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  • 1911
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He sprang from the sledge and again ran with the team, urging them on faster and faster until they dropped into a panting walk when they came to the ridge along which Ledoq, two hours before, had seen the strangers hurrying toward Lac Bain.

“Stop!” cried Mélisse, taking this first opportunity to scramble from the sledge. “You’re cruel to the dogs, Jan! Look at their jaws–see them pant! Jan Thoreau, I’ve never seen you drive like that since the night we were chased in from the barrens by the wolves!”

“And did you ever see me run any faster?” He struggled, dropping exhausted upon the sledge. “I remember only one other time.”

He took a long breath, flinging back his arms to bring greater volume of air into his lungs.

“Wasn’t that the night we heard the wolves howling behind us?” Mélisse asked.

“No, it was many years ago, when I heard, far to the south, that my little Mélisse was dying of the plague.”

Mélisse sat down upon the sledge beside him without speaking, and nestled one of her hands a little timidly in one of his big, brown palms.

“Tell me about it, Jan.”

“That was all–I ran.”

“You wouldn’t run as fast for me now, would you?”

He looked at her boldly, and saw that there was not half of the brilliant flush in her cheeks.

“I ran for you, just now–and you didn’t like it,” he replied.

“I don’t mean that.” She looked up at him, and her fingers tightened round his own. “Away back–years and years and years ago, Jan–you went out to fight the plague, and nearly died in it, for me. Would you do that much again?”

“I would do more, Mélisse.”

She looked at him doubtfully, her eyes searching him as if in quest of something in his face which she scarce believed in his words. Slowly he rose to his feet, lifting her with him; and when he had done this he took her face between his two hands and looked straight into her eyes.

“Some day I will do a great deal more for you than that, Mélisse, and then–“

“What?” she questioned, as he hesitated.

“Then you will know whether I love you as much now as I did years and years and years ago,” he finished, gently repeating her words.

There was something in his voice that held Mélisse silent as he turned to straighten out the dogs; but when he came back, making her comfortable on the sledge, she whispered:

“I wish you would do it SOON, Brother Jan!”

CHAPTER XIX

THE NEW AGENT AND HIS SON

They did not lunch on the trail, but drove into the post in time for dinner. Jean de Gravois and Croisset came forth from the store to meet them.

“You have company, my dear!” cried Jean to Mélisse. “Two gentlemen fresh from London on the last boat, and one of them younger and handsomer than your own Jan Thoreau. They are waiting for you in the cabin, where mon pere is getting them dinner, and telling them how beautifully you would have made the coffee if you were there.”

“Two!” said Jan, as Mélisse left them. “Who are they?”

“The new agent, M. Timothy Dixon, as red as the plague, and fatter than a spawning fish! And his son, who has come along for fun, he says; and I believe he will get what he’s after if he remains here very long, Jan Thoreau, for he looked a little too boldly at my Iowaka when she came into the store just now!”

“Mon Dieu!” laughed Jan, as Gravois took in the four quarters of the earth with a terrible gesture. “Can you blame him, Jean? I tell you that I look at Iowaka whenever I get the chance!”

“Is she not worth it?” cried Jean in rapture. “You are welcome to every look that you can get, Jan Thoreau. But the foreigner–I will skin him alive and spit him with devil-thorn if he so much as peeps at her out of the wrong way of his eye!”

Croisset spoke.

“There was once a foreigner who came. You remember?”

“I remember,” said Jan.

He looked to the white cross which marked Mukee’s grave in the edge of the forest, where the shadow of the big spruce fell across it at the end of summer evenings.

“And–he–died,” said Jean de Gravois, his dark hands clenched. “God forgive me, but I hate these red-necked men from across the sea.”

Croisset shrugged his shoulders.

“Breeders of two-legged carrion-eaters!” he exclaimed fiercely. “La charogne! There are two at Nelson House, and two on the Wholdaia, and one–“

A sharp cry fell from Jan’s lips. When Croisset whirled toward him, he stood among his dogs, as white as death, his black eyes blazing as if just beyond him he saw something which filled him with terror.

As the man turned, startled by the look, Jean sprang to his side.

“Saints preserve us, but that was an ugly twist of the hand!” he cried shrilly. “Next time, turn your sledge by the rib instead of the nose, when your dogs are still in the traces!” Under his breath he whispered, as he made pretense of looking at Jan’s hand: “Le diable, do you want to tell HIM?” Jan tried to laugh as Croisset came to see what had happened.

“Will you care for the dogs, Henri?” asked Jean. “It’s only a trifling sprain of the wrist, which Iowaka can cure with one dose of her liniment.”

As they walked away, Jan’s face still as pallid as the gray snow under their feet, Gravois added: “You’re a fool, Jan Thoreau. There’s a crowd at your cabin, and you’ll have dinner with me.”

“La charogne!” muttered Jan. “Les bêtes de charogne!”

Jean gripped him by the arm.

“I tell you that it means nothing–nothing!” he said, repeating his words of the previous day in the cabin. “You are a man. You must fight it down, and forget. No one knows but you and me.”

“You will never tell what you read in the papers?” cried Jan quickly. “You swear it?”

“By the blessed Virgin, I swear it!”

“Then,” said Jan softly, “Mélisse will never know!”

“Never,” said Jean. His dark face flashed joyously as Iowaka’s sweet voice came to them, singing a Cree lullaby in the little home. “Some day Mélisse will be singing that same way over there; and it will be for you, Jan Thoreau, as my Iowaka is now singing for me!”

An hour later Jan went slowly across the open to Cummins’ cabin. As he paused for an instant at the door he heard a laugh that was strange to him, and when he opened it to enter he stood perplexed and undecided. Mélisse had risen from the table at the sound of his approach, and his eyes quickly passed from her flushed face to the young man who was sitting opposite her. He caught a nervous tremble in her voice when she said:

“Mr. Dixon, this is my brother, Jan.”

The stranger jumped to his feet and held out a hand.

“I’m glad to know you, Cummins.”

“Thoreau,” corrected Jan quietly, as he took the extended hand. “Jan Thoreau.”

“Oh, I beg your pardon. I thought–” He turned inquiringly to Mélisse. The flush deepened in her cheeks as she began to gather up the dishes.

“We are of no relation,” continued Jan, something impelling him to speak the words with cool precision. “Only we have lived under the same roof since she was a baby, and so we have come to be like brother and sister.”

“Miss Mélisse has been telling me about your wonderful run this morning,” exclaimed the young Englishman, his face reddening slightly as he detected the girl’s embarrassment. “I wish I had seen it!”

“There will be plenty of it very soon,” replied Jan, caught by the frankness of the other’s manner. “Our runners will be going out among the trappers within a fortnight.”

“And will they take me?”

“You may go with me, if you can run. I leave the day after to-morrow.”

“Thanks,” said Dixon, moving toward the door.

Mélisse did not lift her head as he went out. Faintly she said:

“I’ve kept your dinner for you, Jan. Why didn’t you come sooner?”

“I had dinner with Gravois,” he replied. “Jean said that you would hardly be prepared for five, Mélisse, so I accepted his invitation.”

He took down from the wall a fur sledge-coat, in which Mélisse had mended a rent a day or two before, and, throwing it over his arm, turned to leave.

“Jan!”

He faced her slowly, knowing that in spite of himself there was a strangeness in his manner which she would not understand.

“Why are you going away the day after to-morrow–two weeks before the others? You didn’t tell me.”

“I’m going a hundred miles into the South,” he answered.

“Over the Nelson House trail?”

“Yes.”

“Oh!” Her lips curled slightly as she looked at him. Then she laughed, and a bright spot leaped into either cheek. “I understand, brother,” she said softly. “Pardon me for questioning you so. I had forgotten that the MacVeigh girl lives on the Nelson trail. Iowaka says that she is as sweet as a wild flower. I wish you would have her come up and visit us some time, Jan.”

Jan’s face went red, then white, but Mélisse saw only the first effect of her random shot, and was briskly gathering up the dishes.

“I turn off into the Cree Lake country before I reach MacVeighs’.” he was on the point of saying; but the words hung upon his lips, and he remained silent.

A few minutes later he was talking with Jean de Gravois. The little Frenchman’s face was ominously dark, and he puffed furiously upon his pipe when Jan told him why he was leaving at once for the South.

“Running away!” he repeated for the tenth time in French, his thin lips curling in a sneer. “I am sorry that I gave you my oath, Jan Thoreau, else I would go myself and tell Mélisse what I read in the papers. Pish! Why can’t you forget?”

“I may–some day,” said Jan. “That is why I am going into the South two weeks early, and I shall be gone until after the big roast. If I remain here another week, I shall tell Mélisse, and then–“

He shrugged his shoulders despairingly.

“And then–what?”

“I should go away for ever.”

Jean snapped his fingers with a low laugh.

“Then remain another week, Jan Thoreau, and if it turns out as you say, I swear I will abandon my two Iowakas and little Jean to the wolves!”

“I am going the day after to-morrow.”

The next morning Iowaka complained to Mélisse that Gravois was as surly as a bear.

“A wonderful change has come over him,” she said. “He does nothing but shrug his shoulders and say ‘Le diable!’ and ‘The fool!’ Last night I could hardly sleep because of his growling. I wonder what bad spirit has come into my Jean?”

Mélisse was wondering the same of Jan. She saw little of him during the day. At noon, Dixon told her that he had made up his mind not to accompany Thoreau on the trip south.

The following morning, before she was up, Jan had gone. She was deeply hurt. Never before had he left on one of his long trips without spending his last moments with her. She had purposely told her father to entertain the agent and his son at the store that evening, so that Jan might have an opportunity of bidding her good-by alone.

Outside of her thoughts of Jan, the days and evenings that followed were pleasant ones for her. The new agent was as jolly as he was fat, and took an immense liking to Mélisse. Young Dixon was good-looking and brimming with life, and spent a great deal of his time in her company. For hours at a time she listened to his stories of the wonderful world across the sea. As MacDonald had described that life to Jan at Fort Churchill, so he told of it to Mélisse, filling her with visions of great cities, painting picture after picture, until her imagination was riot with the beauty and the marvel of it all, and she listened, with flaming cheeks and glowing eyes.

One day, a week after Jan had gone, he told her about the women in the world which had come to be a fairy-land to Mélisse.

“They are all beautiful over there?” she asked wonderingly, when he had finished.

“Many of them are beautiful, but none so beautiful as you, Mélisse,” he replied, leaning near to her, his eyes shining. “Do you know that you are beautiful?”

His words frightened her so much that she bowed her head to hide the signs of it in her face. Jan had often spoken those same words–a thousand times he had told her that she was beautiful–but there bad never been this fluttering of her heart before.

There were few things which Iowaka and she did not hold in secret between them, and a day or two later Mélisse told her friend what Dixon had said. For the first time Iowaka abused the confidence placed in her, and told Jean.

“Le diable!” gritted Jean, his face blackening.

He said no more until night, when the children were asleep. Then he drew Iowaka close beside him on a bench near the stove, and asked carelessly:

“Mon ange, if one makes an oath to the blessed Virgin, and breaks it, what happens?”

He evaded the startled look in his wife’s big black eyes.

“It means that one will be for ever damned unless he confesses to a priest soon after, doesn’t it ma chérie? And if there is no priest nearer than four hundred miles, it is a dangerous thing to do, is it not? But–” He did not wait for an answer. “If one might have the oath broken, and not do it himself, what then?”

“I don’t know,” said Iowaka simply, staring at him in amazed questioning.

“Nor do I,” said Jean, lighting his pipe. “But there is enough of the devil in Jean de Gravois to make him break a thousand oaths if it was for you, my Iowaka!”

Her eyes glowed upon him softly.

“A maiden’s soul leaves her body when she becomes the wife of the man she loves,” she whispered tenderly in Cree, resting her dark head on Jean’s shoulder. “That is what my people believe, Jean; and if I have given my soul to you, why should I not break oath for you?”

“For me alone, Iowaka?”

“For you alone.”

“And not for a friend?”

“For no one else in the world, Jean. You are the only one to whom the god of my people bids me make all sacrifice.”

“But you do not believe in that god, Iowaka!”

“Sometimes it is better to believe in the god of my people than in yours,” she replied gently. “I believed in him fifteen years ago at Churchill. Do you wish me to take back what I gave to you then?”

With a low cry of happiness Jean crushed his face against her soft cheek.

“Believe in him always, my Iowaka, and Jean de Gravois will cut the throat of any missioner who says you will not go to Paradise! But– this other. You are sure that you would break oath for none but me?”

“And the children. They are a part of you, Jean.”

A fierce snarling and barking of dogs brought Gravois to the door. They could hear Croisset’s raucous voice and the loud cracking of his big whip.

“I’ll be back soon,” said Jean, closing the door after him; but instead of approaching Croisset and the fighting dogs he went in the direction of Cummins’ cabin. “Devil take an oath!” he growled under his breath. “Neither one God nor the other will let me break it, and Iowaka least of all!” He gritted his teeth as young Dixon’s laugh sounded loudly in the cabin. “Two fools!” he went on communing with himself. “Cummins–Jan Thoreau–both fools!”

CHAPTER XX

A KISS AND THE CONSEQUENCES

During the week that followed, Jean’s little black eyes were never far distant from Cummins’ cabin. Without being observed, he watched Mélisse and Dixon, and not even to Iowaka did he give hint of his growing suspicions. Dixon was a man whom most other men liked. There were a fascinating frankness in his voice and manner, strength in his broad shoulders, and a general air of comradeship about him which won all but Jean.

The trap-line runners began leaving the post at the end of the second week, and after this Mélisse and the young Englishman were more together than ever. Dixon showed no inclination to accompany the sledges, and when they were gone he and Mélisse began taking walks in the forest, when the sun was high and warm.

It was on one of these days that Jean had gone along the edge of the caribou swamp that lay between the barrens and the higher forest. As he stopped to examine a fresh lynx trail that cut across the path beaten down by dog and sledge, he heard the sound of voices ahead of him; and a moment later he recognized them as those of Mélisse and Dixon. His face clouded, and his eyes snapped fire.

“Ah, if I was only Jan Thoreau–a Jan Thoreau with the heart of Jean de Gravois–what a surprise I’d give that foreigner!” he said to himself, leaping quickly from the trail into the thicket.

He peered forth from the bushes, his loyal heart beating a wrathful tattoo when he saw that Dixon dared put his hand on Mélisse’s arm. They were coming very slowly, the Englishman bending low over the girl’s bowed head, talking to her with strange earnestness. Suddenly he stopped, and before Jean could comprehend what had happened he had bent down and kissed her.

With a low cry, Mélisse tore herself free. For an instant she faced Dixon, who stood laughing into her blazing eyes. Then she turned and ran swiftly down the trail.

A second cry fell from her startled lips when she found herself face to face with Jean de Gravois. The little Frenchman was smiling. His eyes glittered like black diamonds.

“Jean, Jean!” she sobbed, running to him.

“He has insulted you,” he said softly, smiling into her white face. “Run along to the post, ma belle Mélisse.”

He watched her, half turned from the astonished Englishman, until she disappeared in a twist of the trail a hundred yards away. Then he faced Dixon.

“It is the first time that our Mélisse has ever suffered insult,” he said, speaking as coolly as if to a child. “If Jan Thoreau were here, he would kill you. He is gone, and I will kill you in his place!”

He advanced, his white teeth still gleaming in a smile, and not until he launched himself like a cat at Dixon’s throat was the Englishman convinced that he meant attack. In a flash Dixon stepped a little to one side, and sent out a crashing blow that caught Jean on the side of the head and sent him flat upon his back in the trail.

Half stunned, Gravois came to his feet. He did not hear the shrill cry of terror from the twist in the trail. He did not look back to see Mélisse standing there. But Dixon both saw and heard, and he laughed tauntingly over Jean’s head as the little Frenchman came toward him again, more cautiously than before.

It was the first time that Jean had ever come into contact with science. He darted in again, in his quick, cat-like way, and received a blow that dazed him. This time he held to his feet.

“Bah, this is like striking a baby!” exclaimed Dixon. “What are you fighting about, Gravois? Is it a crime up here to kiss a pretty girl?”

“I am going to kill you!” said Jean as coolly as before.

There was something terribly calm and decisive in his voice. He was not excited. He was not afraid. His fingers did not go near the long knife in his belt. Slowly the laugh faded from Dixon’s face, and tense lines gathered around his mouth as Jean circled about him.

“Come, we don’t want trouble like this,” he urged. “I’m sorry–if Mélisse didn’t like it.”

“I am going to kill you!” repeated Jean.

There was an appalling confidence in his eyes. From those eyes Dixon found himself retreating rather than from the man. They followed him, never taking themselves from his face. The fire in them grew deeper. Two dull red spots began to glow in Jean’s cheeks, and he laughed softly when he suddenly leaped in so that the Englishman struck at him–and missed.

It was the science of the forest man pitted against that of another world. For sport Jean had played with wounded lynx; his was the quickness of sight, of instinct–without the other’s science; the quickness of the great loon that had often played this same game with his rifle-fire, of the sledge-dog whose ripping fangs carried death so quickly that eyes could not follow.

A third and a fourth time he came within striking distance, and escaped. He half drew his knife, and at the movement Dixon sprang back until his shoulders touched the brush. Smilingly Gravois unsheathed the blade and tossed it behind him in the trail. His eyes were like a serpent’s in their steadiness, and the muscles of his body were drawn as tight as steel springs, ready to loose themselves when the chance came.

There were tricks in his fighting as well as in the other’s, and a dawning of it began to grow upon Dixon. He dropped his arms to his side, inviting Jean within reach. Suddenly the little Frenchman straightened. His glittering eyes shot from the Englishman’s face to the brush behind him, and a piercing yell burst from his lips. Involuntarily Dixon started, half turning his face, and before he had come to his guard Gravois flung himself under his arms, striking with the full force of his body against his antagonist’s knees.

Together they went down in the trail. There was only one science now– that of the forest man. The lithe, brown fingers, that could have crushed the life of a lynx, fastened themselves around the Englishman’s man’s throat, and there came one gasping, quickly throttled cry as they tightened in their neck-breaking grip.

“I will kill you!” said Jean again.

Dixon’s arms fell limply to his side. His eyes bulged from their sockets, his mouth was agape, but Jean did not see. His face was buried on the other’s shoulder, the whole life of him in the grip. He would not have raised his head for a full minute longer had there not come a sudden interruption–the terrified voice of Mélisse, the frantic tearing of her hands at his hands.

“He is dead!” she shrieked. “You have killed him, Jean!”

He loosed his fingers and sat up. Mélisse staggered back, clutching with her hands at her breast, her face as white as the snow.

“You have killed him!”

Jean looked into Dixon’s eyes.

“He is not dead,” he said, rising and going to her side. “Come, ma chère, run home to Iowaka. I will not kill him.” Her slender form shook with agonized sobs as he led her to the turn in the trail. “Run home to Iowaka,” he repeated gently. “I will not kill him, Mélisse.”

He went back to Dixon and rubbed snow over the man’s face.

“Mon Dieu, but it was near to it!” he exclaimed, as there came a flicker of life into the eyes. “A little more, and he would have been with the missioner!”

He dragged the Englishman to the side of the trail, and set his back to a tree. When he saw that fallen foeman’s breath was coming more strongly, he followed slowly after Mélisse.

Unobserved, he went into the store and washed the blood from his face, chuckling with huge satisfaction when he looked at himself in the little glass which hung over the wash-basin.

“Ah, my sweet Iowaka, but would you guess now that Jean de Gravois had received two clouts on the side of the head that almost sent him into the blessed hereafter? I would not have had you see it for all the gold in this world!”

A little later he went to the cabin. Iowaka and the children were at Croisset’s, and he sat down to smoke a pipe. Scarce had he begun sending up blue clouds of smoke when the door opened and Mélisse came in.

“Hello, ma chère,” he cried gaily, laughing at her with a wave of his pipe.

In an instant she had flung the shawl from her head and was upon her knees at his feet, her white face turned up to him pleadingly, her breath falling upon him in panting, sobbing excitement.

“Jean, Jean!” she whispered, stretching up her hands to his face. “Please tell me that you will never tell Jan–please tell me that you never will, Jean–never, never, never!”

“I will say nothing, Mélisse.”

“Never, Jean?”

“Never.”

For a sobbing breath she dropped her head upon his knees. Then, suddenly, she drew down his face and kissed him.

“Thank you, Jean, for what you have done!”

“Mon Dieu!” gasped Jean when she had gone. “What if Iowaka had been here then?”

CHAPTER XXI

A BROKEN HEART

The day following the fight in the forest, Dixon found Jean de Gravois alone, and came up to him.

“Gravois, will you shake hands with me?” he said. “I want to thank you for what you did to me yesterday. I deserved it. I have asked Miss Mélisse to forgive me–and I want to shake hands with you.”

Jean was thunderstruck. He had never met this kind of man.

“Que diantre!” he ejaculated, when he had come to his senses. “Yes, I will shake hands!”

For several days after this Jean could see that Mélisse made an effort to evade him. She did not visit Iowaka when he was in the cabin. Neither did she and Dixon go again into the forest. The young Englishman spent more of his time at the store; and just before the trappers began coming in, he went on a three-days’ sledge-trip with Croisset.

The change delighted Jean. The first time he met Mélisse after the fight, his eyes flashed pleasure.

“Jan will surely be coming home soon,” he greeted her. “What if the birds tell him what happened out there on the trail?”

She flushed scarlet.

“Perhaps the same birds will tell us what has happened down on the Nelson House trail, Jean,” she retorted.

“Pouf! Jan Thoreau doesn’t give the snap of his small finger for the MacVeigh girl!” Jean replied, warm in defense of his friend.

“She is pretty,” laughed Mélisse, “and I have just learned that is why men like to–like them, I mean.”

Jean strutted before her like a peacock.

“Am I pretty, Mélisse?”

“No-o-o-o.”

“Then why”–he shrugged his shoulders suggestively–“in the cabin–“

“Because you were brave, Jean. I love brave men!”

“You were glad that I pummeled the stranger, then?”

Mélisse did not answer, but he caught a laughing sparkle in the corner of her eye as she left him.

“Come home, Jan Thoreau,” he hummed softly, as he went to the store. “Come home, come home, come home, for the little Mélisse has grown into a woman, and is learning to use her eyes!”

Among the first of the trappers to come in with his furs was MacVeigh. He brought word that Jan had gone south, to spend the annual holiday at Nelson House, and Cummings told Mélisse whence the message came. He did not observe the slight change that came into her face, and went on:

“I don’t understand this in Jan. He is needed here for the carnival. Did you know that he was going to Nelson House?”

Mélisse shook her head.

“MacVeigh says they have made him an offer to go down there as chief man,” continued the factor. “It is strange that he has sent no explanation to me!”

It was a week after the big caribou roast before Jan returned to Lac Bain. Mélisse saw him drive in from the Churchill trail; but while her heart fluttered excitedly, she steeled herself to meet him with at least an equal show of the calm indifference with which he had left her six weeks before. The coolness of his leave-taking still rankled bitterly in her bosom. He had not kissed her; he had not even passed his last evening with her.

But she was not prepared for the changed Jan Thoreau who came slowly through the cabin door. His hair and beard had grown, covering the smooth cheeks which he had always kept closely shaven. His eyes glowed with dull pleasure as she stood waiting for him, but there was none of the old flash and fire in them. There was a strangeness in his manner, an uneasiness in the shifting of his eyes, which caused the half- defiant flush to fade slowly from her cheeks before either had spoken. She had never known this Jan before, and her fortitude left her as she approached him, wonderingly, silent, her hands reaching out to him.

“Jan!” she said.

Her voice trembled; her lips quivered. There was the old glorious pleading in her eyes, and before it Jan bowed his unkempt head, and crushed her hands tightly in his own. For a half-minute there was silence, and in that half-minute there came a century between them. At last Jan spoke.

“I’m glad to see you again, Mélisse. It has seemed like a very long time!”

He lifted his eyes. Before them the girl involuntarily shrank back, and Jan freed her hands. In them she saw none of the old love-glow, nothing of their old comradeship. Inscrutable, reflecting no visible emotion, they passed from her to the violin hanging on the wall.

“I have not played in so long,” he said, turning from her, “that I believe I have forgotten.”

He took down the instrument, and his fingers traveled clumsily over the strings. His teeth gleamed at her from out his half-inch growth of beard, as he said:

“Ah, you must play for me now, Mélisse! It has surely gone from Jan Thoreau.”

He held out the violin to her.

“Not now, Jan,” she said tremulously. “I will play for you to-night.” She went to the door of her room, hesitating for a moment, with her back to him. “You will come to supper, Jan?”

“Surely, Mélisse, if you are prepared.”

He hung up the violin as she closed the door, and went from the cabin. Jean de Gravois and Iowaka were watching for him, and Jean hurried across the open to meet him.

“I am coming to offer you the loan of my razor,” he cried gaily. “Iowaka says that you will be taken for a bear if the trappers see you.”

“A beard is good to keep off the black flies,” replied Jan. “It is approaching summer, and the black flies love to feast upon me. Let us go down the trail, Jean. I want to speak with you.”

Where there had been wood-cutting in the deep spruce they sat down, facing each other. Jan spoke in French.

“I have traveled far since leaving Lac Bain,” he said. “I went first to Nelson House, and from here to the Wholdaia. I found them at Nelson House, but not on the Wholdaia.”

“What?” asked Jean, though he knew well what the other meant.

“My brothers, Jean de Gravois,” answered Jan, drawing his lips until his teeth gleamed in a sneering smile. “My brothers, les bêtes de charogne!”

“Devil take Croisset for telling you where they were!” muttered Jean under his breath.

“I saw the two at Nelson House,” continued Jan. “One of them is a half-wit, and the other”–he hunched his shoulders–“is worse. Petraud, one of the two who were at Wholdaia, was killed by a Cree father last winter for dishonoring his daughter. The other disappeared.”

Jean was silent, his head leaning forward, his face resting in his hands.

“So you see, Jean de Gravois, what sort of creature is your friend Jan Thoreau!”

Jean raised his head until his eyes were on a level with those of his companion.

“I see that you are a bigger fool than ever,” he said quietly. “Jan Thoreau, what if I should break my oath–and tell Mélisse?”

Unflinching the men’s eyes met. A dull glare came into Jan’s. Slowly he unsheathed his long knife, and placed it upon the snow between his feet, with the gleaming end of the blade pointing toward Gravois. With a low cry Jean sprang to his feet.

“Do you mean that, Jan Thoreau? Do you mean to give the knife- challenge to one who has staked his life for you and who loves you as a brother?”

“Yes,” said Jan deliberately. “I love you, Jean more than any other man in the world; and yet I will kill you if you betray me to Mélisse!” He rose to his feet and stretched out his hands to the little Frenchman. “Jean, wouldn’t you do as I am doing? Wouldn’t you have done as much for Iowaka?”

For a moment Gravois was silent.

“I would not have taken her love without telling her,” he said then. “That is not what you and I know as honor, Jan Thoreau. But I would have gone to her, as you should now go to Mélisse, and she would have opened her arms to me, as Mélisse would opens hers to you. That is what I would have done.”

“And that is what I shall never do,” said Jan decisively, turning toward the post. “I could kill myself more easily. That is what I wanted to tell you, Jean. No one but you and I must ever know!”

“I would like to choke that fool of a Croisset for sending you to hunt up those people at Nelson House and Wholdaia!” grumbled Jean.

“It was best for me.”

They saw Mélisse leaving Iowaka’s home when they came from the forest. Both waved their hands to her, and Jan cut across the open to the store.

Jean went to the Cummins cabin as soon as he was sure that he was not observed. There was little of the old vivacity in his manner as he greeted Mélisse. He noted, too, that the girl was not her natural self. There was a redness under her eyes which told him that she had been crying.

“Mélisse,” he said at last, speaking to her with his eyes fixed on the cap he was twisting in his fingers, “there has come a great change over Jan.”

“A very great change, Jean. If I were to guess, I should say that his heart has been broken down on the Nelson trail.”

Gravois caught the sharp meaning in her voice, which trembled a little as she spoke. He was before her in an instant, his cap fallen to the floor, his eyes blazing as he caught her by the arms.

“Yes, the heart of Jan Thoreau is broken!” he cried. “But it has been broken by nothing that lives on the Nelson House trail. It is broken because of–YOU!”

“I!” Mélisse drew back from him with a breathless cry. “I–I have broken–“

“I did not say that,” interrupted Jean. “I say that it is broken because of you. Mon Dieu, if only I might tell you!”

“Do-DO, Jean! Please tell me!” She put her hands on his shoulders. Her eyes implored him. “Tell me what I have done–what I can do, Jean!”

“I can say that much to you, and no more,” he said quietly. “Only know this, ma chère–that there is a great grief eating at the soul of Jan Thoreau, and that because of this grief he is changed. I know what this grief is, but I am pledged never to reveal it. It is for you to find out, and to do this, above all else–let him know that you love him!”

The color had faded from her startled face, but now it came back again in a swift flood.

“That I love him?”

“Yes. Not as a sister any longer, Mélisse, but as a WOMAN!”

CHAPTER XXII

HER PROMISE

Gravois did not stay to see the effect of his last words. Only he knew, as he went through the door, that her eyes were following him, and that if he looked at her she would call him back. So he shut the door quickly behind him, fearing that he had already said too much.

Cummins and Jan came in together at suppertime. The factor was in high humor. An Indian from the Porcupine had brought in two silver fox that morning, and he was immensely pleased at Jan’s return–a combination of incidents which put him in the best of moods.

Mélisse sat opposite Jan at the table. She had twisted a sprig of red bakneesh into her glossy braid, and a cluster of it nestled at her throat, but Jan gave no sign that he had noticed this little favor, which was meant entirely for him. He smiled at her, but there was a clear coolness in the depths of his dark eyes which checked any of the old familiarity on her part.

“Has MacVeigh put in his new trap-line?” Cummins inquired, after asking Jan many questions about his trip.

“I don’t know,” replied Jan. “I didn’t go to MacVeighs’.”

Purposely he held his eyes from Mélisse. She understood his effort, and a quick flush gathered in her cheeks.

“It was MacVeigh who brought in word of you,” persisted the factor, oblivious of the effect of his questions.

“I met him in the Cree Lake country, but he said nothing of his trap- lines.”

He rose from the table with Cummins, and started to follow him from the cabin. Mélisse came between. For a moment her hand rested upon his arm.

“You are going to stay with me, Jan,” she smiled. “I want your help with the dishes, and then we’re going to play on the violin.”

She pulled him into a chair as Cummins left, and tied an apron about his shoulders.

“Close your eyes–and don’t move!” she commanded, laughing into his surprised face as she ran into her room.

A moment later she returned with one hand held behind her back. The hot blood surged through Jan’s veins when he felt her fingers running gently through his long hair. There came the snip of scissors, a little nervous laugh close to his head, and then again the snip, snip, snip of the scissors.

“It’s terribly long, Jan!” Her soft hand brushed his bearded cheek. “Ugh!” she shuddered. “You must take that off your face. If you don’t–“

“Why?” he asked, through lack of anything else to say.

She lowered her head until her cheek pressed against his own.

“Because it feels like bristles,” she whispered.

She reddened fiercely when he remained silent, and the scissors snipped more rapidly between her fingers.

“I’m going to prospect the big swamp along the edge of the Barrens this summer,” he explained soon, laughing to relieve the tension. “A beard will protect me from the black flies.”

“You can grow another.”

She took the apron from about his shoulders, and held it so that he could see the result of her work. He looked up, smiling.

“Thank you, Mélisse. Do you remember when you last cut my hair?”

“Yes–it was over on the mountain. We had taken the scissors along for cutting bakneesh, and you looked so like a wild Indian that I made you sit on a rock and let me trim it.”

“And you cut my ear,” he reminded.

“For which you made me pay,” she retorted quickly, almost under her breath.

She went to the cupboard behind the stove, and brought out her father’s shaving-mug and razor.

“I insist that you shall use them,” she said, stirring the soap into a lather, and noting the indecision in his face. “I am afraid of you!”

“Afraid of me?”

He stood for a moment in front of the little mirror, turning his face from side to side. Mélisse handed him the razor and cup.

“You don’t seem like the Jan that I used to know once upon a time. There has been a great change in you since–since–“

She hesitated.

“Since when, Mélisse?”

“Since the day we came in from the mountain and I put up my hair.” With timid sweetness she added: “I haven’t had it up again, Jan.”

She caught a glimpse of his lathered face in the glass, staring at her with big, seeking eyes. He turned them quickly away when he saw that she was looking, and Mélisse set to work at the dishes. She had washed them before he finished shaving. Then she took down the old violin from the wall and began to play, her low, sweet voice accompanying the instrument in a Cree melody which Iowaka had taught her during Jan’s absence at Nelson House and the Wholdaia.

Surprised, he faced her, his eyes glowing as there fell from her lips the gentle love-song of a heart-broken Indian maiden, filled with its infinite sadness and despair. He knew the song. It was a lyric of the Crees. He had heard it before, but never as it came to him now, sobbing its grief in the low notes of the violin, speaking to him with immeasurable pathos from the trembling throat of Mélisse.

He stood silent until she had finished, staring down upon her bowed head. When she lifted her eyes to him, he saw that her long lashes were wet and glistening in the lamp-glow.

“It is wonderful, Mélisse! You have made beautiful music for it.”

“Thank you, Jan.”

She played again, her voice humming with exquisite sweetness the wordless music which he had taught her. At last she gave him the violin.

“Now you must play for me.”

“I have forgotten a great deal, Mélisse.”

She was astonished to see how clumsily his brown fingers traveled over the strings. As she watched him, her heart thrilled uneasily. It was not the old Jan who was playing for her now, but a new Jan, whose eyes shone dull and passionless, in whom there was no stir of the old spirit of the violin. He wandered listlessly from one thing to another, and after a few minutes gave her the instrument again.

Without speaking, she rose from her chair and hung the violin upon the wall.

“You must practise a great deal,” she said quietly.

At her movement he, too, rose from his seat; and when she turned to him again he had his cap in his hand. A flash of surprise shot into her eyes.

“Are you going so soon, Jan?”

“I am tired,” he said in excuse. “It has been two days since I have slept, Mélisse. Good night!”

He smiled at her from the door, but the “Good night” which fell from her lips was lifeless and unmeaning. Jan shivered when he went out. Under the cold stars he clenched his hands, knowing that he had come from the cabin none too soon.

Choking back the grief of this last meeting with Mélisse, he crossed to the company store.

It was late when Cummins returned home. Mélisse was still up. He looked at her sharply over his shoulder as he hung up his coat and hat.

“Has anything come between you and Jan?” he asked suddenly. “Why have you been crying?”

“Sometimes the tears come when I am playing the violin, father. I know of nothing that has come between Jan and me, only I–I don’t understand–“

She stopped, struggling hard to keep back the sobs that were trembling in her throat.

“Neither do I understand,” exclaimed the factor, going to the stove to light his pipe. “He gave me his resignation as a paid servant of the company tonight!”

“He is not going–to leave–the post?” breathed Mélisse.

“He is leaving the service,” reiterated her father. “That means he can not long live at Lac Bain. He says he is going into the woods, perhaps into Jean’s country of the Athabasca. Has he told you more?”

“Nothing,” said Mélisse.

She was upon her knees in front of the little bookcase. A blinding film burned in her eyes. She caught her breath, struggling hard to master herself before she faced her father again. For a moment the factor went into his room, and she took this opportunity of slipping into her own, calling “Good night” to him from the partly closed door.

The next day it was Croisset who went along the edge of the Barrens for meat. Gravois found Jan filling a new shoulder-pack with supplies. It was their first encounter since he had learned that Jan had given up the service.

“Diable!” he fairly hissed, standing over him as he packed his flour and salt in a rubber bag. “Diable, I say, M. Jan Thoreau!”

Jan looked up, smiling, to see the little Frenchman fairly quivering with rage.

“Bon jour, M. Jean de Gravois!” he laughed back. “You see I am going out among the foxes.”

“The devils!” snapped Jean.

“No, the foxes, my dear Jean. I am tired of the post. I can make better wage for my time in the swamps to the west. Think of it, Jean! It has been many years since you have trapped there, and the foxes must be eating up the country!”

Jean’s thin lips were almost snarling. “Blessed saints, and it was I who–“

He spun upon his heels without another word, and went straight to Mélisse.

“Jan Thoreau is going to leave the post,” he announced fiercely, throwing out his chest and glaring at her accusingly.

“So father has told me,” said Mélisse.

Her cheeks were colorless, and there were purplish lines under her eyes, but she spoke with exceeding calmness.

“Mon Dieu!” exclaimed Jean, whirling again, “you take it coolly!”

A little later Mélisse saw Jan coming from the store. When he entered the cabin his dark face betrayed the strain under which he was laboring, but his voice was unnaturally calm.

“I have come to say good-by, Mélisse,” he said. “I am going to prospect for a good trap-line among the Barrens.”

“I hope you will have good luck, Jan.”

In her voice, too, was a firmness almost metallic.

For the first time in his life Jan held out his hand to her. She started, and for an instant the blood surged from her heart to her face. Then she gave him her own and looked him squarely and unflinchingly in the eyes.

“Will you wait a moment?” she asked.

She hurried into her room, and scarcely had she gone before she reappeared again, this time with a flush burning in her cheeks and her eyes shining brightly. She had unbraided her hair, and it lay coiled upon the crown of her head, glistening with crimson sprigs of bakneesh. She came to him a second time, and once more gave him her hand.

“I don’t suppose you care now,” she said coldly, and yet laughing in his face. “I have not broken my promise. It was silly, wasn’t it?”

He felt as if his blood had been suddenly chilled to water, and he fought to choke back the thick throbbing in his throat.

“You promised–” He could not go further.

“I promised that I would not do up my hair again until you had forgotten to love me,” she finished for him. “I will do it up now.”

He bowed his head, and she could see his shoulders quiver under their thick caribou coat. Her tense lips parted, and she raised her arms as if on the point of stretching them out to him; but his voice came evenly, without a quiver, yet filled with the dispassionate truth of what he spoke.

“I have not forgotten to love you, Mélisse. I shall never cease to love my little sister. But you are older now, and it is time for you to do up your hair.”

He turned, without looking at her again, leaving her standing with her arms still half stretched out to him, and went from the cabin.

“Good-by, Jan!”

The words fell in a sobbing whisper from her, but he had gone too far to hear. Through the window she saw him shake hands with Cummins in front of the company’s store. She watched him as he went to the cabin of Iowaka and Jean. Then she saw him shoulder his pack, and, with bowed head, disappear slowly into the depths of the black spruce forest.

CHAPTER XXIII

JAN RETURNS

All that spring and summer Jan spent in the thick caribou swamps and low ridge-mountains along the Barrens. It was two months before he appeared at the post again, and then he remained only long enough to patch himself up and secure fresh supplies.

Mélisse had suffered quietly during these two months, a grief and loneliness filling her heart which none knew but herself. Even from Iowaka she kept her unhappiness a secret; and yet when the gloom had settled heaviest upon her, she was still buoyed up by a persistent hope. Until Jan’s last visit to Lac Bain this hope never quite went out.

The first evening after his arrival from the swamps to the west, he came to the cabin. His beard had grown again. His hair was long and shaggy, and fell in shining dishevelment upon his shoulders. The sensitive beauty of his great eyes, once responsive to every passing humor in Mélisse, flashing fun at her laughter, glowing softly in their devotion, was gone. His face was filled with the age-old silence of the forest man. Firmly and yet gently, it repelled whatever of the old things she might have said and done, holding her away from him as if by power of a strong hand.

This time Mélisse knew that there was left not even the last comforting spark of hope within her bosom. Jan had gone out of her life for ever, leaving to her, as a haunting ghost of what they two had once been to each other, the old violin on the cabin wall.

After he went away again, the violin became more and more to her what it had once been to him. She played it as he had played it, sobbing her loneliness and her heart-break through its strings, in lone hours clasping it to her breast and speaking to it as Jan had talked to it in years gone by.

“If you could only tell me–if you only could!” she whispered to it one day, when the autumn was drawing near. “If you could tell me about him, and what I might do–dear old violin!”

Once during the autumn Jan came in for supplies and traps, and his dogs and sledge. He was planning to spend the winter two hundred miles to the west, in the country of the Athabasca. He was at Lac Bain for a week, and during this time a mail-runner came in from Fort Churchill.

The runner brought a new experience into the life of Mélisse–her first letter. It was from young Dixon–twenty or more closely written pages of it, in which he informed her that he was going to spend a part of the approaching winter at Lac Bain.

She was reading the last page when Jan came into the cabin. Her cheeks were slightly flushed by this new excitement, which was reflected in her eyes as she looked at Jan.

“A letter!” she cried, holding out her two hands filled with the pages. “A letter–to me, Jan, all the way from Fort Churchill!”

“Who in the world–” he began, smiling at her; and stopped.

“It’s from Mr. Dixon,” she said, the flush deepening in her cheeks. “He’s going to spend part of the winter with us.”

“I’m glad of that, Mélisse,” said Jan quietly. “I like him, and would like to know him better. I hope he will bring you some more books–and strings.” He glanced at the old violin. “Do you play much?”

“A great deal,” she replied. “Won’t you play for me, Jan?”

“My hands are too rough; and besides, I’ve forgotten all that I ever knew.”

“Even the things you played when I was a baby?”

“I think I have, Mélisse. But you must never forget them.”

“I shall remember them–always,” she answered softly. “Some day it may be that I will teach them to you again.”

He did not see her again until six months later, when he came in to the caribou roast, with his furs. Then he learned that another letter had come to Mélisse, and that Dixon had gone to London instead of coming to Lac Bain.

The day after the carnival he went back into the country of the Athabasca. Spring did not see him at Lac Bain. Early summer brought no news of him. In the floods, Jean went by the water-way to the Athabasca, and found Thoreau’s cabin abandoned. There had not been life in it for a long time. The Indians said that since the melting snows they had not seen Jan. A half-breed whom Jean met at Fond du Lac said that he had found the bones of a white man on the Beaver, with a Hudson’s Bay gun and a horn-handled knife beside them.

Jean came back to Lac Bain heavy at heart.

“There is no doubt but that he is dead,” he told Iowaka. “I do not believe that it will hurt very much if you tell Mélisse.”

One day early in September a lone figure came in to the post at noon, when the company people were at dinner. He carried a pack, and six dogs trailed at his heels. It was Jan Thoreau.

“I have been down to civilization,” was his explanation. “I have returned to spend this winter at Lac Bain.”

CHAPTER XXIV

THE RESCUE

On the first snow came young Dixon from Fort Churchill. Jean de Gravois met him on the trail near Ledoq’s. When the Englishman recognized the little Frenchman he leaped from his sledge and advanced with outstretched hand, his face lighting up with pleasure.

“Bless me, if it isn’t my old friend, Jean!” he cried. “I was just thinking of you, Gravois, and how you trimmed me to a finish two winters ago. I’ve learned a lot about you people up here in the snows since then, and I’ll never do anything like that again.” He laughed into Jean’s face as they shook hands, and his voice was filled with unbounded sincerity. “How is Mrs. Gravois, and the little Gravois–and Mélisse?” he added, before Jean had spoken.

“All well, M’seur Dixon,” replied Jean. “Only the little Gravois have almost grown into a man and woman.”

An hour or so later he said to Iowaka:

“I can’t help liking this man Dixon, and yet I don’t want to. Why is it, do you suppose?”

“Is it because you are afraid that Mélisse will like him?” asked his wife, smiling over her shoulder.

“Blessed saints, I believe that it is!” said Jean frankly. “I hate foreigners–and Mélisse belongs to Jan.”

“She did, once, but that was a long time ago, Jean.”

“It may be, and yet I doubt it, ma bien aimée. If Jan would tell her–“

“A woman will not wait always,” interrupted Iowaka softly. “Jan Thoreau has waited too long!”

A week later, as they stood together in front of their door, they saw Dixon and Mélisse walking slowly in the edge of the forest. The woman laughed into Jean’s face.

“Did I not say that Jan had waited too long?”

Jean’s face was black with disapprobation.

“Then you would have taken up with some foreigner if I had remained in the Athabasca country another year or two?” he demanded questioningly.

“Very likely,” retorted Iowaka mischievously, running into the cabin.

“The devil!” said Jean sourly, stalking in the direction of the store.

He was angered at the coolness with which Jan accepted the situation.

“This Dixon is with Mélisse afternoon and evening, and they walk together every day in the bush,” he said to him. “Soon there will be a wedding at Lac Bain!”

“Mélisse deserves a good man,” replied Jan, unmoved. “I like Dixon.”

Deep down in his soul he knew that each day was bringing the end of it all much nearer for him. He did not tell Mélisse that he had returned to Lac Bain to be near her once more, nor did he confide in Jean. He had anticipated that this winter at the post would be filled with a certain painful pleasure for him–but he had not anticipated Dixon. Day after day he saw Mélisse and the Englishman together, and while they awakened in him none of the fiery jealousy which might have rankled in the bosom of Jean de Gravois, the knowledge that the girl was at last passing from him for ever added a deeper grief to that which was already eating at his heart.

Dixon made no effort to conceal his feelings. He loved Mélisse. Frankly he told this to Jean one day, when they were on the Churchill trail. In his honest way he said things which broke down the last of Jean’s hereditary prejudices, and compelled him to admit that this was a different sort of foreigner than he had ever known before.

“Diable, I like him,” he said to himself; “and yet I would rather see him in the blessed hereafter than have him take Mélisse from Jan!”

The big snow decided.

It came early in December. Dixon had set out alone for Ledoq’s early in the morning. By noon the sky was a leaden black, and a little later one could not see a dozen paces ahead of him for the snow. The Englishman did not return that day. The next day he was still gone, and Gravois drove along the top of the mountain ridge until he came to the Frenchman’s, where he found that Dixon had started for Lac Bain the preceding afternoon. He brought word back to the post. Then he went to Mélisse.

“It is as good as death to go out in search of him,” he said. “We can no longer use the dogs. Snowshoes will sink like leaden bullets by morning, and to go ten miles from the post means that there will be bones to be picked by the foxes when the crust comes!”

It was dark when Jan came into the cabin. Mélisse started to her feet with a little cry when he entered, covered white with the snow. A light pack was strapped to his back, and he carried his rifle in his hand.

“I am going to hunt for him,” he said softly. “If he is alive, I will bring him back to you.”

She came to him slowly, and the beating of Jan’s heart sounded to him like the distant thrumming of partridge-wings. Ah, would he ever forget that look? The old glory was in her eyes, her arms were reaching out, her lips parted. Jan knew how the Great Spirit had once appeared to Mukee, and how a white mist, like a snow-veil, had come between the half-breed’s eyes and the wondrous Thing he beheld. That same veil drifted between Jan and the girl. As in a vision, he saw her face so near to him that he felt the touch of her sweet breath, and he knew that one of his rough hands was clasped in both of her own, and that after a moment it was crushed tightly against her bosom.

“Jan, my hero–“

He struggled back, almost sobbing, as he plunged out into the night again. He heard her voice crying after him, but the wild wailing of the spruce, and the storm in his brain, drowned its words. He had seen the glorious light of love in her eyes–her love for Dixon! And he would find him! At last he, Jan Thoreau, would prove that the old love was not dead within him; he would do for Mélisse this night–to- morrow–the next day, and until he fell down to die–what he had promised to do on their sledge-ride to Ledoq’s. And then–

He went to Ledoq’s now, following the top of the mountain, and reached his cabin in the late dawn. The Frenchman stared at him in amazement when he learned that he was about to set out on a search for Dixon.

“You will not find him,” he said slowly in French; “but if you are determined to go, I will hunt with you. It is a big chance that we will not come back.”

“I don’t want you to go,” objected Jan. “One will do as much as two, unless we search alone. I came your way to find if it had begun to snow before Dixon left.”

“An hour after he had gone, you could not see your hand before your face,” replied Ledoq, preparing his pack. “There is no doubt but that he circled out over Lac Bain. We will go that far together, and then search alone.”

They went back over the mountain, and stopped when instinct told them that they were opposite the spruce forests of the lake. There they separated, Jan going as nearly as he could guess into the northwest, Ledoq trailing slowly and hopelessly into the south.

It was no great sacrifice for Jan, this struggle with the big snows for the happiness of Mélisse. What it was to Ledoq no man ever guessed or knew, for it was not until the late spring snows had gone that the people at Lac Bain found what the foxes and the wolves had left of him, far to the south.

Fearlessly Jan plunged into the white world of the lake. There was neither rock nor tree to guide him, for everywhere was the heavy ghost-raiment of the Indian god. The balsams were bending under it, the spruces were breaking into hunchback forms, the whole world was twisted in noiseless torture under its increasing weight. Out through the still terror of it all Jan’s voice went in wild, echoing shouts. Now and then he fired his rifle, and always he listened long and intently. The echoes came back to him, laughing, taunting, and then each time fell the mirthless silence of the storm.

Day came, only a little lighter than the night. He crossed the lake, his snow-shoes sinking ankle-deep at every step, and once each half- hour he fired a single shot from his rifle. He heard shots to the south, and knew that it was Ledoq; each report coming to him more faintly than the last, until they had died away entirely.

Across the lake he struck the forest again, and his shouts echoed in futile inquiry in its weird depths. About him there was no sign of life, no sound except the faint fluttering of falling snow. Under five feet of this snow the four-footed creatures of the wilderness were snugly buried; close against the trunks of the spruces, sheltered within their tent-like coverings, the birds waited like lifeless things for the breaking of the storm.

At noon Jan stopped and ate his lunch. Then he went on, carrying his rifle always upon his right shoulder, so that the steps of his right leg would be shortened, and he would travel in a circle, as he believed Dixon had done.

The storm thickened with the falling of night, and he burrowed himself a great hole in the soft snow and filled it with balsam boughs for a bed. When he awakened, hours later, he stood up, and thrust out his head, and found himself buried to the arm-pits. With the aid of his broad snow-shoes he drew himself out, until he stood knee-deep in the surface.

He lifted his pack. As he swung it before him, one arm thrust through a strap, he gave a startled cry. Half of one side of the pack was eaten away! He thrust his hands through the breach, and a moan of despair sobbed on his lips when he found that his food was gone. A thin trickle of flour ran through his fingers upon the snow. He pulled out a gnawed pound of bacon, a little tea–and that was all.

Frantically he ripped the rent wider in his search, and when he stood up, his wild face staring into the chaos about him, he held only the bit of bacon in his hand. In it were the imprints of tiny teeth–sharp little razor-edged teeth that told him what had happened. While he had slept a mink had robbed him of his food!

With one of his shoes he began digging furiously in the snow. He tore his balsam bed to pieces. Somewhere–somewhere not very far away–the little animal must have cached its theft. He dug down until he came to the frozen earth. For an hour he worked and found nothing.

Then he stopped. Over a small fire he melted snow for tea and broiled a slice of the bacon, which he ate with the few biscuit crumbs he found in the pack. Every particle of flour that he could find he scraped up with his knife and put into one of the deep pockets of his caribou coat. After that he set cut in the direction in which he thought he would find Lac Bain.

Still he shouted for Dixon, and fired an occasional shot from his rifle. By noon he should have struck the lake. Noon came and passed; the gloom of a second night fell upon him. He built himself a fire, and ate two-thirds of what remained of the bacon. The handful of flour in his pocket he did not disturb.

It was still night when he broke his rest and struggled on. His first fears were gone. In place of them, there filled him now a grim sort of pleasure. A second time he was battling with death for Mélisse. And this, after all, was not a very hard fight for him. He had feared death in the red plague, but he did not fear the thought of this death that threatened him in the big snows. It thrilled him, instead, with a strange sort of exhilaration. If he died, it would be for Mélisse, and for all time she would remember him for what he had done.

When he ate the last bit of his bacon, he made up his mind what he would do when the end came. In the stock of his rifle he would scratch a few last words to Mélisse. He even arranged the words in his brain– four of them–“Mélisse, I love you.” He repeated them to himself as he staggered on, and that night, beside the fire he built, he began by carving her name.

“To-morrow,” he said softly, “I will do the rest.”

He was growing very hungry, but he did not touch the flour. For six hours he slept, and then drank his fill of hot tea.

“We will travel until day, Jan Thoreau,” he informed himself, “and then, if nothing turns up, we will build our last camp, and eat the flour. It will be the last of us, for there will be no meat above this snow for days.”

His snow-shoes were an impediment now, and he left them behind, along with one of his two blankets, which had grown to be like lead upon his shoulders. He counted his cartridges–ten of them. One of these he fired into the air.

Was that an echo he heard?

A sudden thrill shot through him. He strained his ears to catch a repetition of the sound. In a moment it came again–clearly no echo this time.

“Ledoq!” he cried aloud.

He fired again.

Back to him came the distant, splitting crack of a rifle. He forced his way toward it. After a little he heard the signal again, much nearer than before, and he fired in response. A few hundred yards farther on he came to a low mountain ridge, and lifted his voice in a loud shout. A shot came from just over the mountain.

Waist deep in the light snow he began the ascent, dragging himself up by the tops of the slender saplings, stopping every few yards to half- stretch himself out in the soft mass through which he was struggling, panting with exhaustion. He shouted when he gained the top of the ridge. Up through the white blur of snow on the other side there came to him faintly a shout; yet, in spite of its faintness, Jan knew that it was very near.

“Something has happened to Ledoq,” he told himself, “but he surely has food, and we can live it out until the storm is over.”

It was easier going down the ridge, and he went quickly in the direction from which the voice had come, until a mass of huge boulders loomed up before him. There was a faint odor of smoke in the air, and he followed it in among the rocks, where it grew stronger.

“Ho, Ledoq!” he shouted.

A voice replied a dozen yards away. Slowly, as he advanced, he made out the dim shadow of life in the white gloom–a bit of smoke climbing weakly in the storm, the black opening of a brush shelter–and then, between the opening and the spiral of smoke, a living thing that came creeping toward him on all fours, like an animal.

He plunged toward it, and the shadow staggered upward, and would have fallen had it not been for the support of the deep snow. Another step, and a sharp cry fell from Jan’s lips. It was not Ledoq, but Dixon, who stood there with white, starved face and staring eyes in the snow gloom!

“My God, I am starving–and dying for a drink of water!” gasped the Englishman chokingly, thrusting out his arms. “Thoreau, God be praised–“

He staggered, and fell in the snow. Jan dragged him back to the shelter.

“I will have water for you–and something to eat–very soon,” he said.

His voice sounded unreal. There was a mistiness before his eyes which was not caused by the storm, a twisting of strange shadows that bothered his vision, and made him sway dizzily when he threw off his pack to stir the fire. He suspended his two small pails over the embers, which he coaxed into a blaze. Both he filled with snow; into one he emptied the handful of flour that he had carried in his pocket –into the other he put tea. Fifteen minutes later he carried them to the Englishman.

Dixon sat up, a glazed passion filling his eyes. He drank the hot tea greedily, and as greedily ate the boiled flour-pudding. Jan watched him hungrily until the last crumb of it was gone. He refilled the pails with snow, added more tea, and then rejoined the Englishman. New life was already shining in Dixon’s eyes.

“Not a moment too soon, Thoreau,” he said thankfully, reaching over to grip the other’s hand.

“Another night and–” Suddenly he stopped. “Great Heaven, what is the matter?”

He noticed for the first time the pinched torture in his companion’s face. Jan’s head dropped weakly upon his breast. His hands were icy cold.

“Nothing,” he murmured drowsily, “only–I’m starving, too, Dixon!” He recovered himself with an effort, and smiled into Dixon’s startled face. “There is nothing to eat,” he continued, as he saw the other direct his gaze toward the pack. “I gave you the last of the flour. There is nothing–but salt and tea.” He rolled over upon the balsam boughs with a restful sigh. “Let me sleep!”

Dixon went to the pack. One by one, in his search for food, he took out the few articles that it contained. After that he drank more tea, crawled back into the balsam shelter, and lay down beside Jan. It was broad day when he awoke, and he called hoarsely to his companion when he saw that the snow had ceased falling.

Jan did not stir. For a moment Dixon leaned over to listen to his breathing, and then dragged himself slowly and painfully out into the day. The fire was out. A leaden blackness still filled the sky; deep, silent gloom hung in the wake of the storm.

Suddenly there came to Dixon’s ears a sound. It was a sound that would have been unheard in the gentle whispering of a wind, in the swaying of the spruce-tops; but in this silence it fell upon the starving man’s hearing with a distinctness that drew his muscles rigid and set his eyes staring about him in wild search. Just beyond the hanging pails a moose-bird hopped out upon the snow. It chirped hungrily, its big, owl-like eyes scrutinizing Dixon. The man stared back, fearing to move. Slowly he forced his right foot through the snow to the rear of his left, and as cautiously brought his left behind his right, working himself backward step by step until he reached the shelter. Just inside was his rifle. He drew it out and sank upon his knees in the snow to aim. At the report of the rifle, Jan stirred but did not open his eyes; he made no movement when Dixon called out in shrill joy that he had killed meat. He heard, he strove to arouse himself, but something more powerful than his own will seemed pulling him down into oblivion. It seemed an eternity before he was conscious of a voice again. He felt himself lifted, and opened his eyes with his head resting against the Englishman’s shoulder.

“Drink this, Thoreau,” he heard.

He drank, and knew that it was not tea that ran down his throat.

“Whisky-jack soup,” he heard again. “How is it?”

He became wide-awake. Dixon was offering him a dozen small bits of meat on a tin plate, and he ate without questioning. Suddenly, when there were only two or three of the smallest scraps left, he stopped.

“Mon Dieu, it was whisky-jack!” he cried. “I have eaten it all!”

The young Englishman’s white face grinned at him.

“I’ve got the flour inside of me, Thoreau–you’ve got the moose-bird. Isn’t that fair?”

The plate dropped between them. Over it their hands met in a great, clutching grip, and up from Jan’s heart there welled words which almost burst from his lips in voice, words which rang in his brain, and which were an unspoken prayer–“Mélisse, I thank the great God that it is this man whom you love!” But it was in silence that he staggered to his feet and went out into the gloom.

“This may be only a lull in the storm,” he said. “We must lose no time. How long did you travel before you made this camp?”

“About ten hours,” said Dixon. “I made due west by compass until I knew that I had passed Lac Bain, and then struck north.”

“Ah, you have the compass,” cried Jan, his eyes lighting up. “M’seur Dixon, we are very near to the post if you camped so soon! Tell me which is north.”

“That is north.”

“Then we go south–south and east. If you traveled ten hours, first west and then north, we are northwest of Lac Bain.”

Jan spoke no more, but got his rifle from the shelter and put only the tea and two pails in his pack; leaving the remaining blanket upon the snow. The Englishman followed close behind him, bending weakly under the weight of his gun. Tediously they struggled to the top of the ridge, and as Jan stopped to look through the gray day about him, Dixon sank down into the snow. When the other turned toward him he grinned up feebly into his face.

“Bushed,” he gasped. “Don’t believe I can make it through this snow, Thoreau.”

There was no fear in his eyes; there was even a cheerful ring in his voice.

A sudden glow leaped into Jan’s face.

“I know this ridge,” he exclaimed. “It runs within a mile of Lac Bain. You’d better leave your rifle behind.”

Dixon made an effort to rise and Jan helped him. They went on slowly, resting every few hundred yards, and each time that he rose from these periods of rest, Dixon’s face was twisted with pain.

“It’s the flour and water anchored amidships,” he smiled grimly. “Cramps–Ugh!”

“We’ll make it by supper-time,” assured Jan cheerfully.

Dixon leaned heavily on his arm.

“I wish you’d go on alone,” he urged. “You could send help–“

“I promised Mélisse that I would bring you back if I found you,” replied Jan, his face turned away. “If the storm broke again, you would be lost.”

“Tell me–tell me–” he heard Dixon pant eagerly, “did she send you to hunt for me, Thoreau?”

Something in the Englishman’s voice drew his eyes to him. There was an excited flush in his starved cheeks; his eyes shone.

“Did she send you?”

Jan struggled hard to speak calmly.

“Not in words, M’seur Dixon. But I know that if I get you safely back to Lac Bain she will be very happy.”

Something came in Dixon’s sobbing breath which Jan did not hear. A little later he stopped and built a fire over which he melted more snow and boiled tea. The drink stimulated them, and they went on. A little later still and Jan hung his rifle in the crotch of a sapling.

“We will return for the guns in a day or so,” he said.

Dixon leaned upon him more heavily now, and the distances they traveled between resting periods became shorter and shorter. Three times they stopped to build fires and cook tea. It was night when they descended from the ridge to the snow-covered ice of Lac Bain. It was past midnight when Jan dragged Dixon from the spruce forest into the opening at the post. There were no lights burning, and he went with his half-conscious burden to the company’s store. He awakened Croisset, who let them in.

“Take care of Dixon,” said Jan, “and don’t arouse any of the people to-night. It will be time enough to tell what has happened in the morning.”

Over the stove in his own room he cooked meat and coffee, and for a long time sat silent before the fire. He had brought back Dixon. In the morning Mélisse would know. First she would go to the Englishman, then–then–she would come to him!

He rose and went to the rude board table in the corner of his room.

“No, Mélisse must not come to me in the morning,” he whispered to himself. “She must never again look upon Jan Thoreau.”

He took pencil and paper and wrote. Page after page he crumpled in his hand and flung into the fire. At last, swiftly and despairingly, he ended with half a dozen lines. What he said came from his heart, in French:

“I have brought him back to you, my Mélisse, and pray that the good God may give you happiness. I leave you the old violin, and always when you play, it will tell you of the love of Jan Thoreau.”

He folded the page and sealed it in one of the company’s envelopes. Very quietly he went from his room down into the deserted store. Without striking a light he found a new pack, a few articles of food, and ammunition. The envelope, addressed to Mélisse, he left where Croisset or the factor would find it in the morning. His dogs were housed in a shack behind the store, and he called out their names softly and warningly as he went among them. As stealthily as their master they trailed behind him to the edge of the forest, and close under the old spruce that guarded the grave Jan stopped, and silently he stretched out his arms to the little cabin.

The dogs watched him. Kazan, the one-eyed leader, glared from him into the dimness of the night, whining softly. A low, mourning wind swept through the spruce tops, and from Jan’s throat there burst sobbingly words which he had heard beside this same grave more than seventeen years before, when Williams’ choking voice had risen in a last prayer for the woman.

“May the great God care for Mélisse!”

He turned into the trail upon which Jean de Gravois had fought the Englishman, led his dogs and sledge in a twisting path through the caribou swamp, and stood at last beside the lob-stick tree that leaned out over the edge of the white barrens. With his knife he dug out the papers which he had concealed in that whisky-jack hole.

It was near dawn when he recovered the rifle which he had abandoned on the mountain top. A little later it began to snow. He was glad, for it would conceal his trail.

For thirteen days he forced his dogs through the deep snows into the south. On the fourteenth they came to Le Pas, which is the edge of civilization. It was night when he came out of the forest, so that he could see the faint glow of lights beyond the Saskatchewan.

For a few moments, before crossing, he stopped his tired dogs and turned his face back into the grim desolation of the North, where the aurora was playing feebly in the skies, and beckoning to him, and telling him that the old life of centuries and centuries ago would wait for him always at the dome of the earth.

“The good God bless you, and keep you, and care for you ever more, my Mélisse,” he whispered; and he walked slowly ahead of his dogs, across the river, and into the Other World.

CHAPTER XXV

JACK THORNTON

There was music that night in Le Pas. Jan heard it before he came to the first of the scattered lights, and the dogs pricked up their ears. Kazan, the one-eyed, whined under his breath, and the weight at Jan’s heart grew heavier as the dog turned up his head to him in the starlight. It was strange music, nothing like Jan had ever heard. It was strange to Kazan, and set him whining, and he thrust his muzzle up to his master’s touch inquiringly. They passed on like shadows, close to a big, lighted log building from which the music came, and with it a tumult of laughter, of shuffling and stamping feet, of coarse singing and loud voices. A door opened and a man and a woman came out. The man was cursing, and the woman was laughing at him–laughing as Jan had never heard a woman laugh before, and he held his breath as he listened to the taunting mockery in it. Others followed the first man and the first woman. Some passed quietly. A woman, escorted between two men, screamed with merriment as she flung toward his shadowy figure an object which fell with a crash against the sledge. It was a bottle. Kazan snarled. The trace-dogs slunk close to the leader’s heels. With a low word Jan led them on.

Close down to the river, where the Saskatchewan swung in a half-moon to the south and west, he found a low, squat building with a light hung over the door illuminating a bit of humor in the form of a printed legend which said that it was “King Edward’s Hotel.” The scrub bush of the forest grew within a hundred yards of it, and in this bush Jan tied his dogs and left his sledge. It did not occur to him that now, when he had entered civilization, he had come also into the land of lock and bolt, of robbers and thieves. It was loneliness, and not suspicion, that sent him back to unleash Kazan and take him with him.

They entered the hotel, Kazan with suspicious caution. The door opened into a big room lighted by an oil lamp, turned low. The room was empty except for a solitary figure sitting in a chair, facing a wide window which looked into the north. Making no sound, that he might not disturb this other occupant, Jan also seated himself before the window. Kazan laid his wolfish head across his master’s knees, his one eye upon him steadily and questioningly. Never in all his years of life had Jan felt the depth of loneliness that swept upon him now, as he looked into the North. Below him the Saskatchewan lay white and silent; beyond it he could see the dark edge of the forest, and far, far, beyond that, hovering low in the sky, the polar star. It burned faintly now, almost like a thousand other stars that he saw, and the aurora was only a fading glow.

Something rose up in Jan’s throat and choked him, and he closed his eyes, with his fingers clutching Kazan’s head. In spite of the battle that he had fought, his mind swept back–back through the endless silent spaces, over mountains and through forests, swift, resistless, until once more the polar star flashed in all its glory over his head, and he was at Lac Bain. He did not know that he was surrendering to hunger, exhaustion, the cumulative effects of his thirteen days’ fight in the forests. He was with Mélisse again, with the old violin, with the things that they had loved. He forgot in these moments that there was another in the room; he heard no sound as the man shifted his position so that he looked steadily at him and Kazan. It was the low, heart-broken sob of grief that fell from his own lips that awakened him again to a consciousness of the present.

He jerked himself erect, and found Kazan with his fangs gleaming. The stranger had risen. He was standing close to him, leaning down, staring at him in the dim lamplight, and as Jan lifted his own eyes he knew that in the pale, eager face of the man above him there was written a grief which might have been a reflection of his own. For a full breath or two they looked, neither speaking, and the hair along Kazan’s spine stood stiff. Something reached out to Jan and set his tired blood tingling. He knew that this man was not a forest man. He was not of his people. His face bore the stamp of the people to the south, of civilization. And yet something passed between them, leaped all barriers, and made them friends before they had spoken. The stranger reached down his hand, and Jan reached up his. All of the loneliness, the clinging to hope, the starving desire of two men for companionship, passed in the long grip of their hands.

“You have just come down,” said the man, half questioningly. “That was your sledge–out there?”

“Yes,” said Jan.

The stranger sat down in the chair next to Jan.

“From the camps?” he questioned eagerly.

“What camps, m’sieur?”

“The railroad camps, where they are putting the new line through, beyond Wekusko.”

“I know of no camps,” said Jan simply. “I know of no railroad, except this that comes to Le Pas. I come from Lac Bain, on the edge of the barren lands.”

“You have never been down before?” asked the stranger softly. Jan wondered at the light in his eyes.

“A long time ago,” he said, “for a day. I have passed all of my life– up there.” Jan pointed to the north, and the other’s eyes turned to where the polar star was fading low in the sky.

“And I have passed all of my life DOWN THERE,” he replied, nodding his head to the south. “A year ago I came up here for–for health and happiness,” he laughed nervously. “I found them both. But I’m leaving them. I’m going back to-morrow. My name is Thornton,” he added, holding out his hand again. “I come from Chicago.”

“My name is Thoreau–Jan Thoreau,” said Jan. “I have read of Chicago in a book, and have seen pictures of it. Is it larger than the city that is called Winnipeg?”

He looked at Thornton, and Thornton turned his head a little so that the light did not shine in his face. The grip of his fingers tightened about Jan’s hand.

“Yes, it is larger.”

“The officers of the great company are at Winnipeg, and Le Commissionaire, are they not, m’sieur?”

“Of the Hudson’s Bay Company–yes.”

“And if there was business to do–important business, m’sieur, would it not be best to go to Le Commissionaire?” questioned Jan.

Thornton looked hard at the tense eagerness in Jan’s face.

“There are nearer headquarters, at Prince Albert,” he said.

“That is not far,” exclaimed Jan, rising. “And they would do business there–important business?” He dropped his hand to Kazan’s head, and half turned toward the door.

“Perhaps better than the Commissioner,” replied Thornton. “It might depend–on what your business is.”

To them, as each stood for a moment in silence, there came the low wailing of a dog out in the night.

“They are calling for Kazan,” said Jan quietly, as though he had not read the question in Thornton’s last words. “Good night, m’sieur!”

The dogs were sitting upon their haunches, waiting, when Jan and Kazan went back to them. Jan drew them farther back, where the thick spruce shut them out from the clearing, and built a fire. Over this he hung his coffee-pail and a big chunk of frozen caribou meat, and tossed frozen fish to the hungry dogs. Then he pulled down spruce boughs and spread his heavy blankets out near the fire, and waited for the coffee and meat to cook. The huskies were through when he began eating, and they lay on their bellies, close about his feet, ready to snap at the scraps which he threw them. Jan noticed, as he ate, that there was left in them none of the old, fierce, fighting spirit. They did not snap or snarl. There was no quarreling when he threw bits of meat to them, and he found himself wondering if they, too, were filled with the sickness which was eating at his own heart.

With this sickness, this deathly feeling of loneliness and heartache, there had entered into Jan now a strange sensation that was almost excitement–an eagerness to fasten the dogs in their traces, to hurry on, in spite of his exhaustion, to that place which Thornton had told him of–Prince Albert, and to free himself there, for all time, of the thing which had oppressed him since that night many years ago, when he had staggered into Lac Bain to play his violin as Cummins’ wife died. He reached inside his skin coat and there he felt papers which he had taken from the hole in the lob-stick tree. They were safe. For twenty years he had guarded them. To-morrow he would take them to the great company at Prince Albert. And after that–after he had done this thing, what would there remain in life for Jan Thoreau? Perhaps the company might take him, and he would remain in civilization. That would be best–for him. He would fight against the call of his forests as years and years ago he had fought against that call of the Other World that had filled him with unrest for a time. He had killed THAT. If he DID return to his forests, he would go far to the west, or far to the east. No one that had ever known him would hear again of Jan Thoreau.

Kazan had crept to his blanket, daring to encroach upon it inch by inch, until his great wolf-head lay upon Jan’s arm. It was ten years ago that Jan had taken Kazan, a little half-blind puppy that he and Mélisse had chosen from a litter of half a dozen stronger brothers and sisters. Kazan was all that was left to him now. He loved the other dogs, but they were not like Kazan. He tightened his arm about the dog’s head. Exhaustion, and the warmth of the fire, made him drowsy, and, after a time, he slept, with his head thrown back against the tree.

Something awoke him, hours afterward. He opened his eyes, and found that the fire was still burning brightly. On the far side of it, beyond the dogs, sat Thornton. A look at the sky, where the stars were dying, and Jan knew that it was just before the gray break of dawn. He sat upright. Thornton laughed softly at him, and puffed out clouds of smoke from his pipe.

“You were freezing,” he said, as Jan stared, “and sleeping like a dead man. I waited for you back there, and then hunted you up. You know–I thought–” He hesitated, and knocked the ash from his pipe bowl. Then he looked frankly and squarely at Jan. “See here, old man, if you’re hard up–had trouble of any sort–bad luck–got no money–won’t you let me help you out?”

“Thank you, m’sieur–I have money,” said Jan. “I prefer to sleep outside with the dogs. Mon Dieu, I guess I would have been stiff with the frost if you had not come. You have been here–all night?”

Thornton nodded.