"YOU'LL not do it," the big woman said decisively.
Ethel Carne merely smiled by way of reply. And yet she had lived long enough in that wild North West to know that a warning like this was not to be disregarded. Perhaps it was the fitful spurts of sunshine which gave her courage. Perhaps she derived the strength and inspiration from the steely blue of the sky, bent like some metal dome above her head. Already along the fainter blue of the horizon a few pallid stars were powdered, shining dimly like jewels upon the neck of beauty in the dawn.
"You'll not do it," the mistress of the stores repeated, with finality. "You'll never reach the Spurs before dark. And the snow will be up in an hour, happen though it does look so bright and cheerful now. Far best stay the night."
The big woman with the kindly eyes and shrewd face was speaking no more than the truth, and very well in her heart of hearts knew it. They stood together in the doorway of the log store, looking up the sweeping mountain paths which led by zig-zag stages to the Spurs. It was no far cry on a summer's day, being a matter merely of a few miles. But when the snow came down and the north-easter swept across the valleys, then the swinging pine trees spoke of danger and told of disaster dead and gone. Away up to the left the dark woods lifted their shoulders high, the great massed battalions of the pines stood like grim sentinels watching and warning. Just for a moment they lay like a sombre flash against the steely blue, steadfast and immaculate, then a flying squadron of the coming gale beat them almost flat till they roared again with heads bent over against the fury of the wind. The cold, icy breath came down the pass, sweeping in through the open door. A million sparks, crimson and purple and gold, roared up the stove through the hot chimney.
Ethel Carne set her little white teeth together. "It's very kind of you," she said, in a low-pitched, modulated voice, so different from the hard, nasal tones of her companion. "I know you mean well; but I must get back to the Spurs to-night. I am quite alone. My help left me yesterday unexpectedly, and my little girl is alone in the house. Oh, I couldn't rest here, knowing that she was all by herself, and the Christmas Eve, too. Think of the disappointment! And then she might be frightened."
The speaker touched the square parcel which she carried under her arm. She had been down to the Fort making her slender purchases for the festive season, for it is a poor heart that never rejoices, and it was one of Ethel Carne's boasts that so far she had lost neither her self-respect nor her courage.
Who she was and whence she came people neither knew nor did they seem to care. That she was English went without saying. That she was a lady was patent to the meanest observer who frittered away his weekly earnings in the many saloons which tempted miners to forgetfulness and destruction. All that most people knew was that George Carne had vanished mysteriously two years before and that he had never been heard of since. He was by way of being a gentlemanly adventurer. But, then, they were all adventurers at the Spurs for the matter of that, where each man at any moment might "make his pile," alluvial gold mining, or incidentally sweat out the last years of his life for a mere pittance of bread and shelter. For the most part the latter was the lot of the majority of them, though occasionally one or two, more fortunate than the rest, drifted West with their pockets full of money and their heads humming with the poison—miscalled whisky in that remote spot.
There was no scandal or outcry when George Carne was seen and heard of no more, for it was part of the unwritten etiquette of the Spurs to ask no questions when some gentleman of fortune disappeared as mysteriously as he had arrived. Few men there were properly entitled to the names they bore, and biography as a pastime or relaxation was sternly frowned upon by the community who made up the settlement.
And so long as Ethel Carne made no sign it was nothing to anybody else. There were other women in the settlement, and in their rough, sympathetic way they were not unkind to the gentle stranger, whom they recognised as one made of far superior clay to themselves. Gradually, and by degrees, Mrs. Carne drifted into the position of dressmaker to the settlement. She had good taste and a deft needle; also, she was the possessor of a sewing machine, which was an object of interest, not to say awe, to her sisterhood at the Spurs. As a matter of fact, Ethel Came fitted into the picture. She learnt to shift and do for herself. She acquired a strength and reliance which was as unexpected as it was pleasing. And if down in her heart she felt all the bitterness and grief of a woman deserted in the full floodtide of her beauty she made no sign. The blue eyes were as clear and serene now as they had been in the early days. The mouth was as sweet and tender. There was just a thin, drawn line between the brows and no more: for Ethel had her child, who was growing up in that clear mountain air as strong and erect as one of the pines which tossed its plumes against the everlasting snows. There were a comfortable home and many friends waiting for Ethel in England had she but chosen to hold up her little finger. But for the present she preferred to obliterate herself. She wanted no sympathy and no pity. Her proud soul would have revolted against the slightest touch on the edge of the wound which had never yet healed, and never would.
* * * * *
"I tell you I must go," she said. "I am merely wasting the precious moments here, and that child all alone in the cabin... with nothing but the light of the stove... And presently it will be dark."
She turned abruptly away, and grasped the parcel all the more firmly. She was not in the least tired. Her stride was free and elastic as she wended her way up the path towards the Spurs. It was curiously still in strange weird patches. At times she could actually hear the bleat of sheep and catch the distant voices. Then for a moment the stinging fury of the gale broke out again, like the headlong charge of white cavalry, and she bent her supple body, whilst the cold wind seemed almost to stop the beating of her heart. As she struggled up the path the intervals of ominous quiet became less and less. A thin, filmy powder came in whirling drifts across the steely blue of the sky. There was a sting like whip-lashes on her cheek, and behold, here and there as if in the twinkling of an eye snowdrifts in the road and white caps weighing down the soughing branches of the pines. A few more scuds like this and the path would be wiped out, leaving but the sombre fringe of the trees on either side. The danger yet was vague and intangible; but Ethel Carne had lived there long enough to know how real it was.
And yet she was not afraid, though she knew that the mile or so would tax her strength to the uttermost. But she was not thinking of her child or herself now, she was not feeling the weight of the white scud beating freely upon her neck and hair. Her mind had gone back into the past. The faint, intangible spirit of Christmas was upon her. It was just about this time two years ago that George Carne had gone off hotfoot and at a moment's notice, westward. He had left a note to say that he had been called away imperiously, and that there was no time to be lost. He had hinted vaguely of some good fortune looming in the distance which he would keep to discuss with Ethel when they met again.
And from that day to this there had come no sign. It had been very good of Raymond Raife to stand by Ethel as he had done, for he had been George's chum, who refused to believe anything but the best of his old partner. And then, almost unexpectedly, Raife himself had been summoned home, and from that moment it seemed to Ethel that she was absolutely alone in the world.
She never stopped to analyse her feelings. She had not dared to ask herself whether her prevailing emotion was one of contempt or despair. Commonsense told me that she had been deserted, and she was content to let it go at that. But she had made no sign. She had known how to take her punishment.
But now everything seemed to be different. Now she caught herself wondering for the first time if Raife had not been right. Raymond Raife had never told her in as many words that he cared for her. A woman's instinct had filled her with that consciousness. But that was a matter that would not bear analysis.
She struggled on and on against the increasing fury of the gale, white and battered from head to foot now, breathing slowly and painfully, with a prayer on her lips that she might win through and reach the little log cabin at last. She thought of its warmth and comfort. She thought of the clear glow of the wood stove, of fragrant coffee and hot cakes, of all the pleasant things that make the chill blast of the open air a comfort and a consolation. She thought, too, of the child waiting so patiently there with her handful of cheap toys and wondering how much longer mummy was going to be. Then the white fury of the gale came down with a snarl and a roar, and just for the moment the woman stood there dazed, beaten and half unconscious. She wiped the white stinging powder from her eyes. She beat her chilled hands to her breast. She staggered forward again, peering through the thickness for the first sight of the dull glow that would show her that home was close at hand. Then, just for a moment, the white, howling veil lifted, and the hoarse singing roar of the pines ceased. High on the shoulder of the hill a tiny red glow shone out; the core of the flame seemed to find its way straight to Ethel's heart and warm her as some generous spirit might have done. There was a fresh strength in her limbs now, for she knew that she had won through and that the goal was reached, She staggered up the narrow path leading to the cottage, she fumbled for a moment with the latch then the door gave and she stumbled inwards. A moment later the murderous breath of the night was shut out, a delicious sense of warmth and drowsiness overcame her. She sat down to the table with her head on her hands. She was just conscious of a pair of soft arms about her neck.
"All right, dearie," she said hysterically, "I shall be myself in a minute or two. Then we shall have some delicious hot coffee and cakes, and I will tell you all my adventures. Do you think you could get the lamp for me?"
The child came back a moment or two later bearing two lamps in her hands. The mother looked at her interrogatively.
"You have forgotten," the child said gravely. "Surely you have forgotten the beacon lamp which we always put out for daddy on Christmas Eve. You light the two, mummy."
"Yes," Mrs. Carne whispered, "I'll light the two."
The beacon light stood in the little window with the curtain half drawn. The soft hiss of the snow drifted against the panes, and Ethel smiled at her little one's suggestion. After all said and done, it was impossible that the beacon light might be of advantage to some belated wayfarer struggling up from the Fort, though few of the miners would risk the white peril to-night. The stove gave out a cheerful heat. The coffee and cakes were things of the past, and already Ethel was busy decorating the walls of the little sitting-room with such evergreens as she had gathered the day before. She was quite herself again now. There was a deep, abiding thankfulness in the knowledge that she was safe at home and that all danger had been left behind. The brown-paper parcel had been hidden judiciously away with a promise that its many wonders would be displayed on the morrow. It was getting late now and the mists were beginning to dance in little Ethel's blue eyes.
"Just a little longer," she pleaded at the mother's suggestion of bed. "It isn't Christmas Eve every night, and, really, I am not a bit tired. I want to wake up in the morning and help you."
Ethel Carne yielded weakly enough. She felt a strange desire for human companionship to-night. She knew how recently she had been face to face with death and she could not forget it.
"Very well," she said. "But you mustn't dance about any longer. Come and sit on my knee and let me tell you a story." The child came obediently enough:
"Please," she asked. "But let it be a real story—one of the things that used to happen to you when you were a girl at home in England. I like those stories better than the book stories."
And so it came about a few moments later that Ethel Carne in the spirit was wandering about English meadows, under the shade of cool trees, and picking primroses by the brookside. The story came to an end at length, and with it a sound from without as if someone were knocking feebly at the door. Just for a moment it occurred to Ethel that her imagination was playing tricks with her, then came that uncertain sound again, as if some exhausted animal were scratching for admittance. Ethel put the child off her knee and drew back the latch. There was a burst of murderous cold air, a rushing whirl of snowflakes, which came hissing and spitting as far as the stove, then a form half rose from the doorstep and staggered into the room. It all happened so quickly, so dramatically, that for a moment Ethel could only stand there, the air cutting like knives across her face, her hair dishevelled in the wind. Then it was borne in upon her that the place was getting icy cold and that the figure of a man lay there on the floor chilled, unconscious, it even might be, exhausted to the verge of death. It was a fight to close the door, to shoot back the bolts into their places, and draw the heavy portiere of bearskin across the panes. The child stood there open-mouthed and waiting, but yet not alarmed, for accidents were frequent in the hard life of the Spurs, and it was not the first time that Ethel had looked death in the face.
"Get me the brandy bottle, dearie," Ethel murmured, as she raised the man's head from the floor. She chafed his cold hands vigorously. She dragged him nearer to the stove by sheer personal strength, so that the grateful warmth might thaw the cuirass of snow which had frozen on his breast like armour. She managed at length to coax a few drops of spirit down the man's throat. He shuddered convulsively, and his eyes opened. Then he glanced round the room, not vaguely nor confusedly, but with the air of one who had been there before.
"Ethel," he whispered, "that was a close call."
The woman recognised him. She had recognised him almost before his grey eyes were turned to the light. She seemed to take it as coolly and collectedly as possible. Now that he was once back again it seemed the most natural thing in the world. There was no wild fluttering at her heart, no overwhelming joy, no contempt, regret, or any other gamut of emotions which ought, by all the rules of the game to have gripped her at that moment.
"Yes," she murmured, mechanically, "How was it?"
The man had risen to his feet by now. Every passing instant seemed to add to his stature and his manhood. The glow crept back to his cheeks now. His eyes were clear and bright. He stripped off his furs and stood before the stove, the picture and embodiment of perfect humanity. He did not seem to see that the child was dancing about his knees now that she had recognised him, and that she was calling him by name. Without knowing it he lifted her in his strong arms and kissed her tenderly.
"I always knew you would come back," she said.
"Of course, dear," he said gravely. "I never meant to do anything else, only I have been a little longer than I expected. And now, don't you think you had better go to bed. I have much to say to mother, and to-morrow I shall show you all the presents I have brought you. Oh, I have heaps and heaps of presents for both, only I had to hide them by the wayside or else I should never have got here at all. Put the child to bed, Ethel. As for me, I daresay I shall know where to find something to eat. I feel as if I hadn't had a meal for years."
The man spoke cheerfully and naturally enough, and yet there was a certain constraint in his manner which Ethel did not fail to notice. Her lip curled somewhat contemptuously, but she obeyed the suggestion without demur. And then, when once the child was between the blankets, a certain demure shyness came upon her and it was a long time before she had the courage to return to the sitting-room. George Carne was seated by the stove, his head in his hands, evidently deeply immersed in thought.
"Come and sit down," he said. "We have a good deal to say to one another. There is so much to explain. And yet I don't think you would blame me if you knew everything."
"Perhaps not," Ethel said mechanically.
"No, we had better go back for a bit. You will remember the day I went away. You were away from home for the time, and I had not a moment to spare. It was Raymond Raife who brought me the news—- a cablegram from home, saying my father was dying and desired to see me without delay. I can never understand—in fact, I shall never understand—my father's bitter opposition to our marriage. I suppose we were both too proud to ask for explanations, and that is the real reason why we drifted apart. But when Raife brought me that cablegram I began to see hope ahead. It seemed to me that I was going to be taken back into favour again, for my father would hardly have sent for me all that way if it had not been to give me his forgiveness on his deathbed. Then we would go back to England again and renew our proper position in society. I was more glad, I think, for your sake and the child's sake than my own. I did not hesitate a moment. I went off there and then. I made up my mind to say nothing to you till I could send you some really good news. My idea was to get matters settled in England and then come and fetch you two home again. I hope you won't think I am hard and callous; but I have never ceased to regret what I brought you to here, all the more so because you were always so brave and uncomplaining."
Carne paused, but no reply came from Ethel.
"And when I got home I found, to my surprise, that my father had been dead for the last year or more. He had made no sign. He had made no attempt to communicate with me, but, at the same time, he had made no alterations in his will, so that I found myself master of the whole property. They had been advertising for me everywhere, and it was only by pure good fortune that I discovered the truth. But the strange part of the whole thing was this:—I could find nobody ready to admit the dispatch of that cablegram. I was too busy to write to you. I was saving it all up for a glad surprise later on. I never dreamt for a moment that anything was wrong. I never dreamed that I was the victim of a false friend who had played the vile conspiracy on me. How should I know that the cablegram had been deliberately concocted by Raymond Raife to get me out of the way! How could I guess it?"
A sudden, leaping crimson flamed into Ethel Carne's face. In an illuminating flash she saw the true inwardness of many things now. Burning letters of flame scorched on the arch of memory which had been so many trivial words in the twilight of innocent misunderstanding. For the first time Ethel saw.
"Is this true?" she stammered.
"Oh, it's true enough. I was to be got out of the way and it was to be inferred to you that this action on my part was nothing else than a cold-blooded desertion. But Raymond Raife found you impervious. He recognised the hopelessness of his ambitions and he came back to England to find me. As a matter of fact I found him lying in a hospital with a broken spine, and on his deathbed he told me everything.... Well, I forgave him everything, for I could do no less. Still, I grudged the wasted years... Ethel, surely there is no occasion for me to say any more. You believe me?"
The woman rose tremblingly from her seat beside the stove. Then she crossed the floor, and her arms went like two white wreaths round her husband's neck. She wanted no more. She was content to know. And in that instant it seemed to her that she had never doubted George Carne's return. For a long time there was silence between them, a blissful silence filled with a pleasing spirit of the happy Christmastide. Neither wanted more than that.
"My word, it was hard work to get here," Carne said more cheerfully, as he stretched his long arms out to the blaze. "They warned me down at the Fort that I couldn't do it. But I laughed at them and pushed on my way. I would have come to-night if all the powers of darkness had barred my path. But I don't mind confessing that I was beaten more than once. In the ordinary way I should never have managed it. And I struggled on and on, dazed and half-blinded by the snow, until at last the beacon light shone out clear and bright, like a guiding star to beckon me on. I tell you it was like new blood—like sparkling champagne in my veins. And yet even then it was a close call. But for that light and the grace of God I should be lying out in the snow now stark and stiff."
Ethel Carne colours guiltily.
"Let me make a confession," she said, in a whisper, her head close down to her husband's shoulder. "I had forgotten all about it. For two years I have been growing more and more callous and forgetful. For two years I have been steadily losing the hope which I tried to stifle. It was little Ethel who brought me the lamp, little Ethel who reminded me that I always lighted it on Christmas Eve. And now, if you can only forgive me—"
"Forgive you what?" Carne asked. "My word! if you can take me back to your heart again like this it is little I have to complain of. But, all the same, it is going to be a really happy Christmas for us three, sweetheart."