Romany Of The Snows by Gilbert Parker
Romany of the Snows
When old Throng the trader, trembling with sickness and misery, got on his knees to Captain Halby and groaned, "She didn't want to go; they dragged her off; you'll fetch her back, won't ye?--she always had a fancy for you, cap'n," Pierre shrugged a shoulder and said:
"But you stole her when she was in her rock-a-by, my Throng--you and your Manette."
"Like a match she was--no bigger," continued the old man. "Lord, how that stepmother bully-ragged her, and her father didn't care a darn. He'd half a dozen others--Manette and me hadn't none. We took her and used her like as if she was an angel, and we brought her off up here. Haven't we set store by her? Wasn't it 'cause we was lonely an' loved her we took her? Hasn't everybody stood up and said there wasn't anyone like her in the North? Ain't I done fair by her always--ain't I? An' now, when this cough 's eatin' my life out, and Manette 's gone, and there ain't a soul but Duc the trapper to put a blister on to me, them brutes ride up from over the border, call theirselves her brothers, an' drag her off!"
He was still on his knees. Pierre reached over and lightly kicked a moccasined foot.
"Get up, Jim Throng," he said. "Holy! do you think the law moves because an old man cries? Is it in the statutes?--that's what the law says. Does it come within the act? Is it a trespass--an assault and battery? --a breach of the peace?--a misdemeanour? Victoria--So and So: that's how the law talks. Get on your knees to Father Corraine, not to Captain Halby, Jimmy Throng."
Pierre spoke in a half-sinister, ironical way, for between him and Captain Halby's Riders of the Plains there was no good feeling. More than once he had come into conflict with them, more than once had they laid their hands on him--and taken them off again in due time. He had foiled them as to men they wanted; he had defied them--but he had helped them too, when it seemed right to him; he had sided with them once or twice when to do so was perilous to himself. He had sneered at them, he did not like them, nor they him. The sum of it was, he thought them brave--and stupid; and he knew that the law erred as often as it set things right.
The Trader got up and stood between the two men, coughing much, his face straining, his eyes bloodshot, as he looked anxiously from Pierre to Halby. He was the sad wreck of a strong man. Nothing looked strong about him now save his head, which, with its long grey hair, seemed badly balanced by the thin neck, through which the terrible cough was hacking.
"Only half a lung left," he stammered, as soon as he could speak, "an' Duc can't fix the boneset, camomile, and whisky, as she could. An' he waters the whisky--curse-his-soul!" The last three words were spoken through another spasm of coughing. "An' the blister--how he mucks the blister!"
Pierre sat back on the table, laughing noiselessly, his white teeth shining. Halby, with one foot on a bench, was picking at the fur on his sleeve thoughtfully. His face was a little drawn, his lips were tight- pressed, and his eyes had a light of excitement. Presently he straightened himself, and, after a half-malicious look at Pierre, he said to Throng:
"Where are they, do you say?"
"They're at"--the old man coughed hard--"at Fort O'Battle."
"What are they doing there?"
"Waitin' till spring, when they'll fetch their cattle up an' settle there."
"They want--Lydia--to keep house for them?" The old man writhed.
"Yes, God's sake, that's it! An' they want Liddy to marry a devil called Borotte, with a thousand cattle or so--Pito the courier told me yesterday. Pito saw her, an' he said she was white like a sheet, an' called out to him as he went by. Only half a lung I got, an' her boneset and camomile 'd save it for a bit, mebbe--mebbe!"
"It's clear," said Halby, "that they trespassed, and they haven't proved their right to her."
"Tonnerre, what a thinker!" said Pierre, mocking. Halby did not notice. His was a solid sense of responsibility.
"She is of age?" he half asked, half mused.
"She's twenty-one," answered the old man, with difficulty.
"Old enough to set the world right," suggested Pierre, still mocking.
"She was forced away, she regarded you as her natural protector, she believed you her father: they broke the law," said the soldier.
"There was Moses, and Solomon, and Caesar, and Socrates, and now....!" murmured Pierre in assumed abstraction.
A red spot burned on Halby's high cheekbone for a minute, but he persistently kept his temper.
"I'm expected elsewhere," he said at last. "I'm only one man, yet I wish I could go to-day--even alone. But--"
"But you have a heart," said Pierre. "How wonderful--a heart! And there's the half a lung, and the boneset and camomile tea, and the blister, and the girl with an eye like a spot of rainbow, and the sacred law in a Remington rifle! Well, well! And to do it in the early morning--to wait in the shelter of the trees till some go to look after the horses, then enter the house, arrest those inside, and lay low for the rest."
Halby looked over at Pierre astonished. Here was raillery and good advice all in a piece.
"It isn't wise to go alone, for if there's trouble and I should go down, who's to tell the truth? Two could do it; but one--no, it isn't wise, though it would look smart enough."
"Who said to go alone?" asked Pierre, scrawling on the table with a burnt match.
"I have no men."
Pierre looked up at the wall.
"Throng has a good Snider there," he said. "Bosh! Throng can't go."
The old man coughed and strained.
"If it wasn't--only-half a lung, and I could carry the boneset 'long with us."
Pierre slid off the table, came to the old man, and, taking him by the arms, pushed him gently into a chair. "Sit down; don't be a fool, Throng," he said. Then he turned to Halby: "You're a magistrate-- make me a special constable; I'll go, monsieur le capitaine--of no company."
Halby stared. He knew Pierre's bravery, his ingenuity and daring. But this was the last thing he expected: that the malicious, railing little half-breed would work with him and the law. Pierre seemed to understand his thoughts, for he said: "It is not for you. I am sick for adventure, and then there is mademoiselle--such a finger she has for a ven'son pudding."
Without a word Halby wrote on a leaf in his notebook, and presently handed the slip to Pierre. "That's your commission as a special constable," he said, "and here's the seal on it." He handed over a pistol.
Pierre raised his eyebrows at it, but Halby continued: "It has the Government mark. But you'd better bring Throng's rifle too."
Throng sat staring at the two men, his hands nervously shifting on his knees. "Tell Liddy," he said, "that the last batch of bread was sour-- Duc ain't no good-an' that I ain't had no relish sence she left. Tell her the cough gits lower down all the time. 'Member when she tended that felon o' yourn, Pierre?"
Pierre looked at a sear on his finger and nodded. "She cut it too young; but she had the nerve! When do you start, captain? It's an eighty-mile ride."
"At once," was the reply. "We can sleep to-night in the Jim-a-long-Jo" (a hut which the Company had built between two distant posts), "and get there at dawn day after to-morrow. The snow is light and we can travel quick. I have a good horse, and you--"
"I have my black Tophet. He'll travel with your roan as on one snaffle- bar. That roan--you know where he come from?"
"From the Dolright stud, over the Border."
"That's wrong. He come from Greystop's paddock, where my Tophet was foaled; they are brothers. Yours was stole and sold to the Gover'ment; mine was bought by good hard money. The law the keeper of stolen goods, eh? But these two will go cinch to cinch all the way, like two brothers --like you and me."
He could not help the touch of irony in his last words: he saw the amusing side of things, and all humour in him had a strain of the sardonic.
"Brothers-in-law for a day or two," answered Halby drily.
Within two hours they were ready to start. Pierre had charged Duc the incompetent upon matters for the old man's comfort, and had himself, with a curious sort of kindness, steeped the boneset and camomile in whisky, and set a cup of it near his chair. Then he had gone up to Throng's bedroom and straightened out and shook and "made" the corn-husk bed, which had gathered into lumps and rolls. Before he came down he opened a door near by and entered another room, shutting the door, and sitting down on a chair. A stovepipe ran through the room, and it was warm, though the window was frosted and the world seemed shut out. He looked round slowly, keenly interested. There was a dressing-table made of an old box; it was covered with pink calico, with muslin over this. A cheap looking-glass on it was draped with muslin and tied at the top with a bit of pink ribbon. A common bone comb lay near the glass, and beside it a beautiful brush with an ivory back and handle. This was the only expensive thing in the room. He wondered, but did not go near it yet. There was a little eight-day clock on a bracket which had been made by hand--pasteboard darkened with umber and varnished; a tiny little set of shelves made of the wood of cigar-boxes; and--alas, the shifts of poverty to be gay!--an easy-chair made of the staves of a barrel and covered with poor chintz. Then there was a photograph or two, in little frames made from the red cedar of cigar-boxes, with decorations of putty, varnished, and a long panel screen of birch-bark of Indian workmanship. Some dresses hung behind the door. The bedstead was small, the frame was of hickory, with no footboard, ropes making the support for the husk tick. Across the foot lay a bedgown and a pair of stockings.
Pierre looked long, at first curiously; but after a little his forehead gathered and his lips drew in a little, as if he had a twinge of pain. He got up, went over near the bed, and picked up a hairpin. Then he came back to the chair and sat down, turning it about in his fingers, still looking abstractedly at the floor.
"Poor Lucy!" he said presently; "the poor child! Ah, what a devil I was then--so long ago!"
This solitary room--Lydia's--had brought back the time he went to the room of his own wife, dead by her own hand after an attempt to readjust the broken pieces of life, and sat and looked at the place which had been hers, remembering how he had left her with her wet face turned to the wall, and never saw her again till she was set free for ever. Since that time he had never sat in a room sacred to a woman alone.
"What a fool, what a fool, to think!" he said at last, standing up; "but this girl must be saved. She must have her home here again."
Unconsciously he put the hairpin in his pocket, walked over to the dressing-table and picked up the hair-brush. On its back was the legend, "L. T. from C. H." He gave a whistle.
"So-so?" he said, "'C. H.' M'sieu' le capitaine, is it like that?"
A year before, Lydia had given Captain Halby a dollar to buy her a hair- brush at Winnipeg, and he had brought her one worth ten dollars. She had beautiful hair, and what pride she had in using this brush! Every Sunday morning she spent a long time in washing, curling, and brushing her hair, and every night she tended it lovingly, so that it was a splendid rich brown like her eye, coiling nobly above her plain, strong face with its good colour.
Pierre, glancing in the glass, saw Captain Halby's face looking over his shoulder. It startled him, and he turned round. There was the face looking out from a photograph that hung on the wall in the recess where the bed was. He noted now that the likeness hung where the girl could see it the last thing at night and the first thing in the morning.
"So far as that, eh!" he said. "And m'sieu' is a gentleman, too. We shall see what he will do: he has his chance now, once for all."
He turned, came to the door, softly opened it, passed out, and shut it, then descended the stairs, and in half an hour was at the door with Captain Halby, ready to start. It was an exquisite winter day, even in its bitter coldness. The sun was shining clear and strong, all the plains glistened and shook like quicksilver, and the vast blue cup of sky seemed deeper than it had ever been. But the frost ate the skin like an acid, and when Throng came to the door Pierre drove him back instantly from the air.
"I only-wanted--to say--to Liddy," hacked the old man, "that I'm thinkin'--a little m'lasses 'd kinder help--the boneset an' camomile. Tell her that the cattle 'll all be hers--an'--the house, an' I ain't got no one but--"
But Pierre pushed him back and shut the door, saying: "I'll tell her what a fool you are, Jimmy Throng." The old man, as he sat down awkwardly in his chair, with Duc stolidly lighting his pipe and watching him, said to himself: "Yes, I be a durn fool; I be, I be!" over and over again. And when the dog got up from near the stove and came near to him, he added: "I be, Touser; I be a durn fool, for I ought to ha' stole two or three, an' then I'd not be alone, an' nothin' but sour bread an' pork to eat. I ought to ha' stole three."
"Ah, Manette ought to have given you some of your own, it's true, that!" said Duc stolidly. "You never was a real father, Jim."
"Liddy got to look like me; she got to look like Manette and me, I tell ye!" said the old man hoarsely. Duc laughed in his stupid way. "Look like you? Look like you, Jim, with a face to turn milk sour? Ho, ho!"
Throng rose, his face purple with anger, and made as if to catch Duc by the throat, but a fit of coughing seized him, and presently blood showed on his lips. Duc, with a rough gentleness, wiped off the blood and put the whisky-and-herbs to the sick man's lips, saying, in a fatherly way:
"For why you do like that? You're a fool, Jimmy!"
"I be, I be," said the old man in a whisper, and let his hand rest on Duc's shoulder.
"I'll fix the bread sweet next time, Jimmy."
"No, no," said the husky voice peevishly. "She'll do it--Liddy'll do it. Liddy's comin'."
"All right, Jimmy. All right."
After a moment Throng shook his head feebly and said, scarcely above a whisper:
"But I be a durn fool--when she's not here."
Duc nodded and gave him more whisky and herbs. "My feet's cold," said the old man, and Duc wrapped a bearskin round his legs.
For miles Pierre and Halby rode without a word. Then they got down and walked for a couple of miles, to bring the blood into their legs again.
"The old man goes to By-by bientot," said Pierre at last.
"You don't think he'll last long?"
"Maybe ten days; maybe one. If we don't get the girl, out goes his torchlight straight."
"She's been very good to him."
"He's been on his knees to her all her life."
"There'll be trouble out of this, though."
"Pshaw! The girl is her own master."
"I mean, someone will probably get hurt over there." He nodded in the direction of Fort O'Battle.
"That's in the game. The girl is worth fighting for, hein?"
"Of course, and the law must protect her. It's a free country."
"So true, my captain," murmured Pierre drily. "It is wonderful what a man will do for the law."
The tone struck Halby. Pierre was scanning the horizon abstractedly.
"You are always hitting at the law," he said. "Why do you stand by it now?"
"For the same reason as yourself."
"What is that?"
"She has your picture in her room, she has my lucky dollar in her pocket."
Halby's face flushed, and then he turned and looked steadily into Pierre's eyes.
"We'd better settle this thing at once. If you're going to Fort O'Battle because you've set your fancy there, you'd better go back now. That's straight. You and I can't sail in the same boat. I'll go alone, so give me the pistol."
Pierre laughed softly, and waved the hand back. "T'sh! What a high- cock-a-lorum! You want to do it all yourself--to fill the eye of the girl alone, and be tucked away to By-by for your pains--mais, quelle folie! See: you go for law and love; I go for fun and Jimmy Throng. The girl? Pshaw! she would come out right in the end, without you or me. But the old man with half a lung--that's different. He must have sweet bread in his belly when he dies, and the girl must make it for him. She shall brush her hair with the ivory brush by Sunday morning."
Halby turned sharply.
"You've been spying," he said. "You've been in her room--you--"
Pierre put out his hand and stopped the word on Halby's lips.
"Slow, slow," he said; "we are both--police to-day. Voila! we must not fight. There is Throng and the girl to think of." Suddenly, with a soft fierceness, he added: "If I looked in her room, what of that? In all the North is there a woman to say I wrong her? No. Well, what if I carry her room in my eye; does that hurt her or you?"
Perhaps something of the loneliness of the outlaw crept into Pierre's voice for an instant, for Halby suddenly put a hand on his shoulder and said: "Let's drop the thing, Pierre."
Pierre looked at him musingly.
"When Throng is put to By-by what will you do?" he asked.
"I will marry her, if she'll have me."
"But she is prairie-born, and you!"
"I'm a prairie-rider."
After a moment Pierre said, as if to himself: "So quiet and clean, and the print calico and muslin, and the ivory brush!"
It is hard to say whether he was merely working on Halby that he be true to the girl, or was himself softhearted for the moment. He had a curious store of legend and chanson, and he had the Frenchman's power of applying them, though he did it seldom. But now he said in a half monotone:
"Have you seen the way I have built my nest? (O brave and tall is the Grand Seigneur!) I have trailed the East, I have searched the West, (O clear of eye is the Grand Seigneur!) From South and North I have brought the best: The feathers fine from an eagle's crest, The silken threads from a prince's vest, The warm rose-leaf from a maiden's breast (O long he bideth, the Grand Seigneur!)."
They had gone scarce a mile farther when Pierre, chancing to turn round, saw a horseman riding hard after them. They drew up, and soon the man-- a Rider of the Plains--was beside them. He had stopped at Throng's to find Halby, and had followed them. Murder had been committed near the border, and Halby was needed at once. Halby stood still, numb with distress, for there was Lydia. He turned to Pierre in dismay. Pierre's face lighted up with the spirit of fresh adventure. Desperate enterprises roused him; the impossible had a charm for him.
"I will go to Fort O'Battle," he said. "Give me another pistol."
"You cannot do it alone," said Halby, hope, however, in his voice.
"I will do it, or it will do me, voila!" Pierre replied. Halby passed over a pistol.
"I'll never forget it, on my honour, if you do it," he said.
Pierre mounted his horse and said, as if a thought had struck him: "If I stand for the law in this, will you stand against it some time for me?"
Halby hesitated, then said, holding out his hand, "Yes, if it's nothing dirty."
Pierre smiled. "Clean tit for clean tat," he said, touching Halby's fingers, and then, with a gesture and an au revoir, put his horse to the canter, and soon a surf of snow was rising at two points on the prairie, as the Law trailed south and east.
That night Pierre camped in the Jim-a-long-Jo, finding there firewood in plenty, and Tophet was made comfortable in the lean-to. Within another thirty hours he was hid in the woods behind Fort O'Battle, having travelled nearly all night. He saw the dawn break and the beginning of sunrise as he watched the Fort, growing every moment colder, while his horse trembled and whinnied softly, suffering also. At last he gave a little grunt of satisfaction, for he saw two men come out of the Fort and go to the corral. He hesitated a minute longer, then said: "I'll not wait," patted his horse's neck, pulled the blanket closer round him, and started for the Fort. He entered the yard--it was empty. He went to the door of the Fort, opened it, entered, shut it, locked it softly, and put the key in his pocket. Then he passed through into a room at the end of the small hallway. Three men rose from seats by the fire as he did so, and one said: "Hullo, who're you?" Another added: "It's Pretty Pierre."
Pierre looked at the table laid for breakfast, and said: "Where's Lydia Throng?"
The elder of the three brothers replied: "There's no Lydia Throng here. There's Lydia Bontoff, though, and in another week she'll be Lydia something else."
"What does she say about it herself?" "You've no call to know."
"You stole her, forced her from Throng's-her father's house."
"She wasn't Throng's; she was a Bontoff--sister of us.
"Well, she says Throng, and Throng it's got to be."
"What have you got to say about it?"
At that moment Lydia appeared at the door leading from the kitchen.
"Whatever she has to say," answered Pierre.
"Who're you talking for?"
"For her, for Throng, for the law."
"The law--by gosh, that's good! You, you darned gambler; you scum!" said Caleb, the brother who knew him.
Pierre showed all the intelligent, resolute coolness of a trained officer of the law. He heard a little cry behind him, and stepping sideways, and yet not turning his back on the men, he saw Lydia.
"Pierre! Pierre!" she said in a half-frightened way, yet with a sort of pleasure lighting up her face; and she stepped forward to him. One of the brothers was about to pull her away, but Pierre whipped out his commission. "Wait," he said. "That's enough. I'm for the law; I belong to the mounted police. I have come for the girl you stole."
The elder brother snatched the paper and read. Then he laughed loud and long. "So you've come to fetch her away," he said, "and this is how you do it!"--he shook the paper. "Well, by--" Suddenly he stopped. "Come," he said, "have a drink, and don't be a dam' fool. She's our sister,--old Throng stole her, and she's goin' to marry our partner. Here, Caleb, fish out the brandy-wine," he added to his younger brother, who went to a cupboard and brought the bottle.
Pierre, waving the liquor away, said quietly to the girl: "You wish to go back to your father, to Jimmy Throng?" He then gave her Throng's message, and added: "He sits there rocking in the big chair and coughing --coughing! And then there's the picture on the wall upstairs and the little ivory brush--"
She put out her hands towards him. "I hate them all here," she said. "I never knew them. They forced me away. I have no father but Jimmy Throng. I will not stay," she flashed out in sudden anger to the others; "I'll kill myself and all of you before I marry that Borotte."
Pierre could hear a man tramping about upstairs. Caleb knocked on the stove-pipe, and called to him to come down. Pierre guessed it was Borotte. This would add one more factor to the game. He must move at once. He suddenly slipped a pistol into the girl's hand, and with a quick word to her, stepped towards the door. The elder brother sprang between--which was what he looked for. By this time every man had a weapon showing, snatched from wall and shelf.
Pierre was cool. He said: "Remember, I am for the law. I am not one man. You are thieves now; if you fight and kill, you will get the rope, every one. Move from the door, or I'll fire. The girl comes with me." He had heard a door open behind him, now there was an oath and a report, and a bullet grazed his cheek and lodged in the wall beyond. He dared not turn round, for the other men were facing him. He did not move, but the girl did. "Coward!" she said, and raised her pistol at Borotte, standing with her back against Pierre's.
There was a pause, in which no one stirred, and then the girl, slowly walking up to Borotte, her pistol levelled, said: "You low coward--to shoot a man from behind; and you want to be a decent girl's husband! These men that say they're my brothers are brutes, but you're a sneak. If you stir a step I'll fire."
The cowardice of Borotte was almost ridiculous. He dared not harm the girl, and her brothers could not prevent her harming him. Here there came a knocking at the front door. The other brothers had come, and found it locked. Pierre saw the crisis, and acted instantly. "The girl and I--we will fight you to the end," he said, "and then what's left of you the law will fight to the end. Come," he added, "the old man can't live a week. When he's gone then you can try again. She will have what he owns. Quick, or I arrest you all, and then--"
"Let her go," said Borotte; "it ain't no use." Presently the elder brother broke out laughing. "Damned if I thought the girl had the pluck, an' damned if I thought Borotte was a crawler. Put an eye out of him, Liddy, an' come to your brother's arms. Here," he added to the others, "up with your popguns; this shindy's off; and the girl goes back till the old man tucks up. Have a drink," he added to Pierre, as he stood his rifle in a corner and came to the table.
In half an hour Pierre and the girl were on their way, leaving Borotte quarrelling with the brothers, and all drinking heavily. The two arrived at Throng's late the next afternoon. There had been a slight thaw during the day, and the air was almost soft, water dripping from the eaves down the long icicles.
When Lydia entered, the old man was dozing in his chair. The sound of an axe out behind the house told where Duc was. The whisky-and-herbs was beside the sick man's chair, and his feet were wrapped about with bearskins. The girl made a little gesture of pain, and then stepped softly over and, kneeling, looked into Throng's face. The lips were moving.
"Dad," she said, "are you asleep?"
"I be a durn fool, I be," he said in a whisper, and then he began to cough. She took his' hands. They were cold, and she rubbed them softly. "I feel so a'mighty holler," he said, gasping, "an' that bread's sour agin." He shook his head pitifully.
His eyes at last settled on her, and he recognised her. He broke into a giggling laugh; the surprise was almost too much for his feeble mind and body. His hands reached and clutched hers. "Liddy! Liddy!" he whispered, then added peevishly, "the bread's sour, an' the boneset and camomile's no good. . . . Ain't tomorrow bakin'-day?" he added.
"Yes, dad," she said, smoothing his hands.
"What damned--liars--they be--Liddy! You're my gel, ain't ye?"
"Yes, dad. I'll make some boneset liquor now."
"Yes, yes," he said, with childish eagerness and a weak, wild smile.
"That's it--that's it."
She was about to rise, but he caught her shoulder. "I bin a good dad to ye, hain't I, Liddy?" he whispered.
"Never had no ma but Manette, did ye?"
"What danged liars they be!" he said, chuckling. She kissed him, and moved away to the fire to pour hot water and whisky on the herbs.
His eyes followed her proudly, shining like wet glass in the sun. He laughed--such a wheezing, soundless laugh!
"He! he! he! I ain't no--durn--fool--bless--the Lord!" he said.
Then the shining look in his eyes became a grey film, and the girl turned round suddenly, for the long, wheezy breathing had stopped. She ran to him, and, lifting up his head, saw the look that makes even the fool seem wise in his cold stillness. Then she sat down on the floor, laid her head against the arm of his chair, and wept.
It was very quiet inside. From without there came the twang of an axe, and a man's voice talking to his horse. When the man came in, he lifted the girl up, and, to comfort her, bade her go look at a picture hanging in her little room. After she was gone he lifted the body, put it on a couch, and cared for it.