Pierre And His People by Gilbert Parker
A Tragedy of Nobodies
At Fort Latrobe sentiment was not of the most refined kind. Local customs were pronounced and crude in outline; language was often highly coloured, and action was occasionally accentuated by a pistol shot. For the first few months of its life the place was honoured by the presence of neither wife, nor sister, nor mother. Yet women lived there.
When some men did bring wives and children, it was noticed that the girl Blanche was seldom seen in the streets. And, however it was, there grew among the men a faint respect for her. They did not talk of it to each other, but it existed. It was known that Blanche resented even the most casual notice from those men who had wives and homes. She gave the impression that she had a remnant of conscience.
"Go home," she said to Harry Delong, who asked her to drink with him on New Year's Day. "Go home, and thank God that you've got a home--and a wife."
After Jacques, the long-time friend of Pretty Pierre, came to Fort Latrobe, with his sulky eye and scrupulously neat attire, Blanche appeared to withdraw still more from public gaze, though no one saw any connection between these events. The girl also became fastidious in her dress, and lost all her former dash and smart aggression of manner. She shrank from the women of her class, for which, as might be expected, she was duly reviled. But the foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, nor has it been written that a woman may not close her ears, and bury herself in darkness, and travel alone in the desert with her people--those ghosts of herself, whose name is legion, and whose slow white fingers mock more than the world dare at its worst.
Suddenly, she was found behind the bar of Weir's Tavern at Cedar Point, the resort most frequented by Jacques. Word went about among the men that Blanche was taking a turn at religion, or, otherwise, reformation. Soldier Joe was something sceptical on this point from the fact that she had developed a very uncertain temper. This appeared especially noticeable in her treatment of Jacques. She made him the target for her sharpest sarcasm. Though a peculiar glow came to his eyes at times, he was never roused from his exasperating coolness. When her shafts were unusually direct and biting, and the temptation to resent was keen, he merely shrugged his shoulders, almost gently, and said: "Eh, such women!"
Nevertheless, there were men at Fort Latrobe who prophesied trouble, for they knew there was a deep strain of malice in the French half-breed which could be the more deadly because of its rare use. He was not easily moved, he viewed life from the heights of a philosophy which could separate the petty from the prodigious. His reputation was not wholly disquieting; he was of the goats, he had sometimes been found with the sheep, he preferred to be numbered with the transgressors. Like Pierre, his one passion was gambling. There were legends that once or twice in his life he had had another passion, but that some Gorgon drew out his heartstrings painfully, one by one, and left him inhabited by a pale spirit now called Irony, now Indifference--under either name a fret and an anger to women.
At last Blanche's attacks on Jacques called out anxious protests from men like rollicking Soldier Joe, who said to her one night, "Blanche, there's a devil in Jacques. Some day you'll startle him, and then he'll shoot you as cool as he empties the pockets of Freddy Tarlton over there."
And Blanche replied: "When he does that, what will you do, Joe?"
"Do? Do?" The man stroked his beard softly. "Why, give him ditto-- cold."
"Well, then, there's nothing to row about, is there?" And Soldier Joe was not on the instant clever enough to answer her sophistry; but when she left him and he had thought awhile, he said, convincingly:
"But where would you be then, Blanche? . . . That's the point."
One thing was known and certain: Blanche was earning her living by honest, if not high-class, labour. Weir the tavern-keeper said she was "worth hundreds" to him. But she grew pale, her eyes became peculiarly brilliant, her voice took a lower key, and lost a kind of hoarseness it had in the past. Men came in at times merely to have a joke at her expense, having heard of her new life; but they failed to enjoy their own attempts at humour. Women of her class came also, some with half- uncertain jibes, some with a curious wistfulness, and a few with scornful oaths; but the jibes and oaths were only for a time. It became known that she had paid the coach fare of Miss Dido (as she was called) to the hospital at Wapiti, and had raised a subscription for her maintenance there, heading it herself with a liberal sum. Then the atmosphere round her became less trying; yet her temper remained changeable, and had it not been that she was good-looking and witty, her position might have been insecure. As it was, she ruled in a neutral territory where she was the only woman. One night, after an inclement remark to Jacques, in the card-room, Blanche came back to the bar, and not noticing that, while she was gone, Soldier Joe had entered and laid himself down on a bench in a corner, she threw her head passionately forward on her arms as they rested on the counter, and cried: "O my God! my God!"
Soldier Joe lay still as if sleeping, and when Blanche was called away again he rose, stole out, went down to Freddy Tarlton's office, and offered to bet Freddy two to one that Blanche wouldn't live a year. Joe's experience of women was limited. He had in his mind the case of a girl who had accidentally smothered her child; and so he said:
"Blanche has something on her mind that's killing her, Freddy. When trouble fixes on her sort it kills swift and sure. They've nothing to live for but life, and it isn't good enough, you see, for--for--" Joe paused to find out where his philosophy was taking him.
Freddy Tarlton finished the sentence for him: "For an inner sorrow is a consuming fire."
Fort Latrobe soon had an unexpected opportunity to study Soldier Joe's theory. One night Jacques did not appear at Weir's Tavern as he had engaged to do, and Soldier Joe and another went across the frozen river to his log-hut to seek him. They found him by a handful of fire, breathing heavily and nearly unconscious. One of the sudden and frequently fatal colds of the mountains had fastened on him, and he had begun a war for life. Joe started back at once for liquor and a doctor, leaving his comrade to watch by the sick man.
He could not understand why Blanche should stagger and grow white when he told her; nor why she insisted on taking the liquor herself. He did not yet guess the truth.
The next day all Fort Latrobe knew that Blanche was nursing Jacques, on what was thought to be his no-return journey. The doctor said it was a dangerous case, and he held out little hope. Nursing might bring him through, but the chance was very slight. Blanche only occasionally left the sick man's bedside to be relieved by Soldier Joe and Freddy Tarlton. It dawned on Joe at last, it had dawned on Freddy before, what Blanche meant by the heart-breaking words uttered that night in Weir's Tavern. Down through the crust of this woman's heart had gone something both joyful and painful. Whatever it was, it made Blanche a saving nurse, a good apothecary; for, one night the doctor pronounced Jacques out of danger, and said that a few days would bring him round if he was careful.
Now, for the first time, Jacques fully comprehended all Blanche had done for him, though he had ceased to wonder at her changed attitude to him. Through his suffering and his delirium had come the understanding of it. When, after the crisis, the doctor turned away from the bed, Jacques looked steadily into Blanche's eyes, and she flushed, and wiped the wet from his brow with her handkerchief. He took the handkerchief from her fingers gently before Soldier Joe came over to the bed.
The doctor had insisted that Blanche should go to Weir's Tavern and get the night's rest, needed so much, and Joe now pressed her to keep her promise. Jacques added an urging word, and after a time she started. Joe had forgotten to tell her that a new road had been made on the ice since she had crossed, and that the old road was dangerous. Wandering with her thoughts she did not notice the spruce bushes set up for signal, until she had stepped on a thin piece of ice. It bent beneath her. She slipped: there was a sudden sinking, a sharp cry, then another, piercing and hopeless--and it was the one word--"Jacques!" Then the night was silent as before. But someone had heard the cry. Freddy Tarlton was crossing the ice also, and that desolating Jacques! had reached his ears. When he found her he saw that she had been taken and the other left. But that other, asleep in his bed at the sacred moment when she parted, suddenly waked, and said to Soldier Joe: "Did you speak, Joe? Did you call me?"
But Joe, who had been playing cards with himself, replied, "I haven't said a word."
And Jacques then added: "Perhaps I dream--perhaps."
On the advice of the doctor and Freddy Tarlton, the bad news was kept from Jacques. When she did not come the next day, Joe told him that she couldn't; that he ought to remember she had had no rest for weeks, and had earned a long rest. And Jacques said that was so.
Weir began preparations for the funeral, but Freddy Tarlton took them out of his hands--Freddy Tarlton, who visited at the homes of Fort Latrobe. But he had the strength of his convictions such as they were. He began by riding thirty miles and back to ask the young clergyman at Purple Hill to come and bury Blanche. She'd reformed and been baptised, Freddy said with a sad sort of humour. And the clergyman, when he knew all, said that he would come. Freddy was hardly prepared for what occurred when he got back. Men were waiting for him, anxious to know if the clergyman was coming. They had raised a subscription to cover the cost of the funeral, and among them were men such as Harry Delong.
"You fellows had better not mix yourselves up in this," said Freddy.
But Harry Delong replied quickly: "I am going to see the thing through." And the others endorsed his words. When the clergyman came, and looked at the face of this Magdalene, he was struck by its comeliness and quiet. All else seemed to have been washed away. On her breast lay a knot of white roses--white roses in this winter desert.
One man present, seeing the look of wonder in the clergyman's eyes, said quietly: "My--my wife sent them. She brought the plant from Quebec. It has just bloomed. She knows all about her."
That man was Harry Delong. The keeper of his home understood the other homeless woman. When she knew of Blanche's death she said: "Poor girl, poor girl!" and then she had gently added, "Poor Jacques!"
And Jacques, as he sat in a chair by the fire four days after the tragedy, did not know that the clergyman was reading over a grave on the hillside, words which are for the hearts of the quick as for the untenanted dead.
To Jacques's inquiries after Blanche, Soldier Joe had made changing and vague replies. At last he said that she was ill; then, that she was very ill, and again, that she was better, almighty better--now. The third day following the funeral, Jacques insisted that he would go and see her. The doctor at length decided he should be taken to Weir's Tavern, where, they declared, they would tell him all. And they took him, and placed him by the fire in the card-room, a wasted figure, but fastidious in manner and scrupulously neat in person as of old. Then he asked for Blanche; but even now they had not the courage for it. The doctor nervously went out, as if to seek her; and Freddy Tarlton said, "Jacques, let us have a little game, just for quarters, you know. Eh?"
The other replied without eagerness: "Voila, one game, then!"
They drew him to the table, but he played listlessly. His eyes shifted ever to the door. Luck was against him. Finally he pushed over a silver piece, and said: "The last. My money is all gone. 'Bien!'" He lost that too.
Just then the door opened, and a ranchman from Purple Hill entered. He looked carelessly round, and then said loudly:
"Say, Joe, so you've buried Blanche, have you? Poor old girl!"
There was a heavy silence. No one replied. Jacques started to his feet, gazed around searchingly, painfully, and presently gave a great gasp. His hands made a chafing motion in the air, and then blood showed on his lips and chin. He drew a handkerchief from his breast.
"Pardon! . . . Pardon!" he faintly cried in apology, and put it to his mouth.
Then he fell backwards in the arms of Soldier Joe, who wiped a moisture from the lifeless cheek as he laid the body on a bed.
In a corner of the stained handkerchief they found the word,