Conjuror's House by Stewart Edward White
Virginia went with this man passively--to an appointment which, but an hour ago, she had promised herself she would not keep. Her inmost soul was stirred, just as before. Then it had been few words, now it was a little common song. But the strange power of the man held her close, so she realized that for the moment at least she would do as he desired. In the amazement and consternation of this thought she found time to offer up a little prayer: "Dear God, make him kind to me."
They leaned against the old bronze guns, facing the river. He pulled her shawl about her, masterfully yet with gentleness, and then, as though it was the most natural thing in the world, he drew her to him until she rested against his shoulder. And she remained there, trembling, in suspense, glancing at him quickly, in birdlike, pleading glances, as though praying him to be kind. He took no notice after that, so the act seemed less like a caress than a matter of course. He began to talk, half-humorously, and little by little, as he went on, she forgot her fears, even her feeling of strangeness, and fell completely under the spell of his power.
"My name is Ned Trent," he told her, "and I am from Quebec. I am a woods runner. I have journeyed far. I have been to the uttermost ends of the North, even up beyond the Hills of Silence."
And then, in his gay, half-mocking, yet musical voice he touched lightly on vast and distant things. He talked of the great Saskatchewan, of Peace River, and the delta of the Mackenzie, of the winter journeys beyond Great Bear Lake into the Land of the Little Sticks, and the half-mythical lake of Yamba Tooh. He spoke of life with the Dog Ribs and Yellow Knives, where the snow falls in midsummer. Before her eyes slowly spread, like a panorama, the whole extent of the great North, with its fierce, hardy men, its dreadful journeys by canoe and sledge, its frozen barrens, its mighty forests, its solemn charm. All at once this post of Conjuror's House, a month in the wilderness as it was, seemed very small and tame and civilized for the simple reason that Death did not always compass it about.
"It was very cold then," said Ned Trent, "and very hard. Le grand frete of winter had come. At night we had no other shelter than our blankets, and we could not keep a fire because the spruce burned too fast and threw too many coals. For a long time we shivered, curled up on our snow-shoes; then fell heavily asleep, so that even the dogs fighting over us did not awaken us. Two or three times in the night we boiled tea. We had to thaw our moccasins each morning by thrusting them inside our shirts. Even the Indians were shivering and saying, 'Ed-sa, yazzi ed-sa'--'it is cold, very cold.' And when we came to Rae it was not much better. A roaring fire in the fireplace could not prevent the ink from freezing on the pen. This went on for five months."
Thus he spoke, as one who says common things. He said little of himself, but as he went on in short, curt sentences the picture grew more distinct, and to Virginia the man became more and more prominent in it. She saw the dying and exhausted dogs, the frost-rimed, weary men; she heard the quick crunch, crunch, crunch of the snow-shoes hurrying ahead to break the trail; she felt the cruel torture of the mal de raquette, the shrivelling bite of the frost, the pain of snow blindness, the hunger that yet could not stomach the frozen fish nor the hairy, black caribou meat. One thing she could not conceive--the indomitable spirit of the men. She glanced timidly up at her companion's face.
"The Company is a cruel master," she sighed at last, standing upright, then leaning against the carriage of the gun. He let her go without protest, almost without thought, it seemed.
"But not mine," said he.
She exclaimed, in astonishment, "Are you not of the Company?"
"I am no man's man but my own," he answered, simply.
"Then why do you stay in this dreadful North?" she asked.
"Because I love it. It is my life. I want to go where no man has set foot before me; I want to stand alone under the sky; I want to show myself that nothing is too big for me--no difficulty, no hardship--nothing!"
"Why did you come here, then? Here at least are forests so that you can keep warm. This is not so dreadful as the Coppermine, and the country of the Yellow Knives. Did you come here to try la Longue Traverse of which you spoke to-day?"
He fell suddenly sombre, biting in reflection at his lip.
"No--yes--why not?" he said, at length.
"I know you will come out of it safely," said she; "I feel it. You are brave and used to travel. Won't you tell me about it?"
He did not reply. After a moment she looked up in surprise. His brows were knit in reflection. He turned to her again, his eyes glowing into hers. Once more the fascination of the man grew big, overwhelmed her. She felt her heart flutter, her consciousness swim, her old terror returning.
"Listen," said he. "I may come to you to-morrow and ask you to choose between your divine pity and what you might think to be your duty. Then I will tell you all there is to know of la Longue Traverse. Now it is a secret of the Company. You are a Factor's daughter; you know what that means." He dropped his head. "Ah, I am tired--tired with it all!" he cried, in a voice strangely unhappy. "But yesterday I played the game with all my old spirit; to-day the zest is gone! I no longer care." He felt the pressure of her hand. "Are you just a little sorry for me?" he asked. "Sorry for a weakness you do not understand? You must think me a fool."
"I know you are unhappy," replied Virginia, gently. "I am truly sorry for that."
"Are you? Are you, indeed?" he cried. "Unhappiness is worth such pity as yours." He brooded for a moment, then threw his hands out with what might have been a gesture of desperate indifference. Suddenly his mood changed in the whimsical, bewildering fashion of the man. "Ah, a star shoots!" he exclaimed, gayly. "That means a kiss!"
Still laughing, he attempted to draw her to him. Angry, mortified, outraged, she fought herself free and leaped to her feet.
"Oh!" she cried, in insulted anger.
"Oh!" she cried, in a red shame.
"Oh!" she cried, in sorrow.
Her calm broke. She burst into the violent sobbing of a child, and turned and ran hurriedly to the factory.
Ned Trent stared after her a minute from beneath scowling brows. He stamped his moccasined foot impatiently.
"Like a rat in a trap!" he jeered at himself. "Like a rat in a trap, Ned Trent! The fates are drawing around you close. You need just one little thing, and you cannot get it. Bribery is useless! Force is useless! Craft is useless! This afternoon I thought I saw another way. What I could get no other way I might get from this little girl. She is only a child. I believe I could touch her pity--ah, Ned Trent, Ned Trent, can you ever forget her frightened, white face begging you to be kind?" He paced back and forth between the two bronze guns with long, straight strides, like a panther in a cage. "Her aid is mine for the asking--but she makes it impossible to ask! I could not do it. Better try la Longue Traverse than take advantage of her pity--she'd surely get into trouble. What wonderful eyes she has. She thinks I am a brute--how she sobbed, as though her little heart had broken. Well, it was the only way to destroy her interest in me. I had to do it. Now she will despise me and forget me. It is better that she should think me a brute than that I should be always haunted by those pleading eyes." The door of the distant church house opened and closed. He smiled bitterly. "To be sure, I haven't tried that," he acknowledged. "Their teachings are singularly apropos to my case--mercy, justice, humanity--yes, and love of man. I'll try it. I'll call for help on the love of man, since I cannot on the love of woman. The love of woman--ah--yes."
He set his feet reflectively toward the chapel.