The Desert and The Sown by Mary Hallock Foote
VIII. A Hunter's Diary
Early in November, about a week before the hunters were expected home, a packet came addressed to Moya. It was a journal letter from Paul, mailed by some returning prospector chance encountered in the forest as the party were going in. Moya read it aloud, with asterisks, to a family audience which did not include her father.
"To-day," one of the first entries read, "we halt at Twelve-Mile Cabin, the last roof we shall sleep under. There are pine-trees near the cabin cut off fifteen feet above the ground, felled in winter, John tells us, at the level of the snow!
"These cabins are all deserted now; the tide of prospecting has turned another way. The great hills that crowd one another up against the sky are so infested and overridden by this enormous forest-growth, and the underbrush is so dense, it would be impossible for a 'tenderfoot' to gain any clear idea of his direction. I should be a lost man the moment I ventured out of call. Woodcraft must be a sixth sense which we lost with the rest of our Eden birthright when we strayed from innocence, when we ceased to sleep with one ear on the ground, and to spell our way by the moss on tree-trunks. In these solitudes, as we call them, ranks and clouds of witnesses rise up to prove us deaf and blind. Busy couriers are passing every moment of the day; and we do not see, nor hear, nor understand. We are the stocks and stones. Packer John is our only wood-sharp;--yet the last half of the name doesn't altogether fit him. He is a one-sided character, handicapped, I should say, by some experience that has humbled and perplexed him. Two and two perhaps refused to make four in his account with men, and he gave up the proposition. And now he consorts with trees, and hunts to live, not to kill. He has an impersonal, out-door odor about him, such as the cleanest animals have. I would as soon eat out of his dry, hard, cool hand, as from a chunk of pine-bark.
"It is amusing to see him with a certain member of the party who tries to be fresh with him. He has a disconcerting eye when he fixes it on a man, or turns it away from one who has said a coarse or a foolish thing.
"'The jungle is large,' he seems to say, 'and the cub he is small. Let him think and be still!'"
"Who is this 'certain member' who tries to be 'fresh'?" Christine inquired with perceptible warmth.
"The cook, perhaps," said Moya prudently.
"The cook isn't a 'member'!--Well, can't you go on, Moya? Paul seems to need a lot of editing." Moya had paused and was glancing ahead, smiling to herself constrainedly.
"Is there more disparagement of his comrades?" Christine persisted.
"Christine, be still!" Mrs. Bogardus interfered. "Moya ought to have the first reading of her own letter. It's very good of her to let us hear it at all."
"Oh dear, there's no disparagement. Quite the contrary! I'll go on with pleasure if you don't mind." Moya read hurriedly, laughing through her words:--
"'If you were here, (Ah, if you were here!) You should lend me an ear-- One at the least Of a pair the prettiest'--
which is, within a foot or two, the rhythm of 'Wood Notes.' Of course you don't know it!"
"This is a gibe at me," Moya explained, "because I don't read Emerson. 'It is the very measure of a marching chorus,' he goes on to say, 'where the step is broken by rocks and tree-roots;'--and he is chanting it to himself (to her it was in the original) as they go in single file through these 'haughty solitudes, the twilight of the gods!'"
"'Haughty solitudes'!" Christine derided.
Mrs. Bogardus sighed with impatience, and Moya's face became set. "Well, here he quotes again," she haughtily resumed. "Anybody who is tired of this can be excused. Emerson won't mind, and I'm sure Paul won't!" She looked a mute apology to Paul's mother, who smiled and said, "Go on, dear. I don't read Emerson either, but I like him when Paul reads him for me."
"Well, I warn you there is an awful lot of him here!" Moya's voice was a trifle husky as she read on.
"Old as Jove, Old as Love'"
"I thought Love was young!"--Christine in a whisper aside.
"'Who of me Tells the pedigree? Only the mountains old, Only the waters cold, Only the moon and stars, My coevals are.'"
Moya sighed, and sank into prose again. "There is a gaudy yellow moss in these woods that flecks the straight and mournful tree-trunks like a wandering glint of sunlight; and there is a crepe-like black moss that hangs funeral scarfs upon the boughs, as if there had been a death in the forest, and the trees were in line for the burial procession. The grating of our voices on this supreme silence reminds one of 'Why will you still be talking, Monsieur Benedick?--nobody marks you.'
"There are silences, and again there are whole symphonies of sound. The winds smites the tree-tops over our heads, a surf-like roar comes up the slope, and the yellow pine-needles fall across the deepest darks as motes sail down a sunbeam. One wearies of the constant perpendicular, always these stiff, columnar lines, varied only by the melancholy incline where some great pine-chieftain is leaning to his fall supported in the arms of his comrades, or by the tragic prostration of the 'down timber'--beautiful straight-cut English these woodsmen talk.
"Last evening John and I sat by the stove in the men's tent, while the others were in the cabin playing penny-ante with the cook (a sodden brute who toadies to the Bowens, and sulks with John because he objected to our hiring the fellow--an objection which I sustained, hence his logical spite includes me). John was melting pine gum and elk tallow into a dressing for our boots. I took a mean advantage of him, his hands being in the tallow and the tent-flap down, and tried on him a little of--now, don't deride me!--'Wood Notes.' It is seldom one can get the comment of a genuine woodsman on Nature according to the poets.'"
Moya read on perfunctorily, feeling that she was not carrying her audience with her, and longing for the time when she could take her letter away and have it all to herself. If she stopped now, Christine, in this sudden new freak of distrustfulness, would be sure to misunderstand.
"'For Nature ever faithful is To such as trust her faithfulness. When the forest shall mislead me, When the night and morning lie, When sea and land refuse to feed me, Will be time enough to die. Then will yet my Mother yield A pillow in her greenest field; Nor the June flowers scorn to cover The clay of their departed lover.'"
"That is beautiful," Mrs. Bogardus murmured hastily. "Even I can understand that." Moya thanked her with a glance.
"And what did the infallible John say?" Christine inquired.
"John looked at me and smiled, as at a babbling infant"--
"Good for John!"
"Christine, be still!"
"John looked at me and smiled," Moya repeated steadily. Nothing could have stopped her now. She only hoped for some further scattering mention of that "certain member" who had set them all at odds and spoiled what should have been an hour's pure happiness. "'You'll get the pillow all right,' he said. 'It might not be a green one, nor I wouldn't bank much on the flowers; but you'll be tired enough to sleep without rocking about the time you trust to Nature's tuckin' you in and puttin' victuals in your mouth. I never see nature till I came out here. I'd seen pretty woods and views, that a young lady could take down with her paints; but how are you going to paint that?'--he waved his tallow-stick towards the night outside. 'Ears can't reach the bottom of that stillness. That's creation before God ever thought of man. Long as I've been in the woods, I never get over the feeling that there's something behind me. If you go towards the trees, they come to meet you; if you go backwards, they go back; but you can't sit down and sit still without they'll come a-creeping up and creeping up, and crowding in'--
"He stirred his 'dope' awhile, and then he struck another note. 'I've wintered alone in these mountains,' he said, 'and I've seen snowslides pounce out of a clear sky--a puff and a flash and a roar; an' trees four foot across snappin' like kindlin' wood--not because it hit 'em; only the breath of it struck them; and maybe a man lying dead somewheres under his cabin timbers. That's no mother's love-tap. Pillows and flowers ain't in it. But it's good poetry,' he added condescendingly.
"I have not quoted him right, not being much of a snap-shot at dialect; and his is an undefined, unclassifiable mixture. Eastern farm-hand and Western ranchman, prospector, who knows what? His real language is in his eye and his rare, pure smile. And just as his countenance expresses his thoughts without circumlocution or attempt at effect, so his body informs his clothing. Wind and rain have moulded his hat to his head, his shoes grip the ground like paws; his buckskins have a surface like a cast after Rodin. They are repousseed by the hard bones and sinews underneath. I can think of nothing but the clothing of Millet's peasants to compare with this exterior of John's. He is himself a peasant of the woods. He has not the predatory instincts. If he could have his way, not a shot would be fired by any of us for the mere idle sport of killing. Shooting these innocent, fearless creatures, who have not learned that we are here for their destruction, is too like murder and treachery combined. Hunger should be our only excuse. My forbearance, or weakness, is a sort of unspoken bond between us. But I am a peasant, too, you know. I do not come of the lordly, arms-bearing blood. I shoot at a live mark always under protest; and when I fairly catch the look in the great eye of a dying elk or black-tail, it knocks me out for that day's hunt."
"Paul is perfectly happy!" Christine broke in. "He has got one of his beloved People to grovel to. They can sleep in the same tent and eat from the same plate, if you like. Why, it's better than the East Side! He'll be blood brother to Packer John before they leave the woods."
Moya blushed with anger.
"You have said enough on that subject, Christine." Mrs. Bogardus bent her dark, keen gaze upon her daughter's face. "Come"--she rose. "Come with me!"
Christine sat still. "Come!" her mother repeated sternly. "Moya,"--in a different voice,--"your letter was lovely. Shall you read it to your father?"
"Hardly," said Moya, flushing. "Father does not care for descriptions, and the woods are an old story to him."
Mrs. Bogardus placed her hands on the girl's shoulders and gave her one of her infrequent, ceremonious kisses, which, like her finest smile, she kept for occasions too nice for words.