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Frona had been clinching her hand nervously, but at the word burst out in laughter.
"Women?" she queried. "Women?" she repeated. "Do not be ridiculous, Gregory."
"After the way you stood by me through the trial," he began, reproachfully, "I thought--"
"Oh, you do not understand," she said, hopelessly. "You do not understand. Look at me, Gregory, and see if I can make you understand. Your presence is painful to me. Your kisses hurt me. The memory of them still burns my cheek, and my lips feel unclean. And why? Because of women, which you may explain away? How little do you understand! But shall I tell you?"
Voices of men came to her from down the river-bank, and the splashing of water. She glanced quickly and saw Del Bishop guiding a poling-boat against the current, and Corliss on the bank, bending to the tow-rope.
"Shall I tell you why, Gregory St. Vincent?" she said again. "Tell you why your kisses have cheapened me? Because you broke the faith of food and blanket. Because you broke salt with a man, and then watched that man fight unequally for life without lifting your hand. Why, I had rather you had died in defending him; the memory of you would have been good. Yes, I had rather you had killed him yourself. At least, it would have shown there was blood in your body."
"So this is what you would call love?" he began, scornfully, his fretting, fuming devil beginning to rouse. "A fair-weather love, truly. But, Lord, how we men learn!"
"I had thought you were well lessoned," she retorted; "what of the other women?"
"But what do you intend to do?" he demanded, taking no notice. "I am not an easy man to cross. You cannot throw me over with impunity. I shall not stand for it, I warn you. You have dared do things in this country which would blacken you were they known. I have ears. I have not been asleep. You will find it no child's play to explain away things which you may declare most innocent."
She looked at him with a smile which carried pity in its cold mirth, and it goaded him.
"I am down, a thing to make a jest upon, a thing to pity, but I promise you that I can drag you with me. My kisses have cheapened you, eh? Then how must you have felt at Happy Camp on the Dyea Trail?"
As though in answer, Corliss swung down upon them with the tow-rope.
Frona beckoned a greeting to him. "Vance," she said, "the mail-carrier has brought important news to father, so important that he must go outside. He starts this afternoon with Baron Courbertin in La Bijou. Will you take me down to Dawson? I should like to go at once, to-day.
"He . . . he suggested you," she added shyly, indicating St. Vincent.
***END OF THE PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK A Daughter of the Snows***