Cyrus Brady.

The Chalice Of Courage: A Romance of Colorado



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CHAPTER XXIV
THE LAST RESORT OF KINGS AND MEN

The sudden entrant upon a quarrel between others is invariably at a disadvantage. Usually he is unaware of the cause of difference and generally he has no idea of the stage of development of the affair that has been reached. Newbold suffered from this lack of knowledge and to these disadvantages were added others. For instance, he had not the faintest idea as to who or what was the stranger. The room was not very light in the day time, Armstrong happened to be standing with his back to it at some distance from the window by the side of which Enid stood. Six years naturally and inevitably make some difference in a man's appearance and it is not to be wondered that at first Newbold did not recognize the man before him as the original of the face in his wife's locket, although he had studied that face over and over again. A nearer scrutiny, a longer study would have enlightened him of course, but for the present he saw nothing but a stranger visibly perturbed on one side and the woman he loved apparently fiercely resentful, sternly indignant, confronting the other with an upraised hand.

The man, whoever he was, had affronted her, had aroused her indignation, perhaps had insulted her, that was plain. He went swiftly to her side, he interposed himself between her and the man.

"Enid," he asked, and his easy use of the name was a revelation and an illumination to Armstrong, "who is this man, what has he done?"

It was Armstrong who replied. If Newbold were in the dark, not so he; although they had never spoken, he had seen Newbold. He recognized him instantly, indeed recognized or not the newcomer could be no other than he. There was doubtless no other man in the mountains. He had expected to find him when he approached the hut and was ready for him.

To the fire of his ancient hatred and jealousy was added a new fuel that increased its heat and flame. This man had come between Armstrong and the woman he loved before and had got away unscathed, evidently he had come between him and this new woman he loved. Well, he should be made to suffer for it this time and by Armstrong's own hands. The instant Newbold had entered the room Armstrong had thirsted to leap upon him and he meant to do it. One or the other of them, he swore in his heart, should never leave that room alive.

But Newbold should have his chance. Armstrong was as brave, as fearless, as intrepid, as any man on earth. There was much that was admirable in his character; he would not take any man at a disadvantage in an encounter such as he proposed. He would not hesitate to rob a man of his wife if he could and he would not shrink from any deceit necessary to gain his purpose with a woman, for good or evil, but he had his own ideas of honor, he would not shoot an enemy in the back for instance.

Singular perversion, this, to which some minds are liable! To take from a man his wife by subtle and underhand methods, to rob him of that which makes life dear and sweet – there was nothing dishonorable in that! But to take his life, a thing of infinitely less moment, by the same process – that was not to be thought of.

In Armstrong's code it was right, it was imperative, to confront a man with the truth and take the consequences; but to confront a woman with a lie and take her body and soul, if so be she might be gained, was equally admirable. And there are other souls than Armstrong's in which this moral inconsistency and obliquity about men and women has lodgment.

Armstrong confronted Newbold therefore, lustful of battle; he yearned to leap upon him, his fingers itched to grasp him, then trembled slightly as he rubbed them nervously against his thumbs; his face protruded a little, his eyes narrowed.

"My name is Armstrong," he said, determined to precipitate the issue without further delay and flinging the words at the other in a tone of hectoring defiance which, however, strange to say, did not seem to affect Newbold in exactly the degree he had anticipated.

Yet the name was an illumination to Newbold, though not at all in the way the speaker had fancied; the recollection of it was the one fact concerning the woman he loved that rankled in the solitary's mind. He had often wanted to ask Enid Maitland what she had meant by that chance allusion to Armstrong which she had made in the beginning of their acquaintance, but he had refrained. At first he had no right to question her, there could be no natural end to their affections; and latterly when their hearts had been disclosed to each other in the wild, tempestuous, passionate scenes of the last two or three days, he had had things of greater moment to engage his attention, subjects of more importance to discuss with her.

He had for the time being forgotten Armstrong and he had not before known what jealousy was until he had entered that room. To have seen her with any man would have given him acute pain, perhaps just because he had been so long withdrawn from human society, but to see her with this man who flashed instantly into his recollection upon the utterance of his name was an added exasperation.

Newbold turned to the woman, to whom indeed he had addressed his question in the first place, and there was something in his movement which bespoke a galling, almost contemptuous, obliviousness to the presence of the other man which was indeed hard for him to bear.

Hate begets hate. He was quite conscious of Armstrong's antagonism, which was entirely undisguised and open and which was growing greater with every passing moment. The score against Newbold was running up in the mind of his visitor.

"Ah," coolly said the owner of the cabin to the latest of his two guests, "I do remember Miss Maitland did mention your name the first day she spent here. Is he a – a friend of yours?" he asked of the woman.

"Not now," answered Enid Maitland.

She too was in a strange state of perturbation on account of the dilemma in which she found herself involved. She was determined not to betray the unconscious confidence of the dead. She hoped fervently that Newbold would not recognize Armstrong as the man of the locket, but if he did she was resolute that he should not also be recognized as the man of the letters, at least not by her act. Newbold was ignorant of the existence of those letters and she did not intend that he should be enlightened so far as she could prevent it. But she was keen enough to see that the first recognition would be inevitable; she even admitted the fact that Armstrong would probably precipitate it himself. Well, no human soul, not even their writer, knew that she had the letters except old Kirkby and he was far away. She wished that she had destroyed them; she had determined to do so at the first convenient opportunity. Before that, however, she intended to show them not to Newbold but to Armstrong, to disclose his perfidy, to convict him of the falsehood he had told her and to justify herself even in his eyes for the action she had taken.

Mingled with all these quick reflections was a deadly fear. She was quick to perceive the hatred Armstrong cherished against Newbold on the one hand because of the old love affair, the long standing grudge breaking into sudden life; on the other because of her own failure to come to Armstrong's hand and her love for Newbold which she had no desire to conceal. The cumulation of all these passionate antagonisms would only make him the more desperate, she knew.

Whether or not Newbold found out Armstrong's connection with his past love there was sufficient provocation in the present to evoke all the oppugnation and resentment of his nature. Enid felt as she might if the puncheons of the floor had been sticks of dynamite with active detonators in every heel that pressed them; as if the slightest movement on the part of anyone would bring about an explosion.

The tensity of the situation was bewildering to her. It had come upon her with such startling force; the unexpected arrival of Armstrong, of all the men on earth the one who ought not to be there, and then the equally startling arrival of Newbold, of whom perhaps the same might have been said. If Newbold had only gone on, if he had not come back, if she had been rescued by her uncle or old Kirkby – But "ifs" were idle, she had to face a present situation to which she was utterly unequal.

She had entirely repudiated Armstrong, that was one sure point; she knew how guilty he had been toward Newbold's wife, that was another; she realized how he had deceived her, that was the third. These eliminated the man from her affections. But it is one thing to thrust a man out of your heart and another to thrust him out of your life; he was still there. And by no means the sport of blind fate, Armstrong intended to have something to say as to the course of events, to use his own powers to determine the issue.

Of but one thing besides her hatred for Armstrong was Enid Maitland absolutely certain; she would never disclose to the man she loved the fact that the woman, the memory of whose supposed passion he cherished, had been unfaithful to him in heart if not in deed. Nothing could wrest that secret from her. She had been infected by Newbold's quixotic ideas, the contagion of his perversion of common sense had fastened itself upon her. She would not have been human either if she had not experienced a thrill of pride and joy at the possibility that in some way, of which she yet swore she would not be the instrument blind or otherwise, the facts might be disclosed which would enable Newbold to claim her openly and honorably, without hesitation before or remorse after, as his wife. This fascinating flash of expectant hopeful feeling she thought unworthy of her and strove to fight it down, but with manifest impossibility.

It has taken time to set these things down; to speak or to write is a slow process and the ratio between outward expressions and inward is as great as that between light and sound. Questions and answers between these three followed as swiftly as thrust and parry between accomplished swordsmen, and yet between each demand and reply they had time to entertain these swift thoughts – as the drowning compass life experiences in seconds!

"I may not be her friend," said Armstrong steadily, "but she left me in these mountains a month ago with more than a half way promise to marry me, and I have sought her through the snows to claim the fulfillment."

"You never told me that," exclaimed Newbold sternly and again addressing the woman rather than the man.

"There was nothing to tell," she answered quickly. "I was a young girl, heart free. I liked this man, perhaps because he was so different from those to whom I had been accustomed and when he pressed his suit upon me, I told him the truth. I did not love him, I did not know whether I might grow to care for him or not; if I did, I should marry him and if I did not no power on earth could make me. And now – I hate him!"

She flung the hard and bitter words at him savagely.

Armstrong was beside himself with fury at her remark, and Newbold's cool indifference to him personally was unendurable. In battle such as he waged he had the mistaken idea that anything was fair. He could not really tell whether it was love of woman or hate of man that was most dominant; he saw at once the state of affairs between the two. He could hurt the man and the woman with one statement; what might be its ulterior effect he did not stop to consider; perhaps if he had he would not have cared greatly then. He realized anyway that since Newbold's arrival his chance with Enid was gone; perhaps whether Newbold were alive or dead it was gone forever, although Armstrong did not think that, he was not capable of thinking very far into the future in his then condition, the present bulked too large for that.

"I did not think after that kiss in the road that you would go back on me this way, Enid," he said quickly.

"The kiss in the road!" cried Newbold, staring again at the woman.

"You coward," repeated she, with one swift envenomed glance at the other man and then she turned to her lover. She laid her hand upon his arm, she lifted her face up to him. "As God is my judge," she cried, her voice rising with the tragic intensity of the moment and thrilling with indignant protest, "he took it from me like the thief and the coward he was and he tells it now like the liar he is. We were riding side by side, I was utterly unsuspicious, I thought him a gentleman, he caught me and kissed me before I knew it, I drove him from me. That's all."

"I believe you," said Newbold gently, and then, for the second time, he addressed himself to Armstrong. "You came doubtless to rescue Miss Maitland, and in so far your purpose was admirable and you deserve thanks and respect, but no further. This is my cabin, your words and your conduct render you unwelcome here. Miss Maitland is under my protection, if you will come outside I will be glad to talk with you further."

"Under your protection?" sneered Armstrong, completely beside himself. "After a month with you alone I take it she needs no further protection."

Newbold did not leap upon the man for that mordant insult to the woman, his approach was slow, relentless, terrible. Eight or ten feet separated them. Armstrong met him half way, his impetuosity was the greater, he sprang forward, turned about, faced the full light from the narrow window.

"Well," he cried, "have you got anything to say or do about it?"

For Newbold had stopped, appalled. He stood staring as if petrified; recognition, recollection rushed over him. Now and at last he knew the man. The face that confronted him was the same face that had stared out at him from the locket he had taken from the bruised breast of his dead wife, which had been a mystery to him for all these years.

"Well," tauntingly asked Armstrong again, "what are you waiting for, are you afraid?"

From Newbold's belt depended a holster and a heavy revolver. As Armstrong made to attack him he flashed it out with astonishing quickness and presented it. The newcomer was unarmed, his Winchester leaned against the wall by his fur coat and he had no pistol.

"If you move a step forward or backward," said Newbold with deadly calm, "I will kill you without mercy."

"So you'd take advantage of a weaponless man, would you?" sneered Armstrong.

"Oh, for God's sake," cried the woman, "don't kill him."

"You both misjudge me," was the answer. "I shall take no advantage of this man. I would disdain to do so if it were necessary, but before the last resort I must have speech with him, and this is the only way in which I can keep him quiet for a moment, if as I suspect, his hate measures with mine."

"You have the advantage," protested Armstrong. "Say your say and get it over with. I've waited all these years for a chance to kill you and my patience is exhausted."

Still keeping the other covered, Newbold stepped over to the table, pulled out the drawer and drew from it the locket. Enid remembered she had hastily thrust it there when he had handed it to her and there it had lain unnoted and forgotten. It was quite evident to her what was toward now. Newbold had recognized the other man, explanations were inevitable. With his left hand Newbold sought the catch of the locket and pressed the spring. In two steps he faced Armstrong with the open locket thrust toward him.

"Your picture?" he asked.

"Mine."

"Do you know the locket?"

"I gave it to a woman named Louise Rosser five or six years ago."

"My wife."

"Yes, she was crazy in love with me but – "

With diabolic malice Armstrong left the sentence uncompleted. The inference he meant should be drawn from his reticence was obvious.

"I took it from her dead body," gritted out Newbold.

"She was beside herself with love for me, an old affair, you know," said Armstrong more explicitly, thinking to use a spear with a double barb to pierce the woman's and the man's heart alike. That he defamed the dead was of no moment then. "She wanted to leave you," he ran on glibly, "she wanted me to take her back and – "

"Untrue," burst forth from Enid Maitland's lips. "A slanderous, dastardly, cowardly untruth."

But the men paid no attention to her in their excitement, perhaps they did not even hear her. Newbold thrust his pistol violently forward.

"Would you murder me as you murdered the woman?" gibed Armstrong in bitter taunt.

Then Enid Maitland found it in her heart to urge Newbold to kill him where he stood, but she had no time if she could have carried out her design, for Newbold flung the weapon from him and the next moment the two men leaped upon each other, straining, struggling, clawing, battling like savage beasts, each seeking to clasp his fingers around the throat of the other and then twist and crush until life was gone.

Saying nothing, fighting in a grim silence that was terrible, they reeled crashing about the little room. No two men on earth could have been better matched, yet Newbold had a slight advantage in height and strength, as he had also the advantage in simple life and splendid condition. Armstrong's hate and fierce temper counterbalanced these at first and with arms locked and legs twined, with teeth clenched and eyes blinded and pulses throbbing and hearts beating, they strove together.

The woman shrank back against the wall and stared frightened. She feared for her lover, she feared for herself. Strange primitive feelings throbbed in her veins. It was an old situation, when two male animals fought for supremacy and the ownership of a female, whose destiny was entirely removed from her own hands.

Armstrong had shown himself in his true colors at last. She would have nothing to hope from him if he were the victor and she even wondered in terror what might happen to her if the man she loved triumphed after the passions aroused in such a battle. She grew sick and giddy, her bosom rose and fell, her breath came fast as she followed the panting, struggling, clinging, grinding figures about the room.

At first there had been no advantage to either, but now after five minutes – or was it hours? – of fierce fighting, the strength and superior condition of her lover began to tell. He was forcing the other backward. Slowly, inch by inch, foot by foot, step by step, he mastered him. The two intertwining figures were broadside to her now, she could see their faces inflamed by the lust of the battle, engorged, blood red with hate and fury. There was a look of exultation in one and the shadow of approaching disaster in the other. But the consciousness that he was being mastered ever so little only increased Armstrong's determination and he fought back with the frenzy, the strength of a maddened gorilla, and again for a space the issue was in doubt. But not for long.

The table, a heavy, cumbersome, four-legged affair, solid almost as a rock, stood in the way. Newbold at last backed Armstrong up against it and by superhuman effort bent him over it, held him with one arm and using the table as a support, wrenched his left hand free, and sunk his fingers around the other's throat. It was all up with Armstrong. It was only a question of time now.

"Now," Newbold guttered out hoarsely, "you slandered the dead woman I married, and you insulted the living one I love. Take back what you said before you die."

"I forgive him," cried Enid Maitland. "Oh, don't kill him before my eyes."

Armstrong was past speech. The inveteracy of his hatred could be seen even in his fast glazing eyes, the indomitableness of his purpose yet spoke in the negative shake of his head. He could die, but he would die in his hate and in his purpose.

Enid ran to the two, she grappled Newbold's arm with both her own and strove with all her might to tear it away from the other's throat. Her lover paid no more attention to her than if a summer breeze had touched him. Armstrong grew black in the face, his limbs relaxed, another second or two and it would have been over with him.

Once more the door was thrown open, through it two snow covered men entered. One swift glance told them all, one of them at least had expected it. On the one side Kirkby, on the other Maitland, tore Newbold away from his prey just in time to save Armstrong's life. Indeed the latter was so far gone that he fell from the table to the floor unconscious, choking, almost dying. It was Enid Maitland who received his head in her arms and helped bring him back to life while the panting Newbold stood staring dully at the woman he loved and the man he hated on the floor at his feet.



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