Last night, or rather in that black part of the early day when they had gone to bed, Father Roland had warned him to make no noise in the morning; that they would let David sleep until noon; that he was sick, worn out, and needed rest. And there he stood now in the doorway of his room, even before the fire was started—looking five years younger than he looked last night, nodding cheerfully.
"Boo-jou, m'sieu," he said in his Cree-French. "My order was to make no noise and to let you sleep," and he nodded toward the Missioner's room.
"The sun woke me," said David. "Come here. I want you to see it!"
Thoreau went and stood beside him, and David pointed to the one window of his room, which faced the rising sun. The window was covered with frost, and the frost as they looked at it was like a golden fire.
"I think that was what woke me," he said. "At least my eyes were on it when I opened them. It is wonderful!"
"It is very cold, and the frost is thick," said Thoreau. "It will go quickly after I have built a fire, m'sieu. And then you will see the sun—the real sun."
David watched him as he built the fire. The first crackling of it sent a comfort through him. He had slept well, so soundly that not once had he roused himself during his six hours in bed. It was the first time he had slept like that in months. His blood tingled with a new warmth. He had no headache. There was not that dull pain behind his eyes. He breathed more easily—the air passed like a tonic into his lungs. It was as if those wonderful hours of sleep had wrested some deadly obstruction out of his veins. The fire crackled. It roared up the big chimney. The jack-pine knots, heavy with pitch, gave to the top of the stove a rosy glow. Thoreau stuffed more fuel into the blazing firepot, and the glow spread cheerfully, and with the warmth that was filling the cabin there mingled the sweet scent of the pine-pitch and burning balsam. David rubbed his hands. He was rubbing them when Marie came into the room, plaiting the second of her two great ropes of shining black hair. He nodded. Marie smiled, showing her white teeth, her dark eyes clear as a fawn's. He felt within him a strange rejoicing—for Thoreau. Thoreau was a lucky man. He could see proof of it in the Cree woman's face. Both were lucky. They were happy—a man and woman together, as things should be.
Thoreau had broken the ice in a pail and now he filled the wash-basin for him. Ice water for his morning ablution was a new thing for David. But he plunged his face into it recklessly. Little particles of ice pricked his skin, and the chill of the water seemed to sink into his vitals. It was a sudden change from water as hot as he could stand—to this. His teeth clicked as he wiped himself on the burlap towelling. Marie used the basin next, and then Thoreau. When Marie had dried her face he noted the old-rose flush in her cheeks, the fire of rich, red blood glowing under her dark skin. Thoreau himself blubbered and spouted in his ice-water bath like a joyous porpoise, and he rubbed himself on the burlap until the two apple-red spots above his beard shone like the glow that had spread over the top of the stove. David found himself noticing these things—very small things though they were; he discovered himself taking a sudden and curious interest in events and things of no importance at all, even in the quick, deft slash of the Frenchman's long knife as he cut up the huge whitefish that was to be their breakfast. He watched Marie as she wallowed the thick slices in yellow corn-meal, and listened to the first hissing sputter of them as they were dropped into the hot grease of the skillet. And the odour of the fish, taken only yesterday from the net which Thoreau kept in the frozen lake, made him hungry. This was unusual. It was unexpected as other things that had happened. It puzzled him.
He returned to his room, with a suspicion in his mind that he should put on a collar and tie, and his coat. He changed his mind when he saw the photograph in its newspaper wrapping on the table. In another moment it was in his hands. Now, with day in the room, the sun shining, he expected to see a change. But there was no change in her; she was there, as he had left her last night; the question was in her eyes, unspoken words still on her lips. Then, suddenly, it swept upon him where he had been in those first hours of peaceful slumber that had come to him—beside a quiet, dark pool—gently whispering forests about him—an angel standing close to him, on a rock, shrouded in her hair—watching over him. A thrill passed through him. Was it possible?... He did not finish the question. He could not bring himself to ask whether this picture—some strange spirit it might possess—had reached out to him, quieted him, made him sleep, brought him dreams that were like a healing medicine. And yet....
He remembered that in one of his leather bags there was a magnifying glass, and he assured himself that he was merely curious—most casually curious—as he hunted it out from among his belongings and scanned the almost illegible writing on the back of the cardboard mount. He made out the date quite easily now, impressed in the cardboard by the point of a pencil. It was only a little more than a year old. It was unaccountable why this discovery should affect him as it did. He made no effort to measure or sound the satisfaction it gave him—this knowledge that the girl had stood so recently on that rock beside the pool. He was beginning to personalize her unconsciously, beginning to think of her mentally as the Girl. She was a bit friendly. With her looking at him like that he did not feel quite so alone with himself. And there could not be much of a change in her since that yesterday of a year ago, when some one had startled her there.
It was Father Roland's voice that made him wrap up the picture again, this time not in its old covering, but in a silk handkerchief which he had pawed out of his bag, and which he dropped back again, and locked in. Thoreau was telling the Missioner about David's early rising when the latter reappeared. They shook hands, and the Missioner, looking David keenly in the eyes, saw the change in him.
"No need to tell me you had a good night!" he exclaimed.
"Splendid," affirmed David.
The window was blazing with the golden sun now; it shot through where the frost was giving way, and a ray of it fell like a fiery shaft on Marie's glossy head as she bent over the table. Father Roland pointed to the window with one hand on David's arm.
"Wait until you get out into that," he said. "This is just a beginning, David—just a beginning!"
They sat down to breakfast, fish and coffee, bread and potatoes—and beans. It was almost finished when David split open his third piece of fish, white as snow under its crisp brown, and asked quite casually:
"Did you ever hear of the Stikine River, Father?"
Father Roland sat up, stopped his eating, and looked at David for a moment as though the question struck an unusual personal interest in him.
"I know a man who lived for a great many years along the Stikine," he replied then. "He knows every mile of it from where it empties into the sea at Point Rothshay to the Lost Country between Mount Finlay and the Sheep Mountains. It's in the northern part of British Columbia, with its upper waters reaching into the Yukon. A wild country. A country less known than it was sixty years ago, when there was a gold rush up over the old telegraph trail. Tavish has told me a lot about it. A queer man—this Tavish. We hit his cabin on our way to God's Lake."
"Did he ever tell you," said David, with an odd quiver in his throat—"Did he ever tell you of a stream, a tributary stream, called Firepan Creek?"
"Firepan Creek—Firepan Creek," mumbled the Little Missioner. "He has told me a great many things, this Tavish, but I can't remember that. Firepan Creek! Yes, he did! I remember, now. He had a cabin on it one year, the year he had small-pox. He almost died there. I want you to meet Tavish, David. We will stay overnight at his cabin. He is a strange character—a great object lesson." Suddenly he came back to David's question. "What do you want to know about Stikine River and Firepan Creek?" he asked.
"I was reading something about them that interested me," replied David. "A very wild country, I take it, from what Tavish has told you. Probably no white people."
"Always, everywhere, there are a few white people," said Father Roland. "Tavish is white, and he was there. Sixty years ago, in the gold rush, there must have been many. But I fancy there are very few now. Tavish can tell us. He came from there only a year ago this last September."
David asked no more questions. He turned his attention entirely to his fish. In that same moment there came an outburst from the foxes that made Thoreau grin. Their yapping rose until it was a clamorous demand. Then the dogs joined in. To David it seemed as though there must be a thousand foxes out in the Frenchman's pens, and at least a hundred dogs just beyond the cabin walls. The sound was blood-curdling in a way. He had heard nothing like it before in all his life; it almost made one shiver to think of going outside. The chorus kept up for fully a minute. Then it began to die out, and David could hear the chill clink of chains. Through it all Thoreau was grinning.
"It's two hours over feeding time for the foxes, and they know it, m'sieur," he explained to David. "Their outcry excites the huskies, and when the two go together—Mon Dieu! it is enough to raise the dead." He pushed himself back from the table and rose to his feet. "I am going to feed them now. Would you like to see it, m'sieu?"
Father Roland answered for him.
"Give us ten minutes and we shall be ready," he said, seizing David by the arm, and speaking to Thoreau. "Come with me, David. I have something waiting for you."
They went into the Little Missioner's room, and pointing to his tumbled bed, Father Roland said:
"Now, David, strip!"
David had noticed with some concern the garments worn that morning by Father Roland and the Frenchman—their thick woollen shirts, their strange-looking, heavy trousers that were met just below the knees by the tops of bulky German socks, turned over as he had worn his more fashionable hosiery in the college days when golf suits, bulldog pipes, and white terriers were the rage. He had stared furtively at Thoreau's great feet in their moose-hide moccasins, thinking of his own vici kids, the heaviest footwear he had brought with him. The problem of outfitting was solved for him now, as he looked at the bed, and as Father Roland withdrew, rubbing his hands until they cracked, David began undressing. In less than a quarter of an hour he was ready for the big outdoors. When the Missioner returned to give him a first lesson in properly "stringing up" his moccasins, he brought with him a fur cap very similar to that worn by Thoreau. He was amazed to find how perfectly it fitted.
"You see," said Father Roland, pleased at David's wonder, "I always take back a bale of this stuff with me, of different sizes; it comes in handy, you know. And the cap...."
He chuckled as David surveyed as much as he could see of himself in a small mirror.
"The cap is Marie's work," he finished. "She got the size from your hat and made it while we were asleep. A fine fisher-coat that—Thoreau's best. And a good fit, eh?"
"Marie ... did this ... for me?" demanded David.
The Missioner nodded.
"And the pay, Father...."
"Among friends of the forests, David, never speak of pay."
"But this skin! It is beautiful—valuable...."
"And it is yours," said Father Roland. "I am glad you mentioned payment to me, and not to Thoreau or Marie. They might not have understood, and it would have hurt them. If there had been anything to pay, they would have mentioned it in the giving; I would have mentioned it. That is a fine point of etiquette, isn't it?"
Slowly there came a look into David's face which the other did not at first understand. After a moment he said, without looking at the Missioner, and in a voice that had a curious hard note in it:
"But for this ... Marie will let me give her something in return—a little something I have no use for now? A little gift—my thanks—my friendship...."
He did not wait for the Missioner to reply, but went to one of his two leather bags. He unlocked the one in which he had placed the photograph of the girl. Out of it he took a small plush box. It was so small that it lay in the palm of his hand as he held it out to Father Roland.
Deeper lines had gathered about his mouth.
"Give this to Marie—for me."
Father Roland took the box. He did not look at it. Steadily he gazed into David's eyes.
"What is it?" he asked.
"A locket," replied David. "It belonged to her. In it is a picture—her picture—the only one I have. Will you—please—destroy the picture before you give the locket to Marie?"
Father Roland saw the quick, sudden throb in David's throat. He gripped the little box in his hand until it seemed as though he would crush it, and his heart was beating with the triumph of a drum. He spoke but one word, his eyes meeting David's eyes, but that one word was a whisper from straight out of his soul, and the word was:
Father Roland slipped the little plush box into his pocket as he and David went out to join Thoreau. They left the cabin together, Marie lifting her eyes from her work in a furtive glance to see if the stranger was wearing her cap.
A wild outcry from the dogs greeted the three men as they appeared outside the door, and for the first time David saw with his eyes what he had only heard last night. Among the balsams and spruce close to the cabin there were fully a score of the wildest and most savage-looking dogs he had ever beheld. As he stood for a moment, gazing about him, three things impressed themselves upon him in a flash: it was a glorious day, it was so cold that he felt a curious sting in the air, and not one of those long-haired, white-fanged beasts straining at their leashes possessed a kennel, or even a brush shelter. It was this last fact that struck him most forcefully. Inherently he was a lover of animals, and he believed these four-footed creatures of Thoreau's must have suffered terribly during the night. He noticed that at the foot of each tree to which a dog was attached there was a round, smooth depression in the snow, where the animal had slept. The next few minutes added to his conviction that the Frenchman and the Missioner were heartless masters, though open-handed hosts. Mukoki and another Indian had come up with two gunny sacks, and from one of these a bushel of fish was emptied out upon the snow. They were frozen stiff, so that Mukoki had to separate them with his belt-axe; David fancied they must be hard as rock. Thoreau proceeded to toss these fish to the dogs, one at a time, and one to each dog. The watchful and apparently famished beasts caught the fish in mid-air, and there followed a snarling and grinding of teeth and smashing of bones and frozen flesh that made David shiver. He was half disgusted. Thoreau might at least have boiled the fish, or thawed them out. A fish weighing from one and a half to two pounds was each dog's allotment, and the work—if this feeding process could be called work—was done. Father Roland watched the dogs, rubbing his hands with satisfaction. Thoreau was showing his big, white teeth, as if proud of something.
"Not a bad tooth among them, mon Pere," he said. "Not one!"
"Fine—fine—but a little too fat, Thoreau. You're feeding them too well for dogs out of the traces," replied Father Roland.
"Too well!" he exclaimed. "They're half starved, and almost frozen! Look at the poor devils swallow those fish, ice and all! Why don't you cook the fish? Why don't you give them some sort of shelter to sleep in?"
Father Roland and the Frenchman stared at him as if they did not quite catch his meaning. Then a look of comprehension swept over the Missioner's face. He chuckled, the chuckle grew, it shook his body, and he laughed—laughed until the forest flung back the echoes of his merriment, and even the leathery faces of the Indians crinkled in sympathy. David could see no reason for his levity. He looked at Thoreau. His host was grinning broadly.
"God bless my soul!" said the Little Missioner at last. "Starved? Cold? Boil their fish? Give 'em beds!" He stopped himself as he saw a flush rising in David's face. "Forgive me, David," he begged, laying a hand on the other's arm. "You can't understand how funny that was—what you said. If you gave those fellows the warmest kennels in New York City, lined with bear skins, they wouldn't sleep in them, but would come outside and burrow those little round holes in the snow. That's their nature. I've felt sorry for them, like you—when the thermometer was down to sixty. But it's no use. As for the fish—they want 'em fresh or frozen. I suppose you might educate them to eat cooked meat, but it would be like making over a lynx or a fox or a wolf. They're mighty comfortable, those dogs, David. That bunch of eight over there is mine. They'll take us north. And I want to warn you, don't put yourself in reach of them until they get acquainted with you. They're not pets, you know; I guess they'd appreciate petting just about as much as they would boiled fish, or poison. There's nothing on earth like a husky or an Eskimo dog when it comes to lookin' you in the eye with a friendly and lovable look and snapping your hand off at the same time. But you'll like 'em, David. You can't help feeling they're pretty good comrades when you see what they do in the traces."
Thoreau had shouldered the second gunny sack and now led the way into the thicker spruce and balsam behind the cabin. David and Father Roland followed, the latter explaining more fully why it was necessary to keep the sledge dogs "hard as rocks," and how the trick was done. He was still talking, with the fingers of one hand closed about the little plush box in his pocket, when they came to the first of the fox pens. He was watching David closely, a little anxiously—thrilled by the touch of that box. He read men as he read books, seeing much that was not in print, and feeling by a wonderful intuitive power emotions not visible in a face, and he believed that in David there were strange and conflicting forces struggling now for mastery. It was not in the surrender of the box that he had felt David's triumph, but in the voluntary sacrifice of what that box contained. He wanted to rid himself of the picture, and quickly. He was filled with apprehension lest David should weaken again, and ask for its return. The locket meant nothing. It was a bauble—cold, emotionless, easily forgotten; but the other—the picture of the woman who had almost destroyed him—was a deadly menace, a poison to David's soul and body as long as it remained in his possession, and the Little Missioner's fingers itched to tear it from the velvet casket and destroy it.
He watched his opportunity. As Thoreau tossed three fish over the high wire netting of the first pen the Frenchman was explaining to David why there were two female foxes and one male in each of his nine pens, and why warm houses partly covered with earth were necessary for their comfort and health, while the sledge dogs required nothing more than a bed of snow. Father Roland seized this opportunity to drop back toward the cabin, calling in Cree to Mukoki. Five seconds after the cabin concealed him from David he had the plush box out of his pocket; another five and he had opened it and the locket itself was in his hand. And then, his breath coming in a sudden, hissing spurt between his teeth, he was looking upon the face of the woman. Again in Cree he spoke to Mukoki, asking him for his knife. The Indian drew it from his sheath and watched in silence while Father Roland accomplished his work of destruction. The Missioner's teeth were set tight. There was a strange gleam of fire in his eyes. An unspoken malediction rose out of his soul. The work was done! He wanted to hurl the yellow trinket, shaped so sacrilegiously in the image of a heart, as far as he could fling it into the forest. It seemed to burn his fingers, and he held for it a personal hatred. But it was for Marie! Marie would prize it, and Marie would purify it. Against her breast, where beat a heart of his beloved Northland, it would cease to be a polluted thing. This was his thought as he replaced it in the casket and retraced his steps to the fox pens.
Thoreau was tossing fish into the last pen when Father Roland came up. David was not with him. In answer to the Missioner's inquiry he nodded toward the thicker growth of the forest where as yet his axe had not scarred the trees.
"He said that he would walk a little distance into the timber."
Father Roland muttered something that Thoreau did not catch, and then, a sudden brightness lighting up his eyes:
"I am going to leave you to-day."
"To-day, mon Pere!" Thoreau made a muffled exclamation of astonishment. "To-day? And it is fairly well along toward noon!"
"He cannot travel far." The Missioner nodded in the direction of the unthinned timber. "It will give us four hours, between noon and dark. He is soft. You understand? We will make as far as the old trapping shack you abandoned two winters ago over on Moose Creek. It is only eight miles, but it will be a bit of hardening for him. And, besides...."
He was silent for a moment, as if turning a matter over again in his own mind.
"I want to get him away."
He turned a searching, quietly analytic gaze upon Thoreau to see whether the Frenchman would understand without further explanation.
The fox breeder picked up the empty gunny sack.
"We will begin to pack the sledge, mon Pere. There must be a good hundred pounds to the dog."
As they turned back to the cabin Father Roland cast a look over his shoulder to see whether David was returning.
Three or four hundred yards in the forest David stood in a mute and increasing wonder. He was in a tiny open, and about him the spruce and balsam hung still as death under their heavy cloaks of freshly fallen snow. It was as if he had entered unexpectedly into a wonderland of amazing beauty, and that from its dark and hidden bowers, crusted with their glittering mantles of white, snow naiads must be peeping forth at him, holding their breath for fear of betraying themselves to his eyes. There was not the chirp of a bird nor the flutter of a wing—not the breath of a sound to disturb the wonderful silence. He was encompassed in a white, soft world that seemed tremendously unreal—that for some strange reason made him breathe very softly, that made him stand without a movement, and made him listen, as though he had come to the edge of the universe and that there were mysterious things to hear, and possibly to see, if he remained very quiet. It was the first sensation of its kind he had ever experienced; it was disquieting, and yet soothing; it filled him with an indefinable uneasiness, and yet with a strange yearning. He stood, in these moments, at the inscrutable threshold of the great North; he felt the enigmatical, voiceless spirit of it; it passed into his blood; it made his heart beat a little faster; it made him afraid, and yet daring. In his breast the spirit of adventure was waking—had awakened; he felt the call of the Northland, and it alarmed even as it thrilled him. He knew, now, that this was the beginning—the door opening to him—of a world that reached for hundreds of miles up there. Yes, there were thousands of miles of it, many thousands; white, as he saw it here; beautiful, terrible, and deathly still. And into this world Father Roland had asked him to go, and he had as good as pledged himself!
Before he could think, or stop himself, he had laughed. For an instant it struck him like mirth in a tomb, an unpleasant, soulless sort of mirth, for his laugh had in it a jarring incredulity, a mocking lack of faith in himself. What right had he to enter into a world like that? Why, even now, his legs ached because of his exertion in furrowing through a few hundred steps of foot-and-a-half snow!
But the laugh succeeded in bringing him back into the reality of things. He started at right angles, pushed into the maze of white-robed spruce and balsam, and turned back in the direction of the cabin over a new trail. He was not in a good humour. There possessed him an ingrowing and acute feeling of animosity toward himself. Since the day—or night—fate had drawn that great, black curtain over his life, shutting out his sun, he had been drifting; he had been floating along on currents of the least resistance, making no fight, and, in the completeness of his grief and despair, allowing himself to disintegrate physically as well as mentally. He had sorrowed with himself; he had told himself that everything worth having was gone; but now, for the first time, he cursed himself. To-day—these few hundred yards out in the snow—had come as a test. They had proved his weakness. He had degenerated into less than a man! He was....
He clenched his hands inside his thick mittens, and a rage burned within him like a fire. Go with Father Roland? Go up into that world where he knew that the one great law of life was the survival of the fittest? Yes, he would go! This body and brain of his needed their punishment—and they should have it! He would go. And his body would fight for it, or die. The thought gave him an atrocious satisfaction. He was filled with a sudden contempt for himself. If Father Roland had known, he would have uttered a paean of joy.
Out of the darkness of the humour into which he had fallen, David was suddenly flung by a low and ferocious growl. He had stepped around a young balsam that stood like a seven-foot ghost in his path, and found himself face to face with a beast that was cringing at the butt of a thick spruce. It was a dog. The animal was not more than four or five short paces from him, and was chained to the tree. David surveyed him with sudden interest, wondering first of all why he was larger than the other dogs. As he lay crouched there against his tree, his ivory fangs gleaming between half-uplifted lips, he looked like a great wolf. In the other dogs David had witnessed an avaricious excitement at the approach of men, a hungry demand for food, a straining at leash ends, a whining and snarling comradeship. Here he saw none of those things. The big, wolf-like beast made no sound after that first growl, and made no movement. And yet every muscle in his body seemed gathered in a tense readiness to spring, and his gleaming fangs threatened. He was ferocious, and yet shrinking; ready to leap, and yet afraid. He was like a thing at bay—a hunted creature that had been prisoned. And then David noticed that he had but one good eye. It was bloodshot, balefully alert, and fixed on him like a round ball of fire. The lids had closed over his other eye; they were swollen; there was a big lump just over where the eye should have been. Then he saw that the beast's lips were cut and bleeding. There was blood on the snow; and suddenly the big brute covered his fangs to give a racking cough, as though he had swallowed a sharp fish-bone, and fresh blood dripped out of his mouth on the snow between his forepaws. One of these forepaws was twisted; it had been broken.
"You poor devil!" said David aloud.
He sat down on a birch log within six feet of the end of the chain, and looked steadily into the big husky's one bloodshot eye as he said again:
"You poor devil!"
Baree, the dog, did not understand. It puzzled him that this man did not carry a club. He was used to clubs. So far back as he could remember the club had been the one dominant thing in his life. It was a club that had closed his eye. It was a club that had broken one of his teeth and cut his lips, and it was a club that had beat against his ribs until—now—the blood came up into his throat and choked him, and dripped out of his mouth. But this man had no club, and he looked friendly.
"You poor devil!" said David for the third time.
Then he added, dark indignation in his voice:
"What, in God's name, has Thoreau been doing to you?"
There was something sickening in the spectacle—that battered, bleeding, broken creature huddling there against the tree, coughing up the red stuff that discoloured the snow. Loving dogs, he was not afraid of them, and forgetting Father Roland's warning he rose from the log and went nearer. From where he stood, looking down, Baree could have reached his throat. But he made no movement, unless it was that his thickly haired body was trembling a little. His one red eye looked steadily up at David.
For the fourth time David spoke;
"You poor, God-forsaken brute!"
There was friendliness, compassion, wonderment in his voice, and he held down a hand that he had drawn from one of the thick mittens. Another moment and he would have bent over, but a cry stopped him so sharply and suddenly that he jumped back.
Thoreau stood within ten feet of him, horrified. He clutched a rifle in one hand.
"Back—back, m'sieu!" he cried sharply. "For the love of God, jump back."
He swung his rifle into the crook of his arm. David did not move, and from Thoreau he looked down coolly at the dog. Baree was a changed beast. His one eye was fastened upon the fox breeder. His bared, bleeding lips revealed inch-long fangs between which there came now a low and menacing snarl. The tawny crest along his spine was like a brush; from a puzzled toleration of David his posture and look had changed into deadly hatred for Thoreau, and fear of him. For a moment after his first warning the Frenchman's voice seemed to stick in his throat as he saw what he believed to be David's fatal disregard of his peril. He did not speak to him again. His eyes were on the dog. Slowly he raised his rifle; David heard the click of the hammer—and Baree heard it. There was something in the sharp, metallic thrill of it that stirred his brute instinct. His lips fell over his fangs, he whined, and then, on his belly, he dragged himself slowly toward David!
It was a miracle that Thoreau the Frenchman looked upon then. He would have staked his very soul—wagered his hopes of paradise against a babiche thread—that what he saw could never have happened between Baree and man. In utter amazement he lowered his gun. David, looking down, was smiling into that one, wide-open, bloodshot eye of Baree's, his hand reaching out. Foot by foot Baree slunk to him on his belly, and when at last he was at David's feet he faced Thoreau again, his terrible teeth snarling, a low, rumbling growl in his throat. David reached down and touched him, even as he heard the fox breeder make an incoherent sound in his beard. At the caress of his hand a great shudder passed through Baree's body, as if he had been stung. That touch was the connecting link through which passed the electrifying thrill of a man's soul reaching out to a brute instinct.
Baree had found a man friend!
When David stepped away from him to Thoreau's side as much of the Frenchman's face as was not hidden under his beard was of a curious ashen pallor. He seemed to make a struggle before he could get his voice.
And then: "M'sieu, I tell you it is incredible! I cannot believe what I have seen. It was a miracle!"
He shuddered. David was looking at him, a bit puzzled. He could not quite comprehend the fear that had possessed him. Thoreau saw this, and pointing to Baree—a gesture that brought a snarl from the beast—he said:
"He is bad, m'sieu, bad! He is the worst dog in all this country. He was born an outcast—among the wolves—and his heart is filled with murder. He is a quarter wolf, and you can't club it out of him. Half a dozen masters have owned him, and none of them has been able to club it out of him. I, myself, have beaten him until he lay as if dead, but it did no good. He has killed two of my dogs. He has leaped at my throat. I am afraid of him. I chained him to that tree a month ago to keep him away from the other dogs, and since then I have not been able to unleash him. He would tear me into pieces. Yesterday I beat him until he was almost dead, and still he was ready to go at my throat. So I am determined to kill him. He is no good. Step a little aside, m'sieu, while I put a bullet through his head!"
He raised his rifle again. David put a hand on it.
"I can unleash him," he said.
Before the other could speak, he had walked boldly to the tree. Baree did not turn his head—did not for an instant take his eye from Thoreau. There came the click of the snap that fastened the chain around the body of the spruce, and David stood with the loose end of the chain in his hand.
He laughed a little proudly.
"And I didn't use a club," he added.
Thoreau gasped "Mon Dieu!" and sat down on the birch log as though the strength had gone from his legs.
David rattled the chain and then re-fastened it about the spruce. Baree was still watching Thoreau, who sat staring at him as if the beast had suddenly changed his shape and species.
In David's breast there was the thrill of a new triumph. He had done it unconsciously, without fear, and without feeling that there had been any great danger. In those few minutes something of his old self had returned into him; he felt a new excitement pumping the blood through his heart, and he felt the warm glow of it in his body. Baree had awakened something within him—Baree and the club. He went to Thoreau, who had risen from the log. He laughed again, a bit exultantly.
"I am going north with Father Roland," he said. "Will you let me have the dog, Thoreau? It will save you the trouble of killing him."
Thoreau stared at him blankly for a moment before he answered.
"That dog? You? Into the North?" He shot a look full of hatred and disgust at Baree. "Would you risk it, m'sieu?"
"Yes. It is an adventure I would very much like to try. You may think it strange, Thoreau, but that dog—ugly and fierce as he is—has found a place with me. I like him. And I fancy he has begun to like me."
"But look at his eye, m'sieu——"
"Which eye?" demanded David. "The one you have shut with a club?"
"He deserved it," muttered Thoreau. "He snapped at my hand. But I mean the other eye, m'sieu—the one that is glaring at us now like a red bloodstone with the heart of a devil in it! I tell you he is a quarter wolf...."
"And the broken paw. I suppose that was done by a club, too?" interrupted David.
"It was broken like that when I traded for him a year ago, m'sieu. I have not maimed him. And ... yes, you may have the beast! May the saints preserve you!"
"And his name?"
"The Indian who owned him as a puppy five years ago called him Baree, which among the Dog Ribs means Wild Blood. He should have been called The Devil."
Thoreau shrugged his shoulders, as though the matter and its consequences were now off his hands, and turned in the direction of the cabin. As he followed the Frenchman, David looked back at Baree. The big husky had risen from the snow. He was standing at the full length of his chain, and as David disappeared among the spruce a low whine that was filled with a strange yearning followed him. He did not hear the whine, but there came to him distinctly a moment later the dog's racking cough, and he shivered, and his eyes burned into Thoreau's broad back as he thought of the fresh blood-clots that were staining the white snow.
Much to Thoreau's amazement Father Roland made no objection to David's ownership of Baree, and when the Frenchman described with many gesticulations of wonder what had happened between that devil-dog and the man, he was still more puzzled by the look of satisfaction in the Little Missioner's face. In David there had come the sudden awakening of something which had for a long time been dormant within him, and Father Roland saw this change, and felt it, even before David said, when Thoreau had turned away with a darkly suggestive shrug of his shoulders:
"That poor devil of a beast is down and out, mon Pere. I have never been so bad as that; never. Kill him? Bah! If this magical north country of yours will make a man out of a human derelict it will surely work some sort of a transformation in a dog that has been clubbed into imbecility. Will it not?"
It was not the David of yesterday or the day before that was speaking. There was a passion in his voice, a deep contempt, a half taunt, a tremble of anger. There was a flush in his cheeks, too, and a spark of fire in his eyes. In his heart Father Roland whispered to himself that this change in David was like a conflagration, and he rejoiced without speaking, fearing that words might quench the effect of it.
David was looking at him as if he expected an answer.
"What an accursed fool a man is to waste his soul and voice in lamentation—especially his voice," he went on harshly, his teeth gleaming for an instant in a bitter smile. "One ought to act and not whine. That beast back there is ready to act. He would tear Thoreau's jugular out if he had half a chance. And I ... why, I sneaked off like a whipped cur. That's why Baree is better than I am, even though he is nothing more than a four-footed brute. In that room I should have had the moral courage that Baree has; I should have killed—killed them both!" He shrugged his shoulders. "I am quite convinced that it would have been justice, mon Pere. What do you think?"
The Missioner smiled enigmatically.
"The soul of many a man has gone from behind steel bars to heaven or I vastly miss my guess," he said. "But—we don't like the thought of steel bars, do we, David? Man-made laws and justice don't always run tandem. But God evens things up in the final balance. You'll live to see that. He's back there now, meting out your vengeance to them. Your vengeance. Do you understand? And you won't be called to take a hand in the business." Suddenly he pointed toward the cabin, where Thoreau and Mukoki were already at work packing a sledge. "It's a glorious day. We start right after dinner. Let us get your things in a bundle."
David made no answer, but three minutes later he was on his knees unlocking his trunk, with Father Roland standing close beside him. Something of the humour of the situation possessed him as he flung out, one by one, the various articles of his worthless apparel, and when he had all but finished he looked up into the Missioner's face. Father Roland was staring into the trunk, an expression of great surprise in his countenance which slowly changed to one of eager joy. He made a sudden dive, and stood back with a pair of boxing gloves in his hands. From the gloves he looked at David, and then back at the gloves, fondling them as if they had been alive, his hands almost trembling at the smooth touch of them, his eyes glowing like the eyes of a child that had come into possession of a wonderful toy. David reached into the trunk and produced a second pair. The Missioner seized upon them.
"Dear Heaven, what a gift from the gods!" he chortled. "David, you will teach me to use them?" There was almost anxiety in his manner as he added, "You know how to use them well, David?"
"My chief pastime at home was boxing," assured David. There was a touch of pride in his voice. "It is a scientific recreation. I loved it—that, and swimming. Yes, I will teach you."
Father Roland went out of the room a moment later, chuckling mysteriously, with the four gloves hugged against the pit of his stomach.
David followed a little later, all his belongings in one of the leather bags. For some time he had hesitated over the portrait of the Girl; twice he had shut the lock on it; the third time he placed it in the big, breast pocket inside the coat Father Roland had provided for him, making a mental apology for that act by assuring himself that sooner or later he would show the picture to the Missioner, so would want it near at hand. Father Roland had disposed of the gloves, and introduced David to the rest of his equipment when he came from the cabin. It was very business-like, this accoutrement that was to be the final physical touch to his transition; it did not allow of skepticism; about it there was also a quiet and cold touch of romance. The rifle chilled David's bare fingers when he touched it. It was short-barrelled, but heavy in the breech, with an appearance of indubitable efficiency about it. It looked like an honest weapon to David, who was unaccustomed to firearms—and this was more than he could say for the heavy, 38-calibre automatic pistol which Father Roland thrust into his hand, and which looked and felt murderously mysterious. He frankly confessed his ignorance of these things, and the Missioner chuckled good-humouredly as he buckled the belt and holster about his waist and told him on which hip to keep the pistol, and where to carry the leather sheath that held a long and keen-edged hunting knife. Then he turned to the snow shoes. They were the long, narrow, bush-country shoe. He placed them side by side on the snow and showed David how to fasten his moccasined feet in them without using his hands. For three quarters of an hour after that, out in the soft, deep snow in the edge of the spruce, he gave him his first lesson in that slow, swinging, out-stepping stride of the north-man on the trail. At first it was embarrassing for David, with Thoreau and the Indians grinning openly, and Marie's face peering cautiously and joyously from the cabin door. Three times he entangled his feet hopelessly and floundered like a great fish in the snow; then he caught the "swing" of it and at the end of half an hour began to find a pleasurable exhilaration, even excitement, in his ability to skim over the feathery surface of this great white sea without so much as sinking to his ankle bones. When he slipped the shoes off and stood them up beside his rifle against the cabin, he was panting. His heart was pounding. His lungs drank in the cold, balsam-scented air like a suction pump and expelled each breath with the sibilancy of steam escaping from a valve.
"Winded!" he gasped. And then, gulping for breath as he looked at Father Roland, he demanded: "How the devil am I going to keep up with you fellows on the trail? I'll go bust inside of a mile!"
"And every time you go bust we'll load you on the sledge," comforted the Missioner, his round face glowing with enthusiastic approval. "You've done finely, David. Within a fortnight you'll be travelling twenty miles a day on snow shoes."
He suddenly seemed to think of something that he had forgotten and fidgeted with his mittens in his hesitation, as if there lay an unpleasant duty ahead of him. Then he said:
"If there are any letters to write, David ... any business matters...."
"There are no letters," cut in David quickly. "I attended to my affairs some weeks ago. I am ready."
With a frozen whitefish he returned to Baree. The dog scented him before the crunch of his footsteps could be heard in the snow, and when he came out from the thick spruce and balsam into the little open, Baree was stretched out flat on his belly, his gaunt gray muzzle resting on the snow between his forepaws. He made no movement as David drew near, except that curious shivers ran through his body, and his throat twitched. Thoreau would have analyzed that impassive posture as one of waiting and watchful treachery; David saw in it a strange yearning, a deep fear, a hope. Baree, outlawed by man, battered and bleeding as he lay there, felt for perhaps the first time in his life the thrilling presence of a friend—a man friend. David approached boldly, and stood over him. He had forgotten the Frenchman's warning. He was not afraid. He leaned over and one of his mittened hands touched Baree's neck. A tremor shot through the dog that was like an electric shock; a snarl gathered in his throat, broke down, and ended in a low whine. He lay as if dead under the weight of David's hand. Not until David had ceased talking to him, and had disappeared once more in the direction of the cabin, did Baree begin devouring the frozen whitefish.
Father Roland meditated in some perplexity when it came to the final question of Baree.
"We can't put him in with the team," he protested. "All my dogs would be dead before we reached God's Lake."
David had been thinking of that.
"He will follow me," he said confidently. "We'll simply turn him loose when we're ready to start."
The Missioner nodded indulgently. Thoreau, who had overheard, shrugged his shoulders contemptuously. He hated Baree, the beast that would not yield to a club, and he muttered gruffly:
"And to-night he will join the wolves, m'sieu, and prey like the very devil on my traps. There will be only one cure for that—a fox-bait!—poison!"
And the last hour seemed to prove that what Thoreau had said was true. After dinner the three of them went to Baree, and David unfastened the chain from the big husky's collar. For a few moments the dog did not seem to sense his freedom; then, like a shot—so unexpectedly that he almost took David off his feet—he leaped over the birch log and disappeared in the forest. The Frenchman was amused.
"The wolves," he reminded softly. "He will be with them to-night, m'sieu—that outlaw!"
Not until the crack of Mukoki's long, caribou-gut whip had set the Missioner's eight dogs tense and alert in their traces did Father Roland return for a moment into the cabin to give Marie the locket. He came back quickly, and at a signal from him Mukoki wound up the 9-foot lash of his whip and set out ahead of the dogs. They followed him slowly and steadily, keeping the broad runners of the sledge in the trail he made. The Missioner dropped in immediately behind the sledge, and David behind him. Thoreau spoke a last word to David, in a voice intended for his ears alone.
"It is a long way to God's Lake, m'sieu, and you are going with a strange man—a strange man. Some day, if you have not forgotten Pierre Thoreau, you may tell me what it has been a long time in my heart to know. The saints be with you, m'sieu!"
He dropped back. His voice rolled after them in a last farewell, in French, and in Cree, and as David followed close behind the Missioner he wondered what Thoreau's mysterious words had meant, and why he had not spoken them until that final moment of their departure. "A strange man! The saints be with you!" That last had seemed to him almost a warning. He looked at Father Roland's broad back; for the first time he noticed how heavy and powerful his shoulders were for his height. Then the forest swallowed them—a vast, white, engulfing world of silence and mystery. What did it hold for him? What did it portend? His blood was stirred by an unfamiliar and subdued excitement. An almost unconscious movement carried one of his mittened hands to his breast pocket. Through the thickness of his coat he could feel it—the picture. It did not seem like a dead thing. It beat with life. It made him strangely unafraid of what might be ahead of him.
Back at the door of the cabin Thoreau stood with one of his big arms encircling Marie's slim shoulders.
"I tell you it is like taking the life of a puppy, ma cherie," he was saying. "It is inconceivable. It is bloodthirsty. And yet...."
He opened the door behind them.
"They are gone," he finished. "Ka Sakhet—they are gone—and they will not come back!"
In spite of the portentous significance of this day in his life David could not help seeing and feeling in his suddenly changed environment, as he puffed along behind Father Roland, something that was neither adventure nor romance, but humour. A whimsical humour at first, but growing grimmer as his thoughts sped. All his life he had lived in a great city, he had been a part of its life—a discordant note in it, and yet a part of it for all that. He had been a fixture in a certain lap of luxury. That luxury had refined him. It had manicured him down to a fine point of civilization. A fine point! He wanted to laugh, but he had need of all his breath as he clip-clip-clipped on his snow shoes behind the Missioner. This was the last thing in the world he had dreamed of, all this snow, all this emptiness that loomed up ahead of him, a great world filled only with trees and winter. He disliked winter; he had always possessed a physical antipathy for snow; romance, for him, was environed in warm climes and sunny seas. He had made a mistake in telling Father Roland that he was going to British Columbia—a great mistake. Undoubtedly he would have kept on. Japan had been in his mind. And now here he was headed straight for the north pole—the Arctic Ocean. It was enough to make him want to laugh. Enough to make any sane person laugh. Even now, only half a mile from Thoreau's cabin, his knees were beginning to ache and his ankles were growing heavy. It was ridiculous. Inconceivable, as the Frenchman had said to Marie. He was soft. He was only half a man. How long would he last? How long before he would have to cry quits, like a whipped boy? How long before his legs would crumple up under him, and his lungs give out? How long before Father Roland, hiding his contempt, would have to send him back?
A sense of shame—shame and anger—swept through him, heating his brain, setting his teeth hard, filling him again with a grim determination. For the second time that day his fighting blood rose. It surged through his veins in a flood, beating down the old barriers, clearing away the obstructions of his doubts and his fears, and filling him with the desire to go on—the desire to fight it out, to punish himself as he deserved to be punished, and to win in the end. Father Roland, glancing back in benignant solicitude, saw the new glow in David's eyes. He saw, also, his parted lips and the quickness of his breath. With a sharp command he stopped Mukoki and the dogs.
"Half a mile at a time is enough for a beginner," he said to David. "Back off your shoes and ride the next half mile."
David shook his head.
"Go on," he said, tersely, saving his wind. "I'm just finding myself."
Father Roland loaded and lighted his pipe. The aroma of the tobacco filled David's nostrils as they went on. Clouds of smoke wreathed the Little Missioner's shoulders as he followed the trail ahead of him. It was comforting, that smoke. It warmed David with a fresh desire. His exertion was clearing out his lungs. He was inhaling balsam and spruce, a mighty tonic of dry forest air, and he felt also the craving to smoke. But he knew that he could not afford the waste of breath. His snow shoes were growing heavier and heavier, and back of his knees the tendons seemed preparing to snap. He kept on, at last counting his steps. He was determined to make a mile. He was ready to groan when a sudden twist in the trail brought them out of the forest to the edge of a lake whose frozen surface stretched ahead of them for miles. Mukoki stopped the dogs. With a gasp David floundered to the sledge and sat down.
"Finding myself," he managed to say. "Just—finding myself!"
It was a triumph for him—the last half of that mile. He knew it. He felt it. Through the white haze of his breath he looked out over the lake. It was wonderfully clear, and the sun was shining. The surface of the lake was like an untracked carpet of white sprinkled thickly with tiny diamonds where the sunlight fell on its countless billions of snow crystals. Three or four miles away he could see the dark edge of the forest on the other side. Up and down the lake the distance was greater. He had never seen anything like it. It was marvellous—like a dream picture. And he was not cold as he looked at it. He was warm, even uncomfortably warm. The air he breathed was like a new kind of fuel. It gave him the peculiar sensation of feeling larger inside; he seemed to drink it in; it expanded his lungs; he could feel his heart pumping with an audible sound. There was nothing in the majesty and wonder of the scene about him to make him laugh, but he laughed. It was exultation, an involuntary outburst of the change that was working within him. He felt, suddenly, that a dark and purposeless world had slipped behind him. It was gone. It was as if he had come out of a dark and gloomy cavern, in which the air had been vitiated and in which he had been cramped for breath—a cavern which fluttered with the uneasy ghosts of things, poisonous things. Here was the sun. A sky blue as sapphire. A great expanse. A wonder-world. Into this he had escaped!
That was the thought in his mind as he looked at Father Roland. The Little Missioner was looking at him with an effulgent satisfaction in his face, a satisfaction that was half pride, as though he had achieved something that was to his own personal glory.
"You've beat me, David," he exulted. "The first time I had snow shoes on I didn't make one half that distance before I was tangled up like a fish in a net!" He turned to Mukoki. "Mey-oo iss e chikao!" he cried. "Remember?" and the Indian nodded, his leathery face breaking into a grin.
David felt a new pleasure at their approbation. He had evidently done well, exceedingly well. And he had been afraid of himself! Apprehension gave way to confidence. He was beginning to experience the exquisite thrill of fighting against odds.
He made no objection this time when Father Roland made a place for him on the sledge.
"We'll have four miles of this lake," the Missioner explained to him, "and the dogs will make it in an hour. Mukoki and I will both break trail."
As they set off David found his first opportunity to see the real Northland in action—the clean, sinuous movement of the men ahead of him, the splendid eagerness with which the long, wolfish line of beasts stretched forth in their traces and followed in the snow-shoe trail. There was something imposing about it all, something that struck deep within him and roused strange thoughts. This that he saw was not the mere labour of man and beast; it was not the humdrum toil of life, not the daily slaving of living creatures for existence—for food, and drink, and a sleeping place. It had risen above that. He had seen ships and castles rise up from heaps of steel and stone; achievements of science and the handiwork of genius had interested and sometimes amazed him, but never had he looked upon physical effort that thrilled him as did this that he was looking upon now. There was almost the spirit of the epic about it. They were the survival of the fittest—these men and dogs. They had gone through the great test of life in the raw, as the pyramids and the sphinx had outlived the ordeals of the centuries; they were different; they were proven; they were of another kind of flesh and blood than he had known—and they fascinated him. They stood for more than romance and adventure, for more than tragedy or possible joy; they were making no fight for riches—no fight for power, or fame, or great personal achievement. Their struggle in this great, white world—terrible in its emptiness, its vastness, and its mercilessness for the weak—was simply a struggle that they might live.
The thought staggered him. Could there be joy in that—in a mere existence without the thousand pleasures and luxuries and excitements that he had known? He drank deeply of the keen air as he asked himself the question. His eyes rested on the shaggy, undulating backs of the big huskies; he noted their half-open jaws, the sharp alertness of their pointed ears, the almost joyous unction with which they entered into their task, their eagerness to keep their load close upon the heels of their masters. He heard Mukoki's short, sharp, and unnecessary commands, his hi-yi's and his ki-yi's, as though he were crying out for no other reason than from sheer physical exuberance. He saw Father Roland's face turned backward for a moment, and it was smiling. They were happy—now! Men and beasts were happy. And he could see no reason for their happiness except that their blood was pounding through their veins, even as it was pounding through his own. That was it—the blood. The heart. The lungs. The brain. All were clear—clear and unfettered in that marvellous air and sunlight, washed clean by the swift pulse of life. It was a wonderful world! A glorious world! He was almost on the point of crying aloud his discovery.
The thrill grew in him as he found time now to look about. Under him the broad, steel runners of the sledge made a cold, creaking sound as they slipped over the snow that lay on the ice of the lake; he heard the swift tap, tap, tap of the dogs' feet, their panting breath that was almost like laughter, low throat whines, and the steady swish of the snow shoes ahead. Beyond those sounds a vast silence encompassed him. He looked out into it, east and west to the dark rims of forest, north and south over the distance of that diamond-sprinkled tundra of unbroken white. He drew out his pipe, loaded it with tobacco, and began to smoke. The bitterness of the weed was gone. It was delicious. He puffed luxuriously. And then, suddenly, as he looked at the purplish bulwarks of the forest, his mind swept back. For the first time since that night many months ago he thought of the Woman—the Golden Goddess—without a red-hot fire in his brain. He thought of her coolly. This new world was already giving back to him a power of analysis, a perspective, a healthier conception of truths and measurements. What a horrible blot they had made in his life—that man and that woman! What a foul trick they had played him! What filth they had wallowed in! And he—he had thought her the most beautiful creature in the world, an angel, a thing to be worshipped. He laughed, almost without sound, his teeth biting hard on the stem of his pipe. And the world he was looking upon laughed; the snow diamonds, lying thickly as dust, laughed; there was laughter in the sun, the warmth of chuckling humour in those glowing walls of forest, laughter in the blue sky above.
His hands gripped hard.
In this world he knew there could not be another woman such as she. Here, in all this emptiness and glory, her shallow soul would have shrieked in agony; she would have shrivelled up and died. It was too clean. Too white. Too pure. It would have frightened her, tortured her. She could not have found the poison she required to give her life. Her unclean desires would have driven her mad. So he arraigned her, terribly, without malice, and without pity. And then, like the quieting touch of a gentle hand in his brain, came the thought of the other woman—the Girl—whose picture he carried in his pocket. This was her world that he was entering. She was up there—somewhere—and he looked over the barriers of the forest to the northwest. Hundreds of miles away. A thousand. It was a big world, so vast that he still could not comprehend it. But she was there, living, breathing, alive! A sudden impulse made him draw the picture from his pocket. He held it down behind a bale, so that Father Roland would not chance to see it if he looked back. He unwrapped the picture, and ceased to puff at his pipe. The Girl was wonderful to-day, under the sunlight and the blue halo of the skies, and she wanted to speak to him. That thought always came to him first of all when he looked at her. She wanted to speak. Her lips were trembling, her eyes were looking straight into his, the sun above him seemed to gleam in her hair. It was as if she knew of the thoughts that were in his mind, and of the fight he was making; as though through space she had seen him, and watched him, and wanted to cry out for him the way to come. There was a curious tremble in his fingers as he restored the picture to his pocket. He whispered something. His pipe had gone out. In the same moment a sharp cry from Father Roland startled him. The dogs halted suddenly. The creaking of the sledge runners ceased.
Father Roland had turned his face down the lake, and was pointing.
"Look!" he cried.
David jumped from the sledge and stared back over their trail. The scintillating gleams of the snow crystals were beginning to prick his eyes, and for a few moments he could see nothing new. He heard a muffled ejaculation of surprise from Mukoki. And then, far back—probably half a mile—he saw a dark object travelling slowly toward them. It stopped. It was motionless as a dark rock now. Close beside him the Little Missioner said:
"You've won again, David. Baree is following us!"
The dog came no nearer as they watched. After a moment David pursed his lips and sent back a curious, piercing whistle. In days to come Baree was to recognize that call, but he gave no attention to it now. For several minutes they stood gazing back at him. When they were ready to go on David for a third time that day put on his snow shoes. His task seemed less difficult. He was getting the "swing" of the shoes, and his breath came more easily. At the end of half an hour Father Roland halted the team again to give him a "winding" spell. Baree had come nearer. He was not more than a quarter of a mile behind. It was three o'clock when they struck off the lake into the edge of the forest to the northwest. The sun had grown cold and pale. The snow crystals no longer sparkled so furiously. In the forest there was gathering a gray, silent gloom. They halted again in the edge of that gloom. The Missioner slipped off his mittens and filled his pipe with fresh tobacco. The pipe fell from his fingers and buried itself in the soft snow at his feet. As he bent down for it Father Roland said quite audibly:
He was smiling when he rose. David, also, was smiling.
"I was thinking," he said—as though the other had demanded an explanation of his thoughts—"what a curious man of God you are, mon Pere!"
The Little Missioner chuckled, and then he muttered, half to himself as he lighted the tobacco, "True—very true." When the top of the bowl was glowing, he added: "How are your legs? It is still a good mile to the shack."
"I am going to make it or drop," declared David.
He wanted to ask a question. It had been in his mind for some time, and he burned with a strange eagerness to have it answered. He looked back, and saw Baree circling slowly over the surface of the lake toward the forest. Casually he inquired:
"How far is it to Tavish's, mon Pere?"
"Four days," said the Missioner. "Four days, if we make good time, and another week from there to God's Lake. I have paid Tavish a visit in five days, and once Tavish made God's Lake in two days and a night with seven dogs. Two days and a night! Through darkness he came—darkness and a storm. That is what fear will do, David. Fear drove him. I have promised to tell you about it to-night. You must know, to understand him. He is a strange man—a very strange man!"
He spoke to Mukoki in Cree, and the Indian responded with a sharp command to the dogs. The huskies sprang from their bellies and strained forward in their traces. The Cree picked his way slowly ahead of them. Father Roland dropped in behind him. Again David followed the sledge. He was struck with wonder at the suddenness with which the sun had gone out. In the thick forest it was like the beginning of night. The deep shadows and darkly growing caverns of gloom seemed to give birth to new sounds. He heard the whit, whit, whit, of something close to him, and the next moment a great snow owl flitted like a ghostly apparition over his head; he heard the patter of snow as it fell from the bending limbs; from out of a patch of darkness two trees, rubbing slightly against each other, emitted a shivering wail that startled him—it had seemed so like the cry of a child. He was straining his ears so tensely to hear, and his eyes to see, that he forgot the soreness of his knees and ankles. Now and then the dogs stopped while Mukoki and the Missioner dragged a log or a bit of brushwood from their path. During one of these intervals there came to them, from a great distance, a long, mournful howl.
"A wolf!" said Father Roland, his face a gray shadow as he nodded at David. "Listen!"
From behind them came another cry. It was Baree.
They went on, circling around the edge of a great windfall. A low wind was beginning to move in the tops of the spruce and cedar, and soft splashes of snow fell on their heads and shoulders, as if unseen and playful hands were pelting them from above. Again and again David caught the swift, ghostly flutter of the snow owls; three times he heard the wolf-howl; once again Baree's dismal, homeless cry; and then they came suddenly out of the thick gloom of the forest into the twilight gray of a clearing. Twenty paces from them was a cabin. The dogs stopped. Father Roland fumbled at his big silver watch, and held it close up to his eyes.
"Half-past four," he said. "Fairly good time for a beginner, David!"
He broke into a cheerful whistle. The dogs were whining and snapping like joyous puppies as Mukoki unfastened them. The Cree himself was voluble in a chuckling and meaningless way. There was a great contentment in the air, an indefinable inspiration that seemed to lift the gloom. David could not understand it, though in an elusive sort of way he felt it. He did not understand until Father Roland said, across the sledge, which he had begun to unpack:
"Seems good to be on the trail again, David."
That was it—the trail! This was the end of a day's achievement. He looked at the cabin, dark and unlighted in the open, with its big white cap of snow. It looked friendly for all its darkness. He was filled with the desire to become a partner in the activities of Mukoki and the Missioner. He wanted to help, not because he placed any value on his assistance, but simply because his blood and his brain were imposing new desires upon him. He kicked off his snow shoes, and went with Mukoki to the door of the cabin, which was fastened with a wooden bolt. When they entered he could make out things indistinctly—a stove at first, a stool, a box, a small table, and a bunk against the wall. Mukoki was rattling the lids of the stove when Father Roland entered with his arms filled. He dropped his load on the floor, and David went back to the sledge with him. By the time they had brought its burden into the cabin a fire was roaring in the stove, and Mukoki had hung a lighted lantern over the table. Then Father Roland seized an axe, tested its keen edge with his thumb, and said to David: "Let's go cut our beds before it's too dark." Cut their beds! But the Missioner's broad back was disappearing through the door in a very purposeful way, and David caught up a second axe and followed. Young balsams twice as tall as a man were growing about the cabin, and from these Father Roland began stripping the branches. They carried armfuls into the cabin until the one bunk was heaped high, and meanwhile Mukoki had half a dozen pots and kettles and pans on the glowing top of the sheet-iron stove, and thick caribou steaks were sizzling in a homelike and comforting way. A little later David ate as though he had gone hungry all day. Ordinarily he wanted his meat well done; to-night he devoured an inch-and-a quarter sirloin steak that floated in its own gravy, and was red to the heart of it. When they had finished they lighted their pipes and went out to feed the dogs a frozen fish apiece.
An immense satisfaction possessed David. It was like something soft and purring inside of him. He made no effort to explain things. He was accepting facts, and changes. He felt bigger to-night, as though his lungs were stretching themselves, and his chest expanding. His fears were gone. He no longer saw anything to dread in the white wilderness. He was eager to go on, eager to reach Tavish's. Ever since Father Roland had spoken of Tavish that desire had been growing within him. Tavish had not only come from the Stikine River; he had lived on Firepan Creek. It was incredible that he should not know of the Girl: who she was; just where she lived; why she was there. White people were few in that far country. Tavish would surely know of her. He had made up his mind that he would show Tavish the picture, keeping to himself the manner in which he had come into possession of it. The daughter of a friend, he would tell them—both Father Roland and Tavish. Or of an acquaintance. That, at least, was half truth.
A dozen things Father Roland spoke about that night before he alluded to Tavish. David waited. He did not want to appear too deeply interested. He desired to have the thing work itself out in a fortuitous sort of way, governed, as he was, by a strong feeling that he could not explain his position, or his strange and growing interest in the Girl, if the Missioner should by any chance discover the part he had played in the haunting though incidental encounter with the woman on the train.
"Fear—a great fear—his life is haunted by it," said Father Roland, when at last he began talking about Tavish. He was seated on a pile of balsams, his legs stretched out flat on the floor, his back to the wall, and he smoked thoughtfully as he looked at David. "A coward? I don't know. I have seen him jump at the snap of a twig. I have seen him tremble at nothing at all. I have seen him shrink at darkness, and then, again, he came through a terrible darkness to reach my cabin that night. Mad? Perhaps. It is hard to believe he is a coward. Would a coward live alone, as he does? That seems impossible, too. And yet he is afraid. That fear is always close at his heels, especially at night. It follows him like a hungry dog. There are times when I would swear it is not fear of a living thing. That is what makes it—disturbing. It is weird—distressing. It makes one shiver."
The Missioner was silent for some moments, as if lost in a reverie. Then he said, reflectively:
"I have seen strange things. I have had many penitents. My ears have heard much that you would not believe. It has all come in my long day's work in the wilderness. But never, never have I seen a fight like this that is being made by Tavish—a fight against that mysterious fear, of which he will not speak. I would give a year of my life—yes, even more—to help him. There is something about him that is lovable, that makes you want to cling to him, be near him. But he will have none of that. He wants to be alone with his fear. Is it not strange? I have pieced little things together, and that night—when terror drove him to my cabin—he betrayed himself, and I learned one thing. He is afraid of a woman!"
"A woman!" gasped David.
"Yes, a woman—a woman who lives—or lived—up in the Stikine River country you mentioned to-day."
David's heart stirred strangely.
"The Stikine River, or—or—Firepan Creek?" he asked.
It seemed a long time to him before Father Roland answered. He was thinking deeply, with his eyes half closed, as though striving to recall things that he had forgotten.
"Yes—it was on the Firepan. I am sure of it," he said slowly. "He was sick—small-pox, as I told you—and it was on the Firepan. I remember that. And whoever the woman was, she was there. A woman! And he—afraid! Afraid, even now, with her a thousand miles away, if she lives. Can you account for it? I would give a great deal to know. But he will say nothing. And—it is not my business to intrude. Yet I have guessed. I have my own conviction. It is terrible."
He spoke in a low voice, looking straight at David.
"And that conviction, Father?" David barely whispered.
"Tavish is afraid of some one who is dead."
"Yes, a woman—or a girl—who is dead; dead in the flesh, but living in the spirit to haunt him. It is that. I know it. And he will not bare his soul to me."
"A girl ... who is dead ... on Firepan Creek. Her spirit...."
A cold, invisible hand was clutching at David's throat. Shadows hid his face, or Father Roland would have seen. His voice was strained. He forced it between his lips.
"Yes, her spirit," came the Missioner's answer, and David heard the scrape of his knife as he cleaned out the bowl of his pipe. "It haunts Tavish. It is with him always. And he is afraid of it!"
David rose slowly to his feet and went toward the door, slipping on his coat and cap. "I'm going to whistle for Baree," he said, and went out. The white world was brilliant under the glow of a full moon and a billion stars. It was the most wonderful night he had ever seen, and yet for a few moments he was as oblivious of its amazing beauty, its almost startling vividness, as though he had passed out into darkness.
"A girl ... Firepan ... dead ... haunting Tavish...."
He did not hear the whining of the dogs. He was again piecing together in his mind that picture—the barefooted girl standing on the rock, disturbed, startled, terrified, poised as if about to fly from a great danger. What had happened after the taking of that picture? Was it Tavish who had taken it? Was it Tavish who had surprised her there? Was it Tavish—Tavish—Tavish....?
His mind could not go on. He steadied himself, one hand clutching at the breast of his coat, where the picture lay.
The cabin door opened behind him. The Missioner came out. He coughed, and looked up at the sky.
"A splendid night, David," he said softly. "A splendid night!"
He spoke in a strange, quiet voice that made David turn. The Little Missioner was facing the moon. He was gazing off into that wonder-world of forests and snow and stars and moonlight in a fixed and steady gaze, and it seemed to David that he aged, and shrank into smaller form, and that his shoulders drooped as if under a weight. And all at once David saw in his face what he had seen before when in the coach—a forgetfulness of all things but one, the lifting of a strange curtain, the baring of a soul; and for a few moments Father Roland stood with his face turned to the light of the skies, as if preoccupied by an all-pervading and hopeless grief.
It was Baree who disturbed the silent tableau in the moonlight. David was staring at the Missioner, held by the look of anguish that had settled so quickly and so strangely in his face, as if this bright night with its moon and stars had recalled to him a great sorrow, when they heard again the wolf-dog's howl out in the forest. It was quite near. David, with his eyes still on the other, saw Father Roland start, as if for an instant he had forgotten where he was. The Missioner looked his way, and straightened his shoulders slowly, with a smile on his lips that was strained and wan as the smile of one worn out by an arduous toil.
"A splendid night," he repeated, and he raised a naked hand to his head, as if slowly brushing away something from before his eyes. "It was a night like this—this—fifteen years ago...."
He stopped. In the moonlight he brought himself together with a jerk. He came and laid a hand on David's shoulder.
"That was Baree," he said. "The dog has followed us."
"He is not very far in the forest," answered David.
"No. He smells us. He is waiting out there for you."
There was a moment's silence between them as they listened.
"I will take him a fish," said David, then. "I am sure he will come to me."
Mukoki had hoisted the gunny sack full of fish well up against the roof of the cabin to keep it from chance marauders of the night, and Father Roland stood by while David lowered it and made a choice for Baree's supper. Then he reentered the cabin.
It was not Baree who drew David slowly into the forest. He wanted to be alone, away from Father Roland and the quiet, insistent scrutiny of the Cree. He wanted to think, ask himself questions, find answers for them if he could. His mind was just beginning to rouse itself to the significance of the events of the past day and night, and he was like one bewildered by a great mystery, and startled by visions of a possible tragedy. Fate had played with him strangely. It had linked him with happenings that were inexplicable and unusual, and he believed that they were not without their meaning for him. More or less of a fatalist, he was inspired by the sudden and disturbing thought that they had happened by inevitable necessity.
Vividly he saw again the dark, haunting eyes of the woman in the coach, and heard again the few low, tense words with which she had revealed to him her quest of a man—a man by the name of Michael O'Doone. In her presence he had felt the nearness of tragedy. It had stirred him deeply, almost as deeply as the picture she had left in her seat—the picture hidden now against his breast—like a thing which must not be betrayed, and which a strange and compelling instinct had made him associate in such a startling way with Tavish. He could not get Tavish out of his mind; Tavish, the haunted man; Tavish the man who had fled from the Firepan Creek country at just about the time the girl in the picture had stood on the rock beside the pool; Tavish, terror-driven by a spirit of the dead! He did not attempt to reason the matter, or bare the folly of his alarm. He did not ask himself about the improbability of it all, but accepted without equivocation that strong impression as it had come to him—the conviction that the girl on the rock and the woman in the coach were in some way identified with the flight of Tavish, the man he had never seen, from that far valley in the northwest mountains.
The questions he asked himself now were not to establish in his own mind either the truth or the absurdity of this conviction. He was determining with himself whether or not to confide in Father Roland. It was more than delicacy that made him hesitate; it was almost a personal shame. For a long time he had kept within his breast the secret of his own tragedy and dishonour. That it was his dishonour, almost as much as the woman's, had been his own conviction; and how, at last, he had come to reveal that corroding sickness in his soul to a man who was almost a stranger was more than he could understand. But he had done just that. Father Roland had seen him stripped down to the naked truth in an hour of great need, and he had put out a hand in time to save him. He no longer doubted this last immeasurable fact. Twenty times since then, coldly and critically, he had thought of the woman who had been his wife, and slowly and terribly the enormity of her crime had swept further and further away from him the anguish of her loss. He was like a man risen from a sick bed, breathing freely again, tasting once more the flavour of the air that filled his lungs. All this he owed to Father Roland, and because of this—and his confession of only two nights ago—he felt a burning humiliation at the thought of telling the Missioner that another face had come to fill his thoughts, and stir his anxieties. And what less could he tell, if he confided in him at all?
He had gone a hundred yards or more into the forest, and in a little open space, lighted up like a tiny amphitheatre in the glow of the moon, he stopped. Suddenly there came to him, thrilling in its promise, a key to the situation. He would wait until they reached Tavish's. And then, in the presence of the Missioner, he would suddenly show Tavish the picture. His heart throbbed uneasily as he anticipated the possible tragedy—the sudden betrayal—of that moment, for Father Roland had said, like one who had glimpsed beyond the ken of human eyes, that Tavish was haunted by a vision of the dead. The dead! Could it be that she, the girl in the picture....? He shook himself, set his lips tight to get the thought away from him. And the woman—the woman in the coach, the woman who had left in her seat this picture that was growing in his heart like a living thing—who was she? Was her quest one of vengeance—of retribution? Was Tavish the man she was seeking? Up in that mountain valley—where the girl had stood on that rock—had his name been Michael O'Doone?
He was trembling when he went on, deeper into the forest. But of his determination there was no longer a doubt. He would say nothing to Father Roland until Tavish had seen the picture.
Until now he had forgotten Baree. In the disquieting fear with which his thoughts were weighted he had lost hold of the fact that in his hand he still carried the slightly curved and solidly frozen substance of a fish. The movement of a body near him, so unexpected and alarmingly close that a cry broke from his lips as he leaped to one side, roused him with a sudden mental shock. The beast, whatever it was, had passed within six feet of him, and now, twice that distance away, stood like a statue hewn out of stone levelling at him the fiery gleam of a solitary eye. Until he saw that one eye, and not two, David did not breathe. Then he gasped. The fish had fallen from his fingers. He stooped, picked it up, and called softly:
The dog was waiting for his voice. His one eye shifted, slanting like a searchlight in the direction of the cabin, and turned swiftly back to David. He whined, and David spoke to him again, calling his name, and holding out the fish. For several moments Baree did not move, but eyed him with the immobility of a half-blinded sphinx. Then, suddenly, he dropped on his belly and began crawling toward him.
A spatter of moonlight fell upon them as David, crouching on his heels, gave Baree the fish, holding for a moment to the tail of it while the hungry beast seized its head between his powerful jaws with a grinding crunch. The power of those jaws sent a little shiver through the man so close to them. They were terrible—and splendid. A man's leg-bone would have cracked between them like a pipe stem. And Baree, with that power of death in his jaws, had a second time crept to him on his belly—not fearingly, in the shadow of a club, but like a thing tamed into slavery by a yearning adoration. It was a fact that seized upon David with a peculiar hold. It built up between them—between this down-and-out beast and a man fighting to find himself—a comradeship which perhaps only the man and the beast could understand. Even as he devoured the fish Baree kept his one eye on David, as though fearing he might lose him again if he allowed his gaze to falter for an instant. The truculency and the menace of that eye were gone. It was still bloodshot, still burned with a reddish fire, and a great pity swept through David, as he thought of the blows the club must have given. He noticed, then, that Baree was making efforts to open the other eye; he saw the swollen lid flutter, the muscle twitch. Impulsively he put out a hand. It fell unflinchingly on Baree's head, and in an instant the crunching of the dog's jaw had ceased, and he lay as if dead. David bent nearer. With the thumb and forefinger of his other hand he gently lifted the swollen lid. It caused a hurt. Baree whined softly. His great body trembled. His ivory fangs clicked like the teeth of a man with ague. To his wolfish soul, trembling in a body that had been condemned, beaten, clubbed almost to the door of death, that hurt caused by David's fingers was a caress. He understood. He saw with a vision that was keener than sight. Faith was born in him, and burned like a conflagration. His head dropped to the snow; a great, gasping sigh ran through him, and his trembling ceased. His good eye closed slowly as David gently and persistently massaged the muscles of the other with his thumb and forefinger. When at last he rose to his feet and returned to the cabin, Baree followed him to the edge of the clearing.
Mukoki and the Missioner had made their beds of balsam boughs, two on the floor and one in the bunk, and the Cree had already rolled himself in his blanket when David entered the shack. Father Roland was wiping David's gun.
"We'll give you a little practice with this to-morrow," he promised. "Do you suppose you can hit a moose?"
"I have my doubts, mon Pere."
Father Roland gave vent to his curious chuckle.
"I have promised to make a marksman of you in exchange for your—your trouble in teaching me how to use the gloves," he said, polishing furiously. There was a twinkle in his eyes, as if a moment before he had been laughing to himself. The gloves were on the table. He had been examining them again, and David found himself smiling at the childlike and eager interest he had taken in them. Suddenly Father Roland rubbed still a little faster, and said:
"If you can't hit a moose with a bullet you surely can hit me with these gloves—eh?"
"Yes, quite positively. But I shall be merciful if you, in turn, show some charity in teaching me how to shoot."
The Little Missioner finished his polishing, set the rifle against the wall, and took the gloves in his hands.
"It is bright—almost like day—outside," he said a little yearningly. "Are you—tired?"
His hint was obvious, even to Mukoki, who stared at him from under his blanket. And David was not tired. If his afternoon's work had fatigued him his exhaustion was forgotten in the mental excitement that had followed the Missioner's story of Tavish. He took a pair of the gloves in his hands, and nodded toward the door.
Father Roland was on his feet.
"If you are not tired. It would give us a better stomach for sleep."
Mukoki rolled from his blanket, a grin on his leathery face. He tied the wrist laces for them, and followed them out into the moonlit night, his face a copper-coloured gargoyle illuminated by that fixed and joyous grin. David saw the look and wondered if it would change when he sent the Little Missioner bowling over in the snow, which he was quite sure to do, even if he was careful. He was a splendid boxer. In the days of his practice he had struck a terrific blow for his weight. At the Athletic Club he had been noted for a subtle strategy and a cleverness of defence that were his own. But he felt that he had grown rusty during the past year and a half. This thought was in his mind when he tapped the Missioner on the end of his ruddy nose. They squared away in the moonlight, eight inches deep in the snow, and there was a joyous and eager light in Father Roland's eyes. The tap on his nose did not dim it. His teeth gleamed, even as David's gloves went plunk, plunk, against his nose again. Mukoki, still grinning like a carven thing, chuckled audibly. David pranced carelessly about the Little Missioner, poking him beautifully as he offered suggestions and criticism.
"You should protect your nose, mon Pere"—plunk! "And the pit of your stomach"—plunk! "And also your ears"—plunk, plunk! "But especially your nose, mon Pere"—plunk, plunk!
"And sometimes the tip of your jaw, David," gurgled Father Roland, and for a few moments night closed in darkly about David.
When he came fully into his senses again he was sitting in the snow, with the Little Missioner bending over him anxiously, and Mukoki grinning down at him like a fiend.
"Dear Heaven, forgive me!" he heard Father Roland saying. "I didn't mean it so hard, David—I didn't! But oh, man, it was such a chance—such a beautiful chance! And now I've spoiled it. I've spoiled our fun."
"Not unless you're—tired," said David, getting up on his feet. "You took me at a disadvantage, mon Pere. I thought you were green."
"And you were pulverizing my nose," apologized Father Roland.
They went at it again, and this time David spared none of his caution, and offered no advice, and the Missioner no longer posed, but became suddenly as elusive and as agile as a cat. David was amazed, but he wasted no breath to demand an explanation. Father Roland was parrying his straight blows like an adept. Three times in as many minutes he felt the sting of the Missioner's glove in his face. In straight-away boxing, without the finer tricks and artifice of the game, he was soon convinced that the forest man was almost his match. Little by little he began to exert the cleverness of his training. At the end of ten minutes Father Roland was sitting dazedly in the snow, and the grin had gone from Mukoki's face. He had succumbed to a trick—a swift side step, a feint that had held in it an ambush, and the seat of the Little Missioner's faculties had rocked. But he was gurgling joyously when he rose to his feet, and with one arm he hugged David as they returned to the cabin.
"Only one other man has given me a jolt like that in many a year," he boasted, a bit proudly. "And that was Tavish. Tavish is good. He must have lived long among fighting men. Perhaps that is why I think so kindly of him. I love a fighting man if he fights honourably with either brain or brawn, even more than I despise a coward."
"And yet this Tavish, you say, is pursued by a great fear. Can he be so much of a fighting man, in the way you mean, and still live in terror of...."
That single word broke from the Missioner like the sharp crack of a whip.
"Of what is he afraid?" he repeated. "Can you tell me? Can you guess more than I have guessed? Is one a coward because he fears whispers that tremble in the air and sees a face in the darkness of night that is neither living nor dead? Is he?"
For a long time after he had gone to bed David lay wide awake in the darkness, his mind working until it seemed to him that it was prisoned in an iron chamber from which it was making futile efforts to escape. He could hear the steady breathing of Father Roland and Mukoki, who were asleep. His own eyes he could close only by forced efforts to bring upon himself the unconsciousness of rest. Tavish filled his mind—Tavish and the girl—and along with them the mysterious woman in the coach. He struggled with himself. He told himself how absurd it all was, how grotesquely his imagination was employing itself with him—how incredible it was that Tavish and the girl in the picture should be associated in that terrible way that had occurred to him. But he failed to convince himself. He fell asleep at last, and his slumber was filled with fleeting visions. When he awoke the cabin was filled with the glow of the lantern. Father Roland and Mukoki were up, and a fire was crackling in the stove.
The four days that followed broke the last link in the chain that held David Raine to the life from which he was fleeing when the forest Missioner met him in the Transcontinental. They were four wonderful days, in which they travelled steadily northward; days of splendid sunshine, of intense cold, of brilliant stars and a full moon at night. The first of these four days David travelled fifteen miles on his snow shoes, and that night he slept in a balsam shelter close to the face of a great rock which they heated with a fire of logs, so that all through the cold hours between darkness and gray dawn the boulder was like a huge warming-stone. The second day marked also the second great stride in his education in the life of the wild. Fang and hoof and padded claw were at large again in the forests after the blizzard, and Father Roland stopped at each broken path that crossed the trail, pointing out to him the stories that were written in the snow. He showed him where a fox had followed silently after a snow-shoe rabbit; where a band of wolves had ploughed through the snow in the trail of a deer that was doomed, and in a dense run of timber where both moose and caribou had sought refuge from the storm he explained carefully the slight difference between the hoofprints of the two. That night Baree came into camp while they were sleeping, and in the morning they found where he had burrowed his round bed in the snow not a dozen yards from their shelter. The third morning David shot his moose. And that night he lured Baree almost to the side of their campfire, and tossed him chunks of raw flesh from where he sat smoking his pipe.
He was changed. Three days on the trail and three nights in camp under the stars had begun their promised miracle-working. His face was darkened by a stubble of beard, his ears and cheek bones were reddened by exposure to cold and wind; he felt that in those three days and nights his muscles had hardened, and his weakness had left him. "It was in your mind—your sickness," Father Roland had told him, and he believed it now. He began to find a pleasure in that physical achievement which he had wondered at in Mukoki and the Missioner. Each noon when they stopped to boil their tea and cook their dinner, and each night when they made camp, he had chopped down a tree. To-night it had been an 8-inch jack pine, tough with pitch. The exertion had sent his blood pounding through him furiously. He was still breathing deeply as he sat near the fire, tossing bits of meat out to Baree. They were sixty miles from Thoreau's cabin, straight north, and for the twentieth time Father Roland was telling him how well he had done.
"And to-morrow," he added, "we'll reach Tavish's."
It had grown upon David that to see Tavish had become his one great mission in the North. What adventure lay beyond that meeting he did not surmise. All his thoughts had centred in the single desire to let Tavish look upon the picture. To-night, after the Missioner had joined Mukoki in the silk tent buried warmly under the mass of cut balsam, he sat a little longer beside the fire, and asked himself questions which he had not thought of before. He would see Tavish. He would show him the picture. And—what then? Would that be the end of it? He felt, for a moment, uncomfortable. Beyond Tavish there was a disturbing and unanswerable problem. The Girl, if she still lived, was a thousand miles from where he was sitting at this moment; to reach her, with that distance of mountain and forest between them, would be like travelling to the end of the world. It was the first time there had risen in his mind a definite thought of going to her—if she were alive. It startled him. It was like a shock. Go to her? Why? He drew forth the picture from his coat pocket and stared at the wonder-face of the Girl in the light of the blazing logs. Why? His heart trembled. He lifted his eyes to the grayish film of smoke rising between him and the balsam-covered tent, and slowly he saw another face take form, framed in that wraith-like mist of smoke—the face of a golden goddess, laughing at him, taunting him. Laughing—laughing!... He forced his gaze from it with a shudder. Again he looked at the picture of the Girl in his hand. "She knows. She understands. She comforts me." He whispered the words. They were like a breath rising out of his soul. He replaced the picture in his pocket, and for a moment held it close against his breast.
The next day, as the swift-thickening gloom of northern night was descending about them again, the Missioner halted his team on the crest of a boulder-strewn ridge, and pointing down into the murky plain at their feet he said, with the satisfaction of one who has come to a journey's end:
"There is Tavish's."
They went down into the plain. David strained his eyes, but he could see nothing where Father Roland had pointed except the purplish sea of forest growing black in the fading twilight. Ahead of the team Mukoki picked his way slowly and cautiously among the snow-hidden rocks, and with the Missioner David flung his weight backward on the sledge to keep it from running upon the dogs. It was a thick, wild place and it struck him that Tavish could not have chosen a spot of more sinister aspect in which to hide himself and his secret. A terribly lonely place it was, and still as death as they went down into it. They heard not even the howl of a dog, and surely Tavish had dogs. He was on the point of speaking, of asking the Missioner why Tavish, haunted by fear, should bury himself in a place like this, when the lead-dog suddenly stopped and a low, lingering whine drifted back to them. David had never heard anything like that whine. It swept through the line of dogs, from throat to throat, and the beasts stood stiff-legged and stark in their traces, staring with eight pairs of restlessly blazing eyes into the wall of darkness ahead. The Cree had turned, but the sharp command on his lips had frozen there. David saw him standing ahead of the team as silent and as motionless as rock. From him he looked into the Missioner's face. Father Roland was staring. There was a strange suspense in his breathing. And then, suddenly, the lead-dog sat back on his haunches and turning his gray muzzle up to the sky emitted a long and mournful howl. There was something about it that made David shiver. Mukoki came staggering back through the snow like a sick man.
"Nipoo-win Ooyoo!" he said, his eyes shining like points of flame. A shiver seemed to be running through him.
For a moment the Missioner did not seem to hear him. Then he cried:
"Give them the whip! Drive them on!"
The Cree turned, unwinding his long lash.
"Nipoo-win Ooyoo!" he muttered again.
The whip cracked over the backs of the huskies, the end of it stinging the rump of the lead-dog, who was master of them all. A snarl rose for an instant in his throat, then he straightened out, and the dogs lurched forward. Mukoki ran ahead, so that the lead-dog was close at his heels.
"What did he say?" asked David.
In the gloom the Missioner made a gesture of protest with his two hands. David could no longer see his face.
"He is superstitious," he growled. "He is absurd. He would make the very devil's flesh creep. He says that old Beaver has given the death howl. Bah!"