At that moment a figure came out of the dusk and stopped before her.
It was her leader, Prix Laroux, silent, a shadow of the shadows.
“Maren,” he said, in that deep confidence of trusted friends, “Maren, is all well with you?”
“All is well, Prix,” said the girl, her voice tremulous with pleasure, “most assuredly. Thought you aught was wrong?”
“Nay,—only I felt the desire to know.”
“Friend,” said Maren, reaching out a hand which the man took strongly in both his own; “good, good friend! Ever you are at my back.”
“Where you may easily reach me when you will.”
“I know. ’Tis you alone have made possible the long trail. Ah! how long until another spring?”
But, when Prix had lounged away into the dusk and the girl had stepped into the soft dust of the roadway, she fell to wondering how it was that mention of the year’s wait brought no longer its impatience, its old dissatisfaction.
She was thinking of this as she neared the factory, her light tread muffled in the dust.
“Foolish Francette! What should I do with a gay little girl like you? Play in the sunshine years yet, little one, and think not of the bonds and cares of marriage. How could these little hands lift the heavy kettles, wash the blankets, and do the thousand tasks of a household? You are mistaken, child. It is not love you feel, but the changing fancies of maidenhood. Play in the sun with Loup and wait for the real prince. He will come some day with great beauty and you will give no more thought to me. He must be young, little one, a youth of twenty; not one like me, nearer the mark of another decade. It would not be fitting. Youth to youth, and those of a riper age to each other.” He was thinking of a tall form, full and round with womanhood, whose eyes held knowledge of the earth, and yet, had he been able to define their charm, were younger even than Francette’s.
The little maid had ceased her weeping long since and the face on McElroy’s shoulder, turned out toward the night, was drawn and hard. The black eyes were no longer starry with passion, but glittering with failure. And the man, stupid and good of heart as are all men of his type, congratulated himself that he had talked the nonsense out of her little head.
Suddenly he felt the slender figure shiver in his arms and the curly head brushed his cheek as she raised her face.
“Aye, M’sieu,” she whispered, “it is as you say, but only one thing remains. Kiss me, M’sieu, and I go to—forget.”
The factor hesitated.
He felt again his one passionate avowal on the lips of his one woman.
This was against the grain.
“Please, M’sieu,” begged the childish voice, with a world of coaxing; and, thinking to finish his gentle cure, he bent his head and kissed her lightly on the cheek.
“And now—” he started to admonish, when she threw her arms about his neck, stiffling the words in her garments.