It was all so new and wonderful! A sense of enjoyment actually stole over her. But for the feeling of stiffness in her face she felt comfortably warm. Without ever meeting a soul, through a country that seemed utterly deserted of man, they went on for several miles. Once Stefan stopped the toboggan in order to show her tracks of a bear. It was wonderful to think that such animals roamed about her. The Swede told her that they were utterly harmless, that they always fled as soon as their keen eyes or sharp ears revealed the neighborhood of their enemies, the men who coveted their thick and long-haired hides worth a good many dollars. But she saw few living things; once there was a great snowy owl that rose heavily and then flew swiftly and in silence from a stump in a brule, disappearing among the trees like an animated shadow, yes, a shadow of sudden death to hares and partridges cowering beneath the fronds of wide-spreading conifers or in the great tangles of frost-killed long grasses.
It was altogether another world, strange and of rugged beauty. She felt as if she had been transported from the seething city into the vast peace of some landscape of moon or stars. Every bit of the old harsh world was now left behind and there was no longer any hint of cruelty in the snowy plains and hills and forest; nothing reminded her of despairing hunger, of the disbelief that had stolen upon her in the possibility of eking out much longer a life that was too hard to sustain. What if her errand seemed fantastic, unreal, since this new world also was like some illusion of a dream? The great stillness appeared to be friendly—the bent tops of snow-laden trees surely bowed a welcome to her—the shining sun and the pure air, in spite of bitter cold, drove the blood more rapidly through her veins and she no longer deemed life to be a mere form of suffering, such as she had undergone during the last year of her losing contest in the cruel, pitiless town.
Suddenly, as Stefan trudged behind in a narrow part of the old tote-road, a big white hare crossed the path ahead of the dogs, perhaps seeking to escape the pursuit of some marten or weasel. At once the team broke into a headlong gallop, a helter-skelter pursuit, while their master roared at them unavailingly. Down a small declivity they flew. A moment later one side of the toboggan rose suddenly and the passenger felt herself being shot off into the snow. As the sled upset the little trunk lashed to its back caught into something and firmly anchored the whole contrivance, a few yards further on, and perforce the animals stopped with hanging tongues and steaming breaths.
An instant later Stefan was helping Madge arise. He looked at her in deep concern.
"Dem tamn togs!" he roared. "I hope you ain't hurted none, leddy?"
With his assistance she rose quickly from the snow. It is possible that she had scarcely had time enough to become afraid. At any rate this new life that had come to her asserted itself, irresistibly, for there was something in its essence that would not be denied. In the heart that had been overburdened something broke, like a flood bursting its bonds. She threw up her head and uplifted her hands as laughter, pealing and rippling unrestrained, shook her slender frame from head to foot until tears ran down the now reddened cheeks and turned to tiny globes of ice. She was making up for weeks and months of sombre thoughts, of despair, of shrewd suffering.
"Tank gootness!" roared Stefan. "First I tink dem togs yoost kill you dead. If so I take de pelts off 'em all alife, de scoundrels!"
"Oh! Please don't punish them," she cried. "It—it was so funny! Oh, dear! I—I must stop laughing! It—it hurts my sides!"
She ran off among the dogs and threw herself down on the crusted snow, passing one arm over a shaggy back. The animal looked at her, uncertainly, but suddenly he passed a big moist tongue over her face. Could he have realized that her saving grace might avert condign punishment? The girl petted him as Stefan turned the toboggan and its load right side up.
"You ain't feared of dem togs," he called to her. "And you vasn't afraid vhen dey dump you out. You's a blucky gal all right, leddy!"
A moment later she was again wrapped up in the bearskin and the dogs, loudly threatened but unpunished, owing to her intercession, resumed their journey. They had gone but a few hundred yards further when Madge smelled wood-smoke. A few minutes later they came in sight of a low-built shack of heavy planks evidently turned out in a sawpit and resting on walls of peeled spruce logs. The dogs trotted toward it and a woman came out as Stefan stopped his team.
"I got a letter for you, Mis' Carew," he announced. "I got it dis morning at de post-office and bring it as I come along dis vay."
He searched a pocket of his coat while the woman looked at Madge curiously.
"Won't you come in and warm yourself a while?" she asked, civilly. "I can make you a hot cup of tea in a minute."
"Thank you! Thank you ever so much," answered Madge. "I—I think we'd better hurry on."
Stefan had found the letter and handed it to Mrs. Carew.
"Wait a moment, Stefan, won't you?" asked the woman. "There might possibly be some message you could take for me."
The man lit his pipe while the woman went indoors. A moment later she came out, excitedly.
"Oh! Stefan," she cried. "I'm so glad you came. My man's away with the dogs, gone after a load of moose-meat, and won't be back till to-morrow. And my daughter Mary's very sick at Missanaibie and wants me to come right over. Could you take me over to the depot in time for the afternoon train west? Are you going back to-day?"
Stefan pulled out a big silver watch and studied it.
"Yes, ma'am," he answered. "I'm yoost goin' over to Hugo's wid dis leddy. If I go real smart I can get back in time, but I got to hurry a bit. So long! I come right soon back. Leave a vord for Tom und be ready de moment I come. I make it, sure!"
With this assurance he started off again, while the woman was still crying out her thanks. There was a long bit of good going now, which they covered at a good pace. Madge was thinking how helpful all these people were, how naturally they gave, how readily they asked for the help that was always welcome, as far as she could see. Yes, it was all so very different.
"Won't the dogs be dreadfully tired," she asked, "if you go back so soon?"
"No, leddy," he asserted. "Twenty-four miles ain't much of a trip. Dey make tvice dat if need come. And me too, sure t'ing!"
As she looked at him she knew that he spoke the simple truth. Even the people of this country seemed to be built differently. All of them looked sturdy, self-reliant, strong to endure, and, more than anything, ready to share everything either with stranger or with friend. In spite of the weariness she felt after her long journey and of the ache in her bones that was coming from the unusual manner of her travelling, she felt that this was a blessed country, a haven of rest that held promise of wonderful peace. All at once they came in sight of a river, snow-shackled like all the others, except for black patches where the under-running flood so hurried in rapid places that the surface could not freeze. From such air-holes, as they are called, steam arose that was like the smoke of fires.
"What is that river?" she called.
"Dat's de Roaring Rifer, leddy," Stefan informed her. "Ve's only a little vays to go now. Maybe five minute."
At this moment, as in a flash, all of her vague and carking fears returned to the girl, and her hand went to her breast. It was only a little way now! And it was no dream—no figment of her imagination! The beginning of the real adventure was at hand! Truth flashed upon her. In a few moments she would see for the first time the man she was to marry. She blushed fiery red. Instinctively she looked about her, like some wild thing vainly seeking for a way to escape impending peril. What would he be like? What would he think of her? Oh! She now knew that it had all been a frightful mistake! Her limbs shook with a sudden bitter coldness that had fallen upon her like one of the masses that became displaced from the great trees, and she could not keep her teeth from chattering. Then, in her ears, began to boom a strong continuous sound that was ominous, threatening.
"What's that?" she stammered, trembling.
"Dat's de noise of dem big Falls of Roaring River," answered Stefan.
An instant later, Madge never knew why, the dogs were snarling in a fight. In a moment Stefan was among them, wielding his short-handled and long-lashed whip. A trace was broken. By the time the damage was repaired and the dogs pacified some ten minutes or more had been wasted. The man looked at his watch.
"I ain't got so much time left," he said. "I got to hurry back for Mis' Carew. Lucky ve're most dere now."
A few seconds after they had started again they came to an opening, towards which Stefan pointed, and the girl's heart sank within her.
She saw nothing of the distant falls surrounded by a growth in which every twig scintillated with the frost lavished by the river's vapor. She never noticed the great circular pool with its deep banks, or the wonderful view, far across country, of mountains washed in pale blues and lavenders, of the sun-flooded bright expanse of open ground, partly fenced in with axe-hewn rails. She could only stare at a little shack, the smallest she had seen in that country, and at the thread of smoke coming from the length of stove-pipe protruding from the ice-covered roof, and to her it looked like the home of misery.
A few yards farther on the team stopped. From here the hut could only be faintly distinguished through a growth of birches and firs.
"You can get off de toboggan now, leddy," Stefan told her. "I puts off your trunk too. Hugo he come and get it. I call to him."
She rose to her feet, speechless, amazed, with fear causing a terrible throbbing in her throat. She would have protested but could not find her voice. As soon as Stefan had unlashed the trunk and put it down on the frozen ground he turned his team around.
"Oh! Hugo!" he bellowed. "Oh! Hugo! Here's de leddy."
For an instant there was no reply, but while Stefan yelled again she saw, through a small opening in the interlaced branches, that the door opened. A huge dog came out and rolled in the snow, barking. The man waved a hand.
"I can't vait a moment. Good-by, leddy, I must go. You tell Hugo why I hurry so."
The man had jumped on the toboggan and he was already being borne away, swiftly, by his team of wild shaggy brutes that seemed never to have known a weary moment in their lives. And she stood there, at the foot of a great blasted pine, terror-stricken, wondering what further torture of mind and body the world had in store for her.
But for that hut the place was a frozen desert, with no other sign of man. And she was alone—alone with him—and the fierce-looking dog was now running towards her. She leaned back against the tree, feeling that without some support she must collapse at its foot.
When Gunpowder Speaks
Hugo Ennis, a man well under thirty, tall and spare of form, with the lithe and active limbs that are capable of hard and prolonged action, had stood for a time by the tough door of his little shack. It was a single-roomed affair, quite large enough for a lone man, which he had carefully built of peeled logs. Within it there was a bunk fixed against the wall, upon which his heavy blankets had been folded in a neat pile, for he was a man of some order. Near the other end there was a stove, a good one that could keep the place warm and amply sufficed for his simple cookery. The table was of axe-hewn cedar planks and the two chairs had been rustically designed of the same material. Between the logs forming the walls the spaces had been chinked with moss, covered with blue clay taken from the river-bank, above the falls. Strong pegs had been driven into the heavy wood and from them hung traps and a couple of guns, with spare snowshoes and odd pieces of apparel. In a corner of the room there were steel hand-drills, heavy hammers, a pick and a shovel. Against the walls he had built strong shelves that held perhaps a score of books and a varied assortment of groceries. More of these latter articles had been placed on a swinging board hung from the roof, out of reach of thieving rodents.
He had been looking down, over the great rocky ledge at one side of his shack, into the big pool of the Roaring River, which at this time was but a wild jam of huge slabs of ice insecurely soldered together by snow and the spray from the falls. Beneath that jumbled mass he knew that the water was straining and groaning and swirling until it found under the thick ice the outlet that would lead it towards the big lake to the eastward. Although the middle of March was at hand there was not the slightest sign of any breaking up. He knew that it would take a long time yet before the snows began to melt, the ice to become thinner on the lakes and the waters to rise, brown and turbid with the earth torn from the banks and the sand ever ground up in the rough play of turbulent waters with rolling boulders.
Yet the coming of spring was not so very far off now and the days were growing longer. It would take but a few weeks before the first great wedges of flying geese would pass high above him in their journey to the shallows of the Hudson's Bay, where they nested in myriads. And then other birds would follow until the smallest arrived, chirping with the joy of the slumbering earth's awakening.
It was a glorious country, he truly believed. The winter had been long but the hunting and trapping had kept him busy enough. The days had seemed too short to become dreary and he had slept long during the nights, seldom awakening at the rumblings of the maddened pent-up waters or the sharp explosions of great trees cracking in the fierce cold. But he was glad of the prospect of renewed hard work upon his claim, of promising toil to expose further the great silver-bearing veins of calcite that wound their way through the harder rock. He knew that his find was of the sort that had flooded the Nipissing and the Gowganda countries with eager searchers and delvers, and created villages and even towns in a wilderness where formerly the moose wandered in the great hardwood swamps and the deer were often chased by ravening packs of baying wolves.
His attention had reverted to the great sharp-muzzled dog that had been crouching at his feet, and he bent down and began to pull out small porcupine quills that had become fastened in the animal's nose and lips.
"Maybe some day you'll learn enough to let those varmints alone, Maigan, old boy," he said, having become accustomed to long conversations with his companion. "I expect you're pretty nearly as silly as a man. Experience teaches you mighty little. Dogs and men have been stung since the beginning of the world, I expect, and keep on making the same old mistakes. Hold hard, old fellow! I know it hurts like the deuce but these things have just got to come out."
Maigan is the name of the wolf, in some of the Indian dialects, and Hugo's friend seemed but little removed from a wolfish ancestry. He evidently did his best to bear the punishment bravely, for he never whimpered. At times, however, he sought hard to pull his muzzle away. Finally, to his great relief, the last serrated quill was pulled out and he jumped up, placing his paws on the man's shoulders, perhaps to show he held no grudge. After his master had petted him, an excitable red squirrel required his immediate attention and, as usual, led him to a fruitless chase. He returned soon, scratching at the boards, and his master let him in and closed the door. A moment later the animal's sharp ears pricked up; the wiry hair on his back rose and he uttered a low growl.
"Keep still, Maigan!" ordered his master. "Wonder who's coming? Maybe one of Papineau's young ones."
The fire was getting low and he put a couple of sticks of yellow birch in the stove. A few seconds later he heard a shout that came from behind the saplings which, in some places, concealed the old tote-road from his view. No one but Big Stefan could bellow out so powerfully, to be sure. He opened the door and Maigan leaped out. In more leisurely fashion he followed and stopped, in astonishment, as he caught sight of the dog-team flying back towards Carcajou.
"That's a queer start!" he commented. "First time I ever knew him not to stop for a cup of tea and a talk."
He thought he saw something like a black box through the branches and went up. It must be something Stefan had left for him. He walked up the path in leisurely fashion. There was evidently no hurry. He was feeling a little disappointment, for he had become fond of Stefan during his long prospecting trip and would have been glad of a chat to the invariable accompaniment of the hospitable tea-kettle. He had just made some pretty good biscuits, too. It was a pity the Swede wouldn't share them with him. He reached the black box which, to his surprise, turned out to be a small corded trunk lying on the hard dry snow, with a cheap leather bag on top of it. He looked about him in wonder and stopped, suddenly, staring in astonishment at the form of a woman, shapeless in great ill-fitting garments too big for her. She was leaning back against the great bare trunk of the old blasted pine and the dog was skulking around her, curiously. Then he hurried towards her, calling out a word of warning to Maigan, who seemed to realize that this was no enemy. And as he came the woman, deathly pale, seemed to look upon him as if he had been some terrifying ghost. She put out her hands, just a little, as if seeking to protect herself from him.
"Are—are you Hugo Ennis?" she faltered.
"That's my name," he said. "Every one knows me around here. What—what can I do for you?"
"My—my name is Madge Nelson," she Stammered. "I—I'm Madge Nelson from—from New York."
"How do you do, Miss Nelson?" he said, quietly, touching his fur cap. "You—I'm afraid you've had a mighty cold ride. What's happened to Stefan to make him go back? Lost something on the road, has he?"
"I—I'm afraid I'm the only lost thing around here," she said, seeking to hold back the tears that were beginning to well up in her eyes. "Oh! I think—I think I'm becoming mad!" she suddenly cried out, bitterly. "Is—is that your—your house, the—the residence you spoke of?"
"The—the residence!" he repeated. "And I spoke of it, did I? Well, I suppose that anything with a roof on it is a residence, if you come to that. Yes, that's it, the little shack among the birches, and you'd better come in till Stefan gets back, for it's mighty cold here and—and if you're from New York you're not used to this sort of thing. It's the best I can offer you, but I really never thought it worth talking about. It's the slight improvement on a dog-kennel that we folks have to be contented with, in these parts. Come right in; you look half frozen."
"And—and that is the sort of place you've brought me to?" she cried, her eyes now flashing at him in anger.
"Well, it seems to me that it's Stefan that brought you," he replied, rather abashed.
"That—that's only a mean quibble," she retorted, hotly. "And—and where's the town—or the village—and the other people, the friends who were to greet me?"
The young man was beginning to feel rather provoked at her questions.
"The nearest settlers are a short mile away,—the Papineaus, very decent French Canadians. Tom Carew's shack you must have passed on your way here. The only village, of course, is Carcajou, and that's twelve long miles away. But Mrs. Papineau is a real good old soul, if that's where you expect to stop. A dozen kids about the place but they're jolly little beggars. Her husband's trapping now, I believe, but of course I'll take you up there."
At this she seemed to feel somewhat relieved. It was evident that she was in no great peril. Yet she looked again at his shack, with her lower lip in the bite of her teeth.
"You—you didn't really believe I'd come," she said, her mouth quivering. "You—you were just making fun of me, I see, with—with that residence and—and the ladies who were ready to welcome me. Where are they?"
Ennis was scratching his head, or the cap over it, as he stared again at her. He realized that some amazing, terrible mistake must have been made, as he thought—or that this girl must be the victim of some dreadful misunderstanding, if not of a foul plot. He began to pity her. She looked so weak, so helpless, in spite of the anger she had shown.
"There—there are no ladies," he said, lamely, "except Mrs. Papineau and Mrs. Carew. They're first-rate women, both of 'em. And of course Mrs. Papineau is your only resource till to-morrow, unless Stefan is coming back for you."
"He isn't," she declared. "I said nothing about going back."
"That's awkward," he admitted. "You'll tell me all about this thing later on, won't you, because I might be able to help you out. But you'll be all right for a while, anyway. I'll take you there."
"Please start at once," she cried, desperately. "I—I can't stay here for another instant."
"I can be ready in a very few minutes," he told her, quietly. "But won't you please come over to the shack. I'm sure you're beginning to feel the cold. You—you're shivering and—and I'm afraid you look rather ill."
She had insisted on Stefan's taking back some of the things she had borrowed from his wife, and had been standing there in rather inadequate clothing. Ennis pulled off his heavy mackinaw jacket.
"You must put this on at once," he told her, gently enough, "and come right over there with me."
Madge shrank from him, as if she feared to be touched by him, and yet there was something in the frank way in which he addressed her, perhaps also in the clear and unembarrassed look of his eyes, that was gradually allaying her fears and the fierce repulsion of the first few moments. Finally, chilled as she was to the very marrow of her bones, she consented to accept his offer and submitted to his helping her on with the coat.
"There's a good fire in the shack just now," he told her. "It's absolutely necessary for you to get thoroughly warmed up before you start off again. A cup of hot tea would do you a lot of good, too, after that long ride on Stefan's toboggan. It's no joke of an undertaking for a—a young lady who isn't used to such things."
Madge was still hesitating. The suffering look that had come into her eyes moved the young man to greater pity for her.
"I—I give you my word you have absolutely nothing to fear," he assured her, whereupon she followed him meekly, feeling very faint now. She half feared that she might have to clutch at his sleeve, if her footsteps failed her, for she felt that at any moment she might stagger and fall. She gasped again as she looked at the shack they were nearing, but, as she beheld the scenery of the great pool, something in it that was very grand and beautiful appealed to her for an instant. Yet she felt crushed by it, as if she had been some infinitesimal insect beside that stupendous crashing of waters, before the great ledges whose tops were hirsute with gnarled firs and twisted jack-pines. She stopped for a moment, perhaps owing to her weakness, or possibly because of awe at the majesty of the scene.
"I just love it," said the man. "It grows more utterly splendid every time one looks at it. See that mass of rubbish on the top of that great hemlock. It is the nest of a pair of ospreys. They come every year, I've been told. Last summer I saw them circling high up in the heavens, at times, and they would utter shrill cries as if they had been the guardians of the falls and warned me off. But we had better hurry in, Miss—Miss Nelson."
For an instant she had listened, wondering. This man did not speak like a common toiler of city or country. His manner, somewhat distant, in no way reminded her of the coarse familiarity she had often been subjected to in shop and factory. But a moment later such thoughts passed off and she followed him, resentfully, feeling that she was to some extent forced to submit to his will. As Ennis pulled the door open and held it for her to walk in, he looked at her keenly. He had suddenly remembered hearing that exposure to intense cold had sometimes actually disturbed the brains of people; that it had brought on some form of insanity. He wondered whether, perhaps, this had been the case with her? It was with greater concern and sympathy that he felt he must treat her. The vagaries of her language, the reproaches she seemed to think he deserved, were doubtless things she was not responsible for. And then she looked so weary, so overcome, so ready to collapse with faintness!
Madge entered the shack. It had been swept, neatly enough, and everything was arranged in orderly fashion, except some loose things piled up in one corner, out of the way. The little stove was glowing, and the draft was purring softly. The girl pulled off her mitts and held her reddened hands to it while Hugo brought her one of his rough chairs. Then, without a word, he placed a kettle on the fire, after which he brought out a white enameled cup and a small pan containing some of his biscuits. After cogitating for a moment he also placed on the table a tin of sardines.
Madge had dropped upon the chair, and began to feel more unutterably weary than ever. The heat, close to the stove, became too great for her and she moved her chair to the table, a couple of feet away, and placed her arms upon it. Her head fell forward on them, and when, a few moments later, Hugo spoke to her and she lifted up her face he was dismayed as he saw the tears that were running down her cheeks. The man could only bite his lips. What consolation or comfort could he proffer? It was perhaps better to appear to take no notice of her distress. But the weeping of genuine suffering and unhappiness is a hard thing for a youth to see. The impulse had come to him to cry out for information, to beg her to explain, to question her, to get at the bottom of all this mystery. He was held from this by the renewed thought that her mind was probably affected. He might further irritate her or cause her still deeper chagrin. Even if he erred in this idea the moment was probably ill-chosen. It would be better for her to tell her tale before others also. He would wait until after he had taken her over to Papineau's. She looked so harmless and weak that the idea that she might prove dangerous never entered his head.
The kettle began to sing and a moment later the water was boiling hard.
"I can't offer you much of a meal, Miss Nelson," he said, seeking to make his voice as pleasant as possible. "You've probably never tried sour-dough biscuits. Mrs. Papineau's are better, but you may be able to manage one or two of these. That good woman's a mighty good cook, as cooking goes in these parts. Here's a can of condensed milk; won't you help yourself? You must really try to eat something. Do you think you could try a little cold corned beef? I have some canned stuff that's not half bad. Or it would take but a moment to broil you a partridge I got yesterday. But I'll open these sardines first."
He went to work with a large jack-knife, but she thanked him, briefly, in a low voice, and refused to accept anything but the tea and a bit of the biscuit. She wondered why he didn't also sit down to eat. It bothered her to see him hovering over her like some sort of waiter. He was probably staring at her, when her head was turned, and enjoying his dastardly jest. When she thought of those letters she had received and of all they contained of lies, of unimaginable falsehoods, the man began again to repel her like some venomous reptile. She could have shrieked out as he came near. What an actor he was! What control he held over voice and face as he pretended to know nothing about her. His effort had been evident, from the very first instant they had met, to disclaim the slightest knowledge of her or of the reasons for her coming! She felt utterly bewildered. He answered to that name of Hugo Ennis and had admitted that this was Roaring River, as Stefan had also told her. Moreover, the big Swede knew perfectly well that she was coming and expected. In word, in action, in every move of his, this man was lying, stupidly, coarsely, with features indifferent or pretending concern. It was unbearable.
She turned and looked at him again, swiftly but haggardly. She would never have conceived the possibility of a man dissembling so, in letters first and lying again in every move and every tone of his voice. How could he keep it so tranquil and unmoved? Yet when he came near her again, insisting on filling her cup once more, she seemed for an instant to forget the rough clothes, the mean little shack, the strange conspiracy of which she was the victim and which had aroused her passionate protests. Over the first mouthfuls of hot tea she had nearly choked, but she had found the warm brew welcome and its odor grateful and pleasant. It mingled in some way with the scent of the balsam boughs with which the bunk was covered and over which the blankets reposed. She had experienced something like this feeling in the hospital, the first time she had been an inmate of it. It was as if again she had been very ill and awakened in an unfamiliar and bewildering place. The great weakness she experienced was something like that which she had felt in the great ward, where the rows of beds stretched before her and at either side. Some were screened, she remembered, and held the poor creatures for whom there was no longer any hope. It was as if now a turn of her head could have revealed a white-capped nurse moving silently, deftly bringing comfort. Her hands had become quite warm again; she passed one of them over her brow as if this motion might have dispelled some strange vision.
The big dog, Maigan, came to her and laid his sharp head and pointed cold muzzle on her lap, and she stroked it, mechanically. This, at any rate, was something genuine and friendly that had come to her. Again and again she passed her hand over the rough neck and head. At this, however, something within her broke again and her head fell once more on her arms as she sobbed,—sobbed as if her heart would break.
"I—I'm afraid you must have gone through a good deal of—of unhappiness," faltered the man, anxiously. "It—it's really too bad and I'd give anything if I could...."
But the girl lifted up her hand, as if to check his words. What right had a man who was guilty of such conduct to begin proffering a repentance that was unavailing, nay, contemptible? Did he think that a few halting words could atone for his cruelty, could dispel the evil he had wrought?
At this he kept silent again, during long minutes, appalled as men always are at the first sight of a woman's tears. He felt utterly helpless to console or advise, and was becoming more and more bewildered at this interruption of his lonely and quiet life. Since she didn't want him to speak he would hold his tongue. If she hadn't looked so dreadfully unhappy he would have deemed her an infernal nuisance and hurried her departure. But in this case how could a fellow be brutal to a poor thing that wailed like a child, that seemed weaker than one and more in need of gentle care?
Soon she rose from the table, determinedly, with some of her energy renewed by the food and hot drink.
"If you please, let us go now," she told him, firmly.
"I'm entirely at your service," he answered. "I think you had better let me lend you a cap. That thing you have on your head can hardly keep your ears from freezing. I have a new one that's never been worn. Wait a moment."
His search was soon rewarded. She had kept on but her inefficient little New York hat with its faded buds and wrinkled leaves and now tried to remove it. Her hands trembled, however, and the strain of travel had been hard. All at once, as she pulled away, her coiled hair escaped all restraint of pins and fell down upon her shoulders, in a great waving chestnut mass. At this Hugo opened the door and ran out, returning a couple of minutes later with the bag that had been left on the trunk.
"I—I expect you need some of your things," he ventured.
She looked at him with some gratitude. Most men wouldn't have thought of it. Nodding her thanks she opened the thing and was compelled to pull out various articles before she could get at her comb and brush. Her movements were still very nervous. It was embarrassing to be there before that man with one's hair all undone and awry. Something fell from her hand, striking the edge of the table and toppling to the floor. There was a deafening explosion and the shack was full of the dense smoke of black powder. When Madge recovered from her terror the young man, looking very pale, had bent down and picked up the fallen weapon. For a moment she thought there was a strange look in his eyes.
"I—I'm so sorry!" she exclaimed.
"If—if you were to hit a man with that thing he'd get real mad," he said, repeating an age-worn joke. "At any rate I'm glad you were not hurt. Rather unexpected, wasn't it? I really think you'd better let me take the other shells out. It's a nasty little cheap weapon and, I should judge, quite an unsafe bit of hardware for a lady to handle. Whoever gave you that thing ought to be spanked. But—but, then, of course you didn't know it was loaded."
"I—I did know it was loaded!" cried Madge. "I—I had the man load it for me! I—I thought it might protect me from insult, perhaps, or—or let me take matters in my own hands, if need be. I—I didn't know what sort of place I would be coming to or—or what sort of man would—would receive me! I—I felt safer with it!"
Maigan was still ferreting out corners of the room, having leaped up at the shot as if the idea had come to him that some rat or chipmunk must lie dead somewhere. There nearly always was something to pick up when his master fired.
"Keep still, boy!" ordered the latter. "I think we'd better count that as a miss. I'll wait outside until you've fixed yourself up, Miss Nelson, and are ready to go. I'll have to hitch up Maigan first. As soon as you come out I'll wrap you in my blankets; you'll be quite comfortable. We haven't very far to go, anyway."
"Thank you—it—it won't take me a minute," she answered, without looking at him.
She had discovered in a corner of the shack a bit of looking-glass he used to shave by, and stood before it, never noticing that he made a rather long job of drawing on his heavy fur coat. He went out with his dog and got the sled ready, with a wry look upon his face. Then, as there was nothing more to do, he sat down upon the rough bench that stood near the door. He winced and made a grimace as his hand went up to his shoulder.
"The little fool," he told himself. "She seems to have been loaded for bear. Glad it was a thirty-two instead of a forty-five Colt. I didn't think it was anything, just a bad scratch, after the first sting of it, but it feels like fire and brimstone now. It's an infernal nuisance. Good Lord! Suppose she'd plugged herself instead of me. That would have been a fix for fair!"
This idea evidently horrified him. He had a vision of blood and tears and screams, of having to rush off to Carcajou to telegraph for the nearest doctor. Perhaps people would even have suspected him. He saw Madge with her big dark-rimmed eyes and that perfectly wonderful hair, lying dead or dying on the floor of his shack. It was utterly gruesome, unspeakable, and a strong shiver passed over him.
"But I wonder who the deuce she was going to shoot with that thing?" he finally asked himself. "Oh, she must be crazy, the poor little thing! It's really too bad!"
He then thought of what a fool he had been to give her back that gimcrack pistol. She probably had more shells. He must contrive to get them away from her. There was no saying what an insane person might do.
"I wish Stefan would turn up soon," he cogitated. "I'd give a lot to find out what he knows about her. It was mighty funny his never stopping here for a minute."
Deeper in the Wilderness
Within the shack Madge was now ready to start. Hugo's big woolen cap was pulled down well over her ears and she again wore a coat much too large for her, a thing which, in other days long gone, might have made her laugh.
As she moved to the door she hesitated. Where was she going to? What object was there in moving there or anywhere else? The wild dream that had come upon her in the big city was dispelled and nothing on earth remained but the end that must come in some way or other. Of course she had no desire to remain in this shack, but neither had she any desire for anything else. What was the use of anything she might do? By this time she was stranded high and dry among breakers innumerable, with never the slightest outlook towards safety. The few dollars in her pockets offered no possibility of return. This man might give her enough to get back, if she asked him. It was the least he could do. But she would rather have torn out her tongue than ask him for money. And it would only be going back to that dreadful city in which she had suffered so much. No, it was unthinkable! Better by far for her to lie down somewhere in that great forest and die. And now she was about to see more strangers and remain over night in new surroundings. Where would she drift to after that?
She made a gesture of despair. Her down-hanging arms straightened rigidly at her side, with the fists clenched as when one seeks to be brave in the face of impending agony. Her head was thrown back and her eyes nearly closed. In that position she remained for a moment, her brain whirling, her head on fire with a burning pain. Then the tension relaxed a little and she cast another look about her, without seeing anything, after which she pushed the door open and stepped out upon the crunching snow.
Hugo rose at once, albeit somewhat stiffly, and spoke to the dog who stood up, with head turned to watch the proceedings.
"I don't think I'd better take the trunk on this trip," he explained. "It would make a rather heavy load for just one dog. We'll take your bag, of course, and I can bring the trunk over to-morrow morning. It will be perfectly safe there by the road. We haven't any thieves in this country, that I know of. Now will you please sit down there, in the middle. Maigan will pull you all right. I'll get the blankets."
"But—couldn't I walk? You said it was only a mile. I—I think I could manage that," ventured Madge, dully.
"I don't think you could," he answered. "I'm sure you're quite played out. In some places the snow is bound to be soft. I could give you a pair of snowshoes but you wouldn't know how to use them and they'd tire you to death. You've already had a pretty hard day, I know. Maigan won't mind it in the least. He'd take the trunk, too, readily enough, but that would make slow going."
She obeyed. What did she care? What difference could it make? He wrapped the blankets over her, after she had sat down on an old wolfskin he had covered the sled with. After this he took a long line attached to the toboggan and passed it over his right shoulder, pulling at the side of the dog, who toiled on briskly. When they reached the tote-road it seemed rougher than ever and the country wilder. To her right Madge could see the river that was nothing but a winding jumble of snow-capped rocks and grinding ice, with here and there patches of inky-looking water, where the ice-crust had split asunder. Also she dully noted places where the water seemed to froth up over the surface, boiling in great suds from which rose, straight up in the still air, a cloud of heavy gray vapor. The cold felt even more intense than earlier in the day. It impressed the girl as if some tremendous force were bearing down mightily upon the world and holding it in thrall. With the lowering of the sun the shadows had grown longer. After a time the slight sound of the man's snowshoes over the crackling snow, of the scraping toboggan, of the panting dog, began to seem to Madge like some sort of desecration of a stillness in which man was nothing and only an eternal and vengeful power reigned supreme. In spite of the patches of sunlight filtering down through branches or glaring upon the river there was now something dismal in all this, and she began to feel the cold again, penetrating, relentless, evil in its might.
They had gone about half way when, on the top of a slight rise, both dog and man stopped for a moment's rest. The latter looked quite exhausted. His face was set hard, in an expression she could not fathom.
"Really, I think I could walk," said the girl again. "There—there's no reason you should work so hard for me. And—and you look terribly tired."
"Oh, no!" he disclaimed, hastily. "I—I could pull you all by myself if—well, it's only a short distance away now, and Maigan is doing nearly all the work, anyway. I—I don't think anything I can do for you can quite make up for all that you seem to have gone through."
He looked at her, very gravely, as he sat down upon a fallen log, close at hand, after clearing off some snow with a sweep of his mitt. There was something very sad, she thought, an expression of pain upon his face which she noted and which led her into a very natural error. She was compelled to consider these things as evidences of regret, of a conscience that was beginning to irk him badly. Her head bent down till she was staring into her lap; she felt that tears were once more dangerously near.
No thought came to her of appealing to this man, of suing for pity and charity, but she began to speak, the words coming from a full heart that gave her pain were spoken in low tones, nearly as if she had been talking to herself.
"I—I'm thinking of the boys who were stoning the frog," she began, haltingly. "You remember. It was fun for them but death to the frog. I—I think a good many things work that way in the world, don't—don't you, Mr. Ennis? You—you don't really look like—like a very bad man. If—if you had a sister or mother you'd—you'd probably be kind to them. What—what do you think of it yourself, honestly? A—a girl, who's a fool, of course, but after all just a girl, is dying of loneliness and misery in a big city. She—she can't stand it any more, not—not for another day. And then she finds that paper and like—like an utter fool she answers that advertisement. It—it looked like a bare chance of—of being able to keep body and soul together, and—and remain honest and decent, which—which is a hard enough thing for a girl to do, in—in some places. And then the man answers back. She—I never expected he would, but he did, and he offered all sorts of wonderful things that—that looked like heaven itself to—to a hungry failure of a girl to whom life had become too heavy a burden to bear. And—and so she answers that letter and—and tries to tell the truth about herself, and says that—that she is prepared to carry out her part of the bargain if—if the man has spoken truly of himself—if—if he can respect her—treat her like a woman who—who is ready to do her best to—to deserve a little kindness and consideration. And he tells her again to come—to come as soon as possible, and—and there was nothing to detain her for a moment. The city had been too cruel—too utterly cruel. And then she comes here and finds that—that it was all lies—wicked lies—I'm sorry, it's the only word I can use."
Hugo was staring at her, open-mouthed, but before he could utter a word she began again:
"The man had never meant it, of course—he wasn't awaiting her at all, as he had promised—and when she finally comes to him he speaks coldly, cynically, denying his words, pretending he knows nothing. It—it's a rather clumsy way of getting out of it, seems to me. Anyway he saw that his joke had been carried too far. It—it hasn't proved such a very good one, has it? It—it has turned out to be pretty poor fun. I—I dare say I deserve it all. It—it was awful folly on my part, I see it now, and—and I'm ashamed, dreadfully ashamed—I feel the redness mounting to—to the very roots of my hair—and it overwhelms me. Don't—don't you feel something of—of the same sort, or—or do you still think the joke was a good one?"
She had grown rather excited and it was quite true that a deep blush was now mantling her face. In her halting speech—in the words that had come slowly at first, and then had flowed more rapidly, there had been wounded pride beside the deep resentment and the pain.
"Do—do you really believe such a thing?" answered the man, wincing again. "You speak of something that is an abomination, that would stink in a decent man's nostrils. And—and you speak of shame! Do you think such a word could express all that a man would be overwhelmed with if he had done such a thing? Great Heavens! Miss Nelson, a man having once committed such a crime would be humiliated for the rest of his life, it seems to me. It would be an unpardonable sin for which there could be no forgiveness, none surely on the part of the woman, and none that the man could ever grant himself. It—it surely isn't possible that any such thing has occurred, that any man could so lower himself beneath all the dirt that his feet have ever trodden."
He spoke strongly, his face now also high in color, his voice tremulous and indignant, his hard right fist clenched till the arm vibrated with the strain.
Madge looked at him again. For a moment his tone had been convincing and she had nearly believed that he spoke the truth. But the evidence against him was too strong.
"That—that big Stefan, your friend, the man who says that you saved his life, knew that I was coming," she faltered, her voice shaking while her body felt limp with the infinite discouragement that had returned to her in full. "He brought you my message, at least he told me so. What—what is the use of my saying anything more? I—I think we might as well be going on, if—if you and your dog are rested. He—he looks like a decent fellow, Maigan does. There are things a dog wouldn't do, I'm sure."
"Miss Nelson, as God is my judge, I'm guiltless in this matter," the man's voice rang out.
"Go on, Maigan, mush on!" he called, and leaned forward on the rope, passed over one shoulder. Her last words had brought a moment of anger and indignation. Save for the few words he had uttered he felt it useless to protest his innocence, and the notion of her insanity returned to him, strongly. But those were strange things she had said about Stefan and that message. As soon as possible he would go over to Carcajou and interview his friend the Swede. The girl's disordered mind must have distorted something that he said. He began to wonder whether there was any truth at all about her story, whether she really came from New York, whether she was not some poor creature escaped from some place for the care of the insane. But then how had she got hold of his name and how had she ever heard of Roaring River? The more he puzzled over these problems the more tangled they appeared to be.
"I dare say I'll find out about it soon enough," he told himself, impatiently, for the pain he suffered began to grow worse with every step, and an unaccountable weariness had come over him. That thing on his shoulder must be a mere scratch, he tried to persuade himself, in spite of the sharp pangs it gave him. Manlike he grew more obstinate as his strength began to fail, and pulled harder, with the sweat now running down his clammy forehead and freezing on his face.
Maigan, also, was bending hard to his task, and they went along steadily and rapidly. The toboggan was crackling and slithering over the snow upon which the dark indigo shadows were throwing uncanny designs. The track was smooth and level now and the dog could manage very well alone, so that Hugo pulled no longer. Once, as he chanced to stumble, the girl thought she heard a groan from him. She began to wish that she had been able to believe him, but it was utterly impossible, although she suddenly found it in her heart to pity him, to extenuate the abomination of his conduct. Why that last sacrilegious lie he had uttered? The man was suffering; it looked as if the iron were entering his soul. Oh! the pity of it! If he had only acknowledged his offence and begged her pardon she might perhaps have forgiven. A moment later, however, the grim outlook before her presented itself again. There were two things for her to choose from; one was that fitly named Roaring River along whose bank the road wound its snaky trail and the other consisted in the cheap little pistol in her bag. Well, there might be comfort after all in this wild land, upon the scented fallen needles of the pines or under that pure white ice. Her features, which for a moment had become stony and hard, now softened again. It was best to endeavor to harbor no more thoughts of contempt and hatred when one's own soul might soon be suing for forgiveness.
They topped another rise of ground beyond which there was a hollow, a tiny valley nestled among great firs and poplars and birches. In the middle of it Madge saw another and much larger shack. It might really have been called a house, but for its being made of logs. A film of smoke was rising straight up in the still air, from a chimney built of rough stones, and some dogs began to bark loudly. A woman came out, with a child hanging to her skirts, and shaded her eyes with her hand while she scolded the animals, who slunk away slowly.
"Bonjour," she called out, cheerfully. "Ah! It is Monsieur Hugo! How you do, sare? Glad for see you! Come along quick. It ees cole again, terrible cole."
For a second she stared at the young woman on the toboggan, but her civility came at once uppermost and she smiled pleasantly, and rushed up to help Madge arise, brushing off some of the snow that had fallen on her from the trees.
"Come inside quick. I have it good hot in de house. You all perished wid dat cole, Mees. Now you get varm again and I make tea tout de suite."
She had seized Madge's hands in her own big and capable ones, with the never-failing hospitality and friendliness of the wilderness, and led her indoors at once. Hugo let Maigan loose, with a word of warning, for the other dogs had begun to circle about him jealously, and growled a little, probably for the sake of form, for they took good care to keep out of reach of his long fangs. They had tried him once before and knew that he was their master. Hugo, thankful that the journey was ended, took up the girl's bag and followed her into the house, after he had taken off his snowshoes, a job he accomplished with some difficulty.
"Mrs. Papineau," he began, "this young lady came over to my place, a couple of hours ago, and—and there's been some—some mistake. She thought there was a village here, I believe. She only expects to remain with you till to-morrow, I think, and till then I will be ever so grateful if you will make her as comfortable as possible. I'm afraid she's dreadfully tired and cold. I expect to return in the morning to take her back to Carcajou, unless—unless she would prefer to rest a day or two here."
"Ver 'appy to see de lady," declared Mrs. Papineau, heartily. "Tak' off you coat, Monsieur Hugo, an' sit here by de fire. Hey! Baptiste, you bring more big piece of birch. Colette, put kettle on for bile water qvick. Tak' dis seat, lady. I pull off dem blanket. You no need dem more. Turriple cole now. Las' night we 'ear de wolfs 'untin' along dem 'ardwood ridges, back of de river; it ees always sign of big cole. And de river she crack awful, and de trees dey split like guns shoot. Glad you come an' get varm, Mees."
Madge looked about her, after she had smiled at the woman in thanks. For the second time that day she had entered a home of kindly and well-disposed people that seemed to be built of an altogether different clay from that which composed the folk of the big city. In Stefan's home the atmosphere had been gentle, one of earnest, quiet toil, with the simple accompaniment of a kindly religious belief according to the Lutheran persuasion. In the dwelling she had now entered, of fervent French Canadians, she noted the vivid chromo of a departed pope facing the still gaudier representation of the British Royal family, if the printed legend could be believed. They were shown in all the colors of the rainbow, as were also some saints whose glaring portraits hung on either side of the door, surmounted by dried palms reminiscent of Easter festivals. There seemed to be any number of children, from an infant lying in a homemade cradle of boards, one of which displayed an advertisement of soap, to a bashful youth who looked at Hugo as if he worshipped him and a freckled, gawky and friendly-faced girl of fifteen who stood around, evidently delighted to see people and anxious to be civil to them.
And this welcome she had received seemed to be characteristic of all these folks living in the back of beyond. Everywhere she had met friendliness; people had seemed actually eager to help; they smiled as if life had been a thing of joy in which the good things must be distributed far and near and enjoyed by all. They seemed ready to share their possessions with strangers that chanced within their gates. It was a spirit intensely restful, consoling, bringing peace to one's heart. It gave the girl a brief vision of something that was heavenly. She felt that she could so easily have made her home in this amazing region that opened its arms and actually welcomed new faces. But the thought came to her that she had only been vouchsafed a fleeting glance at it and to gaze, as Moses did of old, upon a Promised Land she could never really enter.
"It is no need for to h'ask, Monsieur Hugo," Madge heard the woman saying. "Ve do h'all ve can, sure! It ees a gladness to see de yong lady an' heem pretty face, all red vid de cole. Come by de fire, mees. Celestine 'ere she pull aff your beeg Dutch stockin'. Dey no belong you, sure. Colette, push heem chair near for de lady. Hippolyte, put couple steeks now on ze fire. Mees, I 'ope you mak' yourself to home now. Monsieur Hugo, you stop for to h'eat a bite vid us. Ve haf' in de shed still one big quarter from de orignal, de beeg mose vat my man he shoot two veeks ago. Und dere pleanty patates, pleanty pork, all you vant."
"No, thank you ever so much, I—I think I'd better be going. It will be dark pretty soon. I know perfectly well that you will take excellent care of Miss Nelson and so I think I'll say good-by now."
Some of the children trooped around him, disappointed, and Mrs. Papineau came nearer, eying him curiously. Suddenly her keen eyes caught something and she pointed with a finger.
"Vat de mattaire vid you h'arm?" she asked, excitedly. "'Ow you get 'urted?"
"Oh! That! That's nothing," he answered, drawing back. "'Tisn't worth bothering about. Good-night!"
"You no be one beeg fool, Monsieur Hugo!" she ordered him, masterfully. "Now you sit down an' let me look heem arm right avay quick. Ven de cole strike heem he get bad sure, dat h'arm."
In spite of his objections she laid violent hands on him, insisting on pulling off his coat, whereupon a dark patch had spread. She also drew off the heavy sweater he wore underneath it, which was stained even more deeply. When she sought to roll up the sleeve of his flannel shirt it would not go up high enough, but the remedy was close at hand, in the form of a pair of scissors, and she swiftly ripped up a seam. On the outer part of the shoulder she revealed a rather large and jagged wound that was all smeared with blood, which still oozed from it slowly.
"Who go an' shoot you?" she asked angrily. "I see de 'ole in de coat an' de sweater. I know some one shoot. Vat for he shoot?"
"Well, it was just a silly little accident with a pistol," he acknowledged with much embarrassment. "It—it won't be anything after it's washed off. It feels all right enough and I wish you wouldn't bother about it. I'll attend to it after I get home. It—it's stopped hurting now."
But he was compelled to submit to the washing of his injury and to the application of some sort of a dressing which Mrs. Papineau appeared to put on rather skilfully. Wounds of all sorts are but too common in the wilderness, unfortunately, and doctors few and far between. The children had crowded around him, looking in awe, and their mother kept ordering them away. Madge had risen from her seat and looked at the injury, horrified and trembling. The man had never said a word when that bullet had found its billet in his shoulder, and yet it must have hurt him dreadfully. He—he might have been killed, owing to her clumsiness, she reflected in consternation. And now he said nothing to explain how it had happened—he actually seemed to be trying to shield her.
"I—I'm dreadfully sorry," said the girl, impulsively. "It—it was all my fault, because I let the revolver fall and it went off. But I didn't know he was hurt. He never told me, and he insisted on pulling at that sled, with his dog."
"Yes, it was just a little accident," admitted Hugo, "and we're making altogether too much fuss about it. It really doesn't amount to anything, Miss Nelson, and it feels splendidly now. I'm ever so much obliged to you, Mrs. Papineau. And so I'll say good-night. I hope you'll rest well, Miss Nelson. I'll be here in good time to-morrow, never fear."
He shook hands with the housewife, who took care to wipe her own upon her apron in preparation for the ceremony. To the children he bade a comprehensive farewell, after which he turned again to Madge, advanced a step and then hesitated. He had doubtless meant to shake hands with her also but, at the last moment, probably feared a rebuff. At any rate he nodded, bringing a smile to his features, and opened the door into the bitter cold. After he had put on his snowshoes again and hitched up Maigan to the toboggan he disappeared into the darkness. For an instant Madge listened, but she heard no sound. Everything was still outside, but for the rare crackings of ice and timber. Seeking her chair again she leaned forward now with her elbows resting on her knees and her face held in the hollow of her hands. At this time a little child came to her and touched her arm. She looked at it. The little girl had long straight black hair, great beady eyes and the prettiest mouth imaginable. The cheeks were like red apples. She lifted the little thing to her knees and the child nestled against her bosom. Madge now looked at the woman, busily engaged with her few pots and pans, and a feeling of envy came to her, a longing for the sweet and kindly motherhood that was becoming a fierce craving for that beautiful peace which appeared to have become so firmly established in these little houses of the frozen wilds. She had elsewhere seen love of children, little ones petted and made much of, husbands coming home to a cheery welcome, but it had not seemed the same. The women so often seemed weary, pale, and worked beyond their strength. Most of them became querulous at times, apt to speak loudly of intolerable wrongs or of ill-doings of neighbors across the dark hallways. Here it looked as if quiet order, cheerful obedience, willingness on the part of all, were ingrained in the people. Indeed, it was ever so different.
By this time the rough table was set and Mrs. Papineau deplored the fact that Hugo had not consented to remain.
"Heem is 'urted more as vat he tink," she confided to the girl. "To-morrow somebody go to de leetle shack an' fin' 'ow he is. One dog heem not much nurse, eh?"
These words made Madge feel uncomfortable. Once or twice the idea had come to her that such a man ought to be punished, that he should be made to suffer, that he deserved anything that could make him realize how heinous his conduct had been. But now she had a vague impression that she was sorry for him, that it was on her account that he had refused to stay and had gone out at once in the gathering darkness that had come so swiftly. But in spite of these thoughts and of all the emotions she had undergone Madge felt again the besetting pangs of fierce hunger. The slices of moose-meat sizzling in the pan filled the place with appetizing odor. The mother placed her brood at the long table but helped her guest first, and plentifully. How these people ate and expected others to eat! Never could they have heard of the scanty meals of working girls, of the cups of blue milk, of bitter tea, or of the little rolls and bits of meat purchased at so-called delicatessen stores. The girl ate hungrily and the meal was soon over, but as soon as it was finished the terrible weariness came upon her again and she was thankful to lie down upon a hard mattress of ticking filled with the aromatic twigs of balsam fir, beneath heavy blankets and a wonderful robe of hareskins.
Before she could fall asleep, however, the experiences of her crowded day passed weirdly before her eyes; yet her despair seemed to be contending with a strange feeling that was certainly not hope. It was perhaps merely a weak acquiescence to conditions that her immense fatigue and wearied brain made her accept, dully, stupidly, since she had lost all power of resistance. It was something like the enforced peace of a wounded thing that has just been able to crawl back into its burrow and has found the rest its body craves for.
In the midst of so large a family one could not aspire to the lone possession of a bed. The little girl she had held in her lap had been placed beside her, not without many apologies from Mrs. Papineau. In the darkness she could feel the little warm body nestling against her, and hear the soft and regular breathing. It was comforting since it brought a feeling that the little one protected her, in some strange way, and was leading her in paths of darkness with a little warm hand and a heart that was unafraid and confident of the morrow's shining sun. Very soon there came a restless sleep which at first was filled with uncanny visions, from which she awakened once or twice in fear. But at last came entire surcease from suffering as the brain that had been overwrought ceased to toil.
In the meanwhile Hugo had slowly made his way back to his shack. If his arm hurt he had now little consciousness of it. The thing that disturbed him most was that girl's unshakable belief in his villainy. Was she really insane? He had had no opportunity to communicate that thought to Mrs. Papineau. But then, after her arrival, she had seemed so absolutely rational in all that she had said and done that the idea had, for the time being, passed away from his mind. And what if, at least in part, she had spoken the truth? What if some amazing distortion of reality had truly and honestly given her these beliefs, through evidence that must be all against him? The words she had spoken before starting for the Papineaus', and the further ones uttered on the tote-road, while he rested, held a drama so poignant that it struck a chill to his heart. She might, after all, have been speaking the truth as she had been misled into believing it! But then there must be some amazing conspiracy at work, some foul doings whose objects utterly escaped him and which left him staring at the little lamp now burning on his table, as if it might perhaps have revealed some key to the amazing problem.
Was it possible that a weak and slender woman could actually be compelled to carry on a fight against hunger and illness, with never a friend on earth, until she was finally so beaten down to the ground that her soul cried in agony for relief? According to her she had seized upon the only resource open to her, in which there was but a dim outlook towards safety. Then she had found herself the victim of a hellish jest, apparently, or of a conspiracy so base that one sickened at the mere thought of it. There was no doubt that those big eyes of the suffering woman haunted the man, while the accents of her despair still rang in his ears and distressed him. The expression of the crucified had been on that pale face of hers, which had reddened so deeply when a sense of shame had overwhelmed her. It was as if he had beheld a drowning woman and been utterly prevented from extending a saving hand to her. More strongly he began to feel that some one had surely sinned against that woman, and feelings of vengefulness, none the less bitter for all their vagueness, began to obsess him.
Once, on his way back from Papineau's, Maigan had pressed close to him, as if for safety. From the great hardwood ridges of his right he had heard a long and familiar sound. It was the one the Frenchwoman had mentioned, the fitful baying of wolves on the track of a deer. Picturing to himself the overtaking and pulling down of the victim, he shivered, hardened though he was to the unending tragedies of the wilderness, and hurried along faster, although he knew he stood in no danger.
When he had reached his shack by the Roaring River he had entered it and lighted the small lamp. It chanced to be the last match in his pocket that he used for the purpose. There was no need to open the big package that stood on a shelf, since he remembered having left two or three small boxes in his hunting bag. He went over to the corner where he had left it and bent over, somewhat painfully. As he lifted it from the floor he saw an envelope and picked it up. It was addressed to him. Tearing it open he stared at the words "Starting this evening. Please have some one meet me. Madge Nelson."
With clenched fist he struck the table a blow that startled Maigan, who barked, leaping up to his feet.
"It's all right, boy," said his master. "Men are pretty big fools, excepting when they're nothing but infernal cowards. I tell you, boy, some one will have to pay heavily for this. Good Lord! Who would have thought of such a thing? I—I think I must be getting crazy! But no—she's over there at Papineau's, and some one wrote to her, and everything she said was the plain truth, as she understood it. Great Heavens! It's no wonder she looked at me as if I'd been the dirt under her feet. That thing's got to be straightened out, somehow, but first I must see Stefan, of course."
For a moment a wild idea came to him of going over to Carcajou in the darkness. Such an undertaking was by no means particularly difficult for a strong man, who knew the way, but suddenly he realized that he was played out and would never reach his destination that night. This irked his soul, unbearably, until he had recourse to his old briar pipe. In spite of the fact that his arm was beginning to hurt him badly he sat near the stove, where he had kindled a fire again, thinking hard. He was racking his brain to seek some motive that could have impelled any one he knew to play such a frightful joke. One after another he named every man he had ever known or even merely met in Carcajou and the surrounding, sparsely settled country. But they were nearly all friends of his, he knew, or at least had no reason to bear him ill-will. There was one chap he had had quite a scrap with one day, over a dog-fight in which the man had urged his animal first and then kicked Maigan when he saw his brute having by far the worst of it. But soon afterwards they had shaken hands and the matter had been forgotten. Besides, the fellow was now working in Sudbury, far east down the line. No, that wasn't a trail worth following. The more he thought the matter over the more utterly mysterious it seemed to become. But of one thing he was determined. He was going to move heaven and earth to get at the bottom of all this, and when he found out who was responsible the fur would fly.
It was perhaps fortunate for her that the idea of the red-headed girl in old McGurn's store never entered his head for a moment. She had always been friendly, perhaps even a little forward in her attentions to him, though he had always paid her rather scant notice. He had never been more than decently civil to her.
When he sought his bunk, an hour or two later, a long time elapsed before he could fall asleep. It seemed to him that his head throbbed a good deal, and that shoulder was growing mightily uncomfortable. He hoped it would be better in the morning. Finally he fell asleep, restlessly. Upon the floor, stretched out upon an old deerskin close to the stove, Maigan was sleeping more profoundly, though now and then he whined and sighed in his slumber, perhaps dreaming of hares and porcupines. A cricket ensconced beneath the flat stones under the stove began to chirp, shrilly. Outside a big-horned owl was hooting, dismally, while the big falls continued to roar out their eternal song. And thus the long night wore out till a flaming crimson and copper dawn came up, with flashing rays that stabbed the great rolling clouds while the trees kept on cracking in the intense frost and the ice in the big pool churned and groaned under the torment of waters seeking to burst their shackles.
Carcajou Is Shocked
After Stefan had started away with Madge, Miss Sophy McGurn, who had been on the watch, was delighted to see Mrs. Olsen coming to the store. She greeted her customer more pleasantly than ever and served her with a bag of beans, two spools of black thread and a pound of the best oleo-butter. The older woman was nothing loath to talk, and confirmed the girl's suspicion that Stefan had taken that young woman to Hugo's. Mrs. Olsen insisted on the fact that her visitor was a real pretty girl, though awfully thin and looking as if a breath would blow her over. She also commented on the lack of suitable clothing for such dreadful weather, and on the utter ignorance Madge seemed to display of anything connected with Carcajou or, in fact, any part of Ontario. When questioned, cautiously, she admitted that she knew no reason whatever for the girl's coming, but she hastened to assert that Stefan had said it was all right, which settled the question, and, with her rather waddling gait, started off for her house again.
As soon as Stefan returned Sophy saw that he still had a woman on his toboggan. She hurried to meet him and was grievously disappointed when she found out it was Mrs. Carew. But she boldly went up to Stefan.
"Hello! Stefan!" she said. "Where did you leave your passenger of this morning?"
"Hello! Sophy!" he answered, placidly. "I leaf de yong leddy vhere she ban going, I tank."
"She isn't coming back to-night?"
"Mebbe yes, mebbe no," he answered, grabbing Mrs. Carew's bag and hurrying with her into the station, for the engine's whistle announced that he had made the journey with little or no time to spare.
Sophy made her way back to the store, meeting Mrs. Kilrea on her way. To this lady she confided that a young woman had gone up to Hugo Ennis' shack and had not returned. Wasn't it queer? And Mrs. Olsen had said that she wasn't Hugo's wife or sister. Wasn't it funny? But of course she supposed it was all right.
Mrs. Kilrea called on old Mrs. Follansbee, who told Mrs. McIntosh. This lady was a Cree Indian that had become more or less civilized. The white women would speak to her on account of her husband Aleck, who was really a very nice man. At any rate all the ladies of Carcajou were soon aware of the unusual happening, scenting strange news and perhaps even a bit of scandal.
Big Stefan, having urged his team to their utmost, now fed them carefully and locked them up in his shed, a local habit providing against bloody fights that were objected to not so much on moral principle as because these contests often resulted in the disabling of valuable animals. It also prevented incursions among the few sheep of the neighborhood or long hunts in which dogs indulged by themselves, returning with sore feet and utterly unable to move for a day or two. The animals, before falling asleep, were biting off the crackling icicles that had formed in the hair growing between their padded toes. The journey had not exhausted them in the slightest and on the morrow they would be perfectly fit for further travel, if need be.
Neither was Stefan weary. After supper he quietly strolled over to the store where some of Carcajou's choicest spirits were gathered, since the village boasted no saloon. Here the news was discussed, as spread out by the few who got a daily or weekly paper from Ottawa or Sudbury, or gathered in the immediate neighborhood by the local gossips.
"Hello, Stefan!" exclaimed Miles Parker, who was supposed to watch over the sawmill and see that the machinery didn't suffer too much during the long period of disuse. "How did ye find the travelin' to-day? See ye didn't manage ter freeze them whiskers off'n yer face, did ye?"
"Dey're yoost vhere dey belongs, I tank," answered Stefan, quietly. "Miss Sophy, if you haf time I take two plugs Lumberman's Joy terbacker."
"Stefan he's so all-fired big he got to keep a chew on each side of his face," explained Pat Kilrea, a first-rate mechanic who was then busy with the construction of a little steamer that was to help tow down to the mill some big booms of logs, as soon as the lake opened. "He ain't able to get no satisfaction except from double action."
At this specimen of local wit and humor the others grinned but Stefan remained quite unmoved. Miss Sophy waited on him, scanning his face, eager to ask more questions, while she feared to say a word. It may have been her conscience which made her uneasy. Of course she believed that the precautions she had taken rendered it impossible for any one to accuse her, or at any rate to prove anything. Still, a certain anxiety remained, which she was unable to restrain. She would have given a good deal to know what had taken place. Never had she doubted that the scene would occur right there at the station in Carcajou. That telegram had badly upset her plans, apparently. And then it was queer that Hugo had not come down after receiving it, if only to try to find out what it meant. Finally, one of the men, having none of her reasons for keeping still, came forth with a direct question.
"I reckon you got out to Roarin' Falls all safe with that there pooty gal, didn't ye?" he asked.
It was Joe Follansbee who had sought this information, being only too eager to hint at something wrong on the part of a man he had long deemed a rival. At his words, however, Sophy sniffed and turned up her nose.
"I didn't see anything very pretty about her," she said.
"Well, I didn't see as how she was so real awful pretty," Joe hastened to observe. "She ain't the style I admire, by no manner of means."
This strategic withdrawal was destined to meet with entire failure, however. Sophy turned to the boxes of plug that were stored on the shelves and pretended to busy herself with their order and symmetry. But she was again listening, eagerly.
"What d'ye say, Stefan?" joined Pat Kilrea. "How'd she stand the trip? Did ye see if her nose was still on her face when ye got there?"
"I tank so," opened Stefan, gravely, "but it wouldn't matter so much vith de leddy. Maybe she ain't so much use for it like you haf for yours, to stick into oder people's pusinesses."
Stefan continued to shave off curly bits from his plug, while the laughter turned against the engineer. Carcajou, like a good many other places, commonly favored the top-dog when it came to betting. The answering grin in Pat's face was a rather sour one. If any other man had spoken to him thus there might have been a lively fight, but no one in Carcajou, and a good many miles around it, cared to engage in fisticuffs with the Swede. A story was current of how he had once manhandled four drunken lumberjacks, in spite of peavies and sticks of cordwood.
"Well, you're getting to be a good deal of a lady's man, Stefan," said Aleck McIntosh, a fellow who was supposed to be a scion of Scottish nobility receiving remittances from his country. The most evident part of his income, however, appeared to be contributed by his Cree wife, who took in the little washing Carcajou indulged in and made the finest moccasins in Ontario. "Going off with one and coming back with another. I dare say you prefer carrying females to lugging the mails around."
"Mebbe I likes it better but it's more hard on dem togs," asserted Stefan, judicially.
"And—and ye left her at Hugo's shack, did ye?" ventured Pat again, whereat Stefan nodded in assent and lighted his pipe.
"Did she say she was anyways related to him? His sister or something like that?" persisted the engineer.
"Well, I tank she say somethin' about bein' his grandmother," retorted Stefan, "but I can tell you something, Pat. If you vant so much know all about it vhy you not put on your snowshoes an' tak' a run down there. It ban a real nice little valk."
As Pat Kilrea suffered from the handicap of having been born with a club-foot, which didn't prevent him from being an excellent man with machinery but made walking rather burdensome for him, the others guffawed again while the Swede opened the door and walked off, the crusted snow crackling under his big feet.
"In course it's none of my business, like enough," said Pat, virtuously, as he scratched a match on his trousers' leg, "but such goings on don't seem right, nohow. 'Tain't right an' proper, because it gives a bad example. I've knowed folks rid on a rail or even tarred and feathered for the like of that."
Carcajou's sterling sense of propriety, as represented by half a dozen male gossips, immediately agreed with him. The matter, they decided, should be looked into.
"And—and what d'ye think about it, Miss Sophy?" asked Joe, desirous of opening conversation again with the young woman and redeeming himself.
"Things like that is beneath me to talk about," she asserted, coldly. "And what's more, I don't care to hear about 'em. It—it's time ye got back to the depot, Joe Follansbee and I'm goin' to close up anyways and give ye all a chance to burn your own oil."
At this delicate invitation to vacate the premises the men rose and trooped out. Once outside, however, they felt compelled in spite of the bitter cold to comment a little further on the situation.
Sophy McGurn put up the large iron bar that was used to secure the front door, when the store was closed. Then she put some papers away in the safe under the counter and went up to the family sitting room, where her mother was knitting and her father, with an open paper on his lap and his spectacles pushed up over his forehead, was fast asleep in a big and highly varnished oaken rocker trimmed with scarlet plush.
"I'm goin' to bed," she announced; "good-night."
The old gentleman awoke with a start and the mother, looking over her glasses, bade her good-night and sweet dreams, according to a long-established formula.
"Don't know what's the matter with Sophy, she's that restless an' nervous," said her mother.
"She always was, fur's I know," answered McGurn. "If she's gettin' the complaint worse she must be sickenin' for something."
The subject of these remarks, once in her room, was in no hurry to woo the slumber she had expressed a desire for. In her mind anxiety was battling with anger and disappointment. Whether or not she really loved Ennis, or had turned to him merely because his general ways and appearance showed him to be a man of some breeding, with education superior to the usual standard of Carcajou, such as she would have been glad to marry, at any rate her brow narrowed, her lips closed into a thin straight line and her hands were clenched tight. What she had done would probably utterly prevent any renewal of the friendship she had tried to establish, since Hugo would perhaps be run out of the place. Moreover, that girl was really very pretty, in spite of what she had said downstairs, and this stranger was now over there. Sophy had expected to see her return with Stefan, perhaps also with Hugo, and the girl's face would have shown marks of tears, and Hugo would have been in a towering rage, and gradually the people of Carcajou would have been made aware, somehow, of what had happened, and the settler of Roaring Falls would be the butt of laughter, if not of scurrilous remarks. But now the dark night had come and Carcajou was very still under the starlight.
The old cat scratching at her door startled her. The profound silence that followed appeared to irk her badly. After a long time there was the shriek of the night-freight's whistle and the great rumbling of the arriving train, the grinding of brakes, shouts that sounded harshly, various loud thumps as cars were shunted off to the siding. And then the train started again, groaning and clattering and heaving up the grade through the cut, after which the intense stillness returned and she lay awake, her eyes peering through darkness, her senses all alert and her nerves a-quiver, until nearly the coming of dawn.
But the men who had gone out, before scattering to their homes, had reached a unanimous conclusion. It was true that excitement was rare in Carcajou, but this was a matter of upholding the fair reputation of the mill and four or five dozen shacks and frame houses that constituted the village. It was decided that a committee must go over to the Falls and investigate.
"I won't say but what Hugo Ennis he's been mostly all right, fur's we know," acknowledged Phil Prouty of the section gang. "But then he warn't brought up in these here parts an' he can't be allowed to flout the morals o' this community in any sich way. If it's like we fears, the gal'll have ter pack off an' him promise ter behave or leave the country. Them's my sentiments. We better go to-morrow."
At this, however, there were some objections. It might be that on the next day the young woman would return. Then their trip would be useless. And then two days later would be Sunday, on which there would be less interference with their occupations, especially as it was the off day in church, where the services were held but twice a month. It was voted to start then at an early hour. There was a strong team of horses used to lumbering that could be trusted to manage the old tote-road, drawing Sam Kerrigan's big sleigh.
"Hosses used ter do it," asserted the latter, "and they kin do it again."
"Maybe Stefan'd take you up with them dogs of his, Kilrea," suggested one of the men, grinning.
"No! And by the way, byes. Ye don't want ter let that there Swede know nothin' of this. He's too thick with Hugo, he is, and we don't want him around raisin' any ruction if there happens to be a bit o' loud talk. He'd be liable to raise a rumpus, he would."
This appeared to be excellent strategy and it met with unanimous approval. The men dispersed to their respective shacks and houses, to discuss the matter further with their wives, in case any of them were still awake. One or two of the sturdier ladies at once volunteered to lend further dignity to the proceedings with their presence and could not be dissuaded from joining the Carcajou Vigilantes.
In the meanwhile the unconscious objects of all these plans were happily unaware of the fate in store for them. Madge, with a little child that had snuggled into her arms, had found a forgetfulness that was a blessing. In spite of her weariness and of the emotions she had undergone, the good food and pure air had produced some effect upon her. She slumbered perhaps more deeply and restfully than she had for many long months. And Hugo Ennis, in pain, tossed in his bunk, his mind racked with uneasy thoughts and his wounded shoulder throbbing, till he slept also.
It was with a violent start that Hugo awoke, feeling chilled to the bone in spite of his heavy blankets. His injured shoulder was so stiff that for some minutes he was scarcely able to move it. He got out of his bunk, his whole frame shaking with the cold, and managed to kindle a fire in the stove. But presently he felt warm again, rather unaccountably warm, in fact, and his face grew quite red. Curiously enough, for a man with the vast appetite of hard workers in cold regions, he did not at all feel inclined to eat. Yet he prepared some food, according to custom, and sat before a tin pint dipper of strong hot tea. This he managed to swallow, with some approach to comfort, but when he tried to eat the first few mouthfuls satiated him and he pushed the remainder away.
He had opened the door to let Maigan go out, and when the dog returned after a good roll in the snow Hugo swept his breakfast of rolled oats and bread into a pan and fed it to his companion.
"You're certainly not going hungry because my own grub doesn't taste right, old boy," he commented.
Men of the wilderness learn to speak to their dogs, or even to think out aloud, when no living thing chances to be near. It answers to the inherited need of speech, to an instinct so long inbred in man that he must needs, at times, hear the sound of a voice, even if it be but his own, or go crazy.
Maigan wagged his tail and gobbled up the food. When he saw his master fastening on his snowshoes he barked loudly. Hugo allowed him to romp about for a few minutes before hitching him up to the toboggan.
A few minutes later they were on their way to Papineau's. An attempt to smoke his pipe was immediately abandoned by the young man. For some reason it tasted wretchedly. While the start was made at a good pace little more than a couple of hundred yards had been covered before Hugo realized that he was going ever so slowly. Maigan was stopping all the time and waiting for him. What on earth was the matter? He judged that the poor night's sleep had had some ill effect upon him. It couldn't be his shoulder. Certainly not! The pain in it was no more than any chap could bear, even if he had to make a wry face over it at times. He wondered whether anything he had eaten on the previous day could have disagreed with him. He decided that it probably was some canned meat he had bought at McGurn's. That explained the thing quite satisfactorily to him. Anyway, it was bound to wear off soon. Such things always did. With this cheering thought he sought to lengthen his stride again, but a moment later he was dragging himself along, dully, wondering what was the matter with him.
He was anxious to see Madge again. He must tell her of the finding of her message. Surely he would be able to talk to her, calmly and quietly, and to obtain from her all that she knew of this strange jumble of mysteries. He hoped that she had been able to rest, that he would find her less weary and overwrought. This girl had been badly treated, sinned against most grievously. If there was anything he could do he would offer his services eagerly.
"I expect she'll want to turn right back to Carcajou," he told himself. "I wish I were feeling more fit for the journey. If Papineau is home from his trapping he will help me out. But I'll feel all right soon. This is bound to pass off. If I get too tired when I reach Carcajou, Stefan will put me up for the night. It—it seems a pity that girl will have to go."
He trudged along behind the toboggan. He could have ridden on it, most of the way, but wanted to keep Maigan fresh for the trip to Carcajou, for the trunk would have to go also. The light sled was nothing for the dog to pull, of course, and sometimes he dashed ahead so that his pace became too great for his master. Then he would stop and sit down in his traces, to wait until he was overtaken. The road was unaccountably long, that morning, but at last they came in sight of the Papineau homestead and the cleared land upon which some crops of oats and potatoes had already been raised, amid the short stumps of the half-cleared land. In summer the river ran very slowly at this place, and big trout were ever making rings on the surface which they broke in their dashes after all sorts of flies and beetles. On the land opposite, where there had once been a forest fire, the red weeds that follow conflagrations grew strong and rank in the summer time and little saplings sprouted up among the charred and wrecked trunks of the brule. But at this time it all looked very bleak and desolate.
"She couldn't ever have lived in such a country," he told himself, with perhaps a tinge of regret. "Poor little thing, I wonder what's to become of her? The whole thing's a shame—a ghastly shame. Wait till Stefan and I find out all about it. Somebody's got to get hurt, that's all!"
Maigan had already hauled the toboggan to the door of the big shack, and the other animals had come near to renew assurances of armed neutrality. The good woman of the house appeared just as Hugo came up. She must have been rather staggered by his appearance, for she drew back, staring at him and shaking her head in decided disapproval.
"'Ow many mile you call heem to de depot at Carcajou," she asked him, with hands on her hips and a severe look on her face.
"Why, it's twelve miles to my shack and one more to this place," he answered, dully. "You know that just as well as I. Don't you remember the county surveyors told us so last year?"
"An' you tink you goin' pull dat toboggan all way back wid you h'arm all bad an' you seek, lookin' lak' one ghosts! Excuse me, Monsieur Hugo, but you one beeg fool. My man Papineau 'e come back from de traps to-morrow an' heem pull de young lady 'ome wid de dogs. You no fit to go. I tink you go to bed right now, bes' place for you, sure."
She pulled him inside, holding on to his uninjured arm as if he had been under arrest. She was a masterful woman, to be sure. Madge had arisen from a chair and Mrs. Papineau addressed her. A glance at the man's countenance had left the girl appalled. His features were drawn, the brown tint of his face had changed to a characterless gray, his eyes looked sunken and brighter, as if some fever brought a flame into them.
"Sure you no in h'awful beeg 'urry for to go 'ome, Mees?" asked the hostess. "Dis man heem real seek. Heem no fit for valk all vay back to Carcajou now. To-morrow my man take you. Papineau he no forgif me if I let Monsieur Hugo go aff an' heem so seek."
"Why, of course! I'm not in any special hurry. To-morrow will do just as well. He—he mustn't think of going to-day and—and it doesn't matter in the least. It—it makes no difference at all."
"Do you really think that you can manage to stay here for another day?" the young man asked her, as he dropped rather heavily on a bench by the table. "I don't think there 's really much the matter with me, really, and I'm sure I could manage it if you're anxious to get away. But perhaps to-morrow...."
"Mrs. Papineau has been ever so kind to me," answered the girl, slowly. "That sort of thing is such a comfort, especially when—when one isn't used to it. Nobody ever took such care of me over there in New York. I've had plenty to eat and a nice warm place to sleep in. I haven't been used to much luxury where—where I came from. And—and you mustn't mind me. It will always be time enough to go, but—but I won't know how to thank this—this kindly woman."
Hugo didn't know whether these words held a reproach to him, but they sounded very hopeless and sad. The girl had sat down again, on a low stool near the fire. A chimney had been built in a corner, to supplement the stove, and she was looking intently at the bright flames leaping up and the fat curling smoke that rose in little patches, as bits of white bark twisted and crackled. Mrs. Papineau had gone back to the stove at the other end of the room, where she and her eldest girl had been washing dishes. In the rising sparks of the logs on fire Madge saw queer designs, strange moving forms her eyes followed mechanically. She felt that she was merely waiting—waiting for the worst that was yet to come, but the heat was grateful.
"If that's the case we might as well postpone the trip for a day," Hugo acknowledged, somewhat shamefacedly. "I don't often get played out but for some reason I'm not quite up to the mark to-day."
"You keep still an' rest yourself a bit," Mrs. Papineau ordered, coming back to him and feeling his pulse gravely, whereat she made a wry face. She informed him that he undoubtedly had a fever and must remain absolutely quiet while she brewed him a decoction of potent herbs she had herself picked and stored away.
Madge looked at Hugo again, anxiously, feeling that her careless handling of that little pistol was undoubtedly responsible for his illness. Their eyes met and he managed to smile.
"A mere man can do nothing but obey when a woman commands, Miss Nelson," he declared, with a weak attempt at jocularity. "I'm sure it's dreadful stuff she's going to make me swallow. Still, I'm glad of a short rest."
He drew his chair a little nearer, and, speaking in a lower voice, went on:
"I'll tell you, Miss Nelson. We—we perhaps owe one another some explanations. It happens that I've found something. It's the queerest thing ever happened. I'd like to explain...."
"What is the use, Mr. Ennis?" she replied, her voice revealing an intense discouragement. "And besides, you are ill now. It—it doesn't really matter what has happened, I suppose. I couldn't expect anything else, I dare say. I was a fool to come, to—to believe what I did. And—and I'm ashamed, it—it seems as if the least little pride that was left me has gone—gone for ever. Please—please don't say anything more. It distresses me and can't possibly do any good."
She turned away from him to stare into the fire again and watch the little tongues of flame following threads of dry moss, till her face, which had colored for a moment, became pale again and her lips quivered at the thoughts that had returned to her. Uppermost was that feeling of shame of which she had spoken. She had realized that she had come to this man she had never met, ready to say: "Here I am, Madge Nelson, to whom you wrote in New York. If you really want me for your wife I am willing. In exchange for food, for rest, for a little peace of mind I am ready to try to learn to love you, to respect and obey you, and I will be glad to work for you, to keep your home, to do my duty like a diligent and faithful wife." But the man had looked at her with eyes genuinely surprised, because he had not really expected her. And of course she had found no favor in his sight. She was an inconvenient stranger whom he did not know how to get rid of, and on the spur of the moment he had found recourse in clumsy lies. By this time he had probably thought out some fables with which he expected to soothe her. At any rate he must despise her, in spite of the fact that he seemed to try to be civil and even kind. The important thing was that the end had come. In her little purse six or seven dollars were left, not enough to take her even half the distance to New York, to the great city she had learned to hate and fear. For nothing on earth would she have accepted money from Hugo. At least that shred of pride remained. It was therefore evident that but one way, however dark, was open before her, since the end must come.
But that unutterable weariness was still upon her. She was not pressed for time, thank goodness. She had been given food in abundance and unwonted warmth and, for some hours, the wonderful sharp tingling air of the forest had driven the blood more swiftly through her veins. Moments had come during which it had seemed a blessing merely to breathe and a marvelous gift to be free from pain. But she was not so very strong yet. In another day, or perhaps two, she might feel better able to take that last leap. It would be that river—the Roaring River. That—that little gun made horrid jagged wounds. On her way to Papineau's she had noticed any number of great air-holes in the ice. In such places she had even heard the rumbling of the water on its rushing journey towards the sea. It seemed an easy, restful, desirable end to all her troubles. She would slip away by herself and these dear kindly people would never know, she hoped. Like so many others, she had gambled and lost, and perhaps she deserved to lose. Who could say? If she had sinned in coming to this place she would bear the punishment bravely. It would surely be very swift; there would be but a gasp or two from the stunning chill of the icy water, after which must come swift oblivion. The world was indeed a very harsh and dangerous place. She would be glad to leave it; there could be nothing to regret.
She raised her eyes once more and looked about her. The heat from the birchen logs and the sizzling jack-pine penetrated her. Somewhere she had read or heard that, to those condemned, a few last comforts were usually proffered. It would be easier to find the end after a few more hours of this blessed peace. It would have been more gruesome to meet it while suffering from hunger with the very marrow of one's bones freezing and one's teeth chattering. She was glad enough to sit still on that rough stool. She did not want to be taken back, even to that little village of Carcajou. The little children had made such good friends with her, and would have climbed all over her had their mother not reproved them; the very dogs had come up and rubbed against her, and put their muzzles in her lap. Two of them were but half-grown pups. And best of all the big-hearted and full-bosomed mother of the family always spoke in words that were so friendly, even affectionate. It had been a wonderful vision of a better world from which she did not want to awaken too soon.
In the meanwhile Hugo had been compelled, not without a wry face, to swallow the bitter potion Mrs. Papineau had prepared for him.
"I think I'll be going," he remarked.
"You rest one leetle time yet," ordered the housewife. "You haf noding for to do. Feel better soon when you rest after de medicine. You no 'urry."