Chapter Fifteen
 

Galen Albret had chosen to interrogate his recaptured prisoner alone. He sat again in the arm-chair of the Council Room. The place was flooded with sun. It touched the high-lights of the time-darkened, rough furniture, it picked out the brasses, it glorified the whitewashed walls. In its uncompromising illumination Me-en-gan, the bowsman, standing straight and tall and silent by the door, studied his master's face and knew him to be deeply angered.

For Galen Albret was at this moment called upon to deal with a problem more subtle than any with which his policy had been puzzled in thirty years. It was bad enough that, in repeated defiance of his authority, this stranger should persist in his attempt to break the Company's monopoly; it was bad enough that he had, when captured, borne himself with so impudent an air of assurance; it was bad enough that he should have made open love to the Factor's daughter, should have laughed scornfully in the Factor's very face. But now the case had become grave. In some mysterious manner he had succeeded in corrupting one of the Company's servants. Treachery was therefore to be dealt with.

Some facts Galen Albret had well in hand. Others eluded him persistently. He had, of course, known promptly enough of the disappearance of a canoe, and had thereupon dispatched his Indians to the recapture. The Reverend Archibald Crane had reported that two figures had been seen in the act of leaving camp, one by the river, the other by the Woods Trail. But here the Factor's investigations encountered a check. The rifle brought in by his Indians, to his bewilderment, he recognized not at all. His repeated cross-questionings, when they touched on the question of Ned Trent's companion, got no farther than the Cree wooden stolidity. No, they had seen no one, neither presence, sign, nor trail. But Galen Albret, versed in the psychology of his savage allies, knew they lied. He suspected them of clan loyalty to one of their own number; and yet they had never failed him before. Now, his heavy revolver at his right hand, he interviewed Ned Trent, alone, except for the Indian by the portal.

As with the Indians, his cross-examination had borne scant results. The best of his questions but involved him in a maze of baffling surmises. Gradually his anger had mounted, until now the Indian at the door knew by the wax-like appearance of the more prominent places on his deeply carved countenance that he had nearly reached the point of outbreak.

Swiftly, like the play of rapiers, the questions and answers broke across the still room.

"You had aid," the Factor asserted, positively.

"You think so?"

"My Indians say you were alone. But where did you get this rifle?"

"I stole it."

"You were alone?"

Ned Trent paused for a barely appreciable instant. It was not possible that the Indians had failed to establish the girl's presence, and he feared a trap. Then he caught the expressive eye of Me-en-gan at the door. Evidently Virginia had friends.

"I was alone," he repeated, confidently.

"That is a lie. For though my Indians were deceived, two people were observed by my clergyman to leave the Post immediately before I sent out to your capture. One rounded the island in a canoe; the other took the Woods Trail."

"Bully for the Church," replied Trent, imperturbably. "Better promote him to your scouts."

"Who was that second person?"

"Do you think I will tell you?"

"I think I'll find means to make you tell me!" burst out the Factor.

Ned Trent was silent.

"If you'll tell me the name of that man I'll let you go free. I'll give you a permit to trade in the country. It touches my authority--my discipline. The affair becomes a precedent. It is vital."

Ned Trent fixed his eyes on the bay and hummed a little air, half turning his shoulder to the older man.

The latter's face blazed with suppressed fury. Twice his hand rested almost convulsively on the butt of his heavy revolver.

"Ned Trent," he cried, harshly, at last, "pay attention to me. I've had enough of this. I swear if you do not tell me what I want to know within five minutes, I'll hang you to-day!"

The young man spun on his heel.

"Hanging!" he cried. "You cannot mean that?"

The Free Trader measured him up and down, saw that his purpose was sincere, and turned slowly pale under the bronze of his out-of-door tan. Hanging is always a dreadful death, but in the Far North it carries an extra stigma of ignominy with it, inasmuch as it is resorted to only with the basest malefactors. Shooting is the usual form of execution for all but the most despicable crimes. He turned away with a little gesture.

"Well!" cried Albret.

Ned Trent locked his lips in a purposeful straight line of silence. To such an outrage there could be nothing to say. The Factor jerked his watch to the table.

"I said five minutes," he repeated. "I mean it."

The young man leaned against the side of the window, his arms folded, his back to the room. Outside, the varied life of the Post went forward under his eyes. He even noted with a surface interest the fact that out across the river a loon was floating, and remarked that never before had he seen one of those birds so far north. Galen Albret struck the table with the flat of his hand.

"Done!" he cried, "This is the last chance I shall give you. Speak at this instant or accept the consequences!"

Ned Trent turned sharply, as though breaking a thread that bound him to the distant prospect beyond the window. For an instant he stared enigmatically at his opponent. Then in the sweetest tones,

"Oh, go to the devil!" said he, and began to walk deliberately toward the older man.

There lay between the window and the head of the table perhaps a dozen ordinary steps, for the room was large. The young man took them slowly, his eyes fixed with burning intensity on the seated figure, the muscles of his locomotion contracting and relaxing with the smooth, stealthy continuity of a cat. Galen Albret again laid hand on his revolver.

"Come no nearer," he commanded.

Me-en-gan left the door and glided along the wall. But the table intervened between him and the Free Trader.

The latter paid no attention to the Factor's command. Galen Albret suddenly raised his weapon from the table.

"Stop, or I'll fire!" he cried, sharply.

"I mean just that," said Ned Trent between his clenched teeth.

But ten feet separated the two men. Galen Albret levelled the revolver. Ned Trent, watchful, prepared to spring. Me-en-gan, near the foot of the table, gathered himself for attack.

Then suddenly the Free Trader relaxed his muscles, straightened his back, and returned deliberately to the window. Facing about in astonishment to discover the reason for this sudden change of decision, the other two men looked into the face of Virginia Albret, standing in the doorway of the other room.

"Father!" she cried.

"You must go back," said Ned Trent, speaking clearly and collectedly, in the hope of imposing his will on her obvious excitement. "This is not an affair in which you should interfere. Galen Albret, send her away."

The Factor had turned squarely in his heavy arm-chair to regard the girl, a frown on his brows.

"Virginia," he commanded, in deliberate, stern tones of authority, "leave the room. You have nothing to do with this case, and I do not desire your interference."

Virginia stepped bravely beyond the portals, and stopped. Her fingers were nervously interlocked, her lip trembled, in her cheeks the color came and went, but her eyes met her father's, unfaltering.

"I have more to do with it than you think," she replied.

Instantly Ned Trent was at the table. "I really think this has gone far enough," he interposed. "We have had our interview, and come to a decision. Miss Albret must not be permitted to exaggerate a slight sentiment of pity into an interest in my affairs. If she knew that such a demonstration only made it worse for me I am sure she would say no more." He looked at her appealingly across the Factor's shoulder.

Me-en-gan was already holding open the door. "You come," he smiled, beseechingly.

But the Factor's suspicions were aroused.

"There is something in this," he decided. "I think you may stay, Virginia."

"You are right," broke in the young man, desperately. "There is something in it. Miss Albret knows who gave me the rifle, and she was about to inform you of his identity. There is no need in subjecting her to that distasteful ordeal. I am now ready to confess to you. I beg you will ask her to leave the room."

Galen Albret, in the midst of these warring intentions, had sunk into his customary impassive calm. The light had died from his eyes, the expression from his face, the energy from his body. He sat, an inert mass, void of initiative, his intelligence open to what might be brought to his notice.

"Virginia, this is true?" his heavy, dead voice rumbled through his beard. "You know who aided this man?"

Ned Trent mutely appealed to her; her glance answered his.

"Yes, father," she replied.

"Who?"

"I did."

A dead silence fell on the room. Galen Albret's expression and attitude did not change. Through dull, lifeless eyes, from behind the heavy mask of his waxen face and white beard, he looked steadily out upon nothing. Along either arm of the chair stretched his own arms limp and heavy with inertia. In suspense the other three inmates of the place watched him, waiting for some change. It did not come. Finally his lips moved.

"You?" he muttered, questioningly.

"I," she repeated.

Another silence fell.

"Why?" he asked at last.

"Because it was an unjust thing. Because we could not think of taking a life in that way, without some reason for it."

"Why?" he persisted, taking no account of her reply.

Virginia let her gaze slowly rest on the Free Trader, and her eyes filled with a world of tenderness and trust.

"Because I love him," said she, softly.