Chapter I
 

"Ask Mr. Hume to come here for a moment, Gosse," said Field, the chief factor, as he turned from the frosty window of his office at Fort Providence, one of the Hudson's Bay Company's posts. The servant, or more properly, Orderly-Sergeant Gosse, late of the Scots Guards, departed on his errand, glancing curiously at his master's face as he did so. The chief factor, as he turned round, unclasped his hands from behind him, took a few steps forward, then standing still in the centre of the room, read carefully through a letter which he had held in the fingers of his right hand for the last ten minutes as he scanned the wastes of snow stretching away beyond Great Slave Lake to the arctic circle. He meditated a moment, went back to the window, looked out again, shook his head negatively, and with a sigh, walked over to the huge fireplace. He stood thoughtfully considering the floor until the door opened and sub- factor Jaspar Hume entered.

The factor looked up and said: "Hume, I've something here that's been worrying me a bit. This letter came in the monthly batch this morning. It is from a woman. The company sends another commending the cause of the woman and urging us to do all that is possible to meet her wishes. It seems that her husband is a civil engineer of considerable fame. He had a commission to explore the Coppermine region and a portion of the Barren Grounds. He was to be gone six months. He has been gone a year. He left Fort Good Hope, skirted Great Bear Lake, and reached the Coppermine River. Then he sent back all of the Indians who accompanied him but two, they bearing the message that he would make the Great Fish River and come down by Great Slave Lake to Fort Providence. That was nine months ago. He has not come here, nor to any other of the forts, so far as is known, nor has any word been received from him. His wife, backed by the H.B.C., urges that a relief party be sent to look for him. They and she forget that this is the arctic region, and that the task is a well-nigh hopeless one. He ought to have been here six months ago. Now how can we do anything? Our fort is small, and there is always danger of trouble with the Indians. We can't force men to join a relief party like this, and who will volunteer? Who would lead such a party and who will make up the party to be led?"

The brown face of Jaspar Hume was not mobile. It changed in expression but seldom; it preserved a steady and satisfying character of intelligence and force. The eyes, however, were of an inquiring, debating kind, that moved from one thing to another as if to get a sense of balance before opinion or judgment was expressed. The face had remained impassive, but the eyes had kindled a little as the factor talked. To the factor's despairing question there was not an immediate reply. The eyes were debating. But they suddenly steadied and Jaspar Hume said sententiously: "A relief party should go."

"Yes, yes, but who is to lead them?"

Again the eyes debated.

"Read her letter," said the factor, handing it over. Jaspar Hume took it and mechanically scanned it. The factor had moved towards the table for his pipe or he would have seen the other start, and his nostrils slightly quiver, as his eyes grew conscious of what they were seeing. Turning quickly, Hume walked towards the window as though for more light, and with his back to the factor he read the letter. Then he turned and said: "I think this thing should be done."

The factor shrugged his shoulders slightly. "Well, as to that, I think so too, but thinking and doing are two different things, Hume."

"Will you leave the matter in my hands until the morning?"

"Yes, of course, and glad to do so. You are the only man who can arrange the affair, if it is to be done at all. But I tell you, as you know, that everything will depend upon a leader, even if you secure the men.... So you had better keep the letter for to-night. It may help you to get the men together. A woman's handwriting will do more than a man's word any time."

Jaspar Hume's eyes had been looking at the factor, but they were studying something else. His face seemed not quite so fresh as it was a few minutes before.

"I will see you at ten o'clock to-morrow morning, Mr. Field," he said quietly. "Will you let Gosse come to me in an hour?"

"Certainly. Good-night."

Jaspar Hume let himself out. He walked across a small square to a log house and opened a door which creaked and shrieked with the frost. A dog sprang upon him as he did so, and rubbed its head against his breast. He touched the head as if it had been that of a child, and said: "Lie down, Bouche."

It did so, but it watched him as he doffed his dogskin cap and buffalo coat. He looked round the room slowly once as though he wished to fix it clearly and deeply in his mind. Then he sat down and held near the firelight the letter the factor had given him. His features grew stern and set as he read it. Once he paused in the reading and looked into the fire, drawing his breath sharply between his teeth. Then he read it to the end without a sign. A pause, and he said aloud: "So this is how the lines meet again, Varre Lepage!" He read the last sentence of the letter aloud:

In the hope that you may soon give me good news of my husband, I am, with all respect,

Faithfully yours,

ROSE LEPAGE.

Again he repeated: "With all respect, faithfully yours, Rose Lepage."

The dog Bouche looked up. Perhaps it detected something unusual in the voice. It rose, came over, and laid its head on its master's knee. Hume's hand fell gently on the head, and he said to the fire: "Ah, Rose Lepage, you can write to Factor Field what you dare not write to your husband if you knew. You might say to him then, 'With all love,' but not 'With all respect.'"

He folded the letter and put it in his pocket. Then he took the dog's head between his hands and said: "Listen, Bouche, and I will tell you a story." The dog blinked, and pushed its nose against his arm.

"Ten years ago two young men who had studied and graduated together at the same college were struggling together in their profession as civil engineers. One was Clive Lepage and the other was Jaspar Hume. The one was brilliant and persuasive, the other, persistent and studious. Lepage could have succeeded in any profession; Hume had only heart and mind for one.

"Only for one, Bouche, you understand. He lived in it, he loved it, he saw great things to be achieved in it. He had got an idea. He worked at it night and day, he thought it out, he developed it, he perfected it, he was ready to give it to the world. But he was seized with illness, became blind, and was ordered to a warm climate for a year. He left his idea, his invention, behind him--his complete idea. While he was gone his bosom friend stole his perfected idea--yes, stole it, and sold it for twenty thousand dollars. He was called a genius, a great inventor. And then he married her. You don't know her, Bouche. You never saw beautiful Rose Varcoe, who, liking two men, chose the one who was handsome and brilliant, and whom the world called a genius. Why didn't Jaspar Hume expose him, Bouche? Proof is not always easy, and then he had to think of her. One has to think of a woman in such a case, Bouche. Even a dog can see that."

He was silent for a moment, and then he said: "Come, Bouche. You will keep secret what I show you."

He went to a large box in the corner, unlocked it, and took out a model made of brass and copper and smooth but unpolished wood.

"After ten years of banishment, Bouche, Hume has worked out another idea, you see. It should be worth ten times the other, and the world called the other the work of a genius, dog."

Then he became silent, the animal watching him the while. It had seen him working at this model for many a day, but had never heard him talk so much at a time as he had done this last ten minutes. He was generally a silent man--decisive even to severity, careless carriers and shirking under-officers thought. Yet none could complain that he was unjust. He was simply straight-forward, and he had no sympathy with those who had not the same quality. He had carried a drunken Indian on his back for miles, and from a certain death by frost. He had, for want of a more convenient punishment, promptly knocked down Jeff Hyde, the sometime bully of the fort, for appropriating a bundle of furs belonging to a French half-breed, Gaspe Toujours. But he nursed Jeff Hyde through an attack of pneumonia, insisting at the same time that Gaspe Toujours should help him. The result of it all was that Jeff Hyde and Gaspe Toujours became constant allies. They both formulated their oaths by Jaspar Hume. The Indian, Cloud-in-the-Sky, though by word never thanking his rescuer, could not be induced to leave the fort, except on some mission with which Jaspar Hume was connected. He preferred living an undignified, un-Indian life, and earning food and shelter by coarsely labouring with his hands. He came at least twice a week to Hume's log house, and, sitting down silent and cross-legged before the fire, watched the sub-factor working at his drawings and calculations. Sitting so for perhaps an hour or more, and smoking all the time, he would rise, and with a grunt, which was answered by a kindly nod, would pass out as silently as he came.

And now as Jaspar Hume stood looking at his "Idea," Cloud-in-the-Sky entered, let his blanket fall by the hearthstone and sat down upon it. If Hume saw him or heard him, he at least gave no sign at first. But he said at last in a low tone to the dog: "It is finished, Bouche; it is ready for the world."

Then he put it back, locked the box, and turned towards Cloud-in-the-Sky and the fireplace. The Indian grunted; the other nodded with the debating look again dominant in his eyes. The Indian met the look with satisfaction. There was something in Jaspar Hume's habitual reticence and decisiveness in action which appealed more to Cloud-in-the-Sky than any freedom of speech could possibly have done.

Hume sat down, handed the Indian a pipe and tobacco, and, with arms folded, watched the fire. For half an hour they sat so, white man, Indian, and dog. Then Hume rose, went to a cupboard, took out some sealing wax and matches, and in a moment melted wax was dropping upon the lock of the box containing his Idea. He had just finished this as Sergeant Gosse knocked at the door, and immediately afterwards entered the room.

"Gosse," said the sub-factor, "find Jeff Hyde, Gaspe Toujours, and Late Carscallen, and bring them here." Sergeant Gosse immediately departed upon this errand. Hume then turned to the Indian, and said "Cloud-in- the-Sky, I want you to go a long journey hereaway to the Barren Grounds. Have twelve dogs ready by nine to-morrow morning."

Cloud-in-the-Sky shook his head thoughtfully, and then after a pause said: "Strong-back go too?" Strongback was his name for the sub-factor. But the other either did not or would not hear. The Indian, however, appeared satisfied, for he smoked harder afterwards, and grunted to himself many times. A few moments passed, and then Sergeant Gosse entered, followed by Jeff Hyde, Gaspe Toujours, and Late Carscallen. Late Carscallen had got his name "Late" from having been called "The Late Mr. Carscallen" by the chief factor because of his slowness. Slow as he was, however, the stout Scotsman had more than once proved himself a man of rare merit according to Hume's ideas. He was, of course, the last to enter.

The men grouped themselves about the fire, Late Carscallen getting the coldest corner. Each man drew his tobacco from his pocket, and, cutting it, waited for Hume to speak. His eyes were debating as they rested on the four. Then he took out Mrs. Lepage's letter, and, with the group looking at him, he read it aloud. When it was finished, Cloud-in-the-Sky gave a guttural assent, and Gaspe Toujours, looking at Jeff Hyde, said: "It is cold in the Barren Grounds. We shall need much tabac." These men could read without difficulty Hume's reason for summoning them. To Gaspe Toujours' remark Jeff Hyde nodded affirmatively, and then all looked at Late Carscallen. He opened his heavy jaws once or twice with an animal- like sound, and then he said, in a general kind of way:

"To the Barren Grounds. But who leads?"

Hume was writing on a slip of paper, and he did not reply. The faces of three of them showed just a shade of anxiety. They guessed who it would be, but they were not sure. Cloud-in-the-Sky, however, grunted at them, and raised the bowl of his pipe towards the subfactor. The anxiety then seemed to disappear.

For ten minutes more they sat so, all silent. Then Hume rose, handed the slip of paper to Sergeant Gosse, and said: "Attend to that at once, Gosse. Examine the food and blankets closely."

The five were left alone.

Then Hume spoke: "Jeff Hyde, Gaspe Toujours, Late Carscallen, and Cloud- in-the-Sky, this man, alive or dead, is between here and the Barren Grounds. He must be found--for his wife's sake."

He handed Jeff Hyde her letter. Jeff rubbed his fingers before he touched the delicate and perfumed missive. Its delicacy seemed to bewilder him. He said: in a rough but kindly way: "Hope to die if I don't," and passed it on to Gaspe Toujours, who did not find it necessary to speak. His comrade had answered for him. Late Carscallen held it inquisitively for a moment, and then his jaws opened and shut as if he were about to speak. But before he did so Hume said: "It is a long journey and a hard one. Those who go may never come back. But this man was working for his country, and he has got a wife--a good wife." He held up the letter. "Late Carscallen wants to know who will lead you. Can't you trust me? I will give you a leader that you will follow to the Barren Grounds. To-morrow you will know who he is. Are you satisfied? Will you do it?"

The four rose, and Cloud-in-the-Sky nodded approvingly many times. Hume held out his hand. Each man shook it, Jeff Hyde first. Then he said: "Close up ranks for the H.B.C.!" (H.B.C. meaning, of course, Hudson's Bay Company.)

With a good man to lead them, these four would have stormed, alone, the Heights of Balaklava.

Once more Hume spoke. "Go to Gosse and get your outfits at nine to- morrow morning. Cloud-in-the-Sky, have your sleds at the store at eight o'clock, to be loaded. Then all meet me at 10.15 at the office of the chief factor. Good night."

As they passed out into the semi-arctic night, Late Carscallen with an unreal obstinacy said: "Slow march to the Barren Grounds--but who leads?"

Left alone Hume sat down to the pine table at one end of the room and after a short hesitation began to write. For hours he sat there, rising only to put wood on the fire. The result was three letters: the largest addressed to a famous society in London, one to a solicitor in Montreal, and one to Mr. Field, the chief factor. They were all sealed carefully. Then he rose, took out his knife, and went over to the box as if to break the red seal. He paused, however, sighed, and put the knife back again. As he did so he felt something touch his leg. It was the dog.

Hume drew in a sharp breath and said: "It was all ready, Bouche; and in another six months I should have been in London with it. But it will go whether I go or not--whether I go or not, Bouche."

The dog sprang up and put his head against his master's breast.

"Good dog, good dog, it's all right, Bouche; however it goes, it's all right," said Hume.

Then the dog lay down and watched his master until he drew the blankets to his chin, and sleep drew oblivion over a fighting soul.