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The Going of the White Swan

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"Why don't she come back, father?"

The man shook his head, his hand fumbled with the wolfskin robe covering the child, and he made no reply.

"She'd come if she knew I was hurted, wouldn't she?"

The father nodded, and then turned restlessly toward the door, as though expecting some one. The look was troubled, and the pipe he held was not alight, though he made a pretense of smoking.

"Suppose the wildcat had got me, she'd be sorry when she comes, wouldn't she?"

There was no reply yet, save by gesture, the language of primitive man; but the big body shivered a little, and the uncouth hand felt for a place in the bed where the lad's knee made a lump under the robe. He felt the little heap tenderly, but the child winced.

"S-sh, but that hurts! This wolfskin's most too much on me, isn't it, father?"

The man softly, yet awkwardly, lifted the robe, folded it back, and slowly uncovered the knee. The leg was worn away almost to skin and bone, but the knee itself was swollen with inflammation. He bathed it with some water, mixed with vinegar and herbs, then drew down the deer-skin shirt, and did the same with the child's shoulder. Both shoulder and knee bore the marks of teeth,—where a huge wildcat had made havoc—and the body had long red scratches.

Presently the man shook his head sorrowfully, and covered up the small disfigured frame again, but this time with a tanned skin of the caribou. The flames of the huge wood-fire dashed the walls and floor with a velvety red and black, and the large iron kettle, bought of the Company at Fort Sacrament, puffed out geysers of steam.

The place was a low hut with parchment windows and rough mud-mortar lumped between the logs. Skins hung along two sides, with bullet-holes and knife-holes showing: of the great gray wolf, the red puma, the bronze hill-lion, the beaver, the bear, and the sable; and in one corner was a huge pile of them. Bare of the usual comforts as the room was, it had a sort of refinement also, joined to an inexpressible loneliness, you could scarce have told how or why.

"Father," said the boy, his face pinched with pain for a moment, "it hurts so, all over, every once in a while."

His fingers caressed the leg just below the knee.

"Father," he suddenly added, "what does it mean when you hear a bird sing in the middle of the night?"

The woodsman looked down anxiously into the boy's face. "It hasn't no meaning, Dominique. There ain't such a thing on the Labrador Heights as a bird singin' in the night. That's only in warm countries where there's nightingales. So—bien sur!"

The boy had a wise, dreamy, speculative look.

"Well, I guess it was a nightingale—it didn't sing like any I ever heard."

The look of nervousness deepened in the woodman's face. "What did it sing like, Dominique?"

"So it made you shiver. You wanted it to go on, and yet you didn't want it. It was pretty, but you felt as if something was going to snap inside of you."

"When did you hear it, my son?"

"Twice last night—and—and I guess it was Sunday the other time. I don't know, for there hasn't been no Sunday up here since mother went away—has there?"

"Mebbe not."

The veins were beating like live cords in the man's throat and at his temples.

"'Twas just the same as Father Corraine bein' here, when mother had Sunday, wasn't it?"

The man made no reply; but a gloom drew down his forehead, and his lips doubled in as though he endured physical pain....