Romany Of The Snows by Gilbert Parker
The Bridge House
It stood on a wide wall between two small bridges. These were approaches to the big covered bridge spanning the main channel of the Madawaska River, and when swelled by the spring thaws and rains, the two flanking channels divided at the foundations of the house, and rustled away through the narrow paths of the small bridges to the rapids. You could stand at any window in the House and watch the ugly, rushing current, gorged with logs, come battering at the wall, jostle between the piers, and race on to the rocks and the dam and the slide beyond. You stepped from the front door upon the wall, which was a road between the bridges, and from the back door into the river itself.
The House had once been a tavern. It looked a wayfarer, like its patrons the river-drivers, with whom it was most popular. You felt that it had no part in the career of the village on either side, but was like a rock in a channel, at which a swimmer caught or a vagrant fish loitered.
Pierre knew the place, when, of a night in the springtime or early summer, throngs of river-drivers and their bosses sauntered at its doors, or hung over the railing of the wall, as they talked and smoked.
The glory of the Bridge House suddenly declined. That was because Finley, the owner, a rich man, came to hate the place--his brother's blood stained the barroom floor. He would have destroyed the house but that John Rupert, the beggared gentleman came to him, and wished to rent it for a dwelling.
Mr. Rupert was old, and had been miserably poor for many years, but he had a breeding and a manner superior to anyone at Bamber's Boom. He was too old for a labourer, he had no art or craftsmanship; his little money was gone in foolish speculations, and he was dependent on his granddaughter's slight earnings from music teaching and needlework. But he rented an acre of ground from Finley, and grew vegetables; he gathered driftwood from the river for his winter fire, and made up the accounts of the storekeeper occasionally. Yet it was merely keeping off starvation. He was not popular. He had no tongue for the meaningless village talk. People held him in a kind of awe, and yet they felt a mean satisfaction when they saw him shouldering driftwood, and piling it on the shore to be dragged away--the last resort of the poor, for which they blush.
When Mr. Rupert asked for the House, Finley knew the chances were he would not get the rental; yet, because he was sorry for the old man, he gave it to him at a low rate. He closed up the bar-room, however, and it was never opened afterwards.
So it was that Mr. Rupert and Judith, his granddaughter, came to live there. Judith was a blithe, lissome creature, who had never known comfort or riches: they were taken from her grandfather before she was born, and her father and mother both died when she was a little child. But she had been taught by her grandmother, when she lived, and by her grandfather, and she had felt the graces of refined life. Withal, she had a singular sympathy for the rude, strong life of the river. She was glad when they came to live at the Bridge House, and shamed too: glad because they could live apart from the other villagers; shamed because it exposed her to the curiosity of those who visited the House, thinking it was still a tavern. But that was only for a time.
One night Jules Brydon, the young river-boss, camped with his men at Bamber's Boom. He was of parents Scotch and French, and the amalgamation of races in him made a striking product. He was cool and indomitable, yet hearty and joyous. It was exciting to watch him at the head of his men, breaking up a jam of logs, and it was a delight to hear him of an evening as he sang:
"Have you heard the cry of the Long Lachine, When happy is the sun in the morning? The rapids long and the banks of green, As we ride away in the morning, On the froth of the Long Lachine?"
One day, soon after they came, the dams and booms were opened above, and forests of logs came riding down to Bamber's Boom. The current was strong, and the logs came on swiftly. As Brydon's gang worked, they saw a man out upon a small raft of driftwood, which had been suddenly caught in the drive of logs, and was carried out towards the middle channel. The river-drivers laughed, for they failed to see that the man was old, and that he could not run across the rolling logs to the shore. The old man, evidently hopeless, laid down his pike-pole, folded his hands, and drifted with the logs. The river-drivers stopped laughing. They began to understand.
Brydon saw a woman standing at a window of the House waving her arms, and there floated up the river the words, "Father! father!" He caught up a pikepole, and ran over that spinning floor of logs to the raft. The old man's face was white, but there was no fear in his eyes.
"I cannot run the logs," he said at once; "I never did; I am too old, and I slip. It's no use. It is my granddaughter at that window. Tell her that I'll think of her to the last. . . . Good-bye!"
Brydon was eyeing the logs. The old man's voice was husky; he could not cry out, but he waved his hand to the girl.
"Oh, save him!" came from her faintly.
Brydon's eyes were now on the covered bridge. Their raft was in the channel, coming straight between two piers. He measured his chances. He knew if he slipped, doing what he intended, that both might be drowned, and certainly Mr. Rupert; for the logs were close, and to drop among them was a bad business. If they once closed over there was an end of everything.
"Keep quite still," he said, "and when I throw you catch."
He took the slight figure in his arms, sprang out upon the slippery logs, and ran. A cheer went up from the men on the shore, and the people who were gathering on the bridges, too late to be of service. Besides, the bridge was closed, and there was only a small opening at the piers. For one of these piers Brydon was making. He ran hard. Once he slipped and nearly fell, but recovered. Then a floating tree suddenly lunged up and struck him, so that he dropped upon a knee; but again he was up, and strained for the pier. He was within a few feet of it as they came to the bridge. The people gave a cry of fear, for they saw that there was no chance of both making it; because, too, at the critical moment a space of clear water showed near the pier. But Brydon raised John Rupert up, balanced himself, and tossed him at the pier, where two river-drivers stood stretching out their arms. An instant afterwards the old man was with his granddaughter. But Brydon slipped and fell; the roots of a tree bore him down, and he was gone beneath the logs!
There was a cry of horror from the watchers, then all was still. But below the bridge they saw an arm thrust up between the logs, and then another arm crowding them apart. Now a head and shoulders appeared. Luckily the piece of timber which Brydon grasped was square, and did not roll. In a moment he was standing on it. There was a wild shout of encouragement. He turned his battered, blood-stained face to the bridge for an instant, and, with a wave of the hand and a sharp look towards the rapids below, once more sprang out. It was a brave sight, for the logs were in a narrower channel and more riotous. He rubbed the blood out of his eyes that he might see his way. The rolling forest gave him no quarter, but he came on, rocking with weakness, to within a few rods of the shore. Then a half-dozen of his men ran out on the logs,--they were packed closely here,--caught him up, and brought him to dry ground.
They took him to the Bridge House. He was hurt more than he or they thought. The old man and the girl met them at the door. Judith gave a little cry when she saw the blood and Brydon's bruised face. He lifted his head as though her eyes had drawn his, and, their looks meeting, he took his hat off. Her face flushed; she dropped her eyes. Her grandfather seized Brydon's big hand, and said some trembling words of thanks. The girl stepped inside, made a bed for him upon the sofa, and got him something to drink. She was very cool; she immediately asked Pierre to go for the young doctor who had lately come to the place, and made ready warm water with which she wiped Brydon's blood-stained face and hands, and then gave him some brandy. His comrades standing round watched her admiringly, she was so deft and delicate. Brydon, as if to be nursed and cared for was not manly, felt ashamed, and came up quickly to a sitting posture, saying, "Pshaw! I'm all right!" But he turned sick immediately, and Judith's arms caught his head and shoulders as he fell back. His face turned, and was pillowed on her bosom. At this she blushed, but a look of singular dignity came into her face. Those standing by were struck with a kind of awe; they were used mostly to the daughters of habitants and fifty-acre farmers. Her sensitive face spoke a wonderful language: a divine gratitude and thankfulness; and her eyes had a clear moisture which did not dim them. The situation was trying to the river-drivers--it was too refined; and they breathed more freely when they got outside and left the girl, her grandfather, Pierre, and the young doctor alone with the injured man.
That was how the thing began. Pierre saw the conclusion of events from the start. The young doctor did not. From the hour when he bound up Brydon's head, Judith's fingers aiding him, he felt a spring in his blood new to him. When he came to know exactly what it meant, and acted, it was too late. He was much surprised that his advances were gently repulsed. He pressed them hard: that was a mistake. He had an idea, not uncommon in such cases, that he was conferring an honour. But he was very young. A gold medal in anatomy is likely to turn a lad's head at the start. He falls into the error that the ability to demonstrate the medulla oblongata should likewise suffice to convince the heart of a maid. Pierre enjoyed the situation; he knew life all round; he had boxed the compass of experience.
He believed in Judith. The old man interested him: he was a wreck out of an unfamiliar life.
"Well, you see," Pierre said to Brydon one day, as they sat on the high cross-beams of the little bridge, "you can't kill it in a man--what he was born. Look, as he piles up the driftwood over there. Broken down, eh? Yes, but then there is something--a manner, an eye. He piles the wood like champagne bottles. On the raft, you remember, he took off his hat to death. That's different altogether from us."
He gave a sidelong glance at Brydon, and saw a troubled look.
"Yes," Brydon said, "he is different; and so is she."
"She is a lady," Pierre said, with slow emphasis. "She couldn't hide it if she tried. She plays the piano, and looks all silk in calico. Made for this?"--he waved his hand towards the Bridge House. "No, no! made for--"
He paused, smiled enigmatically, and dropped a bit of wood on the swift current.
Brydon frowned, then said: "Well, made for what, Pierre?"
Pierre looked over Brydon's shoulder, towards a pretty cottage on the hillside. "Made for homes like that, not this," he said, and he nodded first towards the hillside, then to the Bridge House. (The cottage belonged to the young doctor.) A growl like an animal's came from Brydon, and he clinched the other's shoulder. Pierre glanced at the hand, then at Brydon's face, and said sharply: "Take it away."
The hand dropped; but Brydon's face was hot, and his eyes were hard.
Pierre continued: "But then women are strange. What you expect they will not--no. Riches?--it is nothing; houses like that on the hill, nothing. They have whims. The hut is as good as the house, with the kitchen in the open where the river welts and washes, and a man--the great man of the world to them--to play the little game of life with. . . . Pshaw! you are idle: move; you are thick in the head: think hard; you like the girl: speak."
As he said this, there showed beneath them the front timbers of a small crib of logs with a crew of two men, making for the rapids and the slide below. Here was an adventure, for running the rapids with so slight a craft and small a crew was smart work. Pierre, measuring the distance, and with a "Look out, below!" swiftly let himself down by his arms as far as he could, and then dropped to the timbers, as lightly as if it were a matter of two feet instead of twelve. He waved a hand to Brydon, and the crib shot on. Brydon sat eyeing it abstractedly till it ran into the teeth of the rapids, the long oars of the three men rising and falling to the monotonous cry. The sun set out the men and the craft against the tall dark walls of the river in strong relief, and Brydon was carried away from what Pierre had been saying. He had a solid pleasure in watching, and he sat up with a call of delight when he saw the crib drive at the slide. Just glancing the edge, she shot through safely. His face blazed.
"A pretty sight!" said a voice behind him.
Without a word he swung round, and dropped, more heavily than Pierre, beside Judith.
"It gets into our bones," he said. "Of course, though it ain't the same to you," he added, looking down at her over his shoulder. "You don't care for things so rough, mebbe?"
"I love the river," she said quietly.
"We're a rowdy lot, we river-drivers. We have to be. It's a rowdy business."
"I never noticed that," she replied, gravely smiling. "When I was small I used to go to the river-drivers' camps with my brother, and they were always kind to us. They used to sing and play the fiddle, and joke; but I didn't think then that they were rowdy, and I don't now. They were never rough with us."
"No one'd ever be rough with you," was the reply. "Oh yes," she said suddenly, and turned her head away. She was thinking of what the young doctor had said to her that morning; how like a foolish boy he had acted: upbraiding her, questioning her, saying unreasonable things, as young egoists always do. In years she was younger than he, but in wisdom much older: in all things more wise and just. He had not struck her, but with his reckless tongue he had cut her to the heart. "Oh yes," she repeated, and her eyes ran up to his face and over his great stalwart body; and then she leaned over the railing and looked into the water.
"I'd break the man into pieces that was rough with you," he said between his teeth.
"Would you?" she asked in a whisper. Then, not giving him a chance to reply, "We are very poor, you know, and some people are rough with the poor--and proud. I remember," she went on, simply, dreamily, and as if talking to herself, "the day when we first came to the Bridge House. I sat down on a box and looked at the furniture--it was so little--and cried. Coming here seemed the last of what grandfather used to be. I couldn't help it. He sat down too, and didn't say anything. He was very pale, and I saw that his eyes ached as he looked at me. Then I got angry with myself, and sprang up and went to work--and we get along pretty well."
She paused and sighed; then, after a minute: "I love the river. I don't believe I could be happy away from it. I should like to live on it, and die on it, and be buried in it."
His eyes were on her eagerly. But she looked so frail and dainty that his voice, to himself, sounded rude. Still, his hand blundered along the railing to hers, and covered it tenderly--for so big a hand. She drew her fingers away, but not very quickly. "Don't!" she said, "and--and someone is coming!"
There were footsteps behind them. It was her grandfather, carrying a board fished from the river. He grasped the situation, and stood speechless with wonder. He had never thought of this. He was a gentleman, in spite of all, and this man was a common river-boss. Presently he drew himself up with an air. The heavy board was still in his arms. Brydon came over and took the board, looking him squarely in the eyes.
"Mr. Rupert," he said, "I want to ask something." The old man nodded.
"I helped you out of a bad scrape on the river?" Again the old man nodded.
"Well, mebbe, I saved your life. For that I'm going to ask you to draw no more driftwood from the Madawaska--not a stick, now or ever."
"It is the only way we can keep from freezing in winter." Mr. Rupert scarcely knew what he said. Brydon looked at Judith, who turned away, then answered: "I'll keep you from freezing, if you'll let me, you--and Judith."
"Oh, please let us go into the house," Judith said hastily.
She saw the young doctor driving towards them out of the covered bridge!
When Brydon went to join his men far down the river he left a wife behind him at the Bridge House, where she and her grandfather were to stay until the next summer. Then there would be a journey from Bamber's Boom to a new home.
In the late autumn he came, before he went away to the shanties in the backwoods, and again in the winter just before the babe was born. Then he went far up the river to Rice Lake and beyond, to bring down the drives of logs for his Company. June came, and then there was a sudden sorrow at the Bridge House. How great it was, Pierre's words as he stood at the door one evening will testify. He said to the young doctor: "Save the child, and you shall have back the I O U on your house." Which was also evidence that the young doctor had fallen into the habit of gambling.
The young doctor looked hard at him. He had a selfish nature. "You can only do what you can do," he said.
Pierre's eyes were sinister. "If you do not save it, one would guess why."
The other started, flushed, was silent, and then said: "You think I'm a coward. We shall see. There is a way, but it may fail."
And though he sucked the diphtheria poison from the child's throat, it died the next night.
Still, the cottage that Pierre and Company had won was handed back with such good advice as only a worldwise adventurer can give.
Of the child's death its father did not know. They were not certain where he was. But when the mother took to her bed again, the young doctor said it was best that Brydon should come. Pierre had time and inclination to go for him. But before he went he was taken to Judith's bedside. Pierre had seen life and death in many forms, but never anything quite like this: a delicate creature floating away upon a summer current travelling in those valleys which are neither of this life nor of that; but where you hear the echoes of both, and are visited by solicitous spirits. There was no pain in her face--she heard a little, familiar voice from high and pleasant hills, and she knew, so wise are the dying, that her husband was travelling after her, and that they would be all together soon. But she did not speak of that. For the knowledge born of such a time is locked up in the soul.
Pierre was awe-stricken. Unconsciously he crossed himself.
"Tell him to come quickly," she said, "if you find him,"--her fingers played with the coverlet,--"for I wish to comfort him. . . . Someone said that you were bad, Pierre. I do not believe it. You were sorry when my baby went away. I am--going away--too. But do not tell him that. Tell him I cannot walk about. I want him to carry me--to carry me. Will you?" Pierre put out his hand to hers creeping along the coverlet to him; but it was only instinct that guided him, for he could not see. He started on his journey with his hat pulled down over his eyes.
One evening when the river was very high and it was said that Brydon's drives of logs would soon be down, a strange thing happened at the Bridge House.
The young doctor had gone, whispering to Mr. Rupert that he would come back later. He went out on tiptoe, as from the presence of an angel. His selfishness had dropped away from him. The evening wore on, and in the little back room a woman's voice said:
"Is it morning yet, father?"
"It is still day. The sun has not set, my child."
"I thought it had gone, it seemed so dark."
"You have been asleep, Judith. You have come out of the dark."
"No, I have come out into the darkness--into the world."
"You will see better when you are quite awake."
"I wish I could see the river, father. Will you go and look?"
Then there was a silence. "Well?" she asked.
"It is beautiful," he said, "and the sun is still bright."
"You see as far as Indian Island?"
"I can see the white comb of the reef beyond it, my dear."
"And no one--is coming?"
"There are men making for the shore, and the fires are burning, but no one is--coming this way. . . . He would come by the road, perhaps."
"Oh no, by the river. Pierre has not found him. Can you see the Eddy?"
"Yes. It is all quiet there; nothing but the logs tossing round it."
"We used to sit there--he and I--by the big cedar tree. Everything was so cool and sweet. There was only the sound of the force-pump and the swallowing of the Eddy. They say that a woman was drowned there, and that you can see her face in the water, if you happen there at sunrise, weeping and smiling also: a picture in the water. . . . Do you think it true, father?"
"Life is so strange, and who knows what is not life, my child?"
"When baby was dying I held it over the water beneath that window, where the sunshine falls in the evening; and it looked down once before its spirit passed like a breath over my face. Maybe, its look will stay, for him to see when he comes. It was just below where you stand.... Father, can you see its face?" "No, Judith; nothing but the water and the sunshine."
"Dear, carry me to the window."
When this was done she suddenly leaned forward with shining eyes and anxious fingers. "My baby! My baby!" she said.
She looked up the river, but her eyes were fading, she could not see far. "It is all a grey light," she said, "I cannot see well." Yet she smiled. "Lay me down again, father," she whispered.
After a little she sank into a slumber. All at once she started up. "The river, the beautiful river!" she cried out gently. Then, at the last, "Oh, my dear, my dear!"
And so she came out of the valley into the high hills. Later he was left alone with his dead. The young doctor and others had come and gone. He would watch till morning. He sat long beside her, numb to the world. At last he started, for he heard a low clear call behind the House. He went out quickly to the little platform, and saw through the dusk a man drawing himself up. It was Brydon. He caught the old man's shoulders convulsively. "How is she?" he asked. "Come in, my son," was the low reply. The old man saw a grief greater than his own. He led the husband to the room where the wife lay beautiful and still. "She is better, as you see," he said bravely.
The hours went, and the two sat near the body, one on either side. They knew not what was going on in the world.
As they mourned, Pierre and the young doctor sat silent in that cottage on the hillside. They were roused at last. There came up to Pierre's keen ears the sound of the river.
"Let us go out," he said; "the river is flooding. You can hear the logs."
They came out and watched. The river went swishing, swilling past, and the dull boom of the logs as they struck the piers of the bridge or some building on the shore came rolling to them.
"The dams and booms have burst!" Pierre said. He pointed to the camps far up the river. By the light of the camp-fires there appeared a wide weltering flood of logs and debris. Pierre's eyes shifted to the Bridge House. In one room was a light. He stepped out and down, and the other followed. They had almost reached the shore, when Pierre cried out sharply: "What's that?"
He pointed to an indistinct mass bearing down upon the Bridge House. It was a big shed that had been carried away, and, jammed between timbers, had not broken up. There was no time for warning. It came on swiftly, heavily. There was a strange, horrible, grinding sound, and then they saw the light of that one room move on, waving a little to and fro-on to the rapids, the cohorts of logs crowding hard after.
Where the light was two men had started to their feet when the crash came. They felt the House move. "Run-save yourself!" cried the old man quietly. "We are lost!"
The floor rocked.
"Go," he said again. "I will stay with her."
"She is mine," Brydon said; and he took her in his arms. "I will not go."
They could hear the rapids below. The old man steadied himself in the deep water on the floor, and caught out yearningly at the cold hands.
"Come close, come close," said Brydon. "Closer; put your arms round her."
The old man did so. They were locked in each other's arms--dead and living.
The old man spoke, with a piteous kind of joy: "We therefore commit her body to the deep--!"
The three were never found.