Read CHAPTER V of The Valley of Silent Men , free online book, by James Oliver Curwood, on ReadCentral.com.

The latch moved slowly, and with its movement came a gentle tap on the panel.

“Come in,” he said.

The next instant he was staring.  The girl had entered and closed the door behind her.  O’Connor’s picture stood in flesh and blood before him.  The girl’s eyes met his own.  They were like glorious violets, as O’Connor had said, but they were not the eyes he had expected to see.  They were the wide-open, curious eyes of a child.  He had visualized them as pools of slumbering flame-the idea O’Connor had given him-and they were the opposite of that.  Their one emotion seemed to be the emotion roused by an overwhelming, questioning curiosity.  They were apparently not regarding him as a dying human being, but as a creature immensely interesting to look upon.  In place of the gratitude he had anticipated, they were filled with a great, wondering interrogation, and there was not the slightest hint of embarrassment in their gaze.  For a space it seemed to Kent that he saw nothing but those wonderful, dispassionate eyes looking at him.  Then he saw the rest of her-her amazing hair, her pale, exquisite face, the slimness and beauty of her as she stood with her back to the door, one hand still resting on the latch.  He had never seen anything quite like her.  He might have guessed that she was eighteen, or twenty, or twenty-two.  Her hair, wreathed in shimmering, velvety coils from the back to the crown of her head, struck him as it had struck O’Connor, as unbelievable.  The glory of it gave to her an appearance of height which she did not possess, for she was not tall, and her slimness added to the illusion.

And then, greatly to his embarrassment in the next instant, his eyes went to her feet.  Again O’Connor was right-tiny feet, high-heeled pumps, ravishingly turned ankles showing under a skirt of some fluffy brown stuff or other-

Correcting himself, his face flushed red.  The faintest tremble of a smile was on the girl’s lips.  She looked down, and for the first time he saw what O’Connor had seen, the sunlight kindling slumberous fires in her hair.

Kent tried to say something, but before he succeeded she had taken possession of the chair near his bedside.

“I have been waiting a long time to see you,” she said.  “You are James Kent, aren’t you?”

“Yes, I’m Jim Kent.  I’m sorry Dr. Cardigan kept you waiting.  If I had known-”

He was getting a grip on himself again, and smiled at her.  He noticed the amazing length of her dark lashes, but the violet eyes behind them did not smile back at him.  The tranquillity of their gaze was disconcerting.  It was as if she had not quite made up her mind about him yet and was still trying to classify him in the museum of things she had known.

“He should have awakened me,” Kent went on, trying to keep himself from slipping once more.  “It isn’t polite to keep a young lady waiting two hours!”

This time the blue eyes made him feel that his smile was a maudlin grin.

“Yes-you are different.”  She spoke softly, as if expressing the thought to herself.  “That is what I came to find out, if you were different.  You are dying?”

“My God-yes-I’m dying!” gasped Kent.  “According to Dr. Cardigan I’m due to pop off this minute.  Aren’t you a little nervous, sitting so near to a man who’s ready to explode while you’re looking at him?”

For the first time the eyes changed.  She was not facing the window, yet a glow like the glow of sunlight flashed into them, soft, luminous, almost laughing.

“No, it doesn’t frighten me,” she assured him.  “I have always thought I should like to see a man die-not quickly, like drowning or being shot, but slowly, an inch at a time.  But I shouldn’t like to see YOU die.”

“I’m glad,” breathed Kent.  “It’s a great satisfaction to me.”

“Yet I shouldn’t be frightened if you did.”

“Oh!”

Kent drew himself up straighter against his pillows.  He had been a man of many adventures.  He had faced almost every conceivable kind of shock.  But this was a new one.  He stared into the blue eyes, tongueless and mentally dazed.  They were cool and sweet and not at all excited.  And he knew that she spoke the truth.  Not by a quiver of those lovely lashes would she betray either fear or horror if he popped off right there.  It was astonishing.

Something like resentment shot for an instant into his bewildered brain.  Then it was gone, and in a flash it came upon him that she was but uttering his own philosophy of life, showing him life’s cheapness, life’s littleness, the absurdity of being distressed by looking upon the light as it flickered out.  And she was doing it, not as a philosopher, but with the beautiful unconcern of a child.

Suddenly, as if impelled by an emotion in direct contradiction to her apparent lack of sympathy, she reached out a hand and placed it on Kent’s forehead.  It was another shock.  It was not a professional touch, but a soft, cool little pressure that sent a comforting thrill through him.  The hand was there for only a moment, and she withdrew it to entwine the slim fingers with those of the others in her lap.

“You have no fever,” she said.  “What makes you think you are dying?”

Kent explained what was happening inside him.  He was completely shunted off his original track of thought and anticipation.  He had expected to ask for at least a mutual introduction when his visitor came into his room, and had anticipated taking upon himself the position of a polite inquisitor.  In spite of O’Connor, he had not thought she would be quite so pretty.  He had not believed her eyes would be so beautiful, or their lashes so long, or the touch of her hand so pleasantly unnerving.  And now, in place of asking for her name and the reason for her visit, he became an irrational idiot, explaining to her certain matters of physiology that had to do with aortas and aneurismal sacs.  He had finished before the absurdity of the situation dawned upon him, and with absurdity came the humor of it.  Even dying, Kent could not fail to see the funny side of a thing It struck him as suddenly as had the girl’s beauty and her bewildering and unaffected ingenuousness.

Looking at him, that same glow of mysterious questioning in her eyes, the girl found him suddenly laughing straight into her face.

“This is funny.  It’s very funny, Miss-Miss-”

“Marette,” she supplied, answering his hesitation.

“It’s funny, Miss Marette.”

“Not Miss Marette.  Just Marette,” she corrected.

“I say, it’s funny,” he tried again.  “You see, it’s not so terribly pleasant as you might think to-er-be here, where I am, dying.  And last night I thought about the finest thing in the world would be to have a woman beside me, a woman who’d be sort of sympathetic, you know, ease the thing off a little, maybe say she was sorry.  And then the Lord answers my prayer, and you come-and you sort of give me the impression that you made the appointment with yourself to see how a fellow looks when he pops off.”

The shimmer of light came into the blue eyes again.  She seemed to have done with her mental analysis of him, and he saw that a bit of color was creeping into her cheeks, pale when she had entered the room.

“You wouldn’t be the first I’ve seen pop off,” she assured him.  “There have been a number, and I’ve never cried very much.  I’d rather see a man die than some animals.  But I shouldn’t like to see YOU do it.  Does that comfort you-like the woman you prayed the Lord for?”

“It does,” gasped Kent.  “But why the devil, Miss Marette-”

“Marette,” she corrected again.

“Yes, Marette-why the devil have you come to see me at just the moment I’m due to explode?  And what’s your other name, and how old are you, and what do you want of me?”

“I haven’t any other name, I’m twenty, and I came to get acquainted with you and see what you are like.”

“Bully!” exclaimed Kent.  “We’re getting there fast!  And now, why?”

The girl drew her chair a few inches nearer, and for a moment Kent thought that her lovely mouth was trembling on the edge of a smile.

“Because you have lied so splendidly to save another man who was about to die.”

Et tu, Brute!” sighed Kent, leaning back against his pillows.  “Isn’t it possible for a decent man to kill another man and not be called a liar when he tells about it?  Why do so many believe that I lie?”

“They don’t,” said the girl.  “They believe you-now.  You have gone so completely into the details of the murder in your confession that they are quite convinced.  It would be too bad if you lived, for you surely would be hanged.  Your lie sounds and reads like the truth.  But I know it is a lie.  You did not kill John Barkley.”

“And the reason for your suspicion?”

For fully half a minute the girl’s eyes rested on, his own.  Again they seemed to be looking through him and into him.  “Because I know the man who DID kill him,” she said quietly, “and it was not you.”

Kent made a mighty effort to appear calm.  He reached for a cigar from the box that Cardigan had placed on his bed, and nibbled the end of it.  “Has some one else been confessing?” he asked.

She shook her head the slightest bit.

“Did you-er-see this other gentleman kill John Barkley?” he insisted.

“No.”

“Then I must answer you as I have answered at least one other.  I killed John Barkley.  If you suspect some other person, your suspicion is wrong.”

“What a splendid liar!” she breathed softly.  “Don’t you believe in God?”

Kent winced.  “In a large, embracing sense, yes,” he said.  “I believe in Him, for instance, as revealed to our senses in all that living, growing glory you see out there through the window Nature and I have become pretty good pals, and you see I’ve sort of built up a mother goddess to worship instead of a he-god.  Sacrilege, maybe, but it’s a great comfort at times.  But you didn’t come to talk religion?”

The lovely head bent still nearer him.  He felt an impelling desire to put up his hand and touch her shining hair, as she laid her hand on his forehead.

“I know who killed John Barkley,” she insisted.  “I know how and when and why he was killed.  Please tell me the truth.  I want to know.  Why did you confess to a crime which you did not commit?”

Kent took time to light his cigar.  The girl watched him closely, almost eagerly.

“I may be mad,” he said.  “It is possible for any human being to be mad and not know it.  That’s the funny part about insanity.  But if I’m not insane, I killed Barkley; if I didn’t kill him, I must be insane, for I’m very well convinced that I did.  Either that, or you are insane.  I have my suspicions that you are.  Would a sane person wear pumps with heels like those up here?” He pointed accusingly to the floor.

For the first time the girl smiled, openly, frankly, gloriously.  It was as if her heart had leaped forth for an instant and had greeted him.  And then, like sunlight shadowed by cloud, the smile was gone.  “You are a brave man,” she said.  “You are splendid.  I hate men.  But I think if you lived very long, I should love you.  I will believe that you killed Barkley.  You compel me to believe it.  You confessed, when you found you were going to die, that an innocent man might be saved.  Wasn’t that it?”

Kent nodded weakly.  “That’s it.  I hate to think of it that way, but I guess it’s true.  I confessed because I knew I was going to die.  Otherwise I am quite sure that I should have let the other fellow take my medicine for me.  You must think I am a beast.”

“All men are beasts,” she agreed quickly.  “But you are-a different kind of beast.  I like you.  If there were a chance, I might fight for you.  I can fight.”  She held up her two small hands, half smiling at him again.

“But not with those,” he exclaimed.  “I think you would fight with your eyes.  O’Connor told me they half killed Kedsty when you met them in the poplar grove yesterday.”

He had expected that the mention of Inspector Kedsty’s name would disturb her.  It had no effect that he could perceive.

“O’Connor was the big, red-faced man with Mr. Kedsty?”

“Yes, my trail partner.  He came to me yesterday and raved about your eyes.  They ARE beautiful; I’ve never seen eyes half so lovely.  But that wasn’t what struck Bucky so hard.  It was the effect they had on Kedsty.  He said they shattered every nerve in Kedsty’s body, and Kedsty isn’t the sort to get easily frightened.  And the queer part of it was that the instant you had gone, he gave O’Connor an order to free McTrigger-and then turned and followed you.  All the rest of that day O’Connor tried to discover something about you at the Landing.  He couldn’t find hide nor hair-I beg pardon!-I mean he couldn’t find out anything about you at all.  We made up our minds that for some reason or other you were hiding up at Kedsty’s bungalow.  You don’t mind a fellow saying all this-when he is going to pop off soon-do you?”

He was half frightened at the directness with which he had expressed the thing.  He would gladly have buried his own curiosity and all of O’Connor’s suspicions for another moment of her hand on his forehead.  But it was out, and he waited.

She was looking down, her fingers twisting some sort of tasseled dress ornament in her lap, and Kent mentally measured the length of her lashes with a foot rule in mind.  They were superb, and in the thrill of his admiration he would have sworn they were an inch long.  She looked up suddenly and caught the glow in his eyes and the flush that lay under the tan of his cheeks.  Her own color had deepened a little.

“What if you shouldn’t die?” she asked him bluntly, as if she had not heard a word of all he had said about Kedsty.  “What would you do?”

“I’m going to.”

“But if you shouldn’t?”

Kent shrugged his shoulders.  “I suppose I’d have to take my medicine.  You’re not going?”

She had straightened up and was sitting on the edge of her chair.  “Yes, I’m going.  I’m afraid of my eyes.  I may look at you as I looked at Mr. Kedsty, and then-pop you’d go, quick!  And I don’t want to be here when you die!”

He heard a soft little note of laughter in her throat.  It sent a chill through him.  What an adorable, blood-thirsty little wretch she was!  He stared at her bent head, at the shining coils of her wonderful hair.  Undone, he could see it completely hiding her.  And it was so soft and warm that again he was tempted to reach out and touch it.  She was wonderful, and yet it was not possible that she had a heart.  Her apparent disregard of the fact that he was a dying man was almost diabolic.  There was no sympathy in the expression of her violet eyes as she looked at him.  She was even making fun of the fact that he was about to die!

She stood up, surveying for the first time the room in which she had been sitting.  Then she turned to the window and looked out.  She reminded Kent of a beautiful young willow that had grown at the edge of a stream, exquisite, slender, strong.  He could have picked her up in his arms as easily as a child, yet he sensed in the lithe beauty of her body forces that could endure magnificently.  The careless poise of her head fascinated him.  For that head and the hair that crowned it he knew that half the women of the earth would have traded precious years of their lives.

And then, without turning toward him, she said, “Some day, when I die, I wish I might have as pleasant a room as this.”

“I hope you never die,” he replied devoutly.

She came back and stood for a moment beside him.

“I have had a very pleasant time,” she said, as though he had given her a special sort of entertainment.  “It’s too bad you are going to die.  I’m sure we should have been good friends.  Aren’t you?”

“Yes, very sure.  If you had only arrived sooner-”

“And I shall always think of you as a different kind of man-beast,” she interrupted him.  “It is really true that I shouldn’t like to see you die.  I want to get away before it happens.  Would you care to have me kiss you?”

For an instant Kent felt that his aorta was about to give away.  “I-I would,” he gasped huskily.

“Then-close your eyes, please.”

He obeyed.  She bent over him.  He felt the soft touch of her hands and caught for an instant the perfume of her face and hair, and then the thrill of her lips pressed warm and soft upon his.

She was not flushed or embarrassed when he looked at her again.  It was as if she had kissed a baby and was wondering at its red face.  “I’ve only kissed three men before you,” she avowed.  “It is strange.  I never thought I should do it again.  And now, good-by!” She moved quickly to the door.

“Wait,” he cried plaintively.  “Please wait.  I want to know your name.  It is Marette-”

“Radisson,” she finished for him.  “Marette Radisson, and I come from away off there, from a place we call the Valley of Silent Men.”  She was pointing into the north.

“The North!” he exclaimed.

“Yes, it is far north.  Very far.”

Her hand was on the latch.  The door opened slowly.

“Wait,” he pleaded again.  “You must not go.”

“Yes, I must go.  I have remained too long.  I am sorry I kissed you.  I shouldn’t have done that.  But I had to because you are such a splendid liar!”

The door opened quickly and closed behind her.  He heard her steps almost running down the hall, where not long ago he had listened to the last of O’Connor’s.

And then there was silence, and in that silence he heard her words again, drumming like little hammers in his head, “Because you are such a splendid liar!”