"Where as Miss Hewlett?" I gasped.
"Didn't you meet her? She left here nearly an hour ago."
I caught him by the arm, and I think he imagined that I was going to seize him by the throat also, for he backed away from me, and I saw a look of fear come into his eyes. The elevator attendant came running between us.
"Your friend——" he began.
"My friend?" I cried.
"He came for her and said that you had met with an accident," the clerk continued. "She went with him at once. He took her away in a sleigh. I was sure that you had missed her when you came in."
But already I was half-way across the hall and running for the door. I raced wildly across the court and toward the terrace.
The meaning of the scheme was clear. Jacqueline was on Captain Duhamel's boat, which sailed at nine. And only twenty minutes remained to me. If I had not had the good luck to meet Dubois!
I must have noticed a clock somewhere during the minute that I was in the chateau, and though I had not been conscious of it, the after-image loomed before my eyes. As I ran now I could see a huge phantom clock, the dial marked with enormous Roman letters, and the hands moving with dreadful swiftness toward the hour of nine.
I had underestimated Leroux's shrewdness. He must have telegraphed instructions from New York before my train was out of the county, secured the boat, laid his plans during his journey northward, and had me struck down while Jacqueline was stolen from my care. And he had spared no details, even to enlisting the aid of Pere Antoine.
If he had known that my destination was the same as his, he might have waited. But it was not the character of the man to wait, any more than it was to participate personally in his schemes. He worked through others, sitting back and pulling the strings, and he struck, each blow on time.
I ought to have known that. I should have read him better. I had always dawdled. I trusted to the future, instead of acting. What chance had I against a mind like his?
I was a novice at chess, pitting myself against a master at the game.
I must have been running aimlessly up and down the terrace, blindly searching for a road down to the lower town, for a man seized me by the sleeve, and I looked into the face of the hotel clerk again. He seemed to realize that more was the matter even than my appearance indicated, for he asked no questions, but apparently divined my movements.
"This way!" he said, and hurried me to a sort of subway entrance, and down a flight of steps. Before me I saw the turnstile which led to a cable railway. He paid my fare and thrust me into a car. A boy came to close the latticed door.
"Wait!" I gasped. "Who was it that called?"
"The man with the mustache who asked for you—about whom you inquired."
I turned away. I had thought it was Leroux. Of course it had not been he.
The car glided down the cliff, and stopped a few seconds later, I emerged through another turnstile and found myself in the lower town again at the foot of the precipice, above which rose the chateau with its imposing facade, the ramparts, and the towering citadel.
The hands of the phantom clock pointed to ten minutes of nine. But I knew the gulf lay before me at the end of the short, narrow street that led down to it, up which I had passed two hours before upon that journey which so nearly ended in the snow-drifts of Souse-le-Cap.
I reached the wharf and raced along the planks. I was in time, although the engines were throbbing in the Sainte-Vierge. But it was not she, but the dark Claire I sought at that moment, and I dashed toward her.
A man barred my approach. He caught me in his strong arms and held me fast. I dash my fists against his face, but he would not let me go.
"Are you mad, monsieur?" he burst out as I continued to struggle. And then I recognized my captor as Captain Dubois.
"Jacqueline is on the Claire!" I cried, trying to make him understand. "They took her there. They——"
"It is all right," answered Dubois, holding me with one hand, while with the other he wiped a blood drop from his lip where I had struck him. "It is all right. I have her."
I stared wildly at him. "She is on the Claire!" I cried again.
"No, mon ami. She is aboard the Sainte-Vierge," replied Dubois, chuckling, "and if you wish to accompany mademoiselle you must come with me at once, for we are getting up steam."
I could not believe him. I thought that Leroux had tampered with the honest man. It was not until he had taken me, half forcibly, aboard, and opened the cabin door, that I saw her. She was seated upon her berth, and she rose and came toward me with a glad little cry.
"Jacqueline!" I cried, and clasped her in my arms for joy, and quite forgot.
A dancing shadow fell upon the wall behind the oil-lamp. The honest captain was rubbing his hands in the doorway and chuckling with delight.
"It is all right, it is all right; excuse me, monsieur," he said, and closed the door on us. But I called him, and he returned, not very reluctantly.
"What has happened, captain?" I asked. "You are not going to leave me in suspense?"
"But what has happened to you, monsieur?" he asked, with great concern, as he saw the blood on my coat-collar, "You have met with an accident?"
Jacqueline cried out and ran for water, and made me sit down, and began bathing my head. I contrived to whisper something of what had occurred during the moments when Jacqueline flitted to and fro. Dubois swore roundly.
"It is my fault, monsieur," he said. "I should have known. I should have accompanied you home. It would be a tough customer who would venture to meddle with Alfred Dubois! But I was anxious to get to the telegraph office to inform M. Danton of your coming. And I suspected something, too, for I knew that Leroux had something more in his mind than simply to convey some of his men to St. Boniface at such expense.
"So as soon as I had finished telegraphing I hurried home and bade adieu to Marie and the little Madeline and the two nephews, and then I came back to the boat—and that part I shall tell you later, for mademoiselle knows nothing of the plot against her, and has been greatly distressed for you. So it shall be understood that you fell down and hurt your head on the ice—eh?"
I agreed to this. "But what did she think?" I asked, as Jacqueline went back for some more water.
"That you had sent her to the Sainte-Vierge," he answered, "and that you were to follow her here—as you did. Even now the nephews are searching the lower town for you."
"But if I had not come before nine?"
"I should have waited all night, monsieur, even though I had lost my post for it," he said explosively, and I reached out and gripped his hand.
"You may not have seen the baggage here," continued the captain slyly.
I glanced round me. Upon the floor stood the two suit-cases, which should have been in our rooms in the chateau, and Jacqueline was busily tearing up some filmy material in hers for bandages.
I looked at Dubois in astonishment.
"Ah, monsieur, I sent for those," he said, "and paid your bill also. When I fight Simon Leroux I do not do things by halves. You see, monsieur, wise though he is, there are other minds equal to his own, and since he killed my brother, I——"
Here he nearly broke down, and I looked discreetly away.
"One question of curiosity, monsieur, if it is permissible," he said a little later. "Why does Leroux wish so much to stop your marriage with mademoiselle that he is ready to stoop to assassination and kidnapping?"
My heart felt very warm toward the good man. I knew how that loose end in the romance that he had built up troubled him. And, though I hardly knew myself, I must give him some satisfactory solution of his problem.
"Because he is himself in love with her," I said.
The captain clenched his fists. "God forbid!" he muttered. "They say his wife died of a broken heart. Ah, monsieur, swear to me that this shall never come about, that mademoiselle become his wife. Swear it to me, mon ami!"
I swore it, and we shook hands again. I was sorry for my deception then, and afterward I had occasion to remember it.
Five minutes later we had cast off, and the Sainte-Vierge steamed slowly through the drift ice that packed the gulf. There were no lights upon the Claire, and I surmised that the conspirators were keeping quietly hidden in expectation of Jacqueline's arrival, though how Dubois had outwitted them I could not at the time surmise.
However, there was little doubt that once the trick was discovered the Claire would follow on our heels.
Standing on deck, I watched the lights of Levis and Quebec draw together as we steamed eastward. I cast a last look at the chateau and the ramparts. I felt it would be many days before I set eyes on them again.
Then I sought my cabin and fell asleep, dreaming of Jacqueline.
DREAMS OF THE NIGHT
Jacqueline and I were together, the only human beings within a score of miles. We were seated side by side in the sleigh at which the dogs pulled steadily.
We glided with slow, easy monotony along the snow-covered trail, through the sparse forest that fringed the ice-bound waters of the Riviere d'Or. Seen through our tinted snow-glasses, the landscape was a vast field of palest blue, dotted with scattered clusters of spruce and pine trees.
The mystery of Jacqueline's rescue by Captain Dubois had been a simple one. The young man with the mustache was a certain Philippe Lacroix, well known to Dubois, a member of a good family, but of dissolute habits—just such a one as Leroux found it convenient to attach to his political fortunes by timely financial aid.
Having acquired power over him, Leroux was in this way enabled to obtain political influence through his family connections.
There was no doubt that he had been in New York with Leroux, and that they had hatched the plot to kidnap Jacqueline after I had been struck down.
Fortunately for us, Lacroix, ignorant, as was Leroux himself, that the two ships had exchanged roles and duties, took Jacqueline aboard the Sainte-Vierge, where Captain Dubois, who was waiting in anticipation of just such a scheme, seized him and marched him at pistol point to the house on Paul Street, in which Lacroix was kept a prisoner by friends of Dubois until the Sainte-Vierge had sailed.
The gulf was fairly free from ice, and our journey to St. Boniface, where we arrived on the fifth morning after our departure from Quebec, had been an uneventful one. We had not seen the smoke of the Claire behind us at any period during the voyage, and Dubois had not spared his coal to show the other vessel his heels.
He left us at St. Boniface with a final caution against Leroux, and proceeded along the shore with his bags of mail; but first he had a satisfactory conversation with M. Danton concerning us.
I had given Dubois to understand that Jacqueline had been ill. I was apprehensive that he might question her and so discover her mental state; but the good man readily understood that an elopement causes much mental anguish in the case of the feminine party—at least this supposition was in line with the romantic requirements of the case, according to all the books that the captain had ever read; and he leaped at the hypothesis.
He not only forbore to question Jacqueline, but he explained the situation to Danton, a friendly but taciturn old man who kept the store and post-office at St. Boniface.
Danton, who of course knew Jacqueline, took the opportunity of assuring me that her father, though a recluse and a misanthrope who had not left his seigniory for forty years, was said to be a man of heart, and would undoubtedly forgive us. He was clearly under the impression that we were married, and, since Dubois had not enlightened him on this point, I did not do so.
In fact, his ignorance again aroused in me elusive hopes—for if a marriage had occurred would he not have known, of it? At any rate, I should know soon; and with this reflection I had to console myself.
Since Jacqueline was supposed to know the route, I could ask no direct questions; but I gathered that the chateau lay about a hundred and twenty miles north-westward. For the first part of the journey we were to travel along the right bank of the Riviere d'Or; at the point where the mountains began there were some trappers' huts, and there doubtless I could gain further information.
M. Danton had his sleigh and eight fine-looking dogs ready for us. I purchased these outright in order to carry no hostages. We took with us several days' supply of food, a little tent, sleeping-bags, and frozen fish for the animals.
I must record that a small wharf was in course of construction, and that the contractor's sign read: "Northern Exploitation Company." M. Danton informed me that this was a lumber company which had already begun operations, and that the establishment of its camps accounted for the absence of inhabitants.
In fact, our arrival was almost unobserved, and two hours afterward we had set forth upon our journey.
I wondered what Jacqueline remembered. Vague and unquiet thoughts seemed to float up into her mind, and she sat by my side silent and rather sad. I think she was afraid of the knowledge that was to come to her.
God knows I was, and for this reason was resolved to ask no questions unless they should become necessary. Whether or not she even knew the route I had no means of discovering.
The sun shone brightly; the air, intensely cold, chilled our faces, but could not penetrate our furs. Sometimes we rubbed each other's cheeks with snow when they grew threateningly white, laughing to see the blood rush to the under surface of the skin, and jested about our journey to drive away our fears.
And it was wonderful. It was as though we were the first man and woman in the world, wandering in our snow-garden, and still lost in amazement at each other. The prospect of meeting others of our kind began to be a fantastic horror to me.
We were happy with each other. If we could travel forever thus! I watched her beautiful, serene face; the brown hair, brought low over the ears to guard them against the cold; the big grey eyes that were turned upon mine sometimes in puzzled wonder, but very real content.
I held her small gloved hand inside the big sable muff, and we would sit thus for hours in silence while the dogs picked their way along the trail. When I looked back I could see the tiny pad-prints stretching away toward the far horizon, an undeviating black blur upon the whiteness of the snow.
It was a strange situation. It might easily have become an impossible one. But it was a sacred comradeship, refined above the love of friend for friend, or lover for lover, by her faith, her helplessness, and need.
We tried so hard to be merry. When we had fed the dogs at noon and eaten our meal we would strap on the raquettes, the snow-shoes with which Danton had furnished us, and travel over the crusted drifts beside the stream. We ran out on the surface of the river and made snowballs, and pelted each other, laughing like school children.
But after the journey had begun once more we would sit quietly beside each other, and for long we would hardly utter a word.
I think that she liked best to sit beside me in the narrow sleigh and lean against my shoulder, her physical weariness the reflection of her spiritual unrest. She did not want to think, and she wanted me to shield her.
But even in this solitude fear drove me on, for I knew that a relentless enemy followed hard after us, camping where we had camped and reading the miles between us by the smouldering ashes of our old fires.
At nightfall I would pitch the tent for Jacqueline and place her sleeping-bag within, and while she slept I would lie by the huge fire near the dogs, and we kept watch over her together.
So passed three days and nights.
The fourth short day drew toward its end a little after four o'clock. I remember that we camped late, for the sun had already dipped to the level horizon and was casting black, mile-long shadows across the snow.
A whistling wind came up. The dogs had been showing signs of distress that afternoon, pulling us more and more reluctantly, and walking with drooping ears and muzzles depressed.
I hammered in the pegs and built a fire with dry boughs, collecting a quantity of wood sufficient to last until morning. Then Jacqueline made tea, and we ate our supper and crept into our sleeping-bags and lay down.
"Three more days, dear, at most, and our journey and our troubles will all be at an end," I had said. "Let us be happy together while we have each other, and when our mutual need is past I shall stay with you until you send me away."
"That will never be, Paul," she answered simply. "But I shall be happy with you while our day lasts."
And I thought of the text: "For soon the long night cometh."
I lay outside the tent, trying to sleep; but could not still my mind. The uncertainty ahead of us, the knowledge of Leroux behind, tried me sorely, and only Jacqueline's need sustained my courage.
As I was on the point of dropping asleep I heard a lone wolf howl from afar, and instantly the pack took up the cry. One of the dogs, a great, tawny beast who led them, crept toward me and put his head down by mine, whimpering. The rest roamed ceaselessly about the fire, answering the wolf's challenge with deep, wolf-like baying.
I drew my pistols from the pockets of my fur coat. It was pleasant to handle them. They gave me assurance. We were two fugitives in a land where every man's hand might be against us, but at least I had the means to guard my own.
And looking at them, I began to yield to that temptation which had assailed me ceaselessly, both at Quebec and since we left St. Boniface, not to yield up Jacqueline, never to let her go.
Why should I bear the yoke of moral laws here in this wilderness, with our pursuing enemy behind—a day's journey perhaps—but leaving me only a breathing spell, a resting space, before I must fight for Jacqueline? Or when her own had abandoned her?
Jacqueline glided out of the tent and knelt beside me, putting her arms about the dog's neck and her head upon its furry coat. The dogs loved her, and she seemed always to understand their needs.
"Paul, there is something wrong with them," she said, her hand still caressing the mane of the great beast, who looked at her with pathetic eyes.
I had noticed that they did not eat that night, but had imagined that they would do so later when they had recovered from their fatigue.
"What is wrong with them, Jacqueline?" I asked.
She raised her head and looked sadly at me. "It is I, Paul," she answered.
"Yes, it is I!" she cried with sudden, passionate vehemence. "It is I who am wrong and have brought trouble on you. Paul, I do not even know how you came into my life, nor who I am, nor anything that happened to me at any time before you brought me to Quebec, except that my home is there." She pointed northward. "Who am I? Jacqueline, you say. The name means nothing to me. I am a woman without a past or future, a shadow that falls across your life, Paul. And I could perhaps remember, but I know—I know—that I must never remember."
She began weeping wildly. I surmised that she must have been under an intense strain for days. I had not dreamed that this girl who walked by my side and paid me the tribute of her docile faith suffered and knew.
I took her hand in mine. "Dear Jacqueline," I answered, "it is best to forget these things until the time comes to remember them. It will come, Jacqueline. Let us be happy till then. You have been ill, and you have had great trouble. That is all. I am taking you home. Do you not remember anything about your home, Jacqueline?"
She clapped her hands to her head and gave a little terrified cry.
"I—think—so," she murmured. "But I dare not remember, Paul.
"I have dreamed of things," she went on in agitated, rapid tones, "and then I have seemed to remember everything. But when I wake I have forgotten, and it is because I know that I must forget. Paul, I dream of a dead man, and men who hate and are following us. Was there—ever—a dead man, Paul?" she asked, shuddering.
"No, dear Jacqueline," I answered stoutly. "Those dreams are lies."
She still looked hopelessly at me, and I knew she was not quite convinced.
"Oh, it was not true, Paul?" she asked pleadingly, gathering each word upon each indrawn breath.
I placed one arm around her.
"Jacqueline, there never was any dead man," I said. "It is not true. Some day I will tell you everything—some day——"
I broke off helplessly, for my voice failed me, I was so shaken. I knew that at last I was conquered by the passion that possessed me, long repressed, but not less strong for its repression. I caught her in my arms.
"I love you, Jacqueline!" I cried. "And you—you?"
She thrust her hands out and turned her face away. There was an awful fear upon it. "Paul," she cried, "there is—somebody—who——
"I have known that," she went on in a torrent of wild words. "I have known that always, and it is the most terrible part of all!"
I laid a finger on her lips.
"There is nobody, Jacqueline," I said again, trying to control my trembling voice. "He was another delirium of the night, a fantom of your illness, dear. There was never anybody but me, and there shall never be. For to-morrow we shall turn back toward St. Boniface again, and we shall take the boat for Quebec—and from there I shall take you to a land where there shall be no more grief, neither——"
I broke off suddenly. What had I said? My words—why, the devil had been quoting Scripture again! The bathos of it! My sacred task forgotten and honour thrown to the winds, and Jacqueline helpless there! I hung my head in misery and shame.
But very sweetly she raised hers and spoke to me.
"Paul, dear, if there never was anyone—if it is nothing but a dream——" Here she looked at me with doubtful scrutiny in her eyes, and then hastened to make amends for doubting me. "Of course, Paul, if there had been you could not have known. But though I know my heart is free—if there was nobody—why, let us go forward to my father's home, because there will be no cause there to separate us, my dear. So let us go on."
"Yes, let us go on," I muttered dully.
But when the issue came I knew that I would let no man stand between us.
"And some day I am going to tell you everything I know, and you shall tell me," she said. "But to-night we have each other, and will not think of unhappy things—nor ever till the time comes."
She leaned back against my shoulder and held out her hands to the fire-light. She had taken off her left glove, and now again I saw the wedding-ring upon her finger.
She was asleep. I drew her head down on my knees and spread my coat around her, and let her rest there. She was happy again in sleep, as her nature was to be always. But, though I held her as she held my heart, my soul seemed dead, and I waited sleepless and heard only the whining of the heavy wind and scurry of the blown snow.
The wolf still howled from afar, but the dogs only whimpered in answer among the trees, where they had withdrawn.
At last I raised her in my arms and carried her inside the tent. She did not waken, but only stirred and murmured my name drowsily. I stood outside the tent and listened to her soft breathing.
How helpless she was! How trusting!
That turned the battle. I loved her madly, but never again dare I breathe a word of love to her so long as that shadow obscured her mind. But if sunlight succeeded shadow——
The fire had sunk to a heap of red-grey ashes. I piled on fresh boughs till the embers caught flame again and the bright spears danced under the pines. The reek of smoking pine logs is in my nostrils yet.
My rest was miserable. In a succession of brief dreams I fled with Jacqueline over a wilderness of ice, while in the distance, ever drawing nearer, followed Leroux, Lacroix, and Pere Antoine. I heard Jacqueline's despairing cries as she was torn from me, while my weighted arms, heavier than lead, drooped helplessly at my sides, and from afar Simon mocked me.
Then ensued a world without Jacqueline, a dead eternity of ice and snow.
I must have fallen sound asleep at last, for when I opened my eyes the sun was shining brightly low down over the Riviere d'Or. The door of the tent stood open and Jacqueline was not inside.
With the remembrance of my dream still confusing reality, I ran toward the trees, shouting for her in fear.
"Jacqueline! Jacqueline!" I called.
She was coming toward me. She took me by the arm. "Paul!" she began with quivering lips. "Paul!"
She led me into the recesses of the pines. There, in a little open place, clustered together upon the ground, were the bodies of our dogs. All were dead, and the soft forms were frozen into the snow, which the poor creatures had licked in their agony, so that their open jaws were stuffed with icicles.
Jacqueline sank down upon the ground and sobbed as though her heart would break. I stood there watching, my brain paralyzed by the shock of the discovery.
Then I went back to the sleigh, on the rear of which the frozen fish was piled. I noticed that it had a faint, slightly aromatic odor. I flung the hard masses aside and scooped up a powdery substance with my hands.
Mycology had been a hobby of mine, and it was easy to recognize what that substance was.
It was the amanita, the deadliest and the most widely distributed of the fungi, and the direst of all vegetable poisons to man and beast alike. The alkaloid which it contains takes effect only some hours after its ingestion, when it has entered the blood-streams and begun its disintegrating action upon the red corpuscles. The dogs must have partaken of it on the preceding afternoon.
Jacqueline joined me. The tears were streaming down her cheeks; she slipped her arm through mine and looked mutely at me.
I knew this was Leroux's work. He had tricked me again. I had seen clusters of the frozen fungus outside St. Boniface. I suppose that, when winter comes suddenly, such growths remain standing till spring thaws and rots them, retaining in the meanwhile all their noxious qualities.
It would have been an easy matter for one of Leroux's agents to have cast a few handfuls of the deadly powder over the fish while the sleigh stood waiting outside Danton's door, and the jolting of the vehicle would have shaken the substance down into the middle of the heap, so that it would be three or four days before the dogs got to the poisoned fish.
I was mad with anger. The white landscape seemed to swim before my eyes. I meant to kill the man now, and without mercy. I would be as unscrupulous as he. He would be in this place by the afternoon; I would wait for him outside the trail. My pistols——
Jacqueline was looking up into my face in terror. The sight of her recalled me to my senses. Leroux afterward—first my duty to her!
"Paul! What is the matter, Paul?" she cried. "I never saw you look like that before."
I calmed myself and led her away, and presently we were standing before the fire again.
"Jacqueline," I said, "it is easier to go on than to turn back now."
She watched me like a lip-reader. "Yes, Paul; let us go on," she answered.
So we went on. But our journey was to be very different now. There was no possibility of taking much baggage with us. We took a few things out of our suit-cases and disposed them about us as best they could.
The heavy sleeping-bags would have made our progress, encumbered as we were with our fur coats, too slow; but I had hopes that we would reach the trappers' huts that afternoon, and so decided to discard them in favour of the fur-lined sleigh-rug, which would, at least, keep Jacqueline warm.
So we strapped on our snow-shoes, and I made a pack and put three days' supplies of food in it and fastened it on my shoulders, securing it with two straps from the harness. I rolled the rug into a bundle and tied it below the pack; and thus equipped, we left the dead beasts and the useless sleigh behind us for Leroux's satisfaction, and set out briskly upon our march.
It is a strange thing, but no sooner had I passed out of sight of the sleigh than, weighted though I was, I felt my spirits rising rapidly. The freedom of movement and the exhilarating air gave my mind a new sense of liberty, and Jacqueline, who had been watching me anxiously, seeing the gloom disappear from my face, tried, first to tempt me to mirth, and then to match me in it. Sometimes we would run a little way, and then we would fall back into our steady, ambling plod once more.
The cold was less intense, but, looking at the sky, which was heavily overcast, I knew that the rise in temperature betokened the advent of a heavy fall of snow, probably before night.
We were merrier than at any previous time, having by tacit agreement resolved to put our troubles behind us. Jacqueline laughed gaily at my clumsy attempts to avoid tripping myself upon my snow-shoes.
We stopped to look at the trees and the traces of deer-croppings upon the bark. Sometimes we took to the river-bed, and then again we paced among the trees, which were now becoming so sparsely scattered that the trail was hardly discernible. This caused me no concern, however, for I believed that when we reached the huts, we should be able to obtain certain information as to the remainder of our course.
And though I knew that Leroux was behind, and that he would press forward the more impetuously when he discovered the success of his deadly ruse, I did not seem to care. Above me was the pale sun, the glow of health was in my limbs—and beside me walked Jacqueline.
We must have covered at least a dozen miles or more at the time, when we stopped for a brief midday meal. I was a little fatigued from carrying the pack, and my ankles ached from the snow-shoes; but Jacqueline, who had evidently been accustomed to their use, was as fresh as when she started.
I was glad of the respite; but we needed to press on. It was probable that Simon would camp by our dismantled sleigh that night.
When we resumed our march the character of the country began to change. Hitherto we had been traversing an almost interminable plain, but now a ridge of jagged mountains, bare at their peaks and fringed around the base with evergreens, appeared in the distance. The sky became more leaden.
Suddenly we emerged from among the trees upon an almost barren plateau, and there again we halted for a breathing spell.
All that morning I had been looking for the trappers' huts. I had already come to the conclusion that M. Danton's instructions were to be taken by and large, for we could not now be more than twenty-five miles from the chateau, and it was only here that the Riviere d'Or left us, whirling in quick cascades, ice-free, among the rocks of its narrow bed, some distance east of us.
There was, of course, the possibility that the distance had been understated, and that we were only now half way. But I could not let my mind dwell upon that possibility.
I scanned the horizon on every side. It had seemed to me all that day that our road was running up-hill, but now, looking back, I was astonished to see how high we had ascended, for the whole of the vast plain across which we had been travelling lay spread out like a wrinkled table-cloth before my eyes.
In that grey light, which shortened every distance, it almost seemed that I could discern the slope of the St. Lawrence far away, and the hills, foot-spurs of the mighty Laurentian range, that bordered it. The mountains which we were approaching seemed quite near, and I knew that beyond them lay the seigniory.
I resolved to take my bearings still more accurately, and telling Jacqueline to wait for me a few minutes at the base of a hill and setting down my pack, I began the ascent alone. The climb was longer than I had anticipated. My eyes were aching from the glare of the snow. I had left my coloured glasses behind me in the tent and gone on, saying nothing, though I had realized my loss when I was only a mile or so away.
However, I hoped that the night would restore my sight, and so, dismissing the matter from my mind, I struggled up until at last I stood upon the summit of the hill.
The view from this point was a stupendous one. New peaks sprang into vision, shimmering in the sunlight. Patches of dark forest stained the whiteness of the land, and far away, like a thin, winding ribbon among the hills, I saw the valley of the Riviere d'Or.
I cried out in delight and lingered to enjoy the grandeur of the spectacle.
Beneath me I saw Jacqueline waiting, a tiny figure upon the snow. My heart smote me with a deep sense of reproach that I had put her to so much sacrifice. But I had seen the valley between those mountains, the only possible entrance to that mysterious land. Nothing could fail us now.
I cast my eyes beyond her toward the mist-wrapped tops of the far Laurentians and the plains.
And a sense of an inevitable fate came over me as I perceived far away a tiny, crawling ant upon the snows—Simon Leroux's dog sleigh.
I went back to the little, patient figure that was waiting for me, and I took up my pack again and told her nothing. She stepped bravely out beside me, frozen, fatigued, but willing because I bade her. She did not ask anything of me.
The sun dipped lower, and far away I heard the howl of the solitary wolf again.
My mind had been working very fast during that journey down the hill, and long before I reached Jacqueline I had resolved that she should know nothing of the pursuit until the moment came when she must be told.
That the pursuer was Leroux there could be no possible doubt. He had evidently passed the sleigh, and was undoubtedly pressing forward, elated and confident of our capture. But he must still be at least a dozen miles away.
He could not reach us that night and he could hardly travel by night. We should have a half day's start of him in the morning.
I gripped my pistols as we strode along.
We went on and on. The afternoon was wearing away; the sun was very low now and all its strength had gone. The wolf followed us, howling from afar. Once I saw it across the treeless wastes—a gaunt, white, dog-like figure, trotting against the steely grey of the sky.
We ascended the last of the foot-hills before the trail dipped toward the valley, which was guarded by two sentinel mountains of that jagged ridge before us. From the top I looked back. Simon was nowhere to be seen.
"Courage, Jacqueline," I said, patting her arm, "The huts ought to be here."
Her courage was greater than my own. She looked up and smiled at me. And so we descended and went on and on, and the sun dipped below the edge of the world.
The wolf crept nearer, and its howls rang out with piercing strokes across the silence. My eyes ached so that I could hardly discern the darkening land, and the snow came down, not steadily, but in swirling eddies blown on fierce gusts of wind.
And suddenly raising my eyes despairingly, I saw the huts. They stood about four hundred yards away from where the trail ran through the mountains.
There were five of them, and they had not been occupied for at least two seasons, for the blackened timbers were falling apart, and the roofs had been torn off all but one of them, no doubt for fuel. The wind was whirling the snow wildly around them, and it whistled through the broken, rotting walls.
I flung my pack inside the roofed one, and began tearing apart the timbers of another to make a fire.
Jacqueline stood looking at me in docile faith.
"I can go on," she said quietly. "I can go on, Paul."
I caught her hands in mine. "We shall stay here, Jacqueline," I said.
She did not answer me, but, opening the pack, began the preparation of our meal, which consisted of some biscuits left from the night before, when we had made a quantity on the wood ashes. We made tea over the roaring flames, and sat listening to the wolf's call and the wind that drove our fire in gusts of smoke and flame.
The wind grew fiercer. It was a hurricane. It drowned the wolf's call; it almost silenced the sound of our own voices. Thank God that we had at least our shelter in that storm.
I scooped out a bed for Jacqueline inside the snow-filled hut and spread it with the big sleigh robe. She lay down in her fur coat, and I wrapped the ends around her. I looked into her sweet face and marvelled at its serenity. Her eyes closed wearily.
But, though I was as tired as she, I could not sleep. I crouched over the fire, pondering over the morrow's acts.
Should I wait for Leroux and shoot him down like a dog if he molested us? Or should we hide among the hills and watch him pass by? But that would avail us nothing. If we went on we must encounter him, and the sooner the better.
This problem and a fiercer one filled my mind, for my soul was as storm-beset as the hut, whose planking shook under the gale's force. I realized how incongruous my position was.
I had no status at all. I was accompanying a run-away wife back to her father's home, perhaps to meet her husband there. And whether Leroux held me in his present power or not, inexorably I was heading for his own objective.
More madly now than ever I felt that fierce temptation. There she lay, the one woman who had ever seriously come into my life, sleeping so near to me that I could bend down and rest my hand on the inert form over which the snow drifted so steadily.
I brushed it away. I brooded over her. Why had I ever brought her on that journey? Would that I had kept her, with all her love and gentleness, for my delight.
If I had taken her to Jamaica, where I had planned to go, instead of engaging that mock-heroic odyssey—there, among palm trees, in an eternal spring, there would have been no need that she should remember.
I looked down on her. Again the snow covered her.
It fell so inexorably. It was like Leroux. It was as tireless as he, and as implacable as he. I brushed it away with frantic haste, and still it drifted into the doorless hut.
A dreadful fear held me in its grip: what if she never awoke? Some people died thus in the snow. I raised the sleigh robe, and saw that the fur coat stirred softly as she breathed.
How gently she slept—as gently as she lived. How could her own have abandoned her in her need?
At last, out of the wild passions that fought within me, decision was born. I would go on, because she had bidden me. And I would be ready for Leroux, and let him act as he saw fit. I loaded my pistols. I could do no more than fight for Jacqueline, and with God be the issue.
And with that determination I grew calm. And I sat over the fire and let my imagination stray toward some future when our troubles would be in the past and we should be together.
I must have been half asleep, for I came back to myself with a start and sprang to my feet. Jacqueline had risen upon her knees; she flung her arms out wildly, and suddenly she caught her breath and screamed, and stood up, and ran uncertainly toward me, with hands that groped for me.
She found me; I caught her, and she pushed me from her and shuddered and stared at me in that uncertain doubt that follows dreams.
"I am here, Jacqueline," I said. "With you—always, till you send me away. Remember that even in dreams, Jacqueline."
She knew me now, and she was recoiling from me, out through the hut door, into the blinding snow. I sprang after her.
"Jacqueline! It is I—Paul! It is Paul! Jacqueline!"
She was running from me and screaming in the snow. I heard her moccasins breaking through the thin ice crust. And, mad with terror, I rushed after her.
"Jacqueline! It is Paul!" I cried.
And as I emerged from the hut's shelter a red-hot glare from the east seemed to sear and kill my vision. It was the rising sun. I had thought it night, and it was already day. And I could see nothing through my swollen eyelids except the white light of the shining snow. The wind howled round me, and though the sun shone, the snowflakes stung my face like hail.
I did not know under the influence of what dread dream she was. But I ran wildly to and fro, calling her, and now and again I heard the sound of her little moccasins as she plunged through the knee-high snow.
Sometimes I seemed to be so near that I could almost touch her hand, and once I heard her panting breath behind me; but I never caught her. And never once did she answer me.
"What is it? What is it?" I pleaded madly. "Jacqueline, don't you know me? Don't you remember me?"
The sound of the moccasins far away, and then the whine of the wind again. I did not know where the huts were now. I could see nothing but a yellow glare. And fear of Leroux came on me and turned my heart to water. I stood still, listening, like a hunted stag. There came no sound.
It was horrible, in that wild waste, alone. I tried to gather my scattered senses together.
Eastward, I know, the river lay, and that blinding brightness came from the east. Southward a little distance, was the hill that we had last ascended on the evening before. I could discern the merest outlines of the land, but I fancied that I could see that it sloped upward toward the south.
I set off in the direction of the hill, and soon I found myself climbing. The elevation hid the sun, and this enabled me to glimpse my surroundings dimly, as through a heavy veil.
I called once more, and then I was scrambling up the hill, stumbling and falling on the ice-coated boulders. My coat was open, and the wind cut like a knife-edge, but I did not notice it. Perhaps from the hill-top I should see her.
"Jacqueline! Jacqueline!" I screamed frantically.
No answer came. I had gained the summit now, and round me I saw the shadowy outlines of the snow-covered rocks, but five or six feet from me a deep, impenetrable grey wall obscured everything. I tried to peer down into the valley, and saw nothing but the same fog there. Once more I called.
A dog barked suddenly, not far away, and through the mist I heard the slide of sleigh-runners on snow; and then I knew.
I scrambled down, slipping, and gashing my hands upon the rocks and ice. At the foot of the hill I saw two straight and narrow lines on the soft snow. They were the tracks of sleigh-runners.
I followed them, sobbing, and catching my breath, and screaming:
Then I heard Simon's voice, and with the sound of it my dream came back with prophetic clearness.
"Bonjour, M. Hewlett!" he called mockingly. "This way! This way!"
I turned and rushed blindly in the direction of the cry. I had left my snow-shoes behind me in the hut, and at each step my feet broke through the crusted snow, so that I floundered and fell like a drunken man to choruses of taunts and laughter.
It was a horrible blindman's bluff, for they had surrounded me, yelling from every quarter.
"This way, monsieur! This way!" piped a thin, voice which I knew to be Philippe Lacroix.
A snowball struck me on the chin, and they began pelting me and laughing. I was like a baited bear. I was beside myself with rage and helpless fury. The icy balls hit my face a dozen times; one struck me behind the ear and hurled me down half stunned.
I was up again and rushing at my unseen tormentors. I heard the barking of the dogs far away, and I ran in the direction of the sound, sobbing with rage. I pulled my pistols from my pockets and spun round, firing in every direction through that wall of grey, yielding mist that gave me place but never gave me vision.
The clouds had obscured the sky and the snow was falling again. My hands were bare and numb, except where the cold steel of the pistol triggers seared my fingers like molten metal.
They had formed a wider circle round me, and pistol range is longer than snowball range, so that they struck me no more. I heard the shouts and mockery still, but never Jacqueline's voice.
"Here, M. Hewlett, here!" piped Philippe Lacroix once more.
Again I turned and rushed at him, firing shot after shot. I heard his snow-shoes plodding across the crust, and yells from the others indicated that Philippe's adventure had been a risky one.
Then Simon called again and I turned, like a foolish, baited beast, and fired at him.
A dog barked once more, very far away, and at last I understood their scheme.
Doubtless Simon had reached the huts at dawn and had discovered us there. He must have been in waiting, but when he saw Jacqueline run from me he changed his plans and sent the sleigh after her. Then, realizing from my actions that I was snow-blind, he had remained behind with some of his followers to enjoy the sport of baiting me, and incidentally to drive me out of the way while the sleigh went on.
And now there was complete silence. He had accomplished his purpose. He had gained all that he had to gain. Fortune had fought upon his side, as always.
She had tried to escape me. She could not have been playing a part—she was too transcendentally sincere. Something must have occurred—some dream which had momentarily crazed her; and she had confounded me with her persecutors.
I could not think evil of her. I flung myself down in the snow and gave way to abject misery.
But hope is not readily overthrown. For her sake I resolved to pull myself together. I did not now know whether Leroux was in front or behind me, or upon either hand.
I stood deep in the snow, a pistol in each hand, waiting. When he called again I should make my last effort.
But he called me no more. Once I heard the dog yelp, far up the valley, and then there was only the soughing of the wind and the sting of the driving sleet flakes. And the grey mist had closed in all about me. I was alone in that storm-swept wilderness and there was no sun to guide me.
I saw a shadow at my feet, and stooping down, perceived that accident had brought me back to the sleigh tracks. From the direction in which the dog had howled, I judged that my course lay straight ahead as I was standing. I started off wearily. At least it was better to walk than to perish in the snow.
But before many minutes had passed the realization of my loss stung me into madness again, and I began to run. And, as I ran, I shouted, and, shouting, I fired.
I plunged along—half delirious, I believe, for I began to hear voices on every side of me and to imagine I saw Simon standing, just out of reach, a shadow upon the mist, taunting me. I followed him at an undeviating distance, firing, reloading, and firing again. I was no longer conscious of my progress. The fingers that pressed the triggers of my pistols had no sensation in them, and in my imagination were parts of a monstrous mechanism which I directed. My legs, too, felt like stilts that somebody had strapped to my body, and, instead of cold, a warm glow seemed to suffuse me.
And while my helpless body stumbled along its route my mind was back in New York. This was my apartment on Tenth Street, and Jacqueline sat behind the curtains. I had dreamed of a long journey through a snow-bound wilderness, but I had awakened and we were to start for Jamaica by that day's boat. How dear she was! She raised her eyes, full of trusting love, to mine, and I knew that there would never be any parting until death.
We sat beneath the palms, beside a sea that plunged against our little island, and the air was fragrant with the scent of orange-blossoms, carried upon the wind from the distant mainland. We were so happy there—there was no need to think or to remember. I slept against her shoulder.
Somebody was shaking me.
"Get up!" he bellowed in my ear. "Get up! Do you want to die in the snow?"
I closed my eyes and sank back into a lethargy of sleep.
I had an indistinct impression of being carried for what seemed an eternity upon the shoulders of my rescuer, and of clinging there through the delirium that supervened.
Sometimes I thought I was on a camel's back, pursuing Jacqueline's abductors through the hot sands of an Egyptian desert; sometimes I was on shipboard, sinking in a tropical sea, beneath which amid the marl and ooze of delta depositions, hideous, antediluvian creatures, with faces like that of Leroux, writhed and stretched up their tentacles to drag me down.
Then I would be conscious of the cold and bitter wind again. But at last there came a grateful sense of warmth and ease, followed by a period of blank unconsciousness.
When at last I opened my eyes it was late afternoon. Though they pained me, I could now see with tolerable distinctness.
I was lying upon a bed of dried balsam-leaves inside a little hut, and through the half-open door I could see the sun just dipping behind the mountains. Besides the bed the hut contained a roughly hewn table and chair and a bookcase with a few books in it. Upon a wall hung a big crucifix of wood, and under it an old man was standing.
He heard me stir and came toward me. I recognized the massive shoulders and commanding countenance of Pere Antoine, and remembrance came back to me.
"Where am I?" I asked.
"In my cabin, monsieur," answered the priest, standing at my side, an inscrutable calm upon his face.
"You saved me?"
"Three days ago. You were dying in the snow. You had fired off your pistols and had thrown your coat away. I had to carry you back and find it. It is lucky that I found you, monsieur, or assuredly you would soon have been dead. But for your dog——"
"My dog!" I exclaimed.
"Certainly, a dog came to me and brought me a mile out of my route to where you were lying. But, now, come to think of it, it disappeared and has not returned. Perhaps it was sent to me by le bon Dieu."
"Where is Mlle. Duchaine?" I burst out.
"Ah, M. Hewlett," said the priest, looking at me severely, "that was a wild undertaking of yours, and God does not prosper such schemes, though I confess I do not understand why you were taking her to her home. Rest assured she is in good hands. I met the sleigh containing her, and M. Leroux informed me that all would be well. It is strange that he did not speak of you, though, and I do not understand how——"
"He stole her from me when I was snow-blind, and left me to die!" I exclaimed. "I must rescue her——"
Father Antoine laid a heavy hand upon my shoulder.
"Be assured, monsieur, that madame is perfectly happy and contented with her friends," he said. "And no doubt she has already regretted her escapade. Did I not warn you in Quebec, monsieur, that your enterprise would be brought to naught? And now you will doubtless be glad of your lesson, and will abandon it willingly and return homeward. I have to depart at daybreak upon an urgent mission a hundred miles away, which was interrupted by your rescue; but I shall be back within a week, by which time you will doubtless be able to accompany me to the coast. Meanwhile, you will rest here, and my provisions and a few books are at your disposal."
"I shall not!" I cried weakly. "I am going on to the chateau!"
He looked at me steadily.
"You cannot," he said. "If you attempt it you will perish by the way."
"You cannot stop me!" I cried desperately.
"Perhaps not, monsieur; nevertheless, you will not be able to reach the chateau."
"Who are you that you should stop me?" I exclaimed angrily. "You are a priest, and your duty is with souls."
"That is why," answered Pere Antoine. "You are in pursuit of a married woman."
"I do not know anything about that, but I am the protector of a defenceless one," I answered, "and I shall seek her until she sends me away. Do you know where her husband is?"
"No, monsieur," answered the old man. "And you?"
I burst into an impassioned appeal to him. I told him of Leroux and his conspiracy to obtain possession of the property, of my encounter with Jacqueline, and how I had rescued her, omitting mention of course of the murder.
As I went on I could see the look of surprise upon his face gradually change into belief.
I told him of our journey across the snow and begged him to help me to rescue Jacqueline, or at least to find her. I added that the trouble had partially destroyed her memory, so that she was not competent to decide who her protectors were.
When I had ended he was looking at me with a benignancy that I had never seen before upon his face.
"M. Hewlett," he answered, "I have long suspected a part of what you have told me, and therefore I readily accept your statements. I believe now that madame has suffered no wrong from you. But I am a priest, and, as you say, my care is only that of souls. Madame is married. I married her——"
"To whom?" I cried.
"To M. Louis d'Epernay, nephew of M. Charles Duchaine by marriage, less than two weeks ago in the chateau here."
The addition of the last word singularly revived my hopes. It had slipped from his lips unconsciously, but it gave me reason to believe that the chateau was near by.
Father Antoine sat down upon the chair beside me.
"M. Duchaine has been a recluse for many years," he said, "and of late his mind has become affected. It is said that he was implicated in the troubles of 1867, and that, fearing arrest, he fled here and built this chateau, in this desolate region, where he would be safe from pursuit. If anyone ever contemplated denouncing him, at any rate those events have long ago been forgotten. But solitude has made a hermit of him and taken him out of touch with the world of to-day.
"I believe that Leroux has discovered coal on his property, and by threatening him with arrest has gained a complete ascendency over the weak-minded old man. However, the fact remains that his daughter was married by me to M. d'Epernay some ten or twelve days ago at the chateau.
"I was uneasy, for it did not look to be like a love-match, and I knew that M. d'Epernay had the reputation of a profligate in Quebec, where he was hand in glove with Philippe Lacroix, one of M. Leroux's aids. But a priest has no option when an expression of matrimonial consent is made to him in the presence of two witnesses. So I married them.
"My duties took me to Quebec. There I learned that Mme. d'Epernay had fled on the night of her marriage, and that her husband was in pursuit of her. Again it was told me that she was living at the Chateau Frontenac with another man. It was not for me to question whether she loved her husband, but to do my duty.
"I appealed to you. You refused to listen to my appeal. You threatened me, monsieur. And you denied my priesthood. However, I do not speak of that, for she is undoubtedly safe with her father now, awaiting her husband's return. And I shall not help you in your pursuit of her, M. Hewlett, for you are actuated solely by love for the wife of another man. Is that not so?" he ended, bending over me with a penetrating look in his blue eyes.
"Yes, it is so. But I shall go to the chateau," I answered.
Pere Antoine rose up.
"You will find food here," he said, "and if you wish to take exercise there are snow-shoes. Try to find the chateau—do what you please; but remember that if you lose your way I shall not be here to save you. I shall return from my mission in a week and be ready to conduct you to St. Boniface. And now, monsieur, since we understand each other, I shall prepare the supper."
I swallowed a few mouthfuls of food and fell asleep soon afterward. In the morning when I awoke the cabin was empty.
My eyes were almost well, but my hands had been badly frozen and were extremely painful, while I was so weak that I could hardly walk. I spent the next two days recovering my strength, and on the third I found myself able to leave the hut for a short tramp.
I found snow-shoes and coloured glasses in the cabin; my overcoat was there, and I did not feel troubled in conscience when I appropriated a pair of warm fur mittens which the good priest had made from mink skins. They had no fingers, and were admirably adapted to the weather.
I found one of the pistols in the hut, and in the pocket of my fur coat were a couple of cartridges which I had overlooked. The rest I had fired away in my delirium.
The cabin, was situated in a valley, around which high hills clustered. Strapping on the snow-shoes, I set to work to climb a lofty peak which stood at no great distance.
It took me a couple of hours to make the ascent, and when at last I sank down exhausted on the summit there was nothing in sight but a succession of new hills in every direction. I seemed to be on the summit of the ridge which sloped away to east and west of me. Hidden among the hills were little lakes.
There was no sign of life in all that desolate country.
My disappointment was overwhelming. Surely the chateau was near. I strode up and down upon the mountain-top, clenching my hands with rage. It was four days since I had lost Jacqueline, and Leroux had contemptously left me to die in the snow. He was so sure I could not follow and find him.
I began the descent again. But it is easy to lose one's way upon a mountain-peak, and the hills presented no clear definition to me. Once in the valley I could locate the cabin again, but the sun had travelled far toward the west and no longer guided me accurately.
I must have turned off at a slight angle which took me some distance out of my course, for my progress was suddenly arrested by a mighty wall of rock, a sheer precipice that seemed to descend perpendicularly into the valley underneath. Somewhere a torrent was roaring like a miniature Niagara.
I discovered my error and bent my footsteps along the summit of the precipice, and as I proceeded the noise of the torrent grew louder until the din was deafening. I was treading now upon a smooth slope, like the glacis of a fortress. I continued the descent, and all at once, at no great distance from me, I saw a tremendous waterfall, ice-sheeted, that tumbled down the face of the declivity and sent up a cloud of misty spray.
I stopped to stare in admiration. Far below me the narrow valley had widened into the smooth, snow-coated surface of a lake.
And on a point of land projecting from the bottom of that mighty wall I saw the chateau!
It could have been nothing else. It was a splendid building—not larger than the house of a country gentleman, perhaps, and made of hewn logs; but the rude splendour of it against that icy, rocky background transfixed me with wonder.
It was a rambling, straggling building, apparently constructed at different times; having two wings and a wide central hall, with odd projecting chambers, and it was hidden so cunningly away that it was visible from this side of the lake only from the point of the rocky precipice above on which I stood.
The chateau stood under the overhanging precipice in such a way that half the building was invisible even from here. It seemed to be set back into a hollow of the mountainside, which appeared every moment about to overwhelm it.
And now I perceived that the smooth slope on which I stood was a snow-covered glacier, a million tons of ice, pressing ever by its own weight toward the precipice, and carrying its debris of rocks and stones toward the waterfall that issued from it and poured in deafening clamour into the lake below.
Where the precipice projected the waterfall was split in two, and rushed down in twin streams, bubbling, tumbling, hissing, plunging into the lake, which whirled furiously around the spit of land on which the castle stood, clear of ice for a distance of a hundred feet from the shore, a foaming maelstrom in which no boat that was ever built could have endured an instant, but must have been twisted and flung back like the fantastically shaped ice pinnacles along the marge.
On each side of the chateau a cataract plunged, veiling itself in an opacity of mist, tinted with all the spectral hues by the rays of the westering sun. I could have flung a stone down, not on the chateau, but over it, into the boiling lake.
Why, that position was impregnable! Behind it the sheer precipice, up which not even a bird could walk; the impassable lake before it, and the torrent on either side!
But—how had M. Charles Duchaine gained entrance there?
There seemed to be no entrance. And yet the chateau stood before my eyes, no dream, but very real indeed. There was a small piece of enclosed land between its front and the lake, and within this I thought I could see dogs lying.
That might have been my fancy, for the mountain was too high for me to be able to distinguish anything readily, and the sublime grandeur of the scene and the roar of the water made me incapable of clear discernment.
Before I reached the hut again I had formulated my plan. I would start at dawn, or earlier, and work around these mountains, a circuit of perhaps twenty miles, approaching the chateau by the edge of the lake. I concluded that there must exist a ridge of narrow beach between the whirlpool and the castle, though it was invisible from above, and that the entrance would disclose itself to me in the course of my journey.
The hope of finding Jacqueline again banished the last vestiges of my weakness. I felt like one inspired. And my spirit was exalted, too. For she so completely filled my heart that she left no place for doubts and fears.
That night I paced the little cabin in an ecstasy of joy. And, as I paced it, suddenly I perceived a strange flicker of light in the north sky, and went to the door to see the most beautiful phenomenon that I had ever witnessed.
There came first a flash, and swiftly long streamers of flame shot up and spread fanwise over the heavens. They quivered and sank, and flared again, and broke into innumerable rippling waves; they hung, broad banners of light, athwart the skies, then slowly faded, to give place to a wavering interplay of ghostly beams that sought the darkest places beyond the moon: celestial fingers whiter than the white glow of a myriad of arc-lamps.
And somehow the wonder of it filled me with the conviction that all would be well for those heavenly lights bridged the loneliness of my soul even as they bridged the sky, from Jupiter, who blazed brilliant in the east to great Arcturus.
And, so I felt that, though I crossed a void as wide and fathomless in search of her, some time she should be mine and that our hearts would beat together so long as our lives should endure.
Although the sun was well above the horizon when I awoke, I started out on the fourth morning eager to achieve the entrance to the chateau.
First I plodded back to the two mountains which guarded the approach to the valley, then worked round along the flank of the ridge of peaks, searching for an entrance. The further I went, however, the higher and more precipitous became the mountains.
I realized that there was little chance of finding any access along this side, so after my noon meal I ascended one of the lower elevations in order to obtain my bearings. But I could discern neither chateau nor lake nor waterfall, and the sound of the torrent, far away to the left, came to my ears only as a faint distant murmur.
I was far out of the way.
The snow, which had been falling at intervals during each day since Jacqueline's abduction, had long ago covered up the tracks of the sleigh. I had to trust to my own wit to solve my problem, and there did not seem to be any solution.
There was no visible entrance to that mountain lake on any side, and to descend that sheer, ice-coated precipice was an impossibility.
It was long after nightfall when I reached the cabin again, exhausted and dispirited.
I awoke too late on the fifth morning, and I was too stiff to make much of a journey. I climbed to the edge of the glacier once again in the hope of discovering an approach. I examined every foot of the ground with meticulous care.
But whenever I approached the edge the same wall of rock ran down vertically for some three hundred feet, veneered with ice and wrapped in a perpetual blinding spray.
And yet sleighs could enter that valley below. For at the extreme edge of the lake, outside the enclosed piece of land, I perceived one, a tiny thing, far under me, and yet unmistakably a sleigh.
I was within three hundred feet of Jacqueline's home and yet as far away as though leagues divided us. I looked down at the chateau and ground my teeth and swore that I would win her. But all the rest of that day went in fruitless searching.
I must succeed in finding the entrance on the following day, for now Pere Antoine might return at any time, and I knew that he would prove far less tractable here in his own bailiwick than he had been when I defied him at the Frontenac. By hook or by crook I must gain entrance to the valley.
This was to be my last night in the cabin. I could not return, not though I were perishing in the snows.
Happily my eyes were now entirely well, and my hands, though chapped and roughened from the frost-bites, had suffered no permanent injury. So I started out with grim resolution on the sixth morning, when the dawn was only a red streak on the horizon and the stars still lit my way. Before the sun rose I was standing once more outside those two sentinel peaks.
To this point I knew the sleigh had come. But whether it had continued straight down the valley or turned to the right along that same ridge which I had fruitlessly explored before, it was impossible to determine.
I tried to put myself in the position of a man travelling toward the chateau. Which road would I take? How and where would it occur to me to seek an entrance into the heart of those formidable hills?
The more I puzzled and pondered over the difficulty the harder it was to solve.
As I stood, rather weary, balancing myself upon my snow-shoes, I heard a wolf's howl quite near to me. Raising my head, I saw no wolf, but an Eskimo dog—the very dog I had encountered in New York, Jacqueline's dog!
UNDER THE MOUNTAINS
The dog was standing on a rock at the base of the hill immediately before me—and calling.
I almost thought that it was calling me.
I took a few steps toward it, and it disappeared immediately, as though alarmed—apparently into the heart of the mountain.
I thought, of course, that it was crouching in a hollow place, or behind a boulder, and would reappear on my approach, but when I reached the spot where it had been it was nowhere to be seen. And the pad-prints ran toward a tiny hole no bigger than the entrance to a fox's lair—and ended there.
At this spot an enormous boulder lay, almost concealing the burrow. I put my shoulder against it—in the hope of dislodging it sufficiently to enable me to see into the cavity. To my astonishment, at the first touch it rolled into a new position, disclosing a wide natural tunnel in the mountainside, through which a sleigh might have passed easily!
I saw at once the explanation. The boulder was a rocking stone. It must have fallen at some time from the top of the arch, and happened to be so poised that at a touch it could be swung into one of two positions, alternately disclosing and concealing the tunnel in the cliff wall.
I stepped within and, striking a match perceived that I was standing inside a vast cave—a vaulted chamber that ran apparently straight into the heart of the mountains.
Great stalactites hung from the roof and dripped water upon the floor, on which numerous small stalagmites were forming, where they had not been crumbled away by the passage and repassage of sleighs. These had left two well-defined tracks in the soft stone under my feet.
The cave was one of those common formations in limestone hills. How far it ran I could not know, but I had little doubt that at last I was well upon my approach to the chateau.
The interior was completely dark. At intervals I struck matches from the box which I had brought with me, but the road always ran clear and straight ahead, and I could even guide myself by the ruts in the ground.
And every time I struck a match I could see the vaulted cavern, wide as a great cathedral, extending right and left and in front of me.
I must have been journeying for half an hour when I perceived a faint light ahead of me, and at the same time I heard the gurgling of a torrent somewhere near at hand.
The light grew stronger. I could see now that the cavern had narrowed considerably: there were no longer any ruts in the ground, and by stretching out my arms I could touch the wall on either side of me. I advanced cautiously until the light grew quite bright; I saw the tunnel end in front of me, and emerged into an open space in the heart of the hills.
I say an open space, for it was as large as two city blocks; but it was as though it had been dug out of the mountains by an enormous cheese scoop, for on all sides sheer, vertical walls of rock ascended, so high that the light of day filtered down only dimly. A swift river, issuing from the base of one of these stupendous cliffs, ran across the opening and disappeared into a cave upon the other side.
I glanced at my watch. It seemed that I had been travelling for an interminable time, but it was barely eleven o'clock. I sat down to eat, and the thought occurred to me that this would make a good camping place, if necessary, for it was quite warm at such a depth below the surface of the hills, and my fur coat had begun to feel oppressive. I felt drowsy, too, and somehow, before I was aware of any fatigue, I was asleep.
That was a lucky thing, for I was not destined to sleep much the following night. It was three o'clock when I awoke, and at first, as always since my journey began, I could not remember where I was. And, as always, it was the thought of Jacqueline that recalled to me my surroundings.
I sprang to my feet and made hasty preparations to resume my journey.
A short investigation showed me that I had come into a cul-de-sac, for there was no path through the opposite hills. There were, however, a number of extensive caves in the porous limestone cliffs, any of which might prove to be the sequence of the road.
The first thing that I perceived on beginning my search was that men had been here before me.
What was the place? A robbers' den? A camp of outlaws?
In the first cave that I explored I found a stock of provisions—flour and canned meats and matches—snugly stored away safe from the damp and snow. Near by were picks and shovels and three very reputable blankets, with a miscellany of materials suggestive of the camping party's outfit.
I might have been more surprised than I was, but my thoughts were centred on Jacqueline, and the waning of the light showed me that the sun must be well down in the sky. I must get on at once if I were to reach the chateau that night.
I might have wandered for an indefinite time among those caves before striking the road. That I was off the track now seemed certain, for it was obvious that no sleigh could pass through those walls. The thin drift of snow that had covered the ground was almost melted, but enough remained to have showed the pad-prints of the dog, if it had passed that way.
There was none; nor were there tracks of sleigh runners, which would, at least, have scored them in the sandy ooze along the bed of the rivulet.
I had evidently then strayed from the right course while wandering through the tunnel, and thus come by mischance into this blind alley.
I had noticed, as I have said, that the path narrowed considerably during the last few hundred feet that I had traversed before I reached this open place. In the darkness I might easily have debouched along one of the numerous paths which, no doubt, existed all through the interior of this limestone formation.
I started back in haste and reentered the tunnel again, striking a match every few seconds, lighting each by its predecessor.
I had been travelling back for about ten minutes when I noticed at my feet the charred stump of a match that I had thrown away some time before. I looked around me and saw that I was again in the main road. There were the faint depressions caused by the sleigh runners in the soft stone, and the roof and side walls of the tunnel again stretched away into the obscurity around me.
Satisfied that I had retraced my steps sufficiently far, I turned about and began to proceed cautiously in the opposite direction, keeping this time as far as possible to the right of the road instead of to the left, as before. The box of matches which I had brought with me was nearly exhausted, but, by shielding each one carefully, I was able to examine my ground with fair assurance of my being in the right course.
A draft was now beginning to blow quite strongly inward, and this convinced me that I was approaching the tunnel's end.
As I proceeded I kept looking to the left to endeavor to locate the narrow passage into which I had strayed, but it must have been the merest opening in the wall, so small that only a miracle of chance had led me into it, for I saw nothing but the straight passage before me.
Presently I began to hear a murmur of water in the distance, and then a faint flicker of light. The ground began to grow softer, and now I was treading upon ooze and mud instead of rock.
The murmur increased in a sonorous crescendo until the full cadence of the mighty waterfall burst on my ears.
A fiery ball seemed to fill the exit. The red sun, barred with bands of coal-black cloud, was dipping into the farther verge of the lake.
The thunder of the cataracts filled my ears. A fine spray, like a garment of filmy silk, obscured my clearer vision; but through and beyond it, between two torrents that sailed above like crystal bows, I saw the chateau before me.
I stared at the scene in amazement, for the transition from the dark tunnel through which I had come was an astounding one, and I could hardly believe the evidence of my eyes.
I had passed right through the hollow heart of those mighty hills and now stood underneath the huge glacier, with its million tons of ice above me, from which the cataracts tumbled, drenching me with spray, though I was fully a hundred yards away from the log chateau.
The building was located, as I had surmised, upon a narrow strip of land, invisible from above except where its tongue, containing the enclosed yard, ran out into the lake. It stood far back beneath the over-hanging ledge and seemed to be secured against the living rock. It was evident that there was no other approach except the tunnel through which I had come, for all around the land that turbulent whirlpool raved, where the two cataracts contended for the mastery of the waters.
And for countless ages they must have fought together thus, and neither gained, not since the day when those mountains rose out of the primeval ooze.
Within the enclosed space, which was larger than I had thought on viewing it from above, were two or three small cabins—inhabited, probably, by habitant or half-breed dependents of the seigneur.
I must have crouched for nearly an hour at the tunnel entrance, staring in stupefied wonder—for it grew dark, and one by one lights began to flare at the windows until the whole north wing and central portion of the building were illuminated. But the south wing, nearest me, was dark, and I surmised that this portion was not occupied.
Fortune still seemed to favour me, and with this conclusion and the thought of Jacqueline, I gained courage to advance again.
It was almost dark now and growing bitterly cold. I felt in my pocket for my pistol and loaded it with the two cartridges that alone remained of the lot I had brought with me. Then I advanced stealthily until I stood beneath the cataract; and here I found the spray no longer drenched me. The splendid torrent shot out like a crystal-arch above me—so strong and compact that only those at some distance could feel the mist that veiled it like a luminous garment.
I came upon a door in the dark wing and, turning the handle noiselessly, found myself inside the chateau. And at once my ears were filled with yells and coarse laughter in men's and women's voices.
There was no storm-door, and the interior of the chateau—at least, the wing in which I found myself—was almost as cold as the outside. I stood still, hesitating which way to take. A fiddle was being played somewhere, and the bursts of noisy laughter sounded at intervals.
As my eyes became accustomed to my surroundings I perceived that I was standing near the foot of an uncarpeted wooden stairway. There was a dark room with an open door immediately in front of me, and another at the farther end of the passage, from beneath which a glimmer of light issued, and it was from this room that the sounds of laughter and music came.
While I was pondering upon my next movement, heavy footsteps fell on the story above me, and a man began coming down the stairs. I stole into the dark room in front of me, and had hardly ensconced myself there than he brushed past and went into the room at the end of the hallway.
And I was certain that he was Leroux.
It was evident that he had not closed the door behind him, for the sounds of the fiddle and of the revellers became much more distinct, I had left my snowshoes near the entrance to the tunnel, and my moccasins made no sound upon the floor.
I crept out of my hiding place and went toward the open door. As I had surmised, this was the place of the assemblage. I crouched there, with my pistol in my hand. On the opposite side of the room Simon Leroux was standing, a sneering smile upon his face.
The scene I saw through the crack of the door quite took my breath away.
The room was an enormous one, evidently forming the entire central portion of the chateau. It was a ballroom, or had been a ballroom, once, for it had a wide hardwood floor, somewhat worn and uneven. The walls were hung with portraits, evidently of the owner's ancestors, for I caught a glimpse of several faces in wigs and periwigs.
The furniture was of an old type. Pushed against one wall, near where Leroux stood, was an ancient piano, and standing upon the other side an old man played upon a violin.
He must have been nearly eighty years of age. His face had fallen in over the toothless gums, leaving the prominent cheek-bones protruding like those of a skull, and his head was a heavy mat of straight grey hair. He looked like a full-blooded Indian.
Two couples were dancing on the floor. Each man had an Indian woman. One was middle-aged; the other, a comely young girl with heavy silver earrings, was laughing noisily as her companion dragged her to a standstill in front of the fiddler.
"Play faster, Pierre Caribou!" he yelled, pushing the old man backward.
It was the man with the patch!
"Be quiet, Jean Petitjean!" exclaimed the girl, giving him a mock blow. "Thou shall not hurt my father!"
They laughed drunkenly and resumed the dance. The man with the older woman was not—greatly to my surprise—Jean Petitjean's companion of the night. The woman was addressing him as Raoul. She seemed trying to quiet him, for he was shouting boisterously as he twirled.
From his post across the room Leroux watched the proceedings with his sneering smile.
Flaring candles were set in sconces of wrought iron around the room, casting a pallid light upon the scene, and so unreal it would have been but for my recognition of the men that I might have expected it to disappear before my eyes.
I crept back from the door and, tracing my journey along the corridor, began to ascend the stairs.
On the first story I perceived a number of rooms, but those whose doors were open were dark and apparently empty. I imagined that all the magnificence of the chateau was concentrated in that big ballroom.
The corridor on the first story had smaller passages opening out of it—one at each end. I turned to the left. Now the sound of the cataracts, which had never left my ears, became a din. The passages were full of stale tobacco smoke. And advancing I suddenly found myself face to face with Philippe Lacroix.
He was seated at a table in a room writing, and I came right upon the door before I was aware of it. I saw his thin face with the little upturned mustache and the cold sneer about the mouth; and I think I should have shot him if he had looked up. But he neither heard nor saw me, but wrote steadily, puffing at a vile cigar, and I crept back from the door.
Thank God, Jacqueline was not among those brutes below! But I shuddered to think of her environment here.
I turned back and followed the corridor to the right, and came to a little hall toward the rear of the building, as I judged, where the noise of the torrents was less loud, although I now perceived that the chateau was in a continual mild tremor from the force of their discharge.
The windows in this little hall were broken in several places, and had evidently been in this condition for a long time, for they were covered with strips of paper, through which the wind entered in chilling gusts. Beyond me was an open door, and behind it I saw the dull glow of a stove and felt its heat.
I approached cautiously and looked in.
I never saw a room so littered and uncared for. There were books around the walls and books upon the floor, covered with dust; there was dust and dirt and debris everywhere, and spider-webs along the walls and ceiling. The impression of the whole place was that of ruin.
Facing me, above a cracked and ancient mirror, were two rusty broad-swords, and in the mirror I saw a large, oaken table reflected. Seated at it, clothed in a threadbare coat of very ancient fashion, was an old man with long, snow-white hair and a white, forked beard. He was busily transferring a stack of gold-pieces from his right to his left side; and then he began scribbling on a sheet of paper. He paid me not the smallest attention as I entered.
Not even when I stood beside him did he look up, but went on sorting out his coins and jotting down figures upon the paper. Sheets of it, covered with penciled figures, stood everywhere stacked upon the table, and other sheets were strewn among the books upon the floor; and while I watched, the old man laid aside the sheet he had been writing on and drew another sheet from the top of a thick pile beside him.
There was a door behind his chair leading, I imagined, into a lumber-room. I walked around the room and looked through it, but the place beyond was dark.
Then I came back to the old man, who still paid me not the least attention.
Now I perceived that the top of the table was very curiously designed. It was marked off with squares and columns, and in each square were figures in black and red. Upon one end of the table at which the old man sat was a cup-shaped, circular affair of very dark wood—teak, it resembled—once delicately inlaid with pearl. But now most of the inlay had disappeared, leaving unsightly holes.