Pierre And His People by Gilbert Parker
The missionary at Fort Anne of the H. B. C. was violently in earnest. Before he piously followed the latest and most amply endowed batch of settlers, who had in turn preceded the new railway to the Fort, the word scandal had no place in the vocabulary of the citizens. The H. B. C. had never imported it into the Chinook language, the common meeting-ground of all the tribes of the North; and the British men and native-born, who made the Fort their home, or place of sojourn, had never found need for its use. Justice was so quickly distributed, men were so open in their conduct, good and bad, that none looked askance, nor put their actions in ambush, nor studied innuendo. But this was not according to the new dispensation--that is, the dispensation which shrewdly followed the settlers, who as shrewdly preceded the railway. And, the dispensation and the missionary were known also as the Reverend Ezra Badgley, who, on his own declaration, in times past had "a call" to preach, and in the far East had served as local preacher, then probationer, then went on circuit, and now was missionary in a district of which the choice did credit to his astuteness, and gave room for his piety and for his holy rage against the Philistines. He loved a word for righteous mouthing, and in a moment of inspiration pagan and scandal came to him. Upon these two words he stamped, through them he perspired mightily, and with them he clenched his stubby fingers--such fingers as dug trenches, or snatched lewdly at soft flesh, in days of barbarian battle. To him all men were Pagans who loved not the sound of his voice, nor wrestled with him in prayer before the Lord, nor fed him with rich food, nor gave him much strong green tea to drink. But these men were of opaque stuff, and were not dismayed, and they called him St. Anthony, and with a prophetic and deadly patience waited. The time came when the missionary shook his denouncing finger mostly at Pretty Pierre, who carefully nursed his silent wrath until the occasion should arrive for a delicate revenge which hath its hour with every man, if, hating, he knows how to bide the will of Fate.
The hour came. A girl had been found dying on the roadside beyond the Fort by the drunken doctor of the place and Pierre. Pierre was with her when she died.
"An' who's to bury her, the poor colleen"? said Shon McGann afterwards.
Pierre musingly replied: "She is a Protestant. There is but one man."
After many pertinent and vigorous remarks, Shon added, "A Pagan is it, he calls you, Pierre, you that's had the holy water on y'r forehead, and the cross on the water, and that knows the book o' the Mass like the cards in a pack? Sinner y' are, and so are we all, God save us! say I; and weavin' the stripes for our backs He may be, and little I'd think of Him failin' in that: but Pagan--faith, it's black should be the white of the eyes of that preachin' sneak, and a rattle of teeth in his throat--divils go round me!"
The half-breed, still musing, replied: "An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth--is that it, Shon?" "Nivir a word truer by song or by book, and stand by the text, say I. For Papist I am, and Papist are you; and the imps from below in y'r fingers whip poker is the game; and outlaws as they call us both--you for what it doesn't concern me, and I for a wild night in ould Donegal--but Pagan, wurra! whin shall it be, Pierre?"
"When shall it to be?"
"True for you. The teeth in his throat and a lump to his eye, and what more be the will o' God. Fightin' there'll be, av coorse; but by you I'll stand, and sorra inch will I give, if they'll do it with sticks or with guns, and not with the blisterin' tongue that's lied of me and me frinds--for frind I call you, Pierre, that loved me little in days gone by. And proud I am not of you, nor you of me; but we've tasted the bitter of avil days together, and divils surround me, if I don't go down with you or come up with you, whichever it be! For there's dirt, as I say on their tongues, and over their shoulder they look at you, and not with an eye full front."
Pierre was cool, even pensive. His lips parted slightly once or twice, and showed a row of white, malicious teeth. For the rest, he looked as if he were politely interested but not moved by the excitement of the other. He slowly rolled a cigarette and replied: "He says it is a scandal that I live at Fort Anne. Well, I was here before he came, and I shall be here after he goes--yes. A scandal--tsh! what is that? You know the word 'Raca' of the Book? Well, there shall be more 'Raca; soon --perhaps. No, there shall not be fighting as you think, Shon; but--" here Pierre rose, came over, and spread his fingers lightly on Shon's breast "but this thing is between this man and me, Shon McGann, and you shall see a great matter. Perhaps there will be blood, perhaps not-- perhaps only an end." And the half-breed looked up at the Irishman from under his dark brows so covertly and meaningly that Shon saw visions of a trouble as silent as a plague, as resistless as a great flood. This noiseless vengeance was not after his own heart. He almost shivered as the delicate fingers drummed on his breast.
"Angels begird me, Pretty Pierre, but it's little I'd like you for enemy o' mine; for I know that you'd wait for y'r foe with death in y'r hand, and pity far from y'r heart; and y'd smile as you pulled the black-cap on y'r head, and laugh as you drew the life out of him, God knows how! Arrah, give me, sez I, the crack of a stick, the bite of a gun, or the clip of a sabre's edge, with a shout in y'r mouth the while!"
Though Pierre still listened lazily, there was a wicked fire in his eyes. His words now came from his teeth with cutting precision. "I have a great thought tonight, Shon McGann. I will tell you when we meet again. But, my friend, one must not be too rash--no, not too brutal. Even the sabre should fall at the right time, and then swift and still. Noise is not battle. Well, 'au revoir!' To-morrow I shall tell you many things." He caught Shon's hand quickly, as quickly dropped it, and went out indolently singing a favourite song,--"Voici le sabre de mon Pere!"
It was dark. Pretty Pierre stood still, and thought for a while. At last he spoke aloud: "Well, I shall do it, now I have him--so!" And he opened and shut his hand swiftly and firmly. He moved on, avoiding the more habited parts of the place, and by a roundabout came to a house standing very close to the bank of the river. He went softly to the door and listened. Light shone through the curtain of a window. He went to the window and looked beneath the curtain. Then he came back to the door, opened it very gently, stepped inside, and closed it behind him.
A man seated at a table, eating, rose; a man on whom greed had set its mark--greed of the flesh, greed of men's praise, greed of money. His frame was thick-set, his body was heavily nourished, his eye was shifty but intelligent; and a close observer would have seen something elusive, something furtive and sinister, in his face. His lips were greasy with meat as he stood up, and a fear sprang to his face, so that its fat looked sickly. But he said hoarsely, and with an attempt at being brave --"How dare you enter my house with out knocking? What do you want?"
The half-breed waved a hand protestingly towards him. "Pardon!" he said. "Be seated, and finish your meal. Do you know me?"
"Yes, I know you."
"Well, as I said, do not stop your meal. I have come to speak with you very quietly about a scandal--a scandal, you understand. This is Sunday night, a good time to talk of such things." Pierre seated himself at the table, opposite the man.
But the man replied: "I have nothing to say to you. You are--"
The half-breed interrupted: "Yes, I know, a Pagan fattening--" here he smiled, and looked at his thin hands--"fattening for the shambles of the damned, as you have said from the pulpit, Reverend Ezra Badgley. But you will permit me--a sinner as you say--to speak to you like this while you sit down and eat. I regret to disturb you, but you will sit, eh?"
Pierre's tone was smooth and low, almost deferential, and his eyes, wide open now, and hot with some hidden purpose, were fixed compellingly on the man. The missionary sat, and, having recovered slightly, fumbled with a knife and fork. A napkin was still beneath his greasy chin. He did not take it away.
Pierre then spoke slowly: "Yes, it is a scandal concerning a sinner--and a Pagan. . . . Will you permit me to light a cigarette? Thank you . . . . You have said many harsh things about me: well, as you see, I am amiable. I lived at Fort Anne before you came. They call me Pretty Pierre. Why is my cheek so? Because I drink no wine; I eat not much. Pardon, pork like that on your plate--no! no! I do not take green tea as there in your cup; I do not love women, one or many. Again, pardon, I say."
The other drew his brows together with an attempt at pious frowning and indignation; but there was a cold, sneering smile now turned upon him, and it changed the frown to anxiety, and made his lips twitch, and the food he had eaten grow heavy within him.
"I come to the scandal slowly. The woman? She was a young girl travelling from the far East, to search for a man who had--spoiled her. She was found by me and another. Ah, you start so! . . . Will you not listen? . . . Well, she died to-night."
Here the missionary gasped, and caught with both hands at the table.
"But before she died she gave two things into my hands: a packet of letters--a man is a fool to write such letters--and a small bottle of poison--laudanum, old-fashioned but sure. The letters were from the man at Fort Anne--the man, you hear! The other was for her death, if he would not take her to his arms again. Women are mad when they love. And so she came to Fort Anne, but not in time. The scandal is great, because the man is holy--sit down!"
The half-breed said the last two words sharply, but not loudly. They both sat down slowly again, looking each other in the eyes. Then Pierre drew from his pocket a small bottle and a packet of letters, and held them before him. "I have this to say: there are citizens of Fort Anne who stand for justice more than law; who have no love for the ways of St. Anthony. There is a Pagan, too, an outlaw, who knows when it is time to give blow for blow with the holy man. Well, we understand each other, 'hein?'"
The elusive, sinister look in the missionary's face was etched in strong lines now. A dogged sullenness hung about his lips. He noticed that one hand only of Pretty Pierre was occupied with the relics of the dead girl; the other was free to act suddenly on a hip pocket. "What do you want me to do"? he said, not whiningly, for beneath the selfish flesh and shallow outworks there were the elements of a warrior--all pulpy now, but they were there.
"This," was the reply: "for you to make one more outlaw at Fort Anne by drinking what is in this bottle--sit down, quick, by God!" He placed the bottle within reach of the other. "Then you shall have these letters; and there is the fire. After? Well, you will have a great sleep, the good people will find you, they will bury you, weeping much, and no one knows here but me. Refuse that, and there is the other, the Law--ah, the poor girl was so very young!--and the wild Justice which is sometimes quicker than Law. Well? well?"
The missionary sat as if paralysed, his face all grey, his eyes fixed on the half-breed. "Are you man or devil"? he groaned at length.
With a slight, fantastic gesture Pierre replied: "It was said that a devil entered into me at birth, but that was mere scandal--'peut-etre.' You shall think as you will."
There was silence. The sullenness about the missionary's lips became charged with a contempt more animal than human. The Reverend Ezra Badgley knew that the man before him was absolute in his determination, and that the Pagans of Fort Anne would show him little mercy, while his flock would leave him to his fate. He looked at the bottle. The silence grew, so that the ticking of the watch in the missionary's pocket could be heard plainly, having for its background of sound the continuous swish of the river. Pretty Pierre's eyes were never taken off the other, whose gaze, again, was fixed upon the bottle with a terrible fascination. An hour, two hours, passed. The fire burned lower. It was midnight; and now the watch no longer ticked; it had fulfilled its day's work. The missionary shuddered slightly at this. He looked up to see the resolute gloom of the half-breed's eyes, and that sneering smile, fixed upon him still. Then he turned once more to the bottle. . . . His heavy hand moved slowly towards it. His stubby fingers perspired and showed sickly in the light. . . . They closed about the bottle. Then suddenly he raised it, and drained it at a draught. He sighed once heavily and as if a great inward pain was over. Rising he took the letters silently pushed towards him, and dropped them into the fire. He went to the window, raised it, and threw the bottle into the river. The cork was left: Pierre pointed to it. He took it up with a strange smile and thrust it into the coals. Then he sat down by the table, leaning his arms upon it, his eyes staring painfully before him, and the forgotten napkin still about his neck. Soon the eyes closed, and, with a moan on his lips, his head dropped forward on his arms. . . . Pierre rose, and, looking at the figure soon to be breathless as the baked meats about it, said: "'Bien,' he was not all coward. No."
Then he turned and went out into the night.