Volume 3
Chapter XV. The End of the Trail
 

When Marion was about leaving with her husband for the railway station, she sought out Lali, and found her standing half hidden by the curtains of a window, looking out at little Richard, who was parading his pony up and down before the house. An unutterable sweetness looked out of Marion's eyes. She had found, as it seemed to her, and as so many have believed until their lives' end, the secret of existence. Lali saw the glistening joy, and responded to it, just as it was in her being to respond to every change of nature--that sensitiveness was in her as deep as being.

"You are very happy, dear?" she said to Marion. "You cannot think how happy, Lali. And I want to say that I feel sure that you will yet be as happy, even happier than I. Oh, it will come--it will come. And you have the boy now-so fine, so good."

Lali looked out to where little Richard disported himself; her eyes shone, and she turned with a responsive but still sad smile to Marion. "Marion," she said gently, "the other should have come before he came." "Frank loves you, Lali."

"Who knows? And then, oh, I cannot tell! How can one force one's heart? No, no! One has to wait, and wait, even if the heart grows harder, and one gets hopeless."

Marion kissed her on the cheek and smiled. "Some day soon the heart will open up, and then such a flood will pour out! See, Lali. I am going now, and our lives won't run together so much again ever, perhaps. But I want to tell you now that your coming to us has done me a world of good-- helped me to be a wiser girl; and I ought to be a better woman for it. Good-bye."

They were calling to her, and with a hurried embrace the two parted, and in a few moments the bride and bridegroom were on their way to the new life. As the carriage disappeared in a turn of the limes, Lali vanished also to her room. She was not seen at dinner. Mackenzie came to say that she was not very well, and that she would keep to her room. Frank sent several times during the evening to inquire after her, and was told that she was resting comfortably. He did not try to see her, and in this was wise. He had now fallen into a habit of delicate consideration, which brought its own reward. He had given up hope of winning her heart or confidence by storm, and had followed his finer and better instincts-- had come to the point where he made no claims, and even in his own mind stood upon no rights. His mother brought him word from Lali before he retired, to say that she was sorry she could not see him, but giving him a message and a commission into town the following morning for their son. Her tact had grown is her strength had declined. There is something in failing health--ill-health without disease--which sharpens and refines the faculties, and makes the temper exquisitely sensitive--that is, with people of a certain good sort. The aplomb and spirited manner in which Lali had borne herself at the wedding and after, was the last flicker of her old strength, and of the second phase in her married life. The end of the first phase came with the ride at the quick-set hedge, this with a less intent but as active a temper.

The next morning she did not appear at breakfast, but sent a message to Frank to say that she was better, and adding another commission for town. All day, save for an hour on the balcony, she kept to her room, and lay down for the greater part of the afternoon. In the evening, when Frank returned, his mother sent for him, and frankly told him that she thought it would be better for him to go away for a few weeks or so; that Lali was in a languid, nervous state, and she thought that by the time he got back--if he would go--she would be better, and that better things would come for him.

Frank was no longer the vain, selfish fellow who had married Lali-- something of the best in him was at work. He understood, and suggested a couple of weeks with Richard at their little place in Scotland. Also, he saw his wife for a little while that evening. She had been lying down, but she disposed herself in a deep chair before he entered. He was a little shocked to see, as it were all at once, how delicate she looked. He came and sat down near her, and after a few moments of friendly talk, in which he spoke solicitously of her health, he told her that he thought of going up to Scotland with Richard for a few weeks, if she saw no objection.

She did not quite understand why he was going. She thought that perhaps he felt the strain of the situation, and that a little absence would be good for both. This pleased her. She did not shrink, as she had so often done since his return, when he laid his hand on hers for an instant, as he asked her if she were willing that he should go. Sometimes in the past few weeks she had almost hated him. Now she was a little sorry for him, but she said that of course he must go; that no doubt it was good that he should go, and so on, in gentle, allusive phrases. The next evening she came down to dinner, and was more like herself as she was before Frank came back, but she ate little, and before the men came into the drawing-room she had excused herself, and retired; at which Mrs. Lambert shook her head apprehensively at herself, and made up her mind to stay at Greyhope longer than she intended.

Which was good for all concerned; for, two nights after Frank and Richard had gone, Mackenzie hurried down to the drawing-room with the news that Lali had been found in a faint on her chamber floor. That was the beginning of weeks of anxiety, in which Mrs. Lambert was to Mrs. Armour what Marion would have been, and more; and both to Lali all that mother and sister could be.

Their patient was unlike any other that they had known. Feverish, she had no fever; with a gentle, hacking cough, she had no lung trouble; nervous, she still was oblivious to very much that went on around her; hungering often for her child, she would not let him remain long with her when he came. Her sleep was broken, and she sometimes talked to herself, whether consciously or unconsciously they did not know. The doctor had no remedies but tonics--he did not understand the case; but he gently ventured the opinion that it was mostly a matter of race, that she was pining because civilisation had been infused into her veins--the old insufficient theory.

"Stuff and nonsense!" said General Armour, when his wife told him. "The girl bloomed till Frank came back. God bless my soul! she's falling in love, and doesn't know what it is."

He was only partly right, perhaps, but he was nearer the truth than the dealer in quinine and a cheap philosophy of life. "She'll come around all right, you'll see. Decline--decline be hanged! The girl shall live, --damn it, she shall!" he blurted out, as his wife's eyes filled with tears.

Mrs. Lambert was much of the same mind as the general, but went further. She said to Mrs. Armour that in all her life she had never seen so sweet a character, so sensitive a mind--a mind whose sorrow was imagination. And therein the little lady showed herself a person of wisdom. For none of them had yet reckoned with that one great element in Lali's character --that thing which is the birthright of all who own the North for a mother, the awe of imagination, the awe and the pain, which in its finest expression comes near, very near, to the supernatural. Lali's mind was all pictures; she never thought of things in words, she saw them; and everything in her life arrayed itself in a scene before her, made vivid by her sensitive soul, so much more sensitive now with health failing, the spirit wearing out the body. There was her malady--the sick heart and mind.

A new sickness wore upon her. It had not touched her from the day she left the North until she sang "The Chase of the Yellow Swan" that first evening after Frank's return. Ever since then her father was much in her mind--the memory of her childhood, and its sweet, inspiring friendship with Nature. All the roughness and coarseness of the life was refined in her memory by the exquisite atmosphere of the North, the good sweet earth, the strong bracing wind, the camaraderie of trees and streams and grass and animals. And in it all stood her father, whom she had left alone, in that interminable interval between the old life and the new.

Had she done right? She had cut him off, as if he had never been--her people, her country also; and for what? For this--for this sinking sense, this failing body, this wear and tear of mind and heart, this constant study to be possible where she had once been declared by the world to be impossible.

One night she lay sleeping after a rather feverish day, when it was thought best to keep the child from her. Suddenly she waked, and sat up. Looking straight before her, she said:

"I will arise, and will go to my Father, and will say unto Him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and before Thee, and am no more worthy to be called Thy son."

She said nothing more than this, and presently lay back, with eyes wide open, gazing before her. Like this she lay all night long, a strange, aching look in her face. There had come upon her the sudden impulse to leave it all, and go back to her father. But the child--that gave her pause. Towards morning she fell asleep, and slept far on into the day, a thing that had not occurred for a long time.

At noon a letter arrived for her. It came into General Armour's hands, and he, seeing that it bore the stamp of the Hudson's Bay Company, with the legend, From Fort St. Charles, concluded that it was news of Lali's father. Then came the question whether the letter should be given to her. The general was for doing so, and he prevailed. If it were bad news, he said, it might raise her out of her present apathy and by changing the play of her emotions do her good in the end.

The letter was given to her in the afternoon. She took it apathetically, but presently, seeing where it was from, she opened it hurriedly with a little cry which was very like a moan too. There were two letters inside one from the factor at Fort Charles in English, and one from her father in the Indian language. She read her father's letter first, the other fluttered to her feet from her lap. General Armour, looking down, saw a sentence in it which, he felt, warranted him in picking it up, reading it, and retaining it, his face settling into painful lines as he did so. Days afterwards, Lali read her father's letter to Mrs. Armour. It ran:

My daughter,

Lali, the sweet noise of the Spring:

Thy father speaks.

I have seen more than half a hundred moons come like the sickle and go like the eye of a running buck, swelling with fire, but I hear not thy voice at my tent door since the first one came and went.

Thou art gone.

Thy face was like the sun on running water; thy hand hung on thy wrists like the ear of a young deer; thy foot was as soft on the grass as the rain on a child's cheek; thy words were like snow in summer, which melts in richness on the hot earth. Thy bow and arrow hang lonely upon the wall, and thy empty cup is beside the pot.

Thou art gone.

Thou hast become great with a great race, and that is well. Our race is not great, and shall not be, until the hour when the Mighty Men of the Kimash Hills arise from their sleep and possess the land again.

Thou art gone.

But thou hast seen many worlds, and thou hast learned great things, and thou and I shall meet no more; for how shall the wise kneel at the feet of the foolish, as thou didst kneel once at thy father's feet?

Thou art gone.

High on the Clip Claw Hills the trees are green, in the Plain of the Rolling Stars the wings of the wild fowl are many, and fine is the mist upon Goldfly Lake; and the heart of Eye-of-the-Moon is strong.

Thou art here.

The trail is open to the White Valley, and the Scarlet Hunter hath saved me, when my feet strayed in the plains and my eyes were blinded.

Thou art here.

I have friends on the Far Off River who show me the yards where the musk-ox gather; I have found the gardens of the young sable, and my tents are full of store.

Thou art here.

In the morning my spirit is light, and I have harvest where I would gather, and the stubble is for my foes. In the evening my limbs are heavy, and I am at rest in my blanket. The hunt is mine and sleep is mine, and my soul is cheerful when I remember thee.

Thou art here.

I have built for thee a place where thy spirit comes. I hear thee when thou callest to me, and I kneel outside the door, for thou art wise, and thou speakest to me; but thee as thou art in a far land I shall see no more. This is my word to thee, that thou mayst know that I am not alone. Thou shalt not come again, as thou once went; it is not meet. But by these other ways I will speak to thee.

Thou art here.

Farewell. I have spoken.

Lali finished reading, and then slowly folded up the letter. The writing was that of the wife of the factor at Fort Charles--she knew it. She sat for a minute looking straight before her. She read her father's allegory. Barbarian in so much as her father was, he had beaten this thing out with the hammer of wisdom. He missed her, but she must not come back; she had outgrown the old life--he knew it and she was with him in spirit, in his memory; she understood his picturesque phrases, borrowed from the large, affluent world about him. Something of the righteousness and magnanimity of this letter passed into her, giving her for an instant a sort of peace. She had needed it--needed it to justify herself, and she had been justified. To return was impossible--she had known that all along, though she had not admitted it; the struggle had been but a kind of remorse, after all. That her father should come to her was also impossible--it was neither for her happiness nor his. She had been two different persons in her life, and the first was only a memory to the second. The father had solved the problem for her. He too was now a memory that she could think on with pleasure, as associated with the girl she once was. He had been well provided for by her husband, and General Armour put his hand on hers gently and said:

"Lali, without your permission I have read this other letter."

She did not appear curious. She was thinking still of her father's letter to her. She nodded abstractedly. "Lali," he continued, "this says that your father wished that letter to be written to you just as he said it at the Fort, on the day of the Feast of the Yellow Swan. He stood up--the factor writes so here--and said that he had been thinking much for years, and that the time had come when he must speak to his daughter over the seas--"

General Armour paused. Lali inclined her head, smiled wistfully, and held up the letter for him to see. The general continued:

"So he spoke as has been written to you, and then they had the Feast of the Yellow Swan, and that night--" He paused again, but presently, his voice a little husky, he went on: "That night he set out on a long journey,"--he lifted the letter and looked at it, then met the serious eyes of his daughter-in-law," on a long journey to the Hills of the Mighty Men; and, my dear, he never came back; for, as he said, there was peace in the White Valley, and he would rest till the world should come to its Spring again, and the noise of its coming should be in his ears. Those, Lali, are his very words."

His hand closed on hers, he reached out and took the other hand, from which the paper fluttered, and clasped both tight in his own firm grasp.

"My daughter," he said, "you have another father." With a low cry, like that of a fawn struck in the throat, she slid forward on her knees beside him, and buried her face on his arm. She understood. Her father was dead. Mrs. Armour came forward, and, kneeling also, drew the dark head to her bosom. Then that flood came which sweeps away the rust that gathers in the eyes and breaks through the closed dikes of the heart.

Hours after, when she had fallen into a deep sleep, General Armour and his wife met outside her bedroom door.

"I shall not leave her," Mrs. Armour said. "Send for Frank. His time has almost come."

But it would not have come so soon had not something else occurred. The day that he came back from Scotland he entered his wife's room, prepared for a change in her, yet he did not find so much to make him happy as he had hoped. She received him with a gentleness which touched him, she let her hand rest in his, she seemed glad to have him with her. All bars had been cast down between them, but he knew that she had not given him all, and she knew it also. But she hoped he did not know, and she dreaded the hour when he would speak out of his now full heart. He did not yet urge his affection on her, he was simply devoted, and watchful, and tender, and delightedly hopeful.

But one night she came tapping at his door. When he opened it, she said: "Oh come, come! Richard is ill! I have sent for the doctor."

Henceforth she was her old self again, with a transformed spirit, her motherhood spending itself in a thousand ways. She who was weak bodily became now much stronger; the light of new vigour came to her eyes; she and her husband, in the common peril, worked together, thinking little of themselves, and all of the child. The last stage of the journey to happiness was being passed, and if it was not obvious to themselves, the others, Marion and Captain Vidall included, saw it.

One anxious day, after the family doctor had left the sick child's room, Marion, turning to the father and mother, said: "Greyhope will be itself again. I will go and tell Richard that the danger is over."

As she turned to do so, Richard entered the room. "I have seen the doctor," he began, "and the little chap is going to pull along like a house afire."

Tapping Frank affectionately on the arm, he was about to continue, but he saw what stopped him. He saw the last move in Frank Armour's tragic- comedy. He and Marion left the room as quickly as was possible to him, for, as he said himself, he was "slow at a quick march"; and a moment afterwards the wife heard without demur her husband's tale of love for her.

Yet, as if to remind him of the wrong he had done, Heaven never granted Frank Armour another child.