The Little White Girl
THE LITTLE WHITE GIRL
By G. B. Lancaster
Illustrations by Sydney Adamson
THE left-hand corner seat near the window commanded the best view in the lounge. From it Strickland could rake the full stretch of the hotel corridor, the stairs, the glassed-in balcony that took the rays of the winter sun, and—when he stretched that long neck of his—a triangle of Swiss mountain scenery, with snow-heights and jagged pines and fret-work chalets, just exactly as you see it in the guidebook.
One forenoon from his corner seat Strickland saw the green-aproned porter bearing a battered suit case and an old army great-coat down the corridor. The suit case was marked R. A. G. and, in conjunction with the great-coat, told Strickland a whole three-years' history in one eye-blink.
"Good Lord!" he said. "They're together yet, then! And here! Well, that does beat the universe."
The man next him asked questions, and Strickland gave answer piecemeal, with his cigar going out and his eager eyes watching the corridor.
"I saw them last in Malay ... and in Madagascar before that. And once on the Australian diggings. Windham's a retired captain of some native Indian regiment. He was invalided out of it, but I've seen his eyes when a troop goes by. Deuce knows what Gary is, except that he's the most lovable fellow the Lord ever made—and the wildest. But Windham sticks to him. We called them David and Jonathan out in Malay."
The man next him indicated that he had heard those names before, and saw the new-comers pass with some disappointment. Windham was light-built and spare. He walked with a limp and his military mustache was turning gray. But he had the litheness of a cat. and the tenacity of an ant. and Gary was the only living thing which had ever bounced Windham. Gary followed, with his blue eyes roving and his big body swinging carelessly. His lips were puckered into a whistle and his crisp curly hair was roughened. The man next Strickland grunted.
"Your Gary is a pretty tough proposition," he said. "And there are some jolly girls here. I think we are going to have what our waiter calls 'some excitements.' "
"The little White Girl can beat them all hollow," said Strickland. "But no one's had the wit to find it out yet. Gary will, or he's not the man he used to be."
But it was Windham who found it out first. And this was the very next morning in a little low smelly village shop where Windham tried to explain in execrable French and fluent Hindostani and curt English that he wanted nails—many nails—hammered into his boot heels, and two assistants and the proprietor told him in polite German-Swiss that they could not guess what the Herr desired.
Then the little White Girl spoke at Windham's elbow.
"Perhaps I could make them understand," she said.
Windham whipped round with a sharpness learned in places where a man's life is regulated by the crook of the trigger-finger. Then he uncovered. She was so little and light and young in her close-filling sweater and round white cap; but the red lips and the dark eyes under the straight brows were more demure than nature made them.
"You heard?" he said, suspiciously.
"They thought I wanted a chiropodist at first," said Windham, helplessly. "Now they think it's a lunatic asylum. There's only one sentence on boots in this confounded conversation book, and it says, 'I have very big feet.' A fellow couldn't go about saying that, could he?"
"Of course not.'" she said, gravely, but Windham saw the Hash of a dimple somewhere. "Suppose I try."
She wielded the rough patois in a sweet decision that brought fulfilment on the jump. Then they went out to the keen good air and the run of sunlight on the snow, and the jangle of sleigh-bells and the merry laughter of children.
Windham dragged her toboggan and his own up the hotel slope, and he talked to the little White Girl as he had not often talked to a woman in his life. But she was so eager, so interested, with her big eyes and parted lips and the quick ecstatic movements of her hands. Windham caught himself watching for that dimple and feeling honored among men when it came; and when he turned into the lounge at last, and dropped down beside Strickland for a smoke, he discovered, with a shock of dismay, that he had laid bare for the little White Girl's inspection several of his very intimate thoughts.
"So you've discovered the little White Girl," remarked Strickland. "What has Gary been about to let you get inside running?"
"The little White Girl?"
"We call her that here. She never wears color. Doesn't need it, either. She has been here a week, and the other women don't take to her—or her aunt. I don't wonder, for the aunt is the limit, and the little girl's too pretty. But she isn't having a very good time."
"We'll alter that," said Windham with sudden daring. And in two days he and Gary did it. They tobogganed down the runs, three at a time, with waving caps and a rollicking joy in the danger. They skied and skated and climbed mountains, always with the little White Girl in the middle. They joined moonlight tailing-parties where the runners hummed on the crisp snow and it was necessary for Windham or Gary to hold the little White Girl very closely at the curves. Windham began to lie awake o' nights after these excursions. It was better than sleep to remember her blown-back hair on his face and the quiver of her eager young body in his arms.
One day a girl called the two 'David and Jonathan with a hyphen,' and Gary carried the joke to the little White Girl. Windham heard and was angry, but the little White Girl looked down on Gary meditatively.
"I shall call you Scylla and Charybdis," she said.
Gary straightened himself with a jerk. He was buckling her skies.
"What in the land——"
The little White Girl nodded her head. It was a way she had, and it invested her for the moment with a sweet intentness.
"You are both so very interesting and so dangerous, you know. If a girl doesn't fall in love with one she's bound to do it with the other. I'm quite safe, of course, because I love you both. But others may not be so cosmopolitan as I am—or you?"
Then she glided swiftly down the slope, with her long skies running smoothly and her mischievous laughter flung down between the men as a challenge. Gary drew his last strap-buckle up, steadied himself, and shot after her. For the first time in six years he had utterly forgotten Windham.
"If you've thrown down the gauntlet, you little girl," he said, exultingly, "you'll find me on hand to pick it up."
From that day the hyphen ceased to join David and Johnathan. Strickland had spoken naked truth when he said that Gary was wild—"wild; but the most lovable man God ever made." Swiftly, imperceptibly, the little White Girl began to know it. Firstly she laughed at herself, for she understood something of the world and of the people of it. Then she grew frightened, and snubbed Gary, and sat out many dances with Windham, and let him take her down the hotel slope on an auto-bob, and knock the skin off her elbow in an upset.
Before dinner that night Gary came to Windham's room.
"I've heard about your cursed carelessness," he said. "You might have killed her. D' you hear? You might have killed her, dear little girl."
"Rot," said Windham tersely. The calf of his leg was scarified and his head was aching. Besides, he knew already that he might have killed her.
"You'll not take her on that brutal thing again," said Gary.
"I shall do as I damned please," said Windham.
A silence dropped that seemed wide as the earth to the two. Windham limped over to the window. Something reminded him that he had never sworn at Gary before. That same something asserted that the odds were heavy he would do it again. On the slope below two little Swiss girls, with old-woman dresses and loaves of bread under their arms, slid downward on toboggans. Their cry of "Achtung" came up to Windham, mixed with the jangle of sleigh-bells, the sound of a distant band on the rinks, and the solemn boom from the monastery tower. The jagged snow-tops stood sharp and clean against the rose and opal of sunset, and down the valley, where the mists drew, red eyes opened drowsily as though waked from sleep. Then Gary said:
"I say, you're walking lamer, old chap."
"A bit." Windham's gratitude rushed into words. "Lost some skin myself. I—I saved her all I could, Gary."
"I know." Gary ht a cigarette carefully. "I was a brute, old man. But I do think no end of that little girl."
"You think no end of about ten little girls a year."
"This one's different."
"They are all different."
"You unbelieving Jew," he said, and went out.
But Windham stood long at the window. In these last six years Gary had ripped many holes in the universe, and Windham had mended them. He had asked nothing better of life than the permission to do it. Now—he leaned his forehead on the glass, shutting his eyes. For the rush of thought made him sick and giddy. If Gary ripped another hole here and called on Windham to mend it!
"I ... can't," said Windham in his throat. "Oh, God! ... I can't."
For two days this dread took the sap out of his life and held him apart from the whirl around him. He walked for long hours on the mountains, and their white solitudes spoke to him, telling him that he was a man in his strength and that he desired the little White Girl more than anything else in heaven or earth. Then he came through the chill keen dusk to the quiet graveyard around the monastery and stood there, seeking the peace that he could not find.
It was very still by the gray walls beyond the town lights. On either side the crucifixes stood up in black rows through the snow. In the little open chapel of the dead two lights flickered. Over the mighty shoulder of the mountain behind it one star lay, big and glorious. It linked the dead of earth and the quick of heaven. together, explaining the infiniteness of life, and drawing the sting out of Windham's trouble. And then, down the track from the toboggan runs, between the silent crucifixes, came the little White Girl, alone.
She did not see Windham until she was close upon him. Then she said "Oh," catching her breath in a sob.
"Where's Gary?" demanded Windham, suddenly stern.
"He ... he went the other way." Then she gripped Windham's arm. "Oh, I don't know what to do. I'm afraid. I don't know what to do."
"Tell me," said Windham.
"I—how can I? But ... I must know. He says he loves me."
"Yes?" said Windham.
"And—it's just a fortnight, and I know nothing about him, really. You know. Do you—do you think I could let myself care?"
"Now I could forget. In a little while I—I shan't be able to forget. Ah ... which should I do?"
"That's your business and his. Ask him."
"I can't. You know ... when he looks at me ... and touches me ... I can't think. And I must think. There's nobody to look after me but myself. Aunt is no use."
The words broke on a sob. Windham was silent. Against the white snow the crucifixes stood up very black, very clear.
"He's your friend," whispered the little White Girl. "You know him better than any one."
"Then tell me ... can I trust him? Does he always mean what he says?"
"To me. Yes."
"But ... to a girl?"
"How should I know? Ask him!"
"You must know. Have there ever been other girls ...? Has he ... done this often before?"
How often Windham could not remember. Through Gary's gay uncaring life it had been more times than many. But since Judas betrayed his Friend no man has done this thing lightly. "Most men do. That needn't make a difference."
"It would to me. If I cared ... and he forgot me. Oh ... tell me! Do you think he'd be true to me?"
In the chapel of the dead the lights flickered. Above the hill the big star was burning yet. Darker shadows drew up in the graveyard and against the monastery walls. Somewhere down the valley a herdsman was jodelling, making wild music that tugged the heartstrings. Windham never moved.
"Tell me! Do you think he'd be true?"
Those black crucifixes ... and Gary's frank laugh and frank eyes ... and the little White Girl whose life hung in the balance. ...
"No," said Windham.
Across the silence drifted no sound. The flickering dead-lights burnt down into blackness. The little White Girl spoke.
"Thank you. I'm afraid I have been very cruel to you."
"Cruel?" Windham laughed. "You don't know what you have been. How should you? When you tell Gary tell him all that I said."
"Oh ... but ..."
"Don't you understand? You owe me that much now."
"I don't understand. But ... I will tell him."
She went down toward the lighted streets of the village, and Windham stumbled into the monastery chapel and dropped on a seat with his head bent down to the book-board. He was cold—numb with cold. But he did not know it. All unsuspecting he had come suddenly upon his Gethsemane. He had trodden through it as he believed an honorable man should do. But the journey had taken him into the outer desert of thorns and blinding sand, and never in this world or the next would there be any going back.
Very long he sat there, unmoving. He did not know when more lights leaped out above the altar; when a monk passed up the side-aisle, brushing him with black garments; when, obeying the tolling bell, a half-score villagers drifted in for the midnight service.
Then—sudden, strong, majestic—the chant of the monks clashed into the silence. The sound brought Windham to his feet, with pulses hammering in his ears. All down the dim church the altars glimmered out faintly. Either side the crucified Christs hung, patient, in shadow. Up the aisle the people knelt, in ones, in twos. And opposite stood Gary; Gary, looking straight ahead to the altar; Gary, with hands gripped on the rail and grim lips set.
Windham did not look again. He heard the sonorous Latin chants peal out with that fibre of unrest in them which belongs to the hearts of men who have pruned away earthly desires, earthly loves, earthly joys. He heard the music shake to passion and die to deadness, and the rustle of garments as the monks went out. He heard the people rise softly, and tiptoe down to the doors. He saw the lights fade by one and one, until in all the church were left only one candle burning on a side-altar and two men who had been friends.
Then Gary trod across the aisle.
"I did not come to speak to you," he said. "I came to do that."
The open-handed slap on Windham's face made an echo that ran along the walls. And then Gary swung on his heel and went out with quick crisp steps.
Next day the battered suit case and the old army coat left the sunny hotel on the mountain slope. But they did not go together. Strickland saw, and he sought the little White Girl.
"You have come between the finest friendship I ever knew," he said. "I hope neither of them will forgive you."
But, although she was a woman, the little White Girl was wiser.
"It is not me whom they will never forgive," she said.
Strickland had the opportunity of testing the truth of this some two years later, when he sat with Windham in an Indian shack up in North-west Canada, and waited for the dawn. There was snow from the door to the mountain crests, even as had been when he last met with Windham across the seas. But Windham wore the uniform of a mounted police officer these days, and the last flicker of his youth was gone before the direct uncompromising alertness that marked him as a commander of men.
Cunningly, over their pipes, Strickland strove to lead the talk back to the little White Girl and all that she had meant in two men's lives. But the lever of Windham's will side-tracked him each time, and the long night dragged itself into a frozen pink dawn leaving Gary's name still unspoken. Then, beyond the shack end, the sledge dogs roused to bark in savage eagerness, and Windham looked at his watch.
"Good business," he said. "Hope he's brought decent dogs."
"The man himself doesn't seem to worry you any. If I had to go where you're going with only one human being to see me through I guess I'd take rather particular interest in that human being."
"Why so? All hired men are alike. They do as they're told—or you make them do it. He's got dogs with fight in 'em by the sound, I think."
Then some one hammered on the shack door, thrust it open, and walked in.
It was Strickland who came to his feet with an oath. Windham sat still. But on his left cheek he believed that the two-year-old slap from this man's hand was yet throbbing. He looked Gary between the eyes.
"Are you the man sent up from Wesbikow?" he asked.
"Yes." Gary's face had gone suddenly hard as his voice.
"I start in an hour. Can you be ready?"
To Strickland the short silence was explosive with possibilities. Gary was unshaven and ragged. Suffering, cold, hunger, thirst had drawn lines on his face and struck the gay impudent light from his eyes. Beside him Windham looked an insensate steel-cold machine of the law. Between the two betrayal, insult, broken love made a barrier head-high.
"Yes," said Gary. Windham turned on his heel.
"You'll find my kit packed in the corner," he said. "My sled's outside."
Later Strickland watched from the shack as the two pulled out on the long trail where the icy hummocks and the frozen muskegs would 'greet them. Gary led, tramping the way out, with the swinging arms and stooped shoulders of the snow-shoe lope. Windham followed, keeping the two dog-trains in the trail with keen eyes and voice. They breasted the slope where a few naked poplars showed grayly; loomed big on its crest for a moment and passed over. They were gone into the silent places that know the secrets of men's hearts and lives and guard them well.
Strickland shrugged his shoulders.
"A hundred-mile trip in this weather to bring the fear of the law to a mining-camp," he said. "I wonder which of those two will be needing the law on himself 'fore they get there."
It is probable that the same thought had entered into each man. For that one smite of Gary's hand had wiped out of Windham all but a bitter hate, and those half-score sobbing words from the little White Girl were a corroding acid in Gary's blood.
But day by day they faced the bleak distances and the stinging blizzard together. Night by night they slept in the twelve-by-twelve tent together. The earth was flat and desolate, white as a dead face, and pockmarked with bare scrub and rock outcrops. Their breath blew out before them in white clouds, and hung on their hair and mustaches in little icicles that clinked. Gary's hands got frost-bitten in beating the stiffened tent into folding position, and the pain kept him awake at nights. The old wound in Windham's thigh was a wearing agony. But they spoke no word of all this to each other. They spoke little at all, except when Windham, tramping beside the flagging dogs, cursed when one lay down suddenly and knotted the team into a snarling inferno, or when Gary, defiant of the silent woods wrapped in their white mummy clothes, raised a reckless song through cracked and frozen lips.
Then evil days came on them. Smiting blizzards out of the Arctic held them crouched in their tent for many hours at a time. Food ran low. Two dogs died, and the remainder weakened swiftly. Gary realized the probable end of all first. For youth was hot in him still, and his limbs were strong. He looked across at Windham stumbling and reeling as he faced the stinging ice wind. He looked at the crawling dogs, and the sleds, with the lightened loads that yet were too heavy. And he felt his young blood rebel at thought of death here; death with Windham to know that he suffered; death with no living soul to grieve for him ever.
That night Windham's brain also jumped to the truth. And thereafter the two men watched each other furtively, like dogs circling before they clinch in fight. Once, when the Northern Lights made the midnight sky and the white shadowed earth into a quivering pale mystery of glory Gary got up, gathered his kit and the food-bags together, and went out, never looking at Windham. But a half-hour later he came back. The old worn strings of memory tugged too hard. And yet, at sight of Windham, the new hate sprang up again.
The cold grew more terrible. The moan of the ice-pack, uneasy about the feet of the pole, seemed to sound in their throbbing ears. The dogs, great hulking huskies, turned into starved devils that the men watched with unflinching eyes. But they pulled; they pulled until they fell in the lines and lay dead, and their mates, with slinking shame and sidewise looks, crawled round and ate them.
And thereafter the two white men reeled on alone through the solitudes, dragging the sleds, enduring to the utmost, seeking neither pity nor help one from the other. For, through gray day, black night, or pale dawning the wraith of the little White Girl walked between them, holding them apart.
Then, little by little, the brute that lives in each soul waked, craving the animal needs of food and warm drink, of fire and the companionship of kind. Death dogged them, nearer, nearer. There were hours when Windham longed to turn his face and reach his arms to her. There were times when Gary, feeling the fever of life leap yet along his veins, would have cried out in utter fear, in wild prayers. But, for sake of their pride and hate, each man was dumb.
One morning Windham fell in the trail and lay there. Gary, dragging the sled which held little but the tent that meant life, heard the ceasing of the snow-shoe crunch, and halted. But he did not turn, and in a moment he went on again. Sound, sense, feeling dredged out of him. He walked, but he did not know it. Red on his strained blind eyeballs pictures of the past glowed vividly. There was no little White Girl in those pictures. Only Windham: Windham who had never failed him but the once; Windham who had been mate of his through good days and evil. Suddenly he halted, thinking he felt Windham's arm about his shoulder, Windham's voice in his ear, using the old affectionate words.
"Windham," he cried. But the sound fell back to him in the echoless silence. Then he turned and beat back to certain death and to Windham. Windham, dreaming of summer and honey-bees and Gary's laugh in an English garden, opened his eyes suddenly to see Gary's face between him and the tent roof. He reached out with groping hands.
"I—was wanting you, old boy," he said. Gary's hands shut on his. There was silence until Windham spoke again.
"I could have married her. She told me so later. But I never wanted her after that night."
"Nor I," said Gary, briefly.
"You ... meant more," whispered Windham. "That is why I—hated you so."
"I know," said Gary.
Later Windham turned as though struck by a sudden knife.
"Gary," he cried. "I had to do it. God knows I had to do it."
"I know," said Gary again. Brain-sight, heart-sight were clear to him now. They were his reward for the supreme sacrifice.
"Some one else'll do my work," said Windham, drowsily. "They can always shift up another pawn. Gary ..."
"Yes, old man."
"She was the only woman who ever came into my life. But ... you meant more."
Gary was shivering with more than the cold and the tension. He was looking at this friendship which surely was sanctified still. For Windham had laid the love of his man's life on its altar and Gary had brought his own life there to crown it. He stooped to Windham's ear.
"Windham. We never hated each other. We always loved each other best of all."
"Passing the love of woman," murmured Windham.
When Strickland met Gary afterward in southern Alberta his curiosity prompted him to ask questions. Gary answered briefly. Then he looked straight at Strickland.
"The Indians helped me bury him where they found us," he said. "But I've sent over to have a tablet put up to him in the little church down in Surrey. He was a Surrey man, you know. That'll tell you what you want to know."
The inscription, when Strickland came to read it, was brief. But it told him what he wanted to know.
Beneath Windham's name and the date of his death was written:
"For he loved his friend 'passing the love of woman.' "
Strickland rubbed his nose and grunted.
"The little White Girl was wrong after all," he said.