AN ALGONQUIN MAIDEN
.


 

CHAPTER III.

“WHEN SUMMER DAYS WERE FAIR.”

 


AFTERWARDS—for close upon the coming of every grief, however great, fall the slow, dull footsteps of Afterwards—the bereaved Macleod family took up again the occupations and interests of life in the benumbed fashion of those whose nerves are slow in recovering the effect of a great shock.  Edward alone bore a brave front, though his heart at times failed him.  He was something of a puzzle to the friend of his sister, who could not reconcile the tears which she saw in his eyes one moment to the jest she heard from his lips the next, and who marvelled in secret that the utter abandon of his grief at the bedside of his dying mother had not been followed by a state of settled melancholy after her death.  To the cool, steadfast nature of Mademoiselle DeBerczy this alternate light and shade, gaiety and grief, in the heart of Rose, as well as of her brother, was difficult to understand; but now she began faintly to perceive that to their ardent temperament sunshine came as naturally as it did to the first day of spring, which, while it ached with the remembrance of winter, could not wholly repress on that account its natural brightness.  Certainly Edward Macleod, though his unusually pale face gave evidence of the suffering which he had lately experienced—nay, which he was even now experiencing—could not say that life for him was utterly without consolation.  For the sake of the stricken household, for the sake of her who had left them desolate, he would be a man; and, being that complex creature, a man, involves not only the lofty virtues of courage and self-forgetfulness, but also a tender susceptibility to the charms of these perfect spring days, and to the no less alluring charms of a maiden in the spring-time of youth. [Page 30]
     Nearly a week had elapsed since the funeral of Mrs. Macleod, and now a second message from home had been received by Hélène DeBerczy, reminding her that her invalid mother had claims which could no longer be set aside.  If Madame DeBerczy’s language was seldom imperative, her intention abundantly made up for the deficiency.  Consequently, her daughter was now reluctantly turning her face homeward—a dull outlook, brightened only by the prospect of a boat-ride down the bay with Edward and Rose.
     “And to think,” said Edward to Hélène, as the trio paced the long avenue together, “that I scarcely recognized you on the evening of my return!”
     “That is not surprising.  I am an entirely different person from the one you left three years ago.”
     “Let me see,” mused the young man, “three years ago you were a little inclined to be haughty and cold, occasionally difficult to please, and sometimes exacting.  On the whole, ’tis pleasant to reflect that you are an entirely different person now.”
     “He turned towards her with a merry glance, but her face was invisible.  She wore one of those long straw bonnets, no doubt esteemed very pretty and stylish in that day, but marred by what a disciple of Fowler might call a remarkable phrenological development of the anterior portion.  This severely intellectual quality in the bonnets of that time naturally stood in the way of the merely sensuous delights of observation.  Edward had barely time to be reminded of an unused well, in whose dark, shallow depths his boyish eyes had once discovered a cluster of white water-lilies, languidly opening to the light, when the liquid eyes and lily-like face in the inner vista of this well-like bonnet again confronted him.
     “Is that the sort of person I used to be?” she queried, with the incredulity one naturally feels on being presented [Page 31] with a slightly exaggerated outline of one’s own failings.  “What pleasant memories you must have carried away with you!”
     “I did, indeed—myriads of them.  Some of the pleasantest were connected with our last dance together.  Do you remember it?”
     “A slight warmth crept up, not into her cheeks, but into her eyes.  “I have never forgiven you for that,” she said.
     “And you don’t deserve forgiveness,” declared Rose, championing the cause of her friend.
     “Ah, well,” said the culprit, “perhaps I had better wait till I deserve it before I plead for it.”
     “How strange and far way, almost like part of their childhood, seemed the time of which he spoke.  Like a painted picture, suddenly thrust before their view, the scene came back to them.  A windy night in late Autumn, illumined without only by the broad shafts of light from the Commodore’s mansion, and within by the leaping flames in the big hall fire-place.  The young people had improvised a dance in the great hall, and Hélène had tantalizingly bestowed most of her favours upon Fred Jarvis, a handsome youngster of twenty, who frequently improved his opportunities of becoming the special object of Edward’s boyish enmity.  To fall a willing victim to the pangs of jealousy formed, however, no part of this young gentleman’s intention.  Returning late in the evening, he caught a glimpse of Fred and Hélène dancing a stately minuet together, and, lightly securing his horse at the door, he entered the hall, just as Hélène was protesting that she was too tired to dance any longer.  “Just once with me,” he pleaded; and their winged footsteps kept time to the tumultuous throbbing of the music.  The young girl suddenly grew faint.  “Give me air,” she cried, and at the words Edward’s strong arm swept her across the broad veranda, and up on the waiting steed.  Mounting behind [Page 32] her, like another young Lochinvar, they dashed wildly off, but just in what direction could not be told, for Hélène, in mingled consternation, exhaustion, and alarm, had fainted in earnest, and Edward, in the endeavour to hold her limp, unconscious figure before him, had dropped the reins.  The steed, however, with a prudent indisposition for pastures new at that hour of the night, turned into a stubble-field, and brought up at a haystack.  How, in the utter darkness, and with the wind blowing a gale, the young man managed to restore his companion to consciousness and bring her back to the house, were mysteries which Rose could never attempt to penetrate with any degree of satisfaction.  Hélène, of course, was superbly angry, and even this bare mention of the escapade brought fire to her eyes and a loftier poise to the well-set head.  Strongly set about the heart of this young Huguenot were barriers of pride, that could not be overleaped in a day—scarcely in a life-time.
     “It is a bargain, then,” said Edward, with a mischievous light in his smile, “you will never forgive, and I shall never forget.”
     “I wish, if it isn’t asking too much, that you would allow me to forget.  I particularly want to forget everything unpleasant on a morning as beautiful as this,” rejoined Hélène.
     “It was indeed an ideal morning.  The sky was as soft and warm, as blue and white, as only the skies of early summer can be.  Treading the mingled shadow and light, thrown from the interlacing boughs above, they came at last to the blue curves of Kempenfeldt Bay, whose waves lapped lightly on the beach.  Here they found the two younger Macleod children, who had come to see the party off.  Just as the latter arrived, the youth, Herbert, who had been amusing himself rocking a punt in a creek by the shore, managed to upset the craft and precipitate himself [Page 33] into deep water.  The mishap had no more serious result—for the lad was a good swimmer—than to frighten Rose, and deprive her of the anticipated pleasure of a visit to “Bellevue” with Hélène and her brother Edward.  Bidding the former a hurried goodbye, with injunctions to her brother to take care of her friend, Rose disappeared with the children into the woods.
     “The young man now released a row-boat from its bondage to the shore, helped his companion into it, and pushed it far out upon its native element.  A new day in the New World, and a long boat-ride before them—what could they wish for more?  Edward, at least, enjoyed the prospect extremely, especially when he could get the bonnet rightly focused.  This was a matter somewhat difficult of achievement, as its owner had to his mind a heedless habit of dodging, and his remarks, instead of being didactic and improving in their nature, were necessarily exclamatory and interrogative, in order to gain the attention of his fair vis-à-vis.  Being a young gentleman of literary tastes he thought of Addison’s dissertation upon the fan, and its great adaptability to the purposes of the coquette.  To the mind of this impartial critic, a fan was not half so effective and terrible a weapon as the present style of bonnet.
     “Bother Addison!” he suddenly exclaimed aloud.
     “I beg your pardon,” said a voice from the depths of the obnoxious head-gear before him.
     “I was thinking of the author of The Spectator.  You know Johnson says we ought to give our days and nights to the study of Addison.  Don’t you think it would be more profitable for us to devote our days and nights to the study of Nature?”
     “Undoubtedly; and especially in this short-summered region, where there are only a few months of the year in which one can pursue one’s studies out of doors.  My [Page 34] days are spent on the shore, and as for my nights—well, even at night I often go to sleep to the fancy that I am drifting over the water with just such a gentle movement as this.”
     “I hope,” said Edward gravely, “that you have an efficient oarsman.  You couldn’t row and sleep at the same time, you know.”
     “He looked up to see if his companion was struck with the force of this observation, but although they were moving towards the east, the bonnet pointed due north.  There was also a slight suspicion of the wintry north in the tone with which she replied:
     “Oh, there is no labour connected with it; I am merely drifting—drifting to the Isle of Sleep.”
     “That is a pretty idea, but it is too lonely and listless to suit me.  I should prefer to have a young lady in the boat—and a pair of oars.”
     “In that case you would have to row,” and, with a slightly mocking accent, “you couldn’t row and sleep at the same time, you know.”
     “In that case I should never want to sleep.  No, please, Miss DeBerczy, don’t look to the north again.  Every time your gaze is riveted upon that frozen region my heart sinks within me.  I feel as if I were not entertaining you as well as I should.”
     “Oh, don’t let that illusion disturb you.  I have never doubted that you were entertaining me as well as you—could.”
     “A brief silence fell upon them, broken only by the regular plash of the oars.  In the young man’s conversational attacks there had been nothing but a light play of sunny humour, but in this last retort of hers there was something like the glimmer of cold steel.  It wounded him, yet he was unwilling either to conceal or reveal the hurt.  But Hélène DeBerczy had this weakness, common to generous [Page 35] souls, that she could not utter an ungenerous remark without suffering more than her victim.  So, scarcely more than a minute elapsed before she said appealingly,
     “You are not going to leave me with the last word, are you?”
     “Is not that what your sex specially like to have?”
     “Perhaps so.  I should prefer to have the best word, and—”
     “And let a certain well-known gentleman take the hindmost?” supplied the young man smilingly.
     “If he only would!  What a shocking thing to say, but with me it is always conscience who has the very hindmost word; and my conscience is perfect mistress of the art of saying disagreeable things.  At the present moment she is trying to make me believe that I have been unpardonably rude to you.”
     “She is mistaken then, for even if it were possible for you to be rude, I could not fail to pardon you immediately.”
     “There! now you have had the best word.  It is useless for me to try to say anything better than that.  Perhaps the most becoming thing I could do would be to relapse into ignominious silence.”
     “Silence!  Desolation!  And with a two-mile pull yet before us!  If I have had the best word you have uttered the worst one.  What so terrible as silence?”
     “It is said to be golden.”
     “And, like the gold that Robinson Crusoe discovered on his island, it is of no particular use to anyone.”
     “It is one of the charms of Nature.”
     “A charm that I have never discovered.  What about the ever-present hum of multitudinous insects, the song of birds, the moan of winds, the laughter of leaping water?  It seems to me that Nature is all voice.” [Page 36]
     “Then, suppose,” said the undaunted young lady, lifting her languorous lids, “that we listen to her voice.”
     “There was no answering this; but, as the bonnet now veered towards the sunny south, and the boat rounding the sharp corner of the bay abruptly turned in the same direction, the young man was surprised to find himself looking his companion fully in the face, caught in the sudden sunshine of her smile.
     “I was about to remark,” he said, emboldened by this token of favour, “that there is nothing I delight in so much as listening to the voice of nature—that is human nature.”
     “The smile deepened into a rippling laugh.  “I am in one of my inhuman moods this morning,” she said, “but I believe my forte is action rather than speech.  Let me take your place, and those oars, please.”
     “He resigned them both, and at once; not because the unusual exertion had made any appreciable inroad upon his strength, but because he foresaw new phases of picturesqueness in the young girl’s dainty handling of the oars.  Nor was he disappointed.  The skirt of her dress was narrow and long, beginning, like an infant’s robe, a few inches below the arms, and thence descending in softly curving lines to her feet, with as little hint of rigidity or compression about the tenderly rounded waist as about the full fair throat above it.  She stretched out a pair of shoes, incredibly small and unmistakably French, and bent her slender gauntleted hands blithely to their task.  The newborn sweetness of the spring morning was about them.  On the heavily wooded shore the great evergreens towered darkly against the sun, but its beams fell with dazzling brightness upon the meadowy undulations of the lake.  Above them they heard at times the wild cry of the soaring gull, or the apparently disembodied voice of some unseen bird.  Behind them they left the beautiful stretch of Kempenfeldt Bay, gleaming in the sunshine, and now they slowly ascended [Page 37] the waters of Cook’s Bay, called after the great circumnavigator, under whom many of the naval officers who had settled in the region had served, Governor Simcoe’s father, after whom the old Lac des Clies—as the French called it—had received its modern name, being a shipmate.
     “But, now, Hélène, whose slender strength had succumbed to the difficulties of propelling their little craft, resumed her old seat, and her bonnet, like a dark lantern, sometimes allowed a charming light to be reflected upon surrounding objects, and then as suddenly withdrew it.  In the blue distance, near the mouth of the Holland River, they caught the first glimpse of “Bellevue”—the home of the DeBerczy’s.  The long sunlit run had after all been too brief.  Edward began to realize that some days might elapse before this pleasure could be repeated.  He drew in his oars, and let the boat rock idly on the tide.  His companion gave him an inquiring glance.  “I wish,” said he, “that you would do me a favour.”
     “Isn’t that rather an extraordinary request?”
     “Not at all.  It is a very natural remark.  It has not yet advanced so far as to be a request.”
     “Oh! well, of course, I can’t grant what isn’t a request.”
     “Does that mean that you can grant what is one?”
     “Sometimes.”
     “How good of you!  But, as I said before, I had only expressed a wish.  Aren’t you in the least interested in my wishes?”
     “If you were interested in mine you would take up those oars again.”
     “And thereby shorten the term of your imprisonment by me!  Your kindness emboldens me to make known my desire.  I wish you would let me examine something that appears to be hanging to your bonnet.”
     “Is it a grub—a caterpillar—a spider?”  These horrors [Page 38] were mentioned in the order of their detestability, and with a rising accent.
     “Really, I wouldn’t like to say, unless you remove the bonnet.”  She gave a convulsive twitch to the strings, and pulled them into a hard knot.  “Can’t you brush it off?” she asked Edward breathlessly.
     “Pray do not be so alarmed.  No, indeed, I couldn’t brush it off.  It sticks too fast for that.  I wish,” he said, as she made a frantic lurch towards him, “that you could be mild but firm—I mean not quite so agitated.”  Her breath came in quick perfumed wafts into his face, as his steady fingers strove to undo the knot in her ribbons.  But even after this lengthy business was concluded his trouble (if it could rightly be called a trouble) was only half over, for the careful Rose, with a prudent foreknowledge of the power of lake breezes to disarrange, if not carry away altogether, the headgear of helpless woman, had by some ingenious arrangement of hair-pins fastened the bonnet to the raven locks of her friend in such a manner that it could not be removed without endangering the structure of her elaborate hair-architecture.  So it was among the dark waves of rapidly down-flowing tresses that Hélène’s voice was again heard beseeching him to tell her what it was.
     “Your scientific curiosity seems to be almost as great as your fear of the insect creation.  But, really, it is quite a harmless little fellow.  See!” and he pointed to a steel beetle set with a view to ornamental effect in the centre of a little rosette of ribbons.
     “Oh, shameless!” exclaimed the young girl, sinking her lily-white face again among the abundant waves of her hair.
     “Yes, I daresay he is ashamed enough to think that he isn’t alive when he sees that you regret it so much.”
     “It is very annoying to be obliged to laugh when one had just made up one’s mind to be very angry; but Mademoiselle [Page 39] DeBerczy, with all her haughtiness, was endowed with a sense of humour; so it was with only a weak show of reproachful indignation that she at last threw back her head and exclaimed:
     “How could you—when I have such a horror of every sort of creeping thing—and you knew what it was all the time!”
     “Oh, excuse me, I did not know—that is, I wasn’t positive.  At a distance I thought it was some sort of a big fly—a blue-bottle.  Now I see it is a blue beetle.”
     “The young lady deigned no reply.
     “I am sorry that you were frightened, but you don’t seem to be a bit sorry on account of my sufferings.”
     “Your sufferings?”
     “Yes, see how surprised you are even to know that they existed!  But they are over now.  At frequent intervals, all through this long voyage, I have been forced to look at a heavenly body through a telescope—that is, when I could get the telescope properly adjusted to my vision.  The difficulties of adjustment have cost me a world of trouble.”
     “She gazed at him a moment in wide-eyed amazement, and then without attempting to solve the riddle of his remarks, proceeded to reduce her wind-blown locks to something like their usual law and order.  The dark heavy waves, rioting in the breeze, seemed to offer a problem to the deft white fingers that fluttered among them, but they were speedily subjugated, and the despised bonnet was added as the crowning touch.  Not a moment too soon, for the boat grated on the sandy beach, and the austere windows of her home were looking coldly down upon her.  A pair of austere eyes were also fixedly regarding her; but of this Hélène was happily unconscious.  Perhaps it was the instinct of hospitality alone that made her smile so brightly upon the brother of her friend, as they walked up to the house together.  The grounds about “Bellevue,” [Page 40] not so ample as those surrounding the home of the old Commodore, gave equal evidence of wealth and taste, and reminded one of a little park set in the midst of the wilderness.  The garden borders were bright with crocuses and snowdrops and rich in promises of future bloom, while from the orchard slopes on the left came a fair vision of wall-like masses of foliage, frescoed with blossoms and the perfumed touch of the blithe breezes at play among them.  Entering the quaint, dimly-lighted hall, they passed under long plumes of peacock feathers, o’erhanging the arched doorway leading into the drawing- room.  The floors were waxed and polished, the apartments spacious and lofty with elaborate cornices and panels.  Leaving her guest in mute contemplation of a tiny wood fire in a great fire-place, the young girl ran lightly up the broad, low stairway, pausing at the half-way landing to gaze dreamily from a casemated window out upon the sparkling waters of the lake.  Some of its brightness was reflected in her eyes, as, with a step less discreet and deferential than that which usually characterized her approaches to her mother’s bedchamber, she passed on to a half-closed door, tapped lightly upon it, and then pushed it wide open.
     “Ah, my daughter, what tidings do you bring?”
     “He has come!” declared the girl, proclaiming with unaffected gladness what was at that moment a great event in her life.
     “He!”
     “The chilly palm which the elder lady had extended, without rising, for the customary greeting, was not so chilly as the tone with which she uttered this offending pronoun.  Hélène, suddenly remembering with deep self-reproach the grief that her mother must feel in the loss of her old friend, took the cold fingers in both her warm white hands, and whispered tenderly:
     “She has gone!” [Page 41]
     “Madame DeBerczy was not overcome by this intelligence.  She had indeed learned the sad truth from Tredway, who had been dispatched to “Bellevue” by the Commodore immediately upon the death of his wife.  Consequently, at this moment, her heart did not suffer so much as her sense of propriety—which her enemies asserted was a more vital organ.
     “I trust,” she said, not unkindly, but with a sort of majestic displeasure, “that you do not mention these facts to me in what you consider the order of their importance.”
     “The young girl was chilled.  She moved away to one of the spindle-legged chairs near a window, and played absently with the knotted fringes of the old-fashioned dimity curtain.  “I mention them in the order of their occurrence,” she said gently.  “Dear Mrs. Macleod could scarcely close her eyes on earth until they rested upon her son.  He brought me over in his boat this morning, and is waiting below to see you.  Do you feel able to go down?”
     “I hope I shall always be able to respond to social requirements, and the son of my old friend must not be slighted.  Were you about to suggest that I receive him in my bedchamber?”
     “Hélène, who had risen with charming alertness at the first intimation of her mother’s intentions, now confronted that frigid dame with the subdued radiance of her glance.  “Ah, dear mother!” she murmured deprecatingly.  Daughterly submissiveness, tender consideration for an invalid’s querulous moods, gentle insistence upon her own right to be happy in spite of them, were all radiated from the softly spoken words.  Rigid propriety may have slain its thousands, perhaps its tens of thousands, but the elder lady foresaw with terrible clearness that it would never find a victim in this blithe girl, who refrained from dancing down the stairs before her simply because her happiness was [Page 42] accustomed to find expression in her looks, not in her actions.  However, motherly allegiance to duty might curb if it could not altogether control.  “Is it possible that I heard you humming a tune as you came through the hall?” she inquired.
     “No, no; it is impossible!  I hummed it so low that you certainly could not have heard it!”
     “Dignified rebuke was out of the question, as they had reached the foot of the stairway.  In another moment Edward Macleod was bending profoundly over the hand of his hostess.  The aristocratic, little old lady, with her delicate faded face, always seemed to him like some rare piece of porcelain or other fragile, highly-finished object.  He led her to the easiest chair, and drew his own close beside her, only interrupting the absorbed attention which he gave to her remarks by soft inquires regarding her health, or compliments upon the way in which her not very vigorous constitution had withstood the severity of the Canadian winter.
     “This noble dame, though she had been accustomed to a Northern climate, had never reconciled herself to it.  She still longed for la belle France.  Those who accompanied her husband to this portion of Upper Canada, on the outbreak of the French Revolution, had either returned to France or had gone to settle in French Canada, at the capital of which Hélène was born shortly after the death of her father.  The old friendship of General DeBerczy for Commodore Macleod, and the fact that the latter was the executor of her husband’s estate and the guardian of her daughter, had led her to return to the Huguenot colony on the Oak Ridges, and the summer always found Madame and her household at her northern villa, near the Macleod residence, on Lake Simcoe.  Here Edward passed the day gossiping with the old lady, and sauntering [Page 43] about the trim grounds with the stately Hélène until the afternoon was far advanced.
     “After taking his leave of Madame DeBerczy, Edward cast a fugitive glance about him in search of her daughter, but that young lady, for reasons of her own, was absent.  He suffered a vague disappointment, as he took his way to the shore, but at the water’s edge a girlish form overtook him, and a superb bouquet of hot-house flowers was placed in his hand.
     “I brought them for you to place upon—upon—”
     “She hesitated.  It sounded like wanton cruelty to say “your mother’s grave” to him, whose idea of everything lovely on earth must be signified in the word “mother,” everything terrible in the word “grave.”  But he understood her, and thanked her, while his heart and eyes filled fast.  On that lonely homeward row the burden of his bereavement lay heavily upon him, and the remembrance of his happy morning with his childhood’s friend, though sweet, was almost as faint as the fragrance exhaled from the rare exotics at his feet.  The pure tender curves of the white camellias reminded him of Hélène.  She herself was the rare product of choicest care and cultivation—the flower of an old and complex civilization.  The fancy pleased him at first, and then woke in his mind a certain vague disdain.  What place had hot-house plants, either human or otherwise, in this wild new land, whose illimitable forests as yet were almost strangers to axe and fire?
     “In a remote and solitary corner of his own domain, the Commodore had made for his dead wife a last abiding-place.  Thitherward, and alone, the motherless youth bent his steps in the soft glow of sunset.  The stillness of the place was broken only by the whisper of the trees overhead, the faint hum of insects, and the low murmur of the lapping waters of the lake.  Walking with downbent head and step so light that his footfall made no slightest sound [Page 44] upon the young grass in his path, he did not see the form of a half wild, wholly beautiful girl, emerge from the deep gloom of the woods before him.  Nor did she observe him, for her attention was wholly bent upon the armful of forest-flowers, which she let fall upon the grave with a passionate gesture of grief.  The young man, looking up in startled amaze, recognized the strange, fantastic figure that had fled before his approach on the evening of his return home.  He scarcely noticed her odd costume of mingled blue and yellow, so drawn was he to the dusky splendour of her face.  The warm vitality of the mantling cheek, and the charm of the lustrous lips, were matched in hue by a blood-coloured ’kerchief, carelessly knotted about the supple, tawny throat, behind which streamed a profuse abundance of deep-black hair.  Giving him one frightened glance, she turned and sped like some strange tropic bird upon the wind.  Moved by wonder, curiosity, and admiration, the young man gave stealthy chase; but, after following in the wake of her flying feet by bush and brier, and through the tangled thickets of the forest, he had the poor satisfaction of losing sight of her altogether, and then gaining one last glimpse of her, as, from the dense shadowy point where she became invisible, shot out a birch-bark canoe, and the dying sunset illumined with all the hues of victory the superb form of an Algonquin maiden rapidly rowing away.  Hot, irritated, and tired, Edward returned home, nor did he observe that, in this fruitless chase, one of the pure buds that Hélène had given him had fallen from his breast, on which he had pinned it, and had been rudely crushed beneath his heel. [Page 45]