Beyond the butternut, beyond the maple, beyond the white pine and the red, beyond the oak, the cedar, and the beech, beyond even the white and yellow birches lies a Land, and in that Land the shadows fall crimson across the snow.
A Romance of the Free Forest
Stewart Edward White
AUTHOR OF THE WESTERNERS, THE BLAZED TRAIL, ETC.
GROSSET & DUNLAP
PUBLISHERS: NEW YORK
COPYRIGHT, 1903, BY
STEWART EDWARD WHITE
COPYRIGHT, 1902, BY CURTIS PUBLISHING COMPANY
Published, March, 1903. R.
The girl stood on a bank above a river flowing north. At her back crouched a dozen clean whitewashed buildings. Before her in interminable journey, day after day, league on league into remoteness, stretched the stern Northern wilderness, untrodden save by the trappers, the Indians, and the beasts. Close about the little settlement crept the balsams and spruce, the birch and poplar, behind which lurked vast dreary muskegs, a chaos of bowlder-splits, the forest. The girl had known nothing different for many years. Once a summer the sailing ship from England felt its frozen way through the Hudson Straits, down the Hudson Bay, to drop anchor in the mighty River of the Moose. Once a summer a six-fathom canoe manned by a dozen paddles struggled down the waters of the broken Abitibi. Once a year a little band of red-sashed voyageurs forced their exhausted sledge-dogs across the ice from some unseen wilderness trail. That was all.
Before her eyes the seasons changed, all grim, but one by the very pathos of brevity sad. In the brief luxuriant summer came the Indians to trade their pelts, came the keepers of the winter posts to rest, came the ship from England bringing the articles of use or ornament she had ordered a full year before. Within a short time all were gone, into the wilderness, into the great unknown world. The snow fell; the river and the bay froze. Strange men from the North glided silently to the Factor's door, bearing the meat and pelts of the seal. Bitter iron cold shackled the northland, the abode of desolation. Armies of caribou drifted by, ghostly under the aurora, moose, lordly and scornful, stalked majestically along the shore; wolves howled invisible, or trotted dog-like in organized packs along the river banks. Day and night the ice artillery thundered. Night and day the fireplaces roared defiance to a frost they could not subdue, while the people of desolation crouched beneath the tyranny of winter.
Then the upheaval of spring with the ice-jams and terrors, the Moose roaring by untamable, the torrents rising, rising foot by foot to the very dooryard of her father's house. Strange spirits were abroad at night, howling, shrieking, cracking and groaning in voices of ice and flood. Her Indian nurse told her of them all—of Maunabosho, the good; of Nenaubosho the evil—in her lisping Ojibway dialect that sounded like the softer voices of the forest.
At last the sudden subsidence of the waters; the splendid eager blossoming of the land into new leaves, lush grasses, an abandon of sweetbrier and hepatica. The air blew soft, a thousand singing birds sprang from the soil, the wild goose cried in triumph. Overhead shone the hot sun of the Northern summer.
From the wilderness came the brigades bearing their pelts, the hardy traders of the winter posts, striking hot the imagination through the mysterious and lonely allurement of their callings. For a brief season, transient as the flash of a loon's wing on the shadow of a lake, the post was bright with the thronging of many people. The Indians pitched their wigwams on the broad meadows below the bend; the half-breeds sauntered about, flashing bright teeth and wicked dark eyes at whom it might concern; the traders gazed stolidily over their little black pipes, and uttered brief sentences through their thick black beards. Everywhere was gay sound—the fiddle, the laugh, the song; everywhere was gay color—the red sashes of the voyageurs, the beaded moccasins and leggings of the metis, the capotes of the brigade, the variegated costumes of the Crees and Ojibways. Like the wild roses around the edge of the muskegs, this brief flowering of the year passed. Again the nights were long, again the frost crept down from the eternal snow, again the wolves howled across barren wastes.
Just now the girl stood ankle-deep in green grasses, a bath of sunlight falling about her, a tingle of salt wind humming up the river from the bay's offing. She was clad in gray wool, and wore no hat. Her soft hair, the color of ripe wheat, blew about her temples, shadowing eyes of fathomless black. The wind had brought to the light and delicate brown of her complexion a trace of color to match her lips, whose scarlet did not fade after the ordinary and imperceptible manner into the tinge of her skin, but continued vivid to the very edge; her eyes were wide and unseeing. One hand rested idly on the breech of an ornamented bronze field-gun.
McDonald, the chief trader, passed from the house to the store where his bartering with the Indians was daily carried on; the other Scotchman in the Post, Galen Albret, her father, and the head Factor of all this region, paced back and forth across the veranda of the factory, caressing his white beard; up by the stockade, young Achille Picard tuned his whistle to the note of the curlew; across the meadow from the church wandered Crane, the little Church of England missionary, peering from short-sighted pale blue eyes; beyond the coulee, Sarnier and his Indians chock-chock-chocked away at the seams of the long coast-trading bateau. The girl saw nothing, heard nothing. She was dreaming, she was trying to remember.
In the lines of her slight figure, in its pose there by the old gun over the old, old river, was the grace of gentle blood, the pride of caste. Of all this region her father was the absolute lord, feared, loved, obeyed by all its human creatures. When he went abroad, he travelled in a state almost mediaeval in its magnificence; when he stopped at home, men came to him from the Albany, the Kenogami, the Missinaibe, the Mattagami, the Abitibi—from all the rivers of the North—to receive his commands. Way was made for him, his lightest word was attended. In his house dwelt ceremony, and of his house she was the princess. Unconsciously she had taken the gracious habit of command. She had come to value her smile, her word, to value herself. The lady of a realm greater than the countries of Europe, she moved serene, pure, lofty amid dependants.
And as the lady of this realm she did honor to her father's guests—sitting stately behind the beautiful silver service, below the portrait of the Company's greatest explorer, Sir George Simpson, dispensing crude fare in gracious manner, listening silently to the conversation, finally withdrawing at the last with a sweeping courtesy to play soft, melancholy, and world-forgotten airs on the old piano, brought over years before by the Lady Head, while the guests made merry with the mellow port and ripe Manila cigars which the Company supplied its servants. Then coffee, still with her natural Old World charm of the grande dame. Such guests were not many, nor came often. There was McTavish of Rupert's House, a three days' journey to the northeast; Rand of Fort Albany, a week's travel to the northwest; Mault of Fort George, ten days beyond either, all grizzled in the Company's service. With them came their clerks, mostly English and Scotch younger sons, with a vast respect for the Company, and a vaster for their Factor's daughter. Once in two or three years appeared the inspectors from Winnipeg, true lords of the North, with their six-fathom canoes, their luxurious furs, their red banners trailing like gonfalons in the water. Then this post of Conjuror's House feasted and danced, undertook gay excursions, discussed in public or private conclave weighty matters, grave and reverend advices, cautions, and commands. They went. Desolation again crept in.
The girl dreamed. She was trying to remember. Far-off, half-forgotten visions of brave, courtly men, of gracious, beautiful women, peopled the clouds of her imaginings. She heard them again, as voices beneath the roar of rapids, like far-away bells tinkling faintly through a wind, pitying her, exclaiming over her; she saw them dim and changing, as wraiths of a fog, as shadow pictures in a mist beneath the moon, leaning to her with bright, shining eyes full of compassion for the little girl who was to go so far away into an unknown land; she felt them, as the touch of a breeze when the night is still, fondling her, clasping her, tossing her aloft in farewell. One she felt plainly—a gallant youth who held her up for all to see. One she saw clearly—a dewy-eyed, lovely woman who murmured loving, broken words. One she heard distinctly—a gentle voice that said, "God's love be with you, little one, for you have far to go, and many days to pass before you see Quebec again." And the girl's eyes suddenly swam bright, for the northland was very dreary. She threw her palms out in a gesture of weariness.
Then her arms dropped, her eyes widened, her head bent forward in the attitude of listening.
"Achille!" she called, "Achille! Come here!"
The young fellow approached respectfully.
"Mademoiselle?" he asked.
"Don't you hear?" she said.
Faint, between intermittent silences, came the singing of men's voices from the south.
"Grace a Dieu!" cried Achille. "Eet is so. Eet is dat brigade!"
He ran shouting toward the factory.
Men, women, dogs, children sprang into sight from nowhere, and ran pell-mell to the two cannon. Galen Albret, reappearing from the factory, began to issue orders. Two men set about hoisting on the tall flag-staff the blood-red banner of the Company. Speculation, excited and earnest, arose among the men as to which of the branches of the Moose this brigade had hunted—the Abitibi, the Mattagami, or the Missinaibie. The half-breed women shaded their eyes. Mrs. Cockburn, the doctor's wife, and the only other white woman in the settlement, came and stood by Virginia Albret's side. Wishkobun, the Ojibway woman from the south country, and Virginia's devoted familiar, took her half-jealous stand on the other.
"It is the same every year. We always like to see them come," said Mrs. Cockburn, in her monotonous low voice of resignation.
"Yes," replied Virginia, moving a little impatiently, for she anticipated eagerly the picturesque coming of these men of the Silent Places, and wished to savor the pleasure undistracted.
"Mi-di-mo-yay ka'-win-ni-shi-shin," said Wishkobun, quietly.
"Ae," replied Virginia, with a little laugh, patting the woman's brown hand.
A shout arose. Around the bend shot a canoe. At once every paddle in it was raised to a perpendicular salute, then all together dashed into the water with the full strength of the voyageurs wielding them. The canoe fairly leaped through the cloud of spray. Another rounded the bend, another double row of paddles flashed in the sunlight, another crew, broke into a tumult of rapid exertion as they raced the last quarter mile of the long journey. A third burst into view, a fourth, a fifth. The silent river was alive with motion, glittering with color. The canoes swept onward, like race-horses straining against the rider. Now the spectators could make out plainly the boatmen. It could be seen that they had decked themselves out for the occasion. Their heads were bound with bright-colored fillets, their necks with gay scarves. The paddles were adorned with gaudy woollen streamers. New leggings, of holiday pattern, were intermittently visible on the bowsmen and steersmen as they half rose to give added force to their efforts.
At first the men sang their canoe songs, but as the swift rush of the birch-barks brought them almost to their journey's end, they burst into wild shrieks and whoops of delight.
All at once they were close to hand. The steersman rose to throw his entire weight on the paddle. The canoe swung abruptly for the shore. Those in it did not relax their exertions, but continued their vigorous strokes until within a few yards of apparent destruction.
"Hola! hola!" they cried, thrusting their paddles straight down into the water with a strong backward twist. The stout wood bent and cracked. The canoe stopped short and the voyageurs leaped ashore to be swallowed up in the crowd that swarmed down upon them.
The races were about equally divided, and each acted after its instincts—the Indian greeting his people quietly, and stalking away to the privacy of his wigwam; the more volatile white catching his wife or his sweetheart or his child to his arms. A swarm of Indian women and half-grown children set about unloading the canoes.
Virginia's eyes ran over the crews of the various craft. She recognized them all, of course, to the last Indian packer, for in so small a community the personality and doings of even the humblest members are well known to everyone. Long since she had identified the brigade. It was of the Missinaibie, the great river whose head-waters rise a scant hundred feet from those that flow as many miles south into Lake Superior. It drains a wild and rugged country whose forests cling to bowlder hills, whose streams issue from deep-riven gorges, where for many years the big gray wolves had gathered in unusual abundance. She knew by heart the winter posts, although she had never seen them. She could imagine the isolation of such a place, and the intense loneliness of the solitary man condemned to live through the dark Northern winters, seeing no one but the rare Indians who might come in to trade with him for their pelts. She could appreciate the wild joy of a return for a brief season to the company of fellow-men.
When her glance fell upon the last of the canoes, it rested with a flash of surprise. The craft was still floating idly, its bow barely caught against the bank. The crew had deserted, but amidships, among the packages of pelts and duffel, sat a stranger. The canoe was that of the post at Kettle Portage.
She saw the stranger to be a young man with a clean-cut face, a trim athletic figure dressed in the complete costume of the voyageurs, and thin brown and muscular hands. When the canoe touched the bank he had taken no part in the scramble to shore, and so had sat forgotten and unnoticed save by the girl, his figure erect with something of the Indian's stoical indifference. Then when, for a moment, he imagined himself free from observation, his expression abruptly changed. His hands clenched tense between his buckskin knees, his eyes glanced here and there restlessly, and an indefinable shadow of something which Virginia felt herself obtuse in labelling desperation, and yet to which she discovered it impossible to fit a name, descended on his features, darkening them. Twice he glanced away to the south. Twice he ran his eye over the vociferating crowd on the narrow beach.
Absorbed in the silent drama of a man's unguarded expression, Virginia leaned forward eagerly. In some vague manner it was borne in on her that once before she had experienced the same emotion, had come into contact with someone, something, that had affected her emotionally just as this man did now. But she could not place it. Over and over again she forced her mind to the very point of recollection, but always it slipped back again from the verge of attainment. Then a little movement, some thrust forward of the head, some nervous, rapid shifting of the hands or feet, some unconscious poise of the shoulders, brought the scene flashing before her—the white snow, the still forest, the little square pen-trap, the wolverine, desperate but cool, thrusting its blunt nose quickly here and there in baffled hope of an orifice of escape. Somehow the man reminded her of the animal, the fierce little woods marauder, trapped and hopeless, but scorning to cower as would the gentler creatures of the forest.
Abruptly his expression changed again. His figure stiffened, the muscles of his face turned iron. Virginia saw that someone on the beach had pointed toward him. His mask was on.
The first burst of greeting was over. Here and there one or another of the brigade members jerked their heads in the stranger's direction, explaining low-voiced to their companions. Soon all eyes turned curiously toward the canoe. A hum of low-voiced comment took the place of louder delight.
The stranger, finding himself generally observed, rose slowly to his feet, picked his way with a certain exaggerated deliberation of movement over the duffel lying in the bottom of the canoe, until he reached the bow, where he paused, one foot lifted to the gunwale just above the emblem of the painted star. Immediately a dead silence fell. Groups shifted, drew apart, and together again, like the slow agglomeration of sawdust on the surface of water, until at last they formed in a semicircle of staring, whose centre was the bow of the canoe and the stranger from Kettle Portage. The men scowled, the women regarded him with a half-fearful curiosity.
Virginia Albret shivered in the shock of this sudden electric polarity. The man seemed alone against a sullen, unexplained hostility. The desperation she had thought to read but a moment before had vanished utterly, leaving in its place a scornful indifference and perhaps more than a trace of recklessness. He was ripe for an outbreak. She did not in the least understand, but she knew it from the depths of her woman's instinct, and unconsciously her sympathies flowed out to this man, alone without a greeting where all others came to their own.
For perhaps a full sixty seconds the new-comer stood uncertain what he should do, or perhaps waiting for some word or act to tip the balance of his decision. One after another those on shore felt the insolence of his stare, and shifted uneasily. Then his deliberate scrutiny rose to the group by the cannon. Virginia caught her breath sharply. In spite of herself she could not turn away. The stranger's eye crossed her own. She saw the hard look fade into pleased surprise. Instantly his hat swept the gunwale of the canoe. He stepped magnificently ashore. The crisis was over. Not a word had been spoken.
Galen Albret sat in his rough-hewn arm-chair at the head of the table, receiving the reports of his captains. The long, narrow room opened before him, heavy raftered, massive, white, with a cavernous fireplace at either end. Above him frowned Sir George's portrait, at his right hand and his left stretched the row of home-made heavy chairs, finished smooth and dull by two centuries of use.
His arms were laid along the arms of his seat; his shaggy head was sunk forward until his beard swept the curve of his big chest; the heavy tufts of hair above his eyes were drawn steadily together in a frown of attention. One after another the men arose and spoke. He made no movement, gave no sign, his short, powerful form blotted against the lighter silhouette of his chair, only his eyes and the white of his beard gleaming out of the dusk.
Kern of Old Brunswick House, Achard of New; Ki-wa-nee, the Indian of Flying Post—these and others told briefly of many things, each in his own language. To all Galen Albret listened in silence. Finally Louis Placide from the post at Kettle Portage got to his feet. He too reported of the trade,—so many "beaver" of tobacco, of powder, of lead, of pork, of flour, of tea, given in exchange; so many mink, otter, beaver, ermine, marten, and fisher pelts taken in return. Then he paused and went on at greater length in regard to the stranger, speaking evenly but with emphasis. When he had finished, Galen Albret struck a bell at his elbow. Me-en-gan, the bowsman of the Factor's canoe, entered, followed closely by the young man who had that afternoon arrived.
He was dressed still in his costume of the voyageur—the loose blouse shirt, the buckskin leggings and moccasins, the long tasselled red sash. His head was as high and his glance as free, but now the steel blue of his eye had become steady and wary, and two faint lines had traced themselves between his brows. At his entrance a hush of expectation fell. Galen Albret did not stir, but the others hitched nearer the long, narrow table, and two or three leaned both elbows on it the better to catch what should ensue.
Me-en-gan stopped by the door, but the stranger walked steadily the length of the room until he faced the Factor. Then he paused and waited collectedly for the other to speak.
This the Factor did not at once begin to do, but sat impassive—apparently without thought—while the heavy breathing of the men in the room marked off the seconds of time. Finally abruptly Galen Albret's cavernous voice boomed forth. Something there was strangely mysterious, cryptic, in the virile tones issuing from a bulk so massive and inert. Galen Albret did not move, did not even raise the heavy-lidded, dull stare of his eyes to the young man who stood before him; hardly did his broad arched chest seem to rise and fall with the respiration of speech; and yet each separate word leaped forth alive, instinct with authority.
"Once at Leftfoot Lake, two Indians caught you asleep," he pronounced. "They took your pelts and arms, and escorted you to Sudbury. They were my Indians. Once on the upper Abitibi you were stopped by a man named Herbert, who warned you from the country, after relieving you of your entire outfit. He told you on parting what you might expect if you should repeat the attempt—severe measures, the severest. Herbert was my man. Now Louis Placide surprises you in a rapids near Kettle Portage and brings you here."
During the slow delivering of these accurately spaced words, the attitude of the men about the long, narrow table gradually changed. Their curiosity had been great before, but now their intellectual interest was awakened, for these were facts of which Louis Placide's statement had given no inkling. Before them, for the dealing, was a problem of the sort whose solution had earned for Galen Albret a reputation in the north country. They glanced at one another to obtain the sympathy of attention, then back toward their chief in anxious expectation of his next words. The stranger, however, remained unmoved. A faint smile had sketched the outline of his lips when first the Factor began to speak. This smile he maintained to the end. As the older man paused, he shrugged his shoulders.
"All of that is quite true," he admitted.
Even the unimaginative men of the Silent Places started at these simple words, and vouchsafed to their speaker a more sympathetic attention. For the tones in which they were delivered possessed that deep, rich throat timbre which so often means power—personal magnetism—deep, from the chest, with vibrant throat tones suggesting a volume of sound which may in fact be only hinted by the loudness the man at the moment sees fit to employ. Such a voice is a responsive instrument on which emotion and mood play wonderfully seductive strains.
"All of that is quite true," he repeated after a second's pause; "but what has it to do with me? Why am I stopped and sent out from the free forest? I am really curious to know your excuse."
"This," replied Galen Albret, weightily, "is my domain. I tolerate no rivalry here."
"Your right?" demanded the young man, briefly.
"I have made the trade, and I intend to keep it."
"In other words, the strength of your good right arm," supplemented the stranger, with the faintest hint of a sneer.
"That is neither here nor there," rejoined Galen Albret, "the point is that I intend to keep it. I've had you sent out, but you have been too stupid or too obstinate to take the hint. Now I have to warn you in person. I shall send you out once more, but this time you must promise me not to meddle with the trade again."
He paused for a response. The young man's smile merely became accentuated.
"I have means of making my wishes felt," warned the Factor.
"Quite so," replied the young man, deliberately, "La Longue Traverse."
At this unexpected pronouncement of that dread name two of the men swore violently; the others thrust back their chairs and sat, their arms rigidly braced against the table's edge, staring wide-eyed and open-mouthed at the speaker. Only Galen Albret remained unmoved.
"What do you mean by that?" he asked, calmly.
"It amuses you to be ignorant," replied the stranger, with some contempt. "Don't you think this farce is about played out? I do. If you think you're deceiving me any with this show of formality, you're mightily mistaken. Don't you suppose I knew what I was about when I came into this country? Don't you suppose I had weighed the risks and had made up my mind to take my medicine if I should be caught? Your methods are not quite so secret as you imagine. I know perfectly well what happens to Free Traders in Rupert's Land."
"You seem very certain of your information."
"Your men seem equally so," pointed out the stranger.
Galen Albret, at the beginning of the young man's longer speech, had sunk almost immediately into his passive calm—the calm of great elemental bodies, the calm of a force so vast as to rest motionless by the very static power of its mass. When he spoke again, it was in the tentative manner of his earlier interrogatory, committing himself not at all, seeking to plumb his opponent's knowledge.
"Why, if you have realized the gravity of your situation have you persisted after having been twice warned?" he inquired.
"Because you're not the boss of creation," replied the young man, bluntly.
Galen Albret merely raised his eyebrows.
"I've got as much business in this country as you have," continued the young man, his tone becoming more incisive. "You don't seem to realize that your charter of monopoly has expired. If the government was worth a damn it would see to you fellows. You have no more right to order me out of here than I would have to order you out. Suppose some old Husky up on Whale River should send you word that you weren't to trap in the Whale River district next winter. I'll bet you'd be there. You Hudson Bay men tried the same game out west. It didn't work. You ask your western men if they ever heard of Ned Trent."
"Your success does not seem to have followed you here," suggested the Factor, ironically.
The young man smiled.
"This Longue Traverse," went on Albret, "what is your idea there? I have heard something of it. What is your information?"
Ned Trent laughed outright. "You don't imagine there is any secret about that!" he marvelled. "Why, every child north of the Line knows that. You will send me away without arms, and with but a handful of provisions. If the wilderness and starvation fail, your runners will not. I shall never reach the Temiscamingues alive."
"The same old legend," commented Galen Albret in apparent amusement, "I heard it when I first came to this country. You'll find a dozen such in every Indian camp."
"Jo Bagneau, Morris Proctor, John May, William Jarvis," checked off the young man on his fingers.
"Personal enmity," replied the Factor.
He glanced up to meet the young man's steady, sceptical smile.
"You do not believe me?"
"Oh, if it amuses you," conceded the stranger.
"The thing is not even worth discussion."
"Remarkable sensation among our friends here for so idle a tale."
Galen Albret considered.
"You will remember that throughout you have forced this interview," he pointed out. "Now I must ask your definite promise to get out of this country and to stay out."
"No," replied Ned Trent.
"Then a means shall be found to make you!" threatened the Factor, his anger blazing at last.
"Ah," said the stranger softly.
Galen Albret raised his hand and let it fall. The bronzed and gaudily bedecked men filed out.
In the open air the men separated in quest of their various families or friends. The stranger lingered undecided for a moment on the top step of the veranda, and then wandered down the little street, if street it could be called where horses there were none. On the left ranged the square whitewashed houses with their dooryards, the old church, the workshop. To the right was a broad grass-plot, and then the Moose, slipping by to the distant offing. Over a little bridge the stranger idled, looking curiously about him. The great trading-house attracted his attention, with its narrow picket lane leading to the door; the storehouse surrounded by a protective log fence; the fort itself, a medley of heavy-timbered stockades and square block-houses. After a moment he resumed his strolling. Everywhere he went the people looked at him, ceasing their varied occupations. No one spoke to him, no one hindered him. To all intents and purposes he was as free as the air. But all about the island flowed the barrier of the Moose, and beyond frowned the wilderness—strong as iron bars to an unarmed man.
Brooding on his imprisonment the Free Trader forgot his surroundings. The post, the river, the forest, the distant bay faded from his sight, and he fell into deep reflection. There remained nothing of physical consciousness but a sense of the grateful spring warmth from the declining sun. At length he became vaguely aware of something else. He glanced up. Right by him he saw a handsome French half-breed sprawled out in the sun against a building, looking him straight in the face and flashing up at him a friendly smile.
"Hullo," said Achille Picard, "you mus' been 'sleep. I call you two t'ree tam."
The prisoner seemed to find something grateful in the greeting even from the enemy's camp. Perhaps it merely happened upon the psychological moment for a response.
"Hullo," he returned, and seated himself by the man's side, lazily stretching himself in enjoyment of the reflected heat.
"You is come off Kettle Portage, eh," said Achille, "I t'ink so. You is come trade dose fur? Eet is bad beez-ness, dis Conjur' House. Ole' man he no lak' dat you trade dose fur. He's very hard, dat ole man."
"Yes," replied the stranger, "he has got to be, I suppose. This is the country of la Longue Traverse."
"I beleef you," responded Achille, cheerfully; "w'at you call heem your nam'?"
"Me Achille—Achille Picard. I capitaine of dose dogs on dat winter brigade."
"It is a hard post. The winter travel is pretty tough."
"I beleef you."
"Better to take la Longue Traverse in summer, eh?"
"La Longue Traverse—hees not mattaire w'en yo tak' heem."
"Right you are. Have there been men sent out since you came here?"
"Ba oui. Wan, two, t'ree. I don' remember. I t'ink Jo Bagneau. Nobodee he don' know, but dat ole man an' hees coureurs du bois. He ees wan ver' great man. Nobodee is know w'at he will do."
"I'm due to hit that trail myself, I suppose," said Ned Trent.
"I have t'ink so," acknowledged Achille, still with a tone of most engaging cheerfulness.
"Shall I be sent out at once, do you think?"
"I don' know. Sometam' dat ole man ver' queek. Sometam' he ver' slow. One day Injun mak' heem ver' mad; he let heem go, and shot dat Injun right off. Noder tam he get mad on one voyageur, but he don' keel heem queek; he bring heem here, mak' heem stay in dose warm room, feed heem dose plaintee grub. Purty soon dose voyageur is get fat, is go sof; he no good for dose trail. Ole man he mak' heem go ver' far off, mos' to Whale Reever. Eet is plaintee cole. Dat voyageur, he freeze to hees inside. Dey tell me he feex heem like dat."
"Achille, you haven't anything against me—do you want me to die?"
The half-breed flashed his white teeth.
"Ba non," he replied, carelessly. "For w'at I want dat you die? I t'ink you bus' up bad; vous avez la mauvaise fortune."
"Listen. I have nothing with me; but out at the front I am very rich. I will give you a hundred dollars, if you will help me to get away."
"I can' do eet," smiled Picard.
"Ole man he fin' dat out. He is wan devil, dat ole man. I lak firs'-rate help you; I lak' dat hundred dollar. On Ojibway countree dey make hees nam' Wagosh—dat mean fox. He know everyt'ing."
"I'll make it two hundred—three hundred—five hundred."
"W'at you wan' me do?" hesitated Achille Picard at the last figure.
"Get me a rifle and some cartridges."
The half-breed rolled a cigarette, lighted it, and inhaled a deep breath.
"I can' do eet," he declared. "I can' do eet for t'ousand dollar—ten t'ousand. I don't t'ink you fin' anywan on dis settlement w'at can dare do eet. He is wan devil. He's count all de carabine on dis pos', an' w'en he is mees wan, he fin' out purty queek who is tak' heem."
"Steal one from someone else," suggested Trent.
"He fin' out jess sam'," objected the half-breed, obstinately. "You don' know heem. He mak' you geev yourself away, when he lak' do dat." The smile had left the man's face. This was evidently too serious a matter to be taken lightly.
"Well, come with me, then," urged Ned Trent, with some impatience. "A thousand dollars I'll give you. With that you can be rich somewhere else."
But the man was becoming more and more uneasy, glancing furtively from left to right and back again, in an evident panic lest the conversation be overheard, although the nearest dwelling-house was a score of yards distant.
"Hush," he whispered. "You mustn't talk lak' dat. Dose ole man fin' you out. You can' hide away from heem. Ole tam long ago, Pierre Cadotte is stole feefteen skin of de otter—de sea-otter—and he is sol' dem on Winnipeg. He is get 'bout t'ousand beaver—five hunder' dollar. Den he is mak' dose longue voyage wes'—ver' far wes'—on dit Peace Reever. He is mak' heem dose cabane, w'ere he is leev long tam wid wan man of Mackenzie. He is call it hees nam' Dick Henderson. I is meet Dick Henderson on Winnipeg las' year, w'en I mak' paddle on dem Factor Brigade, an' dose High Commissionaire. He is tol' me wan night pret' late he wake up all de queeck he can w'en he is hear wan noise in dose cabane, an' he is see wan Injun, lak' phantome 'gainst de moon to de door. Dick Henderson he is 'sleep, he don' know w'at he mus' do. Does Injun is step ver' sof' an' go on bunk of Pierre Cadotte. Pierre Cadotte is mak' de beeg cry. Dick Henderson say he no see dose Injun no more, an' he fin' de door shut. Ba Pierre Cadotte, she's go dead. He is mak' wan beeg hole in hees ches'."
"Some enemy, some robber frightened away because the Henderson man woke up, probably," suggested Ned Trent.
The half-breed laid his hand impressively on the other's arm and leaned forward until his bright black eyes were within a foot of the other's face.
"W'en dose Injun is stan' heem in de moonlight, Dick Henderson is see hees face. Dick Henderson is know all dose Injun. He is tole me dat Injun is not Peace Reever Injun. Dick Henderson is say dose Injun is Ojibway Injun—Ojibway Injun two t'ousand mile wes'—on Peace Reever! Dat's curi's!"
"I was tell you nodder story—" went on Achille, after a moment.
"Never mind," interrupted the Trader. "I believe you."
"Maybee," said Achille cheerfully, "you stan' some show—not moche—eef he sen' you out pret' queeck. Does small perdrix is yonge, an' dose duck. Maybee you is catch dem, maybee you is keel dem wit' bow an' arrow. Dat's not beeg chance. You mus' geev dose coureurs de bois de sleep w'en you arrive. Voila, I geev you my knife!"
He glanced rapidly to right and left, then slipped a small object into the stranger's hand.
"Ba, I t'ink does ole man is know dat. I t'ink he kip you here till tam w'en dose perdrix and duck is all grow up beeg' nuff so he can fly."
"I'm not watched," said the young man in eager tones; "I'll slip away to-night."
"Dat no good," objected Picard. "W'at you do? S'pose you do dat, dose coureurs keel you toute suite. Dey is have good excuse, an' you is have nothing to mak' de fight. You sleep away, and dose ole man is sen' out plaintee Injun. Dey is fine you sure. Ba, eef he sen' you out, den he sen' onlee two Injun. Maybee you fight dem; I don' know. Non, mon ami, eef you is wan' get away w'en dose ole man he don' know eet, you mus' have dose carabine. Den you is have wan leetle chance. Ba, eef you is not have heem dose carabine, you mus' need dose leetle grub he geev you, and not plaintee Injun follow you, onlee two."
"And I cannot get the rifle."
"An' dose ole man is don' sen' you out till eet is too late for mak' de grub on de fores'. Dat's w'at I t'ink. Dat ees not fonny for you."
Ned Trent's eyes were almost black with thought. Suddenly he threw his head up.
"I'll make him send me out now," he asserted confidently.
"How you mak' eet him?"
"I'll talk turkey to him till he's so mad he can't see straight. Then maybe he'll send me out right away."
"How you mak' eet him so mad?" inquired Picard, with mild curiosity.
"Never you mind—I'll do it."
"Ba oui," ruminated Picard, "He is get mad pret' queeck. I t'ink p'raps dat plan he go all right. You was get heem mad plaintee easy. Den maybee he is sen' you out toute suite—maybee he is shoot you."
"I'll take the chances—my friend."
"Ba oui," shrugged Achille Picard, "eet is wan chance."
He commenced to roll another cigarette.
Having sat buried in thought for a full five minutes after the traders of the winter posts had left him, Galen Albret thrust back his chair and walked into a room, long, low, and heavily raftered, strikingly unlike the Council Room. Its floor was overlaid with dark rugs; a piano of ancient model filled one corner; pictures and books broke the wall; the lamps and the windows were shaded; a woman's work-basket and a tea-set occupied a large table. Only a certain barbaric profusion of furs, the huge fireplace, and the rough rafters of the ceiling differentiated the place from the drawing-room of a well-to-do family anywhere.
Galen Albret sank heavily into a chair and struck a bell. A tall, slightly stooped English servant, with correct side whiskers and incompetent, watery blue eyes, answered. To him said the Factor:
"I wish to see Miss Albret."
A moment later Virginia entered the room.
"Let us have some tea, O-mi-mi," requested her father.
The girl moved gently about, preparing and lighting the lamp, measuring the tea, her fair head bowed gracefully over her task, her dark eyes pensive and but half following what she did. Finally with a certain air of decision she seated herself on the arm of a chair.
"Father," said she.
"A stranger came to-day with Louis Placide of Kettle Portage."
"He was treated strangely by our people, and he treated them strangely in return. Why is that?"
"Who can tell?"
"What is his station? Is he a common trader? He does not look it."
"He is a man of intelligence and daring."
"Then why is he not our guest?"
Galen Albret did not answer. After a moment's pause he asked again for his tea. The girl turned away impatiently. Here was a puzzle, neither the voyageurs, nor Wishkobun her nurse, nor her father would explain to her. The first had grinned stupidly; the second had drawn her shawl across her face, the third asked for tea!
She handed her father the cup, hesitated, then ventured to inquire whether she was forbidden to greet the stranger should the occasion arise.
"He is a gentleman," replied her father.
She sipped her tea thoughtfully, her imagination stirring. Again her recollection lingered over the clear bronze lines of the stranger's face. Something vaguely familiar seemed to touch her consciousness with ghostly fingers. She closed her eyes and tried to clutch them. At once they were withdrawn. And then again, when her attention wandered, they stole back, plucking appealingly at the hem of her recollections.
The room was heavy-curtained, deep embrasured, for the house, beneath its clap-boards, was of logs. Although out of doors the clear spring sunshine still flooded the valley of the Moose; within, the shadows had begun with velvet fingers to extinguish the brighter lights. Virginia threw herself back on a chair in the corner.
"Virginia," said Galen Albret, suddenly.
"You are no longer a child, but a woman. Would you like to go to Quebec?"
She did not answer him at once, but pondered beneath close-knit brows.
"Do you wish me to go, father?" she asked at length.
"You are eighteen. It is time you saw the world, time you learned the ways of other people. But the journey is hard. I may not see you again for some years. You go among strangers."
He fell silent again. Motionless he had been, except for the mumbling of his lips beneath his beard.
"It shall be just as you wish," he added a moment later.
At once a conflict arose in the girl's mind between her restless dreams and her affections. But beneath all the glitter of the question there was really nothing to take her out. Here was her father, here were the things she loved; yonder was novelty—and loneliness.
Her existence at Conjuror's House was perhaps a little complex, but it was familiar. She knew the people, and she took a daily and unwearying delight in the kindness and simplicity of their bearing toward herself. Each detail of life came to her in the round of habit, wearing the garment of accustomed use. But of the world she knew nothing except what she had been able to body forth from her reading, and that had merely given her imagination something tangible with which to feed her self-distrust.
"Must I decide at once?" she asked.
"If you go this year, it must be with the Abitibi brigade. You have until then."
"Thank you, father," said the girl, sweetly.
The shadows stole their surroundings one by one, until only the bright silver of the tea-service, and the glitter of polished wood, and the square of the open door remained. Galen Albret became an inert dark mass. Virginia's gray was lost in that of the twilight.
Time passed. The clock ticked on. Faintly sounds penetrated from the kitchen, and still more faintly from out of doors. Then the rectangle of the doorway was darkened by a man peering uncertainly. The man wore his hat, from which slanted a slender heron's plume; his shoulders were square; his thighs slim and graceful. Against the light, one caught the outline of the sash's tassel and the fringe of his leggings.
"Are you there, Galen Albret?" he challenged.
The spell of twilight mystery broke. It seemed as if suddenly the air had become surcharged with the vitality of opposition.
"What then?" countered the Factor's heavy, deliberate tones.
"True, I see you now," rejoined the visitor carelessly, as he flung himself across the arm of a chair and swung one foot. "I do not doubt you are convinced by this time of my intention."
"My recollection does not tell me what messenger I sent to ask this interview."
"Correct," laughed the young man a little hardly. "You didn't ask it. I attended to that myself. What you want doesn't concern me in the least. What do you suppose I care what, or what not, any of this crew wants? I'm master of my own ideas, anyway, thank God. If you don't like what I do, you can always stop me." In the tone of his voice was a distinct challenge. Galen Albret, it seemed, chose to pass it by.
"True," he replied sombrely, after a barely perceptible pause to mark his tacit displeasure. "It is your hour. Say on."
"I should like to know the date at which I take la Longue Traverse".
"You persist in that nonsense?"
"Call my departure whatever you want to—I have the name for it. When do I leave?"
"I have not decided."
"And in the meantime?"
"Do as you please."
"Ah, thanks for this generosity," cried the young man, in a tone of declamatory sarcasm so artificial as fairly to scent the elocutionary. "To do as I please—here—now there's a blessed privilege! I may walk around where I want to, talk to such as have a good word for me, punish those who have not! But do I err in concluding that the state of your game law is such that it would be useless to reclaim my rifle from the engaging Placide?"
"You have a fine instinct," approved the Factor.
"It is one of my valued possessions," rejoined the young man, insolently. He struck a match, and by its light selected a cigarette.
"I do not myself use tobacco in this room," suggested the older speaker.
"I am curious to learn the limits of your forbearance," replied the younger, proceeding to smoke.
He threw back his head and regarded his opponent with an open challenge, daring him to become angry. The match went out.
Virginia, who had listened in growing anger and astonishment, unable longer to refrain from defending the dignity of her usually autocratic father, although he seemed little disposed to defend himself, now intervened from her dark corner on the divan.
"Is the journey then so long, sir," she asked composedly, "that it at once inspires such anticipations—and such bitterness?"
In an instant the man was on his feet, hat in hand, and the cigarette had described a fiery curve into the empty hearth.
"I beg your pardon, sincerely," he cried, "I did not know you were here!"
"You might better apologize to my father," replied Virginia.
The young man stepped forward and, without asking permission, lighted one of the tall lamps.
"The lady of the guns!" he marvelled softly to himself.
He moved across the room, looking down on her inscrutably, while she looked up at him in composed expectation of an apology—and Galen Albret sat motionless, in the shadow of his great arm-chair. But after a moment her calm attention broke down. Something there was about this man that stirred her emotions—whether of curiosity, pity, indignation, or a slight defensive fear she was not introspective enough to care to inquire. And yet the sensation was not altogether unpleasant, and, as at the guns that afternoon, a certain portion of her consciousness remained in sympathy with whatever it was of mysterious attraction he represented to her. In him she felt the dominant, as a wild creature of the woods instinctively senses the master and drops its eyes. Resentment did not leave her, but over it spread a film of confusion that robbed it of its potency. In him, in his mood, in his words, in his manner, was something that called out in direct appeal the more primitive instincts hitherto dormant beneath her sense of maidenhood, so that even at this vexed moment of conscious opposition, her heart was ranging itself on his side. Overpoweringly the feeling swept her that she was not acting in accordance with her sense of fitness. She knew she should strike, but was unable to give due force to the blow. In the confusion of such a discovery, her eyelids fluttered and fell. And he saw, and, understanding his power, dropped swiftly beside her on the broad divan.
"You must pardon me, mademoiselle," he begun, his voice sinking to a depth of rich music singularly caressing. "To you I may seem to have small excuses, but when a man is vouchsafed a glimpse of heaven only to be cast out the next instant into hell, he is not always particular in the choice of words."
All the time his eyes sought hers, which avoided the challenge, and the strong masculine charm of magnetism which he possessed in such vital abundance overwhelmed her unaccustomed consciousness. Galen Albret shifted uneasily, and shot a glance in their direction. The stranger, perceiving this, lowered his voice in register and tone, and went on with almost exaggerated earnestness.
"Surely you can forgive me, a desperate man, almost anything?"
"I do not understand," said Virginia, with a palpable effort.
Ned Trent leaned forward until his eager face was almost at her shoulder.
"Perhaps not," he urged; "I cannot ask you to try. But suppose, mademoiselle, you were in my case. Suppose your eyes—like mine—have rested on nothing but a howling wilderness for dear heaven knows how long; you come at last in sight of real houses, real grass, real dooryard gardens just ready to blossom in the spring, real food, real beds, real books, real men with whom to exchange the sensible word, and something more, mademoiselle—a woman such as one dreams of in the long forest nights under the stars. And you know that while others, the lucky ones, may stay to enjoy it all, you, the unfortunate, are condemned to leave it at any moment for la Longue Traverse. Would not you, too, be bitter, mademoiselle? Would not you too mock and sneer? Think, mademoiselle, I have not even the little satisfaction of rousing men's anger. I can insult them as I will, but they turn aside in pity, saying one to another: 'Let us pleasure him in this, poor fellow, for he is about to take la Longue Traverse.' That is why your father accepts calmly from me what he would not from another."
Virginia sat bolt upright on the divan, her hands clasped in her lap, her wonderful black eyes looking straight out before her, trying to avoid her companion's insistent gaze. His attention was fixed on her mobile and changing countenance, but he marked with evident satisfaction Galen Albret's growing uneasiness. This was evidenced only by a shifting of the feet, a tapping of the fingers, a turning of the shaggy head—in such a man slight tokens are significant. The silence deepened with the shadows drawing about the single lamp, while Virginia attempted to maintain a breathing advantage above the flood of strange emotions which the personality of this man had swept down upon her.
"It does not seem—" objected the girl in bewilderment, "I do not know—men are often out in this country for years at a time. Long journeys are not unknown among us. We are used to undertaking them."
"But not la Longue Traverse," insisted the young man, sombrely.
"La Longue Traverse," she repeated in sweet perplexity.
"Sometimes called the Journey of Death," he explained.
She turned to look him in the eyes, a vague expression of puzzled fear on her face.
"She has never heard of it," said Ned Trent to himself, and aloud: "Men who undertake it leave comfort behind. They embrace hunger and weariness, cold and disease. At the last they embrace death, and are glad of his coming."
Something in his tone compelled belief; something in his face told her that he was a man by whom the inevitable hardships of winter and summer travel, fearful as they are, would be lightly endured. She shuddered.
"This dreadful thing is necessary?" she asked.
"I do not understand—"
"In the North few of us understand," agreed the young man with a hint of bitterness seeping through his voice. "The mighty order, and so we obey. But that is beside the point. I have not told you these things to harrow you; I have tried to excuse myself for my actions. Does it touch you a little? Am I forgiven?"
"I do not understand how such things can be," she objected in some confusion, "why such journeys must exist. My mind cannot comprehend your explanations."
The stranger leaned forward abruptly, his eyes blazing with the magnetic personality of the man.
"But your heart?" he breathed.
It was the moment. "My heart—" she repeated, as though bewildered by the intensity of his eyes, "my heart—ah—yes!"
Immediately the blood rushed over her face and throat in a torrent. She snatched her eyes away, and cowered back in the corner, going red and white by turns, now angry, now frightened, now bewildered, until his gaze, half masterful, half pleading, again conquered hers. Galen Albret had ceased tapping his chair. In the dim light he sat, staring straight before him, massive, inert, grim.
"I believe you—" she murmured hurriedly at last. "I pity you!"
She rose. Quick as light he barred her passage.
"Don't! don't!" she pleaded. "I must go—you have shaken me—I—I do not understand myself—"
"I must see you again," he whispered eagerly. "To-night—by the guns."
"To-night," he insisted.
She raised her eyes to his, this time naked of defence, so that the man saw down through their depths into her very soul.
"Oh," she begged, quivering, "let me pass. Don't you see—I'm going to cry!"
For a moment Ned Trent stared through the darkness into which Virginia had disappeared. Then he turned a troubled face to the task he had set himself, for the unexpectedly pathetic results of his fantastic attempt had shaken him. Twice he half turned as though to follow her. Then shaking his shoulders he bent his attention to the old man in the shadow of the chair.
He was given no opportunity for further speech, however, for at the sound of the closing door Galen Albret's impassivity had fallen from him. He sprang to his feet. The whole aspect of the man suddenly became electric, terrible. His eyes blazed; his heavy brows drew spasmodically toward each other; his jaws worked, twisting his beard into strange contortions; his massive frame straightened formidably; and his voice rumbled from the arch of his deep chest in a torrent of passionate sound.
"By God, young man!" he thundered, "you go too far! Take heed! I will not stand this! Do not you presume to make love to my daughter before my eyes!"
And Ned Trent, just within the dusky circle of lamplight, where the bold, sneering lines of his face stood out in relief against the twilight of the room, threw back his head and laughed. It was a clear laugh, but low, and in it were all the devils of triumph, and of insolence. Where the studied insult of words had failed, this single cachinnation succeeded. The Trader saw his opponent's eyes narrow. For a moment he thought the Factor was about to spring on him.
Then, with an effort that blackened his face with blood, Galen Albret controlled himself, and fell to striking the call-bell violently and repeatedly with the palm of his hand. After a moment Matthews, the English servant, came running in. To him the Factor was at first physically unable to utter a syllable. Then finally he managed to ejaculate the name of his bowsman with such violence of gesture that the frightened servant comprehended by sheer force of terror and ran out again in search of Me-en-gan.
This supreme effort seemed to clear the way for speech. Galen Albret began to address his opponent hoarsely in quick, disjointed sentences, a gasp for breath between each.
"You revived an old legend—la Longue Traverse—the myth. It shall be real—to—you—I will make it so. By God, you shall not defy me—"
Ned Trent smiled. "You do not deceive me," he rejoined, coolly.
"Silence!" cried the Factor. "Silence!—You shall speak no more!—You have said enough—"
Me-en-gan glided into the room. Galen Albret at once addressed him in the Ojibway language, gaining control of himself as he went on.
"Listen to me well," he commanded. "You shall make a count of all rifles in this place—at once. Let no one furnish this man with food or arms. You know the story of la Longue Traverse. This man shall take it. So inform my people. I, the Factor, decree it so. Prepare all things at once—understand, at once!"
Ned Trent waited to hear no more, but sauntered from the room whistling gayly a boatman's song. His point was gained.
Outside, the long Northern twilight with its beautiful shadows of crimson was descending from the upper regions of the east. A light wind breathed up-river from the bay. The Free Trader drew his lungs full of the evening air.
"Just the same, I think she will come," said he to himself. "La Longue Traverse, even at once, is a pretty slim chance. But this second string to my bow is better. I believe I'll get the rifle—if she comes!"
Virginia ran quickly up the narrow stairs to her own room, where she threw herself on the bed and buried her face in the pillows.
As she had said, she was very much shaken. And, too, she was afraid.
She could not understand. Heretofore she had moved among the men around her, pure, lofty, serene. Now at one blow all this crumbled. The stranger had outraged her finer feelings. He had insulted her father in her very presence;—for this she was angry. He had insulted herself;—for this she was afraid. He had demanded that she meet him again; but this—at least in the manner he had suggested—should not happen. And yet she confessed to herself a delicious wonder as to what he would do next, and a vague desire to see him again in order to find out. That she could not successfully combat this feeling made her angry at herself. And so in mingled fear, pride, anger, and longing she remained until Wishkobun, the Indian woman, glided in to dress her for the dinner whose formality she and her father consistently maintained. She fell to talking the soft Ojibway dialect, and in the conversation forgot some of her emotion and regained some of her calm.
Her surface thoughts, at least, were compelled for the moment to occupy themselves with other things. The Indian woman had to tell her of the silver fox brought in by Mu-hi-ken, an Indian of her own tribe; of the retort Achille Picard had made when MacLane had taunted him; of the forest fire that had declared itself far to the east, and of the theories to account for it where no campers had been. Yet underneath the rambling chatter Virginia was aware of something new in her consciousness, something delicious but as yet vague. In the gayest moment of her half-jesting, half-affectionate gossip with the Indian woman, she felt its uplift catching her breath from beneath, so that for the tiniest instant she would pause as though in readiness for some message which nevertheless delayed. A fresh delight in the present moment held her, a fresh anticipation of the immediate future, though both delight and anticipation were based on something without her knowledge. That would come later.
The sound of rapid footsteps echoed across the lower hall, a whistle ran into an air, sung gayly, with spirit:
"J'ai perdu ma maitresse, Sans l'avoir merite, Pour un bouquet de roses Que je lui refusai. Li ya longtemps que je t'aime, Jamais je ne t'oublierai!"
She fell abruptly silent, and spoke no more until she descended to the council-room where the table was now spread for dinner.
Two silver candlesticks lit the place. The men were waiting for her when she entered, and at once took their seats in the worn, rude chairs. White linen and glittering silver adorned the service, Galen Albret occupied one end of the table, Virginia the other. On either side were Doctor and Mrs. Cockburn; McDonald, the Chief Trader; Richardson, the clerk, and Crane, the missionary of the Church of England. Matthews served with rigid precision in the order of importance, first the Factor, then Virginia, then the doctor, his wife, McDonald, the clerk, and Crane in due order. On entering a room the same precedence would have held good. Thus these people, six hundred miles as the crow flies from the nearest settlement, maintained their shadowy hold on civilization.
The glass was fine, the silver massive, the linen dainty, Matthews waited faultlessly: but overhead hung the rough timbers of the wilderness post, across the river faintly could be heard the howling of wolves. The fare was rice, curry, salt pork, potatoes, and beans; for at this season the game was poor, and the fish hardly yet running with regularity.
Throughout the meal Virginia sat in a singular abstraction. No conscious thoughts took shape in her mind, but nevertheless she seemed to herself to be occupied in considering weighty matters. When directly addressed, she answered sweetly. Much of the time she studied her father's face. She found it old. Those lines were already evident which, when first noted, bring a stab of surprised pain to the breast of a child—the droop of the mouth, the wrinkling of the temples, the patient weariness of the eyes. Virginia's own eyes filled with tears. The subjective passive state into which a newly born but not yet recognized love had cast her, inclined her to gentleness. She accepted facts as they came to her. For the moment she forgot the mere happenings of the day, and lived only in the resulting mood of them all. The new-comer inspired her no longer with anger nor sorrow, attraction nor fear. Her active emotions in abeyance, she floated dreamily on the clouds of a new estate.
This very aloofness of spirit disinclined her for the company of the others after the meal was finished. The Factor closeted himself with Richardson. The doctor, lighting a cheroot, took his way across to his infirmary. McDonald, Crane, and Mrs. Cockburn entered the drawing-room and seated themselves near the piano. Virginia hesitated, then threw a shawl over her head and stepped out on the broad veranda.
At once the vast, splendid beauty of the Northern night broke over her soul. Straight before her gleamed and flashed and ebbed and palpitated the aurora. One moment its long arms shot beyond the zenith; the next it had broken and rippled back like a brook of light to its arch over the Great Bear. Never for an instant was it still. Its restlessness stole away the quiet of the evening; but left it magnificent.
In comparison with this coruscating dome of the infinite the earth had shrunken to a narrow black band of velvet, in which was nothing distinguishable until suddenly the sky-line broke in calm silhouettes of spruce and firs. And always the mighty River of the Moose, gleaming, jewelled, barbaric in its reflections, slipped by to the sea.
So rapid and bewildering was the motion of these two great powers—the river and the sky—that the imagination could not believe in silence. It was as though the earth were full of shoutings and of tumults. And yet in reality the night was as still as a tropical evening. The wolves and the sledge-dogs answered each other undisturbed; the beautiful songs of the white-throats stole from the forest as divinely instinct as ever with the spirit of peace.
Virginia leaned against the railing and looked upon it all. Her heart was big with emotions, many of which she could not name; her eyes were full of tears. Something had changed in her since yesterday, but she did not know what it was. The faint wise stars, the pale moon just sinking, the gentle south breeze could have told her, for they are old, old in the world's affairs. Occasionally a flash more than ordinarily brilliant would glint one of the bronze guns beneath the flag-staff. Then Virginia's heart would glint too. She imagined the reflection startled her.
She stretched her arms out to the night, embracing its glories, sighing in sympathy with its meaning, which she did not know. She felt the desire of restlessness; yet she could not bear to go. But no thought of the stranger touched her, for you see as yet she did not understand.
Then, quite naturally, she heard his voice in the darkness close to her knee. It seemed inevitable that he should be there; part of the restless, glorious night, part of her mood. She gave no start of surprise, but half closed her eyes and leaned her fair head against a pillar of the veranda. He sang in a sweet undertone an old chanson of voyage.
"Par derrier' chez mon pere, Vole, mon coeur, vole! Par derrier' chez mon pere Li-ya-t-un pommier doux."
"Ah lady, lady mine," broke in the voice softly, "the night too is sweet, soft as thine eyes. Will you not greet me?"
The girl made no sign. After a moment the song went on.
"Trois filles d'un prince, Vole, mon coeur, vole! Trois filles d'un prince Sont endormies dessous."
"Will not the princess leave her sisters of dreams?" whispered the voice, fantastically. "Will she not come?"
Virginia shivered, and half-opened her eyes, but did not stir. It seemed that the darkness sighed, then became musical again.
"La plus jeun' se reveille, Vole, mon coeur, vole! La plus jeun' se reveille —Ma Soeur, voila le jour!"
The song broke this time without a word of pleading. The girl opened her eyes wide and stared breathlessly straight before her at the singer.
"—Non, ce n'est qu'une etoile, Vole, mon coeur, vole! Non, ce n'est qu'une etoile Qu'eclaire nos amours!"
The last word rolled out through its passionate throat tones and died into silence.
"Come!" repeated the man again, this time almost in the accents of command.
She turned slowly and went to him, her eyes childlike and frightened, her lips wide, her face pale. When she stood face to face with him she swayed and almost fell.
"What do you want with me?" she faltered, with a little sob.
The man looked at her keenly, laughed, and exclaimed in an every-day, matter-of-fact voice:
"Why, I really believe my song frightened you. It is only a boating song. Come, let us go and sit on the gun-carriages and talk."
"Oh!" she gasped, a trifle hysterically. "Don't do that again! Please don't. I do not understand it! You must not!"
He laughed again, but with a note of tenderness in his voice, and took her hand to lead her away, humming in an undertone the last couplet of his song:
"Non, ce n'est qu'une etoile, Qu'eclaire nos amours!"
Virginia went with this man passively—to an appointment which, but an hour ago, she had promised herself she would not keep. Her inmost soul was stirred, just as before. Then it had been few words, now it was a little common song. But the strange power of the man held her close, so she realized that for the moment at least she would do as he desired. In the amazement and consternation of this thought she found time to offer up a little prayer: "Dear God, make him kind to me."
They leaned against the old bronze guns, facing the river. He pulled her shawl about her, masterfully yet with gentleness, and then, as though it was the most natural thing in the world, he drew her to him until she rested against his shoulder. And she remained there, trembling, in suspense, glancing at him quickly, in birdlike, pleading glances, as though praying him to be kind. He took no notice after that, so the act seemed less like a caress than a matter of course. He began to talk, half-humorously, and little by little, as he went on, she forgot her fears, even her feeling of strangeness, and fell completely under the spell of his power.
"My name is Ned Trent," he told her, "and I am from Quebec. I am a woods runner. I have journeyed far. I have been to the uttermost ends of the North, even up beyond the Hills of Silence."
And then, in his gay, half-mocking, yet musical voice he touched lightly on vast and distant things. He talked of the great Saskatchewan, of Peace River, and the delta of the Mackenzie, of the winter journeys beyond Great Bear Lake into the Land of the Little Sticks, and the half-mythical lake of Yamba Tooh. He spoke of life with the Dog Ribs and Yellow Knives, where the snow falls in midsummer. Before her eyes slowly spread, like a panorama, the whole extent of the great North, with its fierce, hardy men, its dreadful journeys by canoe and sledge, its frozen barrens, its mighty forests, its solemn charm. All at once this post of Conjuror's House, a month in the wilderness as it was, seemed very small and tame and civilized for the simple reason that Death did not always compass it about.
"It was very cold then," said Ned Trent, "and very hard. Le grand frete[A] of winter had come. At night we had no other shelter than our blankets, and we could not keep a fire because the spruce burned too fast and threw too many coals. For a long time we shivered, curled up on our snow-shoes; then fell heavily asleep, so that even the dogs fighting over us did not awaken us. Two or three times in the night we boiled tea. We had to thaw our moccasins each morning by thrusting them inside our shirts. Even the Indians were shivering and saying, 'Ed-sa, yazzi ed-sa'—'it is cold, very cold.' And when we came to Rae it was not much better. A roaring fire in the fireplace could not prevent the ink from freezing on the pen. This went on for five months."
[Footnote A: Froid—cold.]
Thus he spoke, as one who says common things. He said little of himself, but as he went on in short, curt sentences the picture grew more distinct, and to Virginia the man became more and more prominent in it. She saw the dying and exhausted dogs, the frost-rimed, weary men; she heard the quick crunch, crunch, crunch of the snow-shoes hurrying ahead to break the trail; she felt the cruel torture of the mal de raquette, the shrivelling bite of the frost, the pain of snow blindness, the hunger that yet could not stomach the frozen fish nor the hairy, black caribou meat. One thing she could not conceive—the indomitable spirit of the men. She glanced timidly up at her companion's face.
"The Company is a cruel master," she sighed at last, standing upright, then leaning against the carriage of the gun. He let her go without protest, almost without thought, it seemed.
"But not mine," said he.
She exclaimed, in astonishment, "Are you not of the Company?"
"I am no man's man but my own," he answered, simply.
"Then why do you stay in this dreadful North?" she asked.
"Because I love it. It is my life. I want to go where no man has set foot before me; I want to stand alone under the sky; I want to show myself that nothing is too big for me—no difficulty, no hardship—nothing!"
"Why did you come here, then? Here at least are forests so that you can keep warm. This is not so dreadful as the Coppermine, and the country of the Yellow Knives. Did you come here to try la Longue Traverse of which you spoke to-day?"
He fell suddenly sombre, biting in reflection at his lip.
"No—yes—why not?" he said, at length.
"I know you will come out of it safely," said she; "I feel it. You are brave and used to travel. Won't you tell me about it?"
He did not reply. After a moment she looked up in surprise. His brows were knit in reflection. He turned to her again, his eyes glowing into hers. Once more the fascination of the man grew big, overwhelmed her. She felt her heart flutter, her consciousness swim, her old terror returning.
"Listen," said he. "I may come to you to-morrow and ask you to choose between your divine pity and what you might think to be your duty. Then I will tell you all there is to know of la Longue Traverse. Now it is a secret of the Company. You are a Factor's daughter; you know what that means." He dropped his head. "Ah, I am tired—tired with it all!" he cried, in a voice strangely unhappy. "But yesterday I played the game with all my old spirit; to-day the zest is gone! I no longer care." He felt the pressure of her hand. "Are you just a little sorry for me?" he asked. "Sorry for a weakness you do not understand? You must think me a fool."
"I know you are unhappy," replied Virginia, gently. "I am truly sorry for that."
"Are you? Are you, indeed?" he cried. "Unhappiness is worth such pity as yours." He brooded for a moment, then threw his hands out with what might have been a gesture of desperate indifference. Suddenly his mood changed in the whimsical, bewildering fashion of the man. "Ah, a star shoots!" he exclaimed, gayly. "That means a kiss!"
Still laughing, he attempted to draw her to him. Angry, mortified, outraged, she fought herself free and leaped to her feet.
"Oh!" she cried, in insulted anger.
"Oh!" she cried, in a red shame.
"Oh!" she cried, in sorrow.
Her calm broke. She burst into the violent sobbing of a child, and turned and ran hurriedly to the factory.
Ned Trent stared after her a minute from beneath scowling brows. He stamped his moccasined foot impatiently.
"Like a rat in a trap!" he jeered at himself. "Like a rat in a trap, Ned Trent! The fates are drawing around you close. You need just one little thing, and you cannot get it. Bribery is useless! Force is useless! Craft is useless! This afternoon I thought I saw another way. What I could get no other way I might get from this little girl. She is only a child. I believe I could touch her pity—ah, Ned Trent, Ned Trent, can you ever forget her frightened, white face begging you to be kind?" He paced back and forth between the two bronze guns with long, straight strides, like a panther in a cage. "Her aid is mine for the asking—but she makes it impossible to ask! I could not do it. Better try la Longue Traverse than take advantage of her pity—she'd surely get into trouble. What wonderful eyes she has. She thinks I am a brute—how she sobbed, as though her little heart had broken. Well, it was the only way to destroy her interest in me. I had to do it. Now she will despise me and forget me. It is better that she should think me a brute than that I should be always haunted by those pleading eyes." The door of the distant church house opened and closed. He smiled bitterly. "To be sure, I haven't tried that," he acknowledged. "Their teachings are singularly apropos to my case—mercy, justice, humanity—yes, and love of man. I'll try it. I'll call for help on the love of man, since I cannot on the love of woman. The love of woman—ah—yes."
He set his feet reflectively toward the chapel.
After a moment he pushed open the door without ceremony, and entered. He bent his brows, studying the Reverend Archibald Crane, while the latter, looking up startled, turned pink.
He was a pink little man, anyway, the Reverend Archibald Crane, and why, in the inscrutability of its wisdom, the Church had sent him out to influence strong, grim men, the Church in its inscrutable wisdom only knows. He wore at the moment a cambric English boating-hat to protect his bald head from the draught, a full clerical costume as far as the trousers, which were of lavender, and a pair of beaded moccasins faced with red. His weak little face was pink, and two tufts of side-whiskers were nearly so. A heavy gold-headed cane stood at his hand. When he heard the door open he exclaimed, before raising his head, "My, these first flies of the season do bother me so!" and then looked startled.
"Good-evening," greeted Ned Trent, stopping squarely in the centre of the room.
The clergyman spread his arms along the desk's edge in embarrassment.
"Good-evening," he returned, reluctantly. "Is there anything I can do for you?" The visitor puzzled him, but was dressed as a voyageur. The Reverend Archibald immediately resolved to treat him as such.
"I wish to introduce myself as Ned Trent," went on the Free Trader with composure, "and I have broken in on your privacy this evening only because I need your ministrations cruelly."
"I am rejoiced that in your difficulties you turn to the consolations of the Church," replied the other in the cordial tones of the man who is always ready. "Pray be seated. He whose soul thirsteth need offer no apology to the keeper of the spiritual fountains."
"Quite so," replied the stranger dryly, seating himself as suggested, "only in this case my wants are temporal rather than spiritual. They, however, seem to me fully within the province of the Church."
"The Church attempts within limits to aid those who are materially in want," assured Crane, with official dignity. "Our resources are small, but to the truly deserving we are always ready to give in the spirit of true giving."
"I am rejoiced to hear it," returned the young man, grimly; "you will then have no difficulty in getting me so small a matter as a rifle and about forty or fifty rounds of ammunition."
A pause of astonishment ensued.
"Why, really," ejaculated Crane, "I fail to see how that falls within my jurisdiction in the slightest. You should see our Trader, Mr. McDonald, in regard to all such things. Your request addressed to me becomes extraordinary."
"Not so much so when you know who I am. I told you my name is Ned Trent, but I neglected to inform you further that I am a captured Free Trader, condemned to la Longue Traverse, and that I have in vain tried to procure elsewhere the means of escape."
Then the clergyman understood. The full significance of the intruder's presence flashed over his little pink face in a trouble of uneasiness. The probable consequences of such a bit of charity as his visitor proposed almost turned him sick with excitement.
"You expect to have them of me!" he cried, getting his voice at last.
"Certainly," assured his interlocutor, crossing his legs comfortably. "Don't you see the logic of events forces me to think so? What other course is open to you? I am in this country entirely within my legal rights as a citizen of the Canadian Commonwealth. Unjustly, I am seized by a stronger power and condemned unjustly to death. Surely you admit the injustice?"
"Well, of course you know—the customs of the country—it is hardly an abstract question—" stammered Crane, still without grasp on the logic of his argument.
"But as an abstract question the injustice is plain," resumed the Free Trader, imperturbably. "And against plain injustice it strikes me there is but one course open to an acknowledged institution of abstract—and concrete—morality. The Church must set itself against immorality, and you, as the Church's representative, must get me a rifle."
"You forget one thing," rejoined Crane.
"What is that?"
"Such an aid would be a direct act of rebellion against authority on my part, which would be severely punished. Of course," he asserted, with conscious righteousness, "I should not consider that for a moment as far as my own personal safety is concerned. But my cause would suffer. You forget, sir, that we are doing here a great and good work. We have in our weekly congregational singing over forty regular attendants from the aborigines; next year I hope to build a church at Whale River, thus reaching the benighted inhabitants of that distant region. All of this is a vital matter in the service of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. You suggest that I endanger all this in order to right a single instance of injustice. Of course we are told to love one another, but—" he paused.
"You have to compromise," finished the stranger for him.
"Exactly," said the Reverend Crane. "Thank you; it is exactly that. In order to accomplish what little good the Lord vouchsafes to our poor efforts, we are obliged to overlook many things. Otherwise we should not be allowed to stay here at all."
"That is most interesting," agreed Ned Trent, with a rather biting calm. "But is it not a little calculating? My slight familiarity with religious history and literature has always led me to believe that you are taught to embrace the right at any cost whatsoever—that, if you give yourself unreservedly to justice, the Lord will sustain you through all trials. I think at a pinch I could even quote a text to that effect."
"My dear fellow," objected the Reverend Archibald in gentle protest, "you evidently do not understand the situation at all. I feel I should be most untrue to my trust if I were to endanger in any way the life-long labor of my predecessor. You must be able to see that for yourself. It would destroy utterly my usefulness here. They'd send me away. I couldn't go on with the work. I have to think what is for the best."
"There is some justice in what you say," admitted the stranger, "if you persist in looking on this thing as a business proposition. But it seems to my confessedly untrained mind that you missed the point. 'Trust in the Lord,' saith the prophet. In fact, certain rivals in your own field hold the doctrine you expound, and you consider them wrong. 'To do evil that good may come' I seem to recognize as a tenet of the Church of the Jesuits."
"I protest. I really do protest," objected the clergyman, scandalized.
"All right," agreed Ned Trent, with good-natured contempt. "That is not the point. Do you refuse?"
"Can't you see?" begged the other. "I'm sure you are reasonable enough to take the case on its broader side."
"You refuse?" insisted Ned Trent.
"It is not always easy to walk straightly before the Lord, and my way is not always clear before me, but—"
"You refuse!" cried Ned Trent, rising impatiently.
The Reverend Archibald Crane looked at his catechiser with a trace of alarm.
"I'm sorry; I'm afraid I must," he apologized.
The stranger advanced until he touched the desk on the other side of which the Reverend Archibald was sitting, where he stood for some moments looking down on his opponent with an almost amused expression of contempt.
"You are an interesting little beast," he drawled, "and I've seen a lot of your kind in my time. Here you preach every Sunday, to whomever will listen to you, certain cut-and-dried doctrines you don't believe practically in the least. Here for the first time you have had a chance to apply them literally, and you hide behind a lot of words. And while you're about it you may as well hear what I have to say about your kind. I've had a pretty wide experience in the North, and I know what I'm talking about. Your work here among the Indians is rot, and every sensible man knows it. You coop them up in your log-built houses, you force on them clothes to which they are unaccustomed until they die of consumption. Under your little tin-steepled imitation of civilization, for which they are not fitted, they learn to beg, to steal, to lie. I have travelled far, but I have yet to discover what your kind are allowed on earth for. You are narrow-minded, bigoted, intolerant, and without a scrap of real humanity to ornament your mock religion. When you find you can't meddle with other people's affairs enough at home you get sent where you can get right in the business—and earn salvation for doing it. I don't know just why I should say this to you, but it sort of does me good to tell it. Once I heard one of your kind tell a sorrowing mother that her little child had gone to hell because it had died before he—the smug hypocrite—had sprinkled its little body with a handful of water. There's humanity for you! It may interest you to know that I thrashed that man then and there. You are all alike; I know the breed. When there is found a real man among you—and there are such—he is so different in everything, including his religion, as to be really of another race. I came here without the slightest expectation of getting what I asked for. As I said before, I know your breed, and I know just how well your two-thousand-year-old doctrines apply to practical cases. There is another way, but I hated to use it. You'd take it quick enough, I dare say. Here is where I should receive aid. I may have to get it where I should not. You a man of God! Why, you poor little insect, I can't even get angry at you!"
He stood for a moment looking at the confused and troubled clergyman. Then he went out.
Almost immediately the door opened again.
"You, Miss Albret!" cried Crane.
"What does this mean?" demanded Virginia, imperiously. "Who is that man? In what danger does he stand? What does he want a rifle for? I insist on knowing."
She stood straight and tall in the low room, her eyes flashing, her head thrown back in the assured power of command.
The Reverend Crane tried to temporize, hesitating over his words. She cut him short.
"That is nonsense. Everybody seems to know but myself. I am no child. I came to consult you—my spiritual adviser—in regard to this very case. Accidentally I overheard enough to justify me in knowing more."
The clergyman murmured something about the Company's secrets. Again she cut him short.
"Company's secrets! Since when has the Company confided in Andrew Laviolette, in Wishkobun, in you!"
"Possibly you would better ask your father," said Crane, with some return of dignity.
"It does not suit me to do so," replied she. "I insist that you answer my questions. Who is this man?"
"Ned Trent, he says."
"I will not be put off in this way. Who is he? What is he?"
"He is a Free Trader," replied the Reverend Crane with the air of a man who throws down a bomb and is afraid of the consequences. To his astonishment the bomb did not explode.
"What is that?" she asked, simply.
The man's jaw dropped and his eyes opened in astonishment. Here was a density of ignorance in regard to the ordinary affairs of the Post which could by no stretch of the imagination be ascribed to chance. If Virginia Albret did not know the meaning of the term, and all the tragic consequences it entailed, there could be but one conclusion: Galen Albret had not intended that she should know. She had purposely been left in ignorance, and a politic man would hesitate long before daring to enlighten her. The Reverend Crane, in sheer terror, became sullen.
"A Free Trader is a man who trades in opposition to the Company," said he, cautiously.
"What great danger is he in?" the girl persisted with her catechism.
"None that I am aware of," replied Crane, suavely. "He is a very ill-balanced and excitable young man."
Virginia's quick instincts recognized again the same barrier which, with the people, with Wishkobun, with her father, had shut her so effectively from the truth. Her power of femininity and position had to give way before the man's fear for himself and of Galen Albret's unexpressed wish. She asked a few more questions, received a few more evasive replies, and left the little clergyman to recover as best he might from a very trying evening.
Out in the night the girl hesitated in two minds as to what to do next. She was excited, and resolved to finish the affair, but she could not bring her courage to the point of questioning her father. That the stranger was in antagonism to the Company, that he believed himself to be in danger on that account, that he wanted succor, she saw clearly enough. But the whole affair was vague, disquieting. She wanted to see it plainly, know its reasons. And beneath her excitement she recognized, with a catch of the breath, that she was afraid for him. She had not time now to ask herself what it might mean; she only realized the presence of the fact.
She turned instinctively in the direction of Doctor Cockburn's house. Mrs. Cockburn was a plain little middle-aged woman with parted gray hair and sweet, faded eyes. In the life of the place she was a nonentity, and her tastes were homely and commonplace, but Virginia liked her.
She proved to be at home, the Doctor still at his dispensary, which was well. Virginia entered a small log room, passed through it immediately to a larger papered room, and sat down in a musty red arm-chair. The building was one of the old regime, which meant that its floor was of wide and rather uneven painted boards, its ceiling low, its windows small, and its general lines of an irregular and sagging rule-of-thumb tendency. The white wall-paper evidently concealed squared logs. The present inhabitants, being possessed at once of rather homely tastes and limited facilities, had over-furnished the place with an infinitude of little things—little rugs, little tables, little knit doilies, little racks of photographs, little china ornaments, little spidery what-nots, and shelves for books.