Not Always to the Strong
THE Chevalier de Brouillan shook his head. “I regret, M. Bientot, that the frigate sailed but yesterday. You must have passed her in the Bay on your way from St. Jean.”
“We passed no ship, Excellency,” replied M. Bientot, a short, thick-set man past middle age, a merchant of France who had come to Acadie to look after his trading concessions. “But I must return to France forthwith. The dispatches which I received on my arrival here this morning make it imperative. My enemies have been plotting with the king’s advisors. Surely another ship will be going soon?” M. Bientot’s anxiety was writ plainly across his thickly bearded face and his pale hands moved in quick, nervous gestures.
“There is no ship for a fortnight at least, M’sieu,” declared the Governor.
“But, Excellency, I will be ruined! My whole fortune is at stake!”
“Surely you can do something for my father, M. le Governeur!” exclaimed the girl, who had said nothing until that minute.
De Brouillan turned to her again, and if his fine old features had been touched with contempt for her father it vanished immediately now. The girl was truly a magnificent creature. She was everything her father was not and the Chevalier marvelled that the latter could have sired such an one. Tall, with the heroic figure of a Greek goddess, her face was of a classic beauty, yet warm with the liveliness of youth. The chin was resolute, the eyes grey and steadfast, the hair the color of ripe rich corn.
“Mademoiselle,” replied the Chevalier with a courtly bow, “if there was aught in my power I would do it if only because you had asked. But there is nothing. The ship sailed yesterday, and I am no magician to conjure one out of a blue sky.” ‘
“My poor father!” sighed the girl. “And it is all my fault. He did not want to bring me to Acadie with him, but I cajoled him into it. And then I delayed him on the Riviere St. Jean, but for which we would have arrived here yesterday in time to catch the frigate.” She turned to M. Bientôt who sat staring dully into despair and began to cheer him in her buoyant fashion. De Brouillan watched her with frank admiration. Saint Peter, there was more courage in her little finger than in the father’s whole body!
He brought his fist down suddenly on the table. “Mademoiselle,” he exclaimed. “I had forgotten that the frigate is to call at La Heve! It will take her at
Few writers of to-day have captured the charm of old Acadie like Benge Atlee, whose tales of romantic Port Royal and the New France of long ago never fail to allure.
least five days to do that and she will remain there a day. That should leave time for your father to catch her by going overland—though you, I fear, cannot accompany him on such a journey. The Mont du Sud is traversed by a chain of lakes and rivers leading to the Atlantic in the region of La Heve. It is a hard and perilous journey, but with the aid of two coureurs-debois it can be done in four days.”
“M. le Governeur,” cried the merchant, snatching like a drowning man at this straw, “I must make that journey. I would make it if it were ten times as perilous as you say.”
“And I, too, will make it,” declared the girl eagerly, animatedly.
“But this journey has never before been made by a woman,” protested the Chevalier.
“All the more reason why I should make it, Excellency!” cried the girl with a laugh.
“Excellency, you will get me two coureurs-de-bois this day?” asked M. Bientôt eagerly. "I will pay them well—it is for them only to name a price.”
“There are in town at present two young men to whom the Mont du Sud is an open book,” replied de Brouillan. “I will send for them at once.” He pulled the bell-rope and gave the orderly who answered orders to proceed at once to the store of Henri Theriault for Comte Louis de Merlaine and Andre Livarot. “I would advise strongly, Mademoiselle,” he continued, turning to the girl again, “that you do not make this difficult journey. Let me assure you that we in Port Royal will be honored by your presence in our midst until the next frigate sails.”
“It would be wisdom to accept the Governeur’s kind hospitality, Estelle,” said M. Bientôt.
But the girl gave a scornful laugh, tossed her head with the wild confidence of youth. “And miss this
glorious adventure!” she cried. “Am I to be denied all the zest of life because I wear petticoats? Fie, Messieurs!”
M. Bientôt flung out his hands expressively. “You see, Excellency,” he said weakly, “I have no influence over her. It was the same when I decided to come to Acadie. She gave me no peace until I allowed her to accompany me.”
De Brouillan shook his head gravely. “If you allow your daughter to accompany you, you are placing her in grave risk,” he said.
“I am going!” cried the girl, cutting in with a laugh before her father could speak. “Do not think I am ungrateful, Excellency, for the offer of your hospitality but I have my self-respect to consider. I am not afraid of the perils of the Mont du Sud. I can bear any hardships that my father can.”
AT THAT moment Comte Louis and Livarot, clad in the picturesque costume of the coureur-de-bois, entered the room. They made a splendid pair, with their fearless, almost insolent carriage, their slim virile figures. At the sight of the girl interest gleamed in the eyes of both, for they had seen her passing through the town earlier in the day and had been talking about her over their cognac at Henri’s when the Governor’s orderly arrived. Was not beauty one of the will-o-thewisps these wild voyageurs of New France followed?
De Brouillan explained the desires of M. Bientôt to them in his grave way. ‘‘He would have you guide him and his daughter over the Mont du Sud to La Heve, Messieurs. Will you do so?”
“Do I understand, Excellency,” asked the tall Livarot, with his amusing drawl, “that Mademoiselle Bientôt proposes to make this difficult journey?”
“In spite of my persuasions to the contrary that is her intention,” replied the Chevalier with a grim smile.
“But this is no journey for a woman!” cried the impulsive Comte Louis.
“Do you suffer then from the common delusion that perilous journeys can only be made by your lordly sex, M’sieu?” the girl asked him crisply, her eyes glimmering with scorn.
Comte Louis flushed darkly, and Livarot, catching the Governor’s twinkling eyes, chuckled behind his friend’s back. But the coureur soon recovered his aplomb. “I was only consulting your safety, Mademoiselle,” he replied haughtily. “Had I been merely consulting my own inclinations there would have been no question concerning your coming.”
“Pray, then, M. le Comte, consult your inclinations,” replied the girl with a gay laugh.
“Messieurs,” cried M. Bientôt, who had risen impatiently to his feet, “let us parley over my daughter’s coming no longer. If she will come she will come. But it is imperative that we set off upon this journey at once. How soon can you be ready?”
“We are ready now, M’sieu,” replied Comte Louis curtly. “Our packs are at the store of Henri Theriault. We have but to collect them.”
“Good!” cried the old man. “WTe will leave in one hour!”
THROUGH the waning afternoon the little party pressed up the side of the Mont du Sud through the green forest, and the sun was hanging like a great golden ball in the west when they reached the top of that hill known to the coureurs of Acadie as Mont Michet. The girl gave a little cry of delight. Below them, stretching towards the south, lay a chain of three lakes, set like crystals in the broad green bosom of the hills, and whose calm surfaces mirrored sky and tree. And over all hung the profound silence of the forest.
“Enchanting!” murmured the girl, gazing raptly. “Is it not a picture from fairy-land, father? Ah, Comte Louis, you have led us to Paradise!”
The young coureur glanced into her glowing eyes— eyes level with his own so tall she was. “I had not thought of it,” he replied quietly, “but paradise it is at this moment.”
The color in the flushed cheeks heightened, but catching sight of the smile of amusement that was skimming over the languid features of Livarot she laughed derisively. “A pretty compliment, Comte Louis! How do you keep in practice in this wilderness?” “Can we not bivouac here for the night, Messieurs?” asked M. Bientôt wearily. “My feet are blistered already from this rough trail.”
“One of our cabins sits on the shore of the first lake, M’sieu,” replied Comte Louis. “It would be better to reach it to-night. We will find our canoe there and from then on you will only have to walk the portages.”
“God be thanked!” exclaimed the little merchant, “for my old feet are not for such trails.”
They reached the cabin in the mellow dusk and M. Bientôt, flinging himself down with a groan on the soft grass at the edge of the sand proceeded to remove his shoes and bathe his feet in the waters of the lake. But the girl, who showed not the slightest signs of fatigue, helped him with the preparation of the evening meal, and something of the spirit of adventure lent a more pulsing warmth and vividness to her beauty. At the end of the meal M. Bientôt entered the cabin and retired for the night, worn out with his journey. But the girl stayed by the fire listening to the talk of the two coureurs. With such an audience they spun tales of the forests and the hills, stories of their wild, free life, until her eyes gleamed like rubies in the darkness and she cried with a boyish eagerness, “Oh, Messieurs, I wish I might stay and travel these lakes with you!”
Livarot’s eyes, in which a fugitive will-o-the-wisp of amusement stirred again, rested significantly on his friend and rising he disappeared into the darkness. Presently they heard him singing from the still bosom of the lake on which he paddled idly.
“Ah, de mon coeur je chant,
Ah, de mon coeur casse—”
His voice floated on the stillness with the throaty passion of a nightingale. One would not have thought he sang with a cynical smile upon his handsome young face, for in this vale of Tempe his voice seemed the lute of a god playing to a shepherd and his love.
Comte Louis leaned suddenly towards the girl, and with an eagerness. “You can stay and travel these lakes, Mademoiselle!”
Her cool grey eyes read his meaning, and after the first moment of surprise the laughter leaped from her throat. “M’sieu grows sentimental under the spell of his friend’s song,” she exclaimed in soft derision.
“Indeed,” he cried eagerly, “my heart is stricken, Mademoiselle. I—”
She held up suddenly a silencing finger. “No, no!” she cried, her eyes dancing with sceptic laughter. “I will not
listen. It is the night and the song that have played upon your feelings, M’sieu. To-morrow you will laugh with me over this.”
“I will not!” he protested warmly. “ ’Tis you who have played upon my feelings. Your beauty, your—”
“La! la! M. le Comte!” Her laughter rang out again in derision. “Love is not born in a night!”
“Ah, de mon coeur je chant—”
The song came from a greater distance but none the less insistently across the silent lake.
“Love was born in an instant, Mademoiselle! This morning when you passed up the street of Port Royal for the first time love was born. Because of that I offer you the freedom of these hills.” He swept their surroundings in a great gesture.
“And to how many others have you offered that same freedom?”
Ah, well, a man who has lived must smile when a girl with laughter in her flashing grey eyes asks such a question. “What I have offered I have offered,” he retorted good humoredly. “But that was yesterday. To-night I offer this freedom to you. Do you accept it?”
“Oh, M. le Comte,” she replied laughingly, “I cannot be won with words! How do I know you could give me the freedom I desire? No man has yet been able—and many a one has tried.” She rose quickly to her feet. “Goodnight, M’sieu—dream sweetly. To-morrow perhaps you will waken to sanity.” And with a daring backward smile she set off towards the cabin, leaving him there staring after her.
“Ah, de mon coeur casse—”
Comte Louis flung back his head and laughed buoyantly. “Name of God, what a privilege!” he murmured. “And there remain another three days in which to persuade her!”
All day they had travelled over the lake-strewn Mont du Sud, by lake and river, rapid and portage, and now in the late afternoon were approaching the southern
Continued on page 57
Not Always to the Strong
Continued from page 17
shores of the great Lac Kedjimkujik. Over the rim of forest that lined its shore the sun hung in a crimson halo. And on the cleared area a half mile ahead the wigwams of an Indian encampment stood out like great bee-hives against the wall of trees.
“I hope these Indians are friendly, M. Livarot,” exclaimed the girl with a laugh, “for I have heard terrible tales of their cruelty at St. Jean.”
“You need have no fear of these, Mademoiselle. The Baron Saint Castine who is their chief is of our blood.”
“What? A Frenchman chief of an Indian tribe? How romantic!”
“He is but half a Frenchman,” explained Comte Louis. “His father, the old Baron, married the daughter of an Abenaquis chief.”
“Could you not leave me my illusions, Comte Louis?” complained the girl impatiently. At which words the languid Livarot turned from his place in the bow of the canoe to grimace at his friend— whose face darkened.
The Indians, astir as they approached the shore, had gathered in a group at the top of the beach. Grounding on the soft sand the voyageurs drew their canoe up beside the long line of Indian craft and walked up the beach towards the everincreasing crowd of savages who were muttering gutturally and gesticulating over the presence of the girl.
“Bonjour, Saint Castine!” cried Comte Louis.
The tall splendid figure, straight as an arrow and as cleanly cut, who bowed gravely in response to this greeting, dominated completely the group of Indians among which he stood. In all Acadie there was no more romantic character than this Baron Saint Castine, and although he was still a comparatively young man the annals of New France were crowded with tales of his prowess. His courage was of the lion. In his tall straight figure were combined the grace of his Gallic with the strength of his Indian ancestry. His eyes were piercing black, fierce and untamed; his cheekbones high; his thin, straight lips carried a suggestion of ruthlessness and cruelty. And all this, combined with the straight black hair that receded from his low forehead and his strong aquiline nose gave him the bold profile of a bird of prey.
He murmured a few words of greeting to the two coureurs and then his flashing eye rested on the girl’s face for a pregnant moment. Their pupils widened oddly as though a sudden wonder had been forced upon his soul. For an instant that^ left her feeling startlingly naked he looked her boldly up and down and then turned to the three men. “Messieurs,” he exclaimed with a splendid bow, “I am indeed honored by your presence.”
Cbmte Louis explained their objective and informed him that they would be glad to accept his hospitality for the day; ¡but there was in his manner of So doing a hauteur not untouched with contempt. But if Saint Castine noticed this he gave no sign. “It is a privilege to entertain you for however short a time,” he exclaimed in the polished manner of a courtier. Ordering two of his braves to prepare wigwams for the guests he turned to the latter again, “Come,” he said, in a lofty manner befitting the invitation, “Dinner is ready in my lodge.”
With M. Bientôt at his side he stalked through the crowd of braves, who were still staring with grave curiosity at the voyageurs, to his lodge, a large structure made of bent saplings, covered with birch bark and lined with priceless furs. Here they squatted Indian fashion on the floor and were served by two squaws. M. Bientôt, who was in his way somewhat of a gourmet, opened his eyes in astonishment as course succeeded course. Rabbit broth seasoned with delicate herbs. Fresh salmon served with a piquant sauce to which rum had been added. Baked partridge stuffed with beech-nuts, herbs and potatoes.
“Lady of Grace!” exclaimed the old merchant, rolling the last delicate morsel over his tongue. “You lack but little in the way of viands in this wild life of yours, M. le Baron.”
Sainj; .Castine allowed attolerant smile to twfst the proud, cruel line of his lips. “Perhaps M’sieu does,not know thatl wM schooled in France. -Wbeh-ene-has^eaten
the viands of that fair land one cannot altogether descend to barbarism again.”
“And in spite of being schooled in France you came back to these wild hills?” The merchant shook his head incredulously.
“ ’Twas their very wildness called me back,” replied the Baron, his black eyes glittering. “France was beautiful—yes. But I wanted the freedom, the open spaces, the gurgle of the paddle, the roar of the rapid, the cry of the loon in the still night.”
“Oh, M. le Baron,” cried the girl with a throaty laugh, the glitter in her eyes matching his, “I can understand! I could stay forever in this wild Acadie.” A sudden recollection shot the dancing lights of malice into her smile and she gave Comte Louis a quick glance.
“I wonder you have not been persuaded,” exclaimed Saint Castine, who had seen that look, and whose lips wore a thin, shrewd smile. “Or are there no longer gallants in Port Royal?” He glanced meaningly at Comte Louis.
She laughed gaily. “And can one only remain here at the behest of Port Royal’s gallants?” she demanded with a toss of her head, while the color flamed to Comte Louis’ cheeks. “Did I not say I desired freedom?”
“Mademoiselle does not believe then that the sweetest freedom lies in bondage?”
“I want a freedom that knows no bondage!” cried the girl warmly. “I want the freedom of the eagle—with the world below me—and no man to say me nay.”
THE superb independence of her spirit caused Saint Castine’s eyes to rest upon her again as when he first beheld her. But in a moment the thin sardonic smile twisted his lips again. Turning to M. Bientôt he said, “it is a matter of great regret to me that you depart tomorrow morning, for to-morrow my braves go hunting the moose. There is a herd in a small grove about two miles to eastward the hunting of which should prove rare sport. I am sure Mademoiselle would enjoy it.”
“I should love it!” cried the girl excitedly.
“I fear we must push on, M. le Baron. We must reach La Heve by the seventh,” replied the merchant.
“If M. Bientot’s affairs are as urgent as he says I think we should take no chances on reaching La Heve,” interjected Comte Louis.
“You have become a cautious old woman, Comte Louis!” cried the girl impatiently, at which a gleam of swift delight darted into the Baron’s eyes.
“Indeed, he is quite right,” said the merchant. “Remember, Estelle, it was because of you 1 missed the boat at Port Royal. See that I do not miss it at La Heve for the same reason.”
The girl’s face flushed angrily, and she bit her lip, but the rebuke silenced her. The old man rose to his feet. “It grows late,” he said, “and I am weary. I will retire now, M. le Baron, and a thousand thanks for your kind offer of entertainment.” /
As father and daughter left the tent the Baron’s eyes followed the latter— hungrily—with a flashing admiration. Turning he encountered Comte Louis’ glance. For a moment the two men glared challenge into one another’s eyes, and then with a laugh the Baron exclaimed, “I must thank you, de Merlaine, for the inestimable boon of being permitted to look even for so short time on Beauty.” But with a curt “good night” Comte Louis turned on his heel and stalked from the lodge, followed by Livarot—whose expression had grown strangely thoughtful.
BUT with the dawn came Pau-pukkeewis, the storm-fool, blustering across Kedjimkujik, and the older braves shook their head about it. By the time the voyageurs were ready to take up their journey again the lake was a furious cauldron in which, as the red men muttered, the storm-fool stirred his great stick. Even Comte Louis, who had his own reasons for wishing to make a hasty start, withdrew his urgings when thé rain ' began to fly like whip-lashes before the ! mad wind.
Mademoiselle; Biemtotl was in high H
spirits. “I’ll be able to go on that moose hunt after all!” she cried gaily to Saint Castine, as the party were returning from the beach. '
An hour later some twenty young Indians followed Saint Castine, Comte Louis and the girl into the forest. “I will stay to keep M. Bientôt company,” was Livarot’s excuse—given with a sly chuckle to his fellow coureur. Over hill and valley, past brook and forest pool, the little party made its way, the trees creaking and groaning above them, flinging great drops of rain down chat had no power to dampen Estelle Bientot’s spirits. “We are children of the storm!” she cried laughingly, her cheeks radiant, as she walked between Comte Louis and the Baron.
The latter’s flashing eyes rested on her with bold admiration, and he began to chat in a gaily sardonic and extraordinarily fascinating manner, telling her tales of the Indians, embellishing them with his shrewd wit.
At length they met the scout who had been sent out ahead to reconnoitre, and who spoke a few guttural words to Saint Castine. “Our quarry lies half a mile ahead,” the latter informed the girl. “We must detour now to get to leeward of them.”
They struck off to the left through the thick underbrush and travelled for over half an hour in a circle. And now not a word was spoken as the party defiled noiselessly through the thick woods. It amazed the girl, who could scarcely put her foot down without crackling a dry twig under them, how the others could move so quickly without making a sound. Nor could she understand by what means they guided themselves through the dense forest, although at their head Saint Castine moved with the precision of complete confidence. Presently the latter stopped and turning to her, pointed silently.
A muffled exclamation of surprise and delight escaped her. About a hundred yards ahead was a clearing in which grazed the unsuspecting herd of moose, consisting of three or four bulls, a half dozen cows and several calves. And now at a glance from their leader the braves deployed on each side into a long semicircle arid at a further signal began slowly and, stealthily to advance. Saint Castine, his finger to his lips to enjoin silence, beckoned the girl to follow him, at which Comte Louis slipped off to the right joining the semi-circle of advancing Indians. The girl crouched low as the others were doing and the line moved slowly forward.
Her every nerve tingled with excitement and she could not take her eyes from the animals who still grazed unconscious of approaching danger.
Suddenly, when they were within thirty feet of the clearing, there was a sharp movement among the animals. The great bull had uttered a low grunt of warning. Immediately every head was sniffing the wind. Rising from their crouched position the Indians, who had already fitted arrows to their bows, leaped forward firing the first volley as they did so. Sharp squeals attested to the sureness of their aim, one of the cows rolled over, a young bull stumbled to his knees. Saint Castine, his bare knife gleaming in his hand, pressed forward with a cry, and in her excitement the girl found herself dashing after him with the wild excitement of a Diana.
By the time they reached the edge of the clearing the other animals, with the exception of the great bull who stood over the dead cow, had vanished into the forest. From the second volley a dozen arrows found the bull’s body, but none mortally, and with a mad bellow of rage he plunged towards his enemies, caught the nearest Indian on his antlers and tossed him into the air.
Estelle shrieked. Saint Castine was just plunging his knife into the young bull that had been wounded by the first volley of arrows and she stood now directly in the advancing creature’s path. Too late Comte Louis, who was at the other side of the clearing, shouted his warning. She could not move, stood there staring fascinatedly at the oncoming peril. But when the enraged beast was within two yards of her a lightning figure dashed forward from the side—Saint Castine, his eyes flashing with the lust of battle, his wet blade glistening. By what seemed a miracle he dodged the murderous antlers, seemed to disappear under them, drove his knife to the hilt into the great
bull’s breast. The latter went back on his haunches with a grunt, stumbled over to his side pouring blood from the wide gash above his heart.
Saint Castine caught the fainting girl in his arms, where for a moment she lay weakly. Then her eyes fluttered open. She saw the dark, passionate face bent above her, saw in those glittering eyes what caused a quick shiver to pass through her body. She drew herself out of his arms just as Comte Louis rushed up. And then she saw the two men’s glances lock, hatred leaping to their eyes. It frightened her a little, yet caused a glow of something that was pleasure.
With a quick laugh she recovered her wits. “I believe you saved my life that time, Baron,” she exclaimed.
Saint Castine smiled thinly. “For which privilege I give thanks,” he murmured with a mocking glance at Comte Louis.
AH, M’SIEU BIENTOT,” exclaimed Saint Castine at dinner that night, “a year in these forests and your daughter would make a great huntress! Such an enthusiasm—such a courage!”
He was in great good humor, glancing every now and then from the flushed eager face of the girl to the taciturn and silent Comte Louis. He was to-night no longer the great Indian chief but the suave French Baron, and his flashing bold eyes when they rested on the girl seemed to be wooing her, speaking as lips could not. With magnificent gusto—so it seemed—he was laying his best wares in the window.
And the girl, instinctively conscious of this, could feel the thrill of it, revealed that thrill in sparkling eye and heightened color. Woman-like she watched, fascinated, the silent battle between the two men.
She made some laughing retort to a further flattering remark, a bold retort that set Saint Castine’s eyes glittering, withdrew the lips in an admiring smile from his gleaming white teeth. They sparred with swift winged words, laughingly, yet realizing well what import lay beneath. Presently Comte Louis, his face dark with sullen anger, rose and left the lodge. A curling smile of triumph twisted Saint Castine’s lips. The girl gave a quick low laugh.
Poor blind M. Bientôt, unconscious of the undercurrent of drama, exclaimed f tuously, “Comte Louis retires early. He is ired doubtless from the hunt. We, too, mu t seek our beds, Estelle—■” he rose regretfully to his feet—“the storm is settl ng and we must be off early in the morning to make up for lost time.”
Father and daughter departed, leaving Saint Castine and Livarot standing facing one another. “Ah, my good Livarot,” exclaimed the former with a laugh, “I can never thank you enough for having made my humble encampment your resting place.”
The coureur shrugged. “I fear you but thank me for a shadow—that will pass,” he drawled with unmistakable significance.
Saint Castine threw back his head and laughed boldly. “Have you not heard, M’sieu, that fears are liars?”
WHEN Mademoiselle Bientôt left her father and passed on to her own wigwam she came, directly in front of its entrance, upon Comte Louis de Merlaine. He stood there, arms folded, barring her way, and his eyes asked fierce questions.
“Do you stand guard over my few possessions, M. le Comte?” she exclaimed with a tantalizing smile.
“I am here to ask you to decide this minute between myself and that—halfbreed,” he said grimly.
“Oho!” she tossed her head and laughed throatily. “And must I do that this very minute?”
“But supposing I could not make that decision? ... Or supposing I decide on neither?” Her eyes were tantalizing pools of laughter.
“In that case,” he replied coldly, “I would stand aside and let you pass.” “Pray do,” she said, with sudden hauteur, “for I have so decided.”
In her wigwam she was angry, furiously so. It radiated from her tense body and indignant grey eyes. She was angry with Comte Louis. With Saint Castine. With herself. Something in the coureur’s face, as he stepped aside to let her pass had remained as a reproach. Once before she had received such a look from a lover—
and he had gone from her to meet his death in a duel.
She could not sleep, but tossed restlessly in her furs. An hour passed . . and then she became conscious of a distant throbbing sound. It came in intermittent crescendoes on the wind. Creeping to the door she drew aside the flap. She could hear it plainer now. It seemed to come from the other side of the low hill behind the encampment, and there was something wild and primitive about it that held her tautly listening. The camp was so eerily still. The wigwams stretched like sleeping sentinels along the wall of forest. The fires were dead before them.
Urged by some irresistible impulse she left the wigwam, began to walk slowly towards the edge of the forest, came to the opening of a path that led toward that throbbing sound. Her eyes, by now, were vaguely luminous, like those of a sleepwalker. As she approached the summit of the hill the sound grew suddenly louder, and she stopped, a nameless fear shackling her feet. But in a moment she went on.
Then she saw fires gleaming ahead through the trees. Crouching low she crawled on hands and knees towards them, then came to the edge of a clearing from which she stared with wide eyes at an amazing spectacle.
The war dance of the Abenaquis! Wild figures moving in primitive mystery around great blazing fires. The drums! Those mad drums that had drawn her here palpitated under the frenzied beating of the players. The half-naked greasy figures, fantastic and terrible in their feathers and hideous war paint, flung themselves into grotesque contortions, yelped their terrible chant. The lust of blood was in every movement, the primitive passion ot hate went mad in their writhing bodies.
Sickened, she turned away, crawled back a few yards along the path, then rose from her feet to flee the hideous place. But poised for flight a low exclamation of dismay escaped her, and she stood rooted to the spot. Clad in his Indian robes, his face creased hideously with war paint Saint Castine stood in her way, towered in front of her like a Nemesis. In his black fierce eyes triumph leaped like the flames of those terrible fires she had turned to flee.
THE group of warriors shook their heads gravely. They did not know, they said, and their faces were blank pages on which nothing could be read.
“Name of God!” cried Comte Louis angrily. “Is your chief in the habit of leaving you thus without word?”
“Him like wind—him come, him go,” muttered an old Indian non-committally.
“My daughter! Oh, my poor daughter!” groaned the distracted M. Bientôt for the hundredth time.
“She may have wandered into the woods, M’sieu,” exclaimed Livarot reassuringly. “It is but an hour since dawn. She may return at any minute.” But Comte Louis, standing there scowling across the now placid lake, knew she would not return, knew beyond gainsaying that the coincidence of Saint Castine’s disappearance with her’s was more than apparent. Presently, he turned from the other two and wandered down to the shore. He returned in a few minutes his face betraying an excitement he did his best to mask before the Indians, and dragging M. Bientôt and Livarot off to the former’s wigwam exclaimed hurriedly. “One of the Indian canoes is missing! It has been dragged down to the lake. There are signs of a struggle writ plainly on the sands nearby. We must hasten after them at once.”
“But in which direction?” said Livarot doubtfully. “ ’Twill be like looking for a needle in a haystack.”
“He can have taken but one!” cried Comte Louis confidently. “He would not go towards Port Royal. He would not take our trail to La Heve. He has gone to Lac Rossignol!”
“You are right!” agreed Livarot, excitedly.
“Let us haste then!” urged the distracted M. Bientôt. “Oh, Messieurs,” he cried, as the two coureurs drove their canoe swiftly from the encampment, at whose edge the group of silent Indians stood watching them, “I am undone! I have lost my daughter. Through this delay I will miss the frigate at La Heve and lose my fortune. Was ever a man more unfortunate!”
“Courage, M’sieu!” cried Livarot. “If
we find that dog Saint Castine at Rossignol we shall push on by a river leading fropa it to the great ocean. It is then but a day’s journey along the shore to La Heve.”
But the old man could draw but little comfort from such words.
Soon they entered the mouth of a river joining the two lakes. It was a shallow stream for the most part and some twelve miles in length. For the first mile they poled their way along it making good time, but from there on it was so shallow that they were forced to make portage after portage. To the coureurs, travelling though they were at exceptional speed, this was no unusual hardship, but M. Bientôt felt the pace acutely. When they halted for their short mid-day meal he was so exhausted he could scarcely eat. The rest, however, and the generous measure of brandy Livarot gave him, braced him for the time, but before they had travelled another two hours he was staggering with exhaustion. And then, as ill luck would have it, just as they were coming to the end of the longest portage, he stumbled over a stone and fell to the ground.
“Oh, my ankle!” he cried. “ ’Tis broken!”
They got him to his feet, tried to encourage him to go on. “We will carry you, M’sieu!” cried Livarot. “There is but one other portage after this and then we reach Lac Rossignol. Courage!”
But with a groan the old man sank to the ground again. “I am done, Messieurs,” he muttered despairingly. “You must go on. Leave me here to die. Save my poor daughter.”
It was quite plain to the two coureurs that he could travel no further that day. “You must stay with him, Andre,” said Comte Louis, “I will push on alone.”
ALL night long he paddled, but now - dawn was breaking in the east, striking light over the island-dotted bosom of Rossignol. He had not eaten food since noon of the day before and twice in the last two hours had been forced to tighten his belt against a gnawing belly. Fatigue was creeping stealthily through aching muscles. And only one sign in all his journey had he found to give him hope. Two tracks in the sand on the far shores of Rossignol, two small footprints that only the girl’s feet could have made.
Driving the canoe between two little islands he came at last in sight of the southern shore of the great lake, saw the opening in the forest where began the river that lead to the Atlantic. He would stop there at the entrance of the first portage for breakfast, for he knew he could go no further without food.
He was weaker than he thought, for as he stepped out of the canoe and proceeded to draw it up on the sand a mist came over his eyes and he stumbled to his knees. Gnashing his teeth angrily he rose to his feet again, stood therefor a moment cursing bitterly, his clenched fist flung towards the south.
And then a sharp sound caught his ear. Turning, he gave a sharp exclamation, stared incredulously and like a man in a dream. Someone was coming down the narrow portage, someone hastening with flying feet, wild-eyed with panic. The mist cleared abruptly from before his eyes. The strength surged back into his limbs.
“Estelle!” The cry broke from his lips hungrily, joyously.
SHE flung herself into his arms and began to weep, babbling incoherently. He calmed her and presently between gasping sobs she told him what had happened.
"He thought I had come there because of him,” she cried. “When I explained he would not listen. He—ugh!” She covered her face with her hands and went off into another hysterical spasm.
“I scorned him!” she continued, when the paroxysm passed, “but he laughed. ‘Ah my beauty,’ he cried, ‘you have been sent to me out of the hills. You are mine.’ I tried to struggle—he was too strong. He tied my scarf over my mouth, tied my hands behind me, carried me back to the encampment. I fought with all ray strength, but it was no use. Then he got me into his canoe and brought me here. But I escaped a few moments ago. He stopped to cook breakfast, leaving me by the river while he went to collect firewood.
I ran. Oh, that I should have found you here is surely an answer to prayer.”
“I, too, have prayed,” he said simply.
“But we must escape—at once!” she cried, panic stirring at her heart again. “He will return soon—and discover my escape.”
Comte Louis drew himself up haughtily. “I run from no man—least of all Saint Castine,” he cried. “Name of God, have I not a score to settle with him that might as well be settled here as anywhere?”
“But he is so strong! He will kill you. We must flee. It is the safest way!” she cried, all in one anxious breath.
Comte Louis’ laugh rang out with a defiant scorn, but died abruptly. The tall lithe figure of Saint Castine had appeared at the edge of the portage. His thin lips were curled sinisterly; there was cruel triumph in his eyes.
“So,” he exclaimed advancing towards them, while the girl released herself from Comte Louis’ arms with a cry of alarm, “you have thought fit to interfere, de Merlaine.”
“Yes, you half-bred whelp,” replied the coureur, his eyes blazing, “I have come here to teach you manners. Name of God!” He stepped towards the other passionately. “You will learn that a lady of France cannot be treated as a squaw!”
“You use unforgiveable language,” said Saint Castine, his face darkening with anger. “I, too, will teach a lesson. I will teach you silence, my crowing cock!”
“At your service!” cried the coureur, snatching his knife from his belt.
With an imploring cry the girl flung herself between the two men. Saint Castine, who had likewise drawn his knife, thrust her brusquely aside and the two men faced one another on the narrow strip of sand. Above, the sky was crimson with the burning dawn. About, lake and forest shimmered under the early light. At the sand’s edge, one hand clutching a sapling, the other at her breast, the girl watched fearfully.
They joined combat, their knives clashing on the still air. But Saint Castine, because of his w’eight, began slowly to force the coureur back along the narrow strip of sand. The latter gave way stubbornly, resisting every inch, his knife blade dashing with a murderous speed through the other’s guard. Although the Baron was almost a head taller and had the splendid physique of his Indian ancestry, he found Comte Louis no mean adversary. The latter’s slim, wiry body moved with a fascinating precision, there was a surprising strength in his slim torso and shoulders, and twice before being driven back to the ledge of rock that jutted across the sandy beach he ripped through the other’s tunic, drawing blood.
“Ha!” he cried, as the red trickle ran down the Baron’s arm, “ ’twas a little bite, that one . . . but a forerunner!”
Saint Castine’s stoic expression did not change. He was completely Indian now, all the cruel cunning of that race glittering in his fierce dark eyes. Ruthlessly he forced the smaller man back—step by step —while the girl watched with growing concern. But suddenly, on fl;he very edge of that ledge of rock, Comte Louis darted forward under the other’s guard, and Saint Castine leaped aside just in time to escape the knife that ripped along his tunic, scraping his ribs.
Again he began slowly to force the coureur back. Again at the far edge of the length of sand the latter slipped like an eel under his guard. And so the gruelling contest proceeded backwards and forwards along that narrow beach. Half a dozen times Comte Louis saved himself from a tight corner by an agility that was nothing short of miraculous. But by this time the Baron’s steel had ripped him a nasty gash in the left shoulder. They fought now in a silence broken only by their heavy breathing and odd cries from the girl.
At the end of half an hour the pace had begun to tell on Comte Louis. The wound in his shoulder was bleeding freely, he was weakening, had lost some of his agility. Soon, he knew, his strength would fail. But before that he must sheath his blade in Saint Castine’s breast. Or fail hideously. He must not fail!
The sweat was dripping from them, their breathing laboured and gasping. Even Saint Castine showed signs of fatigue. But their struggle lost none of its savage ferocity. It was death, they knew—or a prize more ancient and
desirable than any other—when the last blow had been struck. Each, with a dogged determination, sought the favor of that blow. Back again to the narrow ledge of rock Saint Castine forced the coureur. This time the latter stood his ground. Their knives clashed in a wild melee—click!
Comte Louis’ blade snapped off at the hilt. The girl shrieked. The coureur, flinging the useless handle away with a curse, crouched on one knee to await Saint Castine’s onslaught. A grin of triumph curled the latter’s thin, cruel lips. He sprang. At the same moment the coureur leaped like a cat, clutched the other's wrist and swung on it. The Baron uttered a sharp cry of pain, and the knife spun from his hand to the water’s edge.
AND then, with only their bare hands - for weapons, the two men circled about one another. Like two animals, moved only by the instinct of hate, they swayed to and fro along the narrow strip of sand while the girl stared like one mesmerized. Suddenly Comte Louis sprang at the other’s throat and landed on his chest. The Baron stumbled backwards and went down with a thud. For a moment there was a mad jumble of arms and legs, and a wild melee on the soft sand. One moment Comte Louis was on top, the next Saint Castine. But all this time the coureur kept his iron grip on the other's throat. The Baron’s face was blue, his eyes staring, but when it seemed the last breath was being choked from his gasping throat, he twisted his head slightly and dug his teeth into the coureur’s wrist. For a minute the latter withstood the sickening pain—in the end had to loosen his grip. Saint Castine kicked—plunged—had the coureur beneath him.
The girl cried out in horror. Well might she, for Comte Louis’ head had struck a rock that lay submerged on a level with the sand, and he was knocked senseless by the blow. As the Baron, with a guttural exclamation of triumph, began to drag him towards the edge of the water where his knife had fallen, she tried to move forward. She could not. Her limbs were paralyzed with fear.
Comte Louis opened his eyes. Too late he put forth what strength remained in a vain effort to fling the other from him. Saint Castine’s fingers had closed upon his knife. Sitting astride the helpless coureur, he raised it aloft. A thick laugh of triumph barked from his cruel lips.
Comte Louis stared fascinatedly at the gleaming death that quivered above him—knew his end had come. Saint Castine’s arm tautened. The knife began slowly to descend. And then, in the moment of triumph the Baron’s eyes wavered, found the girl’s. She was standing there, clutching the sapling, staring piteously. His hand paused in mid-air, hung there for a terrible moment of indecision.
Rising slowly from the coureur’s prostrate body, he stood staring down at the latter, the muscles of his face twisting spasmodically. Turning again to the girl he drew himself up, crossed slowly to where she stood, and with a splendid gesture, placed the knife in her trembling outstretched hand.
“Tell the children of Comte Louis de Merlaine,” he said gravely, “that their father is a brave man.”
He turned to the coureur, who had risen weakly to his feet and was staring dazedly at him. “De Merlaine,” he said, coldly, “it is neither for love of you nor admiration of your courage that I have spared you. Adieu!”
And without another word, looking neither to right nor left, he set off along the path that led through the forest towards the rising sun. At the top of the path he stopped—turned. A canoe had pushed out already from the shore in which sat two figures who leaned towards one another with a warm eagerness. He could see the light in their faces where the gleaming sunlight picked them out.
Lifting a hand high above his head, he raised his eyes to the blue heavens. The strange pride of his Indian ancestry lent a superb dignity to his splendid and lonely figure. He muttered under his breath the plaintive Indian farewell to the world, and turning, set off again into the shadowy forest.