Thus he spoke, as one who says common things. He said little of himself, but as he went on in short, curt sentences the picture grew more distinct, and to Virginia the man became more and more prominent in it. She saw the dying and exhausted dogs, the frost-rimed, weary men; she heard the quick crunch, crunch, crunch of the snow-shoes hurrying ahead to break the trail; she felt the cruel torture of the mal de raquette, the shrivelling bite of the frost, the pain of snow blindness, the hunger that yet could not stomach the frozen fish nor the hairy, black caribou meat. One thing she could not conceive—the indomitable spirit of the men. She glanced timidly up at her companion’s face.
“The Company is a cruel master,” she sighed at last, standing upright, then leaning against the carriage of the gun. He let her go without protest, almost without thought, it seemed.
“But not mine,” said he.
She exclaimed, in astonishment, “Are you not of the Company?”
“I am no man’s man but my own,” he answered, simply.
“Then why do you stay in this dreadful North?” she asked.
“Because I love it. It is my life. I want to go where no man has set foot before me; I want to stand alone under the sky; I want to show myself that nothing is too big for me—no difficulty, no hardship—nothing!”
“Why did you come here, then? Here at least are forests so that you can keep warm. This is not so dreadful as the Coppermine, and the country of the Yellow Knives. Did you come here to try la Longue Traverse of which you spoke to-day?”
He fell suddenly sombre, biting in reflection at his lip.
“No—yes—why not?” he said, at length.
“I know you will come out of it safely,” said she; “I feel it. You are brave and used to travel. Won’t you tell me about it?”
He did not reply. After a moment she looked up in surprise. His brows were knit in reflection. He turned to her again, his eyes glowing into hers. Once more the fascination of the man grew big, overwhelmed her. She felt her heart flutter, her consciousness swim, her old terror returning.
“Listen,” said he. “I may come to you to-morrow and ask you to choose between your divine pity and what you might think to be your duty. Then I will tell you all there is to know of la Longue Traverse. Now it is a secret of the Company. You are a Factor’s daughter; you know what that means.” He dropped his head. “Ah, I am tired—tired with it all!” he cried, in a voice strangely unhappy. “But yesterday I played the game with all my old spirit; to-day the zest is gone! I no longer care.” He felt the pressure of her hand. “Are you just a little sorry for me?” he asked. “Sorry for a weakness you do not understand? You must think me a fool.”