There lies mid-way between parallels 48 and 49 of latitude, and degrees 89 and 90 of longitude, in the northern hemisphere of the New World, serenely anchored on an ever-rippling and excited surface, an exquisitely lovely island. No tropical wonder of palm-treed stateliness, or hot tangle of gaudy bird and glowing creeper, can compare with it; no other northern isle, cool and green and refreshing to the eye like itself, can surpass it. It is not a large island. It is about half-a-mile long and quarter of a mile broad. It is an irregular oval in shape, and has two distinct and different sides. On the west side its grey limestone rises to the height of twenty feet straight out of the water. On the east side there occurs a gradual shelving of a sumach-fringed shore, that mingles finally with the ever-rippling water. For the waters in this northern country are never still. They are perpetually bubbling up and boiling over; seething and fuming and frothing and foaming and yet remaining so cool and clear that a quick fancy would discover thousands of banished fountains under that agitated and impatient surface. Both ends of the island are as much alike as its sides are dissimilar. They taper off almost to a distinct blade-point of rock, in which a mere doll’s flagstaff of a pine-tree grows; then comes a small detached rock, with a small evergreen on it, then a still smaller rock, with a tuft of grass, then a line of partially submerged stones, and so out to the deep yet ever-bubbling water. This island might seem just the size for two, and there were two on it on a certain July morning at five o’clock. One of these was a lady who lay at full length and fast asleep [page 40] upon a most unique couch. These northern islands are in many places completely covered with a variety of yellowish-green moss, varying from a couple of inches to a foot and a half in thickness; and yielding to the pressure of the foot or the body as comfortably as a feather bed, if not more so, being elastic in nature. A large square of this had been cut up from some other part of the island and placed on the already moss-grown and cushioned ground, serving as a mattress, while two smaller pieces served as pillows. A sumach tree at the head of the improvised couch gave the necessary shade to the face of the sleeper, while a wild grape-vine, after having run over and encircled with its moist green every stone and stem on the island, fulfilled its longing at length in a tumultuous possession of the sumach, making a massive yet aërial patched green curtain or canopy to the fantastic bed, and ending seemingly in two tiny transparent spirals curling up to the sky.
If there was a fault in the structure it was that it was too clever, too well thought out, too rectangular, too much in fact like a bed. But it told certainly of a skilful pair of hands of a beautiful mind and the union of art with nature perfectly suited the charms—contradictory yet consistent—of the occupant. For being anything but a beautiful woman she was still far from a plain one, which though no original mode of putting it does convey the actual impression she made upon a gentleman in a small boat who rowing past this island at the hour of five o’clock in the morning was so much struck with this curious sight, quite visible from the water below, that he was rude enough to stand up that he might see better. The lady was dressed in some dark blue stuff that evidently covered her all over and fitted tightly where it could be seen. A small linen collar, worn all night and therefore shorn of its usual freshness was round her neck, and she was tucked up from the waist under a Scotch woollen rug. Her hair, of a peculiar red-brown, was allowed to hang about her and was lovely; her mouth sad; her nose, rather too prominent; her complexion natural and healthy, but marred by freckles and moles, not many of either but undeniably scattered over the countenance. All told her eyes which, if they proved to match with her hair, would atone for these other shortcomings. The gentleman sat down again and reflected.
“How still it is!” he said under his breath. “Absolutely [page 41] not a thing stirring. This is the time when the fish bite. I ought to be fishing I suppose. Going to be warm by-and-bye.”
It was indeed almost absolutely silent. The sun climbed higher but the lady slept on, and the gentleman gazed as if fascinated. The only sound that broke the beautiful early morning silence was the occasional weird laugh of the loon. It came twice and then a third time. The sleeper stirred.
“If that thing out there cries again she will wake,” said the gentleman to himself. “I must be off before that happens. But I should like to see her eyes. What a pretty picture it is!” Once more the loon gave its maniacal laugh and the lady started, sat bolt upright and wide awake. Her admirer had not time to retreat but he took his oars up and confronted her manfully. It was an awkward moment. He apologized. The lady listened very politely. Then she smiled.
“Most of the islands in this lake are owned by private people,” she said, “who use them during the summer months for the purpose of camping out upon them. I should advise you, if you row about much here, to keep to the open water, unless you wish to be seriously handled by the fathers and mothers of families.”
“Thank you very much,” returned the gentleman, standing up in his boat, “I assure you I intended no rudeness, but I have never seen so charming a summer couch before, and I was really fascinated by the—ah,—the picture you made. May I ask what you mean by ‘camping out’? Is it always done in this fashion?”
The lady stared. “Have you never camped out?”
“Never in my life,” said the gentleman. “I am an Englishman, staying at the hotel near the point for a day or two. I came out to see something of the country.”
“Then you should at least have camped out for a week or so. That is a genuine Canadian experience,” said the lady with a frankness which completely restored the equanimity of the Englishman.
“But how do you live?” he went on in a puzzled manner that caused the lady with the red-brown hair, still all hanging about her, much amusement.
“O, capitally! Upon fish and eggs, and gooseberry tarts, and home-made bread and French coffee. Just what you would get in town, and much better than you get at the hotel.”
“O, that would be easy!” the gentleman groaned. “I eat my meals in a pitch-dark room, in deadly fear and horror of the [page 42] regiments of flies that swarm in and settle on everything the minute one raises the green paper blinds.”
The lady nodded. “I know. We tried it for two or three seasons, but we could not endure it; the whole thing, whitewash and all, is so trying, isn’t it? So we bought this lovely island and bring our tent here and live so comfortably.” The gentleman did not reply at once. He was thinking that it was his place to say “Good morning,” and go, although he would much have liked to remain a little longer. He hazarded the remark:
“Now, for instance, what are you going to breakfast on presently?”
The lady laughed lightly and shook her red-brown hair.
“First of all I have to make a fire.”
“But that is not so very difficult.”
“How do you do it?”
“Would you like to know?”
“Very much indeed. I should like to see, if I may.”
The lady reflected a moment. “I suppose you may, but if you do, you ought to help me, don’t you think?” The gentleman much amused and greatly interested.
“Ah but you see, it is you I want to see make it. I am very useless you know at that sort of thing, still, if you will allow me, I will try my best. Am I to come ashore?”
“Certainly, if you are to be of any use.”
The lady jumped lightly off the pretty couch of moss and wound her plentiful hair round her head with one turn of her arm. Her dress was creased but well-fitting, her figure not plump enough for beauty but decidedly youthful. She watched her new friend moor his boat and ascend with one or two strides of his long legs up the side of the cliff that was not so steep. He took off his hat.
“I am at your service,” he said with a profound bow. The lady made him another, during which all her long hair fell about her again, at which they both laughed.
“What do we do first?” said he.
“O we find a lot of sticks and pieces of bark, mostly birch bark, and anything else that will burn—you may have to fell a tree while you are about it—and I’ll show you how to place them properly between two walls of stones, put a match to them and there is our fire. Will you come with me?” [page 43]
He assented of course, and they were soon busy in the interior of the little wood that grew up towards the centre of the island. I must digress here to say that the gentleman’s name was Amherst. He was known to the world in latter life as Admiral Amherst, and he was a great friend of mine. When he related this story to me, he was very particular in describing the island as I have done—indeed he carried a little chart about him of it which he had made from memory, and he told me besides that he never forgot the peculiar beauty of that same little tract of wood. The early hour, the delicious morning air, the great moss-grown and brown decaying tree trunks, the white, clammy, ghostly, flower or fungus of the Indian Pipe at his feet, the masses of ferns, the elastic ground he trod upon, and the singular circumstance that he was alone in this exquisite spot with a woman he had never seen until five minutes previously, all combined to make an ineffaceable impression upon his mind. The lady showed herself proficient in the art of building a fire and attended by Amherst soon had a fine flame rising up from between the fortifications evidently piled by stronger hands than her own.
“What do we do now?” asked Amherst. “I should suggest—a kettle.”
“Of course, that is the next step. If I give it you, you might run and fill it, eh?”
“Delighted!” and away went Amherst. When he returned the lady was not to be seen. The place was shorn of its beauty, but he waited discreetly and patiently, putting the kettle on to boil in the meanwhile.
“It’s very singular,” said he, “how I come to be here. I wonder who are with her in her party; no one else appears to be up or about. That striped red and white thing is the tent, I see, over there. Ah! that’s where she has gone, and now she beckons me! Oh! I’ll go, but I don’t want to meet the rest of them!”
But when he reached the tent, it was quite empty, save for rugs and wraps, boxes, etc., and the lady was laughingly holding out a loaf of bread in one hand and a paper package in the other.
“You will stay and breakfast with me?” “What will you give me?” said Amherst, smiling. “I can only give you eggs, boiled in the kettle, coffee and bread and butter. The fish haven’t come in yet.” [page 44]
“What can be nicer than eggs—especially when boiled in the kettle, that is, if you make the coffee first.”
“Certainly I do.”
“And it is really French coffee?”
“Really. Café des Gourmets, you know; we—I always use it—do not like any other.”
Amherst was fast falling in love. He told me that at this point his mind was quite made up that if it were possible he would remain in the neighbourhood a few days at least, in order to see more of this charming girl. She seemed to him to be about twenty-six or seven, and so frank, simple and graceful, one could not have resisted liking her. Her hair and eyes were identical in colour and both were beautiful; her expression was arch and some of her gestures almost childish, but a certain dignity appeared at times and sat well upon her. Her hands were destitute of any rings as Amherst soon discovered, and were fine and small though brown. While she made coffee, Amherst threw himself down on the wonderful moss, the like of which he had never seen before and looked out over the water. An unmistakeable constraint had taken the place of the unaffected hilarity of the first ten minutes. A reaction had set in. Amherst could of course only answer to me in telling this for himself, but he divined at the time a change in his companion’s manner as well.
“I hope you like your eggs,” she said presently.
“They are very nice, indeed, thank you,” rejoined Amherst.
“And I have made your coffee as you like it?”
“Perfectly, thank you. But you—you are not eating anything! What is that?”
As he asked the question he turned quickly around, in order to rise that he might help her with the ponderous kettle that she was about lifting off the camp-fire, when a long strand of her hair again escaping from its coil blew directly across his face. Amherst uttered a radiant “Oh!” and taking it to his lips forgot himself so far as to press kiss after kiss upon it. The lady stood as if transfixed and did not move, even when Amherst actually swept all her hair down over one arm and turning her face to his, pressed one long long kiss on her forehead.
The moment he had done this his senses returned and he stepped back in indignation with himself. But his companion was still apparently transfixed. Amherst looked at her in dismay. She did not seem to see him and had grown very pale. He [page 45] touched her gently on the arm but she did not show that she felt the touch. He retreated a few paces and stood by himself, overcome with shame and contrition. What had he done? How should he ever atone for such an unwarrantable action? Had it been the outcome of any ordinary flirtation, he would have felt no such scruples, but the encounter, though short, had been one of singular idyllic charm until he had by his own rash act spoilt it. A few minutes passed thus in self contemplation appeared like an eternity. He must speak.
“If you would allow me—“
But the lady put our her left hand in deprecation as it were and he got no further. The silence was unendurable. Amherst took a step or two forward and perceived great tears rolling down her cheeks.
“Oh!” he began desperately, “won’t you allow me to say a word to tell you how very, very sorry I am, how grieved I am and always shall be? I never—I give you my word of honor—I never do those sort of things, have never done such a thing, before! But I can’t tell what it was, the place is so beautiful, and when all that lovely hair came sweeping past my face, I could not help doing as I did, it was so electrical! Any man would have done the same. I know that sounds like a miserable, cowardly excuse, but it is true, perfectly true.” The lady seemed to struggle to appear calm and with a great effort she turned her face towards Amherst.
“I know one man,” she said, in a voice choked with sobs, “who would not have done it.”
Amherst started. “I am sorrier than ever, believe me. I might have known you were engaged, or had a lover—one so charming”—
“It is not that,” said the lady. “I am married.” She was still struggling with her emotion.
Amherst recoiled. He was torn with conflicting thoughts. What if he had been seen giving that involuntary salute? He might have ruined her peace for ever. Who would believe in the truth of any possible explanation?
“I will leave you at once;” he said stiffly “there is nothing more to be said.”
“Oh! you will reproach me now! said his companion, wiping her eyes as the tears came afresh.
“I will try not to;” said Amherst, “but you could so [page 46] easily have told me; I do not think it was —quite—fair.” Yet he could not be altogether angry with the partner of his thoughtlessness, nor could he be entirely cold. Her beautiful eyes, her despairing attitude would haunt him he knew for many a day. She had ceased weeping and stood quietly awaiting his departure. Amherst felt all the force of a strong and novel passion sweep along his frame as he looked at her. Was she happy, was she a loved and loving wife? Somehow the conviction forced itself upon him that she was not. Yet he could not ask her, it must remain her secret.
Amherst looked at his watch. I aroused her.
“What is the time?” she said lifting her head for the first time since he had kissed her.
“Ten minutes past six,” Amherst replied.
“You must go” she said, with an effort at self-control. “I shall have much to do presently.”
He cast one look about and approached her.
“Will you forgive me”—he began in a tone of repression, then with another mighty and involuntary movement he caught her hands and pressed them to his breast. “My God,” he exclaimed, “how I should have loved you!”
A moment after he flung her hands away and strode down the cliff, unfastened his boat and rowed away in the direction of the hotel as fast as he could. Rounding a sharp rock that hid what lay beyond it, he nearly succeeded in overturning another boat like his own, in which sat a gentleman of middle age, stout and pleasant and mild of countenance. The bottom of the boat was full of fish. Amherst made an incoherent apology, to which the gentleman answered with a good-natured laugh, insisting that the fault was his own. He would have liked to enter into conversation with Amherst, but my friend was only anxious to escape from the place altogether and forget his recent adventure in the hurry of departure from the hotel. Three days after he embarked at Quebec for England, and never visited Canada. But he never married and never forgot the woman whom he always asserted he might have truly and passionately loved. He was about twenty-eight when that happened and perfectly heart-whole. Why—I used to say to him, why did you not learn her name and that of her husband? Perhaps she is a widow now, perhaps you made as great an impression upon her mind and affections as she did upon yours [page 47]
But my friend Admiral Amherst, as the world knew him, was a strange, irrational creature in many ways, and none of these ideas would he ever entertain. That the comfortable gentleman in the boat was her husband he never doubted; more it was impossible to divine. But the cool northern isle, with its dark fringe of pines; its wonderful moss, its fragrant and dewy ferns, its graceful sumachs, just putting on their scarlet-lipped leaves, the morning stillness broken only by the faint unearthly cry of the melancholy loon, the spar-dyked cliffs of limestone, and the fantastic couch, with its too lovely occupant, never faded from his memory and remained to the last as realities which indeed they have become likewise to me, through the intensity with which they were described to me. [page 48]