Chapter Seven
 

Virginia ran quickly up the narrow stairs to her own room, where she threw herself on the bed and buried her face in the pillows.

As she had said, she was very much shaken. And, too, she was afraid.

She could not understand. Heretofore she had moved among the men around her, pure, lofty, serene. Now at one blow all this crumbled. The stranger had outraged her finer feelings. He had insulted her father in her very presence;--for this she was angry. He had insulted herself;--for this she was afraid. He had demanded that she meet him again; but this--at least in the manner he had suggested--should not happen. And yet she confessed to herself a delicious wonder as to what he would do next, and a vague desire to see him again in order to find out. That she could not successfully combat this feeling made her angry at herself. And so in mingled fear, pride, anger, and longing she remained until Wishkobun, the Indian woman, glided in to dress her for the dinner whose formality she and her father consistently maintained. She fell to talking the soft Ojibway dialect, and in the conversation forgot some of her emotion and regained some of her calm.

Her surface thoughts, at least, were compelled for the moment to occupy themselves with other things. The Indian woman had to tell her of the silver fox brought in by Mu-hi-ken, an Indian of her own tribe; of the retort Achille Picard had made when MacLane had taunted him; of the forest fire that had declared itself far to the east, and of the theories to account for it where no campers had been. Yet underneath the rambling chatter Virginia was aware of something new in her consciousness, something delicious but as yet vague. In the gayest moment of her half-jesting, half-affectionate gossip with the Indian woman, she felt its uplift catching her breath from beneath, so that for the tiniest instant she would pause as though in readiness for some message which nevertheless delayed. A fresh delight in the present moment held her, a fresh anticipation of the immediate future, though both delight and anticipation were based on something without her knowledge. That would come later.

The sound of rapid footsteps echoed across the lower hall, a whistle ran into an air, sung gayly, with spirit:

    "J'ai perdu ma maitresse,
    Sans l'avoir merite,
    Pour un bouquet de roses
    Que je lui refusai.
    Li ya longtemps que je t'aime,
    Jamais je ne t'oublierai!"

She fell abruptly silent, and spoke no more until she descended to the council-room where the table was now spread for dinner.

Two silver candlesticks lit the place. The men were waiting for her when she entered, and at once took their seats in the worn, rude chairs. White linen and glittering silver adorned the service, Galen Albret occupied one end of the table, Virginia the other. On either side were Doctor and Mrs. Cockburn; McDonald, the Chief Trader; Richardson, the clerk, and Crane, the missionary of the Church of England. Matthews served with rigid precision in the order of importance, first the Factor, then Virginia, then the doctor, his wife, McDonald, the clerk, and Crane in due order. On entering a room the same precedence would have held good. Thus these people, six hundred miles as the crow flies from the nearest settlement, maintained their shadowy hold on civilization.

The glass was fine, the silver massive, the linen dainty, Matthews waited faultlessly: but overhead hung the rough timbers of the wilderness post, across the river faintly could be heard the howling of wolves. The fare was rice, curry, salt pork, potatoes, and beans; for at this season the game was poor, and the fish hardly yet running with regularity.

Throughout the meal Virginia sat in a singular abstraction. No conscious thoughts took shape in her mind, but nevertheless she seemed to herself to be occupied in considering weighty matters. When directly addressed, she answered sweetly. Much of the time she studied her father's face. She found it old. Those lines were already evident which, when first noted, bring a stab of surprised pain to the breast of a child--the droop of the mouth, the wrinkling of the temples, the patient weariness of the eyes. Virginia's own eyes filled with tears. The subjective passive state into which a newly born but not yet recognized love had cast her, inclined her to gentleness. She accepted facts as they came to her. For the moment she forgot the mere happenings of the day, and lived only in the resulting mood of them all. The new-comer inspired her no longer with anger nor sorrow, attraction nor fear. Her active emotions in abeyance, she floated dreamily on the clouds of a new estate.

This very aloofness of spirit disinclined her for the company of the others after the meal was finished. The Factor closeted himself with Richardson. The doctor, lighting a cheroot, took his way across to his infirmary. McDonald, Crane, and Mrs. Cockburn entered the drawing-room and seated themselves near the piano. Virginia hesitated, then threw a shawl over her head and stepped out on the broad veranda.

At once the vast, splendid beauty of the Northern night broke over her soul. Straight before her gleamed and flashed and ebbed and palpitated the aurora. One moment its long arms shot beyond the zenith; the next it had broken and rippled back like a brook of light to its arch over the Great Bear. Never for an instant was it still. Its restlessness stole away the quiet of the evening; but left it magnificent.

In comparison with this coruscating dome of the infinite the earth had shrunken to a narrow black band of velvet, in which was nothing distinguishable until suddenly the sky-line broke in calm silhouettes of spruce and firs. And always the mighty River of the Moose, gleaming, jewelled, barbaric in its reflections, slipped by to the sea.

So rapid and bewildering was the motion of these two great powers--the river and the sky--that the imagination could not believe in silence. It was as though the earth were full of shoutings and of tumults. And yet in reality the night was as still as a tropical evening. The wolves and the sledge-dogs answered each other undisturbed; the beautiful songs of the white-throats stole from the forest as divinely instinct as ever with the spirit of peace.

Virginia leaned against the railing and looked upon it all. Her heart was big with emotions, many of which she could not name; her eyes were full of tears. Something had changed in her since yesterday, but she did not know what it was. The faint wise stars, the pale moon just sinking, the gentle south breeze could have told her, for they are old, old in the world's affairs. Occasionally a flash more than ordinarily brilliant would glint one of the bronze guns beneath the flag-staff. Then Virginia's heart would glint too. She imagined the reflection startled her.

She stretched her arms out to the night, embracing its glories, sighing in sympathy with its meaning, which she did not know. She felt the desire of restlessness; yet she could not bear to go. But no thought of the stranger touched her, for you see as yet she did not understand.

Then, quite naturally, she heard his voice in the darkness close to her knee. It seemed inevitable that he should be there; part of the restless, glorious night, part of her mood. She gave no start of surprise, but half closed her eyes and leaned her fair head against a pillar of the veranda. He sang in a sweet undertone an old chanson of voyage.

    "Par derrier' chez mon pere,
    Vole, mon coeur, vole!
    Par derrier' chez mon pere
    Li-ya-t-un pommier doux."

"Ah lady, lady mine," broke in the voice softly, "the night too is sweet, soft as thine eyes. Will you not greet me?"

The girl made no sign. After a moment the song went on.

    "Trois filles d'un prince,
    Vole, mon coeur, vole!
    Trois filles d'un prince
    Sont endormies dessous."

"Will not the princess leave her sisters of dreams?" whispered the voice, fantastically. "Will she not come?"

Virginia shivered, and half-opened her eyes, but did not stir. It seemed that the darkness sighed, then became musical again.

    "La plus jeun' se reveille,
    Vole, mon coeur, vole!
    La plus jeun' se reveille
    --Ma Soeur, voila le jour!"

The song broke this time without a word of pleading. The girl opened her eyes wide and stared breathlessly straight before her at the singer.

    "--Non, ce n'est qu'une etoile,
    Vole, mon coeur, vole!
    Non, ce n'est qu'une etoile
    Qu'eclaire nos amours!"

The last word rolled out through its passionate throat tones and died into silence.

"Come!" repeated the man again, this time almost in the accents of command.

She turned slowly and went to him, her eyes childlike and frightened, her lips wide, her face pale. When she stood face to face with him she swayed and almost fell.

"What do you want with me?" she faltered, with a little sob.

The man looked at her keenly, laughed, and exclaimed in an every-day, matter-of-fact voice:

"Why, I really believe my song frightened you. It is only a boating song. Come, let us go and sit on the gun-carriages and talk."

"Oh!" she gasped, a trifle hysterically. "Don't do that again! Please don't. I do not understand it! You must not!"

He laughed again, but with a note of tenderness in his voice, and took her hand to lead her away, humming in an undertone the last couplet of his song:

    "Non, ce n'est qu'une etoile,
    Qu'eclaire nos amours!"