Chapter Twenty-Nine
 

The girl was lying face down as he had left her. Already the windrow of the snow was beginning to form, like the curve of a wave about to break over her prostrate body. He sat down beside her, and gathered her into his arms, throwing the thick three-point blanket with its warm lining over the bent forms of both. At once it was as though he had always been there, his back to the unceasing winds, a permanence in the wilderness. The struggles of the long, long trail withdrew swiftly into the past--they had never been. And through the unreality of this feeling shot a single illuminating shaft of truth: never would he find in himself the power to take the trail again. The bubbling fever-height of his energies suddenly drained away.

Mack, the hound, lay patiently at his feet. He, too, suffered, and he did not understand, but that did not matter; his faithfulness could not doubt. For a single instant it occurred to the young man that he might kill the dog, and so procure nourishment with which to extricate himself and the girl; but the thought drifted idly through his mind, and so on and away. It did not matter. He could never again follow that Trail, and a few days more or less--

The girl sighed and opened her eyes. They widened.

"Jibiwanisi!" she whispered.

Her eyes remained fixed on his face, puzzling out the mere facts. Then all at once they softened.

"You came back," she murmured.

Dick did not reply. He drew her a little closer into his arms.

For a long time they said nothing. Then the girl:

"It has come, Jibiwanisi, we must die," and after a moment, "You came back."

She closed her eyes again, happily.

"Why did you come back?" she asked after a while.

"I do not know," said Dick.

The snow sifted here and there like beach sand. Occasionally the dog shook himself free of it, but over the two human beings it flung, little by little, the whiteness of its uniformity, a warm mantle against the freezing. They became an integral part of the landscape, permanent as it, coeval with its rocks and hills, ancient as the world, a symbol of obscure passions and instincts and spiritual beauties old as the human race.

Abruptly Dick spoke, his voice harsh.

"We die here, Little Sister. I do not regret. I have done the best in me. It is well for me to die. But this is not your affair. It was not for you to give your life. Had you not followed you would now be warm in the wigwams of your people. This is heavy on my heart."

"Was it for this you came back to me?" she inquired.

Dick considered. "No," he replied.

"The south wind blows warm on me," she said, after a moment.

The man thought her mind wandered with the starvation, but this was not the case. Her speech had made one of those strange lapses into rhetoric so common to the savage peoples.

"Jibiwanisi," she went on solemnly, "to me now this is a land where the trees are green and the waters flow and the sun shines and the fat deer are in the grasses. My heart sings like the birds. What should I care for dying? It is well to die when one is happy."

"Are you happy, May-may-gwan?" asked Dick.

For answer she raised her eyes to his. Freed of the distraction of another purpose, clarified by the near approach of death, his spirit looked, and for the first time understood.

"May-may-gwan, I did not know," said he, awed.

He meant that he had not before perceived her love for him. She thought he had not before realised his love for her. Her own affection seemed to her as self-evident as the fact that her eyes were black.

"Yes, yes," she hastened to comfort what she supposed must be his distress, "I know. But you turned back."

She closed her eyes again and appeared to doze in a happy dream. The North swooped above them like some greedy bird of prey.

Gradually in his isolation and stillness Dick began to feel this. It grew on him little by little. Within a few hours, by grace of suffering and of imminent death, he came into his woodsman's heritage of imagination. Men like Sam Bolton gained it by patient service, by living, by the slow accumulations of years, but in essence it remained the same. Where before the young man had seen only the naked, material facts, now he felt the spiritual presence, the calm, ruthless, just, terrible Enemy, seeking no combat, avoiding none, conquering with a lofty air of predestination, inevitable, mighty. His eyes were opened, like the prophet's of old. The North hovered over him almost palpable. In the strange borderland of mingled illusion and reality where now he and starvation dwelt he thought sometimes to hear voices, the voices of his enemy's triumph.

"Is it done?" they asked him, insistently. "Is it over? Are you beaten? Is your stubborn spirit at last bowed down, humiliated, crushed? Do you relinquish the prize,--and the struggle? Is it done?"

The girl stirred slightly in his arms. He focussed his eyes. Already the day had passed, and the first streamers of the aurora were crackling in the sky. They reduced this day, this year, this generation of men to a pin-point in time. The tragedy enacting itself on the snow amounted to nothing. It would soon be over: it occupied but one of many, many nights--wherein the aurora would crackle and shoot forth and ebb back in precisely the same deathful, living way, as though the death of it were the death in this world, but the life of it were a thing celestial and alien. The moment, to these three who perished the most important of all the infinite millions of millions that constitute time, was absolutely without special meaning to the wonderful, flaming, unearthly lights of the North.

Mack, the hound, lay in the position he had first assumed, his nose between his outstretched forepaws. So he had lain all that day and that night. So it seemed he must intend to lie until death took him. For on this dreadful journey Mack had risen above the restrictions imposed by his status as a zoological species, had ceased to be merely a dog, and by virtue of steadfastness, of loyalty, of uncomplaining suffering, had entered into the higher estate of a living being that has fearlessly done his best in the world before his call to leave it.

The girl opened her eyes.

"Jibiwanisi," she said, faintly, "the end is come."

Agonized, Dick forced himself to consciousness of the landscape. It contained moving figures in plenty. One after the other he brought them within the focus of scrutiny and dissolved them into thin air. If only the caribou herds--

He looked down again to meet her eyes.

"Do not grieve. I am happy, Jibiwanisi," she whispered.

After a little, "I will die first," and then, "This land and that--there must be a border. I will be waiting there. I will wait always. I will not go into the land until you come. I will wait to see it--with you. Oh, Jibiwanisi," she cried suddenly, with a strength and passion in startling contrast to her weakness. "I am yours, yours, yours! You are mine." She half raised herself and seized his two arms, searching his eyes with terror, trying to reassure herself, to drive off the doubts that suddenly had thronged upon her. "Tell me," she shook him by the arm.

"I am yours," Dick lied, steadily; "my heart is yours, I love you."

He bent and kissed her on the lips. She quivered and closed her eyes with a deep sigh.

Ten minutes later she died.