Chapter Sixteen
 

After an instant Galen Albret turned slowly his massive head and looked at her. He made no other movement, yet she staggered back as though she had received a violent blow on the chest.

"Father!" she gasped.

Still slowly, gropingly, he arose to his feet, holding tight to the edge of the table. Behind him unheeded the rough-built arm-chair crashed to the floor. He stood there upright and motionless, looking straight before him, his face formidable. At first his speech was disjointed. The words came in widely punctuated gasps. Then, as the wave of his emotion rolled back from the poise into which the first shock of anger had thrown it, it escaped through his lips in a constantly increasing stream of bitter words.

"You--you love him," he cried. "You--my daughter! You have been--a traitor--to me! You have dared--dared--deny that which my whole life has affirmed! My own flesh and blood--when I thought the nearest metis of them all more loyal! You love this man--this man who has insulted me, mocked me! You have taken his part against me! You have deliberately placed yourself in the class of those I would hang for such an offence! If you were not my daughter I would hang you. Hang my own child!" Suddenly his rage flared. "You little fool! Do you dare set your judgment against mine? Do you dare interfere where I think well? Do you dare deny my will? By the eternal, I'll show you, old as you are, that you have still a father! Get to your room! Out of my sight!" He took two steps forward, and so his eye fell on Ned Trent. He uttered a scream of rage, and reached for the pistol. Fortunately the abruptness of his movement when he arose had knocked it to the floor, so now in the blindness of a red anger he could not see it. He shrieked out an epithet and jumped forward, his arm drawn to strike. Ned Trent leaped back into an attitude of defence.

All three of those present had many times seen Galen Albret possessed by his noted fits of anger, so striking in contrast to his ordinary contained passivity. But always, though evidently in a white heat of rage and given to violent action and decision, he had retained the clearest command of his faculties, issuing coherent and dreaded orders to those about him. Now he had become a raging wild beast. And for the spectators the sight had all the horror of the unprecedented.

But the younger man, too, had gradually heated to the point where his ordinary careless indifference could give off sparks. The interview had been baffling, the threats real and unjust, the turn of affairs when Virginia Albret entered the room most exasperating on the side of the undesirable and unforeseen. In foiled escape, in thwarted expedient, his emotions had been many times excited, and then eddied back on themselves. The potentialities of as blind an anger as that of Galen Albret were in him. It only needed a touch to loose the flood. The physical threat of a blow supplied that touch. As the two men faced each other both were ripe for the extreme of recklessness.

But while Galen Albret looked to nothing less than murder, the Free-Trader's individual genius turned to dead defiance and resistance of will. While Galen Albret's countenance reflected the height of passion, Trent was as smiling and cool and debonair as though he had at that moment received from the older man an extraordinary and particular favor. Only his eyes shot a baleful blue flame, and his words, calmly enough delivered, showed the extent to which his passion had cast policy to the winds.

"Don't go too far! I warn you!" said he.

As though the words had projected him bodily forward, Galen Albret sprang to deliver his blow. The Free Trader ducked rapidly, threw his shoulder across the middle of the older man's body, and by the very superiority of his position forced his antagonist to give ground. That the struggle would have then continued body to body there can be no doubt, had it not been for the fact that the Factor's retrogressive movement brought his knees sharply against the edge of a chair standing near the side of the table. Albret lost his balance, wavered, and finally sat down violently. Ned Trent promptly pinned him by the shoulder into powerless immobility. Me-en-gan had possessed himself of the fallen pistol, but beyond keeping a generally wary eye out for dangerous developments, did not offer to interfere. Your Indian is in such a crisis a disciplinarian, and he had received no orders.

"Now," said Ned Trent, acidly, "I think this will stop right here. You do not cut a very good figure, my dear sir," he laughed a little. "You haven't cut a very good figure from the beginning, you know. You forbade me to do various things, and I have done them all. I traded with your Indians. I came and went in your country. Do you think I have not been here often before I was caught? And you forbade me to see your daughter again. I saw her that very evening, and the next morning and the next evening."

He stood, still holding Galen Albret immovably in the chair, looking steadily and angrily into the Factor's eyes, driving each word home with the weight of his contained passion. The girl touched his arm.

"Hush! oh, hush!" she cried in a panic. "Do not anger him further!"

"When you forbade me to make love to her," he continued, unheeding, "I laughed at you." With a sudden, swift motion of his left arm he drew her to him and touched her forehead with his lips. "Look! Your commands have been rather ridiculous, sir. I seem to have had the upper hand of you from first to last. Incidentally you have my life. Oh, welcome! That is small pay and little satisfaction."

He threw himself from the Factor and stepped back.

Galen Albret sat still without attempting to renew the struggle. The enforced few moments of inaction had restored to him his self-control. He was still deeply angered, but the insanity of rage had left him. Outwardly he was himself again. Only a rapid heaving of his chest answered Ned Trent's quick breathing, as the two men glared defiantly at each other in the pause that followed.

"Very well, sir," said the Factor, curtly, at last. "Your time is over. I find it unnecessary to hang you. You will start on your Longue Traverse to-day."

"Oh!" cried Virginia, in a low voice of agony, and fluttered to her lover's side.

"Hush! hush!" he soothed her. "There is a chance."

"You think so?" broke in Galen Albret, harshly. And looking at his set face and blazing eyes, they saw that there was no chance. The Free Trader shrugged his shoulders.

"You are going to do this thing, father," appealed Virginia, "after what I have told you?"

"My mind is made up."

"I shall not survive him, father!" she threatened, in a low voice. Then, as the Factor did not respond, "Do not misunderstand me. I do not intend to survive him."

"Silence! silence! silence!" cried Galen Albret, in a crescendo outburst. "Silence! I will not be gainsaid! You have made your choice! You are no longer a daughter of mine!"

"Father!" cried Virginia, faintly, her lips going pale.

"Don't speak to me! Don't look at me! Get out of here! Get out of the place! I won't have you here another day--another hour! By--"

The girl hesitated for a moment, then ran to him, sinking on her knees, and clasping his hand.

"Father," she pleaded, "you are not yourself. This has been very trying to you. To-morrow you will be sorry. But then it will be too late. Think, while there is yet time. He has not committed a crime. You yourself told me he was a man of intelligence and daring--a gentleman; and surely, though he has been hasty, he has acted with a brave spirit through it all. See, he will promise you to go away quietly, to say nothing of all this, never to come into this country again without your permission. He will do this if I ask him, for he loves me. Look at me, father. Are you going to treat your little girl so--your Virginia? You have never refused me anything before. And this is the greatest thing in all my life." She held his hand to her cheek and stroked it, murmuring little feminine, caressing phrases, secure in her power of witchery, which had never failed her before. The sound of her own voice reassured her, the quietude of the man she pleaded with. A lifetime of petting, of indulgence, threw its soothing influence over her perturbation, convincing her that somehow all this storm and stress must be phantasmagoric--a dream from which she was even now awakening into a clearer day of happiness. "For you love me, father," she concluded, and looked up daintily, with a pathetic, coquettish tilt of her fair head, to peer into his face.

Galen Albret snarled like a wild beast, throwing aside the girl, as he did the chair in which he had been sitting. Ned Trent caught her, reeling, in his arms.

For, as is often the case with passionate but strong temperaments, though the Factor had attained a certain calm of control, the turmoil of his deeper anger had not been in the least stilled. Over it a crust of determination had formed--the determination to make an end by the directest means in his autocratic power of this galling opposition. The girl's pleading, instead of appealing to him, had in reality but stirred his fury the more profoundly. It had added a new fuel element to the fire. Heretofore his consciousness had felt merely the thwarting of his pride, his authority, his right to loyalty. Now his daughter's entreaty brought home to him the bitter realization that he had been attained on another side--that of his family affection. This man had also killed for him his only child. For the child had renounced him, had thrust him outside herself into the lonely and ruined temple of his pride. At the first thought his face twisted with emotion, then hardened to cold malice.

"Love you!" he cried. "Love you! An unnatural child! An ingrate! One who turns from me so lightly!" He laughed bitterly, eyeing her with chilling scrutiny. "You dare recall my love for you!" Suddenly he stood upright, levelling a heavy, trembling arm at her. "You think an appeal to my love will save him! Fool!"

Virginia's breath caught in her throat. She straightened, clutched the neckband of her gown. Then her head fell slowly forward. She had fainted in her lover's arms.

They stood exactly so for an appreciable interval, bewildered by the suddenness of this outcome; Galen Albret's hand out-stretched in denunciation; the girl like a broken lily, supported in the young man's arms; he searching her face passionately for a sign of life; Me-en-gan, straight and sorrowful, again at the door.

Then the old man's arm dropped slowly. His gaze wavered. The lines of his face relaxed. Twice he made an effort to turn away. All at once his stubborn spirit broke; he uttered a cry, and sprang forward to snatch the unconscious form hungrily into his bear clasp, searching the girl's face, muttering incoherent things.

"Quick!" he cried, aloud, the guttural sounds jostling one another in his throat. "Get Wishkobun, quick!"

Ned Trent looked at him with steady scorn, his arms folded.

"Ah!" he dropped distinctly in deliberate monosyllables across the surcharged atmosphere of the scene. "So it seems you have found your heart, my friend!"

Galen Albret glared wildly at him over the girl's fair head.

"She is my daughter," he mumbled.