They had formed a wider circle round me, and pistol range is longer than snowball range, so that they struck me no more. I heard the shouts and mockery still, but never Jacqueline’s voice.
“Here, M. Hewlett, here!” piped Philippe Lacroix once more.
Again I turned and rushed at him, firing shot after shot. I heard his snow-shoes plodding across the crust, and yells from the others indicated that Philippe’s adventure had been a risky one.
Then Simon called again and I turned, like a foolish, baited beast, and fired at him.
A dog barked once more, very far away, and at last I understood their scheme.
Doubtless Simon had reached the huts at dawn and had discovered us there. He must have been in waiting, but when he saw Jacqueline run from me he changed his plans and sent the sleigh after her. Then, realizing from my actions that I was snow-blind, he had remained behind with some of his followers to enjoy the sport of baiting me, and incidentally to drive me out of the way while the sleigh went on.
And now there was complete silence. He had accomplished his purpose. He had gained all that he had to gain. Fortune had fought upon his side, as always.
She had tried to escape me. She could not have been playing a part—she was too transcendentally sincere. Something must have occurred—some dream which had momentarily crazed her; and she had confounded me with her persecutors.
I could not think evil of her. I flung myself down in the snow and gave way to abject misery.
But hope is not readily overthrown. For her sake I resolved to pull myself together. I did not now know whether Leroux was in front or behind me, or upon either hand.
I stood deep in the snow, a pistol in each hand, waiting. When he called again I should make my last effort.
But he called me no more. Once I heard the dog yelp, far up the valley, and then there was only the soughing of the wind and the sting of the driving sleet flakes. And the grey mist had closed in all about me. I was alone in that storm-swept wilderness and there was no sun to guide me.
I saw a shadow at my feet, and stooping down, perceived that accident had brought me back to the sleigh tracks. From the direction in which the dog had howled, I judged that my course lay straight ahead as I was standing. I started off wearily. At least it was better to walk than to perish in the snow.
But before many minutes had passed the realization of my loss stung me into madness again, and I began to run. And, as I ran, I shouted, and, shouting, I fired.
I plunged along—half delirious, I believe, for I began to hear voices on every side of me and to imagine I saw Simon standing, just out of reach, a shadow upon the mist, taunting me. I followed him at an undeviating distance, firing, reloading, and firing again. I was no longer conscious of my progress. The fingers that pressed the triggers of my pistols had no sensation in them, and in my imagination were parts of a monstrous mechanism which I directed. My legs, too, felt like stilts that somebody had strapped to my body, and, instead of cold, a warm glow seemed to suffuse me.