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  • 1911
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find him between Fond du Lac and the Beaver River, and you can make it in four days by driving your dogs close to the scrub-edge of the barrens, keeping always where you can see the musk-ox to the north.” He turned to the door, and hesitated there for a moment, smiling and shrugging his shoulders. “Jean de Gravois wonders if Jan Thoreau understands?” he said, and passed out.

When Cummins returned, he found Jan’s cheeks flushed and the boy in a fever.

“Devil take that Gravois!” he growled.

“He has been a brother to me,” said Jan simply. “I love him.”

On the second day after the Frenchman’s departure, Jan rose free of the fever which had threatened him for a time, and in the afternoon he harnessed Cummins’ dogs. The last of the trappers had started from the post that morning, their sledges and dogs sinking heavily in the deepening slush; and Jan set off over the smooth toboggan trail made by the company’s agent in his return to Fort Churchill.

This trail followed close along the base of the ridge upon which he had fought the missionary, joining that of Jean de Gravois miles beyond. Jan climbed the ridge. From where he had made his attack, he followed the almost obliterated trail of the Frenchman and his Malemutes until he came to the lake; and then he knew that Jean de Gravois had spoken the truth, for he found the missionary with his face half buried in the slush, stark dead.

He no longer had to guess at the meaning of Jean’s words. The bullet- hole under the dead man’s arms was too large to escape eyes like Jan’s. Into the little hidden world which he treasured in his heart there came another face, to remain always with him–the face of the courageous little forest dandy who was hurrying with his bride back into the country of the Athabasca.

Jan allowed his dogs to walk all the way back to the post, and it was dusk before they arrived. Maballa had prepared supper, and Cummins was waiting for him. He glanced sharply at the boy. There was a smile on Jan’s lips, and there was something in his eyes which Cummins had never seen there before. From that night they were no longer filled with the nervous, glittering flashes which at times had given him an appearance almost of madness. In place of their searching suspicions, there was a warmer and more companionable glow, and Cummins felt the effect of the change as he ate his caribou steak and talked once more entirely of Mélisse.

A Cree trapper had found Jan’s violin in the snow, and had brought it to Maballa. Before Cummins finished his supper, the boy began to play, and he continued to play until the lights at the post went out and both the man and the child were deep in sleep. Then Jan stopped. There was the fire of a keen wakefulness in his eyes as he carefully unfastened the strings of his instrument, and held it close to the oil lamp, so that he could peer down through the narrow aperture in the box.

He looked again at Cummins. The man was sleeping with his face to the wall. With the hooked wire which he used for cleaning his revolver Jan fished gently at the very end of the box, and after three or four efforts the wire caught in something soft, which he pulled toward him. Through the bulge in the F-hole he dragged forth a small, tightly rolled cylinder of faded red cloth.

For a few moments he sat watching the deep breathing of Cummins, unrolling the cloth as he watched, until he had spread out upon the table before him a number of closely written pages of paper. He weighted them at one end with his violin, and held them down at the other with his hands. The writing was in French. Several of the pages were in a heavy masculine hand, the words running one upon another so closely that in places they seemed to be connected; and from them Jan took his fingers, so that they rolled up like a spring. Over the others he bent his head, and there came from him a low, sobbing breath.

On these pages the writing was that of a woman, and from the paper there still rose a faint, sweet scent of heliotrope. For half an hour Jan gazed upon them, reading the words slowly, until he came to the last page.

When there came a movement from over against the wall, he lifted for an instant a pair of startled eyes. Cummins was turning in his sleep. Soundlessly Jan tiptoed across the floor, opened the door, without disturbing the slumbering man and went out into the night. In the south and east there glowed a soft blaze of fire where the big spring moon was coming up over the forest. As Jan turned his face toward it, a new and strange longing crept into his heart. He stretched out his arms, with the papers and his violin clutched in his hands, as if from out of that growing glory a wonderful spirit was calling to him.

For the first time in his lonely life it came to him–this call of the great world beyond the wilderness; and suddenly he crushed the woman’s letter to his lips, and his voice burst from him in whispering, thrilling eagerness:

“I will come to you–some day–w’en ze leetle Mélisse come too!”

He rolled the written pages together, wrapped them in the faded red cloth, and concealed them again in the box of his violin before he reentered the cabin.

The next morning Cummins stood in the door, and said:

“How warm the sun is! The snow and ice are going, Jan. It’s spring. We’ll house the sledges to-day, and begin feeding the dogs on fish.”

Each day thereafter the sun rose earlier, the day was longer, and the air was warmer; and with the warmth there now came the sweet scents of the budding earth and the myriad sounds of the deep, unseen life of the forest, awakening from its long slumber in its bed of snow. Moose- birds chirped their mating songs and flirted from morning until night in bough and air; ravens fluffed themselves in the sun; and snowbirds –little black-and-white beauties that were wont to whisk about like so many flashing gems–changed their color from day to day until they became new creatures in a new world.

The poplar buds swelled in their joy until they split like over fat peas. The mother bears come out of their winter dens, accompanied by little ones born weeks before, and taught them how to pull down the slender saplings for these same buds. The moose returned from the blizzardy tops of the great ridges, where for good reasons they had passed the winter, followed by the wolves who fed upon their weak and sick. Everywhere were the rushing torrents of melting snow, the crackle of crumbling ice, the dying frost-cries of rock and earth and tree; and each night the pale glow of the aurora borealis crept farther and farther toward the pole in its fading glory.

The post fell back into its old ways. Now and then a visitor came in from out of the forest, but he remained for only a day or two, taking back into the solitude with him a few of the necessaries of life. Williams was busy preparing his books for the coming of the company’s chief agent from London, and Cummins, who was helping the factor, had a good deal of extra time on his hands.

Before the last of the snow was gone, he and Jan began dragging in logs for an addition which they planned for the little cabin. Basking out in the sun, with a huge bearskin for a floor, Mélisse looked upon the new home-building with wonderful demonstrations of interest. Cummins’ face glowed with pleasure as she kicked and scrambled on the bearskin and gave shrill-voiced approval of their efforts.

Jan was the happiest youth in the world. It was certain that the little Mélisse understood what they were doing, and the word passed from Cummins and Jan to the others at the post, so that it happened frequently during the building operations that Mukee and Per-ee, and even Williams himself, would squat for an hour at a time in the snow near Mélisse, marveling at the early knowledge which the great God saw fit to put into a white baby’s brain. This miracle came to be a matter of deep discussion, in which there were the few words but much thought of men born to silence. One day Mukee brought two little Indian babies and set them on the bearskin, where they continued to sit in stoic indifference–a clear proof of the superior development of Mélisse.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to hear her begin talking at any time,” confided Cummins to Jan, one evening when the boy was tuning his violin. “She is nearly six months old.”

“Do you suppose she would begin in French?” asked Jan, suddenly stopping the tightening of his strings.

Cummins stared.

“Why?”

Jan dropped his voice to an impressive whisper.

“Because I have heard her many times say, ‘Bon-bon–bonbon–bonbon’– which means candee; and always I have given her candee, an’ now ze leetle Mélisse say ‘Bonbon’ all of ze time.”

“Well,” said Cummins, eying him in half belief. “Could it happen?”

Like a shot Jan replied:

“I began in Engleesh, an’ Jan Thoreau is French!”

He began playing, but Cummins did not hear much of the music. He went to the door, and stared in lonely grief at the top of the tall spruce over the grave. Later he said to Jan:

“It would be bad if that were so. Give her no more sweet stuff when she says ‘Bonbon,’ Jan. She must forget!”

The next day Jan tore down the sapling barricade around the woman’s grave, and from noon until almost sunset he skirted the sunny side of a great ridge to the south. When he came back he brought with him a basket of the early red snow-flowers, with earth clinging to their roots. These he planted thickly over the mound under the spruce, and around its edge he put rows of the young shoots of Labrador tea and backneesh.

As the weather grew warmer, and spring changed into summer, he took Mélisse upon short excursions with him into the forests, and together they picked great armfuls of flowers and Arctic ferns. The grave was never without fresh offerings, and the cabin, with its new addition complete, was always filled with the beautiful things that spring up out of the earth.

Jan and Mélisse were happy; and in the joys of these two there was pleasure for the others of the post, as there had been happiness in the presence of the woman. Only upon Cummins had there settled a deep grief. The changes of spring and summer, bringing with them all that this desolate world held of warmth and beauty, filled him with the excruciating pain of his great grief, as if the woman had died but yesterday.

When he first saw the red flowers glowing upon her grave, he buried his head in his arms and sobbed like a child. The woman had loved them. She had always watched for the first red blooms to shoot up out of the wet earth. A hundred times he had gone with her to search for them, and had fastened the first flower in the soft beauty of her hair. Those were the days when, like happy children, they had romped and laughed together out there beyond the black spruce. Often he had caught her up in his strong arms and carried her, tired and hungry but gloriously happy, back to their little home in the clearing, where she would sit and laugh at him as he clumsily prepared their supper.

Thoughts and pictures like these choked him and drove him off alone into the depths of the wilderness. When this spirit impelled him his moccasined feet would softly tread the paths they had taken in their wanderings; and at every turn a new memory would spring up before him, and he longed to fling himself down there with the sweet spirit of the woman and die.

Little did he dream, at these times, that Jan and Mélisse were to cherish these same paths, that out of the old, dead joys there were to spring new joys, and that the new joys were to wither and die, even as his own–for a time. Beyond his own great sorrow he saw nothing in the future. He gave up Mélisse to Jan.

At last, his gaunt frame thinned by sleepless nights and days of mental torture, he said that the company’s business was calling him to Churchill, and early in August he left for the bay.

CHAPTER XI

FOR HER

Upon Jan now fell a great responsibility. Mélisse was his own. Days passed before he could realize the fullness of his possession. He had meant to go by the Athabasca water route to see Jean de Gravois, leaving Mélisse to Cummins for a fortnight or so. Now he gave this up. Day and night he guarded the child; and to Jan’s great joy it soon came to pass that whenever he was compelled to leave her for a short time, Mélisse would cry for him. At least Maballa assured him that this was so, and Mélisse gave evidence of it by her ecstatic joy when he returned.

When Cummins came back from Fort Churchill in the autumn, he brought with him a pack full of things for Mélisse, including new books and papers, for which he had spent a share of his season’s earnings. As he was freeing these treasures from their wrapping of soft caribou skin, with Jan and Mélisse both looking on, he stopped suddenly and glanced from his knees up at the boy.

“They’re wondering over at Churchill what became of the missionary who left with the mail, Jan. They say he was last seen at the Etawney.”

“And not here?” replied Jan quickly.

“Not that they know of,” said Cummins, still keeping his eyes on the boy. “The man who drove him never got back to Churchill. They’re wondering where the driver went, too. A company officer has gone up to the Etawney, and it is possible he may come over to Lac Bain. I don’t believe he’ll find the missionary.”

“Neither do I,” said Jan quite coolly. “He is probably dead, and the wolves and foxes have eaten him before this–or mebby ze feesh!”

Cummins resumed his task of unpacking, and among the books which he brought forth there were two which he gave to Jan.

“The supply ship from London came in while I was at Churchill, and those came with it,” he explained. “They’re school-books. There’s going to be a school at Churchill next winter, and the winter after that it will be at York Factory, down on the Hayes.” He settled back on his heels and looked at Jan. “It’s the first school that has ever come nearer than four hundred miles of us. That’s at Prince Albert.”

For many succeeding days Jan took long walks alone in the forest trails, and silently thrashed out the two problems which Cummins had brought back from Churchill for him. Should he warn Jean de Gravois that a company officer was investigating the disappearance of the missionary?

At first his impulse was to go at once into Jean’s haunts beyond the Fond du Lac, and give him the news. But even if the officer did come to Post Lac Bain, how would he know that the missionary was at the bottom of the lake, and that Jean de Gravois was accountable for it? So in the end Jan decided that it would be folly to stir up the little hunter’s fears, and he thought no more of the company’s investigator who had gone up to the Etawney.

But the second problem was one whose perplexities troubled him. Cummins’ word of the school at Churchill had put a new and thrilling thought into his head, and always with that thought he coupled visions of the growing Mélisse. This year the school would be at Churchill, and the next at York Factory, and after that it might be gone for ever, so that when Mélisse grew up there would be none nearer than what Jan looked upon as the other end of the world. Why could not he go to school for Mélisse, and store up treasures which in time he might turn over to her?

The scheme was a colossal one, by all odds the largest that had ever entered into his dreams of what life held for him–that he, Jan Thoreau, should learn to read and write, and do other things like the people of the far South, so that he might help to make the little creature in the cabin like her who slept under the watchful spruce. He was stirred to the depths of his soul, now with fear, again with hope and desire and ambition; and it was not until the first cold chills of approaching winter crept down from the north and east that the ultimate test came, and he told Cummins of his intention.

Once his mind was settled, Jan lost no time in putting his plans into action. Mukee knew the trail to Churchill, and agreed to leave with him on the third day–which gave Williams’ wife time to make him a new coat of caribou skin.

On the second evening he played for the last time in the little cabin; and after Mélisse had fallen asleep he took her up gently in his arms and held her there for a long time, while Cummins looked on in silence. When he replaced her in the little bed against the wall, Cummins put one of his long arms about the boy’s shoulders and led him to the door, where they stood looking out upon the grim desolation of the forest that rose black and silent against the starlit background of the sky. High above the thick tops of the spruce rose the lone tree over the grave, like a dark finger pointing up into the night, and Cummins’ eyes rested there.

“She heard you first that night, Jan,” he spoke softly. “She knew that you were coming long before I could hear anything but the crackling in the skies. I believe–she knows–now–“

The arm about Jan’s shoulder tightened, and Cummins’ head dropped until his rough cheek rested upon the boy’s hair. There was something of the gentleness of love in what he did, and in response to it Jan caught the hand that was hanging over his shoulder in both his own.

“Boy, won’t you tell me who you are, and why you came that night?”

“I will tell you, now, that I come from ze Great Bear,” whispered Jan. “I am only Jan Thoreau, an’ ze great God made me come that night because”–his heart throbbed with sudden inspiration as he looked up into his companion’s face–“because ze leetle Mélisse was here,” he finished.

For a time Cummins made no move or sound; then he drew the boy back into the cabin, and from the little gingham-covered box in the corner he took a buckskin bag.

“You are going to Churchill for Mélisse and for HER” he said in a voice pitched low that it might not awaken the baby. “Take this.”

Jan drew a step back.

“No, I fin’ work with ze compan-ee at Churchill. That is ze gold for Mélisse when she grow up. Jan Thoreau is no–what you call heem?”

His teeth gleamed in a smile, but it lasted only for an instant. Cummins’ face darkened, and he caught him firmly, almost roughly, by the arm.

“Then Jan Thoreau will never come back to Mélisse,” he exclaimed with finality. “You are going to Churchill to be at school, and not to work with your hands. THEY are sending you. Do you understand, boy? THEY!” There was a fierce tremor in his voice. “Which will it be? Will you take the bag, or will you never again come back to Lac Bain?”

Dumbly Jan reached out and took the buckskin pouch. A dull flush burned in his cheeks. Cummins looked in wonder upon the strange look that came into his eyes.

“I pay back this gold to you and Mélisse a hundred times!” he cried tensely. “I swear it, an’ I swear that Jan Thoreau mak’ no lie!”

Unconsciously, with the buckskin bag clutched in one hand, he had stretched out his other arm to the violin hanging against the wall. Cummins turned to look. When he faced him again the boy’s arm had fallen to his side and his cheeks were white.

The next day he left. No one heard his last words to Mélisse, or witnessed his final leave-taking of her, for Cummins sympathized with the boy’s grief and went out of the cabin an hour before Mukee was ready with his pack. The last that he heard was Jan’s violin playing low, sweet music to the child. Three weeks later, when Mukee returned to Lac Bain, he said that Jan had traveled to Churchill like one who had lost his tongue, and that far into the nights he had played lonely dirges upon his violin.

CHAPTER XII

A RUMOR FROM THE SOUTH

It was a long winter for Cummins and Mélisse. It was a longer one for Jan. He had taken with him a letter from the factor at Lac Bain to the factor at Churchill, and he found quarters with the chief clerk’s assistant at the post–a young, red-faced man who had come over on the ship from England. He was a cheerful, good-natured young fellow, and when he learned that his new associate had tramped all the way from the Barren Lands to attend the new public school, he at once invested himself with the responsibilities of a private tutor.

He taught Jan, first of all, to say “is” in place of “ees.” It was a tremendous lesson for Jan, but he struggled with it manfully, and a week after his arrival, when one evening he was tuning his violin to play for young MacDonald, he said with eager gravity:

“Ah, I have it now, Mr. MacDonald. It ees not ‘EES,’ it ees ‘EES!'”

MacDonald roared, but persisted, and in time Jan began to get the twist out of his tongue.

The school opened in November, and Jan found himself one of twenty or so, gathered there from forty thousand square miles of wilderness. Two white youths and a half-breed had come from the Etawney; the factor at Nelson House sent up his son, and from the upper waters of the Little Churchill there came three others.

From the first, Jan’s music found him a premier place in the interest of the tutor sent over by the company. He studied by night as well as by day, and by the end of the second month his only competitor was the youth from Nelson House. His greatest source of knowledge was not the teacher, but MacDonald. There was in him no inherent desire for the learning of the people to the south. That he was storing away, like a faithful machine, for the use of Mélisse. But MacDonald gave him that for which his soul longed–a picture of life as it existed in the wonderful world beyond the wilderness, to which some strange spirit within him, growing stronger as the weeks and months passed, seemed projecting his hopes and his ambitions.

Between his thoughts of Mélisse and Lac Bain, he dreamed of that other world; and several times during the winter he took the little roll from the box of his violin, and read again and again the written pages that it contained.

“Some time I will go,” he assured himself always. “Some time, when Mélisse is a little older, and can go too.”

To young MacDonald, the boy from Lac Bain was a “find.” The Scottish youth was filled with an immense longing for home; and as his homesickness grew, he poured more and more into Jan’s attentive ears his knowledge of the world from which he had come. He told him the history of the old brass cannon that lay abandoned among the vines and bushes, where a fort had stood at Churchill many years before. He described the coming of the first ship into the great bay; told of Hudson and his men, of great wars that his listener had never dreamed of, of kings and queens and strange nations. At night he read a great deal to Jan out of books that he had brought over with him.

As the weeks and months passed, the strange spirit that was calling to the forest boy out of that other world stirred more restlessly within him. At times it urged him to confide in MacDonald what was hidden away in the box of his violin.

The secret nearly burst from him one Sunday, when MacDonald said:

“I’m going home on the ship that comes over next summer. What do you say to going back with me, Jan?”

The spirit surged through Jan in a hot flood, and it was only an accident that kept him from saying what was in his heart.

They were standing with the icy bay stretching off in interminable miles toward the pole. A little way from them, the restless tide was beating up through the broken ice, and eating deeper into the frozen shore. From out of the bank there projected, here and there, the ends of dark, box-like objects, which, in the earlier days of the company, had been gun-cases. In them were the bones of men who had lived and died an age ago; and as Jan looked at the silent coffins, now falling into the sea, another spirit–the spirit that bound him to Mélisse– entered into him, and he shuddered as he thought of what might happen in the passing of a year.

It was this spirit that won. In the spring, Jan went back to Lac Bain with the company’s supplies. The next autumn he followed the school to York Factory, and the third year he joined it at Nelson House. Then the company’s teacher died, and no one came to fill his place.

In midwinter of this third year, Jan returned to Lac Bain, and, hugging the delighted Mélisse close in his arms, he told her that never again would he go away without her. Mélisse, tightening her arms around his neck, made his promise sacred by offering her little rosebud of a mouth for him to kiss. Later, the restless spirit slumbering within his breast urged him to speak to Cummins.

“When Mélisse is a little older, should we not go with her into the South?” he said. “She must not live for ever in a place like this.”

Cummins looked at him for an instant as if he did not understand. When Jan’s meaning struck home, his eyes hardened, and there was the vibrant ring of steel in his quiet voice.

“Her mother will be out there under the old spruce until the end of time,” he said slowly; “and we will never leave her–unless, some day, Mélisse goes alone.”

From that hour Jan no longer looked into the box of his violin. He struggled against the desire that had grown with his years until he believed that he had crushed it and stamped it out of his existence. In his life there came to be but one rising and one setting of the sun. Mélisse was his universe. She crowded his heart until beyond her he began to lose visions of any other world.

Each day added to his joy. He called her “my little sister,” and with sweet gravity Mélisse called him “brother Jan,” and returned in full measure his boundless love. He marked the slow turning of her flaxen hair into sunny gold, and month by month watched joyfully the deepening of that gold into warm shades of brown. She was to be like her mother! Jan’s soul rejoiced, and in his silent way Cummins offered up wordless prayers of thankfulness.

So matters stood at Post Lac Bain in the beginning of Mélisse’s ninth year, when up from the south there came a rumor. As civil war spreads its deepest gloom, as the struggle of father against son and brother against brother stifles the breathing of nations, so this rumor set creeping a deep pall over the forest people.

Rumor grew into rumor. From the east, the south and the west they multiplied, until on all sides the Paul Reveres of the wilderness carried news that the Red Terror was at their heels, and the chill of a great fear swept like a shivering wind from the edge of civilization to the bay.

CHAPTER XIII

THE RED TERROR

Nineteen years before these same rumors had come up from the south, and the Red Terror had followed. The horror of it still remained with the forest people; for a thousand unmarked graves, shunned like a pestilence, and scattered from the lower waters of James Bay to the lake country of the Athabasca, gave evidence of the toll it demanded.

From DuBrochet, on Reindeer Lake, authentic word first came to Lac Bain early in the winter. Henderson was factor there, and he passed up the warning that had come to him from Nelson House and the country to the southeast.

“There’s smallpox on the Nelson,” his messenger informed Williams, “and it has struck the Crees on Wollaston Lake. God only knows what it is doing to the bay Indians, but we hear that it is wiping out the Chippewayans between the Albany and the Churchill.” He left the same day with his winded dogs. “I’m off for the Révillon people to the west, with the compliments of our company,” he explained.

Three days later, word came from Churchill that all of the company’s servants and her majesty’s subjects west of the bay should prepare themselves for the coming of the Red Terror. Williams’ thick face went as white as the paper he held, as he read the words of the Churchill factor.

“It means dig graves,” he said. “That’s the only preparation we can make!”

He read the paper aloud to the men at Lac Bain, and every available man was detailed to spread the warning throughout the post’s territory. There was a quick harnessing of dogs, and on each sledge that went out was a roll of red cotton cloth. Williams’ face was still white as he passed these rolls out from the company’s store. They were ominous of death, lurid signals of pestilence and horror, and the touch of them sent shuddering chills through the men who were about to scatter them among the forest people.

Jan went over the Churchill trail, and then swung southward along the Hasabala, where the country was crisscrossed with trap-lines of the half-breeds and the French. First, he struck the cabin of Croisset and his wife, and left part of his cloth. Then he turned westward, while Croisset harnessed his dogs and hurried with a quarter of the roll to the south. Between the Hasabala and Klokol Lake, Jan found three other cabins, and at each he left a bit of the red cotton. Forty miles to the south, somewhere on the Porcupine, were the lines of Henry Langlois, the post’s greatest fox-hunter. On the morning of the third day, Jan set off in search of Langlois; and late in the afternoon of the same day he came upon a well-beaten snow-shoe trail. On this he camped until morning. When dawn came he began following it.

He passed half a dozen of Langlois’ trap-houses. In none of them was there bait. In three the traps were sprung. In the seventh he found the remains of a red fox that had been eaten until there was little but the bones left. Two houses beyond there was an ermine in a trap, with its head eaten off. With growing perplexity, Jan examined the snow-shoe trails in the snow. The most recent of them were days old. He urged on his dogs, stopping no more at the trap-houses, until, with a shrieking command, he brought them to a halt at the edge of a clearing cut in the forest. A dozen rods ahead of him was the trapper’s cabin. Over it, hanging limply to a sapling pole, was the red signal of horror.

With a terrified cry to the dogs, Jan ran back, and the team turned about and followed him in a tangled mass. Then he stopped. There was no smoke rising from the clay chimney on the little cabin. Its one window was white with frost. Again and again he shouted, but no sign of life responded to his cries. He fired his rifle twice, and waited with his mittened hand over his mouth and nostrils. There was no reply. Then, abandoning hope, he turned back into the north, and gave his dogs no rest until he had reached Lac Bain.

His team came in half dead. Both Cummins and Williams rushed out to meet him as he drove up before the company’s store.

“The red flag is over Langlois’ cabin!” he cried. “I fired my rifle and shouted. There is no life! Langlois is dead!”

“Great God!” groaned Williams.

His red face changed to a sickly pallor, and he stood with his thick hands clenched, while Cummins took charge of the dogs and Jan went into the store for something to eat.

Mukee and Per-ee returned to the post the next day. Young Williams followed close after them, filled with terror. He had found the plague among the Crees of the Waterfound.

Each day added to the gloom at Lac Bain. For a time Jan could not fully understand, and he still played his violin and romped joyfully with Mélisse in the little cabin. He had not lived through the plague of nineteen years before. Most of the others had, even to Mukee, the youngest of them all.

Jan did not know that it was this Red Terror that came like a Nemesis of the gods to cut down the people of the great Northland, until they were fewer in number than those of the Sahara desert. But he learned quickly. In February, the Crees along Wollaston Lake were practically wiped out. Red flags marked the trail of the Nelson. Death leaped from cabin to cabin in the wilderness to the west. By the middle of the month, Lac Bain was hemmed in by the plague on all sides but the north.

The post’s trap-lines had been shortened; now they were abandoned entirely, and the great fight began. Williams assembled his men, and told them how that same battle had been fought nearly two decades before. For sixty miles about the post every cabin and wigwam that floated a red flag must be visited–and burned if the occupants were dead. In learning whether life or death existed in these places lay the peril for those who undertook the task. It was a dangerous mission. It meant facing a death from which those who listened to the old factor shrank with dread; yet, when the call came, they responded to a man.

Cummins and Jan ate their last supper together, with Mélisse sitting between them and wondering at their silence. When it was over, the two went outside.

“Mukee wasn’t at the store,” said Cummins in a thick, strained voice, halting Jan in the gloom behind the cabin. “Williams thought he was off to the south with his dogs. But he isn’t. I saw him drag himself into his shack, like a sick dog, an hour before dusk. There’ll be a red flag over Lac Bain in the morning.”

Jan stifled the sharp cry on his lips.

“Ah, there’s a light!” cried Cummins. “It’s a pitch torch burning in front of his door!”

A shrill, quavering cry came from the direction of Mukee’s cabin, and the two recognized it as the voice of the half-breed’s father–a wordless cry, rising and dying away again and again, like the wailing of a dog. Sudden lights flashed into the night, as they had flashed years ago when Cummins staggered forth from his home with word of the woman’s death. He gripped Jan’s arm in a sudden spasm of horror.

“The flag is up NOW!” he whispered huskily. “Go back to Mélisse. There is food in the house for a month, and you can bring the wood in to- night. Bar the door. Open only the back window for air. Stay inside– with her–until it is all over. Go!”

“To the red flags, that is where I will go!” cried Jan fiercely, wrenching his arm free. “It is your place to stay with Mélisse!”

“My place is with the men.”

“And mine?” Jan drew himself up rigid.

“One of us must shut himself up with her,” pleaded Cummins. “It must be you.” His face gleamed white in the darkness. “You came–that night–because Mélisse was here. SOMETHING sent you–SOMETHING–don’t you understand? And since then she has never been near to death until now. You must stay with Mélisse–WITH YOUR VIOLIN!”

“Mélisse herself shall choose,” replied Jan. “We will go into the cabin, and the one to whom she comes first goes among the red flags. The other shuts himself in the cabin until the plague is gone.”

He turned swiftly back to the door. As he opened it, he stepped aside to let Cummins enter first, and behind the other’s broad back he leaped quickly to one side, his eyes glowing, his white teeth gleaming in a smile. Unseen by Cummins, he stretched out his arms to Mélisse, who was playing with the strings of his violin on the table.

He had done this a thousand times, and Mélisse knew what it meant–a kiss and a joyous toss halfway to the ceiling. She jumped from her stool and ran to him; but this time, instead of hoisting her above his head, he hugged her up close to his breast, and buried his face in her soft hair. His eyes looked over her in triumph to Cummins.

“Up, Jan, up–‘way up!” cried Mélisse.

He tossed her until she half turned in midair, kissed her again as he caught her in his arms, and set her, laughing and happy, on the edge of the table.

“I am going down among the sick Crees in Cummins’ place,” said Jan to Williams, half an hour later. “Now that the plague has come to Lac Bain, he must stay with Mélisse.”

CHAPTER XIV

A LONG WAITING

The next morning Jan struck out over his old trail to the Hasabala. The Crees were gone. He spent a day swinging east and west, and found old trails leading into the north.

“They have gone up among the Eskimos,” he said to himself. “Ah, Kazan, what in the name of the saints is that?”

The leading dog dropped upon his haunches with a menacing growl as a lone figure staggered across the snow toward them. It was Croisset. With a groan, he dropped upon the sledge.

“I am sick and starving!” he wailed. “The fiend himself has got into my cabin, and for three days I’ve had nothing but snow and a raw whisky-jack!”

“Sick!” cried Jan, drawing a step away from him.

“Yes, sick from an empty belly, and this, and this!” He showed a forearm done up in a bloody rag, and pointed to his neck, from which the skin was peeling. “I was gone ten days with that red cloth you gave me; and when I came back, if there wasn’t the horror itself grinning at me from the top of my own shanty! I tried to get in, but my wife barred the door, and said that she would shoot me if I didn’t get back into the woods. I tried to steal in at night through a window, and she drenched me in hot water. I built a wigwam at the edge of the forest, and stayed there for five days. Hon-gree! Blessed saints, I had no matches, no grub; and when I got close enough to yell these things to her, she kept her word and plunked me through a crack in the door, so that I lost a pint of blood from this arm.”

“I’ll give you something to eat,” laughed Jan, undoing his pack. “How long has the red flag been up?”

“I’ve lost all count of time, but it’s twelve days, if an hour, and I swear it’s going to take all winter to get it down!”

“It’s not the plague. Go back and tell your wife so.”

“And get shot for my pains!” groaned Croisset, digging into meat and biscuit. “I’m bound for Lac Bain, if you’ll give me a dozen matches. That whisky-jack will remain with me until I die, for when I ate him I forgot to take out his insides!”

“You’re a lucky man, Croisset. It’s good proof that she loves you.”

“If bullets and hot water and an empty belly are proofs, she loves me a great deal, Jan Thoreau! Though I don’t believe she meant to hit me. It was a woman’s bad aim.”

Jan left him beside a good fire, and turned into the southwest to burn Langlois and his cabin. The red flag still floated where he had seen it weeks before. The windows were thicker with frost. He shouted, beat upon the door with the butt of his rifle and broke in the windows. The silence of death quickened the beating of his heart when he stopped to listen. There was no doubt that Langlois lay dead in his little home.

Jan brought dry brushwood from the forest, and piled it high against the logs. Upon his sledge he sat and watched the fire until the cabin was a furnace of leaping flame.

He continued westward. At the head of the Porcupine he found the remains of three burned wigwams, and from one of them he dug out charred bones. Down the Porcupine he went slowly, doubling to the east and west, until, at its junction with Gray Otter Creek, he met a Cree, who told him that twenty miles farther on there was an abandoned village of six teepees. Toward these he boldly set forth, praying as he went that the angels were guarding Mélisse at Post Lac Bain.

Croisset reached the post forty-eight hours after he had encountered Jan.

“The red flag is everywhere!” he cried, catching sight of the signal over Mukee’s cabin. “It is to the east and west of the Hasabala as thick as jays in springtime!”

The Cree from the Gray Otter drove in on his way north.

“Six wigwams with dead in them,” he reported in his own language to Williams. “A company man, with a one-eyed leader and four trailers, left the Gray Otter to burn them.”

Williams took down his birch-bark moose-horn and bellowed a weird signal to Cummins, who opened a crack of his door to listen, with Mélisse close beside him.

“Thoreau is in the thick of it to the south,” he called. “There’s too much of it for him, and I’m going down with the dogs. Croisset will stay in the store for a few days.”

Mélisse heard the words, and her eyes were big with fear when her father turned from closing and bolting the door. In more than a childish way, she knew that Jan had gone forth to face a great danger. The grim laws of the savage world in which she lived had already begun to fix their influence upon her, quickening her instinct and reason, just as they hastened the lives of Indian children into the responsibilities of men and women before they had reached fifteen.

She knew what the red flag over Mukee’s cabin meant. She knew that the air of this world of hers had become filled with peril to those who breathed it, and that people were dying out in the forests; that all about them there was a terrible, unseen thing which her father called the plague, and that Jan had gone forth to fight it, to breathe it, and, perhaps, to die in it. Their own door was locked and bolted against it. She dared not even thrust her head from the window which was opened for a short time each day; and until Cummins assured her that there was no danger in the sunshine, she shunned the few pale rays that shot through the cabin-window at midday.

Unconsciously, Cummins added to her fears in more ways than one, and as he answered her questions truthfully, her knowledge increased day by day. She thought more and more of Jan. She watched for him through the two windows of her home. Every sound from outside brought her to them with eager hope; and always, her heart sank with disappointment, and the tears would come very near to her eyes, when she saw nothing but the terrible red flag clinging to the pole over Mukee’s cabin.

In the little Bible which her mother had left there was written, on the ragged fly-leaf, a simple prayer. Each night, as she knelt beside her cot and repeated this prayer, she paused at the end, and added:

“Dear Father in Heaven, please take care of Jan!”

The days brought quick changes now. One morning the moose-horn called Cummins to the door. It was the fifth day after Williams had gone south.

“There was no smoke this morning, and I looked through the window,” shouted Croisset. “Mukee and the old man are both dead. I’m going to burn the cabin.”

A stifled groan of anguish fell from Cummins’ lips as he went like a dazed man to his cot and flung himself face downward upon it. Mélisse could see his strong frame shaking, as if he were crying like a child; and twining her arms tightly about his neck, she sobbed out her passionate grief against his rough cheek. She did not know the part that Mukee had played in the life of the sweet woman who had once lived in this same little cabin; she knew only that he was dead; that the terrible thing had killed him and that, next to her father and Jan, she had loved him more than any one else in the world.

Soon she heard a strange sound, and ran to the window. Mukee’s cabin was in flames. Wild-eyed and tearless with horror, she watched the fire as it burst through the broken windows and leaped high up among the black spruce. In those flames was Mukee! She screamed, and her father sprang to her with a strange cry, running with her from the window into the little room where she slept.

The next morning, when Cummins went to awaken her, his face went as white as death. Mélisse was not asleep. Her eyes were wide open and staring at him, and her soft cheeks burned with the hot glow of fire.

“You are sick, Mélisse,” he whispered hoarsely. “You are sick!”

He fell upon his knees beside her, and lifted her face in his hands. The touch of it sent a chill to his heart–such as he had not felt since many years ago, in that other room a few steps away.

“I want Jan,” she pleaded. “I want Jan to come back to me!”

“I will send for him, dear. He will come back soon. I will go out and send Croisset.”

He hid his face from her as he dragged himself away. Croisset saw him coming, and came out of the store to meet him. A hundred yards away Cummins stopped.

“Croisset, for the love of God, take a team and go after Jan Thoreau,” he called “Tell him that Mélisse is dying of the plague. Hurry, hurry!”

“Night and day!” shouted Croisset.

Twenty minutes later, from the cabin window, Cummins saw him start.

“Jan will be here very soon, Mélisse,” he said, running his fingers gently through her hair.

It fell out upon the pillow in thick brown waves, and the sight of it choked him with the memory of another vision which would remain with him until the end of time. It was her mother’s hair, shining softly in the dim light; her mother’s eyes looked up at him as he sat beside her through all this long day.

Toward evening there came a change. The fever left the child’s cheeks. Her eyes closed, and she fell asleep. Through the night Cummins sat near the door, but in the gray dawn, overcome by his long vigil, his head dropped upon his breast, and he slumbered.

When he awoke the cabin was filled with light He heard a sound, and, startled, sprang to his feet. Mélisse was at the stove building a fire!

“I’m better this morning, father. Why didn’t you sleep until breakfast was ready?”

Cummins stared. Then he gave a shout, made a rush for her, and catching her up in his arms, danced about the cabin like a great bear, overturning the chairs, and allowing the room to fill with smoke in his wild joy.

“It’s what you saw through the window that made you sick, Mélisse,” he cried, putting her down at last. “I thought–” He paused, and added, his voice trembling: “I thought you were going to be sick for more than one day, my sweet little woman!”

He opened one of the windows to let in the fresh air of the morning.

When Croisset returned, he did not find a red flag over Cummins’ cabin; nor did he bring word of Jan. For three days he had followed the trails to the south without finding the boy. But he brought back other news. Williams was sick with the plague in a Cree wigwam on the lower Porcupine. It was the last they ever heard of the factor, except that he died some time in March, and was burned by the Crees.

Croisset went back over the Churchill trail, and found his wife ready to greet him with open arms. After that he joined Per-ee, who came in from the north, in another search for Jan. They found neither trace nor word of him after passing the Gray Otter, and Cummins gave up hope.

It was not for long that their fears could be kept from Mélisse. This first bitter grief that had come into her life fell upon her with a force which alarmed Cummins, and cast him into deep gloom. She no longer loved to play with her things in the cabin. For days at a time she would not touch the books which Jan had brought from Churchill, and which he had taught her to read. She found little to interest her in the things which had been her life a few weeks before.

With growing despair, Cummins saw his own efforts fail. As the days passed Mélisse mingled more and more with the Indian and half-breed children, and spent much of her time at the company’s store, listening to the talk of the men, silent, attentive, unresponsive to any efforts they might make to engage her smiles. From her own heart she looked out upon a world that had become a void for her. Jan had been mother, brother, and everything that was tender and sweet to her–and he was gone. Mukee, whom she had loved, was gone. Williams was gone. The world was changed, terribly and suddenly, and it added years to her perspective of things.

Each day, as the weeks went on, and the spring sun began to soften the snow, she became a little more like the wild children at Lac Bain and in the forest. For Jan, she had kept her hair soft and bright, because he praised her for it and told her it was pretty. Now it hung in tangles down her back.

There came a night when she forgot her prayer, and Cummins did not notice it. He failed to notice it the next night, and the next. Plunged deep in his own gloom, he was unobservant of many other things, so that, in place of laughter and joy and merry rompings, only gloomy and oppressive shadows of things that had come and gone filled the life of the little cabin.

They were eating dinner, one day in the early spring, with the sunshine flooding in upon them, when a quick, low footfall caused Mélisse to lift her eyes in the direction of the open door. A strange figure stood there, with bloodless face, staring eyes, and garments hanging in tatters–but its arms were stretched out, as those same arms had been held out to her a thousand times before, and, with the old glad cry, Mélisse darted with the swiftness of a sun-shadow beyond Cummins, crying:

“Jan, Jan–my Jan!”

Words choked in Cummins’ throat when he saw the white-faced figure clutching Mélisse to its breast.

At last he gasped “Jan!” and threw out his arms, so that both were caught in their embrace.

For an instant Jan turned his face up to the light The other stared and understood.

“You have been sick,” he said, “but it has left no marks.”

“Thank God!” breathed Jan.

Mélisse raised her head, and stroked his cheeks with her two hands. That night she remembered her prayer, and at its end she added:

“Dear Father in Heaven, thank you for sending back Jan!”

CHAPTER XV

ALMOST A WOMAN

Peace followed in the blighted trails of the Red Terror. Again the forest world breathed without fear; but from Hudson’s Bay to Athabasca, and as far south as the thousand waters of the Reindeer country, the winds whispered of a terrible grief that would remain until babes were men and men went to their graves.

Life had been torn and broken in a cataclysm more fearful than that which levels cities and disrupts the earth. Slowly it began its readjustment. There was no other life to give aid or sympathy; and just as they had suffered alone, so now the forest people struggled back into life alone, building up from the wreck of what had been, the things that were to be.

For months the Crees wailed their death dirges as they sought out the bones of their dead. Men dragged themselves into the posts, wifeless and childless, leaving deep in the wilderness all that they had known to love and give them comfort. Now and then came a woman, and around the black scars of burned cabins and teepees dogs howled mournfully for masters that were gone.

The plague had taken a thousand souls, and yet the laughing, dancing millions in that other big world beyond the edge of the wilderness caught only a passing rumor of what had happened.

Lac Bain suffered least of the far northern posts, with the exception of Churchill, where the icy winds down-pouring from the Arctic had sent the Red Terror shivering to the westward. In the late snows, word came that Cummins was to take Williams’ place as factor, and Per-ee at once set off for the Fond du Lac to bring back Jean de Gravois as “chief man.” Croisset gave up his fox-hunting to fill Mukee’s place.

The changes brought new happiness to Mélisse. Croisset’s wife was a good woman who had spent her girlhood in Montreal, and Iowaka, now the mother of a fire-eating little Jean and a handsome daughter, was a soft-voiced young Venus who had grown sweeter and prettier with her years–which is not usually the case with half-breed women.

“But it’s good blood in her, beautiful blood,” vaunted Jean proudly, whenever the opportunity came. “Her mother was a princess, and her father a pure Frenchman, whose father’s father was a chef de bataillon. What better than that, eh? I say, what better could there be than that?”

So, for the first time in her life, Mélisse discovered the joys of companionship with those of her own kind.

This new companionship, pleasant as it was, did not come between her and Jan. If anything, they were more to each other than ever. The terrible months through which they had passed had changed them both, and had given them, according to their years, the fruits which are often ripened in the black gloom of disaster rather than in the sunshine of prosperity.

To Mélisse they had opened up a new world of thought, a new vision of the things that existed about her. The sternest teacher of all had brought to her the knowledge that comes of grief, of terror, and of death, and she had passed beyond her years, just as the cumulative processes of generations made the Indian children pass beyond theirs.

She no longer looked upon Jan as a mere playmate, a being whose diversion was to amuse and to love her. He had become a man. In her eyes he was a hero, who had gone forth to fight the death of which she still heard word and whisper all about her. Croisset’s wife and Iowaka told her that he had done the bravest thing that a man might do on earth. She spoke proudly of him to the Indian children, who called him the “torch-bearer.” She noticed that he was as tall as Croisset, and taller by half a head than Jean, and that he lifted her now with one arm as easily as if she were no heavier than a stick of wood.

Together they resumed their studies, devoting hours to them each day, and through all that summer he taught her to play upon his violin. The warm months were a time of idleness at Lac Bain, and Jan made the most of them in his teaching of Mélisse. She learned to read the books which he had used at Fort Churchill, and by midsummer she could read those which he had used at York Factory. At night they wrote letters to each other and delivered them across the table in the cabin, while Cummins looked on and smoked, laughing happily at what they read aloud to him.

One night, late enough in the season for a fire to be crackling merrily in the stove, Jan was reading one of these letters, when Mélisse cried:

“Stop, Jan–stop THERE!”

Jan caught himself, and he blushed mightily when he read the next lines:

“‘I think you have beautiful eyes. I love them.'”

“What is it?” cried Cummins interestedly. “Read on, Jan.”

“Don’t!” commanded Mélisse, springing to her feet and running around the table. “I didn’t mean you to read that!”

She snatched the paper from Jan’s hand and threw it into the fire.

Jan’s blood filled with pleasure, and at the bottom of his next letter he wrote back:

“I think you have beautiful hair. I love it.”

That winter Jan was appointed post hunter, and this gave him much time at home, for meat was plentiful along the edge of the barrens. The two continued at their books until they came to the end of what Jan knew in them. After that, like searchers in strange places, they felt their way onward, slowly and with caution. During the next summer they labored through all the books which were in the little box in the corner of the cabin.

It was Mélisse who now played most on the violin, and Jan listened, his eyes glowing proudly as he saw how cleverly her little fingers danced over the strings, his face flushed with a joy that was growing stronger in him every day. One day she looked curiously into the F- hole of the instrument, and her pretty mouth puckered itself into a round, red “O” of astonishment when Jan quickly snatched the violin from her hands.

“Excuses-moi, ma belle Mélisse,” he laughed at her in French. “I am going to play you something new!”

That same day he took the little cloth-covered roll from the violin and gave it another hiding-place. It recalled to him the strange spirit which had once moved him at Fort Churchill, and which had remained with him for a time at Lac Bain. That spirit was now gone, luring him no longer. Time had drawn a softening veil over things that had passed. He was happy.

The wilderness became more beautiful to him as Mélisse grew older. Each summer increased his happiness; each succeeding winter made it larger and more complete. Every fiber of his being sang in joyful response as he watched Mélisse pass from childhood into young girlhood. He marked every turn in her development, the slightest change in her transformation, as if she had been a beautiful flower.

He possessed none of the quick impetuosity of Jean de Gravois. Years gave the silence of the North to his tongue, and his exultation was quiet and deep in his own heart. With an eagerness which no one guessed he watched the growing beauty of her hair, marked its brightening luster when he saw it falling in thick waves over her shoulders, and he knew that at last it had come to be like the woman’s. The changing lights in her eyes fascinated him, and he rejoiced again when he saw that they were deepening into the violet blue of the bakneesh flowers that bloomed on the tops of the ridges.

To him, Mélisse was growing into everything that was beautiful. She was his world, his life, and at Post Lac Bain there was nothing to come between the two. Jan noticed that in her thirteenth year she could barely stand under his outstretched arm. The next year she had grown so tall that she could not stand there at all. Very soon she would be a woman!

The thought leaped from his heart, and he spoke it aloud. It was on the girl’s fifteenth birthday. They had come up to the top of the ridge on which he had fought the missionary, to gather red sprigs of the bakneesh for the festival that they were to have in the cabin that night. High up on the face of a jagged rock, Jan saw a bit of the crimson vine thrusting itself out into the sun, and, with Mélisse laughing and encouraging him from below, he climbed up until he had secured it. He tossed it down to her.

“It’s the last one,” she cried, seeing his disadvantage, “and I’m going home. You can’t catch me!”

She darted away swiftly along the snow-covered ridge, taunting him with merry laughter as she left him clambering in cautious descent down the rock. Jan followed in pursuit, shouting to her in French, in Cree, and in English, and their two voices echoed happily in their wild frolic.

Jan slackened his steps. It was a joy to see Mélisse springing from rock to rock and darting across the thin openings close ahead of him, her hair loosening and sweeping out in the sun, her slender figure fleeing with the lightness of the pale sun-shadows that ran up and down the mountain.

He would not have overtaken her of his own choosing, but at the foot of the ridge Mélisse gave up. She returned toward him, panting and laughing, shimmering like a sea-naiad under the glistening veil of her disheveled hair. Her face glowed with excitement; her eyes, filled with the light of the sun, dazzled Jan in their laughing defiance. Before her he stopped, and made no effort to catch her. Never had he seen her so beautiful, still daring him with her laugh, quivering and panting, flinging back her hair. Half reaching out his arms, he cried:

“Mélisse, you are beautiful–you are almost a woman!”

The flush deepened in her cheeks, and there was no longer the sweet, taunting mischief in her eyes. She made no effort to run from him when he came to her.

“Do you think so, Brother Jan?”

“If you did your hair up like the pictures we have in the books, you would be a woman,” he answered softly. “You are more beautiful than the pictures!”

He drew a step back, and her eyes flashed at him again with the sparkle of the old fun in them.

“You say that I am pretty, and that I am almost a woman,” she pouted. “And yet–” She shrugged her shoulders at him in mock disdain. “Jan Thoreau, this is the third time in the last week that you have not played the game right! I won’t play with you any more!”

In a flash he was at her side, her face between his two hands and, bending down, he kissed her upon the mouth.

“There,” she said, as he released her. “Isn’t that the way we have played it ever since I can remember? Whenever you catch me, you may have that!”

“I am afraid, Mélisse,” he said seriously. “You are growing so tall and so pretty that I am afraid.”

“Afraid! My brother afraid to kiss me! And what will you do when I get to be a woman, Jan–which will be very soon, you say?”

“I don’t know, Mélisse.”

She turned her back to him and flung out her hair; and Jan, who had done this same thing for her a hundred times before, divided the silken mass into three strands and plaited them into a braid.

“I don’t believe that you care for me as much as you used to, Jan. I wish I were a woman, so that I might know if you are going to forget me entirely!”

Her shoulders trembled; and when he had finished his task, he found that she was laughing, and that her eyes were swimming with a new mischief which she was trying to hide from him. In that laugh there was something which was not like Mélisse. Slight as the change was, he noticed it; but instead of displeasing him, it set a vague sensation of pleasure trilling like a new song within him.

When they reached the post, Mélisse went to the cabin with her bakneesh, and Jan to the company’s store. Tossing the vines upon the table, Mélisse ran back to the door and watched him until he disappeared. Her cheeks were flushed, her lips half parted in excitement; and no sooner had he gone from view than she hurried to Iowaka’s home across the clearing.

It was fully three quarters of an hour later when Jan saw Mélisse, with Iowaka’s red shawl over her head, walking slowly and with extreme precision of step back to the cabin.

“I wonder if she has the earache,” he said to himself, watching her curiously. “That is Iowaka’s shawl, and she has it all about her head.”

“A clear half-inch of the rarest wool from London,” added the cheery voice of Jean de Gravois, whose moccasins had made no sound behind him. He always spoke in French to Jan. “There is but one person in the world who looks better in it than your Mélisse, Jan Thoreau, and that is Iowaka, my wife. Blessed saints, man, but is she not growing more beautiful every day?”

“Yes,” said Jan. “She will soon be a woman.”

“A woman!” shouted Jean, who, not having his caribou whip, jumped up and down to emphasize his words. “She will soon be a woman, did you say, Jan Thoreau? And if she is not a woman at thirty, with two children–God send others like them!–when will she be, I ask you?”

“I meant Mélisse,” laughed Jan.

“And I meant Iowaka,” said Jean. “Ah, there she is now, come out to see if her Jean de Gravois is on his way home with the sugar for which she sent him something like an hour ago; for you know she is chef de cuisine of this affair to-night. Ah, she sees me not, and she turns back heartily disappointed, I’ll swear by all the saints in the calendar! Did you ever see a figure like that, Jan Thoreau? And did you ever see hair that shines so, like the top-feathers of a raven who’s nibbling at himself in the hottest bit of sunshine he can find? Deliver us, but I’ll go with the sugar this minute!”

The happy Jean hopped out, like a cricket over-burdened with life, calling loudly to his wife, who came to meet him.

A few minutes later Jan thrust his head in at their door, as he was passing.

“I knew I should get a beating, or something worse, for forgetting that sugar,” cried the little Frenchman, holding up his bared arms. “Dough–dough–dough–I’m rolling dough–dough for the bread, dough for the cakes, dough for the pies–dough, Jan Thoreau, just common flour and water mixed and swabbed–I, Jean de Gravois, chief man at Post Lac Bain, am mixing dough! She is as beautiful as an angel and sweeter than sugar–my Iowaka, I mean; but there is more flesh in her earthly tabernacle than in mine, so I am compelled to mix this dough, mon ami. Iowaka, my dear, tell Jan what you were telling me, about Mélisse and–“

“Hush!” cried Iowaka in her sweet Cree. “That is for Jan to find out for himself.”

“So–so it is,” exclaimed the irrepressible Jean, plunging himself to the elbows in his pan of dough. “Then hurry to the cabin, Jan, and see what sort of a birthday gift Mélisse has got for you.”

CHAPTER XVI

BIRTHDAYS

The big room was empty when Jan came quietly through the open door. He stopped to listen, and caught a faint laugh from the other room, and then another; and to give warning of his presence, he coughed loudly and scraped a chair along the floor. A moment’s silence followed. The farther door opened a little, and then it opened wide, and Mélisse came out.

“Now what do you think of me, brother Jan?” She stood in the light of the window through which came the afternoon sun, her hair piled in glistening coils upon the crown of her head, as they had seen them in the pictures, her cheeks flushed, her eyes glowing questioningly at Jan.

“Do I look–as you thought–I would, Jan?” she persisted, a little doubtful at his silence. She turned, so that he saw the cluster of soft curls that fell upon her shoulder, with sprigs of bakneesh half smothered in them. “Do I?”

“You are prettier than I have ever seen you, Mélisse,” he replied softly.

There was a seriousness in his voice that made her come to him in her old impulsive, half-childish way. She lifted her hands and rested them on his shoulders, as she had always done when inviting him to toss her above his head.

“If I am prettier–and you like me this way–why don’t you–“

She finished with a sweet, upturned pouting of her mouth, and, with a sudden, laughing cry, Jan caught her in his arms and kissed the lips she held up to him. It was but an instant, and he freed her, a hot blush burning in his brown cheeks.

“My dear brother!” she laughed at him, gathering up the bakneesh on the table. “I love to have you kiss me, and now I have to make you do it. Father kisses me every morning when he goes to the store. I remember when you used to kiss me every time you came home, but now you forget to do it at all. Do brothers love their sisters less as they grow older?”

“Sometimes they love the SISTER less and the OTHER GIRL more, ma belle Mélisse,” came a quick voice from the door, and Jean de Gravois bounded in like a playful cat, scraping and bowing before Mélisse until his head nearly touched the floor. “Lovely saints, Jan Thoreau, but she IS a woman, just as my Iowaka told me! And the cakes–the bread–the pies! You must delay the supper my lady, for the good Lord deliver me if I haven’t spilled all the dough on the floor! Swas-s-s- s-h–such a mess! And my Iowaka did nothing but laugh and call me a clumsy dear!”

“You’re terribly in love, Jean,” cried Mélisse, laughing until her eyes were wet; “just like some of the people in the books which Jan and I read.”

“And I always shall be, my dear, so long as the daughter of a princess and the great-granddaughter of a chef de bataillon allows me to mix her dough!”

Mélisse flung the red shawl over her head, still laughing.

“I will go and help her, Jean.”

“Mon Dieu!” gasped Gravois, looking searchingly at Jan, when she had left. “Shall I give you my best wishes, Jan Thoreau? Does it signify?”

“Signify–what?”

The little Frenchman’s eyes snapped.

“Why, when our pretty Cree maiden becomes engaged, she puts up her hair for the first time, that is all, my dear Jan. When I asked my blessed Iowaka to be my wife, she answered by running away from me, taunting me until I thought my heart had shriveled into a bit of salt blubber; but she came back to me before I had completely died, with her braids done up on the top of her head!”

He stopped suddenly, startled into silence by the strange look that had come into the other’s face. For a full minute Jan stood as if the power of movement had gone from him. He was staring over the Frenchman’s head, a ghastly pallor growing in his cheeks.

“No–it–means–nothing,” he said finally, speaking as if the words were forced from him one by one.

He dropped into a chair beside the table like one whose senses had been dulled by an unexpected blow. With a great sighing breath that was almost a sob, he bowed his head upon his arms.

“Jan Thoreau,” whispered Jean softly, “have you forgotten that it was I who killed the missioner for you, and that through all of these years Jean de Gravois has never questioned you about the fight on the mountain top?” There was in his voice, as gentle as a woman’s, the vibrant note of a comradeship which is next to love–the comradeship of man for man in a world where friendship is neither bought nor sold. “Have you forgotten, Jan Thoreau? If there is anything Jean de Gravois can do?”

He sat down opposite Jan, his thin, eager face propped in his hands, and watched silently until the other lifted his head. Their eyes met, steady, unflinching, and in that look there were the oath and the seal of all that the honor of the big snows held for those two.

Still without words, Jan reached within his breast and drew forth the little roll which he had taken from his violin. One by one he handed the pages over to Jean de Gravois.

“Mon Dieu!” said Jean, when he had finished reading. He spoke no other words. White-faced, the two men stared, Jan’s throat twitching, Gravois’ brown fingers crushing the rolls he held.

“That was why I tried to kill the missioner,” said Jan at last. He pointed to the more coarsely written pages under Jean’s hand. “And that–that–is why it could not signify that Mélisse has done up her hair.” He rose to his feet, straining to keep his voice even, and gathered up the papers so that they shot back into the little cylinder-shaped roll again. “Now do you understand?”

“I understand,” replied Jean in a low voice, but his eyes glittered like dancing dragon-flies as he raised his elbows slowly from the table and stretched his arms above his head. “I understand, Jan Thoreau, and I praise the blessed Virgin that it was Jean de Gravois who killed the missioner out upon the ice of Lac Bain!”

“But the other,” persisted Jan, “the other, which says that I–“

“Stop!” cried Jean sharply. He came around the table and seized Jan’s hands in the iron grip of his lithe, brown fingers. “That is something for you to forget. It means nothing–nothing at all, Jan Thoreau! Does any one know but you and me?”

“No one. I intended that some day Mélisse and her father should know; but I waited too long. I waited until I was afraid, until the horror of telling her frightened me. I made myself forget, burying it deeper each year, until to-day–on the mountain–“

“And to-day, in this cabin, you will forget again, and you will bury it so deep that it will never come back. I am proud of you, Jan Thoreau. I love you, and it is the first time that Jean de Gravois has ever said this to a man. Ah, I hear them coming!”

With an absurd bow in the direction of the laughing voices which they now heard, the melodramatic little Frenchman pulled Jan to the door. Half-way across the open were Mélisse and Iowaka, carrying a large Indian basket between them, and making merry over the task. When they saw Gravois and Jan, they set down their burden and waved an invitation for the two men to come to their assistance.

“You should be the second happiest man in the world, Jan Thoreau,” exclaimed Jean. “The first is Jean de Gravois!”

He set off like a bolt from a spring-gun in the direction of the two who were waiting for them. He had hoisted the basket upon his shoulder by the time Jan arrived.

“Are you growing old, too, Jan?” bantered Mélisse, as she dropped a few steps behind Jean and his wife. “You come so slowly!”

“I think I’m twenty-nine.”

“You think!” Her dancing eyes shot up to his, bubbling over with the mischief which she had been unable to suppress that day. “Why, Jan–“

He had never spoken to Mélisse as he did now.

“I was born some time in the winter, Mélisse–like you. Perhaps it was yesterday, perhaps it is to-morrow. That is all I know.”

He looked at her steadily, the grief which he was fighting to keep back tightening the muscles about his mouth.

Like the quick passing of sunshine, the fun swept from her face, leaving her blue eyes staring up at him, filled with a pain which he had never seen in them before. In a moment he knew that she had understood him, and he could have cut out his tongue. Her hand reached his arm, and she stopped him, her face lifted pleadingly, the tears slowly gathering in her eyes.

“Forgive me!” she whispered, her voice breaking into a sob. “Dear, dear Jan, forgive me!” She caught one of his hands in both her own, and for an instant held it so that he could feel the throbbing of her heart. “To-day is your birthday, Jan–yours and mine, mine and yours– and we will always have it that way–always–won’t we, Jan?”

CHAPTER XVII

THE RENUNCIATION

Jan was glad when the evening came, and was gone. Not until Jean and Iowaka had said good night with Croisset and his wife, and both Cummins and Mélisse had gone to their rooms, did he find himself relieved of the tension under which he had struggled during all of that night’s merry-making in the cabin.

From the first he knew that his nerves were strung by some strange and indefinable sensation that was growing within him–something which he could hardly have explained at first, but which swiftly took form and meaning, and oppressed him more as the hours flew by. Almost fiercely he strove to fight back the signs of it from his face and voice. Never had he played as on this night. His violin leaped with life, his voice rose high in the wild forest songs of Jean de Gravois and Croisset, he sprang aloft in the caribou dance until the tips of his fingers touched the log beams overhead; and yet there was none of the flush of excitement in his face, no joyous fire flashing from his eyes upon Mélisse.

She saw this, and wondered. A dozen times her eyes encountered his, straight and questioning, when the others were not looking. She saw in response only a dull, lusterless glow that was not like the Jan who had pursued her that day on the mountain-top.

Jan was unaware of what was lacking in him. He smiled when she gave him these glances; deep down in him his heart trembled at the beauty of her flushed cheeks, the luster of her coiled hair, the swimming depths of her clear eyes; but the mask of the thing at which she wondered still remained.

After the others had gone, Cummins sat up to smoke a pipe. When he had finished, he went to his room. Jan was now sleeping in a room at the company’s store, and after a time he rose silently to take down his cap and coat. He opened the outer door quietly, so as not to arouse Mélisse, who had gone to bed half an hour before.

As he was about to go out, there came a sound–a low, gentle, whispered word.

“Jan!”

He turned. Mélisse stood in her door. She had not undressed, and her hair was still done up in its soft coils, with the crimson bakneesh shining in it. She came to him hesitatingly, until she stood with her two hands upon his arm, gazing into his tense face with that same question in her eyes.

“Jan, you were not pleased with me to-night,” she whispered. “Tell me, why?”

“I was pleased with you, Mélisse,” he replied.

He took one of the hands that was clinging to his arm, and turned his face to the open night. Countless stars gleamed in the sky, as they had shone on another night fifteen years ago. From where they stood they saw the pale flicker of the aurora, sending its shivering arrows out over the dome of the earth, with the same lonely song that it had played when the woman died. Gaunt and solitary, the tall spruce loomed up against the silver glow, its thick head sighing faintly in the night wind, as if in wailing answer to that far-away music in the skies.

Suddenly there leaped up from Jan Thoreau’s breast a breath that burst from his lips in a low cry.

“Mélisse, Mélisse, it was just fifteen years ago that I came in through that forest out there, starved and dying, and played my violin when your mother died. You were a little baby then, and since that night you have never pleased me more than now!”

He dropped her hand and turned squarely to the door, to hide what he knew had come into his face. He heard a soft, heart-broken little sob behind him, and something fell rustling upon his arm.

“Jan, dear Jan!”

Mélisse crowded herself into his arms, her hair torn down and tumbling about her shoulders. In her eyes there were the old pride and the old love, the love and pride of what seemed to Jan to be, years ago, the old, childish pleading for his comradeship, for the fun of his strong arms, the frolic of his laugh. Irresistibly they called to him, and in the old glad way he tightened his arms about her shoulders, his eyes glowing, and life leaping back, flushed and full, into his face.

She laughed, happy and trembling, her lips held up to him.

“I didn’t please you to-day,” she whispered. “I will never do up my hair again!”

He kissed her, and his arms dropped from her shoulders.

“Never, never again–until you have forgotten to love me,” she repeated. “Good night, Brother Jan!”

Across the open, through the thinned edge of the black spruce, deeper and deeper into the cold, unquivering lifelessness of the forest, Jan went from the door that closed between him and Mélisse, her last words still whispering in his ears, the warm touch of her hair on his cheeks–and the knowledge of what this day had meant for him swiftly surging upon him, bringing with it a torment which racked him to the soul.

Fifteen years ago! He stopped and looked up, the starlight whitening his face. There was no change in this night from that other one of ages and ages ago. There were the same stars, like fierce eyes of pale fire, robbed of softness by the polar cold; there were the same cloudless blue space, the same hissing flashes of the aurora leaping through its infinity, the same trees that had listened to his moaning prayers on that night when he had staggered into Lac Bain.

He went on until he came to where the beaten trail swept up and away from a swamp. As vividly as if it had happened but yesterday, he remembered how he had dragged himself through this swamp, bleeding and starving, his violin clutched to his breast, guided by the barking of dogs, which seemed to come from a million miles away. He plunged into it now, picking his tangled way until he stood upon a giant ridge, from which he looked out through the white night into the limitless barrens to the north.

Along the edge of those barrens he had come, daring the hundred deaths between hunter’s cabin and Indian wigwam, starving at times, almost dying of cold, building fires to keep the wolves back, and playing– always playing to keep up his courage, until he found Mélisse. Fifteen years had passed since then, and the cumulative force of the things that had grown out of those years had fallen upon him this day. He had felt it first when Mélisse turned upon him at the foot of the mountain; and after that in the cabin, in every breath he drew, in every look that he gave her. For him she had changed for all time. She was no longer the little Mélisse, his sister. And yet–

He was almost saying her last words aloud:

“Good night, Brother Jan!”

She had come to him that day to let him kiss her, as she had come to him a thousand times before; but he had not kissed her in the old way. It was a different love that his lips had given, and even now the hot blood surged again into his face as he thought of what he had done. His was a different idea of honor from that held by men born to the ways of passion.

In that which had stirred his blood, thrilling him with strange joy as he held her in his arms, he saw more than the shadow of sin–sacrilege against a thing which was more precious to him than life. Mélisse came to him still as his sister, abiding in her glorious faith in him, unaware of his temptation; while he, Jan Thoreau–

He thrust a hand inside his coat and clutched at the papers that Jean de Gravois had read. Then he drew them forth, slowly, and held them crumpled in his fingers, while for many minutes he stared straight out into the gray gloom of the treeless plain.

His eyes shifted. Searchingly they traveled up the face of the crags behind him. They hunted where the starlight made deep pits of gloom in the twisting edge of the mountains. They went from rock to rock and from tree to tree until at last they rested upon a giant spruce which hung out over the precipitous wall of the ridge, its thick top beckoning and sighing to the black rocks that shot up out of the snow five hundred feet below.

It was a strange tree, weird and black, free of stub or bough for a hundred feet, and from far out on the barrens those who traveled their solitary ways east and west knew that it was a monument shaped by men. Mukee had told Jan its story. In the first autumn of the woman’s life at Lac Bain, he and Per-ee had climbed the old spruce, lopping off its branches until only the black cap remained; and after that it was known far and wide as the “lobstick” of Cummins’ wife. It was a voiceless cenotaph which signified that all the honor and love known to the wilderness people had been given to her.

To it went Jan, the papers still held in his hand. He had seen a pair of whisky-jacks storing food in the butt of the tree, two or three summers before, and now his fingers groped for the hole. When he found it, he thrust in the papers, crowded them down, and filled the hole with chunks of bark.

“Always my sister–and never anything more to Jan Thoreau,” he said gently in French, as if he were speaking to a spirit in the old tree. “That is the honor of these snows; it is what the great God means us to be.” The strife had gone from his voice; it rose strong and clear as he stretched his arms high up along the shorn side of the spruce, his eyes upon the silent plume that heard his oath. “I swear that Jan Thoreau will never do wrong to the little Mélisse!”

With a face white and set in its determination, he turned slowly away from the tree. Far away, from the lonely depths of the swamp, there came the wailing howl of a wolf–a cry of hungerful savageness that died away in echoes of infinite sadness. It was like the howling of a dog at the door of a cabin in which his master lay dead, and the sound of it swept a flood of loneliness into Jan’s heart. It was the death- wail of his own last hope, which had gone out of him for ever that night.

He listened, and it came again; but in the middle of it, when the long, moaning grief of the voice was rising to its full despair, there broke in a sharp interruption–a shrieking, yelping cry, such as a dog makes when it is suddenly struck. In another moment the forest thrilled with the deep-throated pack-call of the wolf who has started a fresh kill. Hardly had its echoes died away when, from deeper in the swamp, there came another cry, and still another from the mountain; and up and out of the desolation rose the calls of others of the scattered pack, in quick response to the comrade who had first found meat.

All the cries were alike, filled with that first wailing grief, except that of the swelling throat which was sending forth the call to food. A few minutes, and another of the mournful howls changed into the fierce hunt-cry; then a second, a third, and a fourth, and the sound of the chase swept swiftly from the swamp to the mountain, up the mountain and down into the barrens.

“A caribou!” cried Jan softly. “A caribou, and he is going into the barrens. There is no water, and he is lost!”

He ran and leaned over beside the old tree, so that the great plain stretched out below him. Into the west turned the pack, the hunt-cry growing fainter until it almost died away. Then, slowly, it grew again in volume, swinging into the north, then to the east–approaching nearer and nearer until Jan saw a dark, swiftly moving blot in the white gloom.

The caribou passed by within half a rifle-shot of him; another half rifle-shot behind followed the wolves, flung out fan-shape, their gray bodies moving like specters in a half-moon cordon, and their leaders almost abreast the caribou a dozen rods to each side.

There was no sound now. Below him, Jan could see the pale glimmer of ice and snow, where in summer there was a small lake. Desperately the caribou made an effort to reach this lake. The wolves drew in. The moon-shape of their bodies shrunk until it was nearer a circle. From the plain side the leading wolf closed until he was running at the caribou’s forelegs. The mountain wolf responded on the opposite side. Then came the end, quick, decisive, and without sound.

After a few moments there came faintly the snapping of jaws and the crunching of bones. Torn and bleeding, and yet quivering with life, the caribou was given up to the feast.

Jan turned away from the scene. Torn and bleeding at his own heart, he went back to Lac Bain.

CHAPTER XVIII

BROTHER JAN

When he came into the cabin for breakfast that morning, Jan’s face showed signs of the struggle through which he had gone. Cummins had already finished, and he found Mélisse alone. Her hair was brushed back in its old, smooth way; and when she heard him, she flung her long braid over her shoulder, so that it fell down in front of her. He saw the movement, and smiled his thanks without speaking.

“You don’t look well, Jan,” she said anxiously. “You are pale, and your eyes are bloodshot.”

“I am not feeling right,” he admitted, trying to appear cheerful, “but this coffee will make a new man of me. You make the best coffee in the world, Mélisse?”

“How do you know, brother?” she asked. “Have you drunk any other than mine since years ago at Churchill and York Factory?”

“Only Iowaka’s. But I know that yours is best, from what I remember of the coffee at the bay.”

“It was a long time ago, wasn’t it?” she asked gently, looking at him across the table. “I dreamed of those days last night, Jan, though I don’t remember anything about your going to Churchill. I must have been too young; but I remember when you went to Nelson House, and how lonely I was. Last night I dreamed that we both went, and that we stood together, looking out over the bay, where the tides are washing away the gun case coffins. I saw the ship that you described to me, too, and thought that we wanted to go out to it, but couldn’t. Do you suppose we’ll ever go to Churchill together, Jan, and ride on a wonderful ship like that?”

“It may be, Mélisse.”

“And then I dreamed that you were gone, and I was alone; and some one else came to me, whom I didn’t like at all, and tried to MAKE me go to the ship. Wasn’t that strange?” She laughed softly, as she rose to give him another cup of coffee. “What did you mean, Jan Thoreau, by running away from me like that?”

“To get even with you for running away from me on the mountain,” he replied quickly.

She paused, the cup half filled, and Jan, looking up, caught her eyes full of mock astonishment.

“And were you sorry I ran away from you?”

Despite himself, his pale cheeks flushed.

“Do you think I was?” he replied equivocally.

“I–don’t–know,” she answered slowly, filling his cup. “What are you going to do to-day, Jan?”

“Drive out on the Churchill trail. Ledoq wants supplies, and he’s too busy with his trap-lines to come in.”

“Will you take me?”

“I’m afraid not, Mélisse. It’s a twelve-mile run and a heavy load.”

“Very well. I’ll get ready immediately.”

She jumped up from the table, darting fun at him with her eyes, and ran to her room.

“It’s too far, Mélisse,” he called after her. “It’s too far, and I’ve a heavy load–“

“Didn’t I take that twenty-mile run with you over to–Oh, dear! Jan, have you seen my new lynx-skin cap?”

“It’s out here, hanging on the wall,” replied Jan, falling into her humor despite himself. “But I say, Mélisse–“

“Are the dogs ready?” she called. “If they’re not, I’ll be dressed before you can harness them, Jan.”

“They’ll be here within fifteen minutes,” he replied, surrendering to her.

Her merry face, laughing triumph at him through the partly open door, destroyed the last vestige of his opposition, and he left her with something of his old cheeriness of manner, whistling a gay forest tune as he hurried toward the store.

When he returned with the team, Mélisse was waiting for him, a gray thing of silvery lynx fur, with her cheeks, lips and eyes aglow, her trim little feet clad in soft caribou boots that came to her knees, and with a bunch of the brilliant bakneesh fastened jauntily in her cap.

“I’ve made room for you,” he said in greeting, pointing to the sledge.

“Which I’m not going to fill for five miles, at least,” declared Mélisse. “Isn’t it a glorious morning, Jan? I feel as if I can run from here to Ledoq’s!”

With a crack of his whip and a shout, Jan swung the dogs across the open, with Mélisse running lightly at his side. From their cabin Jean and Iowaka called out shrill adieus.

“The day is not far off when they two will be as you and I, my Iowaka,” said Jean in his poetic Cree. “I wager you that it will be before her next birthday!”

And Mélisse was saying:

“I wonder if there are many people as happy as Jean and Iowaka!”

She caught her breath, and Jan cracked on the dogs in a spurt that left her panting, a full dozen rods behind him. With a wild halloo he stopped the team, and waited.

“That’s unfair, Jan! You’ll have to put me on the sledge.”

He tucked her in among the furs, and the dogs strained at their traces, with Jan’s whip curling and snapping over their backs, until they were leaping swiftly and with unbroken rhythm of motion over the smooth trail. Then Jan gathered in his whip and ran close to the leader, his moccasined feet taking the short, quick, light steps of the trained forest runner, his chest thrown a little out, his eyes upon the twisting trail ahead.

It was a glorious ride, and Mélisse’s eyes danced with joy. Her blood thrilled to the tireless effort of the grayish-yellow pack of magnificent brutes ahead of her. She watched the muscular play of their backs and legs, the eager outreaching of their wolfish heads, and their half-gaping jaws–and from them she looked to Jan. There was no effort in his running. His pale cheeks were flushed, his black hair swept back from the gray of his cap, gleaming in the sun. Like the dogs, there was music in his movement, there was the beauty of strength, of endurance, of manhood born to the forests. Her eyes shone proudly; the color deepened in her cheeks as she looked at him, wondering if there was another man in the world like Jan Thoreau.

Mile after mile slipped behind, and not until they reached the mountain on which he had fought the missionary did Jan bring his dogs to a walk. Mélisse jumped from the sledge and ran quickly to his side.

“I can beat you to the top now!” she cried. “If you catch me–” There was the old witching challenge in her eyes.

She sped up the side of the ridge. Panting and breathless, Jan pursued with the dogs. Her advantage was too great for him to overcome this time, and she stood laughing down at him when he came to the top of the ridge.

“You’re as pretty as a fairy, Mélisse!” he exclaimed, his eyes shining with admiration. “Prettier than the fairy in the book!”

“Thank you, brother! The one with golden hair?”

“Yes, all of them.”

“I can’t imagine how a girl would look with golden hair; can you, Jan?” Before he could answer she added mischievously: “Did you see any fairies at Churchill or York Factory?”

“None that could compare with you, Mélisse.”

“Thank you again, brother mine! I believe you DO still love me a little.”

“More than ever in my life,” replied Jan quickly, though he tried to hold his tongue.

As they went on to Ledoq’s, he found that the joyousness of the morning was giving way again to the old gloom and heartache. Brother Jan, Brother Jan, Brother Jan! The words pounded themselves incessantly in his brain until they seemed to keep time with his steps beside the sledge. They drove him back into his thoughts of the preceding night, and he felt a sense of relief when they reached the trapper’s.

Ledoq was stripping the hair-fat from a fox-skin when the team pulled up in front of his cabin. When he saw the daughter of the factor at Lac Bain with Jan, he jumped briskly to his feet, flung his cap through the door of the shack, and began bowing and scraping to her with all his might. It was well known in the province of Lac Bain that many years before Jean de Gravois had lost a little brother, who had disappeared one day in the woods; and there were those who hinted that Ledoq was that brother, for Jean and he were as like as two peas in the ready use of their tongues, and were of the same build and the same briskness.

Mélisse laughed merrily as Ledoq continued to bow before her, rattling away in a delighted torrent of French.

“Ah, thes ees wan gr-r-reat compleeman, M’selle Mélisse,” he finished at last, breaking for an instant into English. He straightened like a spring and turned, to Jan. “Did you meet the strange team?”

“We met no team.”

Ledoq looked puzzled. Half a mile away, the top of a snow-covered ridge was visible from the cabin. He pointed to it.

“An hour ago I saw it going westward along the mountain–three men and six dogs. Whom have you out from Lac Bain?”

“No one,” replied Jan. “It must have been the new agent from Churchill. We expect him early this winter. Shall we hurry back, Mélisse, and see if he has brought our books and violin-strings?”

“You must have dinner with me,” objected Ledoq.

Jan caught a quick signal from Mélisse.

“Not to-day, Ledoq. It’s early, and we have a lunch for the trail. What do you say, Mélisse?”

“If you’re not tired, Jan.”

“Tired!”

He tossed the last package from the sledge and cracked his long whip over the dogs’ backs as they both cried out their farewell to the little Frenchman.

“Tired!” he repeated, running close beside her as the team swung lightly back into the trail, and laughing down into her face. “How could I ever get tired with you watching me run, Mélisse?”

“I wouldn’t mind if you did–just a little, Jan. Isn’t there room for two?”

She gave a coquettish little shrug of her shoulders, and Jan leaped upon the moving sledge, kneeling close behind her.

“Always, always, I have to ask you!” she pouted. “You needn’t get too near, you know, if you don’t want to!”

The old, sweet challenge in her voice was irresistible, and for a moment Jan felt himself surrendering to it. He leaned forward until his chin was buried in the silken lynx fur of her coat, and for a single breath he felt the soft touch of her cheek against his own. Then he gave a sudden shout to the dogs–so loud that it startled her –and his whip writhed and snapped twenty feet above their heads, like a thing filled with life.