Pierre And His People by Gilbert Parker
The Crimson Flag
Talk and think as one would, The Woman was striking to see; with marvellous flaxen hair and a joyous violet eye. She was all pulse and dash; but she was as much less beautiful than the manager's wife as Tom Liffey was as nothing beside the manager himself; and one would care little to name the two women in the same breath if the end had been different. When The Woman came to Little Goshen there were others of her class there, but they were of a commoner sort and degree. She was the queen of a lawless court, though she never, from first to last, spoke to one of those others who were her people; neither did she hold commerce with any of the ordinary miners, save Pretty Pierre, but he was more gambler than miner,--and he went, when the matter was all over, and told her some things that stripped her soul naked before her eyes. Pierre had a wonderful tongue. It was only the gentlemen-diggers--and there were many of them at Little Goshen--who called upon her when the lights were low; and then there was a good deal of muffled mirth in the white house among the pines. The rougher miners made no quarrel with this, for the gentlemen-diggers were popular enough, they were merely sarcastic and humorous, and said things which, coming to The Woman's ears, made her very merry; for she herself had an abundant wit, and had spent wild hours with clever men. She did not resent the playful insolence that sent a dozen miners to her house in the dead of night with a crimson flag, which they quietly screwed to her roof; and paint, with which they deftly put a wide stripe of scarlet round the cornice, and another round the basement. In the morning, when she saw what had been done, she would not have the paint removed nor the flag taken down; for, she said, the stripes looked very well, and the other would show that she was always at home.
Now, the notable thing was that Heldon, the manager, was in The Woman's house on the night this was done. Tom Liffey, the lumpish guide and trapper, saw him go in; and, days afterwards, he said to Pierre: "Divils me own, but this is a bad hour for Heldon's wife--she with a face like a princess and eyes like the fear o' God. Nivir a wan did I see like her, since I came out of Erin with a clatter of hoofs behoind me and a squall on the sea before. There's wimmin there wid cheeks like roses and buthermilk, and a touch that'd make y'r heart pound on y'r ribs; but none that's grander than Heldon's wife. To lave her for that other, standin' hip-high in her shame, is temptin' the fires of Heaven, that basted the sinners o' Sodom."
Pierre, pausing between the whiffs of a cigarette, said: "So? But you know more of catching foxes in winter, and climbing mountains in summer, and the grip of the arm of an Injin girl, than of these things. You are young, quite young in the world, Tom Liffey."
"Young I may be with a glint o' grey at me temples from a night o' trouble beyand in the hills; but I'm the man, an' the only man, that's climbed to the glacier-top--God's Playground, as they call it: and nivir a dirty trick have I done to Injin girl or any other; and be damned to you there!"
"Sometimes I think you are as foolish as Shon McGann," compassionately replied the half-breed.
"You have almighty virtue, and you did that brave trick of the glacier; but great men have fallen. You are not dead yet. Still, as you say, Heldon's wife is noble to see. She is grave and cold, and speaks little; but there is something in her which is not of the meek of the earth. Some women say nothing, and suffer and forgive, and take such as Heldon back to their bosoms; but there are others--I remember a woman--bien, it is no matter, it was long ago; but they two are as if born of one mother; and what comes of this will be mad play--mad play."
"Av coorse his wife may not get to know of it, and--"
"Not get to know it! 'Tsh, you are a child--"
"Faith, I'll say what I think, and that in y'r face! Maybe he'll tire of the handsome rip--for handsome she is, like a yellow lily growin' out o' mud--and go back to his lawful wife, that believes he's at the mines, when he's drinkin' and colloguin' wid a fly-away."
Pierre slowly wheeled till he had the Irishman straight in his eye. Then he said in a low, cutting tone: "I suppose your heart aches for the beautiful lady, eh?" Here he screwed his slight forefinger into Tom's breast; then he added sharply: "'Nom de Dieu,' but you make me angry! You talk too much. Such men get into trouble. And keep down the riot of that heart of yours, Tom Liffey, or you'll walk on the edge of knives one day. And now take an inch of whisky and ease the anxious soul. 'Voila!'" After a moment he added: "Women work these things out for themselves." Then the two left the hut, and amiably strolled together to the centre of the village, where they parted. It was as Pierre had said: the woman would work the thing out for herself. Later that evening Heldon's wife stood cloaked and veiled in the shadows of the pines, facing the house with The Crimson Flag. Her eyes shifted ever from the door to the flag, which was stirred by the light breeze. Once or twice she shivered as with cold, but she instantly stilled again, and watched. It was midnight. Here and there beyond in the village a light showed, and straggling voices floated faintly towards her. For a long time no sound came from the house. But at last she heard a laugh. At that she drew something from her pocket, and held it firmly in her hand. Once she turned and looked at another house far up on the hill, where lights were burning. It was Heldon's house--her home. A sharp sound as of anguish and anger escaped her; then she fastened her eyes on the door in front of her.
At that moment Tom Liffey was standing with his hands on his hips looking at Heldon's home on the hill; and he said some rumbling words, then strode on down the road, and suddenly paused near the wife. He did not see her. He faced the door at which she was looking, and shook his fist at it.
"A murrain on y'r sowl!" said he, "as there's plague in y'r body, and hell in the slide of y'r feet, like the trail of the red spider. And out o' that come ye, Heldon, for I know y're there. Out of that, ye beast! . . . But how can ye go back--you that's rolled in that sewer--to the loveliest woman that ever trod the neck o' the world! Damned y' are in every joint o' y'r frame, and damned is y'r sowl, I say, for bringing sorrow to her; and I hate you as much for that, as I could worship her was she not your wife and a lady o' blood, God save her!"
Then shaking his fist once more, he swung away slowly down the road. During this the wife's teeth held together as though they were of a piece. She looked after Tom Liffey and smiled; but it was a dreadful smile.
"He worships me, that common man--worships me," she said. "This man who was my husband has shamed me, left me. Well--"
The door of the house opened; a man came out. His wife leaned a little forward, and something clicked ominously in her hand. But a voice came up the road towards them through the clear air--the voice of Tom Liffey. The husband paused to listen; the wife mechanically did the same. The husband remembered this afterwards: it was the key to, and the beginning of, a tragedy. These are the words the Irishman sang:
"She was a queen, she stood up there before me, My blood went roarin' when she touched my hand; She kissed me on the lips, and then she swore me To die for her--and happy was the land."
A new and singular look came into her face. It trans formed her. "That," she said in a whisper to herself--"that! He knows the way."
As her husband turned towards his home, she turned also. He heard the rustle of garments, and he could just discern the cloaked figure in the shadows. He hurried on; the figure flitted ahead of him. A fear possessed him in spite of his will. He turned back. The figure stood still for a moment, then followed him. He braced himself, faced about, and walked towards it: it stopped and waited. He had not the courage. He went back again swiftly towards the house he had left. Again he looked behind him. The figure was standing, not far, in the pines. He wheeled suddenly towards the house, turned a key in the door, and entered.
Then the wife went to that which had been her home: Heldon did not go thither until the first flush of morning. Pierre, returning from an all- night sitting at cards, met him, and saw the careworn look on his face. The half-breed smiled. He knew that the event was doubling on the man. When Heldon reached his house, he went to his wife's room. It was locked. Then he walked down to his mines with a miserable shame and anger at his heart. He did not pass The Crimson Flag. He went by another way.
That evening, in the dusk, a woman knocked at Tom Liffey's door. He opened it.
"Are you alone"? she said. "I am alone, lady."
"I will come in," she added. "You will--come in"? he faltered.
She drew near him, and reached out and gently caught his hand.
"Ah!" he said, with a sound almost like a sob in its intensity, and the blood flushed to his hair.
He stepped aside, and she entered. In the light of the candle her eye burned into his, but her face wore a shining coldness. She leaned towards him.
"You said you could worship me," she whispered, "and you cursed him. Well--worship me--altogether--and that will curse him, as he has killed me."
"Dear lady!" he said, in an awed, overwhelmed murmur; and he fell back to the wall.
She came towards him. "Am I not beautiful"? she urged. She took his hand. His eye swam with hers. But his look was different from hers, though he could not know that. His was the madness of a man in a dream; hers was a painful thing. The Furies dwelt in her. She softly lifted his hand above his head, and whispered: "Swear." And she kissed him. Her lips were icy, though he did not think so. The blood tossed in his veins. He swore: but, doing so, he could not conceive all that would be required of him. He was hers, body and soul, and she had resolved on a grim thing. . . . In the darkness, they left the hut and passed into the woods, and slowly up through the hills.
Heldon returned to his home that night to find it empty. There were no servants. There was no wife. Her cat and dog lay dead upon the hearthrug. Her clothing was cut into strips. Her wedding-dress was a charred heap on the fireplace. Her jewellery lay molten with it. Her portrait had been torn from its frame.
An intolerable fear possessed him. Drops of sweat hung on his forehead and his hands. He fled towards the town. He bit his finger-nails till they bled as he passed the house in the pines. He lifted his arm as if the flappings of The Crimson Flag were blows in his face.
At last he passed Tom Liffey's hut. He saw Pierre, coming from it. The look on the gambler's face was one, of gloomy wonder. His fingers trembled as he lighted a cigarette, and that was an unusual thing. The form of Heldon edged within the light. Pierre dropped the match and said to him,--"You are looking for your wife?"
Heldon bowed his head. The other threw open the door of the hut. "Come in here," he said. They entered. Pierre pointed to a woman's hat on the table. "Do you know that"? he asked, huskily, for he was moved. But Heldon only nodded dazedly. Pierre continued: "I was to have met Tom Liffey here--to-night. He is not here. You hoped--I suppose--to see your wife in your--home. She is not there. He left a word on paper for me. I have torn it up. Writing is the enemy of man. But I know where he is gone. I know also where your wife has gone."
Heldon's face was of a hateful paleness. . . . They passed out into the night.
"Where are you going"? Heldon said.
"To God's Playground, if we can get there."
"To God's Playground? To the glacier-top? You are mad."
"No, but he and she were mad. Come on." Then he whispered something, and Heldon gave a great cry, and they plunged into the woods.
In the morning the people of Little Goshen, looking towards the glacier, saw a flag (they knew afterwards that it was crimson) flying on it. Near it were two human figures. A miner, looking through a field-glass, said that one figure was crouching by the flag-staff, and that it was a woman. The other figure near was a man. As the morning wore on, they saw upon a crag of ice below the sloping glacier two men looking upwards towards the flag. One of them seemed to shriek out, and threw up his hands, and made as if to rush forward; but the other drew him back.
Heldon knew what revenge and disgrace may be at their worst. In vain he tried to reach God's Playground. Only one man knew the way, and he was dead upon it--with Heldon's wife: two shameless suicides. . . . When he came down from the mountain the hair upon his face was white, though that upon his head remained black as it had always been. And those frozen figures stayed there like statues with that other crimson flag: until, one day, a great-bodied wind swept out of the north, and, in pity, carried them down a bottomless fissure.
But long before this happened, The Woman had fled from Little Goshen in the night, and her house was burned to the ground.