The Forest by Stewart Edward White
Imagine a many-armed lake, like a starfish, nested among rugged Laurentian hills, whose brows are bare and forbidding, but whose concealed ravines harbour each its cool screen of forest growth. Imagine a brawling stream escaping at one of the arms, to tumble, intermittently visible among the trees, down a series of cascades and rapids, to the broad, island-dotted calm of the big lake. Imagine a meadow at the mouth of this stream, and on the meadow a single white dot. Thus you will see Cloche, a trading-post of the Honourable the Hudson's Bay Company, as Deuce and I saw it from the summit of the hills.
We had accomplished a very hard scramble, which started well enough in a ravine so leafy and green and impenetrable that we might well have imagined ourselves in a boundless forest. Deuce had scented sundry partridges, which he had pointed with entire deference to the good form of a sporting dog's conventions. As usual, to Deuce's never-failing surprise and disgust, the birds had proved themselves most uncultivated and rude persons by hopping promptly into trees instead of lying to point and then flushing as a well-taught partridge should. I had refused to pull pistol on them. Deuce's heart was broken. Then, finally, we came to cliffs up which we had to scale, and boulders which we had to climb, and fissures which we had to jump or cross on fallen trees, and wide, bare sweeps of rock and blueberry bushes which we had to cover, until at last we stood where we could look all ways at once.
The starfish thrust his insinuating arms in among the distant hills to the north. League after league, rising and falling and rising again into ever bluer distance, forest-covered, mysterious, other ranges and systems lifted, until at last, far out, nearly at the horizon-height of my eye, flashed again the gleam of water. And so the starfish arms of the little lake at my feet seemed to have plunged into this wilderness tangle only to reappear at greater distance. Like swamp-fire, it lured the imagination always on and on and on through the secret waterways of the uninhabited North. It was as though I stood on the dividing ridge between the old and the new. Through the southern haze, hull down, I thought to make out the smoke of a Great Lake freighter; from the shelter of a distant cove I was not surprised a moment later to see emerge a tiny speck whose movements betrayed it as a birch canoe. The great North was at this, the most southern of the Hudson's Bay posts, striking a pin-point of contact with the world of men.
Deuce and I angled down the mountain toward the stream. Our arrival coincided with that of the canoe. It was of the Ojibway three-fathom pattern, and contained a half-dozen packs, a sledge-dog, with whom Deuce at once opened guarded negotiations, an old Indian, a squaw, and a child of six or eight. We exchanged brief greetings. Then I sat on a stump and watched the portage.
These were evidently "Woods Indians," an entirely different article from the "Post Indians." They wore their hair long, and bound by a narrow strip or fillet; their faces were hard and deeply lined, with a fine, bold, far-seeing look to the eyes which comes only from long woods dwelling. They walked, even under heavy loads, with a sagging, springy gait, at once sure-footed and swift. Instead of tump-lines the man used his sash, and the woman a blanket knotted loosely together at the ends. The details of their costumes were interesting in combination of jeans and buckskin, broadcloth and blanket, stroud and a material evidently made from the strong white sacking in which flour intended for frontier consumption is always packed. After the first double-barrelled "bo' jou', bo' jou'," they paid no further attention to me. In a few moments the portage was completed. The woman thrust her paddle against the stream's bottom and the canoe, and so embarked. The man stepped smoothly to his place like a cat leaping from a chair. They shot away with the current, leaving behind them a strange and mysterious impression of silence.
I followed down a narrow but well-beaten trail, and so at the end of a half-mile came to the meadow and the post of Cloche.
The building itself was accurately of the Hudson Bay type--a steep, sloping roof greater in front than behind, a deep recessed veranda, squared logs sheathed with whitewashed boards. About it was a little garden, which, besides the usual flowers and vegetables, contained such exotics as a deer confined to a pen and a bear chained to a stake. As I approached, the door opened and the Trader came out.
Now, often along the southern fringe your Hudson's Bay Trader will prove to be a distinct disappointment. In fact, one of the historic old posts is now kept by a pert little cockney Englishman, cringing or impudent as the main chance seems to advise. When you have penetrated further into the wilderness, however, where the hardships of winter and summer travel, the loneliness of winter posts, the necessity of dealing directly with savage men and savage nature, develops the quality of a man or wrecks him early in the game, you will be certain of meeting your type. But here, within fifty miles of the railroad!
The man who now stepped into view, however, preserved in his appearance all the old traditions. He was, briefly, a short black-and-white man built very square. Immense power lurked in the broad, heavy shoulders, the massive chest, the thick arms, the sturdy, column-like legs. As for his face, it was almost entirely concealed behind a curly square black beard that grew above his cheek-bones nearly to his eyes. Only a thick hawk nose, an inscrutable pair of black eyes under phenomenally heavy eyebrows, and a short black pipe showed plainly from the hirsute tangle. He was lock, stock, and barrel of the Far North, one of the old regime. I was rejoiced to see him there, but did not betray a glimmer of interest. I knew my type too well for that.
"How are you?" he said grudgingly.
"Good-day," said I.
We leaned against the fence and smoked, each contemplating carefully the end of his pipe. I knew better than to say anything. The Trader was looking me over, making up his mind about me. Speech on my part would argue lightness of disposition, for it would seem to indicate that I was not also making up my mind about him.
In this pause there was not the least unfriendliness. Only, in the woods you prefer to know first the business and character of a chance acquaintance. Afterwards you may ingratiate to his good will. All of which possesses a beautiful simplicity, for it proves that good or bad opinion need not depend on how gracefully you can chatter assurances. At the end of a long period the Trader inquired, "Which way you headed?"
"Out in a canoe for pleasure. Headed almost anywhere."
Again we smoked.
"Dog any good?" asked the Trader, removing his pipe and pointing to the observant Deuce.
"He'll hunt shade on a hot day," said I tentatively. "How's the fur in this district?"
We were off. He invited me in and showed me his bear. In ten minutes we were seated chair-tilted on the veranda, and slowly, very cautiously, in abbreviated syncopation, were feeling our way toward an intimacy.
Now came the Indians I had seen at the lake to barter for some flour and pork. I was glad of the chance to follow them all into the trading-room. A low wooden counter backed by a grill divided the main body of the room from the entrance. It was deliciously dim. All the charm of the Aromatic Shop was in the place, and an additional flavour of the wilds. Everything here was meant for the Indian trade: bolts of bright-patterned ginghams, blankets of red or blue, articles of clothing, boxes of beads for decoration, skeins of brilliant silk, lead bars for bullet-making, stacks of long brass-bound "trade guns" in the corner, small mirrors, red and parti-coloured worsted sashes with tassels on the ends, steel traps of various sizes, and a dozen other articles to be desired by the forest people. And here, unlike the Aromatic Shop, were none of the products of the Far North. All that, I knew, was to be found elsewhere, in another apartment, equally dim, but delightful in the orderly disorder of a storeroom.
Afterwards I made the excuse of a pair of moccasins to see this other room. We climbed a steep, rough flight of stairs to emerge through a sort of trap-door into a space directly under the roof. It was lit only by a single little square at one end. Deep under the eaves I could make out row after row of boxes and chests. From the rafters hung a dozen pair of snow-shoes. In the centre of the floor, half overturned, lay an open box from which tumbled dozens of pairs of moose-hide snow-shoe moccasins.
Shades of childhood, what a place! No one of us can fail to recall with a thrill the delights of a rummage in the attic--the joy of pulling from some half-forgotten trunk a wholly forgotten shabby garment, which nevertheless has taken to itself from the stillness of undisturbed years the faint aroma of romance; the rapture of discovering in the dusk of a concealed nook some old spur or broken knife or rusty pistol redolent of the open road. Such essentially commonplace affairs they are, after all, in the light of our mature common sense, but such unspeakable ecstasies to the romance-breathing years of fancy. Here would no fancy be required. To rummage in these silent chests and boxes would be to rummage, not in the fictions of imagination, but the facts of the most real picturesque. In yonder square box are the smoke-tanned shoes of silence; that velvet dimness would prove to be the fur of a bear; this birch-bark package contains maple sugar savoured of the wilds. Buckskin, both white and buff, bears' claws in strings, bundles of medicinal herbs, sweet-grass baskets fragrant as an Eastern tale, birch-bark boxes embroidered with stained quills of the porcupines, bows of hickory and arrows of maple, queer half-boots of stiff sealskin from the very shores of the Hudson Bay, belts of beadwork, yellow and green, for the Corn Dance, even a costume or so of buckskin complete for ceremonial--all these the fortunate child would find were he to take the rainy-day privilege in this, the most wonderful attic in all the world. And then, after he had stroked the soft fur, and smelled the buckskin and sweet grasses, and tasted the crumbling maple sugar, and dressed himself in the barbaric splendours of the North, he could flatten his little nose against the dim square of light and look out over the glistening yellow backs of a dozen birchbark canoes to the distant, rain-blurred hills, beyond which lay the country whence all these things had come. Do you wonder that in after years that child hits the Long Trail? Do you still wonder at finding these strange, taciturn, formidable, tender-hearted men dwelling lonely in the Silent Places?
The Trader yanked several of the boxes to the centre and prosaically tumbled about their contents. He brought to light heavy moose-hide moccasins with high linen tops for the snow; lighter buckskin moccasins, again with the high tops, but this time of white tanned doeskin; slipper-like deer-skin moccasins with rolled edges, for the summer; oil-tanned shoepacs, with and without the flexible leather sole; "cruisers" of varying degree of height--each and every sort of footgear in use in the Far North, excepting and saving always the beautiful soft doeskin slippers finished with white fawnskin and ornamented with the Ojibway flower pattern for which I sought. Finally he gave it up.
"I had a few pair. They must have been sent out," said he.
We rummaged a little further for luck's sake, then descended to the outer air. I left him to fetch my canoe, but returned in the afternoon. We became friends. That evening we sat in the little sitting-room and talked far into the night.
He was a true Hudson's Bay man, steadfastly loyal to the Company. I mentioned the legend of La Longue Traverse; he stoutly asserted he had never heard of it. I tried to buy a mink-skin or so to hang on the wall as souvenir of my visit; he was genuinely distressed, but had to refuse because the Company had not authorized him to sell, and he had nothing of his own to give. I mentioned the River of the Moose, the Land of Little Sticks; his deep eyes sparkled with excitement, and he asked eagerly a multitude of details concerning late news from the northern posts.
And as the evening dwindled, after the manner of Traders everywhere, he began to tell me the "ghost stories" of this station of Cloche. Every post has gathered a mass of legendary lore in the slow years, but this had been on the route of the voyageurs from Montreal and Quebec at the time when the lords of the North journeyed to the scenes of their annual revels at Fort Williams. The Trader had much to say of the magnificence and luxury of these men--their cooks, their silken tents, their strange and costly foods, their rare wines, their hordes of French and Indian canoemen and packers. Then Cloche was a halting-place for the night. Its meadows had blossomed many times with the gay tents and banners of a great company. He told me, as vividly as though he had been an eye-witness, of how the canoes must have loomed up suddenly from between the islands. By-and-by he seized the lamp and conducted me outside, where hung ponderous ornamental steelyards, on which in the old days the peltries were weighed.
"It is not so now," said he. "We buy by count, and modern scales weigh the provisions. And the beaver are all gone."
We re-entered the house in silence. After a while he began briefly to sketch his own career. Then, indeed, the flavour of the Far North breathed its crisp, bracing ozone through the atmosphere of the room.
He had started life at one of the posts of the Far North-West. At the age of twelve he enlisted in the Company. Throughout forty years he had served her. He had travelled to all the strange places of the North, and claimed to have stood on the shores of that half-mythical lake of Yamba Tooh.
"It was snowing at the time," he said prosaically; "and I couldn't see anything, except that I'd have to bear to the east to get away from open water. Maybe she wasn't the lake. The Injins said she was, but I was too almighty shy of grub to bother with lakes."
Other names fell from him in the course of talk, some of which I had heard and some not, but all of which rang sweet and clear with no uncertain note of adventure. Especially haunts my memory an impression of desolate burned trees standing stick-like in death on the shores of Lost River.
He told me he had been four years at Cloche, but expected shortly to be transferred, as the fur was getting scarce, and another post one hundred miles to the west could care for the dwindling trade. He hoped to be sent into the North-West, but shrugged his shoulders as he said so, as though that were in the hands of the gods. At the last he fished out a concertina and played for me. Have you ever heard, after dark, in the North, where the hills grow big at sunset, a la Claire Fontaine crooned to such an accompaniment, and by a man of impassive bulk and countenance, but with glowing eyes?
I said good-night, and stumbled, sight-dazed, through the cool dark to my tent near the beach. The weird minor strains breathed after me as I went.
"A la claire fontaine M'en allant promener, J'ai trouve l'eau si belle Que je m'y suis baigne, Il y a longtemps que je t'aime Jamais je ne t'oublierai."
The next day, with the combers of a howling north-westerly gale clutching at the stern of the canoe, I rode in a glory of spray and copper-tasting excitement back to Dick and his half-breed settlement.
But the incident had its sequel. The following season, as I was sitting writing at my desk, a strange package was brought me. It was wrapped in linen sewn strongly with waxed cord. Its contents lie before me now--a pair of moccasins fashioned of the finest doeskin, tanned so beautifully that the delicious smoke fragrance fills the room, and so effectively that they could be washed with soap and water without destroying their softness. The tongue-shaped piece over the instep is of white fawnskin heavily ornamented in five colours of silk. Where it joins the foot of the slipper it is worked over and over into a narrow cord of red and blue silk. The edge about the ankle is turned over, deeply scalloped, and bound at the top with a broad band of blue silk stitched with pink. Two tiny blue bows at either side the ankle ornament the front. Altogether a most magnificent foot-gear. No word accompanied them, apparently, but after some search I drew a bit of paper from the toe of one of them. It was inscribed simply--"Fort la Cloche."