Kedsty that confession, and an innocent man would have been hanged. As it is, Kedsty is shocked, demoralized. I'm the first man to soil the honor of the finest Service on the face of the earth, and I'm in Kedsty's division. Quite natural that he should be upset. And as for the girl—"
He shrugged his shoulders and tried to laugh. "Perhaps she came in this morning with one of the up-river scows and was merely taking a little constitutional," he suggested. "Didn't you ever notice, O'Connor, that in a certain light under poplar trees one's face is sometimes ghastly?"
"Yes, I've noticed it, when the trees are in full leaf, but not when they're just opening, Jimmy. It was the girl. Her eyes shattered every nerve in him. And his first words were an order for me to free McTrigger, coupled with the lie that he was coming back to see Cardigan. And if you could have seen her eyes when she turned them on me! They were blue—blue as violets—but shooting fire. I could imagine black eyes like that, but not blue ones. Kedsty simply wilted in their blaze. And there was a reason—I know it—a reason that sent his mind like lightning to the man in the cell!"
"Now, that you leave me out of it, the thing begins to get interesting," said Kent. "It's a matter of the relationship of this blonde girl and—"
"She isn't blonde—and I'm not leaving you out of it," interrupted O'Connor. "I never saw anything so black in my life as her hair. It was magnificent. If you saw that girl once, you would never forget her again as long as you lived. She has never been in Athabasca Landing before, or anywhere near here. If she had, we surely would have heard about her. She came for a purpose, and I believe that purpose was accomplished when Kedsty gave me the order to free McTrigger."
"That's possible, and probable," agreed Kent. "I always said you were the best clue-analyst in the force, Bucky. But I don't see where I come in."
O'Connor smiled grimly. "You don't? Well, I may be both blind and a fool, and perhaps a little excited. But it seemed to me that from the moment Inspector Kedsty laid his eyes on that girl he was a little too anxious to let McTrigger go and hang you in his place. A little too anxious, Kent."
The irony of the thing brought a hard smile to Kent's lips as he nodded for the cigars. "I'll try one of these on top of the pipe," he said, nipping off the end of the cigar with his teeth. "And you forget that I'm not going to hang, Bucky. Cardigan has given me until tomorrow night. Perhaps until the next day. Did you see Rossand's fleet leaving for up north? It made me think of three years ago!"
O'Connor was gripping his hand again. The coldness of it sent a chill into the staff-sergeant's heart. He rose and looked through the upper part of the window, so that the twitching in his throat was hidden from Kent. Then he went to the door.
"I'll see you again tomorrow," he said. "And if I find out anything more about the girl, I'll report."
He tried to laugh, but there was a tremble in his voice, a break in the humor he attempted to force.
Kent listened to the tramp of his heavy feet as they went down the hall.
Again the world came back to Kent, the world that lay just beyond his open window. But scarcely had O'Connor gone when it began to change, and in spite of his determination to keep hold of his nerve Kent felt creeping up with that change a thing that was oppressive and smothering. Swiftly the distant billowings of the forests were changing their tones and colors under the darkening approach of storm. The laughter of the hills and ridges went out. The shimmer of spruce and cedar and balsam turned to a somber black. The flashing gold and silver of birch and poplar dissolved into a ghostly and unanimated gray that was almost invisible. A deepening and somber gloom spread itself like a veil over the river that only a short time before had reflected the glory of the sun in the faces of dark-visaged men of the Company brigade. And with the gloom came steadily nearer a low rumbling of thunder.
For the first time since the mental excitement of his confession Kent felt upon him an appalling loneliness. He still was not afraid of death, but a part of his philosophy was gone. It was, after all, a difficult thing to die alone. He felt that the pressure in his chest was perceptible greater than it had been an hour or two before, and the thought grew upon him that it would be a terrible thing for the "explosion" to come when the sun was not shining. He wanted O'Connor back again. He had the desire to call out for Cardigan. He would have welcomed Father Layonne with a glad cry. Yet more than all else would he have had at his side in these moments of distress a woman. For the storm, as it massed heavier and nearer, filling the earth with its desolation, bridged vast spaces for him, and he found himself suddenly face to face with the might-have-beens of yesterday.
He saw, as he had never guessed before, the immeasurable gulf between helplessness and the wild, brute freedom of man, and his soul cried out—not for adventure, not for the savage strength of life—but for the presence of a creature frailer than himself, yet in the gentle touch of whose hand lay the might of all humanity.
He struggled with himself. He remembered that Dr. Cardigan had told him there would be moments of deep depression, and he tried to fight himself out of the grip of this that was on him. There was a bell at hand, but he refused to use it, for he sensed his own cowardice. His cigar had gone out, and he relighted it. He made an effort to bring his mind back to O'Connor, and the mystery girl, and Kedsty. He tried to visualize McTrigger, the man he had saved from the hangman, waiting for Kedsty in the office at barracks. He pictured the girl, as O'Connor had described her, with her black hair and blue eyes—and then the storm broke.
The rain came down in a deluge, and scarcely had it struck when the door opened and Cardigan hurried in to close the window. He remained for half an hour, and after that young Mercer, one of his two assistants, came in at intervals. Late in the afternoon it began to clear up, and Father Layonne returned with papers properly made out for Kent's signature. He was with Kent until sundown, when Mercer came in with supper.
Between that hour and ten o'clock Kent observed a vigilance on the part of Dr. Cardigan which struck him as being unusual. Four times he listened with the stethoscope at his chest, but when Kent asked the question which was in his mind, Cardigan shook his head.
"It's no worse, Kent. I don't think it will happen tonight."
In spite of this assurance Kent was positive there was in Cardigan's manner an anxiety of a different quality than he had perceived earlier in the day. The thought was a definite and convincing one. He believed that Cardigan was smoothing the way with a professional lie.
He had no desire to sleep. His light was turned low, and his window was open again, for the night had cleared. Never had air tasted sweeter to him than that which came in through his window. The little bell in his watch tinkled the hour of eleven, when he heard Cardigan's door close for a last time across the hall. After that everything was quiet. He drew himself nearer to the window, so that by leaning forward he could rest himself partly on the sill. He loved the night. The mystery and lure of those still hours of darkness when the world slept had never ceased to hold their fascination for him. Night and he were friends. He had discovered many of its secrets. A thousand times he had walked hand in hand with the spirit of it, approaching each time a little nearer to the heart of it, mastering its life, its sound, the whispering languages of that "other side of life" which rises quietly and as if in fear to live and breathe long after the sun has gone out. To him it was more wonderful than day.
And this night that lay outside his