Conjuror's House by Stewart Edward White
Virginia did not sleep at all that night. She was reaching toward her new self. Heretofore she had ruled those about her proudly, secure in her power and influence. Now she saw that all along her influence had in not one jot exceeded that of the winsome girl. She had no real power at all. They went mercilessly on in the grim way of their fathers, dealing justice even-handed according to their own crude conceptions of it, without thought of God or man. She turned hot all over as she saw herself in this new light--as she saw those about her indulgently smiling at her airs of the mistress of it. It angered her--though the smile might be good-humored, even affectionate.
And she shrank into herself with utter loathing when she remembered Ned Trent. There indeed her woman's pride was hard stricken. She recalled with burning cheeks how his intense voice had stirred her; how his wishes had compelled her; she shivered pitifully as she remembered the warmth of his shoulder touching carelessly her own. If he had come to her honestly and asked her aid, she would have given it; but this underhand pretence at love! It was unworthy of him; and it was certainly most unworthy of her. What must he think of her? How he must be laughing at her--and hoping that his spell was working, so that he could get the coveted rifle and the forty cartridges.
"I hate him!" she cried to herself, the backs of her long, slender hands pressed against her eyes. She meant that she loved him, but for the purposes in hand one would do as well as the other.
At earliest daylight she was up. Bathing her face and throat in cold water, and hastily catching her beautiful light hair under a cap, she slipped down stairs and out past the stockade to the point. There she seated herself, a heavy shawl about her, and gave herself up to reflection. She had approached silently, her moccasins giving no sound. Presently she became aware that someone was there before her. Looking toward the river she saw on the next level below her a man, seated on a bowlder, and gazing to the south.
His very soul was in his eyes. Virginia gasped at the change in him since last she had seen him. The gay, mocking demeanor which had seemed an essential part of his very flesh and blood had fallen away from him, leaving a sad and lofty dignity that ennobled his countenance. The lines of his face were stern, of his mouth pathetic; his eyes yearned. He stared toward the south with an almost mesmeric intensity, as though he hoped by sheer longing to materialize a vision. Tears sprang to the girl's eyes at the subtle pathos of his attitude.
He stretched his arms wearily over his head, and sighed deeply and looked up. His eyes rested on the girl without surprise; the expression of his features did not change.
"Pardon me," he said, simply. "To-day is my last of plenty. I am up enjoying it."
Virginia had anticipated the usual instantaneous transformation of his manner when he should catch sight of her. Her resentment was dispelled. In face of the vaster tragedies little considerations gave way.
"Do you leave--to-day?" she asked, in a low voice.
"To-morrow morning, early," he corrected. "To-day I found my provisions packed and laid at my door. It is a hint I know how to take."
"You have everything you need?" asked the girl, with an assumption of indifference.
He looked her in the eyes for a moment.
"Everything," he lied, calmly.
Virginia perceived that he lied, and her heart stood still with a sudden hope that perhaps, at this eleventh hour, he might have repented of his unworthy intentions toward herself. She leaned to him over the edge of the little rise.
"Have you a rifle--for la Longue Traverse?" she inquired, with meaning.
He stared at her a little the harder.
"Why--why, surely," he replied, in a tone less confident. "Nobody travels without a rifle in the North."
She dropped swiftly down the slope and stood face to face with him.
"Listen," she began, in her superb manner. "I know all there is to know. You are a Free Trader, and you are to be sent to your death. It is murder, and it is done by my father." She held her head proudly, but the notes of her voice were straining. "I knew nothing of this yesterday. I was a foolish girl who thought all men were good and just, and that all those whom I knew were noble. My eyes are open now. I see injustice being done by my own household, and"--tears were trembling near her lashes, but she blinked them back--"and I am no longer a foolish girl! You need not try to deceive me. You must tell me what I can do, for I cannot permit so great a wrong to be done by my father without attempting to set it right." This was not what she had intended to say, but suddenly the course was clear to her. The influence of the man had again swept over her, drowning her will, filling her with the old fear, which was now for the moment turned to pride by the character of the situation.
But to her surprise the man was thinking of something else.
"Who told you?" he demanded, harshly. Then, without waiting for a reply, "It was that little preacher; I'll have an interview with him!"
"No, no!" protested the girl. "It was not he. It was a friend. I had the right to know."
"You had no right!" he cried, vehemently. "You and life should have nothing to do with each other. There is a look in your eyes that was not in them yesterday, and the one who put it there is not your friend." He stood staring at her intently, as one who ponders what is best to do. Then very quietly he took her hands and drew her to a place beside him on the bowlder.
"I am going to tell you something, little girl," said he, "and you must listen quietly to the end. Perhaps at the last you may see more clearly than you do now.
"This old Company of yours has been established for a great many years. Back in old days, over two centuries ago, it pushed up into this wilderness to trade for its furs. That you know. And then it explored ever farther to the west and the north, until its servants stood on the shores of the Pacific and the stretches of the Arctic Ocean. And its servants loved it. Enduring immense hardships, cut off from their kind, outlining dimly with the eye of faith the structure of a mighty power, they loved it always. Thousands of men were in its employ, and so loyal were they that its secrets were safe and its prestige was defended, often to a lonely death. I have known the Company and its servants for a long time, and if I had leisure I could instance a hundred examples of devotion and sacrifice beside which mere patriotism would seem a little thing. Men who had no country cleaved to her desolate posts, her lakes and rivers and forests; men who had no home ties felt the tug of her wild life at their hearts; men who had no God bowed in awe before her power and grandeur. The Company was a living thing.
"Rivals attempted her supremacy, and were defeated by the steadfastness of the men who received her meagre wages and looked to her as their one ideal. Her explorers were the bravest, her traders the most enterprising and single-minded, her factors and partners the most capable and potent in all the world. No country, no leader, no State ever received half the worship her sons gave her. The fierce Nor'westers, the traders of Montreal, the Company of the X Y, Astor himself, had to give way. For, although they were bold or reckless or crafty or able, they had not the ideal which raises such qualities to invincibility.
"And, little girl, nothing is wrong to men who have such an ideal before them. They see but one thing, and all means are good that help them to assure that one thing. They front the dangers, they overcome the hardships, they crush the rivals. Bloody wars have taken place in these forests, ruthless deeds have been done, but the men who accomplished them held the deeds good. So for two hundred years, aided by the charter from the king, they have made good their undisputed right.
"Then the railroad entered the west. The charter of monopoly ran out. Through the Nipissing, the Athabasca, the Edmonton, came the Free Traders--men who traded independently. These the Company could not control, so it competed--and to its credit its competition has held its own. Even far into the Northwest, where the trails are long, the Free Traders have established their chains of supplies, entering into rivalry with the Company for a barter it has always considered its right. The medicine has been bitter, but the servants of the Company have adjusted themselves to the new conditions, and are holding their own.
"But one region still remains cut off from the outside world by a broad band of unexplored waste. The life here at Hudson's Bay--although you may not know it--is exactly the same to-day that it was two hundred years ago. And here the Company makes its stand for a monopoly.
"At first it worked openly. But in the case of Guillaume Sayer, a daring and pugnacious metis, it got into trouble with the law. Since that time it has wrapped itself in secrecy and mystery, carrying on its affairs behind the screen of five hundred miles of forest. Here it has still the power; no man can establish himself here, can even travel here, without its consent, for it controls the food and the Indians. The Free Trader enters, but he does not stay for long. The Company's servants are mindful of their old fanatical ideal. Nothing is ever known, no orders are ever given, but something happens, and the man never ventures again.
"If he is an ordinary metis or Canadian, he emerges from the forest starved, frightened, thankful. If his story is likely to be believed in high places, he never emerges at all. The dangers of wilderness travel are many: he succumbs to them. That is the whole story. Nothing definite is known; no instances can be proved; your father denies the legend and calls it a myth. The Company claims to be ignorant of it, perhaps its greater officers really are, but the legend holds so good that the journey has its name--la Longue Traverse.
"But remember this, no man is to blame--unless it is he who of knowledge takes the chances. It is a policy, a growth of centuries, an idea unchangeable to which the long services of many fierce and loyal men have given substance. A Factor cannot change it. If he did, the thing would be outside of nature, something not to be understood.
"I am here. I am to take la Longue Traverse. But no man is to blame. If the scheme of the thing is wrong, it has been so from the very beginning, from the time when King Charles set his signature to the charter of unlimited authority. The history of a thousand men gives the tradition power, gives it insistence. It is bigger than any one individual. It is as inevitable as that water should flow down hill."
He had spoken quietly, but very earnestly, still holding her two hands, and she had sat looking at him unblinking from eyes behind which passed many thoughts. When he had finished, a short pause followed, at the end of which she asked unexpectedly,
"Last evening you told me that you might come to me and ask me to choose between my pity and what I might think to be my duty. What are you going to ask of me?"
"Nothing. I spoke idle words."
"Last evening I overheard you demand something of Mr. Crane," she pursued, without commenting on his answer. "When he refused you I heard you say these words, 'Here is where I should have received aid; I may have to get it where I should not.' What was the aid you asked of him? and where else did you expect to get it?"
"The aid was something impossible to accord, and I did not expect to get it elsewhere. I said that in order to induce him to help me."
A wonderful light sprang to the girl's eyes, but still she maintained her level voice.
"You asked him for a rifle with which to escape. You expected to get it of me. Deny it if you can."
Ned Trent looked at her keenly a moment, then dropped his eyes.
"It is true," said he.
"And the pity was to give you this weapon; and the duty was my duty to my father's house."
"It is true," he repeated, dejectedly.
"And you lied to me when you said you had a rifle with which to journey la Longue Traverse."
"That too is true," he acknowledged.
When next she spoke her voice was not quite so well controlled.
"Why did you not ask me, as you intended? Why did you tell me these lies?"
The young man hesitated, looked her in the face, turned away, and murmured,
"I could not."
"Why?" persisted the girl. "Why? You must tell me."
"Because," said Ned Trent--"because it could not be done. Every rifle in the place is known. Because you would be found out in this, and I do not know what your punishment might not be."
"You knew this before?" insisted Virginia, stonily.
"Then why did you change your mind?"
"When first I saw you by the gun," began Ned Trent, in a low voice, "I was a desperate man, clutching at the slightest chance. The thought crossed my mind then that I might use you. Then later I saw that I had some influence over you, and I made my plan. But last night--"
"Yes, last night?" urged Virginia, softly.
"Last night I paced the island, and I found out many things. One of them was that I could not."
"Even though this dreadful journey--"
"I would rather take my chances."
Again there was silence between them.
"It was a good lie," then said Virginia, gently--"a noble lie. And what you have told me to comfort me about my father has been nobly said. And I believe you, for I have known the truth about your fate." He shut his lips grimly. "Why--why did you come?" she cried, passionately. "Is the trade so good, are your needs then so great, that you must run these perils?"
"My needs," he replied. "No; I have enough."
"Then why?" she insisted.
"Because that old charter has long since expired, and now this country is as free for me as for the Company," he explained. "We are in a civilized century, and no man has a right to tell me where I shall or shall not go. Does the Company own the Indians and the creatures of the woods?" Something in the tone of his voice brought her eyes steadily to his for a moment.
"Is that all?" she asked at length.
He hesitated, looked away, looked back again.
"No, it is not," he confessed, in a low voice. "It is a thing I do not speak of. My father was a servant of this Company, a good, true servant. No man was more honest, more zealous, more loyal."
"I am sure of it," said Virginia, softly.
"But in some way that he never knew himself he made enemies in high places. The cowards did not meet him man to man, and so he never knew who they were. If he had, he would have killed them. But they worked against him always. He was given hard posts, inadequate supplies, scant help, and then he was held to account for what he could not do. Finally he left the company in disgrace--undeserved disgrace. He became a Free Trader in the days when to become a Free Trader was worse than attacking a grizzly with cubs. In three years he was killed. But when I grew to be a man"--he clenched his teeth--"by God! how I have prayed to know who did it." He brooded for a moment, then went on. "Still, I have accomplished something. I have traded in spite of your factors in many districts. One summer I pushed to the Coppermine in the teeth of them, and traded with the Yellow Knives for the robes of the musk-ox. And they knew me and feared my rivalry, these traders of the Company. No district of the far North but has felt the influence of my bartering. The traders of all districts--Fort au Liard, Lapierre's House, Fort Rae, Ile a la Crosse, Portage la Loche, Lac la Biche, Jasper's House, the House of the Touchwood Hills--all these, and many more, have heard of Ned Trent."
"Your father--you knew him well?"
"No, but I remember him--a tall, dark man, with a smile always in his eyes and a laugh on his lips. I was brought up at a school in Winnipeg under a priest. Two or three times in the year my father used to appear for a few days. I remember well the last time I saw him. I was about thirteen years old. 'You are growing to be a man,' said he; 'next year we will go out on the trail.' I never saw him again."
"Oh, he was just killed," replied Ned Trent, bitterly.
The girl laid her hand on his arm with an appealing little gesture.
"I am so sorry," said she.
"I have no portrait of him," continued the Free Trader, after an instant. "No gift from his hands; nothing at all of his but this."
He showed her an ordinary little silver match-safe such as men use in the North country.
"They brought that to me at the last--the Indians who came to tell my priest the news; and the priest, who was a good man, gave it to me. I have carried it ever since."
Virginia took it reverently. To her it had all the largeness that envelops the symbol of a great passion. After a moment she looked up in surprise.
"Why!" she exclaimed, "this has a name carved on it!"
"Yes," he replied.
"But the name is Graehme Stewart."
"Of course I could not bear my father's name in a country where it was well known," he explained.
"Of course," she agreed. Impulsively she raised her face to his, her eyes shining. "To me all this is very fine," said she.
He smiled a little sadly. "At least you know why I came."
"Yes," she repeated, "I know why you came. But you are in trouble."
"The chances of war."
"And they have defeated you after all."
"I shall start on la Longue Traverse singing 'Rouli roulant.' It's a small defeat, that."
"Listen," said she, rapidly. "When I was quite a small girl Mr. McTavish, of Rupert's House, gave me a little rifle. I have never used it, because I do not care to shoot. That rifle has never been counted, and my father has long since forgotten all about it. You must take that, and escape to-night. I will let you have it on one condition--that you give me your solemn promise never to venture into this country again."
"Yes," he agreed, without enthusiasm nor surprise.
She smiled happily at his gloomy face and listless attitude.
"But I do not want to give up the little rifle entirely," she went on, with dainty preciosity, watching him closely. "As I said, it was a present, given to me when I was quite a small girl. You must return it to me at Quebec, in August. Will you promise to do that?"
He wheeled on her swift as light, the eagerness flashing back into his face.
"You are going to Quebec?" he cried.
"My father wishes me to. I have decided to do so. I shall start with the Abitibi brigade in July."
He leaped to his feet.
"I promise!" he exulted, "I promise! To-night, then! Bring the rifle and the cartridges, and some matches, and a little salt. You must take me across the river in a canoe, for I want them to guess at where I strike the woods. I shall cover my trail. And with ten hours' start, let them catch Ned Trent who can!"
She laughed happily.
"To-night, then. At the south of the island there is a trail, and at the end of the trail a beach--"
"I know!" he cried.
"Meet me there as soon after dark as you can do so without danger."
He threw his hat into the air and caught it, his face boyishly upturned. Again that something, so vaguely familiar, plucked at her with its ghostly, appealing fingers. She turned swiftly, and seized them, and so found herself in possession of a memory out of her far-off childhood.
"I know you!" she cried. "I have seen you before this!"
He bent his puzzled gaze upon her.
"I was a very little girl," she explained, "and you but a lad. It was at a party, I think, a great and brilliant party, for I remember many beautiful women and fine men. You held me up in your arms for people to see, because I was going on a long journey."
"I remember, of course I do!" he exclaimed.
A bell clanged, turning over and over, calling the Company's men to their day.
"Farewell," she said, hurriedly. "To-night."
"To-night," he repeated.
She glided rapidly through the grass, noiseless in her moccasined feet. And as she went she heard his voice humming soft and low,
"Isabeau s'y promene Le long de son jardin, Le long de son jardin, Sur le bord de l'ile, Le long de son jardin."
"How could he help singing," murmured Virginia, fondly. "Ah, dear Heaven, but I am the happiest girl alive!"
Such a difference can one night bring about.