Romany Of The Snows by Gilbert Parker
The Lake of the Great Slave
When Tybalt the tale-gatherer asked why it was so called, Pierre said: "Because of the Great Slave;" and then paused.
Tybalt did not hurry Pierre, knowing his whims. If he wished to tell, he would in his own time; if not, nothing could draw it from him. It was nearly an hour before Pierre, eased off from the puzzle he was solving with bits of paper and obliged Tybalt. He began as if they had been speaking the moment before:
"They have said it is legend, but I know better. I have seen the records of the Company, and it is all there. I was at Fort O'Glory once, and in a box two hundred years old the factor and I found it. There were other papers, and some of them had large red seals, and a name scrawled along the end of the page."
Pierre shook his head, as if in contented musing. He was a born story- teller. Tybalt was aching with interest, for he scented a thing of note.
"How did any of those papers, signed with a scrawl, begin?" he asked.
"'To our dearly-beloved,' or something like that," answered Pierre. "There were letters also. Two of them were full of harsh words, and these were signed with the scrawl."
"What was that scrawl?" asked Tybalt.
Pierre stooped to the sand, and wrote two words with his finger. "Like that," he answered.
Tybalt looked intently for an instant, and then drew a long breath. "Charles Rex," he said, hardly above his breath.
Pierre gave him a suggestive sidelong glance. "That name was droll, eh?"
Tybalt's blood was tingling with the joy of discovery. "It is a great name," he said shortly.
"The Slave was great--the Indians said so at the last."
"But that was not the name of the Slave?"
"Mais non. Who said so! Charles Rex--like that! was the man who wrote the letters."
"To the Great Slave?"
Pierre made a gesture of impatience. "Very sure."
"Where are those letters now?"
"With the Governor of the Company." Tybalt cut the tobacco for his pipe savagely. "You'd have liked one of those papers?" asked Pierre provokingly.
"I'd give five hundred dollars for one," broke out Tybalt.
Pierre lifted his eyebrows. "T'sh, what's the good of five hundred dollars up here? What would you do with a letter like that?"
Tybalt laughed with a touch of irony, for Pierre was clearly "rubbing it in."
"Perhaps for a book?" gently asked Pierre.
"Yes, if you like."
"It is a pity. But there is a way."
"Put me in the book. Then--"
"How does that touch the case?"
Pierre shrugged a shoulder gently, for he thought Tybalt was unusually obtuse. Tybalt thought so himself before the episode ended.
"Go on," he said, with clouded brow, but interested eye. Then, as if with sudden thought: "To whom were the letters addressed, Pierre?"
"Wait!" was the reply. "One letter said: 'Good cousin, We are evermore glad to have thee and thy most excelling mistress near us. So, fail us not at our cheerful doings, yonder at Highgate.' Another--a year after-- said: 'Cousin, for the sweetening of our mind, get thee gone into some distant corner of our pasturage--the farthest doth please us most. We would not have thee on foreign ground, for we bear no ill-will to our brother princes, and yet we would not have thee near our garden of good loyal souls, for thou hast a rebel heart and a tongue of divers tunes. Thou lovest not the good old song of duty to thy prince. Obeying us, thy lady shall keep thine estates untouched; failing obedience, thou wilt make more than thy prince unhappy. Fare thee well.' That was the way of two letters," said Pierre.
"How do you remember so?"
Pierre shrugged a shoulder again. "It is easy with things like that."
"But word for word?"
"I learned it word for word."
"Now for the story of the Lake--if you won't tell me the name of the man."
"The name afterwards-perhaps. Well, he came to that farthest corner of the pasturage, to the Hudson's Bay country, two hundred years ago. What do you think? Was he so sick of all, that he would go so far he could never get back? Maybe those 'cheerful doings' at Highgate, eh? And the lady--who can tell?"
Tybalt seized Pierre's arm. "You know more. Damnation, can't you see I'm on needles to hear? Was there anything in the letters about the lady? Anything more than you've told?"
Pierre liked no man's hand on him. He glanced down at the eager fingers, and said coldly:
"You are a great man; you can tell a story in many ways, but I in one way alone, and that is my way--mais oui!"
"Very well, take your own time."
"Bien. I got the story from two heads. If you hear a thing like that from Indians, you call it 'legend'; if from the Company's papers, you call it 'history.' Well, in this there is not much difference. The papers tell precise the facts; the legend gives the feeling, is more true. How can you judge the facts if you don't know the feeling? No! what is bad turns good sometimes, when you know the how, the feeling, the place. Well, this story of the Great Slave--eh? . . . There is a race of Indians in the far north who have hair so brown like yours, m'sieu', and eyes no darker. It is said they are of those that lived at the Pole, before the sea swamped the Isthmus, and swallowed up so many islands. So. In those days the fair race came to the south for the first time, that is, far below the Circle. They had their women with them. I have seen those of to-day: fine and tall, with breasts like apples, and a cheek to tempt a man like you, m'sieu'; no grease in the hair--no, M'sieu' Tybalt."
Tybalt sat moveless under the obvious irony, but his eyes were fixed intently on Pierre, his mind ever travelling far ahead of the tale.
"Alors: the 'good cousin' of Charles Rex, he made a journey with two men to the Far-off Metal River, and one day this tribe from the north come on his camp. It was summer, and they were camping in the Valley of the Young Moon, more sweet, they say, than any in the north. The Indians cornered them. There was a fight, and one of the Company's men was killed, and five of the other. But when the king of the people of the Pole saw that the great man was fair of face, he called for the fight to stop.
"There was a big talk all by signs, and the king said for the great man to come and be one with them, for they liked his fair face--their forefathers were fair like him. He should have the noblest of their women for his wife, and be a prince among them. He would not go: so they drew away again and fought. A stone-axe brought the great man to the ground. He was stunned, not killed. Then the other man gave up, and said he would be one of them if they would take him. They would have killed him but for one of their women. She said that he should live to tell them tales of the south country and the strange people, when they came again to their camp-fires. So they let him live, and he was one of them. But the chief man, because he was stubborn and scorned them, and had killed the son of their king in the fight, they made a slave, and carried him north a captive, till they came to this lake--the Lake of the Great Slave.
"In all ways they tried him, but he would not yield, neither to wear their dress nor to worship their gods. He was robbed of his clothes, of his gold-handled dagger, his belt of silk and silver, his carbine with rich chasing, and all, and he was among them almost naked,--it was summer, as I said, yet defying them. He was taller by a head than any of them, and his white skin rippled in the sun like soft steel."
Tybalt was inclined to ask Pierre how he knew all this, but he held his peace. Pierre, as if divining his thoughts, continued:
"You ask how I know these things. Very good: there are the legends, and there were the papers of the Company. The Indians tried every way, but it was no use; he would have nothing to say to them. At last they came to this lake. Now something great occurred. The woman who had been the wife of the king's dead son, her heart went out in love of the Great Slave; but he never looked at her. One day there were great sports, for it was the feast of the Red Star. The young men did feats of strength, here on this ground where we sit. The king's wife called out for the Great Slave to measure strength with them all. He would not stir. The king commanded him; still he would not, but stood among them silent and looking far away over their heads. At last, two young men of good height and bone threw arrows at his bare breast. The blood came in spots. Then he gave a cry through his beard, and was on them like a lion. He caught them, one in each arm, swung them from the ground, and brought their heads together with a crash, breaking their skulls, and dropped them at his feet. Catching up a long spear, he waited for the rest. But they did not come, for, with a loud voice, the king told them to fall back, and went and felt the bodies of the men. One of them was dead; the other was his second son--he would live.
"'It is a great deed,' said the king, 'for these were no children, but strong men.'
"Then again he offered the Great Slave women to marry, and fifty tents of deerskin for the making of a village. But the Great Slave said no, and asked to be sent back to Fort O'Glory.
"The king refused. But that night, as he slept in his tent, the girl- widow came to him, waked him, and told him to follow her. He came forth, and she led him softly through the silent camp to that wood which we see over there. He told her she need not go on. Without a word, she reached over and kissed him on the breast. Then he understood. He told her that she could not come with him, for there was that lady in England--his wife, eh? But never mind, that will come. He was too great to save his life, or be free at the price. Some are born that way. They have their own commandments, and they keep them.
"He told her that she must go back. She gave a little cry, and sank down at his feet, saying that her life would be in danger if she went back.
"Then he told her to come, for it was in his mind to bring her to Fort O'Glory, where she could marry an Indian there. But now she would not go with him, and turned towards the village. A woman is a strange creature --yes, like that! He refused to go and leave her. She was in danger, and he would share it, whatever it might be. So, though she prayed him not, he went back with her; and when she saw that he would go in spite of all, she was glad: which is like a woman.
"When he entered the tent again, he guessed her danger, for he stepped over the bodies of two dead men. She had killed them. As she turned at the door to go to her own tent, another woman faced her. It was the wife of the king, who had suspected, and had now found out. Who can tell what it was? Jealousy, perhaps. The Great Slave could tell, maybe, if he could speak, for a man always knows when a woman sets him high. Anyhow, that was the way it stood. In a moment the girl was marched back to her tent, and all the camp heard a wicked lie of the widow of the king's son.
"To it there was an end after the way of their laws.
"The woman should die by fire, and the man, as the king might will. So there was a great gathering in the place where we are, and the king sat against that big white stone, which is now as it was then. Silence was called, and they brought the girl-widow forth. The king spoke:
"'Thou who hadst a prince for thy husband, didst go in the night to the tent of the slave who killed thy husband; whereby thou also becamest a slave, and didst shame the greatness which was given thee. Thou shalt die, as has been set in our laws.'
"The girl-widow rose, and spoke. 'I did not know, O king, that he whom thou madest a slave slew my husband, the prince of our people, and thy son. That was not told me. But had I known it, still would I have set him free, for thy son was killed in fair battle, and this man deserves not slavery or torture. I did seek the tent of the Great Slave, and it was to set him free--no more. For that did I go, and, for the rest, my soul is open to the Spirit Who Sees. I have done naught, and never did, nor ever will, that might shame a king, or the daughter of a king, or the wife of a king, or a woman. If to set a great captive free is death for me, then am I ready. I will answer all pure women in the far Camp of the Great Fires without fear. There is no more, O king, that I may say, but this: she who dies by fire, being of noble blood, may choose who shall light the faggots--is it not so?'
"Then the king replied: 'It is so. Such is our law.'
"There was counselling between the king and his oldest men, and so long were they handling the matter backwards and forwards that it seemed she might go free. But the king's wife, seeing, came and spoke to the king and the others, crying out for the honour of her dead son; so that in a moment of anger they all cried out for death.
"When the king said again to the girl that she must die by fire, she answered: 'It is as the gods will. But it is so, as I said, that I may choose who shall light the fires?'
"The king answered yes, and asked her whom she chose. She pointed towards the Great Slave. And all, even the king and his councillors, wondered, for they knew little of the heart of women. What is a man with a matter like that? Nothing--nothing at all. They would have set this for punishment: that she should ask for it was beyond them. Yes, even the king's wife--it was beyond her. But the girl herself, see you, was it not this way?--If she died by the hand of him she loved, then it would be easy, for she could forget the pain, in the thought that his heart would ache for her, and that at the very last he might care, and she should see it. She was great in her way also--that girl, two hundred years ago.
"Alors, they led her a little distance off,--there is the spot, where you see the ground heave a little, and the Great Slave was brought up. The king told him why the girl was to die. He went like stone, looking, looking at them. He knew that the girl's heart was like a little child's, and the shame and cruelty of the thing froze him silent for a minute, and the colour flew from his face to here and there on his body, as a flame on marble. The cords began to beat and throb in his neck and on his forehead, and his eyes gave out fire like flint on an arrow-head.
"Then he began to talk. He could not say much, for he knew so little of their language. But it was 'No!' every other word. 'No--no--no--no!' the words ringing from his chest. 'She is good!' he said. 'The other- no!' and he made a motion with his hand. 'She must not die--no! Evil? It is a lie! I will kill each man that says it, one by one, if he dares come forth. She tried to save me--well?' Then he made them know that he was of high place in a far country, and that a man like him would not tell a lie. That pleased the king, for he was proud, and he saw that the Slave was of better stuff than himself. Besides, the king was a brave man, and he had strength, and more than once he had laid his hand on the chest of the other, as one might on a grand animal. Perhaps, even then, they might have spared the girl was it not for the queen. She would not hear of it. Then they tried the Great Slave, and he was found guilty. The queen sent him word to beg for pardon. So he stood out and spoke to the queen. She sat up straight, with pride in her eyes, for was it not a great prince, as she thought, asking? But a cloud fell on her face, for he begged the girl's life. Since there must be death, let him die, and die by fire in her place! It was then two women cried out: the poor girl for joy--not at the thought that her life would be saved, but because she thought the man loved her now, or he would not offer to die for her; and the queen for hate, because she thought the same. You can guess the rest: they were both to die, though the king was sorry for the man.
"The king's speaker stood out and asked them if they had anything to say. The girl stepped forward, her face without any fear, but a kind of noble pride in it, and said: 'I am ready, O king.'
"The Great Slave bowed his head, and was thinking much. They asked him again, and he waved his hand at them. The king spoke up in anger, and then he smiled and said: 'O king, I am not ready; if I die, I die.' Then he fell to thinking again. But once more the king spoke: 'Thou shalt surely die, but not by fire, nor now; nor till we have come to our great camp in our own country. There thou shalt die. But the woman shall die at the going down of the sun. She shall die by fire, and thou shalt light the faggots for the burning.'
"The Great Slave said he would not do it, not though he should die a hundred deaths. Then the king said that it was the woman's right to choose who should start the fire, and he had given his word, which should not be broken.
"When the Great Slave heard this he was wild for a little, and then he guessed altogether what was in the girl's mind. Was not this the true thing in her, the very truest? Mais oui! That was what she wished-- to die by his hand rather than by any other; and something troubled his breast, and a cloud came in his eyes, so that for a moment he could not see. He looked at the girl, so serious, eye to eye. Perhaps she understood. So, after a time, he got calm as the farthest light in the sky, his face shining among them all with a look none could read. He sat down, and wrote upon pieces of bark with a spear-point--those bits of bark I have seen also at Fort O'Glory. He pierced them through with dried strings of the slippery-elm tree, and with the king's consent gave them to the Company's man, who had become one of the people, telling him, if ever he was free, or could send them to the Company, he must do so. The man promised, and shame came upon him that he had let the other suffer alone; and he said he was willing to fight and die if the Great Slave gave the word. But he would not; and he urged that it was right for the man to save his life. For himself, no. It could never be; and if he must die, he must die.
"You see, a great man must always live alone and die alone, when there are only such people about him. So, now that the letters were written, he sat upon the ground and thought, looking often towards the girl, who was placed apart, with guards near. The king sat thinking also. He could not guess why the Great Slave should give the letters now, since he was not yet to die, nor could the Company's man show a reason when the king asked him. So the king waited, and told the guards to see that the Great Slave did not kill himself.
"But the queen wanted the death of the girl, and was glad beyond telling that the Slave must light the faggots. She was glad when she saw the young braves bring a long sapling from the forest, and, digging a hole, put it stoutly in the ground, and fetch wood, and heap it about.
"The Great Slave noted that the bark of the sapling had not been stripped, and more than once he measured, with his eye, the space between the stake and the shores of the Lake: he did this most private, so that no one saw but the girl.
"At last the time was come. The Lake was all rose and gold out there in the west, and the water so still so still. The cool, moist scent of the leaves and grass came out from the woods and up from the plain, and the world was so full of content that a man's heart could cry out, even as now, while we look--eh, is it not good? See the deer drinking on the other shore there!" Suddenly Pierre became silent, as if he had forgotten the story altogether. Tybalt was impatient, but he did not speak. He took a twig, and in the sand he wrote "Charles Rex." Pierre glanced down and saw it.
"There was beating of the little drums," he continued, "and the crying of the king's speaker; and soon all was ready, and the people gathered at a distance, and the king and the queen, and the chief men nearer; and the girl was brought forth.
"As they led her past the Great Slave, she looked into his eyes, and afterwards her heart was glad, for she knew that at the last he would be near her, and that his hand should light the fires. Two men tied her to the stake. Then the king's man cried out again, telling of her crime, and calling for her death. The Great Slave was brought near. No one knew that the palms of his hands had been rubbed in the sand for a purpose. When he was brought beside the stake, a torch was given him by his guards. He looked at the girl, and she smiled at him, and said: 'Good-bye. Forgive. I die not afraid, and happy.'
"He did not answer, but stooped and lit the sticks here and there. All at once he snatched a burning stick, and it and the torch he thrust, like lightning, in the faces of his guards, blinding them. Then he sprang to the stake, and, with a huge pull, tore it from the ground, girl and all, and rushed to the shore of the Lake, with her tied so in his arms.
"He had been so swift that, at first, no one stirred. He reached the shore, rushed into the water, dragging a boat out with one hand as he did so, and, putting the girl in, seized a paddle and was away with a start. A few strokes, and then he stopped, picked up a hatchet that was in the boat with many spears, and freed the girl. Then he paddled on, trusting, with a small hope, that through his great strength he could keep ahead till darkness came, and then, in the gloom, they might escape. The girl also seized an oar, and the canoe--the king's own canoe--came on like a swallow.
"But the tribe was after them in fifty canoes, some coming straight along, some spreading out to close in later. It was no equal game, for these people were so quick and strong with the oars, and they were a hundred or more to two. There could be but one end. It was what the Great Slave had looked for: to fight till the last breath. He should fight for the woman who had risked all for him--just a common woman of the north, but it seemed good to lose his life for her; and she would be happy to die with him.
"So they stood side by side when the spears and arrows fell round them, and they gave death and wounds for wounds in their own bodies. When, at last, the Indians climbed into the canoe, the Great Slave was dead of many wounds, and the woman, all gashed, lay with her lips to his wet, red cheek. She smiled as they dragged her away; and her soul hurried after his to the Camp of the Great Fires."
It was long before Tybalt spoke, but at last he said: If I could but tell it as you have told it to me, Pierre!" Pierre answered: "Tell it with your tongue, and this shall be nothing to it, for what am I? What English have I, a gipsy of the snows? But do not write it, mais non! Writing wanders from the matter. The eyes, and the tongue, and the time, that is the thing. But in a book--it will sound all cold and thin. It is for the north, for the camp-fire, for the big talk before a man rolls into his blanket, and is at peace. No, no writing, monsieur. Speak it everywhere with your tongue."
"And so I would, were my tongue as yours. Pierre, tell me more about the letters at Fort O'Glory. You know his name--what was it?"
"You said five hundred dollars for one of those letters. Is it not?"
"Yes." Tybalt had a new hope.
"T'sh! What do I want of five hundred dollars! But, here, answer me a question: Was the lady--his wife, she that was left in England--a good woman? Answer me out of your own sense, and from my story. If you say right you shall have a letter--one that I have by me."
Tybalt's heart leapt into his throat. After a little he said huskily: "She was a good woman--he believed her that, and so shall I."
"You think he could not have been so great unless, eh? And that 'Charles Rex,' what of him?"
"What good can it do to call him bad now?" Without a word, Pierre drew from a leather wallet a letter, and, by the light of the fast-setting sun, Tybalt read it, then read it again, and yet again.
"Poor soul! poor lady!" he said. "Was ever such another letter written to any man? And it came too late; this, with the king's recall, came too late!"
"So--so. He died out there where that wild duck flies--a Great Slave. Years after, the Company's man brought word of all."
Tybalt was looking at the name on the outside of the letter.
"How do they call that name?" asked Pierre. "It is like none I've seen --no."
Tybalt shook his head sorrowfully, and did not answer.