"Repeat the verses you sang, Pierre," said Trafford. The half-breed did so. When he came to the words, "Who loveth the beast of the field the best," the Englishman looked round. "Where is Shangi"? he asked. McGann shook his head in astonishment and negation. Pierre explained: "On the mountain-side where we ride down he is not seen—he vanish . . . 'mon Dieu,' look!"
On the slope of the mountain stood the Scarlet Hunter with drawn bow. From it an arrow flew over their heads with a sorrowful twang, and fell where the smoke rose among the pines; then the mystic figure disappeared.
McGann shuddered, and drew himself together. "It is the place of spirits," he said; "and it's little I like it, God knows; but I'll follow that Scarlet Hunter, or red devil, or whatever he is, till I drop, if the Honourable gives the word. For flesh and blood I'm not afraid of; and the other we come to, whether we will or not, one day."
But Trafford said: "No, we'll let it stand where it is for the present. Something has played our eyes false, or we're brought here to do work different from buffalo-hunting. Where that arrow fell among the smoke we must go first. Then, as I read the riddle, we travel back the way we came. There are points in connection with the Pipi Valley superior to the hills of the Mighty Men."
They rode away across the glade, and through a grove of pines upon a hill, till they stood before a log but with parchment windows.
Trafford knocked, but there was no response. He opened the door and entered. He saw a figure rise painfully from a couch in a corner,—the figure of a woman young and beautiful, but wan and worn. She seemed dazed and inert with suffering, and spoke mournfully: "It is too late. Not you, nor any of your race, nor anything on earth can save him. He is dead—dead now."
At the first sound of her voice Trafford started. He drew near to her, as pale as she was, and wonder and pity were in his face. "Hester," he said, "Hester Orval!"
She stared at him like one that had been awakened from an evil dream, then tottered towards him with the cry,—"Just, Just, have you come to save me? O Just!" His distress was sad to see, for it was held in deep repression, but he said calmly and with protecting gentleness: "Yes, I have come to save you. Hester, how is it you are here in this strange place—you?"
She sobbed so that at first she could not answer; but at last she cried: "O Just, he is dead . . . in there, in there! . . . Last night, it was last night; and he prayed that I might go with him. But I could not die unforgiven, and I was right, for you have come out of the world to help me, and to save me."
"Yes, to help you and to save you,—if I can," he added in a whisper to himself, for he was full of foreboding. He was of the earth, earthy, and things that had chanced to him this day were beyond the natural and healthy movements of his mind. He had gone forth to slay, and had been foiled by shadows; he had come with a tragic, if beautiful, memory haunting him, and that memory had clothed itself in flesh and stood before him, pitiful, solitary,—a woman. He had scorned all legend and superstition, and here both were made manifest to him. He had thought of this woman as one who was of this world no more, and here she mourned before him and bade him go and look upon her dead, upon the man who had wronged him, into whom, as he once declared, the soul of a cur had entered,—and now what could he say? He had carried in his heart the infinite something that is to men the utmost fulness of life, which, losing, they must carry lead upon their shoulders where they thought the gods had given pinions.
McGann and Pierre were nervous. This conjunction of unusual things was easier to the intelligences of the dead than the quick. The outer air was perhaps less charged with the unnatural, and with a glance towards the room where death was quartered, they left the hut.
Trafford was alone with the woman through whom his life had been turned awry. He looked at her searchingly; and as he looked the mere man in him asserted itself for a moment. She was dressed in coarse garments; it struck him that her grief had a touch of commonness about it; there was something imperfect in the dramatic setting. His recent experiences had had a kind of grandeur about them; it was not thus that he had remembered her in the hour when he had called upon her in the plains, and the Indian had heard his cry. He felt, and was ashamed in feeling, that there was a grim humour in the situation. The fantastic, the melodramatic, the emotional, were huddled here in too marked a prominence; it all seemed, for an instant, like the tale of a woman's first novel. But immediately again there was roused in him the latent force of loyalty to himself and therefore to her; the story of her past, so far as he knew it, flashed before him, and his eyes grew hot.
He remembered the time he had last seen her in an English country-house among a gay party in which royalty smiled, and the subject was content beneath the smile. But there was one rebellious subject, and her name was Hester Orval. She was a wilful girl who had lived life selfishly within the lines of that decorous yet pleasant convention to which she was born. She was beautiful,—she knew that, and royalty had graciously admitted it. She was warm-thoughted, and possessed the fatal strain of the artistic temperament. She was not sure that she had a heart; and many others, not of her sex, after varying and enthusiastic study of the matter, were not more confident than she. But it had come at last that she had listened with pensive pleasure to Trafford's tale of love; and because to be worshipped by a man high in all men's, and in most women's, esteem, ministered delicately to her sweet egotism, and because she was proud of him, she gave him her hand in promise, and her cheek in privilege, but denied him—though he knew this not—her heart and the service of her life. But he was content to wait patiently for that service, and he wholly trusted her, for there was in him some fine spirit of the antique world.
There had come to Falkenstowe, this country-house and her father's home, a man who bore a knightly name, but who had no knightly heart; and he told Ulysses' tales, and covered a hazardous and cloudy past with that fascinating colour which makes evil appear to be good, so that he roused in her the pulse of art, which she believed was soul and life, and her allegiance swerved. And when her mother pleaded with her, and when her father said stern things, and even royalty, with uncommon use, rebuked her gently, her heart grew hard; and almost on the eve of her wedding-day she fled with her lover, and married him, and together they sailed away over the seas.
The world was shocked and clamorous for a matter of nine days, and then it forgot this foolish and awkward circumstance; but Just Trafford never forgot it. He remembered all vividly until the hour, a year later, when London journals announced that Hester Orval and her husband had gone down with a vessel wrecked upon the Alaskan and Canadian coast. And there new regret began, and his knowledge of her ended.
But she and her husband had not been drowned; with a sailor they had reached the shore in safety. They had travelled inland from the coast through the great mountains by unknown paths, and as they travelled, the sailor died; and they came at last through innumerable hardships to the Kimash Hills, the hills of the Mighty Men, and there they stayed. It was not an evil land; it had neither deadly cold in winter nor wanton heat in summer. But they never saw a human face, and everything was lonely and spectral. For a time they strove to go eastwards or southwards but the mountains were impassable, and in the north and west there was no hope. Though the buffalo swept by them in the valley they could not slay them, and they lived on forest fruits until in time the man sickened. The woman nursed him faithfully, but still he failed; and when she could go forth no more for food, some unseen dweller of the woods brought buffalo meat, and prairie fowl, and water from the spring, and laid them beside her door.
She had seen the mounds upon the hill, the wide couches of the sleepers, and she remembered the things done in the days when God seemed nearer to the sons of men than now; and she said that a spirit had done this thing, and trembled and was thankful. But the man weakened and knew that he should die, and one night when the pain was sharp upon him he prayed bitterly that he might pass, or that help might come to snatch him from the grave. And as they sobbed together, a form entered at the door,— a form clothed in scarlet,—and he bade them tell the tale of their lives as they would some time tell it unto heaven. And when the tale was told he said that succour should come to them from the south by the hand of the Scarlet Hunter, that the nation sleeping there should no more be disturbed by their moaning. And then he had gone forth, and with his going there was a storm such as that in which the man had died, the storm that had assailed the hunters in the forest yesterday.
This was the second part of Hester Orval's life as she told it to Just Trafford. And he, looking into her eyes, knew that she had suffered, and that she had sounded her husband's unworthiness. Then he turned from her and went into the room where the dead man lay. And there all hardness passed from him, and he understood that in the great going forth man reckons to the full with the deeds done in that brief pilgrimage called life; and that in the bitter journey which this one took across the dread spaces between Here and There, he had repented of his sins, because they, and they only, went with him in mocking company; the good having gone first to plead where evil is a debtor and hath a prison. And the woman came and stood beside Trafford, and whispered, "At first—and at the last—he was kind."
But he urged her gently from the room: "Go away," he said; "go away. We cannot judge him. Leave me alone with him."
They buried him upon the hill-side, far from the mounds where the Mighty Men waited for their summons to go forth and be the lords of the North again. At night they buried him when the moon was at its full; and he had the fragrant pines for his bed, and the warm darkness to cover him; and though he is to those others resting there a heathen and an alien, it may be that he sleeps peacefully.
When Trafford questioned Hester Orval more deeply of her life there, the unearthly look quickened in her eyes, and she said: "Oh, nothing, nothing is real here, but suffering; perhaps it is all a dream, but it has changed me, changed me. To hear the tread of the flying herds, to see no being save him, the Scarlet Hunter, to hear the voices calling in the night! . . . Hush! There, do you not hear them? It is midnight— listen!"
He listened, and Pierre and Shon McGann looked at each other apprehensively, while Shon's fingers felt hurriedly along the beads of a rosary which he did not hold. Yes, they heard it, a deep sonorous sound: "Is the daybreak come?" "It is still the night," came the reply as of one clear voice. And then there floated through the hills more softly: "We sleep—we sleep!" And the sounds echoed through the valley—"Sleep —sleep!"
Yet though these things were full of awe, the spirit of the place held them there, and the fever of the hunter descended on them hotly. In the morning they went forth, and rode into the White Valley where the buffalo were feeding, and sought to steal upon them; but the shots from their guns only awoke the hills, and none were slain. And though they rode swiftly, the wide surf of snow was ever between them and the chase, and their striving availed nothing. Day after day they followed that flying column, and night after night they heard the sleepers call from the hills. The desire of the thing wasted them, and they forgot to eat and ceased to talk among themselves. But one day Shon McGann, muttering aves as he rode, gained on the cattle, until once again the Scarlet Hunter came forth from a cleft of the mountains, and drove the herd forward with swifter feet. But the Irishman had learned the power in this thing, and had taught Trafford, who knew not those availing prayers, and with these sacred conjurations on their lips they gained on the cattle length by length, though the Scarlet Hunter rode abreast of the thundering horde. Within easy range, Trafford swung his gun shoulder-wards to fire, but at that instant a cloud of snow rose up between him and his quarry so that they all were blinded. And when they came into the clear sun again the buffalo were gone; but flaming arrows from some unseen hunter's bow came singing over their heads towards the south; and they obeyed the sign, and went back to where Hester wore her life out with anxiety for them, because she knew the hopelessness of their quest. Women are nearer to the heart of things. And now she begged Trafford to go southwards before winter froze the plains impassably, and the snow made tombs of the valleys. Thereupon he gave the word to go, and said that he had done wrong—for now the spell was falling from him.
But she, seeing his regret, said: "Ah, Just, it could not have been different. The passion of it was on you as it was on us, as if to teach us that hunger for happiness is robbery, and that the covetous desire of man is not the will of the gods. The herds are for the Mighty Men when they awake, not for the stranger and the Philistine."
"You have grown wise, Hester," he replied.
"No, I am sick in brain and body; but it may be that in such sickness there is wisdom."
"Ah," he said, "it has turned my head, I think. Once I laughed at all such fanciful things as these. This Scarlet Hunter, how many times have you seen him?"
"What were his looks?"
"A face pale and strong, with noble eyes; and in his voice there was something strange."
Trafford thought of Shangi, the Indian,—where had he gone? He had disappeared as suddenly as he had come to their camp in the South.
As they sat silent in the growing night, the door opened and the Scarlet Hunter stood before them. "There is food," he said, "on the threshold— food for those who go upon a far journey to the South in the morning. Unhappy are they who seek for gold at the rainbow's foot, who chase the fire-fly in the night, who follow the herds in the White Valley. Wise are they who anger not the gods, and who fly before the rising storm. There is a path from the valley for the strangers, the path by which they came; and when the sun stares forth again upon the world, the way shall be open, and there shall be safety for you until your travel ends in the quick world whither you go. You were foolish; now you are wise. It is time to depart; seek not to return, that we may have peace and you safety. When the world cometh to her spring again we shall meet." Then he turned and was gone, with Trafford's voice ringing after him,—" Shangi! Shangi!"
They ran out swiftly, but he had vanished. In the valley where the moonlight fell in icy coldness a herd of cattle was moving, and their breath rose like the spray from sea-beaten rocks, and the sound of their breathing was borne upwards to the watchers.
At daybreak they rode down into the valley. All was still. Not a trace of life remained; not a hoofmark in the snow, nor a bruised blade of grass. And when they climbed to the plateau and looked back, it seemed to Trafford and his companions, as it seemed in after years, that this thing had been all a fantasy. But Hester's face was beside them, and it told of strange and unsubstantial things. The shadows of the middle world were upon her. And yet again when they turned at the last there was no token. It was a northern valley, with sun and snow, and cold blue shadows, and the high hills,—that was all.
Then Hester said: "O Just, I do not know if this is life or death—and yet it must be death, for after death there is forgiveness to those who repent, and your face is forgiving and kind."
And he—for he saw that she needed much human help and comfort—gently laid his hand on hers and replied: "Hester, this is life, a new life for both of us. Whatever has been was a dream; whatever is now"—and he folded her hand in his—"is real; and there is no such thing as forgiveness to be spoken of between us. There shall be happiness for us yet, please God!"
"I want to go to Falkenstowe. Will—will my mother forgive me?"
"Mothers always forgive, Hester, else half the world had slain itself in shame."
And then she smiled for the first time since he had seen her. This was in the shadows of the scented pines; and a new life breathed upon her, as it breathed upon them all, and they knew that the fever of the White Valley had passed away from them forever.
After many hardships they came in safety to the regions of the south country again; and the tale they told, though doubted by the race of pale-faces, was believed by the heathen; because there was none among them but, as he cradled at his mother's breasts, and from his youth up, had heard the legend of the Scarlet Hunter.
For the romance of that journey, it concerned only the man and woman to whom it was as wine and meat to the starving. Is not love more than legend, and a human heart than all the beasts of the field or any joy of slaughter?
The Stone hung on a jutting crag of Purple Hill. On one side of it, far beneath, lay the village, huddled together as if, through being close compacted, its handful of humanity should not be a mere dust in the balance beside Nature's portentousness. Yet if one stood beside The Stone, and looked down, the flimsy wooden huts looked like a barrier at the end of a great flume. For the hill hollowed and narrowed from The Stone to the village, as if giants had made this concave path by trundling boulders to that point like a funnel where the miners' houses now formed a cul-de-sac. On the other side of the crag was a valley also; but it was lonely and untenanted; and at one flank of The Stone were serried legions of trees.
The Stone was a mighty and wonderful thing. Looked at from the village direct, it had nothing but the sky for a background. At times, also, it appeared to rest on nothing; and many declared that they could see clean between it and the oval floor of the crag on which it rested. That was generally in the evening, when the sun was setting behind it. Then the light coiled round its base, between it and its pedestal, thus making it appear to hover above the hill-point, or, planet-like, to be just settling on it. At other times, when the light was perfectly clear and not too strong, and the village side of the crag was brighter than the other, more accurate relations of The Stone to its pedestal could be discovered. Then one would say that it balanced on a tiny base, a toe of granite. But if one looked long, especially in the summer, when the air throbbed, it evidently rocked upon that toe; if steadily, and very long, he grew tremulous, perhaps afraid. Once, a woman who was about to become a mother went mad, because she thought The Stone would hurtle down the hill at her great moment and destroy her and her child. Indians would not live either on the village side of The Stone or in the valley beyond. They had a legend that, some day, one, whom they called The Man Who Sleeps, would rise from his hidden couch in the mountains, and, being angry that any dared to cumber his playground, would hurl The Stone upon them that dwelt at Purple Hill. But white men pay little heed to Indian legends. At one time or another every person who had come to the village visited The Stone. Colossal as it was, the real base on which its weight rested was actually very small: the view from the village had not been all deceitful. It is possible, indeed, that at one time it had really rocked, and that the rocking had worn for it a shallow cup, or socket, in which it poised. The first man who came to Purple Valley prospecting had often stopped his work and looked at The Stone in a half-fear that it would spring upon him unawares. And yet he had as often laughed at himself for doing so, since, as he said, it must have been there hundreds of thousands of years. Strangers, when they came to the village, went to sleep somewhat timidly the first night of their stay, and not infrequently left their beds to go and look at The Stone, as it hung there ominously in the light of the moon; or listened towards it if it was dark. When the moon rose late, and The Stone chanced to be directly in front of it, a black sphere seemed to be rolling into the light to blot it out.
But none who lived in the village looked upon The Stone in quite the same fashion as did that first man who had come to the valley. He had seen it through three changing seasons, with no human being near him, and only occasionally a shy, wandering elk, or a cloud of wild ducks whirring down the pass, to share his companionship with it. Once he had waked in the early morning, and, possessed of a strange feeling, had gone out to look a The Stone. There, perched upon it, was an eagle; and though he said to himself that an eagle's weight was to The Stone as a feather upon the world, he kept his face turned towards it all day; for all day the eagle stayed. He was a man of great stature and immense strength. The thews of his limbs stood out like soft unbreakable steel. Yet, as if to cast derision on his strength and great proportions, God or Fate turned his bread to ashes, gave failure into his hands where he hugely grasped at fortune, and hung him about with misery. He discovered gold, but others gathered it. It was his daughter that went mad, and gave birth to a dead child in fearsome thought of The Stone. Once, when he had gone over the hills to another mining field, and had been prevented from coming back by unexpected and heavy snows, his wife was taken ill, and died alone of starvation, because none in the village remembered of her and her needs. Again, one wild night, long after, his only son was taken from his bed and lynched for a crime that was none of his, as was discovered by his murderers next day. Then they killed horribly the real criminal, and offered the father such satisfaction as they could. They said that any one of them was ready there to be killed by him; and they threw a weapon at his feet. At this he stood looking upon them for a moment, his great breast heaving, and his eyes glowering; but presently he reached out his arms, and taking two of them by the throat, brought their heads together heavily, breaking their skulls; and, with a cry in his throat like a wounded animal, left them, and entered the village no more. But it became known that he had built a rude but on Purple Hill, and that he had been seen standing beside The Stone or sitting among the boulders below it, with his face bent upon the village. Those who had come near to him said that he had greatly changed; that his hair and beard had grown long and strong, and, in effect, that he looked like some rugged fragment of an antique world.
The time came when they associated The Man with The Stone: they grew to speak of him simply as The Man. There was something natural and apt in the association. Then they avoided these two singular dwellers on the height. What had happened to The Man when he lived in the village became almost as great a legend as the Indian fable concerning The Stone. In the minds of the people one seemed as old as the other. Women who knew the awful disasters which had befallen The Man brooded at times most timidly, regarding him as they did at first—and even still—The Stone. Women who carried life unborn about with them had a strange dread of both The Stone and The Man. Time passed on, and the feeling grew that The Man's grief must be a terrible thing, since he lived alone with The Stone and God. But this did not prevent the men of the village from digging gold, drinking liquor, and doing many kinds of evil. One day, again, they did an unjust and cruel thing. They took Pierre, the gambler, whom they had at first sought to vanquish at his own art, and, possessed suddenly of the high duty of citizenship, carried him to the edge of a hill and dropped him over, thinking thereby to give him a quick death, while the vultures would provide him a tomb. But Pierre was not killed, though to his grave—unprepared as yet—he would bear an arm which should never be lifted higher than his shoulder. When he waked from the crashing gloom which succeeded the fall, he was in the presence of a being whose appearance was awesome and massive—an outlawed god: whose hair and beard were white, whose eye was piercing, absorbing, painful, in the long perspective of its woe. This being sat with his great hand clasped to the side of his head. The beginning of his look was the village, and—though the vision seemed infinite—the village was the end of it too. Pierre, looking through the doorway beside which he lay, drew in his breath sharply, for it seemed at first as if The Man was an unnatural fancy, and not a thing. Behind The Man was The Stone, which was not more motionless nor more full of age than this its comrade. Indeed, The Stone seemed more a thing of life as it poised above the hill: The Man was sculptured rock. His white hair was chiselled on his broad brow, his face was a solemn pathos petrified, his lips were curled with an iron contempt, an incalculable anger.
The sun went down, and darkness gathered about The Man. Pierre reached out his hand, and drank the water and ate the coarse bread that had been put near him. He guessed that trees or protruding ledges had broken his fall, and that he had been rescued and brought here. As he lay thinking, The Man entered the doorway, stooping much to do so. With flints he lighted a wick which hung from a wooden bowl of bear's oil; then kneeling, held it above his head, and looked at Pierre. And Pierre, who had never feared anyone, shrank from the look in The Man's eyes. But when the other saw that Pierre was awake, a distant kindness came upon his face, and he nodded gravely; but he did not speak. Presently a great tremor as of pain shook all his limbs, and he set the candle on the ground, and with his stalwart hands arranged afresh the bandages about Pierre's injured arm and leg. Pierre spoke at last.
"You are The Man"? he said. The other bowed his head.
"You saved me from those devils in the valley?" A look of impregnable hardness came into The Man's face, but he pressed Pierre's hand for answer; and though the pressure was meant to be gentle, Pierre winced painfully. The candle spluttered, and the hut filled with a sickly smoke. The Man brought some bear skins and covered the sufferer, for, the season being autumn, the night was cold. Pierre, who had thus spent his first sane and conscious hour in many days, fell asleep. What time it was when he waked he was not sure, but it was to hear a metallic click-click come to him through the clear air of night. It was a pleasant noise as of steel and rock: the work of some lonely stone-cutter of the hills. The sound reached him with strange, increasing distinctness. Was this Titan that had saved him sculpturing some figure from the metal hill? Click-click! it vibrated as regularly as the keen pulse of a watch. He lay and wondered for a long time, but fell asleep again; and the steely iteration went on in his dreams.
In the morning The Man came to him, and cared for his hurts, and gave him food; but still would speak no word. He was gone nearly all day in the hills; yet when evening came he sought the place where Pierre had seen him the night before, and the same weird scene was re-enacted. And again in the night the clicking sound went on; and every night it was renewed. Pierre grew stronger, and could, with difficulty, stand upon his feet. One night he crept out, and made his way softly, slowly towards the sound. He saw The Man kneeling beside The Stone, he saw a hammer rise and fall upon a chisel; and the chisel was at the base of The Stone. The hammer rose and fell with perfect but dreadful precision. Pierre turned and looked towards the village below, whose lights were burning like a bunch of fire-flies in the gloom. Again he looked at The Stone and The Man.
Then the thing came to him sharply. The Man was chiselling away the socket of The Stone, bringing it to that point of balance where the touch of a finger, the wing of a bird, or the whistle of a north-west wind, would send it down upon the offending and unsuspecting village.
The thought held him paralysed. The Man had nursed his revenge long past the thought of its probability by the people beneath. He had at first sat and watched the village, hated, and mused dreadfully upon the thing he had determined to do. Then he had worked a little, afterwards more, and now, lastly, since he had seen what they had done to Pierre, with the hot but firm eagerness of an avenging giant. Pierre had done some sad deeds in his time, and had tasted some sweet revenges, but nothing like to this had ever entered his brain. In that village were men who—as they thought—had cast him to a death fit only for a coward or a cur. Well, here was the most exquisite retaliation. Though his hand should not be in the thing, he could still be the cynical and approving spectator.
But yet: had all those people hovering about those lights below done harm to him? He thought there were a few—and they were women—who would not have followed his tumbril to his death with cries of execration. The rest would have done so,—most of them did so, not because he was a criminal, but because he was a victim, and because human nature as it is thirsts inordinately at times for blood and sacrifice—a living strain of the old barbaric instinct. He remembered that most of these people were concerned in having injured The Man. The few good women there had vile husbands; the few pardonable men had hateful wives: the village of Purple Hill was an ill affair.
He thought: now doubtfully, now savagely, now with irony.
The hammer and steel clicked on.
He looked at the lights of the village again. Suddenly there came to his mind the words of a great man who sought to save a city manifold centuries ago. He was not sure that he wished to save this village; but there was a grim, almost grotesque, fitness in the thing that he now intended. He spoke out clearly through the night:
"'Oh, let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak yet but this once: Peradventure ten righteous shall be found there.'"
The hammer stopped. There was a silence, in which the pines sighed lightly. Then, as if speaking was a labour, The Man replied in a deep, harsh voice:
"I will not spare it for ten's sake."
Again there was a silence, in which Pierre felt his maimed body bend beneath him; but presently the voice said,—"Now!"
At this the moon swung from behind a cloud. The Man stood behind The Stone. His arm was raised to it. There was a moment's pause—it seemed like years to Pierre; a wind came softly crying out of the west, the moon hurried into the dark, and then a monster sprang from its pedestal upon Purple Hill, and, with a sound of thunder and an awful speed, raced upon the village below. The boulders of the hillside crumbled after it.
And Pierre saw the lights go out.
The moon shone out again for an instant, and Pierre saw that The Man stood where The Stone had been; but when he reached the place The Man was gone. Forever!
ETEXT EDITOR'S BOOKMARKS:
At first—and at the last—he was kind Courage; without which, men are as the standing straw Evil is half-accidental, half-natural Fascinating colour which makes evil appear to be good Had the luck together, all kinds and all weathers Hunger for happiness is robbery If one remembers, why should the other forget Instinct for detecting veracity, having practised on both sides Mothers always forgive The higher we go the faster we live The Injin speaks the truth, perhaps—eye of red man multipies The world is not so bad as is claimed for it Whatever has been was a dream; whatever is now is real You do not shout dinner till you have your knife in the loaf
PIERRE AND HIS PEOPLE
TALES OF THE FAR NORTH
By Gilbert Parker
THE TALL MASTER THE CRIMSON FLAG THE FLOOD IN PIPI VALLEY
THE TALL MASTER
The story has been so much tossed about in the mouths of Indians, and half-breeds, and men of the Hudson's Bay Company, that you are pretty sure to hear only an apocryphal version of the thing as you now travel in the North. But Pretty Pierre was at Fort Luke when the battle occurred, and, before and after, he sifted the business thoroughly. For he had a philosophical turn, and this may be said of him, that he never lied except to save another from danger. In this matter he was cool and impartial from first to last, and evil as his reputation was in many ways there were those who believed and trusted him. Himself, as he travelled here and there through the North, had heard of the Tall Master. Yet he had never met anyone who had seen him; for the Master had dwelt, it was said, chiefly among the strange tribes of the Far-Off Metal River whose faces were almost white, and who held themselves aloof from the southern races. The tales lost nothing by being retold, even when the historians were the men of the H. B. C.;—-Pierre knew what accomplished liars may be found among that Company of Adventurers trading in Hudson's Bay, and how their art had been none too delicately engrafted by his own people. But he was, as became him, open to conviction, especially when, journeying to Fort Luke, he heard what John Hybar, the Chief Factor— a man of uncommon quality—had to say. Hybar had once lived long among those Indians of the Bright Stone, and had seen many rare things among them. He knew their legends of the White Valley and the Hills of the Mighty Men, and how their distinctive character had imposed itself on the whole Indian race of the North, so that there was none but believed, even though vaguely, in a pleasant land not south but Arcticwards; and Pierre himself, with Shon McGann and Just Trafford, had once had a strange experience in the Kimash Hills. He did not share the opinion of Lazenby, the Company's clerk at Fort Luke, who said, when the matter was talked of before him, that it was all hanky-panky,—which was evidence that he had lived in London town, before his anxious relatives, sending him forth under the delusive flag of adventure and wild life, imprisoned him in the Arctic regions with the H. B. C.
Lazenby admired Pierre; said he was good stuff, and voted him amusing, with an ingenious emphasis of heathen oaths; but advised him, as only an insolent young scoundrel can, to forswear securing, by the seductive game of poker or euchre, larger interest on his capital than the H. B. C.; whose record, he insisted, should never be rivalled by any single man in any single lifetime. Then he incidentally remarked that he would like to empty the Company's cash-box once—only once;—thus reconciling the preacher and the sinner, as many another has done. Lazenby's morals were not bad, however. He was simply fond of making them appear terrible; even when in London he was more idle than wicked. He gravely suggested at last, as a kind of climax, that he and Pierre should go out on the pad together. This was a mere stroke of pleasantry on his part, because, the most he could loot in that far North were furs and caches of buffalo meat; and a man's capacity and use for them were limited. Even Pierre's especial faculty and art seemed valueless so far Polewards; but he had his beat throughout the land, and he kept it like a perfect patrolman. He had not been at Fort Luke for years, and he would not be there again for more years; but it was certain that he would go on reappearing till he vanished utterly. At the end of the first week of this visit at Fort Luke, so completely had he conquered the place, that he had won from the Chief Factor the year's purchases of skins, the stores, and the Fort itself; and every stitch of clothing owned by Lazenby: so that, if he had insisted on the redemption of the debts, the H. B. C. and Lazenby had been naked and hungry in the wilderness. But Pierre was not a hard creditor. He instantly and nonchalantly said that the Fort would be useless to him, and handed it back again with all therein, on a most humorously constructed ninety-nine years' lease; while Lazenby was left in pawn. Yet Lazenby's mind was not at certain ease; he had a wholesome respect for Pierre's singularities, and dreaded being suddenly called upon to pay his debt before he could get his new clothes made, maybe, in the presence of Wind Driver, chief of the Golden Dogs, and his demure and charming daughter, Wine Face, who looked upon him with the eye of affection—a matter fully, but not ostentatiously, appreciated by Lazenby. If he could have entirely forgotten a pretty girl in South Kensington, who, at her parents' bidding, turned her shoulder on him, he would have married Wine Face; and so he told Pierre. But the half-breed had only a sardonic sympathy for such weakness. Things changed at once when Shon McGann arrived. He should have come before, according to a promise given Pierre, but there were reasons for the delay; and these Shon elaborated in his finely picturesque style.
He said that he had lost his way after he left the Wapiti Woods, and should never have found it again, had it not been for a strange being who came upon him and took him to the camp of the White Hand Indians, and cared for him there, and sent him safely on his way again to Fort Luke.
"Sorra wan did I ever see like him," said Shon, with a face that was divil this minute and saint the next; pale in the cheek, and black in the eye, and grizzled hair flowin' long at his neck and lyin' like snakes on his shoulders; and whin his fingers closed on yours, bedad! they didn't seem human at all, for they clamped you so cold and strong."
"'For they clamped you so cold and strong,'" replied Pierre, mockingly, yet greatly interested, as one could see by the upward range of his eye towards Shon. "Well, what more?"
"Well, squeeze the acid from y'r voice, Pierre; for there's things that better become you: and listen to me, for I've news for all here at the Fort, before I've done, which'll open y'r eyes with a jerk."
"With a wonderful jerk, hold! let us prepare, messieurs, to be waked with an Irish jerk!" and Pierre pensively trifled with the fringe on Shon's buckskin jacket, which was whisked from his fingers with smothered anger. For a few moments he was silent; but the eager looks of the Chief Factor and Lazenby encouraged him to continue. Besides, it was only Pierre's way—provoking Shon was the piquant sauce of his life.
"Lyin' awake I was," continued Shon, "in the middle of the night, not bein' able to sleep for a pain in a shoulder I'd strained, whin I heard a thing that drew me up standin'. It was the sound of a child laughin'; so wonderful and bright, and at the very door of me tent it seemed. Then it faded away till it was only a breath, lovely, and idle, and swingin'. I wint to the door and looked out. There was nothin' there, av coorse." "And why 'av coorse'"? rejoined Pierre. The Chief Factor was intent on what Shon was saying, while Lazenby drummed his fingers on the table, his nose in the air.
"Divils me darlin', but ye know as well as I, that there's things in the world neither for havin' nor handlin'. And that's wan of thim, says I to meself. . . . I wint back and lay down, and I heard the voice singin' now and comin' nearer and nearer, and growin' louder and louder, and then there came with it a patter of feet, till it was as a thousand children were dancin' by me door. I was shy enough, I'll own; but I pulled aside the curtain of the tent to see again: and there was nothin' beyand for the eye. But the singin' was goin' past and recedin' as before, till it died away along the waves of prairie grass. I wint back and give Grey Nose, my Injin bed-fellow, a lift wid me fut. 'Come out of that,' says I, 'and tell me if dead or alive I am.' He got up, and there was the noise soft and grand again, but with it now the voices of men, the flip of birds' wings and the sighin' of tree tops, and behind all that the long wash of a sea like none I ever heard. . . . 'Well,' says I to the Injin grinnin' before me, 'what's that, in the name o' Moses?' 'That,' says he, laughin' slow in me face, 'is the Tall Master—him that brought you to the camp.' Thin I remimbered all the things that's been said of him, and I knew it was music I'd been hearin' and not children's voices nor anythin' else at all.
"'Come with me,' says Grey Nose; and he took me to the door of a big tent standin' alone from the rest.
"'Wait a minute,' says he, and he put his hand on the tent curtain; and at that there was a crash, as a million gold hammers were fallin' on silver drums. And we both stood still; for it seemed an army, with swords wranglin' and bridle-chains rattlin', was marchin' down on us. There was the divil's own uproar, as a battle was comin' on; and a long line of spears clashed. But just then there whistled through the larrup of sound a clear voice callin', gentle and coaxin', yet commandin' too; and the spears dropped, and the pounding of horsehoofs ceased, and then the army marched away; far away; iver so far away, into—"
"Into Heaven!" flippantly interjected Lazenby. "Into Heaven, say I, and be choked to you! for there's no other place for it; and I'll stand by that, till I go there myself, and know the truth o' the thing." Pierre here spoke. "Heaven gave you a fine trick with words, Shon McGann. I sometimes think Irishmen have gifts for only two things—words and women. . . . 'Bien,' what then?"
Shon was determined not to be angered. The occasion was too big. "Well, Grey Nose lifted the curtain and wint in. In a minute he comes out. 'You can go in,' says he. So in I wint, the Injin not comin', and there in the middle of the tint stood the Tall Master, alone. He had his fiddle to his chin, and the bow hoverin' above it. He looked at me for a long time along the thing; then, all at once, from one string I heard the child laughin' that pleasant and distant, though the bow seemed not to be touchin'. Soon it thinned till it was the shadow of a laugh, and I didn't know whin it stopped, he smilin' down at the fiddle bewhiles. Then he said without lookin' at me,—'It is the spirit of the White Valley and the Hills of the Mighty Men; of which all men shall know, for the North will come to her spring again one day soon, at the remaking of the world. They thought the song would never be found again, but I have given it a home here.' And he bent and kissed the strings. After, he turned sharply as if he'd been spoken to, and looked at someone beside him; someone that I couldn't see. A cloud dropped upon his face, he caught the fiddle hungrily to his breast, and came limpin' over to me— for there was somethin' wrong with his fut—and lookin' down his hook- nose at me, says he,—'I've a word for them at Fort Luke, where you're goin', and you'd better be gone at once; and I'll put you on your way. There's to be a great battle. The White Hands have an ancient feud with the Golden Dogs, and they have come from where the soft Chinook wind ranges the Peace River, to fight until no man of all the Golden Dogs be left, or till they themselves be destroyed. It is the same north and south,' he wint on; 'I have seen it all in Italy, in Greece, in—' but here he stopped and smiled strangely. After a minute he wint on: 'The White Hands have no quarrel with the Englishmen of the Fort, and I would warn them, for Englishmen were once kind to me—and warn also the Golden Dogs. So come with me at once,' says he. And I did. And he walked with me till mornin', carryin' the fiddle under his arm, but wrapped in a beautiful velvet cloth, havin' on it grand figures like the arms of a king or queen. And just at the first whisk of sun he turned me into a trail and give me good-bye, sayin' that maybe he'd follow me soon, and, at any rate, he'd be there at the battle. Well, divils betide me! I got off the track again; and lost a day; but here I am; and there's me story to take or lave as you will."
Shon paused and began to fumble with the cards on the table before him, looking the while at the others.
The Chief Factor was the first to speak. "I don't doubt but he told you true about the White Hands and the Golden Dogs," he said; "for there's been war and bad blood between them beyond the memory of man—at least since the time that the Mighty Men lived, from which these date their history. But there's nothing to be done to-night; for if we tell old Wind Driver, there'll be no sleeping at the Fort. So we'll let the thing stand."
"You believe all this poppy-cock, Chief"? said Lazenby to the Factor, but laughing in Shon's face the while. The Factor gravely replied: "I knew of the Tall Master years ago on the Far-Off Metal River; and though I never saw him I can believe these things—and more. You do not know this world through and through, Lazenby; you have much to learn."
Pierre said nothing. He took the cards from Shon and passed them to and fro in his hand. Mechanically he dealt them out, and as mechanically they took them up and in silence began to play.
The next day there was commotion and excitement at Fort Luke. The Golden Dogs were making preparations for the battle. Pow-wow followed pow-wow, and paint and feathers followed all. The H. B. C. people had little to do but look to their guns and house everything within the walls of the Fort.
At night, Shon, Pierre, and Lazenby were seated about the table in the common-room, the cards lying dealt before them, waiting for the Factor to come. Presently the door opened and the Factor entered, followed by another. Shon and Pierre sprang to their feet.
"The Tall Master," said Shon with a kind of awe; and then stood still.
Their towering visitor slowly unloosed something he carried very carefully and closely beneath his arm, and laid it on the table, dropping his compass-like fingers softly on it. He bowed gravely to each, yet the bow seemed grotesque, his body was so ungainly. With the eyes of all drawn to him absolutely, he spoke in a low sonorous tone: "I have followed the traveller fast"—his hand lifted gently towards Shon—"for there are weighty concerns abroad, and I have things to say and do before I go again to my people—and beyond. . . . I have hungered for the face of a white man these many years, and his was the first I saw;"— again he tossed a long finger towards the Irishman—"and it brought back many things. I remember. . . . " He paused, then sat down; and they all did the same. He looked at them one by one with distant kindness. "I remember," he continued, and his strangely articulated fingers folded about the thing on the table beside him, "when"—here the cards caught his eye. His face underwent a change. An eager fantastic look shot from his eye, "when I gambled this away at Lucca,"—his hand drew the bundle closer to him—"but I won it back again—at a price!" he gloomily added, glancing sideways as to someone at his elbow.
He remained, eyes hanging upon space for a moment, then he recollected himself and continued: "I became wiser; I never risked it again; but I loved the game always. I was a gamester from the start—the artist is always so when he is greatest,—like nature herself. And once, years after, I played with a mother for her child—and mine. And yet once again at Parma with"—here he paused, throwing that sharp sidelong glance—"with the greatest gamester, for the infinite secret of Art: and I won it; but I paid the price! . . . I should like to play now."
He reached his hand, drew up five cards, and ran his eye through them. "Play!" he said. "The hand is good—very good. . . . Once when I played with the Princess—but it is no matter; and Tuscany is far away! . . . Play!" he repeated.
Pierre instantly picked up the cards, with an air of cool satisfaction. He had either found the perfect gamester or the perfect liar. He knew the remedy for either.
The Chief Factor did not move. Shon and Lazenby followed Pierre's action. By their positions Lazenby became his partner. They played in silence for a minute, the Tall Master taking all. "Napoleon was a wonderful player, but he lost with me," he said slowly as he played a card upon three others and took them.
Lazenby was so taken back by this remark that, presently, he trumped his partner's ace, and was rewarded by a talon-like look from the Tall Master's eye; but it was immediately followed by one of saturnine amusement.
They played on silently.
"Ah, you are a wonderful player!" he presently said to Pierre, with a look of keen scrutiny. "Come, I will play with you—for values—the first time in seventy-five years; then, no more!"
Lazenby and Shon drew away beside the Chief Factor. The two played. Meanwhile Lazenby said to Shon: "The man's mad. He talks about Napoleon as if he'd known him—as if it wasn't three-fourths of a century ago. Does he think we're all born idiots? Why, he's not over sixty years old now. But where the deuce did he come from with that Italian face? And the funniest part of it is, he reminds me of someone. Did you notice how he limped—the awkward beggar!"
Lazenby had unconsciously lifted his voice, and presently the Tall Master turned and said to him: "I ran a nail into my foot at Leyden seventy-odd years ago."
"He's the devil himself," rejoined Lazenby, and he did not lower his voice.
"Many with angelic gifts are children of His Dark Majesty," said the Tall Master, slowly; and though he appeared closely occupied with the game, a look of vague sadness came into his face.
For a half-hour they played in silence, the slight, delicate-featured half-breed, and the mysterious man who had for so long been a thing of wonder in the North, a weird influence among the Indians.
There was a strange, cold fierceness in the Tall Master's face. He now staked his precious bundle against the one thing Pierre prized—the gold watch received years ago for a deed of heroism on the Chaudiere. The half-breed had always spoken of it as amusing, but Shon at least knew that to Pierre it was worth his right hand.
Both men drew breath slowly, and their eyes were hard. The stillness became painful; all were possessed by the grim spirit of Chance. . . . The Tall Master won. He came to his feet, his shambling body drawn together to a height. Pierre rose also. Their looks clinched. Pierre stretched out his hand. "You are my master at this," he said.
The other smiled sadly. "I have played for the last time. I have not forgotten how to win. If I had lost, uncommon things had happened. This,"—he laid his hand on the bundle and gently undid it,—"is my oldest friend, since the warm days at Parma . . . all dead . . . all dead." Out of the velvet wrapping, broidered with royal and ducal arms, and rounded by a wreath of violets—which the Chief Factor looked at closely—he drew his violin. He lifted it reverently to his lips.
"My good Garnerius!" he said. "Three masters played you, but I am chief of them all. They had the classic soul, but I the romantic heart—'les grandes caprices.'" His head lifted higher. "I am the master artist of the world. I have found the core of Nature. Here in the North is the wonderful soul of things. Beyond this, far beyond, where the foolish think is only inviolate ice, is the first song of the Ages in a very pleasant land. I am the lost Master, and I shall return, I shall return . . . but not yet . . . not yet."
He fetched the instrument to his chin with a noble pride. The ugliness of his face was almost beautiful now.
The Chief Factor's look was fastened on him with bewilderment; he was trying to remember something: his mind went feeling, he knew not why, for a certain day, a quarter of a century before, when he unpacked a box of books and papers from England. Most of them were still in the Fort. The association of this man with these things fretted him.
The Tall Master swung his bow upward, but at that instant there came a knock, and, in response to a call, Wind Driver and Wine Face entered. Wine Face was certainly a beautiful girl; and Lazenby might well have been pardoned for throwing in his fate with such a heathen, if he despaired of ever seeing England again. The Tall Master did not turn towards these. The Indians sat gracefully on a bearskin before the fire. The eyes of the girl were cast shyly upon the Man as he stood there unlike an ordinary man; in his face a fine hardness and the cold light of the North. He suddenly tipped his bow upward and brought it down with a most delicate crash upon the strings. Then softly, slowly, he passed into a weird fantasy. The Indians sat breathless. Upon them it acted more impressively than the others: besides, the player's eye was searching them now; he was playing into their very bodies. And they responded with some swift shocks of recognition crossing their faces. Suddenly the old Indian sprang up. He thrust his arms out, and made, as if unconsciously, some fantastic yet solemn motions. The player smiled in a far-off fashion, and presently ran the bow upon the strings in an exquisite cry; and then a beautiful avalanche of sound slid from a distance, growing nearer and nearer, till it swept through the room, and imbedded all in its sweetness.
At this the old Indian threw himself forward at the player's feet. "It is the song of the White Weaver, the maker of the world—the music from the Hills of the Mighty Men. . . . I knew it—I knew it—but never like that. . . . It was lost to the world; the wild cry of the lofty stars. . . ." His face was wet.
The girl too had risen. She came forward as if in a dream and reverently touched the arm of the musician, who paused now, and was looking at them from under his long eyelashes. She said whisperingly: "Are you a spirit? Do you come from the Hills of the Mighty Men?"
He answered gravely: "I am no spirit. But I have journeyed in the Hills of the Mighty Men and along their ancient hunting-grounds. This that I have played is the ancient music of the world—the music of Jubal and his comrades. It comes humming from the Poles; it rides laughing down the planets; it trembles through the snow; it gives joy to the bones of the wind. . . . And I am the voice of it," he added; and he drew up his loose unmanageable body till it looked enormous, firm, and dominant.
The girl's fingers ran softly over to his breast. "I will follow you," she said, "when you go again to the Happy Valleys."
Down from his brow there swept a faint hue of colour, and, for a breath, his eyes closed tenderly with hers. But he straightway gathered back his look again, his body shrank, not rudely, from her fingers, and he absently said: "I am old-in years the father of the world. It is a man's life gone since, at Genoa, she laid her fingers on my breast like that. . . . These things can be no more . . . until the North hath its summer again; and I stand young—the Master—upon the summits of my renown."
The girl drew slowly back. Lazenby was muttering under his breath now; he was overwhelmed by this change in Wine Face. He had been impressed to awe by the Tall Master's music, but he was piqued, and determined not to give in easily. He said sneeringly that Maskelyne and Cooke in music had come to life, and suggested a snake-dance.
The Tall Master heard these things, and immediately he turned to Lazenby with an angry look on his face. His brows hung heavily over the dull fire of his eyes; his hair itself seemed like Medusa's, just quivering into savage life; the fingers spread out white and claw-like upon the strings as he curved his violin to his chin, whereof it became, as it were, a piece. The bow shot out and down upon the instrument with a great clangour. There eddied into a vast arena of sound the prodigious elements of war. Torture rose from those four immeasurable chords; destruction was afoot upon them; a dreadful dance of death supervened.
Through the Chief Factor's mind there flashed—though mechanically, and only to be remembered afterwards—the words of a schoolday poem. It shuttled in and out of the music:
"Wheel the wild dance, While lightnings glance, And thunders rattle loud; And call the brave to bloody grave, To sleep without a shroud."
The face of the player grew old and drawn. The skin was wrinkled, but shone, the hair spread white, the nose almost met the chin, the mouth was all malice. It was old age with vast power: conquest volleyed from the fingers.
Shon McGann whispered aves, aching with the sound; the Chief Factor shuddered to his feet; Lazenby winced and drew back to the wall, putting his hand before his face as though the sounds were striking him; the old Indian covered his head with his arms upon the floor. Wine Face knelt, her face all grey, her fingers lacing and interlacing with pain. Only Pierre sat with masterful stillness, his eyes never moving from the face of the player; his arms folded; his feet firmly wedded to the floor. The sound became strangely distressing. It shocked the flesh and angered the nerves. Upon Lazenby it acted singularly. He cowered from it, but presently, with a look of madness in his eyes, rushed forward, arms outstretched, as though to seize this intolerable minstrel. There was a sudden pause in the playing; then the room quaked with noise, buffeting Lazenby into stillness. The sounds changed instantly again, and music of an engaging sweetness and delight fell about them as in silver drops—an enchanting lyric of love. Its exquisite tenderness subdued Lazenby, who, but now, had a heart for slaughter. He dropped on his knees, threw his head into his arms, and sobbed hard. The Tall Master's fingers crept caressingly along one of those heavenly veins of sound, his bow poising softly over it. The farthest star seemed singing.
At dawn the next day the Golden Dogs were gathered for war before the Fort. Immediately after the sun rose, the foe were seen gliding darkly out of the horizon. From another direction came two travellers. These also saw the White Hands bearing upon the Fort, and hurried forward. They reached the gates of the Fort in good time, and were welcomed. One was a chief trader from a fort in the west. He was an old man, and had been many years in the service of the H. B. C.; and, like Lazenby, had spent his early days in London, a connoisseur in all its pleasures; the other was a voyageur. They had posted on quickly to bring news of this crusade of the White Hands.
The hostile Indians came steadily to within a few hundred yards of the Golden Dogs. Then they sent a brave to say that they had no quarrel with the people of the Fort; and that if the Golden Dogs came on they would battle with them alone; since the time had come for "one to be as both," as their Medicine Men had declared since the days of the Great Race. And this signified that one should destroy the other.
At this all the Golden Dogs ranged into line. The sun shone brightly, the long hedge of pine woods in the distance caught the colour of the sky, the flowers of the plains showed handsomely as a carpet of war. The bodies of the fighters glistened. You could see the rise and fall of their bare, strenuous chests. They stood as their forefathers in battle, almost naked, with crested head, gleaming axe, scalp-knife, and bows and arrows. At first there was the threatening rustle of preparation; then a great stillness came and stayed for a moment; after which, all at once, there sped through the air a big shout of battle, and the innumerable twang of flying arrows; and the opposing hosts ran upon each other.
Pierre and Shon McGann, watching from the Fort, cried out with excitement.
"Divils me darlin'!" called Shon, "are we gluin' our eyes to a chink in the wall, whin the tangle of battle goes on beyand? Bedad, I'll not stand it! Look at them twistin' the neck o' war! Open the gates, open the gates say I, and let us have play with our guns."
"Hush! 'Mon Dieu!'" interrupted Pierre. "Look! The Tall Master!"
None at the Fort had seen the Tall Master since the night before. Now he was covering the space between the walls and the battle, his hair streaming behind him.
When he came near to the vortex of fight he raised his violin to his chin, and instantly a piercingly sweet call penetrated the wild uproar. The Call filled it, drained through it, wrapped it, overcame it; so that it sank away at last like the outwash of an exhausted tide: the weft of battle stayed unfinished in the loom.
Then from the Indian lodges came the women and children. They drew near to the unearthly luxury of that Call, now lifting with an unbounded joy. Battleaxes fell to the ground; the warriors quieted even where they stood locked with their foes. The Tall Master now drew away from them, facing the north and west. That ineffable Call drew them after him with grave joy; and they brought their dead and wounded along. The women and children glided in among the men and followed also. Presently one girl ran away from the rest and came close into the great leader's footsteps.
At that instant, Lazenby, from the wall of the Fort, cried out madly, sprang down, opened the gates, and rushed towards the girl, crying: "Wine Face! Wine Face!"
She did not look behind. But he came close to her and caught her by the waist. "Come back! Come back! O my love, come back!" he urged; but she pushed him gently from her.
"Hush! Hush!" she said. "We are going to the Happy Valleys. Don't you hear him calling"? . . . And Lazenby fell back.
The Tall Master was now playing a wonderful thing, half dance, half carnival; but with that Call still beating through it. They were passing the Fort at an angle. All within issued forth to see. Suddenly the old trader who had come that morning started forward with a cry; then stood still. He caught the Factor's arm; but he seemed unable to speak yet; his face was troubled, his eyes were hard upon the player.
The procession passed the empty lodges, leaving the ground strewn with their weapons, and not one of their number stayed behind. They passed away towards the high hills of the north-west-beautiful austere barriers.
Still the trader gazed, and was pale, and trembled. They watched long. The throng of pilgrims grew a vague mass; no longer an army of individuals; and the music came floating back with distant charm. At last the old man found voice. "My God, it is—"
The Factor touched his arm, interrupting him, and drew a picture from his pocket—one but just now taken from that musty pile of books, received so many years before. He showed it to the old man.
"Yes, yes," said the other, "that is he. . . . And the world buried him forty years ago!"
Pierre, standing near, added with soft irony: "There are strange things in the world. He is the gamester of the world. 'Mais' a grand comrade also."
The music came waving back upon them delicately but the pilgrims were fading from view.
Soon the watchers were alone with the glowing day.
THE CRIMSON FLAG
Talk and think as one would, The Woman was striking to see; with marvellous flaxen hair and a joyous violet eye. She was all pulse and dash; but she was as much less beautiful than the manager's wife as Tom Liffey was as nothing beside the manager himself; and one would care little to name the two women in the same breath if the end had been different. When The Woman came to Little Goshen there were others of her class there, but they were of a commoner sort and degree. She was the queen of a lawless court, though she never, from first to last, spoke to one of those others who were her people; neither did she hold commerce with any of the ordinary miners, save Pretty Pierre, but he was more gambler than miner,—and he went, when the matter was all over, and told her some things that stripped her soul naked before her eyes. Pierre had a wonderful tongue. It was only the gentlemen-diggers—and there were many of them at Little Goshen—who called upon her when the lights were low; and then there was a good deal of muffled mirth in the white house among the pines. The rougher miners made no quarrel with this, for the gentlemen-diggers were popular enough, they were merely sarcastic and humorous, and said things which, coming to The Woman's ears, made her very merry; for she herself had an abundant wit, and had spent wild hours with clever men. She did not resent the playful insolence that sent a dozen miners to her house in the dead of night with a crimson flag, which they quietly screwed to her roof; and paint, with which they deftly put a wide stripe of scarlet round the cornice, and another round the basement. In the morning, when she saw what had been done, she would not have the paint removed nor the flag taken down; for, she said, the stripes looked very well, and the other would show that she was always at home.
Now, the notable thing was that Heldon, the manager, was in The Woman's house on the night this was done. Tom Liffey, the lumpish guide and trapper, saw him go in; and, days afterwards, he said to Pierre: "Divils me own, but this is a bad hour for Heldon's wife—she with a face like a princess and eyes like the fear o' God. Nivir a wan did I see like her, since I came out of Erin with a clatter of hoofs behoind me and a squall on the sea before. There's wimmin there wid cheeks like roses and buthermilk, and a touch that'd make y'r heart pound on y'r ribs; but none that's grander than Heldon's wife. To lave her for that other, standin' hip-high in her shame, is temptin' the fires of Heaven, that basted the sinners o' Sodom."
Pierre, pausing between the whiffs of a cigarette, said: "So? But you know more of catching foxes in winter, and climbing mountains in summer, and the grip of the arm of an Injin girl, than of these things. You are young, quite young in the world, Tom Liffey."
"Young I may be with a glint o' grey at me temples from a night o' trouble beyand in the hills; but I'm the man, an' the only man, that's climbed to the glacier-top—God's Playground, as they call it: and nivir a dirty trick have I done to Injin girl or any other; and be damned to you there!"
"Sometimes I think you are as foolish as Shon McGann," compassionately replied the half-breed.
"You have almighty virtue, and you did that brave trick of the glacier; but great men have fallen. You are not dead yet. Still, as you say, Heldon's wife is noble to see. She is grave and cold, and speaks little; but there is something in her which is not of the meek of the earth. Some women say nothing, and suffer and forgive, and take such as Heldon back to their bosoms; but there are others—I remember a woman—bien, it is no matter, it was long ago; but they two are as if born of one mother; and what comes of this will be mad play—mad play."
"Av coorse his wife may not get to know of it, and—"
"Not get to know it! 'Tsh, you are a child—"
"Faith, I'll say what I think, and that in y'r face! Maybe he'll tire of the handsome rip—for handsome she is, like a yellow lily growin' out o' mud—and go back to his lawful wife, that believes he's at the mines, when he's drinkin' and colloguin' wid a fly-away."
Pierre slowly wheeled till he had the Irishman straight in his eye. Then he said in a low, cutting tone: "I suppose your heart aches for the beautiful lady, eh?" Here he screwed his slight forefinger into Tom's breast; then he added sharply: "'Nom de Dieu,' but you make me angry! You talk too much. Such men get into trouble. And keep down the riot of that heart of yours, Tom Liffey, or you'll walk on the edge of knives one day. And now take an inch of whisky and ease the anxious soul. 'Voila!'" After a moment he added: "Women work these things out for themselves." Then the two left the hut, and amiably strolled together to the centre of the village, where they parted. It was as Pierre had said: the woman would work the thing out for herself. Later that evening Heldon's wife stood cloaked and veiled in the shadows of the pines, facing the house with The Crimson Flag. Her eyes shifted ever from the door to the flag, which was stirred by the light breeze. Once or twice she shivered as with cold, but she instantly stilled again, and watched. It was midnight. Here and there beyond in the village a light showed, and straggling voices floated faintly towards her. For a long time no sound came from the house. But at last she heard a laugh. At that she drew something from her pocket, and held it firmly in her hand. Once she turned and looked at another house far up on the hill, where lights were burning. It was Heldon's house—her home. A sharp sound as of anguish and anger escaped her; then she fastened her eyes on the door in front of her.
At that moment Tom Liffey was standing with his hands on his hips looking at Heldon's home on the hill; and he said some rumbling words, then strode on down the road, and suddenly paused near the wife. He did not see her. He faced the door at which she was looking, and shook his fist at it.
"A murrain on y'r sowl!" said he, "as there's plague in y'r body, and hell in the slide of y'r feet, like the trail of the red spider. And out o' that come ye, Heldon, for I know y're there. Out of that, ye beast! . . . But how can ye go back—you that's rolled in that sewer—to the loveliest woman that ever trod the neck o' the world! Damned y' are in every joint o' y'r frame, and damned is y'r sowl, I say, for bringing sorrow to her; and I hate you as much for that, as I could worship her was she not your wife and a lady o' blood, God save her!"
Then shaking his fist once more, he swung away slowly down the road. During this the wife's teeth held together as though they were of a piece. She looked after Tom Liffey and smiled; but it was a dreadful smile.
"He worships me, that common man—worships me," she said. "This man who was my husband has shamed me, left me. Well—"
The door of the house opened; a man came out. His wife leaned a little forward, and something clicked ominously in her hand. But a voice came up the road towards them through the clear air—the voice of Tom Liffey. The husband paused to listen; the wife mechanically did the same. The husband remembered this afterwards: it was the key to, and the beginning of, a tragedy. These are the words the Irishman sang:
"She was a queen, she stood up there before me, My blood went roarin' when she touched my hand; She kissed me on the lips, and then she swore me To die for her—and happy was the land."
A new and singular look came into her face. It trans formed her. "That," she said in a whisper to herself—"that! He knows the way."
As her husband turned towards his home, she turned also. He heard the rustle of garments, and he could just discern the cloaked figure in the shadows. He hurried on; the figure flitted ahead of him. A fear possessed him in spite of his will. He turned back. The figure stood still for a moment, then followed him. He braced himself, faced about, and walked towards it: it stopped and waited. He had not the courage. He went back again swiftly towards the house he had left. Again he looked behind him. The figure was standing, not far, in the pines. He wheeled suddenly towards the house, turned a key in the door, and entered.
Then the wife went to that which had been her home: Heldon did not go thither until the first flush of morning. Pierre, returning from an all- night sitting at cards, met him, and saw the careworn look on his face. The half-breed smiled. He knew that the event was doubling on the man. When Heldon reached his house, he went to his wife's room. It was locked. Then he walked down to his mines with a miserable shame and anger at his heart. He did not pass The Crimson Flag. He went by another way.
That evening, in the dusk, a woman knocked at Tom Liffey's door. He opened it.
"Are you alone"? she said. "I am alone, lady."
"I will come in," she added. "You will—come in"? he faltered.
She drew near him, and reached out and gently caught his hand.
"Ah!" he said, with a sound almost like a sob in its intensity, and the blood flushed to his hair.
He stepped aside, and she entered. In the light of the candle her eye burned into his, but her face wore a shining coldness. She leaned towards him.
"You said you could worship me," she whispered, "and you cursed him. Well—worship me—altogether—and that will curse him, as he has killed me."
"Dear lady!" he said, in an awed, overwhelmed murmur; and he fell back to the wall.
She came towards him. "Am I not beautiful"? she urged. She took his hand. His eye swam with hers. But his look was different from hers, though he could not know that. His was the madness of a man in a dream; hers was a painful thing. The Furies dwelt in her. She softly lifted his hand above his head, and whispered: "Swear." And she kissed him. Her lips were icy, though he did not think so. The blood tossed in his veins. He swore: but, doing so, he could not conceive all that would be required of him. He was hers, body and soul, and she had resolved on a grim thing. . . . In the darkness, they left the hut and passed into the woods, and slowly up through the hills.
Heldon returned to his home that night to find it empty. There were no servants. There was no wife. Her cat and dog lay dead upon the hearthrug. Her clothing was cut into strips. Her wedding-dress was a charred heap on the fireplace. Her jewellery lay molten with it. Her portrait had been torn from its frame.
An intolerable fear possessed him. Drops of sweat hung on his forehead and his hands. He fled towards the town. He bit his finger-nails till they bled as he passed the house in the pines. He lifted his arm as if the flappings of The Crimson Flag were blows in his face.
At last he passed Tom Liffey's hut. He saw Pierre, coming from it. The look on the gambler's face was one, of gloomy wonder. His fingers trembled as he lighted a cigarette, and that was an unusual thing. The form of Heldon edged within the light. Pierre dropped the match and said to him,—"You are looking for your wife?"
Heldon bowed his head. The other threw open the door of the hut. "Come in here," he said. They entered. Pierre pointed to a woman's hat on the table. "Do you know that"? he asked, huskily, for he was moved. But Heldon only nodded dazedly. Pierre continued: "I was to have met Tom Liffey here—to-night. He is not here. You hoped—I suppose—to see your wife in your—home. She is not there. He left a word on paper for me. I have torn it up. Writing is the enemy of man. But I know where he is gone. I know also where your wife has gone."
Heldon's face was of a hateful paleness. . . . They passed out into the night.
"Where are you going"? Heldon said.
"To God's Playground, if we can get there."
"To God's Playground? To the glacier-top? You are mad."
"No, but he and she were mad. Come on." Then he whispered something, and Heldon gave a great cry, and they plunged into the woods.
In the morning the people of Little Goshen, looking towards the glacier, saw a flag (they knew afterwards that it was crimson) flying on it. Near it were two human figures. A miner, looking through a field-glass, said that one figure was crouching by the flag-staff, and that it was a woman. The other figure near was a man. As the morning wore on, they saw upon a crag of ice below the sloping glacier two men looking upwards towards the flag. One of them seemed to shriek out, and threw up his hands, and made as if to rush forward; but the other drew him back.
Heldon knew what revenge and disgrace may be at their worst. In vain he tried to reach God's Playground. Only one man knew the way, and he was dead upon it—with Heldon's wife: two shameless suicides. . . . When he came down from the mountain the hair upon his face was white, though that upon his head remained black as it had always been. And those frozen figures stayed there like statues with that other crimson flag: until, one day, a great-bodied wind swept out of the north, and, in pity, carried them down a bottomless fissure.
But long before this happened, The Woman had fled from Little Goshen in the night, and her house was burned to the ground.
Wendling came to Fort Anne on the day that the Reverend Ezra Badgley and an unknown girl were buried. And that was a notable thing. The man had been found dead at his evening meal; the girl had died on the same day; and they were buried side by side. This caused much scandal, for the man was holy, and the girl, as many women said, was probably evil altogether. At the graves, when the minister's people saw what was being done, they piously protested; but the Factor, to whom Pierre had whispered a word, answered them gravely that the matter should go on: since none knew but the woman was as worthy of heaven as the man. Wendling chanced to stand beside Pretty Pierre.
"Who knows!" he said aloud, looking hard at the graves, "who knows!.... She died before him, but the dead can strike."
Pierre did not answer immediately, for the Factor was calling the earth down on both coffins; but after a moment he added: "Yes, the dead can strike." And then the eyes of the two men caught and stayed, and they knew that they had things to say to each other in the world.
They became friends. And that, perhaps, was not greatly to Wendling's credit; for in the eyes of many Pierre was an outcast as an outlaw. Maybe some of the women disliked this friendship most; since Wendling was a handsome man, and Pierre was never known to seek them, good or bad; and they blamed him for the other's coldness, for his unconcerned yet respectful eye.
"There's Nelly Nolan would dance after him to the world's end," said Shon McGann to Pierre one day; "and the Widdy Jerome herself, wid her flamin' cheeks and the wild fun in her eye, croons like a babe at the breast as he slides out his cash on the bar; and over on Gansonby's Flat there's—"
"There's many a fool, 'voila,'" sharply interjected Pierre, as he pushed the needle through a button he was sewing on his coat.
"Bedad, there's a pair of fools here, anyway, I say; for the women might die without lift at waist or brush of lip, and neither of ye'd say, 'Here's to the joy of us, goddess, me own!'"
Pierre seemed to be intently watching the needlepoint as it pierced up the button-eye, and his reply was given with a slowness corresponding to the sedate passage of the needle. "Wendling, you think, cares nothing for women? Well, men who are like that cared once for one woman, and when that was over—But, pshaw! I will not talk. You are no thinker, Shon McGann. You blunder through the world. And you'll tremble as much to a woman's thumb in fifty years as now."
"By the holy smoke," said Shon, "though I tremble at that, maybe, I'll not tremble, as Wendling, at nothing at all." Here Pierre looked up sharply, then dropped his eyes on his work again. Shon lapsed suddenly into a moodiness.
"Yes," said Pierre, "as Wendling, at nothing at all? Well?"
"Well, this, Pierre, for you that's a thinker from me that's none. I was walking with him in Red Glen yesterday. Sudden he took to shiverin', and snatched me by the arm, and a mad look shot out of his handsome face. 'Hush!' says he. I listened. There was a sound like the hard rattle of a creek over stones, and then another sound behind that. 'Come quick,' says he, the sweat standin' thick on him; and he ran me up the bank—for it was at the beginnin' of the Glen where the sides were low—and there we stood pantin' and starin' flat at each other. 'What's that? and what's got its hand on ye? for y' are cold as death, an' pinched in the face, an' you've bruised my arm,' said I. And he looked round him slow and breathed hard, then drew his fingers through the sweat on his cheek. 'I'm not well, and I thought I heard—you heard it; what was it like?' said he; and he peered close at me. 'Like water,' said I; 'a little creek near, and a flood comin' far off.' 'Yes, just that,' said he; 'it's some trick of wind in the place, but it makes a man foolish, and an inch of brandy would be the right thing.' I didn't say no to that. And on we came, and brandy we had with a wish in the eye of Nelly Nolan that'd warm the heart of a tomb. . . . And there's a cud for your chewin', Pierre. Think that by the neck and the tail, and the divil absolve ye."
During this, Pierre had finished with the button. He had drawn on his coat and lifted his hat, and now lounged, trying the point of the needle with his forefinger. When Shon ended, he said with a sidelong glance: "But what did you think of all that, Shon?"
"Think! There it was! What's the use of thinkin'? There's many a trick in the world with wind or with spirit, as I've seen often enough in ould Ireland, and it's not to be guessed by me." Here his voice got a little lower and a trifle solemn. "For, Pierre," spoke he, "there's what's more than life or death, and sorra wan can we tell what it is; but we'll know some day whin—"
"When we've taken the leap at the Almighty Ditch," said Pierre, with a grave kind of lightness. "Yes, it is all strange. But even the Almighty Ditch is worth the doing: nearly everything is worth the doing; being young, growing old, fighting, loving—when youth is on—hating, eating, drinking, working, playing big games. All is worth it except two things."
"And what are they, bedad?"
"Thy neighbour's wife and murder. Those are horrible. They double on a man one time or another; always."
Here, as in curiosity, Pierre pierced his finger with the needle, and watched the blood form in a little globule. Looking at it meditatively and sardonically, he said: "There is only one end to these. Blood for blood is a great matter; and I used to wonder if it would not be terrible for a man to see his death coming on him drop by drop, like that." He let the spot of blood fall to the floor. "But now I know that there is a punishment worse than that . . . 'mon Dieu!' worse than that," he added.
Into Shon's face a strange look had suddenly come. "Yes, there's something worse than that, Pierre."
Shon made the sacred gesture of his creed. "To be punished by the dead. And not see them—only hear them." And his eyes steadied firmly to the other's.
Pierre was about to reply, but there came the sound of footsteps through the open door, and presently Wendling entered slowly. He was pale and worn, and his eyes looked out with a searching anxiousness. But that did not render him less comely. He had always dressed in black and white, and this now added to the easy and yet severe refinement of his person. His birth and breeding had occurred in places unfrequented by such as Shon and Pierre; but plains and wild life level all; and men are friends according to their taste and will, and by no other law. Hence these with Wendling. He stretched out his hand to each without a word. The hand- shake was unusual; he had little demonstration ever. Shon looked up surprised, but responded. Pierre followed with a swift, inquiring look; then, in the succeeding pause, he offered cigarettes. Wendling took one; and all, silent, sat down. The sun streamed intemperately through the doorway, making a broad ribbon of light straight across the floor to Wendling's feet. After lighting his cigarette, he looked into the sunlight for a moment, still not speaking. Shon meanwhile had started his pipe, and now, as if he found the silence awkward,—"It's a day for God's country, this," he said: "to make man a Christian for little or much, though he play with the Divil betunewhiles." Without looking at them, Wendling said, in a low voice: "It was just such a day, down there in Quebec, when It happened. You could hear the swill of the river, the water licking the piers, and the saws in the Big Mill and the Little Mill as they marched through the timber, flashing their teeth like bayonets. It's a wonderful sound on a hot, clear day—that wild, keen singing of the saws, like the cry of a live thing fighting and conquering. Up from the fresh-cut lumber in the yards there came a smell like the juice of apples, and the sawdust, as you thrust your hand into it, was as cool and soft as the leaves of a clove-flower in the dew. On these days the town was always still. It looked sleeping, and you saw the heat quivering up from the wooden walls and the roofs of cedar shingles as though the houses were breathing."
Here he paused, still intent on the shaking sunshine. Then he turned to the others as if suddenly aware that he had been talking to them. Shon was about to speak, but Pierre threw a restraining glance, and, instead, they all looked through the doorway and beyond. In the settlement below they saw the effect that Wendling had described. The houses breathed. A grasshopper went clacking past, a dog at the door snapped up a fly; but there seemed no other life of day. Wendling nodded his head towards the distance. "It was quiet, like that. I stood and watched the mills and the yards, and listened to the saws, and looked at the great slide, and the logs on the river: and I said ever to myself that it was all mine— all. Then I turned to a big house on the hillock beyond the cedars, whose windows were open, with a cool dusk lying behind them. More than all else, I loved to think I owned that house and what was in it. . . . She was a beautiful woman. And she used to sit in a room facing the mill—though the house fronted another way—thinking of me, I did not doubt, and working at some delicate needle-stuff. There never had been a sharp word between us, save when I quarrelled bitterly with her brother, and he left the mill and went away. But she got over that mostly, though the lad's name was, never mentioned between us. That day I was so hungry for the sight of her that I got my field-glass—used to watch my vessels and rafts making across the bay—and trained it on the window where I knew she sat. I thought, it would amuse her, too, when I went back at night, if I told her what she had been doing. I laughed to myself at the thought of it as I adjusted the glass. . . . I looked. . . . There was no more laughing. . . . I saw her, and in front of her a man, with his back half on me. I could not recognise him, though at the instant I thought he was something familiar. I failed to get his face at all. Hers I found indistinctly. But I saw him catch her playfully by the chin! After a little they rose. He put his arm about her and kissed her, and he ran his fingers through her hair. She had such fine golden hair—so light, and it lifted to every breath. Something got into my brain. I know now it was the maggot which sent Othello mad. The world in that hour was malicious, awful. . . .
"After a time—it seemed ages, she and everything had receded so far— I went . . . home. At the door I asked the servant who had been there. She hesitated, confused, and then said the young curate of the parish. I was very cool: for madness is a strange thing; you see everything with an intense aching clearness—that is the trouble. . . . She was more kind than common. I do not think I was unusual. I was playing a part well, my grandmother had Indian blood like yours, Pierre, and I was waiting. I was even nicely critical of her to myself. I balanced the mole on her neck against her general beauty; the curve of her instep, I decided, was a little too emphatic. I passed her backwards and forwards, weighing her at every point; but yet these two things were the only imperfections. I pronounced her an exceeding piece of art—and infamy. I was much interested to see how she could appear perfect in her soul. I encouraged her to talk. I saw with devilish irony that an angel spoke. And, to cap it all, she assumed the fascinating air of the mediator—for her brother; seeking a reconciliation between us. Her amazing art of person and mind so worked upon me that it became unendurable; it was so exquisite—and so shameless. I was sitting where the priest had sat that afternoon; and when she leaned towards me I caught her chin lightly and trailed my fingers through her hair as he had done: and that ended it, for I was cold, and my heart worked with horrible slowness. Just as a wave poises at its height before breaking upon the shore, it hung at every pulse-beat, and then seemed to fall over with a sickening thud. I arose, and acting still, spoke impatiently of her brother. Tears sprang to her eyes. Such divine dissimulation, I thought—too good for earth. She turned to leave the room, and I did not stay her. Yet we were together again that night. . . . I was only waiting."
The cigarette had dropped from his fingers to the floor, and lay there smoking. Shon's face was fixed with anxiety; Pierre's eyes played gravely with the sunshine. Wendling drew a heavy breath, and then went on.
"Again, next day, it was like this-the world draining the heat. . . . I watched from the Big Mill. I saw them again. He leaned over her chair and buried his face in her hair. The proof was absolute now. . . . I started away, going a roundabout, that I might not be seen. It took me some time. I was passing through a clump of cedar when I saw them making towards the trees skirting the river. Their backs were on me. Suddenly they diverted their steps—towards the great slide, shut off from water this last few months, and used as a quarry to deepen it. Some petrified things had been found in the rocks, but I did not think they were going to these. I saw them climb down the rocky steps; and presently they were lost to view. The gates of the slide could be opened by machinery from the Little Mill. A terrible, deliciously malignant thought came to me. I remember how the sunlight crept away from me and left me in the dark. I stole through that darkness to the Little Mill. I went to the machinery for opening the gates. Very gently I set it in motion, facing the slide as I did so. I could see it through the open sides of the mill. I smiled to think what the tiny creek, always creeping through a faint leak in the gates and falling with a granite rattle on the stones, would now become. I pushed the lever harder—harder. I saw the gates suddenly give, then fly open, and the river sprang roaring massively through them. I heard a shriek through the roar. I shuddered; and a horrible sickness came on me. . . . And as I turned from the machinery, I saw the young priest coming at me through a doorway! . . . It was not the priest and my wife that I had killed; but my wife and her brother. . . ."
He threw his head back as though something clamped his throat. His voice roughened with misery. "The young priest buried them both, and people did not know the truth. They were even sorry for me. But I gave up the mills—all; and I became homeless . . . this."
Now he looked up at the two men, and said: "I have told you because you know something, and because there will, I think, be an end soon." He got up and reached out a trembling hand for a cigarette. Pierre gave him one. "Will you walk with me"? he asked.
Shon shook his head. "God forgive you," he replied, "I can't do it."
But Wendling and Pierre left the hut together. They walked for an hour, scarcely speaking, and not considering where they went. At last Pierre mechanically turned to go down into Red Glen. Wendling stopped short, then, with a sighing laugh, strode on. "Shoo has told you what happened here"? he said.