“She has never heard of it,” said Ned Trent to himself, and aloud: “Men who undertake it leave comfort behind. They embrace hunger and weariness, cold and disease. At the last they embrace death, and are glad of his coming.”
Something in his tone compelled belief; something in his face told her that he was a man by whom the inevitable hardships of winter and summer travel, fearful as they are, would be lightly endured. She shuddered.
“This dreadful thing is necessary?” she asked.
“I do not understand——”
“In the North few of us understand,” agreed the young man with a hint of bitterness seeping through his voice. “The mighty order, and so we obey. But that is beside the point. I have not told you these things to harrow you; I have tried to excuse myself for my actions. Does it touch you a little? Am I forgiven?”
“I do not understand how such things can be,” she objected in some confusion, “why such journeys must exist. My mind cannot comprehend your explanations.”
The stranger leaned forward abruptly, his eyes blazing with the magnetic personality of the man.
“But your heart?” he breathed.
It was the moment. “My heart—” she repeated, as though bewildered by the intensity of his eyes, “my heart—ah—yes!”
Immediately the blood rushed over her face and throat in a torrent. She snatched her eyes away, and cowered back in the corner, going red and white by turns, now angry, now frightened, now bewildered, until his gaze, half masterful, half pleading, again conquered hers. Galen Albret had ceased tapping his chair. In the dim light he sat, staring straight before him, massive, inert, grim.
“I believe you—” she murmured hurriedly at last. “I pity you!”
She rose. Quick as light he barred her passage.
“Don’t! don’t!” she pleaded. “I must go—you have shaken me—I—I do not understand myself——”
“I must see you again,” he whispered eagerly. “To-night—by the guns.”
“To-night,” he insisted.
She raised her eyes to his, this time naked of defence, so that the man saw down through their depths into her very soul.
“Oh,” she begged, quivering, “let me pass. Don’t you see—I’m going to cry!”
For a moment Ned Trent stared through the darkness into which Virginia had disappeared. Then he turned a troubled face to the task he had set himself, for the unexpectedly pathetic results of his fantastic attempt had shaken him. Twice he half turned as though to follow her. Then shaking his shoulders he bent his attention to the old man in the shadow of the chair.
He was given no opportunity for further speech, however, for at the sound of the closing door Galen Albret’s impassivity had fallen from him. He sprang to his feet. The whole aspect of the man suddenly became electric, terrible. His eyes blazed; his heavy brows drew spasmodically toward each other; his jaws worked, twisting his beard into strange contortions; his massive frame straightened formidably; and his voice rumbled from the arch of his deep chest in a torrent of passionate sound.