Chapter Thirteen
 

That evening at dinner Virginia studied her father's face again. She saw the square settled line of the jaw under the beard, the unwavering frown of the heavy eyebrows, the unblinking purpose of the cavernous, mysterious eyes. Never had she felt herself very close to this silent, inscrutable man, even in his moments of more affectionate expansion. Now a gulf divided them.

And yet, strangely enough, she experienced no revulsion, no horror, no recoil even. He had merely become more aloof, more incomprehensible; his purposes vaster, less susceptible to the grasp of such as she. There may have been some basis for this feeling, or it may have been merely the reflex glow of a joy that made all other things seem insignificant.

As soon as might be after the meal Virginia slipped away, carrying the rifle, the cartridges, the matches, and the salt. She was cruelly frightened.

The night was providentially dark. No aurora threw its splendor across the dome, and only a few rare stars peeped between the light cirrus clouds. Virginia left behind her the buildings of the Post, she passed in safety the tin-steepled chapel and the church house; there remained only the Indian camp between her and the woods trail. At once the dogs began to bark and howl, the fierce giddes lifting their pointed noses to the sky. The girl hurried on, swinging far to the right through the grass. To her relief the camp did not respond to the summons. An old crone or so appeared in the flap of a teepee, eyes dazzled, to throw uselessly a billet of wood or a volley of Cree abuse at the animals nearest. In a moment Virginia entered the trail.

Here was no light at all. She had to proceed warily, feeling with her moccasins for the beaten pathway, to which she returned with infinite caution whenever she trod on grass or leaves. Though her sight was dulled, her hearing was not. A thousand scurrying noises swirled about her; a multitude of squeaks, whistles, snorts, and whines attested that she disturbed the forest creatures at their varied businesses; and underneath spoke an apparent dozen of terrifying voices which were in reality only the winds and the trees. Virginia knew that these things were not dangerous--that daylight would show them to be only deer-mice, hares, weasels, bats, and owls--nevertheless, they had their effect. For about her was cloying velvet blackness--not the closed-in blackness of a room, where one feels the embrace of the four walls, but the blackness of infinite space through which sweep mysterious currents of air. After a long time she turned sharp to the left. After a long time more she perceived a faint, opalescent glimmer in the distance ahead. This she knew to be the river.

She felt her way onward, still cautiously; then she choked back a scream and dropped her burden with a clatter to the ground. A dark figure seemed to have risen mysteriously at her side.

"I didn't mean to frighten you," said Ned Trent, in guarded tones. "I heard you coming. I thought you could hear me."

He picked up the fallen articles, running his hands over them rapidly.

"Good," he whispered. "I got some moccasins to-day--traded a few things I had in my pockets for them. I'm fixed."

"Have you a canoe?" she asked.

"Yes--here on the beach."

He preceded her down the few remaining yards of the trail. She followed, already desolated at the thought of parting, for the wilderness was very big. The bulk of the man partly blotted out the lucent spot where the river was--now his arm, now his head, now the breadth of his shoulders. This silhouette of him was dear to her, the sound of his movements, the faint stir of his breathing borne to her on the light breeze. Virginia's tender heart almost overflowed with longing and fear for him.

They emerged on a little slope and at once pushed the canoe into the current.

She accepted the aid of his hand for a moment, and sank to her place, facing him. He spurned lightly the shore, and so they were adrift.

In a moment they seemed to be floating on a vast vapor of night, infinitely remote from anywhere, surrounded by the silence that might have been before the world's beginning. A faint splash could have been a muskrat near at hand or a caribou far away. The paddle rose and dipped with a faint swish, swish, and the steersman's twist of it was taken up by the man's strong wrist so it did not click against the gunwale; the bow of the craft divided the waters with a murmuring so faint as to seem but the echo of a silence. Neither spoke. Virginia watched him, her heart too full for words; watched the full swing of his strong shoulders, the balance of his body at the hips, the poise of his head against the dull sky. In a moment more the parting would have to come. She dreaded it, and yet she looked forward to it with a hungry joy. Then he would say what she had seen in his eyes; then he would speak; then she would hear the words that should comfort her in the days of waiting. For a woman lives much for the present, and the moment's word is an important thing.

The man swung his paddle steadily, throwing into the strokes a wanton exuberance that showed how high his spirits ran. After a time, when they were well out from the shore, he took a deep breath of delight.

"Ah, you don't know how happy I am," he exulted, "you don't know! To be free, to play the game, to match my wits against theirs--ah, that is life!"

"I am sorry to see you go," she murmured, "very sorry. The days will be full of terror until I know you are safe."

"Oh, yes," he answered; "but I'll get there, and I shall tell it all to you at Quebec--at Quebec in August. It will be a brave tale! You will be there--surely?"

"Yes," said the girl, softly; "I will be there--surely."

"Good! Feel the wind on your cheek? It is from the Southland, where I am going. I have ventured--and I have not lost! It is something not to lose, when one has ventured against many. They have my goods--but I--"

"You?" repeated Virginia, as he hesitated.

"Ah, I don't go back empty-handed!" he cried. Her heart stood still, then leaped in anticipation of what he would say. Her soul hungered for the words, the words that should not only comfort her, but should be to her the excuse for many things. She saw him--shadowy, graceful against the dim gray of the river and sky--lean ever so slightly toward her. But then he straightened again to his paddle, and contented himself with repeating merely: "Quebec--in August, then."

The canoe grated. Ned Trent with an exclamation drove his paddle into the clay.

"Lucky the bottom is soft here," said he; "I did not realize we were so close ashore."

He drew the canoe up on the shelving beach, helped Virginia out, took his rifle, and so stood ready to depart.

"Leave the canoe just where we got in," he advised; "it is around the point, you see, and that may fool them a little."

"You are going," she said, dully. Then she came close to him and looked up at him with her wonderful eyes. "Good-by."

"Good-by," said he.

Was this to be all? Had he nothing more to tell her? Was the word to lack, the word she needed so much? She had given herself unreservedly into this man's hands, and at parting he had no more to say to her than "Good-by." Virginia's eyes were tearful, but she would not let him know that. She felt that her heart would break.

"Well, good-by," he said again after a moment, which he had spent inspecting the heavens. "Ah, you don't know what it is to be free! By to-morrow morning I shall be half-way to the Mattagami. I can hardly wait to see it, for then I am safe! And then next day--why, next day they won't know which of a dozen ways I've gone!" He was full of the future, man-fashion.

He took her hands, leaned over, and lightly kissed her on the mouth. Instantly Virginia became wildly and unreasonably angry. She could not have told herself why, but it was the lack of the word she had wanted so much, the pain of feeling that he could go like that, the thwarted bitterness of a longing that had grown stronger than she had even yet realized.

Instinctively she leaped into the canoe, sending it spinning from the bank.

"Ah, you had no right to do that!" she cried. "I gave you no right!"

Then, heedless of what he was saying, she began to paddle straight from the shore, weeping bitterly, her face upraised, her hair in her eyes, and the tears coursing unheeded down her cheeks.