AN ALGONQUIN MAIDEN
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CHAPTER XVII.

A PICNIC IN THE WOODS.

 


WINTER had passed, and in hot haste—literal hot haste—the time of the singing of birds had come.  It was early in the season when the Macleods returned to their summer home, but “lily-footed spring” was there before them.  Earth, air, and sky were bathed in a glory of sunlight, which strove to penetrate the dark labyrinth of the pines through which the wind sang.  The bay was embowered in gleaming foliage.  In its clear waters the Indians plunged or paddled, or lay in attitudes picturesquely inert upon its shores.  Above it in graceful curves the unwearying gulls were sinking, rising, and wheeling aloft.
     On one of these halcyon days of early summer Rose Macleod was re-reading a letter from her friend Hélène; which, though a mere elegant scrawl in the first place, and now yellow and worn with age, has been with some difficulty deciph- ered by the writers of this veracious history.
     “We shall return to Bellevue next week,” she wrote, “though what possible benefit can accrue from our returning I cannot pretend to say.  Either home is distasteful to me; so is the rest of the world; so are the people in it.  Enviable condition, is it not?  I seem to be afflicted with a sort of dreadful mental indiges- tion.  Everything I see and hear and read disagrees with me, so I suppose it is only a natural consequence that I should be disagreeable.  Oh, dear, dear!  What is the good of living, Rose?  What is the use or beauty of anything?  The Rev. the Archdeacon of York half-playfully says I need to be regenerated.  Dr. Widmer says my circulation is weak.  Poor mamma says nothing; but she looks a world of reproach.  I wish she would take the scriptural rod to me.  That would improve the circulation, I fancy; and if it didn’t produce a state of regeneration it [Page 187] might at least be a practical step towards it.  But I don’t know why I should make a jest of my own misery, when I want nothing on earth except to be a little child again, so I could creep off into the long grass somewhere, and cry all my sick heart away.  I used to be able to cry when I was five or six years old, but now it is a lost art.
     “By the way, speaking of tears reminds me that your friend, Mr. Dunlop, was here last evening, and, while shewing him some views of foreign scenes, we suddenly came across that old, little painting of yourself, in which the artist repre- sented you as a stiff-jointed child, with a row of curls the colour and shape of shavings neatly glued to a little wooden head.  You remember how we used to make fun of it.  I always said that picture was bad enough to bring tears, and there was actually quite a perceptible moisture in his eyes as he looked at it.  Who would have supposed that he possessed so much æsthetic sensibility?
     “Well, I am only wearying you, so I will close.  Don’t be troubled about me, dear.  Sometimes I am violently interested in my own unreasonable sufferings, and at other times I am wholly indifferent to them; but nothing can befall my per- verse nature that shall alter the tenderness always existing for you in the heart of your loving
                                                                                                            HELENE.”

     Rose read all but the concluding paragraphs aloud to her brother, who, stand- ing at the open door, was looking idly out upon the leaf and blossom of a lovely garden.  “What a stream of unalloyed egotism!” he said.  “In a woman it’s a detestable quality.”
     “Oh, you should say a rare quality,” amended Rose, with a smile that ended in a sigh.
     “Well, it’s something that can’t be too rare.”  A fading spring lily dropped on the doorstep by one of the children received an impatient kick, as though he would dismiss the [Page 188] present conversation in a similar manner.  “Rose,” he said, “I wish you would ask Wanda to our sailing-party to-morrow.”
     “Why, Edward, I might as well ask a blue-bird.  She will come if it happens to suit her inclination at the moment, otherwise not.”
     “Don’t you think a regular invitation would please her?”
     “Oh, dear, no; it isn’t as though she were a civilized creature.  You don’t seem to grasp the fact that she’s only a wild thing of the woods.”
     A pause ensued.  “There are other facts,” resumed Edward a little unsteadily, “that I have grasped.  One is that she is the most beautiful woman I ever saw; another—that I love her.”
     Rose put up her hands as though to save her eyes from some hideous sight, “It can’t be true!” she exclaimed.
     “My dear little sister, it is true; and your inability to accept it is not a very flattering tribute to my good taste.”
     “It can’t be true,” repeated Rose.  “You must mean that you have merely taken a fancy to her.”
     “Well, it is a fancy that has grown to enormous proportions.  I cannot live without her.  If that is fancy it has all the strength of conviction.”
     “Oh, Edward, you can’t really love her.  It is only her beauty that you care for.”
     “You might as well say that the sunflower doesn’t really love the sun; it is only the sunshine that it cares for.  Wanda’s beauty is part of herself.”
     “And it will remain so a dozen, or perhaps a score, of years.  After that you will have for your wife a coarse ignorant woman, forever chafing at the restrictions of civilized life; angering, annoying and humiliating you in a thousand ways, a woman whom you cannot admire, whom it will be impossible for you to respect.” [Page 189]
     Edward’s eyes blazed.  Not until that moment did his sister realize how complete was his infatuation for Wanda.
     “It is you who are ignorant and coarse,” he cried, “in your remarks upon the girl who is my promised wife.  No matter what befalls her, she will always be clothed in the unfading beauty of my love.”
     Rose was deeply grieved.  She stood with clasped hands looking despair- ingly at her brother.  “You poor boy,” she breathed, “you poor motherless boy!  What can I say to you?”
     “Well, there are a good many things that you can say; but what I should prefer you to say would be to the effect that you will break it as gently as possible to Papa.”
     “I shall not break it at all,” declared the girl warmly.  “It would nearly kill poor father.  Haven’t you any consideration for him?”
     “Yes; sufficient to make me wish that the truth should be clothed in your own sweet persuasive accents, when it is conveyed to him.  I don’t wish to jar him any more than is necessary.”
     “Edward, you are perfectly heartless!”
     “That is the natural consequence of losing one’s heart, isn’t it?
     “Oh, then, you are only jesting.  It’s a very good joke, but in questionable taste.”
     “Dear Rose, believe me, I was never more in earnest that at present.”
     “Except when you are out hunting.  I have seen you go without food and sleep simply because you were on the track of some beautiful wild creature that was forced to yield its liberty and life merely to gratify your whim.  It is in that despic- able way that you would treat Wanda.”
     The young man smiled.  He perceived that his sister was changing her tactics. [Page 190]
     “You are very considerate and tender of Wanda,” he said, “but not so much as I expect to be.”
     The conversation, which was growing more and more unsatisfactory, was abruptly terminated by the entrance of one of the other members of the family.
     As a natural result of this interview Wanda was invited to go with them in the sail-boat next day.  Rose was clear-witted enough to see that persistent opposition would only intensify the halo of romance which her infatuated brother had discovered upon the brow of the Algonquin Maiden, and that outward acquiescence would give the attachment an air of prosaic tameness, if anything could.  Besides, a scandal is made more scandalous when the offender’s family are known to be in a state of hopelessly outraged enmity.
     Thus bravely reasoned Rose, while her heart sank within her.  She was not prepared for the worst, but it was necessary that she should behave in all points as if she were; otherwise the worst might be hastened.  It was impossible to view Wanda in the light of a possible sister-in-law; nevertheless, she gave her the pink cambric dress for which the Indian girl had so often expressed admir- ation, and supplemented the kindness with a pair of gloves, destined never to be worn, and a straw hat, whose trimming was speedily torn off and its place supplied by wampum, gorgeous feathers, the stained quills of the porcupine, with tufts of moose hair, dyed blue and red.
     Certainly she looked very pretty as she stood on the shore next day, all ready for departure.  Even Rose, who for the first time in her kind little life would willingly have noticed personal defects, was forced to admit that Wanda was looking and acting particularly well; the only apparent fault being a lack of harmony between herself and her dress.  They were two separate entities, not only in fact but in appearance, and they were seemingly in a state of subdued but constant warfare.  The truth was, that this wild girl [Page 191] of the woods was secretly chafing against the stiffly starched prison in which she found herself helplessly immured.
     It was very pleasant out on the water.  The fresh vigour of the breeze filling the sail with life, the waves swirling up about the sides of the boat, the dancing motion of their little craft upon the water, the changing tints, the shadows and ripples of the bay gave them a quiet yet keen delight.  Their destination was a point of land on Lake Simcoe, where a party of picnicers was already assem- bled.  A group of girls came down to the shore as they landed, and bore Rose and Eva away with them.  In the leafy distance Edward caught a glimpse of Hélène DeBerczy, and in his heart the young man thanked heaven that he was not as other men are, or even as the callow youths who were hanging upon her utterances.
     After a while, Edward observed Wanda standing apart, and looking at the marauders in her loved woods as a man might look upon the enemies who, with fire and sword, were desolating the home of his fathers.  Between her and these gay girls there was a difference, not of degree but of kind.  They loved the forest as a background for themselves; she loved it as herself.  The curious eyes fixed upon her were more respectful in their gaze when Edward quietly took his place beside her.  Presently, Rose with her devoted adherents joined them, and every effort was put forth to make the Indian girl feel at home in her home.  But for the most part they were futile.  Wanda was thoroughly ill at ease, though she con- cealed the fact with the native stolidity of her race.  But love’s intuitions are keen, and Edward realized that his little sweetheart was very uncomfortable.  What could be the reason?  Her dress seemed incongruous, and yet it was perfectly in accord with the linen and lawns and flower-dotted muslins about her. [Page 192]
     “Laura,” observed a young lady behind him, in a muffled whisper which he could not choose but hear, “do look at Hélène DeBerczy’s costume.  Could anything be more out of place at a picnic?”  Edward’s gaze, involuntarily straying to the garb which was so singularly inappropriate, rested upon the filmiest of black stuffs, exquisite as cobweb, through which were revealed the long perfect arms, and the tender curves of neck and shoulder.  From this gracious figure was exhaled invisible radiations—the luxurious sense of refined womanliness.  How gross and earthly, how fatally common-place and prosaic seemed every- one about her.  The violently high spirits of the other girls, their scramblings for flowers and shriekings at snakes, their too obvious blushes and iron-clad flirtations, seemed not to come a-nigh her.  “Her soul was like a star and dwelt apart.”  The young man assured himself that he was not falling in love with her again; he was merely laying at her feet an involuntary tribute of admiration, the sort of admiration which he might feel for a rare poem.
     Meanwhile the girl with whom he was in love had made what Edward called “an object” of herself.  By this uncertain phrase he did not mean an object of admiration, poetic or otherwise.  Left for a brief season to her own devices Wanda had torn and muddied her gown, lost her hat, and in other respects behaved, as a maiden lady present remarked, precisely like an overgrown child of five years, who has “never had any bringing up.”  All the children had taken an immense fancy to her, and she was delighting them with her dexterity in climbing trees when Edward cast a hot, shamed, imploring look at his sister, to which she responded by saying:
     “Wanda, you must be very tired.  Come and sit down a while and rest.”
     The girl, seeing Edward a little apart from the others, took a seat beside him, at which distinct mark of preference the [Page 193] rest smiled.  Her lover alone wore a heavy frown.  He glanced at the frouzy hair, to which not even the beauty of the face beneath could reconcile him; then at the scratched and sun-burned hands, and lastly at the stained and battered gown.  “Wanda,” he said with stern brevity, “how did you get your dress so wet?”
     “Wading the brook,” she replied, surveying the dripping and discoloured skirt with entire indifference.
     “That is very improper.  You shouldn’t do such things.  Why are you not quiet?”
     “Only the dead are quiet; but perhaps you wish to kill me.”
     The remark was startling, but it was unaccompanied by a ray of emotion in face or voice.  Only in the large soft eyes lay a depth of suffering such as he had seen in the look of a dying fawn, wounded by his hand.  “Your words pierce like arrows,” she said.
     “Dear Wanda, forgive me; I am expecting too much of you.  It is exceedingly cruel of me to make you suffer so.”
     “Wanda!” called one of a group of children, “come and swing us, please.”
     “Don’t go,” whispered Edward decisively.  He himself strode over to them, lifted one chubby youngster after another into the huge swing, and sent them flying into the tree-tops.  It was a form of pastime that he detested; but he was not going to have Wanda at the beck and call of “those little ruffians.”  At last, with the sympathetic assurance that if they wanted any more swinging they were at liberty to get it from each other, he left them, and rejoined the Indian girl.
     “Wanda!” said Hélène, as she spread a shawl on the ground, “just step across to our carriage, will you, and bring me a cushion you will find there.”
     “You must not!” declared Edward, in a low savage [Page 194] whisper, preparing to go himself; but the girl was off like a swallow before the wind.  He met her on the way back, took the cushion from her, and presented it to its owner with a bow of exaggerated deference.  Hélène’s black brows expressed the utmost astonishment; but as she confronted Edward’s wrathful gaze her own eyes caught fire, and the two who once had been so nearly lovers now manifes- ted no other emotion toward each other save repressed and concentrated hate.
     “I wish you to understand,” said the exasperated young man to Wanda, as he accompanied her to dinner, “that you are not a servant, and you mustn’t obey anyone’s commands.”
     “No,” was the slow reply, “I shall obey no one’s commands, not even yours;” and with these words she turned and fled into the woods.  The ever-present desire to escape had conquered at last.
     “How kind are you to that unfortunate girl!” observed the lady next him at dinner.  “She must try your patience so much.”
     Edward admitted that his patience had been tried; but he was in no mood to expatiate upon the subject.  He had a very slight idea of what he was eating and drinking, or of what all the talking was about.  The sunshine flecking the open clearing gave him a feeling that he would soon have a dreadful headache. After it was over he lay down, and tried to forget his troubles in a noontide nap.  Gradually the voices about him softened and died away.  For a moment he was floating upon the still waters of sleep, and then he drifted back to shore.  Open- ing his eyes he found himself alone with Hélène, who was asleep among her wrappings at a little distance.  The rest had strayed away in pairs and groups, out of hearing if not out of sight.  The unconscious figure seemed clothed in an atmosphere of ethereal sweetness, [Page 195] and Edward caught himself wondering whether the root of an affection, whose life is years long, is ever removed from the heart, unless the heart is removed with it.  He began seriously to doubt, not his constancy to Wanda, but his inconstancy to Hélène.  Suddenly she opened her eyes and caught his glance.  He withdrew it at once, and in the embarrassment of the moment made some inane remark upon the beauty of the day.  Hélène rose with deliberation, put one white hand to the well-brushed head, trim and shining as a raven’s wing, and with the utmost tranquility answer- ed “yes.”  Certainly she had the most irritating way in the world of pronouncing the words which usually sound sweetest from a woman’s lips.  He did not wait to continue a conversation so unpropitiously begun, but went off on a lonely explor- ing tramp along the shore.
     Late in the afternoon as he was returning, he noticed a nondescript figure sitting solitary on the bank, which, as he approached resolved itself into the superb outline of his Indian love.  Unconscious of observation she threw herself backward, in an attitude as remarkable for its beauty as for its unconventionality.  She seemed to be luxuriating with a sort of animal content in the brightness of the sunshine, the softness of the odorous breeze, and the warmth of the water in which her slim bare feet were dabbling; she dug her brown fingers in the earth, as though the very touch of the soil was intense delight.  The hated dress was reduced to ruinous pink rags, which became her untamed beauty as the habiliments of civilization never could have done.  Her slowly approaching lover viewed her with mingled amusement and horror, while deep in his heart flowed the dark current of a great despair.  Hearing his foot- steps she nerved herself for the expected reproaches, which he knew were worse than useless; but seeing in his face nothing but undisguised admiration, she sprang lightly to her feet and threw herself upon his neck.  Edward kissed her, but it was [Page 196] with a thrill of ineffable self-contempt, and a sharp consciousness that the only charm this girl possessed for him was that she allowed him to kiss her.  Then he drew away and brushed with fastidious glove the dust his coat retained from contact with her shoulder.
     “See what I have found!” she exclaimed, holding up a small trinket that glittered in the sunlight.  “It belongs to the Moon-in-a-black-cloud.”
     It was a little gold locket, which he had often noticed on the neck of Hélène.  Shortly before Wanda’s abrupt flight, she had pointed with childish curiosity to the slender bright chain clearly visible beneath the transparent folds of the black gown, and the young lady had obligingly drawn the locket from its secret place upon her heart, for the gratification of its admirer.  Left for a time on the outside of her dress, one of the tiny links must have severed, and the pretty trinket slipped to the ground unnoticed by its owner.  The young man in whose hand it now lay was tempted to a dishonourable action.  He had often begged Hélène to show him the contents of this locket—a favour which had uniformly been denied.  Now the opportunity was his without the asking.  Nothing rewarded his curiosity save a lock of yellow hair, probably cut from the head of Rose.  Queer fancy, he thought, for one girl to cherish the tresses of another.  Suddenly he was struck by an idea that sent the blood throbbing to his temples.  He examined the tress a second time.  The bright hair growing upon his sister’s head he knew had a reddish tinge, and its silky length terminated in ring-like curls.  This was short and straight, of a pale colour, and showed by its unevenness that it had been “shingled.”  His heart beat as though it would burst.  “You must take this back to its owner,” he said imperatively.
     Wanda slipped her hand in his.  “We will go together,” she said. [Page 197]
     He glanced at her bare feet and ruined raiment, and realized with a burning flush that he was thoroughly ashamed of her.  No, he could not take the hand of his future wife and face that crowd of curious worldlings.  The mere touch of her soiled fingers was repugnant to him.  She seemed like some coarse weed, whose vivid hues he might admire in passing, but which he would shrink from wearing on his person.
     “It will be better for you to go alone,” he replied.  “Don’t tell the lady that anyone beside yourself has seen the locket.  I will come presently.”
     But he lingered a long time after she left him, drinking against his will the sharp waters of bitter-sweet reflection.  There came back to him an afternoon a year ago, when his sister Eva, out of childish love of mischief, had stolen up behind him, and cut off the lock of hair which fell over his brow.
     “Mere masculine vanity,” she had said, as the scissors snapped.  He had sprung up instantly, and pursued her as she fled shrieking down the avenue.  Hélène, who was the only other occupant of the room had looked almost shocked at their conduct, and his pet lock of hair had mysteriously disapp- eared.  Since then during how many days and nights had it been rising and falling upon the proud bosom, that he knew very well would be cold in death before it would give evidence of a quickened heart-beat in his presence.  The knowledge he had gained by the discovery of the locket made Hélène danger- ously dear to him, and yet relieved him of not a particle of his duty towards Wanda.  He saw neither of the girls again that day, but he carried home with him a stinging memory of both.  Late that night he was pacing his room with sick heart and aching head, while in the next apartment Rose was assuring herself that the picnic had been a great success.  “Really,” she meditated, “nothing could possibly be worse—or better—than the way in which Wanda behaved.” [Page 198]

 

[Chapter XVIII]