A Girl of the North. A Story of London and Canada
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The trap swayed and jolted, for the road was bad. They were tearing along; the wind was behind them, and they could hear the crackle which was getting nearer, rising to a hideous roar. A river crossed the road below the hill – had they time to get to it?
Paul wrapped the rug round his companion, put it over her head, and covered her mouth.
“Keep it tight,” he exclaimed, “and sit still.”
Then he began to use his whip, having tied his own handkerchief over his mouth. Micmac was going more slowly in spite of the whip; it seemed as if he were terrified and paralysed by the pursuing fiend.
“You are not afraid,” said Paul with difficulty, through his handkerchief.
“No,” gasped Launa, “not with you.”
He put his hand on her shoulder.
“Keep your mouth well covered; the fire is before us. We must go through it.”
On, on they tore; the smoke almost choked her. It was so terribly thick that Paul could not see Micmac, though his eyes burnt, and he kept them open with difficulty. Then the flames ran up a dead pine tree in front of him, and shed a lurid light through the smoke. The heat was intense; he shut his smarting eyes, and trusted Micmac would keep the road.
“Oh, if the bridge – a wooden bridge – were not down!” “Were not down!” repeated itself; “Were not down!”
They were in the midst of the fire now; the roaring was tremendous, and the trees were flaming and crackling on all sides. Paul covered his eyes with one hand, and used the whip with the other. It was like the finish of a race, a race for life, down the hill at a gallop. But the bridge? It had already caught, and the wood was smoking, when Micmac stopped with a jerk, and Paul jumped out and took hold of him.
“You must, old boy, you must,” he murmured. “Once over we are pretty safe. Good horse, good horse!”
The trembling Micmac refused again; the bridge was hot, and frightened him. Then he went at it with a rush, with Paul still at his head, half-running, half-dragged by the horse. The river was wide, and the wind was from the north, blowing the fire down on them over the road, but not across the stream in the direction in which they were going.
Paul got into the trap quickly, and Micmac galloped on and on and on until, though the smoke was still thick, they were safe. At last Paul pulled up, and looked back. The road along which they had come was a sheet of flame, and he shuddered as he thought of what might have happened. There were so many pine trees to burn, and to fall burning, while the side of the river on which they were was covered with alder bushes and rocks, and the wind, too, was blowing that way.
“Now!” he gasped hoarsely, for his throat was dry and parched. “Now!”
And Launa threw off her rug. Paul was black, his face was flaming and smutty, his cap had blown off, and his hair stood on end. Her rug was singed. Micmac had a burn, where a piece of wood had fallen on him, and he was trembling when Launa got out and patted him, talking while she did it.
“My darling,” murmured Paul, going up to her, “you are safe; you behaved like an angel.”
He looked at his hands and did not touch her.
“So did Micmac.Look at him, and you – you are burnt, your hands are sore. Oh, I am so sorry! Do, do drive back to ‘Solitude,’ and – and – ”
“Oh, drive back!” she said.
They took a short cut across a half made road, and so got behind the fire. Paul talked very little, and she not at all, though she heard “My darling” over and over again, and wondered.
Paul stayed at “Solitude,” and after dinner Launa, Whitey, and he sat on the veranda and watched the fire, still burning in the distance. The whole sky was in a blaze, but luckily the wind was dying down. They could see the flames running from tree to tree; they could hear the roar, but they were quite safe, for the water was between them. In the dark, Paul silently, secretly took her hand, and they talked to Miss Black of the annual regatta, and of Canadian ferns. A few stars blazed high up in the sky, the others were dimmed by the lurid glow, and the aspen tree quivered in the dying breeze, while the waves of the incoming tide tapped the boats gently below.
Launa felt in that state of happiness, which says, “Last, last, last.”
The annual regatta came off that year in July. Everyone knows the St. Aspenquid Regatta. There were the usual boat races, and excitements and innocent fooleries; but the best of all was the canoe race for the championship of Canada. Paul Harvey had entered for it with his friend Jack Howston.
Before the start they both came to the steam launch, from which Launa was viewing the races. Harvey, with his strong half-brown, half-white arms bare above his elbows, looked like work. After a word or two with Launa, as she leaned down to him, they paddled away to the start. She heard the pistol shot and the hoarse murmur of the crowd, proclaiming the race had begun. Far away in the distance the brown canoes could be seen; Launa watched breathlessly as they came nearer. The paddles flashed in the sun and on the gleaming dancing water. To Launa, the long, strong, slow strokes with the absence of haste was maddening; she stood, not daring to move, watching the white forms as they came nearer, nearer, the iron muscles in each man showing up as he paddled on and on. Paul’s canoe was third in the contest.
“Third,” announced Launa. Her voice sounded level, she was just able to hide her apprehension lest he might fail, and her longing for his success, which, nevertheless, made her desirous of burying her face in her hands until the race was over. Her hostess, Mrs. Montmorency, stood near her, serene, alert, and slight, enjoying her successful party with a little interest in the races, and a little curiosity as to Launa’s attitude towards Paul Harvey.
The men ahead were doing their utmost; in the second canoe, too, they were working hard; but the men in the dark canoe seemed to be dead, dull – what was it?
The crowd shouted “St. John, St. John!” for the canoe owned by that town was in front. Disappointment was in the cry. But suddenly the third canoe gave a spring; it shot forward with a leap, and a bound, and a swirl through the water, and then on and on. The two men were working, straining. They passed the second canoe, and the finish was near; the strong sinews under the arms of the two men showed up clearly. Had they waited too long?.. On they crept, and at last with a final, splendid rush – oh, the ease of it, the seeming lack of effort – the brown canoe shot ahead of the other. They had won, won. Amid shrieks, cheers, and waving of handkerchiefs the heroes, the winners paddled away to change.
Launa had been on the verge of tears, caused by excitement, fear, apprehension, and heaven knows what besides. She was unable to drink her tea because of a lump in her throat. Paul paddled alone over to her, and climbed on board the Lethe.
“You’ve won,” she said. “I am very glad.”
“And so am I – glad. I am more than glad. It means good luck; it means I shall win my heart’s desire; it means – ” he almost said “You.”
Launa did not answer; she gave him her hand as if they had met for the first time, and he held it longer than a man does when saying, “How do you do?” It was like an involuntary childish caress.
He stayed with her until it was time for the single canoe race, for which he was acting umpire. She was sweet, with a delightful unexpectedness which fascinated him, as did her varying good looks, her firm, lithe body.
“I wish they had a ladies’ canoe race,” he said. “You would enter for it, would you not?”
“They will certainly have one next year, and you will win.”
“I must go,” he said with regret. “But I shall soon come back.”
“We shall leave soon now,” said Mrs. Montmorency. “Will you come and dine at Paradise to-morrow, Paul? We are going over there, and shall drive home by moonlight. Perhaps you will come and meet us?”
“Thank you,” he replied. “I will.”
Then he got into his canoe, and Launa watched him paddle away with slow strokes – regretful strokes they seemed to her. His paddling was so unlike that of the other men, so strong, and his body swayed to the motion. Mrs. Montmorency brought up a Mr. Evans and introduced him to Launa. He was a young Englishman, with a respect for the institutions of his country, a love for his dinner, and for pretty women.
He began by asking whether Launa considered Miss Montmorency pretty, and whether she liked Wagner. His theories were that a man can tell a woman’s character most quickly from her ideas on the subject of other women, as well as from the music she affects.
Near them sat Mr. Archer and the hostess talking. Launa heard a word here and there as she listened to Mr. Evans’ agreeable remarks, and then she heard her father say:
“Harvey is a fool or worse. The Indians will not stand it. Peter Joe came to me about it; he says he would kill him, only that he is sure he would be hanged for it.”
“You think they will take some quiet revenge,” said Mrs. Montmorency, “and more deadly.”
“Yes, I do.”
“In their mind a child constitutes marriage?”
“If its father does not want to marry anyone else,” he answered. “They will be satisfied if he lets things alone, but he won’t.”
“He does want to marry?”
“I think so. Money will considerably improve his house, and pay off some of the mortgages; he will, I expect, take a wife with money.”
“It is terrible, and such a pity. I always liked Mr. Harvey for his mother’s sake, and I have ever made him welcome.”
“I advised him to marry her – the squaw,” said Mr. Archer. “It will finish him socially, but in other ways it will make a man of him. Harvey is – ”
Here they walked away to the bow of the Lethe, and Launa’s companion talked on, and she answered him.
She impressed him with her interest, her air of being fascinated by him, and all the while she was in torment. Harvey had held her hand! She took off her pale tan suede glove and threw it into the water. It burnt her; her hands felt hot.
Her quick action puzzled Mr. Evans.
“Miss Archer, your glove! Is it a challenge? Do you mean me to go after it?”
“No, no,” she answered. “I hate it; I do not want it. Oh, we are going.”
The Lethe had steam up, and was puffing and moving slowly.
“I am so glad. It is very hot. How cool the air is.”
They passed Paul in his canoe. He waved his hand to Launa, who was staring into the water, and appeared absorbed in the depths or in her companion.
That night Launa could not sleep. She was so angry with Paul Harvey and with herself; she loathed herself. Her ideas of men and their passions were those of a young girl, to whom passion is unknown, to whom men appear as gods. She considered a man must love a woman by whom he has a child. Love, love! Paul was the father of a squaw’s child – of a squaw’s child; it reiterated in her brain until she almost writhed with anguish. She had thought of him as always her own. The shame of it! And worse than shame, the pain, because she would have to give him up. Oh, to get home! To be able to wander about alone! Away on the big barrens where she could move as she liked, and tire herself out. Their wind-laden sweetness would revive her, their vastness would bring peace; she was so tired of the life away from “Solitude.” She forgot how much joy hope had always given to her. She had hoped. The past tense is easily conjugated once, but to live in the past for ever, to regret for ever is torment, death-like torment. She resolved not to regret, not to suffer, and so she read Carlyle until daylight.
Next day Mrs. Montmorency’s party drove to Paradise. There were wonderful beech woods in which to walk. Paul met them there. His first look was for Launa; she was standing talking to two men, and he joined them and waited with patience, until at last he asked her to go for a walk.
“No, thank you,” she said. “I am too tired to walk.”
“I want to show you the trees. Come into the wood and sit down, you can rest there.”
“Well, I will walk,” she answered.
She looked at him with an involuntary air of appeal. She was not afraid of him, she assured herself, only afraid of herself. Some day he might tell her things, ask her questions, and she, through weakmindedness, might answer. They started to walk, and she still meditated. Why should she think he cared for her? Ah yes, and why did she want him to care? These questions opened an endless vista of ideas and feelings before her. She felt indifferent for the moment, as no doubt he did.
“The view is lovely,” she exclaimed at last. “Let us go to the village.”
“What are you thinking about?” he asked, coming nearer and looking at her.
“Of many things. I think in heaven I should miss the sweetness of the air which is here.”
“So should I.”
They walked down the road past a cluster of Indian cottages. A young squaw with a baby in her arms sat in front of one of them. Launa looked at her and at the child; its hair was more curly, and not quite so black as the long, straight locks of Indian children.
“What a queer baby!” she exclaimed.
She looked at her companion. He was digging with his stick in the red clay of the road; his eyes were hidden; a red flush mounted to his forehead, and he was singularly embarrassed. She turned away and walked slowly on, followed by him in silence.
“What is that noise?” she said.
They heard a sound like a moan quite near them, and it grew louder; something – some animal – was suffering intensely.
“Look!” she cried.
In a ditch by the roadside lay a horse, thin, so thin that his bones seemed as if they would come through his skin. A few children clustered round, throwing stones at it at intervals and poking it with sticks. Blood slowly oozed from a wound in its head, and its poor body was covered with sores.
“Do something,” she said, and her voice quivered with the horror of it. “Can’t we put it out of its misery? Whose horse is it?”
Paul had driven away the children, and gone close to it.
“Someone has half shot it; it must be in torture.”
“Go and borrow a rifle,” she said. “I will stay here and keep away those little fiends. Do go.”
“You are not afraid?”
“Afraid? No, only so sorry. What horrible, unavailing suffering! Go, and be quick.”
He walked briskly away, and she strolled up and down. The children came near to stare at her, but they ceased to torment the horse. She could not bear its eyes; they seemed to beg of her to kill it, and she could do nothing. She clasped her hands together with such force that they hurt her as she longed and longed for Paul’s return. It began to grow dusk. She had forgotten tea, and the rest of the party – would they be looking for her, and imagining all sorts of things? Meanwhile the horse’s moans grew louder; the young squaw with the baby came slowly down the road – the baby was crying.
Launa asked if she knew who owned the horse.
“A man named Morris, who lives down the road four miles away. He turned him out to die; he is too old to work or eat.”
The baby wailed.
“Your child is ill,” said Launa.
“Yes,” grunted the girl, who was so young and almost pretty; “my grandmother cursed him.”
“Because of his father, he – ”
“Oh,” interrupted the other, “will Paul never come? If he would only be quick.”
She could not bear these revelations. The moans of the horse and the shrill misery of the child were torturing her.
Someone suddenly threw a stone from behind the shelter of a spruce tree; it struck the horse, which gave a sharp scream. In the distance Launa heard footsteps. She ran down the road. It was Paul.
“I am so glad you have come,” she said breathlessly, quickly. “Hurry. Did you get a rifle?”
“Are you glad?” his voice changed. “Yes, I have it.”
“The horse is suffering so terribly.”
He looked at her with a certain wistfulness which was unusual.
He is going to tell me he is sorry for that, she thought, remembering the squaw and the child who had come near them.
“Go, go and put him out of his misery,” she said, with quick anger and excitement. “There is so much torture, so much suffering for animals, women, and children. Oh, God! it is awful!”
He turned and saw the Indian girl.
“You,” he said merely, but with bitterness, almost hatred, in his tone. “Go away.”
“You are a brute,” said Launa, “to talk to her in that way. What has she done? Go and kill the horse.”
“Not until you are further away,” he said, with gentleness. “He may, and probably will, scream. That woman is not fit for you to talk to or to touch.”
For one moment Launa felt afraid, and she wanted to ask him to come with her down the road out of earshot, away from it all. The twilight was growing dense. The horse would scream; ugh! how horrible the suffering! There were witches abroad in the night – witches of selfishness, of pain, of terror. She wanted Paul to put his arms round her, to kiss her, even with the girl near with his child in her arms. She felt degraded, and yet loath to let him leave her, until she remembered the horse.
“Come with me,” said Paul, and he took her hand and led her down the road. “There is a big rock here. You will wait for me? Sit down and I will wrap your cloak round you; you are cold.”
Her teeth chattered with apprehension as he walked firmly back. She listened with her fingers in her ears, hearing only the thump of her heart beating. One, two sharp reports and a sort of checked scream told her it was over before he came back.
They walked quickly to the hotel, where the rest of the party were waiting dinner. They were curious as well as hungry, and anxious to hear the result of all this wood walking. They discovered nothing; neither Launa nor Paul appeared happy, or at ease. He ate his dinner with indifference; she ate nothing, and felt as if all her body, beginning with her teeth, was beyond her control.
Before they left to drive home he said: —
“You misunderstood me to-night. I want to tell you about that squaw.”
“I know it. Do not tell me.”
“You are angry with me because of her. I could not help it.”
“I despise a man who could not help it,” she answered. “I am sorry for her and for you. You could shoot the horse.”
“You are angry about her?” he asked again.
“I am outraged, not merely angry. Why,” she continued suddenly, “should there be one law for me and one for her? I could not bear anyone who treated her claim as nothing. She will belong to you, be one of you – ” she paused.
“I would never treat her claim as of no value,” he said quickly, “but – ”
“You will never come again to me,” she said.
Had she said too much? Would he understand? She continued:
“Do not explain. Be careful – they may think of revenge.”
“That is enough. And so it is good-bye? Good-bye, then.”
Mrs. Montmorency took Launa home with her in the brougham. They talked about clothes, while Launa remembered the queer dark evening, the half-pretty Indian girl, and heard the wailing sobs of her baby, and then she saw Paul’s face full of anger. Love was there, hatred as well, as he said, “Go away,” to the girl. She shuddered, and he thought her angry – simply angry – good that he could think she felt so slight an emotion. Women are angry every day with their maids, and their dressmakers, and their rivals, and it leaves no impression, not even a wrinkle; there remains no ache whatever, unless it be weariness.
“I love crepon,” she said to Mrs. Montmorency. “It is so soft and graceful.”
Paul Harvey did not go again to “Solitude.” Miss Black lamented his absence loudly. From inquiries she made she learned that he had gone away to the Restigouche with some Englishmen to fish.
Launa took up shorthand as a sedative, and worked with great diligence. But she learned nothing. However, as neither her father nor Miss Black was aware of this, because of their utter ignorance of shorthand, its failure as an attainable subject caused no surprise to them.
Mr. Archer went to New York, and then Launa frequently took long wandering walks – over stretches of rocky country with narrow, gloomy, cuttings full of granite boulders, where there were caves.
One day she went, in her canoe, up a stream, until she reached a chain of lakes where she could paddle on and on – far away into space – where the stillness was maddening yet restful.
The peace of autumn, of approaching death, lay on the woods. The maples, with their gorgeous colouring, shone and flamed in the bright sun; the birches were yellow, almost gold, in the brilliant light; occasionally a leaf fell slowly, it reminded Launa of a ghost of the end; there was dread in the creeping slowness, as of the invincible, powerful march of a quiet enemy. The breeze sprung up gently, it rippled the water, and stirred the tall pine trees slowly with a rhythmic movement, and the sun began to sink. She gazed again and again at the warm rapturous colouring, the triumph of the trees at the end of their summer life, for the leaves have a glorious finish, and then she turned her canoe round and paddled swiftly back to “Solitude.”
Everything there was in confusion; Miss Black had been taken suddenly ill. She was still unconscious, and they had sent for the doctor, who arrived only to tell them she was dead.
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