A Little Christ at Swanson's
TYNAN, the boss, in his smoky office, sat and scowled over some mill figures. Outside from the kitchen came the chatter of his men, the Frenchys, brought over from the Canadian bush, and the natives of the woods.
It was twilight, with the snow in a whirling dust and the spruce trees around the clearing acreak already under their white load. Jumpers and top-boots had been pulled off, and were steaming behind the roaring stove. The Shanty Dog put the bowls of hot soup around the table, and the men drew up.
“ Gul McGulligan to - night, boys,” said Alexandre, slumping down noisily in his favorite birch-root seat.
Alexandre’s tight black curls were seamed with a zigzag of white, the mark of a scar where a log had rolled on him from an ill-balanced skidway.
The boys fell to on Gul McGulligan with a will.
“Where’s Pierre? Not in with his team yet ? ” Davy wiped his long mustache with the back of his hand as he finished his bowlful. Davy was an “ infiddle,” as it was termed at Swanson’s, and one of Tynan’s best skidders.
“ Saying masses for the cattle ? ” he proceeded jocularly. “ Say, Pierre’s got a wheel in the head ; wheely from the word go.”
“Pierre, he one big fool,” uttered Johnny Leaf, the St. Regis Indian, “ I hang him up for half his stakes and he no kick.”
“ Pierre don’t blow in his stakes, that’s one sure thing,” observed Alexandre, cutting his fried pork into neat blocks and stirring it into his potatoes.
“ He save his dosh and his soul too, boys. He won’t end up no rum-soaked Johnny. What’s more, he can’t noways get hurt. He c’d slide down Queer Mountain Chute on a shovel and hold a full house at the bottom with never a shake.”
“ Me stand behind him and slap him on shoulder, say, ‘ Pierre, strike the stove,’ he strike the stove, her red hot, he never burn. He sorcery man. Fire not eat him. Me know.” Johnny Leaf flung this out at the tableful, and relapsed into unheeding silence.
“ That’s right,” some one assented. “ Pierre was in a river boat last spring, plugging out West Scotland at the Birch Tree. The jam started, like that, crack out o’ the box, and them logs piled up like hell. Oarsman and steersman killed dead as a door nail. Pierre clum out from under the key logs and punted to shore with his peavey quick as a cricket. You can’t kill Pierre. H’lo there, Tidbits ! ” as a tall young fellow came in, his yellow mustache frozen at the ends like stiffened paint brushes. “ We ain’t kep’ no tidbits for you. Alexandre ’s et the hull pile on ’em.”
“You fellers kin crack jokes an’ holler,” said Tidbits bitterly, “ but Pierre’s layin’ at the bottom of the dugout crushed to smithereens, his hosses top o’ ’im, deader than a dead Injun.”
The men looked up, knives midway to their mouths, horror on their faces.
“ When he hauled his last load down to the dump, the gravel was worn pretty thin raound that curve by the Pine Tree, an’ ’t wuz slippy as smooth glass. He must hev gone right over the siding, team an’ all, forty feet down to the crik bottom ! Oh, Lord, what a suddint death ! I could n’t do nothin’! ”
Tynan laid down the piece of bread he had been spreading, and rose from his log bench, throwing down his knife with a clatter.
“ Turn out, byes, every mother’s son of you. Never mind the grub. Get your lanterns, torches, and peaveys. We’ll haul Pierre up to camp, alive or dead, and give him a Christian sleeping place.”
The men drew on their jumpers, while the Shanty Dog and Ed the cook filled the torches and lanterns. The smell of fried pork sizzling assailed the hungry men.
Old Man Joe spoke, voicing the murmured talk that had not reached Tynan’s ears. Old Man Joe’s long gray beard and white eyebrows gave him the look of a patriarch among the stubbly-faced younger men. His voice was husky.
“ Look a here, boss. You can’t kill a little Christ, not by no dugout or freshet or log jam or sluice plank or chute. It ain’t no stick-rotted timber I’m givin’ you. Pierre’s a little Christ. We’ve known it a long time back, by the red book he kerries and the words he jibbers to hisself. You kin tell ’em by the baby look in their eyes, and becuz they ain’t got sense like common folk. They knows things that the little red schoolhouse never larned ’em. You couldn’t touch him, boss, if you drew the bead on him at six inches. The likes of Pierre doze n’t die. They ’re took up.”
“ Pierre ’ll be took up to-night, no mistake, like a basketful of fragments,” said Davy, with a grim humor.
Then the sound of singing was heard as some one approached the door, — a Latin chant, measured and stately, and, to the wilderness lumbermen, uncanny. The door opened, letting in a whirl and whistle of snow. Pierre followed. His light brown longish hair was strung in wet locks across his smooth yellow cheeks. A blue bump on his forehead was streaked with crimson that flowed down in a jagged frozen line behind his ears. His pale gray eyes were fringed with black lashes that had always the look of being heavy with tears. He had a little red mouth, like a young girl’s pursed for prunes and prisms. He flung his torn green mackinaw across the line, pulled off his plush cap, and stood by the stove a moment rubbing his hands.
The men, like wooden images, stared mutely.
“ Look at me, voilà,” murmured Pierre softly.
“ You not dead man ? ” asked Johnny Leaf.
The men burst into rough relieved laughter, and sat down once more at table.
“ Where’s your hosses, Pierre ? ” asked Tynan.
Pierre did not answer, but seemed swallowing Tynan with his watery eyes.
“ Look, look! ” whispered the men. “ He ain’t here ; he’s over There.”
“ Ugly roading, eh ? ” asked Tynan, hearing the whispers, and not understanding Pierre’s silence. Tynan was a new man at Swanson’s Dam Camp, and did not believe the tradition of a little Christ.
“ Pretty fair, — not too bad,” said Alexandre, stepping on Pierre’s foot as he got up from the table.
“ I’m talking to you, you dumb French dog, you ! ” Tynan roared, his quick Irish temper aroused.
“ He not hear you one leetle time,” said Alexandre. He sidled up to the boss and whispered : —
“ You no dare touch Pierre zis moment. La voilà, him little Christ.”
“ None of your darned blasphemies ! ” Tynan knocked Alexandre aside, and threatened Pierre : “ Open your mouth, you blank milk-eyed pretender, or I ’ll open the daylights out of you ! ” Tynan had his own idea about maintaining discipline at Swanson’s.
Pierre threw back his head and laughed. His long hair almost touched the stove behind him.
All the men were on their feet now, and crowded in between the little Christ and Tynan.
“ If you touch a hair of him, the luck leaves Swanson’s,” Davy expostulated. Though a stout-hearted “ infiddle,” he still believed in the strange good luck of Pierre.
The men persuaded Tynan to test their comrade’s power. After Pierre had eaten his supper in silence, as was his custom, he spoke : —
“ Mis’r Tynan, you give me t’ree torshes, an’ I show you w’at I do, moi.”
The men fell back into the shadow of the farther end of the long log-built chamber.
Pierre took two of the torches the men used for their early morning work in the winter dark. He pulled them out of the long poles in which they were stuck, leaving only the kerosene-filled basin and the long wick tube in its swiveled socket. There was no other light in the room, and the wood fire in the stove burned low. He tossed them up hand over hand, humming a French chanson as the lithe flames dipped and flared and twisted between his hands and the ceiling.
“Now anoder; I make it t’ree, moi,” he said coolly, and caught the third torch from Alexandre between the ascent and descent of his first two torches.
It was a pretty piece of jugglery, and awed the men to reverence. Tynan stood, his hands in his pockets, his unbelieving Irish face touched with humorous contempt.
“ He learned it in a ten-cent show in Utiky. You fellows is gulls,” he said.
The scorn of the boss’s tone zigzagged like lightning through the intoxicating haze of admiration that hung about Pierre. He felt a stinging pain in his ears.
“ Sacré Dieu! ” he flung out, swearing a French oath, “what wish you, then, dog of an unbeliever ? That I should make the dead walk ? ”
“ Un revenant! un revenant! ” shouted Alexandre, exulting in the coming sensation. Pierre had often told them of this last supreme potentiality in him, — communion with spirits.
The excited voices of the men were like the fumes of the Pythoness in his nostrils. The furore of sudden eminence possessed him. He stood, stiffened with elation, in the midst of the waving lights and shadows. His yellow forehead shone weirdly.
“ Attendez ! attendez ! ” shouted Alexandre, in a huge voice like a French railway porter’s.
Pierre was swaying from side to side, his glassy eyes fixed on Tynan’s. In his heart he was afraid.
“ It’s your go. Command him,” whispered the “ infiddle ” to Tynan.
“ Hey ? ”
“ Put hand on him,” said Johnny Leaf, moved to mysticism. “ Say, Call one from the happy hunting grounds. Pierre, do this.”
“ T’ree time, Pierre, do zis,” added Alexandre.
The men gathered about Tynan, and spoke in hushed voices. Tynan was abashed. He had never before played leading man in a melodrama. At this moment the door of the shanty was opened, and two women entered. Their striped shawls and heavy hoods were such as the Canadian Indians wear when they visit the lumber camps with their baskets of knickknacks.
“ Come in,” said one of the men softly, raising a finger of warning. “It is Marie Port-Neuf and another,” he told those next him. “ Don’t speak. Keep your eyes on Pierre.”
The women set down their baskets, and squatted in an opening made for them in the circle. The younger woman, when she had stripped off some of her outer sheaths, disclosed a thin young form and a square dark face, with eyes feverishly large and fierce.
“ I know heem. Heem leetle Christ,” said Marie, the older woman, to Alcée.
Why did Alcée’s eyes leap with such a light, and why did she spring to her feet, and then fall back again ? Johnny Leaf thought she reached for the warmth.
“You one fool,” he muttered, pushing her down. “ Stove fire kill you when you blue-cold. Wait one bit.”
Tynan, keyed up to his cue, laid his hand on Pierre’s shoulder to a faint approving chorus of smothered voices, like the sympathetic orchestra at a play.
“Eh bien! allons!” urged Alexandre at his ear.
Tynan felt himself forced to foolish complicity. It might even be sinful.
“ Fetch in your damn ghost, then,” he jerked out sullenly.
“ T’ree time,” gurgled the chorus in his ears.
Pierre saw that he plunged against a wall. His career was at stake. The room reeled and sang. There had been such moments before, but the dæmon within him had come to his aid. Tonight his dæmon was silent. And all those eager eyes in a glaring ring! They were fierce for the show. He trembled. Then he met the eyes of Alcée. It was at the second iteration in his ear, “ Pierre, do this.” The look of recognition for which she had waited passed between them. More than that, from him to her the dumb cry in the eyes of a hunted animal, from her to him the answer of a wild, strong mother.
Alcée bounded forward, crouching low like a creature through the bush. Johnny Leaf caught at her red skirt as it flashed along the floor, but could not stop her.
“ Pierre, do this ! ” she called, in a resonant savage voice, as if she were summoning some one very far away. She laid her imperative brown hand upon his clammy wrist.
The wind, rising in a tall hemlock near the camp, mixed with the trumpet tones of her voice. Then the frozen branches grated together like dragged chains.
The men started, involuntarily huddling closer. The girl still crouched at Pierre’s feet. Pierre stretched one yellow finger toward the frost-bound window.
“It comes.” The strange, flutelike tones of his voice simulated the moaning subsidence of wind.
“What?” called the girl, again as if to some one at a great height above her. Her weird voice thrilled the room.
“ My soul, my soul, my soul,” chanted Pierre, his gray glass eyes distended upon the frost-bound square. “ La v’là, It comes.”
“ Where from ? ” called Alcée, in her tall, remote tones.
“ Up from the creek bottom, from the snowdrifts, from the deep, deep gulch where I died. It comes seeking my body. Look you, my body, a dead man’s body ! ” Pierre’s old-ivory face, turning slowly, made the round of the glaring circle. It was as if a corpse had turned its head.
“ I’m goin’ to git out o’ this,” shivered Davy, slinking backward. He tiptoed into the sleeping room. Then the men heard the defiant clump of his boots thrown on the floor.
Pierre made one step forward to the ring of torture, which gave backward like grain before the wind.
“ I telled you he was dead,” shuddered Tidbits. “ Hullong he ’ll stand there, and deader than dominoes ? ”
Pierre that moment believed he was dead, and that his soul would walk in at the door. He put his hands out blindly, reaching for an invisible something. They touched Alcée’s forehead, and she crumbled back, like an infirm statue, on the floor.
Her fall, apparently unnoticed, blended powerfully with the atmosphere of suspense of which Pierre remained the centre. A frozen branch tapped on the window pane. To Pierre’s sensitive ears it was magnified to the crack of doom.
“ Moi, v’là, I come, O my soul! ” he wailed, and, breaking through the circle of horror that gaped wide at his approach, he vanished through the door of the shanty into the night.
Alcée and Marie Port - Neuf were bunked in Tynan’s office for the night. The men were in no mood, that evening, for chaffering over leggings and moccasins.
“ He dead man. Heem don’ come back nevaire,” issued from the profundity of Johnny Leaf’s conviction.
“ Ef he don’t come back to-night, he ’s a dead man, sure,” Tynan retorted, and wrapped himself more closely in the blanket sheets as the wind flapped the powdery snow against the tiny window. Nevertheless he had fled in a panic from Pierre’s waving arms, and this memory Tidbits cherished. Then they slept.
But Alcée lay awake, hearing the wind howl and the frozen trees snap like pistol reports in the iron cold. Little puffs of snow drifted through an unchinked crack and laid their cold touch upon her face. Old Mère Marie was wound about with the lion’s share of bedclothes, while slender little Alcée shivered on the cot’s wooden rim, struggling vainly to draw a blanket from her companion’s invincible grasp.
Would he never come back, poor Pierre ? What freak of fortune had brought him to this Adirondack wilderness ? What stranger freak had brought her to Swanson’s Dam Camp ? How yellow he was, how changed! how wild and glassy his look ! Pierre Lavoie ! How well he had loved her once, and how she had scorned him ! And now — Ah, in the morning, the cold, cold ride through the flapping dismal forest, along the rough icy roads, past the skidways and the shouting teamsters ; then the weaving and braiding once more. Next year — Perhaps there would be no next year. At all events, Swanson’s Dam Camp would not fall to her lot again.
Pierre Lavoie !
“ Athis, I loved you a long time ago?'
Alcée crept from the bed, and found her way to the door. She would call him. She closed the door behind her. The ice was like hot irons under her feet.
“ Pierre ! Pierre ! ”
A host of shadows from the encroaching forest trembled toward her.
“ Pierre ! ”
It was no use. She had saved him from those fierce men only to drive him to a different death.
Marie Port-Neuf groaned in her sleep as the cold body of Alcée communicated its chill to her. “ Ugh ! ” she muttered as Alcée’s icy foot touched hers.
There was a sound in the kitchen. The girl lay very quiet. The Shanty Dog slouched across the floor in his thick gray flannels. His boots were drawn on over his plaid stockings. He replenished the fire with green slabs, and slunk to his bed again. If Pierre were dead, he would look for him to-morrow morning in the creek bottom. In one minute he was asleep and snoring.
The fire crackled and talked to itself. Alcée’s hands and feet grew colder. The wind blew through the moss-packed chinks of the wall and sent shivery pains dancing through her head. The fire crackled, and now it was talking to her, — urging her, teasing her, to its warmth and companionship. Alcde wrapped herself in her shawl and tiptoed out to the kitchen. A solitary figure sat on the log bench by the stove. She must have slept. She recognized Pierre’s long straight hair, and stopped on the sill.
“ I’m waiting for you,” said a lonely voice, but he had not turned round, nor could he have seen her.
What if old Marie should awake and find Alcée gone ? What if the thinlipped boss should come out and find them together ?
The battle of the winds waxed furious in the high evergreens. From the men’s room came heavy snoring and the thick voice of one who talked in his sleep.
“ Come, Alcée,” said the lonely voice.
Alcée slipped round and sank into the other corner of the bench, and spread out her blue hands over the hot stove covers.
Pierre took down a fur coat from a peg on the wall and wrapped her feet up, taking them in his hands as he knelt on the floor, as if she were a child he was tending.
The frost burst in the hemlock tree like a sound of grapeshot. Alcée shuddered.
“ It’s the devils and the angels doing battle for your soul, Alcée,” said Pierre solemnly. “ I’ve heard them at dusk of morning, when I had stuck my torch into the deep snow, and they could n’t see me for the piled-up skidway. They whispered and gabbled and laughed and cried in the spruce and hemlock and cedar.
“ ‘ Let her go,’ whisper angels. ‘ She ’s a light-o’-love, and has had her hell already.’
“ ‘ She is ours ! ’ shriek devils. ‘ She gave Pierre a poisoned cup to drink.’
“ ‘ She poisoned herself,’ whisper angels, ‘ and she has not laughed again.’
“ Then the devils clapped their hands because your laugh was frozen. But the angels cried over you. So did I. Here are the tears.”
Pierre took Alcée’s hand and made it trace the coagulated blood streak behind his ear.
“ But as long as I love you, Alcée, the devils can’t have you. And I ’ll love you even when I’m at the creek bottom, with the murdering logs holding me down and the snow freshet boiling over me.”
“S-sh!” Alcée warned him, for Pierre’s voice had risen, and two spoke together in the men’s room.
Then Pierre remembered the ring of glaring eyes and the girl crumbling like an infirm statue.
“ It was you, Alcée, who saved me. Do you love me ? ”
“ Come, let us go together,” said Alcée.
“ Where ? ”
“ Across Blue Pond, down Indian Creek,|—away, away.”
“ It is true,” said Pierre vacantly. “ One must go — after last night.”
He carried her to the door. He was very strong.
“ This is better than Marie Port-Neuf, — much better,” thought Alcée.
“ Wait. I will dress and get my basket,” whispered she to him.
“ It is true,” said Pierre, putting her down. He waited by the sinking fire while Alcée crept about like a mouse in the dark little sleeping room.
“ It is well to depart thus early,” said Pierre, as he opened the door. “ The dead should not return.”
They went out together into the forest, laughing, and the first light of dawn creamed the sky behind the evergreens.