Trial by Ordeal
A fastidious city bride left alone day after day in a blizzard-bound wilderness shack—Could any woman's love survive so harsh a test?
DAPHNE was awakened by the bass voice of the porter through the protecting curtain.
“Fifteen minutes to Wolverine, miss!”
For a moment she lay warm, drowsy and uncomprehending in the creaking darkness of the sleeper. Then, with an abrupt impact, she remembered where she was and became at once wide-awake, tense with the consciousness of momentous events impending.
She groped for the switch and turned it on, pawed through the curtain for her slippers and clothes, wriggled into her kimono, and staggered off along the rocking aisle to the washroom.
By and by she returned, very smart in a brown tweed suit and hat; and, donning a fine mink coat, made her way to the rear platform, where the sleepy negro lounged beside her bags. Outside, it looked pitch dark, while icy draughts whistled through cracks in the coach-union. Soon the beat changed. With squealing brakes the train slowed, and the opened door let in a rush of pure, cold air, exquisite to breathe after the stuffy coach. The porter helped her down into a foot of snow, dumped her bags after her, accepted her generous tip and swung aboard. The train gathered speed and the last coach pounded past, leaving Daphne standing there, watching the red light that fled swiftly between twin silver ribbons,
on the other side of which the wintry bush reared a black rampart.
Wan light lay on the earth, and by it she saw the ground slope sharply down from where she stood to the lake, whose void expanse stretched eastward to a horizon razor-edged against a sky pale with the translucent jade of winter daybreak, with one huge, lonely star where the green darkened to violet. Immaculate on everything lay the first snow. Below her by the lake was Wolverine, a scattering of buildings with no light in the windows, no smoke, no single sign of life, seeming to cower before the frowning universe. In the chill reality of the moment even such irrepressible romanticism as hers was cooled, and she hurriedly picked up her dressingbag—the heavy suitcase as well as the steamer trunk was beyond her strength—and made her way down the snow-clad slope to the settlement.
Here she hesitated. Where could she obtain shelter? The place seemed so forbiddingly asleep. Then, from the chimney of a misshapen log house she observed a ribbon of blue smoke ascending, and a window showed a yellow light.
Hurrying across, she knocked, and at once sounds within were suspended. Footsteps crossed the floor and the door was opened by a squat, shambling man with
bleared red eyes, a shock of yellow hair and a straggling long mustache. He was shoeless, with pink-stockinged feet, mackinaw pants and a heavy blue undershirt. At sight of Daphne, bright-eyed and lovely in his doorway, he stopped scratching his head to stand gaping.
She said: “Good morning! I wonder—you see I’ve got to wait here for someone. Could you possibly give me breakfast?”
The creature wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, yelled hoarsely over his shoulder, “Marta!” and stepped aside. “Gom in,” he added.
Daphne smiled her very best, which was considerable. “Oh, thank you.”
The place was lamplit, naked, garish, but immaculately clean, wdth woodwork scoured to bone-whitenass. It smelt of stewed onions and coffee. A fat woman in a print overall, barefooted, with iron-grey hair awry on her shoulders, waddled in, to grab her hair at sight of Daphne and start frantically to knot it up, glaring at her husband for allowing her to be so exposed. '
Daphne said: “I came on the train. I’ve got to wait for someone and I wondered if—”
“Who you vaitin’ for?”
“Barney Yarvis? He von’t be out again this vinter.” The woman turned to her husband for corroboration. “Barney say he gom in vonce more after freeze-up.” Daphne nodded eagerly. “Yes. That’s what he said. I was so afraid I might be too late! Would you give me breakfast and let me wait here?”
"You can vait and velcome.” The woman shuffled off, her pudgy hands busy at her hair.
The man, his lips now brown with tobacco juice and his jaw working, came over, thrust at her a rockingchair, opened the roaring box-stove and pitched in a log. “Thank you so much. May I take off my coat?”
She was slim but with the ripe curves of womanhood, a clear fair skin, rosy cheeks, dark curly hair and an attractive mouth. Her brown eyes looked around with the assurance of one who had never known pain, want or defeat. She said to her host whose name was Thaler: “I left some luggage by the tracks. Could you arrange to get it down?”
“I get ’im. Sid down, sid down.”
ÜREAKFAST was cleared away. The man had disappeared. Daphne sat by the stove simulating interest in the woman’s garrulousness and wondering how long she might have to wait, when Thaler thrust iñ his head.
“Barney Yarvis gom in now!”
Daphne grabbed her coat and dashed out.
Barney came toiling on his snowshoes up the steep bank from the lake, stopped by the store to pull off mitts and rat-fur cap and mop sweat from his brow. He was a clean-cut, stocky fellow, wearing mackinaw and moccasins, with crisp brown hair, fine lips, and a square, lean jaw. His blue eyes were bright, direct and smiling; he looked like a happy man. When he saw Daphne running toward him on the trail from Thaler’s, after a moment’s incredulous hesitation he sprang to meet her, his eyes shining.
She said: “I had to come, Barney!”
He held both her hands and their eyes met, hex-s liquid and adoring, his measuring and steady.
"They were always at me, wanting me to go to Europe, just to get me away from you. I was sick of Montreal. So I just told them so and walked out.”
“Daphne!” His face betrayed the completeness of his consternation. He looked round sharply, seeing most of the inhabitants of Wolverine watching from points of vantage. “Excuse me a jiffy, will you?”
He stepped aside and crossed to Mrs. Thaler who, consumed with curiosity, stood fat and shining—visaged in her doorway.
“Mother. Lend me your house awhile, will you? I’ve got to talk.”
“Sure, Barney. Sure. Gom on in.”
“Thank you, mother.” He turned to Daphne. “Let’s go inside, shall we?”
As they entered Mrs. Thaler, engulfed in a mangy coonskin, sailed past, looking neither right nor left, and went over to the store. Barney said aside to Daphne, “That’s heroism for you !” closed the door, threw off his mackinaw and cap and reached for her hungrily. Whereafter there was a protracted silence.
At last he let her go, crimson, breathless and crumpled. She touched her crushed lips ruefully.
“Oh, Barney, isn’t it wonderful?”
"It is that. But what now?”
“Get married and start right back to your camp.” “Can’t be done. You couldn’t winter with me, the way I have to live. Have you any money?”
He groaned. “You shouldn’t have done this, Daphne. I’ve got to trap this winter for I haven’t a cent and there’s not a hope of a job to be got. You’ll have to go back and make it up with them. There’s nothing else for it.”
“But I couldn’t, without you. It would be awful. There was a scene when I wouldn’t go to Europe. I burned my boats completely. You’ve no idea!”
“But there’s no alternative.”
“I can't go back. And I don’t understand you.
Your last letter positively upset me; you said you wanted meso much. Well, here I am.”
"Of course I wanted you. But I wasn’t trying to induce you to come out here. You know perfectly well how it is. I suppose I should not have told you what I did in Montreal. I wouldn’t have; but, as F told you, I’m morally sure that when Fineberg’s have looked over that property of mine in the spring they’ll take up their option and I’ll be on velvet. At present I haven’t a penny. The store here staked me to my grub even. There’s nothing I can do but sit tight and wait. Your folk will understand if you explain.”
“But why can’t I go with you?”
“It’s quite impossible! Conditions—wintering with me—would be intolerable. You’d never stick it. And once you were in and had more snow you couldn’t get out.”
“But I’ve camped in the woods in winter, often.”
“I know. But that was different from wintering with a hard-working trapper.”
“And you seriously suggest that, after breaking with my people because they tried to come between us, I should meekly go back and say it was all a mistake?” “I’m deadly sorry, but there simply is no choice.”
All at once Daphne was angry; pale, with two high spots of crimson on her cheek-bones. Her eyes were wide and hard.
“I can’t believe it,” she said slowly. “I’ve heard of girls being fooled by men, but I didn’t think it could happen to me. You were just philandering. That’s all you wanted. You don’t want the real thing at all. Oh, you make me loathe myself for being such a fool!” There was a little knot of muscle at the hinge of Barney's lean, square jaw.
“Look out now, Daphne,” he said quietly. “Think what you’re saying.”
“I know just what I’m saying. And I’ll say more. If you do this you’re not the man I thought you were!” “And if I give my word that positively I could not do otherwise; if I beg you to do what I ask—”
“I’ve followed you from Montreal like any little baggage just because you said you wanted me, to start life with you as you are, without a penny, just—just because—well, you know why. And you expect to send me back and not change everything by doing so?” Barney stood up deliberately. He seized her arms and drew her to him almost roughly, looking with eyes bright but grim into hers which were hot with her anger barely held in leash.
“Then you force my hand. For I do love you!”
DELICIOUS smell of coffee woke her, and she rolled over in her eiderdown to find Barney on one knee beside her with the steaming cup.
“Good morning, Brighteyes! Last day’s mushing. We’ll be at the shack by sunset.”
It was the fifth day on the trail and Daphne had loved all of it. It was exactly what she had pictured; romantic, thrilling, eminently satisfying. Her battle with Barney was forgotten. Pie was a perfect peach, and she was more in love with him than ever.
By the time she was dressed, the beans and bacon were ready. They ate with exquisite zest, they two and Thaler, whom Barney had hired on credit to take her in with his team, sitting on the spruce bed in the ghostly light of dawn, with the dogs at their tethers in a straining circle, watching.
As they packed up and hitched the team a big moon was paling. Barney had rigged the back of the toboggan as a carióle in which his new wife travelled snugly. When they took the trail, swooping down gloriously from the bank to the white lake, dogs baying, Barney yelling in high spirits, the first sunshine streamed level through the serried spruce spires, casting blue shadows on the virgin snow.
Tonight they would be home. The thought thrilled her. She had been in winter camps often enough to know what to expect. And she had always loved them; the broad, low buildings with the big living room and the
peeled log walls, the skins and antlers, the big box stove in the middle. Some of the camps had open fireplaces too, just for their charm. But she concluded regretfully that a trapper would not bother with such a luxury. Still, it would be lovely anyway. She’d keep it immaculate. In her bag were silks for curtains which she would make in secret and surprise him. She could cook, too. Some premonition must have made her take the domestic science course at college. With swelling heart she snuggled in the eiderdown and looked back and up at Barney.
They mushed all day, an exquisitely happy one for her, and when the sun was almost touching the treetops the dogs swung off the lake and up the bank, through huge standing timber for a hundred yards or so and came to a stop in the open forest, where great shafts of white spruce shot up naked to a sombre canopy. She looked round at Barney with an enquiring smile.
“Home, sweetheart,” he said.
“Home?” She gazed about her, startled, and presently, cowering among the timber, so low and banked with snow as to escape casual notice, she discerned the semblance of a tiny building. She flung off the covers and got out, to follow Barney as he ploughed through the new snow, and with a snowshoe swept the drift from before the door. She waited beside him, still and tense. As he pulled it open, a great feathery mass of snow slid whispering from the roof.
Within, after the white glare, it was very dark, but presently she could see. Her heart sank, to settle in a clammy lump in the pit of her stomach. The place was so small that with her outstretched arms she could almost touch both walls. The roof of poles was close above her head, ragged and black with smoke. There was a battered sheet-iron stove, a rough bunk upon which one could sit and tend the fire, some bags and barrels in the corner, and utensils on the walls. The window was not two feet square. And that was all. There was not even a chair. It was a den, a hovel, fit only for beasts. In all her life she had not envisioned such a habitation.
It was the end of her first day. Supper was done— beans, bannock and bacon, eaten from their knees as they crouched on the bunk by the light of a candle lantern. The dingy walls did not reflect the light. There was just the thick yellow lamp-glow, and the fire glaring through chinks in the stove on the face of Barney— firm, kind, composed, as of a man master of his fate— and on Daphne, in breeches and a silk shirt waist that was already soiled from her labors, with her eyes unnaturally bright in a face pale and a little drawn. Thaler had mushed back that morning, leaving them to five months of loneliness. They had spent the day rearranging the shack as best they could for the accommodation of an extra person.
Barney groped under the bunk and pulled out a small box which contained a dozen or so of books. He handed her some; Shakespeare’s plays, a Kipling anthology, Vanity Fair, Les Miserables—rich and unending treasures for a lonely man.
“I’ve always had these with me. They’ll help while I’m away,” he said.
“She looked up sharply, peering into his face. “Away?”
“My round takes me three days.”
“You see, my trap lines loop through the country and back here; four of them, each three days travel, with lean-to’s a day’s march apart and this shack as headquarters.”
Continued on page 75
Trial By Ordeal
Continued from page 8
“But of course I go with you?”
“I’m afraid not. You couldn’t possibly keep pace with me, carrying your own pack. I couldn’t carry it for you, and it takes me from dawn to dark, hard going, to make the round myself.”
“Oh, but I could. I know I could!” “I’m sorry, but I know you could not. Please don’t press the point, dear, ’cause it simply can’t be done.”
Her mouth was opened for vehement protest. But something in Barney’s eyes silenced her and sent a hot surge of blood to her face. They were measuring, critical, almost aloof in their quiet contemplation. Already she admitted to herself how right he had been in his stand at Wolverine. And now suddenly she realized that she had set up in his mind a question, a doubt, as to her quality; that now he was wondering and waiting to see how she would receive this first consequence of the step which she had forced him to take.
She stooped quickly over the books to hide her discomposure. For her pride’s sake she must not, could not, betray how utterly appalling to her was the unexpected prospect of three days alone in this bleak and squalid hovel. It was clear to her that he would not yield the point.
Next morning she awoke to find Barney cooking while it was yet pitch dark. She dressed in infinite discomfort, and, tousleheaded and with heavy eyes, shared the meal with him. He was not communicative, being systematically busy about the morning’s business. But toward the end of their meal he said:
“There’s lots of wood cut. I’ve written down some things you must remember. Two above all. Don’t use wood from the stack beside the door unless there’s a blizzard. It’s put there for that emergency. In a big snow you can easily lose yourself between the door and the main woodpile. And when you walk, stick to the lake. If you don’t, wind may cover your tracks in the bush and that’ll be the end of you. Such a bald statement of her dependence and danger moved her in an unfamiliar and most disturbing manner.
Soon he was getting into his kit. As they kissed she fought down the desire to cling to him for fear he might think she was afraid. After what had passed at Wolverine she would die sooner than betray herself.
Then she watched him set off through the trees, a lithe and compact figure burdened with light eiderdown, grub, hunting axe and rifle. Twice he turned and waved. Then a great tree cut him off and he did not reappear.
When he was veritably gone Daphne hurried to the shack and made herself busy to dispel lurking and distasteful thoughts. She rearranged everything, sweeping with a broom made of spruce twigs, while snow for water melted on the stove. Barney’s stores were simple— flour, beans, bacon, dried fruits and vegetables, tea, coffee, meat cubes. She stacked them with meticulous precision. She unpacked all her belongings, folded them carefully and repacked them. Then she washed her soiled underthings and made the best toilet possible, having to choose while she bathed—from an eighteen-inch basin on the stove—between semi-darkness if the door were shut and
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an icy wind that scarified her shrinking flesh if it were open.
When she had done everything she could think of, she looked at her watch. Eleven o'clock only. Well, she’d have something to eat and go for a long, long walk.
SHE dressed warmly, laid kindling ready for the fire when she returned, put on her snowshoes and went down the blazed trail to the lake shore, where Barney had set up a mark to make sure she could pick it up coming home. It was a grey day with a little wind that moaned uneasily through the timber. Grey sky, white lake, dark ranks of conifers enclosing it. Cold, bleak, estranged; unutterably lonely. In spite of every effort of her will her heart contracted with the intensity of her loneliness and apprehension. There seemed to be in her vitals an ice-cold mass that dragged her down and sickened her. Though she forced through her mind thoughts reasonable, sensible, they brought no comfort. As in an unhappy dream she trudged on parallel to the shore; a minute, forlorn figure in the vast and hostile solitude.
The wind was freshening. It bit deep and she was cold. All at once she hated the open. Go back to the shack—that was the thing to do.
She turned and hurried back in her own tracks,, and as she did so the shack suddenly, in a queer way, took on the shape of home. It was inviting, all in a moment. It would be snug there, with the fire and tea and Barney’s books. She’d have the loveliest homey time, waiting for him to return. Which book should she start on? She remembered the opening lines of Shakespeare’s Richard The Third: “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York . . . ” She’d always meant to finish that. Now was the time. She pushed on, eager to be back, and in anticipating the amenities of her return contrived to banish the fear that hounded her.
At the blazed tree on the bank she turned and clambered up, hurrying through the mighty timber till the shack appeared, cowering like a hunted rat close to the ground. But when she opened the door her heart sank. For the place repelled her. It gave her no welcome. It was mean, squalid, soulless. Almost nauseated with despair, in frantic haste she lit the fire, crouching above it gratefully as it crackled and roared. She made tea, ate some bannock and prunes from a potful they had cooked the day before.
When she was warm at last, she banked the fire, took off her moccasins and lay down in her eiderdown with Barney’s well-thumbed Shakespeare. But the words were meaningless. Soon her hand drooped and sank. She lay wide-eyed and tense, staring at the sooty poles so close above her. She could not relax, knowing only the tightness at her chest, the clammy horror at her middle. Her thoughts were clear and inexorable, reminding her relentlessly of her strife of wills in Wolverine with Barney, how she had deliberately forced him to the point where he must give her up or go back on his word, given so gravely and so earnestly in Montreal, that he loved her and would devote his life to serving her. Now' she had her way, and already she was appalled at the effect of it.
Presently there came home to her the truth.
She was afraid, simply and unequivocably afraid. She could not control her fear. Yet from it, with honor, there-was no escape for five long months. She must keep the truth concealed from Barney. She must, she must! Else she could never again hold up her head before him.
The two days following were a grey, grim, desolate eternity; her only comfort the assurance that Barney had promised
to be back on the evening of the third day.
As the time drew near she barely could contain her eagerness. And with this came new fears. Suppose he did not come? Suppose he was delayed? She could not bear another night alone. Suppose—it might so easily transpire—some accident happened in the woods and she was left here waiting while he died alone? Two o’clock came. Three. The first grey veils of dusk came softly down. Unable to be still, she was at the door every few minutes. Suppose. Suppose . . .
A long-drawn whistle, thin and clear, came from the timber, and she dashed out to see him plodding home, bent under a heavy load. She ran desperately to him, floundering and stumbling through the deep snow, to cling to his arm and pant beside his laboring figure. At the shack door he wriggled from his burden, and she clung to him in silent fervor while he held her fast. The heaving of her shoulders showed the passion of her thankfulness.
“Did it seem very long, darling?” he asked.
“Oh, yes!” she answered with a tremor in her voice. “It was so strange and lonely.” Then, bravely: “But I kept busy and the time passed. It’s glorious to have you back.”
“It’s heaven for me to come back and find you here.” He was unlashing his bundle—four rigid carcasses, a fox, two mink, a coyote, gathered on the day’s march, and a few pelts from the previous days, skinned at night. “Good catch, this trip. If it keeps up we’ll make some worth-while cash this winter.”
Dinner was done, fire roaring, the tiny shack aglow with yellow candlelight. Barney was skinning his take; an operation nauseating to her in the last degree. The size of the shack would not permit her to remove herself more than a few feet from the reeking carcasses. But she must be at her best for Barney; must conceal her disgust at the foul odor and the gruesome mess. It was all a part of the thing of which she had insisted she was master.
So she lay curled up on the bunk in her eiderdown, watching, aware that, in spite of everything, she was content so long as he was there. And it was again thrust on her consciousness how elementally she loved him. She was of those whom men pursue, and had had many suitors. For years she had followed the modern woman’s way, accepting from men everything, giving nothing in return. She had come to think her feelings for them never could be anything but superficial. But the moment she met Barney, depths hitherto untroubled in her stirred. His mere presence thrilled her, swayed her. From the beginning, willy-nilly, she was his.
He finished his grisly work, heaved the naked carcasses outside, pulled of! his shirt and washed, making himself neat with a clean one under the jumper of blue mackinaw he wore. Then he fed the fire, put on the coffee pot and threw himself down beside her on the bunk. She nestled her head into his shoulder with a great sigh of relief. The mackinaw -was rough beneath her cheek, his arm hard around her. The contact with his clean virility took from her instantly the last remnant of her unhappiness.
“Oh, this is wonderful! This makes it all worth while. Hold me. Talk to me. What shall we do tomorrow? Let’s make it a perfect day !”
“Sorry, darlin’, but I just must start out again in the morning. Can’t get round if I lose time.”
Vehement and frantic protest sprang to her lips, which she put down with stubborn desperation for her pride’s sake. But the evening’s joy was ruined, in her apprehension of drear, empty days to come.
TN THE pale dawn next morning, as she •** helped him into his kit, she contrived to smile though every fibre of her moaned in protest. She contrived even some
brave, small gaieties. He kissed her. “So long, darlin’. Don’t let the ho-dag grab you. I’ll try and get a deer on my way back and we’ll have liver and bacon and a tot of rum to celebrate.”
She watched him trudge off with his burden. At the forest’s edge he turned and raised his arm. Then he was gone, and fear and emptiness returned.
Early on the second day it began to blow and snow with ominously increasing volume. By two o’clock there was a screaming gale; the shack so dark she had to light the candle. Peering out through the glass, she could see nothing but the flurry of white flakes against blank dark. She tried to read, tried desperately to concentrate. But the vindictive howl and pressure of the wind distracted her. It seemed to heave and worry at the shack like a wild beast ravening to enter, and all her will power failed to give her confidence. She crouched, scared and tense, above the stove, haunted by a vision of Barney stumbling alone through the shrieking darkness, freezing and lost to her forever.
When the snow began she had carried in a supply of wood, but by and by this was exhausted and she had to go out for more. Now she appreciated the real significance of Barney’s warning. Even with the pile against the shack itself, if she had not kept her hand on the wall she would have been lost in a moment in the icy and vindictive chaos.
Staggering through the doorway with her burden, the wind swooped into the shack, set the pots rattling and blew out the candle. She dropped the wood, slammed shut the door—and could not find the matches. While she groped the door again crashed open, filling the place with wind and whirling snow. She battled it shut and continued her search for matches. The fire was getting low, there was no light from it. Realizing she was close to panic, she stopped, stood upright in the inky dark and braced herself, saying over and over, “I must keep my head. I must! I must!” Then she went at it again, searching methodically every inch of the hut, till with a leap of thankfulness she felt the box, lit the lantern, and with shaking hands replenished the fire.
Compared with the hostile darkness and the pitiless wind, the light and the nowroaring stove were blissful. The blizzard showed no signs of waning. She could not go to bed but sat hour after hour, crouched by the stove, making herself coffee, trying to read, to think—anything to master the fear that rode her.
In vain she told herself that there was nothing to fear, that any sane person could wait there in comfort and patience with the books and the fire till Barney returned. It was no use. She could achieve no mental rest whatever.
It was long after daylight when the wind died. She put on her things and went out, wading waist-deep through the drift. The shack was a mere mound of snow, with smoke pouring from its apex. The entire landscape was changed in outline by the snowdrifts. It was now deathly still, black spruce against white snow under a bleak blue sky, hushed yet potent, in the last degree lonely. The scars of her progress through the drifts seemed vandalism against the finished and immaculate work of nature.
How had Barney fared alone in the woods through those tempestuous and freezing hours? Could any man survive? Her apprehension sickened her. Yet there was an entire day to wait before he might return. She was thrown back, despairing, on her spirit’s last resource; everything swept from her consciousness but the desire to see him safe again and the fear that she would not be so blessed.
The hours dragged by, a drear, sick emptiness, through which fear rode her unrelenting.
By dusk she was numb with weariness, too distraught even to think. A piercing whistle brought her to her feet, quivering to the last nerve, big-eyed and tremulous,
to see his laden figure plodding past the window.
She met him in the doorway, flung her arms around him.
“Darling, darling ! I’ve been so worried. That awful blizzard! Whatever did you do?”
“Slept, of course. Rolled in my eiderdown in the lee of a log and had a darn good snooze, and ate raisins and chocolate between whiles. That’s why I carry ’em.”
His robust non-concern was like a slap in the face to her, and as she helped him off with his pack she was conscious of anger, potent and cutting, though whether it was at him or herself or at circumstances merely, she could not say.
He had been as good as his word about the deer, and her neglect of herself in his absence made her ravenous. Liver and bacon, with fried onions, bannock, stewed apricots and rum-laced coffee, was delectable and satisfying. Again after dinner, as they lay warm and drowsy on the bunk, there stole over her that deep and satisfying joy in him that the first homecoming had brought. She loved him, was content in him, past pain was all made sweet.
By and by she ventured: “You don’t have to start away tomorrow, do you? You’ll take a rest after such a very hard trip?”
“ ’Fraid not, sweetheart. Must keep the ball rolling. If Fineberg’s let me down we’ll need every penny I can make to get our start next spring.”
Sick misery descended on her. But, for her pride’s sake, she kept silent; sliding her arms about him and clinging as to the last firm thing in a reeling universe.
In the morning her protest at his preparations for departure surged in her throat like a living thing, leashed only by the failing tether of her pride. As he kissed her good-by she could not speak for it, and she took her lip between her teeth to keep her mouth from shaking. She stood rigid in the doorway till the last flicker of his movement disappeared among the tree trunks, then stumbled in and fell on her knees beside the bunk. All the emotion pent up during the past week burst forth in sobbing. She sobbed, not in her throat, but deep in her chest, rendingly, in utter abandonment of restraint.
Someone had called, she realized faintly through her grief. She turned. Barney stood there, dressed for the trail, with the snow fallen from the branches thick on his shoulders.
“I came back for my skinnin’ knife,” he said with a curious despondency in his tone.
She rose with a single movement and flung herself into his arms.
“Oh, Barney! Hold me. Hold me close! I need it so.”
His lean arms closed about her. He did not speak or move, but his mere touch ravished her. She felt sympathy, love and pity surge from his spirit to her succor.
Her sobs ceased by and by and she raised her head. He put her to arm’s length, regarding her with eyes hurt and despairing. That look in his usually smiling face braced her as a plunge in icy water might have done. It shocked her and wounded her, clearing her brain instantaneously. Barney was disappointed in her. She had fallen short of his code,
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failed him and betrayed herself. Never again could she be in his eyes quite the same.
He said: “I was a fool to let you come.
I should not have let this happen at any cost.”
A new and appalling thought sprang into her brain—she might even lose him— and she summoned her uttermost resource in denial of it. To gain time and collect herself she said: “What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean. I begged you not to come.”
“Oh, don’t be silly, Barney. It’s all right. Can’t a woman have a quiet cry all by herself? Of course I’m lonely. You don’t expect otherwise, do you? I was feeling badly because I’d split with dad, and I hated to see you go again. So I just cried. If you don’t know, you’ll learn that a woman just must cry once in a while.”
His face did not change, regarding her steadily. And she realized miserably that for those first few moments after his return her guard had been down. He had seen and recognized the truth. He was not deceived. He knew that she regretted her adventure, that she was afraid; knew she had lost her nerve as soon as he had left her. She knew his code, knew that his love for her meant that he took for granted in her all the virtues which he venerated—loyalty, endurance, faith. Now he thought her a weakling, a piker. From this hour she would appear a different being to him.
She heard her voice say, as from a great distance.
“Where did you leave the knife? Better be on your way, else you’ll be late coming back. I’d hate it if you didn’t come before dark.” She found the knife and gave it to him, kissed him and led him hesitating to the door.
He said dubiously: “I hate to leave you now. ,1’H take a day off, shall I?” She could see in his face that he was thinking, “If a week did this to her, what will five months do?”
“You will not,” she countered. “We need every penny we can make this winter, don’t we? Off with you. I want to finish my cry in peace.”
ALONE again, she found that this J new and rampant fear of losing Barney dominated the fear of loneliness and, seeking some respite, flung herself into her pathetic small routine of housekeeping. Presently in the act of stooping down she stopped and stood rigid. Ridiculous! But—there it was again. It was. There were bells, coming nearer. She dashed to the door to behold, trotting up the trail from the lake, a dog team driven by a squat and shambling figure that at once she recognized.
Thaler drew up and pulled off his mangy cap.
“Goot day, Missis Barney. You don’ tank to see me in here, huh?”
“I certainly did not! Please come in. Barney has just left for the trap line.”
“I forst hitch der team. Den I gom in.”
As he led the dogs away she put on the coffee pot. The visit was to her utterly unexpected, for Barney had said they would see no one once they were in.
Presently Thaler came, his awkward bulk filling the doorway.
“Come in, Mr. Thaler. There’ll be coffee in a minute.”
Thaler unbuttoned his coat and fumbled in his pocket, producing an envelope.
“Barney say w’en he leave if this gom for him I bring it if I can get t’rough.”
She took the envelope. It was a telegram, addressed to Barney at Wolverine. Whatever could it be? Thaler said: “I feed der dogs. Den, if you say, I go after ; Barney. Cadge ’im in won hour, wit dot team!” He waddled out again, leaving her staring at the envelope.
She ought to open it, she thought. She must open it.
It was from Barney’s lawyers. The bald, blue letters on the paper read:
“Congratulations. Fineberg’s took up option. Cheque received this morning. Vyner, Martin Co.”
Her throat was dry, her lips shaking. Thus meant they had twenty thousand dollars cash. Barney had explained the deal to her. It was finished. Everything had come right. They could go out with Thaler, back to Montreal, and begin life as they had planned to do. No dread, lonely winter in the wilderness, and at the end no starting on what little the winter’s trapping yielded.
She sank down on the bunk foot, the wire in her hand, staring before her with eyes that did not see. Suddenly she wished with passion that the morning’s incident had not occurred. Everything would have been perfect then. He would never have suspected her weakness and her failure. And he did suspect. That thought was with her inexorably. And following on it came another, grimmer.
He did suspect. He did doubt her spirit. And now he would never know what the truth was. If they went out now, he would be overjoyed with relief, would deluge her with passion and with kindness. But underneath it all would be the memory of a doubt that some day might serve them very ill.
Conviction came upon her with finality and a great and calm resolve. Astonishingly, it was borne to her that she did not want to leave this shack until his doubt of her was ended. Of all desires within her the strongest was that she should be what he had believed she was, and of all fears the grimmest that she might fail him.
Thaler appeared in the doorway. Her eyes were wide and starry, bright in her face, which was drawn with the stress of past days but more beautiful than ever. She had come to these woods a girl. She was a woman now, knowing a woman’s glories—passion, labor, love and sacrifice.
She said to Thaler: “It won’t be necessary for you to go for Barney, thank you so much.”
“No? Den I start back qvick. Jus’ one more snow and I don’ make it. She gom any time from now.”
She gave him food and watched him mush off down the trail, then read the telegram again. She smiled softly to herself and stowed it in the bottom of her dressing case.
TT WAS five months later. They stood in the shack door, arm in arm, while Barney looked up at the sky and sniffed the soft south wind.
“That’s spring in the air. Smell it? Old Man Thaler will be in here soon to take you out.” Her arm slid round his shoulders. “It’s been a great old winter, sweetheart,” he went on. “I never saw such fur nor so much of it. Even if Fineberg’s welsh on me we won’t be so badly off.”
“And you’re not sorry I came in?”
He snatched her to him. “Sorry? I never dreamed that any woman had it in her to stick as you’ve done. Way back in December, that day I saw you crying, I was deadly scared you’d cracked already. For ten cents I’d have risked trying to get you out. But I needn’t have worried. You’ve got courage to burn.” She slipped out from his arms and went inside, soon to return with an envelope.
“This is for you. Thaler brought it that very day.”
As he read, his jaw dropped and his eyes widened. He turned to her with sheer amazement on his every feature. “This came that day? Then why—?” “You were right then, Barney. I was cracking. But that day I realized that I feared failing you more than I feared winter in the shack. I knew if we went out with Thaler, all your life you’d have doubt of me. So I just hid it and went on as though it hadn’t come.”
Barney stood silently before her, his head bent, humble and reverent, as before holiness.