BERTRAND W. SINCLAIR
Author of North of Fifty-Three, etc.
Frontispiece by Ralph P. Coleman
Grosset & Dunlap Publishers New York Published, August, 1919 Reprinted, September, 1919 Reprinted, October, 1919 Reprinted, November, 1919 Reprinted, February, 1920
I The First Problem 1
II The Man and His Mission 14
III The Deserted Cabin 24
IV In Which Mr. Thompson Begins to Wonder Painfully 37
V Further Acquaintance 46
VI Certain Perplexities 60
VII A Slip of the Axe 80
VIII —And the Fruits Thereof 86
IX Universal Attributes 93
X The Way of a Maid with a Man 102
XI A Man's Job for a Minister 111
XII A Fortune and a Flitting 123
XIII Partners 139
XIV The Restless Foot 150
XV The World Is Small 158
XVI A Meeting by the Way 168
XVII The Reproof Courteous (?) 183
XVIII Mr. Henderson's Proposition 191
XIX A Widening Horizon 203
XX The Shadow 210
XXI The Renewed Triangle 218
XXII Sundry Reflections 227
XXIII The Fuse— 235
XXIV —And the Match That Lit the Fuse— 244
XXV —And the Bomb the Fuse Fired 252
XXVI The Last Bridge 267
XXVII Thompson's Return 273
XXVIII Fair Winds 282
XXIX Two Men and a Woman 291
XXX A Mark to Shoot at 298
THE FIRST PROBLEM
Lone Moose snaked its way through levels of woodland and open stretches of meadow, looping sinuously as a sluggish python—a python that rested its mouth upon the shore of Lake Athabasca while its tail was lost in a great area of spruce forest and poplar groves, of reedy sloughs and hushed lakes far northward.
The waterways of the North are its highways. There are no others. No wheeled vehicles traverse that silent region which lies just over the fringe of the prairies and the great Canadian wheat belt. The canoe is lord of those watery roads; when a man would diverge therefrom he must carry his goods upon his back. There are paths, to be sure, very faint in places, padded down by the feet of generations of Athabascan tribesmen long before the Ancient and Honorable Company of Adventurers laid the foundation of the first post at Hudson's Bay, long before the Half Moon's prow first cleft those desolate waters. They have been trodden, these dim trails, by Scotch and French and English since that historic event, and by a numerous progeny in whose veins the blood of all three races mingles with that of the native tribes. But these paths lead only from stream to stream and from lake to lake. No man familiar with the North seeks along those faint trails for camp or fur posts or villages. Wherever in that region red men or white set up a permanent abode it must of necessity be on the bank of a stream or the shore of a lake, from whence by canoe and paddle access is gained to the network of water routes that radiate over the fur country.
Lone Moose Creek was, so to speak, a trunk line. The ninety miles of its main channel, its many diverging branches, tapped a region where mink and marten and beaver, fox and wolf and lesser furs were still fairly plentiful. Along Lone Moose a dozen Cree and half-breed families disappeared into the back country during the hazy softness of Indian summer and came gliding down in the spring with their winter's catch, a birch-bark flotilla laden indiscriminately with mongrel dogs and chattering women and children and baled furs and impassive-faced men, bound for Port Pachugan to the annual barter.
Up Lone Moose some twenty-odd miles from the lake the social instinct had drawn a few families, pure-blooded Cree, and Scotch and French half-breeds, to settle in a permanent location. There was a crescent-shaped area of grassy turf fronting upon the eastern bank of Lone Moose, totaling perhaps twenty acres. Its outer edge was ringed with a dense growth of spruce timber. In the fringe of these dusky woods, at various intervals of distance, could be seen the outline of each cabin. They were much of a sort—two or three rooms, log-walled, brush laid upon poles, and sod on top of that for a roof, with fireplaces built partly of mud, partly of rough stones. Folk in such circumstances waste no labor in ornamentation. Each family's abiding place was purely utilitarian. They cultivated no land, and the meadow during the brief season supplied them with a profusion of delicate flowers a southern garden could scarcely excel. Aside from a few trees felled about each home site, their common effort had cleared away the willows and birch which bordered the creek bank, so that an open landing was afforded the canoes.
There was but one exception to the monotonous similitude of these several habitations. A few paces back from the stream and standing boldly in the open rose a log house double the size of any other there. It contained at least four rooms. Its windows were of ample size, the doors neatly carpentered. A wide porch ran on three sides. It bore about itself an air of homely comfort, heightened by muslin at the windows, a fringe of poppies and forget-me-nots blooming in an orderly row before it, and a sturdy vine laden with morning-glories twining up each supporting column of the porch roof.
Between the house and the woods an acre square was enclosed by a tall picket fence. Within the fence, which was designed as a barricade against foraging deer, there grew a variety of vegetables. The produce of that garden had grown famous far beyond Lone Moose village. But the spirit and customs and traditions of the gardener's neighbors were all against any attempt to duplicate it. They were hunters and trappers and fishermen. The woods and waters supplied their every need.
Upon a blistering day in July, a little past noon, a man stepped out on the porch, and drawing into the shadiest part a great, rude homemade chair upholstered with moosehide, sat down. He had a green-bound book in his hand. While he stuffed a clay pipe full of tobacco he laid the volume across his knees. Every movement was as deliberate as the flow of the deep stream near by. When he had stoked up his pipe he leaned back and opened the book. The smoke from his pipe kept off what few mosquitoes were abroad in the scorching heat of midday.
A casual glance would at once have differentiated him from a native, held him guiltless of any trace of native blood. His age might have been anywhere between forty and fifty. His hair, now plentifully shot with gray, had been a light, wavy brown. His eyes were a clear gray, and his features were the antithesis of his high-cheekboned neighbors. Only the weather-beaten hue of his skin, and the scores of fine seams radiating from his eyes told of many seasons squinting against hot sunlight and harsh winds.
Whatever his vocation and manner of living may have been he was now deeply absorbed in the volume he held. A small child appeared on the porch, a youngster of three or thereabouts, with swarthy skin, very dark eyes, and inky-black hair. He went on all fours across Sam Carr's extended feet several times. Carr remained oblivious, or at least undisturbed, until the child stood up, laid hold of his knee and shook it with playful persistence. Then Carr looked over his book, spoke to the boy casually, shaking his head as he did so. The boy persisted after the juvenile habit. Carr raised his voice. An Indian woman, not yet of middle age but already inclining to the stoutness which overtakes women of her race early in life, appeared in the doorway. She spoke sharply to the boy in the deep, throaty language of her people. The boy, with a last impish grin, gave the man's leg a final shake and scuttled indoors. Carr impassively resumed his reading.
An hour or so later he lifted his eyes from the printed page at a distant boom of thunder. The advanced edge of a black cloudbank rolling swiftly up from the east was already dimming the brassy glare of the sun. He watched the swift oncoming of the storm. With astonishing rapidity the dark mass resolved itself into a gray, obscuring streak of rain riven by vivid flashes of lightning. Carr laid down his book and refilled his pipe while he gazed on this common phenomenon of the dog-days. It swept up and passed over the village of Lone Moose as a sprinkling wagon passes over a city street. The downpour was accompanied by crashing detonations that sent the village dogs howling to cover. With the same uncanny swiftness of gathering so it passed, leaving behind a pleasant coolness in the air, clean smells of the washed earth arising. The sun blazed out again. A million rain-pearls hung glistening on the blades of grass in the meadow before Sam Carr's house.
With the passing of the thunder shower, before Carr left off his contemplation of the freshened beauty of meadow and woods, a man and a woman emerged from the spruce forest on the farther side of the meadow.
They walked a little way in the open, stopped for a minute, facing each other. Their conversation ended with a sudden quick gesture by the man. Turning, they came on again toward Carr's house. Sam Carr's clear gray eyes lit up. The ghost of a smile hovered about his bearded lips. He watched them approach with that same quizzical expression, a mixture, if one gauged his look aright, of pleasure and pride and expectation.
They were young as years go, the pair that walked slowly up to the cabin. The man was certainly still in his twenties, of medium height, compactly muscular, a good-looking specimen of pure Anglo-Saxon manhood. The girl was a flower in perfect bloom, fresh-colored, slender and pliant as a willow, with all of the willow's grace in every movement. For all the twenty-odd years between them, and the gulf of sex differentiation, there was in her glance and bearing much of the middle-aged man who sat on the porch with a book across his knees and a clay pipe in his mouth. It did not lie in facial resemblance. It was more subtle than likeness of feature. Perhaps it was because of their eyes, alike deep gray, wide and expressive, lifted always to meet another's in level unembarrassed frankness.
They halted at the edge of the porch. The girl sat down. The young man nodded to Carr. Though they had but lately been fair in the path of the thunderstorm they had escaped a wetting. The girl's eyes followed her father's glance, seemed to read his thought.
"We happened to find a spruce thick enough to shed the rain," she smiled. "Or I suppose we'd have been soaked properly."
The young fellow tarried only till she was seated. He had no more than greeted Carr before he lifted his old felt hat to her.
"I'll be paddling back while the coolness lasts," said he. "Good-by."
"Good-by, Tommy," the girl answered.
"So long," Carr followed suit. "Don't give us the go-by too long."
"Oh, no danger."
He walked to the creek bank, stepped into a red canoe that lay nose on to the landing, and backed it free with his paddle. Ten strokes of the blade drove him out of sight around the first brushy bend upstream.
The girl looked thoughtfully after him. Her face was flushed, and her eyes glowed with some queer repressed feeling. Carr sat gazing silently at her while she continued to look after the vanished canoe whose passing left tiny swirls on the dark, sluggish current of Lone Moose. Presently Carr gave the faintest shrug of his lean shoulders and resumed the reading of his book.
When he looked up from the page again after a considerable interval the girl's eyes were fixed intently upon his face, with a queer questioning expression in them, a mute appeal. He closed his book with a forefinger inserted to mark the place, and leaned forward a trifle.
"What is it, Sophie?" he asked gently. "Eh?"
The girl, like her father, and for that matter the majority of those who dwelt in that region, wore moccasins. She sat now, rubbing the damp, bead-decorated toe of one on top of the other, her hands resting idle in the lap of her cotton dress. She seemed scarcely to hear, but Carr waited patiently. She continued to look at him with that peculiar, puzzled quality in her eyes.
"Tommy Ashe wants me to marry him," she said at last.
The faint flush on her smooth cheeks deepened. The glow in her eyes gave way altogether to that vaguely troubled expression.
Carr stroked his short beard reflectively.
"Well," he said at length, "seeing that human nature's what it is, I can't say I'm surprised any more than I would be surprised at the trees leafing out in spring. And, as it happens, Tommy observed the conventions of his class in this matter. He asked me about it a few days ago. I referred him to you. Are you going to?"
"I don't know, Dad," she murmured.
"Do you want to?" he pursued the inquiry in a detached, impersonal tone.
"I don't know," she repeated soberly. "I like Tommy a lot. When I'm with him I feel sure I'd be perfectly happy to be always with him. When I'm away from him, I'm not so sure."
"In other words," Carr observed slowly, "your reason and your emotions are not in harmony on that subject. Eh? So far as Tommy Ashe goes, your mind and your body pull you two different ways."
She looked at him a little more keenly.
"Perhaps," she said. "I know what you mean. But I don't clearly see why it should be so. Either I love Tommy Ashe, or I don't, and I should know which, shouldn't I? The first and most violent manifestation of love is mostly physical, isn't it? I've always understood that. You've pointed it out. I do like Tommy. Why should my mind act as a brake on my feelings?"
"Because you happen to be made the way you are," Carr returned thoughtfully. "As I've told you a good many times, you've grown up a good deal different from the common run of girls. We've been isolated. Lacking the time-occupying distractions and pleasures of youth in a more liberal environment, Sophie, you've been thrown back on yourself and me and books, and as a result you've cultivated a natural tendency to think. Most young women don't. They're seldom taught any rational process of arriving at conclusions. You have developed that faculty. It has been my pride and pleasure to cultivate in you what I believed to be a decided mentality. I've tried to show you how to get down to fundamentals, to work out a philosophy of life that's really workable. Knowledge is worth having for its own sake. Once you find yourself in contact with the world—and for you that time is bound to come—you'll apply all the knowledge you've absorbed to problems as they arise. If there's a rational solution to any situation that faces you, you'll make an effort to find that solution. You'll do it almost instinctively. You can't help it. Your brain is too alert ever to let you act blindly. At the present your lack of experience probably handicaps you a little. In human relations you have nothing much but theory, got from the books you've digested and the way we've always discussed every possible angle of life. Take Tommy Ashe. He's practically the first young, attractive white man you've ever met, the very first possibility as a lover. Tommy's a nice boy, a pleasant, sunny-natured young fellow. Personally he's just the sort of fellow that would sweep a simple country girl clean off her feet. With you, your mind, as you just put it, acts as a brake on your feelings. Can't you guess why?"
"No," she said quietly. "I can't. I don't understand myself and my shifts of feeling. It makes me miserable."
"Look here, Sophie girl," Carr reached over and taking her by the hand drew her up on the low arm of his chair, "you're asking yourself a more or less important question directly, and you're asking it of me indirectly. Maybe I can help you. At least I can tell how I see it. You have all your life before you. You want to be happy. That's a universal human attribute. Sometime or other you're going to mate with a man. That too is a universal experience. Ordinary mating is based on sex instinct. Love is mostly an emotional disturbance generated by natural causes for profoundly natural and important ends. But marriage and the intimate associations of married life require something more substantial than a mere flare-up of animal instinct. Lots of men and women aren't capable of anything else, and consequently they make the best of what's in them. But there are natures far more complex. You, Sophie, are one of those complex natures. With you, a union based on sex alone wouldn't survive six months. Now, in this particular case, leaving out the fact that you can't compare Tommy Ashe with any other man, because you don't know any other man, can you conceive yourself living in a tolerable state of contentment with Tommy if, say, you didn't feel any more passion for him than you feel for, say, old Standing Wolf over there?"
"But that's absurd," the girl declared. "Because I have got that feeling for Tommy Ashe, and therefore I can't imagine myself in any other state. I can't look at it the cold-blooded way you do, Daddy dear."
"I'm stating a hypothetical case," Carr went on patiently. "You do now. We'll take that for granted. Would you still have anything fundamental in common with Tommy with that part left out? Suppose you got so you didn't care whether he kissed you or not? Suppose it were no longer a physical pleasure just to be near him. Would you enjoy his daily and hourly presence then, in the most intimate relation a man and a woman can hold to each other?"
"Why, I wouldn't live with him at all," the girl said positively. "I simply couldn't. I know."
"You might have to," Carr answered gently. "You have never yet run foul of circumstances over which you have no more power than man has over the run of the tides. But we'll let that pass. I'm trying to help you, Sophie, not to discourage you. There are some situations in which, and some natures to whom, half a loaf is worse than no bread. Do you feel, have you ever for an hour felt that you simply couldn't face an existence in which Tommy Ashe had no part?"
Sophie put her arm around his neck, and her fingers played a tattoo on his shoulder.
"No," she said at last. "I can't honestly say that I've ever been overwhelmed with a feeling like that."
"Well, there you are," Carr observed dryly. "Between the propositions I think you've answered your own question."
The girl's breast heaved a little and her breath went out in a fluttering sigh.
"Yes," she said gravely. "I suppose that is so."
They sat silent for an interval. Then something wet and warm dropped on Carr's hand. He looked up quickly.
"Does it hurt?" he said softly. "I'm sorry."
"So am I," she whispered. "But chiefly, I think, I am sorry for Tommy. He'd be perfectly happy with me."
"Yes, I suppose so," Carr replied. "But you wouldn't be happy with him, only for a brief time, Sophie. Tommy's a good boy, but it will take a good deal of a man to fill your life. You'd outgrow Tommy. And you'd hurt him worse in the end."
She ran her soft hand over Carr's grizzled hair with a caressing touch. Then she got up and walked away into the house. Carr turned his gaze again to the meadow and the green woods beyond. For ten minutes he sat, his posture one of peculiar tensity, his eyes on the distance unseeingly—or as if he saw something vague and far-off that troubled him. Then he gave his shoulders a quick impatient twitch, and taking up his book began once more to read.
THE MAN AND HIS MISSION
At almost the same hour in which Sam Carr and his daughter held that intimate conversation on the porch of their home a twenty-foot Peterborough freight canoe was sliding down the left-hand bank of the Athabasca like some gray river-beast seeking the shade of the birch and willow growth that overhung the shore. The current beneath and the thrust of the blades sent it swiftly along the last mile of the river and shot the gray canoe suddenly beyond the sharp nose of a jutting point fairly into the bosom of a great, still body of water that spread away northeastward in a widening stretch, its farthest boundary a watery junction with the horizon.
There were three men in the canoe. One squatted forward, another rested his body on his heels in the after end. These two were swarthy, stockily built men, scantily clad, moccasins on their feet, and worn felt hats crowning lank, black hair long innocent of a barber's touch.
The third man sat amidships in a little space left among goods that were piled to the top of the deep-sided craft. He was no more like his companions than the North that surrounded them with its silent waterways and hushed forests is like the tropical jungle. He was a fairly big man, taller, wider-bodied than the other two. His hair was a reddish-brown, his eyes as blue as the arched dome from which the hot sun shed its glare.
He had on a straight-brimmed straw hat which in the various shifts of the long water route and many camps had suffered disaster, so that a part of the brim drooped forlornly over his left ear. This headgear had preserved upon his brow the pallid fairness of his skin. From the eyebrows down his face was in the last stages of sunburn, reddened, minute shreds of skin flaking away much as a snake's skin sheds in August. Otherwise he was dressed, like a countless multitude of other men who walk the streets of every city in North America, in a conventional sack suit, and shoes that still bore traces of blacking. The paddlers were stripped to thin cotton shirts and worn overalls. The only concession their passenger had made to the heat was the removal of his laundered collar. Apparently his dignity did not permit him to lay aside his coat and vest. As they cleared the point a faint breeze wavered off the open water. He lifted his hat and let it play about his moist hair.
"This is Lake Athabasca?" he asked.
"Oui, M'sieu Thompson," Mike Breyette answered from the bow, without turning his head. "Dees de lak."
"How much longer will it take us to reach Port Pachugan?" Thompson made further inquiry.
"Bout two-three hour, maybeso," Breyette responded.
He said something further, a few quick sentences in the French patois of the northern half-breeds, at which both he and his fellow-voyageur in the stern laughed. Their gayety stirred no response from the midship passenger. If anything, he frowned. He was a serious-minded young man, and he did not understand French. He had a faint suspicion that his convoy did not take him as seriously as he wished. Whether their talk was badinage or profanity or purely casual, he could not say. In the first stages of their journey together, on the upper reaches of the river, Mike Breyette and Donald MacDonald had, after the normal habit of their kind, greeted the several contingencies and minor mishaps such a journey involved with plaintive oaths in broken English. Mr. Wesley Thompson, projected into an unfamiliar environment and among a—to him—strange manner of men, took up his evangelistic cudgel and administered shocked reproof. It was, in a way, practice for the tasks the Methodist Board of Home Missions had appointed him to perform. But if he failed to convict these two of sin, he convinced them of discourtesy. Even a rude voyageur has his code of manners. Thereafter they invariably swore in French.
They bore on in a northerly direction, keeping not too far from the lake shore, lest the combination of a sudden squall and a heavy-loaded canoe should bring disaster. When Mike Breyette's "two-tree" hour was run Mr. Thompson stepped from the canoe to the sloping, sun-blistered beach before Fort Pachugan, and if he did not openly offer thanks to his Maker that he stood once more upon solid ground he at least experienced profound relief.
For many days he had occupied that midship position with ill-concealed misgivings. The largest bodies of water he had been on intimate terms with heretofore had been contained within the dimensions of a bathtub. He could not swim. No matter that his faith in an all-wise Providence was strong he could not forbear inward tremors at the certain knowledge that only a scant quarter-inch of frail wood and canvas stood between him and a watery grave. He regarded a canoe with distrust. Nor could he understand the careless confidence with which his guides embarked in so captious a craft upon the swirling bosom of that wide, swift stream they had followed from Athabasca Landing down to the lake of the same name. To Thompson—if he had been capable of analyzing his sensations and transmuting them into words—the river seemed inexplicably sinister, a turbid monster writhing over polished boulders, fuming here and there over rapids, snarling a constant menace under the canoe's prow.
It did not comfort him to know that he was in the hands of two capable rivermen, tried and proven in bad water, proud of their skill with the paddle. Could he have done so the reverend young man would gladly have walked after the first day in their company. But since that was out of the question, he took his seat in the canoe each morning and faced each stretch of troubled water with an inward prayer.
The last stretch and this last day had tried his soul to its utmost. Pachugan lay near the end of the water route. What few miles he had to travel beyond the post would lie along the lake shore, and the lake reassured him with its smiling calm. Having never seen it harried by fierce winds, pounding the beaches with curling waves, he could not visualize it as other than it was now, glassy smooth, languid, inviting. Over the last twenty miles of the river his guides had strained a point now and then, just to see their passenger gasp. They would never have another chance and it was rare sport, just as it is rare sport for spirited youths to snowball a passer-by who does not take kindly to their pastime.
In addition to these nerve-disturbing factors Thompson suffered from the heat. A perverted dignity, nurtured in a hard-shell, middle-class environment, prevented him from stripping to his undershirt. The sun's rays, diffusing abnormal heat through the atmosphere, reflected piercingly upward from the water, had played havoc with him. His first act upon landing was to seat himself upon a flat-topped boulder and dab tenderly at his smarting face while his men hauled up the canoe. That in itself was a measure of his inefficiency, as inefficiency is measured in the North. The Chief Factor of a district large enough to embrace a European kingdom, traveling in state from post to post, would not have been above lending a hand to haul the canoe clear. Thompson had come to this terra incognita to preach and pray, to save men's souls. So far it had not occurred to him that aught else might be required of a man before he could command a respectful hearing.
Back from the beach, in a clearing hacked out of the woods, stood a score or more of low cabins flanking a building more ambitious in scope and structure. More than a century had passed since the first foundation logs were laid in the name of the Hudson's Bay Company, to the Company's glory and profit. It had been a fort then, in all that the name implies throughout the fur country. It had boasted a stockade, a brass cannon which commanded the great gates that swung open to friendly strangers and were closed sharply to potential foes. But the last remnant of Pachugan's glory had gone glimmering down the corridors of time. The Company was still as strong, stronger even in power more sure and subtle than ever lay in armed retainers and absolute monopoly. But Fort Pachugan had become a mere collecting station for the lesser furs, a distributing center for trade goods to native trappers. There were no more hostile tribes. The Company no longer dealt out the high justice, the middle, and the low. The stockade and the brass cannon were traditions. Pachugan sprawled on the bank of the lake, open to all comers, a dimming landmark of the old days.
What folk were out of doors bent their eyes upon the canoe. The factor himself rose from his seat on the porch and came down to have speech with them. Thompson, recognizing authority, made known his name and his mission. The burly Scot shook hands with him. They walked away together, up to the factor's house. On the threshold the Reverend Wesley paused for a backward look, drew the crumpled linen of his handkerchief across his moist brow, and then disappeared within. Mike Breyette and Donald MacDonald looked at each other expressively. Their swarthy faces slowly expanded in a broad grin.
In the North, what with the crisp autumn, the long winter, and that bleak, uncertain period which is neither winter nor spring, summer—as we know it in softer lands—has but a brief span to endure. But Nature there as elsewhere works out a balance, adheres to a certain law of proportion. What Northern summers lack in length is compensated by intensity. When the spring floods have passed and the warm rains follow through lengthening days of sun, grass and flowers arise with magic swiftness from a wonderfully fertile soil. Trees bud and leaf; berries form hard on the blossoming. Overnight, as it were, the woods and meadows, the river flats and the higher rolling country, become transformed. And when August passes in a welter of flies and heat and thunderstorms, the North is ready once more for the frosty segment of its seasonal round. July and August are hot months in the high latitudes. For six weeks or thereabouts the bottom-lands of the Peace and the Athabasca can hold their own with the steaming tropics. After that—well, this has to do in part with "after that." For it was in late July when Wesley Thompson touched at Fort Pachugan, a Bible in his pocket, a few hundred pounds of supplies in Mike Breyette's canoe, certain aspirations of spiritual labor in his head, and little other equipment to guide and succor him in that huge, scantily peopled territory which his superiors had chosen as the field for his labors.
When Breyette and MacDonald had so bestowed the canoe that the diligently foraging dogs of the post could not take toll of their supplies they also hied them up to the cluster of log cabins ranging about the Company store and factor's quarters. They were on tolerably familiar ground. First they made for the cabin of Dougal MacPhee, an ancient servitor of the Company and a distant relative of Breyette's, for whom they had a gift of tobacco. Old Dougal welcomed them laconically, without stirring from his seat in the shade. He sucked at an old clay pipe. His half-breed woman, as wrinkled and time worn as himself, squatted on the earth sewing moccasins. Old Dougal turned his thumb toward a bench and bade them be seated.
"It's a bit war-rm," MacDonald opined, by way of opening the conversation.
"What else wad it be this time o' year?" Dougal rumbled. "Tell us somethin' we dinna ken. Wha's yon cam' wi' ye?"
"Man, but the heat makes ye crabbed," MacDonald returned with naive candor. "Yon's a meenister."
"Bagosh, yes," Breyette chuckled. "Dat ees de man of God w'at you see. He's com' for save soul hon' de Eenjun hon' Lone Moose. Bagosh, we're have som' fon weet heem dees treep."
"He's a loon," MacDonald paused with a forefinger in the bowl of his pipe. "He doesna know a moccasin from a snowshoe, scarce. I'd like tae be aboot when 'tis forty below—an' gettin' colder. I'm thinkin' he'd relish a taste o' hell-fire then, for a change—eh, Mike?"
The two of them went off into a fit of silent laughter, for the abysmal ignorance of Wesley Thompson concerning practical things, his awkward length of body, his student's pallor that the Athabasca sun had played such havoc with, his blue eyes that looked so often with trepidation or amazement on the commonplaces of their world, his general incapacity and blind belief that an all-wise Providence would personally intervene to make things go right when they went wrong, had not struck these two hardy children of the solitudes as other than a side-splitting joke.
"He rises i' the mornin'," MacDonald continued, "win' a word frae the Book aboot the Lord providin', an' he'd starve if nabody was by t' cook his meal. He canna build a fire wi'oot scorchin' his fingers. He lays hold o' a paddle like a three months' babby. He bids ye pit yer trust i' the Lord, an' himself rises up wi' a start every time a wolf raises the long howl at nicht. I didna believe there was ever sae helpless a creature. An' for a' that he's the laddie that's here tae show the heathen—thae puir, sinfu' heathen, mind ye—how tae find grace. No that he's any doot aboot bein' equal tae the job. For a' that he's nigh helpless i' the woods he was forever ying-yangin' at me an' Mike for what he ca's sinfu' pride in oor ain' persons. I've a notion that if yon had a bit o' that same sinfu' pride he'd be the better able tae make his way."
Old MacPhee took the blackened clay pipe from his mouth and puffed a blue spiral into the dead, sultry air. A sour expression gathered about his withered lips.
"Dinna gibe at yon puir mortal," he rebuked. "Ye canna keep fools frae wanderin'. I've seen manny's the man like him. It's likely that once he's had a fair taste o' the North he'll be less a saint an' more a man."
The afternoon was far spent when they landed. Breyette and MacDonald made themselves comfortable with their backs against the wall. Supper came and was eaten. Evening closed in. The bold, scorching stare of the sun faded. Little cooling breezes fluttered along the lake shore, banishing the last trace of that brassy heat. Men who had lounged indoors, or against shaded walls roamed about, and half-breed women chattered in voluble gutturals back and forth between the cabins.
THE DESERTED CABIN
In the factor's comfortable quarters Mr. Thompson sat down to the first meal he had thoroughly relished in two weeks. A corner of the verandah was screened off with wire netting. Outside that barrier mosquitoes and sandflies buzzed and swarmed in futile activity. Within stood an easy chair or two and a small table which was presently spread with a linen cloth, set with porcelain dishes, and garnished with silverware. All the way down the Athabasca Thompson had found every meal beset with exasperating difficulties, fruitful of things that offended both his stomach and his sense of fitness. He had not been able to accommodate himself to the necessity of juggling a tin plate beside a campfire, of eating with one hand and fending off flies with the other. Also he objected to grains of sand and particles of ash and charred wood being incorporated with bread and meat. Neither Breyette nor MacDonald seemed to mind. But Thompson had never learned to adapt himself to conditions that were unavoidable. Pitchforked into a comparatively primitive mode of existence and transportation his first reaction to it took the form of offended resentment. There were times when he forgot why he was there, enduring these things. After such a lapse he prayed for guidance and a patient heart.
These creature comforts now at hand were in a measure what he had been accustomed to, what he had, with no thought on the matter, taken as the accepted and usual order of things, save that his needs had been administered by two prim and elderly spinster aunts instead of a black-browed Scotchman and a half-breed servant girl.
Thompson sat back after his supper, fanning himself with an ancient newspaper, for the day's heat still lingered. Across the table on which he rested an elbow MacLeod, bearded, aggressive, capable, regarded his guest with half-contemptuous pity under cover of the gathering dusk. MacLeod smoked a pipe. Thompson chewed the cud of reflection.
"And so," the factor began suddenly, "ye are a missionary to the Lone Moose Crees. It will be a thankless task; a tougher one nor I'd care to tackle. I ha' seen the job undertaken before by folk who—beggin' your pardon—ha' little conception of the country, the people in it, or the needs of either. Ye'll find the Cree has more concern for meat an' clothes, for traps an' powder, than he has for his soul. Ye'll understand this better when ye ha' more experience in the North. Indeed, it's no impossible ye might come to the same way of thinkin' in time."
The dusk hid the shocked expression that gathered on Thompson's face.
"'What shall it profit a man to gain the whole world if he knoweth not God?'" he quoted gravely. "The priests of the Catholic church have long carried on missionary work among these tribes. We of the Protestant faith would be lacking if we did not try to extend our field, if we made no effort to bear light into the dark places. Man's spiritual need is always greater than any material need can ever be. I hardly expect to accomplish a great deal at first. But the work will grow."
"I see, I see," MacLeod chuckled dryly. "It's partly a matter of the Methodist Church tryin' to compete with the fathers, eh? Well, I am no what ye'd call devout. I ha' had much experience wi' these red folk, an' them that's both red an' white. An' I dinna agree with ye aboot their speeritual needs. I think ye sky-pilots would do better to leave them to their ain gods, such as they are. Man, do ye know that it's better than a century since the fathers began their missionary labors? A hundred years of teachin' an' preachin'. The sum of it a' is next to nothin'—an' naebody knows that better than the same fathers. They're wise, keen-sighted men, too. What good they do they do in a material way. If men like ye came here wi' any certitude of lightenin' the struggle for existence—but ye canna do that; or at least ye dinna do that. Ye'll find that neither red men nor white ha' time or inclination to praise the Lord an' his grace an' bounty when their life's one long struggle wi' hardships an' adversity. The God ye offer them disna mitigate these things. Forbye that, the Indian disna want to be Christianized. When ye come to a determination of abstract qualities, his pagan beliefs are as good for him as the God of the Bible. What right ha' we to cram oor speeritual dogmas doon his gullet?"
MacLeod applied himself to relighting his pipe. Thompson gathered himself together. He was momentarily stricken with speechless amazement. He knew there were such things as critical unbelievers, but he had never encountered one in the flesh. His life had been too excellently supervised and directed in youth by the spinster aunts. Nor does materialistic philosophy flourish in a theological seminary. Young men in training for the ministry are taught to strangle doubt whenever it rears its horrid head, to see only with the single eye of faith.
Neither the bitterness of experience nor a natural gentleness of spirit had ever permitted Thompson to know the beauty and wisdom of tolerance. Whosoever disputed his creed and his consecrated purpose must be in error. The evangelical spirit glowed within him when he faced the factor across the little table. Figuratively speaking he cleared for action. His host, being a hard-headed son of a disputatious race, met him more than half-way. As a result midnight found them still wordily engaged, one maintaining with emotional fervor that man's spiritual welfare was the end and aim of human existence; the other as outspoken—if more calmly and critically so—in his assertion that a tooth-and-toenail struggle for existence left no room in any rational man's life for the manner of religion set forth in general by churches and churchmen. The edge of acrimony crept into the argument.
"The Lord said, 'Leave all thou hast and follow me,'" Thompson declared. "My dear sir, you cannot dispute—"
"Ay, but yon word was said eighteen hundred years past," MacLeod interrupted. "Since which day there's been a fair rate o' progress in man's knowledge of himself an' his needs. The Biblical meeracles in the way o' provender dinna happen nowadays—although some ither modern commonplaces would partake o' the meeraculous if we didna have a rational knowledge of their process. Men are no fed wi' loaves and fishes until they themselves ha' first gotten the loaves an' the fish. At least, it disna so happen i' the Pachugan deestreect. It's much the same the world over, but up here especially ye'll find that the problem o' subsistence is first an' foremost, an' excludes a' else till it's solved."
With this MacLeod, weary of an unprofitable controversy, arose, took up a candle and showed his scandalized guest the way to bed.
Thompson was full of a willingness to revive the argument when he was roused for breakfast at sunrise. But MacLeod had said his say. He abhorred vain repetition. Since it takes two to keep an argument going, Thompson's beginning was but the beginning of a monologue which presently died weakly of inattention. When he gave over trying to inject a theological motif into the conversation, he found MacLeod responsive enough. The factor touched upon native customs, upon the fur trade, upon the vast and unexploited resources of the North, all of which was more or less hazy to Thompson.
His men had intimated an early start. Their journey down the Athabasca had impressed Thompson with the wisdom of that. Only so could they escape the brazen heat of the sun, and still accomplish a fair day's travel. So he rose immediately from the breakfast table, when he saw Breyette and MacDonald standing by the canoe waiting for him. MacLeod halted him on the verandah steps to give a brusque last word of counsel.
"Look ye, Mr. Thompson," he said. "An honest bit of advice will do ye no harm. Ye're startin' out wi' a brave vision o' doin' a great good; of lettin' a flood o' light into dark places. Speakin' out my ain first-hand experience ye'll be fairly disappointed, because ye'll accomplish nought that's in yer mind. Ye'll have no trouble wi' the Crees. If ye remain among them long enough to mak' them understand yer talk an' objects they'll listen or not as they feel inclined. They're a simple, law-abidin' folk. But there's a white man at Lone Moose that ye'll do well to cultivate wi' discretion. He's a man o' positive character, and scholarly beyond what ye'd imagine. When ye meet him, dinna be sanctimonious. His philosophy'll no gibe wi' your religion, an' if ye attempt to impose a meenesterial attitude on him, it's no beyond possibility he'd flare up an' do ye bodily damage. I know him. If ye meet him man to man, ye'll find he'll meet ye half-way in everything but theology. He'll be the sort of friend ye'll need at Lone Moose. But dinna wave the Cloth in his face. For some reason that's to him like the proverbial red rag tae a bull. The last missionary tae Long Moose cam' awa wi' a lovely pair o' black eyes Sam Carr bestowed on him. I'm forewarnin' ye for yer ain good. Ye can decry material benefits a' ye like, but it'll be a decided benefit if ye ha' Sam Carr for a friendly neighbor at Lone Moose."
"I don't deliberately seek religious controversy with any one," Thompson replied rather stiffly. "I have been sent by the Church to do what good I am able. That should not offend Mr. Carr, or any man."
"Nor will it," MacLeod returned. Then he added dryly, "It a' depends, as ye may discover, on the interpretation others put on your method o' doin' good. However, I wish ye luck. Stop in whenever ye happen along this way."
"I thank you, sir," Thompson smiled, "both for your hospitality, and your advice."
They shook hands. Thompson strode to the beach. Mike Breyette and Donald MacDonald stood bare-footed in the shallow water. When Thompson had stepped awkwardly aboard and seated himself amidships, they lifted on the canoe and slid it gently off the shingle, leaped to their places fore and aft and gave way. A hundred yards off shore they lifted the dripping paddles in mute adieu to old Donald McPhee, smoking his pipe at the gable end of his cabin. MacLeod watched the gray canoe slip past the first point. When it vanished beyond that he turned back into his quarters with a shrug of his burly shoulders, and a few unintelligible phrases muttered under his breath.
Lone Moose Creek emptied into Lake Athabasca some forty miles east of Fort Pachugan. The village of Lone Moose lay another twenty-five miles or so up the stream. Thompson's canoemen carried with them a rag of a sail. This they hoisted to a fair wind that held through the morning hours. Between that and steady paddling they made the creek mouth by sundown. There they lay overnight on a jutting sandbar where the mosquitoes plagued them less than on the brushy shore.
At dawn they pushed into the sinuous channel of Lone Moose, breasting its slow current with steady strokes, startling flocks of waterfowl at every bend, gliding hour after hour along this shadowy waterway that split the hushed reaches of the woods. It was very still and very somber and a little uncanny. The creek was but a thread in that illimitable forest which pressed so close on either hand. The sun at high noon could not dissipate the shadows that lurked among the close-ranked trees; it touched the earth and the creek with patches and streaks of yellow at rare intervals and left untouched the obscurity where the rabbits and the fur-bearing animals and all the wild life of the forest went furtively about its business. Once they startled a cow moose and her calf knee-deep in a shallow. The crash of their hurried retreat rose like a blare of brass horns cutting discordantly into the piping of a flute. But it died as quickly as it had risen. Even the beasts bowed before the invisible altars of silence.
About four in the afternoon Mike Breyette turned the nose of the canoe sharply into the bank.
The level of the forest floor lifted ten feet above Thompson's head so that he could see nothing beyond the earthy rim save the tops of trees. He kept his seat while Mike tied the bow to a birch trunk with a bit of rope. He knew that they expected to land him at his destination before evening fell. This did not impress him as a destination. He did not know what Lone Moose would be like. The immensity of the North had left him rather incredulous. Nothing in the North, animate or inanimate, corresponded ever so little to his preconceived notions of what it would be like. His ideas of the natives had been tinctured with the flavor of Hiawatha and certain Leatherstocking tales which he had read with a sense of guilt when a youngster. He had really started out with the impression that Lone Moose was a collection of huts and tents about a log church and a missionary house. The people would be simple and high-minded, tillers of the soil in summer, trappers of fur in winter, humble seekers after the Light he was bringing. But he was not a fool, and he had been compelled to forego that illusion. Then he had surmised that Lone Moose might be a replica of Fort Pachugan. MacLeod had partly disabused his mind of that.
But he still could not keep out of his mind's eye a somewhat hazy picture of Lone Moose as a group of houses on the bank of a stream, with Indians and breeds—no matter how dirty and unkempt—going impassively about their business, an organized community, however rude. Here he saw nothing save the enfolding forest he had been passing through since dawn. He scarcely troubled to ask himself why they had stopped. Breyette and MacDonald were given to casual haltings. He sat in irritable discomfort brushing aside the hordes of mosquitoes that rose up from the weedy brink and the shore thickets to assail his tender skin. He did not notice that MacDonald was waiting for him to move. Mike Breyette looked down on him from the top of the bank.
"Well, we here, M'sieu Thompson," he said.
"What?" Thompson roused himself. "Here? Where is the village?"
Breyette waved a hand upstream.
"She's 'roun' de nex' bend," said he. "Two-three hundred yard. Dees w'ere de meeshonaire have hees cabanne."
Thompson could not doubt Breyette's statement. He recalled now that Mike had once told him the mission quarters were built a little apart from the village. But he peered up through the screen of birch and willow with a swift wave of misgiving. The forest enclosed him like the blank walls of a cell. He shrank from it as a sensitive nature shrinks from the melancholy suggestiveness of an open grave, and he could not have told why he felt that strange form of depression. He was wholly unfamiliar with any form of introspective inquiry, any analysis of a mental state. He had never held sad intellectual inquest over a dead hope, nor groped blindly for a ray of light in the inky blackness of a soul's despair.
Nevertheless, he was conscious that he felt very much as he might have felt if, for instance, his guides had stopped anywhere in those somber woods and without rhyme or reason set him and his goods ashore and abandoned him forthwith. And when he crawled over the bow of the canoe and ascended the short, steep bank to a place beside Mike Breyette, this peculiar sense of being forsaken grew, if anything, more acute, more appalling.
They stood on the edge of the bank, taking a reconnaissance, so to speak. The forest flowed about them like a sea. On Thompson's left hand it seemed to thin a trifle, giving a faint suggestion of open areas beyond. Beginning where they stood, some time in past years a square place had been slashed out of the timber, trees felled and partly burned, the stumps still standing and the charred trunks lying all askew as they fell. The unlovely confusion of the uncompleted task was somewhat concealed by a rank growth of weeds and grass. This half-hearted attack upon the forest had let the sunlight in. It blazed full upon a cabin in the center of the clearing, a square, squat structure of logs with a roof of poles and dirt. A door and a window faced the creek, a window of tiny panes, a door that stood partly open, sagging forlornly upon its hinges.
"Is that the house?" Thompson asked. It seemed to him scarcely credible. He suspected his guides, as he had before suspected them, of some rude jest at his expense.
"Dat's heem," Breyette answered. "Let's tak' leetle more close look on heem."
Thompson did not miss the faint note of commiseration in the half-breed's voice. It stung him a little, nearly made him disregard the spirit of abnegation he had been taught was a Christian's duty in his Master's service. He closed his lips on an impulsive protest against that barren unlovely spot, and stiffened his shoulders.
"I understand it has not been occupied for some time," he said as they moved toward the cabin.
But even forewarned as he was his heart sank a few degrees nearer to his square-toed shoes when he stepped over the threshold and looked about. Little, forgotten things recurred to him, matters touched upon lightly, airily, by the deacons and elders of the Board of Missions when his appointment was made. He recalled hearing of a letter in which his predecessor had renounced that particular field and the ministry together, with what to Thompson had seemed the blasphemous statement that the North was no place for either God or man.
The place was foul with dirt and cobwebs, full of a musty odor. The swallows had nested along the ridge-pole. They fluttered out of the door, chattering protest against the invasion. Rat nests littered the corners and the brown rodents scuttled out with alarmed squeaks. The floor was of logs roughly hewn to flatness. Upon four blocks stood a rusty cookstove. A few battered, smoke-blackened pots and pans stood on a shelf and hung upon nails driven in the walls. A rough bedstead of peeled spruce poles stood in a corner. The remains of a bedtick moldered on the slats, its grass stuffing given over to the nests of the birds and rodents.
It was so utterly and dishearteningly foreign to the orderly arrangement, the meticulous neatness of the home wherein Thompson had grown to young manhood under the tutelage of the prim spinsters that he could scarcely accept as a reality that this, henceforth, was to be his abode.
He could only stand, with a feeling in his throat that was new in his experience of emotions, staring in dismay at this forlorn habitation abandoned to wind and weather, to the rats and the birds.
IN WHICH MR. THOMPSON BEGINS TO WONDER PAINFULLY
To Breyette and MacDonald that forlorn cabin was after all nothing new or disheartening in their experience. They knew how a deserted house goes to rack and ruin. They knew also how to restore such an abandoned place to a measure of its original homeliness. And neither the spectacle of the one nor the labor of the other gave them any qualms. They were practical-minded men to whom musty, forsaken cabins, isolation, the hollow emptiness of the North, the sultry heat of the brief summer, the flies, the deep snows and iron frosts of the long winter, were a part of their life, the only life they knew.
But they were not wholly devoid of sentiment and perception. They recognized in Thompson a lively susceptibility to certain disagreeable things which they accepted as a matter of course. They saw that he was rather less capable of coping with such a situation than a ten-year-old native boy, that a dirty cabin in a lonely clearing made him stand aghast. And so—although their bargain with him was closed when they deposited him and his goods on the bank of Lone Moose—they set to work with energy to renovate his forlorn-looking abode.
They made short work of the rats' and the swallows' nests. Breyette quickly fashioned a broom of fine willow twigs, brought up a shovel from the canoe, and swept and shovelled the place out. MacDonald meanwhile cleared the weeds and grass from a space before the cabin and burned up the unseemly refuse. The stove fulfilled its functions perfectly despite the red rust of disuse. With buckets of boiling water they flooded and drenched the floor and walls till the interior was as fresh and clean as if new erected.
The place was habitable by sundown. While the long northern twilight held the three of them carried up the freight that burdened the canoe, and piled it in one corner, sacks of flour, sides of bacon and salt pork, boxes of dried fruit, the miscellaneous articles with which a man must supply himself when he goes into the wilderness.
That night they slept upon a meager thickness of blanket spread on the hard floor.
In the morning Mike went to work again. He showed Thompson how to arrange a mattress of hemlock boughs on the bed frame. It was a simple enough makeshift, soft and springy when Thompson spread his bedding over it. Then Mike superintended the final disposition of his supplies so that there would be some semblance of order instead of an indiscriminately mixed pile in which the article wanted was always at the bottom. Incidentally he strove to impart to Thompson certain rudimentary principles in the cooking of simple food. He illustrated the method of mixing a batch of baking-powder bread, and how to parboil salt pork before cooking, explained to him the otherwise mysterious expansion of rice and beans and dried apples in boiling water, all of which Breyette was shrewd enough to realize that Thompson knew nothing about. He had a ready ear for instructions but a poor understanding of these matters. So Mike reiterated out of his experience of camp cooking, and Thompson tried to remember.
Meanwhile, MacDonald, who had vanished into the woods with a rifle in his hand at daybreak, came back about noon with a deer's carcass slung on his sturdy back. This, after it was skinned, the two breeds cut into pieces the thickness of a man's wrist and as long as they could make them, rubbed well with salt and hung on a stretched line in the sun. The purpose and preparation of "jerky" was duly elucidated to Thompson; rather profitless explanation, for he had no rifle, nor any knowledge whatever in the use of firearms.
"Bagosh, dat man Ah'm wonder w'ere hees raise," Mike said to his partner once when Thompson was out of earshot. "Hees ask more damfool question een ten minute dan a man hees answer een t'ree day. W'at hees gon' do all by heemself here Ah don' know 'tall, Mac. Bagosh, no!"
By midafternoon all that was possible in the way of settling their man had been accomplished, even to a pile of firewood sufficient to last him two weeks. MacDonald contributed that after one brief exhibition of Thompson's axemanship. Short of remaining on the spot like a pair of swarthy guardian angels there was no further help they could give him, and their solicitude did not run to that beneficent extreme. And so about three o'clock Mike Breyette surveyed the orderly cabin, the pile of chopped wood, and the venison drying in the sun, and said briskly:
"Well, M'sieu Thompson, Ah theenk we go show you hon Lone Moose village now. Dere's one w'ite man Ah don' know 'tall. But der's breed familee call Lachlan, eef she's not move 'way somew'ere. Dat familee she's talk Henglish, and ver' fond of preacher. S'pose we go mak leetle veesit hon dem Lachlan, eh? Ah theenk us two feller we're gon' beet dat water weeth de paddle een de morneeng."
A man does not easily forego habits that have become second nature. Breyette and MacDonald put on their dilapidated hats, filled their pipes, and were ready for anything from a social call to a bear hunt. Thompson had to shave, wash up, brush his hair, put on a tie and collar, which article of dress he donned without a thought that the North was utterly devoid of laundries, that he would soon be reduced to flannel shirts which he must wash himself. His preparations gave the breeds another trick of his to grin slyly over. But Thompson was preparing himself to face the units of his future congregation, and he went about it precisely as he would have gone about getting ready for a Conference, or a cup of tea with a meeting of the Ladies' Aid. Eventually, however, the three set out across the trunk-littered clearing.
The thin place in the belt of timber to the northward proved barely a hundred yards deep. On the farther side the brushy edge of the woods gave on the open meadow around which the Lone Moose villagers had built their cabins. Thompson swept the crescent with a glance, taking in the dozen or so dwellings huddling as it were under the protecting wings of the forest, and his gaze came to rest on the more impressive habitation of Sam Carr.
"Dat's white man married hon Enjun woman," Breyette responded to Thompson's inquiry. "Ah don' never see heem maself. Lachlan she's leev over there."
Left to himself Thompson would probably have gravitated first to a man of his own blood, even though he had been warned to approach Carr with diplomacy. But there was no sign of life about the Carr place, and his men were headed straight for their objective, walking hurriedly to get away from the hungry swarms of mosquitoes that rose out of the grass. Thompson followed them. Two weeks in their company, with a steadily growing consciousness of his dependence upon them, had inclined him to follow their lead.
They found Lachlan at home, a middle-aged Scotch half-breed with a house full of sons and daughters ranging from the age of four to twenty. How could they all be housed in three small rooms was almost the first dubious query which presented itself to Thompson. His mind, to his great perplexity, seemed to turn more upon incongruities than upon his real mission there. That is, to Thompson they seemed incongruities. The little things that go to make up a whole were each impinging upon him with a force he could not understand. He could not, for instance, tell why he thought only with difficulty, with extreme haziness, of the great good he desired to accomplish at Lone Moose, and found his attention focussing sharply upon the people, their manner of speech, their surroundings, even upon so minor a detail as a smudge of flour upon the hand that Mrs. Lachlan extended to him. She was a fat, dusky-skinned woman, apparently regarding Thompson with a feeling akin to awe. The entire family, which numbered at least nine souls, spoke in the broad dialect of their paternal ancestors from the heather country overseas.
Thompson spent an hour there, an hour which was far from conducive to a cheerful survey of the field wherein his spiritual labors would lie. Aside from Sam Carr, who appeared to be looked upon as the Nestor of the village, the Lachlans were the only persons who either spoke or understood a word of English. And Thompson found himself more or less tongue-tied with them, unable to find any common ground of intercourse. They were wholly illiterate. As a natural consequence the world beyond the Athabasca region was as much of an unknown quantity to them as the North had been to Thompson before he set foot in it—as much of its needs and customs were yet, for that matter. The Lachlan virtues of simplicity and kindliness were overcast by obvious dirt and a general slackness. In so far as religion went if they were—as Breyette had stated—fond of preachers, it was manifestly because they looked upon a preacher as a very superior sort of person, and not because of his gospel message.
For when Mrs. Lachlan hospitably brewed a cup of tea and Thompson took the opportunity of making his customary prayer before food an appeal for divine essence to be showered upon these poor sinful creatures of earth, the Lachlan family rose from its several knees with an air of some embarrassing matter well past. And they hastened to converse volubly upon the weather and the mosquitoes and Sam Carr's garden and a new canoe that Lachlan's boys were building, and such homely interests. As to church and service they were utterly dumb, patently unable to follow Thompson's drift when he spoke of those things. If they had souls that required salvation they were blissfully unconscious of the fact.
But they urged him to come again, when he rose to leave. They seemed to regard him as a very great man, whose presence among them was an honor, even if his purposes were but dimly apprehended.
The three walked back across the meadow, Breyette and MacDonald chattering lightly, Thompson rather preoccupied. It was turning out so different from what he had fondly imagined it would be. He had envisaged a mode of living and a manner of people, a fertile field for his labors, which he began to perceive resentfully could never have existed save in his imagination. He had been full of the impression, and the advice and information bestowed upon him by the Board of Missions had served to heighten the impression, that in Lone Moose he would fill a crying want. And he was not so obtuse as to fail of perceiving that no want of him or his message existed. It was discouraging to know that he must strive mightily to awaken a sense of need before he could begin to fulfill his appointed function of showing these people how to satisfy that need.
Apart from these spiritual perplexities he found himself troubled over practical matters. His creed of blind trust in Providence did not seem so sound and true. He found himself dreading the hour when his swarthy guides would leave him to his lonely quarters. He beheld terrible vistas of loneliness, a state of feeling to which he had always been a stranger. He foresaw a series of vain struggles over that rusty cookstove. It did him no good to recall that he had been told in the beginning that he would occupy the mission quarters, that he must provide himself with ample supplies of food, that he might have to prepare that food himself.
His mind had simply been unable to envisage the sordid reality of these things until he faced them. Now that he did face them they seemed more terrible than they really were.
Lying wakeful on his bed that night, listening to the snoring of the half-breeds on the floor, to the faint murmur of a wind that stirred the drooping boughs of the spruce, he reviewed his enthusiasms and his tenuous plans—and slipped so far into the slough of despond as to call himself a misguided fool for rearing so fine a structure of dreams upon so slender a foundation as this appointment to a mission in the outlying places. He blamed the Board of Missions. Obviously that august circle of middle-aged and worthy gentlemen were sadly ignorant of the North.
Whereupon, recognizing the trend of his thought, the Reverend Wesley Thompson turned upon himself with a bitter accusation of self-seeking, and besought earnestly the gift of an humble spirit from Above.
But the deadly pin-points of discontent and discouragement were still pricking him when he fell asleep.
Mike Breyette took a last look over his shoulder as the current and the thrust of two paddles carried the canoe around the first bend. Thompson stood on the bank, watching them go.
"Bagosh, dat man hees gon' have dam toff time, Ah theenk," Breyette voiced his conviction. "Feller lak heem got no beesness for be here 'tall."
"He didna have tae come here," MacDonald answered carelessly. "An' he disna have tae stay."
"Oh, sure, Ah know dat, me," Mike agreed. "All same hees feel bad."
Which was a correct, if brief, estimate of Mr. Thompson's emotions as he stood on the bank watching the gray canoe slip silently out of his ken. That gave him a keener pang, a more complete sense of loss, than he had ever suffered at parting with any one or anything. It was to him like taking a last look before a leap in the dark. Thrown entirely upon his own resources he felt wholly inadequate, found his breast filled with incomprehensible misgivings. The work he had come there to do seemed to have lost much of its force as a motive, as an inspiration. He felt himself—so far as his mission to Lone Moose was concerned—in the anomalous position of one compelled to make bricks without straw.
He was, in a word, suffering an acute attack of loneliness.
That was why the empty space of the clearing affected him with a physical shrinking, why the neatly arranged interior of his cabin seemed hollow, abandoned, terribly dispiriting. He longed for the sound of a human voice, found himself listening for such a sound. The stillness was not like the stillness of a park, nor an empty street, nor any of the stillnesses he had ever experienced. It was not a kindly, restful stillness,—not to him. It was the hollow hush of huge spaces emptied of all life. Life was at his elbow almost but he could not make himself aware of that. The forested wilderness affected him much as a small child is affected by the dark. He was not afraid of this depressing sense of emptiness, but it troubled him.
Before nine o'clock in the forenoon had rolled around he set off with the express purpose of making himself acquainted with Sam Carr. Carr was a white man, a scholar, MacLeod had said. Passing over the other things MacLeod had mentioned for his benefit Thompson, in his dimly realized need of some mental stimulus, could not think of a white man and a scholar being aught but a special blessing in that primeval solitude. Thompson had run across that phrase in books—primeval solitude. He was just beginning to understand what it meant.
He set out upon his quest of Sam Carr with a good deal of unfounded hope. In his own world, beginning with the churchly leanings of the spinster aunts, through the successive steps of education and his ultimate training for the ministry as a profession, the theological note had been the note in which he reasoned and thought and felt. His environment had grounded him in the belief that all the world vibrated in unison with the theological harmonies. He had never had any doubts or equivocations. Faith was everything, and he had abundance of faith. As a matter of fact, until he encountered MacLeod, the factor of Fort Pachugan, he had never crossed swords with a man open and sincere in disbelief based on rational grounds. He had found those who evaded and some who were indifferent, many who compromised, never before a sweeping denial. He could not picture an atheist as other than a perverted monster, a moral degenerate, the personification of all evil. This was his conception of such as denied his God. Blasphemers. Foredoomed to hell. Yet he had found MacLeod hospitable, ready with kindly advice, occupying a position of trust in the service of a great company. Was it after all possible that the essence of Christianity might not be the exclusive possession of Christians?
Insensibly he had to modify certain sweeping convictions. He was not conscious of this inner compulsion when he concluded to try and meet Sam Carr without making theology an issue. Somehow this man Carr began to loom in the background of his thought as a commanding figure. At least, Thompson said to himself as he passed through the fringe of timber, Sam Carr by all accounts was a person to whom an educated man could speak in words of more than two syllables without meeting the blank stare of incomprehension.
The Lachlans were worthy people enough, but—He shook his head despondently. As for the Crees—well, he had been at Lone Moose less than forty-eight hours and he was wondering if the Board of Home Missions always shot as blindly at a distant mark. It would take him a year to learn the first smatterings of their tongue. A year! He had understood that the Lone Moose Crees were partly under civilized influences. Certainly he had believed that his predecessors in the field had laid some sort of foundation for the work he was to carry on. It was considered a matter of course that the mission quarters were livable, that some sort of meeting place had been provided.
There was a monetary basis for that belief. Some two thousand dollars had been expended, or perhaps the better word would be appropriated, for that purpose. Mr. Thompson could not quite understand what had become of this sum. There was nothing but a rat-ridden shack on a half-cleared acre in the edge of the forest. There had never been anything else. Nothing had been accomplished. Thompson shook his head again. His first report would be a shock to the Board of Home Missions.
He bore straight for Sam Carr's house. While still some distance away he made out two men seated on the porch. As he drew nearer a couple of nondescript dogs rushed noisily to meet him. Thompson's general unfamiliarity with the outdoor world extended to dogs. But he had heard sometime, somewhere, that it was well to put on a bold front with barking curs. He acted upon this theory, and the dogs kept their teeth out of his person, though their clamor rose unabated until one of the men harshly commanded them to be quiet. Thompson came up to the steps. The two men nodded. Their eyes rested upon him in frank curiosity.
"My name is Thompson." His diffidence, verging upon forthright embarrassment, precipitated him into abruptness. He was addressing the older man, a spare-built man with a trim gray beard and a disconcerting direct gaze. "I am a newcomer to this place. The factor of Fort Pachugan spoke of a Mr. Carr here. Have I—er—the—ah—pleasure of addressing that gentleman?"
Carr's gray eyes twinkled, the myriad of fine creases radiating from their outer corners deepened.
"MacLeod mentioned me, eh? Did he intimate that meeting me might prove a doubtful pleasure for a gentleman of your calling?"
That momentarily served to heighten Mr. Thompson's embarrassment—like a flank attack while he was in the act of waving a flag of truce. But he perceived that there was no malice in the words, only a flash of ironic humor. Carr chuckled dryly.
"Meet Mr. Tommy Ashe, Mr. Thompson," he said. "Mr. Ashe is, like yourself, a newcomer to Lone Moose. You may be able to exchange mutual curses on the country. People usually do at first."
"I've been hereabouts six months," Ashe smiled as he rose to shake hands. (Carr's friendliness seemed a trifle negative, reserved; he had not offered his hand.)
"That means newly come, as time is reckoned here," Carr remarked. "It takes at least a generation to make one permanent. Have a seat, Mr. Thompson. What do you think, so far, of the country you have selected for the scene of your operations?"
The slightly ironic inflection was not lost upon Thompson. It nettled him a little, but it was too intangible to be resented, and in any case he had no ready defence against that sort of thing. He took a third chair between the two of them and occupied himself a moment exterminating a few mosquitoes which had followed him from the grassy floor of the meadow and now slyly sought to find painful lodgment upon his face and neck.
"To tell the truth," he said at last, "everything is so different from my expectations that I find myself a bit uncertain. One finds—well—certain drawbacks."
"Material or spiritual?" Carr inquired gravely.
The Reverend Thompson considered.
"Both," he answered briefly.
This was the most candid admission he had ever permitted himself. Carr laughed quietly.
"Well," said he, "we are a primitive folk in a primitive region. But I daresay you hope to accomplish a vast change for the better in us, if not in the country?"
Again there was that suggestion of mockery, veiled, scarcely perceptible, a matter of inflection. Mr. Thompson found himself uttering an entirely unpremeditated reply.
"Which I daresay you doubt, Mr. Carr. You seem to be fully aware of my mission here, and rather dubious as to its merit."
"News travels fast in a country where even a passing stranger is a notable event," he remarked. "Naturally one draws certain conclusions when one hears that a minister has arrived in one's vicinity. As to my doubts—first and last I've seen three different men sent here by your Board of Home Missions. They have made no more of an impression than a pebble chucked into the lake. Your Board of Missions must be a visionary lot. They should come here in a body. This country would destroy some of their cherished illusions."
"A desire to serve is not an illusion," Thompson said defensively.
"One would have to define service before one could dispute that," Carr returned casually. "What I mean is that the people who send you here have not the slightest conception of what they send you to. When you get here you find yourself rather at sea. Isn't it so?"
"In a sense, yes," Thompson reluctantly admitted.
"Oh, well," Carr said, with a gesture of dismissing the subject, "that is your private business in any case. We won't get on at all if we begin by discussing theology, and dissecting the theological motive and activities. Do you hunt or fish at all, Mr. Thompson?"
Mr. Thompson did not, and expressed no hankering for such pursuits. There came a lapse in the talk. Carr got out his pipe and began stuffing the bowl of it with tobacco. Tommy Ashe sat gazing impassively over the meadow, slapping at an occasional mosquito.
"Tommy might give you a few pointers on game," Carr remarked at last. "He has the sporting instinct. It hasn't become a commonplace routine with him yet, a matter of getting meat, as it has to the rest of us up here."
Ashe made his first vocal contribution.
"If you're going to be about here for awhile," said he pleasantly, "you'll find it interesting to dodge about after things in the woods with a gun. Keeps you fit, for one thing. Lots of company in a dog and a gun. Is it a permanent undertaking, this missionary work of yours, Mr. Thompson?"
"We hope to make it so," Mr. Thompson responded.
"I should say you've taken on the deuce of a job," Tommy commented frankly.
Thompson had no inclination to dispute that. He had periods of thinking so himself.
The conversation languished again.
Without ever having been aware of it Thompson's circle of friends and acquaintances had been people of wordy inclination. Their thoughts dripped unceasingly from their tongue's end like water from a leaky faucet. He had never come in contact with a type of men who keep silent unless they have something to say, who think more than they speak. The spinster aunts had been voluble persons, full of small chatter, women of no mental reservations whatever. The young men of his group had not been much different. The reflective attitude as opposed to the discursive was new to him. New and embarrassing. He felt impelled to talk, and while he groped uncertainly for some congenial subject he grew more and more acutely self-conscious. He felt that these men were calmly taking his measure. Especially Sam Carr.
He wanted to go on talking. He protested against their intercourse congealing in that fashion. But he could find no opening. His conversational stock-in-trade, he had the sense to realize, was totally unlike theirs. He could do nothing but sit still, remain physically inert while he was mentally in a state of extreme unrest. He ventured a banality about the weather. Carr smiled faintly. Tommy Ashe observed offhand that the heat was beastly, but not a patch to blizzards and frost. Then they were silent again.
Thompson had effected a sort of compromise with his principles when he sought Carr. He had more or less consciously resolved to keep his calling in the background, to suppress the evangelical tendency which his training had made nearly second nature. This for the sake of intelligent companionship. He was like a man sentenced to solitary confinement. Even the temporary presence of a jailer is a boon to such, a break in the ghastly solitude. But he was fast succumbing to a despair of reaching across the barrier of this critical silence and he was about to rise and leave when he happened to look about and see Sophie Carr standing within arm's length, gazing at him with a peculiar intentness, a mild look of surprise upon her vivid young face, a trace of puzzlement.
A most amazing thing happened to Mr. Thompson. His heart leaped.
Perhaps it rarely happens that a normal, healthy man reaches a comparative degree of maturity without experiencing a quickening of his blood in the presence of a woman. Yet it cannot be gainsaid that it does happen. It was so in Thompson's case. Staring into the clear pools of Sophie Carr's gray eyes some strange quality of attraction in a woman first dawned on him. Something that made him feel a passionate sense of incompleteness.
He did not think this. The singular longing had flamed up like a beacon within him. It had nothing to do with his mental processes. It was purely an instinctive revelation. A blind man whose sight has been restored, upon whose eager vision bursts suddenly all the bright beauty of sun and sky and colorful landscape, could have been no more bewildered than he. It was as if indeed he had been blind.
All the women he had ever known seemed pale and colorless beside this girl standing near, her head a little aside as she looked at him. There was not a detail of her that escaped him, that failed to make its appeal, from the perfect oval of her face down to the small feet in bead-ornamented moccasins. A woman's eyes, her hair, her hands, her bearing—these things had never obtruded upon his notice before. Yet he saw now that a shaft of sunlight on her hair made it shimmer like ripe wheat straw, that her breast was full and rounded, her lips red and sweetly curved. But it was not alone that swift revelation of seductive beauty, or warm human desirableness, that stirred him so deeply, that afflicted him with those queer uncomfortable sensations. He found himself struggling with a sense of guilt, of shame. The world, the flesh, and the devil seemed leagued against his peace of mind.
He was filled with an incredulous wonder as to what manner of thing this was which had blown through the inner recesses of his being like a gusty wind through an open door. He had grown to manhood with nothing but a cold, passionless tolerance in his attitude toward women. Technically he was aware of sex, advised as to its pitfalls and temptations; actually he could grasp nothing of the sort. A very small child is incapable of associating pain with a hot iron until the hot iron has burned him. Even then he can scarcely correlate cause and effect. Neither could Thompson. No woman had ever before stirred his pulse to an added beat.
But this—this subtle, mysterious emanation from a smiling girl at his elbow singed him like a flame. If he had been asleep he was now in a moment breathlessly, confusedly awake.
The commotion was all inward, mental. Outwardly he kept his composure, and the only sign of that turmoil was a tinge of color that rose in his face. And as if there was some mysterious mode of communication established between them a faint blush deepened the delicate tint of Sophie Carr's cheeks. Thompson rose. So did Tommy Ashe with some haste when he perceived her there.
"No, no," she protested. "Keep your chairs, please."
"Mr. Thompson," Carr's keen old eyes flickered between the two men and the girl. "My daughter. Mr. Thompson is the latest leader of the forlorn hope at Lone Moose, Sophie."
Mr. Thompson murmured some conventional phrase. He was mightily disturbed without knowing why he was so disturbed, and rather fearful of showing this incomprehensible state. The girl's manner put him a little at his ease. She gave him her hand, soft warm fingers that he had a mad impulse to press. He wondered why he felt like that. He wondered why even the tones of her voice gave him a thrill of pleasure.
"So you are the newest missionary to Lone Moose?" she said. "I wish you luck."
Although her voice was full, throaty like a meadow lark's, her tone carried the same sardonic inflection he had noticed in her father's comment on his mission. It pained Thompson. He had no available weapon against that sort of attack. But the girl did not pursue the matter. She said to her father:
"Crooked Tree's oldest son is in the kitchen and wants to speak to you, Dad."
Carr rose. So did Thompson. He wanted to get away, to think, to fortify himself somehow against this siren call in his blood. He was sadly perplexed. Measured by his own standards, even to harbor such thoughts as welled up in his mind was a sinful weakness of the flesh. He was in as much anxiety to get away from Carr's as he had been to find a welcome there.
"I think I shall be moving along," he said to Carr. "I'll say good-day, sir."
Carr thrust out a brown sinewy hand with the first trace of heartiness he had shown.
"Come again when you feel like it," he invited. "When you have time and inclination we'll match our theories of the human problem, maybe. Of course we'll disagree. But my bark is worse than my bite, no matter what you've heard."
He strode off. Sophie bowed to Thompson, nodded to Tommy Ashe, and followed her father. Ashe got up, stretched his sturdy young arms above his fair, curly head. He was perhaps a year or two older than Thompson, a little thicker through the chest, and not quite so tall. One imagined rightly that he was very strong, that he could be swift and purposeful in his movements, despite an apparent deliberation. His face was boyishly expressive. He had a way of smiling at trifles. And one did not have to puzzle over his nationality. He was English. His accent and certain intonations established that.
He picked up a gun now from where it stood against the wall, whistled shrilly, and a brown dog appeared hastily from somewhere in the grass, wagging his tail in anticipation.
"Mind if I poke along with you," he said to Thompson. "There's a slough over beyond your diggin's where I go now and then to pick up a duck or two."
They fell into step across the meadow.
"Our host," Thompson observed, "is not quite the type one expects to find here—permanently. I understand he has been here a long time."
"Fifteen years," Tommy supplied cheerfully. "Deuce of a time to be buried alive, eh? Carr hasn't got rusty, though. No. Mind like a steel trap, that man. Curious sort of individual. You ought to see the books he's got. Amazing. Science, philosophy, the poets—all sorts. Don't try arguing theology with him unless you're quite advanced. Of course, I know the church is adapting itself to modern thought, in a way. But he'll tie you in a bowknot if you hold to the old theological doctrines. Fact. Carr's scholarly sort, but awfully radical. Awfully."
"It's queer," said Thompson, "why a man like that should bury himself here so long. Is it a fact that he is married to a native woman? His daughter now—one wouldn't imagine her—"
"No fear," Tommy Ashe interrupted. "Carr's got an Indian woman, right enough. They've got three mixed-blood youngsters. But his daughter—"
He gave Thompson a quick sidelong glance.
"Sophie's pure blood," said he. "She's a thorough-bred."
He said it almost challengingly.
From the direction of the slough two shots sounded, presently followed by two more. Then the gleeful yipping of Tommy's Ashe's retriever, and Tommy's stentorian encouragement:
"That's the boy. Fetch him."
Close upon this Mr. Thompson's up-pricked ear detected another voice, one that immediately set up in him an involuntary eagerness of listening, a clear, liquid voice that called:
"Oh, Tommy, there's another wounded one, swimming away. Quick!"
Pow! Tommy's twelve-gauge cracked again. The two voices called laughingly back and forth across the slough, mingled with the excited barking of the brown dog as he retrieved the slaughtered ducks. After a time silence fell. Thompson's nose detected an odor. He turned hastily to his stove. But he had listened too long. The biscuits in his oven were smoking.
That did not matter greatly in itself. It was merely one of a long procession of culinary disasters. He could not, somehow, contrive to prepare food in the simple manner of Mike Breyette's instructions. If the biscuits had not scorched probably they would have been hopelessly soggy, dismal things compared to the brown discs Mike had turned out of the same oven. One was as bad as the other. Nothing seemed to work out right. Nothing ever tasted right. Only a healthy hunger enabled him to swallow the unsavory messes he concocted in the name of food.
He had been at Lone Moose two weeks now. His real work, his essential labor in that untilled field, was no farther advanced. He made about the same progress as a missionary that he made as a cook. In so far as Lone Moose was concerned he accomplished nothing because, like Archimedes, he lacked a foothold from which to apply his leverage. He had the intelligence to perceive that these people had no pressing wants which they looked to him to supply, that they were apparently impervious to any message he could deliver. His power to deliver a message was vitiated by this utter absence of receptivity. He was, and realized that he was, as superfluous in Lone Moose as sterling silver and cut glass in a house where there is neither food nor drink.
Also he was no longer so secure in the comfortable belief that all things work for an ultimate good. He was not so sure that a sparrow, or even an ordained servant of God, might not fall and the Almighty be none the wiser. The material considerations which he had always scorned pressed upon him in an unescapable manner. There was no getting away from them. Thrown at last upon his own resources he began to take stock of his needs, his instincts, his impulses, and to compare them with the needs and instincts and impulses of a more Godless humanity,—and he could not escape certain conclusions. Faith may move mountains, but chiefly through the medium of a shovel. When a man is hungry his need is for food. When he is lonely he craves companionship. When he grieves he desires sympathy. And the Providence Mr. Thompson had been taught to lean so hard upon did not chop his wood, cook his meals, furnish him with congenial society, comfort him when he was sad.
"Religion or nonreligion, belief in a personal, immanent God or a rank materialism that holds to a purely mechanical theory of the universe, it doesn't make much difference which you hold to if you do not set yourself up as the supreme authority and insist that the other fellow must believe as you do.
"Because, my dear sir, you cannot escape material factors. The human organism can't exist without food, clothing, and shelter. Society cannot attain to a culture which tends to soften the harshnesses of existence, without leisure in which to develop that culture. Machinery and science and art weren't handed to humanity done up in a package. Man only attained to these things through a long process of evolution, and he only attained them by the use of his muscle and the exercise of his intellect. Strength and skill—plus application. Nothing else gets either an individual or a race forward. Don't you see the force of that? Here is man with his fundamental, undeniable needs. Here is the earth with the fullness thereof. There's nothing mysterious or supernatural about it. Brain and brawn applied to the problems of living. That's all. And you can't dodge it. The first, pressing requirements of any man can only be filled in two ways. First by working and planning and getting for himself. Second by being able to compel the strength and skill of others to function for him so that his needs will be supplied; in other words, by some turn of circumstances, or some dominant quality in himself, to get something for nothing."
Sam Carr had delivered himself of this as a wind-up to a conversation with Thompson the evening before. Now, while his forgotten biscuits scorched and he listened to Tommy Ashe and Sophie Carr taking their toll of meat from the flocks of waterfowl, he was thinking over what Carr had said. He dissented. Oh, he dissented with a vigor that was almost bitterness, because the smiling quirk of Sam Carr's lips when he uttered the last sentence gave it something of a personal edge. However it was meant, Thompson could not help taking it that way. And Mr. Thompson's desire was to give—to give lavishly. Only here in this forsaken corner of the world he seemed to have nothing to give that was of any value.