AN ALGONQUIN MAIDEN
.


 

CHAPTER XII.

A KISS AND ITS CONSEQUENCES.

 


IT was late afternoon in a Canadian midwinter day.  Cold and still, with a cold- ness so intense that the blinding brightness of the sun made no discernable impression on the densely packed snow, and with a stillness absolutely undis- turbed by any slightest breath of blustering wind.  Before the early twilight came, Rose Macleod, wrapped in furs from dainty head to well-booted feet, ran lightly down stairs, tapping softly at the library door on the way.
     “I am all ready, Papa,” she said, illumining the room for a moment with a pair of dark blue eyes and crimson cheeks.  “Don’t you think it will be a beautiful night?”
     “Very beautiful, and cold enough to kill an Esquimaux.  I confess it would be a pleasure to know that in a few hours you would be safe under the blankets instead of junketing over at Madame DeBerczy’s.”
     “I shall be just as safe under the buffalo robes, just as warm, and a great deal happier.”
     “Very well; be off then.  By the way, how many are in your party?”
     “Oh, nearly a dozen at least.”
     “Then there is a possibility that you will not all perish.  Tell the survivors to report themselves here as early tomorrow morning as possible.”
     There was a sound of bells and a mingling of merry voices as a sleigh-load of young people drove up to the door, and waited for Rose to join them.  “Delays are dangerous,” observed Edward, as his sister, after opening the door, was suddenly stung by the reflection that she had not taken a last comprehensive view of herself in the glass, and turned to the hall mirror to rectify the omission.
     “Particularly, when it is below zero,” said another. [Page 136]
     “What is she doing now?” patiently inquired a third.
     “Airing the hall,” responded a girlish voice.  “Oh, no, she is really coming!  Rose,” she called, “come and sit by me.”
     “No, there is more room here,” said another voice; while still another exclaimed, “I have been keeping such a cosy little corner here for you.”
     She stood in smiling hesitancy a moment, when her hand, from which she had removed the glove in order to adjust an unruly hair-pin, was taken by another hand, firm and warm and gloveless, and she was drawn almost unconsciously to the side of its owner.  It was Allan Dunlop who had thus taken summary possession of her, and incurred a little of her dignified displeasure.
     “You left me no room for choice,” she said in a slightly offended tone.
     “I beg your pardon, I was thinking only of leaving you room for a seat.”
     She was silent.  It was very difficult to keep this young man at a distance, when there was such a very little distance between them, and yet she must be true to the promise tacitly given to her father.  She must be cool, indifferent, uninterested.  “It isn’t a matter of any importance,” she said absently.
     “I’m afraid it is to me,” he continued in a lower tone, “I know scarcely a soul here, and declined Edward’s invitation to join you on that account.”
     “Oh, it is very easy to become acquainted with a sleighing-party.”  She greeted the two young ladies on the other side of him, and introduced him to them.  They were refined, attractive-looking girls, but they had a fatal defect.  They absorbed social heat and light instead of radiating them.  It seemed as though they might be saying:  “There, now, you got us into an unpleasant situa- tion by inviting us here, and it’s your duty to make us [Page 137] happy; but we’re not having a good time at all, and we’d like to know what you’re going to do about it.”  Allan did the best he could, not half-heartedly, for he was accus- tomed to do thoroughly whatever he attempted, and his success was marked.  Those grave girls, who, heretofore, had always seemed to be haunted by some real or fancied neglect, were in a gale of semi-repressed merriment.  The mirth was infectious, and as the horses flew over the frozen road, the gay jingle of bells mingled happily with the joyous laughter of young voices.  Poor Rose, whose natural love for society and capacity for fun-making had induced her to set very pleasant hopes upon this sleigh-ride, found herself, much to her sur- prise, the only silent one of the company.  With Allan’s gracefully unconcerned personality on one side, a middle-aged lady of rather severe aspect—the matron of the party—on the other, and just opposite a pair who were very agreeably and entirely engaged with as well as to each other, all means of communication seemed to be hopelessly cut off.  It was really very unreasonable for Allan to act in this way.  He was saving her the trouble of treating him badly and keeping him at a distance; but, strange to say, there are some disagree- able duties of which one does not whish to be relieved.  If it were possible to be overwhelmingly dignified when one is buried shoulder deep in bear and buffalo skins—but that was out of the question.
     The clear crystalline day began to be softly shadowed by twilight.  Behind them lay the town, its roofs and spires robed in swan’s-down, while on all sides the fallen logs and deep underbrush, the level stubbles and broad irregular hollows, and all the vast sweep of dark evergreen forest, melting away in imm- easurable distance, was a dazzling white waste of snow.  In the bright moon- shine it sparkled as though studded with innumerable stars.  Above them was a marvelously brilliant sky. [Page 138]
     Suddenly, under a group of trees that stretched their ghostly arms across the roadway, the cavalcade came to a full stop; and Edward, who was driving, looked round with a face of gloomy foreboding at the merrymakers.
     “What is the matter?”  demanded half-a-dozen voices.
     “We shall have to go back,” announced the young man, with a look of forced resignation.
     “Go back!” echoed the same voices an octave higher, “why, what has happened?”
     “Nothing, except that Rose ought to take another look at herself in the hall mirror.  There is something fatally wrong with her appearance.”
     “About which part of my appearance?” demanded the young lady, who was too well acquainted with her brother to be at all surprised or disturbed by any- thing he could say.
     “I don’t know, I’m sure.  Perhaps it’s the tout ensemble.  Yes, that’s just what it is.”
     “Do drive on, Edward, and don’t be ridiculous.  It’s too cold to discuss even so important a subject as that.”
     “I am sure you must be suffering from the cold.”  It was Allan who spoke, turning round to her in a tone of quick, low tenderness.”
     “Not in the least!”  Every small emphatic word was keen and hard as a piece of ice.  Then, in the white moonlight, she confronted something that made her heart sink, it was the unmistakable look of mental suffering, a look that showed her that he at any rate was suffering from the cold—the sharp stinging cold of a winter whose beginning was pressing bitterly upon them, whose end, so far as they could see, was death.
     The mansion of Madame DeBerczy sent out broad shafts of light through its many windows to welcome the latest addition to the brilliant throng already assembled in its ample interior.  Madame herself was superb in a regal-looking [Page 139] gown that became her aristocratic old countenance as a rich setting becomes an antique cameo.  Her stately rooms were aglow with immense fire-places, each holding a small cart-load of hissing and crackling wood, the reflected light gleaming brightly from the shining fire-irons, with a  number of brass sconces—the picturesque chandeliers of the past—polished to the similitude of gold, were softly shimmering overhead.  The beautiful English furniture of the last century, artistic yet home-like; the old world cabinets, covered with surface carving, solid yet graceful in appearance; tiles, grave and cheerful in design, set into oaken mantel-pieces; peacock coloured screens, and ample crimson curtains, edged with heavy silken borders of gold, all lent their aid to brighten and enrich the rooms that to-night were graced by some of the best society from Upper Canada’s most ambitious little town of York.  Mademoiselle Hélène, beautiful in a blush rose gown, with a few star-shaped flowers of the same shade in her silky hair, was the magical living synthesis of this small world of warmth and colour in the eyes of her lover.  These eyes were more than usually brilliant from his long ride in the keen air, and the yellow locks upon the smooth white brow were several noticeable inches above the heads of those around him. As he walked down the crowded rooms, in enviable proximity to the blushing dress, his handsome face and half careless, half military air drew the attention of more than one bright pair of eyes.
     “Rather a pretty boy,” commented a pompous-looking gentleman, patronizingly.
     “But entirely too fair,” was the disapproving response of the critical young lady beside him, whose own complexion and opinion were certainly free from the undesirable quality she referred to.  “Of course, a pink face is attractive—in a doll.” [Page 140]
     “Then the daughter of our hostess escapes the imputation of being doll-like.”
     “Oh, she is quite too overgrown for that.  It’s a pity she has the peculiar complexion through which the blood never shows.”
     In another group, an enthusiastic young creature whispered to her mother:  “Mamma, do notice Miss DeBerczy’s face; white as a cherry blossom, and her lips the cherries themselves.  Isn’t she just like a picture?”
     “Yes, dear,” drawled mamma, adjusting her eye-glass with an air of rendering impartial justice, “like a very ill-painted picture.  Why don’t she lay on her colours a little more artistically?”
     “Oh, she doesn’t lay them on, they’re natural.”
     “Well, Lena, you should not be so quick to notice and comment upon natural defects.  Not one of us is free from them, and it is uncharitable and unkind to make them the subject of remark.”
     Thus silenced and put in the wrong the young lady ventured nothing further.
     “Edward,” said Hélène, later in the evening, “really you ought to dance with somebody else.  There are dozens of charming girls here.”
     “Which dozen did you wish me to dance with?”
     “Don’t be nonsensical, please.  Haven’t you any preference?”
     “Oh, decidedly, yes.”  He glanced at a petite maiden, whose figure and movements were light and fairy-like.
     “I don’t think she would.”
     “That isn’t sufficient.  My vanity is painfully sensitive to the smallest danger of slight.”
     The fairy-like person had unconsciously assumed an appreciative, not to say sympathetic, expression.  Hélène smiled.  “Your fears are very becoming to your youth [Page 141] and modesty, but I think I may go so far as to say I am sure she will not refuse.”
     “That is joyful news.”  Another set was forming, and he rose with hand exten- ded to Hélène.  “You said you were sure she would not refuse,” he responded to her look of blank amaze; and then, as she yielded to the irresistible entreaty in his eyes, he murmured softly, “How could you imagine I had any other prefer- ence but you?”
     “One imagines a great many strange things,” she replied.  “Once I fancied that you preferred an Indian girl.”
     “How could you!” he repeated with intense emphasis.  All that part of his life seemed vague and far away as though he had dreamed it in some prehistoric period of his existence.  It refused to take the hues and proportions of reality.  Yes, that was nothing but a wild fantastic dream—the sort of dream from which one wakes with a wretchedly bad taste in the mouth.  This rare girl, with the flower-like curves and colours, was the only reality.  And yet, was she reality?  Her dress, wreathed flame-like from warm white shoulders to satin shod feet, lay in rich glowing lengths upon the waxed and polished floor.  Her beautiful head, too heavily weighted with braids and coils of raven blackness, swayed slumberously upon the dainty white neck, and he could not tell whether he better liked to see the dark lashes lying upon her cheeks or uplifted to reveal the magical eyes beneath.  He was very much in love.  The soft intoxicating strains of music went to his head like wine.  He was powerless to struggle against the thrilling illusion of the hour.  When the others returned to their seats or promen- aded the brilliant rooms they escaped alone and unobserved into the conservatory.  Here they beheld the greatest possible contrast to the desolate wintry waste without.  The air was heavy and languorous with the odour of tropic flowers.  The music, almost oppressive in the crowded parlours, melted deliciously upon the ear as [Page 142] they wandered away.  Hélène, when she noticed that they were quite alone, suffered a vague alarm.  She told herself in one moment that it was not possible that Edward would choose this opportunity for a formal declaration of his love, and the next moment she reminded herself that impossible things are the ones that frequently come to pass.  The idea, like an ill-shaped burden, pressed uncomfortably upon her.
     A maiden’s heart, like a summer night, knows and loves its own secret.  All through the mysterious deep hours of sleep it holds the secret closely wrapped in darkness, pure as the dew on the grass, innocent as the little leaves in the forest, glorious as the countless stars of heaven.  Some time, and soon enough, the dawn will come.  Then the stars will pale before a glory more intense, the countless little leaves, like delicate human emotions, will wake and stir, and the white mists of maidenliness will be warmed with heavenly radiance.  But after sunrise comes the day—the long prosaic day of duty and denial, or work and its rewards, of sober, plain realities.  Why should the night of mystery and beauty hasten towards the common light?  Her being thrilled under the first faint approa- ches of the dawn, and yet—yet a little longer, oh, ardent, impetuous, all-conquering Sun!  It seemed as though the girl’s very soul were pleading.  The rich-hued, fragrance-laden flowers in the sweet dim place bent their heads to listen, but her impassioned lover paid no heed to the unspoken prayer.  The sense of her beauty—of her unsurpassable charm, mingled with the voluptuous music—pierced his heart with insupportable pain.  Could she not feel his unuttered love?  Her lily-like face was cool and pale, but in that warm-coloured robe it seemed as though her very body blushed.  In leaning over to reach a peculiar flower that attracted her attention, a little wave of her gown rested upon his knee, and it seemed to his infatuated vision that the insensate fabric throbbed as well as glowed from the momentary [Page 143] contact.  Hélène kept up a continual flow of small talk, of which he heard not a syllable.  Rising hurriedly, her long train caught in a low branch that stretched across the walk, and he bent to extricate it.
     “How is it that you dare to touch the hem of my garment?” she demanded laughingly.
     “Oh, I can dare more than that,” he cried.  The conviction that she loved him, as indeed she did, gave him a sort of desperate courage.  He took her in his arms and held her close, kissing her passionately on lips and eyes and soft white shoulders.  She neither moved nor spoke, but stood, when he released her, confronting him with a sort of frigid, fascinated stare.  “Oh, what have I done? Hélène,” he exclaimed tremblingly.  “I thought you loved me.”
     “I?” she questioned with haughty disdain, “love?” she demanded with incred- ulous contempt, “you?”
     The concentrated fires of her wrath and scorn were heaped upon this final monosyllable.  Every word was a fierce insulting interrogation.  Surely the traditional “three sweet words” had never before been uttered with such tragic effect.  She stood before him a living statue of outraged pride, clothed in a fiery robe of righteous indignation; then she turned and passed out of his sight, leaving the young man to his reflections.
     They were bitter enough in all truth.  He still cared for Hélène, he loved her as he loved himself.  But it is only fair to add that he held himself in the very smallest estimation.  He had acted like a drunken fool.  How would he like any man alive to treat his little Rose in that style?  But then she might have behaved reasonably about it.  She had trampled on his heart, and left it sore and bruised and bleeding.  Very well, he was not a child to cry out when he was hurt.  He went back to the gay throng, and saw, as in a cruel dream, the girl who despised [Page 144] him scattering profuse smiles upon others.  No matter!  Nothing could possibly be of any importance now.  Rose was making her way with some difficulty towards him.  How wan and tired she looked.  Was it possible that any one besides himself was suffering?   The idea was absurd.
     “Isn’t it time for us to go, Edward?” she said.  “Madame DeBerczy has invited our party to remain over to-morrow, but I promised papa not to desert him any longer than was strictly necessary.”  Edward found the proposition a most welcome one.  They could not leave Oak Ridges too soon, nor remain away from it too long.
     His sister’s drooping little figure attracted the attention of Hélène.  “Do you talk of going?” Hélène asked.  “Well, so you shall go—to bed; and the very first bed we come to.”  She bent caressingly over the little golden head of her friend.  Their beautiful arms were interlinked.  Rose glanced irresolutely at her brother.
     “You will need to put on the extra wraps you brought,” he said, “as it is particularly cold at this hour of the morning.”  Hélène was ignored utterly.  He did not seem to know that she was present.  The proud girl was wounded to the quick.  She was not visible at their leave-takings.  When every one was gone she went away upstairs, telling herself at every step that she hated, hated, Edward Macleod; that he was in all things and in every way detestable.  She did not weep nor bewail.  The tears showed as seldom in her eyes as the blood in her cheeks, and her pride was of the inflexible sort that scorns to relax when its possessor is alone.  She dropped into a heavy troubled sleep, and dreamed that she was solitary in a frozen land, whose only sunshine was the golden head of her lover.  In the strange fantastic manner of dreams he seemed to be a very little child, whose light warm weight lay along her arms, close to the heart above which he had [Page 145] pressed those burning kisses.  It was bitter cold; but the whole scene was like a picture of winter.  She could not feel it—she could feel nothing but the aching of her own heart, the warm breath growing ever warmer, and the clinging hands, clinging ever closer, of the child she loved.  The sense of delicious languor changed to a feeling of heaviness—almost suffocation.  Every golden hair of the head upon her breast pierced her like a ray of brightest sunshine.  Hastily putting him from her she fled away with the wintry winds, herself as wild and swift and soulless as they.  But presently coming to look for the child, and unable to find him, she realized that he was lost, and then she woke, trembling with deep, tearless sobs.
     “What is it, my dearest?” called Madame DeBerczy from the next room.
     “Nothing, mother, dear, but a troubled dream.”
     “Ah, it is the excitement of these late hours.  Try to sleep again.”
     But Hélène could sleep no more.  A few days later she heard that Edward Macleod, with a party of friends, had gone on a shooting expedition to the Muskoka country. [Page 146]


[Chapter XIII]