THE COURAGE OF MARGE O'DOONE
BY JAMES OLIVER CURWOOD
FRONTISPIECE BY LESTER RALPH
PUBLISHED BY DOUBLEDAY, PAGE & COMPANY FOR P. F. COLLIER & SON COMPANY NEW YORK 1925
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Copyright, 1918, by DOUBLEDAY, PAGE & COMPANY
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES AT THE COUNTRY LIFE PRESS, GARDEN CITY, N. Y.
COPYRIGHT, 1916, BY EVERY WEEK CORPORATION, UNDER THE TITLE "THE GIRL BEYOND THE TRAIL"
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THE COURAGE OF MARGE O'DOONE
If you had stood there in the edge of the bleak spruce forest, with the wind moaning dismally through the twisting trees—midnight of deep December—the Transcontinental would have looked like a thing of fire; dull fire, glowing with a smouldering warmth, but of strange ghostliness and out of place. It was a weird shadow, helpless and without motion, and black as the half-Arctic night save for the band of illumination that cut it in twain from the first coach to the last, with a space like an inky hyphen where the baggage car lay. Out of the North came armies of snow-laden clouds that scudded just above the earth, and with these clouds came now and then a shrieking mockery of wind to taunt this stricken creation of man and the creatures it sheltered—men and women who had begun to shiver, and whose tense white faces stared with increasing anxiety into the mysterious darkness of the night that hung like a sable curtain ten feet from the car windows.
For three hours those faces had peered out into the night. Many of the prisoners in the snowbound coaches had enjoyed the experience somewhat at first, for there is pleasing and indefinable thrill to unexpected adventure, and this, for a brief spell, had been adventure de luxe. There had been warmth and light, men's laughter, women's voices, and children's play. But the loudest jester among the men was now silent, huddled deep in his great coat; and the young woman who had clapped her hands in silly ecstasy when it was announced that the train was snowbound was weeping and shivering by turns. It was cold—so cold that the snow which came sweeping and swirling with the wind was like granite-dust; it clicked, clicked, clicked against the glass—a bombardment of untold billions of infinitesimal projectiles fighting to break in. In the edge of the forest it was probably forty degrees below zero. Within the coaches there still remained some little warmth. The burning lamps radiated it and the presence of many people added to it. But it was cold, and growing colder. A gray coating of congealed breath covered the car windows. A few men had given their outer coats to women and children. These men looked most frequently at their watches. The adventure de luxe was becoming serious.
For the twentieth time a passing train-man was asked the same question.
"The good Lord only knows," he growled down into the face of the young woman whose prettiness would have enticed the most chivalrous attention from him earlier in the evening. "Engine and tender been gone three hours and the divisional point only twenty miles up the line. Should have been back with help long ago. Hell, ain't it?"
The young woman did not reply, but her round mouth formed a quick and silent approbation of his final remark.
"Three hours!" the train-man continued his growling as he went on with his lantern. "That's the hell o' railroading it along the edge of the Arctic. When you git snowed in you're snowed in, an' there ain't no two ways about it!"
He paused at the smoking compartment, thrust in his head for a moment, passed on and slammed the door of the car after him as he went into the next coach.
In that smoking compartment there were two men, facing each other across the narrow space between the two seats. They had not looked up when the train-man thrust in his head. They seemed, as one leaned over toward the other, wholly oblivious of the storm.
It was the older man who bent forward. He was about fifty. The hand that rested for a moment on David Raine's knee was red and knotted. It was the hand of a man who had lived his life in struggling with the wilderness. And the face, too, was of such a man; a face coloured and toughened by the tannin of wind and blizzard and hot northern sun, with eyes cobwebbed about by a myriad of fine lines that spoke of years spent under the strain of those things. He was not a large man. He was shorter than David Raine. There was a slight droop to his shoulders. Yet about him there was a strength, a suppressed energy ready to act, a zestful eagerness for life and its daily mysteries which the other and younger man did not possess. Throughout many thousands of square miles of the great northern wilderness this older man was known as Father Roland, the Missioner.
His companion was not more than thirty-eight. Perhaps he was a year or two younger. It may be that the wailing of the wind outside, the strange voices that were in it and the chilling gloom of their little compartment made of him a more striking contrast to Father Roland than he would have been under other conditions. His eyes were a clear and steady gray as they met Father Roland's. They were eyes that one could not easily forget. Except for his eyes he was like a man who had been sick, and was still sick. The Missioner had made his own guess. And now, with his hand on the other's knee, he said:
"And you say—that you are afraid—for this friend of yours?"
David Raine nodded his head. Lines deepened a little about his mouth.
"Yes, I am afraid." For a moment he turned to the night. A fiercer volley of the little snow demons beat against the window, as though his pale face just beyond their reach stirred them to greater fury. "I have a most disturbing inclination to worry about him," he added, and shrugged his shoulders slightly.
He faced Father Roland again.
"Did you ever hear of a man losing himself?" he asked. "I don't mean in the woods, or in a desert, or by going mad. I mean in the other way—heart, body, soul; losing one's grip, you might call it, until there was no earth to stand on. Did you?"
"Yes—many years ago—I knew of a man who lost himself in that way," replied the Missioner, straightening in his seat. "But he found himself again. And this friend of yours? I am interested. This is the first time in three years that I have been down to the edge of civilization, and what you have to tell will be different—vastly different from what I know. If you are betraying nothing would you mind telling me his story?"
"It is not a pleasant story," warned the younger man, "and on such a night as this——"
"It may be that one can see more clearly into the depths of misfortune and tragedy," interrupted the Missioner quietly.
A faint flush rose into David Raine's pale face. There was something of nervous eagerness in the clasp of his fingers upon his knees.
"Of course, there is the woman," he said.
"Yes—of course—the woman."
"Sometimes I haven't been quite sure whether this man worshipped the woman or the woman's beauty," David went on, with a strange glow in his eyes. "He loved beauty. And this woman was beautiful, almost too beautiful for the good of one's soul, I guess. And he must have loved her, for when she went out of his life it was as if he had sunk into a black pit out of which he could never rise. I have asked myself often if he would have loved her if she had been less beautiful—even quite plain, and I have answered myself as he answered that question, in the affirmative. It was born in him to worship wherever he loved at all. Her beauty made a certain sort of completeness for him. He treasured that. He was proud of it. He counted himself the richest man in the world because he possessed it. But deep under his worship of her beauty he loved her. I am more and more sure of that, and I am equally sure that time will prove it—that he will never rise again with his old hope and faith out of that black pit into which he sank when he came face to face with the realization that there were forces in life—in nature perhaps, more potent than his love and his own strong will."
Father Roland nodded.
"I understand," he said, and he sank back farther in his corner by the window, so that his face was shrouded a little in shadow. "This other man loved a woman, too. And she was beautiful. He thought she was the most beautiful thing in the world. It is great love that makes beauty."
"But this woman—my friend's wife—was so beautiful that even the eyes of other women were fascinated by her. I have seen her when it seemed she must have come fresh from the hands of angels; and at first, when my friend was the happiest man in the world, he was fond of telling her that it must have been the angels who put the colour in her face and the wonderful golden fires in her shining hair. It wasn't his love for her that made her beautiful. She was beautiful."
"And her soul?" softly questioned the shadowed lips of the Missioner.
The other's hand tightened slowly.
"In making her the angels forgot a soul, I guess," he said.
"Then your friend did not love her." The Little Missioner's voice was quick and decisive. "There can be no love where there is no soul."
"That is impossible. He did love her. I know it."
"I still disagree with you. Without knowing your friend, I say that he worshipped her beauty. There were others who worshipped that same loveliness—others who did not possess her, and who would have bartered their souls for her had they possessed souls to barter. Is that not true?"
"Yes, there were others. But to understand you must have known my friend before he sank down into the pit—when he was still a man. He was a great student. His fortune was sufficient to give him both time and means for the pursuits he loved. He had his great library, and adjoining it a laboratory. He wrote books which few people read because they were filled with facts and odd theories. He believed that the world was very old, and that there was less profit for men in discovering new luxuries for an artificial civilization than in re-discovering a few of the great laws and miracles buried in the dust of the past. He believed that the nearer we get to the beginning of things, and not the farther we drift, the clearer comprehension can we have of earth and sky and God, and the meaning of it all. He did not consider it an argument for progress that Christ and His disciples knew nothing of the telephone, of giant engines run by steam, of electricity, or of instruments by which man could send messages for thousands of miles through space. His theory was that the patriarchs of old held a closer touch on the pulse of Life than progress in its present forms will ever bring to us. He was not a fanatic. He was not a crank. He was young, and filled with enthusiasm. He loved children. He wanted to fill his home with them. But his wife knew that she was too beautiful for that—and they had none."
He had leaned a little forward, and had pulled his hat a trifle over his eyes. There was a moment's lull in the storm, and it was so quiet that each could hear the ticking of Father Roland's big silver watch.
Then he said:
"I don't know why I tell you all this, Father, unless it is to relieve my own mind. There can be no hope that it will benefit my friend. And yet it cannot harm him. It seems very near to sacrilege to put into words what I am going to say about—his wife. Perhaps there were extenuating conditions for her. I have tried to convince myself of that, just as he tried to believe it. It may be that a man who is born into this age must consider himself a misfit unless he can tune himself in sympathy with its manner of life. He cannot be too critical, I guess. If he is to exist in a certain social order of our civilization unburdened by great doubts and deep glooms he must not shiver when his wife tinkles her champagne glass against another. He must learn to appreciate the sinuous beauties of the cabaret dancer, and must train himself to take no offence when he sees shimmering wines tilted down white throats. He must train himself to many things, just as he trains himself to classical music and grand opera. To do these things he must forget, as much as he can, the sweet melodies and the sweeter women who are sinking into oblivion together. He must accept life as a Grand Piano tuned by a new sort of Tuning Master, and unless he can dance to its music he is a misfit. That is what my friend said to extenuate her. She fitted into this kind of life splendidly. He was in the other groove. She loved light, laughter, wine, song, and excitement. He, the misfit, loved his books, his work, and his home. His greatest joy would have been to go with her, hand in hand, through some wonderful cathedral, pointing out its ancient glories and mysteries to her. He wanted aloneness—just they two. Such was his idea of love. And she—wanted other things. You understand, Father?... The thing grew, and at last he saw that she was getting away from him. Her passion for admiration and excitement became a madness. I know, because I saw it. My friend said that it was madness, even as he was going mad. And yet he did not suspect her. If another had told him that she was unclean I am sure he would have killed him. Slowly he came to experience the agony of knowing that the woman whom he worshipped did not love him. But this did not lead him to believe that she could love another—or others. Then, one day, he left the city. She went with him to the train—his wife. She saw him go. She waved her handkerchief at him. And as she stood there she was—glorious."
Through partly closed eyes the Little Missioner saw his shoulders tighten, and a hardness settle about his mouth. The voice, too, was changed when it went on. It was almost emotionless.
"It's sometimes curious how the Chief Arbiter of things plays His tricks on men—and women, isn't it, Father? There was trouble on the line ahead, and my friend came back. It was unexpected. It was late when he reached home, and with his night key he went in quietly, because he did not want to awaken her. It was very still in the house—until he came to the door of her room. There was a light. He heard voices—very low. He listened. He went in."
There was a terrible silence. The ticking of Father Roland's big silver watch seemed like the beating of a tiny drum.
"And what happened then, David?"
"My friend went in," repeated David. His eyes sought Father Roland's squarely, and he saw the question there. "No, he did not kill them," he said. "He doesn't know what kept him from killing—the man. He was a coward, that man. He crawled away like a worm. Perhaps that was why my friend spared him. The wonderful part of it was that the woman—his wife—was not afraid. She stood up in her ravishing dishevelment, with that mantle of gold he had worshipped streaming about her to her knees, and she laughed? Yes, she laughed—a mad sort of laugh; a laughter of fear, perhaps—but—laughter. So he did not kill them. Her laughter—the man's cowardice—saved them. He turned. He closed the door. He left them. He went out into the night."
He paused, as though his story was finished.
"And that is—the end?" asked Father Roland softly.
"Of his dreams, his hopes, his joy in life—yes, that was the end."
"But of your friend's story? What happened after that?"
"A miracle, I think," replied David hesitatingly, as though he could not quite understand what had happened after that. "You see, this friend of mine was not of the vacillating and irresolute sort. I had always given him credit for that—credit for being a man who would measure up to a situation. He was quite an athlete, and enjoyed boxing and fencing and swimming. If at any time in his life he could have conceived of a situation such as he encountered in his wife's room, he would have lived in a moral certainty of killing the man. And when the situation did come was it not a miracle that he should walk out into the night leaving them not only unharmed, but together? I ask you, Father—was it not a miracle?"
Father Roland's eyes were gleaming strangely under the shadow of his broad-brimmed black hat. He merely nodded.
"Of course," resumed David, "it may be that he was too stunned to act. I believe that the laughter—her laughter—acted upon him like a powerful drug. Instead of plunging him into the passion of a murderous desire for vengeance it curiously enough anesthetized his emotions. For hours he heard that laughter. I believe he will never forget it. He wandered the streets all that night. It was in New York, and of course he passed many people. But he did not see them. When morning came he was on Fifth Avenue many miles from his home. He wandered downtown in a constantly growing human stream whose noise and bustle and many-keyed voice acted on him as a tonic. For the first time he asked himself what he would do. Stronger and stronger grew the desire in him to return, to face again that situation in his home. I believe that he would have done this—I believe that the red blood in him would have meted out its own punishment had he not turned just in time, and at the right place. He found himself in front of The Little Church Around the Corner, nestling in its hiding-place just off the Avenue. He remembered its restful quiet, the coolness of its aisles and alcoves. He was exhausted, and he went in. He sat down facing the chancel, and as his eyes became accustomed to the gloom he saw that the broad, low dais in front of the organ was banked with great masses of hydrangeas. There had been a wedding, probably the evening before. My friend told me of the thickening that came in his throat, of the strange, terrible throb in his heart as he sat there alone—the only soul in the church—and stared at those hydrangeas. Hydrangeas had been their own wedding flower, Father. And then——"
For the first time there was something like a break in the younger man's voice.
"My friend thought he was alone," he went on. "But some one had come out like a shadow beyond the chancel railing, and of a sudden, beginning wonderfully low and sweet, the great organ began to fill the church with its melody. The organist, too, thought he was alone. He was a little, old man, his shoulders thin and drooped, his hair white. But in his soul there must have been a great love and a great peace. He played something low and sweet. When he had finished he rose and went away as quietly as he had come, and for a long time after that my friend sat there—alone. Something new was born in him, something which I hope will grow and comfort him in the years to come. When he went out into the city again the sun was shining. He did not go home. He did not see the woman—his wife—again. He has never seen her since that night when she stood up in her dishevelled beauty and laughed at him. Even the divorce proceedings did not bring them together. I believe that he treated her fairly. Through his attorneys he turned over to her a half of what he possessed. Then he went away. That was a year ago. In that year I know that he has fought desperately to bring himself back into his old health of mind and body, and I am quite sure that he has failed."
He paused, his story finished. He drew the brim of his hat lower over his eyes, and then he rose to his feet. His build was slim and clean-cut. He was perhaps five feet ten inches in height, which was four inches taller than the Little Missioner. His shoulders were of good breadth, his waist and hips of an athletic slimness. But his clothes hung with a certain looseness. His hands were unnaturally thin, and in his face still hovered the shadows of sickness and of mental suffering.
Father Roland stood beside him now with eyes that shone with a deep understanding. Under the sputter of the lamp above their heads the two men clasped hands, and the Little Missioner's grip was like the grip of iron.
"David, I've preached a strange code through the wilderness for many a long year," he said, and his voice was vibrant with a strong emotion. "I'm not Catholic and I'm not Church of England. I've got no religion that wears a name. I'm simply Father Roland, and all these years I've helped to bury the dead in the forest, an' nurse the sick, an' marry the living, an' it may be that I've learned one thing better than most of you who live down in civilization. And that's how to find yourself when you're down an' out. Boy, will you come with me?"
Their eyes met. A fiercer gust of the storm beat against the windows. They could hear the wind wailing in the trees outside.
"It was your story that you told me," said Father Roland, his voice barely above a whisper. "She was your wife, David?"
It was very still for a few moments. Then came the reply: "Yes, she was my wife...."
Suddenly David freed his hand from the Little Missioner's clasp. He had stopped something that was almost like a cry on his lips. He pulled his hat still lower over his eyes and went through the door out into the main part of the coach.
Father Roland did not follow. Some of the ruddiness had gone from his cheeks, and as he stood facing the door through which David had disappeared a smouldering fire began to burn far back in his eyes. After a few moments this fire died out, and his face was gray and haggard as he sat down again in his corner. His hands unclenched. With a great sigh his head drooped forward on his chest, and for a long time he sat thus, his eyes and face lost in shadow. One would not have known that he was breathing.
Half a dozen times that night David had walked from end to end of the five snowbound coaches that made up the Transcontinental. He believed that for him it was an act of Providence that had delayed the train. Otherwise a sleeping car would have been picked up at the next divisional point, and he would not have unburdened himself to Father Roland. They would not have sat up until that late hour in the smoking compartment, and this strange little man of the forest would not have told him the story of a lonely cabin up on the edge of the Barrens—a story of strange pathos and human tragedy that had, in some mysterious way, unsealed his own lips. David had kept to himself the shame and heartbreak of his own affliction since the day he had been compelled to tell it, coldly and without visible emotion, to gain his own freedom. He had meant to keep it to himself always. And of a sudden it had all come out. He was not sorry. He was glad. He was amazed at the change in himself. That day had been a terrible day for him. He could not get her out of his mind. Now a depressing hand seemed to have lifted itself from his heart. He was quick to understand. His story had not fallen upon ears eager with sensual curiosity. He had met a man, and from the soul of that man there had reached out to him the spirit of a deep and comforting strength. He would have revolted at compassion, and words of pity would have shamed him. Father Roland had given voice to neither of these. But the grip of his hand had been like the grip of an iron man.
In the third coach David sat down in an empty seat. For the first time in many months there was a thrill of something in his blood which he could not analyze. What had the Little Missioner meant when, with that wonderful grip of his knotted hand, he had said, "I've learned how a man can find himself when he's down and out"? And what had he meant when he added, "Will you come with me"? Go with him? Where?
There came a sudden crash of the storm against the window, a shrieking blast of wind and snow, and David stared into the night. He could see nothing. It was a black chaos outside. But he could hear. He could hear the wailing and the moaning of the wind in the trees, and he almost fancied that it was not darkness alone that shut out his vision, but the thick walls of the forest.
Was that what Father Roland had meant? Had he asked him to go with him into that?
His face touched the cold glass. He stared harder. That morning Father Roland had boarded the train at a wilderness station and had taken a seat beside him. They had become acquainted. And later the Little Missioner had told him how those vast forests reached without a break for hundreds of miles into the mysterious North. He loved them, even as they lay cold and white outside the windows. There was gladness in his voice when he had said that he was going back into them. They were a part of his world—a world of "mystery and savage glory" he had called it, stretching for a thousand miles to the edge of the Arctic, and fifteen hundred miles from Hudson's Bay to the western mountains. And to-night he had said, "Will you come with me?"
David's pulse quickened. A thousand little snow demons beat in his face to challenge his courage. The wind swept down, as if enraged at the thought in his mind, and scooped up volley after volley of drifting snow and hurled them at him. There was only the thin glass between. It was like the defiance of a living thing. It threatened him. It dared him. It invited him out like a great bully, with a brawling show of fists. He had always been more or less pusillanimous in the face of winter. He disliked cold. He hated snow. But this that beat and shrieked at him outside the window had set something stirring strangely within him. It was a desire, whimsical and undecided at first, to thrust his face out into that darkness and feel the sting of the wind and snow. It was Father Roland's world. And Father Roland had invited him to enter it. That was the curious part of the situation, as it was impressed upon him as he sat with his face flattened against the window. The Little Missioner had invited him, and the night was daring him. For a single moment the incongruity of it all made him forget himself, and he laughed—a chuckling, half-broken, and out-of-tune sort of laugh. It was the first time in a year that he had forgotten himself anywhere near to a point resembling laughter, and in the sudden and inexplicable spontaneity of it he was startled. He turned quickly, as though some one at his side had laughed and he was about to demand an explanation. He looked across the aisle and his eyes met squarely the eyes of a woman.
He saw nothing but the eyes at first. They were big, dark, questing eyes—eyes that had in them a hunting look, as though they hoped to find in his face the answer to a great question. Never in his life had he seen eyes that were so haunted by a great unrest, or that held in their lustrous depths the smouldering glow of a deeper grief. Then the face added itself to the eyes. It was not a young face. The woman was past forty. But this age did not impress itself over a strange and appealing beauty in her countenance which was like the beauty of a flower whose petals are falling. Before David had seen more than this she turned her eyes from him slowly and doubtfully, as if not quite convinced that she had found what she sought, and faced the darkness beyond her own side of the car.
David was puzzled, and he looked at her with still deeper interest. Her seat was turned so that it was facing him across the aisle, three seats ahead, and he could look at her without conspicuous effort or rudeness. Her hood had slipped down and hung by its long scarf about her shoulders. She leaned toward the window, and as she stared out, her chin rested in the cup of her hand. He noticed that her hand was thin, and that there was a shadowy hollow in the white pallor of her cheek. Her hair was heavy and done in thick coils that glowed dully in the lamplight. It was a deep brown, almost black, shot through with little silvery threads of gray.
For a few moments David withdrew his gaze, subconsciously ashamed of the directness of his scrutiny. But after a little his eyes drifted back to her. Her head was sunk forward a little, he caught now a pathetic droop of her shoulders, and he fancied that he saw a little shiver run through her. Just as before he had felt the desire to thrust his face out into the night, he felt now an equally unaccountable impulse to speak to her and ask her if he could in any way be of service to her. But he could see no excuse for this presumptuousness in himself. If she was in distress it was not of a physical sort for which he might have suggested his services as a remedy. She was neither hungry nor cold, for there was a basket at her side in which he had a glimpse of broken bits of food; and at her back, draped over the seat, was a heavy beaver-skin coat.
He rose to his feet with the intention of returning to the smoking compartment in which he had left Father Roland. His movement seemed to rouse the woman. Again her dark eyes met his own. They looked straight up at him as he stood in the aisle, and he stopped. Her lips trembled.
"Are you ... acquainted ... between here and Lac Seul?" she asked.
Her voice had in it the same haunting mystery that he had seen in her eyes, the same apprehension, the same hope, as though some curious and indefinable instinct was telling her that in this stranger she was very near to the thing which she was seeking.
"I am a stranger," he said. "This is the first time I have ever been in this country."
She sank back, the look of hope in her face dying out like a passing flash.
"I thank you," she murmured. "I thought perhaps you might know of a man whom I am seeking—a man by the name of Michael O'Doone."
She did not expect him to speak again. She drew her heavy coat about her and turned her face toward the window. There was nothing that he could say, nothing that he could do, and he went back to Father Roland.
He was in the last coach when a sound came to him faintly. It was too sharp for the wailing of the storm. Others heard it and grew suddenly erect, with tense and listening faces. The young woman with the round mouth gave a little gasp. A man pacing back and forth in the aisle stopped as if at the point of a bayonet.
It came again.
The heavy-jowled man who had taken the adventure as a jest at first, and who had rolled himself in his great coat like a hibernating woodchuck, unloosed his voice in a rumble of joy.
"It's the whistle!" he announced. "The damned thing's coming at last!"
David came up quietly to the door of the smoking compartment where he had left Father Roland. The Little Missioner was huddled in his corner near the window. His head hung heavily forward and the shadows of his black Stetson concealed his face. He was apparently asleep. His hands, with their strangely developed joints and fingers, lay loosely upon his knees. For fully half a minute David looked at him without moving or making a sound, and as he looked, something warm and living seemed to reach out from the lonely figure of the wilderness preacher that filled him with a strangely new feeling of companionship. Again he made no effort to analyze the change in himself; he accepted it as one of the two or three inexplicable phenomena this night and the storm had produced for him, and was chiefly concerned in the fact that he was no longer oppressed by that torment of aloneness which had been a part of his nights and days for so many months. He was about to speak when he made up his mind not to disturb the other. So certain was he that Father Roland was asleep that he drew away from the door on the tips of his toes and reentered the coach.
He did not stop in the first or second car, though there were plenty of empty seats and people were rousing themselves into more cheerful activity. He passed through one and then the other to the third coach, and sat down when he came to the seat he had formerly occupied. He did not immediately look at the woman across the aisle. He did not want her to suspect that he had come back for that purpose. When his eyes did seek her in a casual sort of way he was disappointed.
She was almost covered in her coat. He caught only the gleam of her thick, dark hair, and the shape of one slim hand, white as paper in the lampglow. He knew that she was not asleep, for he saw her shoulders move, and the hand shifted its position to hold the coat closer about her. The whistling of the approaching engine, which could be heard distinctly now, had no apparent effect on her. For ten minutes he sat staring at all he could see of her—the dark glow of her hair and the one ghostly white hand. He moved, he shuffled his feet, he coughed; he made sure she knew he was there, but she did not look up. He was sorry that he had not brought Father Roland with him in the first place, for he was certain that if the Little Missioner had seen the grief and the despair in her eyes—the hope almost burned out—he would have gone to her and said things which he had found it impossible to say when the opportunity had come to him. He rose again from his seat as the powerful snow-engine and its consort coupled on to the train. The shock almost flung him off his feet. Even then she did not raise her head.
A second time he returned to the smoking compartment.
Father Roland was no longer huddled down in his corner. He was on his feet, his hands thrust deep down into his trousers pockets, and he was whistling softly as David came in. His hat lay on the seat. It was the first time David had seen his round, rugged, weather-reddened face without the big Stetson. He looked younger and yet older; his face, as David saw it there in the lampglow, had something in the ruddy glow and deeply lined strength of it that was almost youthful. But his thick, shaggy hair was very gray. The train had begun to move. He turned to the window for a moment, and then looked at David.
"We are under way," he said. "Very soon I will be getting off."
David sat down.
"It is some distance beyond the divisional point ahead—this cabin where you get off?" he asked.
"Yes, twenty or twenty-five miles. There is nothing but a cabin and two or three log outbuildings there—where Thoreau, the Frenchman, has his fox pens, as I told you. It is not a regular stop, but the train will slow down to throw off my dunnage and give me an easy jump. My dogs and Indian are with Thoreau."
"And from there—from Thoreau's—it is a long distance to the place you call home?"
The Little Missioner rubbed his hands in a queer rasping way. The movement of those rugged hands and the curious, chuckling laugh that accompanied it, radiated a sort of cheer. They were expressions of more than satisfaction. "It's a great many miles to my own cabin, but it's home—all home—after I get into the forests. My cabin is at the lower end of God's Lake, three hundred miles by dogs and sledge from Thoreau's—three hundred miles as straight north as a niskuk flies."
"A niskuk?" said David.
"Yes—a gray goose."
"Don't you have crows?"
"A few; but they're as crooked in flight as they are in morals. They're scavengers, and they hang down pretty close to the line of rail—close to civilization, where there's a lot of scavenging to be done, you know."
For the second time that night David found a laugh on his lips.
"Then—you don't like civilization?"
"My heart is in the Northland," replied Father Roland, and David saw a sudden change in the other's face, a dying out of the light in his eyes, a tenseness that came and went like a flash at the corners of his mouth. In that same moment he saw the Missioner's hand tighten, and the fingers knot themselves curiously and then slowly relax.
One of these hands dropped on David's shoulder, and Father Roland became the questioner.
"You have been thinking, since you left me a little while ago?" he asked.
"Yes. I came back. But you were asleep."
"I haven't been asleep. I have been awake every minute. I thought once that I heard a movement at the door but when I looked up there was no one there. You told me to-day that you were going west—to the British Columbia mountains?"
David nodded. Father Roland sat down beside him.
"Of course you didn't tell me why you were going," he went on. "I have made my own guess since you told me about the woman, David. Probably you will never know just why your story has struck so deeply home with me and why it seemed to make you more a son to me than a stranger. I have guessed that in going west you are simply wandering. You are fighting in a vain and foolish sort of way to run away from something. Isn't that it? You are running away—trying to escape the one thing in the whole wide world that you cannot lose by flight—and that's memory. You can think just as hard in Japan or the South Sea Islands as you can on Fifth Avenue in New York, and sometimes the farther away you get the more maddening your thoughts become. It isn't travel you want, David. It's blood—red blood. And for putting blood into you, and courage, and joy of just living and breathing, there's nothing on the face of the earth like—that!"
He reached an arm past David and pointed to the night beyond the car window.
"You mean the storm, and the snow——"
"Yes; storm, and snow, and sunshine, and forests—the tens of thousands of miles of our Northland that you've seen only the edges of. That's what I mean. But, first of all"—and again the Little Missioner rubbed his hands—"first of all, I'm thinking of the supper that's waiting for us at Thoreau's. Will you get off and have supper with me at the Frenchman's, David? After that, if you decide not to go up to God's Lake with me, Thoreau can bring you and your luggage back to the station with his dog team. Such a supper—or breakfast—it will be! I can smell it now, for I know Thoreau—his fish, his birds, the tenderest steaks in the forests! I can hear Thoreau cursing because the train hasn't come, and I'll wager he's got fish and caribou tenderloin and partridges just ready for a final turn in the roaster. What do you say? Will you get off with me?"
"It is a tempting offer to a hungry man, Father."
The Little Missioner chuckled elatedly.
"Hunger!—that's the real medicine of the gods, David, when the belt isn't drawn too tight. If I want to know the nature and quality of a man I ask about his stomach. Did you ever know a man who loved to eat who wasn't of a pretty decent sort? Did you ever know of a man who loved pie—who'd go out of his way to get pie—that didn't have a heart in him bigger than a pumpkin? I guess you didn't. If a man's got a good stomach he isn't a grouch, and he won't stick a knife into your back; but if he eats from habit—or necessity—he isn't a beautiful character in the eyes of nature, and there's pretty sure to be a cog loose somewhere in his makeup. I'm a grub-scientist, David. I warn you of that before we get off at Thoreau's. I love to eat, and the Frenchman knows it. That's why I can smell things in that cabin, forty miles away."
He was rubbing his hands briskly and his face radiated such joyous anticipation as he talked that David unconsciously felt the spirit of his enthusiasm. He had gripped one of Father Roland's hands and was pumping it up and down almost before he realized what he was doing.
"I'll get off with you at Thoreau's," he exclaimed, "and later, if I feel as I do now, and you still want my company, I'll go on with you into the north country!"
A slight flush rose into his thin cheeks and his eyes shone with a freshly lighted enthusiasm. As Father Roland saw the change in him his hands closed over David's.
"I knew you had a splendid stomach in you from the moment you finished telling me about the woman," he cried exultantly. "I knew it, David. And I do want your company—I want it as I never wanted the company of another man!"
"That is the strange part of it," replied David, a slight quiver in his voice. He drew away his hands suddenly and with a jerk brought himself to his feet. "Good God! look at me!" he cried. "I am a wreck, physically. It would be a lie if you told me I am not. See these hands—these arms! I'm down and out. I'm weak as a dog, and the stomach you speak of is a myth. I haven't eaten a square meal in a year. Why do you want me as a companion? Why do you think it would be a pleasure for you to drag a decrepit misfit like myself up into a country like yours? Is it because of your—your code of faith? Is it because you think you may save a soul?"
He was breathing deeply. As he excoriated himself and bared his weakness the hot blood crept slowly into his face.
"Why do you want me to go?" he demanded. "Why don't you ask some man with red blood in his veins and a heart that hasn't been burned out? Why have you asked me?"
Father Roland made as if to speak, and then caught himself. Again for a passing flash there came that mysterious change in him, a sudden dying out of the enthusiasm in his eyes, and a grayness in his face that came and went like a shadow of pain. In another moment he was saying:
"I'm not playing the part of the good Samaritan, David. I've got a personal and a selfish reason for wanting you with me. It may be possible—just possible, I say—that I need you even more than you will need me." He held out his hand. "Let me have your checks and I'll go ahead to the baggage car and arrange to have your dunnage thrown off with mine at the Frenchman's."
David gave him the checks, and sat down after he had gone. He began to realize that, for the first time in many months, he was taking a deep and growing interest in matters outside his own life. The night and its happenings had kindled a strange fire within him, and the warmth of this fire ran through his veins and set his body and his brain tingling curiously. New forces were beginning to fight his own malady. As he sat alone after Father Roland had gone, his mind had dragged itself away from the East; he thought of a woman, but it was the woman in the third coach back. Her wonderful eyes haunted him—their questing despair, the strange pain that seemed to burn like glowing coals in their depths. He had seen not only misery and hopelessness in them; he had seen tragedy; and they troubled him. He made up his mind to tell Father Roland about her when he returned from the baggage car, and take him to her.
And who was Father Roland? For the first time he asked himself the question. There was something of mystery about the Little Missioner that he found as strange and unanswerable as the thing he had seen in the eyes of the woman in the third car back. Father Roland had not been asleep when he looked in and saw him hunched down in his corner near the window, just as a little later he had seen the woman crumpled down in hers. It was as if the same oppressing hand had been upon them in those moments. And why had Father Roland asked him of all men to go with him as a comrade into the North? Following this he asked himself the still more puzzling question: Why had he accepted the invitation?
He stared out into the night, as if that night held an answer for him. He had not noticed until now that the storm had ceased its beating against the window. It was not so black outside. With his face close to the glass he could make out the dark wall of the forest. From the rumble of the trucks under him he knew that the two engines were making good time. He looked at his watch. It was a quarter of twelve. They had been travelling for half an hour and he figured that the divisional point ahead would be reached by midnight. It seemed a very short time after that when he heard the tiny bell in his watch tinkle off the hour of twelve. The last strokes were drowned in a shrill blast of the engine whistle, and a moment later he caught the dull glow of lights in the hollow of a wide curve the train was making.
Father Roland had told him the train would wait at this point fifteen minutes, and even now he heard the clanging of handbells announcing the fact that hot coffee, sandwiches, and ready-prepared suppers were awaiting the half-starved passengers. The trucks grated harshly, the whirring groan of the air-brakes ran under him like a great sigh, and suddenly he was looking down into the face of a pop-eyed man who was clanging a bell, with all the strength of his right arm, under his window, and who, with this labour, was emitting a husky din of "Supper—supper 'ot an' ready at the Royal" in his vain effort to drown the competition of a still more raucous voice that was bellowing: "'Ot steaks an' liver'n onions at the Queen Alexandry!" As David made no movement the man under his window stretched up his neck and yelled a personal invitation, "W'y don't you come out and eat, old chap? You've got fifteen minutes an' mebby 'arf an 'our; supper—supper 'ot an' ready at the Royal!" Up and down the length of the dimly lighted platform David heard that clangor of bells, and as if determined to capture his stomach or die, the pop-eyed man never moved an inch from his window, while behind him there jostled and hurried an eager and steadily growing crowd of hungry people.
David thought again of the woman in the third coach back. Was she getting off here, he wondered? He went to the door of the smoking compartment and waited another half minute for Father Roland. It was quite evident that his delay was occasioned by some difficulty in the baggage car, a difficulty which perhaps his own presence might help to straighten out. He hesitated between the thought of joining the Missioner and the stronger impulse to go back into the third coach. He was conscious of a certain feeling of embarrassment as he returned for the third time to look at her. He was not anxious for her to see him again unless Father Roland was with him. His hesitancy, if it was not altogether embarrassment, was caused by the fear that she might quite naturally regard his interest in a wrong light. He was especially sensitive upon that point, and had always been. The fact that she was not a young woman, and that he had seen her dark hair finely threaded with gray, made no difference with him in his peculiarly chivalric conception of man's attitude toward woman. He did not mean to impress himself upon her; this time he merely wanted to see whether she had roused herself, or had left the car. At least this was the trend of his mental argument as he entered the third coach.
The car was empty. The woman was gone. Even the old man who had hobbled in on crutches at the last station had hobbled out again in response to the clanging bells. When he came to the seat where the woman had been, David paused, and would have turned back had he not chanced to look out through the window. He was just in time to catch the quick upturn of a passing face. It was her face. She saw him and recognized him; she seemed for a moment to hesitate; her eyes were filled again with that haunting fire; her lips trembled as if about to speak; and then, like a mysterious shadow, she drifted out of his vision into darkness.
For a space he remained in his bent and staring attitude, trying to pierce the gloom into which she had disappeared. As he drew back from the window, wondering what she must think of him, his eyes fell to the seat where she had been sitting, and he saw that she had left something behind.
It was a very thin package, done up in a bit of newspaper and tied with a red string. He picked it up and turned it over in his hands. It was five or six inches in width and perhaps eight in length, and was not more than half an inch in thickness. The newspaper in which the object was wrapped was worn until the print was almost obliterated.
Again he looked out through the window. Was it a trick of his eyes, he wondered, or did he see once more that pale and haunting face in the gloom just beyond the lampglow? His fingers closed a little tighter upon the thin packet in his hand. At least he had found an excuse; if she was still there—if he could find her—he had an adequate apology for going to her. She had forgotten something; it was simply a matter of courtesy on his part to return it. As he alighted into the half foot of snow on the platform he could have given no other reason for his action. His mind could not clarify itself; it had no cohesiveness of purpose or of emotion at this particular juncture. It was as if a strange and magnetic undertow were drawing him after her. And he obeyed the impulse. He began seeking for her, with the thin packet in his hand.
David followed where he fancied he had last seen the woman's face and caught himself just in time to keep from pitching over the edge of the platform. Beyond that there was a pit of blackness. Surely she had not gone there.
Two or three of the bells were still clanging, but with abated enthusiasm; from the dimly lighted platform, grayish-white in the ghostly flicker of the oil lamps, the crowd of hungry passengers was ebbing swiftly in its quest of food and drink; a last half-hearted bawling of the virtue to be found in the "hot steak an' liver'n onions at the Royal Alexandry" gave way to a comforting silence—a silence broken only by a growing clatter of dishes, the subdued wheezing of the engines, and the raucous voice of a train-man telling the baggage-man that the hump between his shoulders was not a head but a knot kindly tied there by his Creator to keep him from unravelling. Even the promise of a fight—at least of a blow or two delivered in the gray gloom of the baggage-man's door—did not turn David from his quest. When he returned, a few minutes later, two or three sympathetic friends were nursing the baggage-man back into consciousness. He was about to pass the group when some one gripped his arm, and a familiar and joyous chuckle sounded in his ear. Father Roland stood beside him.
"Dear Father in Heaven, but it was a terrible blow, David!" cried the Little Missioner, his face dancing in the flare of the baggage-room lamps. "It was a tremendous blow—straight out from his shoulders like a battering ram, and hard as rock! It put him to sleep like a baby. Did you see it?"
"I didn't," said David, staring at the other in amazement.
"He deserved it," explained Father Roland. "I love to see a good, clean blow when it's delivered in the right, David. I've seen the time when a hard fist was worth more than a preacher and his prayers." He was chuckling delightedly as they turned back to the train. "The baggage is arranged for," he added. "They'll put us off together at the Frenchman's."
David had slipped the thin packet into his pocket. He no longer felt so keenly the desire to tell Father Roland about the woman—at least not at the present time. His quest had been futile. The woman had disappeared as completely as though she had actually floated away into that pit of darkness beyond the far end of the platform. He had drawn but one conclusion. This place—Graham—was her home; undoubtedly friends had been at the station to meet her; even now she might be telling them, or a husband, or a grown-up son, of the strange fellow who had stared at her in such a curious fashion. Disappointment in not finding her had brought a reaction. He had an inward and uncomfortable feeling of having been very silly, and of having allowed his imagination to get the better of his common sense. He had persuaded himself to believe that she had been in very great distress. He had acted honestly and with chivalric intentions. And yet, after what had passed between him and Father Roland in the smoking compartment—and in view of his failure to establish a proof of his own convictions—he was determined to keep this particular event of the night to himself.
A loud voice began to announce that the moment of departure had arrived, and as the passengers began scrambling back into their coaches, Father Roland led the way to the baggage car.
"They're going to let us ride with the dunnage so there won't be any mistake or time lost when we get to Thoreau's," he said.
They climbed up into the warm and lighted car, and after the baggage-man in charge had given them a sour nod of recognition the first thing that David noticed was his own and Father Roland's property stacked up near the door. His own belongings were a steamer trunk and two black morocco bags, while Father Roland's share of the pile consisted mostly of boxes and bulging gunny sacks that must have weighed close to half a ton. Near the pile was a pair of scales, shoved back against the wall of the car. David laughed queerly as he nodded toward them. They gave him a rather satisfying inspiration. With them he could prove the incongruity of the partnership that had already begun to exist between him and the Missioner. He weighed himself, with Father Roland looking on. The scales balanced at 132.
"And I'm five feet nine in height," he said, disgustedly; "it should be 160. You see where I'm at!"
"I knew a 200-pound pig once that worried himself down to ninety because the man who kept him also kept skunks," replied Father Roland, with his odd chuckle. "Next to small-pox and a bullet through your heart, worry is about the blackest, man-killingest thing on earth, David. See that bag?"
He pointed to one of the bulging gunny sacks.
"That's the antidote," he said. "It's the best medicine I know of in the grub line for a man who's lost his grip. There's the making of three men in that sack."
"What is it?" asked David, curiously.
The Missioner bent over to examine a card attached to the neck of the bag.
"To be perfectly accurate it contains 110 pounds of beans," he answered.
"Beans! Great Heavens! I loathe them!"
"So do most down-and-outs," affirmed Father Roland, cheerfully. "That's one reason for the peculiar psychological value of beans. They begin to tell you when you're getting weaned away from a lobster palate and a stuffed-crab stomach, and when you get to the point where you want 'em on your regular bill of fare you'll find more fun in chopping down a tree than in going to a grand opera. But the beans must be cooked right, David—browned like a nut, juicy to the heart of 'em, and seasoned alongside a broiling duck or partridge, or a tender rabbit. Ah!"
The Little Missioner rubbed his hands ecstatically.
David's rejoinder, if one was on his lips, was interrupted by a violent cursing. The train was well under way, and the baggage-man had sat down to a small table with his back toward them. He had leaped to his feet now, his face furious, and with another demoniac curse he gave the coal skuttle a kick that sent it with a bang to the far end of the car. The table was littered with playing cards.
"Damn 'em—they beat me this time in ten plays!" he yelled. "They've got the devil in 'em! If they was alive I'd jump on 'em! I've played this game of solitaire for nineteen years—I've played a million games—an' damned if I ever got beat in my life as it's beat me since we left Halifax!"
"Dear Heaven!" gasped Father Roland. "Have you been playing all the way from Halifax?"
The solitaire fiend seemed not to hear, and resuming his seat with a low and ominous muttering, he dealt himself another hand. In less than a minute he was on his feet again, shaking the cards angrily under the Little Missioner's nose as though that individual were entirely accountable for his bad luck.
"Look at that accursed trey of hearts!" he demanded. "First card, ain't it? First card!—an' if it had been the third, 'r the sixth, 'r the ninth, 'r anything except that confounded Number One, I'd have slipped the game up my sleeve. Ain't it enough to wreck any honest man's soul? I ask you—ain't it?"
"Why don't you change the trey of hearts to the place that suits you?" asked David, innocently. "It seems to me it would be very easy to move it to third place in the deck if you want it there."
The baggage-man's bulging eyes seemed ready to pop as he stared at David, and when he saw that David really meant what he had said a look of unutterable disgust spread over his countenance. Then he grinned—a sickly and malicious sort of grin.
"Say, mister, you've never played solitaire, have you?" he asked.
"Never," confessed David.
Without another word the baggage-man hunched himself over his table, dealt himself another hand, and not until the train began slowing up for Thoreau's place did he rise from his seat or cease his low mutterings and grumblings. In response to the engineer's whistle he jumped to his feet and rolled back the car door.
"Now step lively!" he demanded. "We've got no orders to stop here and we'll have to dump this stuff out on the move!"
As he spoke he gave the hundred and ten pounds of beans a heave out into the night. Father Roland jumped to his assistance, and David saw his steamer trunk and his hand-bags follow the beans.
"The snow is soft and deep, an' there won't be any harm done," Father Roland assured him as he tossed out a 50-pound box of prunes.
David heard sounds now: a man's shout, a fiendish tonguing of dogs, and above that a steady chorus of yapping which he guessed came from the foxes. Suddenly a lantern gleamed, then a second and a third, and a dark, bearded face—a fierce and piratical-looking face—began running along outside the door. The last box and the last bag went off, and with a sudden movement the train-man hauled David to the door.
"Jump!" he cried.
The face and the lantern had fallen behind, and it was as black as an abyss outside. With a mute prayer David launched himself much as he had seen the bags and boxes sent out. He fell with a thud in a soft blanket of snow. He looked up in time to see the Little Missioner flying out like a curious gargoyle through the door; the baggage-man's lantern waved, the engineer's whistle gave a responding screech, and the train whirred past. Not until the tail-light of the last coach was receding like a great red firefly in the gloom did David get up. Father Roland was on his feet, and down the track came two of the three lanterns on the run.
It was all unusually weird and strangely interesting to David. He was breathing deeply. There was a warmth in his body which was new to him. It struck him all at once, as he heard Father Roland crunching through the snow, that he was experiencing an entirely new phase of life—a life he had read about at times and dreamed of at other times, but which he had never come physically in contact with. The yapping of the foxes, the crying of the dogs, those lanterns hurrying down the track, the blackness of the night, and the strong perfume of balsam in the cold air—an odour that he breathed deep into his lungs like the fumes of an exhilarating drink—quickened sharply a pulse that a few hours before he thought was almost lifeless. He had no time to ask himself whether he was enjoying these new sensations; he felt only the thrill of them as Thoreau and the Indian came up out of the night with their lanterns. In Thoreau himself, as he stood a moment later in the glow of the lanterns, was embodied the living, breathing spirit of this new world into which David's leap out of the baggage car had plunged him. He was picturesquely of the wild; his face was darkly bearded; his ivory-white teeth shining as he smiled a welcome; his tricoloured, Hudson's Bay coat of wool, with its frivolous red fringes, thrown open at the throat; the bushy tail of his fisher-skin cap hanging over a shoulder—and with these things his voice rattling forth, in French and half Indian, his joy that Father Roland was not dead but had arrived at last. Behind him stood the Indian—his face without expression, dark, shrouded—a bronze sphinx of mystery. But his eyes shone as the Little Missioner greeted him—shone so darkly and so full of fire that for a moment David was fascinated by them. Then David was introduced.
"I am happy to meet you, m'sieu," said the Frenchman. His race was softly polite, even in the forests, and Thoreau's voice, now mildly subdued, came strangely from the bearded wildness of his face. The grip of his hand was like Father Roland's—something David had never felt among his friends back in the city. He winced in the darkness, and for a long time afterward his fingers tingled.
It was then that David made his first break in the etiquette of the forests; a fortunate one, as time proved. He did not know that shaking hands with an Indian was a matter of some formality, and so when Father Roland said, "This is Mukoki, who has been with me for many years," David thrust out his hand. Mukoki looked him straight in the eye for a moment, and then his blanket-coat parted and his slim, dark hand reached out. Having received his lesson from both the Missioner and the Frenchman, David put into his grip all the strength that was in him—the warmest hand-shake Mukoki had ever received in his life from a white man, with the exception of his master, the Missioner.
The next thing David heard was Father Roland's voice inquiring eagerly about supper. Thoreau's reply was in French.
"He says the cabin is like the inside of a great, roast duck," chuckled the Missioner. "Come, David. We'll leave Mukoki to gather up our freight."
A short walk up the track and David saw the cabin. It was back in the shelter of the black spruce and balsam, its two windows that faced the railroad warmly illumined by the light inside. The foxes had ceased their yapping, but the snarling and howling of dogs became more bloodthirsty as they drew nearer, and David could hear an ominous clinking of chains and snapping of teeth. A few steps more and they were at the door. Thoreau himself opened it, and stood back.
"Apres vous, m'sieu," he said, his white teeth shining at David. "It would give me bad luck and possibly all my foxes would die, if I went into my house ahead of a stranger."
David went in. An Indian woman stood with her back to him, bending over a table. She was as slim as a reed, and had the longest and sleekest black hair he had ever seen, done in two heavy braids that hung down her back. In another moment she had turned her round, brown face, and her teeth and eyes were shining, but she spoke no word. Thoreau did not introduce his wild-flower wife. He had opened his cabin door, and had let David enter before him, which was accepting him as a friend in his home, and therefore, in his understanding of things, an introduction was unnecessary and out of place. Father Roland chuckled, rubbed his hands briskly, and said something to the woman in her own language that made her giggle shyly. It was contagious. David smiled. Father Roland's face was crinkled with little lines of joy. The Frenchman's teeth gleamed. In the big cook-stove the fire snapped and crackled and popped. Marie opened the stove door to put in more wood and her face shone rosy and her teeth were like milk in the fire-flash. Thoreau went to her and laid his big, heavy hand fondly on her sleek head, and said something in soft Cree that brought another giggle into Marie's throat, like the curious note of a bird.
In David there was a slow and wonderful awakening. Every fibre of him was stirred by the cheer of this cabin builded from logs rough-hewn out of the forest; his body, weakened by the months of mental and physical anguish which had been his burden, seemed filled with a new strength. Unconsciously he was smiling and his soul was rising out of its dark prison as he saw Thoreau's big hand stroking Marie's shining hair. He was watching Thoreau when, at a word from Marie, the Frenchman suddenly swung open the oven door and pulled forth a huge roasting pan.
At sight of the pan Father Roland gave a joyous cry, and he rubbed his hands raspingly together. The rich aroma of that pan! A delicious whiff of it had struck their nostrils even before the cabin door had opened—that and a perfume of coffee; but not until now did the fragrance of the oven and the pan smite them with all its potency.
"Mallards fattened on wild rice, and a rabbit—my favourite—a rabbit roasted with an onion where his heart was, and well peppered," gloated the Little Missioner. "Dear Heaven! was there ever such a mess to put strength into a man's gizzard, David? And coffee—this coffee of Marie's! It is more than ambrosia. It is an elixir which transforms a cup into a fountain of youth. Take off your coat, David; take off your coat and make yourself at home!"
As David stripped off his coat, and followed that with his collar and tie, he thought of his steamer trunk with its Tuxedo and dress-coat, its pique shirts and poke collars, its suede gloves and kid-topped patent leathers, and he felt the tips of his ears beginning to burn. He was sorry now that he had given the Missioner the check to that trunk.
A minute later he was sousing his face in a big tin wash-basin, and then drying it on a towel that had once been a burlap bag. But he had noticed that it was clean—as clean as the pink-flushed face of Marie. And the Frenchman himself, with all his hair, and his beard, and his rough-worn clothing, was as clean as the burlap towelling. Being a stranger, suddenly plunged into a life entirely new to him, these things impressed David.
When they sat down to the table—Thoreau sitting for company, and Marie standing behind them—he was at a loss at first to know how to begin. His plate was of tin and a foot in diameter, and on it was a three-pound mallard duck, dripping with juice and as brown as a ripe hazel-nut. He made a business of arranging his sleeves and drinking a glass of water while he watched the famished Little Missioner. With a chuckle of delight Father Roland plunged the tines of his fork hilt deep into the breast of the duck, seized a leg in his fingers, and dismembered the luscious anatomy of his plate with a deft twist and a sudden pull. With his teeth buried in the leg he looked across at David. David had eaten duck before; that is, he had eaten of the family anas boschas disguised in thick gravies and highbrow sauces, but this duck that he ate at Thoreau's table was like no other duck that he had ever tasted in all his life. He began with misgivings at the three-pound carcass, and he ended with an entirely new feeling of stuffed satisfaction. He explored at will into its structure, and he found succulent morsels which he had never dreamed of as existing in this particular bird, for his experience had never before gone beyond a leg of duck and thinly carved slices of breast of duck, at from eighty cents to a dollar and a quarter an order. He would have been ashamed of himself when he had finished had it not been that Father Roland seemed only at the beginning, and was turning the vigour of his attack from duck to rabbit and onion. From then on David kept him company by drinking a third cup of coffee.
When he had finished Father Roland settled back with a sigh of content, and drew a worn buckskin pouch from one of the voluminous pockets of his trousers. Out of this he produced a black pipe and tobacco. At the same time Thoreau was filling and lighting his own. In his studies and late-hour work at home David himself had been a pipe smoker, but of late his pipe had been distasteful to him, and it had been many weeks since he had indulged in anything but cigars and an occasional cigarette. He looked at the placid satisfaction in the Little Missioner's face, and saw Thoreau's head wreathed in smoke, and he felt for the first time in those weeks the return of his old desire. While they were eating, Mukoki and another Indian had brought in his trunk and bags, and he went now to one of the bags, opened it, and got his own pipe and tobacco. As he stuffed the bowl of his English briar, and lighted the tobacco, Father Roland's glowing face beamed at him through the fragrant fumes of his Hudson's Bay Mixture.
Against the wall, a little in shadow, so that she would not be a part of their company or whatever conversation they might have, Marie had seated herself, her round chin in the cup of her brown hand, her dark eyes shining at this comfort and satisfaction of men. Such scenes as this amply repaid her for all her toil in life. She was happy. There was content in this cabin. David felt it. It impinged itself upon him, and through him, in a strange and mysterious way. Within these log walls he felt the presence of that spirit—the joy of companionship and of life—which had so terribly eluded and escaped him in his own home of wealth and luxury. He heard Marie speak only once that night—once, in a low, soft voice to Thoreau. She was silent with the silence of the Cree wife in the presence of a stranger, but he knew that her heart was throbbing with the soft pulse of happiness, and for some reason he was glad when Thoreau nodded proudly toward a closed door and let him know that she was a mother. Marie heard him, and in that moment David caught in her face a look that made his heart ache—a look that should have been a part of his own life, and which he had missed.
A little later Thoreau led the way into the room which David was to occupy for the night. It was a small room, with a sapling partition between it and the one in which the Missioner was to sleep. The fox breeder placed a lamp on the table near the bed, and bade David good-night.
It was past two o'clock, and yet David felt at the present moment no desire for sleep. After he had taken off his shoes and partially undressed, he sat on the edge of his bed and allowed his mind to sweep back over the events of the last few hours. Again he thought of the woman in the coach—the woman with those wonderful, dark eyes and haunting face—and he drew forth from his coat pocket the package which she had forgotten. He handled it curiously. He looked at the red string, noted how tightly the knot was tied, and turned it over and over in his hands before he snapped the string. He was a little ashamed at his eagerness to know what was within its worn newspaper wrapping. He felt the disgrace of his curiosity, even though he assured himself there was no reason why he should not investigate the package now when all ownership was lost. He knew that he would never see the woman again, and that she would always remain a mystery to him unless what he held in his hands revealed the secret of her identity.
A half minute more and he was leaning over in the full light of the lamp, his two hands clutching the thing which the paper had disclosed when it dropped to the floor, his eyes staring, his lips parted, and his heart seeming to stand still in the utter amazement of the moment!
David held in his hands a photograph—the picture of a girl. He had half guessed what he would find when he began to unfold the newspaper wrapping and saw the edge of gray cardboard. In the same breath had come his astonishment—a surprise that was almost a shock. The night had been filled with changes for him; forces which he had not yet begun to comprehend had drawn him into the beginning of a strange adventure; they had purged his thoughts of himself; they had forced upon him other things, other people, and a glimpse or two of another sort of life; he had seen tragedy, and happiness—a bit of something to laugh at; and he had felt the thrill of it all. A few hours had made him the bewildered and yet passive object of the unexpected. And now, as he sat alone on the edge of his bed, had come the climax of the unexpected.
The girl in the picture was not dead—not merely a lifeless shadow put there by the art of a camera. She was alive! That was his first thought—his first impression. It was as if he had come upon her suddenly, and by his presence had startled her—had made her face him squarely, tensely, a little frightened, and yet defiant, and ready for flight. In that first moment he would not have disbelieved his eyes if she had moved, if she had drawn away from him and disappeared out of the picture with the swiftness of a bird. For he—some one—had startled her; some one had frightened her; some one had made her afraid, and yet defiant; some one had roused in her that bird-like impulse of flight even as the camera had clicked.
He bent closer into the lampglow, and stared. The girl was standing on a flat slab of rock close to the edge of a pool. Behind her was a carpet of white sand, and beyond that a rock-cluttered gorge and the side of a mountain. She was barefooted. Her feet were white against the dark rock. Her arms were bare to the elbows, and shone with that same whiteness. He took these things in one by one, as if it were impossible for the picture to impress itself upon him all at once. She stood leaning a little forward on the rock slab, her dress only a little below her knees, and as she leaned thus, her eyes flashing and her lips parted, the wind had flung a wonderful disarray of curls over her shoulder and breast. He saw the sunlight in them; in the lampglow they seemed to move; the throb of her breast seemed to give them life; one hand seemed about to fling them back from her face; her lips quivered as if about to speak to him. Against the savage background of mountain and gorge she stood out clear-cut as a cameo, slender as a reed, wild, palpitating, beautiful. She was more than a picture. She was life. She was there—with David in his room—as surely as the woman had been with him in the coach.
He drew a deep breath and sat back on the edge of his bed. He heard Father Roland getting into his creaky bed in the adjoining room. Then came the Missioner's voice.
For a space after that he sat staring blankly at the log of his room. Then he leaned over again and held the photograph a second time in the lampglow. The first strange spell of the picture was broken, and he looked at it more coolly, more critically, a little disgusted with himself for having allowed his imagination to play a trick on him. He turned it over in his hands, and on the back of the cardboard mount he saw there had been writing. He examined it closely, and made out faintly the words, "Firepan Creek, Stikine River, August...." and the date was gone. That was all. There was no name, no word that might give him a clue as to the identity of the mysterious woman in the coach, or her relationship to the strange picture she had left in her seat when she disappeared at Graham.
Once more his puzzled eyes tried to find some solution to the mystery of this night in the picture of the girl herself, and as he looked, question after question pounded through his head. What had startled her? Who had frightened her? What had brought that hunted look—that half-defiance—into her poise and eyes, just as he had seen the strange questing and suppressed fear in the eyes and face of the woman in the coach? He made no effort to answer, but accepted the visual facts as they came to him. She was young, the girl in the picture; almost a child as he regarded childhood. Perhaps seventeen, or a month or two older; he was curiously precise in adding that month or two. Something in the woman of her as she stood on the rock made it occur to him as necessary. He saw, now, that she had been wading in the pool, for she had dropped a stocking on the white sand, and near it lay an object that was a shoe or a moccasin, he could not make out which. It was while she had been wading—alone—that the interruption had come; she had turned; she had sprung to the flat rock, her hands a little clenched, her eyes flashing, her breast panting under the smother of her hair; and it was in this moment, as she stood ready to fight—or fly—that the camera had caught her.
Now, as he scanned this picture, as it lived before his eyes, a faint smile played over his lips, a smile in which there was a little humour and much irony. He had been a fool that day, twice a fool, perhaps three times a fool. Nothing but folly, a diseased conception of things, could have made him see tragedy in the face of the woman in the coach, or have induced him to follow her. Sleeplessness—a mental exhaustion to which his body had not responded in two days and two nights—had dulled his senses and his reason. He felt an unpleasant desire to laugh at himself. Tragedy! A woman in distress! He shrugged his shoulders, and his teeth gleamed in a cold smile at the girl in the picture. Surely there was no tragedy or mystery in her poise on that rock! She had been bathing, alone, hidden away as she thought; some one had crept up, had disturbed her, and the camera had clicked at the psychological moment of her bird-like poise when she was not yet decided whether to turn in flight or remain and punish the intruder with her anger. It was quite clear to him. Any girl caught in the same way might have betrayed the same emotions. But—Firepan Creek—Stikine River.... And she was wild. She was a creature of those mountains and that wild gorge, wherever they were—and beautiful—slender as a flower—lovelier than....
David set his lips tight. They shut off a quick breath, a gasp, the sharp surge of a sudden pain. Swift as his thoughts there had come a transformation in the picture before his eyes—a drawing of a curtain over it, like a golden veil; and then she was standing there, and the gold had gathered about her in the wonderful mantle of her hair—shining, dishevelled hair—a bare, white arm thrust upward through its sheen, and her face—taunting, unafraid—laughing at him! Good God! could he never kill that memory? Was it upon him again to-night, clutching at his throat, stifling his heart, grinding him into the agony he could not fight—that vision of her—his wife? That girl on her rock, so like a slender flower! That woman in her room, so like a golden goddess! Both caught—unexpectedly! What devil-spirit had made him pick up this picture from the woman's seat? What....
His fingers tightened upon the photograph, ready to tear it into bits. The cardboard ripped an inch—and he stopped suddenly his impulse to destroy. The girl was looking at him again from out of the picture—looking at him with clear, wide eyes, surprised at his weakness, startled by the fierceness of his assault upon her, wondering, amazed, questioning him! For the first time he saw what he had missed before—that questioning in her eyes. It was as if she were on the point of asking him something—as if her voice had just come from between her parted lips, or were about to come. And for him; that was it—for him!
His fingers relaxed. He smoothed down the torn edge of the cardboard, as if it had been a wound in his own flesh. After all, this inanimate thing was very much like himself. It was lost, a thing out of place, and out of home; a wanderer from now on depending largely, like himself, on the charity of fate. Almost gently he returned it to its newspaper wrapping. Deep within him there was a sentiment which made him cherish little things which had belonged to the past—a baby's shoe, a faded ribbon, a withered flower that she had worn on the night they were married; and memories—memories that he might better have let droop and die. Something of this spirit was in the touch of his fingers as he placed the photograph on the table.
He finished undressing quietly. Before he turned in he placed a hand on his head. It was hot, feverish. This was not unusual, and it did not alarm him. Quite often of late these hot and feverish spells had come upon him, nearly always at night. Usually they were followed the next day by a terrific headache. More and more frequently they had been warning him how nearly down and out he was, and he knew what to expect. He put out his light and stretched himself between the warm blankets of his bed, knowing that he was about to begin again the fight he dreaded—the struggle that always came at night with the demon that lived within him, the demon that was feeding on his life as a leech feeds on blood, the demon that was killing him inch by inch. Nerves altogether unstrung! Nerves frayed and broken until they were bleeding! Worry—emptiness of heart and soul—a world turned black! And all because of her—the golden goddess who had laughed at him in her room, whose laughter would never die out of his ears. He gritted his teeth; his hands clenched under his blankets; a surge of anger swept through him—for an instant it was almost hatred. Was it possible that she—that woman who had been his wife—could chain him now, enslave his thoughts, fill his mind, his brain, his body, after what had happened? Why was it that he could not rise up and laugh and shrug his shoulders, and thank God that, after all, there had been no children? Why couldn't he do that? Why? Why?
A long time afterward he seemed to be asking that question. He seemed to be crying it out aloud, over and over again, in a strange and mysterious wilderness; and at last he seemed to be very near to a girl who was standing on a rock waiting for him; a girl who bent toward him like a wonderful flower, her arms reaching out, her lips parted, her eyes shining through the glory of her windswept hair as she listened to his cry of "Why? Why?"
He slept. It was a deep, cool sleep; a slumber beside a shadowed pool, with the wind whispering gently in strange tree tops, and water rippling softly in a strange stream.
Sunshine followed storm. The winter sun was cresting the tree tops when Thoreau got out of his bed to build a fire in the big stove. It was nine o'clock, and bitterly cold. The frost lay thick upon the windows, with the sun staining it like the silver and gold of old cathedral glass, and as the fox breeder opened the cabin door to look at his thermometer he heard the snap and crack of that cold in the trees outside, and in the timbers of the log walls. He always looked at the thermometer before he built his fire—a fixed habit in him; he wanted to know, first of all, whether it had been a good night for his foxes, and whether it had been too cold for the furred creatures of the forest to travel. Fifty degrees below zero was bad for fisher and marten and lynx; on such nights they preferred the warmth of snug holes and deep windfalls to full stomachs, and his traps were usually empty. This morning it was forty-seven degrees below zero. Cold enough! He turned, closed the door, shivered. Then he stopped halfway to the stove, and stared.