Still there was no answer.
Suddenly the giant swung round and looked at the spot where Davia had been standing. She had vanished.
And Jean, solemn-eyed as any moose, stared stupidly at the place where her feet had rested. He stood long without moving, and slowly thought straightened itself out in his uncouth brain. He began to understand. The complexity of a woman's character had been an unknown quantity to him. But he was no further from understanding them than any other man. Now an inner consciousness told him that the punishment of Victor had been the undoing of his schemes. Davia had seen the trader bereft of all, homeless, penniless; and she had gone to him.
He turned back at last and looked towards the store; it was almost burnt out now. But he heeded it not, for he saw two figures in deep converse, close by, in the open, and one of them was a woman. As he watched he saw Davia pass a large pistol to the man; and then he knew that her love for her faithless lover was greater than any other passion that moved her. He knew that that weapon had been given for defence against himself.
That evening the setting sun shone down upon a solitary camp-fire on the Northland trail, and beside it sat a large man crouching for warmth. He was smoking; and as he smoked he thought much. All the days he had lived he had never known a woman's love. He muttered as he kicked the sticks of his fire together, and spat into the blaze as it leapt up.
"Maybe it's a fine thing. Maybe they're queer critturs. Mostly saft an' gentle an'—um—I wonder—"
The sun sank abruptly, and the brief twilight gave place to a night that was little less than day. The northern lights danced their mystic measure in the starlit vault to the piping of the Spirit of the North. The hush of the Silent Land was only broken by the cries which came up from the dark valleys and darker forests. And the lonely giant, Jean Leblaude, slept the light slumber of the journeyer in the wild; the slumber that sees and hears when danger is abroad, and yet rests the body. He dreamed not, though all his schemes had gone awry, for he was weary.
THE TRAGEDY OF THE WILD
"Aim-sa! Aim-sa! I come!"
The cry rings against the mountainsides, shuddering and failing; then it is lost in the vastness, like the sound of a pebble pitched into rushing waters. The woodland chorus takes it up in its own wolfish tongue, and it plunges forth again, magnified by the din of a thousand echoes.
High up to the lair of the mountain lion it rises; where the mighty crags, throne-like, o'ershadow the lesser woods; where the royal beast, lording it over an inferior world, stealthily prowls and lashes its angry tail at the impudence of such a disturbance in its vast domain. Its basilisk stare looks out from its furtive, drooping head, and its commands ring out in a roar of magnificent displeasure.
Even to loftier heights still the cry goes up; and the mighty grey eagle ruffles its angry feathers, shakes out its vast wings, and screams invective in answer to this loud-voiced boast of wingless creatures. Then, in proud disdain, it launches itself out upon the air, and with a mighty swoop downwards, screaming defiance as its outstretched pinions brush the sleek coat of the mountain lion, it passes on over the creaking tree-tops to learn the real cause of the hubbub.
Down the valley, away to the east, the timid deer gather, snuffing at the breeze, fearful, protesting, yet fascinated. The caribou pauses in his headlong race to listen; only, a moment later, to speed on the faster.
"Aim-sa! Aim-sa! Wait, I come!"
The cry is more muffled. The dark canopy of forest deadens it, till the sound is like a voice crying out from the depths of the earth. For the man is travelling with the fierce directness of one who is lured on by the haunting vision of that which is his whole desire. The riven mountains have no meaning for him. He looks straight out, nor tree-trunk, nor bush, nor jutting rock bars his vision; there beyond, ever beyond, is that which alone he seeks. It moves as he moves; beckoning, calling, smiling. But always, like a will-o'-the-wisp, it eludes him, and draws forth the cry from his throat. The sweet, mocking face; the profound blue eyes, sparkling with laughter or brooding in perfect seriousness; the parted lips about the glistening teeth so luscious in their suggestion; the dark flowing hair, like a soft curtain of wondrous texture falling in delicate folds upon rounded shoulders—these things he sees. Always ahead the vision speeds, always beyond. The man's efforts avail nothing.
The wolves upon his trail lope slowly over the forest bed of oozing vegetation; with careless stride, but with relentless intent, the creatures openly seek their prey. For blood is upon the air, and they come with the patter of thousands of feet, singing their dolorous chorus with all the deep meaning of the savage primordial beast. But the man heeds them not. He is deaf to their raucous song as he is blind to the mighty encompassing hills. What cares he if the earth links up with the blue heavens above him? What cares he for the everlasting silence of those heights, or the mute Spirits which repose upon the icy beds of the all-time glaciers? He is beyond the knowledge of Storm or Calm. He knows nought of the meaning of the awesome voice of Nature. The vision is all to him, and he gazes upon it with hungry, dreadful eyes. His heart is starving; his mind is empty of all but the pangs of his all-mastering desire. If need be he will pursue to the ends of the earth. He has been to the depths of hell for her; he has felt the withering blast of satanic fires. There is nought for him but possession; possession of the woman he seeks.
To his distraught fancy, his cries receive answer, and he stumbles blindly on. Meanwhile the wolves draw ever nearer and nearer, as their courage rises in response to the voice of their famished bellies. So the strange pursuit goes on, on; over hills and through valleys, now scaling barren, snow-clad rocks, now clambering drearily down jagged rifts of earth; over Nature's untrodden trails, or along beaten paths made by the passage of forest beasts. Through clearing and brake, and over the rotting ice which fills the bed of the mountain torrent. On, on into Nature's dim recesses, where only the forest creatures lord it, and the feet of man have never been set.
At length the forests disappear and the magnificent heights rear their snowy crests thousands of feet skywards. The valleys are left, and behind him and below the forests form but a dark shadow of little meaning. The greatness is about him; the magnitude of the higher mountain world. As he faces the unfathomed heights he again treads the snow, for the warm embrace of Spring has not yet enfolded the higher lands, and the gracious influence of the woods is no longer to be felt.
He pauses, breathing hard, and the expression of his wounded face is not pleasant. The flesh is blue, and the eyes are as fierce as the crouching puma's. He looks about him as one in a daze. The baying of the wolves comes up from below. They still dog him, for the blood trail holds them fast. A ledge stretches away, winding upwards; a mass of tumbled rocks foot one towering, solitary pine, and beyond is blank snow.
For the moment he is lost, his vision has deserted him. It may be that weariness has overcome the power of his illusion, for he stares vacantly about. He looks back, and the breadth of what he sees conveys no meaning. The woods, with the sound of life coming up to him in deadly monotony of tone; the hills, beyond, rising till the sun, like a ball of deep red fire, seems to rest upon their now lurid glacial fields, but is powerless to break their icy bondage; these things he sees but heeds not. Beyond, far into the hazy distance, stretch hills in their hundreds; incalculable, remote, all bearing the ruddy tint of sunset; a ghostly array, chaotic, overwhelming to the brain of man. But the scene has no significance to him. His eyes are the eyes of a man dead to all but the illusion of a disordered brain. He sees as one partially blinded by the sun.
Suddenly he starts. A sound such as he craves has come to him again. He wheels to the right, whither the ledge winds round the crag. He peers out; again he sees, and with a cry he rushes on. A moving figure is upon the road; a smiling figure, a beckoning figure.
Up rises the way, a toilsome path and rugged; slippery and biting to the unshod feet. He feels no pain; there is the figure. He presses on; and the hungry legions move out from the forest below and follow boldly upon his trail.
He rounds the bend. The call trembles down the mountainside, and its music is strangely soothing and sweet to his ears. Quite abruptly a broad plateau spreads out before him. It is edged on one side by a sheer drop to unimaginable depths, on the other the uprising crags overhang in horrible menace. The plateau is strewn with bleaching bones, and from beneath the overhanging rocks comes a fetid stench. Now the figure is lost again, and the dreadful straining eyes search vainly for the fair face and beckoning hand. His heart labours and great pain is in his chest. For he is high up in the mountain air, and every breath is an effort.
Nor does he see the crouching object to his right, lying low to the ground, with muscles quivering and eyes shooting green fire upon him. There is no movement in the savage body but the furious, noiseless lashing of the tail, and the bristling of the hair at its shoulders. But suddenly a strange thing happens. The creature shrinks back, and draws slowly away. Its awful eyes are averted as though in a fear it is powerless to contend with. Its anger is lost in an arrant cowardice, and the beast slinks within a low-mouthed cavern. What is it that has power to put fear into the heart of the monarch of the mountainside, unless it is the madness which peers out of the man's dreadful eyes.
And the man moves on unconscious of any lurking danger. As he passes, the spell of his presence passes also. A roar comes from the depths of the cavern, and is answered by the wolves as they crowd up to the edge of the plateau. But though their reply is bold they hesitate to advance further. For they know who dwells where the broken, bleaching bones lie, and fear is in their hearts. They snuff at the air with muzzles up-thrown, and their mangy coats bristle with sullen anger. The crowd increases, the courage of the coward begins to rise within them. A fierce argument arises, and the debate takes the form of a vicious clipping of huge fangs. A mighty roar interrupts them, seeming to quell their warlike spirit. For a moment silence reigns.
Then as if by chance, one great dog-wolf is driven out upon the battleground. He is a leader, high of shoulder, broad of chest, with jaws like the iron fangs of a trap, and limbs that are so lean that the muscles stand out upon them like knots of rope. And his action is a signal to the crowd of savage poltroons behind. With one accord they send their fierce battle-cry out upon the still air, and leap, like the rush of an avalanche, to the lair of the mountain lion. Out from his shelter springs the royal beast, and close upon his heels comes his mate. Side by side they stand, ready for the battle though the odds be a million to one against them.
Their sleek bodies are a-quiver with rage, their tails whip the earth in their fury, while their eyes, like coals of green fire, shine with a malevolence such as no words can describe.
Again the wolves hesitate. Their outstretched tails droop and are pressed between their legs; their backs are hunched, and they turn their long, narrow heads from the green glitter of the two pairs of terrible eyes. But the pause is brief, and the noise has died only for a second. One wolf moves a step forward, hunger overpowering his fears. As before, it is a signal. The whole pack leap to the fray; struggling, howling, fighting as they come ripping at comrade and foe alike. The battle is swift; so swift that it is almost impossible to realize that it is over. The pack, leaping and baying, pass on, following the blood trail of the man, leaving more bones upon the plateau, more blood upon the trodden snow; and the royal dwellers of that little plain have vanished as though they had never been.
The path has taken a downward slope and the man looks ahead for the fair face, hungrily, feverishly. Again it has vanished. His heart cries out bitterly, and his despairing voice echoes through the barren hills.
As he advances the path declines lower and lower, till out of the shadowy depths the tree-tops seem climbing to meet him. The air he breathes is denser now, and respiration is easier. As the path declines its mountainous sides rise higher and higher until overhead only a narrow streak of sky is revealed, like a soft-toned ribbon set in a background of some dun-coloured material. Ahead is a barrier of snow and ice, while below him, down in the depths of the gorge, the earth is clear of the wintry pall and frowns up in gloomy contrast. The sparse vegetation, too, has changed its appearance. Here towers the silent, portentous pine, but of a type vaster than can be seen in any other corner of the earth. The man hastens on with all the speed his weary limbs will permit, stumbling as he goes, for the frost of the high altitudes has entered his bones, and he cannot now feel the touch of the broken earth. But his yearning heart is ceaseless in its despairing cry. Where—where is She? The trees come up higher and higher and the gloom closes in upon him as he reaches the barrier.
Now he pauses under a mighty archway. Below, it is black with age and full of crowding shadows; the superstructure alone is hung with snowy frost curtains, and these help to emphasize the forbidding nature of the dark, narrow under-world. Down, down he goes, as though he were journeying to the very bowels of the earth, heedless of the place, heedless of all but the phantom he seeks. Again his surroundings have changed. The barrenness is emphasized by skeleton-like trees of such size as no man has ever seen before. High up aloft there is foliage upon them, but so meagre, so torn and wasted as to suggest a wreck of magnificent life. These gigantic trunks are few in number, but so huge that the greatest elm would appear a sapling beside them, and yet their wondrous size would not be properly estimated. They are the primordial pines, survivors from an unknown period. They shelter nothing but barrenness, and stand out alone like solemn sentries, the watchmen for all time of the earth's most dim and secret recesses, where storms cannot reach, and scarcely the forest beasts dare penetrate.
Again the poor benighted brain finds relief. Down beside these monsters his eyes are gladdened once more with the fleeting vision. He sees the figure moving ahead, but slowly now; no longer is she the gay laughing creature he has hitherto followed, she moves wearily, as though exhausted by the journey she has taken. His heart thrills with hope and joy, for now he knows that he is overtaking her. Her face is hidden from him, and even her fair form has taken on something of the hue of her dark surroundings.
"Aim-sa! Aim-sa!" he cries aloud. And again "Aim-sa!"
The gorge rings solemnly with the hoarse echoes, and the place is filled with discordant sounds which come back to his straining ears mingling with the cries of the wolves that still follow on his trail.
The figure pauses, looks round, then continues her slow-paced movement; but she does not answer. Still he sees her, she is there. And now he knows that he must come up with her. He toils on.
He talks to himself, muttering as he goes; and a train of incoherent thought passes through his brain. He tells himself that the journey is over. She has brought him to the home which shall be theirs. The heart of the wild, where the mountains rise sheer to the sky above; where no man comes, where a dark peace reigns, and has ever reigned. Where snow is not, and summer and winter are alike. It is the fitting home for a tortured spirit.
The figure no longer moves now, but turns and faces him. The sweet familiar features seem to bend toward him out of the deep shadows and the grim surroundings. He shakes back his shaggy hair; he holds himself proudly erect as he approaches the woman he loves. He summons all his failing strength. His knees forget their weariness, his torn feet are unconscious of their injuries. The haunting cry of the wolves comes down to him from behind, but he heeds only the beckoning phantom.
Every trailing stride lessens the distance between them.
He sees her stoop as though to adjust her moccasin. She moves again, but she does not stand erect. A half-articulate cry breaks from him. She is coming to him. Now he sees that her head is bowed as though in deep humility. A cry breaks from him, then all is silent. Suddenly she lifts her head and her tall figure stands erect, gazing upon him with sombre, steady eyes, eyes which seem to have caught something of the dull hue of that awesome gorge. His heart leaps with joy. How tall she is; what a superb form. She moves toward him, her body swaying gracefully to the rhythm of her gait. Her arms are stretched out appealingly; and he sees that she is clad in the rich furs of the North, clad as though for a journey. He tells himself, with a thrill of mad desire, that she is ready for their journey, the journey of life they will travel together.
Now the wolf cries come louder and more fierce. If he is deaf to them the woman is not. Her head turns sharply and a fierce light leaps into her eyes. The change is lost upon the man. He stretches out his arms and staggers towards her. They come together, and he feels the soft touch of her fur robes upon his face and hands. Her arms close about him and her warm breath fans his fevered cheek, as he is drawn, willingly, closer and closer to her bosom.
But what is this? The embrace draws tight, tighter and yet tighter; he becomes rigid in her arms, he cannot breathe, and life seems to be going from him. He feels his ribs cracking under the pressure; he cannot cry out; he cannot struggle. Now comes the sound of something ripping, of flesh being torn by ruthless claws. A quiver of nerves, a sigh, and the man is still.
Down the path of that woful gorge in a headlong rush comes the wolf-pack. A great figure with lolling body looks up. Its broad head and short muzzle are poised alertly. So it stands, and under its merciless fore paws is the mangled corpse of Nick Westley. It is a monstrous grizzly, monstrous even for its kind. It turns from its victim with shambling but swiftly moving gait, growling and snarling with terrible ferocity as it goes, but never hesitating. This shaggy monarch is no coward, but he is cunning as any fox, and, unlike the mountain lion, knows the limitation of his powers. He knows that even his gigantic strength could not long make stand against the oncoming horde. What he leaves behind will check the fanged legions while he makes good his escape.
The pack pours like a hideous flood over the spot where the last act of Nick Westley's tragedy has been played out. A brief but fiendish tumult, and little remains to tell of the sorry drama. The impassive mountains, unmoved spectators, give no sign. The stupendous reticence of the wilderness, like the fall of a mighty curtain, closes over the scene, taking the story into its inviolable keeping.