“And me!” Frith pushed softly forward. “At the last, Ma’amselle, we are old women. We cannot let you go.”
“Cannot?” said Maren sharply. “Do Mr. Mowbray’s men so soon forget his orders? I am good as a man, M’sieus. See!”
She held up her right arm, with the fringed sleeve falling loose. The muscle sprang up magnificently.
“Fear not for me,—and yet,—I thank you! Now we wait.”
One hour,—two,—passed and the last light crept, afraid, out of the forest to linger a trembling moment on the waters and be drawn up to the darkening sky.
At last the maid arose, tall and quiet, save for the excitement in her eyes, and one by one her chosen followers stepped noiselessly after.
Silent as the wood around, the forlorn hope crept forward.
“Here, Frith,” commanded Maren, when they had reached a vantage point of higher ground, “and here you, Alloybeau and McDonald, separate. If during this night the good God shall deliver into our hands Mr. McElroy and the venturer from Montreal, you will hear a panther’s far-off call. Make for the canoe, for that will mean swift flight. If, on the other hand, aught should befall us ahead, a night-hawk will cry once. Hide and wait. Wait one day, two, three. There is always hope. So. We go now.”
Thus they separated, that small band, as hopeless together as apart in case of discovery, and at last Dupre followed alone, his heart heavy within him and a grip in his throat of tears. On through the leafy forest, parting the lacing vines, holding each branch that it might not swish to place, they went, far from safety and the commonplace of life, and a prescience of disaster weighed on the trapper’s soul like lead.
At last it grew more than he could bear, and he reached a hand to Maren’s shoulder, a tentative hand, hesitating, as if it felt its touch blasphemy.
“Ma’amselle,” he faltered, “forgive me! But, oh! without confession this night I am sick to my heart’s core! I lied to you back at the cove, though with a clean conscience, for it is love,—love of a man warm and wild that tears my soul to tatters! I love you with all love, of saint and sinner, of Heaven and earth, and I would have you know it!”
His low voice was shaking, as was his whole slim body, and Maren felt it in the hand on her shoulder.
“As a man, Ma’amselle, I would give my life for one touch of your lips! As a lost monk I would kiss your garment’s hem! See!”
He dropped to his knee and, catching her beaded skirt, pressed it to his lips again and again, passionately, swept away by his French blood.
“As I live I love you as the dog loves his master! I am naught save the dust under your feet, the thorn you brush in the forest, yet like them I catch and cling! Forgive, Ma’amselle, and if the future is fair for you, think sometimes in the dusk of Marc Dupre!”