The Alaskan - James Oliver Curwood - ebook
Kategoria: Obyczajowe i romanse Język: angielski Rok wydania: 1923

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About
Chapter 1
Chapter 2

About Curwood:

James Oliver Curwood, (June 12, 1878 – August 13, 1927), was an American novelist and conservationist. A great number of his works were turned into movies, several of which starred Nell Shipman as a brave and adventurous woman in the wilds of the north. Many films from Curwood's writings were made during his lifetime, as well as after his passing through to the 1950s. In 1988 French director Jean-Jacques Annaud used his 1916 novel, The Grizzly King to make the film The Bear. Annaud's success generated a renewed interest in Curwood's stories that resulted in five more films being produced in 1994 and 1995.

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Chapter 1

 

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."

"Oh, yes."

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?"

"Yes."

"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—"

"What?"

"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.


Chapter 2

 

Alan Holt saw the slim figure of the girl silhouetted against the vivid light of the open doorway of the upper-deck salon. He was not watching her, nor did he look closely at the exceedingly attractive picture which she made as she paused there for an instant after leaving Captain Rifle. To him she was only one of the five hundred human atoms that went to make up the tremendously interesting life of one of the first ships of the season going north. Fate, through the suave agency of the purser, had brought him into a bit closer proximity to her than the others; that was all. For two days her seat in the dining-salon had been at the same table, not quite opposite him. As she had missed both breakfast hours, and he had skipped two luncheons, the requirements of neighborliness and of courtesy had not imposed more than a dozen words of speech upon them. This was very satisfactory to Alan. He was not talkative or communicative of his own free will. There was a certain cynicism back of his love of silence. He was a good listener and a first-rate analyst. Some people, he knew, were born to talk; and others, to trim the balance, were burdened with the necessity of holding their tongues. For him silence was not a burden.

In his cool and causal way he admired Mary Standish. She was very quiet, and he liked her because of that. He could not, of course, escape the beauty of her eyes or the shimmering luster of the long lashes that darkened them. But these were details which did not thrill him, but merely pleased him. And her hair pleased him possibly even more than her gray eyes, though he was not sufficiently concerned to discuss the matter with himself. But if he had pointed out any one thing, it would have been her hair—not so much the color of it as the care she evidently gave it, and the manner in which she dressed it. He noted that it was dark, with varying flashes of luster in it under the dinner lights. But what he approved of most of all were the smooth, silky coils in which she fastened it to her pretty head. It was an intense relief after looking on so many frowsy heads, bobbed and marcelled, during his six months' visit in the States. So he liked her, generally speaking, because there was not a thing about her that he might dislike.

He did not, of course, wonder what the girl might be thinking of him—with his quiet, stern face, his cold indifference, his rather Indian-like litheness, and the single patch of gray that streaked his thick, blond hair. His interest had not reached anywhere near that point.

Tonight it was probable that no woman in the world could have interested him, except as the always casual observer of humanity. Another and greater thing gripped him and had thrilled him since he first felt the throbbing pulse of the engines of the new steamship Nome under his feet at Seattle. He was going home. And home meant Alaska. It meant the mountains, the vast tundras, the immeasurable spaces into which civilization had not yet come with its clang and clamor. It meant friends, the stars he knew, his herds, everything he loved. Such was his reaction after six months of exile, six months of loneliness and desolation in cities which he had learned to hate.

"I'll not make the trip again—not for a whole winter—unless I'm sent at the point of a gun," he said to Captain Rifle, a few moments after Mary Standish had left the deck. "An Eskimo winter is long enough, but one in Seattle, Minneapolis, Chicago, and New York is longer—for me."

"I understand they had you up before the Committee on Ways and Means at Washington."

"Yes, along with Carl Lomen, of Nome. But Lomen was the real man. He has forty thousand head of reindeer in the Seward Peninsula, and they had to listen to him. We may get action."

"May!" Captain Rifle grunted his doubt. "Alaska has been waiting ten years for a new deck and a new deal. I doubt if you'll get anything. When politicians from Iowa and south Texas tell us what we can have and what we need north of Fifty-eight—why, what's the use? Alaska might as well shut up shop!"

"But she isn't going to do that," said Alan Holt, his face grimly set in the moonlight. "They've tried hard to get us, and they've made us shut up a lot of our doors. In 1910 we were thirty-six thousand whites in the Territory. Since then the politicians at Washington have driven out nine thousand, a quarter of the population. But those that are left are hard-boiled. We're not going to quit, Captain. A lot of us are Alaskans, and we are not afraid to fight."

"You mean—"

"That we'll have a square deal within another five years, or know the reason why. And another five years after that, we'll he shipping a million reindeer carcasses down into the States each year. Within twenty years we'll be shipping five million. Nice thought for the beef barons, eh? But rather fortunate, I think, for the hundred million Americans who are turning their grazing lands into farms and irrigation systems."

One of Alan Holt's hands was clenched at the rail. "Until I went down this winter, I didn't realize just how bad it was," he said, a note hard as iron in his voice. "Lomen is a diplomat, but I'm not. I want to fight when I see such things—fight with a gun. Because we happened to find gold up here, they think Alaska is an orange to be sucked as quickly as possible, and that when the sucking process is over, the skin will be worthless. That's modern, dollar-chasing Americanism for you!"

"And are you not an American, Mr. Holt?"

So soft and near was the voice that both men started. Then both turned and stared. Close behind them, her quiet, beautiful face flooded with the moon-glow, stood Mary Standish.

"You ask me a question, madam," said Alan Holt, bowing courteously. "No, I am not an American. I am an Alaskan."

The girl's lips were parted. Her eyes were very bright and clear. "Please pardon me for listening," she said. "I couldn't help it. I am an American. I love America. I think I love it more than anything else in the world—more than my religion, even. America, Mr. Holt. And America doesn't necessarily mean a great many of America's people. I love to think that I first came ashore in the Mayflower. That is why my name is Standish. And I just wanted to remind you that Alaska is America."

Alan Holt was a bit amazed. The girl's face was no longer placidly quiet. Her eyes were radiant. He sensed the repressed thrill in her voice, and he knew that in the light of day he would have seen fire in her cheeks. He smiled, and in that smile he could not quite keep back the cynicism of his thought.

"And what do you know about Alaska, Miss Standish?"

"Nothing," she said. "And yet I love it." She pointed to the mountains. "I wish I might have been born among them. You are fortunate. You should love America."

"Alaska, you mean!"

"No, America." There was a flashing challenge in her eyes. She was not speaking apologetically. Her meaning was direct.

The irony on Alan's lips died away. With a little laugh he bowed again. "If I am speaking to a daughter of Captain Miles Standish, who came over in the Mayflower, I stand reproved," he said. "You should be an authority on Americanism, if I am correct in surmising your relationship."

"You are correct," she replied with a proud, little tilt of her glossy head, "though I think that only lately have I come to an understanding of its significance—and its responsibility. I ask your pardon again for interrupting you. It was not premeditated. It just happened."

She did not wait for either of them to speak, but flashed the two a swift smile and passed down the promenade.

The music had ceased and the cabins at last were emptying themselves of life.

"A remarkable young woman," Alan remarked. "I imagine that the spirit of Captain Miles Standish may be a little proud of this particular olive-branch. A chip off the old block, you might say. One would almost suppose he had married Priscilla and this young lady was a definite though rather indirect result."

He had a curious way of laughing without any more visible manifestation of humor than spoken words. It was a quality in his voice which one could not miss, and at times, when ironically amused, it carried a sting which he did not altogether intend.

In another moment Mary Standish was forgotten, and he was asking the captain a question which was in his mind.

"The itinerary of this ship is rather confused, is it not?"

"Yes—rather," acknowledged Captain Rifle. "Hereafter she will ply directly between Seattle and Nome. But this time we're doing the Inside Passage to Juneau and Skagway and will make the Aleutian Passage via Cordova and Seward. A whim of the owners, which they haven't seen fit to explain to me. Possibly the Canadian junket aboard may have something to do with it. We're landing them at Skagway, where they make the Yukon by way of White Horse Pass. A pleasure trip for flabby people nowadays, Holt. I can remember—"

"So can I," nodded Alan Holt, looking at the mountains beyond which lay the dead-strewn trails of the gold stampede of a generation before. "I remember. And old Donald is dreaming of that hell of death back there. He was all choked up tonight. I wish he might forget."

"Men don't forget such women as Jane Hope," said the captain softly.

"You knew her?"

"Yes. She came up with her father on my ship. That was twenty-five years ago last autumn, Alan. A long time, isn't it? And when I look at Mary Standish and hear her voice—" He hesitated, as if betraying a secret, and then he added: "—I can't help thinking of the girl Donald Hardwick fought for and won in that death-hole at White Horse. It's too bad she had to die."

"She isn't dead," said Alan. The hardness was gone from his voice. "She isn't dead," he repeated. "That's the pity of it. She is as much a living thing to him today as she was twenty years ago."

After a moment the captain said, "She was talking with him early this evening, Alan."

"Miss Captain Miles Standish, you mean?"

"Yes. There seems to be something about her that amuses you."

Alan shrugged his shoulders. "Not at all. I think she is a most admirable young person. Will you have a cigar, Captain? I'm going to promenade a bit. It does me good to mix in with the sour-doughs."

The two lighted their cigars from a single match, and Alan went his way, while the captain turned in the direction of his cabin.

To Alan, on this particular night, the steamship Nome was more than a thing of wood and steel. It was a living, pulsating being, throbbing with the very heart-beat of Alaska. The purr of the mighty engines was a human intelligence crooning a song of joy. For him the crowded passenger list held a significance that was almost epic, and its names represented more than mere men and women. They were the vital fiber of the land he loved, its heart's blood, its very element—"giving in." He knew that with the throb of those engines romance, adventure, tragedy, and hope were on their way north—and with these things also arrogance and greed. On board were a hundred conflicting elements—some that had fought for Alaska, others that would make her, and others that would destroy.

He puffed at his cigar and walked alone, brushing sleeves with men and women whom he scarcely seemed to notice. But he was observant. He knew the tourists almost without looking at them. The spirit of the north had not yet seized upon them. They were voluble and rather excitedly enthusiastic in the face of beauty and awesomeness. The sour-doughs were tucked away here and there in shadowy nooks, watching in silence, or they walked the deck slowly and quietly, smoking their cigars or pipes, and seeing things beyond the mountains. Between these two, the newcomers and the old-timers, ran the gamut of all human thrill for Alan, the flesh-and-blood fiber of everything that went to make up life north of Fifty-four. And he could have gone from man to man and picked out those who belonged north of Fifty-eight.

Aft of the smoking-room he paused, tipping the ash of his cigar over the edge of the rail. A little group of three stood near him, and he recognized them as the young engineers, fresh from college, going up to work on the government railroad running from Seward to Tanana. One of them was talking, filled with the enthusiasm of his first adventure.

"I tell you," he said, "people don't know what they ought to know about Alaska. In school they teach us that it's an eternal icebox full of gold, and is headquarters for Santa Claus, because that's where reindeer come from. And grown-ups think about the same thing. Why"—he drew in a deep breath—"it's nine times as large as the state of Washington, twelve times as big as the state of New York, and we bought it from Russia for less than two cents an acre. If you put it down on the face of the United States, the city of Juneau would be in St. Augustine, Florida, and Unalaska would be in Los Angeles. That's how big it is, and the geographical center of our country isn't Omaha or Sioux City, but exactly San Francisco, California."

"Good for you, sonny," came a quiet voice from beyond the group. "Your geography is correct. And you might add for the education of your people that Alaska is only thirty-seven miles from Bolshevik Siberia, and wireless messages are sent into Alaska by the Bolsheviks urging our people to rise against the Washington government. We've asked Washington for a few guns and a few men to guard Nome, but they laugh at us. Do you see a moral?"

From half-amused interest Alan jerked himself to alert tension. He caught a glimpse of the gaunt, old graybeard who had spoken, but did not know him. And as this man turned away, a shadowy hulk in the moonlight, the same deep, quiet voice came back very clearly:

"And if you ever care for Alaska, you might tell your government to hang a few such men as John Graham, sonny."

At the sound of that name Alan felt the blood in him run suddenly hot. Only one man on the face of the earth did he hate with undying hatred, and that man was John Graham. He would have followed, seeking the identity of the stranger whose words had temporarily stunned the young engineers, when he saw a slim figure standing between him and the light of the smoking-room windows. It was Mary Standish. He knew by her attitude that she had heard the words of the young engineer and the old graybeard, but she was looking at him. And he could not remember that he had ever seen quite that same look in a woman's face before. It was not fright. It was more an expression of horror which comes from thought and mental vision rather than physical things. Instantly it annoyed Alan Holt. This was the second time she had betrayed a too susceptible reaction in matters which did not concern her. So he said, speaking to the silent young men a few steps away:

"He was mistaken, gentlemen. John Graham should not be hung. That would be too merciful."

He resumed his way then, nodding at them as he passed. But he had scarcely gone out of their vision when quick footsteps pattered behind him, and the girl's hand touched his arm lightly.

"Mr. Holt, please—"

He stopped, sensing the fact that the soft pressure of her fingers was not altogether unpleasant. She hesitated, and when she spoke again, only her finger-tips touched his arm. She was looking shoreward, so that for a moment he could see only the lustrous richness of her smooth hair. Then she was meeting his eyes squarely, a flash of challenge in the gray depths of her own.

"I am alone on the ship," she said. "I have no friends here. I want to see things and ask questions. Will you … help me a little?"

"You mean … escort you?"

"Yes, if you will. I should feel more comfortable."

Nettled at first, the humor of the situation began to appeal to him, and he wondered at the intense seriousness of the girl. She did not smile. Her eyes were very steady and very businesslike, and at the same time very lovely.

"The way you put it, I don't see how I can refuse," he said. "As for the questions—probably Captain Rifle can answer them better than I."

"I don't like to trouble him," she replied. "He has much to think about. And you are alone."

"Yes, quite alone. And with very little to think about."

"You know what I mean, Mr. Holt. Possibly you can not understand me, or won't try. But I'm going into a new country, and I have a passionate desire to learn as much about that country as I can before I get there. I want to know about many things. For instance—"

"Yes."

"Why did you say what you did about John Graham? What did the other man mean when he said he should be hung?"

There was an intense directness in her question which for a moment astonished him. She had withdrawn her fingers from his arm, and her slim figure seemed possessed of a sudden throbbing suspense as she waited for an answer. They had turned a little, so that in the light of the moon the almost flowerlike whiteness of her face was clear to him. With her smooth, shining hair, the pallor of her face under its lustrous darkness, and the clearness of her eyes she held Alan speechless for a moment, while his brain struggled to seize upon and understand the something about her which made him interested in spite of himself. Then he smiled and there was a sudden glitter in his eyes.

"Did you ever see a dog fight?" he asked.

She hesitated, as if trying to remember, and shuddered slightly. "Once."

"What happened?"

"It was my dog—a little dog. His throat was torn—"

He nodded. "Exactly. And that is just what John Graham is doing to Alaska, Miss Standish. He's the dog—a monster. Imagine a man with a colossal financial power behind him, setting out to strip the wealth from a new land and enslave it to his own desires and political ambitions. That is what John Graham is doing from his money-throne down there in the States. It's the financial support he represents, curse him! Money—and a man without conscience. A man who would starve thousands or millions to achieve his ends. A man who, in every sense of the word, is a murderer—"

The sharpness of her cry stopped him. If possible, her face had gone whiter, and he saw her hands clutched suddenly at her breast. And the look in her eyes brought the old, cynical twist back to his lips.

"There, I've hurt your puritanism again, Miss Standish," he said, bowing a little. "In order to appeal to your finer sensibilities I suppose I must apologize for swearing and calling another man a murderer. Well, I do. And now—if you care to stroll about the ship—"

From a respectful distance the three young engineers watched Alan and Mary Standish as they walked forward.

"A corking pretty girl," said one of them, drawing a deep breath. "I never saw such hair and eyes—"

"I'm at the same table with them," interrupted another. "I'm second on her left, and she hasn't spoken three words to me. And that fellow she is with is like an icicle out of Labrador."

And Mary Standish was saying: "Do you know, Mr. Holt, I envy those young engineers. I wish I were a man."

"I wish you were," agreed Alan amiably.

Whereupon Mary Standish's pretty mouth lost its softness for an instant. But Alan did not observe this. He was enjoying his cigar and the sweet air.