AN ALGONQUIN MAIDEN
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CHAPTER V.

THE ALGONQUIN MAIDEN.

 


EARLY on one of those matchless summer mornings, for he loved to adopt the hours kept by the birds, Edward set forth alone on a voyage of discovery.  The wilds of his native land had a great and enduring fascination for him.  He never ceased to enjoy the charm of a forest so dense that one might stay in it for days without the danger of discovery.  Wandering as he listed, hurrying or loitering as it pleased him, and resting when weary beneath the outstretched arms of the over-shadowing wood, he drank deeply of the simple joys of a free and careless savage life.  His whole nature became sensitive and receptive, like that of a poet, and absorbent of the beauty and music of earth and air.
     The long bright hours of this particular day were spent in exploring bayous and marshes, and in paddling among the ledges and around the lovely islands of Lake Couchiching.  The dazzling blue expanse—mirror of a sky as blue—was broadly edged with reeds and rushes, flags and water-lilies, and framed by the thickly wooded shore and the green still cliffs that overhung the quiet waves.  The air was laden with the sweet faint odours of early summer, and a soft breeze was lightly blowing under skies as soft.  The youthful voyager went ashore, and for a long time lay stretched on the sand with his gun watching for wild-fowl.
     The woods were brilliant with flowers, blue larkspur, scarlet lichens, the white and yellow and purple cyprepedium, or lady’s slipper, called by the Indians ‘moccasin flower,’ the purple and scarlet iris, the bright pink blossom of the columbine, and all the other wind-blown and world-forgotten flowerets of the forest. [Page 60]
     As the day grew warmer he betook himself for coolness to a quiet leaf-screened nook, beneath a rudely sculptured cliff, mantled in foliage.  Here he reclined after his mid-day lunch, gazing out upon a sky so blue that it seemed a sea washing the invisible shores of heaven, and dreaming of as many things as usually occupy the fancy of a young man on an idle June day.  But one event of which he did not dream was rapidly approaching.  A wild bird more brilliant and beautiful than any he had so patiently waited for with his gun was preparing to fall at his feet.  Just above his head the Algonquin maiden, Wanda, who like himself had strayed far from home, was reposing warm and wearied in utter unconsciousness of the proximity of any human being.  The shining waters of the lake beneath her gave her a sudden charming inspiration.  Springing up with the alertness of one upon whom fatigue lies as lightly as dew upon the sward, she swiftly disrobed, and remained a moment graceful as a young maple in autumn, standing in beautiful undress, its delicate limbs bare of leaves, and all its light raiment fallen in a many coloured heap to the ground.
     In the natural abandon of the situation, Wanda neared the edge of the overhanging cliff, and sprang far out into the water.  Edward, who was still lounging under the rock, was startled by the flashing outline—like a meteor from the heavens—of a human figure, which, in the twinkling of an eye, had cleaved the smooth surface of the lake, sank far into its depths, and reappeared some distance off.  The glistening waters seemed to set in diamonds the beautifully shaped head and neck of the Indian maiden as she disported herself in the cool lake, and made for a point of land where a winding pathway, covered to the water’s edge by a profuse growth of young trees, led up to the cliff above.
     Recalling the classical story, familiar to his youth, and the judgment of the gods—“Henceforth be blind for thine eyes have seen too much!”—the young man concealed himself [Page 61] from view from the lake and waited for some time before venturing to regain the cliff overhead.
     The fear of not being able to overtake the Indian beauty prevented Edward from remaining a prisoner quite as long as his sense of propriety dictated.  But his fear was justified.  She had almost reached the vanishing point of his vision when he finally emerged from his involuntary hiding-place.  When at last he came up with her she confronted him with the wide innocent gaze of a child suddenly startled in its play.  Then the swift instinct of the savage, the uncontrollable desire to fly, took possession of her.  But the young man laid a light detaining hand upon her slim brown wrist.  “Don’t leave me,” he entreated, “I want to ask you the way home.”
     It was the only pretext he could invent on the spur of the moment, and it answered his purpose admirably.  She stopped to view with undisguised amazement, tempered with faint scorn, a human being who was so ignorant of the commonest affairs of life as to lose himself in the woods.  She never dreamed of doubting his word.  “I will be your guide,” she said, with grave friendliness.
     “You are very kind. I am afraid,” said the youth with well-feigned discouragement, “that we are a long way from home.”
     “This is my home,” said Wanda, as they stepped into the shadow of the limitless forest.  “It is only white men who are content to live on a little patch of ground and shut the sky away from them.  The Indian is at home everywhere.”
     “That is certainly an advantage, for when a person’s home is spread all over the continent he can never be lost.  What should I have done if I had not met you?”
     She made no reply.  Flitting before him like some gorgeous bird, he was obliged to follow her at a pace that was anything but agreeable on this hot afternoon.  Presently she turned and came back.  He was leaning against a tree, [Page 62] breathing heavily, and exhibiting every symptom of extreme fatigue.
     “You are forcing me to lead a terribly fast life,” he declared.  “You have no idea of how tired I am.”
     She laid a smooth brown hand upon his heart.  If it beat faster at the touch it was not sufficiently rapid to cause alarm.  “You are not tired at all,” she declared with the air of a wise physician who is not to be imposed upon, “besides there is need for haste.  It is going to rain.”
     And indeed the intense heat of the summer afternoon threatened to find relief in a thunder shower.  The atmosphere suddenly cooled and darkened.  The strange, shrill, foreboding chirp of a bird was the only sound heard in the forest, except the rushing of a new-risen hurrying wind in the tree-tops.  Then came the loud patter of rain on the leaves overhead, accompanied by a heavy crash of thunder.
     “The Great Spirit is angry,” murmured the young girl, her eyes dilating, and her breast heaving.
     “Well, experience teaches me that the best course to pursue when people are angry is to keep perfectly still until the storm blows over.  It’s no use talking back.  Ah! don’t do that,” he implored as she stopped and kissed the ground.
     “But I must.  It will propitiate the angry spirit and preserve us from danger.”
     “Oh, how can you waste your sweetness on the desert earth, in that fashion?  It may preserve us from danger, but it is likely to have a contrary effect on me.”
     The temporary shelter afforded by the interlacing branches overhead was now beaten down by the strength of the storm, which descended in torrents.  “Ah! you are afraid,” he observed softly, drawing nearer to her.
     “It is for you,” she responded.  “The rain is no more to me than it is to a red squirrel, but you, poor canary bird, your yellow head should be safe in its own cage.”
     This anxious, motherly tone brought a smile to the lips [Page 63] of the young man.  A sudden thought struck his guide.  Grasping his hand she drew him swiftly along until they reached the hollow trunk of an immense oak, into which she hastily thrust him.  “There is not room for both,” she declared, looking like a dripping naiad, as the rain-drops thickened about her.  “Then there is not room for me,” responded Edward, whose sense of chivalry rebelled at the idea of looking from a place of security upon an unprotected woman, exposed to the fury of the storm.  He drew her reluctant form beside him, but she was impatient and ill at ease in her enforced shelter, as though she had been one of the untamed things of the wood, caught and prisoned against its will.  Outside the rain fell fast, while within crouched this beautiful creature as remotely as possible from her human companion, and gazing longingly forth upon the wild elements of whose life her own life seemed to form a vital part.  Her pulse beat fast in sympathy with the fast beating rain.  Her large liquid eyes were dark as woodland pools.  She did not pay her companion the compliment of being embarrassed in the slightest degree by his presence.  Her only feeling was one of physical discomfort in her cramped position, and impatience with the man who could imagine that for her such protection was necessary.  It crossed his mind that here was a veritable child of nature, untamed, untamable, not only in her habits and surroundings, her modes of life and thought, but in her very nature, in every fibre of her being, every emotion of her mind.  Her superb unconsciousness chagrined and then irritated him.  A beautiful woman might as well be a beautiful statue as to persist in behaving like one.  A sudden rash desire took possession of the youth to test the quality of this super-human indifference.  The opportunity was tempting, the moment auspicious; he might never be so near her again.  He laid one hand upon her arm, and bent his fair head till it reached her shoulder.  The he bestowed a lingering kiss [Page 64] upon the lovely curve of her cheek where it melted into her neck.  She turned her proud head slowly, and looked at him through eyes that deepened and glowed.
     “Wanda!” he breathed softly.
     For answer he received a stinging blow on the face.  Nor was he consoled by the spectacle of a wild girl darting from under the shelter of the tree, and vanishing from his sight. [Page 65]


[Chapter VI]