VIEW THE MOBILE VERSION of www.fictionstories.ca Informational Site Network Informational
Privacy
   Home - Science Fiction Stories - Western Stories


The Sisters







From: The Doomsman

A young girl sat before a magnificent fireplace of cut stone gazing into
the fire of drift-wood that burned diffidently upon a hearth whose
spaciousness would have been more fittingly adorned by Vergil's "no
small part of a tree." Out-of-doors the snow was whirling down in small,
frozen flakes that the northwest gale ground into powder against the
granite walls and then sifted through every crack and crevice; not a
door-sill or window-seat but wore its decoration of a pure white wreath.
Bitterly cold it had grown with the closing in of the dusk, and the girl
drew her cloak, a superb garment of Russian sables, closer about her
shoulders and stretched out her hands to the dying blaze. Then she
clapped them impatiently. A long interval and a middle-aged man answered
the summons--a servant, as the coarse quality of his clothing
proclaimed. He shuffled across the floor, his big boots creaking
unpleasantly.

"More wood, Ugo," said the girl, without looking around; "and I do wish
you would grease your boots. It is unbearable the way you clatter
about."

"Grease my boots!" echoed the man, with ironic emphasis. "That is good
counsel, seeing there isn't enough lard in the house for the frying of
an egg; yes, and no egg to fry."

The girl half turned, as though about to speak, then checked herself.
Ugo went on impertinently:

"I could see long ago how things were going, but, Lord, what was the use
of breaking my heart over it! A dainty lip means a short purse-string,
and a sick woman's fancy is a bottomless well. Let's have plain speaking
about this; it can't hurt any one now, and your mother----"

He stopped short, disconcerted, for all his bravado, by the sudden glint
of red that lit up the girl's eyes. Her hand plucked at the black ribbon
around her throat; yet when she spoke her voice was clear and even.

"Never mind about my mother," she said, and the man kept sulky silence.

"Is it really true that there is no food in the house?" she continued.

"There was never a rope made that hadn't an end," answered the servant,
with a trifle more of his former assurance. "Not a scrap of bacon nor a
handful of flour in the larder; even the rats will tell you that. I saw
two of them leaving to-day, and I've about made up my mind to follow
them."

The girl unlocked a drawer in the teak-wood table that stood at her
elbow, and took from it a leathern thong some eight inches in length and
knotted together at the ends, a purse-string in common parlance. Upon it
were strung three of the thin brass tokens pierced in the centre by a
square hole that were in ordinary use among the Doomsmen as currency,
redeemable against the material supplies on hand in the public
storehouses.

The girl untied the thong and let the coins fall upon the table. She
pushed them over to the fellow with a gesture superbly indifferent.

"Go now," she said, curtly. The man Ugo pocketed the money with a
darkening face and turned to depart. At the door he hesitated, making as
though he would say a final word. But the girl cut him short.

"Go!" she reiterated, and he had no choice but to obey.

"I should have been in peril of having my ear nicked," he said, under
his breath, as he crossed the threshold. "It's just as well that I kept
my tongue between my teeth and concluded not to mind Quinton Edge's
business." He closed the door.

It had grown quite dark, and the fire was making its last stand for
life. Only one small piece of wood remained unconsumed, and the flame
licked at it lazily, like a beast of prey hanging over a carcass, gorged
to repletion and yet unwilling to give over employment so delicious.
Suddenly the girl rose to her feet and went to one of the long windows
that looked out upon the street. The casement shook and rattled under
the gale's rough hand. Hardly knowing what she did, she flung the window
wide open.

In an instant she seemed to have been transported into the midst of the
tumult, her face lashed by windy whips, her eyes blinded by fine
particles of frozen snow, her ears deafened by the multitudinous voices
of the storm sprites shrieking to their fellows. Something in her
nature, fierce and untamed, leaped forth to meet the tempest.
Intoxicated by the strong wine of its fury, she flung out her arms, half
fearing, half hoping that she might be swept away, whirled like some
wild sea-bird, into the heart of the madness. A strong hand pulled her
back.

"Esmay!" shrieked a voice in her ear. "Esmay!"

Loudly as the call must have been uttered, it came to her, as though
from a great distance, thin and of an infinite littleness. Yet she
allowed herself to be drawn back into the room, and made no demur to the
closing of the window.

It was a tall, finely built woman of thirty or thereabouts who stood
beside her--a woman with a dark, passionate face shaded by a mop of
raven hair as coarse as a horse's mane. "Esmay!" she said again, with an
accent of wondering reproach.

The girl stood silent, motionless for a moment; then, with a swift
intake of her breath:

"Don't be angry, Nanna, but something is going to happen. I've got to
laugh or to cry--I don't know which."

It was a laugh, low but genuine, and full of a silver trickle of sound.
The elder woman caught up the girl impetuously into a close embrace.

"My dear! my dear! is it really you? I can't believe it. After these
dreadful three months in which you have hardly said as many words. It
would be a miracle, if there were any saints in Doom to work one."

She drew away for a moment, her eyes ablaze with excitement. There was a
smooth, graceful strength in her every movement that was almost
animal-like; she suggested the idea of a big cat as she alternately
released the girl and then returned, in a half-circle, to take renewed
possession of her. "A miracle!" she repeated.

"Indeed, it almost needed that to bring me to myself," said the girl,
gravely. "But now I see things clearly; it seems almost as though the
mother herself had stood beside me and drawn the veil away. It was Ugo,
though, who really did it," she added, and laughed again softly.

"Ugo!" echoed the other, indignantly. "And, if you please, where is the
fellow? The candles have not been lighted, the fire is dying out, and
not a sign of supper visible. It is unbearable, Esmay, and he shall pack
this very night."

"But Nanna!"

"I won't listen to a word."

"You will. He has gone already."

She pushed the elder woman into a chair. "Now don't dare to move until I
am back with wood and a light. Not a word, sister mine--if you love me."
Taken by surprise, Nanna let her go, and sat waiting.

The girl returned in a few minutes with a basket containing several
lumps of sea-coal.

"This is a thousand times better than Ugo's boards and barrel-staves,"
said Esmay, triumphantly, and transferred the fuel to the hearth, where
it presently burst into a cheerful flame. "There are three or four boxes
of the stuff in the cellar, enough to last us all winter. Now for the
lamp."

On the mantel-piece stood a shallow dish containing a small quantity of
cotton-seed oil and a piece of lampwick. Esmay took down the vessel and
inspected it with a calculating eye. "It will last until bedtime," she
announced, and lit it with a spill of paper.

Nanna looked at her half-sister questioningly, but did not offer to
speak. She had never seen Esmay just like this, and the change was
especially noticeable after the silence and apathy of the past months.
Her thoughts travelled back to the human link that had united them for
so long--the woman whom each had called mother, although to Nanna it had
been only a step-relationship. How impossible it had once seemed that
there could be any new adjustment of life's machinery; how difficult the
realization that nature is accustomed to settle these matters in her own
time and way, and invariably does so! Yet here was Esmay suddenly
returned to herself, moving about, alert and eager, knitting her brows
over the one important problem of the moment, the question of supper.

"You'll have to make out with the firelight for a little while," said
Esmay, picking up the rude lamp. "But you won't mind, dear?" She
stooped, kissed her sister, and was gone again.

The elder woman felt her eyes brimming saltily. The girl, so far as
years were concerned, might almost have been her daughter, since Nanna
had been both wife and widow at seventeen. For all that, the sisterly
relation was the true one between them; they were of the same strong
breed, even if Esmay were only in half a daughter of the Doomsmen. Nanna
had never been able to forget that her father's second wife had been of

the blood of the despised House People. In spite of herself she had
learned to love the dead Elena; she adored Esmay as a part of herself. A
primitive emotion, but then Nanna was the elemental woman.

When Esmay returned she brought with her a bowl containing a small
quantity of cottage cheese, hard and yellow with age. Surmounting the
bowl was a plate upon which were some crusts of bread and a knuckle of
ham, the latter being little more than the bare bone. A table stood in
the middle of the room, a handsome piece of buhl-work. Esmay drew it
forward to the fire and proceeded to arrange her feast. Scanty enough it
seemed, but the cloth covering the table was of the finest damask, the
plates that she took from a glazed cabinet were of the precious china of
Sevres, the knives and forks were in solid silver, and the drinking-cups
of silver-gilt had been fashioned by a great artist. A strange contrast!
beggar's fare served so royally; but hunger is not nice about trifles
one way or the other. And so it was upon the viands that Nanna's
attention was immediately concentrated. She glanced suspiciously at the
cheese, despairingly at the knuckle-bone, and then said, solemnly:

"Tell me, Esmay, what does it mean? Where is Ugo?"

"Ugo has deserted us--like the rats," answered the girl. "And the
situation--it is just this." She stopped and took a swallow of water.
"It is three months now since she--the mother--slipped away from our
arms, and of course the pension stopped with her. I gave the last
handful of tokens to Ugo to settle up his wages. So you see I'm a
beggar. It's a woman against the world, and one of us will have to
devour the other. Lucky, isn't it, that I woke up desperately hungry?
That means that I'll make a fight for it. Have the first bite."

"Esmay! You know that I have still my widow's rate."

"Yes, and I also know that it is barely enough to keep one body and soul
together; the two of us would only starve by inches. No use, Nanna, we
must take things as we find them. But isn't it strange--" She stopped
abruptly and let her glance wander over the luxurious table-service, the
gleaming surface of the silver reflecting her troubled eyes. She went on
slowly:

"All this meant something once--this array of silver and jewelled glass,
the tapestries on the walls, the fur cloak about my shoulders. Think of
it, Nanna! These things must have been the envied treasures of the rich,
the luxuries of life. And now any one may possess them who cares to
fight their battle with moth and rust."

"While a single one of Dom Gillian's brass tokens outweighs it all,"
rejoined Nanna, nodding her head wisely. "It is not hard to understand
why, for with the token any one may buy a quarterweight of flour at the
public stores or a fore-shoulder of mutton."

"And bread and meat mean life, don't they? Well, and suppose one doesn't
happen to possess a long purse-string laden with these wonderful,
miracle-working bits of token-money, what then? A woman can't put on a
quilted coat and steel cap and go out with the raiders to earn her share
of the loot. Fancy my teaching a fat House-dweller how to dance on a
red-hot plate or riding the toll roads of the West Inch in a jacket full
of arrow-holes."

"That is true," agreed Nanna, gravely.

Esmay rose and walked excitedly up and down the long room.

"It's just hopeless, Nanna, to stay on here in this city of the dead."

She stopped and faced her sister.

"So I have decided; I am going back to my mother's people. There is a
chance in their world for a woman to secure her own living; here she
can only starve or accept some man's protection."

The elder woman remonstrated feebly, but the girl swept her aside.

"Listen to me, Nanna. You know that Messer Hugolin, Councillor Primus of
Croye, is my uncle, my mother's own brother. She ever insisted that in
his charity I had a final resource. He might not offer it, but surely he
could not deny me, if I sought it. Nanna, you recall what the mother
herself said--how she always believed that the message would reach him.
My own uncle and Councillor Primus of Croye," she concluded, hopefully.

But Nanna was not to be so easily convinced. "But, Esmay, it is
impossible," she exclaimed. "You could never escape from Doom."

"But I will."

"You cannot. The High Bridge to the north is always guarded, and on the
other three sides of the city there is deep water."

"I shall manage it," returned the girl, confidently. "It is simply a
question of my going empty-handed to my uncle's house. Now gold among
the House-dwellers has a value that it does not possess with us; so Ulick
once told me. They use it as money."

"Here in Doom it is nothing," assented Nanna, "save that we women like
the pretty things that the ancients fashioned from it."

"Precisely; and as you know there is not much of it in existence, even
here in Doom, where silver is almost as common as iron."

"Well, and then?"

"Don't you see? If only golden tongues could plead my cause in Croye I
should be independent, even of my uncle Hugolin. Now there is store of
this gold somewhere in Doom. It must be so, for the war-galleys always
carry a money-chest when they sail to the northern colonies."

"A treasure," said Nanna, slowly. "Who would know of it here in Doom?
Dom Gillian himself--or perhaps----"

"Master Quinton Edge," supplied Esmay, and thereupon silence fell
between them.

The minutes passed away. Then, suddenly, Esmay stopped in her monotonous
pacing of the room and flung herself on her knees by her sister's chair.

"You goose!" she exclaimed, with tender suspicion. "I believe you have
been crying."

"Not a bit of it," returned Nanna, sitting bolt upright and staring hard
at the ceiling. "I only want you to be sure and let me know before you
go. Or couldn't you take me with you?" she added, wistfully, as though
the idea had but just occurred to her.

"Why, Nanna, as though I could have dreamed of anything else! Go without
you! Don't you see yourself how ridiculous that would be?"

"Then nothing else matters," said Nanna, comfortably, and openly wiped
her eyes. "When do you want to go--to-night?"

"Foolish one! But then you love me, and I can forgive you. Now let me be
quiet; I want to think out my--our plan."

Nanna left the room softly. Esmay sat looking into the fire, her small,
firm chin propped in her palm. So violent was the storm that she did not
hear the opening and closing of the street-door, but the flickering of
the lamp in the swirl of a current from the outer air warned her that
she had a visitor. She recognized him instantly as he came forward, his
laced hat in the hollow of his arm. There was no one in Doom besides
Master Quinton Edge who bowed with so easy a grace--a woman has a quick
eye for such trifles.

"You are Esmay, daughter of Mad Scarlett," he began, gently. "My
intrusion is unseasonable, perhaps, but none the less unavoidable."

The girl made no answer.

"I will speak to the point," he went on. "Are you ready to make choice,
to-night, between young Ulick and his oafish cousin Boris? I have a
reason for asking, believe me."

Esmay flushed with annoyance. "I will not listen to either of them," she
said. "Boris I detest, and Ulick is only a boy, and a silly one; I have
told him so a score of times."

"I thought as much, but I wanted the confirmation of your own lips, my
dear child. The knowledge emboldens me to offer you an asylum under my
own roof for the next few months--or longer. Ulick, as you say, is but a
boy, half hot, half muddle-head. He, perhaps, could be kept in
check----"

"I can manage that sufficiently well," broke in the girl, haughtily.

"No doubt, no doubt; but with Boris also in the field the situation
becomes a complicated one. Accordingly, I have concluded to offer you my
assistance in dealing with it."

"It is difficult to think of Master Quinton Edge in the light of a
disinterested adviser. Perhaps you have other motives."

"Possibly," returned the man, with calm assurance. "Why not a dozen of
them? But to disclose them--this is not the time. You have only to
accept my offer and be thankful."

"Suppose that I refuse?"

Quinton Edge glanced over his shoulder, and the three men who had been
standing motionless in the shadow of the doorway took a step forward.

"You perceive that there is no such alternative," he said, suavely.

The girl started but kept herself in hand. "My sister goes with me?"

"No," said Quinton Edge.

But Nanna's arms were already encircling her treasure. She had entered
unobserved, and she had heard enough to understand. "You!" she said, and
spat at Quinton Edge.

The man's face paled. He stepped forward as though making to push the
intruder away. In a flash she had turned upon him and her teeth closed
upon the fleshy part of his right hand. He shook her off as one does a
snake.

"A true forest-cat," said Quinton Edge, and smiled as he twisted a fine
lawn handkerchief about the wounded member. Then, with entire
good-humor: "I apologize for my incivility and truth; it were a biting
rejoinder. Madam, you, too, are welcome to my poor house. With such a
dragon in the garden, he will be a brave man indeed who thinks to filch
my apples."

Nanna, huddled up in a corner of the room whither she had been flung,
answered not a word, but watched him steadily, unwinkingly, her eyes
narrowed to two gleaming slits. Esmay went over and assisted her to her
feet.

"You will give us time to get a few things together," said the girl,
turning to Quinton Edge. "A woman cannot be moved about like a piece of
furniture."

"Ten minutes."

It were waste of breath to renew the argument, and within the quarter of
an hour the two women, closely shawled and veiled, descended the steps
to the street. It was still storming. A coach drawn by two horses was
waiting at the curb, and the Doomsman, having assisted his unwilling
guests to mount within, took his place on the box with the driver, the
three men following on horseback. The little company moved slowly down
the avenue; then, turning into a side thoroughfare, proceeded directly
eastward.





Next: The Hedge Of Arrows

Previous: The Message



Add to Informational Site Network
Report
Privacy
ADD TO EBOOK


Viewed 402