Pierre And His People by Gilbert Parker
A Hazard of the North
Nobody except Gregory Thorne and myself knows the history of the Man and Woman, who lived on the Height of Land, just where Dog Ear River falls into Marigold Lake. This portion of the Height of Land is a lonely country. The sun marches over it distantly, and the man of the East-- the braggart--calls it outcast; but animals love it; and the shades of the long-gone trapper and 'voyageur' saunter without mourning through its fastnesses. When you are in doubt, trust God's dumb creatures--and the happy dead who whisper pleasant promptings to us, and whose knowledge is mighty. Besides, the Man and Woman lived there, and Gregory Thorne says that they could recover a lost paradise. But Gregory Thorne is an insolent youth. The names of these people were John and Audrey Malbrouck; the Man was known to the makers of backwoods history as Captain John. Gregory says about that--but no, not yet!--let his first meeting with the Man and the Woman be described in his own words, unusual and flippant as they sometimes are; for though he is a graduate of Trinity College, Cambridge, and a brother of a Right Honourable, he has conceived it his duty to emancipate himself in the matter of style in language; and he has succeeded.
"It was autumn," he said, "all colours; beautiful and nippy on the Height of Land; wild ducks, the which no man could number, and bear's meat abroad in the world. I was alone. I had hunted all day, leaving my mark now and then as I journeyed, with a cache of slaughter here, and a blazed hickory there. I was hungry as a circus tiger--did you ever eat slippery elm bark?--yes, I was as bad as that. I guessed from what I had been told, that the Malbrouck show must be hereaway somewhere. I smelled the lake miles off--oh, you could too if you were half the animal I am; I followed my nose and the slippery-elm between my teeth, and came at a double-quick suddenly on the fair domain. There the two sat in front of the house like turtle-doves, and as silent as a middy after his first kiss. Much as I ached to get my tooth into something filling, I wished that I had 'em under my pencil, with that royal sun making a rainbow of the lake, the woods all scarlet and gold, and that mist of purple--eh, you've seen it?--and they sitting there monarchs of it all, like that duffer of a king who had operas played for his solitary benefit. But I hadn't a pencil and I had a hunger, and I said 'How!' like any other Injin--insolent, wasn't it? Then the Man rose, and he said I was welcome, and she smiled an approving but not very immediate smile, and she kept her seat,--she kept her seat, my boy,--and that was the first thing that set me thinking. She didn't seem to be conscious that there was before her one of the latest representatives from Belgravia, not she! But when I took an honest look at her face, I understood. I'm glad that I had my hat in my hand, polite as any Frenchman on the threshold of a blanchisserie: for I learned very soon that the Woman had been in Belgravia too, and knew far more than I did about what was what. When she did rise to array the supper table, it struck me that if Josephine Beauharnais had been like her, she might have kept her hold on Napoleon, and saved his fortunes; made Europe France; and France the world. I could not understand it. Jimmy Haldane had said to me when I was asking for Malbrouck's place on the compass,--'Don't put on any side with them, my Greg, or you'll take a day off for penitence.' They were both tall and good to look at, even if he was a bit rugged, with neck all wire and muscle, and had big knuckles. But she had hands like those in a picture of Velasquez, with a warm whiteness and educated--that's it, educated hands.
"She wasn't young, but she seemed so. Her eyes looked up and out at you earnestly, yet not inquisitively, and more occupied with something in her mind, than with what was before her. In short, she was a lady; not one by virtue of a visit to the gods that rule o'er Buckingham Palace, but by the claims of good breeding and long descent. She puzzled me, eluded me --she reminded me of someone; but who? Someone I liked, because I felt a thrill of admiration whenever I looked at her--but it was no use, I couldn't remember. I soon found myself talking to her according to St. James--the palace, you know--and at once I entered a bet with my beloved aunt, the dowager--who never refuses to take my offer, though she seldom wins, and she's ten thousand miles away, and has to take my word for it-- that I should find out the history of this Man and Woman before another Christmas morning, which wasn't more than two months off. You know whether or not I won it, my son."
I had frequently hinted to Gregory that I was old enough to be his father, and that in calling me his son, his language was misplaced; and I repeated it at that moment. He nodded good-humouredly, and continued:
"I was born insolent, my s--my ancestor. Well, after I had cleared a space at the supper table, and had, with permission, lighted my pipe, I began to talk. . . Oh yes, I did give them a chance occasionally; don't interrupt. . . . I gossiped about England, France, the universe. From the brief comments they made I saw they knew all about it, and understood my social argot, all but a few words--is there anything peculiar about any of my words? After having exhausted Europe and Asia I discussed America; talked about Quebec, the folklore of the French Canadians, the 'voyageurs' from old Maisonneuve down. All the history I knew I rallied, and was suddenly bowled out. For Malbrouck followed my trail from the time I began to talk, and in ten minutes he had proved me to be a baby in knowledge, an emaciated baby; he eliminated me from the equation. He first tripped me on the training of naval cadets; then on the Crimea; then on the taking of Quebec; then on the Franco-Prussian War; then, with a sudden round-up, on India. I had been trusting to vague outlines of history; I felt when he began to talk that I was dealing with a man who not only knew history, but had lived it. He talked in the fewest but directest words, and waxed eloquent in a blunt and colossal way. But seeing his wife's eyes fixed on him intently, he suddenly pulled up, and no more did I get from him on the subject. He stopped so suddenly that in order to help over the awkwardness, though I'm not really sure there was any, I began to hum a song to myself. Now, upon my soul, I didn't think what I was humming; it was some subterranean association of things, I suppose--but that doesn't matter here. I only state it to clear myself of any unnecessary insolence. These were the words I was maundering with this noble voice of mine:
"'The news I bring, fair Lady, Will make your tears run down Put off your rose-red dress so fine And doff your satin gown! Monsieur Malbrouck is dead, alas! And buried, too, for aye; I saw four officers who bore His mighty corse away. ............. We saw above the laurels, His soul fly forth amain. And each one fell upon his face And then rose up again. And so we sang the glories, For which great Malbrouck bled; Mironton, Mironton, Mirontaine, Great Malbrouck, he is dead.'
"I felt the silence grow peculiar, uncomfortable. I looked up. Mrs. Malbrouck was rising to her feet with a look in her face that would make angels sorry--a startled, sorrowful thing that comes from a sleeping pain. What an ass I was! Why, the Man's name was Malbrouck; her name was Malbrouck--awful insolence! But surely there was something in the story of the song itself that had moved her. As I afterward knew, that was it. Malbrouck sat still and unmoved, though I thought I saw something stern and masterful in his face as he turned to me; but again instantly his eyes were bent on his wife with a comforting and affectionate expression. She disappeared into the house. Hoping to make it appear that I hadn't noticed anything, I dropped my voice a little and went on, intending, however, to stop at the end of the verse:
"'Malbrouck has gone a-fighting, Mironton, Mironton, Mirontaine!'
"I ended there; because Malbrouck's heavy hand was laid on my shoulder, and he said: 'If you please, not that song.'
"I suspect I acted like an idiot. I stammered out apologies, went down on my litanies, figuratively speaking, and was all the same confident that my excuses were making bad infernally worse. But somehow the old chap had taken a liking to me.--No, of course you couldn't understand that. Not that he was so old, you know; but he had the way of retired royalty about him, as if he had lived life up to the hilt, and was all pulse and granite. Then he began to talk in his quiet way about hunting and fishing; about stalking in the Highlands and tiger-hunting in India; and wound up with some wonderful stuff about moose-hunting, the sport of Canada. This made me itch like sin, just to get my fingers on a trigger, with a full moose-yard in view. I can feel it now--the bound in the blood as I caught at Malbrouck's arm and said: 'By George, I must kill moose; that's sport for Vikings, and I was meant to be a Viking--or a gladiator.' Malbrouck at once replied that he would give me some moose- hunting in December if I would come up to Marigold Lake. I couldn't exactly reply on the instant, because, you see, there wasn't much chance for board and lodging thereabouts, unless--but he went on to say that I should make his house my 'public,'perhaps he didn't say it quite in those terms, that he and his wife would be glad to have me. With a couple of Indians we could go north-west, where the moose-yards were, and have some sport both exciting and prodigious. Well, I'm a muff, I know, but I didn't refuse that. Besides, I began to see the safe side of the bet I had made with my aunt, the dowager, and I was more than pleased with what had come to pass so far. Lucky for you, too, you yarn-spinner, that the thing did develop so, or you wouldn't be getting fame and shekels out of the results of my story.
"Well, I got one thing out of the night's experience; and it was that the Malbroucks were no plebs., that they had had their day where plates are blue and gold and the spoons are solid coin. But what had sent them up here among the moose, the Indians, and the conies--whatever they are? How should I get at it? Insolence, you say? Yes, that. I should come up here in December, and I should mulct my aunt in the price of a new breech-loader. But I found out nothing the next morning, and I left with a paternal benediction from Malbrouck, and a smile from his wife that sent my blood tingling as it hadn't tingled since a certain season in London, which began with my tuneful lyre sounding hopeful numbers and ended with it hanging on the willows.
"When I thought it all over, as I trudged back on yesterday's track, I concluded that I had told them all my history from my youth up until now, and had got nothing from them in return. I had exhausted my family records, bit by bit, like a curate in his first parish; and had gone so far as to testify that one of my ancestors had been banished to Australia for political crimes. Distinctly they had me at an advantage, though, to be sure, I had betrayed Mrs. Malbrouck into something more than a suspicion of emotion.
"When I got back to my old camp, I could find out nothing from the other fellows; but Jacques Pontiac told me that his old mate, Pretty Pierre, who in recent days had fallen from grace, knew something of these people that no one else guessed, because he had let them a part of his house in the parish of St. Genevieve in Quebec, years before. Pierre had testified to one fact, that a child--a girl--had been born to Mrs. Malbrouck in his house, but all further knowledge he had withheld. Pretty Pierre was off in the Rocky Mountains practising his profession --chiefly poker--and was not available for information. What did I, Gregory Thorne, want of the information anyway? That's the point, my son. Judging from after-developments I suppose it was what the foolish call occult sympathy. Well, where was that girl-child? Jacques Pontiac didn't know. Nobody knew. And I couldn't get rid of Mrs. Malbrouck's face; it haunted me; the broad brow, deep eyes, and high-bred sweetness --all beautifully animal. Don't laugh: I find astonishing likenesses between the perfectly human and the perfectly animal. Did you never see how beautiful and modest the faces of deer are; how chic and sensitive is the manner of a hound; nor the keen, warm look in the eye of a well-bred mare? Why, I'd rather be a good horse of blood and temper than half the fellows I know. You are not an animal lover as I am; yes, even when I shoot them or fight them I admire them, just as I'd admire a swordsman who, in 'quart,' would give me death by the wonderful upper thrust. It's all a battle; all a game of love and slaughter, my son, and both go together.
"Well, as I say, her face followed me. Watch how the thing developed. By the prairie-track I went over to Fort Desire, near the Rockies, almost immediately after this, to see about buying a ranch with my old chum at Trinity, Polly Cliffshawe--Polydore, you know. Whom should I meet in a hut on the ranch but Jacques's friend, Pretty Pierre. This was luck; but he was not like Jacques Pontiac, he was secretive as a Buddhist deity. He had a good many of the characteristics that go to a fashionable diplomatist: clever, wicked, cool, and in speech doing the vanishing trick just when you wanted him. But my star of fortune was with me. One day Silverbottle, an Indian, being in a murderous humour, put a bullet in Pretty Pierre's leg, and would have added another, only I stopped it suddenly. While in his bed he told me what he knew of the Malbroucks.
"This is the fashion of it. John and Audrey Malbrouck had come to Quebec in the year 1865, and sojourned in the parish of St. Genevieve, in the house of the mother of Pretty Pierre. Of an inquiring turn of mind, the French half-breed desired to know concerning the history of these English people, who, being poor, were yet gentle, and spoke French with a grace and accent which was to the French-Canadian patois as Shakespeare's English is to that of Seven Dials. Pierre's methods of inquisitiveness were not strictly dishonest. He did not open letters, he did not besiege dispatch-boxes, he did not ask impudent questions; he watched and listened. In his own way he found out that the man had been a soldier in the ranks, and that he had served in India. They were most attached to the child, whose name was Marguerite. One day a visitor, a lady, came to them. She seemed to be the cause of much unhappiness to Mrs. Malbrouck. And Pierre was alert enough to discover that this distinguished-looking person desired to take the child away with her. To this the young mother would not consent, and the visitor departed with some chillingly-polite phrases, part English, part French, beyond the exact comprehension of Pierre, and leaving the father and mother and little Marguerite happy. Then, however, these people seemed to become suddenly poorer, and Malbrouck began farming in a humble, but not entirely successful way. The energy of the man was prodigious; but his luck was sardonic. Floods destroyed his first crops, prices ran low, debt accumulated, foreclosure of mortgage occurred, and Malbrouck and the wife and child went west.
"Five years later, Pretty Pierre saw them again at Marigold Lake: Malbrouck as agent for the Hudson's Bay Company--still poor, but contented. It was at this period that the former visitor again appeared, clothed in purple and fine linen, and, strange as it may seem, succeeded in carrying off the little child, leaving the father and mother broken, but still devoted to each other.
"Pretty Pierre closed his narration with these words: ''Bien,' that Malbrouck, he is great. I have not much love of men, but he--well, if he say,--"See, Pierre, I go to the home of the white bear and the winter that never ends; perhaps we come back, perhaps we die; but there will be sport for men--" 'voila!' I would go. To know one strong man in this world is good. Perhaps, some time I will go to him--yes, Pierre, the gambler, will go to him, and say: It is good for the wild dog that he live near the lion. And the child, she was beautiful; she had a light heart and a sweet way.'"
It was with this slight knowledge that Gregory Thorne set out on his journey over the great Canadian prairie to Marigold Lake, for his December moose-hunt.
Gregory has since told me that, as he travelled with Jacques Pontiac across the Height of Land to his destination, he had uncomfortable feelings; presentiments, peculiar reflections of the past, and melancholy --a thing far from habitual with him. Insolence is all very well, but you cannot apply it to indefinite thoughts; it isn't effective with vague presentiments. And when Gregory's insolence was taken away from him, he was very like other mortals; virtue had gone out of him; his brown cheek and frank eye had lost something of their charm. It was these unusual broodings that worried him; he waked up suddenly one night calling, "Margaret! Margaret!" like any childlike lover. And that did not please him. He believed in things that, as he said himself, "he could get between his fingers;" he had little sympathy with morbid sentimentalities. But there was an English Margaret in his life; and he, like many another childlike man, had fallen in love, and with her--very much in love indeed; and a star had crossed his love to a degree that greatly shocked him and pleased the girl's relatives. She was the granddaughter of a certain haughty dame of high degree, who regarded icily this poorest of younger sons, and held her darling aloof. Gregory, very like a blunt unreasoning lover, sought to carry the redoubt by wild assault; and was overwhelmingly routed. The young lady, though finding some avowed pleasure in his company, accompanied by brilliant misunderstanding of his advances and full-front speeches, had never given him enough encouragement to warrant his playing young Lochinvar in Park Lane; and his cup became full when, at the close of the season, she was whisked off to the seclusion of a country-seat, whose walls to him were impregnable. His defeat was then, and afterwards, complete. He pluckily replied to the derision of his relatives with multiplied derision, demanded his inheritance, got his traps together, bought a fur coat, and straightway sailed the wintry seas to Canada.
His experiences had not soured his temper. He believed that every dog has his day, and that Fate was very malicious; that it brought down the proud, and rewarded the patient; that it took up its abode in marble halls, and was the mocker at the feast. All this had reference, of course, to the time when he should--rich as any nabob--return to London, and be victorious over his enemy in Park Lane. It was singular that he believed this thing would occur; but he did. He had not yet made his fortune, but he had been successful in the game of buying and selling lands, and luck seemed to dog his path. He was fearless, and he had a keen eye for all the points of every game--every game but love.
Yet he was born to succeed in that game too. For though his theory was, that everything should be treated with impertinence before you could get a proper view of it, he was markedly respectful to people. Few could resist him; his impudence of ideas was so pleasantly mixed with delicately suggested admiration of those to whom he talked. It was impossible that John Malbrouck and his wife could have received him other than they did; his was the eloquent, conquering spirit.
By the time he reached Lake Marigold he had shaken off all those hovering fancies of the woods, which, after all, might only have been the whisperings of those friendly and far-seeing spirits who liked the lad as he journeyed through their lonely pleasure-grounds. John Malbrouck greeted him with quiet cordiality, and Mrs. Malbrouck smiled upon him with a different smile from that with which she had speeded him a month before; there was in it a new light of knowledge, and Gregory could not understand it. It struck him as singular that the lady should be dressed in finer garments than she wore when he last saw her; though certainly her purple became her. She wore it as if born to it; and with an air more sedately courteous than he had ever seen, save at one house in Park Lane. Had this rustle of fine trappings been made for him? No; the woman had a mind above such snobbishness, he thought. He suffered for a moment the pang of a cynical idea; but the eyes of Mrs. Malbrouck were on him and he knew that he was as nothing before her. Her eyes--how they were fixed upon him! Only two women had looked so truthfully at him before: his dead mother and--Margaret. And Margaret--why, how strangely now at this instant came the thought that she was like his Margaret! Wonder sprang to his eyes. At that moment a door opened and a girl entered the room--a girl lissome, sweet-faced, well-bred of manner, who came slowly towards them.
"My daughter, Mr. Thorne," the mother briefly remarked. There was no surprise in the girl's face, only an even reserve of pleasure, as she held out her hand and said: "Mr. Gregory Thorne and I are old enemies." Gregory Thorne's nerve forsook him for an instant. He knew now the reason of his vague presentiments in the woods; he understood why, one night, when he had been more childlike than usual in his memory of the one woman who could make life joyous for him, the voice of a voyageur, not Jacques's nor that of any one in camp, sang:
"My dear love, she waits for me, None other my world is adorning; My true love I come to thee, My dear, the white star of the morning. Eagles spread out your wings, Behold where the red dawn is breaking! Hark, 'tis my darling sings, The flowers, the song-birds awaking; See, where she comes to me, My love, ah, my dear love!"
And here she was. He raised her hand to his lips, and said: "Miss Carley, you have your enemy at an advantage."
"Miss Carley in Park Lane, Margaret Malbrouck here in my old home," she replied.
There ran swiftly through the young man's brain the brief story that Pretty Pierre had told him. This, then, was the child who had been carried away, and who, years after, had made captive his heart in London town! Well, one thing was clear, the girl's mother here seemed inclined to be kinder to him than was the guardian grandmother--if she was the grandmother--because they had their first talk undisturbed, it may be encouraged; amiable mothers do such deeds at times.
"And now pray, Mr. Thorne," she continued, "may I ask how came you here in my father's house after having treated me so cavalierly in London?-- not even sending a P.P.C. when you vanished from your worshippers in Vanity Fair."
"As for my being here, it is simply a case of blind fate; as for my friends, the only one I wanted to be sorry for my going was behind earthworks which I could not scale in order to leave my card, or--or anything else of more importance; and being left as it were to the inclemency of a winter world, I fled from--"
She interrupted him. "What! the conqueror, you, flying from your Moscow?"
He felt rather helpless under her gay raillery; but he said:
"Well, I didn't burn my kremlin behind me."
"My ships, then: they--they are just the same," he earnestly pleaded. Foolish youth, to attempt to take such a heart by surprise and storm!
"That is very interesting," she said, "but hardly wise. To make fortunes and be happy in new countries, one should forget the old ones. Meditation is the enemy of action."
"There's one meditation could make me conquer the North Pole, if I could but grasp it definitely."
"Grasp the North Pole? That would be awkward for your friends and gratifying to your enemies, if one may believe science and history. But, perhaps, you are in earnest after all, poor fellow! for my father tells me you are going over the hills and far away to the moose-yards. How valiant you are, and how quickly you grasp the essentials of fortune- making!"
"Miss Malbrouck, I am in earnest, and I've always been in earnest in one thing at least. I came out here to make money, and I've made some, and shall make more; but just now the moose are as brands for the burning, and I have a gun sulky for want of exercise."
"What an eloquent warrior-temper! And to whom are your deeds of valour to be dedicated? Before whom do you intend to lay your trophies of the chase?"
"Before the most provoking but worshipful lady that I know."
"Who is the sylvan maid? What princess of the glade has now the homage of your impressionable heart, Mr. Thorne?"
And Gregory Thorne, his native insolence standing him in no stead, said very humbly:
"You are that sylvan maid, that princess--ah, is this fair to me, is it fair, I ask you?"
"You really mean that about the trophies"? she replied. "And shall you return like the mighty khans, with captive tigers and lions, led by stalwart slaves, in your train, or shall they be captive moose or grizzlies?"
"Grizzlies are not possible here," he said, with cheerful seriousness, "but the moose is possible, and more, if you would be kinder--Margaret."
"Your supper, see, is ready," she said. "I venture to hope your appetite has not suffered because of long absence from your friends."
He could only dumbly answer by a protesting motion of the hand, and his smile was not remarkably buoyant.
The next morning they started on their moose-hunt. Gregory Thorne was cast down when he crossed the threshold into the winter morning without hand-clasp or god-speed from Margaret Malbrouck; but Mrs. Malbrouck was there, and Gregory, looking into her eyes, thought how good a thing it would be for him, if some such face looked benignly out on him every morning, before he ventured forth into the deceitful day. But what was the use of wishing! Margaret evidently did not care. And though the air was clear and the sun shone brightly, he felt there was a cheerless wind blowing on him; a wind that chilled him; and he hummed to himself bitterly a song of the voyageurs:
"O, O, the winter wind, the North wind, My snow-bird, where art thou gone? O, O, the wailing wind the night wind, The cold nest; I am alone. O, O, my snow-bird! "O, O, the waving sky, the white sky, My snow-bird thou fliest far; O, O, the eagle's cry, the wild cry, My lost love, my lonely star. O, O, my snow-bird!"
He was about to start briskly forward to join Malbrouck and his Indians, who were already on their way, when he heard his name called, and, turning, he saw Margaret in the doorway, her fingers held to the tips of her ears, as yet unused to the frost. He ran back to where she stood, and held out his hand. "I was afraid," he bluntly said, "that you wouldn't forsake your morning sleep to say good-bye to me."
"It isn't always the custom, is it," she replied, "for ladies to send the very early hunter away with a tally-ho? But since you have the grace to be afraid of anything, I can excuse myself to myself for fleeing the pleasantest dreams to speed you on your warlike path."
At this he brightened very much, but she, as if repenting she had given him so much pleasure, added: "I wanted to say good-bye to my father, you know; and--" she paused.
"And"? he added.
"And to tell him that you have fond relatives in the old land who would mourn your early taking off; and, therefore, to beg him, for their sakes, to keep you safe from any outrageous moose that mightn't know how the world needed you."
"But there you are mistaken," he said; "I haven't anyone who would really care, worse luck! except the dowager; and she, perhaps, would be consoled to know that I had died in battle,--even with a moose,--and was clear of the possibility of hanging another lost reputation on the family tree, to say nothing of suspension from any other kind of tree. But, if it should be the other way; if I should see your father in the path of an outrageous moose--what then?"
"My father is a hunter born," she responded; "he is a great man," she proudly added.
"Of course, of course," he replied. "Good-bye. I'll take him your love.--Good-bye!" and he turned away.
"Good-bye," she gaily replied; and yet, one looking closely would have seen that this stalwart fellow was pleasant to her eyes, and as she closed the door to his hand waving farewell to her from the pines, she said, reflecting on his words:
"You'll take him my love, will you? But, Master Gregory, you carry a freight of which you do not know the measure; and, perhaps, you never shall, though you are very brave and honest, and not so impudent as you used to be,--and I'm not so sure that I like you so much better for that either, Monsieur Gregory."
Then she went and laid her cheek against her mother's, and said: "They've gone away for big game, mother dear; what shall be our quarry?"
"My child," the mother replied, "the story of our lives since last you were with me is my only quarry. I want to know from your own lips all that you have been in that life which once was mine also, but far away from me now, even though you come from it, bringing its memories without its messages."
"Dear, do you think that life there was so sweet to me? It meant as little to your daughter as to you. She was always a child of the wild woods. What rustle of pretty gowns is pleasant as the silken shiver of the maple leaves in summer at this door? The happiest time in that life was when we got away to Holwood or Marchurst, with the balls and calls all over."
Mrs. Malbrouck smoothed her daughter's hand gently and smiled approvingly.
"But that old life of yours, mother; what was it? You said that you would tell me some day. Tell me now. Grandmother was fond of me--poor grandmother! But she would never tell me anything. How I longed to be back with you!.... Sometimes you came to me in my sleep, and called to me to come with you; and then again, when I was gay in the sunshine, you came, and only smiled but never beckoned; though your eyes seemed to me very sad, and I wondered if mine would not also become sad through looking in them so--are they sad, mother?" And she laughed up brightly into her mother's face.
"No, dear; they are like the stars. You ask me for my part in that life. I will tell you soon, but not now. Be patient. Do you not tire of this lonely life? Are you truly not anxious to return to--"
"'To the husks that the swine did eat?' No, no, no; for, see: I was born for a free, strong life; the prairie or the wild wood, or else to live in some far castle in Welsh mountains, where I should never hear the voice of the social Thou must!--oh, what a must! never to be quite free or natural. To be the slave of the code. I was born--I know not how! but so longing for the sky, and space, and endless woods. I think I never saw an animal but I loved it, nor ever lounged the mornings out at Holwood but I wished it were a hut on the mountain side, and you and father with me." Here she whispered, in a kind of awe: "And yet to think that Holwood is now mine, and that I am mistress there, and that I must go back to it--if only you would go back with me.... ah, dear, isn't it your duty to go back with me"? she added, hesitatingly.
Audrey Malbrouck drew her daughter hungrily to her bosom, and said: "Yes, dear, I will go back, if it chances that you need me; but your father and I have lived the best days of our lives here, and we are content. But, my Margaret, there is another to be thought of too, is there not? And in that case is my duty then so clear?"
The girl's hand closed on her mother's, and she knew her heart had been truly read.
The hunters pursued their way, swinging grandly along on their snow- shoes, as they made for the Wild Hawk Woods. It would seem as if Malbrouck was testing Gregory's strength and stride, for the march that day was a long and hard one. He was equal to the test, and even Big Moccasin, the chief, grunted sound approval. But every day brought out new capacities for endurance and larger resources; so that Malbrouck, who had known the clash of civilisation with barbarian battle, and deeds both dour and doughty, and who loved a man of might, regarded this youth with increasing favour. By simple processes he drew from Gregory his aims and ambitions, and found the real courage and power behind the front of irony--the language of manhood and culture which was crusted by free and easy idioms. Now and then they saw moose-tracks, but they were some days out before they came to a moose-yard--a spot hoof-beaten by the moose; his home, from which he strays, and to which he returns at times like a repentant prodigal. Now the sport began. The dog-trains were put out of view, and Big Moccasin and another Indian went off immediately to explore the country round about. A few hours, and word was brought that there was a small herd feeding not far away. Together they crept stealthily within range of the cattle. Gregory Thorne's blood leaped as he saw the noble quarry, with their wide-spread horns, sniffing the air, in which they had detected something unusual. Their leader, a colossal beast, stamped with his forefoot, and threw back his head with a snort.
"The first shot belongs to you, Mr. Thorne," said Malbrouck. "In the shoulder, you know. You have him in good line. I'll take the heifer."
Gregory showed all the coolness of an old hunter, though his lips twitched slightly with excitement. He took a short but steady aim, and fired. The beast plunged forward and then fell on his knees. The others broke away. Malbrouck fired and killed a heifer, and then all ran in pursuit as the moose made for the woods.
Gregory, in the pride of his first slaughter, sprang away towards the wounded leader, which, sunk to the earth, was shaking its great horns to and fro. When at close range, he raised his gun to fire again, but the moose rose suddenly, and with a wild bellowing sound rushed at Gregory, who knew full well that a straight stroke from those hoofs would end his moose-hunting days. He fired, but to no effect. He could not, like a toreador, jump aside, for those mighty horns would sweep too wide a space. He dropped on his knees swiftly, and as the great antlers almost touched him, and he could feel the roaring breath of the mad creature in his face, he slipped a cartridge in, and fired as he swung round; but at that instant a dark body bore him down. He was aware of grasping those sweeping horns, conscious of a blow which tore the flesh from his chest; and then his knife--how came it in his hand?--with the instinct of the true hunter. He plunged it once, twice, past a foaming mouth, into that firm body, and then both fell together; each having fought valiantly after his kind.
Gregory dragged himself from beneath the still heaving body, and stretched to his feet; but a blindness came, and the next knowledge he had was of brandy being poured slowly between his teeth, and of a voice coming through endless distances: "A fighter, a born fighter," it said. "The pluck of Lucifer--good boy!"
Then the voice left those humming spaces of infinity, and said: "Tilt him this way a little, Big Moccasin. There, press firmly, so. Now the band steady--together--tighter--now the withes--a little higher up--cut them here." There was a slight pause, and then: "There, that's as good as an army surgeon could do it. He'll be as sound as a bell in two weeks. Eh, well, how do you feel now? Better? That's right! Like to be on your feet, would you? Wait. Here, a sup of this. There you are. . . . Well?"
"Well," said the young man, faintly, "he was a beauty."
Malbrouck looked at him a moment, thoughtfully, and then said: "Yes, he was a beauty."
"I want a dozen more like him, and then I shall be able to drop 'em as neat as, you do."
"H'm! the order is large. I'm afraid we shall have to fill it at some other time;" and Malbrouck smiled a little grimly.
"What! only one moose to take back to the Height of Land, to--" something in the eye of the other stopped him.
"To? Yes, to"? and now the eye had a suggestion of humour.
"To show I'm not a tenderfoot."
"Yes, to show you're not a tenderfoot. I fancy that will be hardly necessary. Oh, you will be up, eh? Well!"
"Well, I'm a tottering imbecile. What's the matter with my legs?--my prophetic soul, it hurts! Oh, I see; that's where the old warrior's hoof caught me sideways. Now, I'll tell you what, I'm going to have another moose to take back to Marigold Lake."
"Yes. I'm going to take back a young, live moose."
"A significant ambition. For what?--a sacrifice to the gods you have offended in your classic existence?"
"Both. A peace-offering, and a sacrifice to--a goddess."
"Young man," said the other, the light of a smile playing on his lips, "'Prosperity be thy page!' Big Moccasin, what of this young live moose?"
The Indian shook his head doubtfully.
"But I tell you I shall have that live moose, if I have to stay here to see it grow."
And Malbrouck liked his pluck, and wished him good luck. And the good luck came. They travelled back slowly to the Height of Land, making a circuit. For a week they saw no more moose; but meanwhile Gregory's hurt quickly healed. They had now left only eight days in which to get back to Dog Ear River and Marigold Lake. If the young moose was to come it must come soon. It came soon.
They chanced upon a moose-yard, and while the Indians were beating the woods, Malbrouck and Gregory watched.
Soon a cow and a young moose came swinging down to the embankment. Malbrouck whispered: "Now if you must have your live moose, here's a lasso. I'll bring down the cow. The young one's horns are not large. Remember, no pulling. I'll do that. Keep your broken chest and bad arm safe. Now!"
Down came the cow with a plunge into the yard-dead. The lasso, too, was over the horns of the calf, and in an instant Malbrouck was swinging away with it over the snow. It was making for the trees--exactly what Malbrouck desired. He deftly threw the rope round a sapling, but not too taut, lest the moose's horns should be injured. The plucky animal now turned on him. He sprang behind a tree, and at that instant he heard the thud of hoofs behind him. He turned to see a huge bull-moose bounding towards him. He was between two fires, and quite unarmed. Those hoofs had murder in them. But at the instant a rifle shot rang out, and he only caught the forward rush of the antlers as the beast fell.
The young moose now had ceased its struggles, and came forward to the dead bull with that hollow sound of mourning peculiar to its kind. Though it afterwards struggled once or twice to be free, it became docile and was easily taught, when its anger and fear were over.
And Gregory Thorne had his live moose. He had also, by that splendid shot, achieved with one arm, saved Malbrouck from peril, perhaps from death.
They drew up before the house at Marigold Lake on the afternoon of the day before Christmas, a triumphal procession. The moose was driven, a peaceful captive with a wreath of cedar leaves around its neck--the humourous conception of Gregory Thorne. Malbrouck had announced their coming by a blast from his horn, and Margaret was standing in the doorway wrapped in furs, which may have come originally from Hudson's Bay, but which had been deftly re-manufactured in Regent Street.
Astonishment, pleasure, beamed in her eyes. She clapped her hands gaily, and cried: "Welcome, welcome, merry-men all!" She kissed her father; she called to her mother to come and see; then she said to Gregory, with arch raillery, as she held out her hand: "Oh, companion of hunters, comest thou like Jacques in Arden from dropping the trustful tear upon the prey of others, or bringest thou quarry of thine own? Art thou a warrior sated with spoil, master of the sports, spectator of the fight, Prince, or Pistol? Answer, what art thou?"
And he, with a touch of his old insolence, though with something of irony too, for he had hoped for a different fashion of greeting, said:
"All, lady, all! The Olympian all! The player of many parts. I am Touchstone, Jacques, and yet Orlando too."
"And yet Orlando too, my daughter," said Malbrouck, gravely. "He saved your father from the hoofs of a moose bent on sacrifice. Had your father his eye, his nerve, his power to shoot with one arm a bull moose at long range, so!--he would not refuse to be called a great hunter, but wear the title gladly."
Margaret Malbrouck's face became anxious instantly. "He saved you from danger--from injury, father"? she slowly said, and looked earnestly at Gregory; "but why to shoot with one arm only?"
"Because in a fight of his own with a moose--a hand-to-hand fight--he had a bad moment with the hoofs of the beast."
And this young man, who had a reputation for insolence, blushed, so that the paleness which the girl now noticed in his face was banished; and to turn the subject he interposed:
"Here is the live moose that I said I should bring. Now say that he's a beauty, please. Your father and I--"
But Malbrouck interrupted:
"He lassoed it with his one arm, Margaret. He was determined to do it himself, because, being a superstitious gentleman, as well as a hunter, he had some foolish notion that this capture would propitiate a goddess whom he imagined required offerings of the kind."
"It is the privilege of the gods to be merciful," she said. "This peace- offering should propitiate the angriest, cruellest goddess in the universe; and for one who was neither angry nor really cruel--well, she should be satisfied.... altogether satisfied," she added, as she put her cheek against the warm fur of the captive's neck, and let it feel her hand with its lips.
There was silence for a minute, and then with his old gay spirit all returned, and as if to give an air not too serious to the situation, Gregory, remembering his Euripides, said:
". . . . . . . .let the steer bleed, And the rich altars, as they pay their vows, Breathe incense to the gods: for me, I rise To better life, and grateful own the blessing."
"A pagan thought for a Christmas Eve," she said to him, with her fingers feeling for the folds of silken flesh in the throat of the moose; "but wounded men must be humoured. And, mother dear, here are our Argonauts returned; and--and now I think I will go."
With a quick kiss on her father's cheek--not so quick but he caught the tear that ran through her happy smile--she vanished into the house.
That night there was gladness in this home. Mirth sprang to the lips of the men like foam on a beaker of wine, so that the evening ran towards midnight swiftly. All the tale of the hunt was given by Malbrouck to joyful ears; for the mother lived again her youth in the sunrise of this romance which was being sped before her eyes; and the father, knowing that in this world there is nothing so good as courage, nothing so base as the shifting eye, looked on the young man, and was satisfied, and told his story well;--told it as a brave man would tell it, bluntly as to deeds done, warmly as to the pleasures of good sport, directly as to all. In the eye of the young man there had come the glance of larger life, of a new-developed manhood. When he felt that dun body crashing on him, and his life closing with its strength, and ran the good knife home, there flashed through his mind how much life meant to the dying, how much it ought to mean to the living; and then this girl, this Margaret, swam before his eyes--and he had been graver since.
He knew, as truly as if she had told him, that she could never mate with any man who was a loiterer on God's highway, who could live life without some sincerity in his aims. It all came to him again in this room, so austere in its appointments, yet so gracious, so full of the spirit of humanity without a note of ennui, or the rust of careless deeds. As this thought grew he looked at the face of the girl, then at the faces of the father and mother, and the memory of his boast came back--that he would win the stake he laid, to know the story of John and Audrey Malbrouck before this coming Christmas morning. With a faint smile at his own past insolent self, he glanced at the clock. It was eleven. "I have lost my bet," he unconsciously said aloud.
He was roused by John Malbrouck remarking: "Yes, you have lost your bet? Well, what was it"? The youth, the childlike quality in him," flushed his face deeply, and then, with a sudden burst of frankness, he said:
"I did not know that I had spoken. As for the bet, I deserve to be thrashed for ever having made it; but, duffer as I am, I want you to know that I'm something worse than duffer. The first time I met you I made a bet that I should know your history before Christmas Day. I haven't a word to say for myself. I'm contemptible. I beg your pardon; for your history is none of my business. I was really interested; that's all; but your lives, I believe it, as if it was in the Bible, have been great-- yes, that's the word! and I'm a better chap for having known you, though, perhaps, I've known you all along, because, you see, I've--I've been friends with your daughter--and-well, really I haven't anything else to say, except that I hope you'll forgive me, and let me know you always."
Malbrouck regarded him for a moment with a grave smile, and then looked toward his wife. Both turned their glances quickly upon Margaret, whose eyes were on the fire. The look upon her face was very gentle; something new and beautiful had come to reign there.
A moment, and Malbrouck spoke: "You did what was youthful and curious, but not wrong; and you shall not lose your hazard. I--"
"No, do not tell me," Gregory interrupted; "only let me be pardoned."
"As I said, lad, you shall not lose your hazard. I will tell you the brief tale of two lives."
"But, I beg of you! For the instant I forgot. I have more to confess." And Gregory told them in substance what Pretty Pierre had disclosed to him in the Rocky Mountains.
When he had finished, Malbrouck said: "My tale then is briefer still: I was a common soldier, English and humble by my mother, French and noble through my father--noble, but poor. In Burmah, at an outbreak among the natives, I rescued my colonel from immediate and horrible death, though he died in my arms from the injuries he received. His daughter too, it was my fortune, through God's Providence, to save from great danger. She became my wife. You remember that song you sang the day we first met you?
"It brought her father back to mind painfully. When we came to England her people--her mother--would not receive me. For myself I did not care; for my wife, that was another matter. She loved me and preferred to go with me anywhere; to a new country, preferably. We came to Canada.
"We were forgotten in England. Time moves so fast, even if the records in red-books stand. Our daughter went to her grandmother to be brought up and educated in England--though it was a sore trial to us both--that she might fill nobly that place in life for which she is destined. With all she learned she did not forget us. We were happy save in her absence. We are happy now; not because she is mistress of Holwood and Marchurst--for her grandmother and another is dead--but because such as she is our daughter, and--"
He said no more. Margaret was beside him, and her fingers were on his lips.
Gregory came to his feet suddenly, and with a troubled face.
"Mistress of Holwood and Marchurst!" he said; and his mind ran over his own great deficiencies, and the list of eligible and anxious suitors that Park Lane could muster. He had never thought of her in the light of a great heiress.
But he looked down at her as she knelt at her father's knee, her eyes upturned to his, and the tide of his fear retreated; for he saw in them the same look she had given him when she leaned her cheek against the moose's neck that afternoon.
When the clock struck twelve upon a moment's pleasant silence, John Malbrouck said to Gregory Thorne:
"Yes, you have won your Christmas hazard, my boy."
But a softer voice than his whispered: "Are you--content--Gregory?"
The Spirits of Christmas-tide, whose paths lie north as well as south, smiled as they wrote his answer on their tablets; for they knew, as the man said, that he would always be content, and--which is more in the sight of angels--that the woman would be content also.