With a startled cry the woman turned. For a moment she stared at the great beast wide-eyed, then there came slowly into her face recognition and understanding. “Why, it’s the dog Blake whipped so terribly,” she gasped. “Peter, it’s–it’s Wapi!” For the first time Wapi felt the caress of a woman’s hand, soft, gentle, pitying, and out of him there came a wimpering sound that was almost a sob.
“It’s the dog–he whipped,” she repeated, and, then, if Wapi could have understood, he would have noted the tense pallor of her lovely face and the look of a great fear that was away back in the staring blue depths of her eyes.
From his pillow Peter Keith had seen the look of fear and the paleness of her cheeks, but he was a long way from guessing the truth. Yet he thought he knew. For days–yes, for weeks–there had been that growing fear in her eyes. He had seen her mighty fight to hide it from him. And he thought he understood.
“I know it has been a terrible winter for you, dear,” he had said to her many times. “But you mustn’t worry so much about me. I’ll be on my feet again–soon.” He had always emphasized that. “I’ll be on my feet again soon!”
Once, in the breaking terror of her heart, she had almost told him the truth. Afterward she had thanked God for giving her the strength to keep it back. It was day–for they spoke in terms of day and night–when Rydal, half drunk, had dragged her into his cabin, and she had fought him until her hair was down about her in tangled confusion–and she had told Peter that it was the wind. After that, instead of evading him, she had played Rydal with her wits, while praying to God for help. It was impossible to tell Peter. He had aged steadily and terribly in the last two weeks. His eyes were sunken into deep pits. His blond hair was turning gray over the temples. His cheeks were hollowed, and there was a different sort of luster in his eyes. He looked fifty instead of thirty-five. Her heart bled in its agony. She loved Peter with a wonderful love.
The truth! If she told him that! She could see Peter rising up out of his bed like a ghost. It would kill him. If he could have seen Rydal–only an hour before–stopping her out on the deck, taking her in his arms, and kissing her until his drunken breath and his beard sickened her! And if he could have heard what Rydal had said! She shuddered. And suddenly she dropped down on her knees beside Wapi and took his great head in her arms, unafraid of him–and glad that he had come.
Then she turned to Peter. “I’m going ashore to see Blake again–now,” she said. “Wapi will go with me, and I won’t be afraid. I insist that I am right, so please don’t object any more, Peter dear.”
She bent over and kissed him, and then in spite of his protest, put on her fur coat and hood, and stood for a moment smiling down at him. The fear was gone out of her eyes now. It was impossible for him not to smile at her loveliness. He had always been proud of that. He reached up a thin hand and plucked tenderly at the shining little tendrils of gold that crept out from under her hood.
“I wish you wouldn’t, dear,” he pleaded.
How pathetically white, and thin, and weak he was! She kissed him again and turned quickly to hide the mist in her eyes. At the door she blew him a kiss from the tip of her big fur mitten, and as she went out she heard him say in the thin, strange voice that was so unlike the old Peter:
“Don’t be long, Dolores.”
She stood silently for a few moments to make sure that no one would see her. Then she moved swiftly to the ice bridge and out into the star-lighted ghostliness of the night. Wapi followed close behind her, and dropping a hand to her side she called softly to him. In an instant Wapi’s muzzle was against her mitten, and his great body quivered with joy at her direct speech to him. She saw the response in his red eyes and stopped to stroke him with both mittened hands, and over and over again she spoke his name. “Wapi–Wapi–Wapi.” He whined. She could feel him under her touch as if alive with an electrical force. Her eyes shone. In the white starlight there was a new emotion in her face. She had found a friend, the one friend she and Peter had, and it made her braver.
At no time had she actually been afraid–for herself. It was for Peter. And she was not afraid now. Her cheeks flushed with exertion and her breath came quickly as she neared Blake’s cabin. Twice she had made excuses to go ashore–just because she was curious, she had said–and she believed that she had measured up Blake pretty well. It was a case in which her woman’s intuition had failed her miserably. She was amazed that such a man had marooned himself voluntarily on the arctic coast. She did not, of course, understand his business–entirely. She thought him simply a trader. And he was unlike any man aboard ship. By his carefully clipped beard, his calm, cold manner of speech, and the unusual correctness with which he used his words she was convinced that at some time or another he had been part of what she mentally thought of as “an entirely different environment.”