ON THE FRONTIER OF DESPAIR
The compulsion of life had denied Jessie the niceness given girls by the complexities of modern civilization. She had been brought up close to raw stark nature. The habits of animals were familiar to her and the vices of the biped man.
A traveler in the sub-Arctic is forced by the deadly cold of the North into a near intimacy of living with his fellows. Jessie had more than once taken a long sled journey with her father. On one occasion she had slept in a filthy Indian wigwam with a dozen natives all breathing the same foul, unventilated air. Again she had huddled up against the dogs, with her father and two French half-breeds, to keep in her the spark of life a blizzard’s breath was trying to blow out.
On such a trip some of the common decencies of existence are dropped. The extreme low temperature makes it impossible for one to wash either face or hands without the skin chapping and breaking. Food at which one would revolt under other circumstances is devoured eagerly.
Jessie was the kind of girl such a life had made her, with modifications in the direction of fineness induced by McRae’s sturdy character, her schooling at Winnipeg, and the higher plane of the family standard. As might have been expected, she had courage, energy, and that quality of decisive action bred by primitive conditions.
But she had retained, too, a cleanness of spirit hardly to be looked for in such a primeval daughter of Eve. Her imagination and her reading had saved the girl’s sweet modesty. A certain detachment made it possible for her to ignore the squalor of the actual and see it only as a surface triviality, to let her mind dwell in inner concepts of goodness and beauty while bestiality crossed the path she trod.
So when she found in one of the gins a lynx savage with the pain of bruised flesh and broken bone snapped by the jaws of the trap, the girl did what needed to be done swiftly and with a minimum of reluctance.
She was close to the second trap when the sound of webs slithering along the snow brought her up short. Her first thought was that Onistah had changed his mind and followed her, but as soon as the snowshoer came out of the thick timber, she saw that he was not an Indian.
He was a huge man, and he bulked larger by reason of the heavy furs that enveloped him. His rate of travel was rapid enough, but there was about the gait an awkward slouch that reminded her of a grizzly. Some sullenness of temperament seemed to find expression in the fellow’s movements.
The hood of his fur was drawn well forward over the face. He wore blue glasses, as a protection against snow-blindness apparently. Jessie smiled, judging him a tenderfoot; for except in March and April there is small danger of the sun glare which destroys sight. Yet he hardly looked like a newcomer to the North. For one thing he used the web shoes as an expert does. Before he stopped beside her, she was prepared to revise a too hasty opinion.