Perhaps nothing loath he had sat down again, with his chair tilted back a little till the back rested on the table. Madge was sitting nearly in front of him, with her back slightly turned, and he could see the tightly pinned mass of the hair he had seen flooding her shoulders in his shack, and the comely curve of her neck as she leaned forward, staring into the fire. For a time this drove away the pain that was in his wounded arm and the hot, throbbing feeling of discomfort that it gave him. What irked him was the realization of the tragedy brought to this girl somehow and the understanding of all that she must have suffered.
Hugo had not always lived in the wilderness. He also had been of the town during a period of his life, until the longing had come for the greater freedom of the open spaces, of the regions which in their greatness bring forth the sturdier qualities of manhood.
He was thinking of the scorn that had been in her voice when she had told him of the fierce impulse that had bidden her escape from the bondage of carking poverty and care. It had only resulted in bringing disappointment and the shame, the outraged womanhood that had burned upon her cheeks. And this appealed to him with an irresistible force since that effort on her part showed that she at least possessed courage and the readiness to go far afield in search of an avenue of escape. Weaker souls would long ago have given up the fight.
He had just tried to begin an explanation and find the truth out from her, but she had shaken her head and said it was useless. She did not understand; how could she? Yet he had been sorely disappointed. It had scarcely been a rebuff on her part for she had spoken gently enough, in that low despairing voice of hers. He must wait another and better occasion and hope that he would be able to clear himself of wrongdoing.
At this time a man's practical nature suggested to him the thought that she must be very poor—that she had perhaps expended her last resources in coming to Carcajou. If this was the case, what would it avail for him to take her back to the railway? What would happen to her then? He could not allow her to depart without finding out how such matters stood, and he wondered in what manner he could make her accept some money and how he could make amends to her for the injury she had sustained at some unknown individual's hands. But the more he puzzled his brain the less he could discover any efficient way of coming to her assistance. She had said that every bit of pride had been torn from her, but he knew that this was not altogether true. The flashing of her eyes and the indignation of her voice had contradicted her words efficiently. She would probably resent his offer, refuse to accept anything from him. Yet, if he managed to persuade her that he was guiltless, it was possible....
But here his thoughts were interrupted by Mrs. Papineau, who insisted on inspecting his wound again and made a wry face when she looked at it.
"I beg you pardon for to tell de truth, Monsieur Hugo," she said, "but I tink you one beeg fool man for come here to-day. I tink maybe you get bad seek wid dat h'arm. You stay 'ere to-day an' for de night. I make you a bed in dis room on de floor, by Jacques an' Baptiste an' Pierre. My man Philippe 'e come to-morrow, maybe to-night, an' I send heem to Carcajou so he telegraph to de docteur for see you, eh?"
"You're awfully good, Mrs. Papineau," answered the young man, with the obstinacy of his kind. "I'm perfectly sure I'll be all right to-morrow, or the next day at the most. And I'll come back and see how Miss Nelson is getting on. I think I'll move now so I'll say good-by. I'm a lot better now. I suppose it's on account of that stuff you made me drink; it was bad enough to be fine medicine. I hope the rest will do you some good also, Miss Nelson. You're looking a lot better than yesterday."
Mrs. Papineau first thought of preventing his exit by main force but felt compelled to let him have his way. She lacked the courage of her convictions and allowed him to depart, with his dog running ahead with the toboggan. She peered at him through one of the small panes and saw that he was walking fairly easily.
"Maybe heem be all right soon," she confided hopefully to Madge, while she mixed dough in a pan. "But heem one beeg fool man all de same."
"I—I can hardly believe that," objected the girl. "Why do you think so?"
"All mans is beeg fools ven dey is 'urted or seek, my dear. Dey don't know nodings 'ow to tak' care for heemselves. Dey don't never haf sense dat vay. Alvays tink dey so strong noding happen, ever. But just same Hugo Ennis one mighty fine man, I say dat sure. I rather de ole cow die as anyting 'appen to heem."
Without interrupting her work, and later as she toiled, at her washtub, the good woman launched forth in lengthy praise of Hugo. From her conversation it appeared that he had helped one or two fellows with small sums of money and good advice. In the autumn he had fished out an Indian who had upset his boat while netting whitefish in rough weather, on the lake, and every one knew that Stefan's life had been saved by him. At any rate the Swede said so, for Hugo never liked much to speak of such things. And then he was a steady fellow, a hard worker, good at the traps and not afraid of work of any kind. And then he was friendly to everybody. Had Madge noticed how gentle he was with the little children? That was always a sign of a good man.
"Yes, mees," she concluded. "Some time I tink heem de bes' man as ever lif. Heem Hugo not even 'urt one dog, or anyting."
So he wouldn't hurt even a dog! Madge repeated these words to herself. Then why had he played such a sorry joke on a woman who had never injured him? She wondered whether he would be sorry, afterwards, if—if he ever chanced to learn what had become of her—after everything was all over. It might be that he had just been a big fool, as the Canadian woman had called him, and never reflected on the possible consequences of his action. But then he should have had the manhood to acknowledge his fault and beg her pardon, instead of resorting at once to clumsy lies and pretending utter ignorance. In many ways such conduct seemed inconsistent with the man, now that she had had further opportunity of seeing him. And then there was no doubt that he looked very ill. She was really very sorry for her share in that accident, and yet—and yet men had been shot dead for smaller offenses than he had meted out to her. He might have been killed, of course, and her quickened imagination caused her to see him stretched stark upon the floor of that little cabin, on those rough boards that smelled of resiny things. And then people would have come and she would have been accused of his murder, of course. It would have been her weapon that had done it, and they would have found motive enough for the deed in the story she would have been compelled to relate. They wouldn't have believed in any accident. And then, instead of being able to end everything in some air hole of Roaring River, she would have been dragged to some jail to eke out her days in a prison, if she had not been hanged.
The next day she awaited his coming somewhat anxiously. She felt that she must know how he was before—before taking that last step. After all he had tried to be considerate, except in the matter of those amazing lies. During the afternoon Mrs. Papineau, growing anxious, sent little Baptiste over to enquire after him. The small boy returned, saying that he had seen two squirrels and a rabbit on the tote-road, and the track of a fox, and that he had found Hugo sitting by the fire. And Hugo had declared that he was all right and—and perhaps he wasn't pleased, because he spoke very shortly and had told him to hurry home. So Baptiste had left, and on his way he had seen partridges sitting on a fir sapling, and if he'd had a gun, or even some rocks....
But this circumstantial narrative was interrupted by the barking of the dogs. The sun was about setting. Madge looked out of the window, while Mrs. Papineau rushed to the door. It was a man arriving with a toboggan and two big dogs.
"Dat my man Philippe coming," announced the woman, happily.
She held the door open, letting in a blast of cold air, and the man entered, tired with long tramping. From the toboggan he removed a load of pelts, dead hares that would serve chiefly for bait, his blankets and the indispensable axe. Mrs. Papineau volubly explained the guest's presence and he greeted her kindly.
"You frien' of Hugo Ennis," he said. "Den you is velcome an' me glad for see you, mademoiselle."
He was a pleasant-faced, stocky and broad-limbed man of rather short stature, and his manner was altogether kindly and pleasant. The simplicity and cordiality of his manner was entirely in keeping with the ways of his family. It was curious that all the people she had met so far seemed to have come to an agreement in speaking well of Ennis.
The man sat down, after the smallest of the children had swarmed all over him, and took off his Dutch stockings, waiting for the plenteous meal and the hot tea his wife was preparing. Meanwhile, to lose no time, he began to skin a pine marten.
"Plent' much good luck dis time," he said, turning to Madge. "Five vison, vat you call mink, and a pair martens. Also one fox, jus' leetle young fox but pelt ver' nice. You want for see?"
She inspected the pelts and looked at the animals that were yet unskinned, realizing for the first time how men went off in the wilds for days and weeks and months at a time, in bitterest weather, to provide furs for fine ladies.
The darkness had come and the big oil lamp was lighted. The children played about her for a time and gradually sought their couches in bunks and truckle-beds. The man was relating incidents of the trapping to his wife, who nodded understandingly. Beaver were getting plentiful along the upper reaches of the Roaring; it was a pity that the law prevented their killing for such a long time. He had seen tracks of caribou, that are scarce in that region; but they were very old tracks, not worth following, since these animals are such great travelers.
During this conversation Madge would listen, at times, and turn towards the door. She had a vague idea that Ennis might come, since the boy's account had been somewhat reassuring. When she finally went to bed behind an improvised screen in a corner of the big living-room, she was long unable to sleep, owing to obsessing thoughts that wouldn't be banished. Over and over again she reminded herself of all that had happened. It stood to reason that the man had written those letters; how could it be otherwise? The proofs in her hands were too conclusive to permit her to pay any heed to his denials. The amazing thing was that when one looked at him it became harder and harder to believe him capable of such wrongdoing.
As she tossed in her bed she began to be assailed with doubts. These worried her exceedingly. He had firmly asserted his innocence. Supposing that he was telling the truth, what then? In such a case, impossible as it seemed, she had accused him unjustly, and her conduct towards him had been unpardonable. And then she had refused to listen to him, when he had sought to begin some sort of explanation. Why shouldn't one believe a man with such frank and honest eyes, one who wouldn't harm even a dog and was loved and trusted by little children? Of course, it was quite unintentionally that she had wounded his body, but if he chanced to be innocent she had also wounded his feelings, deeply, in spite of which he had seemed sorry for her, and had been very kind. He had promised to come again to give her further help. If he was guilty it was but a sorry attempt to make slight amends. If he was not at fault, it showed that he was a mighty fine man. Madge felt that she would rather believe in his innocence, in spite of the fact that if he could prove it she would be covered with confusion.
"It seems to me that I ought to have given him that opportunity he was seeking," she told herself, rather miserably.
Before she fell asleep she decided that on the morrow she would walk over to his shack if he did not turn up in the forenoon. He might be in want of care, in spite of what the small boy had said. If he was all right she would sit down and question him. The letters she had received were in her bag; she would show them to him. Now that she thought of it, the curious, ill-formed, hesitating character of the writing seemed utterly out of keeping with the man's apparent nature. He ought to have written strongly and boldly, it seemed to her. Gradually she was becoming certain that his word of honor that he had never penned them, or caused some one else to do it for him, would suffice to change the belief she had held. Yes—she would go there, even before noon. If she met him on the road they could as well speak out in the open air. And if she could be sure that she had been mistaken in regard to him, she would beg his pardon, because he had tried to be good to her, with little encouragement on her part. She—she didn't want him to think afterwards—when everything would be ended, that she had been ungrateful and unjust. Of course, the great effort had failed; nearly everything was ended now and there were no steps that could be retraced. Someone had been very wicked and cruel, that was certain. But she didn't care who it was; it could make no difference. She really hoped it was not Hugo Ennis.
In the darkness her tense features relaxed and her body felt greater ease. Finally her eyes closed and she slept.
For the Good Name of Carcajou
The morning came clear and somewhat warmer. Beyond the serrated edges of the woodlands covering far-away hills were masses of sunlit rolling clouds that seemed as if they were utterly immovable and piled up as a background to the purpling beauty of the mountains.
Madge awoke early. Outside the house the dogs were stirring, the two young ones chasing one another over the snow and rolling over it while the others nosed about more sedately. She heard a ponderous yawn from Papineau, on the other side of the slender partition, and a general scurrying of small feet and the moving of washbasins. When she came out Mrs. Papineau had already kindled the wood in the fireplace and was stirring the hot embers in the stove. From without she heard sounds of lusty chopping.
She wrapped a borrowed knitted scarf about her neck and put on Hugo's woolen tuque, after which she stepped out. There was a wondrous brilliancy over the world. On trees hung icicles that took on the appearance of gems. The cold air made her breathe so deeply that she felt amazingly strong and well. The oldest boy's smiting with his axe came in thumps that awakened a little echo, coming from over there where the river narrowed down between high banks. It was very wonderful; it gave one a desire to live; it seemed a pity that one must so soon say good-by to all this. It—it was perhaps better not to think of that just now.
She went indoors again. There were potatoes to be peeled and the girl, in spite of protests, took up a knife and went to work. It was such a pleasure to do something to help. Indeed she had been idle too long, allowing these people to do everything for her while she crouched disconsolately in warm corners. At present all the weariness and weakness seemed to have left her. It was just like a fresh beginning instead of the ending of a life. It would have made her happy to think that, somewhere in the world, providing it were away from the city, she might have found honest work to do in exchange for some of this wonderful peace. If she could only have remained among these gentle and placid people and let her existence flow on, easily, without pain and the constant worry for the morrow. It was like some marvelous dream from which she was compelled to awaken at once, for she realized that there was no place for her in this household. The older children were already of the greatest assistance to their parents, and there was no room for her in the crowded shack. She had caused these people some inconvenience, which they had accepted cheerfully, it was true, but which she could not keep on inflicting on them. But for some hours—some blessed hours, she could play at being happy and pretend that life was sweet. She could smile now, when these people spoke to her, and she hugged some of the little ones without apparent reason.
"You stay 'ere some more day," Mrs. Papineau told her, "an' den you look lak' oder gal sure. Get fat an' lose de black roun' you h'eyes. You now a tousan' time better as ven you come, you bet. Dis a fine coontree, Canada, for peoples get strong an' hoongree an' work 'ard an' sleep good."
"It's a perfectly beautiful and wonderful country," cried the girl, enthusiastically. "I—I wish I could always live here."
"You one so prettee gal," commented the good woman. "Some day you fin' one good 'usban' an' marry an' h'always lif in dis coontree. Den you is happy and strong. Plenty mans in dis coontree want wife to 'elp an' mak' good 'ome. It one h'awful big lan'."
Yes, there was any amount of room in this great country. And the woman wanted her to go and find a good husband! Well, she had come far to seek one. It—it had not been a pleasant experience. She saw herself wandering about this wilderness looking for another man who would take her to wife. Oh, the shame of it—the hot flashing of her cheeks when she thought of it! No, she was now looking on all this as a pauper looks into the shop-front displaying the warm clothing that would keep the bitter cold from him, or as starvelings of big cities, through the windows of great restaurants and hostelries, stare upon the well-fed people sating themselves with an abundance of good cheer. She must remain outside and now the end of it all was near.
They had their breakfast, during which Mrs. Papineau said that she was becoming anxious about Hugo. Presently she would send one of the children again. Papineau wouldn't do because he knew nothing about sick people. She would go over there herself soon. If he was sick she would bring him a loaf of bread. It would soon be ready to bake; the dough was still rising behind the stove. There might be other things to be attended to. Not more than an hour would elapse before she was ready to go. She remarked that men were a very helpless lot whenever they were ill, and became grumpy and took feminine tact to manage.
The feeling of anxiety that had gradually come over the girl became deeper. If the man was ill, it was her fault. What had possessed her to spend some of her scant store of money in that dirty little shop for a pistol? Of course, she realized that a vague feeling of danger had guided her—that the thing could be a means of defense or offer a way to end her troubles. And it had only served to injure a man who, if he had sinned against her, manifested at any rate some desire to treat her kindly.
But the thought that he might not be guilty returned to her, insistently. It was on her part a change of thought that was not due to carefully reasoned considerations, to any deep study of conditions, for when she tried to argue the matter out she became involved in a thousand contradictions and her head would begin to ache in dizzy fashion. Rather it was some sort of instinct, one of the conclusions so often and quickly reached by the feminine mind and apt, in spite of everything, to prove accurate and reliable.
"Mrs. Papineau," she said, suddenly, "I think I will go over there now. I—I have rested long enough and the fresh air will be good for me. I will come back very soon, I suppose, but if—if Mr. Ennis should be ill you will find me there."
Her proposal was assented to without the slightest objection. The good woman insisted on furnishing her with footwear better suited to the tote-road than the boots she wore. On the trail the snow would be fairly well beaten down and there would be little need of snowshoes if she picked her way carefully. She could not lose her way. Still, it might be as well for one of the children to go with her. People who were not used to the woods sometimes strayed off a trail and got in trouble.
Under escort of the second oldest girl Madge started, briskly. She had covered but a short distance before she wondered that she felt so strong and well. The plain substantial food she had eaten and the bright, stimulating air were filling her with a new life. She walked along quite fast, for she was now anxious to see this man again. If she had been wrong she wanted to make amends. But what if he were very ill? She thought of the lonely little shack and the lack of any comfort and care within it. He might be lying there helplessly, with only a dog for a companion. At every turn of the little road she looked ahead, keenly, thinking that perhaps she might meet him on his way to the Papineau's. As she hurried on she felt that the house had perhaps been too warm and it was splendid to be walking beneath the snow-laden trees, to see the little clouds of her breath going out into the frosty air and to hear the crackling of the clean snow under her feet.
The child was walking sturdily at her side and told her of some Christmas presents Hugo had brought. It was evident that to the children of that family he was a very wonderful being, a sort of Santa Claus who had done his full duty and one to be forever after welcomed with joyous shrieks. And father said he was a very good shot, and Stefan Olsen, the big man, thought there was no one like him. And he could sing songs and tell stories, wonderful stories. Madge, as she listened to the girl, suddenly wondered whether it was not possible that the loneliness of such a life might not in some way have disturbed the man's mind, at least temporarily. Wasn't it possible for one, in such a case, to do queer things and never remember anything about them afterwards? No one better than she knew what a terrible and maddening thing loneliness was. She recollected distracting hours spent in little hall-bedrooms while she tried to mend, after an exhausting day's work, the poor clothing that wore out so terribly soon, and how at times she had felt that she must be becoming crazy.
"But no! He couldn't have done it. He—he's a very quiet sensible man, I should think, and—and he wouldn't hurt even a dog," she repeated to herself.
They were journeying quite fast over the trail that snaked along through the woods, bending here and there in order to avoid boulders and stumps and fallen trees but always coming in sight of the frozen river again. At times Madge trudged through rather deep snow. Also she stubbed her toes upon rocks and stumbled over branches broken off by the great gales of winter. But it really wasn't very hard. And the child kept on chattering about Monsieur Hugo and asking eager questions about the big city. Was it true that as far as one could see there were houses standing right up against one another for miles and miles, and that people swarmed in them as do the wild bees in hollow trees? It was natural for bees to do such things, and for ants, and for the minnows in shoals down in the river, but why did people have to crowd in such a way? How could they breathe?
Finally they came in sight of the shack and the child gave a swift glance.
"No smoke, mees," she said. "Heem go away, or mebbe heem seek."
Madge hurried along faster for an instant, and then stopped short. What if neither of the child's conclusions was correct? If she went over there and knocked at the door he might come out, looking rather surprised. She had told him that she had come to Carcajou, looking for an unknown husband, for a man she was willing to accept under certain conditions, just because her life had become intolerable. He might lift his brow and perhaps ask her quite civilly to come in. But what would he think? Would he imagine that she was running after him and trying to compel him to marry her? It was not alone the frost that brought color to her cheeks now. No, it would never do.
"I think I will wait here," she told the little girl. "Will you please go and find out if Mr. Ennis is there, and whether he is all right again? I'll sit down on this log and wait till you come back."
The child looked rather puzzled but she ran down the path that led to the cabin. Madge saw her stopping in front of the door, at which she knocked. She heard her call out and then wait, as if listening. At once came Maigan's voice. He was barking but the sound was not an angry one. Rather it sounded plaintively. Finally the girl pulled the door open, after fumbling at the latch, and the dog ran out, barking again and rolling in the snow. Then he sniffed the air and discovered Madge, at once running towards her and pushing his muzzle in her hand. She stroked his head and he ran back, going but a few steps and turning around to see if she followed. She rose slowly, a sense of fear coming over her, and hesitatingly went down the path also. At this moment the child came out, looking frightened, and hastened over to her.
"Heem seek—very seek," she cried, and Madge found herself running now, with her heart beating and her breath coming fast. The terrifying idea came to her that perhaps he was dead. But as she entered the place the man rose painfully on his bunk. His face was amazingly pale and his features drawn—hardly recognizable.
"Sorry, must beg your pardon—I intended to come over," he told her, hoarsely. "It—it's some silly sort of a fever. I—I'll be better pretty soon. It's that blessed arm of mine, I think, and—and I'm frightfully thirsty. If—if you'll ask the kid...."
Madge peered about her, but there was no water in sight. Even if there had been any she knew it would have frozen solid in the fireless shack whose interior had struck a chill through her. She seized a pail.
"Where does one get it?" she asked. "Or do you have to melt ice?"
"There's a spring. It's halfway down to the pool. Never quite freezes over. Let that girl go for it, Miss Nelson. Or—or I may go myself in a minute. Only waiting till—till my teeth stop chattering. Then I can light—light the fire and—and make hot tea. It—it's such a stupid nuisance and—and I'm giving you a lot of bother."
But Madge ran out of the shack and down to that spring, where the clear water seemed to be boiling out of the ground, since a little cloud of steam rose from it. But it was just pure icy water and she filled the pail and hurried back with it. When she returned the child was efficiently engaged in making a fire in the little stove. The man had sunk down on his bunk again and she went up to him. His teeth were no longer chattering, but his cheekbones now bore patches of deep red. When she ventured to touch his hand, she found that it was burning hot. At this an awful, distressing, unreasoning fear came upon her. She—she had killed this man, for—for he certainly was going to die, she thought. Even in the big hospital she had never seen a face more strongly stamped with the marks of impending death. It was frightful!
She gave him water which he drank greedily, calling for more. She had to hold the cup, since his hand shook too badly. Dully, feeling stricken with a great desolation, she prepared some tea and gave it to him. She had found some biscuits in a box but he refused to eat anything. Presently he was lying flat again on his bunk, with his eyes closed, and when she spoke he made no answer. But he was breathing, she noted. Perhaps he had fallen asleep. It might do him a great deal of good, she thought.
The child had thrown herself down on the floor, next to Maigan, who was stretched out at length, enjoying the welcome heat of the stove. From time to time the animal lifted his head and looked towards his master anxiously. He knew that something was all wrong, but now that these other people had come everything would doubtless be made all right.
For some time Madge kept still, sitting down on a stool she had drawn to the side of the bunk. She had the resigned patience innate in so many women, but presently she could stand it no longer. Something must be done at once. Valuable time was passing and no help was being obtained. Things simply couldn't go on this way!
Rising again she called the child.
"We must go and get a doctor at once," she whispered, breathlessly. "I—I'm horribly afraid. Come outside with me."
She caught the little girl's arm in her impatience, and took her out.
"Your—your friend, Monsieur Hugo, is dreadfully ill, do you understand, child? I heard your mother say that one could telegraph from Carcajou for a doctor. We've got to do it! How long would it take me to get there?"
The girl was evidently scared, but she looked at Madge with some of the practical sense of one versed with the difficulties of life in the wilds.
"If you 'lone you never get dere. If Maigan work for you maybe three-four hour," answered the child. "Heem go a leetle way den turn back for de shack. No leave master."
There came upon Madge a dreadful feeling of helplessness. The man looked terribly ill; she felt that he was probably going to die. This great wilderness suddenly grew as wicked in her eyes as that of the city. Nay, it was even worse. She remembered how ill she had become and how she had struggled to fight off the sickness, in a little lone room of a top floor. But as soon as people had come she had been bundled away to the hospital. A wagon had come, with a doctor in a white coat, and they had clattered off. The people in the hospital had seemed interested, indifferent, friendly, according to their several dispositions, but she had been taken care of, and fed, and washed, and some of the nurses had sweet faces, after all, and after a time she had recovered. All this had seemed rather terrible at the time, but what was it compared to this lying desperately ill in a freezing hut, too feeble to procure even the cup of water craved by a dry tongue and lips that were parched?
"I can surely walk that distance," she cried, but the child shook her head again.
"You no good for walk far," she asserted. "You jus' fall down dead. Twelve mile and snow deep some place. Moch cole as freeze you quick when tired."
"Then what's to be done?" asked Madge, entering the house again, followed by the child. "I think I ought to try to get to Carcajou."
"Please don't," said the man, hoarsely, looking as if he had awakened suddenly, and lifting himself up on one elbow painfully. "I'll—I'll be all right to-morrow, sure—surest thing you know, and—and I'll take you down myself, with old—old Maigan."
"Please hurry back to your house and tell your mother to come over as soon as she can," Madge told the child. "Perhaps your father could go. I didn't think of it at first."
"Now you spik' lak' you know someting," said the girl, with refreshing frankness. "I 'urry all right. Get modder quick."
She started, her little legs flying over the snow, and Madge closed the door again.
She put a little more wood in the stove and sat down by the bunk. The man's eyes were closed again. It was strange that he had heard her so distinctly, and that he had gathered the impression that she wanted to get to Carcajou on her own account. And—and he had said he would take her himself. Again his first thought had been to do something for her, to be of service to her.
One of his hands was lying outside the blankets, and instinctively Madge placed her own upon it. She was frightened to feel how hot it was. The pulse her fingers sought was beating wildly. She felt glad that she was there. The man didn't care for her and she—well, she supposed that she disliked him, but she wasn't going to let him die there alone in a corner, like a wounded animal in some obscure den among the rocks. For the moment her own troubles were pretty nearly forgotten, for there was something for her to do. She had been but a useless by-product of humanity in the great melting pot of the world and had proved incapable of rising above the dross and making even a poor place for herself. But this man was young and strong and able, bearing all the marks of one destined to be of use. He had looked splendid in his efficient and sturdy manhood and therefore there was something wrong, utterly wrong and against the course of nature in his being about to be snuffed out before her very eyes, just because she had dropped that abominable pistol. It—it just couldn't be!
She leaned forward again and looked upon his face, that was ashen under the coating of tan. Once he opened his eyes and looked at her, but the lids closed down again and once more she became obsessed by the idea that she might have been very unjust to him, that she had perhaps insulted and wronged him. All at once the face she was looking at became blurred, but it was because she saw it through a mist of gathering tears. It had been easy, when she had bought that pistol, to think of killing a man; now it seemed frightful, abominable, and the resentment she had felt against the man was turning against herself in spite of the fact that it had been an accident, just a miserable accident.
Long minutes, forty or fifty of them, went by as she waited and listened. But presently Maigan, that had laid his head in her lap and was looking at her pitifully, as if he had been begging her to help the man he loved, rose suddenly and dashed to the door, barking. It proved to be Papineau and his wife, who was very breathless.
The man came in, looked at Hugo and rushed out again. He took the time to exchange his toboggan for Hugo's, which was lighter and to which he hitched his three powerful dogs. Madge went to him.
"You'll hurry, won't you?" she cried. "I—I'm afraid, I'm horribly afraid. Don't—don't come back without a doctor will you?"
"You bet de life, mees, I make dem dog 'urry plenty moch. Yes, ma'am, you bet!" he repeated, calmly, but looking at her with the strong steely eyes that seemed peculiar to these men of the great North.
He ran with his team up the path. When he reached the tote-road the girl saw that he had jumped on the sled, which was tearing away to the southward.
Within the shack Mrs. Papineau busied herself in many ways, placing things in order and fussing about the stove, upon which she had placed a pot containing more herbs she had brought with her. Every few minutes she interrupted her work in order to take another look at Hugo. Once or twice Madge saw a big tear roll down her fat cheeks, which she swiftly wiped off with her sleeve. A little later she managed to make the man swallow some of her concoction. He appeared to obey unconsciously, but when she spoke to him he just babbled something which neither of the women understood. Finally the Frenchwoman sat down at the side of Madge, snuffling a little, and began to whisper.
"Big strong man one day," she commented, "an' dis day seek an' weak lak one leetle child. Eet is de way so strange of de Providence. It look lak de good Lord make one fine man, fines' Heem can make—a man as should get de love of vomans an' leetle children—an' den Heem mak up his min' for to tak heem avay. An' Heem good Lord know why, but I tink I better pray. Maybe de good Lord Heem 'ear an' tink let heem lif a whiles yet, eh?"
And so the woman knelt down and repeated prayers, for the longest time, speaking hurriedly the invocations she had all her life, known by heart, and ending each one with the devout crossing of her breast. Then Madge, for the first time in a very long while, remembered words she had so often heard in the little village church at home, which promised that whenever two or three were gathered together in the name of the Lord, He would be among them. Yes, she had heard that assurance often in the place of worship she could now see so vividly, in which the open windows, on summer days, let in the droning of the bees and the scent of honeysuckle outside. So she knelt beside the other woman and began to pray also, haltingly, in words that came well-nigh unbidden because they were the call of a heart in sore travail which had long forgotten how to pray for itself. And it seemed as if the great Power above must surely be listening.
Finally Mrs. Papineau rose. She was compelled to go back home and see that the children were fed. She promised she would return in a short time. The doctor would certainly not come before night, perhaps not even until early morning, for he would be compelled to make a journey on the train. Papineau would wait for him, of course. As soon as he had sent the message he would give the dogs a good feed and they would be ready for the return. Then when the doctor turned up, Papineau would rush him to Roaring River, and—and if the Lord was willing he might be able to do something, providing....
But she had to interrupt herself to wipe away another big tear. She placed a hand upon the girl's shoulder, seeking to encourage her a little, and started off, her heavy footsteps crackling over the snow. Then silence came again, but for the hurried breathing of the sick man and the occasional sighs of Maigan, who refused food offered to him.
Madge forced herself to eat a little, dimly realizing that for a time there might be need of all her strength. After this she sat down again, feeling crushed with the sense of her helplessness and with the thought of the terribly long hours that must elapse before the doctor could arrive.
Once Hugo seemed to awaken, as if from a sleep. The hand that had lain so still seemed to grope, searchingly, and she placed her own upon it.
"Take you over—all right—to-morrow," he said. "It—it's a pity, because—because you're so—so good and kind, now," he muttered. "She—she thinks I—I'm the dirt under her feet. Ain't—ain't you there, Stefan?"
His eyes searched the room for a moment. Then, with a look of disappointment, his head sagged down on the pillow again and he lay quiet for a long time, till he began to mutter words that were disconnected and meaningless to her.
The noon hour came and went, with a glowing sun that shone brightly over the snow and tinted the mist from the great falls with the colors of the rainbow. But Madge did not see it, for within the little shack the panes were dimmed by the frost. The stove crackled and spat, with the sudden little explosions of wood fires. Close to it one felt very warm but the heat did not extend far, since the cold seemed to be seeking ever to penetrate the room, making its way beneath the door and through some of the chinked spaces between the logs. It affected Madge now as a sort of enemy, this cold that seemed to be on the watch for victims. It was one of the things that were always rising up in order to crush struggling men and women.
Another hour elapsed, that had been cruelly long, when Maigan suddenly leaped up and stood before the door, with hair bristling all over him and standing like a ridge along his back. He scratched furiously and looked back, as if demanding to be let out, and kept up a long, ominous growl that was very different from his usual bark.
Madge went to the door, feeling very uneasy. She opened it, after slipping her hand under Maigan's collar. Upon the tote-road she saw a large sled that had been drawn by a pair of strong, shaggy horses, which a man was blanketing. From where she stood she heard confused voices of men and women, all of whom were strangers to her. They seemed to be consulting together. Finally they came down the path towards the shack, nine or ten of them, walking slowly and looking grim and unfriendly. Maigan was now barking fiercely and Madge had to struggle with him to prevent his dashing out towards them.
Philippe Papineau rode nearly all the way on the toboggan, sparing the dogs only in the hardest places on rising ground. The animals had been well-fed on the previous night and the trip around the trapping line had not been a hard one. It represented but a mere fifty miles or so, over which they had only hauled one man's food in three days, with his blankets and a small shelter-tent he used when forced to stop away from one of the small huts he had built on the line. In fact, there had been little need of three dogs, but Papineau had taken them because it kept up their training. In the pink of condition, therefore, the team bade fair to equal Stefan's best performances.
The Frenchman was within sight of the smokestack rising from Carcajou's sawmill when he opened his eyes, widely. A pair of horses was coming along the old road, drawing a big sled. As the old lumber trail was used only by dog-teams, as a rule, this surprised him. A moment later he clucked at his dogs, which drew to one side, and the horses, from whose shaggy bodies a cloud of steam was rising, came abreast of him. The sled stopped.
"Hello there, Papineau!" called one of the men. "Going in for provisions? Thought you hauled in a barrel of flour last week."
"Uh huh," assented Philippe, non-committally.
"Is that fellow Ennis over to his shack?" asked McIntosh, the squaw-man.
"Uh huh," repeated the settler.
"D'ye happen to know whether there's a—a young 'ooman there too?"
"Vat you vant wid dat gal?" asked Papineau this time.
"We're just goin' visitin', like," Pat Kilrea informed him. "It's sure a fine day for a ride in the country. And so that there young 'ooman's been up there a matter o' three-four days, ain't she?"
"I tink so," assented Philippe.
"D'ye know who she is?" asked Mrs. Kilrea, a severe looking and angular woman.
"Sure, heem gal is friend o' Hugo," answered the Frenchman, simply. "Mebbe you better no go to-day. Hugo heem seek. I got to 'urry, so good-by."
He lashed his dogs on again, while Pat cracked his whip and the party went on. Mrs. Kilrea was looking rather horrified, thought Sophy McGurn. Her turn was coming at last. There would be a scene that would repay her for her trouble, she gleefully decided.
As they went on at a steady pace, over a road which none but horses inured to lumbering could have followed without breaking a leg or getting hopelessly stalled in deep snow, Philippe hurried over to the station and got Joe Follansbee to send a telegram. The young man would have given a good deal to have made one of the party but his official duties detained him.
"Who wants a doctor?" he asked, curiously.
"Hugo," answered Papineau, impatiently. "You don't h'ask so moch question, you fellar. Jus' telegraph quick now an' h'ask for answer ven dat docteur he come, you 'ear me?"
Joe looked at the Frenchman, intending to resent his sharp orders, but thought better of it. The small, square-built, wide-shouldered man was not one to be trifled with. He was known as a calm, cool sort of a chap with little sense of humor, and the youth reflected that, in this neck of the woods, it was best not to trifle with men who were apt to end a quarrel by fighting over an acre of ground and mauling one another until one or both parties were utterly unrecognizable, even to their best friends.
"Come back in about an hour and I expect I'll have an answer," he told the Frenchman, quite meekly.
The latter went into McGurn's store and purchased some tobacco and a few needed groceries. Suddenly he bethought himself of Stefan.
"Mon Dieu!" he exclaimed. "Heem ought know right avay, sure."
He drove his team around to Stefan's smithy but failed to find him. At the house Mrs. Olsen told him that her husband had gone out a half an hour ago. He would probably be at Olaf Jonson's, at the other end of the village. Thither drove Philippe and found his man.
"'Ello, Stefan, want for see you right avay," said the trapper. "Come 'long!"
The Swede hastened to him.
"Vat it iss, Philippe?" he asked, eyeing the dogs expertly. "Py de looks off tem togs I tink you ban in some hurry, no?"
"Uh huh! I come to telegraph for de docteur. Hugo heem 'urted h'awful bad. Look lak' heem die, mebbe."
Stefan bellowed out an oath and began running towards his house at a tremendous gait. Papineau jumped on his toboggan and followed, only catching up after they had gone a couple of hundred yards. When they reached Olsen's, the latter went in, shouted out the news and came out again. With the help of Papineau he hitched up his own great team of five.
"Tank you for lettin' me know, Papineau," he said. "I get ofer dere so tam qvick you don't belief, I tank. So long!"
"'Old 'ard! 'Old 'ard!" shouted the Frenchman. "Vat for you tink Pat Kilrea an' McIntosh, an' Prouty an' Kerrigan and more, an' also vomans is goin' up dere to de Falls? Dey say go visitin'. Dey don't nevaire go make visits before dat vay. An' dey h'ask me all 'bout de demoiselle, de gal vat is up dere, an' I see Mis' Kilrea an' Kerrigan's voman look one de oder in de face. Look mean lak' de devil, dem vomans! I dunno, but I tink dey up to no good, dem crowd. If I no have to stay for docteur I go right back qvick. D'ye tink dey vant ter bodder Hugo, or de lady, Stefan?"
The latter swore again.
"If dey bodder 'em I tvists all dere necks like chickens, I tank," he cried, excitedly. "How long ago did they leave?"
"Vell, most a h'our, now, I tink, and dem's Kerrigan's horses, as is five year olds an' stronk lak' de devil. Dey run good on de five-mile flat, dey do, sure, an' odder places vhere snow is pack nice."
This time Stefan didn't answer. He shouted at his team, that started on the run, but Zeb Foraker's St. Bernard, who could lick any dog in Carcajou singly, chanced to leap over the garden fence and come at them. In a moment a half dozen dogs were piled up in a fight. Stefan stepped into the snarl. A moment later he had the biggest animal, that was supposed to weigh close to two hundred, by the tail. With a wonderful heave he lifted it up and swung it over his master's fence into a leafless copper beach that graced the plot, whence the animal fell to the ground, looking dazed. It took several minutes to straighten out the tangled traces and the leader was hopelessly lame. He had to be taken out and left at home. All the time Stefan's language brought scared faces to the windows of neighboring shacks. It was a good thing, probably, that few people in Carcajou understood Swedish. Still, from the sound of it they judged that it must be something pretty bad. Finally he was off again, lacking the smartest animal in his team. The others, however, probably considered that this was no occasion for further bad behavior and old Jennie, mother of three of the bunch, led it without making any serious mistakes.
For the life of him Stefan couldn't conceive why anyone should want to bother Hugo or the pretty lady. It was the very strangeness and mystery of the thing that aroused him. He never entertained the idea that Papineau was mistaken. The Frenchman was a fine smart fellow, one who loved Hugo, and a man not given to idle notions or to exaggeration. If he thought there was something wrong this must be the case.
On a long upgrade he ran at the side of his dogs, his great chest heaving at the tremendous effort. On the level he rode, urging the animals on and keeping his eyes on the tracks of the horses and sleigh, while his strong stern face seemed immovably frozen into an expression of grim determination. Anyone who touched his friend Hugo would have to reckon with him, indeed. The man was one of the few beings he cared for, like his wife or the young ones. Such a friendship was a possession, something he owned, a treasure he would not be robbed of and was prepared to defend, as he would have defended his little hoard of money, the home he had built, with the berserker fury of his ancestors. He was conscious of his might, conscious that there were few men on earth who could stand up against him in the rough and tumble fighting current in the far wilderness. He knew that he could go through such a crowd as was threatening his friend like a devastating cyclone through a cornfield.
"If dey's qviet un' reasonable I don't 'urt nobotty but yoost tell 'em git out of here, tarn qvick," he projected. "But if dem mens is up to anything rough I hope dey says dere prayers alretty, because I yoost bust 'em all up, you bet."
The team was pulling hard, the breaths coming out in swift little puffs from their nostrils. Sometimes they walked, with tongues hanging out, while again they trotted easily, or, down the hills, galloped with the long easy lope of their wolfish ancestors. And Stefan calculated the speed the horses could have made here, and again over there. By the tracks he saw where they had trotted along good ground, or toiled more slowly over rough places. The man grinned when he came to spots where they must have proceeded very slowly with the heavy sleigh, and his brows corrugated when he saw that they had speeded up again.
"Dey drive tern horses fast," he reflected. "Dey don't vant trafel dis road back in dark, sure ting, to break dere necks. Dey vant make qvick vork. But I ban goin' some, too, you bet."
He was taking man's eternal pleasure in swift motion, yet the anxiety remained with him that he might not catch up with them before they arrived. He knew that nothing could take place if he were there a minute before them. But if he was a minute late, what then? When this idea recurred, his face would take on its grim expression, the look wherewith Vikings once struck terror among their enemies. He hoped for the sake of that crowd that he might not be late, as well as for the good of his friend, for he would crush them, the men at any rate, and send the women trudging home, wishing they had never been born.
In him the two individualities that make up nearly every human being swung and seesawed. The kind-hearted, helpful, considerate man kept on surging upward, in the trust that his arrival would avert all trouble. Then this phase of his being would pass off and the great primal creature would take its place and come uppermost, with lustful ideas of vengeance, visions in which everything was tinged with red, and then his great voice would ring out in the still woods and the dogs would pull desperately, with never a pause, and the toboggan would slither and slide and groan, and the crunching snow seemed to complain, and the masses of snow suspended to great hemlocks and firs dropped down suddenly, with thuds that were like the echoes of great smiting clubs.
When again he ran beside the dogs, in a long pull uphill, the sense of personal effort comforted him. He was doing something. Once the toe of one of his snowshoes caught in the snaky root of a big spruce and he fell ponderously, without a word, and picked himself up again. Dimly he was conscious that it had injured him a little, but he scarcely felt it. It was like some hurt received in the heat and passion of battle, that a man never really feels till the excitement has passed. His team had kept on, galloping fast, but he never called to them, knowing that harder ground would presently slow them. And he ran on, his great limbs appearing to possess the strength of machinery wrought of steel and iron, while his enormous chest hoarsely drew in and cast forth great clouds. But he was not working beyond his power, merely getting the best he knew out of the thews that made him more efficient than most men, when it came to the toil of the wilds. He knew better than to play himself out so that he would arrive exhausted and unable to contend with the whole of his might. He was conscious as he ran that he would arrive nearly unbreathed and ready for any fray. And after he had swept off the intruders he would look upon the face of his friend, the man who for months had shared food with him, and the scented bedding of the woods, and the toil, and the downpours, and the clouds of black flies and mosquitoes, and who had always smiled through fair days and foul, and who, at the risk of his life, had saved him.
And that friendship was so strong that it must help the sick man. How could one be ill with a friend near by who had so much strength to give away, such determination to make all things well, such fierce power to contend with all inimical things? He would take him in his arms and bid him be of good cheer and courage, and the man would respond, would smile, would feel that strength being added to his own, so that he would soon be well again.
All this might be deepest folly, and was not formulated as we have been compelled to put it down in these pages. Rather it was but a simple trust, a faith based on love and hope, a belief originating in the mind of one of a nature so trusting and inclined to goodness that until the last moment he would never believe in the victory of powers of evil.
So Stefan caught up with his dogs again and stepped on the toboggan, without stopping them, and the great trunks of forest giants seemed to slip by him swiftly, while here and there, by dint of some formation of hillside or gorge, his ears grew conscious of the far-away roar of the great falls. From a little summit he saw the cloud of rising vapor, all of a mile away. At every turn he peered ahead, keenly disappointed on each occasion, for the party was not in sight. So he urged the dogs faster. The big sleigh must surely be just ahead, beyond the next turn.
"Oh, if dey touch one hair of de head of Hugo, den God pity dem!" he cried out.
And the dogs ran on, more swiftly than ever, breathing easily still in spite of the nearly three hundred pounds of manhood they drew, and the roar of the falls became more distinct, while to the right, away down below, the river swirled under the groaning ice and sped past wildly, towards the east and the south, as if seeking to save itself from the embrace of the North.
A Visit Cut Short
Like the great majority of the denizens of the wilderness, Maigan could be a steadfast friend or a bitter enemy. He would readily have given his life for the one and torn the other asunder. Not being very far removed from a wolfish ancestry he was necessarily suspicious, intolerant at first of strangers and prepared to use his clean and cutting fangs at the shortest notice. But he was also more cautious than the dog of civilization and less apt to blurt his feelings right out. After his first outburst he appeared to quiet down, growling but a very little, very low, and stood at the girl's side, watchful and ready for immediate action.
Madge stood on the wooden step that had been cleared of snow, in front of the little door of rough planks. She watched the people coming in Indian file down the path that had been beaten down in the deep snow. For a moment she had thought that they might be bringing help, that miraculously a doctor had been found at once, that these people were friends eager to help, to remove the sick man to Carcajou and thence to some hospital further down the railway line. But such people would have cried out inquiries. They would have come with some shout of greeting. But these newcomers came along without a word until their leader was but a few yards away, when he stopped and looked at the girl during a moment's silence.
"Where's Hugo Ennis?" he finally asked, gruffly.
"He is in the shack," replied the girl, timidly. "He is dreadfully ill and lying on his bunk."
"What's the matter with him?"
"He was shot—shot by accident, and now I'm afraid that he is going to die."
"Well, I'll go in and see. We'll all go in. We're mighty cold after that long ride. Stand aside!"
"I think you might go in," the girl told him, still blocking the way, "but the others must not. I—I won't allow him to be disturbed. Don't—don't you understand me? I'm telling you that he's dying. I—I won't have him disturbed. And—and who are you? You don't look like a friend of his. What's your purpose in coming here?"
The first feeling of timidity that had seized her seemed to have left her utterly. There remained to her but an instinct—a will to defend the man, to protect him from unwarranted intrusion, and she spoke with authority. But another of the visitors addressed her.
"We're folks belongin' to these townships," he said. "What we want to know is who you are, and what right ye've got to order us about and say who's goin' in and who's to keep out?"
Something in his words caused her cheeks to burn, but strangely enough she felt quite calm and strong in her innocence of any evil, and she answered quietly enough.
"My name is Madge Nelson, if you want to know, and I am here at this moment because I am taking care of Mr. Ennis. I feel responsible for his welfare and will continue until he is better and able to speak for himself, or—or until he is dead. I repeat that one of you may come in—but no more."
It appeared that her manner impressed the men to some extent, if not the three women who crowded behind. One of the visitors was scratching the back of his neck.
"Look a-here, Aleck, I reckon that gal is talking sense, if Hugo's real bad like she says. We ain't got no call to butt in an' make him worse. I know when Mirandy was sick the Doc he told me ter take a club if I had to, to keep folks out. Let Pat Kilrea go in if he wants to an' we'll stay outside an' wait."
"Sure, that's right enough," said old man Prouty.
Pat advanced, but Maigan began to growl.
"Say, young 'ooman, I'll bash that dog's head in if you don't keep him still," he said, truculently. "Keep a holt of him."
Madge pulled the dog back and quieted him.
"Be good, Maigan," she said. "It's all right, old fellow."
She entered the shack behind Pat Kilrea and closed the door. In doing this she meant no offense to the others, who didn't mind, knowing that with a cold of some twenty below people don't care for an excess of ventilation. They stood, the men silently, the women putting their heads together and whispering.
"Ain't she the brazen sassy thing?" remarked Mrs. Kilrea.
"Guess she ain't no better'n she should be," opined Sophy, acidly, as she watched the door keenly.
Pat Kilrea went to the bunk and for an instant considered the sick man's face. Then he scratched his head again.
"Hello, Hugo!" he finally called out. "What's the matter with ye? Ain't—ain't tryin' to hide behind a gal's skirts, are ye?"
His arm was seized from behind. The girl's eyes flashed at him.
"I—I don't know who you are!" she exclaimed. "But if—if you say such things I'll turn that dog on you, so help me God!"
"I—I don't reckon as I meant it," stammered Pat. "He—he does look turriple sick, now me eyes is gettin' used to the light. Why, why don't you speak, man?"
But the sufferer on the bunk made no answer save in some low fast words that were disconnected and meaningless. Slowly, nearly tenderly, Pat touched a hand that felt burning hot and a forehead that was moist and clammy. Then he turned to the girl again.
"Well, I must say I'm sorry," he acknowledged. "Looks to me like he was done for. What are ye goin' to do for him? We—we didn't reckon to find nothin' like this when we come, though Papineau told us he were sick."
"Mr. Papineau's errand was to telegraph for the doctor," she replied, with a hand pressed to her bosom. "At—at first, when I heard you coming, I thought he had perhaps arrived and—and that you were intending to take him away. Do—do you really think he's going to die?"
"Well, I'm scared it looks a good deal that way. Of course we might be able to take him in the sleigh, but—but he don't look much as if he could stand the trip—does he?—an'—an' I don't reckon we can do much good stayin' round here either."
He stepped over to the door and opened it.
"That gal's right," he said. "Hugo looks desperate sick."
"Sure it ain't nothin' that's ketchin', are ye?" asked his wife, drawing back a little.
"I didn't never hear that pistol bullets was contagious," he answered.
"But who did it?" cried McIntosh. "And—and how d'ye know 'twas just an accident. Seems to me we'd ought to find out something more about it. It—it don't sound just natural."
"I tell you he was shot by accident. I did it, God forgive me," faltered Madge.
Sophy McGurn, at this, pushed her way forward until she stood in front of Madge, and pointed an accusing finger at her. Her eyes were flashing. To Maigan her move seemed a threatening one and she recoiled as the animal crouched a little, with fangs bare and lips slavering.
"Hold him, miss, hold him quick!" cried Aleck Mclntosh. "Git back there, Sophy, what's the matter with ye? D'ye want to be torn to pieces? What's that ye was goin' to say?"
"She—she never shot him by accident! She—she did it on purpose, for revenge, that's what she did, the she-devil!"
She was still standing before Madge and her voice was shaking with excitement, while her arms and hands trembled with her passion.
"What's all that?" cried Pat Kilrea. "Ye wasn't here to see, was ye? How d'ye know she done it a-purpose, for revenge? Ye must have some reason for sayin' such things. Out with 'em!"
But now Sophy was shrinking back, afraid of her own outburst, fearing that she might have revealed something. Her voice shook again as she replied.
"I—I ain't got any reason," she stammered. "I—I was just thinking so. It—it came to me all of a sudden. Maybe I'm mistaken."
"Mistaken, was it?" asked Pat Kilrea. "Folks ain't got any right to be mistaken when it comes to accusin' others of murder. If you hadn't had some reason to speak that way ye'd have kept yer mouth shut, I'm thinking. Why don't ye come right out with it?"
"I—I didn't really mean anything by it," stammered Sophy again.
"What revenge was that you was referring to?" he persisted.
"Nothing—nothing at all. How should I know what she would do?"
"Then you ought to have kept still an' held yer tongue," said Pat.
"But it seems to me as if we'd ought to investigate this thing a little," ventured Prouty. "We ain't got anythin' here but this 'ere young 'ooman's word for what's happened. She can tell us how it came about, anyways, seems to me, and we can judge if it sounds sensible and correct like."
"That's right," put in Kilrea. "That's fair and proper."
"I am perfectly willing to tell you all I know about it," asserted Madge, quietly. "I—I came here to see Mr. Ennis on a matter that—that concerns us only. And I had occasion to open my bag. Among the things in it there was a revolver. It fell out of my hands and exploded, and—and the bullet struck him. I—I never knew that he had been shot. He never even told me, and then he hitched the dog to the sleigh and took me over to Mrs. Papineau's, where I have been staying. And it was she who discovered that he had been injured. She'll tell you so herself if you go to her. And—and he told her it was an accident, as he would tell you now if—if he wasn't dying."
"You'd fixed it up to spend the night at Papineau's?" asked Mrs. Kilrea, who had hitherto kept somewhat in the background.
"That was the arrangement we had made," answered the girl. "There was no other place where I could stay. But I'd have gone up there alone if I'd known how badly he was hurt. I've stayed with them ever since, of course, for there was no one to take me back. Mr. Papineau hadn't returned. He was trapping."
"I don't see but what she must be tellin' the truth," opined Mrs. Kilrea. "There ain't anything wrong or improper in all this, savin' a girl handlin' a revolver, which ain't wise. We can go over to Papineau's and make sure it's just as she says."
"But there's one thing ain't clear," said Pat Kilrea. "What business did she come on, anyways?"
Madge drew herself up and looked at him calmly.
"I've already told you that this concerns Mr. Ennis and myself," she told him, "and I deny that you have any right...."
Just then there was a roar from the tote-road as big Stefan, lashing his dogs, bumped down the path at a wild gallop and, a minute later, threw himself off the sled and was among them.
"How do, peoples?" he shouted, advancing truculently towards Pat and Mclntosh. "Papineau telt me as how Hugo he get hurted bad and sick. And he say you peoples ask him whole lot qvestions about him. I vant to know vhat all you is doin' here, und—und if I ain't satisfied I take some of you and—and vipe up de ground vid you, hear me!"
His manner was ominously calm, but his words sent a shiver through the crowd. He was and looked a tremendous figure. He had moved to the side of the girl, as if to defend her, and his clear blue eyes went searchingly from one man to the next.
"Papineau he tells me in Carcajou it look like you come ofer here to make drouble for Hugo an' mebbe for dis young leddy. So I come here fast like my togs can take me, sure ting. Und I vant to know vhen you vants to start droubles. Der leddies can move leetle vay to one side if dey like, to make room. Ve need plenty, I tank. Who vant to start de row now, who begin? I tak' you vun at a time or altogedder, how you like!"
He took a step forward and the men all moved back hurriedly. The ladies had swiftly accepted his advice and were retreating fast, now and then looking back in terror.
"But look here, Stefan, what are you butting in for?" Kilrea took courage to ask while he kept discreetly out of reach. "We came to see if everything was all right and proper here. We're satisfied now and are going back. Got to hurry away, sun's getting low."
The Swede sniffed at him contemptuously, and drew off a big mitt of muskrat hide. With some difficulty he drew from his clothing a huge silver watch and looked at it.
"Glad you vas in a hurry. I tank I 'elp you a bit make tings lifely. I gif you all yoost tree minutes ter get started. Den if any man he ain't aboard dat sleigh I yoost vipes up de ground vit him a bit. If you knows vhat is good for ye, den make tracks, qvick. I ban gettin' hurry mineself, eh!"
"But what right have you to be ordering us about?" shouted Aleck Mclntosh, imprudently.
"My frient, you's knowed as de laziest man in Carcajou and some say in Ontario. I helps you along, sure."
He had dashed towards him with devastating speed. The fellow turned to run, but a second later the slack of some of his garments was in Stefan's huge hand. Struggling and backing he found himself half lifted, half propelled on the ground, all the way to the sled. There he was lifted high and dumped in, like a bag of feed.
"Any oders as need help?" roared Stefan.
But they were hastening for all they were worth. Kilrea took the reins. The three women were already seated. The others jumped in and the horses started home again, even before the Carcajou Vigilantes had finished spreading robes over their shaky knees. Striking a bit of flat bare rock, the runners spat out fire and squealed, after which the heavy sled slithered and slipped over the crackling snow, so that presently the outfit disappeared around the first bend in the tote-road.
Miss Sophy McGurn looked particularly down-hearted. None of the interesting events she expected had taken place. She had merely succeeded in nearly giving herself away and arousing suspicions.
And the girl was still there, with Hugo! She had believed that Hugo would be found sheepish and embarrassed, or in a regular fury, while the stranger would weep and wring her hands and seek to explain. And the invading crowd was to have manifested its indignation at this breach of all decency and proper custom, and sent the woman away, while they would have told the man what they thought of him, in spite of his rage, and warned him that he must mend his ways or quit the country.
And now they had all been driven away, and that girl had stood and spoken as if she had some right to be there, and had been indignant at any inquiry into her motives for coming to Roaring River. Worse than all Pat Kilrea and his wife seemed to have turned against her, after absolving the two of blame.
She shrank back, drawing her fur cap further down over her eyes and ears. Now the cold seemed more bitter than she had ever felt it before, in spite of the thermometer's rise, and the road was so long and dreary that it seemed as if it never would end.
And Hugo Ennis was dying—and in her heart Sophy McGurn felt certain that the girl had shot to kill, and was waiting there until he should die. Perhaps she had rummaged about the place and found money or other valuables, for Ennis always seemed to have some funds, though he spent prudently and carefully, and never seemed to have dollars to throw away. And the end of it would be that the girl would leave and the man would be dead and all the dreams of marriage first and of a revenge following had turned into this thing, which was a nightmare.
She reached her home half frozen, in spite of the robes, and could not eat her food. Her mother had a few mild words to say about long excursions out in the back country, in this sort of weather. Then the girl left the table suddenly, and slammed the door of her room shut, in a towering rage. A little later, after she had lain down, came tears, for it seemed to her at this time that she had never truly loved Ennis until she heard that he was dying, and now he was lost to her forever.
Stefan had watched the departure of those people grimly, until he felt sure that they would not return. Madge had stood near him. In her desolation it was splendid to have him there with her, to be no longer obliged to stare at the sick man's face in lonely terror, to feel that if there was any help needed he would be at hand, with all his immense strength and courage.
"I tank dey don't mean much badness," the man explained to her. "Mebbe ye knows peoples in dis countree ain't much to do in dis vintertime and dey gets fonny iteas about foolin' araount. Dey goes home all qviet now, you bet, and don't talk to nobotty vhat tam fools dey bin, eh!"
They both entered the shack again and the big fellow went up to the bunk upon which lay his friend. For a very long time he looked at him, finally touching a hand with infinite care and gentleness. After this he turned to Madge a face expressive of deepest pain.
"Leetle leddy," he said, gently, "vos it true as you shot him? Papineau he telt me so. A accident, he said it vos."
The girl looked at him imploringly, with elbows bent but hands stretched towards him, as if she were suing for forgiveness. The man was seated on a stool, waiting for her answer.
"Yes, it was an accident—a terrible accident," sobbed Madge, whose strength and courage seemed to leave her suddenly. "You—you believe me, don't you?"
It is hard to say whether it was weakness or the excess of her emotion that forced her down to her knees. She grasped one of the huge hands the man had extended towards her. He laid the other upon her bent back, very softly.
"In course I do, you poor leetle leddy. Yes, I sure beliefe you. Dere vosn't anybotty vould hurt Hugo, unless dey vos grazy, you bet. He ban a goot friend to me—ay, he ban a goot friend to all peoples."
He helped her up, very tenderly, and made her sit on a stool close to the one he occupied. There was a very long interval of silence, during which his great face and beard were hidden in the hollow of his hands. Then he spoke again, in a very low voice, as if he had been addressing the smallest of his own babes.
"You poor leetle leddy," he repeated, "I feels most turriple sorry for Hugo, for it most tear my heart out yoost to look at him. But vhen I looks at you I feels turriple sorry for you too. I knows vhat it must be, sure ting, for a leetle leddy like you to be sittin' here, in dis leetle shack, a-lookin' at de man she lofe an see de life goin' out of him. Last fall Hugo ban gone a vhiles back East again, and vhen you comes I tank mebbe you some nice gal he promise to marry. Even vhen de telegraft come I make sure it is so. I pring de bit paper here myself an' vaits a vhiles, but he no come and I haf to go on. I vanted to see de happy face on him. I say to myself, 'Hah! You rascal Hugo, you nefer tell nodding to your ole friend Stefan, but he know all de same.' But vhen I got to go I couldn't say nodding. I leaf de paper on de table here an' I tank how happy he is vhen he come home an' find it. You poor leetle leddy!"
The man was mistaken, most honestly so, for no idea of love had ever entered Hugo's head, and none had come to Madge. Yet the big fellow's words seemed to stab the girl to the heart and she moaned. She felt that she could not allow Hugo's friend to remain undeceived. There had been already too many mysteries, too many lies—she would have no share in them if she could help it.
"I—I wasn't in love with him when I came, Stefan," she faltered. "He—he was a stranger to me. I had never seen him—never in all my life. I came here because—because there has been some terrible mistake—in some letters, queer letters that bade me come here and—and meet a man who wanted a wife. And I—I was a poor miserable sick girl in New York and—and I just couldn't keep body and soul together anymore—and—and be a good decent girl. And those letters seemed so beautiful that I felt I must come and see the man who wrote them, and—and I was ready to marry him if he would be kind to me and—and treat me decently and—and keep me from starvation and suffering. And when I came here he didn't know anything about it, and—and I thought he lied. But—but I never thought to do him any harm. I took the little pistol out of the bag, because I was looking for something else, and it went off! Oh!"
She hid her face in her hands, as if the whole scene had been again enacted before her, and the man heard her sobbing.
"Hugo he nefer tell no lie," said Stefan, softly. "I don't know vhat all dis mean, you bet. But I am glad you ban come like a stranger. I am glad he no lofe you, and den I am sorry, too, for you so nice gal, vid voice so soft and such prettee eyes, I tank if he lofe you den you sure lofe him too. Den you two so happy in dis place, ma'am."
He interrupted himself, striking his fist upon his chest, as if to still a pain in it, and went on again.
"You haf no idea how prettee place dis is, leetle leddy, in de summertime. A vonderful place to be happy in. De big falls dey make music all day and at night dey sings you to sleep, like de modder she sings leetle babies. Und de big birches dey lean ofer, so beautiful, and de birds dey comes all rount, nesting in all de bushes. Oh, such a vonderful place for a man and a voman to love, dem falls of dat Roaring Rifer! Hugo he cleared such a goot piece, oder side of dat leetle hill, vhere de oats vould grow fine. And down by de Rifer, on de north side, he find silver, plenty silver in big veins, like dey got east of us, in Nipissing countree. So I tank one day he ban a rich man and haf a prettee little voman and plenty nice kiddies, leetle children like one lofes to see, and dey all lif here so happy."
His voice grew suddenly hoarse. It was with an effort that he spoke again.
"An' now he don' know me—or you or Maigan, and—and my goot dear frient Hugo he look like he ban dyin'!"
Stefan stopped abruptly again, apparently overcome. His face, tanned by frost and sun to a hue of dull brick, also lay in the hollow of his hands. The vastness of his grief seemed to be commensurate with his size. But when he looked up Madge saw that his eyes were dry, for he was suffering according to the way of strong men with the agony that clutches at the breast and twists a cord about the temples. In his helplessness before the peril he was pitiful to see, since all his confidence had gone, his pride in his power, his faith in his ability to surmount all things by the mere force of his will. And the present weakness of the man augmented the girl's own sorrow, even though his being there was relief of a sort.
The Swede looked about him vaguely, and then his eyes became fixed on a point of the log wall, as if through it he had been able to discern things that lay beyond.
"Hugo an' me," he began again, very slowly and softly, "ve vent off north from here, a year an' a half it is now, after de ice she vent off de lakes. And ve trafel long vays, most far as vhere de Albany she come down in James Bay. Ve vos lookin' for silfer an' copper an' tings like dat. An' dere come one day vhen ve gets awful rough water on a lake and ve get upset. Him Hugo he svim like a otter, he do, but me I svim like a stone. De shore he ban couple hundret yard off, mebbe leetle more. I hold on to de bow and Hugo he grab de stern. So he begin push for shore, svimmin' vid his feet, but dat turriple slow going, vid de canoe all under vater, yoost holdin' us up a bit, and it vos cold, awful turriple cold in dat vater. He calls to me ve can't make it dat vay, ve don't make three-four yards a minute. Den I calls for him to let go, for I ban tanking he safe his life anyvay, svimmin' ashore vhere ve had our camp close by. Und vhat you tank he do, ma'am? He yell to me not be tam fool, dat vhat he do! He say, 'How I look at your voman an' de kids in de face, vhen I gets back vidout you?' So he lets go and my end sink deep so I let go an' vos fighting to keep up but he grab me and say to take holt of his shoulter. He swear he trown vid me if I don't. So I done it, ma'am, and he svim, svim turriple hard, draggin' me ashore. I yoost finds my feet on de bottom vhen he keels ofer, like dead, vid de cold and de playin' out. So I takes him in my arms and runs in. I had matches in my screw-box but my fingers vos dat froze I couldn't get 'em out first. But I manages make a fire, by an' by, and I rubs de life back into him again. And—and you know vhat is first ting he say vhen he vake up?"
Madge shook her head.
"Him Hugo yoost say, 'Now I kin look Mis' Olsen in de face, vhen ve gets back, eh, old pard?'"
The man kept still again, looking anxiously at the sufferer and watching the hurried breathing. The feeling of his uselessness was evidently a torture to him, but his heart was too full for him to remain silent very long.
"An' now I am here an' can do nodings. I ban no more use dan—dan de tog dere. My God, leddy, tell me vhat I can do! He most trown himself an' freeze to death to safe me dat time an' I got sit still like a big tam fool an' him goin' under vidout a hand to pull him out. All de blood in my body, every drop, I gif to safe him. Don't you beliefe? I remember vhen de vaves and de vind pring dot canoe ashore. Ve lose not a ting because eferyting is lashed tight. Py dat time he vos vhistling and singin' alretty, like nodings efer happen. Ve had de big fire roarin', I tell you, and vhen I say again he safe my life he yoost laugh like it is a fine yoke an' say: 'Oh, shut up, Stefan, ve're a pair big fools to get upset, anyvays. And some tay you do yoost same ting for me, I bet.' And now—now I can do nodings—nodings at all."
He seemed to be in an agony of despair. Madge had hardly realized that the suffering of men could reach such an intensity. She rose and placed her little hand on the giant's shoulder. The huge frame was shaking convulsively, in great sobs that brought no tears with them. Then, all at once, he rose and faced her, shamefacedly.
"Poor leetle leddy," he faltered, "I ban makin' you unhappy vid dem story. I ban sorry be such a big tam fool, but I can no help it. It—it is stronger as me."
For a time he paced up and down the little shack, struggling hard to keep himself in hand. Once he seized his shaggy head in his great paws and seemed to be trying to squeeze out of it the unendurable pain that was in it.
"De sun he begin go town," he said, stopping suddenly. "Vhy don't dat Papineau get back? It get dark soon. I tank I take de togs an' go down de road. Mebbe his team break down. His leader ban a young tog."
For an instant Madge felt like begging him to remain. Ay, she could have shrieked out her terror at the idea of being left alone with the man that was dying, as she thought, but she also succeeded in controlling herself, realizing that if the man was not allowed to do something, anything that would require the strength of his thews and divert the turmoil of his brain, he might go mad.
"As—as you think best," she assented, with her head bent low.
Stefan took his cap and fitted it over his great shock of hair, but at this moment Maigan rose and went to the door, whining.
"Some one ban comin', but it ain't Papineau," said Stefan.
It proved to be Mrs. Papineau, hurrying down the path and carrying a basket. She explained that the cow had had a calf, hence her delay. Puffing and breathless she scolded them for not lighting the lamp and bustled about the place, declaring that the two watchers should have made tea and that it took an experienced mother of many to know how to handle things.
"I have made strong soup vid moose-meat," she told them. "Heem do Monsieur Hugo moch good. I put on de stove now an' get hot."
She spoke confidently, just as usual, as if nothing out of the ordinary were going on in the shack, but it was a transparent effort to encourage the others, and she was not able to keep it up long. She happened to look at Hugo again, and suddenly her face fell and her hands went up, while she buried her face in her blue apron and sobbed right out.
"De good Lord Heem bring an' de good Lord Heem take away," was what she said, and it sounded like a knell in the ears of the others.
Since the light was beginning to fail Madge lit the little lamp. Mrs. Papineau took some of the soup out of the pot and stirred it with a spoon to cool it, and then she lifted the sick man's head. Her voice became soft and caressing, as if she had spoken to a child.
"My leetle Hugo," she said, "dere's a good fellar. Try an' drink, jus' one bit. H'open mouth, dat way. Now you swallow, dere's good boy. An' now you try heem again, jus' one more spoon. H'it is awful good, from de big moose what Philippe he get. Jus' one more spoon an' I not bodder you no more."
Whether Hugo understood or not no one could have told. At any rate, with infinite patience, she was able to feed him a little, until he finally pushed her hand away from him.
Stefan, whose back had been resting on the door and whose arms had been hanging dejectedly at his side, took a step towards the girl.
"Ay go down de road a bit an' meet Papineau if he come back," he proposed. "If de togs is tired I take de doctor on my toboggan. Get back qvicker dat vay. So long! I comes back soon anyvays, sure."
He started away at a swift pace, his strong dogs, amply rested, barking and throwing themselves hard upon the breastpieces of their harness. After he was out of hearing the two women sat very close together, for mutual comfort and consolation, and the older one began to speak in a low whisper.
"You very lucky, mademoiselle. It ees lucky it ain't you h'own man as lie dere an' you haf to see heem like dat. It is turriple ting to see. One time Papineau heem get h'awful seek, an' I watch him five—no, six day and de nights. An' it vos back in de Grand Nord, no doctor nor noding at all. An' me wid my little Justine jus' two month ole in my h'arms. An' den come de day ven de good Lord Heem 'ear 'ow I pray all de time an' Papineau heem begin to get vell again. But de time vos like having big knife planted in my 'eart, jus' like dat."
She made a gesture as if she had stabbed herself, and went on:
"You not know 'ow 'appy you must be you no love a man as goin' for die soon. You—you go crazy times like dat!"
But Madge made no answer and could only continue to stare at the form that seemed to grow dimmer as the small oil lamp cast flickering shadows in the room. In her ears the continued, eternal sound of the great falls had taken on an ominous character. It was like some solemn dirge that rose and fell, unaccountably, like the breathing of a vast force that could reck nothing of the piteous tragedy being enacted. It appeared to be growing ever so much colder again. A few feet away from the stove it was freezing. She sought to look out of the little window but great massing clouds had hidden the crimson of sunset. A strong wind was arising and caused the great firs and spruces to groan dismally. The minutes were again becoming cruel things that tortured one with their maddening slowness. The girl became conscious of the beats of her heart, unaccountably slow, as she thought.
And then, for a moment, that heart stopped utterly. A shout had come from the little lumber road and Maigan was barking at the door excitedly, in spite of the older woman's scolding. The toboggan slithered over the snow and there was a patter of dogs' feet.
Madge threw the door open and let in a man in a great coonskin coat, who was carrying a bag. In spite of the heaviest fur mitts his hands were chilled and for a moment he held them to the glow of the stove, before turning calmly to his patient, after a curt nod to each of the women.
A Widening Horizon
"I'm Dr. Starr," the man introduced himself. "It's turning mighty cold again. We only hit the high places after I got on Stefan's toboggan, I can tell you. How the man kept up with his team I can't tell you, but he ran all the way."
He threw off his heavy coat and turned to the bunk.
"Now let's see what we've got here," he said.
The two women were scanning his face, holding their breaths, but Mrs. Papineau had the lamp and held it so as to cast some light on Hugo. The doctor's expression, however, was quite inscrutable.
"Your husband?" he asked the girl, who shook her head. "Well, perhaps it's a good thing he's not. Put a lot of water to boil on the stove, please. Can't you find another lamp here—this one doesn't give much light?"
There was no lamp but they found a package of candles which were soon flickering on the table, stuck in the necks of bottles. The doctor was pulling a lot of things out of his bag, coolly. To Madge it seemed queer that he could be so unaffected by what he saw. Presently he went to work, after baring the injured shoulder.
After it was all over it seemed to the girl like some dreadful nightmare. After just one keen glance the doctor had probably decided that her young hands would afford him the better help. And so she had been obliged to remain at his side and look upon the sinewy shoulder and the arm that had been laid bare, and at the angry and inflamed wound which had been flooded with iodine. And then had come the picking up of shining instruments just taken out of one of the boiling vessels. Her teeth left imprints on her lips and she felt that she was surely going to stagger and fall as the man made long slashing incisions. From them he took out a piece of cloth and a bullet that had been flattened against the bone. After this there was a lot more disinfecting and the placing of red tubes of rubber deep down in the wound, which was finally covered with a large dressing. But it was only after this was all finished that Madge dropped on a stool, feeling sick and shaken.
"Oh, you're not such a very bad soldier, after all," commented the doctor, quietly, as he gathered up his instruments to clean and boil them again. "I can't say that I'm optimistic about this case—but perhaps you don't quite understand such big words. I mean that I haven't any great hopes for this lad, but at least he has some little chance now. There was none whatever before. Of course it depends a lot on the nursing he gets. If I thought for a moment that he could stand the trip I'd take him away with me, but that's out of the question."
Then he turned to Stefan.
"I'll have to catch the first freight back in the morning, my man. Will you take me to Carcajou in good time? I can't afford to miss it. Too many needing me just now east of here!"
"Ay, I take you—if Hugo he no worse. But if tings is goin' wrong, I'll let Papineau do it. I—I can't leaf no more. Vhen I starts from here I tank I can't stand it a moment—but vhen I get off on de road, I gets grazy to come back. I—I don't know vhat I vants!"
The doctor looked at him curiously, appreciating the depth of the man's emotion and gauging the strength of the superb creature he was.
"I won't let you take me if it isn't safe," he told him, and turned to his patient again.
"Do you expect to stay up all night?" he suddenly asked the girl.
"I—I am anxious to, if I can be of the slightest help."
"One can never tell," he replied. "I might be glad to have you with me. You don't lose your head—and you're efficient."
Presently Papineau arrived with his dogs and took his wife home. The good lady had looked upon the doctor's cutting with profound disfavor. A suggestion of hers about herbs had been treated with scant respect. Before leaving she spoke to Madge.
"I stay h'all night too—but it ain't no good, because if he lif to-morrow night den you go sleep an' I stay 'ere. Before I go to bed I prays moch. I—I 'opes he lif through de night—heem no more bad as heem was, anyvays, an' dat someting."
So they went away sorrowfully, to the little new-born calf and the babies and the children who needed them, and Stefan sat on the floor with his back to the wall, while Maigan snuggled up against him.
Dr. Starr remained all night, sometimes dozing a little on his chair, with the ability of the man often called at night to take little snatches of sleep here and there, but Madge was at all times wide awake. Some time after midnight Hugo appeared to be sleeping quietly. The valuable candles had been extinguished, of course, but the little lamp was burning, shaded on one side by a piece of birch bark. Stefan had gradually curled up on the floor, under the table, where he was out of the way, and was snoring lustily. In the morning, doubtless, he would most honestly insist that he had not slept an instant. Out of doors the Swede's dogs had dug holes in the snow and, with sensitive noses covered by their bushy tails, were awaiting in slumber the next call from their master. The great falls kept up their moan and the trees swayed and cracked. A wind-borne branch, falling on the roof, made a sudden racket that was startling.
At frequent intervals Madge rose and gave Hugo some water, for which he always seemed grateful, or adjusted the pillow beneath his head. Once, when she sat down again, she saw the doctor's eyes fixed upon her, gravely.
"You have the necessary instinct," he told her, "and the patience and perseverance. I don't know what your plans may be for the future, but you would make a good nurse."
Madge shrugged her shoulders, the tiniest bit. She didn't know. It didn't matter what she was fit for. The world so far had been a failure. The only important thing before her now was to do her best to help pull the sick man out of the jaws of death, if it could possibly be done. She sat down again, and after a time that seemed like an age the utter blackness without began to turn to gray and, in spite of the constantly replenished stove, the chill of the early morning struck deep into her. As the doctor looked at his watch she rose and began to make tea, which comforted them.
"Do you expect to keep on looking after this man?" the doctor asked her, abruptly, between two mouthfuls.
"Yes, of course, if I may," she answered.
"I should say that you will simply have to, if his life is to be saved, or at least if he's to have a fair chance. I shall be compelled to go pretty soon. As it is I won't get back home before noon and there are several bad cases I must see to-day. I'll return the day after to-morrow; it's the best I can do, for it is absolutely impossible for me to remain here. Now just listen to me very carefully while I give you the necessary directions. I think I'd better write some of them out so that you will be sure not to forget them. See if you can find me a bit of paper somewhere."
On one of the shelves there was a small homemade desk in which she rummaged. She found a number of loose bits of paper, some of them scribbled over in pencil and others with ink. They were apparently accounts, notes concerning various supplies and a few letters from various places. Finding a clean sheet she brought it to the doctor who rapidly wrote at length upon it. At this moment Stefan awoke, with a portentous yawn, but a second later he had leaped to his feet and was scanning their faces anxiously.
"I tank mebbe I doze for a moment," he informed them. "How is Hugo gettin' long?"
"For the present he looks to me somewhat better," answered the doctor. "There doesn't seem to be any immediate danger, and I'll have to start back in a few minutes. We've had a cup of tea, but you'd better make some breakfast ready."
Stefan bestirred himself and presently a potful of rolled oats was being stirred carefully for fear of burning, and bacon was sputtering in the pan. The kettle was singing again and Madge was cutting slices from a loaf left by Mrs. Papineau. The three sat down to the table and ate hungrily, abundantly, as people have to who make stern demands upon their vitality.
The doctor made a few more remarks about the treatment of his patient. He had carefully laid on the table the little tablets of medicine, the bottle containing an antiseptic, the cotton and gauze that must be used to renew the dressing. Then he went out, breathing deeply of the sharp and aromatic air, and a moment later he and Stefan were gone, the latter promising to return at once, with a few needed supplies from the store. Madge was alone now with Hugo, who was again sleeping quietly. She read over the doctor's directions carefully while she stood by the little window, as the lamp had been extinguished.
A few minutes later she decided to place the paper in the little desk again, for safe-keeping. Without the slightest curiosity her eyes fell again upon some of the writing on loose sheets. But presently she was staring at it hard as a strong conviction made its way into her brain. After this she went to the other shelf where some books had been placed and opened one of them, and then another. On the flyleaf was written, in bold characters, "Hugo Ennis." The writing was exactly the same as that which appeared on the scattered leaves, for she compared them carefully.
"There can be no doubt—he never wrote those letters," she decided. "But—but I knew very well he couldn't have written them. It—it isn't like him."
The idea came again that he could have obtained some one to write for him, but it was immediately cast aside. The man would not engage in dirty work himself—far less would he get others to do it for him. She—she had abused and insulted him—called him a liar, as far as she could remember, and again her face felt hot and burning.
Once more she sat down by the bunk, after she had given Maigan a big feed of oats, with a small remnant of the bacon grease. She felt humbled now, as if her accusations constituted some unforgivable, despicable sin. This man had never intended to do her the slightest harm. He really never knew that she was coming. And through her stupid clumsiness his life was now ebbing. The doctor's long words sounded dreadfully in her ears: general sepsis, blood poisoning, a system overwhelmed by the toxines of virulent microbes; they reverberated in her ears like so many sentences of death. Was there any hope that this outflowing life would ever turn in its course and return like an incoming tide? Would she again see him able to lift up his head, to speak in words no longer dictated by the vagaries of delirium? She would give anything to be able to ask his pardon humbly after his mind cleared again. Oh, it was unthinkable that he should die, that the end might be coming soon, and that she must go forth with that unspeakable load of misery in her heart.