"It's close to Fort MacPherson," he explained.
"We can work it from the Mackenzie. I expect to start back some time in August."
She leaned toward him, last night's strange excitement glowing for the first time in her eyes.
"You are going back? You will see Peter God?"
In her eagerness she laid a hand on his arm.
"I am going back. It would be possible to see Peter God."
The touch of her hand did not lighten the weight that was tugging again at his heart.
"Peter God's cabin is a hundred miles from Fort MacPherson," he added. "He will be hunting foxes by the time I get there."
"You mean--it will be winter."
"Yes. It is a long journey. And"--he was looking at her closely as he spoke--"Peter God may not be there when I return. It is possible he may have gone into another part of the wilderness."
He saw her quiver as she drew back.
"He has been there--for seven--years," she said, as if speaking to herself. "He would not move--now!"
"No; I don't think he would move now."
His own voice was low, scarcely above a whisper, and she looked at him quickly and strangely, a flush in her cheeks.
It was late when he bade her good-night. Again he felt the warm thrill of her hand as it lay in his. The next afternoon he was to take her driving.
The days and weeks that followed these first meetings with Josephine McCloud were weighted with many things for Philip. Neither she nor her father enlightened him about Peter God. Several times he believed that Josephine was on the point of confiding in him, but each time there came that strange fear in her eyes, and she caught herself.
Philip did not urge. He asked no questions that might be embarrassing. He knew, after the third week had passed, that Josephine could no longer be unconscious of his love, even though the mystery of Peter God restrained him from making a declaration of it. There was not a day in the week that they did not see each other. They rode together. The three frequently dined together. And still more frequently they passed the evenings in the McCloud apartments. Philip had been correct in his guess--they were from Montreal. Beyond that fact he learned little.
As their acquaintance became closer and as Josephine saw in Philip more and more of that something which he had not spoken, a change developed in her. At first it puzzled and then alarmed him. At times she seemed almost frightened. One evening, when his love all but trembled on his lips, she turned suddenly white.
It was the middle of July before the words came from him at last. In two or three weeks he was starting for the North. It was evening, and they were alone in the big room, with the cool breeze from the lake drifting in upon them. He made no effort to touch her as he told her of his love, but when he had done, she knew that a strong man had laid his heart and his soul at her feet.
He had never seen her whiter. Her hands were clasped tightly in her lap. There was a silence in which he did not breathe. Her answer came so low that he leaned forward to hear.
"I am sorry," she said. "It is my fault--that you love me. I knew. And yet I let you come again and again. I have done wrong. It is not fair--now--for me to tell you to go--without a chance. You--would want me if I did not love you? You would marry me if I did not love you?"
His heart pounded. He forgot everything but that he loved this woman with a love beyond his power to reason.
"I don't think that I could live without you now, Josephine," he cried in a low voice. "And I swear to make you love me. It must come. It is inconceivable that I cannot make you love me--loving you as I do."
She looked at him clearly now. She seemed suddenly to become tense and vibrant with a new and wonderful strength.
"I must be fair with you," she said. "You are a man whose love most women would be proud to possess. And yet--it is not in my power to accept that love, or give myself to you. There is another to whom you must go."
"And that is--"
It was she who leaned forward now, her eyes burning, her bosom rising and falling with the quickness of her breath.
"You must go to Peter God," she said. "You must take a letter to him--from me. And it will be for him--for Peter God--to say whether I am to be your wife. You are honorable. You will be fair with me. You will take the letter to him. And I will be fair with you. I will be your wife, I will try hard to care for you--if Peter God--says--"
Her voice broke. She covered her face, and for a moment, too stunned to speak, Philip looked at her while her slender form trembled with sobs. She had bowed her head, and for the first time he reached out and laid his hand upon the soft glory of her hair. Its touch set aflame every fiber in him. Hope swept through him, crushing his fears like a juggernaut. It would be a simple task to go to Peter God! He was tempted to take her in his arms. A moment more, and he would have caught her to him, but the weight of his hand on her head roused her, and she raised her face, and drew back. His arms were reaching out. She saw what was in his eyes.
"Not now," she said. "Not until you have gone to him. Nothing in the world will be too great a reward for you if you are fair with me, for you are taking a chance. In the end you may receive nothing. For if Peter God says that I cannot be your wife, I cannot. He must be the arbiter. On those conditions, will you go?"
"Yes, I will go," said Philip.
It was early in August when Philip reached Edmonton. From there he took the new line of rail to Athabasca Landing; it was September when he arrived at Fort McMurray and found Pierre Gravois, a half-breed, who was to accompany him by canoe up to Fort MacPherson. Before leaving this final outpost, whence the real journey into the North began, Philip sent a long letter to Josephine.
Two days after he and Pierre had started down the Mackenzie, a letter came to Fort McMurray for Philip. "Long" La Brie, a special messenger, brought it from Athabasca Landing. He was too late, and he had no instructions--and had not been paid--to go farther.
Day after day Philip continued steadily northward. He carried Josephine's letter to Peter God in his breast pocket, securely tied in a little waterproof bag. It was a thick letter, and time and again he held it in his hand, and wondered why it was that Josephine could have so much to say to the lonely fox-hunter up on the edge of the Barren.
One night, as he sat alone by their fire in the chill of September darkness, he took the letter from its sack and saw that the contents of the bulging envelope had sprung one end of the flap loose. Before he went to bed Pierre had set a pail of water on the coals. A cloud of steam was rising from it. Those two things--the steam and the loosened flap--sent a thrill through Philip. What was in the letter? What had Josephine McCloud written to Peter God?
He looked toward sleeping Pierre; the pail of water began to bubble and sing--he drew a tense breath, and rose to his feet. In thirty seconds the steam rising from the pail would free the rest of the flap. He could read the letter, and reseal it.
And then, like a shock, came the thought of the few notes Josephine had written to him. On each of them she had never failed to stamp her seal in a lavender-colored wax. He had observed that Colonel McCloud always used a seal, in bright red. On this letter to Peter God there was no seal! She trusted him. Her faith was implicit. And this was her proof of it. Under his breath he laughed, and his heart grew warm with new happiness and hope. "I have faith in you," she had said, at parting; and now, again, out of the letter her voice seemed to whisper to him, "I have faith in you."
He replaced the letter in its sack, and crawled between his blankets close to Pierre.
That night had seen the beginning of his struggle with himself. This year, autumn and winter came early in the North country. It was to be a winter of terrible cold, of deep snow, of famine and pestilence--the winter of 1910. The first oppressive gloom of it added to the fear and suspense that began to grow in Philip.
For days there was no sign of the sun. The clouds hung low. Bitter winds came out of the North, and nights these winds wailed desolately through the tops of the spruce under which they slept. And day after day and night after night the temptation came upon him more strongly to open the letter he was carrying to Peter God.
He was convinced now that the letter--and the letter alone--held his fate, and that he was acting blindly. Was this justice to himself? He wanted Josephine. He wanted her above all else in the world. Then why should he not fight for her--in his own way? And to do that he must read the letter. To know its contents would mean--Josephine. If there was nothing in it that would stand between them, he would have done no wrong, for he would still take it on to Peter God. So he argued. But if the letter jeopardized his chances of possessing her, his knowledge of what it contained would give him an opportunity to win in another way. He could even answer it himself and take back to her false word from Peter God, for seven frost-biting years along the edge of the Barren had surely changed Peter God's handwriting. His treachery, if it could be called that, would never be discovered. And it would give him Josephine.
This was the temptation. The power that resisted it was the spirit of that big, clean, fighting North which makes men out of a beginning of flesh and bone. Ten years of that North had seeped into Philip's being. He hung on. It was November when he reached Port MacPherson, and he had not opened the letter.
Deep snows fell, and fierce blizzards shot like gunblasts from out of the Arctic. Snow and wind were not what brought the deeper gloom and fear to