Chapter Eighteen
 

For perhaps ten minutes Ned Trent lingered near the door of the Council Room until he had assured himself that Virginia was in no serious danger. Then he began to pace the room, examining minutely the various objects that ornamented it. He paused longest at the full-length portrait of Sir George Simpson, the Company's great traveller, with his mild blue eyes, his kindly face, denying the potency of his official frown, his snowy hair and whiskers. The painted man and the real man looked at each other inquiringly. The latter shook his head.

"You travelled the wild country far," said he, thoughtfully. "You knew many men of many lands. And wherever you went they tell me you made friends. And yet, as you embodied this Company to all these people, and so made for the fanatical loyalty that is destroying me, I suppose you and I are enemies!" He shrugged his shoulders whimsically and turned away.

Thence he cast a fleeting glance out the window at the long reach of the Moose and the blue bay gleaming in the distance. He tried the outside door. It was locked. Taken with a new idea he proceeded at once to the third door of the apartment. It opened.

He found himself in a small and much-littered room containing a desk, two chairs, a vast quantity of papers, a stuffed bird or so, and a row of account-books. Evidently the Factor's private office.

Ned Trent returned to the main room and listened intently for several minutes. After that he ran back to the office and began hastily to open and rummage, one after another, the drawers of the desk. He discovered and concealed several bits of string, a desk-knife, and a box of matches. Then he uttered a guarded exclamation of delight. He had found a small revolver, and with it part of a box of cartridges.

"A chance!" he exulted: "a chance!"

The game would be desperate. He would be forced first of all to seek out and kill the men detailed to shadow him--a toy revolver against rifles; white man against trained savages. And after that he would have, with the cartridges remaining, to assure his subsistence. Still it was a chance.

He closed the drawers and the door, and resumed his seat in the arm-chair by the council table.

For over an hour thereafter he awaited the next move in the game. He was already swinging up the pendulum arc. The case did not appear utterly hopeless. He resolved, through Me-en-gan, whom he divined as a friend of the girl's, to smuggle a message to Virginia bidding her hope. Already his imagination had conducted him to Quebec, when in August he would search her out and make her his own.

Soon one of the Indian servants entered the room for the purpose of conducting him to a smaller apartment, where he was left alone for some time longer. Food was brought him. He ate heartily, for he considered that wise. Then at last the summons for which he had been so long in readiness. Me-en-gan himself entered the room, and motioned him to follow.

Ned Trent had already prepared his message on the back of an envelope, writing it with the lead of a cartridge. He now pressed the bit of paper into the Indian's palm.

"For O-mi-mi," he explained.

Me-en-gan bored him through with his bead-like eyes of the surface lights.

"Nin nissitotam," he agreed after a moment.

He led the way. Ned Trent followed through the narrow, uncarpeted hall with the faded photograph of Westminster, down the crooked steep stairs with the creaking degrees, and finally into the Council Room once more, with its heavy rafters, its two fireplaces, its long table, and its narrow windows.

"Beka--wait!" commanded Me-en-gan, and left him.

Ned Trent had supposed he was being conducted to the canoe which should bear him on the first stage of his long journey, but now he seemed condemned again to take up the wearing uncertainty of inaction. The interval was not long, however. Almost immediately the other door opened and the Factor entered.

His movements were abrupt and impatient, for with whatever grace such a man yields to his better instincts the actual carrying out of their conditions is a severe trial. For one thing it is a species of emotional nakedness, invariably repugnant to the self-contained. Ned Trent, observing this and misinterpreting its cause, hugged the little revolver to his side with grim satisfaction. The interview was likely to be stormy. If worst came to worst, he was at least assured of reprisal before his own end.

The Factor walked directly to the head of the table and his customary arm-chair, in which he disposed himself.

"Sit down," he commanded the younger man, indicating a chair at his elbow.

The latter warily obeyed.

Galen Albret hesitated appreciably. Then, as one would make a plunge into cold water, quickly, in one motion, he laid on the table something over which he held his hand.

"You are wondering why I am interviewing you again," said he. "It is because I have become aware of certain things. When you left me a few hours ago you dropped this." He moved his hand to one side. The silver match-safe lay on the table.

"Yes, it is mine," agreed Ned Trent.

"On one side is carved a name."

"Yes."

"Whose?"

The Free Trader hesitated. "My father's," he said, at last.

"I thought that must be so. You will understand when I tell you that at one time I knew him very well."

"You knew my father?" cried Ned Trent, excitedly.

"Yes. At Fort Rae, and elsewhere. But I do not remember you."

"I was brought up at Winnipeg," the other explained.

"Once," pursued Galen Albret, "I did your father a wrong, unintentionally, but nevertheless a great wrong. For that reason and others I am going to give you your life."

"What wrong?" demanded Ned Trent, with dawning excitement.

"I forced him from the Company."

"You!"

"Yes, I. Proof was brought me that he had won from me my young wife. It could not be doubted. I could not kill him. Afterward the man who deceived me confessed. He is now dead."

Ned Trent, gasping, rose slowly to his feet. One hand stole inside his jacket and clutched the butt of the little pistol.

"You did that," he cried, hoarsely. "You tell me of it yourself? Do you wish to know the real reason for my coming into this country, why I have traded in defiance of the Company throughout the whole Far North? I have thought my father was persecuted by a body of men, and though I could not do much, still I have accomplished what I could to avenge him. Had I known that a single man had done this--and you are that man!"

He came a step nearer. Galen Albret regarded him steadily.

"If I had known this before, I should never have rested until I had hunted you down, until I had killed you, even in the midst of your own people!" cried the Free Trader at last.

Galen Albret drew his heavy revolver and laid it on the table.

"Do so now," he said, quietly.

A pause fell on them, pregnant with possibility. The Free Trader dropped his head.

"No," he groaned. "No, I cannot. She stands in the way!"

"So that, after all," concluded the Factor, in a gentler tone than he had yet employed, "we two shall part peaceably. I have wronged you greatly, though without intention. Perhaps one balances the other. We will let it pass."

"Yes," agreed Ned Trent with an effort, "we will let it pass."

They mused in silence, while the Factor drummed on the table with the stubby fingers of his right hand.

"I am dispatching to-day," he announced curtly at length, "the Abitibi brigade. Matters of importance brought by runner from Rupert's House force me to do so a month earlier than I had expected. I shall send you out with that brigade."

"Very well."

"You will find your packs and arms in the canoe, quite intact."

"Thank you."

The Factor examined the young man's face with some deliberation.

"You love my daughter truly?" he asked, quietly.

"Yes," replied Ned Trent, also quietly.

"That is well, for she loves you. And," went on the old man, throwing his massive head back proudly, "my people love well! I won her mother in a day, and nothing could stay us. God be thanked, you are a man and brave and clean. Enough of that! I place the brigade under your command! You must be responsible for it, for I am sending no other white--the crew are Indians and metis."

"All right," agreed Ned Trent, indifferently.

"My daughter you will take to Sacre Coeur at Quebec."

"Virginia!" cried the young man.

"I am sending her to Quebec. I had not intended doing so until July, but the matters from Rupert's House make it imperative now."

"Virginia goes with me?"

"Yes."

"You consent? You--"

"Young man," said Galen Albret, not unkindly, "I give my daughter in your charge; that is all. You must take her to Sacre Coeur. And you must be patient. Next year I shall resign, for I am getting old, and then we shall see. That is all I can tell you now."

He arose abruptly.

"Come," said he, "they are waiting."

They threw wide the door and stepped out into the open. A breeze from the north brought a draught of air like cold water in its refreshment. The waters of the North sparkled and tossed in the silvery sun. Ned Trent threw his arms wide in the physical delight of a new freedom.

But his companion was already descending the steps. He followed across the square grass plot to the two bronze guns. A noise of peoples came down the breeze. In a moment he saw them--the varied multitude of the Post--gathered to speed the brigade on its distant journey.

The little beach was crowded with the Company's people and with Indians, talking eagerly, moving hither and yon in a shifting kaleidoscope of brilliant color. Beyond the shore floated the long canoe, with its curving ends and its emblazonment of the five-pointed stars. Already its baggage was aboard, its crew in place, ten men in whose caps slanted long, graceful feathers, which proved them boatmen of a factor. The women sat amidships.

When Galen Albret reached the edge of the plateau he stopped, and laid his hand on the young man's arm. As yet they were unperceived. Then a single man caught sight of them. He spoke to another; the two informed still others. In an instant the bright colors were dotted with upturned faces.

"Listen," said Galen Albret, in his resonant chest-tones of authority. "This is my son, and he must be obeyed. I give to him the command of this brigade. See to it."

Without troubling himself further as to the crowd below, Galen Albret turned to his companion.

"I will say good-by," said he, formally.

"Good-by," replied Ned Trent.

"All is at peace between us?"

The Free Trader looked long into the man's sad eyes. The hard, proud spirit, bowed in knightly expiation of its one fault, for the first time in a long life of command looked out in petition.

"All is at peace," repeated Ned Trent.

They clasped hands. And Virginia, perceiving them so, threw them a wonderful smile.