AN ALGONQUIN MAIDEN
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CHAPTER IX.

ON THE WAY TO THE CAPITAL.



FROM early summer to late autumn, from assurance of bloom to certainty of frost, is but a step—the step between life and death.  The murmuring leaves and waters on the shores of Kempenfeldt Bay had learned a louder and harsher melody—the wild wind-prophecy of winter.  For a brief season Indian summer came to re-illumine the despairing days, and the larches, set aflame by her hand, flashed like lights.  Then through the softly tinted wood broke the Autumn brightness upon delicate shimmering birch trees, red sumachs, purple tinged sassafras, golden rod and asters; but now the oaks and beeches had changed their velvet green raiment to dull brown, and all the wild woods, after the pitiless and well-nigh perpetual rains of Fall, were stricken and discoloured.  Madame and Mademoiselle DeBerczy had flown with the birds, and were now domiciled in their winter home at the Oak Ridges, whither Rose Macleod, in response to an urgent invitation from Hélène, had accompanied them, and whence she wrote letters of entreaty to her father, urging him to take a house in York for the winter.
     “Not that it is so particularly lively,” she wrote, “but it is not quite so deathly as at Pine Towers.  Edward will be willing to come, I know, desperate lover of nature that he is, for there is nothing in the woods now but eternal requiem over lost and buried beauty, of which, in the natural vanity of youth, he may be tempted to consider himself a part.  As for the children they will build snow-houses, and sit down in them, thus ensuring permanent bad colds, and the other member of your family, if she returns home, will ‘look before and after, and sigh for what is not.’  Is not that a sufficiently depressing picture?  Dear papa, you know that, like the bad little boys in a certain class of Sunday School [Page 99] literature, I can’t be ruled except by kindness.  Now see what an immense opportunity I have given you to govern me according to approved Sunday School ethics!”
     She paused a moment, considering not what could be said, but what could be omitted from a missive which was to be convincing as well as caressing in its nature, when Hélène entered the room.
     “Love letter, Rose?” she inquired carelessly.
     “Certainly,” responded her friend, “all my letters are love letters.  Would you have me write to a person I didn’t love?”
     “Why, I couldn’t help it, that is supposing the letter you are writing is addressed to Allan Dunlop.  Of course he is a person you don’t love.”
     “There is no reason why I should.”
     “No reason?  O ingratitude!  After he dived under the heels of a fiery horse, carried you nearly lifeless into the house, and took off his boots every time he entered it for six weeks thereafter.  How much further could a man’s devotion go?”
     “I am beginning to find out,” said Rose, with a slight return of an invalid’s irritation, “how far a woman’s devotion can go.”
     Hélène arched her delicate brows.  “Are you offended?” she asked, anxiously.  “Ah, don’t be!  I’ll take back every word.  He didn’t take off his boots, nor carry you in, nor pick you up, and, let me see—what other assertion did I make?  Oh, yes.  Of course he is a person you do love.  But oh, Rose, Rose, what are you blushing about?  This isn’t the time of year for roses to blush.”
     “Upon my word, Hélène, you are enough to make a stone wall blush.”
     “Ah, you are thinking of the stone walls of a certain farm cottage.  I can imagine you sitting propped up in bed, with a volume of hymns marking the line, ‘Stone walls do not [Page 100] a prison make,’ with a big exclamation-point, and a ‘So true!’”
     Rose leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes.
     “Are you very tired, dear?” inquired her friend, with real tenderness.
     “Very tired,” was the languid reply, that was not without a satirical intonation.  “It seems as though my rest was a good deal broken.”
     “Broken bone! broken heart! broken rest!  dear me!  Well, I suppose they follow each other in natural sequence.”
     “Hélène,” said her mother, “you are chattering like a magpie.  What is it all about?”
     “Broken utterances, mamma.”  Not worth piecing together and repeating.”
     Madame DeBerczy, seated alone at the other end of the apartment, turned upon her daughter a face of such majestic severity as effectually to quell that young lady’s recklessly merry mood.  But it was not for long.  The irrepressible joyousness of her nature was not permanently subdued until two weeks later, when the family were surprised by the unlooked-for appearance of Edward Macleod.  This young man was the bearer of good-tidings.  His father and the rest of the family were even now domiciled at an hotel in York waiting for Rose to arrive in order to consult her preferences before selecting a house.  The announcement made both girls happy, but when it was discovered that Edward was to take his sister away in a few hours their joy was changed to lamentation.  To be separated, hateful thought!  How could it be endured?  They withdrew for a brief space to consider this weighty problem, leaving Edward in dignified conversation with Madame DeBerczy.  He was strangely reminded of his first visit to her after his return from England.  Alike, and yet how different.  Then the prophecy of summer’s golden perfection was in the air.  But his hopes with it had too-quickly ripened and died.  [Page 101] The coolness that had sprung up between Hélène and himself had grown and strengthened into the permanent winter of discontent.  He was recalled from the chilling reflections into which this thought had plunged him by the concluding words of a remark by Madame DeBerczy: “I approve of a certain amount of life and animation,” she said, “but they are inclined to be too frisky.”
     “What on earth is she talking about?” queried Edward inaudibly.  He could form no idea, but he was suddenly extricated from his dilemma by observing the antics of two pet kittens on the hearth-rug.
     “Altogether too frisky,” he acquiesced, “but charming little pets.”
     “It appears to me,” said the lady, with a good deal of frigidity in her manner, “that they should be something better than that.”
     “Oh, you could scarcely expect such young things to be stately and dignified, Madame DeBerczy.  They seem to me very pretty and graceful.”
     “In my day prettiness and grace were not considered so essential for young ladies as dignity and stateliness.”
     “Young ladies!  Really, I beg your pardon, dear Madame, for my inattention.  I imagined you were talking of kittens.”  He blushed so vividly over his mistake that a more circumspect old lady even than the one he was addressing would have found it hard not to forgive him.
     But now the girls re-entered the room with looks of deep dejection.  “We have decided that we can’t part.” said  Hélène.  “United we stand, divided we fall!”
     “And so,” said Rose boldly, addressing Madame DeBerczy, “we have come to ask if Hélène cannot go back with us for a few days.”  She paused a moment, for in asking a favour of so lofty a personage as Madame DeBerczy, she was never certain whether she ought to prostrate herself on the floor in oriental fashion, or merely bend the knee. [Page 102]  In this case she did neither.  But her sweet pleading eyes spoke “libraries,” so Hélène told her afterwards.  The imaginative objections already forming in the mother’s mind vanished away, and she was prevailed upon to give her consent.
     “Though it leaves me rather at the mercy of Sophia,” she said, as she went out to lunch.
     Edward lifted an inquiring pair of eyes.
     “Sophia is my new maid,” explained his hostess.  “Her ideas on the subject of liberty and equality are extreme.  Sometimes,” she added mournfully, “I am in doubt as to whether I have hired Sophia, or Sophia has hired me.”
     The young people longed to exchange covert glances of amusement, but this relief was denied them.  It was no laughing matter to the stately sufferer at the head of the table.  Rose spoke in the decent accents of sympathy and condolence, but her brother and friend were not profuse of speech.  The latter was thinking of possible explanations and reconciliations that might arise through the frequent opportunities of meeting with Edward, which a temporary residence under the same roof would entail, and the former was feasting his beauty-loving eyes upon a strikingly lovely picture on the other side of the table—the picture of two heads, golden-yellow and raven-black, against the rich background of a peacock-tinted tapestry screen.
     They were much less picturesque in their winter wraps, as they whirled away under the leafless trees, but they made up for it in merriment.  Edward and Hélène were secretly glad of the presence of Rose.  It was impossible to be frigidly formal with that sunny face beaming up now at one, then at the other.  This deep young person had made up her mind that she would spare no pains to bring about a better state of feeling between the two.  When conversation lagged or threatened to become formally precise, she gave utterance to some amazing piece of nonsense, which compelled a [Page 103] laugh from the others, or else indulged in prettily assumed alarm, lest their horse should prove untrustworthy.
     “When you see a horse’s ears move,” she declared, “it is a sign that he is vicious.  Flip’s ears were never still.”
     “Why, Rose,” cried her brother, “this horse is no more like Flip than an old cow is like a wild cat.  Besides his ears don’t move.”
     “Oh, yes, they do,” remarked Hélène with the calmness of scientific conviction.  “When a horse moves his ears have got to move too.  They are not detachable.  It is the same with other animals.”
     “Where is my note-book?” inquired Edward, after a fruitless search in his various pockets, while Rose observed “Well, you may say what you please, but I feel sure he is not safe.”
     “Indeed, he isn’t,” echoed the driver.  “He’s liable to turn around any moment and bite you.  It’s a good thing the livery stable man hitched him up head first, else we might all have been devoured by the ferocious beast.”
     Such pleasantries might have been indefinitely extended had not unusual sounds of mirth and minstrelsy coming from behind arrested their attention.
     “Why, it is the Elmsleys,” softly exclaimed Rose.  “Dear me!  I haven’t seen Grace and Eleanor for months.”
     These young ladies hailed her with every expression of delight as the carriages came to a stand-still together.  They had a prodigious amount to say.  At last, as the horses were growing restive, Mrs. Elmsley invited Miss Macleod to join their family party, as they also were on their way to York.
     “Do!” echoed the daughters, and Rose accepted with alacrity.  “The horse we have isn’t at all safe,” she explained, “and I am quite nervous on the subject since my accident last summer.”
     “Rose, demanded Hélène, in a low aside, but with a [Page 104] tragic countenance, “you surely are not going to leave me?”
     The girl laughed as she accepted Mr. Elmsley’s proffered assistance from one vehicle into the other.  “Why, you are quite a grown woman,” observed that gentleman, apparently much impressed by her mature proportions, “and it seems like only the other day that you were seven years old, and used to kiss me when we met.”
     “Well, I’ll kiss you again,” replied the saucy Rose, adding after a moment’s pause,—“when I am seven years old.”
     “I warn you, Mrs. Elmsley,” said Edward, shaking his head with doleful foreboding, “that girl knows how to look like the innocent flower she is named after, and be the serpent under it.”
     “Did you know,” said his slandered sister, addressing the same lady, and indicating the pair she had basely forsaken, “those are the very two that were with me when I was so badly hurt last summer.  Do you wonder that I am glad to escape from them?”
     The party drove off amid jests and laughter, while the young ladies, applying their lips once more to a leaf of grass-ribbon each had in her hand, produced such sounds as, according to their father, might, Orpheus-like, have drawn stones and brickbats after them, but from a murderous rather than a magnetic motive.
     “I wonder if Rose is really nervous,” said Edward, breaking the silence that bound them after the departure of the others.
     “I think she is really nonsensical,” said Rose’s friend, not very blandly.
     “Are you then so sorry to be left alone with me?”
     The young lady evaded the question, but became extremely loquacious.  She intimated that almost any companionship, or none at all, could be endured on this beautifully melancholy autumn day, and called his attention to the [Page 105] leaves underfoot, which had grown brown and ragged, like the pages of a very old book on which the centuries had laid their slow relentless fingers.  In a burst of girlish confidence she told him that always, after the wild winds had stripped from the shuddering woodland its last leaves, and the pitiless rains had washed it clean, the spectacle of bare-branched trees, standing against the gentle gloom of a pale November sky, reminded her of a company of worldings, from whom every vestige of earthly ambition, pride and prosperity had fallen away.  “Anything,” she said to herself, “anything to keep the talk from becoming personal.”
     “I can understand that,” said Edward, “but the influences of unworldliness—I was almost saying other-worldliness—are nowhere felt as in the woods.  Sometimes they exert a strange spell upon me.  The petty pride and shallow subterfuges of fashionable life are impossible in nature’s solitudes.  Don’t you think so?”
     “Yes;” assented Hélène, not seeing whither her unthinking acquiescence might lead her.
     “That is why I dare to ask you why you have been so cold and formal towards me, so unlike your old self, for the last three months?”
     No petty pride could help her now, no shallow subterfuges come to her aid.  She had declared that they were impossible here.  She could not turn her face away from his truth-compelling gaze.  Why had Rose left her alone to be tortured in this dreadful way?  How could she confess to him that jealousy and wounded vanity had caused the change in her demeanour?  “I cannot tell you,” she said at last.  She had turned paler even than usual, but her eyes burned.
     “I am sorry to have given you pain,” he said almost tenderly, and then the confession broke from her in a little storm of pent-up emotion.
     “It was because I ceased to respect you!  How could I [Page 106] respect a man who would allow a wild ignorant creature to caress his hands and hang upon his words?”
     He turned a face of pure bewilderment upon her.  “If you mean the Algonquin girl, Wanda,” he said, “she has never treated me otherwise than with indifference, anger and contempt.”  He explained the scene of which Hélène had been an involuntary witness, and the proud girl felt humiliated and belittled.  But he was too generous and perhaps too clever to allow her to suppose that he attributed her coldness to weak jealousy.  That would have placed her at a disadvantage which her pride would never have forgiven.
     “So you believed me to be a vain contemptible idiot,” he said.  “Then you did perfectly right to scorn me.”  He drove on furiously, with tense lips and contracted brow.  She had misjudged him cruelly, but he would not descend to harsh accusation.  Hélène was decidedly uncomfortable.  “I have never scorned you,” she said.  “It was because I believed you superior to the folly and weakness of ordinary men that it grieved me to think you were otherwise.”
     “It grieved you,” he repeated in a softer tone.  “Hereafter I wish you would confide all your griefs to me the moment you are aware of them.”
     “To tell the truth, I don’t expect to have any more.”  She laughed her old joyous friendly laugh, and he stretched his arm across her lap to adjust the robe more closely to her form.  Her attitude towards him had completely changed, concretely as well as abstractly, for now she sat cosily and contentedly by his side, instead of perching herself a yard away, and allowing the winter winds to emphasize the coldness that had existed between them.  This wonderful improvement in the mental atmosphere made them oblivious to a change in the outer air until Hélène remarked upon the peculiar odour of smoke about them.  This increased until it became almost stifling.  Evidently the blazing brush heap, [Page 107] lit by the hand of some thrifty settler, had extended further than he was aware of.  The smoke blew past them, and they were in the midst of that vividly picturesque spectacle—a fire in the forest.  The flames ran swiftly up the dry, dead limbs, turning trees into huge blazing torches, and the light underbrush beneath them took on beautiful and fantastic shapes of fire.  The gray sky was illumined with fiery banners, while, like scarlet-clothed imps at a carnival, the flames leaped and danced among the twigs and smaller branches.
     The hot breeze blowing on her cheek filled Hélène with sudden alarm, and Edward urged the horse to a quicker pace.  But the frightened creature needed no urging.  With a great shuddering leap he sprang forward as though a thousand fire-fiends from the infernal regions had been after him.  Hélène uttered a half-suppressed shriek, and clung strenuously to Edward’s arm.  Suddenly he gave a loud gasp of dismay.  On the road directly before them a pile of brush had caught the blaze and stretched before their startled eyes like a burning bridge.  All attempts to stop or turn around were useless.  The horse was wholly beyond control.  For a moment they were enveloped in smoke and flame, shut into a fiery furnace, from which an instant later they emerged from danger, but with a badly singed steed and an unpleasant odour of fire upon them.  Edward had pushed Hélène to the bottom of the carriage, and flung the robe over her.  Now he drew her trembling, and sobbing a little, back to his side.  She was shaking excessively, and in order to restore her equanimity there was clearly nothing else to be done but to hold her closely in his arms, let fall his face to hers, and breathe in her ear every word of sympathy and comfort that came to his mind.  She lay weakly with closed eyes upon his breast, while the excitement in her pulses gradually died away.  When she opened her eyes the short November day was nearly at its close, and York [Page 108] was in sight.  She drew away to her own corner of the seat, not with any visible blushes, for her complexion never lost its warm whiteness, but her eyes glowed, and her lips were ‘like a thread of scarlet.’
     “I am glad Rose was not with us,” she said, feeling a pressing need to say something, and in default of anything better to say, “as she is even more nervous than I am.”
     “Yes, I am very glad she was not with us,” assented Edward, with an unusual amount of brotherly fervour, while he turned his horse in the direction of the only available hotel in the Capital, where the wearied travelers were content to rest for a few days before setting out in search of a new home. [Page 109]


[Chapter X]