Pierre And His People by Gilbert Parker
Twenty years ago there was trouble at Fort o' God. "Out of this place we get betwixt the suns," said Gyng the Factor. "No help that falls abaft tomorrow could save us. Food dwindles, and ammunition's nearly gone, and they'll have the cold steel in our scalp-locks if we stay. We'll creep along the Devil's Causeway, then through the Red Horn Woods, and so across the plains to Rupert House. Whip in the dogs, Baptiste, and be ready all of you at midnight."
"And Grah the Idiot--what of him"? asked Pretty Pierre.
"He'll have to take his chance. If he can travel with us, so much the better for him"; and the Factor shrugged his shoulders.
"If not, so much the worse, eh"? returned Pretty Pierre.
"Work the sum out to suit yourself. We've got our necks to save. God'll have to help the Idiot if we can't."
"You hear, Grah Hamon, Idiot," said Pierre an hour afterwards, "we're going to leave Fort o' God and make for Rupert House. You've a dragging leg, you're gone in the savvy, you have to balance yourself with your hands as you waddle along, and you slobber when you talk; but you've got to cut away with us quick across the Beaver Plains, and Christ'll have to help you if we can't. That's what the Factor says, and that's how the case stands, Idiot--'bien?'"
"Grah want pipe--bubble--bubble--wind blow," muttered the daft one.
Pretty Pierre bent over and said slowly: "If you stay here, Grah, the Indian get your scalp; if you go, the snow is deep and the frost is like a badger's tooth, and you can't be carried."
"Oh, Oh!--my mother dead--poor Annie--by God, Grah want pipe--poor Grah sleep in snow-bubble, bubble--Oh, Oh!--the long wind, fly away."
Pretty Pierre watched the great head of the Idiot as it swung heavily on his shoulders, and then said: "'Mais,' like that, so!" and turned away.
When the party were about to sally forth on their perilous path to safety, Gyng stood and cried angrily: "Well, why hasn't some one bundled up that moth-eaten Caliban? Curse it all, must I do everything myself?"
"But you see," said Pierre, "the Caliban stays at Fort o' God."
"You've got a Christian heart in you, so help me, Heaven!" replied the other. "No, sir, we give him a chance,--and his Maker too for that matter, to show what He's willing to do for His misfits."
Pretty Pierre rejoined, "Well, I have thought. The game is all against Grah if he go; but there are two who stay at Fort o' God."
And that is how, when the Factor and his half-breeds and trappers stole away in silence towards the Devil's Causeway, Pierre and the Idiot remained behind. And that is why the flag of the H. B. C. still flew above Fort o' God in the New Year's sun just twenty years ago to-day.
The Hudson's Bay Company had never done a worse day's work than when they promoted Gyng to be chief factor. He loathed the heathen and he showed his loathing. He had a heart harder than iron, a speech that bruised worse than the hoof of an angry moose. And when at last he drove away a band of wandering Sioux, foodless, from the stores, siege and ambush took the place of prayer, and a nasty portion fell to Fort o' God. For the Indians found a great cache of buffalo meat, and, having sent the women and children south with the old men, gave constant and biting assurances to Gyng that the heathen hath his hour, even though he be a dog which is refused those scraps from the white man's table which give life in the hour of need. Besides all else, there was in the Fort the thing which the gods made last to humble the pride of men--there was rum.
And the morning after Gyng and his men had departed, because it was a day when frost was master of the sun, and men grew wild for action, since to stand still was to face indignant Death, they, who camped without, prepared to make a sally upon the wooden gates. Pierre saw their intent, and hid in the ground some pemmican and all the scanty rum. Then he looked at his powder and shot, and saw that there was little left. If he spent it on the besiegers, how should they fare for beast and fowl in hungry days? And for his rifle he had but a brace of bullets. He rolled these in his hand, looking upon them with a grim smile. And the Idiot, seeing, rose and sidled towards him, and said: "Poor Grah want pipe-- bubble--bubble." Then a light of childish cunning came into his eyes, and he touched the bullets blunderingly, and continued: "Plenty, plenty b'longs Grah--give poor Grah pipe--plenty, plenty, give you these."
And Pretty Pierre after a moment replied: "So that's it, Grah?--you've got bullets stowed away? Well, I must have them. It's a one-sided game in which you get the tricks; but here's the pipe, Idiot--my only pipe for your dribbling mouth--my last good comrade. Now show me the bullets. Take me to them, daft one, quick."
A little later the Idiot sat inside the store, wrapped in loose furs, and blowing bubbles; while Pretty Pierre, with many handfuls of bullets by him, waited for the attack.
"Eh," he said, as he watched from a loophole, "Gyng and the others have got safely past the Causeway, and the rest is possible. Well, it hurts an idiot as much to die, perhaps, as a half-breed or a factor. It is good to stay here. If we fight, and go out swift like Grah's bubbles, it is the game. If we starve and sleep as did Grah's mother, then it also is the game. It is great to have all the chances against and then to win. We shall see."
With a sharp relish in his eye he watched the enemy coming slowly forward. Yet he talked almost idly to himself: "I have a thought of so long ago. A woman--she was a mother, and it was on the Madawaska River, and she said: 'Sometimes I think a devil was your father, an angel sometimes. You were begot in an hour between a fighting and a mass: between blood and heaven. And when you were born you made no cry. They said that was a sign of evil. You refused the breast, and drank only of the milk of wild cattle. In baptism you flung your hand before your face that the water might not touch, nor the priest's finger make a cross upon the water. And they said it were better if you had been born an idiot than with an evil spirit; and that your hand would be against the loins that bore you. But Pierre, ah Pierre, you love your mother, do you not?'" . . . And he standing now, his eye closed with the gate-chink in front of Fort o' God, said quietly: "She was of the race that hated these--my mother; and she died of a wound they gave her at the Tete Blanche Hill. Well, for that you die now, Yellow Arm, if this gun has a bullet cold enough."
A bullet pinged through the sharp air, as the Indians swarmed towards the gate, and Yellow Arm, the chief, fell. The besiegers paused; and then, as if at the command of the fallen man, they drew back, bearing him to the camp, where they sat down and mourned.
Pierre watched them for a time; and, seeing that they made no further move, retired into the store, where the Idiot muttered and was happy after his kind. "Grah got pipe--blow away--blow away to Annie--pretty soon."
"Yes, Grah, there's chance enough that you'll blow away to Annie pretty soon," remarked the other.
"Grah have white eagles--fly, fly on the wind--oh, oh, bubble, bubble!" and he sent the filmy globes floating from the pipe that a camp of river- drivers had given the half-breed winters before.
Pierre stood and looked at the wandering eyes, behind which were the torturings of an immense and confused intelligence; a life that fell deformed before the weight of too much brain, so that all tottered from the womb into the gutters of foolishness, and the tongue mumbled of chaos when it should have told marvellous things. And the half-breed, the thought of this coming upon him, said: "Well, I think the matters of hell have fallen across the things of heaven, and there is storm. If for one moment he could think clear, it would be great."
He bethought him of a certain chant, taught him by a medicine man in childhood, which, sung to the waving of a torch in a place of darkness, caused evil spirits to pass from those possessed, and good spirits to reign in their stead. And he raised the Idiot to his feet, and brought him, maundering, to a room where no light was. He kneeled before him with a lighted torch of bear's fat and the tendons of the deer, and waving it gently to and fro, sang the ancient rune, until the eye of the Idiot, following the torch at a tangent as it waved, suddenly became fixed upon the flame, when it ceased to move. And the words of the chant ran through Grah's ears, and pierced to the remote parts of his being; and a sickening trouble came upon his face, and the lips ceased to drip, and were caught up in twinges of pain. . . . The chant rolled on: "Go forth, go forth upon them, thou, the Scarlet Hunter! Drive them forth into the wilds, drive them crying forth! Enter in, O enter in, and lie upon the couch of peace, the couch of peace within my wigwam, thou the wise one! Behold, I call to thee!"
And Pierre, looking upon the Idiot, saw his face glow, and his eye stream steadily to the light, and he said, "What is it that you see, Grah?-- speak!"
All pitifulness and struggle had gone from the Idiot's face, and a strong calm fell upon it, and the voice of a man that God had created spoke slowly: "There is an end of blood. The great chief Yellow Arm is fallen. He goeth to the plains where his wife will mourn upon his knees, and his children cry, because he that gathered food is gone, and the pots are empty on the fire. And they who follow him shall fight no more. Two shall live through bitter days, and when the leaves shall shine in the sun again, there shall good things befal. But one shall go upon a long journey with the singing birds in the path of the white eagle. He shall travel, and not cease until he reach the place where fools, and children, and they into whom a devil entered through the gates of birth, find the mothers who bore them. But the other goeth at a different time--" At this point the light in Pretty Pierre's hand flickered and went out, and through the darkness there came a voice, the voice of an idiot, that whimpered: "Grah want pipe--Annie, Annie dead."
The angel of wisdom was gone, and chaos spluttered on the lolling lips again; the Idiot sat feeling for the pipe that he had dropped.
And never again through the days that came and went could Pierre, by any conjuring, or any swaying torch, make the fool into a man again. The devils of confusion were returned forever. But there had been one glimpse of the god. And it was as the Idiot had said when he saw with the eyes of that god: no more blood was shed. The garrison of this fort held it unmolested. The besiegers knew not that two men only stayed within the walls; and because the chief begged to be taken south to die, they left the place surrounded by its moats of ice and its trenches of famine; and they came not back.
But other foes more deadly than the angry heathen came, and they were called Hunger and Loneliness. The one destroyeth the body and the other the brain. But Grah was not lonely, nor did he hunger. He blew his bubbles, and muttered of a wind whereon a useless thing--a film of water, a butterfly, or a fool--might ride beyond the reach of spirit, or man, or heathen. His flesh remained the same, and grew not less; but that of Pierre wasted, and his eye grew darker with suffering. For man is only man, and hunger is a cruel thing. To give one's food to feed a fool, and to search the silent plains in vain for any living thing to kill, is a matter for angels to do and bear, and not mere mortals. But this man had a strength of his own like to his code of living, which was his own and not another's. And at last, when spring leaped gaily forth from the grey cloak of winter, and men of the H. B. C. came to relieve Fort o' God, and entered at its gates, a gaunt man, leaning on his rifle, greeted them standing like a warrior, though his body was like that of one who had lain in the grave. He answered to the name of Pierre without pride, but like a man and not as a sick woman. And huddled on the floor beside him was an idiot fondling a pipe, with a shred of pemmican at his lips.
As if in irony of man's sacrifice, the All Hail and the Master of Things permitted the fool to fulfil his own prophecy, and die of a sudden sickness in the coming-on of summer. But he of God's Garrison that remained repented not of his deed. Such men have no repentance, neither of good nor evil.