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   Chapter 18 No.18

The Flaming Forest By James Oliver Curwood Characters: 13683

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

He did not turn toward Marie-Anne when he had lighted the first of the great brass lamps hanging at the side of the bateau. He went to the second, and struck another match, and flooded the cabin with light.

She still stood silhouetted against the darkness beyond the cabin door when he faced her. She was watching him, her eyes intent, her face a little pale, he thought. Then he smiled and nodded. He could not see a great change in her since this afternoon, except that there seemed to be a little more fire in the glow of her eyes. They were looking at him steadily as she smiled and nodded, wide, beautiful eyes in which there was surely no revelation of shame or regret, and no very clear evidence of unhappiness. David stared, and his tongue clove to the roof of his mouth.

"Why is it that you sit in darkness?" she asked, stepping within and closing the door. "Did you not expect me to return and apologize for leaving you so suddenly this afternoon? It was impolite. Afterward I was ashamed. But I was excited, M'sieu David. I-"

"Of course," he hurried to interrupt her. "I understand. St. Pierre is a lucky man. I congratulate you-as well as him. He is splendid, a man in whom you can place great faith and confidence."

"He scolded me for running away from you as I did, M'sieu David. He said I should have shown better courtesy than to leave like that one who was a guest in our-home. So I have returned, like a good child, to make amends."

"It was not necessary."

"But you were lonesome and in darkness!"

He nodded. "Yes."

"And besides," she added, so quietly and calmly that he was amazed, "you know my sleeping apartment is also on the bateau. And St. Pierre made me promise to say good night to you."

"It is an imposition," cried David, the blood rushing to his face. "You have given up all this to me! Why not let me go into that little room forward, or sleep on the raft and you and St. Pierre-"

"St. Pierre would not leave the raft," replied Marie-Anne, turning from him toward the table on which were the books and magazines and her work-basket. "And I like my little room forward."

"St. Pierre-"

He stopped himself. He could see a sudden color deepening in the cheek of St. Pierre's wife as she made pretense of looking for something in her basket. He felt that if he went on he would blunder, if he had not already blundered. He was uncomfortable, for he believed he had guessed the truth. It was not quite reasonable to expect that Marie-Anne would come to him like this on the first night of St. Pierre's homecoming. Something had happened over in the little cabin on the raft, he told himself. Perhaps there had been a quarrel-at least ironical implications on St. Pierre's part. And his sympathy was with St. Pierre.

He caught suddenly a little tremble at the corner of Marie-Anne's mouth as her face was turned partly from him, and he stepped to the opposite side of the table so he could look at her fairly. If there had been unpleasantness in the cabin on the raft, St. Pierre's wife in no way gave evidence of it. The color had deepened to almost a blush in her cheeks, but it was not on account of embarrassment, for one who is embarrassed is not usually amused, and as she looked up at him her eyes were filled with the flash of laughter which he had caught her lips struggling to restrain. Then, finding a bit of lace work with the needles meshed in it, she seated herself, and again he was looking down on the droop of her long lashes and the seductive glow of her lustrous hair. Yesterday, in a moment of irresistible impulse, he had told her how lovely it was as she had dressed it, a bewitching crown of interwoven coils, not drawn tightly, but crumpled and soft, as if the mass of tresses were openly rebelling at closer confinement. She had told him the effect was entirely accidental, largely due to carelessness and haste in dressing it. Accidental or otherwise, it was the same tonight, and in the heart of it were the drooping red petals of a flower she had gathered with him early that afternoon.

"St. Pierre brought me over," she said in a calmly matter-of-fact voice, as though she had expected David to know that from the beginning. "He is ashore talking over important matters with Bateese. I am sure he will drop in and say good night before he returns to the raft. He asked me to wait for him-here." She raised her eyes, so clear and untroubled, so quietly unembarrassed under his gaze, that he would have staked his life she had no suspicion of the confessions which St. Pierre had revealed to him.

"Do you care? Would you rather put out the lights and go to bed?"

He shook his head. "No. I am glad. I was beastly lonesome. I had an idea-"

He was on the point of blundering again when he caught himself. The effect of her so near him was more than ever disturbing, in spite of St. Pierre. Her eyes, clear and steady, yet soft as velvet when they looked at him, made his tongue and his thoughts dangerously uncertain.

"You had an idea, M'sieu David?"

"That you would have no desire to see me again after my talk with St. Pierre," he said. "Did he tell you about it?"

"He said you were very fine, M'sieu David-and that he liked you."

"And he told you it is determined that I shall fight Bateese in the morning?"


The one word was spoken with a quiet lack of excitement, even of interest-it seemed to belie some of the things St. Pierre had told him, and he could scarcely believe, looking at her now, that she had entreated her husband to prevent the encounter, or that she had betrayed any unusual emotion in the matter at all.

"I was afraid you would object," he could not keep from saying. "It does not seem nice to pull off such a thing as that, when there is a lady about-"

"Or LADIES." She caught him up quickly, and he saw a sudden little tightening of her pretty mouth as she turned her eyes to the bit of lace work again. "But I do not object, because what St. Pierre says is right-must be right."

And the softness, he thought, went altogether out of the curve of her lips for an instant. In a flash their momentary betrayal of vexation was gone, and St. Pierre's wife had replaced the work-basket on the table and was on her feet, smiling at him. There was something of wild daring in her eyes, something that made him think of the glory of adventure he had seen flaming in her face the night they had run the rapids of the Holy Ghost.

"Tomorrow will be very unpleasant, M'sieu David," she cried softly. "Bateese will beat you-terribly. Tonight we must think of things more agreeable."

He had never seen her more radiant than when she turned toward the piano. What the deuce did it mean? Had St. Pierre been making a fool of him? She actually appeared unable to restrain her elation at the thoug

ht that Bateese would surely beat him up! He stood without moving and made no effort to answer her. Just before they had started on that thrilling adventure into the forest, which had ended with his carrying her in his arms, she had gone to the piano and had played for him. Now her fingers touched softly the same notes. A little humming trill came in her throat, and it seemed to David that she was deliberately recalling his thoughts to the things that had happened before the coming of St. Pierre. He had not lighted the lamp over the piano, and for a flash her dark eyes smiled at him out of the half shadow. After a moment she began to sing.

Her voice was low and without effort, untrained, and subdued as if conscious and afraid of its limitations, yet so exquisitely sweet that to David it was a new and still more wonderful revelation of St. Pierre's wife. He drew nearer, until he stood close at her side, the dark luster of her hair almost touching his arm, her partly upturned face a bewitching profile in the shadows.

Her voice grew lower, almost a whisper in its melody, as if meant for him alone. Many times he had heard the Canadian Boat Song, but never as its words came now from the lips of Marie-Anne Boulain.

"Faintly as tolls the evening chime,

Our voices keep tune, and our oars keep time.

Soon as the woods on shore look dim,

We'll sing at St. Ann's our parting hymn;

Row, brothers, row, the stream runs fast,

The rapids are near, and the daylight's past."

She paused. And David, staring down at her shining head, did not speak. Her fingers trembled over the keys, he could see dimly the shadow of her long lashes, and the spirit-like scent of crushed violets rose to him from the soft lace about her throat and her hair.

"It is your music," he whispered. "I have never heard the Boat Song like that!"

He tried to drag his eyes from her face and hair, sensing that he was a near-criminal, fighting a mighty impulse. The notes under her fingers changed, and again-by chance or design-she was stabbing at him; bringing him face to face with the weakness of his flesh, the iniquity of his desire to reach out his arms and crumple her in them. Yet she did not look up, she did not see him, as she began to sing "Ave Maria."

"Ave, Maria, hear my cry!

O, guide my path where no harm, no harm is nigh-"

As she went on, he knew she had forgotten to think of him. With the reverence of a prayer the holy words came from her lips, slowly, softly, trembling with a pathos and sweetness that told David they came not alone from the lips, but from the very soul of St. Pierre's wife. And then-

"Oh, Mother, hear me where thou art,

And guard and guide my aching heart, my aching heart!"

The last words drifted away into a whisper, and David was glad that he was not looking into the face of St. Pierre's wife, for there must have been something there now which it would have been sacrilege for him to stare at, as he was staring at her hair.

No sound of opening door had come from behind them. Yet St. Pierre had opened it and stood there, watching them with a curious humor in eyes that seemed still to hold a glitter of the fire that had leaped from the half-breed's flaming birch logs. His voice was a shock to Carrigan.

"PESTE, but you are a gloomy pair!" he boomed. "Why no light over there in the corner, and why sing that death-song to chase away the devil when there is no devil near?"

Guilt was in David's heart, but there was no sting of venom in St. Pierre's words, and he was laughing at them now, as though what he saw were a pretty joke and amused him.

"Late hours and shady bowers! I say it should be a love song or something livelier," he cried, closing the door behind him and coming toward them. "Why not En Roulant ma Boule, my sweet Jeanne? You know that is my favorite."

He suddenly interrupted himself, and his voice rolled out in a wild chant that rocked the cabin.

"The wind is fresh, the wind is free,

En roulant ma boule! The wind is fresh-my love waits me,

Rouli, roulant, ma boule roulant!

Behind our house a spring you see,

In it three ducks swim merrily,

And hunting, the Prince's son went he,

With a silver gun right fair to see-"

David was conscious that St. Pierre's wife had risen to her feet, and now she came out of shadow into light, and he was amazed to see that she was laughing back at St. Pierre, and that her two fore-fingers were thrust in her ears to keep out the bellow of her husband's voice. She was not at all discomfited by his unexpected appearance, but rather seemed to join in the humor of the thing with St. Pierre, though he fancied he could see something in her face that was forced and uneasy. He believed that under the surface of her composure she was suffering a distress which she did not reveal.

St. Pierre advanced and carelessly patted her shoulder with one of his big hands, while he spoke to David.

"Has she not the sweetest voice in the world, m'sieu? Did you ever hear a sweeter or as sweet? I say it is enough to get down into the soul of a man, unless he is already half dead! That voice-"

He caught Marie-Anne's eyes. Her cheeks were flaming. Her look, for an instant, flashed lightning as she halted him.

"Ma foi, I speak it from the heart," he persisted, with a shrug of his shoulders. "Am I not right, M'sieu Carrigan? Did you ever hear a sweeter voice?"

"It is wonderful," agreed David, wondering if he was hazarding too much.

"Good! It fills me with happiness to know I am right. And now, cherie, good-night! I must return to the raft."

A shadow of vexation crossed Marie-Anne's face. "You seem in great haste."

"Plagues and pests! You are right, Pretty Voice! I am most anxious to get back to my troubles there, and you-"

"Will also bid M'sieu Carrigan good-night," she quickly interrupted him. "You will at least see me to my room, St. Pierre, and safely put away for the night."

She held out her hand to David. There was not a tremor in it as it lay for an instant soft and warm in his own. She made no effort to withdraw it quickly, nor did her eyes hide their softness as they looked into his own.

Mutely David stood as they went out. He heard St. Pierre's loud voice rumbling about the darkness of the night. He heard them pass along the side of the bateau forward, and half a minute later he knew that St. Pierre was getting into his canoe. The dip of a paddle came to him.

For a space there was silence, and then, from far out in the black shadow of the river, rolled back the great voice of St. Pierre Boulain singing the wild river chant, "En Roulant ma Boule."

At the open window he listened. It seemed to him that from far over the river, where the giant raft lay, there came a faint answer to the words of the song,

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