indian who, for two or three good reasons that stuck in the back
of his head, dared not lie to him; and this tribesman, coming straight
from the Thoreau cabin, told him that Jan was not at home, but had gone
on a three-day trip to see the French missioner who lived on one of the
lower Wholdaia waterways.
Blake was keen on strategem. With him, man-hunting was like a game of
chess; and after he had questioned the Indian for a quarter of an hour he
saw his opportunity. Pastamoo, the Cree, was made a part of his Majesty's
service on the spot, with the promise of torture and speedy execution if
he proved himself a traitor.
Blake turned over to him his dogs and sledge, his provisions, and his
tent, and commanded him to camp in the heart of a cedar swamp a few miles
back, with the information that he would return for his outfit at some
time in the indefinite future. He might be gone a day or a week. When he
had seen Pastamoo off, he continued his journey toward the cabin, in the
hope that Jan Thoreau's wife was either an Indian or a fool. He was too
old a hand at his game to be taken in by the story that had been told to
Jan had not gone to the French missioner's. A murderer's trail would not
be given away like that. Of course the wife knew. And Corporal Blake
desired no better string to a criminal than the faith of a wife. Wives
were easy if handled right, and they had put the finishing touch to more
than one of his great successes.
At the edge of the lake he fell back on his old trick--hunger,
exhaustion, a sprained leg. It was not more than a quarter of a mile
across the snow-covered ice of the lake to the thin spiral of smoke that
he saw rising above the thick balsams on the island. Five times in that
distance he fell upon his face; he crawled like a man about to die. He
performed an arduous task, a devilish task, and when at last he reached
the balsams he cursed his luck until he was red in the face. No one had
seen him. That quarter-mile of labor was lost, its finesse a failure. But
he kept up the play, and staggered weakly through the sheltering balsams
to the cabin. His artifice had no shame, even when played on women; and
he fell heavily against the door, beat upon it with his fist; and slipped
down into the snow, where he lay with his head bowed, as if his last
strength was gone.
He heard movement inside, quick steps--and then the door opened. He did
not look up for a moment. That would have been crude. When he did raise
his head, it was very slowly, with a look of anguish in his face. And
then--he stared. His body all at once grew tense, and the counterfeit
pain in his eyes died out like a flash in this most astounding moment of
his life. Man of iron though he was, steeled to the core against the
weaknesses of sudden emotions, it was impossible for him to restrain the
gasp of amazement that rose to his lips.
In that stifled cry Jan Thoreau's wife heard the supplication of a dying
man. She did not catch, back of it, the note of a startled beast. She was
herself startled, frightened for a moment by the unexpectedness of it
And Blake stared. This--the fiddler's wife! She was clutching in her hand
a brush with which she had been arranging her hair. The hair, jet black,
was wonderful. Her eyes were still more wonderful to Blake. She was not
an Indian--not a half-breed--and beautiful. The loveliest face he had
ever visioned, sleeping or awake, was looking down at him.
With a second gasp, he remembered himself, and his body sagged, and the
amazed stare went out of his eyes as he allowed his head to fall a
little. In this movement his cap fell off. In another moment she was at
his side, kneeling in the snow and bending over him.
"You are hurt, m'sieu!"
Her hair fell upon him, smothering his neck and shoulders. The perfume of
it was like the delicate scent of a rare flower in his nostrils. A
strange thrill swept through him. He did not try to analyze it in those
few astonishing moments. It was beyond his comprehension, even had he
tried. He was ignorant of the finer fundamentals of life, and of the
great truth that the case-hardened nature of a man, like the body of an
athlete, crumbles fastest under sudden and unexpected change and strain.
He regained his feet slowly and stupidly, assisted by Marie. They climbed
the one step to the door. As he sank back heavily on the cot, in the room
they entered, a thick tress of her hair fell softly upon his face. He
closed his eyes for a space. When he opened them, Marie was bending over
And SHE was Thoreau's wife! The instant he had looked up into her face,
he had forgotten the fiddler; but he remembered him now as he watched the
woman, who stood with her back toward him. She was as slim as a reed. Her
hair fell to her hips. He drew a deep breath. Unconsciously he clenched
his hands. SHE--the fiddler's wife! The thought repeated itself again and
again. Jan Thoreau, MURDERER, and this woman--HIS WIFE.
She returned in a moment with hot tea, and he drank with subtle hypocrisy
from the cup she held to his lips.
"Sprained my leg," he said then, remembering his old part, and replying
to the questioning anxiety in her eyes. "Dogs ran away and left me, and I
got here just by chance. A little more and--"
He smiled grimly, and as he sank back he gave a sharp cry. He had
practised that cry in more than one cabin, and along with it a convulsion
of his features to emphasize the impression he labored to make.
"I'm afraid--I'll be a trouble to you," he apologized. "It's not broken;
but it's bad, and I won't be able to move--soon. Is Jan at home?"
"No, m'sieu; he is away."
"Away," repeated Blake disappointedly. "Perhaps sometime he has told you
about me," he added with sudden hopefulness. "I am John Duval."
Marie's eyes, looking down at him, became all at once great pools of
glowing light. Her lips parted. She leaned toward him, her slim hands
clasped suddenly to her breast.
"M'sieu Duval--who nursed him through the smallpox?" she cried, her voice
trembling. "M'sieu Duval--who saved my Jan's life!"
Blake had looked up his facts at headquarters. He knew what Duval, the
Barren Land trapper, had once upon a time done for Jan.
"Yes; I am John Duval," said. "And so--you see--I am sorry that Jan is
"But he is coming back soon--in a few days," exclaimed Marie. "You shall
stay, m'sieu! You will wait for him? Yes?"
"This leg--" began Blake. He cut himself short with a grimace. "Yes, I'll
stay. I guess I'll have to."
Marie had changed at the mention of Duval's name. With the glow in her
eyes had come a flush into her cheeks, and Blake could see the strange
little quiver at her throat as she looked at him. But she did not see
Blake so much as what lay beyond him--Duval's lonely cabin away up on the
edge of the Great Barren, the hours of darkness and agony through which
Jan had passed, and the magnificent comradeship of this man who had now
dragged himself to their own cabin, half dead.
Many times Jan had told her the story of that terrible winter when Duval
had nursed him like a woman, and had almost given up his life as a
sacrifice. And this--THIS--was Duval? She bent over him again as he lay
on the cot, her eyes shining like stars in the growing dusk. In that dusk
she was unconscious of the fact that his fingers had found a long tress
of her hair and were clutching it passionately. Remembering Duval as Jan
had enshrined him in her heart, she said:
"I have prayed many times that the great God might thank you, m'sieu."
He raised a hand. For an instant it touched her soft, warm cheek and
caressed her hair. Marie did not shrink--yes, that would have been an
insult. Even Jan would have said that. For was not this Duval, to whom
she owed all the happiness in her life--Duval, more than brother to Jan
Thoreau, her husband?
"And you--are Marie?" said Blake.
"Yes, m'sieu, I am Marie."
A joyous note trembled in her voice as she drew back from the cot. He
could hear her swiftly braiding her hair before she struck a match to
light the oil lamp hanging from the ceiling. After that, through partly
closed eyes, he watched her as she prepared their supper. Occasionally,
when she turned toward him as if to speak, he feigned a desire to sleep.
It was a catlike watchfulness, filled with his old cunning. In his face
there was no sign to betray its hideous significance. Outwardly he had
regained his iron-like impassiveness; but in his body and his brain every
nerve and fiber was consumed by a monstrous desire--a desire for this
woman, the murderer's wife. It was as strange and as sudden as the death
that had come to Francois Breault.
The moment he had looked up into her face in the doorway, it had
overwhelmed him. And now even the sound of her footsteps on the floor
filled him with an exquisite exultation. It was more than exultation. It
was a feeling of POSSESSION.
In the hollow of his hand he--Blake, the man-hunter--held the fate of
this woman. She was the Fiddler's wife--and the Fiddler was a murderer.
Marie heard the sudden deep breath that forced itself from his lips, a
gasp that would have been a cry of triumph if he had given it voice.
"You are in pain, m'sieu," she exclaimed, turning toward him quickly.
"A little," he said, smiling at her. "Will you help me to sit up, Marie?"
He saw ahead of him another and more thrilling game than the man-hunt
now. And Marie, unsuspicious, put her arms about the shoulders of the
Pharisee and helped him to rise. They ate their supper with a narrow
table between them. If there had been a doubt in Blake's mind before
that, the half hour in which she sat facing him dispelled it utterly. At
first the amazing beauty of Thoreau's wife had impinged itself upon his
senses with something of a shock. But he was cool now. He was again
master of his old cunning. Pitilessly and without conscience, he was
marshaling the crafty forces of his brute nature for this new and more
thrilling fight--the fight for a woman.
That in representing the Law he was pledged to virtue as well as order
had never entered into his code of life. To him the Law was force--power.
It had exalted him. It had forged an iron mask over the face of his
savagery. And it was the savage that was dominant in him now. He saw in
Marie's dark eyes a great love--love for a murderer.
It was not his thought that he might alienate that. For that look, turned
upon himself, he would have sacrificed his whole world as it had
previously existed. He was scheming beyond that impossibility, measuring
her even as he called himself Duval, counting--not his chances of
success, but the length of time it would take him to succeed.
He had never failed. A man had never beaten him. A woman had never
tricked him. And he granted no possibility of failure now. But--HOW? That
was the question that writhed and twisted itself in his brain even as he
smiled at her over the table and told her of the black days of Jan's
sickness up on the edge of the Barren.
And then it came to him--all at once. Marie did not see. She did not
FEEL. She had no suspicion of this loyal friend of her husband's.
Blake's heart pounded triumphant. He hobbled back to the cot, leaning on
Marie slim shoulder; and as he hobbled he told her how he had helped Jan
into his cabin in just this same way, and how at the end Jan had
collapsed--just as he collapsed when he came to the cot. He pulled Marie
down with him--accidentally. His lips touched her head. He laughed.
For a few moments he was like a drunken man in his new joy. Willingly he
would have gambled his life on his chance of winning. But confidence
displaced none of his cunning. He rubbed his hands and said:
"Gawd, but won't it be a surprise for Jan? I told him that some day I'd
come. I told him!"
It would be a tremendous joke--this surprise he had in store for Jan. He
chuckled over it again and again as Marie went about her work; and
Marie's face flushed and her eyes were bright and she laughed softly at
this great love which Duval betrayed for her husband. No; even the loss
of his dogs and his outfit couldn't spoil his pleasure! Why should it? He
could get other dogs and another outfit--but it had been three years
since he had seen Jan Thoreau! When Marie had finished her work he put
his hand suddenly to his eyes and said:
"Peste! but last night's storm must have hurt my eyes. The light blinds
them, ma cheri. Will you put it out, and sit down near me, so that I can
see you as you talk, and tell me all that has happened to Jan Thoreau
since that winter three years ago?"
She put out the light, and threw open the door of the box-stove. In the
dim firelight she sat on a stool beside Blake's cot. Her faith in him was
like that of a child. She was twenty-two. Blake was fifteen years older.
She felt the immense superiority of his age.
This man, you must understand, had been more than a brother to Jan. He
had been a father. He had risked his life. He had saved him from death.
And Marie, as she sat at his side, did not think of him as a young
man--thirty-seven. She talked to him as she might have talked to an elder
brother of Jan's, and with something like the same reverence in her
It was unfortunate--for her--that Jan had loved Duval, and that he had
never tired of telling her about him. And now, when Blake's caution
warned him to lie no more about the days of plague in Duval's cabin, she
told him--as he had asked her--about herself and Jan; how they had lived
during the last three years, the important things that had happened to
them, and what they were looking forward to. He caught the low note of
happiness that ran through her voice; and with a laugh, a laugh that
sounded real and wholesome, he put out his hand in the darkness--for the
fire had burned itself low--and stroked her hair. She did not shrink from
the caress. He was happy because THEY were happy. That was her thought!
And Blake did not go too far.
She went on, telling Jan's life away, betraying him In her happiness,
crucifying him in her faith. Blake knew that she was telling the truth.
She did not know that Jan had killed Francois Breault, and she believed
that he would surely return--in three days. And the way he had left her
that morning! Yes, she confided even that to this big brother of Jan, her
cheeks flushing hotly in the darkness--how he had hated to go, and held
her a long time in his arms before he tore himself away.
Had he taken his fiddle along with him? Yes--always that. Next to herself
he loved his violin. Oo-oo--no, no--she was not jealous of the violin!
Blake laughed--such a big, healthy, happy laugh, with an odd tremble in
it. He stroked her hair again, and his fingers lay for an instant against
her warm cheek.
And then, quite casually, he played his second big card.
"A man was found dead on the trail yesterday," he said. "Some one killed
him. He had a bullet through his lung. He was the mail-runner, Francois
It was then, when he said that Breault had been murdered, that Blake's
hand touched Marie's cheek and fell to her shoulder. It was too dark in
the cabin to see. But under his hand he felt her grow suddenly rigid, and
for a moment or two she seemed to stop breathing. In the gloom Blake's
lips were smiling. He had struck, and he needed no light to see the
"Francois--Breault!" he heard her breathe at last, as if she was fighting
to keep something from choking her. "Francois Breault--dead--killed by
She rose slowly. His eyes followed her, a shadow in the gloom as she
moved toward the stove. He heard her strike a match, and when she turned
toward him again in the light of the oil-lamp, her face was pale and her
eyes were big and staring. He swung himself to the edge of the cot, his
pulse beating with the savage thrill of the inquisitor. Yet he knew that
it was not quite time for him to disclose himself--not quite. He did not
dread the moment when he would rise and tell her that he was not injured,
and that he was not M'sieu Duval, but Corporal Blake of the Royal Mounted
Police. He was eager for that moment. But he waited--discreetly. When the
trap was sprung there would be no escape.
"You are sure--it was Francois Breault?" she said at last.
"Yes, the mail-runner. You knew him?"
She had moved to the table, and her hand was gripping the edge of it. For
a space she did not answer him, but seemed to be looking somewhere
through the cabin walls--a long way off. Ferret-like, he was watching
her, and saw his opportunity. How splendidly fate was playing his way!
He rose to his feet and hobbled painfully to her, a splendid hypocrite, a
magnificent dissembler. He seized her hand and held it in both his own.
It was small and soft, but strangely cold.
"Ma cheri--my dear child--what makes you look like that? What has the
death of Francois Breault to do with you--you and Jan?"
It was the voice of a friend, a brother, low, sympathetic, filled just
enough with anxiety. Only last winter, in just that way, it had won the
confidence and roused the hope of Pierrot's wife, over on the Athabasca.
In the summer that followed they hanged Pierrot. Gently Blake spoke the
words again. Marie's lips trembled. Her great eyes were looking at
him--straight into his soul, it seemed.
"You may tell me, ma cheri," he encouraged, barely above a whisper. "I am
Duval. And Jan--I love Jan."
He drew her back toward the cot, dragging his limb painfully, and seated
her again upon the stool. He sat beside her, still holding her hand,
patting it, encouraging her. The color was coming back into Marie's
cheeks. Her lips were growing full and red again, and suddenly she gave a
trembling little laugh as she looked up into Blake's face. His presence
began to dispel the terror that had possessed her all at once.
"Tell me, Marie."
He saw the shudder that passed through her slim shoulders.
"They had a fight--here--in this cabin--three days ago," she confessed.
"It must have been--the day--he was killed."
Blake knew the wild thought that was in her heart as she watched him. The
muscles of his jaws tightened. His shoulders grew tense. He looked over
her head as if he, too, saw something beyond the cabin walls. It was
Marie's hand that gripped his now, and her voice, panting almost, was
filled with an agonized protest.
"No, no, no--it was not Jan," she moaned. "It was not Jan who killed
"Hush!" said Blake.
He looked about him as if there was a chance that someone might hear the
fatal words she had spoken. It was a splendid bit of acting, almost
unconscious, and tremendously effective. The expression in his face
stabbed to her heart like a cold knife. Convulsively her fingers clutched
more tightly at his hands. He might as well have spoken the words: "It
was Jan, then, who killed Francois Breault!"
Instead of that he said:
"You must tell me everything, Marie. How did it happen? Why did they
fight? And why has Jan gone away so soon after the killing? For Jan's
sake, you must tell me--everything."
He waited. It seemed to him that he could hear the fighting struggle in
Marie's breast. Then she began, brokenly, a little at a time, now and
then barely whispering the story. It was a woman's story, and she told it
like a woman, from the beginning. Perhaps at one time the rivalry between
Jan Thoreau and Francois Breault, and their struggle for her love, had
made her heart beat faster and her cheeks flush warm with a woman's pride
of conquest, even though she had loved one and had hated the other. None
of that pride was in her voice now, except when she spoke of Jan.
"Yes--like that--children together--we grew up," she confided. "It was
down there at Wollaston Post, in the heart of the big forests, and when I
was a baby it was Jan who carried me about on his shoulders. Oui, even
then he played the violin. I loved it. I loved Jan--always. Later, when I
was seventeen, Francois Breault came."
She was trembling.
"Jan has told me a little about those days," lied Blake. "Tell me the
"I--I knew I was going to be Jan's wife," she went on, the hands she had
withdrawn from his twisting nervously in her lap. "We both knew. And
yet--he had not spoken--he had not been definite. Oo-oo, do you
understand, M'sieu Duval? It was my fault at the beginning! Francois
Breault loved me. And so--I played with him--only a little, m'sieu!--to
frighten Jan into the thought that he might lose me. I did not know what
I was doing. No--no; I didn't understand.
"Jan and I were married, and on the day Jan saw the missioner--a week
before we were made man and wife--Francois Beault came in from the trail
to see me, and I confessed to him, and asked his forgiveness. We were
alone. And he--Francois Breault--was like a madman."
She was panting. Her hands were clenched. "If Jan hadn't heard my cries,
and come just in time--" she breathed.
Her blazing eyes looked up into Blake's face. He understood, and nodded.
"And it was like that--again--three days ago," she continued. "I hadn't
seen Breault in two years--two years ago down at Wollaston Post. And he
was mad. Yes, he must have been mad when he came three days ago. I don't
know that he came so much for me as it was to kill Jan, He said it was
Jan. Ugh, and it was here--in the cabin--that they fought!"
"And Jan--punished him," said Blake in a low voice.
Again the convulsive shudder swept through Marie's shoulders.
"It was strange--what happened, m'sieu. I was going to shoot. Yes, I
would have shot him when the chance came. But all at once Francois
Breault sprang back to the door, and he cried: 'Jan Thoreau, I am
mad--mad! Great God, what have I done?' Yes, he said that, m'sieu, those
very words--and then he was gone."
"And that same day--a little later--Jan went away from the cabin, and was
gone a long time," whispered Blake. "Was it not so, Marie?"
"Yes; he went to his trap-line, m'sieu."
For the first time Blake made a movement. He took her face boldly between
his two hands, and turned it so that her staring eyes were looking
straight into his own. Every fiber in his body was trembling with the
thrill of his monstrous triumph. "My dear little girl, I must tell you
the truth," he said. "Your husband, Jan, did not go to his trap-line
three days ago. He followed Francois Breault, and killed him. And I am
not John Duval. I am Corporal Blake of the Mounted Police, and I have
come to get Jan, that he may be hanged by the neck until he is dead for
his crime. I came for that. But I have changed my mind. I have seen you,
and for you I would give even a murderer his life. Do you understand? For
And then came the grand finale, just as he had planned it. His words had
stupefied her. She made no movement, no sound--only her great eyes seemed
alive. And suddenly he swept her into his arms with the wild passion of a
beast. How long she lay against his breast, his arms crushing her, his
hot lips on her face, she did not know.
The world had grown suddenly dark. But in that darkness she heard his
voice; and what it was saying roused her at last from the deadliness of
her stupor. She strained against him, and with a wild cry broke from his
arms, and staggered across the cabin floor to the door of her bedroom.
Blake did not pursue her. He let the darkness of that room shut her in.
He had told her--and she understood.
He shrugged his shoulders as he rose to his feet. Quite calmly, in spite
of the wild rush of blood through his body, he went to the cabin door,
opened it, and looked out into the night. It was full of stars, and
It was quiet in that inner room, too--so quiet that one might fancy he
could hear the beating of a heart. Marie had flung herself in the
farthest corner, beyond the bed. And there her hand had touched
something. It was cold--the chill of steel. She could almost have
screamed, in the mighty reaction that swept through her like an electric
shock. But her lips were dumb and her hand clutched tighter at the cold
She drew it toward her inch by inch, and leveled it across the bed. It
was Jan's goose-gun, loaded with buck-shot. There was a single metallic
click as she drew the hammer back. In the doorway, looking at the stars,
Blake did not hear.
Marie waited. She was not reasoning things now, except that in the outer
room there was a serpent that she must kill. She would kill him as he
came between her and the light; then she would follow over Jan's trail,
overtake him somewhere, and they would flee together. Of that much she
thought ahead. But chiefly her mind, her eyes, her brain, her whole
being, were concentrated on the twelve-inch opening between the bedroom
door and the outer room. The serpent would soon appear there. And then--
She heard the cabin door close, and Blake's footsteps approaching. Her
body did not tremble now. Her forefinger was steady on the trigger. She
held her breath--and waited. Blake came to the deadline and stopped. She
could see one arm and a part of his shoulder. But that was not enough.
Another half step--six inches--four even, and she would fire. Her heart
pounded like a tiny hammer in her breast.
And then the very life in her body seemed to stand still. The cabin door
had opened suddenly, and someone had entered. In that moment she would
have fired, for she knew that it must be Jan who had returned. But Blake
had moved. And now, with her finger on the trigger, she heard his cry of
"Yes. Put up your gun, Corporal. Have you got Jan Thoreau?"
"That is lucky for us." It was the stranger's voice, filled with a great
relief. "I have traveled fast to overtake you. Matao, the half-breed, was
stabbed in a quarrel soon after you left; and before he died he confessed
to killing Breault. The evidence is conclusive. Ugh, but this fire is
good! Anybody at home?"
"Yes," said Blake slowly. "Mrs. Thoreau--is--at home."