AN ALGONQUIN MAIDEN
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CHAPTER XIII.

RIVAL ATTRACTIONS.

 


THE current of a strong human affection, when it is thrown back upon itself, must find vent in another direction.  The weakest stream of passion, when its chosen course is impeded by an immovable obstacle, does not sink by gentle degrees into the earth, and thus, lost to sight, become merely a thing of memory.  There is disturbance and disorder; banks are overflowed; and fields, once made fruitful and beautiful by the softly-flowing river, lie sodden and unwholesome, flooded by the dangerous waves.  For days and nights Edward’s brain was surging with the sound of rushing waters.  The tumultuous feelings so strongly excited, so com- pletely overthrown that evening in the conservatory with Hélène, would not subside.  They beat upon his desolate heart in great waves of rage, remorse, despair, and love, like the beating of lonely waters upon a shipwrecked shore.
     Hence it was that he welcomed the idea conveyed in a letter from a friend in Barrie that they, with another boon companion, should go hunting in Muskoka.  Edward wrote an immediate agreement to the proposition, mentioning Pine Towers as the place most convenient for them to meet and lay plans for future action.  He at once made preparations to depart, for the idea of delay was intolerable to him.  The very atmosphere of the town was poisonous—the dem- ands of society not to be tolerated.  He told his family that his old longing for the wilds had come upon him, the sort of ennui that nothing but the odour of the woods could cure.   The close of the day following found him on the frozen shores of Kempenfeldt Bay, now clasped in the icy arms of winter.  The wind was wild among the leafless trees along the avenue, but [Page 147] the desolation of his home was a visible response to the sorer desolation of his heart.
     The two or three old servants remaining in the lonely house were delighted to see the young master home again.  Olympia, the coloured cook, whose high-sounding cognomen was usually reduced to Olly, gave him a welcome equal to what might be expected from a whole plantation of darkies.  Her eyes and teeth shone in perpetual smiles, her gaily turbaned head and dusky hands gesticul- ated in perfect time to the exclamations poured out upon him.
     “Well, my soul!” she cried; “well, my soul!  Marse Ed., its good to see you home again.  Come in, chile, come right in!  How mis’able you do look to be sure.  Just like a ghost, so cold and white.  Shan’t I mix you a little something warm?”
     “Oh, no, Olly, I’m all right; just a little tired after my long journey, that’s all.”
     She recognized the lifelessness in his tone, the jaded look and air of one who is fighting a hard battle in the face of sure defeat.  “You’s sick, honey,” she exclaimed, with the ready sympathy of her race, “and you’s come back to old Olly to take care ob you.  Dat’s right, chile, I’ll just mix you a little warm—”
     “Oh, dear, no, Olly, thank you; its comfort enough just to be quiet and to be at home.”
     She left him in the parlour, but he pushed on after her into the great fire-lit kitchen, partly because he detested the society of his own thoughts, partly because it suited his present mood to be made much of by the kindly old woman, to whom his mother all her life had been a “chile.”  It was almost like being a boy again to sit in the chimney corner and tell old Olly the story of his journey in all its details.  But before the recital was half-finished, something stirred in the semi-darkness, on the other side of the fire-place. [Page 148]
     “Why, bress my heart,” said Olly, “I t’ought you was a dog, Wanda, you sat dat quiet.  What’s de matter wid you, gal?  Whar’s your manners?”
     The graceful shrinking figure would gladly have escaped out of sight, but at the sound of her name Edward come forward to greet the Indian girl.  Olly, with many muttered protestations against the rudeness shown to her young mahs’r, lifted the trap-door, and vanished down cellar.  The pale life-weary young man was alone with the sweet womanly savage.
     He held the little hand she offered him very closely and kindly.
     “Are you glad to see me, Wanda?” he asked.
     That was the keynote of his mental state.  He was not glad to see anyone or anything, but he was still interested to know that someone cared for him.  In his present mood it was certainly more pleasant to feel that others were kindly disposed towards him than that they were indifferent.  The Algonquin maiden, on her side, was filled with a soft delicious emotion.  In the summer, when this daring young man pursued her, she repulsed him; but in the winter, when he left her, she thought of him.  The natural result of her meditations upon so fascinating a subject it is not difficult to conjecture.  She began to believe in the reality of his regard for her, and to fancy that he had left her because of her harshness, of which he had frequently complained.  Now, could it be possible that his coming had anything to do with the thought of her?  Yes, she replied, she was glad to see him; her blushing beautiful face gave eloquent testimony to the fact.  He released her then, and followed Olly into the dining-room, where a small but sumptuous repast was laid, for nothing in the house above nor in the cellar beneath was considered too good for young mahs’r.  “You’d be sprised, Marse Ed.,” confided the old woman, “de improvement made by dat [Page 149] chile since I took her in han’.  It jus’ went agin my stomach to see her runnin’ wild, widout a frien’ in de worl’ cept dose heathen Injuns.  She t’ought a heap ob yer mudder, an’ I could’nt tell her ‘nough about her.  Dat gave me a holt on her, you see, and dars no denyin’ she’s changed a lot since las’ summer.”
     “Tell her to come in here,” said Edward, “and I’ll judge for myself.”
     So in a few moments she came in, though with obvious reluctance, and took the chair that Edward placed for her at the table.  It was a novel experience to the young man to find his wishes so implicitly obeyed by this hitherto almost unapproachable girl.  He felt disposed to exercise this wonderful newly-acquired authority.  “You must eat something, Wanda,” he observed; “I dislike to eat alone.”
      This was the sharpest test that could have been applied to the improvement he wished to discover, but the girl’s incomparable native grace never failed her.  It was impossible that she should either lounge in her chair or sit stiffly erect in it.  Her use of knife and fork was marked, not by awkwardness but by extreme deliberation, and careful observation of the manner in which Edward wielded his own.  She wore a dark grey dress, which he dimly remembered to have seen on his sister Rose, and which that young lady had altered to fit the Algonquin girl.  The entire absence of colour in the dress intensified by contrast the rich hues of cheek and lip, and the deep blackness of eyes and hair.  The only detail of her appearance which displeased his taste was the strings of cheap glass beads wound about neck and waist.  Was there a vein of cheapness and vulgarity in her character to correspond with this outward manifestation?  He believed not.  It was so easy to believe everything that was good of this shy sweet personage.  He examined her narrowly and critically in the new and remarkable rôle she was compelled [Page 150] to play as the guest and equal of himself.  There was a surprising almost ludicrous similarity between the native unconsciousness and dignity of the Indian and that of certain high-bred dames whereof he knew, and yet there was about her the unmistakable something that proved her wholly unversed in the ways of society.  Her dainty hands were very brown; her manner without being constrained was certainly not easy; and her expression was that of a bird, one moment resigned to imprisonment, the next panting for liberty.  In one word she was untamed.  But was she untamable?  His heart beat faster at the thought.  When the tea things were removed he threw himself upon the couch; while the girl, sitting before the blazing hearth, took between her hands and drew upon her knees the slender head of his favourite hound.  They made a striking picture, and the blue, beauty-loving eyes of the spectator looked longingly upon it.  The dark lovely face bent forward seemed more childish in its soft curves since the capacity to love and suffer had wakened in her breast.  Her sweet lips trembled with repressed feeling.
     “Wanda,” said Edward, “don’t waste caresses on that unthankful brute.  He doesn’t need them.”
     She looked at him with wide startled eyes.  “Come to me,” he breathed in resistless accents.  “Ah, Wanda, you pitied me once when I had a scratch on my hand.  Can not you pity me now when I have a sword in my heart?”
     It was not love that called her; it was the despairing cry of one who was perishing to be loved.  She rose after a moment, steadying herself by a hand on the chair-back, for her beautiful frame was swayed by irresolution, love, shame and pride.  Slowly, very slowly, with the sweet uncertain footsteps of a baby that fears to tread the little distance between itself and the waiting irresistible arms of love, she came towards him.  It seemed at every moment [Page 151] that she must break away and fly, as she had flown from him in the woods of summer.  When she reached his side her proud head fell, then the drooping shoulders bent lower and lower till the uncertain knees at last failed her, and she sank trembling on the cushion at his side with her arms about his face.  It was the attitude of protection, not that of a weak craving for it.  The fierce pain for which he asked her pity could arise from nothing else but his love for her.   This was the reasoning of the simple savage—a reasoning that reached the hitherto un- sounded depths of passion and pathos in her nature.  The young man, who bore in his heart a bitter recollection of the scornful repulse offered by one beautiful girl, could not resist the matchless tenderness so freely given by another.  He laid his face wearily against her arm, and she bent over him murmuring words of uncontrollable love and pity.
     Afterwards he asked himself what in the name of all the powers of evil he meant by it; but this was some days afterwards.  A long tramp through the frozen woods in search of game had brought him a single wild animal and a great many sober thoughts.  In the rough log house in which he and his companions were camping for a week, there was neither room nor opportunity for private meditation; but the conviction came to him with the luminous abruptness of lightning that he had used this ignorant girl merely as a salve for his wounded vanity, and cruelly deceived her by so doing.  Not that his early passion for the Indian girl had died a natural death.  On the contrary it had been fanned into fresh flame by the novel charm of her sweet approachableness.  None the less, but rather all the more clearly, he saw the detestable selfishness of his own course.  But, unfortunately, his tenderness for her kept pace with his self-contempt.  His feelings towards Hélène and Wanda at the present moment were just such as a man might entertain toward the enemy who had conquered [Page 152] him, and the woman who, in his greatest need, had succoured and saved him.  For the one a bitterness that could not rise to the crowning revenge of forgiveness, for the other a passion of gratitude that would last a life-time.
     “It appears to me,” said Ridout, who was the most outspoken of the party, “that we have a precious dull time of it in the evenings.  Macleod, here, is about as talkative as the deer he has slain.”
     The trio had been smoking in silence before a huge fire, but this reference to Edward’s great exploit of the day roused them to conversation.
     “It is no unusual thing for Macleod to distinguish himself in that direction,” said Boulton, the elder of the two.  “He has long been known as the champion dear-killer.”
     This wretched attempt at a pun was loftily ignored by the subject of it.
     “Alas, ’tis too true!” mourned the other.  “Come, Ned, try to be entertaining for once; tell us about the pretty Indian girl you were mooning with.”
     “What did you say?” demanded Edward, freezingly.
     “You heard perfectly well what I said.”
     “What do you mean by it?”
     “Oh, I mean the pretty squaw you were spooning with, if that suits you better.”
     “Gently, Tom,” interposed Boulton parenthetically, “don’t mention all the meanness you mean.”
     “I would like to inquire what right you have to mention any of it,” exclaimed Edward wrathfully.
     “Oh, none—none, whatever.  Only it was town talk in Barrie last Fall that you had become infatuated with the sweet little squaw to such an extent that your charming sister, with commendable prudence and foresight, had you put out of harm’s way as speedily as possible.  There’s no accounting for such reports.”
     “I don’t understand it at all,” said Edward, with [Page 153] mingled anger and humiliation.  “How can people be so silly?”
     “Exactly what your slanderers inquired of each other.  Impossible to tell what they meant.”  The young man laughed rather disagreeably as he went off to bed.
     “Look here, Ned,” said Boulton, bringing a sympathetic hand down upon his friend’s shoulder, “don’t you take any notice of what Tom Ridout or any of his set may say.  Of course every young fellow makes a fool of himself some time, in some direction; it’s natural and proper, and just what is expected of him.  All is he shouldn’t make a complete fool of himself, and nobody believes that of you.”
     “Ugh!” said Edward, and relapsed into gloomy silence, from which he awoke to find himself alone, with the candle sputtering in its socket.  He took off his boots, and threw one of them viciously, but with unerring aim, at the expiring light, and so went despondently to bed.
     “Our fair friend appears to be quite as susceptible to the remarks made upon his wild-wood acquaintance as to the wild-wood acquaintance herself.”  This was the observation of Ridout, as he and Boulton went the following morning to investigate the trap they had set.
     “Don’t be a fool, Tom,” said Boulton, with a perfectly unruffled face and tone, “that is, any more of one than you can help.  Of course every young cub like you is expected to be one to a certain extent, but what I mean is don’t be a big one.”
     It was impossible to be angry with words so placidly spoken.  “I don’t know what can make you so wondrous kind to Macleod,” said Ridout, “unless it is a fellow-feeling, and I wouldn’t have thought that of you, Boulton.  But look here,” surveying the empty trap with boyish disgust, “nothing taken in but ourselves!  Well, we’ll have to make it unpleasant for Tommy.  That’s the only comfort left us.” [Page 154]
     Tommy was the coloured boy, who was cook, housekeeper and general factotum for the three.  When ill-luck overtook them it was felt to be some slight compensation to be at liberty to make it unpleasant for Tommy.  But one day, towards the end of their self-imposed exile, it stormed so heavily and incessantly that they were compelled to remain within doors, and here Tommy’s unfailing good-nature deprived the abuse with which he was heaped of all its power to charm and console.  On the principle which governs the selection of a victim by the shipwrecked and storm-beaten remnant of a crew at sea, there was nothing more natural than that Edward Macleod should fall a prey to the general famish- ing desire for amusement.  Boulton had been idly humming the air of an Indian love-song, in which Ridout joined aloud, substituting the name of Wanda for that of the ideal heroine.  As the sentiment of the song was of the most languorous and ‘die-away’ sort it was impossible that the two men should abstain from mingling their smiles.  The conclusion of the singing was followed by a few remarks from Ridout, one of which provoked a shout of uproarious laughter.  For a moment Edward’s face was alive with intense suffering; the next it had paled and hardened into marble-like rigidity.
     “I wonder if either of you are aware,” he said, with cold distinctness of utterance, “that the subject of your conversation is to be my wife.”
     Tom Ridout stared a moment in unbelieving amazement, and then blushed to the eyes.  “I beg your pardon,” he stammered, “I never thought—I didn’t dream—” He broke down completely, unable to grasp the statement that shed such a different light upon their idle talk.  Boulton was not subject to fluctuation of emotion, and there was no visible manifestation of a change in his feelings.  The match he struck while Edward was speaking went out.  He reached for another; it also went out. [Page 155]
     “It seems to me,” he said mildly, taking his unlighted pipe from his lips, “that these are the worst matches I ever saw.”
     Ridout had recovered some of his usual self-assurance.
     “It seems to me,” he declared boldly, “that it’s the worst match I ever heard of.”
     “Worst or best,” said Edward, with dogged resolution, “it will be necessary for you to speak of it with respect—in my presence.”
     This seemed to be the end of the matter; but Boulton, who had at last got his pipe agoing, could not forbear offering a few final words on the subject.
     “It’s all right, Ned,” he remarked, in his gentlest and kindest tones, “perfectly right and natural that a young fellow should make a fool of himself.  That’s exactly what’s expected of him.  But it isn’t necessary that he should make an everlast- ing fool of himself.  Not—strictly—necessary.”
     Edward rose and left the room.
     To leave the room in a region upon which unpicturesque prosperity has not yet descended is equivalent to leaving the house, and that is exactly what the young man did. Of course there was a loft above that was reached by a perilous- ly steep pair of stairs; but he was not a cur to creep away into a kennel.  He went out and battled with the pitiless storm, a fiercer storm beating within his breast than that which raged without.  The crazy words he had just uttered were not spoken simply to stop idle talk of his companions; they were the ultimate expression of the thoughts over which he had brooded for days past.  Hélène was dead to him, and her mocking ghost haunted the desolate chambers of his heart, filling them with scornful laughter.  But now upon the door of this wretched habitation had timidly knocked another guest—a guest of blooming and throb- bing flesh and blood. [Page 156] Should he deny her admittance?  Unlearned was she as one of the shy birds of the forest, but then she was eminently teachable.  If his love for her could not be called a liberal education was it not something better?  Was it not a liberal and lasting joy?  After all, what did women know, any way?  A few miserable half-learned accomplishments, the aggregate of which did not amount to so much as the eagle’s feather on the proud little head of his darling.  Yes, he dared to say it—his darling!  He pictured her in winter as sitting by his side, before the fire, the delicate head of his pet god encircled by her arm; in summer they would roam in blest content together through the endless forests of this beautiful new world.     
     And so with all his doubts triumphantly set aside he returned to the house, and during the remainder of their stay his continued flow of exuberant good spirits seemed to confirm the rightfulness of his conclusions.  On his way back to York he stopped a few ours at his old home, for the sake of a brief stolen inter- view with Wanda.  She met him with little low murmurs of tenderness and joy, and parted from him as a girl parts from the man in whose love she has absolute confidence, for whose sake she would willingly die.
     When he reached home, his appearance of high health and persistent over- flow of liveliness were ascribed by his family to continuous out-door exercise, nor did they dream that the sweet fever and delirium of love was upon him.  Rose gave him an anxious glance or two, but poor Rose had trouble enough of her own.  That cold night at the Oak Ridges, which had completely killed Edward’s hopes with regard to Hélène, had cast a light but lasting frost over her own.  It had been painful enough to avoid Allan, but it was no less painful to be deprived of that privilege.  The truth was he had given her very few opportunities to put into practice the course of treatment recommended by [Page 157] her father.  Had she been the heroine of a novel there would inevitably have been misunderstandings of the most serious and complicated character.  But she was mortal, and withal a very tender-hearted little maiden, and the secret of her cold tones and wistful glances, though for a while it sorely puzzled Allan, was at last divined by the sure intuition of love.  They met frequently at various social gatherings, but it was as though a solid sheet of glass intervened between them.  Through this apparently impalpable medium they could see, and smile, and speak, but no tender touch of palm, or breath of love, or thrill of quickened heart-beat could be felt between.  How many times had Allan Dunlop been tempted to outstretch his hand and shatter this glassy surface!  It were easily done but at the price of possible sharp pain and aching wounds, and the greater horror of seeing the sweet grieving face on the other side shrink away from him, startled by the shock.  No, he would bide his time.  And so, while his eyes grew hollow, his close shut lips remained very resolute.  Love can wait (though waiting is the hardest task ever assigned it), but only on condition that it is given the food it needs.
      Allan kept his love alive on glimpses of sunny hair, and sad little smiles, and fragments of talk, that, light and conventional as they might seem to chance listeners, were to him clothed with lovely hidden meanings.  Sometimes when the eyes met by chance the small warm hands plucked nervously at the flowers she carried, or there was a restless consciousness in step and glance, or a scarcely perceptible quiver of the curved lip, or a piteous droop of the regal little head.  Very slight things were these, yet out of them Memory and Imagination made a sumptuous feast, at which Love, like a starveling prince in exile, sat down with never sated appetite. [Page 158]


[Chapter XIV]