THE MAID OF THE WHISPERING HILLS
By Vingie E. Roe
Published January, 1912
To My Mother Who Has Been My Constant Help
My Father Who Was Proud Of Me
And My Little Brother, These Two Long Asleep On The Hill At Carney—
This Book Is Lovingly Inscribed V. E. R.
I The Venturers II The Spring III New Homes IV The Stranger From Civilisation V Nor'westers VI Spring Trade VII Forest News VIII First Dawn IX Gold Fire X The Saskatoon XI Leaven At Work XII The Nakonkirhirinons XIII "A Skin For A Skin" XIV Fellow Captives XV Long Trail XVI Travel XVII The Compelling Power XVIII "I Am A Stone To Your Foot, Ma'amselle" XIX The Hudson's Bay Brigade XX The Wolf And The Caribou XXI Tightened Screws XXII "Choose, White Woman!" XXIII The Painted Post XXIV The Stone To The Foot Of Love XXV Answered Prayers XXVI Sanctuary XXVII Return XXVIII The Old Dream Once More XXIX Bitter Aloes XXX The Land Of The Whispering Hills
CHAPTER I THE VENTURERS
"Mercy!" shrieked little Francette, her red-rose face aghast, "he will begin before I can bring the help!"
Like a flash of flame the maid in her crimson skirt shot up the main way of Fort de Seviere to where the factory lay asleep in the warm spring sun.
On its log step, pipe in mouth, young Anders McElroy leaned against the jamb and looked smilingly out upon his settlement. Peace lay softly upon it, from the waters of the small stream to the east where nine canoes lay bottom up upon the pebbly shore, to the great dark wall of the forest shouldering near on three sides. To him ran little Francette, light on her moccasined feet as the wind in the tender pine-tops, her eloquent small hands outstretched and clutching at his sleeve audaciously.
None other in all the post would have dared as much, for this smiling young man with the blue eyes was the Law at Fort de Seviere, factor of the Company and governor of the handful of humanity lost in the vast region of the Assiniboine. But to Francette he was Power and Help, and she thought of naught else, as it is not likely she would have done even at another time.
"Oh, M'sieu!" she cried, gasping from her run, "come at once beyond the great gate! Bois DesCaut,—Oh, brute of the world!—whips that great grey husky leader of his team, because it did but snap at his heel beneath an idle prod! Hasten, M'sieu! He drags it, glaring, along the shore to where lie those clubs brought for the kettles!"
In the dark eyes upraised to him there swam a mist of tears and the heart of the little maid tore at her breast in anguish.
The smile slipped swiftly from the factor's face, leaving it grave.
"Where, little one?" he asked.
"Beyond the palisade. But hurry, M'sieu,—for the love of God!"
At the great gate in the eastern wall he paused and looked either way. To the southward all was peaceful. An aged Indian of the Assiniboines squatted at the water's edge mending the broken bottom of a skin canoe, and two voyageurs, gay in the matter of sash and crimson cap, lay lazily beneath a drowsing tree.
To the northward there flashed into McElroy's vision one of those pictures a man sees but few times and never forgets, a picture startling in its clear-cut strength.
Against the mellow background of the weather-beaten stockade that surrounded the post there stood two figures, a man and a woman, and between the two there crouched with snarling lips and flaming eyes a huge grey dog.
Tall he was, that man, tall and broad of shoulder, but the head of the woman, shining like blue-black satin in the morning sun, was level with his brows.
She leaned a trifle forward and her eyes held fast to his passion-flooded face. It was evident that she had but just reached the spot from the fact that the club, arrested in its upward swing, still was poised in the air.
They faced each other and the factor stopped in his tracks.
"Quick, M'sieu!" begged Francette at his side, but he put out a commanding hand and ceased to breathe.
"Hold!" said the tall young woman at last, and her voice cut cold and clear in the sun-filled morning. "No more! You have whipped the dog enough."
The red face of the trapper flamed into purple and his lips opened for an oath. Quick as the heat lightning that flutters on the waters of Winipigoos in the hot summers the cruel club came down. McElroy heard its dull impact, and the husky crumpled like a broken reed.
With stern face the factor started forward, while the little maid covered her pretty eyes and whimpered.
But quicker than his stride retribution leaped to meet DesCaut.
He saw the woman's arm shoot out and her strong hand, smooth and tawny as finest tanned buckskin, double itself hard and leap in where the jaw turns downward into the curve of the throat.
The stroke of a man it was, clean and sharp and well delivered, and DesCaut, catching his heel on a buried stone's sharp jut, went backward with his head in the young grass of the sloping shore.
For a moment she stood as it had left her, leaning forward, and there was a shine of satisfaction in her eyes.
Then as the man essayed to rise there was a mighty laughter from the two youths on the river bank and the spell was broken.
McElroy went forward.
"DesCaut," he said sharply, and his words cut like the lash of the long dog-whips, "you deserves death but you have been beaten by a woman. Go, and boast of your strength. It is sufficient."
DesCaut stood a moment swaying drunkenly with the force of passion within him, his lips snarling back from his teeth and his eyes measuring the factor unsteadily then he snatched off the little cap he wore and hurled it at him.
Turning on his heel he swung down toward the gate and the two voyageurs now standing and still laughing merrily.
One look at his bloodshot eyes sobered their mirth, and Pierre Garcon reached involuntarily for the knife in his sash.
But Bois DesCaut, savage to silence, swung past them into the fort.
McElroy watched him until he disappeared, fearing he knew not what.
Then he faced the little scene again.
Down on her knees little Francette had lifted the heavy head with its dull eyes and pitiful hanging tongue, lifted it to her breast, weeping and smoothing the short ears deaf to her soft words, and sat rocking to and fro in an ecstasy of grief. Beyond SHE stood, that tall woman, stood silent and frowning, looking down upon the two, and the factor saw with a strange thrill that the hand, yet doubled, was flecked with blood.
"Ma'amselle," he said, "is of the new people who arrived last night from Portage la Prairie?"
Then they were lifted for the first time to his face, those dark eyes smouldering like banked fires, and he saw their marvellous beauty.
"Of a surety," she said slowly, and there was a subtle tone in her deep-throated voice that made the blood stir vaguely within the factor's veins, "does M'sieu have so many strangers passing through his gates that he is at loss to place each one?"
And with that word she turned deliberately away, walked down toward the gate, and entered the stockade.
McElroy watched her go, until the last glint of her sober dress, plain and clinging easily to the magnificent shoulders that swung slightly with her free walk, had passed from view. And not alone he, for the two voyageurs alike gazed after her, this new-comer from the farther ways of civilisation who dared the brute DesCaut and struck like a man.
Then the factor bent above the little Francette.
"Sh!" he said gently, "little one, let go. The dog is dead, poor beast. Come away."
But the maid would not give up the battered body, and with the audacity of her beauty and life-long spoiling, besought the young factor for help.
"There is yet life, M'sieu. See! The breath lifts in his sides. Is there naught to be done when one sleeps, so? He is so strong at the sledges and he did not whimper,—no, not once,—when DesCaut was beating him to death. Is there nothing, M'sieu?"
Very pretty she was in her pleading, the little Francette, with her misty eyes and the frank tears on her cheeks; and McElroy went to the river and filled his cap with water. This he poured into the open jaws and sopped over the blood-clotted head, wetting the limp feet and watching for the life she so bravely proclaimed.
And presently it was there, twitching a battered muscle; lifting the side with its broken ribs, fluttering the lids over the fierce eyes; for this was Loup, the fiercest husky this side of the Athabasca.
With pity McElroy gathered up the great dog, staggering under the load, for it was that of a big-framed man, and entered the post, the little maid at has side. Near the gate a running crowd met them, for the tale had spread apace and wondering eyes looked on.
Down to the southern wall where lived the family of Francette they went, and the factor laid Loup in the shade of the cabin.
"If he lives, little one, he shall be yours," said he, "for he is worth a tender hand. We'll try its power."
And as he turned away he caught a glimpse of the tall stranger looking at them from a distance.
Small it was and crowded, this little trading post of the great Hudson's Bay Company in that year of 1796, and a goodly stream of beaver found its way through it to the mighty outside world.
Squatted alone on the shores of the Assiniboine, shouldering back the wilderness with the spirit of the conqueror, it faced the rising sun with its square stockade, strong and well built, log by log, its great, brass-studded gate in the eastern centre, its four bastions rising at its corners.
Here was a little world of itself, a small community of voyageurs, trappers, coureurs du bois, and all those that cast their lot in the wild places.
Adventurers from the Old World often passed through it on their way to the farther west, lured by the tales of dreamers who spoke of the Northwest Passage and the world that opened beyond the setting sun; renegades of the lakes and forest came for and found its ready hospitality, and into it came at all seasons those Indians whose skill and cunning accounted for so much of that great fur trade which made for wealth in the distant cities beyond the eastern sea.
Too small for a council, it gave allegiance wholly to its factor, young Anders McElroy, at whose right hand for sage advice and honest friendship stood that most admirable of men, Edmonton Ridgar, chief trader and anything else from accountant to armourer. Beneath them and in good command were some thirty able men whose families lived in the neat log cabins within the stockade.
With its back to the western wall there stood in the centre the factory itself, a good log building of somewhat spacious size; its big room, divided by a breast-high solid railing, with a small gate in the middle, serving as office and general receiving-place. Beyond the railing, in the smaller space toward the north, there stood the great wooden desk of the factor, its massive book of accounts always open on its face, its hand-made drawers filled with the documents of the Company. Here McElroy was wont to take account of the furs brought in, to distribute recompense, and to enforce the simple law. Attached to this room on the south was the great store-room, packed with those articles of merchandise most likely to seem of worth in savage eyes and brought, with such infinite labour by canoe and portage, from those favoured lower points whose waters admitted the yearly ships—namely, rifles and ammunition, knives of all sorts, bolts of bright cloth and beads of the colour of the rainbow, great iron kettles such as might hang most fittingly above an open fire, and bright woven garments made by hands across seas.
At the back of the big room was the small one where McElroy and Ridgar had their living, furnished scantily with a bed and table, an open fireplace and crane, some rude, hand-made chairs, and a shelf of books.
And to this post of De Seviere had come in the dusk of the previous night a little company of people.
They were tired and travel-stained, with their belongings in packs on the shoulders of the men, and the joy of the venturer in their eager faces.
From far down in the country below the Rainy River they had come, pushing to the west in that hope of gain and desire of travel which opens the wilderness of every land. They had met the factor at the great gate and entered in to rest and feast, as is the rule of every fire. By morning had come the leaders of the party to McElroy, and there had been talk that ended in an agreement, and the tired venturers had dropped their burden of progress.
When they had rested, there were to be three new cabins squeezed somehow into the already overcrowded stockade, and five more men and six women would belong to Fort de Seviere.
As he walked toward the factory the young man was thinking of all this. Of a surety the tall girl, had come with the strangers, yet he had not noticed her until that moment outside the stockade wall, when he had caught the striking picture in the morning sun.
Name? Most certainly it would be in that list which the leader of the party had promised him by noon. When he entered the big room the man was there before him, a picturesque figure of a man, big and graceful and dark of brow, with long black curls beneath his crimson cap. As McElroy went forward he straightened up from his lounging position against the railing and held out the paper he had promised.
"For enrollment, M'sieu," he said simply.
The factor took the proffered slip and read eagerly down its length, done neatly in a finished hand.
"Adventurers," he read, "from Grand Portage on Lake Superior, bound for the west,—agreed to stop for the length of one year at Fort de Seviere on the Assiniboine River,—Prix Laroux and wife Ninette, Pierre and Cif Bordoux and their wives Anon and Micene, Franz LeClede and wife Mora, Henri Baptiste and wife Marie, and Maren Le Moyne, an unmarried woman and sister to Marie Baptiste."
A sudden little light flamed for a moment in the young factor's blue eyes.
For some unknown reason it had pleased him, that last ingenious sentence.
"Prix Laroux," he said, turning to his new acquisition, "we will get to the work of our contract."
CHAPTER II THE SPRING
Springtime lay over the vast region of lake and forest. Along the shores of the little rivers the new grass was springing, and in nook and sheltered corner of rock and depression shy white flowers lifted their pretty heads to the coaxing sun. Deep in the budding woods birds in flocks and bevies called across the wilderness of tender green, while at the post the youths sang snatches of wild French songs and all the world felt the thirst of the new life.
A somewhat hard winter it had been, long and cold, with crackling frost of nights and the snow piled deep around the stockade, and the gracious release was very welcome.
The somewhat fickle stream of the Assiniboine had loosed its locks of ice and rolled and gurgled, full to its low banks, as if the late summer would not see it shrunk to a lazy thread, refusing sometimes even the shallow canoes and barely licking the parched lips of the land.
In gay attire the maids of De Seviere ventured beyond the gates to stray a little way into the forest and come back laden with tiny green sprays of the golden trailer, with wee white blossoms and now and again a great swelling bud of the gorgeous purple flower of the death plant.
"Bien! It is of a drollness, mes cheries," laughed Tessa Bibye one day, stopping at the cabin by the south wall; "how Francette does but sit in the shade and nurse that half-dead wolf. Is it by chance because of the owner, or that hand which carried it here, Francette? Look for the man behind Francette's devotion ever!"
Whereat there was a laugh and crinkling of pretty dark eyes at the little maid's expense, but she sprang to her feet and faced her mates in anger.
"Begone, you Tessa Bibye!" she cried hotly; "'tis little you know beyond the thought of a man truly, and that because you have lacked one from the cradle!"
Tessa flushed and drew away, vanquished. Merry laughter, turned as readily upon her, wafted back on the golden wind. Francette, her eyes flaming with all too great a fire, set a pan of cool water beneath the fevered muzzle of the husky and glanced, scowling, across her shoulder toward the factory.
Five days had passed since the episode beside the stockade, and Bois DesCaut had said no word, of his property. In fact, the great dog was seemingly scarce worth a thought, much less a word. Helpless, bruised from tip to tip, one side flat under its broken ribs, he lay sullenly in the shade; of the cabin where McElroy had put him down, covered at night from the cool air by Francette's' own blanket of the gorgeous stripes, fed by her small loving hands bit by bit, submitting for the first time in his hard and eventful life to the touch of woman, thrilling in his savage heart to the word of tenderness.
Gently the little maid stroked the rough grey fur and scowled toward the factory.
So intent was she with her thought that she did not hear the step beside her, springing quickly up when a voice spoke, cool and amused, behind. "Well said, little maid," it praised; "that was a neat turn."
The tall stranger, Maren Le Moyne, stood smiling down upon her.
Francette, sharpest of tongue in all the settlement, was at sudden loss before this woman. She looked up into her face and stood silent, searching it with the gaze of a child.
It was a wondrous face, dark as her own, its cheeks as dusky red, but in it was a baffling something that held her quick tongue mute, a look as of great depth, of wondrous strength, and yet of fitful tenderness,—the one playing through the other as flame about black marble, and with the rest a smile.
More than little Francette had beheld that baffling expression and squirmed beneath its strangeness. Francette looked, and the scowl drew deeper.
She saw again this woman leaning slightly forward, her eyes a-glitter on the prostrate DesCaut, her strong hand doubled and flecked with blood, with Loup at her feet,—and quick on the heels of it she saw the look in the factor's eyes as he had commanded her to silence with a motion.
"So?" she flamed at last, recovering her natural audacity, for the maid was spoiled to recklessness by reason of her beauty; "I meant it to be neat."
At the look which leaped into the eyes of the stranger her own began to waver, to shift from one to the other, and lastly dropped in confusion.
"But spoiled at the end by foolishness," said Maren Le Moyne, and all the pleasure had slipped from her deep voice, leaving it cold as steel.
Abruptly she turned away, her high head shining in the sun, her strong shoulders swinging slightly as she walked.
Francette looked after her, with small hands clinched and breast heaving with, anger, and there had the stranger made her second enemy in Fort de Seviere within the first fortnight.
Along the northern wall there was much bustle and scurry, the noise of voices and of preparation, for the men were busy with the raising of the first new cabin. As some whimsical fate would have it, there were the hewn logs that Bard McLellan had prepared a year back for his own new house when he should have married the pretty Lila of old McKenzie, who sickened suddenly in the early autumn when the leaves were dropping in the forest and fled from his eager arms. No heart had been left in the breast of the trapper after that and the logs lay where he had felled them.
Now McElroy, tactful of tongue and gentle, touched the sore spot, and Bard gave sad consent to their use.
"Take them, M'sieu," he said wearily; "my pain may save another's need."
So the first new cabin went up apace.
Anders McElroy looked over his settlement day by day and there was great satisfaction in his eyes. Fort de Seviere was none so strong that it could afford to look carelessly on the acquisition of five good men and hardy trappers, and, beside, somehow there was a pleasanter feeling to the warm spring air since they had arrived-a new sense of bustle and accomplishment.
Often he stood in the door of the factory and looked to where the women sang at their work or carried the shining pails full of water from the one deep well of the settlement, situated near the gate in the eastern wall, and the smiles were ever ready in his blue eyes.
A handsome man was this factor of Fort de Seviere, tall and well formed, with that grace of carriage which speaks of perfect manhood; his head, covered with a thick growth of sun-coloured hair curling lightly at the ends, tossed ever back, ready to laugh. Scottish blood, mingled with a strong Irish strain, ran riot in him, giving him at once both love of life and honour.
They had known what they were doing, those lords of the H. B. Company, when they had sent this young adventurer from Fenchurch Street to the new continent, and, after five years among the hardships of the trade, he found himself factor of Fort de Seviere,—lord of his little world, even though that world were but one tiny finger of the great system spreading itself like a stretching hand outward from the shores of the Bay to that interior whose fringed skirts alone had been explored.
A high station it was for so young a man, for his twenties were not yet behind him, and the pride of his heart, its holding.
Therefore, life was a living wine to Anders McElroy, and the small world of his post a kingdom. And into it, with that travel-tired band of venturers from Rainy Lake, had passed a princess.
Not yet did he know this,—not for many days, in which he looked from the factory door among the women, singling out one who wore no brilliant garment, yet whose shining head drew the eyes of the men like a magnet.
Slowly speech grew among them, very slowly, as if something held back the usual comment of the trappers, concerning this Maren Le Moyne.
"Look you, Pierre," ventured Marc Dupre to Pierre Garcon, as they beached their canoe one dusk after a short trip up the river; "yonder is the young woman of the strong arm. A high head, and eyes like a thunderous night,—Eh? Is there love, think you, asleep anywhere within her?"
Whereat Pierre glanced aside under his cap to where Maren hauled up the bucket from the well, hand over hand, with the muscles slipping under her tawny skin like whipcords.
"Nom de Dieu!" ejaculated Pierre under his breath; "if there is, I would not be the one to awaken it and not be found its master! It would be a thing of flame and fury."
"Ah!" laughed the other, "but I would. It would be, past all chance, a thing to remember, howe'er it went! But it is not like that you or I will be the one to wake it. Milady, though clad in seeming poverty, fixes those disdainful eyes upon the clouds."
CHAPTER III NEW HOMES
The work of raising the new cabins went forward merrily. Every one lent a hand, and by the end of May the new families were installed and living happily. In that last house near the northeast corner of the post dwelt Henri and Marie Baptiste and Maren Le Moyne.
A goodly place it was, divided into two rooms and already the hands of the two sisters had fashioned of such scant things as they possessed and dared buy from the factory on the year's debt, a semblance of comfort.
In the other cabins the rest of the party managed to double, each family taking one of the two rooms in each, and the women at least drew a sigh of content that the long trail had at last found an end, however unstable of tenure.
"Ah, Maren," said Marie Baptiste, sitting on the shining new log step of her domicile, "what it is to have a home! Does it not clutch at your heart sometimes, ma cherie, the desire for a home, and that which goes with it, the love of a man?"
She raised her eyes to the face of Maren leaning above her against the lintel, and they were full of a puzzled question.
Maren answered the look with a swift smile, toying lightly with a fold of the faded sleeve rolled above her elbow.
"Home for me, Marie, is the wide blue sky above, the wind in the tossing trees, the ripple of soft waters on the bow of a canoe. For me,—I grieve that we have stopped. Not this year do we reach the Land of the Whispering Hills."
A swift change had fallen into the depth of her golden voice, a subtle wistfulness that sang with weird pathos, and the eyes raised toward the western rim of the forest were suddenly far and sombre.
"Forgive!" said her sister gently; "I had forgot. I know the dream, but is it not better that we rest and gain new strength for another season? Here might well be home, here on this pretty river. We have come a mighty length already. What could be fairer, cherie,—even though we leave another to win to the untracked West."
A small spasm drew across the features of Maren, a twitching of the full lips.
"Faint heart of you," she said sadly. "Oh, Marie, 'tis your voice has ever held us back. They would prod faster but for you. Is there no glory within you, no daring, no dreams of conquest? Bien! But I could go alone. This dallying stiffles the breath in me!"
She put up a hand and tore open the garment at her throat, taking a deep breath of the sunlit air.
"But it is poverty that must be reckoned with. By spring again we may be better equipped than ever."
So rode up the hope that was ever in her.
"Yes," sighed Marie, "as the good God wills."
But she glanced wistfully around the new cabin, to be her own for the length of the four seasons. And who should say what might not happen in four seasons?
She wondered fretfully what fate had fashioned the glorious creature beside her in the form of Love itself to put within the soul of the restless conqueror. Never had she known Maren, though they two had come from the same lap.
Presently Maren looked down at her, and the shimmering smile, like light across dark waters, had again returned.
"Nay," she said gently, "fret not. It is spring-and you have at last a home."
True, it was spring.
Did not each breath of the south wind tell it, each flute-like call from the budding forest without the post, each burst of song from some hot-blooded youth with his red cap perched on the back of his head, his gay sash knotted jauntily?
It stirred the heart in the breast of Maren Le Moyne, but not with the thought of love. It called to her as she stood at night alone under the stars, with her head lifted as if to drink the keen, sweet darkness; called to her from far-distant plains of blowing grass, virgin of man's foot; from rushing rivers, bare of canoe and raft; from high hills, smiling, sweet and fair, up to the cloudless sky—and always it called from the West.
Spring was here and cast its largess at her feet,—fate held back her eager hand.
A year she must wait, a year in which to win those necessaries of the long trail, without which all would fail.
Travel, even by so primitive a method as canoe and foot, must demand its toll of salvage.
At Rainy Lake they had been held by thieving Indians and a great part of their provisions taken from them, leaving them to make their way in comparative poverty to the next post of De Seviere.
Further progress that year was impossible. Therefore, the contract of the trappers with the factor.
And Maren Le Moyne—venturer of the venturers, flame of fire among them, urger, inspirer, and moral leader, a living pillar before them in her eagerness—must needs curb her soul in bonds of patience and wait at Fort de Seviere for another spring.
Close beside her in her visions and her high hope, her courage and her eagerness, stood that leader of the little band, Prix Laroux. Fed by her fire, touched by her enthusiasm, the man was the mouth piece for the woman's force, the masculine expression of that undying hope of conquest which had drawn the small party together and set it forth on the perilous venture of pushing toward the unknown West to find for itself an ideal holding.
Back at Grand Portage the girl had listened from her late childhood to tales of the wilderness told at her father's cabin by voyageurs and trappers, by returning wanderers and stray Indians smoking the peace-pipe at his hearth. Long before she had reached the stature of woman she had sat on her stool beside that jovial old man, her father, grimy from his forge, and drunk the tales wide-eyed, to creep away and watch the stars, to dream of those dashing streams and to clinch her hands for that she was not born a man.
And then when she was fifteen had come the day when the tales had at last kindled to flame the parent fire of that wildness in her which slept unsuspected in the breast of the blacksmith, then old as the way of life runs, and he had closed his cabin and his forge, given his two motherless girls to the wife of Jacques Baptiste, joined a party going into the wilderness, and gone out of their lives.
Eleven years had passed with its varied life, at Grand Portage and he had never returned,—only vague rumors that had sunk in tears the head of gentle Marie, the younger of the two sisters, and lifted with sympathetic understanding that of Maren the elder.
Why not? She had asked herself in the starlit nights of those years, why not? All their lives he had been a good father to them, taking the place of the mother dead since she could just remember, speeding with tap and stroke of his humble craft those luckier ones who streamed through the stirring headquarters of Grand Portage at the mouth of Pigeon River each season, going into that untracked region of romance and dreams where the call of his still sturdy manhood had beckoned him,—how long none might know. And at last he had heeded, laid down the staid, the sane, and followed the will-o'-the-wisp of conquest and adventure that took the current by his door.
Never had Maren chided him,—never for one moment held against him the desertion of his children. For that, they were well provided for since he had left with Jacques Baptiste the savings of his life, not much, but enough to bring both of them to the marriage age.
And well and tenderly had old Jacques and his wife fulfilled the trust,—Maren's dark eyes were often misty as she recalled the parting at Grand Portage.
So tenderly had the two maids grown in the love of the family that Marie had, but at the start of the great journey, married young Henri Baptiste.
Marie was all for a home and some black-eyed babies, but she clung to Maren as she had ever done,—and now, in her twenty-sixth year, Maren had risen to the call as her father had done before her, and lifted her face, rapt as some pagan Priestess', toward that mystic West,—bound for the Land of the Whispering Hills, whence had come that old, vague rumour, lured alike by love of the unknown and shy, unspoken longing for the father whose heart must be the pattern of her own.
And in her train, swept together by that fire within her, touched into flame by her ever-mounting hope, her courage, and her magnetism, went that small band of men and women, all young, all of adventurous blood, all daring the odds that let reluctantly a woman into the wilderness.
Yet it has been ever women who have conquered the wilderness, for until they trod the trace the men had cut it still remained a wilderness.
So she leaned in the door of Marie's new home, this taut-strung Maren Le Moyne, and gazed away above the rim of the budding forest, and her spirit was as a chaffing steed held into quiet by a hand it knows its master.
For a year she must endure the strain,—then, as the good God willed, the leap forward, the wild breath in her nostrils, the forging into the unknown.
"Ah, yes!" she said again, "it is the spring."
"Bon jour," she nodded, unsmiling, as a slim youth swung jauntily up the hard-beaten way between the cabins.
"Eh!" said Marie, alert, "and who is that lord-high-mighty, with his red cheeks and his airs, Maren? You know, as it is always, every man in the post already. It is not so with the women, I'll wager. For instance, who lives in the tiny house there by the south bastion?"
"I know not," answered Maren, as though she humoured a child, and taking the last question first; "as for the youth, 'tis young Marc Dupre, and one of a sturdy nature. I like his spirit, though all I know of it is what sparkles from his roguish eyes. A fighter,—one to dare for love of chance."
Marie looked quickly up, ever ready to pounce on the first gleam of aught that might ripen into a love interest, but she saw Maren's eyes, cool and shining, watching the swaggering figure with a look that measured its slim strength, its suggestion of reserve, its gay joy of life, and naught else.
"A pretty fellow," she said, with a touch of disappointment.
Each and every man went by Maren just so,—eliciting only that interest which had to do apart from the personal.
But the black eyes of Marc Dupre had softened a bit under their daring as he approached the factory.
"Holy Mother!" he whispered to himself; "what a woman! No maid, but a WOMAN—for whose word one would fillip the face of Satan. She is fire—and, if I am sure, all men are tow."
CHAPTER IV THE STRANGER FROM CIVILISATION
"How goes it, little one, with Loup?"
The factor stopped a moment in the sunshine before the cabin of old France Moline.
Clad in a red skirt, brilliant in its adornment of stained quills of the porcupine got from the Indians, Francette paced daintily here and there in the clean-swept yard, now snapping her small fingers, now coaxing with soft noises in her round throat, her sparkling eyes fixed on the gaunt grey skeleton that stood on its four feet braced wide apart, wavering dizzily.
For a time she did not answer, as if he who spoke was no more than any youth of the settlement, so exaggeratedly absorbed was she.
Then, pushing back the curls from her face, a pretty motion that always wakened a look of admiration in masculine eyes beholding,—
"If he would only try, M'sieu," she said, frowning, "but he does nothing save stand and look at me like that. The strength is gone from his legs."
It seemed even as the little maid protested. Massive, silent, contemptuous, his small eyes under the wolfish skull cold and alight with a look that sent shuddering from him the timid,—thus he had been in his hard-fought and hard-won supremacy, a great, mysterious beast brought full-grown from the snowbound wilderness of the forest one famine-time by old Aquamis and sold to Bois DesCaut for a tie of tobacco.
Now he stood, a pitiable shadow, and begged mutely of the only tender hand he had known for understanding of this strange weakness that took his limbs and sent the heavens whirling.
McElroy looked long upon him.
"'Tis a shame," he said, his straight brows drawing together, "the dog is a better brute than Bois."
"Aye," flashed Francette, talking as though it were no uncommon thing for the factor to stop at the cabin of the Molines, "and no more shall the one brute serve the other. You have said, M'sieu."
"Yes," laughed the factor, "I have said and it shall be so. I will buy the dog from Bois if he speaks of the matter. Take good care of him, little one," and McElroy turned down toward the gate. As he moved away, free of step and straight as an Indian, he filliped away a small budding twig of the saskatoon which one of the youths had brought in to show how the woods were answering the call of the warm sun, and which he had dandled in his fingers as he walked. It fell at the edge of the beaded skirt and quick as thought the hand of Francette shot out and covered it. A hot flush mounted under the silken black curls and she dropped her eyes, peering under their lashes to see if any observed. She drew the faded sprig toward her and hid it in her breast.
Before the cabin of the Baptistes, Jean Saville touched his cap and stopped.
"Yes?" said the factor; "what is it, Jean?"
"Assuredly, M'sieu, has the tide of the spring set in. Pierre but now reports the coming of a band of strangers down the river. They come in canoes, five of them, well manned and armed as if the country of the Assiniboine were bristling with dangers instead of being the abode of God's chosen. Within the hour they will arrive at the landing."
"Thank you, Jean," said McElroy; "I will prepare for the meeting."
The trapper touched his cap and passed.
"Ah," smiled the factor to himself, "I like this bustle of passage. It is good after the winter's housing, and who knows? There may be those among the strangers who bring word from Hudson Bay."
He turned briskly back and gave word to Jack de Lancy and his wife Rette to cook a great meal, also to see that the store-room was cleared sufficiently by the more orderly packing back of the goods to allow of five canoe-loads of men sleeping upon the floor. Then he passed down the main way, out of the gate in the warm sun and took his place at the landing to look eagerly down stream for the first coming of the strangers. Not far from the enthusiasm of boyhood was this young factor of Fort de Seviere.
And within the hour, as Jean had said, they came, rounding the distant bend in an even distanced string, long narrow craft, each bearing the regular complement of five men, a bowman, a steersman, and three middlemen whose paddles shone like crystal as they sank and lifted evenly. Strangers they were in very truth, as McElroy saw at the first glance.
Never had they been bred in the wilderness, these men, unless it were the two guides in the first and fourth canoe, picked out readily by their swarthy skins, their crimson caps, and their rugged litheness. Fairer, all, were the rest, paler of skin, more loose of muscle, shown by the very way they bent to their work. Their garments, too, as they drew nearer brought a smile to the watcher's lips, a smile of memory. Those coats, brave in their gilt braid, had assuredly come across seas. Thus might one behold them on the Strand.
Ah! These were, without doubt, part of the fall ship's load of adventurers come to the new continent filled with the fire of achievement and excitement that brought so many youths over seas. They had, most like, come down from the great bay by way of God's Lake and the house there, traversed the length of Winnipeg, come along the river at the southern end, and at last turned westward into the Assiniboine. A long rest they would no doubt take at Fort de Seviere, and there would be news of the outside world.
McElroy was at the water's very edge as the first canoe of the string curved gracefully in and cut slimly up to the landing.
"Welcome, M'sieurs," called the factor of Fort de Seviere, using unconsciously the speech of the region, which had become his own in five years, "in to the right a bit,—so! Well done!"
The word was not so sincere as he would have made it, for the bowman, jumping out into the knee-deep water to keep the boat from touching bottom, had floundered like an ox, thereby proving his newness at the business. On the face of the swarthy Canuck guide who sat in the stern there was a weary contempt.
"Friends, M'sieurs?" called McElroy tardily, scarcely deeming such precaution necessary, yet giving the hail from force of habit.
They looked for the most part Scottish, these men, save here and there among them one who might be anything of the motley that came across each year.
In the first canoe a figure had risen and stood tall and straight among the bales of goods with which the craft was seen to be close packed from bow to stern, a figure striking in its lack of kinship to its surroundings, yet commanding in its beauty. Garments of cloth, of a gay blue shade and much adorned with trimming of gold braid, fitted close to the slender form of the man. His limbs from the knee were encased in leggings made, most evidently, in some leather shop, while tilted on his splendid head he wore a hat of so wide a brim that no sunlight touched either face or throat, while from beneath this covering there fell to his shoulder long curls of hair that shone like silk. This, evidently, was the leader of the party.
"Friends," he said, "bound for the west and the country of the Saskatchewan."
For all his appearance he spoke with the accent of the French, and for a moment McElroy looked closely at him.
"Of the Company?" he asked sharply.
"Aye," said the other, with a little of wonder in voice and look, "of the Company, M'sieu most assuredly."
The momentary flicker of uneasiness that had gripped the factor with the stranger's speech died at his words.
So, of a surety, why not?
Had not he himself, born in the smoke of a London street, accepted with the ingenious adaptability of the Irish blood within him the very speech he now wondered at in the other?
As the young man sprang lightly to land he held out his hand, and it was gripped with a force that showed the spirit behind the beauty of this new guest.
"Welcome, M'sieu," said the factor, "to Fort de Seviere and all it contains."
"Bien!" laughed the other with a show of fine white teeth, "but it is good to behold neighbours in so deadly a wilderness as we have passed through for these many days. Naught but God-forgotten loneliness and never-ending forest. Yet it is for these that we barter the comforts of civilisation, eh, M'sieu, and waste ourselves on solitude and the savage?" He turned and waved his gloved hand over the five canoes, now curving one by one in to the landing, and shouted a few terse orders and commands.
"But I had nigh forgot, so unused am I to society and the usages thereof,"—he said, turning back with an engaging smile, "Alfred de Courtenay, known in that world across the water; and which my taste, or that of itself, more properly speaking, has caused me to forswear for some length of time, as Mad Alfred, I am, M'sieu—?"
"Anders McElroy," supplied the other, "and factor of Fort de Seviere."
"Monsieur le facteur, your servant, of French lineage, English nativity, and adventurous spirit."
With a motion indescribably graceful he swept off his wide hat and executed a bow which in itself was proof of his gentleness.
"And now, M'sieu, lead on to those delights of rest and converse which your hospitality hath so graciously promised."
Leaving his company to beach and store for the night the canoes with their loads of merchandise, under the direction of his aide or lieutenant whom he introduced to the factor as John Ivrey, a young man of fine presence, Alfred de Courtenay walked beside McElroy up the gentle slope of the river bank, entered the great eastern gate of the post, not without an appreciative glance at its massive strength and at the well-nigh impregnable thickness of the stockade, the well-placed surveillance of the towering bastions, and thus up the way between the cabins to the door of the factory, open and inviting.
"Mother of God, M'sieu!" he said with a copious sigh; "what it is to meet with white faces! For weeks I have beheld along the shores peering brown countenances that lifted my gorge, and I have well-nigh been tempted to turn back."
"It has been a long journey, then, to you?"
McElroy smiled, thinking of the first impressions and effect of the wilderness on such a man fresh from the ways of civilisation.
"Long? Though it is my initial journey, yet am I veteran frontiersman."
He turned upon the factor the brilliance of his smile, a combination of dazzling teeth and eyes that fairly danced with spirit, like bubbling wine, blue and swift in their changes from laughter to an exaggerated dolorousness, as when he spoke of these terrible hardships.
And if they were quick after this fashion they were no less so in roaming keenly over every corner of the enclosed space within the stockade.
Before they had reached the factory the stranger knew that there were three rows of cabins in the post, that the factory was a mighty fortress in its low solidity, and that the small log structure to the right of it with the barred window was the pot au beurre.
As they neared the factory the figure of a tall woman, young by the straightness of the back, the gracious yet taut beauty of line and curve, came from behind the cabin of the Savilles, and on her shoulder was perched a three-year-old child which laughed and gurgled with delight, holding tight to her widespread hands. The woman's face was hidden by the child's body, but her voice, deep-throated and rich with sliding minor tones, mingled with the high shrillness of the little one's shrieks.
"Hold fast, ma cherie," came its laughing caution, smothered by the flying folds of the baby's little cotton shift. "See! The ship dips so, in the ocean,—and so,—and so!"
The strong arms, bare and brown and muscular, swayed backward, throwing up the milky whiteness of the little throat, the tiny feet flew heavenward and the baby's wee heart choked it, as witness the screams of irrepressible joy. As the child swayed back there came into view the face of Maren Le Moyne, flushed all over its rare darkness, glowing with tenderness, its great beauty transfigured divinely. The black braids, wrapped smoothly round her head, shone in the evening sun, and the faded garment, plain and uncompromising, but served to heighten the effect of her physical perfection.
Alfred de Courtenay stopped in his tracks, the smile fixed on his face, and drank in the pretty scene like one starved.
So long he looked that McElroy turned toward him and only then did he shift his glance, remembering himself, while a blush suffused his rather delicate features.
"Pardon!" he murmured; "truly do I forget myself, M'sieu; but not for a twelvemonth have I seen aught to match this moment. I pray you, of what station of life is the glorious young Madonna before you;—wife or widow or maid? By Saint Agnes, never have I beheld such beauty!"
"Maid," replied McElroy; "by name Maren Le Moyne, one of a party of venturers who came but a short while back from Rainy River, and who have cast in their lot with us for the matter of a year."
The woman and the child passed on their way, disappearing again behind the next cabin, unconscious of observation, still lost in their play of the tossing ship at sea, and the two men entered the great trading-room of Fort de Seviere, where Edmonton Ridgar, chief trader and accountant, came forward to meet the stranger.
The young factor went in search of Jack de Lancy and word of the meal he had ordered, and for some reason there was within him a vague vexation which had to do with the look he had seen in the merry eyes of Alfred de Courtenay.
He found the great kettles boiling over the fires and a ten-gallon pot of coffee Venting the evening air.
As he gave word for the feast to be spread on strips of cloth laid on the hard-beaten ground before the factory that many might sit round at once and partake, there came from the direction of the gate the voices of De Courtenay's men. The stranger and himself, with young Ivrey and Ridgar should be served in the little room off to the west where were the small table, the chairs, and the row of books.
Not often did Fort de Seviere have so illustrious a guest as must be this young adventurer.
CHAPTER V NOR'WESTERS
"Merci, my friend, what extravagance is this! The savour of that pot does fairly turn my head!"
Alfred de Courtenay settled himself gracefully in one of McElroy's chairs and smiled across at his host with a twinkle in his laughing eyes.
A dozen candles, lit in his honour, where three were wont to suffice, shone mellowly in the little room, and Rette de Lancy, still comely despite her forty years and a certain lavishness in the matter of avoirdupois, set down in the midst of the table a steaming dish with a cover. There were a white cloth of bleached linen and cups of blue ware that had come with her and Jack from across seas, also a silver coffee-urn that had been her great-grandmother's. When the factor gave word for a meal to these two he knew well that all dignity would be observed. As for himself, his living of every day was scant and plain as regarded the manner of its serving.
"What is it, M'sieu, that so assails the nostrils with delicious aroma, if I may so far forget politeness? 'Tis not beef, assuredly,—there is too much of the scent of the wild about it."
"Moose," replied McElroy, and by this time the vague vexation had blown out of his heart as all ill-feelings were wont to do, "moose, killed in the snows and hung in the smoke of a little fire until the very heart of the wood is in the meat. And now, M'sieu, fall to. I would I had something better than Rette's strong coffee in which to pledge you, but, as you see, Fort de Seviere has no cantine salope. It is not the policy of the Great Company, as you doubtless know, to abet its trade with the Indians by the use of liquor."
De Courtenay looked quickly up.
"Why, I thought,—but then I have much to learn, in fact, all to learn, since I am but raw in the wilderness."
Like men hungry and athirst from the hardships of the trail and the stream, the camp and the portage, the guests did justice to the savoury viands, and at last leaned back in repletion, while Rette took off the plates and cups; the spoons and forks, and set in their stead a huge pot of crumbled tobacco with a tin box containing pipes.
"And now," said the factor, smiling, "let us have talk of that world of which I am hungering for news. You are of the fall ship's load of new arrivals, I take it?"
"No," said De Courtenay, "it was last spring, about this time, that I first saw the shores of the New World. Five of my men came with me from across seas and the rest I picked on starting into the wilderness. They are mostly Canadians of Scottish blood. I have a fancy that the strong blond peoples are best for the rigours of what one may find in this country. Though," he laughed as at some reminiscence, "I have found so far that my two swarthy guides are worth any three of the rest."
"You have found the way hard?"
"Mother of God! If the rest is like the first of it, I think you may find my bones bleaching beside some portage where I have given up the ghost. Truly do we pay for our whims of caprice, M'sieu."
"Aye, what save a whim of the moment could have induced me to undertake so great a hardship as this winning to the Saskatchewan? What save the love of excitement sent me to be, like yourself, the head of a lost trading-post in this far north country?"
The merry blue eyes were full of gaiety and light.
"Truly,—and I pay."
A whim it might be, yet there was in the spirited face of Alfred de Courtenay that which told plainly that it would be followed to its end, be that what it might, as faithfully as though it were a deeper thing.
For a moment a little line appeared between the straight brows of the factor.
The word of so grave an office mentioned as a "whim," "a caprice," went down hard with him. There was nowhere in the heavens above nor the earth below so serious a thing as that same office, and he served it with his whole heart. Therefore he could not quite understand the other. Yet he thought in a moment of De Courtenay's newness and the frown cleared. Of a very wide tolerance was McElroy.
"And you came, I suppose, from York Factory, down by way of God's Lake and the house there. What is the word of Anderson who presides there? A fine fellow,—I met him once at Churchill."
"York Factory? God's Lake?"
De Courtenay lowered his pipe and looked through the smoke.
"Nay," he said, "I know nothing of those places, M'sieu."
He turned to young Ivrey.
"It might be that these locations answer to different names. Heard you aught from the guides of these two posts?"
"We did not pass them, Sir Alfred," answered the young man soberly.
"Then, in Heaven's name, which way have you journeyed?" asked McElroy amazed.
"Why, by way of Lake Nipissing, across the straits below the Falls of St. Mary, by canoe along the shores of Lake Superior, into Pigeon River, and so on up the various streams to your own Assiniboine—from Montreal. How else, M'sieu?"
But the factor of Fort de Seviere had risen in his place, his face gone blank with consternation.
"From Montreal!" he cried, "but did you not answer to me as friends and of the Company?"
"Aye," answered De Courtenay, also rising, the gaiety fading from his face and his eyes beginning to sparkle bodefully, "of the North-west Company, trading from Montreal into the fur country. I am sent of my uncle Elsworth McTavish, who is a shareholder and a most responsible man, to take charge of the post De Brisac on the south branch of the Saskatchewan. But I like not this sudden gravity, M'sieu. Wherein have I offended?"
"In naught, De Courtenay," said McElroy quite simply, "save that you are in the heart of the country belonging to the Hudson's Bay Company, as does this fort and all therein."
"Nom de Dieu!" cried the other, springing back and tossing up his head; "I knew it not! How is it, then, that at midday of this day we met on the river one who told us of this post of De Seviere, and that it served the Montreal merchants? That we should here find hospitality and friends?"
"Eh?" shot out McElroy sharply. "Of what like was such a person?"
"A big man, swarthy and dark, with sullen eyes, clad in garments of tanned hides and wearing a red cap and a knife in his belt. He bore on his left temple a pure white lock amid his black hair."
"Bois DesCaut!" said Edmonton Ridgar; "he has been these two days gone in his canoe."
"A traitorous trapper, M'sieu," said the factor, "one who has umbrage at me for a rebuke administered some time back and hopes by this sorry joke to win revenge. But what is done cannot be helped. We have met as friends,—the unfortunate fact that we find ourselves rivals,—that almost speaks the word 'foes,' I must inform you, M'sieu, since the strife between our companies has become so sharp,—should not cause us to forget the bread we have broken between us personally. I still offer you a night's rest."
But De Courtenay had drawn himself to his slender height, his hand at his hip, where, in other times, had dangled a sword.
"Nay, M'sieu," he said quickly, "a blunder found and unremedied becomes two. If I ay gather my men we will sleep outside an unfriendly fort,—and in the name of De Courtenay allow me to repay the cost of their entertainment."
Reckless, indeed, was this young cavalier, else he would not have made that speech.
Anders McElroy turned white beneath his tan and his fingers tapped the table.
"Not ungrateful am I, M'sieu, but I stick by the colours I choose. If our companies are rivals, then we are such, and I follow my master's lead. It is at present the North-west organisation. I am pledged in Montreal—and—I prove faithful."
The young man's face was fired with that spirit which ever lay so near the surface and he looked at his whilom host with a mighty hauteur.
"I thank you for your kindness, M'sieu, but I must decline it further. Come, Ivrey," and turning he picked up his wide hat, bowed first to McElroy and then to Ridgar, and strode toward the outer door. As he passed the lintel the not insignificant form of Rette blocked his exit, en route for a cup she had left behind. With an instant flourish the hat in his hand swept the logs of the floor, he seized the woman's toil-hard fingers and bore them to his lips.
"Excellent, Madame, was that meal," he murmured, "and never to be forgot so long as one unused to hardship faces privation. I thank you."
Comely Rette flushed to her sleek hair and some flicker of a girlhood that had its modicum of grace, flared up in the swift curtsy with which she acknowledged the compliment.
And with a last flash of his blue coat Alfred de Courtenay was gone.
McElroy ran his fingers helplessly through his tousled light hair and faced his friend.
"Now, by all the Saints!" he said with a strange mixture of regret and relief, "what an unhappy ending!"
But at that moment he was thinking of the wondrous beauty of the man and of the picture of Maren Le Moyne's brown arms spread wide apart with the laughing child between, and again that little feeling of vexation crept into his wholesome heart.
Without in the soft night the late guest was striding, a graceful figure, hurriedly down toward the gate he had entered so short a time ago, and his slender hand played restlessly at his hip. His heart was seething with swift-roused emotions. So had its quick stirrings brought him into many a scrape in his eventful life. That word of his host, "which speaks almost of foes," sang in his ears.
And yet it had been given only in the spirit of enlightenment.
Behind, John Ivrey gathered up the men idling about the fire and talking with the men of the post, where question and answer had begun to stir uneasiness.
In a ragged, uneven line they strung out, fading into the darkness, and presently from down the river some forty rods there rose up the columns of their fires.
Fort de Seviere closed its gates and settled into the night with a feeling of something gone awry.
By morning all was early astir, those within to witness the departure of the strangers, and, those without for that same departure.
The canoes were floated, the men embarked, and all in readiness with the first flame of the sun above the eastern forest when Alfred de Courtenay presented himself at the gate and called for McElroy.
Gladly the factor responded, hoping somewhat to soften the awkwardness of the situation by a godspeed, to be met by the Frenchman high-headed and most carefully polite. A servant beside him held a wickered jug.
"With your leave, M'sieu," said De Courtenay, "I wish to leave some earnest of my gratefulness for what we have received at your hands. Therefore accept with my compliments this small gift, which, as you say you have no cantine salope, must come most happily. Once more, farewell."
The man set down the jug at McElroy's feet and strode toward the landing. The master was turning more leisurely away with his uncovered curls shining in the first level beams of morning, when he stopped and looked past the portal within the stockade.
With a small brass kettle in her hand, Maren Le Moyne was coming down the open way toward the well.
With a colossal coolness he forgot the presence of the factor and the ready light began to sparkle in his blue eyes with every step of the approaching girl. Swiftly he glanced to right and left, as if in search of something, and meeting only the green slope of the shore, a growing excitement flushed his face.
Suddenly he snatched from a crevice of the stockade a tiny crimson flower which nodded, frail and fragrant, from its precarious foothold, and sprang forward as she set her vessel on the well's stone wall.
Unsurpassed was the bow he swept her, this daring soldier of fortune, to whose delicate nostrils the taking of chances was the breath of life, and his smile was brilliant as the spring morning itself.
"A chance is a chance, Ma'amselle," he said winningly, "and who would not risk its turning? For me,—I looked upon your face but now, and behold! I must give you something, and this was all the moment offered."
With hand on heart he held forth the little flower.
"In memory of a passing stranger far from all beauty, wear it, I pray you, this day in the dusk of that braid, just there above the temple. Have I permission?"
He stepped near and lifted the crimson star, smiling down into the astonished eyes of Maren Le Moyne, to whom no man in all her life had ever spoken thus.
For a moment she stared at him, and her face was a field of fleeting sensations. And then, slowly, the sparkle in his eyes lit her own, the smile on his lips curled up the corners of her full red mouth, and the charm of the moment, fresh and sweet as the new day, swept over her.
"A venturer,-you!" she said; "some kin we must surely be, M'sieu! 'Tis granted."
She rested her hands on the kettle's rim, and bent forward her head, wrapped round and round with its heavy braids, and with fingers deft as a woman's Alfred de Courtenay placed the flower in a shining fold.
Somewhat lengthy was the process, for the braid was tight and the green stem very fragile, but at last it was accomplished, and Maren lifted her face flushed and laughing.
"Thank you, M'sieu," she said demurely; "God speed your journey."
De Courtenay took the kettle from her, filled it himself, and when he gave it back the smile was gone; from his face, but the light remained.
"Some day, Ma'amselle," he said gravely, "I shall come back to Fort de Seviere."
The tall girl turned away with her morning's kettle of fresh water, and the man stood by the well watching her swinging easily to its weight, forgetful of the canoes, manned and waiting on the river's breast for their leader, forgetful of the factor of the post, waiting in the shadow of the wall, on whose face there sat a deeper shade.
Then he turned and ran lightly down the bank, leaped into the canoe held ready, once more bowed, and as the little craft swept out to midstream, he shook back his curls and lifted his face toward the country of the Saskatchewan.
CHAPTER VI SPRING TRADE
So passed out of Fort de Seviere one who was destined to be interwoven with its fortunes.
Anders McElroy watched him go until the shadow of the great trees on the eastern shore, long in the level sun, quenched the light on his silken head and the men of the five canoes had taken up a song of the boats, their voices lifting clear and fresh on the wings of the new day, until the first canoe turned with the curve of the river above and was lost, the second and the third, and even until the last had passed from view and only the song came back.
Then he turned back into the gate and the tender mouth that was all Irish above the square Scottish jaw was set tight together.
His foot touched the wickered jug and he called Jean Saville.
"Take this, Jean," he said, "and give each of the men a cup. 'Tis a shame to waste it."
But for himself he had no taste for the stranger's gift of payment.
He was thinking of the red flower in Maren Le Moyne's black hair and a vexation, past all reason held him.
But the spring was open and there was soon more to occupy his mind than a maid and a posy and a reckless blade from Montreal.
At dusk of a day within that week a trapper brought word of a hundred canoes on the river a day's journey up-country, laden with packs of winter beaver, and bound for the post.
The Indians were coming down to trade.
Picturesque they were, in their fringed buckskin cunningly tanned and beaded, their feathers and their ornaments of elk teeth and claws of the huge, thick-coated bears. At day-dawn they came, having camped for the night a short distance above the fort, to the letter display of their arrival, and they swept down in a flotilla of graceful craft made of the birch bark and light as clouds upon the water.
All was in readiness for them, for the factor had been expecting them for a fortnight back; and, when the crackling shots of the braves announced their coming, McElroy gave orders that the three small cannon mounted on a half-moon of narrow breastwork to the south of the main gate, and just before a small opening in the stockade for use in case of attack, should be fired in salute.
These were the quiet and friendly Assiniboines, and the first of the tribes, being the nearest, to reach the factory that year.
De Seviere was early awake and all was astir within its walls, for this was the great time of the four seasons. Eagerly the maids and the younger matrons flocked down to the great gate to peer out at the gathering craft, afloat like the leaves of autumn upon the breast of the little river,—two braves to a canoe, the gallant front of the young men flanking and preceding that which held the leader of the expedition, chief of the tribe, distinguished by its flag fluttering in the morning wind upon a pole at the stern,—at the bedizened figure of the chief himself, and lastly those canoes which held the women, the few children, and even a dog or two.
Thus they came, those simple children of the forest and the lakes, the open ways and the fastnesses, of the untrammelled summers, and the snow-hindered winters, to the doors of the white man, dependent at last upon him for the implements of life,—the gun, the trap, the knife, the kettle, and the blanket.
Presently Edmonton Ridgar, chief trader of Fort de Seviere, came down the main way between the cabins, passing alone between the rows of the populace, and went forward to the lading to receive the guests.
The canoes had by this time swept swiftly and with utmost skill into two half-moons, their points cutting to the landing; and down the reach of water between them, slightly ruffled into little waves and sparkling ripples by the soft wind and the deftly dipping paddles, there came the larger craft of Quamenoka the leader.
"Welcome, my brothers!" called Ridgar, in their own tongue, for this man had been born on the shores of Hudson Bay and knew the speech of every tribe, from the almost extinct Nepisingues, of the Nepigon, to the far-away Ouinebigonnolinis on the sea coast. His hair was thickly silvered from the years he had spent in the service of the H. B. C., and his heart was full of knowledge gathered from the four winds. Therefore, his worth was above price and he would have been factor of a post of his own, instead of chief trader for young Anders McElroy.
"We greet our brother," gravely replied Quamenoka as he stepped from his canoe, gathering his blanket around his body with a practised sweep.
Swiftly four headmen disembarked from the first four canoes of the half-moon which closed in with scarce a paddle dip, so deft were the braves with their slender, shining blades of white ash, and stood behind.
Side by side, conversing in a few sentences, the trader and the chief entered the post, followed by the headmen and proceeded to the factory, where McElroy stood to welcome them in the open door.
They entered, to the ceremony of the pipe, the speech, and the bargain, while those without made a great camp two hundred strong all along the bank of the stream, beached the canoes, stacked the beaver packs, set up the tepees of the seventeen sticks, and built the little fires without which no camp is a camp.
In a little space the quiet shore was all a-bustle and activity reigned where the silence of the spring morning had lain, dew-heavy.
Among those most eager who peered at the gate, and who presently ventured forth to the better view the bustling concourse of braves and squaws, was Maren Le Moyne, her dark eyes wide, soft lips apart, and face all a-quiver with keen enjoyment of the scene.
These were the first she had ever seen of those Indians who came from the west. Who knew? Perhaps those moccasined feet had trod the virgin forest of her dreams, those sombre eyes looked upon the Whispering Hills, those grave faces been lifted to the sweet wind that sang from the west and whose caress she felt even now upon her cheeks.
Perhaps,—perhaps, even, some swift forest-runner among them, far on his quest of the home of the caribou or with news of some friendly tribe, had come upon a man, an old man rugged of frame and face, with blue eyes like lakes in his swarthy darkness, and muscles that bespoke the forge and hammer.
Maren's strongly modelled chin twitched a bit while the little flame of tenderness that flickered ever behind the graveness of her eyes leaped up. She longed for their speech that she might go among them and ask.
A little way along the stockade wall to the north there lay a great rock, flat and smooth of surface, and here the girl drew apart from the women and sat herself down thereon, hands clasping her knees and the level sun in her eyes. Her thoughts were soon faraway on the misty trail they had worn for themselves in the many years they had traversed the wilderness in search of what it held, and the eyes between the narrowed lids became blank with introspection. And as she sat thus, a little way withdrawn from the scurrying activity of the scene, there came a step on the soft green sod and a slim form in buckskins halted beside her.
It was young Marc Dupre, and his devil-may-care face was alert and smiling.
"Is that seat big enough for two, Ma'amselle?" he asked impertinently, though the heart in him was thumping a bit. This was a woman, he recalled having thought, for whom one would fillip the face of Satan, and he was uncertain whether or no he had made a right beginning.
Maren started and looked swiftly up at him.
"It is, M'sieu," she said quietly, "if those two are in simple, sensible accord. Not if one of the two coquettes."
Over the handsome features of the youth there spread a deep red flush.
"Forgive me, Ma'amselle," he said, "my speech was foolish as my heart. They are both sobered."
"Then," said the girl, drawing aside the folds of her dress, "you may sit beside me."
With a sudden diffidence he sank upon the stone, this handsome boy whose tongue was ever ready and whose heart of a light o' love had taken toll from every maid in the settlement, and for the first time in his life he had no sprightly word, no quip for his careless tongue.
They sat in silence, and presently he saw that her eyes were again half-closed and the dreaming look had settled back in them. She had forgotten his presence.
Never before in his experience had a woman sat thus unmoved beside him when he longed to make her speak, and it stilled him with silent wonder.
He thought of the words of Pierre Garcon that day on the river bank when this maid was new to the post, "if there is, I would not be the one to waken it and not be found its master," and they sent a thrill to his inmost being.
Who would awaken her; he wondered, as he watched the cheek beside him from the tail of his eye, a round womanly cheek, sweet and full and rich as a damask rose with the thick lashes above shining like jet.
Obedient to her silence, he sat still while she dreamed her dream out to its conclusion, and presently she straightened with a little breath like a sigh, unclasped her hands from her knees and turned her glance upon him as if she saw him for the first time.
His head whirled suddenly and he sought for some common word to cover his rare confusion.
"See, Ma'amselle," he said, pointing, "the well-lashed packs of the fat winter beaver. Truly they come well laden, these Assiniboines, and we may well thank le bon Dieu for the wealth of skins. Is it not a heartening sight?"
The eyes of Maren Le Moyne left his face and swept swiftly down the gentle slope to where the Indians had piled their bales of furs. At the sight they darkened like the waters of a lake when a little wind runs over its surface.
"A heartening sight? Nay, M'sieu," she said, shaking her head, "I can find no joy in it."
The trapper was aghast.
"No pleasure in the fruits of a fat season?"
"See the packs of marten, the dark streaks showing a bit at the edges where the fur rounds over the dried skin. How were those pelts taken, M'sieu?"
"How? Why, most cunningly, Ma'amselle,—in traps of the H. B. Company, set with utmost skill, perhaps on a stump above the line of the heavy snows, or balanced nicely at the far end of a slender pole set leaning in the ground. The delicate hand of a seasoned player must match itself with the forest instinct of these small creatures. The little pole holds little snow and the scent of the bait calls the marten up, when, snap! it is fast and waiting for the trapper and the lodge of the Assiniboines, the women and the drying."
"Yes. And those hundreds of beaver, M'sieu?"
Marc Dupre's eyes were shining and the red in his cheeks flushing with pleasure.
What more to a man's liking than the exploitation of knowledge gained first-hand in the pursuit of his life's work?
"Again the trap," he said, "set this time at the edge of a stream where the beaver huts peek through the ice, or lift their tops above the open water. Neatly they are set, cunning as an Indian himself; hidden in the soft slime at the margin if the water runs, waiting with open jaws in the small runway above the dam where the creatures come out from the swim. A sleek head lifting above the ripples a scrambling foot or two,—snap! again the price of a pound and a half of powder, a tie of tobacco. No footmark must the hunter leave, Ma'amselle, unsplashed with water, no tainting touch of a hand ungloved on chain or stake or trap itself. Ah! one must know the woods and the stream, the cold and the snow and the winds."
"You know them, M'sieu, I have no doubt," said Maren, "for you follow the trapping trail. And those beautiful silver fox, frosty and fine as the sparkle of a winter morning? The heavy hides of the bear, soft and glossy and thick as a folded blanket?"
"All the trap,—unless the latter drops through the flimsy roof of some well-hidden dead-fall, covered with brush."
The girl was not looking at him, her glance being still on the bustling camp below. The fingers on her knee were laced tight together.
Now she began to speak in a low voice, deep and even.
"Aye! All you have said is true. Wealth, indeed, is in those packs, and patience and cunning and utmost skill, defiance of the snows and the crackling cold, long miles on snowshoes and the hardships of the trail, the nights in the bough-tied huts, the pack galling the shoulders. But what is all this beside that which waits the runner of the trail at every 'set' in those many miles? Here he finds his leaning-pole. There have been little tracks up its slim roadway, but those were covered by the fall of three days back and the little creature who made them hangs there at the end, three small feet beating the cold air feebly, a tiny head squirming from side to side, two dull black eyes set at the distorted world. He has caught his marten. It has not frozen, for the snow was light and the forest still and thick, and three days have passed, M'sieu. Three days! Mon Dieu! How much were those three days worth? The trapper taps the squirming head and puts the bit of fur in his pack-bag. On to the next. The beaver? Dead, M'sieu, thanks to the good God, drowned in its own sweet water. The pack is heavy with small bodies ere the Assiniboine reaches the place where he has laid his trap for the silver fox. And what greets him here? Only a foot gnawed off in the silence of the day and the night, and some beauty gone staggering away to lie and suffer with starvation in the cold."
The youth was staring at the averted face beside him, mouth open and utter amazement on his features.
Maren went on.
"And lastly, M'sieu, far at the end of the trail,—at the outer, rim of the circle traced by his traps,—he comes eagerly, to peep and peer for what might have happened at the head of the little dip leading down to the stream where the firs bend heavily under their weight of snow.
"Here he had laid his cunningest instrument, a thing of giant jaws, of sharp ragged points, each inlocking with the other, the whole unholy thing hung to a chain at whose other end there lay a ball of iron, weighing, M'sieu, some eighty pounds. That was for the great shy bear, rocking along ire his quest of berries or some tree that should ring hollow under his scratching claws, bespeaking the hive of the wild bees. The oiled and fur-wrapped Indian stoops down and looks along the dip. Ah! There he sees that which brings a glint to his small eyes. No bear, M'sieu, nor yet the trap he had left, but a thrashed and broken space where the snow went flying in clouds and the bushes were torn from their roots, where the very tree-trunks bore marks of the conflict and a wide and terrible trail led wildly off to the deeper forest.
"He takes it up.
"All day he follows it. At night he camps and sleeps by his fire in comfort. By daybreak again he is swinging along on that trail. Its word is plain to him. At first it raged, that great shaggy creature, tall as an ox and slow, raged and fought and broke its teeth on the strange thing that bit to the bone with its relentless jaws, and tore along the white silence dragging its hindering ball, that, catching on bush and root, skinned down the flesh from the shining bone. And presently the wild trail narrowed to undisturbed snow, with naught save two great footprints, one after the other. With the cunning of a man, M'sieu, the tortured animal has gathered in its arms that chain and ball, and is walking upright. For another day and night the trapper follows this trail of tragedy and at their end he comes upon it.
"Beside a boulder, where the snow is pushed away there lies a round heap of anguish, curled up, pinched nose flat on the snow and two ears laid lop to a vanquished head. It is still breathing, though the dull eyes open not at sound of the trapper, bold in his safety, who lifts his gun and ends it all.
"A fine pelt,—save that the right foreleg is somewhat spoiled.
"It lies there in that pile, M'sieu, and makes for wealth,—but to me it is no heartening sight. I have followed that trail to the deeper woods."
The eyes of the woman were deep as wells, flickering with light, and the dark brows frowned down the slope. She had drawn her hands tight around her knees, so tight that each knuckle stood out white from the surrounding tan.
The young man shut his open lips and drew in a breath that quivered.
"Ma'amselle," he said huskily, "nowhere in the wide world is there another woman so deep of heart, so strong in tenderness. Never before have I seen that side of the trapping. To a man that is shut. It needs the soul of a woman to see behind those things. And, oh, Ma'amselle!" his voice fell low and trembling, "I have seen more,—the divinity within your spirit. May the good God make me worthy that you may speak so to me again. I would I might serve you,—with my life I would serve you, Ma'amselle, for I have seen no woman like you." He was on his feet, this young Marc Dupre, and the hot blood was coursing fast in his veins. The awakening was coming, though not for Maren Le Moyne.
"May the time come when I may be a stone for your foot," he said swiftly. "I ask no better fate."
Maren looked up at him and a wonderful tenderness spread on her face.
"I think the time will come, M'sieu,—and, when it does, it will be worth while. I think it would be a lifting sight to see you in some great crisis, before some heavy test."
"You do?" he said slowly; "you do, Ma'amselle? Then, by Heaven, it would!"
"And some day I shall see it."
They little knew, these two in their glowing youth, how true was that word, nor how tragic that sight would be.
"And till then," said this wild youth of the forest, "until then may we be friends?" The head under the crimson cap was whirling.
"Friends?" smiled Maken, and her voice was very gentle; "assuredly, M'sieu—I had destined you for that some time ago."
As she turned away, her glance once more fell upon the long camp of the Assiniboines, and Marc Dupre faded from her mind.
Not so with him, left sitting on the flat stone, the blood hot in his face and a sudden mist before his eyes.
Her last words sang in his ears like the voice of many waters.
He did not look after her,—there was something within that held him silent, staring at the waters of the river, now sparkling like a stream of diamonds in the risen sun, the lightness gone from him and a trembling loosed in his bosom.
Within the big trading-room at the factory, seats had been placed, the chief and his headmen sat in a solemn circle, and McElroy, holding in his two hands the long calumet, stood in the centre of the small conclave.
Very gravely he pointed the stem, clinking with its dangling ornaments, to east and west, to the heavens and to the earth, and then with a deft motion swung it around his head.
"My brothers," he said, glancing around at the solemn visages of these his friends and people, "may the sun smile all day upon us together in peace."
Wherewith he smoked a moment at the carven mouthpiece and handed the pipe to Quamenoka.
With the utmost gravity Ridgar took it from the chief, passed it to the savage on his right, who likewise smoked and passed, it on, and presently the ceremony was done and the visit had begun.
"My brothers are late this year at the trading," said the factor. "For a fortnight has the ox waited in the pen, the bread of the feast been set. So do we love our brothers of the forest. What is the word of the west? What tribes come in to the factory with peltry? We would hear Quamenoka speak."
He fell silent, sat down in his chair, and waited.
In the hush of that moment a shadow falling in the open door of the factory caught his eye and he looked up to see the form of Maren Le Moyne leaning against the lintel, her face filled with eagerness, her eyes, clear as a child's and as far-seeing, fixed on the Indians. He glanced swiftly to that tight braid just above the temple, where he had last seen a small red flower nodding impishly, and was conscious of a feeling of relief to find it gone.
It was irregular, the intrusion of an outsider in the ceremony of the opening of the trade; but for his life the young factor of De Seviere could not have said so to this girl who went fearlessly where she listed and whose eyes held such mystery of strength and wistfulness.
Moreover, Quamenoka was speaking and the council harkened.
CHAPTER VII FOREST NEWS
He was an old man, this chief of the Assiniboines, and his face was wrinkled like the dried bed of a stream' where the last little ripples have cast up the sand in a thousand ridges. His black eyes were mild, for these Indians were a peaceful people, relying on the trapping and the hunting and the friendship of the white men at the posts which they had held for three generations.
Fear of their more warlike kin had kept them near the factories and driven them into the ways of civilisation.
Now he sat with quiet glance upon the floor looking back into the past year, his feathered head-dress quivering a bit and the blue smoke rising from the pipe.
"The wind in the woods aisles is full of words, my brothers," he said, in his own tongue, "and tales flit down the lakes like the leaves in autumn. From the Saskatchewan come the French, who tell the Assiniboines that at their posts will be given four axes for one beaver, eight pounds of shot and four of powder. Yet thy brothers come down from their lodges to Fort de Seviere because of the love they bear to you, and for the fairness in trade that never varies. Many beavers are in the packs, much marten and fox and ermine. We will do good trade. Guns that are light and neat shaped to the hand, with good locks. Also much tobacco and sweet fruits. Of these things we are sure,—also are we sure of the next year and the next. Therefore do we come down the rivers to the Assiniboine.
"The tales that flit in the forest, my brothers, tell of a new fort of the French far, far to the northwest on the shores of the Slave Lake, whose factor is of the name Living Stone. Also there are whispers that fly like the wintering birds of new people, fair-skinned and red in the cheeks, who come into the upper country from the west where lies the Big Water. These are strange people, like none that trade with the Indians, who are neither friends to the English, nor yet the French, but strive for barter with those tribes that come up from the Blackfeet Hills and down from the frozen regions of the North with bearskins, the one, and seal and sea-otter, the other.
"A runner of the Saulteurs, resting in the lodges of the Assiniboines, has told Quamenoka of their strange customs, their hardness, and their shut forts guarded with suspicion and sentinelled with fear."
He ceased a moment and smoked in silence.
No breath of sound broke the stillness, for this was ceremony and of great dignity.
Only McElroy was acutely conscious of the figure in the doorway and the peering face of the girl, so full of hushed intensity.
"Also do we bring word of a great tribe, the Nakonkirhirinons, living far beyond the River Oujuragatchousibi, who this year journey down to Fort de Seviere with many furs,—more than all that will come from the Assiniboines, the Crees, the Ojibways, and the Migichihilinons put together.
"Past York and Churchill on the Great Bay they come, because of unfair dealings which met them at those places last year and the year before, down to the country of the Assiniboines, in whose lodges they will eat the great feast of the Peace Dance. Not long have the Nakonkirhirinons traded their furs, living to themselves in their hills, and much credit is due Quamenoka by whose word they come this year to his brothers on the Assiniboine."
The chief paused impressively and raised his glance to the factor's face.
"Greatly does the heart of thy brother rejoice at such word, and a present over and above that meant for him shall be given Quamenoka. Let the talk go on. We listen."
But before the chief could speak again, Edmonton Ridgar had broken silence:
"Negansahima is chief of that tribe and my Indian father, he having adopted me with all ceremony once when I sojourned a year among them. The sight of him will gladden my spirit."
Swift surprise spread on the factor's face, but he did not speak. There was much in the checkered life of his friend that had not been set before him, and each revelation was full to the brim of romance, of daring, and of that excitement which attends a life spent in the wilderness.
The Indian nodded and went on:
"And last of the news of forest and lake and river is word of the meeting of canoes, the half of one-ten, laden with goods and going up the river, which passed but few suns back. A sun-man sat in the first, beautiful of face and with hair like light, who strove to barter. But the Assiniboines come to their brothers. They heeded not his words, though they were sweet with promise. I have spoken."
The chief fell silent, for the year had been told, and McElroy spoke presently of his joy at their presence, their words, and their friendship, as was the custom of the H. B. Company's factors on such occasions; and Ridgar rose from the council to bid a young clerk, one Gifford, bring forth the presents for the guests,—a coat with coarse white lace and lining of vermilion, a hat of felt and a sash of many colours for Quamenoka, and lesser glories for his four headmen. These presented with due formality, and actually donned by the recipients without loss of time, the ceremony of the opening council was over, save for the triumphal march of the potentate, accompanied by McElroy and Ridgar, back to the camp on the river bank.
As they passed out the factory door, they brushed by Maren Le Moyne, where she had drawn aside, still wistfully watching the comers from the wilderness.
The young factor's eyes went to her face and for a moment held her glance.
Instantly, with that deep look, the girl's hand shot forth and touched his arm, a light touch with the deftness of strength held in abeyance, and McElroy felt his flesh tingle beneath it.
"M'sieu," she said, "where do they come from, how far in the west?"
"Not far, Ma'amselle,—only from the Lower Saskatchewan. The Assiniboines are our nearest tribe, living along the country from the Hare Hills to the parting of the twin rivers above the Qui Appelle. Hold they interest for you?"
"Nay," she said, shaking her black head, "not if they come not far, other than that excited by their strangeness. I thank you."
She drew back, and McElroy, perforce, followed his way to the encampment, but he thought not this time of the red flower.
Only within him was roused that same desire which had prompted De Courtenay to snatch the bloom from the stockade wall,—a longing to give her something, to offer homage to this tall young woman with the wondrous face of beauty and wistful strength. Since she was but a child had men who looked upon her felt this same longing, this stirring of the worshipper within. But few had dared the wall of quietness about her; therefore, she had remained apart. Only Prix Laroux of all those who had seen her grow into her magnificent womanhood at Grand Portage had come to her with his gift of faith and tied himself to hand for life, and he came not with the love of man but rather as one who follows a goddess. Yet it was that aching desire to serve her which sent him.
And now it gripped the young factor of Fort de Seviere and he looked among the Assiniboines for a gift.
Here a squaw held forth to him a garment that took his eye at once.
Of doeskin it was, soft and white as a lady's hand, and cut after the fashion of the Indian woman's dress, in a single piece from throat to ankle, the sleeves straight from the shoulder, and at edge and seam, sewed with thorn and sinew, rippled and fluttered a heavy fringe the length of a man's hand.
Across the breast there gleamed and glittered a solid plastron of the beadwork so justly famed for its beauty of colour and design, which came from the hands of none save the women of this tribe, and at hem and elbow, above the dangling fringe, there ran a heavy band of it. Above the hips there hung a belt made of the brilliant stained quills of the porcupine.
The factor took the beautiful thing in his hands, and the purpose in his mind crystallised.
In a swift moment he had bargained with the silent woman for a price that astonished her and was back within the post, walking hurriedly toward the cabin of the Baptistes.
At the door Marie met him, her bright eyes sparkling with the honour of this visit of him who was the Law, the Head of De Seviere, and at her eager greeting the first abating of the flush within took hold upon him.
He stood like a boy, the gorgeous garment hanging in his hand and the word on his lips forgotten.
"Madame," he stammered, "I would—" and got no further.
Sudden embarrassment took him and he grew angry with himself.
What could he say, how dared he do what he had done?
He could have thrown the white garment into the river in his sudden vexation. Factor of the post, he had made of himself a stammering youth, all for sake of the compelling beauty of a woman's eyes.
But at that moment, while Marie stood blankly on the sill holding to the doorside and the silence grew unbearable, there was a step within the cabin and Maren Le Moyne came from the inner room.
In one moment, so keen was the perception of her, she had seen the red blood in McElroy's face, the wonder on Marie's, and she, too, stood in the open door.
"Ah, M'sieu!" she said quickly, "do some of them, by chance, come from the west?"
The tone of her deep voice broke the spell, so subtly natural was it, and McElroy found his tongue.
"No, Ma'amselle," he smiled, the ease coming back to his blue eyes, "but I have found something very beautiful among them which I wish you to have. It is more beautiful than a red flower."
He held up to her the doeskin garment and his eyes were very anxious.
For a moment Maren stared as she had stared at De Courtenay and a curious expression of perplexity spread on her face.
Truly men were different here in this wilderness from those who lived at the Grand Portage, and for a moment she drew herself up and the straight brows began to frown. But as she had felt the whimsical charm of De Courtenay, so now she felt the eagerness, the taut anxiety of this man, and she noticed that there was no smile on his face as she hesitated.
Moreover, Marie was watching, sharp as a little hawk.
"Why, M'sieu," she said, and there was a baffling note to the voice this time, "why,—you wish me to have this?"
"Yes, Ma'amselle," said McElroy simply.
The girl stooped and took it from him, and for a moment her hand lay against his palm, a smooth warm hand.
"And you wish me to wear it?" she asked.
"If it shall please you."
"Then it shall please me," she said quite easily, "and I thank you."
McElroy turned away and walked back to the factory, and all the way he did not know what he had done. It had been an impulse, and he had rushed to its fulfilling without a thought. Had he bungled in giving her a garment where De Courtenay had played on a wind-harp in giving her a little red flower?
He was hot and cold alternately, and the memory of that momentary frown came turn and turn with that of the gentle manner in which she had reached down for the lifted gift.
And Maren Le Moyne?
Within the cabin she had turned to that portion which was her own, the while Marie's sharp eyes followed her with questions that were ripe on her tongue.
"Maren," she cried, as the girl passed the inner door, unable to longer hold herself, "know you the factor well?"
But Maren only shook her head and closed the slab door between.
Once alone she laid the gift on the bed, covered with a patchwork quilt made from the worn garments that had seen the long trail, and stood bending above, looking closely at each beauty of colour, of softness and design.
She spread the straight sleeves apart, smoothing out the dangling fringe, and her hand lingered with a strange gentleness a-down the glowing plastron of bright beads.
This was the first gift a man had ever given her, other than De Courtenay's red flower, and somehow it pleased her vastly.
She fell to thinking of the factor, of his open face, his light head forever tilted back with the square chin lifted, of the mouth above and of the eyes, clear as the new day and anxious as a child's the while she halted above his offering, and unconsciously she began within her mind to compare him with all other men she had ever known.
There was Prix Laroux. Not like. Also Jean Folliere and Anthon Brisbee of Grand Portage, who came to the wilderness each year. Neither were they like this man, nor Cif and Pierre Bordoux, nor Franz LeClede, nor yet her brother Henri. These she knew and they were of a different pattern.
Also there was that venturer of the great beauty and the silken curls who had spoken so prettily. With all his grace, he was unlike this strong young man whose tongue faltered and whose eyes were anxious.
Verily, for the first time; this maid of the wilderness was thinking of men.
And it was because he had seemed so ill-beset that she had taken the gift so readily.
She would not have him stumble longer under the sharp eyes of Marie.
And then thought of him faded from her mind and she fell to contemplation of the doeskin garment again. Things of its like she had seen at Grand Portage, but nothing of its great beauty, and for the first time she gave thought to self-adornment. She was strong, this woman, and given to serious dreams, and the small things of womanhood had left her wide apart in a land of her own wherein there were only visions of afar country, of travel and of conquest, and perhaps of a man, old and rugged and kindly, who had followed the long trail, and this small new thought lodged wonderingly in her mind.
For the first time she was conscious of the plainness of the garment that folded her form, and she held up her arms and looked at them, brown beneath the up-rolled sleeves.
Yes, some day she would put it on, this gorgeous thing of white fringe and sparkling colour, because she had told that man she would.
Unlike most women, she did not hold it up to her, pointing a foot beneath its pretty edge, gathering it into her waist, trying its effect. She was content to run a hand along its length, to feel the caress of its softness.
Yet even as she touched it she thought of the pretty creature which had worn it first, the slim-legged doe bounding in the forest depth, and a little sigh lifted her breast.
But this had been the quick and merciful death of the bullet, the legitimate death. That she could understand.
More quick and merciful than that which would come in the natural life of the forest. Therefore this pelt held no such repugnance as those stacked on the river bank.
Suddenly, as she bent above the bed, she felt the presence of another, the peculiar power of eyes, upon her, and, turning quickly, she saw a black head, black as her own and running with curls, that dipped from the window.
There was no little head in all the post like that save one, and it belonged to little Francette, the pretty maid who had run by the factor's side that day of the meeting of Bois DesCaut by the river. With the drop of that head from the sill there passed over Maren a strange feeling, a prescience of evil, a thrill of fear in a heart that had never known fear.
She left the tiny room with the gift of the factor still outspread, and joined Marie in the outer space, where yawned a wide fireplace with its dogs on the hearth, its swinging crane made from a rod of iron, its bed and its hand-made table.