Romany Of The Snows by Gilbert Parker
"No, no, m'sieu' the governor, they did not tell you right. I was with him, and I have known Little Babiche fifteen years--as long as I've known you. . . . It was against the time when down in your world there they have feastings, and in the churches the grand songs and many candles on the altars. Yes, Noel, that is the word--the day of the Great Birth. You shall hear how strange it all was--the thing, the time, the end of it."
The governor of the great Company settled back in a chair, his powerful face seamed by years, his hair grey and thick still, his keen, steady eyes burning under shaggy brows. He had himself spent long solitary years in the wild fastnesses of the north. He fastened his dark eyes on Pierre, and said: "Monsieur Pierre, I shall be glad to hear. It was at the time of Noel--yes?"
Pierre began: "You have seen it beautiful and cold in the north, but never so cold and beautiful as it was last year. The world was white with sun and ice, the frost never melting, the sun never warming--just a glitter, so lovely, so deadly. If only you could keep the heart warm, you were not afraid. But if once--just for a moment--the blood ran out from the heart and did not come in again, the frost clamped the doors shut, and there was an end of all. Ah, m'sieu', when the north clinches a man's heart in anger there is no pain like it--for a moment."
"Yes, yes; and Little Babiche?"
"For ten years he carried the mails along the route of Fort St. Mary, Fort O'Glory, Fort St. Saviour, and Fort Perseverance within the circle- just one mail once a year, but that was enough. There he was with his Esquimaux dogs on the trail, going and coming, with a laugh and a word for anyone that crossed his track. 'Good-day, Babiche' 'Good-day, m'sieu'.' 'How do you, Babiche?' 'Well, thank the Lord, m'sieu'.' 'Where to and where from, Babiche?' 'To the Great Fort by the old trail, from the Far-off River, m'sieu'.' 'Come safe along, Babiche.' 'Merci, m'sieu'; the good God travels north, m'sieu'.' 'Adieu, Babiche.' 'Adieu, m'sieu'.' That is about the way of the thing, year after year. Sometimes a night at a hut or a post, but mostly alone--alone, except for the dogs. He slept with them, and they slept on the mails--to guard: as though there should be highwaymen on the Prairie of the Ten Stars! But no, it was his way, m'sieu'. Now and again I crossed him on the trail, for have I not travelled to every corner of the north? We were not so great friends, for--well, Babiche is a man who says his aves, and never was a loafer, and there was no reason why he should have love for me; but we were good company when we met. I knew him when he was a boy down on the Chaudiere, and he always had a heart like a lion-and a woman. I had seen him fight, I had seen him suffer cold, and I had heard him sing.
"Well, I was up last fall to Fort St. Saviour. Ho, how dull was it! Macgregor, the trader there, has brains like rubber. So I said, I will go down to Fort O'Glory. I knew someone would be there--it is nearer the world. So I started away with four dogs and plenty of jerked buffalo, and so much brown brandy as Macgregor could squeeze out of his eye! Never, never were there such days--the frost shaking like steel and silver as it powdered the sunlight, the white level of snow lifting and falling, and falling and lifting, the sky so great a travel away, the air which made you cry out with pain one minute and gave you joy the next. And all so wild, so lonely! Yet I have seen hanging in those plains cities all blue and red with millions of lights showing, and voices, voices everywhere, like the singing of soft masses. After a time in that cold up there you are no longer yourself--no. You move in a dream. "Eh bien, m'sieu', there came, I thought, a dream to me one evening--well, perhaps one afternoon, for the days are short--so short, the sun just coming over a little bend of sky, and sinking down like a big orange ball. I come out of a tumble of little hills, and there over on the plains I saw a sight! Ragged hills of ice were thrown up, as if they'd been heaved out by the breaking earth, jutting here and there like wedges--like the teeth of a world. Alors, on one crag, shaped as an anvil, I saw what struck me like a blow, and I felt the blood shoot out of my heart and leave it dry. I was for a minute like a pump with no water in its throat to work the piston and fetch the stream up. I got sick and numb. There on that anvil of snow and ice I saw a big white bear, one such as you shall see within the Arctic Circle, his long nose fetching out towards that bleeding sun in the sky, his white coat shining. But that was not the thing--there was another. At the feet of the bear was a body, and one clawed foot was on that body--of a man. So clear was the air, the red sun shining on the face as it was turned towards me, that I wonder I did not at once know whose it was. You cannot think, m'sieu', what that was like--no. But all at once I remembered the Chant of the Scarlet Hunter. I spoke it quick, and the blood came creeping back in here." He tapped his chest with his slight forefinger.
"What was the chant?" asked the governor, who had scarce stirred a muscle since the tale began. Pierre made a little gesture of deprecation. "Ah, it is perhaps a thing of foolishness, as you may think--"
"No, no. I have heard and seen in my day," urged the governor.
"So? Good. Yes, I remember, you told me years ago, m'sieu'. . . .
"As I said, the blood came back to my heart. I turned to my dogs, and gave them a cut with the whip to see if I dreamed. They sat back and snarled, and their wild red eyes, the same as mine, kept looking at the bear and the quiet man on the anvil of ice and snow. Tell me, can you think of anything like it?--the strange light, the white bear of the Pole, that has no friends at all except the shooting stars, the great ice plains, the quick night hurrying on, the silence--such silence as no man can think! I have seen trouble flying at me in a hundred ways, but this was different--yes. We come to the foot of the little hill. Still the bear not stir. As I went up, feeling for my knives and my gun, the dogs began to snarl with anger, and for one little step I shivered, for the thing seem not natural. I was about two hundred feet away from the bear when it turned slow round at me, lifting its foot from the body. The dogs all at once come huddling about me, and I dropped on my knee to take aim, but the bear stole away from the man and come moving down past us at an angle, making for the plain. I could see his deep shining eyes, and the steam roll from his nose in long puffs. Very slow and heavy, like as if he see no one and care for no one, he shambled down, and in a minute was gone behind a boulder. I ran on to the man--"
The governor was leaning forward, looking intently, and said now: "It's like a wild dream--but the north--the north is near to the Strangest of All!"
"I knelt down and lifted him up in my arms, all a great bundle of furs and wool, and I got my hand at last to his wrist. He was alive. It was Little Babiche! Part of his face was frozen stiff. I rubbed out the frost with snow, and then I forced some brandy into his mouth, good old H.B.C. brandy,--and began to call to him: 'Babiche! Babiche! Come back, Babiche! The wolf's at the pot, Babiche!' That's the way to call a hunter to his share of meat. I was afraid, for the sleep of cold is the sleep of death, and it is hard to call the soul back to this world. But I called, and kept calling, and got him on his feet, with my arm round him. I gave him more brandy; and at last I almost shrieked in his ear. Little by little I saw his face take on the look of waking life. It was like the dawn creeping over white hills and spreading into day. I said to myself: What a thing it will be if I can fetch him back! For I never knew one to come back after the sleep had settled on them. It is too comfortable--all pain gone, all trouble, the world forgot, just a kind weight in all the body, as you go sinking down, down to the valley, where the long hands of old comrades beckon to you, and their soft, high voices cry, 'Hello! hello-o!'" Pierre nodded his head towards the distance, and a musing smile divided his lips on his white teeth. Presently he folded a cigarette, and went on:
"I had saved something to the last, as the great test, as the one thing to open his eyes wide, if they could be opened at all. Alors, there was no time to lose, for the wolf of Night was driving the red glow-worm down behind the world, and I knew that when darkness came altogether--darkness and night--there would be no help for him. Mon Dieu! how one sleeps in the night of the north, in the beautiful wide silence! . . . So, m'sieu', just when I thought it was the time, I called, 'Corinne! Corinne!' Then once again I said, 'P'tite Corinne! P'tite Corinne! Come home! come home! P'tite Corinne!' I could see the fight in the jail of sleep. But at last he killed his jailer; the doors in his brain flew open, and his mind came out through his wide eyes. But he was blind a little and dazed, though it was getting dark quick. I struck his back hard, and spoke loud from a song that we used to sing on the Chaudiere-- Babiche and all of us, years ago. Mon Dieu! how I remember those days--
"'Which is the way that the sun goes? The way that my little one come. Which is the good path over the hills? The path that leads to my little one's home-- To my little one's home, m'sieu', m'sieu'!'
"That did it. 'Corinne, ma p'tite Corinne!' he said; but he did not look at me--only stretch out his hands. I caught them, and shook them, and shook him, and made him take a step forward; then I slap him on the back again, and said loud: 'Come, come, Babiche, don't you know me? See Babiche, the snow's no sleeping-bunk, and a polar bear's no good friend.' 'Corinne!' he went on, soft and slow. 'Ma p'tite Corinne!' He smiled to himself; and I said, 'Where've you been, Babiche? Lucky I found you, or you'd have been sleeping till the Great Mass.' Then he looked at me straight in the eyes, and something wild shot out of his. His hand stretched over and caught me by the shoulder, perhaps to steady himself, perhaps because he wanted to feel something human. Then he looked round slow-all round the plain, as if to find something. At that moment a little of the sun crept back, and looked up over the wall of ice, making a glow of yellow and red for a moment; and never, north or south, have I seen such beauty--so delicate, so awful. It was like a world that its Maker had built in a fit of joy, and then got tired of, and broke in pieces, and blew out all its fires, and left--ah yes--like that! And out in the distance I--I only saw a bear travelling eastwards."
The governor said slowly:
And I took My staff Beauty, and cut it asunder, that I might break My covenant which I had made with all the people.
"Yes--like that." Pierre continued: "Babiche turned to me with a little laugh, which was a sob too. 'Where is it, Pierre?' said he. I knew he meant the bear. 'Gone to look for another man,' I said, with a gay look, for I saw that he was troubled. 'Come,' said he at once. As we went, he saw my dogs. He stopped short and shook a little, and tears came into his eyes. 'What is it, Babiche?' said I. He looked back towards the south. 'My dogs--Brandy-wine, Come-along, 'Poleon, and the rest--died one night all of an hour. One by one they crawl over to where I lay in my fur bag, and die there, huddling by me--and such cries--such cries! There was poison or something in the frozen fish I'd given them. I loved them every one; and then there was the mails, the year's mails--how should they be brought on? That was a bad thought, for I had never missed--never in ten years. There was one bunch of letters which the governor said to me was worth more than all the rest of the mails put together, and I was to bring it to Fort St. Saviour, or not show my face to him again. I leave the dogs there in the snow, and come on with the sled, carrying all the mails. Ah, the blessed saints, how heavy the sled got, and how lonely it was! Nothing to speak to--no one, no thing, day after day. At last I go to cry to the dogs, "Come-along! 'Poleon! Brandy-wine!"--like that! I think I see them there, but they never bark and they never snarl, and they never spring to the snap of the whip.... I was alone. Oh, my head! my head! If there was only something alive to look at, besides the wide white plain, and the bare hills of ice, and the sun-dogs in the sky! Now I was wild, next hour I was like a child, then I gnash my teeth like a wolf at the sun, and at last I got on my knees. The tears froze my eyelids shut, but I kept saying, "Ah, my great Friend, my Jesu, just something, something with the breath of life! Leave me not all alone!" and I got sleepier all the time.
"'I was sinking, sinking, so quiet and easy, when all at once I felt something beside me; I could hear it breathing, but I could not open my eyes at first, for, as I say, the lashes were froze. Something touch me, smell me, and a nose was push against my chest. I put out my hand ver' soft and touch it. I had no fear, I was so glad I could have hug it, but I did not--I drew back my hand quiet and rub my eyes. In a little I can see. There stand the thing--a polar bear--not ten feet away, its red eyes shining. On my knees I spoke to it, talk to it, as I would to a man. It was like a great wild dog, fierce, yet kind, and I fed it with the fish which had been for Brandy-wine and the rest--but not to kill it! and it did not die. That night I lie down in my bag--no, I was not afraid! The bear lie beside me, between me and the sled. Ah, it was warm! Day after day we travel together, and camp together at night--ah, sweet Sainte Anne, how good it was, myself and the wild beast such friends, alone in the north! But to-day--a little while ago--something went wrong with me, and I got sick in the head, a swimming like a tide wash in and out. I fall down-asleep. When I wake I find you here beside me--that is all. The bear must have drag me here.'"
Pierre stuck a splinter into the fire to light another cigarette, and paused as if expecting the governor to speak, but no word coming, he continued: "I had my arm around him while we talked and come slowly down the hill. Soon he stopped and said, 'This is the place.' It was a cave of ice, and we went in. Nothing was there to see except the sled. Babiche stopped short. It come to him now that his good comrade was gone. He turned, and looked out, and called, but there was only the empty night, the ice, and the stars. Then he come back, sat down on the sled, and the tears fall. . . . I lit my spirit-lamp, boiled coffee, got pemmican from my bag, and I tried to make him eat. No. He would only drink the coffee. At last he said to me, 'What day is this, Pierre?' 'It is the day of the Great Birth, Babiche,' I said. He made the sign of the cross, and was quiet, so quiet! but he smile to himself, and kept saying in a whisper: 'Ma p'tite Corinne! Ma p'tite Corinne!' The next day we come on safe, and in a week I was back at Fort St. Saviour with Babiche and all the mails, and that most wonderful letter of the governor's."
"The letter was to tell a factor that his sick child in the hospital at Quebec was well," the governor responded quietly. "Who was 'Ma p'tite Corinne,' Pierre?"
"His wife--in heaven; and his child--on the Chaudiere, m'sieu'. The child came and the mother went on the same day of the Great Birth. He has a soft heart--that Babiche!"
"And the white bear--so strange a thing!"
"M'sieu', who can tell? The world is young up here. When it was all young, man and beast were good comrades, maybe."
"Ah, maybe. What shall be done with Little Babiche, Pierre?"
"He will never be the same again on the old trail, m'sieu'!"
There was silence for a long time, but at last the governor said, musing, almost tenderly, for he never had a child: "Ma p'tite Corinne!--Little Babiche shall live near his child, Pierre. I will see to that."
Pierre said no word, but got up, took off his hat to the governor, and sat down again.