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She awoke to the throb of the engines, and, gazing cautiously through her stateroom window, saw a glassy, level sea, with the sun brightly agleam on it.
So this was Bering? She had clothed it always with the mystery of her school-days, thinking of it as a weeping, fog-bound stretch of gray waters. Instead, she saw a flat, sunlit main, with occasional sea-parrots flapping their fat bodies out of the ship's course. A glistening head popped up from the waters abreast, and she heard the cry of "seal!"
Dressing, the girl noted minutely the personal articles scattered about the cabin, striving to derive therefrom some fresh hint of the characteristics of the owners. First, there was an elaborate, copper-backed toilet-set, all richly ornamented and leather-bound. The metal was magnificently hand-worked and bore Glenister's initial. It spoke of elegant extravagance, and seemed oddly out of place in an Arctic miner's equipment, as did also a small set of De Maupassant.
Next, she picked up Kipling's Seven Seas, marked liberally, and felt that she had struck a scent. The roughness and brutality of the poems had always chilled her, though she had felt vaguely their splendid pulse and swing. This was the girl's first venture from a sheltered life. She had not rubbed elbows with the world enough to find that Truth may be rough, unshaven, and garbed in homespun. The book confirmed her analysis of the junior partner.
Pendent from a hook was a worn and blackened holster from which peeped the butt of a large Colt's revolver, showing evidence of many years' service. It spoke mutely of the white-haired Dextry, who, before her inspection was over, knocked at the door, and, when she admitted him, addressed her cautiously:
"The boy's down forrad, teasin' grub out of a flunky. He'll be up in a minute. How'd ye sleep?"
"Very well, thank you," she lied, "but I've been thinking that I ought to explain myself to you."
"Now, see here," the old man interjected, "there ain't no explanations needed till you feel like givin' them up. You was in trouble--that's unfortunate; we help you--that's natural; no questions asked--that's Alaska."
"Yes--but I know you must think--"
"What bothers me," the other continued irrelevantly, "is how in blazes we're goin' to keep you hid. The steward's got to make up this room, and somebody's bound to see us packin' grub in."
"I don't care who knows if they won't send me back. They wouldn't do that, would they?" She hung anxiously on his words.
"Send you back? Why, don't you savvy that this boat is bound for Nome? There ain't no turnin' back on gold stampedes, and this is the wildest rush the world ever saw. The captain wouldn't turn back--he couldn't--his cargo's too precious and the company pays five thousand a day for this ship. No, we ain't puttin' back to unload no stowaways at five thousand per. Besides, we passengers wouldn't let him--time's too precious." They were interrupted by the rattle of dishes outside, and Dextry was about to open the door when his hand wavered uncertainly above the knob, for he heard the hearty greeting of the ship's captain.
"Well, well, Glenister, where's all the breakfast going?"
"Oo!" whispered the old man--"that's Cap' Stephens."
"Dextry isn't feeling quite up to form this morning," replied Glenister easily.
"Don't wonder! Why weren't you aboard sooner last night? I saw you--'most got left, eh? Served you right if you had." Then his voice dropped to the confidential: "I'd advise you to cut out those women. Don't misunderstand me, boy, but they're a bad lot on this boat. I saw you come aboard. Take my word for it--they're a bad lot. Cut 'em out. Guess I'll step inside and see what's up with Dextry."
The girl shrank into her corner, gazing apprehensively at the other listener.
"Well--er--he isn't up yet," they heard Glenister stammer; "better come around later."
"Nonsense; it's time he was dressed." The master's voice was gruffly good-natured. "Hello, Dextry! Hey! Open up for inspection." He rattled the door.
There was nothing to be done. The old miner darted an inquiring glance at his companion, then, at her nod, slipped the bolt, and the captain's blue bulk filled the room.
His grizzled, close-bearded face was genially wrinkled till he spied the erect, gray figure in the corner, when his cap came off involuntarily. There his courtesy ended, however, and the smile died coldly from his face. His eyes narrowed, and the good- fellowship fell away, leaving him the stiff and formal officer.
"Ah," he said, "not feeling well, eh? I thought I had met all of our lady passengers. Introduce me, Dextry."
Dextry squirmed under his cynicism.
"Well--I--ah--didn't catch the name myself."
"Oh, there ain't much to say. This is the lady--we brought aboard last night--that's all."
"Who gave you permission?"
"Nobody. There wasn't time."
"There wasn't TIME, eh? Which one of you conceived the novel scheme of stowing away ladies in your cabin? Whose is she? Quick! Answer me." Indignation was vibrant in his voice.
"Oh!" the girl cried--her eyes widening darkly. She stood slim and pale and slightly trembling.
His words had cut her bitterly, though through it all he had scrupulously avoided addressing her.
The captain turned to Glenister, who had entered and closed the door.
"Is this your work? Is she yours?"
"No," he answered quietly, while Dextry chimed in:
"Better hear details, captain, before you make breaks like that. We helped the lady side-step some sailors last night and we most got left doing it. It was up to her to make a quick get-away, so we helped her aboard."
"A poor story! What was she running away from?" He still addressed the men, ignoring her completely, till, with hoarse voice, she broke in:
"You mustn't talk about me that way--I can answer your questions. It's true--I ran away. I had to. The sailors came after me and fought with these men. I had to get away quickly, and your friends helped me on here from gentlemanly kindness, because they saw me unprotected. They are still protecting me. I can't explain how important it is for me to reach Nome on the first boat, because it isn't my secret. It was important enough to make me leave my uncle at Seattle at an hour's notice when we found there was no one else who could go. That's all I can say. I took my maid with me, but the sailors caught her just as she was following me down the ship's ladder. She had my bag of clothes when they seized her. I cast off the rope and rowed ashore as fast as I could, but they lowered another boat and followed me."
The captain eyed her sharply, and his grim lines softened a bit, for she was clean-cut and womanly, and utterly out of place, He took her in, shrewdly, detail by detail, then spoke directly to her:
"My dear young lady--the other ships will get there just as quickly as ours, maybe more quickly. To-morrow we strike the ice- pack and then it is all a matter of luck."
"Yes, but the ship I left won't get there."
At this the commander started, and, darting a great, thick- fingered hand at her, spoke savagely:
"What's that? What ship? Which one did you come from? Answer me."
"The Ohio," she replied, with the effect of a hand-grenade. The master glared at her.
"The Ohio! Good God! You DARE to stand there and tell me that?" He turned and poured his rage upon the others.
"She says the Ohio, d'ye hear? You've ruined me! I'll put you in irons--all of you. The Ohio!"
"What d'ye mean? What's up?"
"What's up? There's small-pox aboard the Ohio! This girl has broken quarantine. The health inspectors bottled up the boat at six o'clock last night! That's why I pulled out of Unalaska ahead of time, to avoid any possible delay. Now we'll all be held up when we get to Nome. Great Heavens! do you realize what this means--bringing this hussy aboard?"
His eyes burned and his voice shook, while the two partners stared at each other in dismay. Too well they knew the result of a small- pox panic aboard this crowded troop-ship. Not only was every available cabin bulging with passengers, but the lower decks were jammed with both humanity and live stock all in the most unsanitary conditions. The craft, built for three hundred passengers, was carrying triple her capacity; men and women were stowed away like cattle. Order and a half-tolerable condition were maintained only by the efforts of the passengers themselves, who held to the thought that imprisonment and inconvenience would last but a few days longer. They had been aboard three weeks and every heart was aflame with the desire to reach Nome--to reach it ahead of the pressing horde behind.
What would be the temper of this gold-frenzied army if thrown into quarantine within sight of their goal? The impatient hundreds would have to lie packed in their floating prison, submitting to the foul disease. Long they must lie thus, till a month should have passed after the disappearance of the last symptom. If the disease recurred sporadically, that might mean endless weeks of maddening idleness. It might even be impossible to impose the necessary restraint; there would be violence, perhaps mutiny.
The fear of the sickness was nothing to Dextry and Glenister, but of their mine they thought with terror. What would happen in their absence, where conditions were as unsettled as in this new land; where titles were held only by physical possession of the premises? During the long winter of their absence, ice had held their treasure inviolate, but with the warming summer the jewel they had fought for so wearily would lie naked and exposed to the first comer. The Midas lay in the valley of the richest creek, where men had schemed and fought and slain for the right to inches. It was the fruit of cheerless, barren years of toil, and if they could not guard it--they knew the result.
The girl interrupted their distressing reflections.
"Don't blame these men, sir," she begged the captain. "I am the only one at fault. Oh! I HAD to get away. I have papers here that must be delivered quickly." She laid a hand upon her bosom. "They couldn't be trusted to the unsettled mail service. It's almost life and death. And I assure you there is no need of putting me in quarantine. I haven't the smallpox. I wasn't even exposed to it."
"There's nothing else to do," said Stephens. "I'll isolate you in the deck smoking-cabin. God knows what these madmen on board will do when they hear about it, though. They're apt to tear you to shreds. They're crazy!"
Glenister had been thinking rapidly.
"If you do that, you'll have mutiny in an hour. This isn't the crowd to stand that sort of thing."
"Bah! Let 'em try it. I'll put 'em down." The officer's square jaws clicked.
"Maybe so; but what then? We reach Nome and the Health Inspector hears of small-pox suspects, then we're all quarantined for thirty days; eight hundred of us. We'll lie at Egg Island all summer while your company pays five thousand a day for this ship. That's not all. The firm is liable in damages for your carelessness in letting disease aboard."
"MY CARELESSNESS!" The old man ground his teeth.
"Yes; that's what it amounts to. You'll ruin your owners, all right. You'll tie up your ship and lose your job, that's a cinch!"
Captain Stephens wiped the moisture from his brow angrily.
"My carelessness! Curse you--you say it well. Don't you realize that I am criminally liable if I don't take every precaution?" He paused for a moment, considering. "I'll hand her over to the ship's doctor."
"See here, now," Glenister urged. "We'll be in Nome in a week-- before the young lady would have time to show symptoms of the disease, even if she were going to have it--and a thousand to one she hasn't been exposed, and will never show a trace of it. Nobody knows she's aboard but we three. Nobody will see her get off. She'll stay in this cabin, which will be just as effectual as though you isolated her in any other part of the boat. It will avoid a panic--you'll save your ship and your company--no one will be the wiser--then if the girl comes down with small-pox after she gets ashore, she can go to the pest-house and not jeopardize the health of all the people aboard this ship. You go up forrad to your bridge, sir, and forget that you stepped in to see old Bill Dextry this morning. Well take care of this matter all right. It means as much to us as it does to you. We've GOT to be on Anvil Creek before the ground thaws or we'll lose the Midas. If you make a fuss, you'll ruin us all."
For some moments they watched him breathlessly as he frowned in indecision, then--
"You'll have to look out for the steward," he said, and the girl sank to a stool while two great tears rolled down her cheeks. The captain's eyes softened and his voice was gentle as he laid his hand on her head.
"Don't feel hurt over what I said, miss. You see, appearances don't tell much, hereabouts--most of the pretty ones are no good. They've fooled me many a time, and I made a mistake. These men will help you through; I can't. Then when you get to Nome, make your sweetheart marry you the day you land. You are too far north to be alone."
He stepped out into the passage and closed the door carefully.
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