Chapter Ten
 

Almost immediately the door opened again.

"You, Miss Albret!" cried Crane.

"What does this mean?" demanded Virginia, imperiously. "Who is that man? In what danger does he stand? What does he want a rifle for? I insist on knowing."

She stood straight and tall in the low room, her eyes flashing, her head thrown back in the assured power of command.

The Reverend Crane tried to temporize, hesitating over his words. She cut him short.

"That is nonsense. Everybody seems to know but myself. I am no child. I came to consult you--my spiritual adviser--in regard to this very case. Accidentally I overheard enough to justify me in knowing more."

The clergyman murmured something about the Company's secrets. Again she cut him short.

"Company's secrets! Since when has the Company confided in Andrew Laviolette, in Wishkobun, in you!"

"Possibly you would better ask your father," said Crane, with some return of dignity.

"It does not suit me to do so," replied she. "I insist that you answer my questions. Who is this man?"

"Ned Trent, he says."

"I will not be put off in this way. Who is he? What is he?"

"He is a Free Trader," replied the Reverend Crane with the air of a man who throws down a bomb and is afraid of the consequences. To his astonishment the bomb did not explode.

"What is that?" she asked, simply.

The man's jaw dropped and his eyes opened in astonishment. Here was a density of ignorance in regard to the ordinary affairs of the Post which could by no stretch of the imagination be ascribed to chance. If Virginia Albret did not know the meaning of the term, and all the tragic consequences it entailed, there could be but one conclusion: Galen Albret had not intended that she should know. She had purposely been left in ignorance, and a politic man would hesitate long before daring to enlighten her. The Reverend Crane, in sheer terror, became sullen.

"A Free Trader is a man who trades in opposition to the Company," said he, cautiously.

"What great danger is he in?" the girl persisted with her catechism.

"None that I am aware of," replied Crane, suavely. "He is a very ill-balanced and excitable young man."

Virginia's quick instincts recognized again the same barrier which, with the people, with Wishkobun, with her father, had shut her so effectively from the truth. Her power of femininity and position had to give way before the man's fear for himself and of Galen Albret's unexpressed wish. She asked a few more questions, received a few more evasive replies, and left the little clergyman to recover as best he might from a very trying evening.

Out in the night the girl hesitated in two minds as to what to do next. She was excited, and resolved to finish the affair, but she could not bring her courage to the point of questioning her father. That the stranger was in antagonism to the Company, that he believed himself to be in danger on that account, that he wanted succor, she saw clearly enough. But the whole affair was vague, disquieting. She wanted to see it plainly, know its reasons. And beneath her excitement she recognized, with a catch of the breath, that she was afraid for him. She had not time now to ask herself what it might mean; she only realized the presence of the fact.

She turned instinctively in the direction of Doctor Cockburn's house. Mrs. Cockburn was a plain little middle-aged woman with parted gray hair and sweet, faded eyes. In the life of the place she was a nonentity, and her tastes were homely and commonplace, but Virginia liked her.

She proved to be at home, the Doctor still at his dispensary, which was well. Virginia entered a small log room, passed through it immediately to a larger papered room, and sat down in a musty red arm-chair. The building was one of the old regime, which meant that its floor was of wide and rather uneven painted boards, its ceiling low, its windows small, and its general lines of an irregular and sagging rule-of-thumb tendency. The white wall-paper evidently concealed squared logs. The present inhabitants, being possessed at once of rather homely tastes and limited facilities, had over-furnished the place with an infinitude of little things--little rugs, little tables, little knit doilies, little racks of photographs, little china ornaments, little spidery what-nots, and shelves for books.

Virginia seated herself, and went directly to the topic.

"Mrs. Cockburn," she said, "you have always been very good to me, always, ever since I came here as a little girl. I have not always appreciated it, I am afraid, but I am in great trouble, and I want your help."

"What is it, dearie," asked the older woman, softly. "Of course I will do anything I can."

"I want you to tell me what all this mystery is--about the man who to-day arrived from Kettle Portage, I mean. I have asked everybody: I have tried by all means in my power to get somebody somewhere to tell me. It is maddening--and I have a special reason for wanting to know."

The older woman was already gazing at her through troubled eyes.

"It is a shame and a mistake to keep you so in ignorance!" she broke out, "and I have said so always. There are many things you have the right to know, although some of them would make you very unhappy--as they do all of us poor women who have to live in this land of dread. But in this I cannot, dearie."

Virginia felt again the impalpable shadow of truth escaping her. Baffled, confused, she began to lose her self-control. A dozen times to-day she had reached after this thing, and always her fingers had closed on empty air. She felt that she could not stand the suspense of bewilderment a single instant longer. The tears overflowed and rolled down her cheeks unheeded.

"Oh, Mrs. Cockburn!" she cried. "Please! You do not know how dreadful this thing has come to be to me just because it is made so mysterious. Why has it been kept from me alone? It must have something to do with me, and I can't stand this mystery, this double-dealing, another minute. If you won't tell me, nobody will, and I shall go on imagining--Oh, please have pity on me! I feel the shadow of a tragedy. It comes out in everything, in everybody to whom I turn. I see it in Wishkobun's avoidance of me, in my father's silence, in Mr. Crane's confusion, in your reluctance--yes, in the very reckless insolence of Mr. Trent himself!"--her voice broke slightly. "If you will not tell me, I shall go direct to my father," she ended, with more firmness.

Mrs. Cockburn examined the girl's flushed face through kindly but shrewd and experienced eyes. Then, with a caressing little murmur of pity, she arose and seated herself on the arm of the red chair, taking the girl's hand in hers.

"I believe you mean it," she said, "and I am going to tell you myself. There is much sorrow in it for you; but if you go to your father it will only make it worse. I am doing what I should not. It is shameful that such things happen in this nineteenth century, but happen they do. The long and short of it is that the Factors of this Post tolerate no competition in the country, and when a man enters it for the purpose of trading with the Indians, he is stopped and sent out."

"There is nothing very bad about that," said Virginia, relieved.

"No, my dear, not in that. But they say his arms and supplies are taken from him, and he is given a bare handful of provisions. He has to make a quick journey, and to starve at that. Once when I was visiting out at the front, not many years ago, I saw one of those men--they called him Jo Bagneau--and his condition was pitiable--pitiable!"

"But hardships can be endured. A man can escape."

"Yes," almost whispered Mrs. Cockburn, looking about her apprehensively, "but the story goes that there are some cases--when the man is an old offender, or especially determined, or so prominent as to be able to interest the law--no one breathes of these cases here--but--he never gets out!"

"What do you mean?" cried Virginia, harshly.

"One dares not mean such things; but they are so. The hardships of the wilderness are many, the dangers terrible--what more natural than that a man should die of them in the forest? It is no one's fault."

"What do you mean?" repeated Virginia; "for God's sake speak plainly!"

"I dare not speak plainer than I know; and no one ever really knows anything about it--excepting the Indian who fires the shot, or who watches the man until he dies of starvation," whispered Mrs. Cockburn.

"But--but!" cried the girl, grasping her companion's arm. "My father! Does he give such orders? He?"

"No orders are given. The thing is understood. Certain runners, whose turn it is, shadow the Free Trader. Your father is not responsible; no one is responsible. It is the policy."

"And this man--"

"It has gone about that he is to take la Longue Traverse. He knows it himself."

"It is barbaric, horrible; it is murder."

"My dear, it is all that; but this is the country of dread. You have known the soft, bright side always--the picturesque men, the laugh, the song. If you had seen as much of the harshness of wilderness life as a doctor's wife must you would know that when the storms of their great passions rage it is well to sit quiet at your prayers."

The girl's eyes were wide-fixed, staring at this first reality of life. A thousand new thoughts jostled for recognition. Suddenly her world had been swept from beneath her. The ancient patriarchal, kindly rule had passed away, and in its place she was forced to see a grim iron bond of death laid over her domain. And her father--no longer the grave, kindly old man--had become the ruthless tyrant. All these bright, laughing voyageurs, playmates of her childhood, were in reality executioners of a savage blood-law. She could not adjust herself to it.

She got to her feet with an effort.

"Thank you, Mrs. Cockburn," she said, in a low voice. "I--I do not quite understand. But I must go now. I must--I must see that my father's room is ready for him," she finished, with the proud defensive instinct of the woman who has been deeply touched. "You know I always do that myself."

"Good-night, dearie," replied the older woman, understanding well the girl's desire to shelter behind the commonplace. She leaned forward and kissed her. "God keep and guide you. I hope I have done right."

"Yes," cried Virginia, with unexpected fire. "Yes, you did just right! I ought to have been told long ago! They've kept me a perfect child to whom everything has been bright and care-free and simple. I--I feel that until this moment I have lacked my real womanhood!"

She bowed her head and passed through the log room into the outer air.

Her father, her father, had willed this man's death, and so he was to die! That explained many things--the young fellow's insolence, his care-free recklessness, his passionate denunciation of the Reverend Crane and the Reverend Crane's religion. He wanted one little thing--the gift of a rifle wherewith to assure his subsistence should he escape into the forest--and of all those at Conjuror's House to whom he might turn for help, some were too hard to give it to him, and some too afraid! He should have it! She, the daughter of her father, would see to it that in this one instance her father's sin should fail! Suddenly, in the white heat of her emotion, she realized why these matters stirred her so profoundly, and she stopped short and gasped with the shock of it. It did not matter that she thwarted her father's will; it would not matter if she should be discovered and punished as only these harsh characters could punish. For the brave bearing, the brave jest, the jaunty facing of death, the tender, low voice, the gay song, the aurora-lit moment of his summons--all these had at last their triumph. She knew that she loved him; and that if he were to die, she would surely die too.

And, oh, it must be that he loved her! Had she not heard it in the music of his voice from the first?--the passion of his tones? the dreamy, lyrical swing of his talk by the old bronze guns?

Then she staggered sharply, and choked back a cry. For out of her recollections leaped two sentences of his--the first careless, imprudent, unforgivable; the second pregnant with meaning. "Ah, a star shoots!" he had said. "That means a kiss!" and again, to the clergyman, "I came here without the slightest expectation of getting what I asked for. There is another way, but I hate to use it."

She was the other way! She saw it plainly. He did not love her, but he saw that he could fascinate her, and he hoped to use her as an aid to his escape. She threw her head up proudly.

Then a man swung into view across the Northern Lights. Virginia pressed back against the palings among the bushes until he should have passed. It was Ned Trent, returning from a walk to the end of the island. He was alone and unfollowed, and the girl realized with a sudden grip at the heart that the wilderness itself was sufficient safe-guard against a man unarmed and unequipped. It was not considered worth while even to watch him. Should he escape, unarmed as he was, sure death by starvation awaited him in the land of dread.

As he entered the settlement he struck up an air.

    "Le fils du roi s'en va chassant,
    En roulant ma boule,
    Avec son grand fusil d'argent,
    Rouli roulant, ma boule roulant."

Almost immediately a window slid back, and an exasperated voice cried out:

"Hola dere, w'at one time dam fool you for mak' de sing so late!"

The voice went on imperturbably:

    "Avec son grand fusil d'argent,
    En roulant ma boule,
    Visa le noir, tua le blanc,
    Rouli roulant, ma boule roulant."

"Sacre!" shrieked the habitant.

"Hello, Johnny Frenchman!" called Ned Trent, in his acid tones. "That you? Be more polite, or I'll stand here and sing you the whole of it."

The window slammed shut.

Ned Trent took up his walk again toward some designated sleeping-place of his own, his song dying into the distance.

    "Visa le noir, tua le blanc,
    En roulant ma boule,
    O fils du roi, tu es mechant!
    Rouli roulant, ma boule roulant."

"And he can sing!" cried the girl bitterly to herself. "At such a time! Oh, my dear God, help me, help me! I am the unhappiest girl alive!"