He almost sobbed the words this time. His hands trembled and he dropped the paper again on the table and turned his eyes in staring horror toward the door. What did she mean? Would Meleese kill herself if he was murdered by her brothers? He could see no other meaning in her last message to him, and for a time after the chilling significance of her words struck his heart he scarce restrained himself from calling aloud for Jean. If he could but send a word back to her, tell her once more of his great love—that the winning of that love was ample reward for all that he had lost and was about to lose, and that it gave him such happiness as he had never known even in this last hour of his torture!
Twice he shouted for Croisset, but there came no response save the hollow echoings of his own voice in the subterranean chambers. After that he began to think more sanely. If Meleese was a prisoner in her room it was probable that Croisset, who was now fully recognized as a traitor at the post, could no longer gain access to her. In some secret way Meleese had contrived to give him the note, and he had performed his last mission for her.
In Howland’s breast there grew slowly a feeling of sympathy for the Frenchman. Much that he had not understood was clear to him now. He understood why Meleese had not revealed the names of his assailants at Prince Albert and Wekusko, he understood why she had fled from him after his abduction, and why Jean had so faithfully kept secrecy for her sake. She had fought to save him from her own flesh and blood, and Jean had fought to save him, and in these last minutes of his life he would liked to have had Croisset with him that he might have taken has hand and thanked him for what he had done. And because he had fought for him and Meleese the Frenchman’s fate was to be almost as terrible as his own. It was he who would fire the fatal shot at six o’clock. Not the brothers, but Jean Croisset, would be his executioner and murderer.
The minutes passed swiftly, and as they went Howland was astonished to find how coolly he awaited the end. He even began to debate with himself as to through which hole the fatal shot would be fired. No matter where he stood he was in the light of the big hanging lamp. There was no obscure or shadowy corner in which for a few moments he might elude his executioner. He even smiled when the thought occurred to him that it was possible to extinguish the light and crawl under the table, thus gaining a momentary delay. But what would that delay avail him? He was anxious for the fatal minute to arrive, and be over.
There were moments of happiness when in the damp horror of his death-chamber there came before him visions of Meleese, grown even sweeter and more lovable, now that he knew how she had sacrificed herself between two great loves—the love of her own people and the love of himself. And at last she had surrendered to him. Was it possible that she could have made that surrender if she, like her brothers, believed him to be the murderer of her father—the son of the man-fiend who had robbed her of a mother? It was impossible, he told himself. She did not believe him guilty. And yet—why had she not given him some such word in her last message to him?