Pierre And His People by Gilbert Parker
The Scarlet Hunter
"News out of Egypt!" said the Honourable Just Trafford. "If this is true, it gives a pretty finish to the season. You think it possible, Pierre? It is every man's talk that there isn't a herd of buffaloes in the whole country; but this-eh?"
Pierre did not seem disposed to answer. He had been watching a man's face for some time; but his eyes were now idly following the smoke of his cigarette as it floated away to the ceiling in fading circles. He seemed to take no interest in Trafford's remarks, nor in the tale that Shangi the Indian had told them; though Shangi and his tale were both sufficiently uncommon to justify attention.
Shon McGann was more impressionable. His eyes swam; his feet shifted nervously with enjoyment; he glanced frequently at his gun in the corner of the hut; he had watched Trafford's face with some anxiety, and accepted the result of the tale with delight. Now his look was occupied with Pierre.
Pierre was a pretty good authority in all matters concerning the prairies and the North. He also had an instinct for detecting veracity, having practised on both sides of the equation. Trafford became impatient, and at last the half-breed, conscious that he had tried the temper of his chief so far as was safe, lifted his eyes, and, resting them casually on the Indian, replied: "Yes, I know the place. . . . No, I have not been there, but I was told-ah, it was long ago! There is a great valley between hills, the Kimash Hills, the hills of the Mighty Men. The woods are deep and dark; there is but one trail through them, and it is old. On the highest hill is a vast mound. In that mound are the forefathers of a nation that is gone. Yes, as you say, they are dead, and there is none of them alive in the valley--which is called the White Valley--where the buffalo are. The valley is green in summer, and the snow is not deep in winter; the noses of the buffalo can find the tender grass. The Injin speaks the truth, perhaps. But of the number of buffaloes, one must see. The eye of the red man multiplies."
Trafford looked at Pierre closely. "You seem to know the place very well. It is a long way north where--ah yes, you said you had never been there; you were told. Who told you?"
The half-breed raised his eyebrows slightly as he replied: "I can remember a long time, and my mother, she spoke much and sang many songs at the campfires." Then he puffed his cigarette so that the smoke clouded his face for a moment, and went on,--"I think there may be buffaloes."
"It's along the barrel of me gun I wish I was lookin' at thim now," said McGann.
"'Tiens,' you will go"? inquired Pierre of Trafford. "To have a shot at the only herd of wild buffaloes on the continent! Of course I'll go. I'd go to the North Pole for that. Sport and novelty I came here to see; buffalo-hunting I did not expect. I'm in luck, that's all. We'll start to-morrow morning, if we can get ready, and Shangi here will lead us; eh, Pierre?"
The half-breed again was not polite. Instead of replying he sang almost below his breath the words of a song unfamiliar to his companions, though the Indian's eyes showed a flash of understanding. These were the words:
"They ride away with a waking wind, away, away! With laughing lip and with jocund mind at break of day. A rattle of hoofs and a snatch of song, they ride, they ride! The plains are wide and the path is long,--so long, so wide!"
Just Trafford appeared ready to deal with this insolence, for the half- breed was after all a servant of his, a paid retainer. He waited, however. Shon saw the difficulty, and at once volunteered a reply. "It's aisy enough to get away in the mornin', but it's a question how far we'll be able to go with the horses. The year is late; but there's dogs beyand, I suppose, and bedad, there y' are!"
The Indian spoke slowly: "It is far off. There is no colour yet in the leaf of the larch. The river-hen still swims northward. It is good that we go. There is much buffalo in the White Valley."
Again Trafford looked towards his follower, and again the half-breed, as if he were making an effort to remember, sang abstractedly:
"They follow, they follow a lonely trail, by day, by night, By distant sun, and by fire-fly pale, and northern light. The ride to the Hills of the Mighty Men, so swift they go! Where buffalo feed in the wilding glen in sun and snow."
"Pierre," said Trafford, sharply, "I want an answer to my question."
"'Mais, pardon,' I was thinking . . . well, we can ride until the deep snows come, then we can walk; and Shangi, he can get the dogs, maybe, one team of dogs."
"But," was the reply, "one team of dogs will not be enough. We'll bring meat and hides, you know, as well as pemmican. We won't cache any carcases up there. What would be the use? We shall have to be back in the Pipi Valley by the spring-time."
"Well," said the half-breed with a cold decision, "one team of dogs will be enough; and we will not cache, and we shall be back in the Pipi Valley before the spring, perhaps." But this last word was spoken under his breath.
And now the Indian spoke, with his deep voice and dignified manner: "Brothers, it is as I have said, the trail is lonely and the woods are deep and dark. Since the time when the world was young, no white man hath been there save one, and behold sickness fell on him; the grave is his end. It is a pleasant land, for the gods have blessed it to the Indian forever. No heathen shall possess it. But you shall see the White Valley and the buffalo. Shangi will lead, because you have been merciful to him, and have given him to sleep in your wigwam, and to eat of your wild meat. There are dogs in the forest. I have spoken."
Trafford was impressed, and annoyed too. He thought too much sentiment was being squandered on a very practical and sportive thing. He disliked functions; speech-making was to him a matter for prayer and fasting. The Indian's address was therefore more or less gratuitous, and he hastened to remark: "Thank you, Shangi; that's very good, and you've put it poetically. You've turned a shooting-excursion into a mediaeval romance. But we'll get down to business now, if you please, and make the romance a fact, beautiful enough to send to the 'Times' or the New York 'Call'. Let's see, how would they put it in the Call?--'Extraordinary Discovery --Herd of buffaloes found in the far North by an Englishman and his Franco-Irish Party--Sport for the gods--Exodus of 'brules' to White Valley!'--and so on, screeching to the end."
Shon laughed heartily. "The fun of the world is in the thing," he said; "and a day it would be for a notch on a stick and a rasp of gin in the throat. And if I get the sight of me eye on a buffalo-ruck, it's down on me knees I'll go, and not for prayin' aither. Here's both hands up for a start in the mornin'!"
Long before noon next day they were well on their way. Trafford could not understand why Pierre was so reserved, and, when speaking, so ironical. It was noticeable that the half-breed watched the Indian closely, that he always rode behind him, that he never drank out of the same cup. The leader set this down to the natural uncertainty of Pierre's disposition. He had grown to like Pierre, as the latter had come in course to respect him. Each was a man of value after his kind. Each also had recognised in the other qualities of force and knowledge having their generation in experiences which had become individuality, subterranean and acute, under a cold surface. It was the mutual recognition of these equivalents that led the two men to mutual trust, only occasionally disturbed, as has been shown; though one was regarded as the most fastidious man of his set in London, the fairest-minded of friends, the most comfortable of companions; while the other was an outlaw, a half-heathen, a lover of but one thing in this world, the joyous god of Chance. Pierre was essentially a gamester. He would have extracted satisfaction out of a death-sentence which was contingent on the trumping of an ace. His only honour was the honour of the game.
Now, with all the swelling prairie sloping to the clear horizon, and the breath of a large life in their nostrils, these two men were caught up suddenly, as it were, by the throbbing soul of the North, so that the subterranean life in them awoke and startled them. Trafford conceived that tobacco was the charm with which to exorcise the spirits of the past. Pierre let the game of sensations go on, knowing that they pay themselves out in time. His scheme was the wiser. The other found that fast riding and smoking were not sufficient. He became surrounded by the ghosts of yesterdays; and at length he gave up striving with them, and let them storm upon him, until a line of pain cut deeply across his forehead, and bitterly and unconsciously he cried aloud,--"Hester, ah, Hester!"
But having spoken, the spell was broken, and he was aware of the beat of hoofs beside him, and Shangi the Indian looking at him with a half smile. Something in the look thrilled him; it was fantastic, masterful. He wondered that he had not noticed this singular influence before. After all, he was only a savage with cleaner buckskin than his race usually wore. Yet that glow, that power in the face--was he Piegan, Blackfoot, Cree, Blood? Whatever he was, this man had heard the words which broke so painfully from him.
He saw the Indian frame her name upon his lips, and then came the words, "Hester--Hester Orval!"
He turned sternly, and said, "Who are you? What do you know of Hester Orval?"
The Indian shook his head gravely, and replied, "You spoke her name, my brother."
"I spoke one word of her name. You have spoken two."
"One does not know what one speaks. There are words which are as sounds, and words which are as feelings. Those come to the brain through the ear; these to the soul through sign, which is more than sound. The Indian hath knowledge, even as the white man; and because his heart is open, the trees whisper to him; he reads the language of the grass and the wind, and is taught by the song of the bird, the screech of the hawk, the bark of the fox. And so he comes to know the heart of the man who hath sickness, and calls upon someone, even though it be a weak woman, to cure his sickness; who is bowed low as beside a grave, and would stand upright. Are not my words wise? As the thoughts of a child that dreams, as the face of the blind, the eye of the beast, or the anxious hand of the poor, are they not simple, and to be understood?"
Just Trafford made no reply. But behind, Pierre was singing in the plaintive measure of a chant:
"A hunter rideth the herd abreast, The Scarlet Hunter from out of the West, Whose arrows with points of flame are drest, Who loveth the beast of the field the best, The child and the young bird out of the nest, They ride to the hunt no more, no more!"
They travelled beyond all bounds of civilisation; beyond the northernmost Indian villages, until the features of the landscape became more rugged and solemn, and at last they paused at a place which the Indian called Misty Mountain, and where, disappearing for an hour, he returned with a team of Eskimo dogs, keen, quick-tempered, and enduring. They had all now recovered from the disturbing sentiments of the first portion of the journey; life was at full tide; the spirit of the hunter was on them.
At length one night they camped in a vast pine grove wrapped in coverlets of snow and silent as death. Here again Pierre became moody and alert and took no part in the careless chat at the camp-fire led by Shon McGann. The man brooded and looked mysterious. Mystery was not pleasing to Trafford. He had his own secrets, but in the ordinary affairs of life he preferred simplicity. In one of the silences that fell between Shon's attempts to give hilarity to the occasion, there came a rumbling far-off sound, a sound that increased in volume till the earth beneath them responded gently to the vibration. Trafford looked up inquiringly at Pierre, and then at the Indian, who, after a moment, said slowly: "Above us are the hills of the Mighty Men, beneath us is the White Valley. It is the tramp of buffalo that we hear. A storm is coming, and they go to shelter in the mountains."
The information had come somewhat suddenly, and McGann was the first to recover from the pleasant shock: "It's divil a wink of sleep I'll get this night, with the thought of them below there ripe for slaughter, and the tumble of fight in their beards."
Pierre, with a meaning glance from his half-closed eyes, added: "But it is the old saying of the prairies that you do not shout dinner till you have your knife in the loaf. Your knife is not yet in the loaf, Shon McGann."
The boom of the trampling ceased, and now there was a stirring in the snow-clad tree tops, and a sound as if all the birds of the North were flying overhead. The weather began to moan and the boles of the pines to quake. And then there came war,--a trouble out of the north, a wave of the breath of God to show inconsequent man that he who seeks to live by slaughter hath slaughter for his master.
They hung over the fire while the forest cracked round them, and the flame smarted with the flying snow. And now the trees, as if the elements were closing in on them, began to break close by, and one lurched forward towards them. Trafford, to avoid its stroke, stepped quickly aside right into the line of another which he did not see. Pierre sprang forward and swung him clear, but was himself struck senseless by an outreaching branch.
As if satisfied with this achievement, the storm began to subside. When Pierre recovered consciousness Trafford clasped his hand and said,-- "You've a sharp eye, a quick thought, and a deft arm, comrade."
"Ah, it was in the game. It is good play to assist your partner," the half-breed replied sententiously. Through all, the Indian had remained stoical. But McGann, who swore by Trafford--as he had once sworn by another of the Trafford race--had his heart on his lips, and said:
"There's a swate little cherub that sits up aloft, Who cares for the soul of poor Jack!"
It was long after midnight ere they settled down again, with the wreck of the forest round them. Only the Indian slept; the others were alert and restless. They were up at daybreak, and on their way before sunrise, filled with desire for prey. They had not travelled far before they emerged upon a plateau. Around them were the hills of the Mighty Men-- austere, majestic; at their feet was a vast valley on which the light newly-fallen snow had not hidden all the grass. Lonely and lofty, it was a world waiting chastely to be peopled! And now it was peopled, for there came from a cleft of the hills an army of buffaloes lounging slowly down the waste, with tossing manes and hoofs stirring the snow into a feathery scud.
The eyes of Trafford and McGann swam; Pierre's face was troubled, and strangely enough he made the sign of the cross.
At that instant Trafford saw smoke issuing from a spot on the mountain opposite. He turned to the Indian: "Someone lives there"? he said.
"It is the home of the dead, but life is also there."
"White man, or Indian?"
But no reply came. The Indian pointed instead to the buffalo rumbling down the valley. Trafford forgot the smoke, forgot everything except that splendid quarry. Shon was excited. "Sarpints alive," he said, "look at the troops of thim! Is it standin' here we are with our tongues in our cheeks, whin there's bastes to be killed, and mate to be got, and the call to war on the ground below! Clap spurs with your heels, sez I, and down the side of the turf together and give 'em the teeth of our guns!" The Irishman dashed down the slope. In an instant, all followed, or at least Trafford thought all followed, swinging their guns across their saddles to be ready for this excellent foray. But while Pierre rode hard, it was at first without the fret of battle in him, and he smiled strangely, for he knew that the Indian had disappeared as they rode down the slope, though how and why he could not tell. There ran through his head tales chanted at camp-fires when he was not yet in stature so high as the loins that bore him. They rode hard, and yet they came no nearer to that flying herd straining on with white streaming breath and the surf of snow rising to their quarters. Mile upon mile, and yet they could not ride these monsters down!
Now Pierre was leading. There was a kind of fury in his face, and he seemed at last to gain on them. But as the herd veered close to a wall of stalwart pines, a horseman issued from the trees and joined the cattle. The horseman was in scarlet from head to foot; and with his coming the herd went faster, and ever faster, until they vanished into the mountain-side; and they who pursued drew in their trembling horses and stared at each other with wonder in their faces.
"In God's name what does it mean"? Trafford cried.
"Is it a trick of the eye or the hand of the devil"? added Shon.
"In the name of God we shall know perhaps. If it is the hand of the devil it is not good for us," remarked Pierre.
"Who was the man in scarlet who came from the woods"? asked Trafford of the half-breed.
"'Voila,' it is strange! There is an old story among the Indians! My mother told many tales of the place and sang of it, as I sang to you. The legend was this:--In the hills of the North which no white man, nor no Injin of this time hath seen, the forefathers of the red men sleep; but some day they will wake again and go forth and possess all the land; and the buffalo are for them when that time shall come, that they may have the fruits of the chase, and that it be as it was of old, when the cattle were as clouds on the horizon. And it was ordained that one of these mighty men who had never been vanquished in fight, nor done an evil thing, and was the greatest of all the chiefs, should live and not die, but be as a sentinel, as a lion watching, and preserve the White Valley in peace until his brethren waked and came into their own again. And him they called the Scarlet Hunter; and to this hour the red men pray to him when they lose their way upon the plains, or Death draws aside the curtains of the wigwam to call them forth."
"Repeat the verses you sang, Pierre," said Trafford. The half-breed did so. When he came to the words, "Who loveth the beast of the field the best," the Englishman looked round. "Where is Shangi"? he asked. McGann shook his head in astonishment and negation. Pierre explained: "On the mountain-side where we ride down he is not seen--he vanish . . . 'mon Dieu,' look!"
On the slope of the mountain stood the Scarlet Hunter with drawn bow. From it an arrow flew over their heads with a sorrowful twang, and fell where the smoke rose among the pines; then the mystic figure disappeared.
McGann shuddered, and drew himself together. "It is the place of spirits," he said; "and it's little I like it, God knows; but I'll follow that Scarlet Hunter, or red devil, or whatever he is, till I drop, if the Honourable gives the word. For flesh and blood I'm not afraid of; and the other we come to, whether we will or not, one day."
But Trafford said: "No, we'll let it stand where it is for the present. Something has played our eyes false, or we're brought here to do work different from buffalo-hunting. Where that arrow fell among the smoke we must go first. Then, as I read the riddle, we travel back the way we came. There are points in connection with the Pipi Valley superior to the hills of the Mighty Men."
They rode away across the glade, and through a grove of pines upon a hill, till they stood before a log but with parchment windows.
Trafford knocked, but there was no response. He opened the door and entered. He saw a figure rise painfully from a couch in a corner,--the figure of a woman young and beautiful, but wan and worn. She seemed dazed and inert with suffering, and spoke mournfully: "It is too late. Not you, nor any of your race, nor anything on earth can save him. He is dead--dead now."
At the first sound of her voice Trafford started. He drew near to her, as pale as she was, and wonder and pity were in his face. "Hester," he said, "Hester Orval!"
She stared at him like one that had been awakened from an evil dream, then tottered towards him with the cry,--"Just, Just, have you come to save me? O Just!" His distress was sad to see, for it was held in deep repression, but he said calmly and with protecting gentleness: "Yes, I have come to save you. Hester, how is it you are here in this strange place--you?"
She sobbed so that at first she could not answer; but at last she cried: "O Just, he is dead . . . in there, in there! . . . Last night, it was last night; and he prayed that I might go with him. But I could not die unforgiven, and I was right, for you have come out of the world to help me, and to save me."
"Yes, to help you and to save you,--if I can," he added in a whisper to himself, for he was full of foreboding. He was of the earth, earthy, and things that had chanced to him this day were beyond the natural and healthy movements of his mind. He had gone forth to slay, and had been foiled by shadows; he had come with a tragic, if beautiful, memory haunting him, and that memory had clothed itself in flesh and stood before him, pitiful, solitary,--a woman. He had scorned all legend and superstition, and here both were made manifest to him. He had thought of this woman as one who was of this world no more, and here she mourned before him and bade him go and look upon her dead, upon the man who had wronged him, into whom, as he once declared, the soul of a cur had entered,--and now what could he say? He had carried in his heart the infinite something that is to men the utmost fulness of life, which, losing, they must carry lead upon their shoulders where they thought the gods had given pinions.
McGann and Pierre were nervous. This conjunction of unusual things was easier to the intelligences of the dead than the quick. The outer air was perhaps less charged with the unnatural, and with a glance towards the room where death was quartered, they left the hut.
Trafford was alone with the woman through whom his life had been turned awry. He looked at her searchingly; and as he looked the mere man in him asserted itself for a moment. She was dressed in coarse garments; it struck him that her grief had a touch of commonness about it; there was something imperfect in the dramatic setting. His recent experiences had had a kind of grandeur about them; it was not thus that he had remembered her in the hour when he had called upon her in the plains, and the Indian had heard his cry. He felt, and was ashamed in feeling, that there was a grim humour in the situation. The fantastic, the melodramatic, the emotional, were huddled here in too marked a prominence; it all seemed, for an instant, like the tale of a woman's first novel. But immediately again there was roused in him the latent force of loyalty to himself and therefore to her; the story of her past, so far as he knew it, flashed before him, and his eyes grew hot.
He remembered the time he had last seen her in an English country-house among a gay party in which royalty smiled, and the subject was content beneath the smile. But there was one rebellious subject, and her name was Hester Orval. She was a wilful girl who had lived life selfishly within the lines of that decorous yet pleasant convention to which she was born. She was beautiful,--she knew that, and royalty had graciously admitted it. She was warm-thoughted, and possessed the fatal strain of the artistic temperament. She was not sure that she had a heart; and many others, not of her sex, after varying and enthusiastic study of the matter, were not more confident than she. But it had come at last that she had listened with pensive pleasure to Trafford's tale of love; and because to be worshipped by a man high in all men's, and in most women's, esteem, ministered delicately to her sweet egotism, and because she was proud of him, she gave him her hand in promise, and her cheek in privilege, but denied him--though he knew this not--her heart and the service of her life. But he was content to wait patiently for that service, and he wholly trusted her, for there was in him some fine spirit of the antique world.
There had come to Falkenstowe, this country-house and her father's home, a man who bore a knightly name, but who had no knightly heart; and he told Ulysses' tales, and covered a hazardous and cloudy past with that fascinating colour which makes evil appear to be good, so that he roused in her the pulse of art, which she believed was soul and life, and her allegiance swerved. And when her mother pleaded with her, and when her father said stern things, and even royalty, with uncommon use, rebuked her gently, her heart grew hard; and almost on the eve of her wedding-day she fled with her lover, and married him, and together they sailed away over the seas.
The world was shocked and clamorous for a matter of nine days, and then it forgot this foolish and awkward circumstance; but Just Trafford never forgot it. He remembered all vividly until the hour, a year later, when London journals announced that Hester Orval and her husband had gone down with a vessel wrecked upon the Alaskan and Canadian coast. And there new regret began, and his knowledge of her ended.
But she and her husband had not been drowned; with a sailor they had reached the shore in safety. They had travelled inland from the coast through the great mountains by unknown paths, and as they travelled, the sailor died; and they came at last through innumerable hardships to the Kimash Hills, the hills of the Mighty Men, and there they stayed. It was not an evil land; it had neither deadly cold in winter nor wanton heat in summer. But they never saw a human face, and everything was lonely and spectral. For a time they strove to go eastwards or southwards but the mountains were impassable, and in the north and west there was no hope. Though the buffalo swept by them in the valley they could not slay them, and they lived on forest fruits until in time the man sickened. The woman nursed him faithfully, but still he failed; and when she could go forth no more for food, some unseen dweller of the woods brought buffalo meat, and prairie fowl, and water from the spring, and laid them beside her door.
She had seen the mounds upon the hill, the wide couches of the sleepers, and she remembered the things done in the days when God seemed nearer to the sons of men than now; and she said that a spirit had done this thing, and trembled and was thankful. But the man weakened and knew that he should die, and one night when the pain was sharp upon him he prayed bitterly that he might pass, or that help might come to snatch him from the grave. And as they sobbed together, a form entered at the door,-- a form clothed in scarlet,--and he bade them tell the tale of their lives as they would some time tell it unto heaven. And when the tale was told he said that succour should come to them from the south by the hand of the Scarlet Hunter, that the nation sleeping there should no more be disturbed by their moaning. And then he had gone forth, and with his going there was a storm such as that in which the man had died, the storm that had assailed the hunters in the forest yesterday.
This was the second part of Hester Orval's life as she told it to Just Trafford. And he, looking into her eyes, knew that she had suffered, and that she had sounded her husband's unworthiness. Then he turned from her and went into the room where the dead man lay. And there all hardness passed from him, and he understood that in the great going forth man reckons to the full with the deeds done in that brief pilgrimage called life; and that in the bitter journey which this one took across the dread spaces between Here and There, he had repented of his sins, because they, and they only, went with him in mocking company; the good having gone first to plead where evil is a debtor and hath a prison. And the woman came and stood beside Trafford, and whispered, "At first--and at the last--he was kind."
But he urged her gently from the room: "Go away," he said; "go away. We cannot judge him. Leave me alone with him."
They buried him upon the hill-side, far from the mounds where the Mighty Men waited for their summons to go forth and be the lords of the North again. At night they buried him when the moon was at its full; and he had the fragrant pines for his bed, and the warm darkness to cover him; and though he is to those others resting there a heathen and an alien, it may be that he sleeps peacefully.
When Trafford questioned Hester Orval more deeply of her life there, the unearthly look quickened in her eyes, and she said: "Oh, nothing, nothing is real here, but suffering; perhaps it is all a dream, but it has changed me, changed me. To hear the tread of the flying herds, to see no being save him, the Scarlet Hunter, to hear the voices calling in the night! . . . Hush! There, do you not hear them? It is midnight-- listen!"
He listened, and Pierre and Shon McGann looked at each other apprehensively, while Shon's fingers felt hurriedly along the beads of a rosary which he did not hold. Yes, they heard it, a deep sonorous sound: "Is the daybreak come?" "It is still the night," came the reply as of one clear voice. And then there floated through the hills more softly: "We sleep--we sleep!" And the sounds echoed through the valley--"Sleep --sleep!"
Yet though these things were full of awe, the spirit of the place held them there, and the fever of the hunter descended on them hotly. In the morning they went forth, and rode into the White Valley where the buffalo were feeding, and sought to steal upon them; but the shots from their guns only awoke the hills, and none were slain. And though they rode swiftly, the wide surf of snow was ever between them and the chase, and their striving availed nothing. Day after day they followed that flying column, and night after night they heard the sleepers call from the hills. The desire of the thing wasted them, and they forgot to eat and ceased to talk among themselves. But one day Shon McGann, muttering aves as he rode, gained on the cattle, until once again the Scarlet Hunter came forth from a cleft of the mountains, and drove the herd forward with swifter feet. But the Irishman had learned the power in this thing, and had taught Trafford, who knew not those availing prayers, and with these sacred conjurations on their lips they gained on the cattle length by length, though the Scarlet Hunter rode abreast of the thundering horde. Within easy range, Trafford swung his gun shoulder-wards to fire, but at that instant a cloud of snow rose up between him and his quarry so that they all were blinded. And when they came into the clear sun again the buffalo were gone; but flaming arrows from some unseen hunter's bow came singing over their heads towards the south; and they obeyed the sign, and went back to where Hester wore her life out with anxiety for them, because she knew the hopelessness of their quest. Women are nearer to the heart of things. And now she begged Trafford to go southwards before winter froze the plains impassably, and the snow made tombs of the valleys. Thereupon he gave the word to go, and said that he had done wrong--for now the spell was falling from him.
But she, seeing his regret, said: "Ah, Just, it could not have been different. The passion of it was on you as it was on us, as if to teach us that hunger for happiness is robbery, and that the covetous desire of man is not the will of the gods. The herds are for the Mighty Men when they awake, not for the stranger and the Philistine."
"You have grown wise, Hester," he replied.
"No, I am sick in brain and body; but it may be that in such sickness there is wisdom."
"Ah," he said, "it has turned my head, I think. Once I laughed at all such fanciful things as these. This Scarlet Hunter, how many times have you seen him?"
"What were his looks?"
"A face pale and strong, with noble eyes; and in his voice there was something strange."
Trafford thought of Shangi, the Indian,--where had he gone? He had disappeared as suddenly as he had come to their camp in the South.
As they sat silent in the growing night, the door opened and the Scarlet Hunter stood before them. "There is food," he said, "on the threshold-- food for those who go upon a far journey to the South in the morning. Unhappy are they who seek for gold at the rainbow's foot, who chase the fire-fly in the night, who follow the herds in the White Valley. Wise are they who anger not the gods, and who fly before the rising storm. There is a path from the valley for the strangers, the path by which they came; and when the sun stares forth again upon the world, the way shall be open, and there shall be safety for you until your travel ends in the quick world whither you go. You were foolish; now you are wise. It is time to depart; seek not to return, that we may have peace and you safety. When the world cometh to her spring again we shall meet." Then he turned and was gone, with Trafford's voice ringing after him,--" Shangi! Shangi!"
They ran out swiftly, but he had vanished. In the valley where the moonlight fell in icy coldness a herd of cattle was moving, and their breath rose like the spray from sea-beaten rocks, and the sound of their breathing was borne upwards to the watchers.
At daybreak they rode down into the valley. All was still. Not a trace of life remained; not a hoofmark in the snow, nor a bruised blade of grass. And when they climbed to the plateau and looked back, it seemed to Trafford and his companions, as it seemed in after years, that this thing had been all a fantasy. But Hester's face was beside them, and it told of strange and unsubstantial things. The shadows of the middle world were upon her. And yet again when they turned at the last there was no token. It was a northern valley, with sun and snow, and cold blue shadows, and the high hills,--that was all.
Then Hester said: "O Just, I do not know if this is life or death--and yet it must be death, for after death there is forgiveness to those who repent, and your face is forgiving and kind."
And he--for he saw that she needed much human help and comfort--gently laid his hand on hers and replied: "Hester, this is life, a new life for both of us. Whatever has been was a dream; whatever is now"--and he folded her hand in his--"is real; and there is no such thing as forgiveness to be spoken of between us. There shall be happiness for us yet, please God!"
"I want to go to Falkenstowe. Will--will my mother forgive me?"
"Mothers always forgive, Hester, else half the world had slain itself in shame."
And then she smiled for the first time since he had seen her. This was in the shadows of the scented pines; and a new life breathed upon her, as it breathed upon them all, and they knew that the fever of the White Valley had passed away from them forever.
After many hardships they came in safety to the regions of the south country again; and the tale they told, though doubted by the race of pale-faces, was believed by the heathen; because there was none among them but, as he cradled at his mother's breasts, and from his youth up, had heard the legend of the Scarlet Hunter.
For the romance of that journey, it concerned only the man and woman to whom it was as wine and meat to the starving. Is not love more than legend, and a human heart than all the beasts of the field or any joy of slaughter?