Chapter Fourteen
 

Slower and slower her paddle dipped, lower and lower hung her head, faster and faster flowed her tears. The instinctive recoil, the passionate resentment had gone. In the bitterness of her spirit she knew not what she thought except that she would give her soul to see him again, to feel the touch of his lips once more. For she could not make herself believe that this would ever come to pass. He had gone like a phantom, like a dream, and the mists of life had closed about him, showing no sign. He had vanished, and at once she seemed to know that the episode was finished.

The canoe whispered against the soft clay bottom. She had arrived, though how the crossing had been made she could not have told. Slowly and sorrowfully she disembarked. Languidly she drew the light craft beyond the stream's eager fingers. Then, her forces at an end, she huddled down on the ground and gave herself up to sorrow.

The life of the forest went on as though she were not there. A big owl far off said hurriedly his whoo-whoo-whoo, as though he had the message to deliver and wanted to finish the task. A smaller owl near at hand cried ko-ko-ko-oh with the intonation of a tin horn. Across the river a lynx screamed, and was answered at once by the ululations of wolves. On the island the giddes howled defiance. Then from above, clear, spiritual, floated the whistle of shore birds arriving from the south. Close by sounded a rustle of leaves, a sharp squeak; a tragedy had been consummated, and the fierce little mink stared malevolently across the body of his victim at the motionless figure on the beach.

Virginia, drowned in grief, knew of none of these things. She was seeing again the clear brown face of the stranger, his curly brown hair, his steel eyes, and the swing of his graceful figure. Now he fronted the wondering voyageurs, one foot raised against the bow of the brigade canoe; now he stood straight and tall against the light of the sitting-room door; now he emptied the vials of his wrath and contempt on Archibald Crane's reverend head; now he passed in the darkness, singing gayly the chanson de canot. But more fondly she saw him as he swept his hat to the ground on discovering her by the guns, as he bent his impassioned eyes on her in the dim lamplight of their first interview, as he tossed his hat aloft in the air when he had understood that she would be in Quebec. She hugged the visions to her, and wept over them softly, for she was now sure she would never see him again.

And she heard his voice, now laughing, now scornful, now mocking, now indignant, now rich and solemn with feeling. He flouted the people, he turned the shafts of his irony on her father, he scathed the minister, he laughed at Louis Placide awakened from his sleep, he sang, he told her of the land of desolation, he pleaded. She could hear him calling her name--although he had never spoken it--in low, tender tones, "Virginia! Virginia!" over and over again softly, as though his soul were crying through his lips.

Then somehow, in a manner not to be comprehended, it was borne in on her consciousness that he was indeed near her, and that he was indeed calling her name. And at once she made him out, standing dripping on the beach. A moment later she was in his arms.

"Ah!" he cried, in gladness; "you are here!"

He crushed her hungrily to him, unmindful of his wet clothes, kissing her eyes, her cheeks, her lips, her chin, even the fragrant corner of her throat exposed by the collar of her gown. She did not struggle.

"Oh!" she murmured, "my dear, my dear! Why did you come back? Why did you come?"

"Why did I come?" he repeated, passionately. "Why did I come? Can you ask that? How could I help but come? You must have known I would come. Surely you must have known! Didn't you hear me calling you when you paddled away? I came to get the right. I came to get your promise, your kisses, to hear you say the word, to get you! I thought you understood. It was all so clear to me. I thought you knew. That was why I was so glad to go, so eager to get away that I could not even realize I was parting from you--so I could the sooner reach Quebec--reach you! Don't you see how I felt? All this present was merely something to get over, to pass by, to put behind us until I got to Quebec in August--and you. I looked forward so eagerly to that, I was so anxious to get away, I was desirous of hastening on to the time when things could be sure! Don't you understand?"

"Yes, I think I do," replied the girl, softly.

"And I thought of course you knew. I should not have kissed you otherwise."

"How could I know?" she sighed. "You said nothing, and, oh! I wanted so to hear!"

And singularly enough he said nothing now, but they stood facing each other hand in hand, while the great vibrant life they were now touching so closely filled their hearts and eyes, and left them faint. So they stood for hours or for seconds, they could not tell, spirit-hushed, ecstatic. The girl realized that they must part.

"You must go," she whispered brokenly, at last. "I do not want you to, but you must."

She smiled up at him with trembling lips that whispered to her soul that she must be brave.

"Now go," she nerved herself to say, releasing her hands.

"Tell me," he commanded.

"What?" she asked.

"What I most want to hear."

"I can tell you many things," said she, soberly, "but I do not know which of them you want to hear. Ah, Ned, I can tell you that you have come into a girl's life to make her very happy and very much afraid. And that is a solemn thing; is it not?"

"Yes," said he.

"And I can tell you that this can never be undone. That is a solemn thing, too, is it not?"

"Yes," said he.

"And that, according as you treat her, this girl will believe or not believe in the goodness of all men or the badness of all men. Ah, Ned, a woman's heart is fragile, and mine is in your keeping."

Her face was raised bravely and steadily to his. In the starlight it shone white and pathetic. And her eyes were two liquid wells of darkness in the shadow, and her half-parted lips were wistful and childlike.

The man caught both her hands, again looking down on her. Then he answered her, solemnly and humbly.

"Virginia," said he, "I am setting out on a perilous journey. As I deal with you, may God deal with me."

"Ah, that is as I like you," she breathed.

"Good-by," said he.

She raised her lips of her own accord, and he kissed them reverently.

"Good-by," she murmured.

He turned away with an effort and ran down the beach to the canoe.

"Good-by, good-by," she murmured, under her breath. "Ah, good-by! I love you! Oh, I do love you!"

Then suddenly from the bushes leaped dark figures. The still night was broken by the sound of a violent scuffle--blows--a fall. She heard Ned Trent's voice calling to her from the melee.

"Go back at once!" he commanded, clearly and steadily. "You can do no good. I order you to go home before they search the woods."

But she crouched in dazed terror, her pupils wide to the dim light. She saw them bind him, and stand waiting; she saw a canoe glide out of the darkness; she saw the occupants of the canoe disembark; she saw them exhibit her little rifle, and heard them explain in Cree, that they had followed the man swimming. Then she knew that the cause was lost, and fled as swiftly as she could through the forest.