“I’m ten years younger than I was two years ago.”
“You’ve been two years in the north?”
“A year and ten months,” he replied.
Something brought to my lips the words that I had forced back a score of times.
“What brought you up here, Thornton?”
“Two things,” he said quietly, “a woman—and a scoundrel.”
He said no more, and I did not press the matter. There was a strange tremble in his voice, something that I took to be a note of sadness; but when he turned from the sunset to me his eyes were filled with a yet stranger joy, and his big boyish laugh rang out with such wholesome infectiousness that I laughed with him, in spite of myself.
That night, in our shack, he produced a tightly bound bundle of letters about six inches thick, scattered them out before him on the table, and began reading them at random, while I sat bolstered back in my bunk, smoking and watching him. He was a curious study. Every little while I’d hear him chuckling and rumbling, his teeth agleam, and between these times he’d grow serious. Once I saw tears rolling down his cheeks.
He puzzled me; and the more he puzzled me, the better I liked him. Every night for a week he spent an hour or two reading those letters over and over again. I had a dozen opportunities to see that they were a woman’s letters: but he never offered a word of explanation.
With the approach of September, I made preparations to leave for the south, by way of Moose Factory and the Albany.
“Why not go the shorter way—by the Reindeer Lake water route to Prince Albert?” asked Thornton. “If you’ll do that, I’ll go with you.”
His proposition delighted me, and we began planning for our trip. From that hour there came a curious change in Thornton. It was as if he had come into contact with some mysterious dynamo that had charged him with a strange nervous energy. We were two days in getting our stuff ready, and the night between he did not go to bed at all, but sat up reading the letters, smoking, and then reading over again what he had read half a hundred times before.
I was pretty well hardened, but during the first week of our canoe trip he nearly had me bushed a dozen times. He insisted on getting away before dawn, laughing, singing, and talking, and urged on the pace until sunset. I don’t believe that he slept two hours a night. Often, when I woke up, I’d see him walking back and forth in the moonlight, humming softly to himself. There was almost a touch of madness in it all; but I knew that Thornton was sane.
One night—our fourteenth down—I awoke a little after midnight, and as usual looked about for Thornton. It was glorious night. There was a full moon over us, and with the lake at our feet, and the spruce and balsam forest on each side of us, the whole scene struck me as one of the most beautiful I had ever looked upon.
When I came out of our tent, Thornton was not in sight. Away across the lake I heard a moose calling. Back of me an owl hooted softly, and from miles away I could hear faintly the howling of a wolf. The night sounds were broken by my own startled cry as I felt a hand fall, without warning, upon my shoulder. It was Thornton. I had never seen his face as it looked just then.