VERMILION SHOWS HIS HAND
Down, down through the Chute raced the heavily loaded scow, seeming fairly to leap from wave to wave in a series of tremendous shocks, as the flat bottom rose high in the fore and crashed onto the crest of the next wave, sending a spume of stinging spray high into the air. White-water curled over the gunwale and sloshed about in the bottom. The air was chill, and wet—like the dead air of a rock-cavern.
Chloe Elliston knew one moment of swift fear. And then, the mighty roar of the waters; the mad plunging of the scow between the towering walls of rock; the set, tense face of Vermilion as he stared into the gloom; the laboured breathing of the scowmen as they strained at the sweeps, veering the scow to the right, or to the left, as the rod of the pilot indicated; the splendid battle of it; the wild exhilaration of fighting death on death’s own stamping ground flung all thought of fear aside, and in the girl’s heart surged the wild, fierce joy of living, with life itself at stake.
For just an instant Chloe’s glance rested upon her companions; Big Lena sat scowling murderously at Vermilion’s broad back. Harriet Penny had fainted and lay with the back of her head awash in the shallow bilge water. A strange alter ego—elemental—primordial—had taken possession of Chloe. Her eyes glowed, and her heart thrilled at the sight of the tense, vigilant figure of Vermilion, and the sweating, straining scowmen. For the helpless form of Harriet Penny she felt only contempt—the savage, intolerant contempt of the strong for the weak among firstlings.
The intoxication of a new existence was upon her, or, better, a world-old existence—an existence that was new when the world was new. In that moment, she was a throw-back of a million years, and through her veins fumed the ferine blood of her paleolithic forebears. What is life but proof of the fitness to live? Death, but defeat.
On rushed the scow, leaping, crashing from wave to wave, into the Northern night. And, as it rushed and leaped and crashed, it bore two women, their garments touching, but between whom interposed a whole world of creeds and fabrics.
Suddenly, Chloe sensed a change. The scow no longer leaped and crashed, and the roar of the rapids grew faint. No longer the form of Vermilion appeared couchant, tense; and, among the scowmen, one laughed. Chloe drew a deep breath, and a slight shudder shook her frame. She glanced about her in bewilderment, and, reaching swiftly down, raised the inert form of Harriet Penny and rested it gently against her knees.