The Forest by Stewart Edward White
XI. The Habitants.
During my absence Dick had made many friends. Wherein lies his secret I do not know, but he has a peculiar power of ingratiation with people whose lives are quite outside his experience or sympathies. In the short space of four days he had earned joyous greetings from every one in town. The children grinned at him cheerfully; the old women cackled good-natured little teasing jests to him as he passed; the pretty, dusky half-breed girls dropped their eyelashes fascinatingly across their cheeks, tempering their coyness with a smile; the men painfully demanded information as to artistic achievement which was evidently as well meant as it was foreign to any real thirst for knowledge they might possess; even the lumber-jacks addressed him as "Bub." And withal Dick's methods of approach were radically wrong, for he blundered upon new acquaintance with a beaming smile, which is ordinarily a sure repellent to the cautious, taciturn men of the woods. Perhaps their keenness penetrated to the fact that he was absolutely without guile, and that his kindness was an essential part of himself. I should be curious to know whether Billy Knapp of the Black Hills would surrender his gun to Dick for inspection.
"I want you to go out this afternoon to see some friends of mine," said Dick. "They're on a farm about two miles back in the brush. They're ancestors."
"They're what?" I inquired.
"Ancestors. You can go down to Grosse Point near Detroit, and find people living in beautiful country places next the water, and after dinner they'll show you an old silhouette or a daguerreotype or something like that, and will say to you proudly, 'This is old Jules, my ancestor, who was a pioneer in this country. The Place has been in the family ever since his time.'"
"Well, this is a French family, and they are pioneers, and the family has a place that slopes down to the water through white birch trees, and it is of the kind very tenacious of its own land. In two hundred years this will be a great resort; bound to be--beautiful, salubrious, good sport, fine scenery, accessible--"
"Railroad fifty miles away; boat every once in a while," said I sarcastically.
"Accessible in two hundred years, all right," insisted Dick serenely. "Even Canada can build a quarter of a mile of railway a year. Accessible," he went on; "good shipping-point for country now undeveloped."
"You ought to be a real estate agent," I advised.
"Lived two hundred years too soon," disclaimed Dick. "What more obvious? These are certainly ancestors."
"Family may die out," I suggested.
"It has a good start," said Dick sweetly. "There are eighty-seven in it now."
"What!" I gasped.
"One great-grandfather, twelve grandparents, thirty-seven parents, and thirty-seven children," tabulated Dick.
"I should like to see the great-grandfather," said I; "he must be very old and feeble."
"He is eighty-five years old," said Dick, "and the last time I saw him he was engaged with an axe in clearing trees off his farm."
All of these astonishing statements I found to be absolutely true.
We started out afoot soon after dinner, through a scattering growth of popples that alternately drew the veil of coyness over the blue hills and caught our breath with the delight of a momentary prospect. Deuce, remembering autumn days, concluded partridges, and scurried away on the expert diagonal, his hind legs tucked well under his flanks. The road itself was a mere cutting through the miniature woods, winding to right or left for the purpose of avoiding a log-end or a boulder, surmounting little knolls with an idle disregard for the straight line, knobby with big, round stones, and interestingly diversified by circular mud holes a foot or so in diameter. After a mile and a half we came to the corner of a snake fence. This, Dick informed me, marked the limits of the "farm."
We burst through the screen of popples definitely into the clear. A two-storied house of squared logs crested a knoll in the middle distance. Ten acres of grass marsh, perhaps twenty of ploughed land, and then the ash-white-green of popples. We dodged the grass marsh and gained the house. Dick was at once among friends.
The mother had no English, so smiled expansively, her bony arms folded across her stomach. Her oldest daughter, a frail-looking girl in the twenties, but with a sad and spiritual beauty of the Madonna in her big eyes and straight black hair, gave us a shy good-day. Three boys, just alike in their slender, stolid Indian good looks, except that they differed in size, nodded with the awkwardness of the male. Two babies stared solemnly. A little girl with a beautiful, oval face, large mischievous gray eyes behind long black lashes, a mischievously quirked mouth to match the eyes, and black hair banged straight, both front and behind, in almost mediaeval fashion, twirked a pair of brown bare legs all about us. Another light-haired, curly little girl, surmounted by an old yachting-cap, spread apart sturdy shoes in an attitude at once critical and expectant.
Dick rose to the occasion by sorting out from some concealed recess of his garments a huge paper parcel of candy.
With infinite tact, he presented this bag to Madame rather than the children. Madame instituted judicious distribution and appropriate reservation for the future. We entered the cabin.
Never have I seen a place more exquisitely neat. The floor had not only been washed clean; it had been scrubbed white. The walls of logs were freshly whitewashed. The chairs were polished. The few ornaments were new, and not at all dusty or dingy or tawdry. Several religious pictures, a portrait of royalty, a lithographed advertisement of some buggy, a photograph or so--and then just the fresh, wholesome cleanliness of scrubbed pine. Madame made us welcome with smiles--a faded, lean woman with a remnant of beauty peeping from her soft eyes, but worn down to the first principles of pioneer bone and gristle by toil, care, and the bearing of children. I spoke to her in French, complimenting her on the appearance of the place. She was genuinely pleased, saying in reply that one did one's possible, but that children!--with an expressive pause.
Next we called for volunteers to show us to the great-grandfather. Our elfish little girls at once offered, and went dancing off down the trail like autumn leaves in a wind. Whether it was the Indian in them, or the effects of environment, or merely our own imaginations, we both had the same thought--that in these strange, taciturn, friendly, smiling, pirouetting little creatures was some eerie, wild strain akin to the woods and birds and animals. As they danced on ahead of us, turning to throw us a delicious smile or a half-veiled roguish glance of nascent coquetry, we seemed to swing into an orbit of experience foreign to our own. These bright-eyed woods people were in the last analysis as inscrutable to us as the squirrels.
We followed our swirling, airy guides down through a trail to another clearing planted with potatoes. On the farther side of this they stopped, hand in hand, at the woods' fringe, and awaited us in a startlingly sudden repose.
"V'la le gran'pere," said they in unison.
At the words a huge gaunt man clad in shirt and jeans arose and confronted us. Our first impression was of a vast framework stiffened and shrunken into the peculiar petrifaction of age; our second, of a Jove-like wealth of iron-gray beard and hair; our third, of eyes, wide, clear, and tired with looking out on a century of the world's time. His movements, as he laid one side his axe and passed a great, gnarled hand across his forehead, were angular and slow. We knew instinctively the quality of his work--a deliberate pause, a mighty blow, another pause, a painful recovery--labour compounded of infinite slow patience, but wonderfully effective in the week's result. It would go on without haste, without pause, inevitable as the years slowly closing about the toiler. His mental processes would be of the same fibre. The apparent hesitation might seem to waste the precious hours remaining, but in the end, when the engine started, it would move surely and unswervingly along the appointed grooves. In his wealth of hair; in his wide eyes, like the mysterious blanks of a marble statue; in his huge frame, gnarled and wasted to the strange, impressive, powerful age-quality of Phidias's old men, he seemed to us to deserve a wreath and a marble seat with strange inscriptions and the graceful half-draperies of another time and a group of old Greeks like himself with whom to exchange slow sentences on the body politic. Indeed, the fact that his seat was of fallen pine, and his draperies of butternut brown, and his audience two half-breed children, an artist, and a writer, and his body politic two hundred acres in the wilderness, did not filch from him the impressiveness of his estate. He was a Patriarch. It did not need the park of birch trees, the grass beneath them sloping down to the water, the wooded knoll fairly insisting on a spacious mansion, to substantiate Dick's fancy that he had discovered an ancestor.
Neat piles of brush, equally neat piles of cord-wood, knee-high stumps as cleanly cut as by a saw, attested the old man's efficiency. We conversed.
Yes, said he, the soil was good. It is laborious to clear away the forest. Still, one arrives. M'sieu has but to look. In the memory of his oldest grandson, even, all this was a forest. Le bon Dieu had blessed him. His family was large. Yes, it was as M'sieu said, eighty-seven--that is, counting himself. The soil was not wonderful. It is indeed a large family and much labour, but somehow there was always food for all. For his part he had a great pity for those whom God had not blessed. It must be very lonesome without children.
We spared a private thought that this old man was certainly in no danger of loneliness.
Yes, he went on, he was old--eighty-five. He was not as quick as he used to be; he left that for the young ones. Still, he could do a day's work. He was most proud to have made these gentlemen's acquaintance. He wished us good-day.
We left him seated on the pine log, his axe between his knees, his great, gnarled brown hands hanging idly. After a time we heard the whack of his implement; then after another long time we heard it whack again. We knew that those two blows had gone straight and true and forceful to the mark. So old a man had no energy to expend in the indirections of haste.
Our elfish guides led us back along the trail to the farmhouse. A girl of thirteen had just arrived from school. In the summer the little ones divided the educational advantages among themselves, turn and turn about.
The newcomer had been out into the world, and was dressed accordingly. A neat dark-blue cloth dress, plainly made, a dull red and blue checked apron; a broad, round hat, shoes and stockings, all in the best and quietest taste--marked contrast to the usual garish Sunday best of the Anglo-Saxon. She herself exemplified the most striking type of beauty to be found in the mixed bloods. Her hair was thick and glossy and black in the mode that throws deep purple shadows under the rolls and coils. Her face was a regular oval, like the opening in a wishbone. Her skin was dark, but rich and dusky with life and red blood that ebbed and flowed with her shyness. Her lips were full, and of a dark cherry red. Her eyes were deep, rather musing, and furnished with the most gloriously tangling of eyelashes. Dick went into ecstasies, took several photographs which did not turn out well, and made one sketch which did. Perpetually did he bewail the absence of oils. The type is not uncommon, but its beauty rarely remains perfect after the fifteenth year.
We made our ceremonious adieus to the Madame, and started back to town under the guidance of one of the boys, who promised us a short cut.
This youth proved to be filled with the old, wandering spirit that lures so many of his race into the wilderness life. He confided to us as we walked that he liked to tramp extended distances, and that the days were really not made long enough for those who had to return home at night.
"I is been top of dose hills," he said. "Bime by I mak' heem go to dose lak' beyon'."
He told us that some day he hoped to go out with the fur traders. In his vocabulary "I wish" occurred with such wistful frequency that finally I inquired curiously what use he would make of the Fairy Gift.
"If you could have just one wish come true, Pierre," I asked, "what would you desire?"
His answer came without a moment's hesitation.
"I is lak' be one giant," said he.
"Why?" I demanded.
"So I can mak' heem de walk far," he replied simply.
I was tempted to point out to him the fact that big men do not outlast the little men, and that vast strength rarely endures, but then a better feeling persuaded me to leave him his illusions. The power, even in fancy, of striding on seven-league boots across the fascinations spread out below his kindling vision from "dose hills" was too precious a possession lightly to be taken away.
Strangely enough, though his woodcraft naturally was not inconsiderable, it did not hold his paramount interest. He knew something about animals and their ways and their methods of capture, but the chase did not appeal strongly to him, nor apparently did he possess much skill along that line. He liked the actual physical labour, the walking, the paddling, the tump-line, the camp-making, the new country, the companionship of the wild life, the wilderness as a whole rather than in any one of its single aspects as Fish Pond, Game Preserve, Picture Gallery. In this he showed the true spirit of the voyageur. I should confidently look to meet him in another ten years--if threats of railroads spare the Far North so long--girdled with the red sash, shod in silent moccasins, bending beneath the portage load, trolling Isabeau to the silent land somewhere under the Arctic Circle. The French of the North have never been great fighters nor great hunters, in the terms of the Anglo-Saxon frontiersmen, but they have laughed in farther places.