“Oh! O God! Rette!”
She screamed and sprang up, to run back and crouch against the empty chair beside the hearth.
The figure upon the bed, half-risen, worked its lips and then fell back, and the little maid raised her voice and screamed again and again in mortal terror.
It brought Rette running from where she had waited in the trading-room.
She raised him, and her face was red with rage.
“What have you done! You evil cat! What have you done to the man?”
But McElroy’s breast had heaved with a great breath, sweet as the wind over a harvest field to a tired man, and he looked up at Rette with eyes that seemed to be suddenly flooded with life.
“Done?” he whispered; “done, Rette? The child has given me salvation!” And then he held out a shaking, thin hand.
“Come here,” he said softly; “come here.”
Fearful, trembling, tear-stained Francette crept back, and the factor took both her small hands in a tender clasp:
“I thank you, little one,” he said, “from my heart I thank you,—there is nothing to forgive. We are all sinners through the only bit of Heaven we possess,—love. Go, little one, and cease this crying. Know that I shall sleep this night in a mighty peace. You have given me— life!”
CHAPTER XXX THE LAND OF THE WHISPERING HILLS
Springtime once more kissed all the wilderness into tender green. From the depths of the forest, lacing its myriad branches in finest fluff of young leaves, came the old-new sound of birds at the mating, rivers and tiny streams rushed and tumbled to the lakes, and overhead a sky as blue and sweet as the eyes of loved rocked its baby clouds in cradles of fresh winds.
They blew over vast reaches of forest and plain, these winds, wimpling the new grass with playful fingers, and whispering in the ear of bird and bee and flower that spring was come once more.
They came from the west, sweeping over sweet high meadows, over rushing streams, and down from fair plateaus, and their breath was fresh and cool with promise to one who faced them, eager in his hope, for they brought the virgin sweetness of the Land of the Whispering Hills. By streams, clear as crystal, he passed with a swinging stride, this lean young man in the buckskins of the forest traveller, over meadows soft in their green carpets, through woodlands whose flecked sunshine quivered and shook on the young moss beneath, and ever his face was lifted to the west with undying hope, with calmness of faith, and that great joy which is humble in its splendour.
Thus he swung forward all through the pleasant hours of that last day. Before him, raised against the sky, there loomed the magic Hills themselves, fair to the eye of man, clothed in the green of blowing grass and girdled about below with the encroaching forest.
At dusk he set foot upon their swelling slopes, and knew himself to be near the goal of his heart’s desire.