Conjuror's House by Stewart Edward White
They carried the unconscious girl into the dim-lighted apartment of the curtained windows, and laid her on the divan. Wishkobun, hastily summoned, unfastened the girl's dress at the throat.
"It is a faint," she announced in her own tongue. "She will recover in a few minutes; I will get some water."
Ned Trent wiped the moisture from his forehead with his handkerchief. The danger he had undergone coolly, but this overcame his iron self-control. Galen Albret, like an anxious bear, weaved back and forth the length of the couch. In him the rumble of the storm was but just echoing into distance.
"Go into the next room," he growled at the Free Trader, when finally he noticed the latter's presence.
Ned Trent hesitated.
"Go, I say!" snarled the Factor. "You can do nothing here." He followed the young man to the door, which he closed with his own hand, and then turned back to the couch on which his daughter lay. In the middle of the floor his foot clicked on some small object. Mechanically he picked it up.
It proved to be a little silver match-safe of the sort universally used in the Far North. Evidently the Free Trader had flipped it from his pocket with his handkerchief. The Factor was about to thrust it into his own pocket, when his eye caught lettering roughly carved across one side. Still mechanically, he examined it more closely. The lettering was that of a man's name. The man's name was Graehme Stewart.
Without thinking of what he did, he dropped the object on the small table, and returned anxiously to the girl's side, cursing the tardiness of the Indian woman. But in a moment Wishkobun returned.
"Will she recover?" asked the Factor, distracted at the woman's deliberate examination.
The latter smiled her indulgent, slow smile. "But surely," she assured him in her own tongue, "it is no more than if she cut her finger. In a few breaths she will recover. Now I will go to the house of the Cockburn for a morsel of the sweet wood which she must smell." She looked her inquiry for permission.
"Sagaamig--go," assented Albret.
Relieved in mind, he dropped into a chair. His eye caught the little silver match-safe. He picked it up and fell to staring at the rudely carved letters.
He found that he was alone with his daughter--and the thoughts aroused by the dozen letters of a man's name.
All his life long he had been a hard man. His commands had been autocratic; his anger formidable; his punishments severe, and sometimes cruel. The quality of mercy was with him tenuous and weak. He knew this, and if he did not exactly glory in it, he was at least indifferent to its effect on his reputation with others. But always he had been just. The victims of his displeasure might complain that his retributive measures were harsh, that his forgiveness could not be evoked by even the most extenuating of circumstances, but not that his anger had ever been baseless or the punishment undeserved. Thus he had held always his own self-respect, and from his self-respect had proceeded his iron and effective rule.
So in the case of the young man with whom now his thoughts were occupied. Twice he had warned him from the country without the punishment which the third attempt rendered imperative. The events succeeding his arrival at Conjuror's House warmed the Factor's anger to the heat of almost preposterous retribution perhaps--for after all a man's life is worth something, even in the wilds--but it was actually retribution, and not merely a ruthless proof of power. It might be justice as only the Factor saw it, but it was still essentially justice--in the broader sense that to each act had followed a definite consequence. Although another might have condemned his conduct as unnecessarily harsh, Galen Albret's conscience was satisfied and at rest.
Nor had his resolution been permanently affected by either the girl's threat to make away with herself or by his momentary softening when she had fainted. The affair was thereby complicated, but that was all. In the sincerity of the threat he recognized his own iron nature, and was perhaps a little pleased at its manifestation. He knew she intended to fulfil her promise not to survive her lover, but at the moment this did not reach his fears; it only aroused further his dogged opposition.
The Free Trader's speech as he left the room, however, had touched the one flaw in Galen Albret's confidence of righteousness. Wearied with the struggles and the passions he had undergone, his brain numbed, his will for the moment in abeyance, he seated himself and contemplated the images those two words had called up.
Graehme Stewart! That man he had first met at Fort Rae over twenty years ago. It was but just after he had married Virginia's mother. At once his imagination, with the keen pictorial power of those who have dwelt long in the Silent Places, brought forward the other scene--that of his wooing. He had driven his dogs into Fort la Cloche after a hard day's run in seventy-five degrees of frost. Weary, hungry, half-frozen, he had staggered into the fire-lit room. Against the blaze he had caught for a moment a young girl's profile, lost as she turned her face toward him in startled question of his entrance. Men had cared for his dogs. The girl had brought him hot tea. In the corner of the fire they two had whispered one to the other--the already grizzled traveller of the silent land, the fresh, brave north-maiden. At midnight, their parkas drawn close about their faces in the fearful cold, they had met outside the inclosure of the Post. An hour later they were away under the aurora for Qu'Apelle. Galen Albret's nostrils expanded as he heard the crack, crack, crack of the remorseless dog-whip whose sting drew him away from the vain pursuit. After the marriage at Qu'Apelle they had gone a weary journey to Rae, and there he had first seen Graehme Stewart.
Fort Rae is on the northwestward arm of the Great Slave Lake in the country of the Dog Ribs, only four degrees under the Arctic Circle. It is a dreary spot, for the Barren Grounds are near. Men see only the great lake, the great sky, the great gray country. They become moody, fanciful. In the face of the silence they have little to say. At Fort Rae were old Jock Wilson, the Chief Trader; Father Bonat, the priest; Andrew Levoy, the metis clerk; four Dog Rib teepees; Galen Albret and his bride; and Graehme Stewart.
Jock Wilson was sixty-five; Father Bonat had no age; Andrew Levoy possessed the years of dour silence. Only Graehme Stewart and Elodie, bride of Albret, were young. In the great gray country their lives were like spots of color on a mist. Galen Albret finally became jealous.
At first there was nothing to be done; but finally Levoy brought to the older man proof of the younger's guilt. The harsh traveller bowed his head and wept. But since he loved Elodie more than himself which was perhaps the only redeeming feature of this sorry business--he said nothing, nor did more than to journey south to Edmonton, leaving the younger man alone in Fort Rae to the White Silence. But his soul was stirred.
In the course of nature and of time Galen Albret had a daughter, but lost a wife. It was no longer necessary for him to leave his wrong unavenged. Then began a series of baffling hindrances which resulted finally in his stooping to means repugnant to his open sense of what was due himself. At the first he could not travel to his enemy because of the child in his care; when finally he had succeeded in placing the little girl where he would be satisfied to leave her, he himself was suddenly and peremptorily called east to take a post in Rupert's Land. He could not disobey and remain in the Company, and the Company was more to him than life or revenge. The little girl he left in Sacre Coeur of Quebec; he himself took up his residence in the Hudson Bay country. After a few years, becoming lonely for his own flesh and blood, he sent for his daughter. There, as Factor, he gained a vast power; and this power he turned into the channels of his hatred. Graehme Stewart felt always against him the hand of influence. His posts in the Company's service became intolerable. At length, in indignation against continued injustice, oppression, and insult, he resigned, broken in fortune and in prospects. He became one of the earliest Free Traders on the Saskatchewan, devoting his energies to enraged opposition of the Company which had wronged him. In the space of three short years he had met a violent and striking death; for the early days of the Free Trader were adventurous. Galen Albret's revenge had struck home.
Then in after years the Factor had again met with Andrew Levoy. The man staggered into Conjuror's House late at night. He had started from Winnipeg to descend the Albany River, but had met with mishap and starvation. One by one his dogs had died. In some blind fashion he pushed on for days after his strength and sanity had left him. Mu-hi-kun had brought him in. His toes and fingers had frozen and dropped off; his face was a mask of black frost-bitten flesh, in which deep fissures opened to the raw. He had gone snow-blind. Scarcely was he recognizable as a human being.
From such a man in extremity could come nothing but the truth, so Galen Albret believed him. Before Andrew Levoy died that night he told of his deceit. The Factor left the room with the weight of a crime on his conscience. For Graehme Stewart had been innocent of any wrong toward him or his bride.
Such was the story Galen Albret saw in the little silver match-box. That was the one flaw in his consciousness of righteousness; the one instance in a long career when his ruthless acts of punishment or reprisal had not rested on rigid justice, and by the irony of fate the one instance had touched him very near. Now here before him was his enemy's son--he wondered that he had not discovered the resemblance before--and he was about to visit on him the severest punishment in his power. Was not this an opportunity vouchsafed him to repair his ancient fault, to cleanse his conscience of the one sin of the kind it would acknowledge?
But then over him swept the same blur of jealousy that had resulted in Graehme Stewart's undoing. This youth wooed his daughter; he had won her affections away. Strangely enough Galen Albret confused the new and the old; again youth cleaved to youth, leaving age apart. Age felt fiercely the desire to maintain its own. The Factor crushed the silver match-box between his great palms and looked up. His daughter lay before him, still, lifeless. Deliberately he rested his chin on his hands and contemplated her.
The room, as always, was full of contrast; shafts of light, dust-moted, bewildering, crossed from the embrasured windows, throwing high-lights into prominence and shadows into impenetrable darkness. They rendered the gray-clad figure of the girl vague and ethereal, like a mist above a stream; they darkened the dull-hued couch on which she rested into a liquid, impalpable black; they hazed the draped background of the corner into a far-reaching distance; so that finally to Galen Albret, staring with hypnotic intensity, it came to seem that he looked upon a pure and disembodied spirit sleeping sweetly--cradled on illimitable space. The ordinary and familiar surroundings all disappeared. His consciousness accepted nothing but the cameo profile of marble white, the nimbus of golden haze about the head, the mist-like suggestion of a body, and again the clear marble spot of the hands. All else was a background of modulated depths.
So gradually the old man's spirit, wearied by the stress of the last hour, turned in on itself and began to create. The cameo profile, the mist-like body, the marble hands remained; but now Galen Albret saw other things as well. A dim, rare perfume was wafted from some unseen space; indistinct flashes of light spotted the darknesses; faint swells of music lifted the silence intermittently. These things were small and still, and under the external consciousness--like the voices one may hear beneath the roar of a tumbling rapid--but gradually they defined themselves. The perfume came to Galen Albret's nostrils on the wings of incensed smoke; the flashes of light steadied to the ovals of candle flames; the faint swells of music blended into grand-breathed organ chords. He felt about him the dim awe of the church, he saw the tapers burning at head and foot, the clear, calm face of the dead, smiling faintly that at last it should be no more disturbed. So had he looked all one night and all one day in the long time ago. The Factor stretched his arms out to the figure on the couch, but he called upon his wife, gone these twenty years.
"Elodie! Elodie!" he murmured, softly.
She had never known it, thank God, but he had wronged her too. In all sorrow and sweet heavenly pity he had believed that her youth had turned to the youth of the other man. It had not been so. Did he not owe her, too, some reparation?
As though in answer to his appeal, or perhaps that merely the sound of a human voice had broken the last shreds of her swoon, the girl moved slightly. Galen Albret did not stir. Slowly Virginia turned her head, until finally her wandering eyes met his, fixed on her with passionate intensity. For a moment she stared at him, then comprehension came to her along with memory. She cried out, and sat upright in one violent motion.
"He! He!" she cried. "Is he gone?"
Instantly Galen Albret had her in his arms.
"It is all right," he soothed, drawing her close to his great breast. "All right. You are my own little girl."