Chapter Three
 

Galen Albret sat in his rough-hewn arm-chair at the head of the table, receiving the reports of his captains. The long, narrow room opened before him, heavy raftered, massive, white, with a cavernous fireplace at either end. Above him frowned Sir George's portrait, at his right hand and his left stretched the row of home-made heavy chairs, finished smooth and dull by two centuries of use.

His arms were laid along the arms of his seat; his shaggy head was sunk forward until his beard swept the curve of his big chest; the heavy tufts of hair above his eyes were drawn steadily together in a frown of attention. One after another the men arose and spoke. He made no movement, gave no sign, his short, powerful form blotted against the lighter silhouette of his chair, only his eyes and the white of his beard gleaming out of the dusk.

Kern of Old Brunswick House, Achard of New; Ki-wa-nee, the Indian of Flying Post--these and others told briefly of many things, each in his own language. To all Galen Albret listened in silence. Finally Louis Placide from the post at Kettle Portage got to his feet. He too reported of the trade,--so many "beaver" of tobacco, of powder, of lead, of pork, of flour, of tea, given in exchange; so many mink, otter, beaver, ermine, marten, and fisher pelts taken in return. Then he paused and went on at greater length in regard to the stranger, speaking evenly but with emphasis. When he had finished, Galen Albret struck a bell at his elbow. Me-en-gan, the bowsman of the Factor's canoe, entered, followed closely by the young man who had that afternoon arrived.

He was dressed still in his costume of the voyageur--the loose blouse shirt, the buckskin leggings and moccasins, the long tasselled red sash. His head was as high and his glance as free, but now the steel blue of his eye had become steady and wary, and two faint lines had traced themselves between his brows. At his entrance a hush of expectation fell. Galen Albret did not stir, but the others hitched nearer the long, narrow table, and two or three leaned both elbows on it the better to catch what should ensue.

Me-en-gan stopped by the door, but the stranger walked steadily the length of the room until he faced the Factor. Then he paused and waited collectedly for the other to speak.

This the Factor did not at once begin to do, but sat impassive--apparently without thought--while the heavy breathing of the men in the room marked off the seconds of time. Finally abruptly Galen Albret's cavernous voice boomed forth. Something there was strangely mysterious, cryptic, in the virile tones issuing from a bulk so massive and inert. Galen Albret did not move, did not even raise the heavy-lidded, dull stare of his eyes to the young man who stood before him; hardly did his broad arched chest seem to rise and fall with the respiration of speech; and yet each separate word leaped forth alive, instinct with authority.

"Once at Leftfoot Lake, two Indians caught you asleep," he pronounced. "They took your pelts and arms, and escorted you to Sudbury. They were my Indians. Once on the upper Abitibi you were stopped by a man named Herbert, who warned you from the country, after relieving you of your entire outfit. He told you on parting what you might expect if you should repeat the attempt--severe measures, the severest. Herbert was my man. Now Louis Placide surprises you in a rapids near Kettle Portage and brings you here."

During the slow delivering of these accurately spaced words, the attitude of the men about the long, narrow table gradually changed. Their curiosity had been great before, but now their intellectual interest was awakened, for these were facts of which Louis Placide's statement had given no inkling. Before them, for the dealing, was a problem of the sort whose solution had earned for Galen Albret a reputation in the north country. They glanced at one another to obtain the sympathy of attention, then back toward their chief in anxious expectation of his next words. The stranger, however, remained unmoved. A faint smile had sketched the outline of his lips when first the Factor began to speak. This smile he maintained to the end. As the older man paused, he shrugged his shoulders.

"All of that is quite true," he admitted.

Even the unimaginative men of the Silent Places started at these simple words, and vouchsafed to their speaker a more sympathetic attention. For the tones in which they were delivered possessed that deep, rich throat timbre which so often means power--personal magnetism--deep, from the chest, with vibrant throat tones suggesting a volume of sound which may in fact be only hinted by the loudness the man at the moment sees fit to employ. Such a voice is a responsive instrument on which emotion and mood play wonderfully seductive strains.

"All of that is quite true," he repeated after a second's pause; "but what has it to do with me? Why am I stopped and sent out from the free forest? I am really curious to know your excuse."

"This," replied Galen Albret, weightily, "is my domain. I tolerate no rivalry here."

"Your right?" demanded the young man, briefly.

"I have made the trade, and I intend to keep it."

"In other words, the strength of your good right arm," supplemented the stranger, with the faintest hint of a sneer.

"That is neither here nor there," rejoined Galen Albret, "the point is that I intend to keep it. I've had you sent out, but you have been too stupid or too obstinate to take the hint. Now I have to warn you in person. I shall send you out once more, but this time you must promise me not to meddle with the trade again."

He paused for a response. The young man's smile merely became accentuated.

"I have means of making my wishes felt," warned the Factor.

"Quite so," replied the young man, deliberately, "La Longue Traverse."

At this unexpected pronouncement of that dread name two of the men swore violently; the others thrust back their chairs and sat, their arms rigidly braced against the table's edge, staring wide-eyed and open-mouthed at the speaker. Only Galen Albret remained unmoved.

"What do you mean by that?" he asked, calmly.

"It amuses you to be ignorant," replied the stranger, with some contempt. "Don't you think this farce is about played out? I do. If you think you're deceiving me any with this show of formality, you're mightily mistaken. Don't you suppose I knew what I was about when I came into this country? Don't you suppose I had weighed the risks and had made up my mind to take my medicine if I should be caught? Your methods are not quite so secret as you imagine. I know perfectly well what happens to Free Traders in Rupert's Land."

"You seem very certain of your information."

"Your men seem equally so," pointed out the stranger.

Galen Albret, at the beginning of the young man's longer speech, had sunk almost immediately into his passive calm--the calm of great elemental bodies, the calm of a force so vast as to rest motionless by the very static power of its mass. When he spoke again, it was in the tentative manner of his earlier interrogatory, committing himself not at all, seeking to plumb his opponent's knowledge.

"Why, if you have realized the gravity of your situation have you persisted after having been twice warned?" he inquired.

"Because you're not the boss of creation," replied the young man, bluntly.

Galen Albret merely raised his eyebrows.

"I've got as much business in this country as you have," continued the young man, his tone becoming more incisive. "You don't seem to realize that your charter of monopoly has expired. If the government was worth a damn it would see to you fellows. You have no more right to order me out of here than I would have to order you out. Suppose some old Husky up on Whale River should send you word that you weren't to trap in the Whale River district next winter. I'll bet you'd be there. You Hudson Bay men tried the same game out west. It didn't work. You ask your western men if they ever heard of Ned Trent."

"Your success does not seem to have followed you here," suggested the Factor, ironically.

The young man smiled.

"This Longue Traverse," went on Albret, "what is your idea there? I have heard something of it. What is your information?"

Ned Trent laughed outright. "You don't imagine there is any secret about that!" he marvelled. "Why, every child north of the Line knows that. You will send me away without arms, and with but a handful of provisions. If the wilderness and starvation fail, your runners will not. I shall never reach the Temiscamingues alive."

"The same old legend," commented Galen Albret in apparent amusement, "I heard it when I first came to this country. You'll find a dozen such in every Indian camp."

"Jo Bagneau, Morris Proctor, John May, William Jarvis," checked off the young man on his fingers.

"Personal enmity," replied the Factor.

He glanced up to meet the young man's steady, sceptical smile.

"You do not believe me?"

"Oh, if it amuses you," conceded the stranger.

"The thing is not even worth discussion."

"Remarkable sensation among our friends here for so idle a tale."

Galen Albret considered.

"You will remember that throughout you have forced this interview," he pointed out. "Now I must ask your definite promise to get out of this country and to stay out."

"No," replied Ned Trent.

"Then a means shall be found to make you!" threatened the Factor, his anger blazing at last.

"Ah," said the stranger softly.

Galen Albret raised his hand and let it fall. The bronzed and gaudily bedecked men filed out.