Donald Cultross Peattie
Of THE PRAIRIE GROVE
the author has written this description:
“This is not a novel, not a historical romance, not a popularization of history. I say that I am remembering, remembering for the trees and the great grass province and the passenger pigeons and the wild swans.”
... is that rare combination, a botanist and poet rolled into one. From his parents he received a literary heritage, for his father, Robert Burns Peattie, was a wellknown Chicago journalist and his mother a novelist and for many years literary critic on the Chicago Tribune. Men of letters now grown gray will well remember their visits to the Peattie home on Bond Street, which Mrs. Peattie always referred to as “The Coupons.”
His schooling in Chicago was followed by two years in the University of Chicago. Then he went on to Harvard, where he studied under William Morton Wheeler and all but lived at the Herbarium. He graduated with honors in 1922, and coincidentally — to the surprise of his scientific friends — walked off with the Witter Bynner Prize for poetry. For the next three years he was employed as a botanist in the Office of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction, Department of Agriculture, and in this capacity made special investigations of the tropical plants of Florida and the flora of the Indiana sand dunes and of North Carolina. This, of course, led to the preparation of technical papers. Meantime he had married Louise Redfield, the novelist — an event of immediate stimulus to his creative writing.
A Prairie Grove is Mr. Peattie’s tenth book. The Bright Lexicon, published in 1934, was one of the first to catch the eye of discerning readers. For his Almanac for Moderns (1935) he was awarded the Gold Medal of the Limited Editions Club; in the opinion of that organization his book stood the best chance of becoming a classic of any written by an American in the previous three years. Singing in the Wilderness, his romantic life of Audubon, appeared in 1936, and was in turn followed by Green Laurels: The Lives and Achievements of the Great Naturalists.
Now with each twelve months of the Atlantic THREE GREAT BOOKS OF THE YEAR
A PRAIRIE GROVE
BY DONALD CULROSS PEATTIE
THE roots of this story, like my own, are struck deep in the black loam of the state that is shaped like an arrowhead. Where I grew up the knotted burr oaks stood, their boughs so long they arched down to the ground again. And it was under these living arches that my people came driving their wagons. They saw the green and bronze of the first of the prairie grasses, the wild gardens of the New World flora, aster and sunflower and great golden foxglove; they saw the black earth, and they called these spots the oak openings. They drove on, and the trees were spaced wider and wider, pastoral kings, each with his own realm of high meadow to shadow. They lumbered out upon the prairie, praising God for space and earth and wind. Their wagon tracks left bent the astonished grass, left flowers broken. Very slowly the most resilient culms eased up again and faced the breeze. But there were many more wagons to come, and the grass at last learned obedience.
Here was a soil with a million years of wealth in it, a kingdom without serious obstacle to its conquest, such space in it that men longed for a corner, women for a neighbor. As they drove the plough across those seas of meadow flower, their thoughts went backward to the trees, to the gift of wood and shade. They named the faint ridges islands, and in the noon heat of their ploughing they drank with thirsty eyes of those blue distant island groves.
The prairie island and its grove are like the hammock in the everglades, like an atoll in the sea, like an oasis upon the desert. It is something worth floundering and sweating for, a spot where a man can throw himself down and drink the wind and bathe in shade, where, as the blood stops pounding in his temples, he can begin to hear the birds singing deeper in the woods. The dry land and the tall trees and the short grass all make him think of home; he sees a home here before he builds it. He sees the chimney and the roof, outreached by the protective oaks, and there is something about flowers carpeting between old boles that is like the passing of a woman’s skirts. So he thinks of the woman to put in the house, and of the family sounds upon the floor.
In my country, in the state shaped like an arromhead, there are many groves. We have Elk Grove and Shakers’ Grove, and Thatcher’s Grove, and we have many ridges; there is no good county without an old highway called the Ridge Road. History moved from grove to grove along the ridges. The men rode them when the snows were deep or the rains were high, and they spared the crops thus in summer and autumn.
It requires a love of it deeply to read the slight configuration of this land. Then you may see that the old post roads of Genghis Khan were not so romantic as the Ridge Road that turns past Alison’s barns, and that of the four great temperate grasslands of the world — the steppes and the veldt, the pampas and the prairies — the last are not the least.
If you cross the prairies by the train, it seems too far from here to there; that is because in the flying coach you are never anywhere. But that woman who waved at you from the porch of the white frame house under the silver poplars is in the geometric centre of a circle as wide as the visible ends of the earth. She has had time, living there, to learn how mighty is distance seen horizontally. Some people only love a hill; they like their views prettily framed for them. For such, mountains are excessive, and plains give them agoraphobia. But if I cannot have mountains, give me a plain where there are a hundred and eighty degrees of sky arc.
And for my peace, my habitation, and my heritage, give me an island grove upon that plain.
Of the prairie province they say that the seas made it. Its bones are of coral, of diatoms, and protean microscopic animals. A little later, in the course of millennia that cannot be reckoned, the fishes made it. And then, when the bed of the sea was uplifted and it became dry land, rain fell on it, and the tropical club mosses grew in the marshes tall as trees. When the Carboniferous wind blew in their awkward branches, the golden spores were piled like snowdrifts in the peat. So were the coal measures laid down, and sometimes a fern leaf, broken by an amphibian foot, fell in the ooze to leave its imprint fossil there. Students go down into mines now to look for those superscriptions of past time. A fireman, flinging coal into the engine’s firebox, burns them away, in the hot prairie night, and the train tears off more miles.
The seas came back, and the continent uneasily shouldered them off again. Each time the great waters came and went they laid down the deep layers of death, out of which life was born. It took all of that — all that growth and dying and time measured off by the millions of years of planetary revolution around the sun — to make the Indian corn grow so tall and taste so like an August day.
In the age of man came the glaciers. They say the glaciers came and went four times. The interval of years between the third and fourth was longer than the years elapsed since the last one. In Greenland, around the polar sea, the ice is still waiting to come back. It hangs on the sides of the Rockies; even in the Berkshires there are snow holes where the ice does not melt all summer. Lower the average temperature only a little, increase the precipitation, tamper a trifle with the small but vital carbon-dioxide content of the air, and the ice might come again, sagging outward under its own weight, bulging southward, finding all ready for it — short summers, long winters.
The glaciers blocked the drainage into lakes and swamps. They made the five Great Lakes, the greatest reservoirs of pure fresh water in the world. They made old lakes now vanished, whose faint shore lines, strewn with shell and gravel and clean sand, are smothered now in the height of the prairie grasses.
For when a glacier leaves the field, it drops its scourings as it shrinks. That is where we got the boulders of Canada granite lying on the soft black velvet of our loam. My people mounted to the stirrup from such boulders, hauled to lie beneath the shady trees before the farmhouse door.
When their work was done, the glaciers had changed the life of this country. The elephant, the camel, and the horse, or their ancient prototypes, were gone. So were the ferns and cycads, but the face of the land was covered swiftly, with harsh sedges in the swamps, high grasses on the upland, and a few old indomitable types of trees — the nut trees, the catkin-bearing trees, oak and hickory, cottonwood and beech and birch and elm. Add ash and linden and a low thorn forest of the stone fruits, hawthorn and crab, plum and chokecherry. The grass and the trees went to war, and they are still fighting for the land. No one knows why the forest suddenly stops, cleft away, vertical might giving place to limitless breadth. So the first explorers found it; so, the Indian said, was it always.
There are many wise guesses about the prairie. They say that grass grows best where most of the rain falls in summer. They say that if you make a map of the area having the most violent changes of temperature, it coincides precisely with the lay of the temperate savanna. Some think that the Indians held back the forest with fire, those fires laid to drive the game to the kill.
Of all things that live and grow upon this earth, grass is the most important. It feeds the world. Its hollow stems, its sheathing leaves and chaffy flowers, above all its unique freight of grain, describe only grass, and perhaps the sedges. These are the marsh cousins of the grasses, but they are useless, harsh, withdrawn and cryptic. Grass is generous, swift-springing, candid-growing, full of motion and sound and light. From the first oak openings of Ohio and Kentucky till it washed to the foot of the Rockies, grass ocean filled the space under the sky. Steppe meadow, buffalo country, wide wilderness, where a man could call and call but there was nothing to send back an echo.
Root touched root across this empire. The harsh-edged leaves locked fingers, and the thoughtless west wind bore the pollen to the feathery purple stigmas of the husk-cupped flowers. In the jointed culms were water and salts, in the herbage was strength for the grazing herds, in the starch-filled seeds harvest for the mice. To the small rodents grass was forest. To the bison it was life certain underneath their hooves. Here the cock prairie chicken strutted before his wives, here in trust the lark sparrow laid her clutch of little eggs scrawled on the end with the illegible brown rune of her species, and the rattlers had a care for their frail spines when the elk walked by, terrible in branch and rut.
You may have seen Nebraska prairie, but that is low grass, bunch grass, a scattered, a semidesertic formation. You may have seen meadows, full of timothy and bluegrass, orchard grass and daisies. Those are introduced species; those are tamed Old World immigrants. The aboriginal high-grass prairie is nearly gone now. And it was something else.
It grew taller than a certain traveler who has left us his notes, taller than this man when he sat in his saddle. It grew so thick it flung the ploughshares up when they came to break it. When it burned, they say, it filled the sky with its smoke; the smoke blew through the forest belt, and when the Dakota were rounding up the game, the Ottawa in the woods of Michigan smelt that great hunt in the air.
But we have come to subdue the grasses, to conquer the empire of locked roots. The furrows lie even and open now, in spring and fall. The geometry of fields rules the landscape. It is a land turned to use, and I do not say it is not a good use, but some purity is gone. For the fallowed field does not grow up again to prairie. Thistles and burdock come up instead; we have the tares with our wheat, and nothing wholly wild is left.
But after long hunting I have found, upon the edge of my island grove, one slim paring of forgotten virgin prairie. I knew it first because the thistles had stopped stabbing at my knees, and there was nothing here so gentle as daisies. It was not tall as the banished high grass, but it was unsullied by a single foreign weed. Between field and field of grain, it grew with a varied flourish; close set, coarse-stemmed, the rank flowers sprang amid the whistling grasses. Nothing grew there because it was useful; it was itself, complete, sufficient, claiming the land by the most ancient of rights.
I sat down there and looked away from the farms. I lay down and looked up at the sky. I felt this most uncorrupted earth beneath me, and all its cleanly, raw, hard strength. I knew the prairie was once all thus, and I tried to remember how that must have been. There would have been no feeling of fences around me, but only forests and grass, grass and forest, and rivers winding through. Even now was left to me that baked rosin odor of the compass plants; I saw the irritable tribal toil of the ants in their enormous mound, and in my ears the crackling of the locusts’ wings and the distant anger of the crows were like primordial Amerind language.
What had happened on this natural stage? There are histories to tell me that, eyewitnesses who wrote in languages I understand. But on this turf and in the grove behind me the red men had a camp and a portage. That portage, to them but one of thousands, was, by the great accident that predestines any pattern we may see, directly in the road of history. Men of my own race had to come here. They were searching a passage to the China Seas, they were bringing the totem of a pale Manitou. Or they were men with lesser aims and common hungers, bringing only their right to grow where they stood and fling their seeds where they had cleared.
The bell of the church a mile north on the road rang down the fields. It is a good sound, even to unbelievers, but it broke some dream. So I stood up, the grass rising no higher than my knees. You are not so tall to-day, you prairie, as we are, and we shall never make you grow again, except in our thoughts.
These pages are those thoughts, a memory of what was gone before I came. I must remember not with my trivial faculties but with the blood that is in me. I must remember for my kind who came before me, and even for those who spoke languages that are alien to me. For they too went before me and stood where I stand, and they looked where I look, but they saw a grander and harsher world.
That world is this story, and I write it not literally but as a true legend. There are many kinds of story; we all like to hear and tell funny stories and Lincoln stories and wonder stories, and stories of the old times, lucky stories, war stories, and some of us esteem the worth of a bitter anecdote or some tale of a grand folly. We recognize that these are so many facets of the gem of truth; they give it its sparkle and its prismatic surfaces. Merely one surface is the relation called history.
The writing of history is for historians. I may not walk within their preserves. But they do not allow themselves to stray where I intend to go. My purpose keeps me to the theme of the island grove, the trees and the great grass, the wildfowl and the furred and antlered beasts, and tall men, very small, moving about in their rôles beneath lofty boughs and across wide spaces.
We call those rôles their history, and because they are finished they seem inevitable now. But in their day these people lived as you and I do now, from moment to moment, the tense adventure of existence. Not knowing what would come, they ascribed, as you and I do, false reasons for the things they did. History sums up their story; it detects the great propulsive movements to which they were subject as are children. It cannot stop to listen to individual forgotten heartbeats. But I shall listen, and I will claim the poet’s right to say he knows what they think and feel who are too headlong in life to make a song of it.
The names of Father Gabriel Forreste and Father Pierre Prud’homme you will not find in all the seventy-two volumes of the Jesuit Relations. For one thing, they were not Jesuits. The work of the Recollet Franciscans has been neglected for the more articulate members of the Society of Jesus. I say you will not find the names of these characters of mine, yet they are there none the less. You will find these men in the Relations, unless you are blind, and you will find my Robert Du Gay in La Salle, Frontenac, Champlain. You will find the coureurs de bois everywhere in frontier history, and you will discover that they were the first men to reach the sources of the Mississippi, the first whites who ever gazed astounded upon the Rockies where the Big Horns jut out in the prairie province.
I guarantee, therefore, that no one in this story is wholly fictitious. It is not necessary to invent either character or detail; the gold and scarlet cloak of La Salle, the bourgeois bigotry of Father Hennepin, the humility and the death of Marquette, are matters of record. They are traditional folk airs in the great song of America.
You will not find on any map my island grove, yet it is here and I walk in it. It has had its history, predestined to it by its site between master rivers, crossed by a portage trail, and by the sort of men and women who there laid down first hearthstones, founding that honorable and half-awkward, half-lovely way of life that gave us Clemens, Altgeld, Grant, Logan, and Riley. My children are the sixth generation of their line in the grove; to go back ten generations, my people came westward by stages; they too are in my story, as they are in me. In old records, in county histories, in memoirs and letters, I find the men and women who all over the state endured, exulted in, the privileges and pains of living in that day. I bring them to my story; I need invent little.
For the scene is all, the habitat group, man most significant in it. The drama is a biological drama; in the play we see how the white man came to the wilderness, and what happened then. The island is my stage; it would be falsifying, in effect, to name it; instead I hang out this sign: A Wood.
I walk beneath old trees that Du Gay might have known. I know my grove by winter and in summer; I know it through the night hours, when the vesper sparrows sing and the black-crowned herons are most active. My diaries tell me when the birds come back, when the thrush stops singing, when the first cicada praises heat. In my inventory is every one of the four hundred and fifty-three species of flowering plants that grow here. I have learned what pollinates them and what eats them and what nests among them, and what the Indians and pioneers used them for, and — have no fear — I shall not tell you much of this.
Humans have to take their place where it falls in the fauna. But there is no plot; this is not a novel, not a historical romance, not a popularization of history. I say that I am remembering, remembering for the trees and the great grass province and the passenger pigeons and the wild swans. I say that the coming of our species was an event, perhaps an impermanent one in the greater story. So my characters are transient, even shadowy. Individual character does not matter to Nature. In the end she absorbs all individualities; she knows only races and their rise and fall. But the ideas of our species are the human scent we leave upon the wild turf. They drift and linger on the airs after we have gone, and are the things most worth remembering about us.
‘ So we arrived,’ writes Father Pierre Prud’homme, ‘at this little eminence lost far out upon the prairies, having covered about two hundred and forty leagues from the isle of Michilimackinac, and three hundred and sixty leagues before that from Kébec, our good Father Gabriel being in a state of prostration with his dysentery and the buffeting of the elements to which we were exposed by the ambition, restlessness, and intrepidity of the Sieur Du Gay.’
Father Pierre, paddling bow in the lead canoe laden with the iron forge, picks, axes, kegs of powder, brandy, and muskets, was the first of the party who saw the waving violet ribbon of smoke from the Indian village. And so he claims, as he has a way of claiming precedence all through his memoirs, that he was the first white man who ever saw this grove.
Father Gabriel Forreste had been to the Illinois country two years before; he had found the Iliniwek not here but in their winter camp. He had promised them before God to return to them and speak again of the Master of Life, of baptism and heaven, and he had said then that he would bring them a blacksmith to mend the guns they had bought from the Dutch beyond the mountains. But all that next summer and the winter thereafter he had lain sick and suffering in the mission at St. Ignace where the lake of the Hurons meets the lake of the Illinois. To come again, to come in the time of heat, would be death to him and he knew it. But all men have their honor, and the honor of Father Gabriel was literal. Of himself he thought that God would exact all; only toward others dared he hope that Mercy would be infinitely forgiving.
He lay on his back in the third canoe, in his gray Franciscan habit (Du Gay would have nothing to do with the Jesuits, having been to school with them and failed of attaining a vocation), and he saw the sky and the plumy reeds and the wild rice arching over him. But the leagues and the days were monotonous, monotonous with pain. God had tried his servants with the Iroquois torture fires, with fits of Huron murderous whim, with death in the rapids and slow death from hunger. Of such were the holy martyrs made. But it was the will of the Father that he, Gabriel Forreste, born only a peasant in Normandy, born to the plough and the stable dung, should die like this, in the ignominy of cramps and running bowels — should die, perhaps, here and now, in a shell of bark on a stream like a ditch, where the serpents basked on the bank and the swans and herons forever took screaming flight.
In his ears sputtered the curses of the two coureurs de bois with malediction for the sales bêtes, for this sale pays, for Du Gay, for the priests, for the canoe. ‘It is well,’ impractically wrote Father Pierre Prud’homme in after years, ‘to employ the coureurs de bois as little as possible. They think of nothing but brandy and desertion and how they may escape to the woods to lead a life of libertinage with the Indian women.’
But Father Gabriel had only pity for them. Were their vile language to be cut short by an arrow or a club, they would, in their ignorant sinfulness, descend straight to hell. It was not God’s will that all men should bo priests, and the hungers that He has implanted in our bodies cannot always be turned to tender and moral account among heathen children. With innocent comprehension he had confessed many a wencher; for the drunkard he had only sorrow. He knew the two paddlers of this canoe, one at his head and one at his feet, for thieves whom Du Gay had tied to trees and flogged at Gros Point; a thought struck him, that he might die between them. And he became abashed and terrified at the audacity of a comparison that the Devil must have put in his head.
At the end of the fleet of five canoes, Robert Du Gay sat with muskets lying about his feet and in his hand the bronze plaque that was combined compass and astrolabe. Though commander, he brought up the rear, because in the Detroit three canoes had dropped behind, deserted, gone back to Fort Frontenac, lost to pursuit before he knew it. Well, let them go, and might the Iroquois take them! A driving force, a fantastic hope, a gnawing vanity compelled him onward. De Soto had died a hero’s death upon the great river of the south. Du Gay was not interested in the heroics of the dying; he never faced death, though he was always so near it. A man must live to get anything accomplished. But De Soto, even dead, soured his blood with envy. At Montreal he had refused a seigneurie larger than his native province, because he would rather carve a kingdom for himself out of the unexplored.
‘We reached the summer camp of the Illinois late in the afternoon of June 10, 1073,’he writes, ‘having been delayed by the ignorance of our Ojibwe guides who had not nearly the knowledge of the country they had led me to suppose when I paid them their wages at Michilimackinac. They took us first into a great lake surrounded by reeds over which we could not see, and covered with bustards and other wildfowl, which were so thick that they obscured one canoe from another.
‘In this way, seeking to find egress from the lake, we wasted the quarter of a day, and were obliged to retrace our way back to the Kilimick, and take a small creek which we had missed upon ascending the stream because its mouth is so choked with flags and bushes. And so, following it for two very crooked leagues, having distant low hills covered with trees upon the east and south and nothing but prairies upon the north and west, we came at last within sight of a lofty grove, where I descried the smoke from a campfire. It is necessary among even the most friendly Indians to give a warning of your approach; I therefore shouted and fired off my gun. The coureurs also shouted, and our Franciscan in the first canoe stood up and held aloft the peace pipe which the Ottawa chieftain had given me.’
Father Pierre Prud’homme cannot be called a coward, because, though he confesses that he was terrified, he was the first to step ashore. He stood there holding up his hands. In his right hand he clutched the black crucifix; in his left he waved desperately the calumet with its stem of cane and bowl adorned with eagle, crow, bluejay, and tanager feathers and trailing the long braided tresses of an Ojibwe woman, glistening with bear-fat oil.
Before the trees gave back an echo of Du Gay’s musket, the entire village of the Iliniwek emptied itself, pouring out of the bark huts. The priest saw the flight of the women to the woods, dragging their children. But the braves, with bows and arrows and clubs, strode over the grass that sank gently down into sedge and water, and stopped at twenty paces from the Gray Gown. They looked to Prud’homme like children of hell.
Like children, they were gaudy in their tastes; a villain with a great gash on his cheek wore a chaplet of blue flowers on his head; necklaces of earthen beads brightly painted hung around thick brutal throats; their implements of death were fantastically dyed and carved. With a certain eye the priest marked down his particular enemy, the juggler with his medicine bag of raccoon skin still with the grinning face and claws upon it. And in everything they wore he saw their kinship with the world of beasts who have no souls and are the Devil’s familiars. Those who went naked or as bad as naked were in themselves brute beasts, so far fallen from Adam that they never knew the depths of their iniquity. Father Gabriel, in his childish innocence, might say he loved these lost tribes, but Pierre Prud’homme knew the ranks of hell when he met them.
‘Foreign devils,’ cried out the juggler in a great voice, ‘who are you, and what do you want with men?’
‘For,’ writes the Sieur Du Gay, ‘when one speaks the word “Illinois,” it is as if one said, in their language, “men.” They esteem no one else to be their equals. I therefore answered them that we were Frenchmen who had come from the great captain at Kébec, and that we intended them no harm but wished to land peacefully at their settlement and exchange tokens of friendship with them.’
‘The Sieur Du Gay lingering in the rear,’ continues the narrative of Father Prud’homme, ‘I told them that I was sent them by the great Master of Life, and that we had brought with us Father Gabriel Forreste who had come among them two years previously at their winter camp to labor for their souls’ salvation, and that now, in obedience to his oath, he was returned to them.’
So the two narratives, describing always the same events, leave one to choose between them, and there is little reason to doubt that both are essentially truthful. Neither is complete, but they complement the great picture.
Three elder men, says the priest, advanced very slowly to meet him, the one in the middle bearing aloft a peace pipe which he held up to the sun, as if he offered it to his Maker to smoke. ‘Frenchmen,’ he said, ‘I take you by the hand.’ But he did not do so, for it was not the Illinois custom to touch hands, but only to refer to the ceremony rhetorically. ‘I give you tobacco,’ he said. But again he seemed to promise what he would presently perform. ‘You are welcome among us men.’
The odor of bear’s grease and senescent skin crept into the Father’s nostrils, and as the other Indians drew casually and irregularly nearer, becoming a strengthening host, a whole racial, specific, animal taint enclosed him, intensified by the muggy sunlight of the June afternoon upon the marsh’s brim. If he could scarcely support the insult to his olfactory senses now, how was he to endure a year of it?
But the Franciscan found himself deserted as Du Gay’s canoe sped like a swan to the shore, and the chevalier leaped out, glittering in his scarlet coat with facings of gold satin, his sword in its scabbard swinging a wide arc from his hip as he cleared the bow. He was at once surrounded by a crowd of young Illini who took his hat from his head and examined it. Without any intention of familiarity or insult they fingered his cloak and his beard; they weighed the scabbard in their palms. So he drew the sword forth for them and turned it this way and that in the sun to make it gleam.
But the old men, summoning four young ones, waded into the water to Forreste’s canoe. When they saw him, they made the Indian sign of astonishment, which is to clap the hand over the mouth. Then the four young men lifted him out and bore his pallet on their shoulders to the shore. The coureurs and the Ottawas following, the whole party moved up the slope across the wild sward toward the village. Boys ran ahead and in their impatience ran back again. Men passed their hands over Father Gabriel’s body, in symbol of compassion.
At the door of a house of reeds stood a very old man stark naked who held his hands up to the sun as if to shield his eyes from it. The light between his fingers fell upon a skin like bark with the brown squamæ of centenarian age upon it, and made him close his mothlike lids till nothing was visible of his eyes but glitter.
The Indians halted and were silent, and Father Prud’homme held his tongue from the speech he had prepared, since Du Gay was silent also, and there was something in the elder which forbade interruption even of his thoughts. In the stillness, in the sunlight, a vireo spoke over its phrases like a child who does not know when the grownups are at prayer.
Then a voice, thin and light as a riffle of smoke, came from the motionless ancient. It spoke in praise of these strangers, addressing them; it lauded the sun that had grown brighter at their coming, the corn that ripened for them, the rapids that grew quiet to obey them. The poetry of ceremony rose high and cold and empty from the wrinkled lips. ‘I take you by the hand,’ he told them. ‘I, Nikinapi, give you tobacco. You, Father Gabriel, who speak with the Master of Life, beg him to give us years. Tell him to confuse the Iroquois. Pray him to send us buffalo. Ask him to grant us children. Our nation welcomes you, our houses are your houses. We are at peace with you. We love you.’
The voice ceased. In a moment of silence the white men sought the eyes and the face for the good faith of that welcome. The face was broad and flat, and the skin did not seem to lit the cheekbones, being drum-tight; weather had thickened it so that it lacked every plane and nuance by which unconsciously we judge of each other’s expressions. The lips were fallen into a toothless mouth, the knees bent forward, the whole body flexed at each swollen joint so that only the loin flaps hung plumb with earth. There is dignity in thin white hairs flowing to bronze shoulders, but who could tell how much of silver in the piping voice was guile? The blue Christian eyes could not read the walnutbrown ones. Who could say upon what tortures, what indecencies, they had gazed in their time with pleasure?
And in that moment when the rhetoric of welcome still hung like chill upon the air, the Frenchmen felt how far they now had come, and how the wilderness had closed upon them, it might be like a trap.
So the first white men found it, the wooded ridge just lifted from the steppe and the swamp. A faint ridge, but one strategic, fateful, because it lay across the way men had to take, pressing westward and southward, seeking a way from the Lakes to the Gulf, seeking a portage. Here, finding its way down through the cramped and twisted drainage that the glaciers had confused, the Kilimick runs northward, toward the lakes. Farther west, the Seignelay flows southward to the Father of Waters. In the spring floods, in the rarer rising of the autumn waters, a chain of sloughs connected them; a light canoe could push through the wild rice and the reed grass — so subtle is this scenery, where the faint boss of the land, less tall than a tall tree, divides the waters of the continent.
The land is drained now; the canoes are gone. Our human imprints erase natural landmarks. The eye accustomed to broken scenery finds this midland monotonous. Run by, fly by, do not stop, swift traveler; there is nothing here to interest you; you have said it yourself; you read no meaning; you hear no thunder in the great empty burning arch of the sky.
Only gradually the lingerer grows conscious of fine shadings, of great meanings in slight symbols. At last he can hear the great voice that speaks softly; he can see the swell and fall upon the flunk of a statue carved out in a whole continent’s marble.
The Illinois came here, not foreknowing this grove’s destined rôle, but placing their summer camp strategically, on the crossroads of the forest game and the prairie game. The human animal, the red man, was a carnivore, who hunted, like the wolves, in packs, the other beasts about him. An obligate nomad, he went where the game went, and on foot he chased his food, his clothing, and his implements that arrogantly fled before him. He followed the game southward, harrying, in winter, marching in the trail of its dung, streaking after it like the cowbirds that flew to sit upon the rumps of the buffalo and devour the ticks and flies.
With an elk tine the women dug a seed hole for the maize. In a raccoon skin the jugglers carried medicine, and when the wild swans went over, a storm of arrows shot from arches bent to breaking struck across their flyway and brought them plummeting to earth. Then the girls must set them away in brine against the winter famine. Swan feathers blew about the camp then, and with owl’s feathers and heron’s plumes and metallic glitter of teal and mallard and goldeneye, they went to make the magic of the medicine lodge; they winged the arrows, trailed in splendor from the calumet, or were thrust in the greased black hair.
Here was a species whose talons were arrows, whose speed was in their cunning, whose strength was the prairie fires they lighted that ran without need of breath or water, and so outran the stumbling herd of heaving flanks and lolling tongues. They ate as the beasts ate, ravenous and gorging in hours of abundance; they all knew famine in its season, and, like carnivores, they had to eat then the memory of old feasts. They took some thought against the morrow, but never enough. Yet, in the midst of abundance, they were not wasteful; they were too ignorant to kill for sport. The animals too, they thought, had souls; they must not be insulted or their spirits broken; the herbs were in the earth’s keeping, and when they gathered their simples they asked her pardon. ‘I take these thy hairs, Nokomis, grandmother, and I thank you and ask your pardon.‘
One must not think that they were sentimental; they took what they needed because they saw that all things take what they need. Why not, in a world so rich?
And in all historic time there has never been abundance like it. Not in the temperate world, where men are restless, where the speeding years flash past the gay dress and the nakedness of the seasons. It was a very long time ago that Greece lost her forests and that the circular hunt of the Tartars swept the great game from the Asian steppes. But in our own yesterdays the elk still lifted confident antlered heads unafraid of a bullet; the mast of the forest fed ten million pigeons; trees fell only from rot or wind. Ducks still built their nests neighbor to men, which now must hide them away in a last borderland of reeds.
There was an amply filled solitude, a yet undestroyed balance in all the land then. It was a balance kept by harsh laws past our reconstructing. Yet all things enjoyed then the right to live, and to death they were submissive without thought. Amidst such prodigality there was little need to plant, and the buffalo calved in the deep grass without tending.
We have substituted another life, one that without our mastery upon it runs back to weak forms, dry udders, thorns without fruit, and the smutted kernel. It is our way, and it is a great way, with a sweet traditional taste to it, and I love the barnyard with its fowl out of Asia, the haymow with its fermenting grasses brought here from the cultural sources of our civilization. I like the starlings and the sheep and the horses mighty and diffident; I like the white little hams of the children squatting down to entice the geese with grain. These arc our belongings; this is our flesh; this way must we go.
But lift your hand from the land, or let the outraged earth turn on you — and the wild comes back, an embittered wild. There was never a tempest that so darkened heaven as the great dust storms blown from lands tortured into too much bearing. Strip the ancient herbs away, the lance-tall grasses with their pennant chaff, and in revenge the thistles spring — rabble running where the old kings stood. There will be crows here to pick the last grain we sow. But never again the pigeons, the bison, the man holding his fingers to the sun.
Pierre Prud’homme has set it down as his opinion that the aboriginal Americans are the lost tribes of Israel. How else indeed account for a people not otherwise mentioned in the history of creation?
The Recollet was not a very satisfactory ethnographer. He recorded what he learned of the Indians as one implicitly disapproving. He pointed out their customs largely as an indication of how much would have to be altered. But even he did not expect to change their Oriental features — the broad flat faces, the shovel-shaped teeth, the wide and heavy noses with rounded nasal gutters such as we see among us only in children. He was observant enough to notice the shortness of the Indian head, the lack of frontal development which is replaced by bosses on the sides of the skull. Bumps of perversity, they must have seemed to the zealot.
These poor children of the prairies, as Prud’homme called them, did not possess the wheel. Cut off thus from easy land transport, they were made dependent upon the rivers and the lakes. Lacking the horse, they had to pursue their game on foot. In these wants they were, of course, no worse off than the rest of their Algonkian relatives. With these relatives they might be at war, but they did recognize a language affinity; if a man could speak the Illini tongue he could make shift to understand the Miamis, the Potawatomis, the Mascoutens, and the Ojibwes. From Kébec to Maine, and west to the Mississippi, the Algonkians held sway, but for the indomitable salient of the Iroquois. They were the birchbark-canoe Indians, the traditional scalpers of Colonial atrocity tales. They were, also, the Indians whom the Dutch and English robbed and cheated, the Indians to whom they gave raw whiskey and gonorrhea. Their tragedy does not make them all noble red men. Before you sentimentalize them you have to accept the fact that they lived on terms of amity with hordes of lice, that they lustily enjoyed torturing their enemies, that they were as keenly addicted to various perversions as ever the civilized, and that their boasted democracy did not for a moment contemplate raising the Amerind woman above the status of an animal of burden. In fact, other beasts lacking for this end, she was that animal.
The Illinois were among the most affable of all the Algonkians. They were also among the most treacherous, perverse, and cowardly. Their treachery, indeed, brought on their easy extermination by a brother tribe. Other Indians had no use for them. Only a saint could have loved them. It was on this point that Father Prud’homme differed so widely from his coreligionist.
To the practical priest it seemed that the Illini were no further advanced upon salvation and civilization than Adam, naked outside the garden. He thought them miserably housed in their rectangular buildings of bark supported on poles; here several families would live together, half a dozen men with all their wives and children sleeping about on mere shelves. The women wove a little, in the fibre of barks, using the fingers only and working from the top of the loom downward. Of rushes and splint they could contrive a little basketry, though never of so advanced a type as the coiled sort. Their pottery was of a primitive order. When they passed you a dish it was a boat-shaped piece of bark.
The clothing troubled the good Father like an unregretted sin. Children and young braves went naked by preference. When they arrayed themselves it was in the skins of beasts, so a sleeved coat, a breechclout, and leggings of leather and moccasins with drooping flaps passed for finery. Women wore skirts and jackets of hide. Yet, simple as their wants were, these savages already had avarice for the rare and costly. Pipestone from the headwaters of the Mississippi, copper from Lake Superior, grizzly-bear claws from the Rockies, were wares of price.
But the pen of a narrator even so hostile as Prud’homme could not pass over the skill of this human animal upon the water. Where the Sioux spun round and round in bowls of hide, as Herodotus tells that the Mesopotamians used to do, the Algonkian, in his canoe, skimmed like a swan over still waters; he shot rapids like a salmon, steered by a tremor of the wrists. From the boats, deer were killed, and sturgeon shot. The deer and the elk and the buffalo were a lifelong study to the Illinois. They were sensitive to a trace, a smell, a sound of their quarry. They knew, indeed, — in their aboriginal darkness so deplored by the priest,— all that they needed to know to exist in the North American fauna, as hawks know their business, or rattlers how to survive.
So far the condescending pen of my leading authority has restrained itself. But when Father Prud’homme comes to the medicine lodge his anger and horror cannot be checked. In its iniquity it surpasses for him even the libertine character of the people and the immodesty of their dress.
I find indeed that in the speed which outrage gave his pen he has confused the gens or family-group fetishes with the midewiwin or medicine lodge. The fetishes, his hosts did not disguise from him, were bundles of human scalps, amulets made of a buffalo’s tail or the claws of a grizzly bear or the mummified remains of almost anything from which at last, perhaps, the stench had departed, but not the manitou. Each group — the fish gens, the bear gens, the frog, river-monster, and thunderbird gentes — had its clan bundle, and Father Prud’homme records that he has seen a man beat the bundle when there was ill luck, fondle and adore it when fortune smiled.
To be an Algonkian in the days of heathen innocence was to walk the world with spirits. In all things there was manitou, boding ill or good for humans. The origin of your clan bundle was lost in myth and dream. You lived by a world of dreams, and what you dreamed would happen it was your duty to make come to pass. To dream of many elk was a sign of life; to dream of bears was death. In pain you must not cry out. What you loved best you must be most ready to give away, but over your moods society expected you to exercise small control. A man in an ill humor was considered irresponsible, as if insane. They gave him his way; they made him presents; until, his good cheer restored, his impulses grew less dangerous. A man was a warrior and a hunter, but never for a moment menial. A woman was a slave and just possibly a pet; she was the earth you planted. Between these extremes Algonkian society found no regular recognized adjustment for anyone who wished to be less sheerly male or female. Yet there would crop up women with a capacity for leadership, men with no taste for war and with the desire to make something beautiful. The boy who wanted to weave a pattern, to make a design of his own dreaming, had to put on skirts and dwell among maids. The woman leader must endure male hardship and stifle instincts.
This was the pattern, this the ideal. In fact, however, individuals did not attain to it always. All braves were not brave, and Indians could melt or run away like children. Many squaws berated and tyrannized over men, less obedient than the fertile earth. People went berserk sometimes; Indians recognized criminals among them. Sex would not stay in moulds; tenderness and romance, though quite unprovided for by the conventions, broke through upon occasion.
You lived your life to the dance. You danced to bring the buffalo, you danced to lure the elk. You danced up the rain, you danced sex and sorrow, ghosts and dreams, sickness and medicine, violent death and torture. Dance was not social, not a spectacle in the sense that paid and trained performers make a ballet for inert, incapable spectators; dance was above all not, usually, sexual — not a pantomime of courtship like the minuet, an approved embrace, like our modern dancing. It was religious; it was literally a life-and-death matter. It was self-expression, a democratic art; it was one of life’s great rhythms, like breathing and the beating of the heart. And with dance went the pulse throb of the drums, and singing. Captives led to the stake sang a death song — a ceremonial song learned long in advance and apparently in preparation for just such a contingency. They would have omitted it as little as we omit the march from a wedding procession. Without song and dance, life had no more dignity than the ways of brute beasts.
So the red man lived, clothed in his paints, an animal in the North American fauna who recognized with more candor than we his fellowship with the beasts. He had found his place in that fauna; he wasted not, neither did he defile. When he had eaten a beaver, he did not throw the bones to the dogs, lest other beavers should be insulted. Before he set out to kill the buffalo, he sat down awhile and cried tears for them. He worshiped the North and the South, the East and the West. The tobacco field was a holy place; one should not jest in it, or even speak of common things there.
And he is gone now, for his descendants have Ford cars and go to the motion pictures. They are ashamed and ape the white man and strive to compete with him in his world. No one who has seen reservation Indians has seen much more than beggars. The bodily type, the spiritual force, the brute beauty, have been destroyed by dependence, confinement, disease, and miscegenation. But once they were here, the great people, and they slapped this ground with their dancing feet in exultation.
The man who began to wake up slowly out of a dream was not the Recollet Franciscan, not the alien in the camp of savages, but only the child Jacques he had been born, Jacques Forreste. He was a child conscious of somehow needing his mother. Very slowly his identity, his situation, returned to him. He felt the earth under his back, an ant upon his hand, the soreness in his bowels as he stirred a little, and he knew that his three hours of night serenity were over.
He remembered now how he had forced himself to remain till midnight present at the great council and ceremony of reception. He had sat through the feasting upon wild goose and sagamité, young bear and prairie chicken and chicks in the egg. Ceremonial dogs had been offered; the chief apologized that they had had to be killed swiftly instead of allowing them to die properly by hanging them to poles by their hind legs. It had been a dangerous breach of etiquette to refuse this fare, but Du Gay and Prud’homme had explained that in France such was not the custom. And Indians understand that custom is immutable.
Then they had brought him here, out under the burr oaks, and a woman and a boy had massaged his limbs with wildcat grease till the aching fatigue melted from him. He saw the woman at last rise with a grimace of pain in her cramped limbs and tired muscles, and the boy in the moonlight showed a face drained of color. The priest knew that he was eased by communicating his weariness to others, and he was humble in his heart at the goodness that God had planted in children so far removed from His Kingdom and His Word. As he dropped to sleep he was conscious of the steady, rhythmical screaming of a baby far away on the other side of the village. He knew the child was sick, but he could not keep his eyelids apart, though he tried to pray for it before he slept.
Now God’s day was coming, the beautiful light He had made. It was not surprising that the Indians should worship the sun; it was a premonition in them of the true faith. Lying on his back and looking upward, he saw the sunlight bathing the lofty heads of the trees. There was a first shaken rapture of a bird, a voice of gladness that another night had passed without death by violence. He could see, high on a bough, the singer facing the sunrise that just flushed its breast, and he had noticed that at dawn and sunset birds always turn like this, as the old men turned their faces and held up their hands to the light.
Now the light moved down the boles of the trees. Then it was on the grass, giving back color to the flowers. Now he could feel it on his hand, which lay weak and idle and ashamed of being so. Presently it slipped to his face and fingered it, and he closed his eyes and gave himself up to it, and to all the birds now singing
— simply, without, thinking or praying. From the marsh water came the croaking and harsh screaming of many waterfowl, where someone had disturbed them. He opened his eyes, and idly watched the toil of a spider on a dew-hung web. How could this little beast know such art and craft, he wondered. How, unless God had always been here, even in this wilderness?
He roused himself and got to his knees and, bent with cramps, he said his ‘Pater Noster’ and ‘Hail, Mary.’
The waterfowl had risen with imprecations to heaven at the step upon the shore of the Sieur Du Gay. He was the sort of man who could not sleep. He could not go off guard; though he would unbuckle his sword and lay it down beside him, his hand slept on it naturally. Indians might snore away their time in torpor; the coureurs de bois, like the common rascals and sluggards they were, roused late after late carousing. For himself, he drank without pleasure; wine was a confusion to the clear intoxicant of his ambition. He did without woman, unwilling to share himself with less than his plans. He slept a little, grudgingly, out of animal necessity, as one gives time to eating and bathing. In their day, all things would come to him
— banqueting and soft, bedding, too. He wanted a wife, not women, and not so much a wife as a queen. His intention for her was dynastic, to give him sons to hold up his hand, so that what he wrought might stand in his name.
He liked beginnings; he liked dawn, when dullards were abed and knaves not yet at their trade. He liked the empty room of day, the scene unpossessed. He had no idea, as we have, that to be a beginner was the whole of his fate.
That intense preoccupation of his was not born of commercial genius; he saw the beauty of his kingdom. On his way down to the river, striding through the long shafts of sunlight, he beheld the dew. And he paused to see a grass stem bent down with it, the gathering of drop to drop until the whole round opal, flashing blue and ruby, sped down the channel of the blade to earth, and the grass, having dropped its tribute into the ground, relaxed upward in the freshened air.
All his kingdom over, it was thus each morning, a diamonded splendor from pure naked sky to the very roots of the grass. Here in the tree boles was timber for ships and forts, for gunstocks, axe handles, and at last for homes. His ideas were not genuinely military, like those of his lieutenant Pons whose arrival from Canada he awaited. He planned forts, but only to protect the fur trade. And there were furs in this country to make beggars of the big-nosed merchants of Novgorod!
The coureurs de bois, whatever the priests might think of them, he saw as links in the great chain that must carry marten and beaver and ermine to France. He could use the greed in them; they had what Indians never had, the true instinct to exploit, the curiosity to go and find. They had in the end more sheer endurance, being single-minded; they never turned back because a dream warned them that they should, or because a woman in her règies had touched them. What they asked was to live beyond the realm of law. They demanded the illusion of working for themselves; they wanted to enjoy the vices of freedom. He, Du Gay, was willing to let them have these, and if he foresaw a hybrid race he knew there was no danger in it. Such children would not have in them the clan strength of either blood; they could be moulded to a new pattern.
He reached the river’s marge, and found the wildfowl zoned according to their dispositions. From the shore the herons stormed up heavily, night shadows cupped under the camber of their wings, reluctance for the earth in the trailing wake of their legs. Blackbirds scolded and spattered out of the green shaken reed world, and next, beyond the floating lilies, the ducks struggled and ran upon the water and flickered off long and low, drops flashing from the oily feathers. There were left the killdeer, half afraid to go, crying out as they circled and settled again, as if he had wounded them, had wounded them, had wounded them! At the last minute a king rail ran past his feet with a piercing cry from the full rose-brown breast; out of the cattails came the soft thudding, as if on wood, of the hen rail calling her chicks.
Du Gay had for them a smile in his beard. He had no need of their lives, no wish for less than the vast animal fertility of this country. He saw it as never anything but young, a colony of raw materials, a source and storehouse.
Robert Du Gay knew where he stood in this world. In Old France he belonged to the petite noblesse. He could have stayed at home and enjoyed the right to carry a sword, to order the drums to be beaten, to keep doves in the turret of his little château in Picardy, to marry a cousin with a little money and a little pelvis, and, if he had the clothes for it, he could go to court and intrigue to be noticed. In New France he was under the Governor at Kébec; he had a commission and a charter that might be revoked or superseded at any moment; he had enemies in both countries, men who had tried to prevent everything he wanted to do. Yet none of them had a constructive idea. Not one of them was willing to go where he went; they only bribed Indians to set his ship a fire; they thought of duties to clap upon his peltry. Maggots!
His loyalty to his monarch was intense. Louis XIV was a king who knew how to make a throne glitter. Like the Indians, he took the sun for his symbol. He could use the priests without being used by them; he played off England and Spain, and turned the weakness of Germany to account. Du Gay admired Louis’s minister Colbert; there was a man who knew what money was for! But for the rest of the aping crowd he had no use, no envy. While the diplomats were squabbling whether Spain or France should have a little county like Roussillon, Spain was entrenching herself in the New World; her hand was upon California, her claims went indefinitely northward and eastward. The mouth of the Mississippi was already Spain’s, if De Soto’s claim could not soon be invalidated by the tangible fact of a powerful French colony. In matters of the sword Spain was a steel realist; by the instrument of the mission she would make of the Indians a pacified subservient village people.
Along the Atlantic coast the Dutch and English stretched an unbreakable cordon. Toward the Indian they had a policy of steady removal or extermination; they were set against mingling the blood of the races. They sent their rum ahead of them, corroding the barriers that should withhold them. New France, between Spain and England, was still only a name, a hope, a fresh wind running ahead, lifting a flag in the forest.
‘There is no use in trying to shorten Indian ceremonials,’ writes Du Gay. ‘It is a sign of enmity not to allow one’s self to be honored to the fullest extent within the power of the tribe. We therefore submitted ourselves. Father Prud’homme and I to the celebrations which our hosts devised for us. Father Forreste being ill and attended by Indian women, while to our coureurs I judged it wise to give liberty to hunt and otherwise disport themselves.‘
The morning was already warm when the two Frenchmen were conducted with honor through the grove to the place of ceremony. The braves were painted black and yellow and red, out of respect for the rank and dignity of their guests. Some wore their hair hanging down upon the left side, the right shaved or burned away; some carried the lock upon the right; all brought their weapons and strode along with their ceremonial skin cloaks swinging beast tails behind them. To the Frenchmen it seemed that they walked, two humans, in a troop of skins and feathers, tails and claws. Yet here were men to be dealt with; here were human intelligence and guile and pride of race; these beings had martial traditions of bodily courage and they recognized objects of veneration.
Women in their skin dresses stood silent but curious all along the way. Children and tall boys ran beside the defile, naked but for some shell ornament at the throat or in the ear. In the conventional silence of the occasion only the voice of an enormous young man, some master of arms for these rites, was heard continually calling out that a way must be made, a way must be made! These people were in their summer capital. Over three hundred rectangular bark lodges formed their village; the smoke of their fires went up in proud spirals or was caught by a wind promising rain and sent swirling about the glistening legs of the processionaries. It brought the odor of meat roasting.
The scene of the dance was set in the shade of hickory and ash. Bright-dyed mats had already been tramped into place upon the springy sward, and upon arrival the braves all threw down their weapons in a heap and immediately squatted or lay down upon the grass. The Recollet and the captain sat in the fashion of white men, on their buttocks with their knees drawn up. Then the chief, Nikanapi, began to speak, explaining that they would present their guests with the calumet, to be used as an emblem of peace and safety when they went among the evil tribes of the south.
The first figure of the ceremony was not impressive to the Europeans. A dancer pranced heavily but not without cadence upon the mats, offering the calumet to the four quarters of the earth and to the sun; then he passed it to every lip to smoke. For the second figure a drum was used, and a little rattle shaken so that it kept up an insect singing, and two dancers very slowly pantomimed a combat, one having only the calumet with which to defend himself. Then Nikanapi arose and, taking the calumet, began, as it seemed to his foreign hearers, to boast childishly of his exploits. When he had done, he presented it to Du Gay.
It was high noon before they returned to the village for the feasting. Silence was still observed, but this time, Prud’homme suspected, out of preoccupation with the stomach. The first course was a great wooden platter of sagamité, corn boiled in water and seasoned with fat; the chief filled a spoon with it and placed it in Du Gay’s mouth. He repeated this three times, and then fed the priest in the same fashion. Fish were brought, and Nikanapi removed the bones with his own fingers, blew on the flesh to cool it, and then tenderly popped the morsels by finger between the lips of his guests. The ceremonial dogs were then brought on, as a matter of tradition, and sent, silently away, out of respect for the alien and contrary custom of the Frenchmen. For the last course the buffalo was dragged to the centre of the circle; the chief arose and cut out the hot and nearly liquid fat with a knife; this he fed to those whom he honored, as if they had been small birds.
With a rising gorge Du Gay got to his feet and thanked his hosts for their goodness. He said that he would speak to them by four presents, and, laying at the feet of the chief a mirror, he told them that he was journeying peacefully to visit the nations whose hunting ground lay beyond theirs. By the second present, a string of glass beads, he announced that the great Master of Life who had made them had so far taken pity upon them as to instruct them by this Gray Gown in His will, By a cloak of Flemish velvet he informed them that the great Captain of the French at Kébec wished them to assist him to build a fort here, in order to hold the ground against their enemies the Iroquois and the English. Last, he gave a musket, and by this present desired of them to obtain all the information possible about the rivers and the nations of the lands where the birds went in winter.
Nikanapi’s reply would have done honor to a Spanish ambassador, Du Gay thought. He promised everything without allowing the hearer to infer that diplomatic courtesies could be literally interpreted. He begged his guests not to risk themselves to the cruel nations of the south, not to encounter the evil monsters who lived in the rivers, not to carry guns and powder to the Osages. ‘But remain here,’he said, ‘O Frenchmen! Take pity upon us, teach us, who are only children before you! ’
That afternoon the braves gave a match of lacrosse in honor of the visitors. There was a bear dance, where the performers wore immense and comic phalli; that night another feasting followed, so prolonged that the sated revelers rose now and again to go aside and put their fingers down their throats till they vomited and could eat again. Du Gay and Prud’homme availed themselves of the custom by which you might beg a neighbor to eat for you. That night the women were allowed to dance; it was, fortunately for the good Father, very decorous and uninteresting dancing, done far from the firelight, in the shadows of the trees looking at the stars.
Beyond the circle of the campfire lights, beyond the bobbing women dancers, beyond those trees painted too with light, were other trees standing in a cool and mighty darkness. There the sward was fresh and untrodden, the bough unbent, the earth undefiled. There the odors were those of leaf rot, of fungus, dampness, fern and flowering things; beast smells there were too, but faint, discreet, the modest trace of those who keep themselves hidden. Yes, there was the great decency of the unhuman, out there in the forest, of animals who have no need of shame, being no more than animals.
Father Prud’homme in his account of the Illinois admits that they are a very affable people. They seldom say no to any proposition; they offer to give you anything, but, like Spaniards, they do not suppose you are so barbarous as to take them at their word. He had seen service in the cause of God among the Iroquois, and their hatred of the true faith and of the French was fierce and open. With the Illinois, Father Pierre never knew where he stood. When he asked them to be silent and listen to him, they were silent; he could say, ‘Stop smoking’; ‘Kneel down’; ‘Bow your head.’ And the rules governing the conduct of Illinois life required his hosts to do whatever he suggested.
He gave them little cards and pictures of the Ascension of the Virgin, the sorrowing of Mary, the descent from the Cross, the parting of the wicked from the saved upon Judgment Day, and of the Nativity. In these the Indians showed intense interest and delight; they regarded them as fetishes of the clan bundle of the Franciscan phratry, and they wore them around their necks with their wampum. Crucifixes and rosaries went the same way. The origin myths of these strange fetishes absorbed and perplexed the good Father’s listeners. Crucifixion was a bad thing, they thought, but the Iroquois were worse than the Jews.
Once Father Prud’homme found where a child had forgotten the colored card given him, among the grass. The wind that is made by the flapping of one wing of the great bird chained in the west had blown it thoughtlessly into a little puddle full of sky. He took it up and wiped it gently with the heel of his palm; it represented the child Mary standing at the knee of Saint Anne, and both were smudged and rain-soaked. He tried to find forgiveness in his heart; these naked little ones with their yellow bodies, their unreadable and, it seemed to him, hardened faces, their wolfish teeth and lank hair, were not in their hearts wicked. You could not compare them, for instance, to heretics in Europe, to Protestants who rejected salvation willfully. The Indian children must be, he knew, his hope; but he realized that as yet they only learned to pray for the reward of a red bead for a boy, a needle for a girl.
Already knowing Ottawa, Father Prud’homme could make the adults understand him, and he tried to compile a dictionary of Illinois words in order that he might preach in their own language to the slower-witted. Young men and even sometimes women amused themselves boundlessly by giving him names for things that made him blush, and when he refused to write these down they were swept by gales of laughter. The Illinois, indeed, were endlessly fond of jokes; they were solemn only in council. Men, in the idleness that occupied most of their days, chatted and gossiped like old crones; the women, like beasts of burden, had less to say. Girls were gay only before marriage.
The Illinois tongue was extensive enough, but sadly impoverished in equivalents for the vocabulary of the great Hebrew stylists. When the priest recited the Twenty-third Psalm, he knew that to Indian ears he was saying:—
‘The great Spirit rounds up the buffalo for me. Now I will never need to go without anything. He takes me along beside the stinking waters; he makes me lie down on the green prairie. He greases my hair with running grease; my bark bowl slops over.’
But Father Prud’homme was not by any means proposing, even if it could be done, to put a vernacular Bible in the hands of the ignorant. The training of his order taught him rather to reveal portions of the truth, as the simplest of God’s children were able to ingest it.
But in one respect he was like most missionaries; he was profoundly troubled by the indecency of nudity; he did not see how a people could be kept from constant preoccupation with lewd thoughts while they lived amidst scenes that could only make him think of a bawdyhouse. He did not allow boys and girls to attend his class at the same time, and presently, he records, he had the extrente happiness of making the little girls shy, so that when he entered the bark hut where he was to teach them they gathered shreds of deerskin to them with what he hoped was modesty. You could do nothing with the boys, who were so proud of the tattooing on their backs and stomachs that they would by no means cover themselves.
The wives dressed modestly enough, but he could arouse no spirit in them against polygamy. A man would marry a girl and adopt all her sisters as second wives and concubines; they could not understand that this was incestuous. The younger sisters were glad that the chief wife was not a harsh, jealous stranger; the man was content that his women, being of one family, did not quarrel. Behold the prairie chicken, who has many wives. See how the bull buffaloes rule their cows. The elk drives his herd of womenfolk before him; the does among themselves are loving; their master keeps the wolves away; their fawns, acknowledging one father, are all brothers and sisters. If the great Master of Life did not wish it thus, he would change it.
‘How would you have it?’ Father Forreste answered when his brother brought him his troubles. ‘These people are between the Iroquois and the Sioux. Their men die young; they are harried and killed and captured. And when a man meets his death, his brother, as with us, must assume the care of the dead man’s family. The widow thinks in her simplicity that she is honored and loved when she too is taken to the man’s mat. These women and children would suffer and starve but for this savage way of life. It is not ours to reproach them; we must rather spread peace among these children of the woods and prairies. They have only one besetting sin and weakness that is the cause of all their other transgressions. They do not know the brotherhood of man; they hate and kill. They have not found the love of God, to make them good and comfort them. When they have given up the warpath, then there will be as many men as women. Young maidens will be sought after and so they will no longer be so easy. God in His time will teach them.’
In spite of all he could do, well and zealous though he was, Father Prud’homme could never obtain the influence over the savages that his confrere had. The sickness of the old priest did not make him an object of contempt; the Indians admired the stoicism with which he bore himself. They discussed among themselves the course of his malady with a solicitude in detail that would have shocked the decency of Prud’homme. They understood that he did indeed speak with the Great Spirit. He lived apart, fasting and suffering and waiting, as they supposed, for a dream. In that dream his manitou would tell him what to do, and it would be something difficult and probably, indeed, fatal. But, whatever it was, it would be done for the good of all his clan, and for the good of the Indians. They knew real love when they met it; they recognized the strength of devotion when it touched them. And when from its traveling case he drew forth the chalice set with jewels and washed with gold, and a sunbeam piercing through the oak leaves dazzled on its rim, they covered their eyes with their hands to show him that they saw and were amazed.
The dissensions between Du Gay and Father Prud’homme had begun when they came out from France together. There had been a flock of girls on board who were on their way to Canada to find husbands and make wives for soldiers and trappers. They were girls without dowries, orphans, children left on the steps of convents, young women without hope of happy settlement in France. On the sunlit deck they sewed and danced and chattered; they complained of the salt stiffening their hair, but they laughed when the spray dashed through its own rainbow across the gunwales and flocked their lips and fell into their laps. These girls had led cramped lives; they were going out into a world without restraint, and they knew it. The purpose of their journey was uppermost in their heads, and they began to taste their freedom by flirting with the sailors.
In his berth on a moonlit night Father Prud’homme could hear their feet directly over his head. While he was trying to read his breviary the rhythmical tramp and click of the dancing interrupted his thoughts. If he knew men, and as a confessor he thought he did, the sailors could not well be thinking of anything except flying skirts. When midnight struck he came on deck and ordered the girls to their beds. There was no meekness in their replies; their hearts were already full of license, and, to make matters worse, the Sieur Du Gay stepped out of the shadow of the mast and in their presence took their part.
‘You are an old pedant,’ said Du Gay.
‘God at any rate did not fail to give me a vocation,’ retorted Father Prud’homme. But, as he records, he did not then know that Du Gay had left the Jesuit college; later he apologized for the thoughtless insult of his reply.
And matters went on thus, the two of them well fitted to annoy each other. That the Governor of New France had sent them out from Kébec together, each took as a cross to be borne.
The policy of Du Day was to prepare the Illinois for resistance against the Iroquois. He wanted to arm them, to train them for a stationary life of resistance. If the Dutch were going to sell them brandy, — and nothing, it seemed, could prevent it,— then it was economically and strategically sounder that the savages should get French brandy through Kébec.
Principles like these were thorns in the side of the Recollet. Du Day was opposed to a formal marriage between the coureur de bois and the Indian woman; his men must have no attachments of family or property to any one spot. Like himself they must be free to take all risks, and if the lure of fresh pleasures among women would help to draw them beyond the horizon, so let it be.
The activities of Father Pierre seemed to put in jeopardy the relations so perilously balanced over the chasm of treachery. How perilous they were Du Gay alone envisaged. Every guest in an Indian camp is an expense. It was not money that he cost the Indians, but food. Wilderness hospitality has always demanded lavishness; it cannot be refused, lest the host himself some day want among strangers. In a prolonged stay the traveler creates dearths which cannot really be paid for, and Du Gay was, all unknown to the Illinois, lingering for the arrival of Captain Pons with thirty men. Without their help he could not man the chain of forts that must rise in the wilderness to hold it. When they came, there would be more mouths to feed, more ceremonial feasts for the whole village, more love affairs with their perpetual danger from the Indian humors.
The zeal of Father Prud’homme had not waited a week to manifest its indiscretion. He had been seen before daylight listening and peering around the medicine lodge. There was no doubt, of course, that the juggler was a grasping, mean, and ridiculous trickster, but Du Gay knew better than to let it be known that he thought so. Father Prud’homme, however, had attended a dance given by the mot her of a sick baby, had objected to what he called the indecency of the performance, and finally had publicly unmasked one of the medicine man’s simplest conjuries. When the juggler sucked a stone out of the child’s breast, the priest reached into his enemy’s robes and removed a handful of stones, a toad, and a very small rattler with its fangs drawn. The next day, when he opened the case of his little traveling chapel in the presence of the curious crowd that always gathered to see him perform a Mass, a toad jumped out of the monstrance.
The child was dying, and Du Gay knew it. So did Father Prud’homme when the woman at last brought the little naked thing like a picked crow for baptism. He gave the little soul to God, understanding quite clearly that upon its mother’s part baptism was performed in the hope that the foreign medicine would save the child’s life. Two days later it died in convulsions, and the medicine man came to the mother’s hut and told her why.
When he had gone, the Gray Gown entered and asked her to rejoice that her child was saved from burning and was nestling on the bosom of Mary, the Woman-who-went-to-the-sky.
The baby was wrapped in rabbit skins and put at the door of the lodge, doubled up like a child in the womb, and on the second day the little face was painted and he was lowered into a grave with a kettleful of sagamité, a rattle, and belts and necklaces of wampum. There were no tears except the mother’s. In a year from this day, the relatives explained to the Frenchmen, there would be a dance of mourning, a funeral feast, and then everyone would weep.
From that time on, the influence of Prud’homme over the women and children was weakened. The most damaging effect of the incident was the quarrel that it precipitated between Du Gay and the priest. The angry words were not understood by the Indians, but they were overheard, and the rift injured the prestige of the foreign power. Every week that the white men remained among the Indians, the less they could appear like divinities. When they were cut they bled; when they were hungry they were irritable; when they labored they grew weary. The coureurs’ women knew their mortal weakness — found them, indeed, far easier to persuade and wheedle than their own males. These guests had powder, liquor, guns, and wampum that were destined to be given to Osages and Ioways; temptation glinted opaquely in the eyes of their hosts. Yet every night the white men had to sleep. They had to lie down, sword and crucifix put aside, and trust themselves to the mercies of the night and those that walk in the night.
I know that night. I know the fireflies’ hour that comes when the dog-day cicadas cease the shrill shearing of their songs. Sometimes the thrush has last benedictions to say. The burning fields have still some heat to breathe out, and it is not night yet when I can feel that air upon my checks, hot as the blood in them. It is night when the ponds throw up dampness, an odor rank and stagnant. It is night when the woods surrender hoarded coolness, with the smell of high weeds in it, the breath of green living.
By night, birds sleep, except the owls. Squirrels sleep, but among the fourfooted it is the immortal rule that the night shall belong to hunters. The mink comes up out of the river bottoms, poising a thoughtful paw and smelling the taints on the air. The bandit raccoon walks in the treetops. Night is the waking time of the fox, and in the grass the meadow mice skip and chitter, and the deer mice, with dainty ears alert and small hearts pounding, go nimbly in their runways. Over their heads the owl sweeps in a banked glide, his talons open.
This is the night as I know it, and I am safe in it. There is nothing anywhere, in all the length or the quiet depth of the grove, that I should fear, and nothing on the prairies. Across them I can see the orange pricks of light in the farmhouses, and when they wink away, and the shapes of the houses are only humps of darkness, there are stars. I am learning now to tell the time by them, by the great north road of the Dipper, and the crawling of the Scorpion across the black wall of the south. A sound, I find, will awaken the vesper sparrow — the gooselike cry of a car far off on the roads, or my own soft whistling to the high woods dripping their vines and their solemn freshness. Then the bird sings, a trill, a twirl, a reminder of life and day. Ask him any time, at any hour, and he will answer: we are here, song and I; we are only sleeping.
But the wilderness night was another world, and it was not gentle. There were big shapes in it; the gray wolf and the prairie wolf, the cougar and the lynx, came alive with a yawn and a flexing of the claws out of the soft deception of fur, and began to hunger. It was all one hunger, the monarch hunger of the life forms that lie on the top of the vital pyramid, the few who may eat the flesh of the many, the strong who may tear the weak.
If the weak had a meaning, it was to satisfy the bellies of the strong. If the strong had a purpose, it was to keep down the lesser, to devour them in the folly of their running fertility. So the pyramid stood, each block of it having meaning only in relation to another. In itself no entity had inborn purpose. Of the purpose of the whole of that pyramid never inquire, lest the answer, when you find it, make you afraid.
Somewhere in this great pyramid was wedged the block of man. Consider him, in his nakedness. He had but two feet with which to run, instead of four. He had no armor and no shell, and in his body no poison fangs, no sting. There was no check to his fertility but the check of death, swift or slow. He came into the world helpless, a dependent weakling longer than any other mammal’s young. He was not, biologically, the mightiest block of the pyramid. But he could alter. He had dreams. And what he dreamed it was his duly to make come to pass.
There have been many dreams. There are dreams upon all the continents, and they are as ancient as the anthropoid skull in which they are entertained. I do not know what was dreamed beside the Niger; perhaps voodoo is a dream; nirvana is a dream of Asia; expectation of a harshly just heaven overarched the Nile. By the Congo, by the Brahmaputra and the Ho, there was no dream of change. Only Europe is restless, and will pull down its gods and put its fingers to new clay.
They say, in India, that the West is materialistic in its vision. The black man knows that the North is a slave raider, a white colossus stroking a lash in the hand. The red man gave to us, and in return we stole from him. The American wilderness, erect and unsuspecting, received us among its boughs and grasses, and we set an axe to it, and tortured it by fire. We have a black record; we are children who have struck at the breast that suckled us.
Now we bestride the top of the pyramid. Now we are great, now we are grown. Now we must find our own way, fend for ourselves. If we fall nobody will miss us. The pyramid will shape a new top; it will not be truncated; presently it will not remember. Now we have rebuilt, and I hope that we like it.
We have taken the terror out of the night. We have taken the checks from the lowly, the many with the little rodent teeth that work all night at their trade. We have softened everything, and how agreeable is our life!
In the cities, in the hospitals, our lights burn the night long, beside the writhing or the just breathing. There are nurses coming and going, bringing powders and chemicals; white-gowned doctors concentrate the rays that penetrate the flesh. By the police sergeant’s desk the light is burning, the telephone is waiting; in the fire station the tongue hangs expectant over the gong. In the yoshiwara the devouring maladies wail in the bodies of the profaned, to devour the bodies that crawl smirking to them. In the laboratory behind locked doors the maker of gases prepares the death of civilians in the next war. The bankrupt thief struggles past midnight with the skein of strangling figures; the criminal’s lawyer smells a hole in the law just big enough to let out a verminous rat. The childless woman weeps on the bed for her miscarriages. The young minister stares at his hands that can no longer pray in sincerity.
No, there are no terrors now in the night like the night terrors of the wilderness. No pack is after us, no fang is at our throats. We are a great people and a right people, and we live in the midst of plenty. And to those crying in the night it does no good to say, ‘It was our dreams that brought us all to this.’
I am not scoffing at our dreams. I respect them. It is against some prejudice that I bring myself to speak of the Indians’ dreams, — the actual nocturnal fantasies of the mind, — yet I try to respect these too. The Indians went apart to have their dreams, to obtain a vision. Like first-century Christians, they lived in huts, caves, solitary confinement, abstaining from food, from woman, from bathing, from exercise. Dirty, starved, wild-eyed and fanatic, they became at such times holy men. Saint Paul or Saint Augustine would have understood them more easily than could Father Prud’homme or the minister of a fashionable church. Is it just possible that Indians would have responded more favorably to first-century Christianity? But instead of the bodily stoicism, the fanaticism, (he: democracy and direct personal revelation of our religion in Roman times, they were offered the dream of Father Prud’homme.
Like most churchly officials, he was primarily absorbed by the task of spreading authority. He assumed that in Heaven the popes and the recognized saints would be found clustered nearest the throne of God. He did not in the bottom of his heart believe in presentday revelation; miracle was a thing of history; it was something now to be taught to the docile. Like some modern missionaries, he was proudest of the quantity of his converts; he did not care whether they came for a bead or diversion, if in the end they found salvation. Fundamentally he could not really imagine them in Heaven; what he imagined was this dreadful wilderness dotted with church spires, the vibrations of the mission bells touching each other across the barbarous miles. He could see in a vision these people, their nakedness clothed, their spirits humbled, bringing their venison and their babies on their backs to the mission gates.
I am still wary of my prejudices, and I am striving hard for the moment to believe in the religious Pax Romana. When I think of Father Marquette, of Father Forreste, I am near to faith in it. Such men preached the brotherhood of man, and that dream, though it has never yet succeeded, has not failed us. I know of no other dream to trust. I could not trust any government always to be right; I do not trust the bankers or the economists or the military or my own judgment. I have some faith in science and art, because when they are pure they have no nationality, no hatreds, no greedy purpose. But I do not suppose that Plato would have made a successful executive, and in our polity there have to be executives. The ability to govern is a gift by itself, but even that gift is not enough. (Alexander the Great possessed it, though he was a moral deformity.) There must be added some towering honesty that would make the leader turn and chastise his children when they did wrong to others. We need that noble humor that is tolerance, and some proportion in the issues of t he moment that will regard rather the great and the wide good of the future. The leader creates the future; what he dreams it is his duty to make come to pass.
To this description the Christian ideal answers well, but there has never been a body of churchmen that could be trusted with the management of all our affairs. One great saint in a generation is exceptional; it might be enough, if we could count on him. And remark that Christ and Buddha, Joan and Luther, went ways outside the churches into which they had been born. Lincoln, Asoka, and Pasteur did what they did without churchly office. The dream of Father Prud’homme had every opportunity in the thirteenth century to bring about heaven upon earth. But as long as you believe in the Devil, you cannot exorcise him.
The dream of Robert Du Gay was a simple thing. It was explorative, exploitive, cloaked with politics, adorned with glory. Nothing could be easier for an American to understand. Commodore Perry knocking at the doors of Japan for trade, Roosevelt driving the Panama Canal through the rights and the inertia of a sister republic, the empire of Standard Oil — these are based on ideals like Du Gay’s. It is not only an American ideal, though Europeans are fond of saying so; remember that Christopher Columbus, when he landed first in what he took to be the territory of the Great Mogul of India, immediately claimed it for the man who hired him, Ferdinand of Spain. The European temperament claims the best of everything, and never fails to add thereto the best of moral reasons for getting it. In this respect political empire is more hypocritical than commercial empire.
New France, as a political dream, was utterly shadowy and brief. Its claims were vainglorious, unsecured. Du Gay could discover a river five hundred miles in advance of any other white man, and could wave his sword at all that lay beyond and call it French, but he had no colonists behind him. The best Frenchmen will seldom leave France, and the government had no wish to see them depart. Instead, it emptied the jails and took the base or bankrupt and sent them to new shores. By the St. Lawrence these unwilling colonists felt no temptation to build up civilization; instead, the birds whistled to them, and the tracks of the marten and fisher showed them the way deeper into the forest.
The government had to pass a law compelling its Canadian subjects to cut down a certain number of trees every year; it tried to send wives out to them, hut the voyageur was only too often already vanished into a world where French women could not live. He was brave; he was, I think, the most thorough and important explorer on the continent; he was hardy, adaptable, and a better friend to the Indian than anyone else. But he was the opposite of a colonist. He has left no memorials of himself that are tangible; he had no capacity for creation or foundation. One hundred and fifty years after Du Gay’s time, the American Fur Company, a great net at the centre of which in New York crouched John Jacob Astor, still preferred the engagé, as he was called, because he was subservient, unambitious, and never thought for himself.
To Robert Du Gayv the resources of the land were not conceivably finite. He trusted to the vast fertility, the spawning numbers of the quadruped horde. No one will ever know, now, how great was the wealth in peltry in his day. In 1816 this state of Illinois still exported ten thousand deerskin, three hundred black bear, ten thousand raccoon, of muskrat hides thirty-five thousand, and of otter four hundred. Beaver and fox, mink and wildcat, were then the small change of the trade. To this one must add the elk and bison of the century of Du Gay, when the running things were not yet in flight. The primeval fauna of the Great Basin from the Appalachians to the Rockies was then a wealth untouched; it stamped in red-eyed herds and it bounded, scarcely frightened, from any watering hole.
They are so gone now, the great beasts, that we have no sense of them left. We do not know enough of them now even to miss them. The sportsman goes, if he has the craving for big game, to Africa to hunt. But there was no sense of sport in the heart of Du Gay. It was too early in the morning of this land for that. Here in the great spread palm of the continent ran the animal world; they ate from that palm, they slept in it and rolled in it, and left, at last, their big hollow-eyed skulls in it.
Great bestial world — world of the gleaming fur changing with the seasons, beautiful intimate clothing that is such modest nakedness; world of the many individual smells upon the grass and the ground and the air, imperceptible to us, signals of danger to the herbivores, promise of kill to the clawed. The beasts hunted in all places, knew all the runways, tried and tasted all that was good for them. And yet they despoiled nothing, scarcely broke the grass they walked through. Only the standing bear left his mark upon a chosen tree, and the beavers changed the look of rivers, making lakes of them that held reflections and amplified silence.
Yes, here they lived; they were foaled and dropped here and got to their shaking young legs, or they were littered in a den of good rank smells and warmth of fur and single desire for the teat. Then they ran, by day or by night, as the law told them, and they ate and they dropped back to earth its mineral fertility, their eyes glazed with the preoccupation of a rite. In the fullness of their time they knew the hunting or the howling agony of rut, a proud agony half pleasure, and they played their panting part in their race, without knowing what they did or remembering afterward what had become of their hunger. Then at the last there was the laboring breath, the staggering gait, darkness dripping over the vision; and finally, to stab them back again to one more moment of living, a last ecstasy of pain when the fangs went in and the spine or the skull was broken.
This was the million-lived life; this was the great North American faunal province, never so rich, so varied, as where the elk looked westward out of the woods across the prairies, and the little sleek pocket gophers of this steppe met the straight proud wall of the oaks.
The red man had no horse to chase them then. He had no gun, and in his hardihood could walk naked in the wind. Furs were for babies, for ceremonies, only in the worst of weather for protection. He had not learned yet that they could be turned into whiskey and powder, cotton cloth, steel axes, and vanity. Neither the Indian nor the beaver had ever heard of the beaver hat; Du Gay could buy cheaply what he might sell dear. The ermine of distant kings was only the weasel in his white winter pelage.
This man, this restless sleeper in the forest night, lying with his hand on his sword beside him, was not destined to grow rich, to rule, to have a queen. And New France was not fated to endure. The wind that held the white flag powdered with the golden fleur-de-lis died with a sigh beneath its folds. But the white man was dreaming his dream none the less; the seeds were falling secretly from his baggage, were blowing on the winds that favored him.
Now the beasts are slain; we are clothed, we are adorned. Now the submissive heifer is routed through the Chicago stockyards; mechanically it becomes beef and leather and glue.
Now the sheep are choking beside the empty arroyo in the overgrazed lands; now the little man on the cheap street marks down the furs in his window— catskins and rabbitskins dyed to look nobler, or shedding summer pelage smuggled out of Canada to evade the duty, the laws enacted to protect what we no longer have.
Do you want back Eden? But there was no dream in it but the vision of the midewiwin. There was no compassion beyond the family or the tribe. There was no help in suffering. You could not have the grand courageous schedule of the mail plane in the night going over the farm roof in the storm. Nor the Brahms First marching triumphant through the airs into a million hearts. You cannot have it both ways. You cannot call yourself a man and be willing to go back to the wolf’s way. Our way has gone forth everywhere. Let me go on with the story of how it came to the island grove.
There were ears in that wilderness to hear everything, and every significant sound sent the peaked and furry skin forward to cup it. Everything listened, night and day, and a sound would break through nervous sleep where a smell might not.
A doe amidst the shield fern slept uneasily this night. There were sounds, and her wakeful ears bestirred themselves to orient them. Some part of her brain beneath the delicate skull sorted out the nature of these messages, and to the great gong of the will said, ‘Be still, be asleep.’
So her heart was quiet. In the sweet summer doldrums, without thought she existed in the animal vegetative state. The autumn heat was far away; it was not foreseen. In this warm sleep-peace dwells much of the animal world all the time. They are not forever fighting or fearing; they like to rest, they like to lie down, and only a blind man or a mechanist would deny that the animals like certain views. They can contemplate without having ideas about what they see. Do they see all the better for that?
But when a noise came the long ears cried out upon the consciousness; the doe rose on her brittle knees, and a light through the forest pricked her vision. Then she bounded up; the legs trembled and her tail stood out, the white hairs upon the rump erected. And now the taint of man flesh curled into her nostrils. She picked one forefoot up, and she stood long moments; more than fear was in her head. The light crooked a finger at her; it was like the incarnation of some manitou, it was spirit, magic, a challenge greater than danger. It flashed back from the inky balls of her eyes in the night , and very carefully she put that foot down. Then she began to walk forward in the fern, her long neck stretched. At her back she felt the darkness and the safety; ahead of her, cried every instinct, was only danger. But curiosity is not an instinct; it is a growing tip of the intelligence, it is a divinity upon the darkling animal mind, like the upward yearning of a vine toward sunlight. Courage and wonder together have carried us out of the night of our instincts toward the worship and the peril of our fires.
Around the small, the secret council fire sat a dozen of the Illinois in parley with their six Miami guests. The Miamis had spent a half day hidden in the next island grove to the east; they had sent a woman into the Illinois village with a secret message and a present of tobacco. And the old chief Nikanapi, knowing that in a few hours he would be hearing black words against the Frenchmen, had presented to his white guests all that afternoon the face of a smiling image. Now at the tip of the island, far from the sleeping Du Gay, he made his brothers welcome.
Oumaha was not an old chief; he was, as only an Indian can be, both fat and hard. He got to his feet like a bull getting up, and first he showed his presents. He had axes and hatchets of tempered steel, copper kettles, red cloth, a burning glass, and rum. He asked them to know by these presents that he bore the Illinois the love of brotherhood. For their sakes purely he had come thus far to warn them. Strangers, he learned, had come among them, men who ate their food and plotted only treachery. These Frenchmen were in league with Iroquois; they were carrying guns and powder to the Sioux. With these two hands of their enemies, the Illinois and the Miamis would be strangled. The French had not yet the strength to do it themselves; they would buy Indians to do it for them.
‘Brothers, they are few in your camp, and we are many. But the day will come when these invaders will grow like the grass stems, and you will be driven away like the buffalo before the prairie fires. Brothers, we have not misled you. Our gifts speak to you. We have no cause but yours. Now we will depart in peace as we came.‘
The lids of the listening Nikanapi fell guilelessly. Nothing, however, had escaped him; he guessed where the gifts had come from; he knew that they had cost Oumaha nothing, and that those were foreign words in Oumaha’s mouth. If the Miamis had felt able to prove their assertions, they would have spoken them like men to the Frenchmen’s faces; they would not have made haste to steal away in the night.
Yet he had never trusted the Frenchmen either, except Father Forreste. They had something to gain, or they would not be here. The hope of gain upon his own part precisely and delicately balanced the cost and the dangers of entertaining these imperious guests. The words of Oumaha and his gifts from the unseen white men behind him had tipped the scale, and he perceived that the treachery between white tribes might of itself be further profitable to him. This powwow was indeed a parry and thrust between two European nations. England had heard that Du Gay had gone to the Illinois country and, itself not ready to penetrate so far, wanted to play dog in the rich manger. The old chief, for his part, did not in the least believe that the white men could ever grow numerous as the grasses. There were not that many humans in the world, and this pale soft flesh was not the stuff of which warriors are made.
When his guests had gone, he told his listeners to say nothing of this to anyone. They must watch, on their guard, without changing face. Then the campfire was covered with earth, and leaves and twigs were laid on top of it.
The light had gone out in the forest, and the doe bounded away for a few paces. Then she walked more quietly, and she saw that the day was coming now in the east, and the night with its treacheries was over. She browsed from the trees, lifting the white of her chin to fumble and pluck among the leaves. Then she stepped deliberately back a little way along her tracks, bounded to one side, and found a fresh bed among the wood grasses that from their tussocks fling their green hair forward. Here she finished out her sleep, while the forest grew colored again and the long low sun shafts came to pierce it. They found her ears and shone through them, making a scarlet mesh of all the veins, and slipped in sheets of soft glory from the burnished summer coat of bay.
But the Sieur Robert Du Gay was no man’s fool, and the Indian face could be read by shrewd experience. The Indian front was not united, and an hour after the French commander had first observed the sullen faces of his hosts one of them, in the hope of reward, revealed the deliberations of the night before. Du Gay went straight to Nikanapi. He told the old man about a dream he had had, of how the Miamis, hired to the English, had intrigued against the great French father. A curious dream, was it not? And a false one, of course. Then he had had another dream; he had seen in a vision the arrival of his lieutenant, Rafael Pons, with thirty Frenchmen, muskets, and powder.
It was a long shot, but two days later the village was startled by the roar of guns, and the supporting party led by Pons swept through the parting curtains of the wilderness. The effect upon the Indians was astonishing. There was to them nothing finer in life than a dream come true, and nothing so much honored the dreamer.
‘We have listened to the whistling of bad birds,’they said to one another, and their hospitality was redoubled as though it had never wearied. They were really eager to believe in their guests. Like children, they asked that the knowing, mysterious beings among them and above them should be right and unbreakable. They hoped for good to come through them, and did not wish to be disappointed.
And the foreigners’ eyes were so many mirrors in which the braves could see themselves. The dangerous and fascinating game of racial comparison could be played now upon this wilderness Field of the Cloth of Gold, with the proud swagger of kings and a hospitable waste of treasure. The bearded men and the affable girls measured racial ways of love and found the gestures strange and disturbing but the elements familiar.
Du Gay had so little interest in the effect that he produced among these unstable copper children that he scarcely stayed to notice it, and even his indifference made a mark. What impressed him was the rectilinear beauty of the European discipline. You could tell a man to meet you in the middle of the month, and on the fifteenth there he was. He would find you on an unmapped spot where he had never been before, though he had to cross a lake as wild as the North Sea and carry his boats on his back along the banks of rivers dwindied in the summer drought to muddy ditches.
Yes, it was a deep and a beautiful thing to look into eyes and know you would get a truthful answer; to see their belief and comprehension and clear thinking. The soldier’s salute, the white man’s handclasp, the rough, nervous embrace of a man friend — these were precious, but better still he loved the way Pons let the knowing laughter just glitter in his eyes, and the quick familiar idiom of his brows in comment. There was no treachery, no hysteria, no superstition, about the man. He had the grace and the warmth of the south European, made upright by the habit of the trained soldier. And he took comradeship as much for granted as Du Gay himself. In the Iroquois wars Pons with five men had held Du Gay’s line of retreat; he alone was the escaped survivor. And Du Gay, returned with a large force, had hunted his lieutenant through the enemy’s country, sacking the towns of the Five Nations, making them disgorge every prisoner, tracking his brother-inarms as minutely as a lonely deer some doe remembered from an old autumn.
Sworn brotherhood was comprehensible to the Indians; it was a faith to them like the faith of lovers among us, more spiritual than the biological and physical bond of the family; a man who would give all for a squaw must indeed be far gone in sensual dementia. Among the Illinois the prestige of this unexpected friendship was immense.
The precious journal of Du Gay is a thing of clipped speech, elided emotions, and descriptions only in terms of resource. Of Rafael Pons the soldier I find nothing left but the maps that they carefully uncrease for me in the manuscript room of the historical society.
I like maps, and best of all I like them when they trace the unknown. That is where the man behind them looks out. I do not care whether he has estimated his distances precisely or put in all his rivers. What I look for is honesty — not to put in rivers he never saw, or fabled monsters he did not encounter. I like the sparsity of this Pons’s map; he omits the trivial; he inscribes with the square calligraphy of the engineer. And this paper, this trustworthy witness of what once was, has the beauty of some leaf from Leonardo’s sketchbook. It is the sketch for one shoulder of a continent, more exciting than the elaborate portrail finished in the studio. It has the sheer anatomy of geography, and it is true with the compass.
On that great simple chart is marked my island grove. He has marked it with some care, for he understood how easily it might be lost. You could pass it by, just over the brim of the horizon, to east or to west, and never raise it from the horizontal emptiness of the prairie. In the crooked creeks you could miss it, and flounder through the marshes with the reeds and bulrushes higher than your head. It had a way, the Indians knew, of drifting deep into perspective, when the haze of summer heat or of autumn fires made it a rootless phantom floating just above the grass heads. Then the cottonwood groves, with their talking leaves like squaws’ tongues, and their deceptive height and whiteness, came out clear and false, and you might sweat through the marshes to get to them, only to find that they surmounted the back of no land, but ringed about hot shallow water and cakes of marl. And the frogs mocked at you, and the herons shot down white disgust upon you. But the true groves, with the dry grass and the open arms, could suddenly march a league nearer, in the glass-clear air when an October morning blew off sharp and bright.
So Pons pinned this portage place to reality, between the stagnant Kilimick and, westward, the Seignelay, drowsing southward under its water lilies. They must have been in bloom that summer day when he and Du Gay walked over the ridge of the grove to look for a slight height proud enough to hold the flag of France, and the fort it should command.
If Du Gay and Pons had told what they felt or described what grew high about them or peered at them around the boles of trees, they would not have been empire builders. Such men note only the details they need. There is no map of the island grove itself, and the best of the local historians have been out here looking for the site of the fort, without being able to discover it. For it was a mere palisade of tree trunks enclosing a log house adapted slightly to European methods of defense. As a precaution against Indian attack, the woods and brush were cleared around the stockade. But the woods and brush have seen to that little matter, long since.
But I feel a great longing to go back and stand in the clearing’s sunlight with those Frenchmen. I want to look at precisely what they saw and feel as far away as they did. For there will never again be distance like theirs. The true measure of space is time; they were two months from Kébec, and you cannot now, except upon antarctic ice or in the Matto Grosso, get two months away from anything. They were six months from France, and what Colbert might say in a letter reached them as dead news, like the happenings among the stars — if indeed the letter ever found them. And if it did — why, here amidst the shagbarks, the wild American crows, the shifting human pack, here the vermilion boast of a minister’s seal was nothing but wax. The writ of that brittle wafer did not run upon these sun-worshiping grasses. This west wind would not carry the king’s messages. Du Gay and Pons, old soldiers, knew it; for all their loyalty to Louis and his flag, they knew they had to take initiatives; event was upon them, and they must bear themselves under the sky and before men like kings in their own right.
Something is still left in these woods and the beasts in them that does not want, to learn what we have tried to teach them. This is a tall hard male nature, and it will not love you for beating it. It will not come crawling back, like the jungle, when you have cut it down. There is no bend in its knee; you have to raze it if you want wealth from the soil it claimed.
This biota has about it the scorn of man that was here before man found it. There is no gold in the earth, no precious latex in the trees, there are no annual grasses native to be sown for crops, and no healing quinine or fabled spice. Nature here does not promise man any extravagant gain; it has given him grudgingly a home and a living if he would work for them. Austere and economical of effect, intemperate of weather, it holds no softnesses and will not frame a view for you. Its beautiful designs are in the convolutions of the oak’s knotwood, or in the arch of many grasses all one way and equal. It is not a flowering wilderness, but one of stems, trees, and grass. It has so much sky that the grass can never fill it, though it runs forever to reach the cup’s brim. It talks with the bluejays’ tongues; it used to beat with the cougar’s heartbeat and die each year with the killing and feasting, the searing of the maize stalk, and the ragged southward streaking of the cranes in the Indian summer.
Were the hawthorns so many in my woods, in the days before they let in the cattle? Where did the barn swallows nest then, and the domestic chimney swifts? I tramp this grove trying to learn and remember the intricate chain of its vernal sloughs that pipe with tender batrachian song when the trillium makes constellations amidst the old stumps. I find and lose again great ash trees that are three-forked from the base; I can even discover now the doorway of that rarest of all our quadrupeds, the pine mouse, who passes a subterranean life gnawing the bark from the hawthorn roots. But I do not know in which glade swamped with moonlight the old black bear pawed a bed.
For there were bear here, the black bear who stood up on their hind legs and picked raspberries, turned over logs for beetles, grubbed out roots, nourished no rancors, were sleepy as bats, and could live on their own fat in lean times. Now only the children look for bear in these woods. They are on the long list of the vanished mammals, together with the neat marten, the beaver and otter, the elk and the deer and, on the prairies, the borrowers — the little pocket gophers and the big surly badgers. The great gray timber wolves have had to go; the lynx and the bobcat and the fisher I cannot even imagine now in the candor of these woods, far less the cougar.
But they were here in the days when the tall tree at the end of its years fell into the arms of some younger brother. Then there was timber, now we have only trees. For the big carnivores there must be rankness, unkempt and barbaric; they need a self-enclosed world of interlocking branches and a forest floor with so deep a pile that the dew lies heavy almost up to noon. The night belonged to them, and even in the long winters they could not sleep, but hungrily ranged the shadows on the snow. In the world that was given to them at the creation of this country, they were as secure as they were needful. For now without them we have the plague of mice, the preposterous abundance of the cottontail. Nothing fateful is in the woods now, nothing very secret any more, no heavy paw to fall.
I make the most of such quadruped fauna as is left to us, and I suppose that only in a world lacking the long fangs and the heavy hooves would I come, curious and with every sense alert in me, to read tiny runes, to learn the ways of the meadow mice and the deer mice, and of the shrews, the smallest mammals in the world. One that I found dead last winter I lost in the snow, and I could not find him again until the thaw. Some other creature had been at him, and there was nothing left of him except a skull that I picked up at last after patient scrutiny; it was so thin that it felt like paper and the light shone through it. Alas, poor little Yorick! You will not dart out of your lurking place again upon the beetles turning the fallen oak to powder. You and your kind are all I have to muse upon; I can walk round and round the muddy prairie pond, but I shall not find the battle horns of a bull bison fallen at the wallow in the great autumn fights. Once in the fall of the year was the rutting season of the buffalo and elk and deer. Now no beasts, bleeding but triumphant, round up the does or cows. Only the bats mate nowadays in autumn, and when and how they do it. I have never seen.
I walk out to the edge of the grove and stand there leaning on my white man’s hand against the bark of a black oak, and I look west. But I do not see the sodden grassy might of the marshes; I do not see the sacred fields of the tobacco around which 1 he Indians piled hedges of brushwood. When they had planted their crop they set this rood screen around a thing too holy to be seen. For this plant, the petun, and mandamin the maize, were given them by the gods, the earth and the sun and the water.
I think sometimes that all things were given us by the gods, and I am not sure that under that law a man may own a flower or a tree, a bird, a beast, or a view. We may take life if we are going to use it for a need; that is, to make more life. But we are not the lords here; life itself is lord. Each of us, the tendril and the mouse, the man, the little she-bat sailing through the night like a witch with her baby clinging to her breast and back — we cup the gift for a moment; we cannot keep it longer. The world’s beauty and the five senses and the sweet well of sex and the strength to stand and the right to breathe are as holy as ever were the petun and the mandamin. And the day may come when, sick of our own follies, we shall recognize that what we claim in our pride to own is all an Indian gift.
(To be continued)