Conjuror's House by Stewart Edward White
The girl stood on a bank above a river flowing north. At her back crouched a dozen clean whitewashed buildings. Before her in interminable journey, day after day, league on league into remoteness, stretched the stern Northern wilderness, untrodden save by the trappers, the Indians, and the beasts. Close about the little settlement crept the balsams and spruce, the birch and poplar, behind which lurked vast dreary muskegs, a chaos of bowlder-splits, the forest. The girl had known nothing different for many years. Once a summer the sailing ship from England felt its frozen way through the Hudson Straits, down the Hudson Bay, to drop anchor in the mighty River of the Moose. Once a summer a six-fathom canoe manned by a dozen paddles struggled down the waters of the broken Abitibi. Once a year a little band of red-sashed voyageurs forced their exhausted sledge-dogs across the ice from some unseen wilderness trail. That was all.
Before her eyes the seasons changed, all grim, but one by the very pathos of brevity sad. In the brief luxuriant summer came the Indians to trade their pelts, came the keepers of the winter posts to rest, came the ship from England bringing the articles of use or ornament she had ordered a full year before. Within a short time all were gone, into the wilderness, into the great unknown world. The snow fell; the river and the bay froze. Strange men from the North glided silently to the Factor's door, bearing the meat and pelts of the seal. Bitter iron cold shackled the northland, the abode of desolation. Armies of caribou drifted by, ghostly under the aurora, moose, lordly and scornful, stalked majestically along the shore; wolves howled invisible, or trotted dog-like in organized packs along the river banks. Day and night the ice artillery thundered. Night and day the fireplaces roared defiance to a frost they could not subdue, while the people of desolation crouched beneath the tyranny of winter.
Then the upheaval of spring with the ice-jams and terrors, the Moose roaring by untamable, the torrents rising, rising foot by foot to the very dooryard of her father's house. Strange spirits were abroad at night, howling, shrieking, cracking and groaning in voices of ice and flood. Her Indian nurse told her of them all--of Maunabosho, the good; of Nenaubosho the evil--in her lisping Ojibway dialect that sounded like the softer voices of the forest.
At last the sudden subsidence of the waters; the splendid eager blossoming of the land into new leaves, lush grasses, an abandon of sweetbrier and hepatica. The air blew soft, a thousand singing birds sprang from the soil, the wild goose cried in triumph. Overhead shone the hot sun of the Northern summer.
From the wilderness came the brigades bearing their pelts, the hardy traders of the winter posts, striking hot the imagination through the mysterious and lonely allurement of their callings. For a brief season, transient as the flash of a loon's wing on the shadow of a lake, the post was bright with the thronging of many people. The Indians pitched their wigwams on the broad meadows below the bend; the half-breeds sauntered about, flashing bright teeth and wicked dark eyes at whom it might concern; the traders gazed stolidily over their little black pipes, and uttered brief sentences through their thick black beards. Everywhere was gay sound--the fiddle, the laugh, the song; everywhere was gay color--the red sashes of the voyageurs, the beaded moccasins and leggings of the metis, the capotes of the brigade, the variegated costumes of the Crees and Ojibways. Like the wild roses around the edge of the muskegs, this brief flowering of the year passed. Again the nights were long, again the frost crept down from the eternal snow, again the wolves howled across barren wastes.
Just now the girl stood ankle-deep in green grasses, a bath of sunlight falling about her, a tingle of salt wind humming up the river from the bay's offing. She was clad in gray wool, and wore no hat. Her soft hair, the color of ripe wheat, blew about her temples, shadowing eyes of fathomless black. The wind had brought to the light and delicate brown of her complexion a trace of color to match her lips, whose scarlet did not fade after the ordinary and imperceptible manner into the tinge of her skin, but continued vivid to the very edge; her eyes were wide and unseeing. One hand rested idly on the breech of an ornamented bronze field-gun.
McDonald, the chief trader, passed from the house to the store where his bartering with the Indians was daily carried on; the other Scotchman in the Post, Galen Albret, her father, and the head Factor of all this region, paced back and forth across the veranda of the factory, caressing his white beard; up by the stockade, young Achille Picard tuned his whistle to the note of the curlew; across the meadow from the church wandered Crane, the little Church of England missionary, peering from short-sighted pale blue eyes; beyond the coulee, Sarnier and his Indians chock-chock-chocked away at the seams of the long coast-trading bateau. The girl saw nothing, heard nothing. She was dreaming, she was trying to remember.
In the lines of her slight figure, in its pose there by the old gun over the old, old river, was the grace of gentle blood, the pride of caste. Of all this region her father was the absolute lord, feared, loved, obeyed by all its human creatures. When he went abroad, he travelled in a state almost mediaeval in its magnificence; when he stopped at home, men came to him from the Albany, the Kenogami, the Missinaibe, the Mattagami, the Abitibi--from all the rivers of the North--to receive his commands. Way was made for him, his lightest word was attended. In his house dwelt ceremony, and of his house she was the princess. Unconsciously she had taken the gracious habit of command. She had come to value her smile, her word, to value herself. The lady of a realm greater than the countries of Europe, she moved serene, pure, lofty amid dependants.
And as the lady of this realm she did honor to her father's guests--sitting stately behind the beautiful silver service, below the portrait of the Company's greatest explorer, Sir George Simpson, dispensing crude fare in gracious manner, listening silently to the conversation, finally withdrawing at the last with a sweeping courtesy to play soft, melancholy, and world-forgotten airs on the old piano, brought over years before by the Lady Head, while the guests made merry with the mellow port and ripe Manila cigars which the Company supplied its servants. Then coffee, still with her natural Old World charm of the grande dame. Such guests were not many, nor came often. There was McTavish of Rupert's House, a three days' journey to the northeast; Rand of Fort Albany, a week's travel to the northwest; Mault of Fort George, ten days beyond either, all grizzled in the Company's service. With them came their clerks, mostly English and Scotch younger sons, with a vast respect for the Company, and a vaster for their Factor's daughter. Once in two or three years appeared the inspectors from Winnipeg, true lords of the North, with their six-fathom canoes, their luxurious furs, their red banners trailing like gonfalons in the water. Then this post of Conjuror's House feasted and danced, undertook gay excursions, discussed in public or private conclave weighty matters, grave and reverend advices, cautions, and commands. They went. Desolation again crept in.
The girl dreamed. She was trying to remember. Far-off, half-forgotten visions of brave, courtly men, of gracious, beautiful women, peopled the clouds of her imaginings. She heard them again, as voices beneath the roar of rapids, like far-away bells tinkling faintly through a wind, pitying her, exclaiming over her; she saw them dim and changing, as wraiths of a fog, as shadow pictures in a mist beneath the moon, leaning to her with bright, shining eyes full of compassion for the little girl who was to go so far away into an unknown land; she felt them, as the touch of a breeze when the night is still, fondling her, clasping her, tossing her aloft in farewell. One she felt plainly--a gallant youth who held her up for all to see. One she saw clearly--a dewy-eyed, lovely woman who murmured loving, broken words. One she heard distinctly--a gentle voice that said, "God's love be with you, little one, for you have far to go, and many days to pass before you see Quebec again." And the girl's eyes suddenly swam bright, for the northland was very dreary. She threw her palms out in a gesture of weariness.
Then her arms dropped, her eyes widened, her head bent forward in the attitude of listening.
"Achille!" she called, "Achille! Come here!"
The young fellow approached respectfully.
"Mademoiselle?" he asked.
"Don't you hear?" she said.
Faint, between intermittent silences, came the singing of men's voices from the south.
"Grace a Dieu!" cried Achille. "Eet is so. Eet is dat brigade!"
He ran shouting toward the factory.