The March of The White Guard by Gilbert Parker
It was eighteen days after. In the shadow of a little island of pines, that lies in a shivering waste of ice and snow, the White Guard were camped. They were able to do this night what they had not done for days --dig a great grave of snow, and building a fire of pine wood at each end of this strange house, get protection and something like comfort. They sat silent close to the fires. Jaspar Hume was writing with numbed fingers. The extract that follows is taken from his diary. It tells that day's life, and so gives an idea of harder, sterner days that they had spent and must yet spend, on this weary journey.
The writing done, Jaspar Hume put his book away and turned towards the rest. Cloud-in-the-Sky and Late Carscallen were smoking. Little could be seen of their faces; they were snuffled to the eyes. Gaspe Toujours was drinking a basin of tea, and Jeff Hyde was fitfully dozing by the fire. The dogs were above in the tent--all but Bouche, who was permitted to be near his master. Presently the sub-factor rose, took from a knapsack a small tin pail, and put it near the fire. Then he took five little cups that fitted snugly into each other, separated them, and put them also near the fire. None of the party spoke. A change seemed to pass over the faces of all except Cloud-in-the-Sky. He smoked on unmoved. At length Hume spoke cheerily: "Now, men, before we turn in we'll do something in honour of the day. Liquor we none of us have touched since we started; but back there in the fort, and maybe in other places too, they will be thinking of us; so we'll drink a health to them, though it's but a spoonful, and to the day when we see them again!"
The cups were passed round. The sub-factor measured out a very small portion to each. They were not men of uncommon sentiment; their lives were rigid and isolated and severe. Fireside comforts under fortunate conditions they saw but seldom, and they were not given to expressing their feelings demonstratively. But each man then, save Cloud-in-the- Sky, had some memory worth a resurrection.
Jaspar Hume raised his cup; the rest followed his example. "To absent friends and the day when we see them again!" he said; and they all drank. Gaspe Toujours drank solemnly, and, as though no one was near, made the sign of the cross; for his memory was with a dark-eyed, soft- cheeked habitant girl of the parish of Saint Gabrielle, whom he had left behind seven years before, and had never seen since. Word had come from the parish priest that she was dying, and though he wrote back in his homely patois of his grief, and begged that the good father would write again, no word had ever come. He thought of her now as one for whom the candles had been lighted and masses had been said.
But Jeff Hyde's eyes were bright, and suffering as he was, the heart in him was brave and hopeful. He was thinking of a glorious Christmas Day upon the Madawaska River three years agone; of Adam Henry, the blind fiddler; of bright, warm-hearted Pattie Chown, the belle of the ball, and the long drive home in the frosty night.
Late Carscallen was thinking of a brother whom he had heard preach his first sermon in Edinburgh twenty years before. And Late Carscallen, slow of speech and thought, had been full of pride and love of that brilliant brother. In the natural course of things, they had drifted apart, the slow and uncouth one to make his home at last in the Far North, and to be this night on his way to the Barren Grounds. But as he stood with the cup to his lips he recalled the words of a newspaper paragraph of a few months before. It stated that "the Reverend James Carscallen, D.D., preached before Her Majesty on Whitsunday, and had the honour of lunching with Her Majesty afterwards." Remembering that, Late Carscallen rubbed his left hand joyfully against his blanketed leg and drank.
Cloud-in-the-Sky's thoughts were with the present, and his "Ugh!" of approval was one of the senses purely. Instead of drinking to absent friends he looked at the sub-factor and said: "How!" He drank to the subfactor.
Jaspar Hume had a memory of childhood; of a house beside a swift-flowing river, where a gentle widowed mother braced her heart against misfortune and denied herself and slaved that her son might be educated. He had said to her that some day he would be a great man, and she would be paid back a hundredfold. And he had worked hard at school, very hard. But one cold day of spring a message came to the school, and he sped homewards to the house beside the dark river down which the ice was floating,--he would remember that floating ice to his last day, and entered a quiet room where a white-faced woman was breathing away her life. And he fell at her side and kissed her hand and called to her; and she waked for a moment only and smiled on him, and said: "Be good, my boy, and God will make you great." Then she said she was cold, and some one felt her feet--a kind old soul who shook her head sadly at him; and a voice, rising out of a strange smiling languor, murmured: "I'll away, I'll away to the Promised Land--to the Promised Land. . . . It is cold--so cold--God keep my boy!" Then the voice ceased, and the kind old soul who had looked at him, pityingly folded her arms about him, and drawing his brown head to her breast, kissed him with flowing eyes and whispered: "Come away, laddie, come away."
But he came back in the night and sat beside her, and remained there till the sun grew bright, and then through another day and night, until they bore her out of the little house by the river to the frozen hill-side.
Sitting here in this winter desolation Jaspar Hume once more beheld these scenes of twenty years before and followed himself, a poor dispensing clerk in a doctor's office, working for that dream of achievement in which his mother believed; for which she hoped. And following further the boy that was himself, he saw a friendless first-year man at college, soon, however, to make a friend of Clive Lepage, and to see always the best of that friend, being himself so true. At last the day came when they both graduated together in science, a bright and happy day, succeeded by one still brighter, when they both entered a great firm as junior partners. Afterwards befell the meeting with Rose Varcoe; and he thought of how he praised his friend Lepage to her, and brought him to be introduced to her. He recalled all those visions that came to him when, his professional triumphs achieved, he should have a happy home, and happy faces by his fireside. And the face was to be that of Rose Varcoe, and the others, faces of those who should be like her and like himself. He saw, or rather felt, that face clouded and anxious when he went away ill and blind for health's sake. He did not write to her. The doctors forbade him that. He did not ask her to write, for his was so steadfast a nature that he did not need letters to keep him true; and he thought she must be the same. He did not understand a woman's heart, how it needs remembrances, and needs to give remembrances.
Hume's face in the light of this fire seemed calm and cold, yet behind it was an agony of memory--the memory of the day when he discovered that Lepage was married to Rose, and that the trusted friend had grown famous and well-to-do on the offspring of his brain. His first thought had been one of fierce determination to expose this man who had falsified all trust. But then came the thought of the girl, and, most of all, there came the words of his dying mother, "Be good, my boy, and God will make you great"; and for his mother's sake he had compassion on the girl, and sought no restitution from her husband. And now, ten years later, he did not regret that he had stayed his hand. The world had ceased to call Lepage a genius. He had not fulfilled the hope once held of him. Hume knew this from occasional references in scientific journals.
And now he was making this journey to save, if he could, Lepage's life. Though just on the verge of a new era in his career--to give to the world the fruit of ten years' thought and labour, he had set all behind him, that he might be true to the friendship of his youth, that he might be clear of the strokes of conscience to the last hour of his life.
Looking round him now, the debating look came again into his eyes. He placed his hand in his breast, and let it rest there for a moment. The look became certain and steady, the hand was drawn out, and in it was a Book of Common Prayer. Upon the fly-leaf was written: "Jane Hume, to her dear son Jaspar, on his twelfth birthday."
These men of the White Guard were not used to religious practices, whatever their past had been in that regard, and at any other time they might have been surprised at this action of their leader. Under some circumstances it might have lessened their opinion of him; but his influence over them now was complete. They knew they were getting nearer to him than they had ever done; even Cloud-in-the-Sky appreciated that. Hume spoke no word to them, but looked at them and stood up. They all did the same, Jeff Hyde leaning on the shoulders of Gaspe Toujours. He read first, four verses of the Thirty-first Psalm, then followed the prayer of St. Chrysostom, and the beautiful collect which appeals to the Almighty to mercifully look upon the infirmities of men, and to stretch forth His hand to keep and defend them in all dangers and necessities. Late Carscallen, after a long pause, said "Amen," and Jeff said in a whisper to Gaspe Toujours: "That's to the point. Infirmities and dangers and necessities is what troubles us."
Immediately after, at a sign from the sub-factor, Cloud-in-the-Sky began to transfer the burning wood from one fire to the other until only hot ashes were left where a great blaze had been. Over these ashes pine twigs and branches were spread, and over them again blankets. The word was then given to turn in, and Jeff Hyde, Gaspe Toujours, and Late Carscallen lay down in this comfortable bed. Each wished to give way to their captain, but he would not consent. He and Cloud-in-the-Sky wrapped themselves in their blankets like mummies, covering the head completely, and under the arctic sky they slept alone in an austere and tenantless world. They never know how loftily sardonic Nature can be who have not seen that land where the mercury freezes in the tubes, and there is light but no warmth in the smile of the sun. Not Sturt in the heart of Australia with the mercury bursting the fevered tubes, with the finger- nails breaking like brittle glass, with the ink drying instantly on the pen, with the hair fading and falling off, would, if he could, have exchanged his lot for that of the White Guard. They were in a frozen endlessness that stretched away to a world where never voice of man or clip of wing or tread of animal is heard. It is the threshold to the undiscovered country, to that untouched north whose fields of white are only furrowed by the giant forces of the elements; on whose frigid hearthstone no fire is ever lit; where the electric phantoms of a nightless land pass and repass, and are never still; where the magic needle points not towards the north but darkly downward; where the sun never stretches warm hands to him who dares confront the terrors of eternal snow.
The White Guard slept.