David could feel the other's shudder in the darkness. They went on for another hundred yards. With a low word Mukoki stopped the team. The dogs were whining softly, staring straight ahead, when David and the Missioner joined the Cree.
Father Roland pointed to a dark blot in the night, fifty paces beyond them. He spoke to David.
"There is Tavish's cabin. Come. We will see."
Mukoki remained with the team. They could hear the dogs whining as they advanced. The cabin took shape in their faces—grotesque, dark, lifeless. It was a foreboding thing, that cabin. He remembered in a flash all that the Missioner had told him about Tavish. His pulse was beating swiftly. A shiver ran up his back, and he was filled with a strange dread. Father Roland's voice startled him.
"Tavish! Tavish!" it called.
They stood close to the door, but heard no answer. Father Roland stamped with his foot, and scraped with his toe on the ground.
"See, the snow has been cleaned away recently," he said. "Mukoki is a fool. He is superstitious. He made me, for an instant—afraid."
There was a vast relief in his voice. The cabin door was unbolted and he flung it open confidently. It was pitch dark inside, but a flood of warm air struck their faces. The Missioner laughed.
"Tavish, are you asleep?" he called.
There was no answer. Father Roland entered.
"He has been here recently. There is a fire in the stove. We will make ourselves at home." He fumbled in his clothes and found a match. A moment later he struck it, and lighted a tin lamp that hung from the ceiling. In its glow his face was of a strange colour. He had been under strain. The hand that held the burning match was unsteady. "Strange, very strange," he was saying, as if to himself. And then: "Preposterous! I will go back and tell Mukoki. He is shivering. He is afraid. He believes that Tavish is in league with the devil. He says that the dogs know, and that they have warned him. Queer. Monstrously queer. And interesting. Eh?"
He went out. David stood where he was, looking about him in the blurred light of the lamp over his head. He almost expected Tavish to creep out from some dark corner; he half expected to see him move from under the dishevelled blankets in the bunk at the far end of the room. It was a big room, twenty feet from end to end, and almost as wide, and after a moment or two he knew that he was the only living thing in it, except a small, gray mouse that came fearlessly quite close to his feet. And then he saw a second mouse, and a third, and about him, and over him, he heard a creeping, scurrying noise, as of many tiny feet pattering. A paper on the table rustled, a series of squeaks came from the bunk, he felt something that was like a gentle touch on the toe of his moccasin, and looked down. The cabin was alive with mice! It was filled with the restless movement of them—little bright-eyed creatures who moved about him without fear, and, he thought, expectantly. He had not moved an inch when Father Roland came again into the cabin. He pointed to the floor.
"The place is alive with them!" he protested.
Father Roland appeared in great good humour as he slipped off his mittens and rubbed his hands over the stove.
"Tavish's pets," he chuckled. "He says they're company. I've seen a dozen of them on his shoulders at one time. Queer. Queer."
His hands made the rasping sound as he rubbed them. Suddenly he lifted a lid from the stove and peered into the fire-box.
"He put fuel in here less than an hour ago," he said. "Wonder where he can be mouching at this hour. The dogs are gone." He scanned the table. "No supper. Pans clean. Mice hungry. He'll be back soon. But we won't wait. I'm famished."
He spoke swiftly, and filled the stove with wood. Mukoki began bringing in the dunnage. The uneasy gleam was still in his eyes. His gaze was shifting and restless with expectation. He came and went noiselessly, treading as though he feared his footsteps would awaken some one, and David saw that he was afraid of the mice. One of them ran up his sleeve as they were eating supper, and he flung it from him with a strange, quick breath, his eyes blazing.
"Muche Munito!" he shuddered.
He swallowed the rest of his meat hurriedly, and after that took his blankets, and with a few words in Cree to the Missioner left the cabin.
"He says they are little devils—the mice," said Father Roland, looking after him reflectively. "He will sleep near the dogs. I wonder how far his intuition goes? He believes that Tavish harbours bad spirits in this cabin, and that they have taken the form of mice. Pooh! They're cunning little vermin. Tavish has taught them tricks. Watch this one feed out of my hand!"
Half a dozen times they had climbed to David's shoulders. One of them had nestled in a warm furry ball against his neck, as if waiting. They were certainly companionable—quite chummy, as the Missioner said. No wonder Tavish harboured them in his loneliness. David fed them and let them nibble from his fingers, and yet they gave him a distinctly unpleasant sensation. When the Missioner had finished his last cup of coffee he crumbled a thick chunk of bannock and placed it on the floor back of the stove. The mice gathered round it in a silent, hungry, nibbling horde. David tried to count them. There must have been twenty. He felt an impulse to scoop them up in something, Tavish's water pail for instance, and pitch them out into the night. The creatures became quieter after their gorge on bannock crumbs. Most of them disappeared.
For a long time David and the Missioner sat smoking their pipes, waiting for Tavish. Father Roland was puzzled and yet he was assured. He was puzzled because Tavish's snow shoes hung on their wooden peg in one of the cross logs and his rifle was in its rack over the bunk.
"I didn't know he had another pair of snow shoes," he said. "Still, it is quite a time since I have seen him—a number of weeks. I came down in the early November snow. He is not far away or he would have taken his rifle. Probably setting a few fresh poison-baits after the storm."
They heard the sweep of a low wind. It often came at night after a storm, usually from off the Barrens to the northwest. Something thumped gently against the outside of the cabin, a low, peculiarly heavy and soft sort of sound, like a padded object, with only the log wall separating it from the bunk. Their ears caught it quite distinctly.
"Tavish hangs his meat out there," the Missioner explained, observing the sudden direction of David's eyes. "A haunch of moose, or, if he has been lucky, of caribou. I had forgotten Tavish's cache or we might have saved our meat."
He ran a hand through his thick, grayish hair until it stood up about his head like a brush.
David tried not to reveal his restlessness as they waited. At each new sound he hoped that what he heard was Tavish's footsteps. He had quite decidedly planned his action. Tavish would enter, and of course there would be greetings, and possibly half an hour or more of smoking and talk before he brought up the Firepan Creek country, unless, as might fortuitously happen, Father Roland spoke of it ahead of him. After that he would show Tavish the picture, and he would stand well in the light so that it would be impressed upon Tavish all at once. He noticed that the chimney of the lamp was sooty and discoloured, and somewhat to the Missioner's amusement he took it off and cleaned it. The light was much more satisfactory then. He wandered about the cabin, scrutinizing, as if out of curiosity, Tavish's belongings. There was not much to discover. Close to the bunk there was a small battered chest with riveted steel ribs. He wondered whether it was unlocked, and what it contained. As he stood over it he could hear plainly the thud, thud, thud, of the thing outside—the haunch of meat—as though some one were tapping fragments of the Morse code in a careless and broken sort of way. Then, without any particular motive, he stepped into the dark corner at the end of the bunk. An agonized squeak came from under his foot, and he felt something small and soft flatten out, like a wad of dough. He jumped back. An exclamation broke from his lips. It was unpleasant, though the soft thing was nothing more than a mouse.
"Confound it!" he said.
Father Roland was listening to the slow, pendulum-like thud, thud, thud, against the logs of the cabin. It seemed to come more distinctly as David crushed out the life of the mouse, as if pounding a protest upon the wall.
"Tavish has hung his meat low," he said concernedly. "Quite careless of him, unless it is a very large quarter."
He began slowly to undress.
"We might as well turn in," he suggested. "When Tavish shows up the dogs will raise bedlam and wake us. Throw out Tavish's blankets and put your own in his bunk. I prefer the floor. Always did. Nothing like a good, smooth floor...."
He was interrupted by the opening of the cabin door. The Cree thrust in his head and shoulders. He came no farther. His eyes were afire with the smouldering gleam of garnets. He spoke rapidly in his native tongue to the Missioner, gesturing with one lean, brown hand as he talked. Father Roland's face became heavy, furrowed, perplexed. He broke in suddenly, in Cree, and when he ceased speaking Mukoki withdrew slowly. The last David saw of the Indian was his shifting, garnet-like eyes, disappearing like beads of blackish flame.
"Pest!" cried the Little Missioner, shrugging his shoulders in disgust. "The dogs are uneasy. Mukoki says they smell death. They sit on their haunches, he says, staring—staring at nothing, and whining like puppies. He is going back with them to the other side of the ridge. If it will ease his soul, let him go."
"I have heard of dogs doing that," said David.
"Of course they will do it," shot back Father Roland unhesitatingly. "Northern dogs always do it, and especially mine. They are accustomed to death. Twenty times in a winter, and sometimes more, I care for the dead. They always go with me, and they can smell death in the wind. But here—why, it is absurd! There is nothing dead here—unless it is that mouse, and Tavish's meat!" He shook himself, grumbling under his breath at Mukoki's folly. And then: "The dogs have always acted queerly when Tavish was near," he added in a lower voice. "I can't explain why; they simply do. Instinct, possibly. His presence makes them uneasy. An unusual man, this Tavish. I wish he would come. I am anxious for you to meet him."
That his mind was quite easy on the score of Tavish's physical well-being he emphasized by falling asleep very shortly after rolling himself up in his blankets on the floor. During their three nights in camp David had marvelled at and envied the ease with which Father Roland could drop off into profound and satisfactory slumber, this being, as his new friend had explained to him, the great and underlying virtue of a good stomach. To-night, however, the Missioner's deep and regular breathing as he lay on the floor was a matter of vexation to him. He wanted him awake. He wanted him up and alive, thoroughly alive, when Tavish came. "Pounding his ear like a tenderfoot," he thought, "while I, a puppy in harness, couldn't sleep if I wanted to." He was nervously alert. He filled his pipe for the third or fourth time and sat down on the edge of the bunk, listening for Tavish. He was certain, from all that had been said, that Tavish would come. All he had to do was wait. There had been growing in him, a bit unconsciously at first, a feeling of animosity toward Tavish, an emotion that burned in him with a gathering fierceness as he sat alone in the dim light of the cabin, grinding out in his mental restlessness visions of what Tavish might have done. Conviction had never been stronger in him. Tavish, if he had guessed correctly, was a fiend. He would soon know. And if he was right, if Tavish had done that, if up in those mountains....
His eyes blazed and his hands were clenched as he looked down at Father Roland. After a moment, without taking his eyes from the Missioner's recumbent form, he reached to the pocket of his coat which he had flung on the bunk and drew out the picture of the Girl. He looked at it a long time, his heart growing warm, and the tense lines softening in his face.
"It can't be," he whispered. "She is alive!"
As if the wind had heard him, and was answering, there came more distinctly the sound close behind him.
Thud! Thud! Thud!
There was a silence, in which David closed his fingers tightly about the picture. And then, more insistently:
Thud! Thud! Thud!
He put the picture back into his pocket, and rose to his feet. Mechanically he slipped on his coat. He went to the door, opened it softly, and passed out into the night. The moon was above him, like a great, white disc. The sky burned with stars. He could see now to the foot of the ridge over which Mukoki had gone, and the clearing about the cabin lay in a cold and luminous glory. Tavish, if he had been caught in the twilight darkness and had waited for the moon to rise, would be showing up soon.
He walked to the side of the cabin and looked back. Quite distinctly he could see Tavish's meat, suspended from a stout sapling that projected straight out from under the edge of the roof. It hung there darkly, a little in shadow, swinging gently in the wind that had risen, and tap-tap-tapping against the logs. David moved toward it, gazing at the edge of the forest in which he thought he had heard a sound that was like the creak of a sledge runner. He hoped it was Tavish returning. For several moments he listened with his back to the cabin. Then he turned. He was very close to the thing hanging from the sapling. It was swinging slightly. The moon shone on it, and then—Great God! A face—a human face! A face, bearded, with bulging, staring eyes, gaping mouth—a grin of agony frozen in it! And it was tapping, tapping, tapping!
He staggered back with a dreadful cry. He swayed to the door, groped blindly for the latch, stumbled in clumsily, like a drunken man. The horror of that lifeless, grinning face was in his voice. He had awakened the Missioner, who was sitting up, staring at him.
"Tavish ..." cried David chokingly; "Tavish—is dead!" and he pointed to the end of the cabin where they could hear again that tap-tap-tapping against the log wall.
Not until afterward did David realize how terribly his announcement of Tavish's death must have struck into the soul of Father Roland. For a few seconds the Missioner did not move. He was wide awake, he had heard, and yet he looked at David dumbly, his two hands gripping his blanket. When he did move, it was to turn his face slowly toward the end of the cabin where the thing was hanging, with only the wall between. Then, still slowly, he rose to his feet.
David thought he had only half understood.
"Tavish—is dead!" he repeated huskily, straining to swallow the thickening in his throat. "He is out there—hanging by his neck—dead!"
Dead! He emphasized that word—spoke it twice.
Father Roland still did not answer. He was getting into his clothes mechanically, his face curiously ashen, his eyes neither horrified nor startled, but with a stunned look in them. He did not speak when he went to the door and out into the night. David followed, and in a moment they stood close to the thing that was hanging where Tavish's meat should have been. The moon threw a vivid sort of spotlight on it. It was grotesque and horrible—very bad to look at, and unforgettable. Tavish had not died easily. He seemed to shriek that fact at them as he swung there dead; even now he seemed more terrified than cold. His teeth gleamed a little. That, perhaps, was the worst of it all. And his hands were clenched tight. David noticed that. Nothing seemed relaxed about him.
Not until he had looked at Tavish for perhaps sixty full seconds did Father Roland speak. He had recovered himself, judging from his voice. It was quiet and unexcited. But in his first words, unemotional as they were, there was a significance that was almost frightening.
"At last! She made him do that!"
He was speaking to himself, looking straight into Tavish's agonized face. A great shudder swept through David. She! He wanted to cry out. He wanted to know. But the Missioner now had his hands on the gruesome thing in the moonlight, and he was saying:
"There is still warmth in his body. He has not been long dead. He hanged himself, I should say, not more than half an hour before we reached the cabin. Give me a hand, David!"
With a mighty effort David pulled himself together. After all, it was nothing more than a dead man hanging there. But his hands were like ice as he seized hold of it. A knife gleamed in the moonlight over Tavish's head as the Missioner cut the rope. They lowered Tavish to the snow, and David went into the cabin for a blanket. Father Roland wrapped the blanket carefully about the body so that it would not freeze to the ground. Then they entered the cabin. The Missioner threw off his coat and built up the fire. When he turned he seemed to notice for the first time the deathly pallor in David's face.
"It shocked you—when you found it there," he said. "Ugh! I don't wonder. But I ... David, I didn't tell you I was expecting something like this. I have feared for Tavish. And to-night when the dogs and Mukoki signalled death I was alarmed—until we found the fire in the stove. It didn't seem reasonable then. I thought Tavish would return. The dogs were gone, too. He must have freed them just before he went out there. Terrible! But justice—justice, I suppose. God sometimes works His ends in queer ways, doesn't He?"
"What do you mean?" cried David, again fighting that thickening in his throat. "Tell me, Father! I must know. Why did he kill himself?"
His hand was clutching at his breast, where the picture lay. He wanted to tear it out, in this moment, and demand of Father Roland whether this was the face—the girl's face—that had haunted Tavish.
"I mean that his fear drove him at last to kill himself," said Father Roland in a slow, sure voice, as if carefully weighing his words before speaking them. "I believe, now, that he terribly wronged some one, that his conscience was his fear, and that it haunted him by bringing up visions and voices until it drove him finally to pay his debt. And up here conscience is mitoo aye chikoon—the Little Brother of God. That is all I know. I wish Tavish had confided in me, I might have saved him."
"Or—punished," breathed David.
"My business is not to punish. If he had come to me, asking help for himself and mercy from his God, I could not have betrayed him."
He was putting on his coat again.
"I am going after Mukoki," he said. "There is work to be done, and we may as well get through with it by moonlight. I don't suppose you feel like sleep?"
David shook his head. He was calmer now, quite recovered from the first horror of his shock, when the door closed behind Father Roland. In the thoughts that were swiftly readjusting themselves in his mind there was no very great sympathy for the man who had hanged himself. In place of that sympathy the oppression of a thing that was greater than disappointment settled upon him heavily, driving from him his own personal dread of this night's ghastly adventure, and adding to his suspense of the last forty-eight hours a hopelessness the poignancy of which was almost like that of a physical pain. Tavish was dead, and in dying he had taken with him the secret for which David would have paid with all he was worth in this hour. In his despair, as he stood there alone in the cabin, he muttered something to himself. The desire possessed him to cry out aloud that Tavish had cheated him. A strange kind of rage burned within him and he turned toward the door, with clenched hands, as if about to rush out and choke from the dead man's throat what he wanted to know, and force his glazed and staring eyes to look for just one instant on the face of the girl in the picture. In another moment his brain had cleared itself of that insane fire. After all, would Tavish kill himself without leaving something behind? Would there not be some kind of an explanation, written by Tavish before he took the final step? A confession? A letter to Father Roland? Tavish knew that the Missioner would stop at his cabin on his return into the North. Surely he would not kill himself without leaving some work for him—at least a brief accounting for his act!
He began looking about the cabin again, swiftly and eagerly at first, for if Tavish had written anything he would beyond all doubt have placed the paper in some conspicuous place: pinned it at the end of his bunk, or on the wall, or against the door. They might have overlooked it, or possibly it had fallen to the floor. To make his search surer David lowered the lamp from its bracket in the ceiling and carried it in his hand. He went into dark corners, scrutinized the floor as well as the walls, and moved garments from their wooden pegs. There was nothing. Tavish had cheated him again! His eyes rested finally on the chest. He placed the lamp on a stool, and tried the lid. It was unlocked. As he lifted it he heard voices indistinctly outside. Father Roland had returned with Mukoki. He could hear them as they went to where Tavish was lying with his face turned up to the moon.
On his knees he began pawing over the stuff in the chest. It was a third filled with odds and ends—little else but trash; tangled ends of babiche, a few rusted tools, nails and bolts, a pair of half-worn shoe packs—a mere litter of disappointing rubbish. The door opened behind him as he was rising to his feet. He turned to face Mukoki and the Missioner.
"There is nothing," he said, with a gesture that took in the room. "He hasn't left any word that I can find."
Father Roland had not closed the door.
"Mukoki will help you search. Look in his clothing on the wall. Tavish must surely have left—something."
He went out, shutting the door behind him. For a moment he listened to make sure that David was not going to follow him. He hurried then to the body of Tavish, and stripped off the blanket. The dead man was terrible to look at, with his open glassy eyes and his distorted face, and the moonlight gleaming on his grinning teeth. The Missioner shuddered.
"I can't guess," he whispered, as if speaking to Tavish. "I can't guess—quite—what made you do it, Tavish. But you haven't died without telling me. I know it. It's there—in your pocket."
He listened again, and his lips moved. He bent over him, on one knee, and averted his eyes as he searched the pockets of Tavish's heavy coat. Against the dead man's breast he found it, neatly folded, about the size of foolscap paper—several pages of it, he judged, by the thickness of the packet. It was tied with fine threads of babiche, and in the moonlight he could make out quite distinctly the words, "For Father Roland, God's Lake—Personal." Tavish, after all, had not made himself the victim of sudden fright, of a momentary madness. He had planned the affair in a quite business-like way. Premeditated it with considerable precision, in fact, and yet in the end he had died with that stare of horror and madness in his face. Father Roland spread the blanket over him again after he had placed the packet in his own coat. He knew where Tavish's pick and shovel were hanging at the back of the cabin and he brought these tools and placed them beside the body. After that he rejoined David and the Cree.
They were still searching, and finding nothing.
"I have been looking through his clothes—out there," said the Missioner, with a shuddering gesture which intimated that his task had been as fruitless as their own. "We may as well bury him. A shallow grave, close to where his body lies. I have placed a pick and a shovel on the spot." He spoke to David: "Would you mind helping Mukoki to dig? I would like to be alone for a little while. You understand. There are things...."
"I understand, Father."
For the first time David felt something of the awe of this thing that was death. He had forgotten, almost, that Father Roland was a servant of God, so vitally human had he found him, so unlike all other men of his calling he had ever known. But it was impressed upon him now, as he followed Mukoki. Father Roland wanted to be alone. Perhaps to pray. To ask mercy for Tavish's soul. To plead for its guidance into the Great Unknown. The thought quieted his own emotions, and as he began to dig in the hard snow and frozen earth he tried to think of Tavish as a man, and not as a monster.
In the cabin Father Roland waited until he heard the beat of the pick before he moved. Then he fastened the cabin door with a wooden bolt and sat himself down at the table, with the lamp close to his bent head and Tavish's confession in his hands. He cut the babiche threads with his knife, unfolded the sheets of paper and began to read, while Tavish's mice nosed slyly out of their murky corners wondering at the new and sudden stillness in the cabin and, it may be, stirred into restlessness by the absence of their master.
* * * * *
The ground under the snow was discouragingly hard. To David the digging of the grave seemed like chipping out bits of flint from a solid block, and he soon turned over the pick to Mukoki. Alternately they worked for an hour, and each time that the Cree took his place David wondered what was keeping the Missioner so long in the cabin. At last Mukoki intimated with a sweep of his hands and a hunch of his shoulders that their work was done. The grave looked very shallow to David, and he was about to protest against his companion's judgment when it occurred to him that Mukoki had probably digged many holes such as this in the earth, and had helped to fill them again, so it was possible he knew his business. After all, why did people weigh down one's last slumber with six feet of soil overhead when three or four would leave one nearer to the sun, and make not quite so chill a bed? He was thinking of this as he took a last look at Tavish. Then he heard the Indian give a sudden grunt, as if some one had poked him unexpectedly in the pit of the stomach. He whirled about, and stared.
Father Roland stood within ten feet of them, and at sight of him an exclamation rose to David's lips and died there in an astonished gasp. He seemed to be swaying, like a sick man, in the moonlight, and impelled by the same thought Mukoki and David moved toward him. The Missioner extended an arm, as if to hold them back. His face was ghastly, and terrible—almost as terrible as Tavish's, and he seemed to be struggling with something in his throat before he could speak. Then he said, in a strange, forced voice that David had never heard come from his lips before:
"Bury him. There will be—no prayer."
He turned away, moving slowly in the direction of the forest. And as he went David noticed the heavy drag of his feet, and the unevenness of his trail in the snow.
For two or three minutes after Father Roland had disappeared in the forest David and Mukoki stood without moving. Amazed and a little stunned by the change they had seen in the Missioner's ghastly face, and perplexed by the strangeness of his voice and the unsteadiness of his walk as he had gone away from them, they looked expectantly for him to return out of the shadows of the timber. His last words had come to them with metallic hardness, and their effect, in a way, had been rather appalling: "There will be—no prayer." Why? The question was in Mukoki's gleaming, narrow eyes as he faced the dark spruce, and it was on David's lips as he turned at last to look at the Cree. There was to be no prayer for Tavish! David felt himself shuddering, when suddenly, breaking the silence like a sinister cackle, an exultant exclamation burst from the Indian, as though, all at once, understanding had dawned upon him. He pointed to the dead man, his eyes widening.
"Tavish—he great devil," he said. "Mon Pere make no prayer. Mey-oo!" and he grinned in triumph, for had he not, during all these months, told his master that Tavish was a devil, and that his cabin was filled with little devils? "Mey-oo," he cried again, louder than before. "A devil!" and with a swift, vengeful movement he sprang to Tavish, caught him by his moccasined feet, and to David's horror flung him fiercely into the shallow grave. "A devil!" he croaked again, and like a madman began throwing in the frozen earth upon the body.
David turned away, sickened by the thud of the body and the fall of the clods on its upturned face—for he had caught a last unpleasant glimpse of the face, and it was staring and grinning up at the stars. A feeling of dread followed him into the cabin. He filled the stove, and sat down to wait for Father Roland. It was a long wait. He heard Mukoki go away. The mice rustled about him again. An hour had passed when he heard a sound at the door, a scraping sound, like the peculiar drag of claws over wood, and a moment later it was followed by a whine that came to him faintly. He opened the door slowly. Baree stood just outside the threshold. He had given him two fish at noon, so he knew that it was not hunger that had brought the dog to the cabin. Some mysterious instinct had told him that David was alone; he wanted to come in; his yearning gleamed in his eyes as he stood there stiff-legged in the moonlight. David held out a hand, on the point of enticing him through the door, when he heard the soft crunching of feet in the snow. A gray shadow, swift as the wind, Baree disappeared. David scarcely knew when he went. He was looking into the face of Father Roland. He backed into the cabin, without speaking, and the Missioner entered. He was smiling. He had, to an extent, recovered himself. He threw off his mittens and rasped his hands over the fire in an effort at cheerfulness. But there was something forced in his manner, something that he was making a terrific fight to keep under. He was like one who had been in great mental stress for many days instead of a single hour. His eyes burned with the smouldering glow of a fever; his shoulders hung loosely as though he had lost the strength to hold them erect; he shivered, David noticed, even as he rubbed his hands and smiled.
"Curious how this has affected me, David," he said apologetically. "It is incredible, this weakness of mine. I have seen death many scores of times, and yet I could not go and look on his face again. Incredible! Yet it is so. I am anxious to get away. Mukoki will soon be coming with the dogs. A devil, Mukoki says. Well, perhaps. A strange man at best. We must forget this night. It has been an unpleasant introduction for you into our North. We must forget it. We must forget Tavish." And then, as if he had omitted a fact of some importance, he added: "I will kneel at his graveside before we go."
"If he had only waited," said David, scarcely knowing what words he was speaking, "if he had waited until to-morrow, only, or the next day...."
"Yes; if he had waited!"
The Missioner's eyes narrowed. David heard the click of his jaws as he dropped his head so that his face was hidden.
"If he had waited," he repeated, after David, "if he had only waited!" And his hands, spread out fan-like ever the stove, closed slowly and rigidly as if gripping at the throat of something.
"I have friends up in that country he came from," David forced himself to say, "and I had hoped he would be able to tell me something about them. He must have known them, or heard of them."
"Undoubtedly," said the Missioner, still looking at the top of the stove, and unclenching his fingers as slowly as he had drawn them together, "but he is dead."
There was a note of finality in his voice, a sudden forcefulness of meaning as he raised his head and looked at David.
"Dead," he repeated, "and buried. We are no longer privileged even to guess at what he might have said. As I told you once before, David, I am not a Catholic, nor a Church-of-England man, nor of any religion that wears a name, and yet I accepted a little of them all into my own creed. A wandering Missioner—and I am such a one—must obliterate to an extent his own deep-souled convictions and accept indulgently all articles of Christian faith; and there is one law, above all others, which he must hold inviolate. He must not pry into the past of the dead, nor speak aloud the secrets of the living. Let us forget Tavish."
His words sounded a knell in David's heart. If he had hoped that Father Roland would, at the very last, tell him something more about Tavish, that hope was now gone. The Missioner spoke in a voice that was almost gentle, and he came to David and put a hand on his shoulder as a father might have done with a son. He had placed himself, in this moment, beyond the reach of any questions that might have been in David's mind. With eyes and touch that spoke a deep affection he had raised a barrier between them as inviolable as that law of his creed which he had just mentioned. And with it had come a better understanding.
David was glad that Mukoki's voice and the commotion of the dogs came to interrupt them. They gathered up hurriedly the few things they had brought into the cabin and carried them to the sledge. David did not enter the cabin again but stood with the dogs in the edge of the timber, while Father Roland made his promised visit to the grave. Mukoki followed him, and as the Missioner stood over the dark mound in the snow, David saw the Cree slip like a shadow into the cabin, where a light was still burning. Then he noticed that Father Roland was kneeling, and a moment later the Indian came out of the cabin quietly, and without looking back joined him near the dogs. They waited.
Over Tavish's grave Father Roland's lips were moving, and out of his mouth strange words came in a low and unemotional voice that was not much above a whisper:
"... and I thank God that you did not tell me before you died, Tavish," he was saying. "I thank God for that. For if you had—I would have killed you!"
As he came back to them David noticed a flickering of light in the cabin, as though the lamp was sputtering and about to go out. They put on their snow shoes, and with Mukoki breaking the trail buried themselves in the moonlit forest.
Half an hour later they halted on the summit of a second ridge. The Cree looked back and pointed with an exultant cry. Where the cabin had been a red flare of flame was rising above the tree tops. David understood what the flickering light in the cabin had meant. Mukoki had spilled Tavish's kerosene and had touched a match to it so that the little devils might follow their master into the black abyss. He almost fancied he could hear the agonized squeaking of Tavish's pets.
* * * * *
Straight northward, through the white moonlight of that night, Mukoki broke their trail, travelling at times so swiftly that the Missioner commanded him to slacken his pace on David's account. Even David did not think of stopping. He had no desire to stop so long as their way was lighted ahead of them. It seemed to him that the world was becoming brighter and the forest gloom less cheerless as they dropped that evil valley of Tavish's farther and farther behind them. Then the moon began to fade, like a great lamp that had burned itself out of oil, and darkness swept over them like huge wings. It was two o'clock when they camped and built a fire.
So, day after day, they continued into the North. At the end of his tenth day—the sixth after leaving Tavish's—David felt that he was no longer a stranger in the country of the big snows. He did not say as much to Father Roland, for to express such a thought to one who had lived there all his life seemed to him to be little less than a bit of sheer imbecility. Ten days! That was all, and yet they might have been ten months, or as many years for that matter, so completely had they changed him. He was not thinking of himself physically—not a day passed that Father Roland did not point out some fresh triumph for him there. His limbs were nearly as tireless as the Missioner's; he knew that he was growing heavier; and he could at last chop through a tree without winding himself. These things his companions could see. His appetite was voracious. His eyes were keen and his hands steady, so that he was doing splendid practice shooting with both rifle and pistol, and each day when the Missioner insisted on their bout with the gloves he found it more and more difficult to hold himself in. "Not so hard, David," Father Roland frequently cautioned him, and in place of the first joyous grin there was always a look of settled anxiety in Mukoki's face as he watched them. The more David pummelled him, the greater was the Little Missioner's triumph. "I told you what this north country could do for you," was his exultant slogan; "I told you!"
Once David was on the point of telling him that he could see only the tenth part of what it had done for him, but the old shame held his tongue. He did not want to bring up the old story. The fact that it had existed, and had written itself out in human passion, remained with him still as a personal and humiliating degradation. It was like a scar on his own body, a repulsive sore which he wished to keep out of sight, even from the eyes of the man who had been his salvation. The growth of this revulsion within him had kept pace with his physical improvement, and if at the end of these ten days Father Roland had spoken of the woman who had betrayed him—the woman who had been his wife—he would have turned the key on that subject as decisively as the Missioner had banned further conversation or conjecture about Tavish. This was, perhaps, the best evidence that he had cut out the cancer in his breast. The Golden Goddess, whom he had thought an angel, he now saw stripped of her glory. If she had repented in that room, if she had betrayed fear even, a single emotion of mental agony, he would not have felt so sure of himself. But she had laughed. She was, like Tavish, a devil. He thought of her beauty now as that of a poisonous flower. He had unwittingly touched such a flower once, a flower of wonderful waxen loveliness, and it had produced a pustular eruption on his hand. She was like that. Poisonous. Treacherous. A creature with as little soul as that flower had perfume. It was this change in him, in his conception and his memory of her, that he would have given much to have Father Roland understand.
During this period of his own transformation he had observed a curious change in Father Roland. At times, after leaving Tavish's cabin, the Little Missioner seemed struggling under the weight of a deep and gloomy oppression. Once or twice, in the firelight, it had looked almost like sickness, and David had seen his face grow wan and old. Always after these fits of dejection there would follow a reaction, and for hours the Missioner would be like one upon whom had fallen a new and sudden happiness. As day added itself to day, and night to night, the periods of depression became shorter and less frequent, and at last Father Roland emerged from them altogether, as though he had been fighting a great fight, and had won. There was a new lustre in his eyes. David wondered whether it was a trick of his imagination that made him think the lines in the Missioner's face were not so deep, that he stood straighter, and that there was at times a deep and vibrant note in his voice which he had not heard before.
During these days David was trying hard to make himself believe that no reasonable combination of circumstances could have associated Tavish with the girl whose picture he kept in the breast pocket of his coat. He succeeded in a way. He tried also to dissociate the face in the picture from a living personality. In this he failed. More and more the picture became a living thing for him. He found a great comfort in his possession of it. He made up his mind that he would keep it, and that its sweet face, always on the point of speaking to him, should go with him wherever he went, guiding him in a way—a companion. He found that, in hours when the darkness and the emptiness of his life oppressed him, the face gave him new hope, and he saw new light. He ceased to think of it as a picture, and one night, speaking half aloud, he called her Little Sister. She seemed nearer to him after that. Unconsciously his hand learned the habit of going to his breast pocket when they were travelling, to make sure that she was there. He would have suffered physical torment before he would have confided all this to any living soul, but the secret thought that was growing more and more in his heart he told to Baree. The dog came into their camps now, but not until the Missioner and Mukoki had gone to bed. He would cringe down near David's feet, lying there motionless, oblivious of the other dogs and showing no inclination to disturb them. He was there on the tenth night, looking steadily at David with his two bloodshot eyes, wondering what it was that his master held in his hands. From the lips and eyes of the Girl, trembling and aglow in the firelight, David looked at Baree. In the bloodshot eyes he saw the immeasurable faith of an adoring slave. He knew that Baree would never leave him. And the Girl, looking at him as steadily as Baree, would never leave him. There was a tremendous thrill in the thought. He leaned over the dog, and with a tremulous stir in his voice, he whispered:
"Some day, boy, we may go to her."
Baree shivered with joy. David's voice, whispering to him in that way, was like a caress, and he whined softly as he crept an inch or two nearer to his master's feet.
That night Father Roland was restless. Hours later, when he was lying snug and warm in his own blankets, David heard him get up, and watched him as he scraped together the burned embers of the fire and added fresh fuel to them. The flap of the tent was back a little, so that he could see plainly. It could not have been later than midnight. The Missioner was fully dressed, and as the fire burned brighter David could see the ruddy glow of his face, and it struck him that it looked singularly boyish in the flame-glow. He did not guess what was keeping the Missioner awake until a little later he heard him among the dogs, and his voice came to him, low and exultingly, and as boyish as his face had seemed: "We'll be home to-morrow, boys—home!" That word—home—sounded oddly enough to David up here three hundred miles from civilization. He fancied that he heard the dogs shuffling in the snow, and the satisfied rasping of their master's hands.
Father Roland did not return into the tent again that night. David fell asleep, but was roused for breakfast at three o'clock, and they were away before it was yet light. Through the morning darkness Mukoki led the way as unerringly as a fox, for he was now on his own ground. As dawn came, with a promise of sun, David wondered in a whimsical sort of way whether his companions, both dogs and men, were going mad. He had not as yet experienced the joy and excitement of a northern homecoming, nor had he dreamed that it was possible for Mukoki's leathern face to break into wild jubilation. As the first rays of the sun shot over the forests, he began, all at once, to sing, in a low, chanting voice that grew steadily louder; and as he sang he kept time in a curious way with his hands. He did not slacken his pace, but kept steadily on, and suddenly the Little Missioner joined him in a voice that rang out like the blare of a bugle. To David's ears there was something familiar in that song as it rose wildly on the morning air.
"Pa sho ke non ze koon, Ta ba nin ga, Ah no go suh nuh guk, Na quash kuh mon; Na guh mo yah nin koo, Pa sho ke non ze koon, Pa sho ke non ze koon, Ta ba nin go."
"What is it?" he asked, when Father Roland dropped back to his side, smiling and breathing deeply. "It sounds like a Chinese puzzle, and yet ..."
The Missioner laughed. Mukoki had ended a second verse.
"Twenty years ago, when I first knew Mukoki, he would chant nothing but Indian legends to the beat of a tom-tom," he explained. "Since I've had him he has developed a passion for 'mission singing'—for hymns. That was 'Nearer, my God, to Thee.'"
Mukoki, gathering wind, had begun again.
"That's his favourite," explained Father Roland. "At times, when he is alone, he will chant it by the hour. He is delighted when I join in with him. It's 'From Greenland's Icy Mountains.'"
"Ke wa de noong a yah jig, Kuh ya 'gewh wah bun oong, E gewh an duh nuh ke jig, E we de ke zhah tag, Kuh ya puh duh ke woo waud Palm e nuh sah wunzh eeg, Ke nun doo me goo nah nig Che shuh wa ne mung wah."
At first David had felt a slight desire to laugh at the Cree's odd chanting and the grotesque movement of his hands and arms, like two pump handles in slow and rhythmic action, as he kept time. This desire did not come to him again during the day. He remembered, long years ago, hearing his mother sing those old hymns in his boyhood home. He could see the ancient melodeon with its yellow keys, and the ragged hymn book his mother had prized next to her Bible; and he could hear again her sweet, quavering voice sing those gentle songs, like unforgettable benedictions—the same songs that Mukoki and the Missioner were chanting now, up here, a thousand miles away. That was a long time ago—a very, very long time ago. She had been dead many years. And he—he must be growing old. Thirty-eight! And he was nine then, with slender legs and tousled hair, and a worship for his mother that had mellowed and perhaps saddened his whole life. It was a long time ago. But the songs had lived. They must be known over the whole world—those songs his mother used to sing. He began to join in where he could catch the tunes, and his voice sounded strange and broken and unreal to him, for it was a long time since those boyhood days, and he had not lifted it in song since he had sung then—with his mother.
* * * * *
It was growing dusk when they came to the Missioner's home on God's Lake. It was almost a chateau, David thought when he first saw it, built of massive logs. Beyond it there was a smaller building, also built of logs, and toward this Mukoki hurried with the dogs and the sledge. He heard the welcoming cries of Mukoki's family and the excited barking of dogs as he followed Father Roland into the big cabin. It was lighted, and warm. Evidently some one had been keeping it in readiness for the Missioner's return. They entered into a big room, and in his first glance David saw three doors leading from this room: two of them were open, the third was closed. There was something very like a sobbing note in Father Roland's voice as he opened his arms wide, and said to David:
"Home, David—your home!"
He took off his things—his coat, his cap, his moccasins, and his thick German socks—and when he again spoke to David and looked at him, his eyes had in them a mysterious light and his words trembled with suppressed emotion.
"You will forgive me, David—you will forgive me a weakness, and make yourself at home—while I go alone for a few minutes into ... that ... room?"
He rose from the chair on which he had seated himself to strip off his moccasins and faced the closed door. He seemed to forget David after he had spoken. He went to it slowly, his breath coming quickly, and when he reached it he drew a heavy key from his pocket. He unlocked the door. It was dark inside, and David could see nothing as the Missioner entered. For many minutes he sat where Father Roland had left him, staring at the door.
"A strange man—a very strange man!" Thoreau had said. Yes, a strange man! What was in that room? Why its unaccountable silence? Once he thought he heard a low cry. For ten minutes he sat, waiting. And then—very faintly at first, almost like a wind soughing through distant tree tops and coming ever nearer, nearer, and more distinct—there came to him from beyond the closed door the gently subdued music of a violin.
In the days and weeks that followed, this room beyond the closed door, and what it contained, became to David more and more the great mystery in Father Roland's life. It impressed itself upon him slowly but resolutely as the key to some tremendous event in his life, some vast secret which he was keeping from all other human knowledge, unless, perhaps, Mukoki was a silent sharer. At times David believed this was so, and especially after that day when, carefully and slowly, and in good English, as though the Missioner had trained him in what he was to say, the Cree said to him:
"No one ever goes into that room, m'sieu. And no man has ever seen mon Pere's violin."
The words were spoken in a low monotone without emphasis or emotion, and David was convinced they were a message from the Missioner, something Father Roland wanted him to know without speaking the words himself. Not again after that first night did he apologize for his visits to the room, nor did he ever explain why the door was always locked, or why he invariably locked it after him when he went in. Each night, when they were at home, he disappeared into the room, opening the door only enough to let his body pass through; sometimes he remained there for only a few minutes, and occasionally for a long time. At least once a day, usually in the evening, he played the violin. It was always the same piece that he played. There was never a variation, and David could not make up his mind that he had ever heard it before. At these times, if Mukoki happened to be in the Chateau, as Father Roland called his place, he would sit like one in a trance, scarcely breathing until the music had ceased. And when the Missioner came from the room his face was always lit up in a kind of halo. There was one exception to all this, David noticed. The door was never unlocked when there was a visitor. No other but himself and Mukoki heard the sound of the violin, and this fact, in time, impressed David with the deep faith and affection of the Little Missioner. One evening Father Roland came from the room with his face aglow with some strange happiness that had come to him in there, and placing his hands on David's shoulders he said, with a yearning and yet hopeless inflection in his voice:
"I wish you would stay with me always, David. It has made me younger, and happier, to have a son."
In David there was growing—but concealed from Father Roland's eyes for a long time—a strange insistent restlessness. It ran in his blood, like a thing alive, whenever he looked at the face of the Girl. He wanted to go on.
And yet life at the Chateau, after the first two weeks, was anything but dull and unexciting. They were in the heart of the great trapping country. Forty miles to the north was a Hudson's Bay post where an ordained minister of the Church of England had a mission. But Father Roland belonged to the forest people alone. They were his "children," scattered in their shacks and tepees over ten thousand square miles of country, with the Chateau as its centre. He was ceaselessly on the move after that first fortnight, and David was always with him. The Indians worshipped him, and the quarter-breeds and half-breeds and occasional French called him "mon Pere" in very much the same tone of voice as they said "Our Father" in their prayers. These people of the trap-lines were a revelation to David. They were wild, living in a savage primitiveness, and yet they reverenced a divinity with a conviction that amazed him. And they died. That was the tragedy of it. They died—too easily. He understood, after a while, why a country ten times as large as the state of Ohio had altogether a population of less than twenty-five thousand, a fair-sized town. Their belts were drawn too tight—men, women, and little children—their belts too tight. That was it! Father Roland emphasized it. Too much hunger in the long, terrible months of winter, when to keep body and soul together they trapped the furred creatures for the hordes of luxurious barbarians in the great cities of the earth. Just a steady, gnawing hunger all through the winter—hunger for something besides meat, a hunger that got into the bones, into the eyes, into arms and legs—a hunger that brought sickness, and then death.
That winter he saw grown men and women die of measles as easily as flies that had devoured poison. They were over at Metoosin's, sixty miles to the west of the Chateau, when Metoosin returned to his shack with supplies from a Post. Metoosin had taken up lynx and marten and mink that would sell the next year in London and Paris for a thousand dollars, and he had brought back a few small cans of vegetables at fifty cents a can, a little flour at forty cents a pound, a bit of cheap cloth at the price of rare silk, some tobacco and a pittance of tea, and he was happy. A half season's work on the trap-line and his family could have eaten it all in a week—if they had dared to eat as much as they needed.
"And still they're always in the debt of the Posts," the Missioner said, the lines settling deeply on his face.
And yet David could not but feel more and more deeply the thrill, the fascination, and, in spite of its hardships, the recompense of this life of which he had become a part. For the first time in his life he clearly perceived the primal measurements of riches, of contentment and of ambition, and these three things that he saw stripped naked for his eyes many other things which he had not understood, or in blindness had failed to see, in the life from which he had come. Metoosin, with that little treasure of food from the Post, did not know that he was poor, or that through many long years he had been slowly starving. He was rich! He was a great trapper! And his Cree wife I-owa, with her long, sleek braid and her great, dark eyes, was tremendously proud of her lord, that he should bring home for her and the children such a wealth of things—a little flour, a few cans of things, a few yards of cloth, and a little bright ribbon. David choked when he ate with them that night. But they were happy! That, after all, was the reward of things, even though people died slowly of something which they could not understand. And there were, in the domain of Father Roland, many Metoosins, and many I-owas, who prayed for nothing more than enough to eat, clothes to cover them, and the unbroken love of their firesides. And David thought of them, as the weeks passed, as the most terribly enslaved of all the slaves of Civilization—slaves of vain civilized women; for they had gone on like this for centuries, and would go on for other generations, giving into the hands of the great Company their life's blood which, in the end, could be accounted for by a yearly dole of food which, under stress, did not quite serve to keep body and soul together.
It was after a comprehension of these things that David understood Father Roland's great work. In this kingdom of his, running approximately fifty miles in each direction from the Chateau—except to the northward, where the Post lay—there were two hundred and forty-seven men, women, and children. In a great book the Little Missioner had their names, their ages, the blood that was in them, and where they lived; and by them he was worshipped as no man that ever lived in that vast country of cities and towns below the Height of Land. At every tepee and shack they visited there was some token of love awaiting Father Roland; a rare skin here, a pair of moccasins there, a pair of snow shoes that it had taken an Indian woman's hands weeks to make, choice cuts of meat, but mostly—as they travelled along—the thickly furred skins of animals; and never did they go to a place at which the Missioner did not leave something in return, usually some article of clothing so thick and warm that no Indian was rich enough to buy it for himself at the Post. Twice each winter Father Roland sent down to Thoreau a great sledge load of these contributions of his people, and Thoreau, selling them, sent back a still greater sledge load of supplies that found their way in this manner of exchange into the shacks and tepees of the forest people.
"If I were only rich!" said Father Roland one night at the Chateau, when it was storming dismally outside. "But I have nothing, David. I can do only a tenth of what I would like to do. There are only eighty families in this country of mine, and I have figured that a hundred dollars a family, spent down there and not at the Post, would keep them all in comfort through the longest and hardest winter. A hundred dollars, in Winnipeg, would buy as much as an Indian trapper could get at the Post for a thousand dollars' worth of fur, and five hundred dollars is a good catch. It is terrible, but what can I do? I dare not buy their furs and sell them for my people, because the Company would blacklist the whole lot and it would be a great calamity in the end. But if I had money—if I could do it with my own...."
David had been thinking of that. In the late January snow two teams went down to Thoreau in place of one. Mukoki had charge of them, and with him went an even half of what David had brought with him—fifteen hundred dollars in gold certificates.
"If I live I'm going to make them a Christmas present of twice that amount each year," he said. "I can afford it. I fancy that I shall take a great pleasure in it, and that occasionally I shall return into this country to make a visit."
It was the first time that he had spoken as though he would not remain with the Missioner indefinitely. But the conviction that the time was not far away when he would be leaving him had been growing within him steadily. He kept it to himself. He fought against it even. But it grew. And, curiously enough, it was strongest when Father Roland was in the locked room playing softly on the violin. David never mentioned the room. He feigned an indifference to its very existence. And yet in spite of himself the mystery of it became an obsession with him. Something within it seemed to reach out insistently and invite him in, like a spirit chained there by the Missioner himself, crying for freedom. One night they returned to the Chateau through a blizzard from the cabin of a half-breed whose wife was sick, and after their supper the Missioner went into the mystery-room. He played the violin as usual. But after that there was a long silence. When Father Roland came out, and seated himself opposite David at the small table on which their books were scattered, David received a shock. Clinging to the Missioner's shoulder, shimmering like a polished silken thread in the lampglow, was a long, shining hair—a woman's hair. With an effort David choked back the word of amazement in his throat, and began turning over the pages of a book. And then suddenly, the Missioner saw that silken thread. David heard his quick breath. He saw, without raising his eyes, the slow, almost stealthy movement of his companion's fingers as he plucked the hair from his arm and shoulder, and when David looked up the hair was gone, and one of Father Roland's hands was closed tightly, so tightly that the veins stood out on it. He rose from the table, and again went into the room beyond the locked door. David's heart was beating like an unsteady hammer. He could not quite account for the strange effect this incident had upon him. He wanted more than ever to see that room beyond the locked door.
February—the Hunger Moon—of this year was a month of great storm in the Northland. This meant sickness, and a great deal of travel for Father Roland. He and David were almost ceaselessly on the move, and its hardships gave the finishing touches to David's education. The wilderness, vast and empty as it was, no longer held a dread for him. He had faced its bitterest storms; he had slept with the deep snow under his blankets; he had followed behind the Missioner through the blackest nights, when it had seemed as though no human soul could find its way; and he had looked on death. Once they ran swiftly to it through a night blizzard; again it came, three in a family, so far to the west that it was out of Father Roland's beaten trails; and again he saw it in the Madonna-like face of a young French girl, who had died clutching a cross to her breast. It was this girl's white face, sweet as a child's and strangely beautiful in death, that stirred David most deeply. She must have been about the age of the girl whose picture he carried next his heart.
Soon after this, early in March, he had definitely made up his mind. There was no reason now why he should not go on. He was physically fit. Three months had hardened him until he was like a rock. He believed that he had more than regained his weight. He could beat Father Roland with either rifle or pistol, and in one day he had travelled forty miles on snow shoes. That was when they had arrived just in time to save the life of Jean Croisset's little girl, who lived over on the Big Thunder. The crazed father had led them a mad race, but they had kept up with him. And just in time. There had not been an hour to lose. After that Croisset and his half-breed wife would have laid down their lives for Father Roland—and for him. For the forest people had begun to accept him as a part of Father Roland; more and more he could see their growing love for him, their gladness when he came, their sorrow when he left, and it gave him what he thought of as a sort of filling satisfaction, something he had never quite fully experienced before in all his life. He knew that he would come back to them again some day—that, in the course of his life, he would spend a great deal of time among them. He assured Father Roland of this.
The Missioner did not question him deeply about his "friends" in the western mountains. But night after night he helped him to mark out a trail on the maps that he had at the Chateau, giving him a great deal of information which David wrote down in a book, and letters to certain good friends of his whom he would find along the way. As the slush snow came, and the time when David would be leaving drew nearer, Father Roland could not entirely conceal his depression, and he spent more time in the room beyond the locked door. Several times when about to enter the room he seemed to hesitate, as if there were something which he wanted to say to David. Twice David thought he was almost on the point of inviting him into the room, and at last he came to believe that the Missioner wanted him to know what was beyond that mysterious door, and yet was afraid to tell him, or ask him in. It was well along in March that the thing happened which he had been expecting. Only it came in a manner that amazed him deeply. Father Roland came from the room early in the evening, after playing his violin. He locked the door, and as he put on his cap he said:
"I shall be gone for an hour, David. I am going over to Mukoki's cabin."
He did not ask David to accompany him, and as he turned to go the key that he had held in his hand dropped to the floor. It fell with a quite audible sound. The Missioner must have heard it, and would have recovered it had it slipped from his fingers accidentally. But he paid no attention to it. He went out quickly, without glancing back.
For several minutes David stared at the key without moving from his chair near the table. It meant but one thing. He was invited to go into that room—alone. If he had had a doubt it was dispelled by the fact that Father Roland had left a light burning in there. It was not chance. There was a purpose to it all: the light, the audible dropping of the heavy key, the swift going of the Missioner. David made himself sure of this before he rose from his chair. He waited perhaps five minutes. Then he picked up the key.
At the door, as the key clicked in the lock, he hesitated. The thought came to him that if he was making a mistake it would be a terrible mistake. It held his hand for a moment. Then, slowly, he pushed the door inward and followed it until he stood inside. The first thing that he noticed was a big brass lamp, of the old style, brought over from England by the Company a hundred years ago, and he held his breath in anticipation of something tremendous impending. At first he saw nothing that impressed him forcibly. The room was a disappointment in that first glance. He could see nothing of its mystery, nothing of that strangeness, quite indefinable even to himself, which he had expected. And then, as he stood there staring about with wide-open eyes, the truth flashed upon him with a suddenness that drew a quick breath from his lips. He was standing in a woman's room! There was no doubt.
It looked very much as though a woman had left it only recently. There was a bed, fresh and clean, with a white counterpane. She had left on that bed a—nightgown; yes, and he noticed that it had a frill of lace at the neck. And on the wall were her garments, quite a number of them, and a long coat of a curious style, with a great fur collar. There was a small dresser, oddly antique, and on it were a brush and comb, a big red pin cushion, and odds and ends of a woman's toilet affairs. Close to the bed were a pair of shoes and a pair of slippers, with unusually high heels, and hanging over the edge of the counterpane was a pair of long stockings. The walls of the room were touched up, as if by a woman's hands, with pictures and a few ornaments. Where the garments were hanging David noticed a pair of woman's snow shoes, and a woman's moccasins under a picture of the Madonna. On the mantel there was a tall vase filled with the dried stems of flowers. And then came the most amazing discovery of all. There was a second table between the lamp and the bed, and it was set for two! Yes, for two! No, for three! For, a little in shadow, David saw a crudely made high-chair—a baby's chair—and on it were a little knife and fork, a baby spoon, and a little tin plate. It was astounding. Perfectly incredible. And David's eyes sought questingly for a door through which a woman might come and go mysteriously and unseen. There was none, and the one window of the room was so high up that a person standing on the ground outside could not look in.
And now it began to dawn upon David that all these things he was looking at were old—very old. In the Chateau the Missioner no longer ate on tin plates. The shoes and slippers must have been made a generation ago. The rag carpet under his feet had lost its vivid lines of colouring. Age impressed itself upon him. This was a woman's room, but the woman had not been here recently. And the child had not been here recently.
For the first time his eyes turned in a closer inspection of the table on which stood the big brass lamp. Father Roland's violin lay beside it. He made a step or two nearer, so that he could see beyond the lamp, and his heart gave a sudden jump. Shimmering on the faded red cloth of the table, glowing as brightly as though it had been clipped from a woman's head but yesterday, was a long, thick tress of hair! It was dark, richly dark, and his second impression was one of amazement at the length of it. The tress was as long as the table—fully a yard down the woman's back it must have hung. It was tied at the end with a bit of white ribbon.
David drew slowly back toward the door, stirred all at once by a great doubt. Had Father Roland meant him to look upon all this? A lump rose suddenly in his throat. He had made a mistake—a great mistake. He felt now like one who had broken into the sanctity of a sacred place. He had committed sacrilege. The Missioner had not dropped the key purposely. It must have been an accident. And he—David—was guilty of a great blunder. He withdrew from the room, and locked the door. He dropped the key where he had found it on the floor, and sat down again with his book. He did not read. He scarcely saw the lines of the printed page. He had not been in his chair more than ten minutes when he heard quick footsteps, followed by a hand at the door, and Father Roland came in. He was visibly excited, and his glance shot at once to the room which David had just left. Then his eyes scanned the floor. The key was gleaming where it had fallen, and with an exclamation of relief the Missioner snatched it up.
"I thought I had lost my key," he laughed, a bit nervously; then he added, with a deep breath: "It's snowing to-night. A heavy snow, and there will be good sledging for a few days. God knows I don't want you to leave me, but if it must be—we should take advantage of this snow. It will be the last. Mukoki and I will go with you as far as the Reindeer Lake country, two hundred miles northwest. David—must you go?"
It seemed to David that two tiny fists were pounding against his breast, where the picture lay.
"Yes, I must go," he said. "I have quite made up my mind to that. I must go."
Ten days after that night when he had gone into the mystery-room at the Chateau, David and Father Roland clasped hands in a final farewell at White Porcupine House, on the Cochrane River, 270 miles from God's Lake. It was something more than a hand-shake. The Missioner made no effort to speak in these last moments. His team was ready for the return drive and he had drawn his travelling hood close about his face. In his own heart he believed that David would never return. He would go back to civilization, probably next autumn, and in time he would forget. As he said, on their last day before reaching the Cochrane, David's going was like taking a part of his heart away. He blinked now, as he dropped David's hand—blinked and turned his eyes. And David's voice had an odd break in it. He knew what the Missioner was thinking.
"I'll come back, mon Pere," he called after him, as Father Roland broke away and went toward Mukoki and the dogs. "I'll come back next year!"
Father Roland did not look back until they were started. Then he turned and waved a mittened hand. Mukoki heard the sob in his throat. David tried to call a last word to him, but his voice choked. He, too, waved a hand. He had not known that there were friendships like this between men, and as the Missioner trailed steadily away from him, growing smaller and smaller against the dark rim of the distant forest, he felt a sudden fear and a great loneliness—a fear that, in spite of himself, they would not meet again, and the loneliness that comes to a man when he sees a world widening between himself and the one friend he has on earth. His one friend. The man who had saved him from himself, who had pointed out the way for him, who had made him fight. More than a friend; a father. He did not stop the broken sound that came to his lips. A low whine answered it, and he looked down at Baree, huddled in the snow within a yard of his feet. "My god and master," Baree's eyes said, as they looked up at him, "I am here." It was as if David had heard the words. He held out a hand and Baree came to him, his great wolfish body aquiver with joy. After all, he was not alone.
A short distance from him the Indian who was to take him over to Fond du Lac, on Lake Athabasca, was waiting with his dogs and sledge. He was a Sarcee, one of the last of an almost extinct tribe, so old that his hair was of a shaggy white, and he was so thin that he looked like a famine-stricken Hindu. "He has lived so long that no one knows his age," Father Roland had said, "and he is the best trailer between Hudson's Bay and the Peace." His name was Upso-Gee (the Snow Fox), and the Missioner had bargained with him for a hundred dollars to take David from White Porcupine House to Fond du Lac, three hundred miles farther northwest. He cracked his long caribou-gut whip to remind David that he was ready. David had said good-bye to the factor and the clerk at the Company store and there was no longer an excuse to detain him. They struck out across a small lake. Five minutes later he looked back. Father Roland, not much more than a speck on the white plain now, was about to disappear in the forest. It seemed to David that he had stopped, and again he waved his hand, though human eyes could not have seen the movement over that distance.
Not until that night, when David sat alone beside his campfire, did he begin to realize fully the vastness of this adventure into which he had plunged. The Snow Fox was dead asleep and it was horribly lonely. It was a dark night, too, with the shivering wailing of a restless wind in the tree tops; the sort of night that makes loneliness grow until it is like some kind of a monster inside, choking off one's breath. And on Upso-Gee's tepee, with the firelight dancing on it, there was painted in red a grotesque fiend with horns—a medicine man, or devil chaser; and this devil chaser grinned in a bloodthirsty manner at David as he sat near the fire, as if gloating over some dreadful fate that awaited him. It was lonely. Even Baree seemed to sense his master's oppression, for he had laid his head between David's feet, and was as still as if asleep. A long way off David could hear the howling of a wolf and it reminded him shiveringly of the lead-dog's howl that night before Tavish's cabin. It was like the death cry that comes from a dog's throat; and where the forest gloom mingled with the firelight he saw a phantom shadow—in the morning he found that it was a spruce bough, broken and hanging down—that made him think again of Tavish swinging in the moonlight. His thoughts bore upon him deeply and with foreboding. And he asked himself questions—questions which were not new, but which came to him to-night with a new and deeper significance. He believed that Father Roland would have gasped in amazement and that he would have held up his hands in incredulity had he known the truth of this astonishing adventure of his. An astonishing adventure—nothing less. To find a girl. A girl he had never seen, who might be in another part of the world, when he had got to the end of his journey—or married. And if he found her, what would he say? What would he do? Why did he want to find her? "God alone knows," he said aloud, borne down under his gloom, and went to bed.
Small things, as Father Roland had frequently said, decide great events. The next morning came with a glorious sun; the world again was white and wonderful, and David found swift answers to the questions he had asked himself a few hours before. Each day thereafter the sun was warmer, and with its increasing promise of the final "break-up" and slush snows, Upso-Gee's taciturnity and anxiety grew apace. He was little more talkative than the painted devil chaser on the blackened canvas of his tepee, but he gave David to understand that he would have a hard time getting back with his dogs and sledge from Fond du Lac if the thaw came earlier than he had anticipated. David marvelled at the old warrior's endurance, and especially when they crossed the forty miles of ice on Wollaston Lake between dawn and darkness. At high noon the snow was beginning to soften on the sunny slopes even then, and by the time they reached the Porcupine, Snow Fox was chanting his despairing prayer nightly before that grinning thing on his tepee. "Swas-tao (the thaw) she kam dam' queek," he said to David, grimacing his old face to express other things which he could not say in English. And it did. Four days later, when they reached Fond du Lac, there was water underfoot in places, and Upso-Gee turned back on the home trail within an hour.
This was in April, and the Post reminded David of a great hive to which the forest people were swarming like treasure-laden bees. On the last snow they were coming in with their furs from a hundred trap-lines. Luck was with David. On the first day Baree fought with a huge malemute and almost killed it, and David, in separating the dogs, was slightly bitten by the malemute. A friendship sprang up instantly between the two masters. Bouvais was a Frenchman from Horseshoe Bay, fifty miles from Fort Chippewyan, and a hundred and fifty straight west of Fond du Lac. He was a fox hunter. "I bring my furs over here, m'sieu," he explained, "because I had a fight with the factor at Fort Chippewyan and broke out two of his teeth," which was sufficient explanation. He was delighted when he learned that David wanted to go west. They started two days later with a sledge heavily laden with supplies. The runners sank deep in the growing slush, but under them was always the thick ice of Lake Athabasca, and going was not bad, except that David's feet were always wet. He was surprised that he did not take a "cold." "A cold—what is that?" asked Bouvais, who had lived along the Barrens all his life. David described a typical case of sniffles, with running at eyes and nose, and Bouvais laughed. "The only cold we have up here is when the lungs get touched by frost," he said, "and then you die—the following spring. Always then. The lungs slough away." And then he asked: "Why are you going west?"
David found himself face to face with the question, and had to answer. "Just to toughen up a bit," he replied. "Wandering. Nothing else to do." And after all, he thought later, wasn't that pretty near the truth? He tried to convince himself that it was. But his hand touched the picture of the Girl, in his breast pocket. He seemed to feel her throbbing against it. A preposterous imagination! But it was pleasing. It warmed his blood.
For a week David and Baree remained at Horseshoe Bay with the Frenchman. Then they went on around the end of the lake toward Fort Chippewyan. Bouvais accompanied them, out of friendship purely, and they travelled afoot with fifty-pound packs on their shoulders, for in the big, sunlit reaches the ground was already growing bare of snow. Bouvais turned back when they were ten miles from Fort Chippewyan, explaining that it was a nasty matter to have knocked two teeth down a factor's throat, and particularly down the throat of the head factor of the Chippewyan and Athabasca district. "And they went down," assured Bouvais. "He tried to spit them out, but couldn't." A few hours later David met the factor and observed that Bouvais had spoken the truth; at least there were two teeth missing, quite conspicuously. Hatchett was his name. He looked it; tall, thin, sinewy, with bird-like eyes that were shifting this way and that at all times, as though he were constantly on the alert for an ambush, or feared thieves. He was suspicious of David, coming in alone in this No Man's Land with a pack on his back; a white man, too, which made him all the more suspicious. Perhaps a possible free trader looking for a location. Or, worse still, a spy of the Company's hated competitors, the Revilon Brothers. It took some time for Father Roland's letter to convince him that David was harmless. And then, all at once, he warmed up like a birch-bark taking fire, and shook David's hand three times within five minutes, so hungry was he for a white man's companionship—an honest white man's, mind you, and not a scoundrelly competitor's! He opened four cans of lobsters, left over from Christmas, for their first meal, and that night beat David at seven games of cribbage in a row. He wasn't married, he said; didn't even have an Indian woman. Hated women. If it wasn't for breeding a future generation of trappers he would not care if they all died. No good. Positively no good. Always making trouble, more or less. That's why, a long time ago, there was a fort at Chippewyan—sort of blockhouse that still stood there. Two men, of two different tribes, wanted same woman; quarrelled; fought; one got his blamed head busted; tribes took it up; raised hell for a time—all over that rag of a woman! Terrible creatures, women were. He emphasized his belief in short, biting snatches of words, as though afraid of wearing out his breath or his vocabulary or both. Maybe his teeth had something to do with it. Where the two were missing he carried the stem of his pipe, and when he talked the stem clicked, like a Castanet.
David had come at a propitious moment—a "most propichus moment," Hatchett told him. He had done splendidly that winter. His bargains with the Indians had been sharp and exceedingly profitable for the Company and as soon as he got his furs off to Fort McMurray on their way to Edmonton he was going on a long journey of inspection, which was his reward for duty well performed. His fur barges were ready. All they were waiting for was the breaking up of the ice, when the barges would start up the Athabasca, which meant south; while he, in his big war canoe, would head up the Peace, which meant west. He was going as far as Hudson's Hope, and this was within two hundred and fifty miles of where David wanted to go. He proved that fact by digging up an old Company map. David's heart beat an excited tattoo. This was more than he had expected. Almost too good to be true. "You can work your way up there with me," declared Hatchett, clicking his pipe stem. "Won't cost you a cent. Not a dam' cent. Work. Eat. Smoke. Fine trip. Just for company. A man needs company once in a while—decent company. Ice will go by middle of May. Two weeks. Meanwhile, have a devil of a time playing cribbage."
They did. Cribbage was Hatchett's one passion, unless another was—beating the Indians. "Rascally devils," he would say, driving his cribbage pegs home. "Always trying to put off poor fur on me for good. Deserve to be beat. And I beat 'em. Dam-if-I-don't."
"How did you lose your teeth?" David asked him at last. They were playing late one night.
Hatchett sat up in his chair as if stung. His eyes bulged as he looked at David, and his pipe stem clicked fiercely.
"Frenchman," he said. "Dirty pig of a Frenchman. No use for 'em. None. Told him women were no good—all women were bad. Said he had a woman. Said I didn't care—all bad just the same. Said the woman he referred to was his wife. Told him he was a fool to have a wife. No warning—the pig! He biffed me. Knocked those two teeth out—down! I'll get him some day. Flay him. Make dog whips of his dirty hide. All Frenchmen ought to die. Hope to God they will. Starve. Freeze."
In spite of himself David laughed. Hatchett took no offense, but the grimness of his long, sombre countenance remained unbroken. A day or two later he discovered Hatchett in the act of giving an old, white-haired, half-breed cripple a bag of supplies. Hatchett shook himself, as if caught in an act of crime.
"I'm going to kill that old Dog Rib soon as the ground's soft enough to dig a grave," he declared, shaking a fist fiercely after the old Indian. "Beggar. A sneak. No good. Ought to die. Giving him just enough to keep him alive until the ground is soft."
After all, Hatchett's face belied his heart. His tongue was like a cleaver. It ripped things generally—was terrible in its threatening, but harmless, and tremendously amusing to David. He liked Hatchett. His cadaverous countenance, never breaking into a smile, was the oddest mask he had ever seen a human being wear. He believed that if it once broke into a laugh it would not straighten back again without leaving a permanent crack. And yet he liked the man, and the days passed swiftly.
It was the middle of May before they started up the Peace, three days after the fur barges had gone down the Athabasca. David had never seen anything like Hatchett's big war canoe, roomy as a small ship, and light as a feather on the water. Four powerful Dog Ribs went with them, making six paddles in all. When it came to a question of Baree, Hatchett put down his foot with emphasis. "What! Make a dam' passenger of a dog? Never. Let him follow ashore—or die."
This would undoubtedly have been Baree's choice if he had had a voice in the matter. Day after day he followed the canoe, swimming streams and working his way through swamp and forest. It was no easy matter. In the deep, slow waters of the Lower Peace the canoe made thirty-five miles a day; twice it made forty. But Hatchett kept Baree well fed, and each night the dog slept at David's feet in camp. On the sixth day they reached Fort Vermilion, and Hatchett announced himself like a king. For he was on inspection. Company inspection, mind you. Important! A week later they arrived at Peace River landing, two hundred miles farther west, and on the twentieth day came to Fort St. John, fifty miles from Hudson's Hope. From here David saw his first of the mountains. He made out their snowy peaks clearly, seventy miles away, and with his finger on a certain spot on Hatchett's map his heart thrilled. He was almost there! Each day the mountains grew nearer. From Hudson's Hope he fancied that he could almost see the dark blankets of timber on their sides. Hatchett grunted. They were still forty miles away. And Mac Veigh, the factor at Hudson's Hope, looked at David in a curious sort of way when David told him where he was going.
"You're the first white man to do it," he said—an inflection of doubt in his voice. "It's not bad going up the Finly as far as the Kwadocha. But from there...."
He shook his head. He was short and thick, and his jaw hung heavy with disapproval.
"You're still seventy miles from the Stikine when you end up at the Kwadocha," he went on, thumbing the map. "Who the devil will you get to take you on from there? Straight over the backbone of the Rockies. No trails. Not even a Post there. Too rough a country. Even the Indians won't live in it." He was silent for a moment, as if reflecting deeply. "Old Towaskook and his tribe are on the Kwadocha," he added, as if seeing a glimmer of hope. "He might. But I doubt it. They're a lazy lot of mongrels, Towaskook's people, who carve things out of wood, to worship. Still, he might. I'll send up a good man with you to influence him, and you'd better take along a couple hundred dollars in supplies as a further inducement."
The man was a half-breed. Three days later they left Hudson's Hope, with Baree riding amidships. The mountains loomed up swiftly after this, and the second day they were among them. After that it was slow work fighting their way up against the current of the Finly. It was tremendous work. It seemed to David that half their time was spent amid the roar of rapids. Twenty-seven times within five days they made portages. Later on it took them two days to carry their canoe and supplies around a mountain. Fifteen days were spent in making eighty miles. Easier travel followed then. It was the twentieth of June when they made their last camp before reaching the Kwadocha. The sun was still up; but they were tired, utterly exhausted. David looked at his map and at the figures in the notebook he carried. He had come close to fifteen hundred miles since that day when he and Father Roland and Mukoki had set out for the Cochrane. Fifteen hundred miles! And he had less than a hundred more to go! Just over those mountains—somewhere beyond them. It looked easy. He would not be afraid to go alone, if old Towaskook refused to help him. Yes, alone. He would find his way, somehow, he and Baree. He had unbounded confidence in Baree. Together they could fight it out. Within a week or two they would find the Girl.
He looked at the picture a long time in the glow of the setting sun.
It was the week of the Big Festival when David and his half-breed arrived at Towaskook's village. Towaskook was the "farthest east" of the totem-worshippers, and each of his forty or fifty people reminded David of the devil chaser on the canvas of the Snow Fox's tepee. They were dressed up, as he remarked to the half-breed, "like fiends." On the day of David's arrival Towaskook himself was disguised in a huge bear head from which protruded a pair of buffalo horns that had somehow drifted up there from the western prairies, and it was his special business to perform various antics about his totem pole for at least six hours between sunrise and sunset, chanting all the time most dolorous supplications to the squat monster who sat, grinning, at the top. It was "the day of good hunting," and Towaskook and his people worked themselves into exhaustion by the ardour of their prayers that the game of the mountains might walk right up to their tepee doors to be killed, thus necessitating the smallest possible physical exertion in its capture. That night Towaskook visited David at his camp, a little up the river, to see what he could get out of the white man. He was monstrously fat—fat from laziness; and David wondered how he had managed to put in his hours of labour under the totem pole. David sat in silence, trying to make out something from their gestures, as his half-breed, Jacques, and the old chief talked.
Jacques repeated it all to him after Towaskook, sighing deeply, had risen from his squatting posture, and left them. It was a terrible journey over those mountains, Towaskook had said. He had been on the Stikine once. He had split with his tribe, and had started eastward with many followers, but half of them had died—died because they would not leave their precious totems behind—and so had been caught in a deep snow that came early. It was a ten-day journey over the mountains. You went up above the clouds—many times you had to go above the clouds. He would never make the journey again. There was one chance—just one. He had a young bear hunter, Kio, his face was still smooth. He had not won his spurs, so to speak, and he was anxious to perform a great feat, especially as he was in love with his medicine man's daughter Kwak-wa-pisew (the Butterfly). Kio might go, to prove his valour to the Butterfly. Towaskook had gone for him. Of course, on a mission of this kind, Kio would accept no pay. That would go to Towaskook. The two hundred dollars' worth of supplies satisfied him.
A little later Towaskook returned with Kio. He was exceedingly youthful, slim-built as a weazel, but with a deep-set and treacherous eye. He listened. He would go. He would go as far as the confluence of the Pitman and the Stikine, if Towaskook would assure him the Butterfly. Towaskook, eyeing greedily the supplies which Jacques had laid out alluringly, nodded an agreement to that. "The next day," Kio said, then, eager now for the adventure. "The next day they would start."
That night Jacques carefully made up the two shoulder packs which David and Kio were to carry, for thereafter their travel would be entirely afoot. David's burden, with his rifle, was fifty pounds. Jacques saw them off, shouting a last warning for David to "keep a watch on that devil-eyed Kio."
Kio was not like his eyes. He turned out, very shortly, to be a communicative and rather likable young fellow. He was ignorant of the white man's talk. But he was a master of gesticulation; and when, in climbing their first mountain, David discovered muscles in his legs and back that he had never known of before, Kio laughingly sympathized with him and assured him in vivid pantomime that he would soon get used to it. Their first night they camped almost at the summit of the mountain. Kio wanted to make the warmth of the valley beyond, but those new muscles in David's legs and back declared otherwise. Strawberries were ripening in the deeper valleys, but up where they were it was cold. A bitter wind came off the snow on the peaks, and David could smell the pungent fog of the clouds. They were so high that the scrub twigs of their fire smouldered with scarcely sufficient heat to fry their bacon. David was oblivious of the discomfort. His blood ran warm in hope and anticipation. He was almost at the end of his journey. It had been a great fight, and he had won. There was no doubt in his mind now. After this he could face the world again.