Chapter Five
 

Having sat buried in thought for a full five minutes after the traders of the winter posts had left him, Galen Albret thrust back his chair and walked into a room, long, low, and heavily raftered, strikingly unlike the Council Room. Its floor was overlaid with dark rugs; a piano of ancient model filled one corner; pictures and books broke the wall; the lamps and the windows were shaded; a woman's work-basket and a tea-set occupied a large table. Only a certain barbaric profusion of furs, the huge fireplace, and the rough rafters of the ceiling differentiated the place from the drawing-room of a well-to-do family anywhere.

Galen Albret sank heavily into a chair and struck a bell. A tall, slightly stooped English servant, with correct side whiskers and incompetent, watery blue eyes, answered. To him said the Factor:

"I wish to see Miss Albret."

A moment later Virginia entered the room.

"Let us have some tea, O-mi-mi," requested her father.

The girl moved gently about, preparing and lighting the lamp, measuring the tea, her fair head bowed gracefully over her task, her dark eyes pensive and but half following what she did. Finally with a certain air of decision she seated herself on the arm of a chair.

"Father," said she.

"Yes."

"A stranger came to-day with Louis Placide of Kettle Portage."

"Well?"

"He was treated strangely by our people, and he treated them strangely in return. Why is that?"

"Who can tell?"

"What is his station? Is he a common trader? He does not look it."

"He is a man of intelligence and daring."

"Then why is he not our guest?"

Galen Albret did not answer. After a moment's pause he asked again for his tea. The girl turned away impatiently. Here was a puzzle, neither the voyageurs, nor Wishkobun her nurse, nor her father would explain to her. The first had grinned stupidly; the second had drawn her shawl across her face, the third asked for tea!

She handed her father the cup, hesitated, then ventured to inquire whether she was forbidden to greet the stranger should the occasion arise.

"He is a gentleman," replied her father.

She sipped her tea thoughtfully, her imagination stirring. Again her recollection lingered over the clear bronze lines of the stranger's face. Something vaguely familiar seemed to touch her consciousness with ghostly fingers. She closed her eyes and tried to clutch them. At once they were withdrawn. And then again, when her attention wandered, they stole back, plucking appealingly at the hem of her recollections.

The room was heavy-curtained, deep embrasured, for the house, beneath its clap-boards, was of logs. Although out of doors the clear spring sunshine still flooded the valley of the Moose; within, the shadows had begun with velvet fingers to extinguish the brighter lights. Virginia threw herself back on a chair in the corner.

"Virginia," said Galen Albret, suddenly.

"Yes, father."

"You are no longer a child, but a woman. Would you like to go to Quebec?"

She did not answer him at once, but pondered beneath close-knit brows.

"Do you wish me to go, father?" she asked at length.

"You are eighteen. It is time you saw the world, time you learned the ways of other people. But the journey is hard. I may not see you again for some years. You go among strangers."

He fell silent again. Motionless he had been, except for the mumbling of his lips beneath his beard.

"It shall be just as you wish," he added a moment later.

At once a conflict arose in the girl's mind between her restless dreams and her affections. But beneath all the glitter of the question there was really nothing to take her out. Here was her father, here were the things she loved; yonder was novelty--and loneliness.

Her existence at Conjuror's House was perhaps a little complex, but it was familiar. She knew the people, and she took a daily and unwearying delight in the kindness and simplicity of their bearing toward herself. Each detail of life came to her in the round of habit, wearing the garment of accustomed use. But of the world she knew nothing except what she had been able to body forth from her reading, and that had merely given her imagination something tangible with which to feed her self-distrust.

"Must I decide at once?" she asked.

"If you go this year, it must be with the Abitibi brigade. You have until then."

"Thank you, father," said the girl, sweetly.

The shadows stole their surroundings one by one, until only the bright silver of the tea-service, and the glitter of polished wood, and the square of the open door remained. Galen Albret became an inert dark mass. Virginia's gray was lost in that of the twilight.

Time passed. The clock ticked on. Faintly sounds penetrated from the kitchen, and still more faintly from out of doors. Then the rectangle of the doorway was darkened by a man peering uncertainly. The man wore his hat, from which slanted a slender heron's plume; his shoulders were square; his thighs slim and graceful. Against the light, one caught the outline of the sash's tassel and the fringe of his leggings.

"Are you there, Galen Albret?" he challenged.

The spell of twilight mystery broke. It seemed as if suddenly the air had become surcharged with the vitality of opposition.

"What then?" countered the Factor's heavy, deliberate tones.

"True, I see you now," rejoined the visitor carelessly, as he flung himself across the arm of a chair and swung one foot. "I do not doubt you are convinced by this time of my intention."

"My recollection does not tell me what messenger I sent to ask this interview."

"Correct," laughed the young man a little hardly. "You didn't ask it. I attended to that myself. What you want doesn't concern me in the least. What do you suppose I care what, or what not, any of this crew wants? I'm master of my own ideas, anyway, thank God. If you don't like what I do, you can always stop me." In the tone of his voice was a distinct challenge. Galen Albret, it seemed, chose to pass it by.

"True," he replied sombrely, after a barely perceptible pause to mark his tacit displeasure. "It is your hour. Say on."

"I should like to know the date at which I take la Longue Traverse".

"You persist in that nonsense?"

"Call my departure whatever you want to--I have the name for it. When do I leave?"

"I have not decided."

"And in the meantime?"

"Do as you please."

"Ah, thanks for this generosity," cried the young man, in a tone of declamatory sarcasm so artificial as fairly to scent the elocutionary. "To do as I please--here--now there's a blessed privilege! I may walk around where I want to, talk to such as have a good word for me, punish those who have not! But do I err in concluding that the state of your game law is such that it would be useless to reclaim my rifle from the engaging Placide?"

"You have a fine instinct," approved the Factor.

"It is one of my valued possessions," rejoined the young man, insolently. He struck a match, and by its light selected a cigarette.

"I do not myself use tobacco in this room," suggested the older speaker.

"I am curious to learn the limits of your forbearance," replied the younger, proceeding to smoke.

He threw back his head and regarded his opponent with an open challenge, daring him to become angry. The match went out.

Virginia, who had listened in growing anger and astonishment, unable longer to refrain from defending the dignity of her usually autocratic father, although he seemed little disposed to defend himself, now intervened from her dark corner on the divan.

"Is the journey then so long, sir," she asked composedly, "that it at once inspires such anticipations--and such bitterness?"

In an instant the man was on his feet, hat in hand, and the cigarette had described a fiery curve into the empty hearth.

"I beg your pardon, sincerely," he cried, "I did not know you were here!"

"You might better apologize to my father," replied Virginia.

The young man stepped forward and, without asking permission, lighted one of the tall lamps.

"The lady of the guns!" he marvelled softly to himself.

He moved across the room, looking down on her inscrutably, while she looked up at him in composed expectation of an apology--and Galen Albret sat motionless, in the shadow of his great arm-chair. But after a moment her calm attention broke down. Something there was about this man that stirred her emotions--whether of curiosity, pity, indignation, or a slight defensive fear she was not introspective enough to care to inquire. And yet the sensation was not altogether unpleasant, and, as at the guns that afternoon, a certain portion of her consciousness remained in sympathy with whatever it was of mysterious attraction he represented to her. In him she felt the dominant, as a wild creature of the woods instinctively senses the master and drops its eyes. Resentment did not leave her, but over it spread a film of confusion that robbed it of its potency. In him, in his mood, in his words, in his manner, was something that called out in direct appeal the more primitive instincts hitherto dormant beneath her sense of maidenhood, so that even at this vexed moment of conscious opposition, her heart was ranging itself on his side. Overpoweringly the feeling swept her that she was not acting in accordance with her sense of fitness. She knew she should strike, but was unable to give due force to the blow. In the confusion of such a discovery, her eyelids fluttered and fell. And he saw, and, understanding his power, dropped swiftly beside her on the broad divan.

"You must pardon me, mademoiselle," he begun, his voice sinking to a depth of rich music singularly caressing. "To you I may seem to have small excuses, but when a man is vouchsafed a glimpse of heaven only to be cast out the next instant into hell, he is not always particular in the choice of words."

All the time his eyes sought hers, which avoided the challenge, and the strong masculine charm of magnetism which he possessed in such vital abundance overwhelmed her unaccustomed consciousness. Galen Albret shifted uneasily, and shot a glance in their direction. The stranger, perceiving this, lowered his voice in register and tone, and went on with almost exaggerated earnestness.

"Surely you can forgive me, a desperate man, almost anything?"

"I do not understand," said Virginia, with a palpable effort.

Ned Trent leaned forward until his eager face was almost at her shoulder.

"Perhaps not," he urged; "I cannot ask you to try. But suppose, mademoiselle, you were in my case. Suppose your eyes--like mine--have rested on nothing but a howling wilderness for dear heaven knows how long; you come at last in sight of real houses, real grass, real dooryard gardens just ready to blossom in the spring, real food, real beds, real books, real men with whom to exchange the sensible word, and something more, mademoiselle--a woman such as one dreams of in the long forest nights under the stars. And you know that while others, the lucky ones, may stay to enjoy it all, you, the unfortunate, are condemned to leave it at any moment for la Longue Traverse. Would not you, too, be bitter, mademoiselle? Would not you too mock and sneer? Think, mademoiselle, I have not even the little satisfaction of rousing men's anger. I can insult them as I will, but they turn aside in pity, saying one to another: 'Let us pleasure him in this, poor fellow, for he is about to take la Longue Traverse.' That is why your father accepts calmly from me what he would not from another."

Virginia sat bolt upright on the divan, her hands clasped in her lap, her wonderful black eyes looking straight out before her, trying to avoid her companion's insistent gaze. His attention was fixed on her mobile and changing countenance, but he marked with evident satisfaction Galen Albret's growing uneasiness. This was evidenced only by a shifting of the feet, a tapping of the fingers, a turning of the shaggy head--in such a man slight tokens are significant. The silence deepened with the shadows drawing about the single lamp, while Virginia attempted to maintain a breathing advantage above the flood of strange emotions which the personality of this man had swept down upon her.

"It does not seem--" objected the girl in bewilderment, "I do not know--men are often out in this country for years at a time. Long journeys are not unknown among us. We are used to undertaking them."

"But not la Longue Traverse," insisted the young man, sombrely.

"La Longue Traverse," she repeated in sweet perplexity.

"Sometimes called the Journey of Death," he explained.

She turned to look him in the eyes, a vague expression of puzzled fear on her face.

"She has never heard of it," said Ned Trent to himself, and aloud: "Men who undertake it leave comfort behind. They embrace hunger and weariness, cold and disease. At the last they embrace death, and are glad of his coming."

Something in his tone compelled belief; something in his face told her that he was a man by whom the inevitable hardships of winter and summer travel, fearful as they are, would be lightly endured. She shuddered.

"This dreadful thing is necessary?" she asked.

"Alas, yes."

"I do not understand--"

"In the North few of us understand," agreed the young man with a hint of bitterness seeping through his voice. "The mighty order, and so we obey. But that is beside the point. I have not told you these things to harrow you; I have tried to excuse myself for my actions. Does it touch you a little? Am I forgiven?"

"I do not understand how such things can be," she objected in some confusion, "why such journeys must exist. My mind cannot comprehend your explanations."

The stranger leaned forward abruptly, his eyes blazing with the magnetic personality of the man.

"But your heart?" he breathed.

It was the moment. "My heart--" she repeated, as though bewildered by the intensity of his eyes, "my heart--ah--yes!"

Immediately the blood rushed over her face and throat in a torrent. She snatched her eyes away, and cowered back in the corner, going red and white by turns, now angry, now frightened, now bewildered, until his gaze, half masterful, half pleading, again conquered hers. Galen Albret had ceased tapping his chair. In the dim light he sat, staring straight before him, massive, inert, grim.

"I believe you--" she murmured hurriedly at last. "I pity you!"

She rose. Quick as light he barred her passage.

"Don't! don't!" she pleaded. "I must go--you have shaken me--I--I do not understand myself--"

"I must see you again," he whispered eagerly. "To-night--by the guns."

"No, no!"

"To-night," he insisted.

She raised her eyes to his, this time naked of defence, so that the man saw down through their depths into her very soul.

"Oh," she begged, quivering, "let me pass. Don't you see--I'm going to cry!"