The Forest by Stewart Edward White
VIII. The Stranded Strangers.
As we progressed, the country grew more and more solemnly aloof. In the Southland is a certain appearance of mobility, lent by the deciduous trees, the warm sun, the intimate nooks in which grow the commoner homely weeds and flowers, the abundance of bees and musical insects, the childhood familiarity of the well-known birds, even the pleasantly fickle aspects of the skies. But the North wraps itself in a mantle of awe. Great hills rest not so much in the stillness of sleep as in the calm of a mighty comprehension. The pines, rank after rank, file after file, are always trooping somewhere, up the slope, to pause at the crest before descending on the other side into the unknown. Bodies of water exactly of the size, shape, and general appearance we are accustomed to see dotted with pleasure craft and bordered with wharves, summer cottages, pavilions, and hotels, accentuate by that very fact a solitude that harbours only a pair of weirdly laughing loons. Like the hills, these lakes are lying in a deep, still repose, but a repose that somehow suggests the comprehending calm of those behind the veil. The whole country seems to rest in a suspense of waiting. A shot breaks the stillness for an instant, but its very memory is shadowy a moment after the echoes die. Inevitably the traveller feels thrust in upon himself by a neutrality more deadly than open hostility would be. Hostility at least supposes recognition of his existence, a rousing of forces to oppose him. This ignores. One can no longer wonder at the taciturnity of the men who dwell here; nor does one fail to grasp the eminent suitability to the country of its Indian name--the Silent Places.
Even the birds, joyful, lively, commonplace little people that they are, draw some of this aloofness to themselves. The North is full of the homelier singers. A dozen species of warblers lisp music-box phrases, two or three sparrows whistle a cheerful repertoire, the nuthatches and chickadees toot away in blissful bourgeoisie. And yet, somehow, that very circumstance thrusts the imaginative voyager outside the companionship of their friendliness. In the face of the great gods they move with accustomed familiarity. Somehow they possess in their little experience that which explains the mystery, so that they no longer stand in its awe. Their everyday lives are spent under the shadow of the temple whither you dare not bend your footsteps. The intimacy of occult things isolates also these wise little birds.
The North speaks, however, only in the voices of three--the two thrushes, and the white-throated sparrow. You must hear these each at his proper time.
The hermit thrush you will rarely see. But late some afternoon, when the sun is lifting along the trunks of the hardwood forest, if you are very lucky and very quiet, you will hear him far in the depth of the blackest swamps. Musically expressed, his song is very much like that of the wood thrush--three cadenced liquid notes, a quivering pause, then three more notes of another phrase, and so on. But the fineness of its quality makes of it an entirely different performance. If you symbolize the hermit thrush by the flute, you must call the wood thrush a chime of little tinkling bells. One is a rendition; the other the essence of liquid music. An effect of gold-embroidered richness, of depth going down to the very soul of things, a haunting suggestion of having touched very near to the source of tears, a conviction that the just interpretation of the song would be an equally just interpretation of black woods, deep shadows, cloistered sunlight, brooding hills--these are the subtle and elusive impressions you will receive in the middle of the ancient forest.
The olive-backed thrush you will enjoy after your day's work is quite finished. You will see him through the tobacco haze, perched on a limb against the evening sky. He utters a loud joyful chirp pauses for the attention he thus solicits, and then deliberately runs up five mellow double notes, ending with a metallic "ting chee chee chee" that sounds as though it had been struck on a triangle. Then a silence of exactly nine seconds and repeat. As regularly as clock-work this performance goes on. Time him as often as you will, you can never convict him of a second's variation. And he is so optimistic and willing, and his notes are so golden with the yellow of sunshine!
The white-throated sparrow sings nine distinct variations of the same song. He may sing more, but that is all I have counted. He inhabits woods, berry-vines, brules, and clearings. Ordinarily he is cheerful, and occasionally aggravating. One man I knew he drove nearly crazy. To that man he was always saying, "And he never heard the man say drink and the----." Toward the last my friend used wildly to offer him a thousand dollars if he would, if he only would, finish that sentence. But occasionally, in just the proper circumstances, he forgets his stump corners, his vines, his jolly sunlight, and his delightful bugs to become the intimate voice of the wilds. It is night, very still, Very dark. The subdued murmur of the forest ebbs and flows with the voices of the furtive folk--an undertone fearful to break the night calm. Suddenly across the dusk of silence flashes a single thread of silver, vibrating, trembling with some unguessed ecstasy of emotion: "Ah! poor Canada Canada Canada Canada!" it mourns passionately, and falls silent. That is all.
You will hear at various times other birds peculiarly of the North. Loons alternately calling and uttering their maniac laughter; purple finches or some of the pine sparrows warbling high and clear; the winter wren, whose rapturous ravings never fail to strike the attention of the dullest passer; all these are exclusively Northern voices, and each expresses some phase or mood of the Silent Places. But none symbolizes as do the three. And when first you hear one of them after an absence, you are satisfied that things are right in the world, for the North Country's spirit is as it was.
Now ensued a spell of calm weather, with a film of haze over the sky. The water lay like quicksilver, heavy and inert. Toward afternoon it became opalescent. The very substance of the liquid itself seemed impregnated with dyes ranging in shade from wine colour to the most delicate lilac. Through a smoke veil the sun hung, a ball of red, while beneath every island, every rock, every tree, every wild fowl floating idly in a medium apparently too delicate for its support, lurked the beautiful crimson shadows of the North.
Hour after hour, day after day, we slipped on. Point after point, island after island, presented itself silently to our inspection and dropped quietly astern. The beat of paddles fitted monotonously into the almost portentous stillness. It seemed that we might be able to go on thus for ever, lapped in the dream of some forgotten magic that had stricken breathless the life of the world. And then, suddenly, three weeks on our journey, we came to a town.
It was not the typical fur town of the Far North, but it lay at the threshold. A single street, worn smooth by the feet of men and dogs, but innocent of hoofs, fronted the channel. A board walk, elevated against the snows, bordered a row of whitewashed log and frame houses, each with its garden of brilliant flowers. A dozen wharves of various sizes, over whose edges peeped the double masts of Mackinaw boats, spoke of a fishing community. Between the roofs one caught glimpses of a low sparse woods and some thousand-foot hills beyond. We subsequently added the charm of isolation in learning that the nearest telegraph line was fifteen miles distant, while the railroad passed some fifty miles away.
Dick immediately went wild. It was his first glimpse of the mixed peoples. A dozen loungers, handsome, careless, graceful with the inimitable elegance of the half-breed's leisure, chatted, rolled cigarettes, and surveyed with heavy-eyed indolence such of the town as could be viewed from the shade in which they lay. Three girls, in whose dark cheeks glowed a rich French comeliness, were comparing purchases near the store. A group of rivermen, spike-booted, short-trousered, reckless of air, with their little round hats over one ear, sat chair-tilted outside the "hotel." Across the dividing fences of two of the blazoned gardens a pair of old crones gossiped under their breaths. Some Indians smoked silently at the edge of one of the docks. In the distance of the street's end a French priest added the quaintness of his cassock to the exotic atmosphere of the scene. At once a pack of the fierce sledge-dogs left their foraging for the offal of the fisheries, to bound challenging in the direction of poor Deuce. That highbred animal fruitlessly attempted to combine dignity with a discretionary lurking between our legs. We made demonstrations with sticks, and sought out the hotel, for it was about time to eat.
We had supper at a table with three Forest Rangers, two lumber-jacks, and a cat-like handsome "breed" whose business did not appear. Then we lit up and strolled about to see what we could see.
On the text of a pair of brass knuckles hanging behind the hotel bar I embroidered many experiences with the lumberjack. I told of a Wisconsin town where an enforced wait of five hours enabled me to establish the proportion of fourteen saloons out of a total of twenty frame buildings. I descanted craftily on the character of the woodsman out of the woods and in the right frame of mind for deviltry. I related how Jack Boyd, irritated beyond endurance at the annoyances of a stranger, finally with the flat of his hand boxed the man's head so mightily that he whirled around twice and sat down.
"Now," said Jack softly, "be more careful, my friend, or next time I'll hit you." Or of a little Irishman who shouted to his friends about to pull a big man from pounding the life quite out of him, "Let him alone! let him alone! I may be on top myself in a few minutes!" And of Dave Walker, who fought to a standstill with his bare fists alone five men who had sworn to kill him. And again of that doughty knight of the peavie who, when attacked by an axe, waved aside interference with the truly dauntless cry, "Leave him be, boys; there's an axe between us!"
I tried to sketch, too, the drive, wherein a dozen times in an hour these men face death with a smile or a curse--the raging untamed river, the fierce rush of the logs, the cool little human beings poising with a certain contemptuous preciosity on the edge of destruction as they herd their brutish multitudes.
There was Jimmy, the river boss, who could not swim a stroke, and who was incontinently swept over a dam and into the boiling back-set of the eddy below. Three times, gasping, strangling, drowning, he was carried in the wide swirl of the circle, sometimes under, sometimes on top. Then his knee touched a sand-bar, and he dragged himself painfully ashore. He coughed up a quantity of water, and gave vent to his feelings over a miraculous escape. "Damn it all!" he wailed, "I lost my peavie!"
"On the Paint River drive one spring," said I, "a jam formed that extended up river some three miles. The men were working at the breast of it, some underneath, some on top. After a time the jam apparently broke, pulled downstream a hundred feet or so, and plugged again. Then it was seen that only a small section had moved, leaving the main body still jammed, so that between the two sections lay a narrow stretch of open water. Into this open water one of the men had fallen. Before he could recover, the second or tail section of the jam started to pull. Apparently nothing could prevent him from being crushed. A man called Sam--I don't know his last name--ran down the tail of the first section, across the loose logs bobbing in the open water, seized the victim of the accident by the collar, desperately scaled the face of the moving jam, and reached the top just as the two sections ground together with the brutish noise of wrecking timbers. It was a magnificent rescue. Any but these men of iron would have adjourned for thanks and congratulations.
"Still retaining his hold on the other man's collar, Sam twisted him about and delivered a vigorous kick. 'There, damn you!' said he. That was all. They fell to work at once to keep the jam moving."
I instanced, too, some of the feats of river-work these men could perform. Of how Jack Boyd has been known to float twenty miles without shifting his feet, on a log so small that he carried it to the water on his shoulder; of how a dozen rivermen, one after the other, would often go through the chute of a dam standing upright on single logs; of O'Donnell, who could turn a somersault on a floating pine log; of the birling matches, wherein two men on a single log try to throw each other into the river by treading, squirrel fashion, in faster and faster rotation; of how a riverman and spiked boots and a saw-log can do more work than an ordinary man with a rowboat.
I do not suppose Dick believed all this--although it was strictly and literally true--but his imagination was impressed. He gazed with respect on the group at the far end of the street, where fifteen or twenty lumber-jacks were interested in some amusement concealed from us.
"What do you suppose they are doing?" murmured Dick, awestricken.
"Wrestling, or boxing, or gambling, or jumping," said I.
We approached. Gravely, silently, intensely interested, the cock-hatted, spikeshod, dangerous men were playing--croquet!
The sight was too much for our nerves. We went away.
The permanent inhabitants of the place we discovered to be friendly to a degree.
The Indian strain was evident in various dilution through all. Dick's enthusiasm grew steadily until his artistic instincts became aggressive, and he flatly announced his intention of staying at least four days for the purpose of making sketches. We talked the matter over. Finally it was agreed. Deuce and I were to make a wide circle to the north and west as far as the Hudson's Bay post of Cloche, while Dick filled his notebook. That night we slept in beds for the first time.
That is to say, we slept until about three o'clock. Then we became vaguely conscious, through a haze of drowse--as one becomes conscious in the pause of a sleeping-car--of voices outside our doors. Some one said something about its being hardly much use to go to bed. Another hoped the sheets were not damp. A succession of lights twinkled across the walls of our room, and were vaguely explained by the coughing of a steamboat. We sank into oblivion until the calling-bell brought us to our feet.
I happened to finish my toilet a little before Dick, and so descended to the sunlight until he might be ready. Roosting on a gray old boulder ten feet outside the door were two figures that made me want to rub my eyes.
The older was a square, ruddy-faced man of sixty, with neatly trimmed, snow-white whiskers. He had on a soft Alpine hat of pearl gray, a modishly cut gray homespun suit, a tie in which glimmered an opal pin, wore tan gloves, and had slung over one shoulder by a narrow black strap a pair of field-glasses.
The younger was a tall and angular young fellow, of an eager and sophomoric youth. His hair was very light and very smoothly brushed, his eyes blue and rather near-sighted, his complexion pink, with an obviously recent and superficial sunburn, and his clothes, from the white Panama to the broad-soled low shoes, of the latest cut and material. Instinctively I sought his fraternity pin. He looked as though he might say "Rah! Rah!" something or other. A camera completed his outfit.
Tourists! How in the world did they get here? And then I remembered the twinkle of the lights and the coughing of the steamboat. But what in time could they be doing here? Picturesque as the place was, it held nothing to appeal to the Baedeker spirit. I surveyed the pair with some interest.
"I suppose there is pretty good fishing around here," ventured the elder.
He evidently took me for an inhabitant. Remembering my faded blue shirt and my floppy old hat and the red handkerchief about my neck and the moccasins on my feet, I did not blame him.
"I suppose there are bass among the islands," I replied.
We fell into conversation. I learned that he and his son were from New York.
He learned, by a final direct question which was most significant of his not belonging to the country, who I was. By chance he knew my name. He opened his heart.
"We came down on the City of Flint," said he. "My son and I are on a vacation. We have been as far as the Yellowstone, and thought we would like to see some of this country. I was assured that on this date I could make connection with the North Star for the south. I told the purser of the Flint not to wake us up unless the North Star was here at the docks. He bundled us off here at three in the morning. The North Star was not here; it is an outrage!"
He uttered various threats.
"I thought the North Star was running away south around the Perry Sound region," I suggested.
"Yes, but she was to begin to-day, June 16, to make this connection." He produced a railroad folder. "It's in this," he continued.
"Did you go by that thing?" I marvelled.
"Why, of course," said he.
"I forgot you were an American," said I. "You're in Canada now."
He looked his bewilderment, so I hunted up Dick. I detailed the situation. "He doesn't know the race," I concluded. "Soon he will be trying to get information out of the agent. Let's be on hand."
We were on hand. The tourist, his face very red, his whiskers very white and bristly, marched importantly to the agent's office. The latter comprised also the post-office, the fish depot, and a general store. The agent was for the moment dickering in re two pounds of sugar. This transaction took five minutes to the pound. Mr. Tourist waited. Then he opened up. The agent heard him placidly, as one who listens to a curious tale.
"What I want to know is, where's that boat?" ended the tourist.
"Couldn't say," replied the agent.
"Aren't you the agent of this company?"
"Sure," replied the agent.
"Then why don't you know something about its business and plans and intentions?"
"Couldn't say," replied the agent.
"Do you think it would be any good to wait for the North Star? Do you suppose they can be coming? Do you suppose they've altered the schedule?"
"Couldn't say," replied the agent.
"When is the next boat through here?"
I listened for the answer in trepidation, for I saw that another "Couldn't say" would cause the red-faced tourist to blow up. To my relief, the agent merely inquired,--
"North or south?"
"South, of course. I just came from the north. What in the name of everlasting blazes should I want to go north again for?"
"Couldn't say," replied the agent. "The next boat south gets in next week, Tuesday or Wednesday."
"Next week!" shrieked the tourist.
"When's the next boat north?" interposed the son.
"Couldn't say; you'd have to watch for her."
"That's our boat, dad," said the young man.
"But we've just come from there!" snorted his father; "it's three hundred miles back. It'll put us behind two days. I've got to be in New York Friday. I've got an engagement." He turned suddenly to the agent. "Here, I've got to send a telegram."
The agent blinked placidly. "You'll not send it from here. This ain't a telegraph station."
"Where's the nearest station?"
Without further parley the old man turned and walked, stiff and military, from the place. Near the end of the broad walk he met the usual doddering but amiable oldest inhabitant.
"Fine day," chirped the patriarch in well-meant friendliness. "They jest brought in a bear cub over to Antoine's. If you'd like to take a look at him, I'll show you where it is."
The tourist stopped short and glared fiercely.
"Sir," said he, "damn your bear!" Then he strode on, leaving grandpa staring after him.
In the course of the morning we became quite well acquainted, and he resigned. The son appeared to take somewhat the humorous view all through the affair, which must have irritated the old gentleman. They discussed it rather thoroughly, and finally decided to retrace their steps for a fresh start over a better-known route. This settled, the senior seemed to feel relieved of a weight. He even saw and relished certain funny phases of the incident, though he never ceased to foretell different kinds of trouble for the company, varying in range from mere complaints to the most tremendous of damage suits.
He was much interested, finally, in our methods of travel, and then, in logical sequence, with what he could see about him. He watched curiously my loading of the canoe, for I had a three-mile stretch of open water, and the wind was abroad. Deuce's empirical boat wisdom aroused his admiration. He and his son were both at the shore to see me off.
Deuce settled himself in the bottom. I lifted the stern from the shore and gently set it afloat. In a moment I was ready to start.
"Wait a minute! Wait a minute!" suddenly cried the father.
I swirled my paddle back. The old gentleman was hastily fumbling in his pockets. After an instant he descended to the water's edge.
"Here," said he, "you are a judge of fiction; take this."
It was his steamboat and railway folder.