Romany Of The Snows by Gilbert Parker
The Red Patrol
St. Augustine's, Canterbury, had given him its licentiate's hood, the Bishop of Rupert's Land had ordained him, and the North had swallowed him up. He had gone forth with surplice, stole, hood, a sermon-case, the prayer-book, and that other Book of all. Indian camps, trappers' huts, and Company's posts had given him hospitality, and had heard him with patience and consideration. At first he wore the surplice, stole, and hood, took the eastward position, and intoned the service, and no man said him nay, but watched him curiously and was sorrowful--he was so youthful, clear of eye, and bent on doing heroical things.
But little by little there came a change. The hood was left behind at Fort O'Glory, where it provoked the derision of the Methodist missionary who followed him; the sermon-case stayed at Fort O'Battle; and at last the surplice itself was put by at the Company's post at Yellow Quill. He was too excited and in earnest at first to see the effect of his ministrations, but there came slowly over him the knowledge that he was talking into space. He felt something returning on him out of the air into which he talked, and buffeting him. It was the Spirit of the North, in which lives the terror, the large heart of things, the soul of the past. He awoke to his inadequacy, to the fact that all these men to whom he talked, listened, and only listened, and treated him with a gentleness which was almost pity--as one might a woman. He had talked doctrine, the Church, the sacraments, and at Fort O'Battle he faced definitely the futility of his work. What was to blame--the Church--religion--himself?
It was at Fort O'Battle that he met Pierre, and heard a voice say over his shoulder, as he walked out into the icy dusk: "The voice of one crying in the wilderness . . . and he had sackcloth about his loins, and his food was locusts and wild honey."
He turned to see Pierre, who in the large room of the Post had sat and watched him as he prayed and preached. He had remarked the keen, curious eye, the musing look, the habitual disdain at the lips. It had all touched him, confused him; and now he had a kind of anger.
"You know it so well, why don't you preach yourself?" he said feverishly.
"I have been preaching all my life," Pierre answered drily.
"The devil's games: cards and law-breaking; and you sneer at men who try to bring lost sheep into the fold."
"The fold of the Church--yes, I understand all that," Pierre answered. "I have heard you and the priests of my father's Church talk. Which is right? But as for me, I am a missionary. Cards, law-breaking--these are what I have done; but these are not what I have preached."
"What have you preached?" asked the other, walking on into the fast- gathering night, beyond the Post and the Indian lodges, into the wastes where frost and silence lived.
Pierre waved his hand towards space. "This," he said suggestively.
"What's this?" asked the other fretfully.
"The thing you feel round you here."
"I feel the cold," was the petulant reply.
"I feel the immense, the far off," said Pierre slowly.
The other did not understand as yet. "You've learned big words," he said disdainfully.
"No; big things," rejoined Pierre sharply--"a few."
"Let me hear you preach them," half snarled Sherburne.
"You will not like to hear them--no."
"I'm not likely to think about them one way or another," was the contemptuous reply.
Pierre's eyes half closed. The young, impetuous half-baked college man. To set his little knowledge against his own studious vagabondage! At that instant he determined to play a game and win; to turn this man into a vagabond also; to see John the Baptist become a Bedouin. He saw the doubt, the uncertainty, the shattered vanity in the youth's mind, the missionary's half retreat from his cause. A crisis was at hand. The youth was fretful with his great theme, instead of being severe upon himself. For days and days Pierre's presence had acted on Sherburne silently but forcibly. He had listened to the vagabond's philosophy, and knew that it was of a deeper--so much deeper--knowledge of life than he himself possessed, and he knew also that it was terribly true; he was not wise enough to see that it was only true in part. The influence had been insidious, delicate, cunning, and he himself was only "a voice crying in the wilderness," without the simple creed of that voice. He knew that the Methodist missionary was believed in more, if less liked, than himself. Pierre would work now with all the latent devilry of his nature to unseat the man from his saddle.
"You have missed the great thing, alors, though you have been up here two years," he said. "You do not feel, you do not know. What good have you done? Who has got on his knees and changed his life because of you? Who has told his beads or longed for the Mass because of you? Tell me, who has ever said, 'You have showed me how to live'? Even the women, though they cry sometimes when you sing-song the prayers, go on just the same when the little 'bless-you' is over. Why? Most of them know a better thing than you tell them. Here is the truth: you are little--eh, so very little. You never lied--direct; you never stole the waters that are sweet; you never knew the big dreams that come with wine in the dead of night; you never swore at your own soul and heard it laugh back at you; you never put your face in the breast of a woman--do not look so wild at me!--you never had a child; you never saw the world and yourself through the doors of real life. You never have said, 'I am tired; I am sick of all; I have seen all.' You have never felt what came after-- understanding. Chut, your talk is for children--and missionaries. You are a prophet without a call, you are a leader without a man to lead, you are less than a child up here. For here the children feel a peace in their blood when the stars come out, and a joy in their brains when the dawn comes up and reaches a yellow hand to the Pole, and the west wind shouts at them. Holy Mother! we in the far north, we feel things, for all the great souls of the dead are up there at the Pole in the pleasant land, and we have seen the Scarlet Hunter and the Kimash Hills. You have seen nothing. You have only heard, and because, like a child, you have never sinned, you come and preach to us!"
The night was folding down fast, all the stars were shooting out into their places, and in the north the white lights of the aurora were flying to and fro. Pierre had spoken with a slow force and precision, yet, as he went on, his eyes almost became fixed on those shifting flames, and a deep look came into them, as he was moved by his own eloquence. Never in his life had he made so long a speech at once. He paused, and then said suddenly: "Come, let us run."
He broke into a long, sliding trot, and Sherburne did the same. With their arms gathered to their sides they ran for quite two miles without a word, until the heavy breathing of the clergyman brought Pierre up suddenly.
"You do not run well," he said; "you do not run with the whole body. You know so little. Did you ever think how much such men as Jacques Parfaite know? The earth they read like a book, the sky like an animal's ways, and a man's face like--like the writing on the wall."
"Like the writing on the wall," said Sherburne, musing; for, under the other's influence, his petulance was gone. He knew that he was not a part of this life, that he was ignorant of it; of, indeed, all that was vital in it and in men and women.
"I think you began this too soon. You should have waited; then you might have done good. But here we are wiser than you. You have no message-- no real message--to give us; down in your heart you are not even sure of yourself."
Sherburne sighed. "I'm of no use," he said. "I'll get out. I'm no good at all."
Pierre's eyes glistened. He remembered how, the day before, this youth had said hot words about his card-playing; had called him--in effect-- a thief; had treated him as an inferior, as became one who was of St. Augustine's, Canterbury.
"It is the great thing to be free," Pierre said, "that no man shall look for this or that of you. Just to do as far as you feel, as far as you are sure--that is the best. In this you are not sure--no. Hein, is it not?"
Sherburne did not answer. Anger, distrust, wretchedness, the spirit of the alien, loneliness, were alive in him. The magnetism of this deep penetrating man, possessed of a devil, was on him, and in spite of every reasonable instinct he turned to him for companionship.
"It's been a failure," he burst out, "and I'm sick of it--sick of it; but I can't give it up."
Pierre said nothing. They had come to what seemed a vast semicircle of ice and snow, a huge amphitheatre in the plains. It was wonderful: a great round wall on which the northern lights played, into which the stars peered. It was open towards the north, and in one side was a fissure shaped like a Gothic arch. Pierre pointed to it, and they did not speak till they had passed through it. Like great seats the steppes of snow ranged round, and in the centre was a kind of plateau of ice, as it might seem a stage or an altar. To the north there was a great opening, the lost arc of the circle, through which the mystery of the Pole swept in and out, or brooded there where no man may question it. Pierre stood and looked. Time and again he had been here, and had asked the same question: Who had ever sat on those frozen benches and looked down at the drama on that stage below? Who played the parts? Was it a farce or a sacrifice? To him had been given the sorrow of imagination, and he wondered and wondered. Or did they come still--those strange people, whoever they were--and watch ghostly gladiators at their fatal sport? If they came, when was it? Perhaps they were there now unseen. In spite of himself he shuddered. Who was the keeper of the house?
Through his mind there ran--pregnant to him for the first tine--a chanson of the Scarlet Hunter, the Red Patrol, who guarded the sleepers in the Kimash Hills against the time they should awake and possess the land once more: the friend of the lost, the lover of the vagabond, and of all who had no home:
"Strangers come to the outer walls-- (Why do the sleepers stir?) Strangers enter the Judgment House-- (Why do the sleepers sigh?) Slow they rise in their judgment seats, Sieve and measure the naked souls, Then with a blessing return to sleep-- (Quiet the Judgment House.) Lone and sick are the vagrant souls-- (When shall the world come home?)"
He reflected upon the words, and a feeling of awe came over him, for he had been in the White Valley and had seen the Scarlet Hunter. But there came at once also a sinister desire to play a game for this man's life- work here. He knew that the other was ready for any wild move; there was upon him the sense of failure and disgust; he was acted on by the magic of the night, the terrible delight of the scene, and that might be turned to advantage.
He said: "Am I not right? There is something in the world greater than the creeds and the book of the Mass. To be free and to enjoy, that is the thing. Never before have you felt what you feel here now. And I will show you more. I will teach you how to know, I will lead you through all the north and make you to understand the big things of life. Then, when you have known, you can return if you will. But now--see: I will tell you what I will do. Here on this great platform we will play a game of cards. There is a man whose life I can ruin. If you win I promise to leave him safe; and to go out of the far north for ever, to go back to Quebec"--he had a kind of gaming fever in his veins. "If I win, you give up the Church, leaving behind the prayerbook, the Bible and all, coming with me to do what I shall tell you, for the passing of twelve moons. It is a great stake--will you play it? Come"--he leaned forward, looking into the other's face--"will you play it? They drew lots--those people in the Bible. We will draw lots, and see, eh?--and see?"
"I accept the stake," said Sherburne, with a little gasp.
Without a word they went upon that platform, shaped like an altar, and Pierre at once drew out a pack of cards, shuffling them with his mittened hands. Then he knelt down and said, as he laid out the cards one by one till there were thirty: "Whoever gets the ace of hearts first, wins-- hein?"
Sherburne nodded and knelt also. The cards lay back upwards in three rows. For a moment neither stirred. The white, metallic stars saw it, the small crescent moon beheld it, and the deep wonder of night made it strange and dreadful. Once or twice Sherburne looked round as though he felt others present, and once Pierre looked out to the wide portals, as though he saw some one entering. But there was nothing to the eye-- nothing. Presently Pierre said: "Begin."
The other drew a card, then Pierre drew one, then the other, then Pierre again; and so on. How slow the game was! Neither hurried, but both, kneeling, looked and looked at the card long before drawing and turning it over. The stake was weighty, and Pierre loved the game more than he cared about the stake. Sherburne cared nothing about the game, but all his soul seemed set upon the hazard. There was not a sound out of the night, nothing stirring but the Spirit of the North. Twenty, twenty-five cards were drawn, and then Pierre paused.
"In a minute all will be settled," he said. "Will you go on, or will you pause?"
But Sherburne had got the madness of chance in his veins now, and he said: "Quick, quick, go on!" Pierre drew, but the great card held back. Sherburne drew, then Pierre again. There were three left. Sherburne's face was as white as the snow around him. His mouth was open, and a little white cloud of frosted breath came out. His hand hungered for the card, drew back, then seized it. A moan broke from him. Then Pierre, with a little weird laugh, reached out and turned over the ace of hearts!
They both stood up. Pierre put the cards in his pocket.
"You have lost," he said.
Sherburne threw back his head with a reckless laugh. The laugh seemed to echo and echo through the amphitheatre, and then from the frozen seats, the hillocks of ice and snow, there was a long, low sound, as of sorrow, and a voice came after:
"Sleep--sleep! Blessed be the just and the keepers of vows."
Sherburne stood shaking, as though he had seen a host of spirits. His eyes on the great seats of judgment, he said to Pierre:
"See, see, how they sit there, grey and cold and awful!"
But Pierre shook his head.
"There is nothing," he said, "nothing;" yet he knew that Sherburne was looking upon the men of judgment of the Kimash Hills, the sleepers. He looked round, half fearfully, for if here were those great children of the ages, where was the keeper of the house, the Red Patrol?
Even as he thought, a figure in scarlet with a noble face and a high pride of bearing stood before them, not far away. Sherburne clutched his arm.
Then the Red Patrol, the Scarlet Hunter spoke: "Why have you sinned your sins and broken your vows within our house of judgment? Know ye not that in the new springtime of the world ye shall be outcast, because ye have called the sleepers to judgment before their time? But I am the hunter of the lost. Go you," he said to Sherburne, pointing, "where a sick man lies in a hut in the Shikam Valley. In his soul find thine own again." Then to Pierre: "For thee, thou shalt know the desert and the storm and the lonely hills; thou shalt neither seek nor find. Go, and return no more."
The two men, Sherburne falteringly, stepped down and moved to the open plain. They turned at the great entrance and looked back. Where they had stood there rested on his long bow the Red Patrol. He raised it, and a flaming arrow flew through the sky towards the south. They followed its course, and when they looked back a little afterwards, the great judgment-house was empty, and the whole north was silent as the sleepers.
At dawn they came to the hut in the Shikam Valley, and there they found a trapper dying. He had sinned greatly, and he could not die without someone to show him how, to tell him what to say to the angel of the cross-roads.
Sherburne, kneeling by him, felt his own new soul moved by a holy fire, and, first praying for himself, he said to the sick man: "For if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."
Praying for both, his heart grew strong, and he heard the sick man say, ere he journeyed forth to the crossroads:
"You have shown me the way. I have peace."
"Speak for me in the Presence," said Sherburne softly.
The dying man could not answer, but that moment, as he journeyed forth on the Far Trail, he held Sherburne's hand.