Captain Rifle, gray and old in the Alaskan Steamship service, had not lost the spirit of his youth along with his years. Romance was not dead in him, and the fire which is built up of clean adventure and the association of strong men and a mighty country had not died out of his veins. He could still see the picturesque, feel the thrill of the unusual, and—at times—warm memories crowded upon him so closely that yesterday seemed today, and Alaska was young again, thrilling the world with her wild call to those who had courage to come and fight for her treasures, and live—or die.
Tonight, with the softly musical throb of his ship under his feet, and the yellow moon climbing up from behind the ramparts of the Alaskan mountains, something of loneliness seized upon him, and he said simply:
"That is Alaska."
The girl standing beside him at the rail did not turn, nor for a moment did she answer. He could see her profile clear-cut as a cameo in the almost vivid light, and in that light her eyes were wide and filled with a dusky fire, and her lips were parted a little, and her slim body was tense as she looked at the wonder of the moon silhouetting the cragged castles of the peaks, up where the soft, gray clouds lay like shimmering draperies.
Then she turned her face a little and nodded. "Yes, Alaska," she said, and the old captain fancied there was the slightest ripple of a tremor in her voice. "Your Alaska, Captain Rifle."
Out of the clearness of the night came to them a distant sound like the low moan of thunder. Twice before, Mary Standish had heard it, and now she asked: "What was that? Surely it can not be a storm, with the moon like that, and the stars so clear above!"
"It is ice breaking from the glaciers and falling into the sea. We are in the Wrangel Narrows, and very near the shore, Miss Standish. If it were day you could hear the birds singing. This is what we call the Inside Passage. I have always called it the water-wonderland of the world, and yet, if you will observe, I must be mistaken—for we are almost alone on this side of the ship. Is it not proof? If I were right, the men and women in there—dancing, playing cards, chattering—would be crowding this rail. Can you imagine humans like that? But they can't see what I see, for I am a ridiculous old fool who remembers things. Ah, do you catch that in the air, Miss Standish—the perfume of flowers, of forests, of green things ashore? It is faint, but I catch it."
"And so do I."
She breathed in deeply of the sweet air, and turned then, so that she stood with her back to the rail, facing the flaming lights of the ship.
The mellow cadence of the music came to her, soft-stringed and sleepy; she could hear the shuffle of dancing feet. Laughter rippled with the rhythmic thrum of the ship, voices rose and fell beyond the lighted windows, and as the old captain looked at her, there was something in her face which he could not understand.
She had come aboard strangely at Seattle, alone and almost at the last minute—defying the necessity of making reservation where half a thousand others had been turned away—and chance had brought her under his eyes. In desperation she had appealed to him, and he had discovered a strange terror under the forced calm of her appearance. Since then he had fathered her with his attentions, watching closely with the wisdom of years. And more than once he had observed that questing, defiant poise of her head with which she was regarding the cabin windows now.
She had told him she was twenty-three and on her way to meet relatives in Nome. She had named certain people. And he had believed her. It was impossible not to believe her, and he admired her pluck in breaking all official regulations in coming aboard.
In many ways she was companionable and sweet. Yet out of his experience, he gathered the fact that she was under a tension. He knew that in some way she was making a fight, but, influenced by the wisdom of three and sixty years, he did not let her know he had guessed the truth.
He watched her closely now, without seeming to do so. She was very pretty in a quiet and unusual way. There was something irresistibly attractive about her, appealing to old memories which were painted clearly in his heart. She was girlishly slim. He had observed that her eyes were beautifully clear and gray in the sunlight, and her exquisitely smooth dark hair, neatly coiled and luxuriant crown of beauty, reminded him of puritanism in its simplicity. At times he doubted that she was twenty-three. If she had said nineteen or twenty he would have been better satisfied. She puzzled him and roused speculation in him. But it was a part of his business to see many things which others might not see—and hold his tongue.
"We are not quite alone," she was saying. "There are others," and she made a little gesture toward two figures farther up the rail.
"Old Donald Hardwick, of Skagway," he said. "And the other is Alan Holt."
She was facing the mountains again, her eyes shining in the light of the moon. Gently her hand touched the old captain's arm. "Listen," she whispered.
"Another berg breaking away from Old Thunder. We are very near the shore, and there are glaciers all the way up."
"And that other sound, like low wind—on a night so still and calm! What is it?"
"You always hear that when very close to the big mountains, Miss Standish. It is made by the water of a thousand streams and rivulets rushing down to the sea. Wherever there is melting snow in the mountains, you hear that song."
"And this man, Alan Holt," she reminded him. "He is a part of these things?"
"Possibly more than any other man, Miss Standish. He was born in Alaska before Nome or Fairbanks or Dawson City were thought of. It was in Eighty-four, I think. Let me see, that would make him—"
"Thirty-eight," she said, so quickly that for a moment he was astonished.
Then he chuckled. "You are very good at figures."
He felt an almost imperceptible tightening of her fingers on his arm.
"This evening, just after dinner, old Donald found me sitting alone. He said he was lonely and wanted to talk with someone—like me. He almost frightened me, with his great, gray beard and shaggy hair. I thought of ghosts as we talked there in the dusk."
"Old Donald belongs to the days when the Chilkoot and the White Horse ate up men's lives, and a trail of living dead led from the Summit to Klondike, Miss Standish," said Captain Rifle. "You will meet many like him in Alaska. And they remember. You can see it in their faces—always the memory of those days that are gone."
She bowed her head a little, looking to the sea. "And Alan Holt? You know him well?"
"Few men know him well. He is a part of Alaska itself, and I have sometimes thought him more aloof than the mountains. But I know him. All northern Alaska knows Alan Holt. He has a reindeer range up beyond the Endicott Mountains and is always seeking the last frontier."
"He must be very brave."
"Alaska breeds heroic men, Miss Standish."
"And honorable men—men you can trust and believe in?"
"It is odd," she said, with a trembling little laugh that was like a bird-note in her throat. "I have never seen Alaska before, and yet something about these mountains makes me feel that I have known them a long time ago. I seem to feel they are welcoming me and that I am going home. Alan Holt is a fortunate man. I should like to be an Alaskan."
"And you are—"
"An American," she finished for him, a sudden, swift irony in her voice. "A poor product out of the melting-pot, Captain Rifle. I am going north—to learn."
"Only that, Miss Standish?"
His question, quietly spoken and without emphasis, demanded an answer. His kindly face, seamed by the suns and winds of many years at sea, was filled with honest anxiety as she turned to look straight into his eyes.
"I must press the question," he said. "As the captain of this ship, and as a father, it is my duty. Is there not something you would like to tell me—in confidence, if you will have it so?"
For an instant she hesitated, then slowly she shook her head. "There is nothing, Captain Rifle."
"And yet—you came aboard very strangely," he urged. "You will recall that it was most unusual—without reservation, without baggage—"
"You forget the hand-bag," she reminded him.
"Yes, but one does not start for northern Alaska with only a hand-bag scarcely large enough to contain a change of linen, Miss Standish."
"But I did, Captain Rifle."
"True. And I saw you fighting past the guards like a little wildcat. It was without precedent."
"I am sorry. But they were stupid and difficult to pass."
"Only by chance did I happen to see it all, my child. Otherwise the ship's regulations would have compelled me to send you ashore. You were frightened. You can not deny that. You were running away from something!"
He was amazed at the childish simplicity with which she answered him.
"Yes, I was running away—from something."
Her eyes were beautifully clear and unafraid, and yet again he sensed the thrill of the fight she was making.
"And you will not tell me why—or from what you were escaping?"
"I can not—tonight. I may do so before we reach Nome. But—it is possible—"
"That I shall never reach Nome."
Suddenly she caught one of his hands in both her own. Her fingers clung to him, and with a little note of fierceness in her voice she hugged the hand to her breast. "I know just how good you have been to me," she cried. "I should like to tell you why I came aboard—like that. But I can not. Look! Look at those wonderful mountains!" With one free hand she pointed.
"Behind them and beyond them lie the romance and adventure and mystery of centuries, and for nearly thirty years you have been very near those things, Captain Rifle. No man will ever see again what you have seen or feel what you have felt, or forget what you have had to forget. I know it. And after all that, can't you—won't you—forget the strange manner in which I came aboard this ship? It is such a simple, little thing to put out of your mind, so trivial, so unimportant when you look back—and think. Please Captain Rifle—please!"
So quickly that he scarcely sensed the happening of it she pressed his hand to her lips. Their warm thrill came and went in an instant, leaving him speechless, his resolution gone.
"I love you because you have been so good to me," she whispered, and as suddenly as she had kissed his hand, she was gone, leaving him alone at the rail.