Romany Of The Snows by Gilbert Parker
The House With the Broken Shutter
"He stands in the porch of the world-- (Why should the door be shut?) The grey wolf waits at his heel, (Why is the window barred?) Wild is the trail from the Kimash Hills, The blight has fallen on bush and tree, The choking earth has swallowed the streams, Hungry and cold is the Red Patrol: (Why should the door be shut?) The Scarlet Hunter has come to bide-- (Why is the window barred?)"
Pierre stopped to listen. The voice singing was clear and soft, yet strong--a mezzo-soprano without any culture save that of practice and native taste. It had a singular charm--a sweet, fantastic sincerity. He stood still and fastened his eyes on the house, a few rods away. It stood on a knoll perching above Fort Ste. Anne. Years had passed since Pierre had visited the Fort, and he was now on his way to it again, after many wanderings. The house had stood here in the old days, and he remembered it very well, for against it John Marcey, the Company's man, was shot by Stroke Laforce, of the Riders of the Plains. Looking now, he saw that the shutter, which had been pulled off to bear the body away, was hanging there just as he had placed it, with seven of its slats broken and a dark stain in one corner. Something more of John Marcey than memory attached to that shutter. His eyes dwelt on it long he recalled the scene: a night with stars and no moon, a huge bonfire to light the Indians, at their dance, and Marcey, Laforce, and many others there, among whom was Lucille, the little daughter of Gyng the Factor. Marcey and Laforce were only boys then, neither yet twenty-three, and they were friendly rivals with the sweet little coquette, who gave her favors with a singular impartiality and justice. Once Marcey had given her a gold spoon. Laforce responded with a tiny, fretted silver basket. Laforce was delighted to see her carrying her basket, till she opened it and showed the spoon inside. There were many mock quarrels, in one of which Marcey sent her a letter by the Company's courier, covered with great seals, saying, "I return you the hairpin, the egg-shell, and the white wolf's tooth. Go to your Laforce, or whatever his ridiculous name may be."
In this way the pretty game ran on, the little goldenhaired, golden- faced, golden-voiced child dancing so gayly in their hearts, but nestling in them too, after her wilful fashion, until the serious thing came--the tragedy.
On the mad night when all ended, she was in the gayest, the most elf-like spirits. All went well until Marcey dug a hole in the ground, put a stone in it, and, burying it, said it was Laforce's heart. Then Laforce pretended to ventriloquise, and mocked Marcey's slight stutter. That was the beginning of the trouble, and Lucille, like any lady of the world, troubled at Laforce's unkindness, tried to smooth things over--tried very gravely. But the playful rivalry of many months changed its composition suddenly as through some delicate yet powerful chemical action, and the savage in both men broke out suddenly. Where motives and emotions are few they are the more vital, their action is the more violent. No one knew quite what the two young men said to each other, but presently, while the Indian dance was on, they drew to the side of the house, and had their duel out in the half-shadows, no one knowing, till the shots rang on the night, and John Marcey, without a cry, sprang into the air and fell face upwards, shot through the heart.
They tried to take the child away, but she would not go; and when they carried Marcey on the shutter she followed close by, resisting her father's wishes and commands. And just before they made a prisoner of Laforce, she said to him very quietly--so like a woman she was--"I will give you back the basket, and the riding-whip, and the other things, and I will never forgive you--never--no, never!"
Stroke Laforce had given himself up, had himself ridden to Winnipeg, a thousand miles, and told his story. Then the sergeant's stripes had been stripped from his arm, he had been tried, and on his own statement had got twelve years' imprisonment. Ten years had passed since then-- since Marcey was put away in his grave, since Pierre left Fort Ste. Anne, and he had not seen it or Lucille in all that time. But he knew that Gyng was dead, and that his widow and her child had gone south or east somewhere; of Laforce after his sentence he had never heard.
He stood looking at the house from the shade of the solitary pine-tree near it, recalling every incident of that fatal night. He had the gift of looking at a thing in its true proportions, perhaps because he had little emotion and a strong brain, or perhaps because early in life his emotions were rationalised. Presently he heard the voice again:
"He waits at the threshold stone-- (Why should the key-hole rust?) The eagle broods at his side, (Why should the blind be drawn?) Long has he watched, and far has he called The lonely sentinel of the North: "Who goes there?" to the wandering soul: Heavy of heart is the Red Patrol (Why should the key-hole rust?) The Scarlet Hunter is sick for home, (Why should the blind be drawn?)"
Now he recognised the voice. Its golden timbre brought back a young girl's golden face and golden hair. It was summer, and the window with the broken shutter was open. He was about to go to it, when a door of the house opened, and a girl appeared. She was tall, with rich, yellow hair falling loosely about her head; she had a strong, finely cut chin and a broad brow, under which a pair of deep blue eyes shone-violet blue, rare and fine. She stood looking down at the Fort for a few moments, unaware of Pierre's presence. But presently she saw him leaning against the tree, and she started as from a spirit.
"Monsieur!" she said--"Pierre!" and stepped forward again from the doorway.
He came to her, and "Ah, p'tite Lucille," he said, "you remember me, eh? --and yet so many years ago!"
"But you remember me," she answered, "and I have changed so much!"
"It is the man who should remember, the woman may forget if she will."
Pierre did not mean to pay a compliment; he was merely thinking.
She made a little gesture of deprecation. "I was a child," she said.
Pierre lifted a shoulder slightly. "What matter? It is sex that I mean. What difference to me--five, or forty, or ninety? It is all sex. It is only lovers, the hunters of fire-flies, that think of age--mais oui!"
She had a way of looking at you before she spoke, as though she were trying to find what she actually thought. She was one after Pierre's own heart, and he knew it; but just here he wondered where all that ancient coquetry was gone, for there were no traces of it left; she was steady of eye, reposeful, rich in form and face, and yet not occupied with herself. He had only seen her for a minute or so, yet he was sure that what she was just now she was always, or nearly so, for the habits of a life leave their mark, and show through every phase of emotion and incident whether it be light or grave.
"I think I understand you," she said. "I think I always did a little, from the time you stayed with Grah the idiot at Fort o' God, and fought the Indians when the others left. Only--men said bad things of you, and my father did not like you, and you spoke so little to me ever. Yet I mind how you used to sit and watch me, and I also mind when you rode the man down who stole my pony, and brought them both back."
Pierre smiled--he was pleased at this. "Ah, my young friend," he said, "I do not forget that either, for though he had shaved my ear with a bullet, you would not have him handed over to the Riders of the Plains --such a tender heart!"
Her eyes suddenly grew wide. She was childlike in her amazement, indeed, childlike in all ways, for she was very sincere. It was her great advantage to live where nothing was required of her but truth, she had not suffered that sickness, social artifice.
"I never knew," she said, "that he had shot at you--never! You did not tell that."
"There is a time for everything--the time for that was not till now."
"What could I have done then?"
"You might have left it to me. I am not so pious that I can't be merciful to the sinner. But this man--this Brickney--was a vile scoundrel always, and I wanted him locked up. I would have shot him myself, but I was tired of doing the duty of the law. Yes, yes," he added, as he saw her smile a little. "It is so. I have love for justice, even I, Pretty Pierre. Why not justice on myself? Ha! The law does not its duty. And maybe some day I shall have to do its work on myself. Some are coaxed out of life, some are kicked out, and some open the doors quietly for themselves, and go a-hunting Outside."
"They used to talk as if one ought to fear you," she said, "but"--she looked him straight in the eyes--"but maybe that's because you've never hid any badness."
"It is no matter, anyhow," he answered. "I live in the open, I walk in the open road, and I stand by what I do to the open law and the gospel. It is my whim--every man to his own saddle."
"It is ten years," she said abruptly.
"Ten years less five days," he answered as sententiously.
"Come inside," she said quietly, and turned to the door.
Without a word he turned also, but instead of going direct to the door came and touched the broken shutter and the dark stain on one corner with a delicate forefinger. Out of the corner of his eye he could see her on the doorstep, looking intently.
He spoke as if to himself: "It has not been touched since then--no. It was hardly big enough for him, so his legs hung over. Ah, yes, ten years-- Abroad, John Marcey!" Then, as if still musing, he turned to the girl: "He had no father or mother--no one, of course; so that it wasn't so bad after all. If you've lived with the tongue in the last hole of the buckle as you've gone, what matter when you go! C'est egal --it is all the same."
Her face had become pale as he spoke, but no muscle stirred; only her eyes filled with a deeper color, and her hand closed tightly on the door- jamb. "Come in, Pierre," she said, and entered. He followed her. "My mother is at the Fort," she added, "but she will be back soon."
She placed two chairs not far from the open door. They sat, and Pierre slowly rolled a cigarette and lighted it.
"How long have you lived here?" he asked presently.
"It is seven years since we came first," she replied. "After that night they said the place was haunted, and no one would live in it, but when my father died my mother and I came for three years. Then we went east, and again came back, and here we have been."
"The shutter?" Pierre asked.
They needed few explanations--their minds were moving with the same thought.
"I would not have it changed, and of course no one cared to touch it. So it has hung there."
"As I placed it ten years ago," he said.
They both became silent for a time, and at last he said: "Marcey had no one,--Sergeant Laforce a mother."
"It killed his mother," she whispered, looking into the white sunlight. She was noting how it was flashed from the bark of the birch-trees near the Fort.
"His mother died," she added again, quietly. "It killed her--the gaol for him!"
"An eye for an eye," he responded.
"Do you think that evens John Marcey's death?" she sighed.
"As far as Marcey's concerned," he answered. "Laforce has his own reckoning besides."
"It was not a murder," she urged.
"It was a fair fight," he replied firmly, "and Laforce shot straight." He was trying to think why she lived here, why the broken shutter still hung there, why the matter had settled so deeply on her. He remembered the song she was singing, the legend of the Scarlet Hunter, the fabled Savior of the North.
"Heavy of heart is the Red Patrol-- (Why should the key-hole rust?) The Scarlet Hunter is sick for home, (Why should the blind be drawn?)"
He repeated the words, lingering on them. He loved to come at the truth of things by allusive, far-off reflections, rather than by the sharp questioning of the witness-box. He had imagination, refinement in such things. A light dawned on him as he spoke the words--all became clear. She sang of the Scarlet Hunter, but she meant someone else! That was it--
"Hungry and cold is the Red Patrol-- (Why should the door be shut?) The Scarlet Hunter has come to bide, (Why is the window barred?)"
But why did she live here? To get used to a thought, to have it so near her, that if the man--if Laforce himself came, she would have herself schooled to endure the shadow and the misery of it all? Ah, that was it! The little girl, who had seen her big lover killed, who had said she would never forgive the other, who had sent him back the fretted-silver basket, the riding-whip, and other things, had kept the criminal in her mind all these years; had, out of her childish coquetry, grown into-- what? As a child she had been wise for her years--almost too wise. What had happened? She had probably felt sorrow for Laforce at first, and afterwards had shown active sympathy, and at last--no, he felt that she had not quite forgiven him, that, whatever was, she had not hidden the criminal in her heart. But why did she sing that song? Her heart was pleading for him--for the criminal. Had she and her mother gone to Winnipeg to be near Laforce, to comfort him? Was Laforce free now, and was she unwilling? It was so strange that she should thus have carried on her childhood into her womanhood. But he guessed her--she had imagination.
"His mother died in my arms in Winnipeg," she said abruptly at last. "I'm glad I was some comfort to her. You see, it all came through me-- I was so young and spoiled and silly--John Marcey's death, her death, and his long years in prison. Even then I knew better than to set the one against the other. Must a child not be responsible? I was--I am!"
"And so you punish yourself?"
"It was terrible for me--even as a child. I said that I could never forgive, but when his mother died, blessing me, I did. Then there came something else."
"You saw him, there amie?"
"I saw him--so changed, so quiet, so much older--all grey at the temples. At first I lived here that I might get used to the thought of the thing --to learn to bear it; and afterwards that I might learn--" She paused, looking in half-doubt at Pierre.
"It is safe; I am silent," he said.
"That I might learn to bear--him," she continued.
"Is he still--" Pierre paused.
She spoke up quickly. "Oh no, he has been free two years."
"Where is he now?"
"I don't know." She waited for a minute, then said again, "I don't know. When he was free, he came to me, but I--I could not. He thought, too, that because he had been in gaol, that I wouldn't--be his wife. He didn't think enough of himself, he didn't urge anything. And I wasn't ready--no--no--no--how could I be! I didn't care so much about the gaol, but he had killed John Marcey. The gaol--what was that to me! There was no real shame in it unless he had done a mean thing. He had been wicked --not mean. Killing is awful, but not shameful. Think--the difference-- if he had been a thief!"
Pierre nodded. "Then some one should have killed him!" he said. "Well, after?"
"After--after--ah, he went away for a year. Then he came back; but no, I was always thinking of that night I walked behind John Marcey's body to the Fort. So he went away again, and we came here, and here we have lived."
"He has not come here?"
"No; once from the far north he sent me a letter by an Indian, saying that he was going with a half-breed to search for a hunting party, an English gentleman and two men who were lost. The name of one of the men was Brickney."
Pierre stopped short in a long whiffing of smoke. "Holy!" he said, "that thief Brickney again. He would steal the broad road to hell if he could carry it. He once stole the quarters from a dead man's eyes. Mon Dieu! to save Brickney's life, the courage to do that--like sticking your face in the mire and eating!--But, pshaw!--go on, p'tite Lucille."
"There is no more. I never heard again."
"How long was that ago?"
"Nine months or more."
"Nothing has been heard of any of them?"
"Nothing at all. The Englishman belonged to the Hudson's Bay Company, but they have heard nothing down here at Fort Ste. Anne."
"If he saves the Company's man, that will make up the man he lost for them, eh--you think that, eh?" Pierre's eyes had a curious ironical light.
"I do not care for the Company," she said. "John Marcey's life was his own."
"Good!" he added quickly, and his eyes admired her. "That is the thing. Then, do not forget that Marcey took his life in his hands himself, that he would have killed Laforce if Laforce hadn't killed him."
"I know, I know," she said, "but I should have felt the same if John Marcey had killed Stroke Laforce."
"It is a pity to throw your life away," he ventured. He said this for a purpose. He did not think she was throwing it away.
She was watching a little knot of horsemen coming over a swell of the prairie far off. She withdrew her eyes and fixed them on Pierre. "Do you throw your life away if you do what is the only thing you are told to do?"
She placed her hand on her heart--that had been her one guide.
Pierre got to his feet, came over, and touched her on the shoulder.
"You have the great secret," he said quietly. "The thing may be all wrong to others, but if it's right to yourself--that's it--mais oui! If he comes," he added "if he comes back, think of him as well as Marcey. Marcey is sleeping--what does it matter? If he is awake, he has better times, for he was a man to make another world sociable. Think of Laforce, for he has his life to live, and he is a man to make this world sociable.
'The Scarlet Hunter is sick for home-- (Why should the door be shut?)'"
Her eyes had been following the group of horsemen on the plains. She again fixed them on Pierre, and stood up.
"It is a beautiful legend--that," she said.
"But?--but?" he asked.
She would not answer him. "You will come again," she said; "you will-- help me?"
"Surely, p'tite Lucille, surely, I will come. But to help--ah, that would sound funny to the Missionary at the Fort and to others!"
"You understand life," she said, "and I can speak to you."
"It's more to you to understand you than to be good, eh?"
"I guess it's more to any woman," she answered. They both passed out of the house. She turned towards the broken shutter. Then their eyes met. A sad little smile hovered at her lips.
"What is the use?" she said, and her eyes fastened on the horsemen.
He knew now that she would never shudder again at the sight of it, or at the remembrance of Marcey's death.
"But he will come," was the reply to her, and her smile almost settled and stayed.
They parted, and as he went down the hill he saw far over, coming up, a woman in black, who walked as if she carried a great weight. "Every shot that kills ricochets," he said to himself:
"His mother dead--her mother like that!"
He passed into the Fort, renewing acquaintances in the Company's store, and twenty minutes after he was one to greet the horsemen that Lucille had seen coming over the hills. They were five, and one had to be helped from his horse. It was Stroke Laforce, who had been found near dead at the Metal River by a party of men exploring in the north.
He had rescued the Englishman and his party, but within a day of the finding the Englishman died, leaving him his watch, a ring, and a cheque on the H. B. C. at Winnipeg. He and the two survivors, one of whom was Brickney, started south. One night Brickney robbed him and made to get away, and on his seizing the thief he was wounded. Then the other man came to his help and shot Brickney: after that weeks of wandering, and at last rescue and Fort Ste. Anne.
A half-hour after this Pierre left Laforce on the crest of the hill above the Fort, and did not turn to go down till he had seen the other pass within the house with the broken shutter. And later he saw a little bonfire on the hill. The next evening he came to the house again himself. Lucille rose to meet him.
"'Why should the door be shut?"' he quoted smiling.
"The door is open," she answered quickly and with a quiet joy.
He turned to the motion of her hand, and saw Laforce asleep on a couch.
Soon afterwards, as he passed from the house, he turned towards the window. The broken shutter was gone.
He knew now the meaning of the bonfire the night before.