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  • 1903
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and I shall go on imagining–Oh, please have pity on me! I feel the shadow of a tragedy. It comes out in everything, in everybody to whom I turn. I see it in Wishkobun’s avoidance of me, in my father’s silence, in Mr. Crane’s confusion, in your reluctance–yes, in the very reckless insolence of Mr. Trent himself!”–her voice broke slightly. “If you will not tell me, I shall go direct to my father,” she ended, with more firmness.

Mrs. Cockburn examined the girl’s flushed face through kindly but shrewd and experienced eyes. Then, with a caressing little murmur of pity, she arose and seated herself on the arm of the red chair, taking the girl’s hand in hers.

“I believe you mean it,” she said, “and I am going to tell you myself. There is much sorrow in it for you; but if you go to your father it will only make it worse. I am doing what I should not. It is shameful that such things happen in this nineteenth century, but happen they do. The long and short of it is that the Factors of this Post tolerate no competition in the country, and when a man enters it for the purpose of trading with the Indians, he is stopped and sent out.”

“There is nothing very bad about that.” said Virginia, relieved.

“No, my dear, not in that. But they say his arms and supplies are taken from him, and he is given a bare handful of provisions. He has to make a quick journey, and to starve at that. Once when I was visiting out at the front, not many years ago, I saw one of those men–they called him Jo Bagneau–and his condition was pitiable–pitiable!”

“But hardships can be endured. A man can escape.”

“Yes,” almost whispered Mrs. Cockburn, looking about her apprehensively, “but the story goes that there are some cases–when the man is an old offender, or especially determined, or so prominent as to be able to interest the law–no one breathes of these cases here–but–_he never gets out_!”

“What do you mean?” cried Virginia, harshly.

“One dares not mean such things; but they are so. The hardships of the wilderness are many, the dangers terrible–what more natural than that a man should die of them in the forest? It is no one’s fault.”

“What do you mean?” repeated Virginia; “for God’s sake speak plainly!”

“I dare not speak plainer than I know; and no one ever really _knows_ anything about it–excepting the Indian who fires the shot, or who watches the man until he dies of starvation.” whispered Mrs. Cockburn.

“But–but!” cried the girl, grasping her companion’s arm. “My father! Does _he_ give such orders? _He_?”

“No orders are given. The thing is understood. Certain runners, whose turn it is, shadow the Free Trader. Your father is not responsible; no one is responsible. It is the policy.”

“And this man—-“

“It has gone about that he is to take _la Longue Traverse_. He knows it himself.”

“It is barbaric, horrible; it is murder.”

“My dear, it is all that; but this is the country of dread. You have known the soft, bright side always–the picturesque men, the laugh, the song. If you had seen as much of the harshness of wilderness life as a doctor’s wife must you would know that when the storms of their great passions rage it is well to sit quiet at your prayers.”

The girl’s eyes were wide-fixed, staring at this first reality of life. A thousand new thoughts jostled for recognition. Suddenly her world had been swept from beneath her. The ancient patriarchal, kindly rule had passed away, and in its place she was forced to see a grim iron bond of death laid over her domain. And her father–no longer the grave, kindly old man–had become the ruthless tyrant. All these bright, laughing _voyageurs_, playmates of her childhood, were in reality executioners of a savage blood-law. She could not adjust herself to it.

She got to her feet with an effort. “Thank you, Mrs. Cockburn,” she said, in a low voice. “I–I do not quite understand. But I must go now. I must–I must see that my father’s room is ready for him.” she finished, with the proud defensive instinct of the woman who has been deeply touched. “You know I always do that myself.”

“Good-night, dearie,” replied the older woman, understanding well the girl’s desire to shelter behind the commonplace. She leaned forward and kissed her. “God keep and guide you. I hope I have done right.”

“Yes,” cried Virginia, with unexpected fire. “Yes, you did just right! I ought to have been told long ago! They’ve kept me a perfect child to whom everything has been bright and care-free and simple. I–I feel that until this moment I have lacked my real womanhood!”

She bowed her head and passed through the log room into the outer air.

Her father, _her_ father, had willed this man’s death, and so he was to die! That explained many things–the young fellow’s insolence, his care-free recklessness, his passionate denunciation of the Reverend Crane and the Reverend Crane’s religion. He wanted one little thing–the gift of a rifle wherewith to assure his subsistence should he escape into the forest–and of all those at Conjuror’s House to whom he might turn for help, some were too hard to give it to him, and some too afraid! He should have it! She, the daughter of her father, would see to it that in this one instance her father’s sin should fail! Suddenly, in the white heat of her emotion, she realized why these matters stirred her so profoundly, and she stopped short and gasped with the shock of it. It did not matter that she thwarted her father’s will; it would not matter if she should be discovered and punished as only these harsh characters could punish. For the brave bearing, the brave jest, the jaunty facing of death, the tender, low voice, the gay song, the aurora-lit moment of his summons–all these had at last their triumph. She knew that she loved him; and that if he were to die, she would surely die too.

And, oh, it must be that he loved her! Had she not heard it in the music of his voice from the first?–the passion of his tones? the dreamy, lyrical swing of his talk by the old bronze guns?

Then she staggered sharply, and choked back a cry. For out of her recollections leaped two sentences of his–the first careless, imprudent, unforgivable; the second pregnant with meaning. “_Ah, a star shoots_!” he had said. “_That means a kiss_!” and again, to the clergyman, “_I came here without the slightest expectation of getting what I asked for. There is another way, but I hate to use it_.”

She was the other way! She saw it plainly. He did not love her, but he saw that he could fascinate her, and he hoped to use her as an aid to his escape. She threw her head up proudly.

Then a man swung into view across the Northern Lights. Virginia pressed back against the palings among the bushes until he should have passed. It was Ned Trent, returning from a walk to the end of the island. He was alone and unfollowed, and the girl realized with a sudden grip at the heart that the wilderness itself was sufficient safeguard against a man unarmed and unequipped. It was not considered worth while even to watch him. Should he escape, unarmed as he was, sure death by starvation awaited him in the land of dread.

As he entered the settlement he struck up an air.

“Le fils du roi s’en va chassant,
En roulant ma boule,
Avec son grand fusil d’argent,
Rouli roulant, ma boule roulant.”

Almost immediately a window slid back, and an exasperated voice cried out:

“_Hola_ dere, w’at one time dam fool you for mak’ de sing so late!”

The voice went on imperturbably:

“Avec son grand fusil d’argent,
En roulant ma boule,
Visa le noir, tua le blanc,
Rouli roulant, ma boule roulant.”

“_Sacre_!” shrieked the habitant.

“Hello, Johnny Frenchman!” called Ned Trent, in his acid tones. “That you? Be more polite, or I’ll stand here and sing you the whole of it.”

The window slammed shut.

Ned Trent took up his walk again toward some designated sleeping-place of his own, his song dying into the distance.

“Visa le noir, tua le blanc,
En roulant ma boule,
O fils du roi, tu es mechant!
Rouli roulant, ma boule roulant.”

“And he can _sing_!” cried the girl bitterly to herself. “At such a time! Oh, my dear God, help me, help me! I am the unhappiest girl alive!”

Chapter Eleven

Virginia did not sleep at all that night. She was reaching toward her new self. Heretofore she had ruled those about her proudly, secure in her power and influence. Now she saw that all along her influence had in not one jot exceeded that of the winsome girl. She had no real power at all. They went mercilessly on in the grim way of their fathers, dealing justice even-handed according to their own crude conceptions of it, without thought of God or man. She turned hot all over as she saw herself in this new light–as she saw those about her indulgently smiling at her airs of the mistress of it. It angered her–though the smile might be good-humored, even affectionate.

And she shrank into herself with utter loathing when she remembered Ned Trent. There indeed her woman’s pride was hard stricken. She recalled with burning cheeks how his intense voice had stirred her; how his wishes had compelled her; she shivered pitifully as she remembered the warmth of his shoulder touching carelessly her own. If he had come to her honestly and asked her aid, she would have given it; but this underhand pretence at love! It was unworthy of him; and it was certainly most unworthy of her. What must he think of her? How he must be laughing at her–and hoping that his spell was working, so that he could get the coveted rifle and the forty cartridges.

“I hate him!” she cried to herself, the backs of her long, slender hands pressed against her eyes. She meant that she loved him, but for the purposes in hand one would do as well as the other.

At earliest daylight she was up. Bathing her face and throat in cold water, and hastily catching her beautiful light hair under a cap, she slipped down stairs and out past the stockade to the point. There she seated herself, a heavy shawl about her, and gave herself up to reflection. She had approached silently, her moccasins giving no sound. Presently she became aware that someone was there before her. Looking toward the river she saw on the next level below her a man, seated on a bowlder, and gazing to the south.

His very soul was in his eyes. Virginia gasped at the change in him since last she had seen him. The gay, mocking demeanor which had seemed an essential part of his very flesh and blood had fallen away from him, leaving a sad and lofty dignity that ennobled his countenance. The lines of his face were stern, of his mouth pathetic; his eyes yearned. He stared toward the south with an almost mesmeric intensity, as though he hoped by sheer longing to materialize a vision. Tears sprang to the girl’s eyes at the subtle pathos of his attitude.

He stretched his arms wearily over his head, and sighed deeply and looked up. His eyes rested on the girl without surprise; the expression of his features did not change.

“Pardon me,” he said, simply. “To-day is my last of plenty. I am up enjoying it.”

Virginia had anticipated the usual instantaneous transformation of his manner when he should catch sight of her. Her resentment was dispelled. In face of the vaster tragedies little considerations gave way.

“Do you leave–to-day?” she asked, in a low voice.

“To-morrow morning, early,” he corrected. “To-day I found my provisions packed and laid at my door. It is a hint I know how to take.”

“You have everything you need?” asked the girl, with an assumption of indifference.

He looked her in the eyes for a moment.

“Everything,” he lied, calmly.

Virginia perceived that he lied, and her heart stood still with a sudden hope that perhaps, at this eleventh hour, he might have repented of his unworthy intentions toward herself. She leaned to him over the edge of the little rise.

“Have you a rifle–for _la Longue Traverse_?” she inquired, with meaning.

He stared at her a little the harder.

“Why–why, surely,” he replied, in a tone less confident. “Nobody travels without a rifle in the North.”

She dropped swiftly down the slope and stood face to face with him.

“Listen,” she began, in her superb manner. “I know all there is to know. You are a Free Trader, and you are to be sent to your death. It is murder, and it is done by my father.” She held her head proudly, but the notes of her voice were straining. “I knew nothing of this yesterday. I was a foolish girl who thought all men were good and just, and that all those whom I knew were noble. My eyes are open now. I see injustice being done by my own household, and “–tears were trembling near her lashes, but she blinked them back–“and I am no longer a foolish girl! You need not try to deceive me. You must tell me what I can do, for I cannot permit so great a wrong to be done by my father without attempting to set it right.” This was not what she had intended to say, but suddenly the course was clear to her. The influence of the man had again swept over her, drowning her will, filling her with the old fear, which was now for the moment turned to pride by the character of the situation.

But to her surprise the man was thinking of something else.

“Who told you?” he demanded, harshly. Then, without waiting for a reply, “It was that little preacher; I’ll have an interview with him!”

“No, no!” protested the girl. “It was not he. It was a friend. I had the right to know.”

“You had no right!” he cried, vehemently. “You and life should have nothing to do with each other. There is a look in your eyes that was not in them yesterday, and the one who put it there is not your friend.” He stood staring at her intently, as one who ponders what is best to do. Then very quietly he took her hands and drew her to a place beside him on the bowlder.

“I am going to tell you something, little girl,” said he, “and you must listen quietly to the end. Perhaps at the last you may see more clearly than you do now.

“This old Company of yours has been established for a great many years. Back in old days, over two centuries ago, it pushed up into this wilderness to trade for its furs. That you know. And then it explored ever farther to the west and the north, until its servants stood on the shores of the Pacific and the stretches of the Arctic Ocean. And its servants loved it. Enduring immense hardships, cut off from their kind, outlining dimly with the eye of faith the structure of a mighty power, they loved it always. Thousands of men were in its employ, and so loyal were they that its secrets were safe and its prestige was defended, often to a lonely death. I have known the Company and its servants for a long time, and if I had leisure I could instance a hundred examples of devotion and sacrifice beside which mere patriotism, would seem a little thing. Men who had no country cleaved to her desolate posts, her lakes and rivers and forests; men who had no home ties felt the tug of her wild life at their hearts; men who had no God bowed in awe before her power and grandeur. The Company was a living thing.

“Rivals attempted her supremacy, and were defeated by the steadfastness of the men who received her meagre wages and looked to her as their one ideal. Her explorers were the bravest, her traders the most enterprising and single-minded, her factors and partners the most capable and potent in all the world. No country, no leader, no State ever received half the worship her sons gave her. The fierce Nor’westers, the traders of Montreal, the Company of the X Y, Astor himself, had to give way. For, although they were bold or reckless or crafty or able, they had not the ideal which raises such qualities to invincibility.

“And, little girl, nothing is wrong to men who have such an ideal before them. They see but one thing, and all means are good that help them to assure that one thing. They front the dangers, they overcome the hardships, they crush the rivals. Bloody wars have taken place in these forests, ruthless deeds have been done, but the men who accomplished them held the deeds good. So for two hundred years, aided by the charter from the king, they have made good their undisputed right.

“Then the railroad entered the west. The charter of monopoly ran out. Through the Nipissing, the Athabasca, the Edmonton, came the Free Traders–men who traded independently. These the Company could not control, so it competed–and to its credit its competition has held its own. Even far into the Northwest, where the trails are long, the Free Traders have established their chains of supplies, entering into rivalry with the Company for a barter it has always considered its right. The medicine has been bitter, but the servants of the Company have adjusted themselves to the new conditions, and are holding their own.

“But one region still remains cut off from the outside world by a broad band of unexplored waste. The life here at Hudson’s Bay–although you may not know it–is exactly the same to-day that it was two hundred years ago. And here the Company makes its stand for a monopoly.

“At first it worked openly. But in the case of Guillaume Sayer, a daring and pugnacious _metis_, it got into trouble with the law. Since that time it has wrapped itself in secrecy and mystery, carrying on its affairs behind the screen of five hundred miles of forest. Here it has still the power; no man can establish himself here, can even travel here, without its consent, for it controls the food and the Indians. The Free Trader enters, but he does not stay for long. The Company’s servants are mindful of their old fanatical ideal. Nothing is ever known, no orders are ever given, but something happens, find the man never ventures again.

“If he is an ordinary _metis_ or Canadian, he emerges from the forest starved, frightened, thankful. If his story is likely to be believed in high places, he never emerges at all. The dangers of wilderness travel are many: he succumbs to them. That is the whole story. Nothing definite is known; no instances can be proved; your father denies the legend and calls it a myth. The Company claims to be ignorant of it, perhaps its greater officers really are, but the legend holds so good that the journey has its name–_la Longue Traverse_.

“But remember this, no man is to blame–unless it is he who of knowledge takes the chances. It is a policy, a growth of centuries, an idea unchangeable to which the long services of many fierce and loyal men have given substance. A Factor cannot change it. If he did, the thing would be outside of nature, something not to be understood.

“I am here. I am to take _la Longue Traverse_. But no man is to blame. If the scheme of the thing is wrong, it has been so from the very beginning, from the time when King Charles set his signature to the charter of unlimited authority. The history of a thousand men gives the tradition power, gives it insistence. It is bigger than any one individual. It is as inevitable as that water should flow down hill.”

He had spoken quietly, but very earnestly, still holding her two hands, and she had sat looking at him unblinking from eyes behind which passed many thoughts. When he had finished, a short pause followed, at the end of which she asked unexpectedly,

“Last evening you told me that you might come to me and ask me to choose between my pity and what I might think to be my duty. What are you going to ask of me?”

“Nothing. I spoke idle words.”

“Last evening I overheard you demand something of Mr. Crane,” she pursued, without commenting on his answer. “When he refused you I heard you say these words ‘Here is where I should have received aid; I may have to get it where I should not.’ What was the aid you asked of him? and where else did you expect to get it?”

“The aid was something impossible to accord, and I did not expect to get it elsewhere. I said that in order to induce him to help me.”

A wonderful light sprang to the girl’s eyes, but still she maintained her level voice.

“You asked him for a rifle with which to escape. You expected to get it of me. Deny it if you can.”

Ned Trent looked at her keenly a moment, then dropped his eyes.

“It is true,” said he.

“And the pity was to give you this weapon; and the duty was my duty to my father’s house.”

“It is true,” he repeated, dejectedly.

“And you lied to me when you said you had a rifle with which to journey _la Longue Traverse_.”

“That too is true,” he acknowledged.

When next she spoke her voice was not quite so well controlled.

“Why did you not ask me, as you intended? Why did you tell me these lies?”

The young man hesitated, looked her in the face, turned away, and murmured, “I could not.”

“Why?” persisted the girl. “Why? You must tell me.”

“Because,” said Ned Trent–“because it could not be done. Every rifle in the place is known. Because you would be found out in this, and I do not know what your punishment might not be.”

“You knew this before?” insisted Virginia, stonily.

“Yes.”

“Then why did you change your mind?”

“When first I saw you by the gun,” began Ned Trent, in a low voice, “I was a desperate man, clutching at the slightest chance. The thought crossed my mind then that I might use you. Then later I saw that I had some influence over you, and I made my plan. But last night—-“

“Yes, last night?” urged Virginia, softly.

“Last night I paced the island, and I found out many things. One of them was that I could not.”

“Even though this dreadful journey—-“

“I would rather take my chances.”

Again there was silence between them.

“It was a good lie,” then said Virginia, gently–“a noble lie. And what you have told me to comfort me about my father has been nobly said. And I believe you, for I have known the truth about your fate.” He shut his lips grimly. “Why–why did you come?” she cried, passionately. “Is the trade so good, are your needs then so great, that you must run these perils?”

“My needs,” he replied. “No; I have enough.”

“Then why?” she insisted.

“Because that old charter has long since expired, and now this country is as free for me as for the Company,” he explained. “We are in a civilized century, and no man has a right to tell me where I shall or shall not go. Does the Company own the Indians and the creatures of the woods?” Something in the tone of his voice brought her eyes steadily to his for a moment.

“Is that all?” she asked at length.

He hesitated, looked away, looked back again.

“No, it is not,” he confessed, in a low voice. “It is a thing I do not speak of. My father was a servant of this Company, a good, true servant. No man was more honest, more zealous, more loyal.”

“I am sure of it,” said Virginia, softly.

“But in some way that he never knew himself he made enemies in high places. The cowards did not meet him man to man, and so he never knew who they were. If he had, he would have killed them. But they worked against him always. He was given hard posts, inadequate supplies, scant help, and then he was held to account for what he could not do. Finally he left the company in disgrace–undeserved disgrace. He became a Free Trader in the days when to become a Free Trader was worse than attacking a grizzly with cubs. In three years he was killed. But when I grew to be a man “–he clenched his teeth–“by God! how I have prayed to know who did it.” He brooded for a moment, then went on. “Still, I have accomplished something. I have traded in spite of your factors in many districts. One summer I pushed to the Coppermine in the teeth of them, and traded with the Yellow Knives for the robes of the musk-ox. And they knew me and feared my rivalry, these traders of the Company. No district of the far North but has felt the influence of my bartering. The traders of all districts–Fort au Liard, Lapierre’s House, Fort Rae, Ile a la Crosse, Portage la Loche, Lac la Biche, Jasper’s House, the House of the Touchwood Hills–all these, and many more, have heard of Ned Trent.”

“Your father–you knew him well?”

“No, but I remember him–a tall, dark man, with a smile always in his eyes and a laugh on his lips. I was brought up at a school in Winnipeg under a priest. Two or three times in the year my father used to appear for a few days. I remember well the last time I saw him. I was about thirteen years old. ‘You are growing to be a man,’ said he; ‘next year we will go out on the trail.’ I never saw him again.”

“What happened?”

“Oh, he was just killed,” replied Ned Trent, bitterly.

The girl laid her hand on his arm with an appealing little gesture.

“I am so sorry,” said she.

“I have no portrait of him,” continued the Free Trader, after an instant. “No gift from his hands; nothing at all of his but this.”

He showed her an ordinary little silver match-safe such as men use in the North country.

“They brought that to me at the last–the Indians who came to tell my priest the news, and the priest, who was a good man, gave it to me. I have carried it ever since.”

Virginia took it reverently. To her it had all the largeness that envelops the symbol of a great passion. After a moment she looked up in surprise.

“Why!” she exclaimed, “this has a name carved on it!”

“Yes,” he replied.

“But the name is Graehme Stewart.”

“Of course I could not bear my father’s name in a country where it was well known,” he explained.

“Of course,” she agreed. Impulsively she raised her face to his, her eyes shining. “To me all this is very fine,” said she.

He smiled a little sadly. “At least you know why I came.”

“Yes.” she repeated, “I know why you came. But you are in trouble.”

“The chances of war.”

“And they have defeated you after all.”

“I shall start on _la Longue Traverse_ singing ‘Rouli roulant.’ It’s a small defeat, that.’

“Listen,” said she, rapidly. “When I was quite a small girl Mr. McTavish, of Rupert’s House, gave me a little rifle. I have never used it, because I do not care to shoot. That rifle has never been counted, and my father has long since forgotten all about it. You must take that, and escape to-night. I will let you have it on one condition–that you give me your solemn promise never to venture into this country again.”

“Yes,” he agreed, without enthusiasm nor surprise.

She smiled happily at his gloomy face and listless attitude.

“But I do not want to give up the little rifle entirely,” she went on, with dainty preciosity, watching him closely. “As I said, it was a present, given to me when I was quite a small girl. You must return it to me at Quebec, in August. Will you promise to do that?”

He wheeled on her swift as light, the eagerness flashing back into his face.

“You are going to Quebec?” he cried. “My father wishes me to. I have decided to do so. I shall start with the Abitibi _brigade_ in July.”

He leaped to his feet.

“I promise!” he exulted, “I promise! To-night, then! Bring the rifle and the cartridges, and some matches, and a little salt. You must take me across the river in a canoe, for I want them to guess at where I strike the woods. I shall cover my trail. And with ten hours’ start, let them catch Ned Trent who can!”

She laughed happily.

“To-night, then. At the south of the island there is a trail, and at the end of the trail a beach—-“

“I know!” he cried.

“Meet me there as soon after dark as you can do so without danger.”

He threw his hat into the air and caught it, his face boyishly upturned. Again that something, so vaguely familiar, plucked at her with its ghostly, appealing fingers. She turned swiftly, and seized them, and so found herself in possession of a memory out of her far-off childhood.

“I know you!” she cried. “I have seen you before this!”

He bent his puzzled gaze upon her.

“I was a very little girl,” she explained, “and you but a lad. It was at a party, I think, a great and brilliant party, for I remember many beautiful women and fine men. You held me up in your arms for people to see, because I was going on a long journey.”

“I remember, of course I do!” he exclaimed.

A bell clanged, turning over and over, calling the Company’s men to their day.

“Farewell.” she said, hurriedly. “To-night.”

“To-night,” he repeated.

She glided rapidly through the grass, noiseless in her moccasined feet. And as she went she heard his voice humming soft and low,

“Isabeau s’y promene
Le long de son jardin,
Le long de son jardin,
Sur le bord de l’ile,
Le long de son jardin.”

“How could he _help_ singing,” murmured Virginia, fondly. “Ah, dear Heaven, but I am the happiest girl alive!”

Such a difference can one night bring about.

Chapter Twelve

The day rose and flooded the land with its fuller life. All through the settlement the Post Indians and half-breeds set about their tasks. Some aided Sarnier with his calking of the bateaux; some worked in the fields; some mended or constructed in the different shops. At eight o’clock the bell rang again, and they ate breakfast. Then a group of seven, armed with muzzle-loading “trade-guns” bound in brass, set out for the marshes in hopes of geese. For the flight was arriving, and the Hudson Bay man knows very well the flavor of goose-flesh, smoked, salted, and barrelled.

Now the _voyageurs_ began to stroll into the sun. They were men of leisure. Picturesque, handsome, careless, debonair, they wandered back and forth, smoking their cigarettes, exhibiting their finery. Indian women, wrinkled and careworn, plodded patiently about on various businesses. Indian girls, full of fun and mischief, drifted here and there in arm-locked groups of a dozen, smiling, whispering among themselves, ready to collapse toward a common centre of giggles if addressed by one of the numerous woods-dandies. Indian men stalked singly, indifferent, stolid. Indian children of all sizes and degrees of nakedness darted back and forth, playing strange games. The sound of many voices rose across the air.

Once the voices moderated, when McDonald, the Chief Trader, walked rapidly from the barracks building to the trading store; once they died entirely into a hush of respect, when Galen Albret himself appeared on the broad veranda of the factory. He stood for a moment–bulked broad and black against the whitewash–his hands clasped behind him, gazing abstractedly toward the distant bay. Then he turned into the house to some mysterious and weighty business of his own. The hubbub at once broke out again.

Now about the mouth of the long picketed lane leading to the massive trading store gathered a silent group, bearing packs. These were Indians from the more immediate vicinity, desirous of trading their skins. After a moment McDonald appeared in the doorway, a hundred feet away, and raised his hand. Two of the savages, and two only, trotted down the narrow picket lane, their packs on their shoulders.

McDonald ushered them into a big square room, where the bales were undone and spread abroad. Deftly, silently the Trader sorted the furs, placing to one side or the other the “primes,” “seconds,” and “thirds” of each species. For a moment he calculated. Then he stepped to a post whereon hung long strings of pierced wooden counters, worn smooth by use. Swiftly he told the strings over. To one of the Indians he gave one with these words:

“Mu-hi-kun, my brother, here be pelts to the value of two hundred ‘beaver.’ Behold a string, then, of two hundred ‘castors,’ and in addition I give my brother one fathom of tobacco.”

The Indian calculated rapidly, his eye abstracted. He had known exactly the value of his catch, and what he would receive for it in “castors,” but had hoped for a larger “present,” by which the premium on the standard price is measured.

“Ah hah,” he exclaimed, finally, and stepped to one side.

“Sak-we-su, my brother,” went on McDonald, “here be pelts to the value of three hundred ‘beaver.’ Behold a string, then, of three hundred ‘castors,’ and because you have brought so fine a skin of the otter, behold also a fathom of tobacco and a half sack of flour.”

“Good!” ejaculated the Indian.

The Trader then led them to stairs, up which they clambered to where Davis, the Assistant Trader, kept store. There, barred by a heavy wooden grill from the airy loft filled with bright calicoes, sashes, pails, guns, blankets, clothes, and other ornamental and useful things, Sak-we-su and Mu-hi-kun made their choice, trading in the worn wooden “castors” on the string. So much flour, so much tea, so much sugar and powder and lead, so much in clothing. Thus were their simple needs supplied for the year to come. Then the remainder they squandered on all sorts of useless things–beads, silks, sashes, bright handkerchiefs, mirrors. And when the last wooden “castor” was in they went down stairs and out the picket lane, carrying their lighter purchases, but leaving the larger as “debt,” to be called for when needed. Two of their companions mounted the stairs as they descended; and two more passed them in the narrow picket lane. So the trade went on.

At once Sak-we-su and Mu-hi-kun were surrounded. In detail they told what they had done. Then in greater detail their friends told what _they_ would have done, until after five minutes of bewildering advice the disconsolate pair would have been only too glad to have exchanged everything–if that had been allowed.

Now the bell rang again. It was “smoke time.” Everyone quit work for a half-hour. The sun climbed higher in the heavens. The laughing crews of idlers sprawled in the warmth, gambling, telling stories, singing. Then one might have heard all the picturesque songs of the Far North–“A la claire Fontaine”; “Ma Boule Roulant”; “Par derrier’ chez-mon Pere”; “Isabeau s’y promene”; “P’tite Jeanneton”; “Luron, Lurette”; “Chante, Rossignol, chante”; the ever-popular “Malbrouck”; “C’est la belle Francoise”; “Alouette”; or the beautiful and tender “La Violette Dandine.” They had good voices, these _voyageurs_, with the French artistic instinct, and it was fine to hear them.

At noon the squaws set out to gather canoe gum on the mainland. They sat huddled in the bottom of their old and leaky canoe, reaching far over the sides to dip their paddles, irregularly placed, silent, mysterious. They did not paddle with the unison of the men, but each jabbed a little short stroke as the time suited her, so that always some paddles were rising and some falling. Into the distance thus they flapped like wounded birds; then rounded a bend, and were gone.

The sun swung over and down the slope, Dinner time had passed; “smoke time” had come again. Squaws brought the first white-fish of the season to the kitchen door of the factory, and Matthews raised the hand of horror at the price they asked. Finally he bought six of about three pounds each, giving in exchange tea to the approximate value of twelve cents. The Indian women went away, secretly pleased over their bargain.

Down by the Indian camp suddenly broke the roar of a dog-fight. Two of the sledge _giddes_ had come to teeth, and the friends of both were assisting the cause. The idlers went to see, laughing, shouting, running impromptu races. They sat on their haunches and cheered ironically, and made small bets, and encouraged the frantic old squaw hags who, at imminent risk, were trying to disintegrate the snarling, rolling mass. Over in the high log stockade wherein the Company’s sledge animals were confined, other wolf-dogs howled mournfully, desolated at missing the fun.

And always the sun swung lower and lower toward the west, until finally the long northern twilight fell, and the girl in the little white bedroom at the factory bathed her face and whispered for the hundredth time to her beating heart:

“Night has come!”

Chapter Thirteen

That evening at dinner Virginia studied her father’s face again. She saw the square settled line of the jaw under the beard, the unwavering frown of the heavy eyebrows, the unblinking purpose of the cavernous, mysterious eyes. Never had she felt herself very close to this silent, inscrutable man, even in his moments of more affectionate expansion. Now a gulf divided them.

And yet, strangely enough, she experienced no revulsion, no horror, no recoil even. He had merely become more aloof, more incomprehensible; his purposes vaster, less susceptible to the grasp of such as she. There may have been some basis for this feeling, or it may have been merely the reflex glow of a joy that made all other things seem insignificant.

As soon as might be after the meal Virginia slipped away, carrying the rifle, the cartridges, the matches, and the salt. She was cruelly frightened.

The night was providentially dark. No aurora threw its splendor across the dome, and only a few rare stars peeped between the light cirrus clouds. Virginia left behind her the buildings of the Post, she passed in safety the tin-steepled chapel and the church house; there remained only the Indian camp between her and the woods trail. At once the dogs began to bark and howl, the fierce _giddes_ lifting their pointed noses to the sky. The girl hurried on, twinging far to the right through the grass. To her relief the camp did not respond to the summons. An old crone or so appeared in the flap of a teepee, eyes dazzled, to throw uselessly a billet of wood or a volley of Cree abuse at the animals nearest. In a moment Virginia entered the trail.

Here was no light at all. She had to proceed warily, feeling with her moccasins for the beaten pathway, to which she returned with infinite caution whenever she trod on grass or leaves. Though her sight was dulled, her hearing was not. A thousand scurrying noises swirled about her; a multitude of squeaks, whistles, snorts, and whines attested that she disturbed the forest creatures at their varied businesses; and underneath spoke an apparent dozen of terrifying voices which were in reality only the winds and the trees. Virginia knew that these things were not dangerous–that day light would show them to be only deer-mice, hares, weasels, bats, and owls–nevertheless, they had their effect. For about her was cloying velvet blackness–not the closed-in blackness of a room, where one feels the embrace of the four walls, but the blackness of infinite space through which sweep mysterious currents of air. After a long time she turned sharp to the left. After a long time more she perceived a faint, opalescent glimmer in the distance ahead. This she knew to be the river.

She felt her way onward, still cautiously, then she choked back a scream and dropped her burden with a clatter to the ground. A dark figure seemed to have risen mysteriously at her side.

“I didn’t mean to frighten you,” said Ned Trent, in guarded tones. “I heard you coming. I thought you could hear me.”

He picked up the fallen articles, running his hands over them rapidly.

“Good,” he whispered. “I got some moccasins to-day–traded a few things I had in my pockets for them. I’m fixed.”

“Have you a canoe?” she asked.

“Yes–here on the beach.”

He preceded her down the few remaining yards of the trail. She followed, already desolated at the thought of parting, for the wilderness was very big. The bulk of the man partly blotted out the lucent spot where the river was–now his arm, now his head, now the breadth of his shoulders. This silhouette of him was dear to her, the sound of his movements, the faint stir of his breathing borne to her on the light breeze. Virginia’s tender heart almost overflowed with longing and fear for him.

They emerged on a little slope and at once pushed the canoe into the current.

She accepted the aid of his hand for a moment, and sank to her place, facing him He spurned lightly the shore, and so they were adrift.

In a moment they seemed to be floating on a vast vapor of night, infinitely remote from anywhere, surrounded by the silence that might have been before the world’s beginning. A faint splash could have been a muskrat near at hand or a caribou far away. The paddle rose and dipped with a faint _swish_, _swish_, and the steersman’s twist of it was taken up by the man’s strong wrist so it did not click against the gunwale; the bow of the craft divided the waters with a murmuring so faint as to seem but the echo of a silence. Neither spoke. Virginia watched him, her heart too full for words; watched the full swing of his strong shoulders, the balance of his body at the hips, the poise of his head against the dull sky. In a moment more the parting would have to come. She dreaded it, and yet she looked forward to it with a hungry joy. Then he would say what she had seen in his eyes; then he would speak; then she would hear the words that should comfort her in the days of waiting. For a woman lives much for the present, and the moment’s word is an important thing.

The man swung his paddle steadily, throwing into the strokes a wanton exuberance that showed how high his spirits ran. After a time, when they were well out from the shore, he took a deep breath of delight.

“Ah, you don’t know how happy I am,” he exulted, “you don’t know! To be free, to play the game, to match my wits against their–ah, that is life!”

“I am sorry to see you go,” she murmured, “very sorry. The days will be full of terror until I know you are safe.”

“Oh, yes,” he answered: “but I’ll get there, and I shall tell it all to you at Quebec–at Quebec in August. It will he a brave tale! You will be there–surely?”

“Yes,” said the girl, softly; “I will be there–surely.”

“Good! Feel the wind on your cheek? It is from the Southland, where I am going. I have ventured–and I have not lost! It is something not to lose, when one has ventured against many. They have my goods–but I—-“

“You?” repeated Virginia, as he hesitated.

“Ah, I don’t go back empty-handed!” he tried. Her heart stood still, then leaped in anticipation of what he would say. Her soul hungered for the words, the words that should not only comfort her, but should be to her the excuse for many things. She saw him–shadowy, graceful against the dim gray of the river and sky–lean ever so slightly toward her. But then he straightened again to his paddle, and contented himself with repeating merely: “Quebec–in August, then.”

The canoe grated. Ned Trent with an exclamation drove his paddle into the clay.

“Lucky the bottom is soft here,” said he; “I did not realize we were so close ashore.”

He drew the canoe up on the shelving beach, helped Virginia out, took his rifle, and so stood ready to depart.

“Leave the canoe just where we got in,” he advised; “it is around the point, you see, and that may fool them a. little.”

“You are going.” she said, dully. Then she came close to him and looked up at him with her wonderful eyes. “Good-by.”

“Good-by,” said he.

Was this to be all? Had he nothing more to tell her? Was the word to lack, the word she needed so much? She had given herself unreservedly into this man’s hands, and at parting he had no more to say to her than “Good-by.” Virginia’s eyes were tearful, but she would not let him know that. She felt that her heart would break.

“Well, good-by,” he said again after a moment, which he had spent inspecting the heavens. “Ah, you don’t know what it is to be free! By to-morrow morning I shall be half-way to the Mattagami. I can hardly wait to see it, for then I am safe! And then nex; day–why, next day they won’t know which of a dozen ways I’ve gone!” He was full of the future, man fashion.

He took her hands, leaned over, and lightly kissed her on the mouth. Instantly Virginia became wildly and unreasonably angry. She could not have told herself why, but it was the lack of the word she had wanted so much, the pain of feeling that he could go like that, the thwarted bitterness of a longing that had grown stronger than she had even yet realized.

Instinctively she leaped into the canoe, sending it spinning from the bank.

“Ah, you had no _right_ to do that!” she cried. “I gave you no _right_!”

Then, heedless of what he was saying, she began to paddle straight from the shore, weeping bitterly, her face upraised, her hair in her eyes, and the tears coursing unheeded down her cheeks.

Chapter Fourteen

Slower and slower her paddle dipped, lower and lower hung her head, faster and faster flowed her tears. The instinctive recoil, the passionate resentment had gone. In the bitterness of her spirit she knew not what she thought except that she would give her soul to see him again, to feel the touch of his lips once more. For she could not make herself believe that this would ever come to pass. He had gone like a phantom, like a dream, and the mists of life had closed about him, showing no sign. He had vanished, and at once she seemed to know that the episode was finished.

The canoe whispered against the soft clay bottom. She had arrived, though how the crossing had been made she could not have told. Slowly and sorrowfully she disembarked. Languidly she drew the light craft beyond the stream’s eager fingers. Then, her forces at an end, she huddled down on the ground and gave herself up to sorrow.

The life of the forest went on as though she were not there. A big owl far off said hurriedly his _whoo-whoo-whoo_, as though he had the message to deliver and wanted to finish the task. A smaller owl near at hand cried _ko-ko-ko-oh_ with the intonation of a tin horn. Across the river a lynx screamed, and was answered at once by the ululations of wolves. On the island the _giddes_ howled defiance. Then from above, clear, spiritual, floated the whistle of shore birds arriving from the south. Close by sounded a rustle of leaves, a sharp squeak; a tragedy had been consummated, and the fierce little mink stared malevolently across the body of his victim at the motionless figure on the beach.

Virginia, drowned in grief, knew of none of these things. She was seeing again the clear brown face of the stranger, his curly brown hair, his steel eyes, and the swing of his graceful figure. Now he fronted the wondering _voyageurs_, one foot raised against the bow of the _brigade_ canoe; now he stood straight and tall against the light of the sitting-room door; now he emptied the vials of his wrath and contempt on Archibald Crane’s reverend head; now he passed in the darkness, singing gayly the _chanson de canot_. But more fondly she saw him as he swept his hat to the ground on discovering her by the guns, as he bent his impassioned eyes on her in the dim lamplight of their first interview, as he tossed his hat aloft in the air when he had understood that she would be in Quebec. She hugged the visions to her, and wept over them softly, for she was now sure she would never see him again.

And she heard his voice, now laughing, now scornful, now mocking, now indignant, now rich and solemn with feeling. He flouted the people, he turned the shafts of his irony on her father, he scathed the minister, he laughed at Louis Placide awakened from his sleep, he sang, he told her of the land of desolation, he pleaded. She could hear him calling her name–although he had never spoken it–in low, tender tones, “Virginia! Virginia!” over and over again softly, as though his soul were crying through his lips.

Then somehow, in a manner not to be comprehended, it was borne in on her consciousness that he was indeed near her, and that he was indeed calling her name. And at once she made him out, standing dripping on the beach. A moment later she was in his arms.

“Ah!” he cried, in gladness; “you are here!”

He crushed her hungrily to him, unmindful of his wet clothes, kissing her eyes, her cheeks, her lips, her chin, even the fragrant corner of her throat exposed by the collar of her gown. She did not struggle.

“Oh!” she murmured, “my dear, my dear! Why did you come back? Why did you come?”

“Why did I come?” he repeated, passionately. “Why did I come? Can you ask that? How could I help but come? You must have known I would come. Surely you must have known! Didn’t you hear me calling you when you paddled away? I came to get the right. I came to get your promise, your kisses, to hear you say the word, to get you! I thought you understood. It was all so clear to me. I thought you knew. That was why I was so glad to go, so eager to get away that I could not even realize I was parting from you–so I could the sooner reach Quebec–reach you! Don’t you see how I felt? All this present was merely something to get over, to pass by, to put behind us until I got to Quebec in August–and you. I looked forward so eagerly to that, I was so anxious to get away, I was desirous of hastening on to the time when things could be _sure_! Don’t you understand?”

“Yes, I think I do,” replied the girl, softly.

“And I thought of course you knew, I should not have kissed you otherwise.”

“How could I know?” she sighed. “You said nothing, and, oh! I _wanted_ so to hear!”

And singularly enough he said nothing now, but they stood facing each other hand in hand, while the great vibrant life they were now touching so closely filled their hearts and eyes, and left them faint. So they stood for hours or for seconds, they could not tell, spirit-hushed, ecstatic. The girl realized that they must part.

“You must go,” she whispered brokenly, at last. “I do not want you to, but you must.”

She smiled up at him with trembling lips that whispered to her soul that she must be brave.

“Now go,” she nerved herself to say, releasing her hands.

“Tell me,” he commanded.

“What?” she asked.

“What I most want to hear.”

“I can tell you many things,” said she, soberly, “but I do not know which of them you want to hear. Ah, Ned. I can tell you that you have come into a girl’s life to make her very happy and very much afraid. And that is a solemn thing; is it not?”

“Yes,” said he.

“And I can tell you that this can never be undone. That is a solemn thing, too, is it not?”

“Yes,” said he.

“And that, according as you treat her, this girl will believe or not believe in the goodness of all men or the badness of all men. Ah, Ned, a woman’s heart is fragile, and mine is in your keeping.”

Her face was raised bravely and steadily to his. In the starlight it shone white and pathetic. And her eyes were two liquid wells of darkness in the shadow, and her half-parted lips were wistful and childlike.

The man caught both her hands, again looking down on her. Then he answered her, solemnly and humbly.

“Virginia,” said he, “I am setting out on a perilous Journey. As I deal with you, may God deal with me.”

“Ah, that is as I like you,” she breathed.

“Good-by,” said he.

She raised her lips of her own accord, and he kissed them reverently.

“Good-by,” she murmured.

He turned away with an effort and ran down the beach to the canoe.

“Good-by, good-by,” she murmured, under her breath. “Ah, good-by! I love you! Oh, I do love you!”

Then suddenly from the bushes leaped dark figures. The still night was broken by the sound of a violent scuffle–blows–a fall. She heard Ned Trent’s voice calling to her from the _melee_.

“Go back at once!” he commanded, clearly and steadily. “You can do no good. I order you to go home before they search the woods.”

But she crouched in dazed terror, her pupils wide to the dim light. She saw them bind him, and stand waiting; she saw a canoe glide out of the darkness; she saw the occupants of the canoe disembark; she saw them exhibit her little rifle, and heard them explain in Cree, that they had followed the man swimming. Then she knew that the cause was lost, and fled as swiftly as she could through the forest.

Chapter Fifteen

Galen Albret had chosen to interrogate his recaptured prisoner alone. He sat again, in the arm-chair of the Council Room. The place was flooded with sun. It touched the high-lights of the time-darkened, rough furniture, it picked out the brasses, it glorified the whitewashed walls. In its uncompromising illumination Me-en-gan, the bows-man, standing straight and tall and silent by the door, studied his master’s face and knew him to be deeply angered.

For Galen Albret was at this moment called upon to deal with a problem more subtle than any with which his policy had been puzzled in thirty years. It was bad enough that, in repeated defiance of his authority, this stranger should persist in his attempt to break the Company’s monopoly; it was bad enough that he had, when captured, borne himself with so impudent an air of assurance; it was bad enough that he should have made open love to the Factor’s daughter, should have laughed scornfully in the Factor’s very face. But now the case had become grave. In some mysterious manner he had succeeded in corrupting one of the Company’s servants. Treachery was therefore to be dealt with.

Some facts Galen Albret had well in hand. Others eluded him persistently. He had, of course, known promptly enough of the disappearance of a canoe, and had thereupon dispatched his Indians to the recapture. The Reverend Archibald Crane had reported that two figures had been seen in the act of leaving camp, one by the river, the other by the Woods Trail. But here the Factor’s investigations encountered a check. The rifle brought in by his Indians, to his bewilderment, he recognized not at all. His repeated cross-questionings, when they touched on the question of Ned Trent’s companion, got no farther than the Cree wooden stolidity. No, they had seen no one, neither presence, sign, nor trail. But Galen Albret, versed in the psychology of his savage allies, knew they lied. He suspected them of clan loyalty to one of their own number; and yet they had never failed him before. Now, his heavy revolver at his right hand, he interviewed Ned Trent, alone, except for the Indian by the portal.

As with the Indians, his cross-examination had borne scant results. The best of his questions but involved him in a maze of baffling surmises. Gradually his anger had mounted, until now the Indian at the door knew by the wax-like appearance of the more prominent places on his deeply carved countenance that he had nearly reached the point of outbreak.

Swiftly, like the play of rapiers, the questions and answers broke across the still room.

“You had aid,” the Factor asserted, positively.

“You think so?”

“My Indians say you were alone. But where did you get this rifle?”

“I stole it.”

“You were alone?”

Ned Trent paused for a barely appreciable instant. It was not possible that the Indians had failed to establish the girl’s presence, and he feared a trap. Then he caught the expressive eye of Me-en-gan at the door. Evidently Virginia had friends.

“I was alone,” he repeated, confidently.

“That is a lie. For though my Indians were deceived, two people were observed by my clergyman to leave the Post immediately before I sent out to your capture. One rounded the island in a canoe; the other took the Woods Trail.”

“Bully for the Church,” replied Trent, imperturbably. “Better promote him to your scouts.”

“Who was that second person?”

“Do you think I will tell you?”

“I think I’ll find means to make you tell me!” burst out the Factor.

Ned Trent was silent.

“If you’ll tell me the name of that man I’ll let you go free. I’ll give you a permit to trade in the country. It touches my authority–my discipline. The affair becomes a precedent. It is vital.”

Ned Trent fixed his eyes on the bay and hummed a little air, half turning his shoulder to the older man.

The latter’s face blazed with suppressed fury. Twice his hand rested almost convulsively on the butt of his heavy revolver.

“Ned Trent,” he cried, harshly, at last, “pay attention to me. I’ve had enough of this. I swear if you do not tell me what I want to know within five minutes, I’ll hang you to-day!”

The young man spun on his heel.

“Hanging!” he cried. “You cannot mean that?”

The Free Trader measured him up and down, saw that his purpose was sincere, and turned slowly pale under the bronze of his out-of-door tan. Hanging is always a dreadful death, but in the Far North it carries an extra stigma of ignominy with it, inasmuch as it is resorted to only with the basest malefactors. Shooting is the usual form of execution for all but the most despicable crimes. He turned away with a little gesture.

“Well!” cried Albret.

Ned Trent locked his lips in a purposeful straight line of silence. To such an outrage there could be nothing to say. The Factor jerked his watch to the table.

“I said five minutes,” he repeated. “I mean it.”

The young man leaned against the side at the window, his arms folded, his back to the room. Outside, the varied life of the Post went forward under his eyes. He even noted with a surface interest the fact that out across the river a loon was floating, and remarked that never before had he seen one of those birds so far north. Galen Albret struck the table with the flat of his hand.

“Done!” he cried. “This is the last chance I shall give you. Speak at this instant or accept the consequences!”

Ned Trent turned sharply, as though breaking a thread that bound him to the distant prospect beyond the window. For an instant he stared enigmatically at his opponent. Then in the sweetest tones,

“Oh, go to the devil!” said he, and began to walk deliberately toward the older man.

There lay between the window and the head of the table perhaps a dozen ordinary Steps, for the room was large. The young man took them slowly, his eyes fixed with burning intensity on the seated figure, the muscles of his locomotion contracting and relaxing with the smooth, stealthy continuity of a cat. Galen Albret again laid hand on his revolver.

“Come no nearer,” he commanded.

Me-en-gan left the door and glided along the wall. But the table intervened between him and the Free Trader.

The latter paid no attention to the Factor’s command. Galen Albret suddenly raised his weapon from the table.

“Stop, or I’ll fire!” he cried, sharply.

“I mean just that.” said Ned Trent between his clenched teeth.

But ten feet separated the two men. Galen Albret levelled the revolver. Ned Trent, watchful, prepared to spring. Me-en-gan, near the foot of the table, gathered himself for attack.

Then suddenly the Free Trader relaxed his muscles, straightened his back, and returned deliberately to the window. Facing about in astonishment to discover the reason for this sudden change of decision, the other two men looked into the face of Virginia Albret, standing in the doorway of the other room.

“Father!” she cried.

“You must go back,” said Ned Trent speaking clearly and collectedly, in the hope of imposing his will on her obvious excitement. “This is not an affair in which you should interfere. Galen Albret, send her away.”

The Factor had turned squarely in his heavy arm-chair to regard the girl, a frown on his brows.

“Virginia,” he commanded, in deliberate, stern tones of authority, “leave the room. You have nothing to do with this case, and I do not desire your interference.”

Virginia stepped bravely beyond the portals, and stopped. Her fingers were nervously interlocked, her lip trembled, in her cheeks the color came and went, but her eyes met her father’s, unfaltering.

“I have more to do with it than you think.” she replied.

Instantly Ned Trent was at the table. “I really think this has gone far enough,” he interposed. “We have had our interview and come to a decision. Miss Albret must not be permitted to exaggerate a slight sentiment of pity into an interest in my affairs. If she knew that such a demonstration only made it worse for me I am sure she would say no more.” He looked at her appealingly across the Factor’s shoulder.

Me-en-gan was already holding open the door. “You come,” he smiled, beseechingly.

But the Factor’s suspicions were aroused.

“There is something in this,” he decided. “I think you may stay, Virginia.”

“You are right,” broke in the young man, desperately. “There is something in it. Miss Albret knows who gave me the rifle, and she was about to inform you of his identity. There is no need in subjecting her to that distasteful ordeal. I am now ready to confess to you. I beg you will ask her to leave the room.”

Galen Albret, in the midst of these warring intentions, had sunk into his customary impassive calm. The light had died from his eyes, the expression from his face, the energy from his body. He sat, an inert mass, void of initiative, his intelligence open to what might be brought to his notice.

“Virginia, this is true?” his heavy, dead voice rumbled through his beard. “You know who aided this man?”

Ned. Trent mutely appealed to her: her glance answered his.

“Yes, father,” she replied.

“Who?”

“I did.”

A dead silence fell on the room. Galen Albret’s expression and attitude did not change. Through dull, lifeless eyes, from behind the heavy mask of his waxen face and white beard, he looked steadily out upon nothing. Along either arm of the chair stretched his own arms limp and heavy with inertia. In suspense the other three inmates of the place watched him, waiting for some change. It did not come. Finally his lips moved.

“You?” he muttered, questioningly,

“I,” she repeated

Another silence fell.

“Why?” he asked at last.

“Because it was an unjust thing. Because we could not think of taking a life in that way, without some reason for it.”

“Why?” he persisted, taking no account of her reply.

Virginia let her gaze slowly rest on the Free Trader, and her eyes filled with a world of tenderness and trust.

“Because I love him,” said she, softly.

Chapter Sixteen

After an instant Galen Albret turned slowly his massive head and looked at her. He made no other movement, yet she staggered back as though she had received a violent blow on the chest.

“Father!” she gasped.

Still slowly, gropingly, he arose to his feet, holding tight to the edge of the table. Behind him unheeded the rough-built armchair crashed to the floor. He stood there upright and motionless, looking straight before him, his face formidable. At first his speech was disjointed. The words came in widely punctuated gasps. Then, as the wave of his emotion rolled back from the poise into which the first shock of anger had thrown it, it escaped through his lips in a constantly increasing stream of bitter words.

“You–you love him,” he cried. “You–my daughter! You have been–a traitor–to me! You have dared–dared–deny that which my whole life has affirmed! My own flesh and blood–when I thought the nearest _metis_ of them all more loyal! You love this man–this man who has insulted me, mocked me! You have taken his part against me! You have deliberately placed yourself in the class of those I would hang for such an offence! If you were not my daughter I would hang you. Hang my own child!” Suddenly his rage flared. “You little fool! Do you dare set your judgment against mine? Do you dare interfere where I think well? Do you dare deny my will? By the eternal, I’ll show you, old as you are, that you have still a father! Get to your room! Out of my sight!” He took two steps forward, and so his eye fell on Ned Trent. He uttered a scream of rage, and reached for the pistol. Fortunately the abruptness of his movement when he arose had knocked it to the floor, so now in the blindness of a red anger he could not see it. He shrieked out an epithet and jumped forward, his arm drawn to strike. Ned Trent leaped back into an attitude of defence.

All three of those present had many times seen Galen Albret possessed by his noted fits of anger, so striking in contrast to his ordinary contained passivity. But always, though evidently in a white heat of rage and given to violent action and decision, he had retained the clearest command of his faculties, issuing coherent and dreaded orders to those about him. Now he bad become a raging wild beast. And for the spectators the sight had all the horror of the unprecedented.

But the younger man, too, had gradually heated to the point where his ordinary careless indifference could give off sparks. The interview had been baffling, the threats real and unjust, the turn of affairs when Virginia Albret entered the room most exasperating on the side of the undesirable and unforeseen. In foiled escape, in thwarted expedient, his emotions had been many times excited, and then eddied back on themselves. The potentialities of as blind an anger as that of Galen Albret were in him. It only needed a touch to loose the flood. The physical threat of a blow supplied that touch. As the two men faced each other both were ripe for the extreme of recklessness.

But while Galen Albret looked to nothing less than murder, the Free-Trader’s individual genius turned to dead defiance and resistance of will. While Galen Albret’s countenance reflected the height of passion, Trent was as smiling and cool and debonair as though he had at that moment received from the older man an extraordinary and particular favor. Only his eyes shot a baleful blue flame, and his words, calmly enough delivered, showed the extent to which his passion had cast policy to the winds.

“Don’t go too far! I warn you!” said he. As though the words had projected him bodily forward, Galen Albret sprang to deliver his blow. The Free Trader ducked rapidly, threw his shoulder across the middle of the older man’s body, and by the very superiority of his position forced his antagonist to give ground. That the struggle would have then continued body to body there can be no doubt, had it not been for the fact that the Factor’s retrogressive movement brought his knees sharply against the edge of a chair standing near the side of the table. Albret lost his balance, wavered, and finally sat down violently. Ned Trent promptly pinned him by the shoulder into powerless immobility. Me-en-gan had possessed himself of the fallen pistol, but beyond keeping a generally wary eye out for dangerous developments, did not offer to interfere. Your Indian is in such a crisis a disciplinarian, and he had received no orders.

“Now,” said Ned Trent, acidly, “I think this will stop right here. You do not cut a very good figure, my dear sir,” he laughed a little. “You haven’t cut a very good figure from the beginning, you know. You forbade me to do various things, and I have done them all. I traded with your Indians. I came and went in your country. Do you think I have not been here often before I was caught? And you forbade me to see your daughter again. I saw her that very evening, and the next morning and the next evening.”

He stood, still holding Galen Albret immovably in the chair, looking steadily and angrily into the leader’s eyes, driving each word home with the weight of his contained passion. The girl touched his arm.

“Hush! oh, hush!” she cried in a panic. “Do not anger him further!”

“When you forbade me to make love to her,” he continued, unheeding, “I laughed at you.” With a sudden, swift motion of his left arm he drew her to him and touched her forehead with his lips. “Look! Your commands have been rather ridiculous, sir. I seem to have had the upper hand of you from first to last. Incidentally you have my life. Oh, welcome! That is small pay and little satisfaction.”

He threw himself from the Factor and stepped back.

Galen Albret sat still without attempting to renew the struggle. The enforced few moments of inaction had restored to him his self-control. He was still deeply angered, but the insanity of rage had left him. Outwardly he was himself again. Only a rapid heaving of his chest answered Ned Trent’s quick breathing, as the two men glared defiantly at each other in the pause that followed.

“Very well, sir,” said the Factor, curtly, at last. “Your time is over. I find it unnecessary to hang you. You will start, on your _Longue Traverse_ to-day.”

“Oh!” cried Virginia, in a low voice of agony, and fluttered to her lover’s side.

“Hush! hush!” he soothed her. “There is a chance.”

“You think so?” broke in Galen Albret, harshly. And looking at his set face and blazing eyes, they saw that there was no chance. The Free Trader shrugged his shoulders.

“You are going to do this thing, father,” appealed Virginia, “after what I have told you?”

“My mind is made up.”

“I shall not survive him, father!” she threatened, in a low voice. Then, as the Factor did not respond, “Do not misunderstand me. I do not intend to survive him.”

“Silence! silence! silence!” cried Galen Albret, in a crescendo outburst. “Silence! I will not be gainsaid! You have made your choice! You are no longer a daughter of mine!”

“Father!” cried Virginia, faintly, her lips going pale.

“Don’t speak to me! Don’t look at me! Get out of here! Get out of the place! I won’t have you here another day–another hour! By—-“

The girl hesitated for a moment, then ran to him, sinking on her knees, and clasping his hand.

“Father,” she pleaded, “you are not yourself. This has been very trying to you. To-morrow you will be sorry. But then it will be too late. Think, while there is yet time. He has not committed a crime. You yourself told me he was a man of intelligence and daring–a gentleman; and surely, though he has been hasty, he has acted with a brave spirit through it all. See, he will promise you to go away quietly, to say nothing of all this, never to come into this country again without your permission. He will do this if I ask him, for he loves me. Look at me, father. Are you going to treat your little girl so–your Virginia? You have never refused me anything before. And this is the greatest thing in all my life.” She held his hand to her cheek and stroked it, murmuring little feminine, caressing phrases, secure in her power of witchery, which had never failed her before. The sound of her own voice reassured her, the quietude of the man she pleaded with. A lifetime of petting, of indulgence, threw its soothing influence over her perturbation, convincing her that somehow all this storm and stress must be phantasmagoric–a dream from which she was even now awakening into a clearer day of happiness. “For you love me, father,” she concluded, and looked up daintily, with a pathetic, coquettish tilt of her fair head, to peer into his face.

Galen Albret snarled like a wild beast, throwing aside the girl, as he did the chair in which he had been sitting. Ned Trent caught her, reeling, in his arms.

For as is often the case with passionate but strong temperaments, though the Factor had attained a certain calm of control, the turmoil of his deeper anger had not been in the least stilled. Over it a crust of determination had formed–the determination to make an end by the directest means in his autocratic power of this galling opposition. The girl’s pleading, instead of appealing to him, had in reality but stirred his fury the more profoundly. It had added a new fuel element to the fire. Heretofore his consciousness had felt merely the thwarting of his pride, his authority, his right to loyalty. Now his daughter’s entreaty brought home to him the bitter realization that he had been attained on another side–that of his family affection. This man had also killed for him his only child. For the child had renounced him, had thrust him outside herself into the lonely and ruined temple of his pride. At the first thought his face twisted with emotion, then hardened to cold malice.

“Love you!” he cried. “Love you! An unnatural child! An ingrate! One who turns from me so lightly!” He laughed bitterly, eyeing her with chilling scrutiny. “You dare recall my love for you!” Suddenly he stood upright, levelling a heavy, trembling arm at her. “You think an appeal to my love will save him! Fool!”

Virginia’s breath caught in her throat. She straightened, clutched the neckband of her gown. Then her head fell slowly forward. She had fainted in her lover’s arms.

They stood exactly so for an appreciable interval, bewildered by the suddenness of this outcome; Galen Albret’s hand outstretched in denunciation; the girl like a broken lily, supported in the young man’s arms; he searching her face passionately for a sign of life; Me-en-gan, straight and sorrowful, again at the door.

Then the old man’s arm dropped slowly, His gaze wavered. The lines of his face relaxed. Twice he made an effort to turn away. All at once his stubborn spirit broke; he uttered a cry, and sprang forward to snatch the unconscious form hungrily into his bear clasp, searching the girl’s face, muttering incoherent things.

“Quick!” he cried, aloud, the guttural sounds jostling one another in his throat. “Get Wishkobun, quick!”

Ned Trent looked at him with steady scorn, his arms folded.

“Ah!” he dropped distinctly in deliberate monosyllables across the surcharged atmosphere of the scene. “So it seems you have found your heart, my friend!”

Galen Albret glared wildly at him over the girl’s fair head.

“She is my daughter,” he mumbled.

Chapter Seventeen

They carried the unconscious girl into the dim-lighted apartment of the curtained windows, and laid her on the divan. Wishkobun, hastily summoned, unfastened the girl’s dress at the throat.

“It is a faint,” she announced in her own tongue. “She will recover in a few minutes; I will get some water.”

Ned Trent wiped the moisture from his forehead with his handkerchief. The danger he had undergone coolly, but this overcame his iron self-control. Galen Albret, like an anxious bear, weaved back and forth the length of the couch. In him the rumble of the storm was but just echoing into distance.

“Go into the next room,” he growled at the Free Trader, when finally he noticed the latter’s presence.

Ned Trent hesitated.

“Go, I say!” snarled the Factor. “You can do nothing here.” He followed the young man to the door, which he closed with his own hand, and then turned back to the couch on which his daughter lay. In the middle of the floor his foot clicked on some small object. Mechanically lie picked it up.

It proved to be a little silver match-safe of the sort universally used in the Far North. Evidently the Free Trader had nipped it from his pocket with his handkerchief, The Factor was about to thrust it into his own pocket, when his eye caught lettering roughly carved across one side. Still mechanically, he examined it more closely, The lettering was that of a man’s name. The man’s name was Graehme Stewart.

Without thinking of what he did, he dropped the object on the small table, and returned anxiously to the girl’s side, cursing the tardiness of the Indian woman. But in a moment Wishkobun returned.

“Will she recover?” asked the Factor, distracted at the woman’s deliberate examination.

The latter smiled her indulgent, slow smile. “But surely,” she assured him in her own tongue, “it is no more than if she cut her finger. In a few breaths she will recover. Now I will go to the house of the Cockburn for a morsel of the sweet wood [camphor] which she must smell.” She looked her inquiry for permission.

“Sagaamig–go,” assented Albret.

Relieved in mind, he dropped into a chair. His eye caught the little silver match-safe, He picked it up and fell to staring at the rudely carved letters.

He found that he was alone with his daughter–and the thoughts aroused by the dozen letters of a man’s name.

All his life long he had been a hard man. His commands had been autocratic; his anger formidable; his punishments severe, and sometimes cruel. The quality of mercy was with him tenuous and weak. He knew this, and if he did not exactly glory in it, he was at least indifferent to its effect on his reputation with others. But always he had been just. The victims of his displeasure might complain that his retributive measures were harsh, that his forgiveness could not be evoked by even the most extenuating of circumstances, but not that his anger had ever been baseless or the punishment undeserved. Thus he had held always his own self-respect, and from his self-respect had proceeded his iron and effective rule.

So in the case of the young man with whom now his thoughts were occupied. Twice he had warned him from the country without the punishment which the third attempt rendered imperative. The events succeeding his arrival at Conjuror’s House warmed the Factor’s anger to the heat of almost preposterous retribution perhaps–for after all a man’s life is worth something, even in the wilds–but it was actually retribution, and not merely a ruthless proof of power. It might be justice as only the Factor saw it, but it was still essentially justice–in the broader sense that to each act had followed a definite consequence. Although another might have condemned his conduct as unnecessarily harsh, Galen Albret’s conscience was satisfied and at rest.

Nor had his resolution been permanently affected by either the girl’s threat to make away with herself or by his momentary softening when she had fainted. The affair was thereby complicated, but that was all. In the sincerity of the threat he recognized his own iron nature, and was perhaps a little pleased at its manifestation. He knew she intended to fulfil her promise not to survive her lover, but at the moment this did not reach his fears; it only aroused further his dogged opposition.

The Free Trader’s speech as he left the room, however, had touched the one flaw in Galen Albret’s confidence of righteousness. Wearied with the struggles and the passions he had undergone, his brain numbed, his will for the moment in abeyance, he seated himself and contemplated the images those two words had called up.

Graehme Stewart! That man he had first met at Fort Rae over twenty years ago. It was but just after he had married Virginia’s mother. At once his imagination, with the keen pictorial power of those who have dwelt long in the Silent Places, brought forward the other scene–that of his wooing. He had driven his dogs into Fort la Cloche after a hard day’s run in seventy-five degrees of frost. Weary, hungry, half-frozen, he had staggered into the fire-lit room. Against the blaze he had caught for a moment a young girl’s profile, lost as she turned her face toward him in startled question of his entrance. Men had cared for his dogs. The girl had brought him hot tea. In the corner of the fire they two had whispered one to the other–the already grizzled traveller of the silent land, the fresh, brave north-maiden. At midnight, their parkas drawn close about their faces in the fearful cold, they had met outside the inclosure of the Post. An hour later they were away under the aurora for Qu’Apelle. Galen Albret’s nostrils expanded as he heard the _crack, crack, crack_ of the remorseless dog-whip whose sting drew him away from the vain pursuit. After the marriage at Qu’Apelle they had gone a weary journey to Rae, and there he had first seen Graehme Stewart.

Fort Rae is on the northwestward arm of the Great Slave Lake in the country of the Dog Ribs, only four degrees under the Arctic Circle. It is a dreary spot, for the Barren Grounds are near. Men see only the great lake, the great sky, the great gray country. They become moody, fanciful. In the face of the silence they have little to say. At Port Rae were old Jock Wilson, the Chief Trader; Father Bonat, the priest; Andrew Levoy, the _metis_ clerk; four Dog Rib teepees; Galen Albret and his bride; and Graehme Stewart.

Jock Wilson was sixty-five; Father Bonat had no age; Andrew Levoy possessed the years of dour silence. Only Graehme Stewart and Elodie, bride of Albret, were young. In the great gray country their lives were like spots of color on a mist. Galen Albret finally became jealous.

At first there was nothing to be done, but finally Levoy brought to the older man proof of the younger’s guilt. The harsh traveller bowed his head and wept. But since he loved Elodie more than himself–which was perhaps the only redeeming feature of this sorry business–he said nothing, nor did more than to journey south to Edmonton, leaving the younger man alone in Fort Rae to the White Silence. But his soul was stirred.

In the course of nature and of time Galen Albret had a daughter, but lost a wife. It was no longer necessary for him to leave his wrong unavenged. Then began a series of baffling hindrances which resulted finally in his stooping to means repugnant to his open sense of what was due himself. At the first he could not travel to his enemy because of the child in his care; when finally he had succeeded in placing the little girl where he would be satisfied to leave her, he himself was suddenly and peremptorily called east to take a post in Rupert’s Land. He could not disobey and remain in the Company, and the Company was more to him than life or revenue. The little girl he left in Sacre Coeur of Quebec; he himself took up his residence in the Hudson Bay country. After a few years, becoming lonely for his own flesh and blood, he sent for his daughter. There, as Factor, he gained a vast power, and this power he turned into the channels of his hatred. Graehme Stewart felt always against him the hand of influence. His posts in the Company’s service became intolerable. At length, in indignation against continued injustice, oppression, and insult, he resigned, broken in fortune and in prospects. He became one of the earliest Free Traders on the Saskatchewan, devoting his energies to enraged opposition of the Company which had wronged him. In the space of three short years he had met a violent and striking death; for the early days of the Free Trader were adventurous. Galen Albret’s revenge had struck home.

Then in after years the Factor had again met with Andrew Levoy. The man staggered into Conjuror’s House late at night, He had started from Winnipeg to descend the Albany River, but had met with mishap and starvation. One by one his dogs had died. In some blind fashion he pushed on for days after his strength and sanity had left him. Mu-hi-kun had brought him in. His toes and fingers had frozen and dropped off; his face was a mask of black frost-bitten flesh, in which deep fissures opened to the raw. He had gone snow-blind. Scarcely was he recognizable as a human being.

From such a man in extremity could come nothing but the truth, so Galen Albret believed him. Before Andrew Levoy died that night he told of his deceit. The Factor left the room with the weight of a crime on his conscience. For Graehme Stewart had been innocent of any wrong toward him or his bride.

Such was the story Galen Albret saw in the little silver match-box. That was the one flaw in his consciousness of righteousness; the one instance in a long career when his ruthless acts of punishment or reprisal had not rested on rigid justice, and by the irony of fate the one instance had touched him very near. Now here before him was his enemy’s son–he wondered that he had not discovered the resemblance before–and he was about to visit on him the severest punishment in his power. Was not this an opportunity vouchsafed him to repair his ancient fault, to cleanse his conscience of the one sin of the kind it would acknowledge?

But then over him swept the same blur of jealousy that had resulted in Graehme Stewart’s undoing. This youth wooed his daughter; he had won her affections away. Strangely enough Galen Albret confused the new and the old; again youth cleaved to youth, leaving age apart. Age felt fiercely the desire to maintain its own. The Factor crushed the silver match-box between his great palms and looked up. His daughter lay before him, still, lifeless. Deliberately he rested his chin on his hands and contemplated her.

The room, as always, was full of contrast; shafts of light, dust-moted, bewildering, crossed from the embrasured windows, throwing high-lights into prominence and shadows into impenetrable darkness. They rendered the gray-clad figure of the girl vague and ethereal, like a mist above a stream; they darkened the dull-hued couch on which she rested into a liquid, impalpable black; they hazed the draped background of the corner into a far-reaching distance; so that finally to Galen Albret, staring with hypnotic intensity, it came to seem that he looked upon a pure and disembodied spirit sleeping sweetly–cradled on illimitable space. The ordinary and familiar surroundings all disappeared. His consciousness accepted nothing but the cameo profile of marble white, the nimbus of golden haze about the head, the mist-like suggestion of a body, and again the clear marble spot of the hands. All else was a background of modulated depths.

So gradually the old man’s spirit, wearied by the stress of the last hour, turned in on itself and began to create. The cameo profile, the mist-like body, the marble hands remained; but now Galen Albret saw other things as well. A dim, rare perfume was wafted from some unseen space; indistinct flashes of light spotted the darknesses; faint swells of music lifted the silence intermittently. These things were small and still, and under the external consciousness–like the voices one may hear beneath the roar of a tumbling rapid–but gradually they defined themselves. The perfume came to Galen Albret’s nostrils on the wings of incensed smoke; the flashes of light steadied to the ovals of candle flames; the faint swells of music blended into grand-breathed organ chords. He felt about him the dim awe of the church, he saw the tapers burning at head and foot, the clear, calm face of the dead, smiling faintly that at last it should be no more disturbed. So had he looked all one night and all one day in the long time ago. The Factor stretched his arms out to the figure on the couch, but he called upon his wife, gone these twenty years.

“Elodie! Elodie!” he murmured, softly. She had never known it, thank God, but he had wronged her too. In all sorrow and sweet heavenly pity he had believed that her youth had turned to the youth of the other man. It had not been so. Did be not owe her, too, some reparation?

As though in answer to his appeal, or perhaps that merely the sound of a human voice had broken the last shreds of her swoon, the girl moved slightly. Galen Albret did not stir. Slowly Virginia turned her head, until finally her wandering eyes met his, fixed on her with passionate intensity. For a moment she stared at him, then comprehension came to her along with memory. She cried out, and sat upright in one violent motion.

“He! He!” she cried. “Is he gone?”

Instantly Galen Albret had her in his arms.

“It is all right,” he soothed, drawing her close to his great breast. “All right. You are my own little girl.”

Chapter Eighteen

For perhaps ten minutes Ned Trent lingered near the door of the Council Room until he had assured himself that Virginia was in no serious danger. Then he began to pace the room examining minutely the various objects that ornamented it. He paused longest at the full length portrait of Sir George Simpson, the Company’s great traveller, with his mild blue eyes, his kindly face, denying the potency of his official frown, his snowy hair and whiskers. The painted man and the real man looked at each, other inquiringly. The latter shook his head. “You travelled the wild country far,” said he, thoughtfully. “You knew many men of many lands. And wherever you went they tell me you made friends. And yet, as you embodied this Company to all these people, and so made for the fanatical loyalty that is destroying me, I suppose you and I are enemies!” He shrugged his shoulders whimsically and turned away.

Thence he cast a fleeting glance out the window at the long reach of the Moose and the blue bay gleaming in the distance. He tried the outside door. It was locked. Taken with a new idea he proceeded at once to the third door of the apartment. It opened.

He found himself in a small and much-littered room containing a desk, two chairs, a vast quantity of papers, a stuffed bird or so, and a row of account-books. Evidently the Factor’s private office,

Ned Trent returned to the main room and listened intently for several minutes. After that he ran back to the office and began hastily to open and rummage, one after another, the drawers of the desk. He discovered and concealed several bits of string, a desk-knife, and a box of matches. Then he uttered a guarded exclamation of delight. He had found a small revolver, and with it part of a box of cartridges.

“A chance!” he exulted: “a chance!”

The game would be desperate. He would be forced first of all to seek out and kill the men detailed to shadow him–a toy revolver against rifles; white man against trained savages. And after that he would have, with the cartridges remaining, to assure his subsistence. Still it was a chance.

He closed the drawers and the door, and resumed his seat in the arm-chair by the council table.

For over an hour thereafter he awaited the next move in the game. He was already swinging up the pendulum arc. The case did not appear utterly hopeless. He resolved, through Me-en-gan, whom he divined as a friend of the girl’s, to smuggle a message to Virginia bidding her hope. Already his imagination had conducted him to Quebec, when in August he would search her out and make her his own.

Soon one of the Indian servants entered the room for the purpose of conducting him to a smaller apartment, where he was left alone for some time longer. Food was brought him. He ate heartily, for he considered that wise. Then at last the summons for which he had been so long in readiness. Me-en-gan himself entered the room, and motioned him to follow.

Ned Trent had already prepared his message on the back of an envelope, writing ft with the lead of a cartridge. He now pressed the bit of paper into the Indian’s palm.

“For O-mi-mi,” he explained.

Me-en-gan, bored him through with his bead-like eyes of the surface lights.

“Nin nissitotam,” he agreed after a moment.

He led the way. Ned Trent followed through the narrow, uncarpeted hall with the faded photograph of Westminster, down the crooked steep stairs with the creaking degrees, and finally into the Council Room once more, with its heavy rafters, its two fireplaces, its long table, and its narrow windows,

“Beka–wait!” commanded Me-en-gan, and left him.

Ned Trent had supposed he was being conducted to the canoe which should bear him on the first stage of his long journey, but now he seemed condemned again to take up the wearing uncertainty of inaction. The interval was not long, however. Almost immediately the other door opened and the Factor entered.