Pierre And His People by Gilbert Parker
"Is it that we stand at the top of the hill and the end of the travel has come, Pierre? Why don't you spake?"
"We stand at the top of the hill, and it is the end."
"And Lonely Valley is at our feet and Whiteface Mountain beyond?"
"One at our feet, and the other beyond, Shon McGann."
"It's the sight of my eyes I wish I had in the light of the sun this mornin'. Tell me, what is't you see?"
"I see the trees on the foot-hills, and all the branches shine with frost. There is a path--so wide!--between two groves of pines. On Whiteface Mountain lies a glacier-field . . . and all is still." . . .
"The voice of you is far-away-like, Pierre--it shivers as a hawk cries. It's the wind, the wind, maybe."
"There's not a breath of life from hill or valley."
"But I feel it in my face."
"It is not the breath of life you feel."
"Did you not hear voices coming athwart the wind? . . . Can you see the people at the mines?"
"I have told you what I see."
"You told me of the pine-trees, and the glacier, and the snow--"
"And that is all."
"But in the Valley, in the Valley, where all the miners are?"
"I cannot see them."
"For love of heaven, don't tell me that the dark is fallin' on your eyes too."
"No, Shon, I am not growing blind."
"Will you not tell me what gives the ache to your words?"
"I see in the Valley--snow . . . snow."
"It's a laugh you have at me in your cheek, whin I'd give years of my ill-spent life to watch the chimney smoke come curlin' up slow through the sharp air in the Valley there below."
"There is no chimney and there is no smoke in all the Valley."
"Before God, if you're a man, you'll put your hand on my arm and tell me what trouble quakes your speech."
"Shon McGann, it is for you to make the sign of the Cross . . . there, while I put my hand on your shoulder--so!"
"Your hand is heavy, Pierre."
"This is the sight of the eyes that see. In the Valley there is snow; in the snow of all that was, there is one poppet-head of the mine that was called St. Gabriel . . . upon the poppet-head there is the figure of a woman."
"She does not move--"
"She will never move?"
"She will never move."
"The breath o' my body hurts me. . . . There is death in the Valley, Pierre?"
"There is death."
"It was an avalanche--that path between the pines?"
"And a great storm after."
"Blessed be God that I cannot behold that thing this day! . . . And the woman, Pierre, the woman aloft?"
"She went to watch for someone coming, and as she watched, the avalanche came--and she moves not."
"Do we know that woman?"
"Who can tell?"
"What was it you whispered soft to yourself, then, Pierre?"
"I whispered no word."
"There, don't you hear it, soft and sighin'? . . . Nathalie!"
"'Mon Dieu!' It is not of the world."
"It's facin' the poppet-head where she stands I'd be."
"Your face is turned towards her."
"Where is the sun?"
"The sun stands still above her head."
"With the bitter over, and the avil past, come rest for her and all that lie there."
"Eh, 'bien,' the game is done!"
"If we stay here we shall die also."
"If we go we die, perhaps." . . .
"Don't spake it. We will go, and we will return when the breath of summer comes from the South."
"It shall be so."
"Hush! Did you not hear--?"
"I did not hear. I only see an eagle, and it flies towards Whiteface Mountain."
And Shon McGann and Pretty Pierre turned back from the end of their quest--from a mighty grave behind to a lonely waste before; and though one was snow-blind, and the other knew that on him fell the chiefer weight of a great misfortune, for he must provide food and fire and be as a mother to his comrade--they had courage; without which, men are as the standing straw in an unreaped field in winter; but having become like the hooded pine, that keepeth green in frost, and hath the bounding blood in all its icy branches.
And whence they came and wherefore was as thus:
A French Canadian once lived in Lonely Valley. One day great fortune came to him, because it was given him to discover the mine St. Gabriel. And he said to the woman who loved him, "I will go with mules and much gold, that I have hewn and washed and gathered, to a village in the East where my father and my mother are. They are poor, but I will make them rich; and then I will return to Lonely Valley, and a priest shall come with me, and we will dwell here at Whiteface Mountain, where men are men and not children." And the woman blessed him, and prayed for him, and let him go.
He travelled far through passes of the mountains, and came at last where new cities lay upon the plains, and where men were full of evil and of lust of gold. And he was free of hand and light of heart; and at a place called Diamond City false friends came about him, and gave him champagne wine to drink, and struck him down and robbed him, leaving him for dead.
And he was found, and his wounds were all healed: all save one, and that was in the brain. Men called him mad.
He wandered through the land, preaching to men to drink no wine, and to shun the sight of gold. And they laughed at him, and called him Pere Champagne.
But one day much gold was found at a place called Reef o' Angel; and jointly with the gold came a plague which scars the face and rots the body; and Indians died by hundreds and white men by scores; and Pere Champagne, of all who were not stricken down, feared nothing, and did not flee, but went among the sick and dying, and did those deeds which gold cannot buy, and prayed those prayers which were never sold. And who can count how high the prayers of the feckless go!
When none was found to bury the dead, he gave them place himself beneath the prairie earth,--consecrated only by the tears of a fool,--and for extreme unction he had but this: "God be merciful to me, a sinner!"
Now it happily chanced that Pierre and Shon McGann, who travelled westward, came upon this desperate battle-field, and saw how Pere Champagne dared the elements of scourge and death; and they paused and laboured with him--to save where saving was granted of Heaven, and to bury when the Reaper reaped and would not stay his hand. At last the plague ceased, because winter stretched its wings out swiftly o'er the plains from frigid ranges in the West. And then Pere Champagne fell ill again.
And this last great sickness cured his madness: and he remembered whence he had come, and what befell him at Diamond City so many moons ago. And he prayed them, when he knew his time was come, that they would go to Lonely Valley and tell his story to the woman whom he loved; and say that he was going to a strange but pleasant Land, and that there he would await her coming. He begged them that they would go at once, that she might know, and not strain her eyes to blindness, and be sick at heart because he came not. And he told them her name, and drew the coverlet up about his head and seemed to sleep; but he waked between the day and dark, and gently cried: "The snow is heavy on the mountain . . . and the Valley is below. . . . 'Gardez, mon Pere!' . . . Ah, Nathalie!" And they buried him between the dark and dawn.
Though winds were fierce, and travel full of peril, they kept their word, and passed along wide steppes of snow, until they entered passes of the mountains, and again into the plains; and at last one 'poudre' day, when frost was shaking like shreds of faintest silver through the air, Shon McGann's sight fled. But he would not turn back--a promise to a dying man was sacred, and he could follow if he could not lead; and there was still some pemmican, and there were martens in the woods, and wandering deer that good spirits hunted into the way of the needy; and Pierre's finger along the gun was sure.
Pierre did not tell Shon that for many days they travelled woods where no sunshine entered; where no trail had ever been, nor foot of man had trod: that they had lost their way. Nor did he make his comrade know that one night he sat and played a game of solitaire to see if they would ever reach the place called Lonely Valley. Before the cards were dealt, he made a sign upon his breast and forehead. Three times he played, and three times he counted victory; and before three suns had come and gone, they climbed a hill that perched over Lonely Valley. And of what they saw and their hearts felt we know.
And when they turned their faces eastward they were as men who go to meet a final and a conquering enemy; but they had kept their honour with the man upon whose grave-tree Shon McGann had carved beneath his name these words:
"A Brother of Aaron."
Upon a lonely trail they wandered, the spirits of lost travellers hungering in their wake--spirits that mumbled in cedar thickets, and whimpered down the flumes of snow. And Pierre, who knew that evil things are exorcised by mighty conjuring, sang loudly, from a throat made thin by forced fasting, a song with which his mother sought to drive away the devils of dreams that flaunted on his pillow when a child: it was the song of the Scarlet Hunter. And the charm sufficed; for suddenly of a cheerless morning they came upon a trapper's hut in the wilderness, where their sufferings ceased, and the sight of Shon's eyes came back. When strength returned also, they journeyed to an Indian village, where a priest laboured. Him they besought; and when spring came they set forth to Lonely Valley again that the woman and the smothered dead--if it might chance so--should be put away into peaceful graves. But thither coming they only saw a grey and churlish river; and the poppet-head of the mine of St. Gabriel, and she who had knelt thereon, were vanished into solitudes, where only God's cohorts have the rights of burial. . . .
But the priest prayed humbly for their so swiftly summoned souls.