The Trail of The Sword by Gilbert Parker
Epoch the Second
Chapter X. Qui Vive!
From Land's End to John O' Groat's is a long tramp, but that from Montreal to Hudson's Bay is far longer, and yet many have made it; more, however, in the days of which we are writing than now, and with greater hardships also then. But weighed against the greater hardships there was a bolder temper and a more romantic spirit.
How strange and severe a journey it was, only those can tell who have travelled those wastes, even in these later days, when paths have been beaten down from Mount Royal to the lodges of the North. When they started, the ice had not yet all left the Ottawa River, and they wound their way through crowding floes, or portaged here and there for miles, the eager sun of spring above with scarcely a cloud to trail behind him. At last the river cleared, and for leagues they travelled to the north- west, and came at last to the Lake of the Winds. They travelled across one corner of it, to a point where they would strike an unknown path to Hudson's Bay.
Iberville had never before seen this lake, and, with all his knowledge of great proportions, he was not prepared for its splendid vastness. They came upon it in the evening, and camped beside it. They watched the sun spread out his banners, presently veil his head in them, and sink below the world. And between them and that sunset was a vast rock stretching out from a ponderous shore--a colossal stone lion, resting Sphinxlike, keeping its faith with the ages. Alone, the warder of the West, stormy, menacing, even the vernal sun could give it little cheerfulness. But to Iberville and his followers it brought no gloom at night, nor yet in the morning when all was changed, and a soft silver mist hung over the "great water," like dissolving dew, through which the sunlight came with a strange, solemn delicacy. Upon the shore were bustle, cheerfulness, and song, until every canoe was launched, and then the band of warriors got in, and presently were away in the haze.
The long bark canoes, with lofty prows, stained with powerful dyes, slid along this path swiftly, the paddles noiselessly cleaving the water with the precision of a pendulum. One followed the other with a space between, so that Iberville, in the first, looking back, could see a diminishing procession, the last seeming large and weird--almost a shadow--as it were a part of the weird atmosphere. On either side was that soft plumbless diffusion, and ahead the secret of untravelled wilds and the fortunes of war.
As if by common instinct, all gossip ceased soon after they left the shore, and, cheerful as was the French Canadian, he was--and is-- superstitious. He saw sermons in stones, books in the running brooks, and the supernatural in everything. Simple, hardy, occasionally bloody, he was ever on the watch for signs and wonders, and a phase of nature influenced him after the manner of a being with a temperament. Often, as some of the woodsmen and river-men had seen this strange effect, they now made the sacred gesture as they ran on. The pure moisture lay like a fine exudation on their brown skins, glistened on their black hair, and hung from their beards, giving them a mysterious look. The colours of their canoes and clothes were softened by the dim air and long use, and there seemed to accompany each boat and each person an atmosphere within this other haze, a spiritual kind of exhalation; so that one might have thought them, with the crucifixes on their breasts, and that unworldly, distinguished look which comes to those who live much with nature, as sons of men going upon such mission as did they who went into the far land with Arthur.
But the silence could not be maintained for long. The first flush of the impression gone, these half-barbarians, with the simple hearts of children, must rise from the almost melancholy, somewhat religious mood, into which they had been cast. As Iberville, with Sainte-Helene and Perrot, sat watching the canoes that followed, with voyageurs erect in bow and stern, a voice in the next canoe, with a half-chanting modulation, began a song of the wild-life. Voice after voice slowly took it up, until it ran along the whole procession. A verse was sung, then a chorus altogether, then a refrain of one verse which was sung by each boat in succession to the last. As the refrain of this was sung by the last boat it seemed to come out of the great haze behind. Verses of the old song are still preserved:
"Qui vive! Who is it cries in the dawn Cries when the stars go down? Who is it comes through the mist The mist that is fine like lawn, The mist like an angel's gown? Who is it comes in the dawn? Qui vive! Qui vive! in the dawn. "Qui rive! Who is it passeth us by, Still in the dawn and the mist? Tall seigneur of the dawn: A two-edged sword at his thigh, A shield of gold at his wrist: Who is it hurrieth by? Qui vive! Qui vive! in the dawn."
Under the influence of this beautiful mystery of the dawn, the slow thrilling song, and the strange, happy loneliness--as though they were in the wash between two worlds, Iberville got the great inspiration of his life. He would be a discoverer, the faithful captain of his king, a trader in provinces. . . . And in that he kept his word--years after, but he kept it. There came with this, what always comes to a man of great ideas: the woman who should share his prowess. Such a man, if forced to choose between the woman and the idea, will ever decide for the woman after he has married her, sacrificing what--however much he hides it--lies behind all. But he alone knows what he has sacrificed. For it is in the order of things that the great man shall be first the maker of kingdoms and homes, and then the husband of his wife and a begetter of children. Iberville knew that this woman was not more to him than the feeling just come to him, but he knew also that while the one remained the other would also.
He stood up and folded his arms, looking into the silence and mist. His hand mechanically dropped to his sword, and he glanced up proudly to the silver flag with its golden lilies floating softly on the slight breeze they made as they passed.
"The sword!" he said under his breath. "The world and a woman by the sword; there is no other way."
He had the spirit of his time. The sword was its faith, its magic. If two men loved a woman, the natural way to make happiness for all was to let the sword do its eager office. For they had one of the least- believed and most unpopular of truths, that a woman's love is more a matter of mastery and possession than instinct, two men being of comparatively equal merit and sincerity.
His figure seemed to grow larger in the mist, and the grey haze gave his hair a frosty coating, so that age and youth seemed strangely mingled in him. He stood motionless for a long time as the song went on:
"Qui vive! Who saileth into the morn, Out of the wind of the dawn? 'Follow, oh, follow me on!' Calleth a distant horn. He is here--he is there--he is gone, Tall seigneur of the dawn! Qui vive! Qui vive! in the dawn."
Some one touched Iberville's arm. It was Dollier de Casson. Iberville turned to him, but they did not speak at first--the priest knew his friend well.
"We shall succeed, abbe," Iberville said.
"May our quarrel be a just one, Pierre," was the grave reply.
"The forts are our king's; the man is with my conscience, my dear friend."
"But if you make sorrow for the woman?"
"You brought me a gift from her!" His finger touched his doublet.
"She is English, my Pierre."
"She is what God made her."
"She may be sworn to the man."
Iberville started, then shook his head incredulously. "He is not worthy of her."
"I know her value better and prize it more."
"You have not seen her for four years."
"I had not seen you for four years--and yet!"
"You saw her then only for a few days--and she was so young!"
"What are days or years? Things lie deep in us till some great moment, and then they spring into life and are ours for ever. When I kissed King Louis' hand I knew that I loved my king; when De Montespan's. I hated, and shall hate always. When I first saw this English girl I waked from youth, I was born again into the world. I had no doubts, I have none now."
"And the man?"
"One knows one's enemy even as the other. There is no way but this, Dollier. He is the enemy of my king, and he is greatly in my debt. Remember the Spaniards' country!"
He laid a hand upon his sword. The face of the priest was calm and grave, but in his eyes was a deep fire. At heart he was a soldier, a loyalist, a gentleman of France. Perhaps there came to him then the dreams of his youth, before a thing happened which made him at last a servant of the Church after he had been a soldier of the king.
Presently the song of the voyageurs grew less, the refrain softened and passed down the long line, and, as it were, from out of far mists came the muffled challenge:
"Qui vive! Qui vive! in the dawn."
Then a silence fell once more. But presently from out of the mists there came, as it were, the echo of their challenge:
"Qui vive! Qui vive! in the dawn."
The paddles stilled in the water and a thrill ran through the line of voyageurs--even Iberville and his friends were touched by it.
Then there suddenly emerged from the haze on their left, ahead of them, a long canoe with tall figures in bow and stern, using paddles. They wore long cloaks, and feathers waved from their heads. In the centre of the canoe was what seemed a body under a pall, at its head and feet small censers. The smell of the wood came to them, and a little trail of sweet smoke was left behind as the canoe swiftly passed into the mist on the other side and was gone.
It had been seen vaguely. No one spoke, no one challenged; it had come and gone like a dream. What it was, no one, not even Iberville, could guess, though he thought it a pilgrimage of burial, such as was sometimes made by distinguished members of Indian tribes. Or it may have been-- which is likely--a dead priest being carried south by Indian friends.
The impression left upon the party was, however, characteristic. There was none but, with the smell of the censers in his nostrils, made the sacred gesture; and had the Jesuit Silvy or the Abbe de Casson been so disposed, the event might have been made into the supernatural.
After a time the mist cleared away, and nothing could be seen on the path they had travelled but the plain of clear water and the distant shore they had left.
Ahead of them was another shore, and they reached this at last. Where the mysterious canoe had vanished, none could tell.
Days upon days, they travelled with incredible labour, now portaging over a stubborn country, now, placing their lives in hazard as they shot down untravelled rapids.
One day on the Black Wing River a canoe was torn open and its three occupants were thrown into the rapids. Two of them were expert swimmers and were able to catch the stern of another canoe as it ran by, and reached safe water, bruised but alive. The third was a boy, Maurice Joval, the youngest of the party, whom Iberville had been at first loth to bring with him. But he had remembered his own ambitious youth, and had consented, persuading De Troyes that the lad was worth encouragement. His canoe was not far behind when the other ran on the rocks. He saw the lad struggle bravely and strike out, but a cross current caught him and carried him towards the steep shore. There he was thrown against a rock. His strength seemed to fail, but he grasped the rock. It was scraggy, and though it tore and bruised him he clung to it.
Iberville threw off his doublet, and prepared to spring as his boat came down. But another had made ready. It was the abbe, with his cassock gone, and his huge form showing finely. He laid his hand upon Iberville's arm. "Stay here," he said, "I go; I am the stronger."
But Iberville, as cries of warning and appeal rang out around him, the drowning lad had not cried out at all,--sprang into the water. Not alone. The abbe looked around him, made the sacred gesture, and then sprang also into an eddy a distance below, and at an angle made his way up towards the two. Priest though he was, he was also an expert river- man, and his vast strength served him royally. He saw Iberville tossed here and there, but with impossible strength and good fortune reach the lad. The two grasped each other and then struck out for the high shore. De Casson seemed to know what would happen. He altered his course, and, making for the shore also at a point below, reached it. He saw with a kind of despair that it was steep and had no trees; yet his keen eyes also saw, not far below, the dwarfed bole of a tree jutting out from the rock. There lay the chance. Below this was a great turmoil of rapids. A prayer mechanically passed the priest's lips, though his thoughts were those of a warrior then. He almost enjoyed the danger for himself: his fear was for Iberville and for the motherless boy.
He had guessed and hoped aright. Iberville, supporting the now senseless boy, swung down the mad torrent, his eyes blinded with blood so that he could not see. But he heard De Casson's voice, and with a splendid effort threw himself and the lad towards it. The priest also fought upwards to them and caught them as they came, having reserved his great strength until now. Throwing his left arm over the lad he relieved Iberville of his burden, but called to him to hold on. The blood was flowing into Iberville's eyes and he could do nothing else. But now came the fight between the priest and the mad waters. Once--twice--thrice they went beneath, but neither Iberville nor himself let go, and to the apprehensive cries of their friends there succeeded calls of delight, for De Casson had seized the jutting bole and held on. It did not give, and they were safe for a moment.
A quarter of a mile below there was smoother water, and soon the canoes were ashore, and Perrot, Sainte-Helene, and others were running to the rescue. They arrived just in time. Ropes were let down, and the lad was drawn up insensible. Then came the priest, for Iberville, battered as he was, would not stir until the abbe had gone up--a stout strain on the rope. Fortunately there were clefts and fissures in the wall, which could be used in the ascent. De Casson had consented to go first, chiefly because he wished to gratify the still youthful pride of Iberville, who thought the soldier should see the priest into safety. Iberville himself came up slowly, for he was stiff and his limbs were shaking. His clothes were in tatters, and his fine face was like that of a warrior defaced by swords.
But he refused to be carried, and his first care was for the boy, who had received no mortal injury.
"You have saved the boy, Pierre," said the priest, in a low voice.
"Self-abasing always, dear abbe; you saved us both. By heaven, but the king lost a great man in you!"
"Hush! Mere brawn, Pierre. . . . By the blessing of God," he added quickly.