Conjuror's House by Stewart Edward White
The day rose and flooded the land with its fuller life. All through the settlement the Post Indians and half-breeds set about their tasks. Some aided Sarnier with his calking of the bateaux; some worked in the fields; some mended or constructed in the different shops. At eight o'clock the bell rang again, and they ate breakfast. Then a group of seven, armed with muzzle-loading "trade-guns" bound in brass, set out for the marshes in hopes of geese. For the flight was arriving, and the Hudson Bay man knows very well the flavor of goose-flesh, smoked, salted, and barrelled.
Now the voyageurs began to stroll into the sun. They were men of leisure. Picturesque, handsome, careless, debonair, they wandered back and forth, smoking their cigarettes, exhibiting their finery. Indian women, wrinkled and careworn, plodded patiently about on various businesses. Indian girls, full of fun and mischief, drifted here and there in arm-locked groups of a dozen, smiling, whispering among themselves, ready to collapse toward a common centre of giggles if addressed by one of the numerous woods-dandies, Indian men stalked singly, indifferent, stolid. Indian children of all sizes and degrees of nakedness darted back and forth, playing strange games. The sound of many voices rose across the air.
Once the voices moderated, when McDonald, the Chief Trader, walked rapidly from the barracks building to the trading store; once they died entirely into a hush of respect, when Galen Albret himself appeared on the broad veranda of the factory. He stood for a moment--hulked broad and black against the whitewash--his hands clasped behind him, gazing abstractedly toward the distant bay. Then he turned into the house to some mysterious and weighty business of his own. The hubbub at once broke out again.
Now about the mouth of the long picketed lane leading to the massive trading store gathered a silent group, bearing packs. These were Indians from the more immediate vicinity, desirous of trading their skins. After a moment McDonald appeared in the doorway, a hundred feet away, and raised his hand. Two of the savages, and two only, trotted down the narrow picket lane, their packs on their shoulders.
McDonald ushered them into a big square room, where the bales were undone and spread abroad. Deftly, silently the Trader sorted the furs, placing to one side or the other the "primes," "seconds," and "thirds" of each species. For a moment he calculated. Then he stepped to a post whereon hung long strings of pierced wooden counters, worn smooth by use. Swiftly he told the strings over. To one of the Indians he gave one with these words:
"Mu-hi-kun, my brother, here be pelts to the value of two hundred 'beaver.' Behold a string, then, of two hundred 'castors,' and in addition I give my brother one fathom of tobacco."
The Indian calculated rapidly, his eye abstracted. He had known exactly the value of his catch, and what he would receive for it in "castors," but had hoped for a larger "present," by which the premium on the standard price is measured.
"Ah hah," he exclaimed, finally, and stepped to one side.
"Sak-we-su, my brother," went on McDonald, "here be pelts to the value of three hundred 'beaver.' Behold a string, then, of three hundred 'castors,' and because you have brought so fine a skin of the otter, behold also a fathom of tobacco and a half sack of flour."
"Good!" ejaculated the Indian.
The Trader then led them to stairs, up which they clambered to where Davis, the Assistant Trader, kept store. There, barred by a heavy wooden grill from the airy loft filled with bright calicoes, sashes, pails, guns, blankets, clothes, and other ornamental and useful things, Sak-we-su and Mu-hi-kun made their choice, trading in the worn wooden "castors" on the string. So much flour, so much tea, so much sugar and powder and lead, so much in clothing. Thus were their simple needs supplied for the year to come. Then the remainder they squandered on all sorts of useless things--beads, silks, sashes, bright handkerchiefs, mirrors. And when the last wooden "castor" was in they went down stairs and out the picket lane, carrying their lighter purchases, but leaving the larger as "debt," to be called for when needed. Two of their companions mounted the stairs as they descended; and two more passed them in the narrow picket lane. So the trade went on.
At once Sak-we-su and Mu-hi-kun were surrounded. In detail they told what they had done. Then in greater detail their friends told what they would have done, until after five minutes of bewildering advice the disconsolate pair would have been only too glad to have exchanged everything--if that had been allowed.
Now the bell rang again. It was "smoke time." Everyone quit work for a half-hour. The sun climbed higher in the heavens. The laughing crews of idlers sprawled in the warmth, gambling, telling stories, singing. Then one might have heard all the picturesque songs of the Far North--"A la claire Fontaine"; "Ma Boule Roulant"; "Par derrier' chez-mon Pere"; "Isabeau s'y promene"; "P'tite Jeanneton"; "Luron, Lurette"; "Chante, Rossignol, chante"; the ever-popular "Malbrouck"; "C'est la belle Francoise"; "Alouette"; or the beautiful and tender "La Violette Dandine." They had good voices, these voyageurs, with the French artistic instinct, and it was fine to hear them.
At noon the squaws set out to gather canoe gum on the mainland. They sat huddled in the bottom of their old and leaky canoe, reaching far over the sides to dip their paddles, irregularly placed, silent, mysterious. They did not paddle with the unison of the men, but each jabbed a little short stroke as the time suited her, so that always some paddles were rising and some falling. Into the distance thus they flapped like wounded birds; then rounded a bend, and were gone.
The sun swung over and down the slope. Dinner time had passed; "smoke time" had come again. Squaws brought the first white-fish of the season to the kitchen door of the factory, and Matthews raised the hand of horror at the price they asked. Finally he bought six of about three pounds each, giving in exchange tea to the approximate value of twelve cents. The Indian women went away, secretly pleased over their bargain.
Down by the Indian camp suddenly broke the roar of a dog-fight. Two of the sledge giddes had come to teeth, and the friends of both were assisting the cause. The idlers went to see, laughing, shouting, running impromptu races. They sat on their haunches and cheered ironically, and made small bets, and encouraged the frantic old squaw hags who, at imminent risk, were trying to disintegrate the snarling, rolling mass. Over in the high log stockade wherein the Company's sledge animals were confined, other wolf-dogs howled mournfully, desolated at missing the fun.
And always the sun swung lower and lower toward the west, until finally the long northern twilight fell, and the girl in the little white bedroom at the factory bathed her face and whispered for the hundredth time to her beating heart:
"Night has come!"