E-text prepared by Al Haines
ALICE PRESCOTT SMITH
New York Grosset & Dunlap Publishers Houghton, Mifflin and Co.
M. C. H. AND A. E. H.
I. THE KEY II. THE CAPTIVE III. BEHIND THE COMMANDANT'S DOOR IV. IN THE OTTAWA CAMP V. A DECISION VI. DAME OPPORTUNITY VII. THE BEGINNING VIII. PARTNERS IX. WESTWARD X. I WAKE A SLEEPER XI. MARY STARLING XII. A COMPACT XIII. WE REACH THE ISLANDS XIV. A PROVISIONAL BARGAIN XV. I TAKE A NEW PASSENGER XVI. THE STORM XVII. AFTER THE STORM XVIII. IN WHICH I USE OPPORTUNITY XIX. IN THE MIST XX. WHAT I FOUND XXI. THE PIVOT XXII. THE PRICE OF SLEEP XXIII. I ENCOUNTER MIXED MOTIVES XXIV. I MEET VARIOUS WELCOMES XXV. OVER CADILLAC'S TABLE XXVI. FROM HOUR TO HOUR XXVII. IN COUNCIL XXVIII. CHILDREN OF OPPORTUNITY XXIX. I FOLLOW MY PATH XXX. THE MEANING OF CONQUEST XXXI. THE UNDESERVED XXXII. I TELL THE WOMAN XXXIII. TO US AND TO OUR CHILDREN
The May sun was shining on Michillimackinac, and I, Armand de Montlivet, was walking the strip of beach in front of the French garrison.
I did not belong to Michillimackinac. I had come in only the day before with two canoes and four men, and I was bound for the beaver lands further west. A halt was necessary, for the trip had been severe, and remembering that it was necessity, and not idleness, that held me, I was enjoying the respite. My heart was light, and since the heart is mistress of the heels, I walked somewhat trippingly. I was on good terms with myself at the moment. My venture was going well, and I was glad to be alone, and breathe deep of the sweet spring air, and let my soul grow big with the consciousness of what it would like to do. So content was I, that I was annoyed to see La Mothe-Cadillac approach.
Yet Cadillac was important to me then. He was commandant at Michillimackinac,—the year was 1695,—and so was in control of the strategic point of western New France. The significance of all that he stood for, and all that he might accomplish, filled my thought as he swaggered toward me now, and I said to myself, somewhat complacently, that, with all his air of importance, I had a fuller conception than he of what lay in his palm.
He hailed me without preface. "Where do you find food for your laughter in this forsaken country, Montlivet? I have watched you swagger up and down with a smile on your face for the last hour. What is the jest?"
In truth, there was no jest in me by the time he finished. My own thought had just called him a swaggerer, and now he clapped the same phrase back at me.
"There are more swaggerers upon this beach than I," I cried hotly, and I felt my blood rise.
My tone was more insulting than my words, and Cadillac, too, grew red. I saw the veins upon his neck begin to swell, and all my childish irritation vanished.
"Come, monsieur," I hastened; "I was wrong. But I meant no harm, and surely here is a jest fit for your laughter, that two grown men should stand and swell at each other like turkeycocks, all because they are drunk with the air of a May day. Come, here is my hand."
"But you said that I"—
"And what if I did?" I interrupted. I had fallen into step, and was pacing by his side. "What is there in the term that we should hold it in slight esteem? I swagger. What does that mean, after all, but my acknowledgment of the presence of Dame Opportunity, and my admission that I would like to impress her; to draw her eye in my direction. Surely that is laudable, monsieur."
Cadillac laughed. His tempers were the ruffle of a passing breeze upon deep water. "So you think that I swagger to meet opportunity? Well, if I do, I get but little out of it. Sometimes I push myself near enough to pluck at the sleeve of the dame; oftener she passes me by."
"Yet she gave you this key to an empire," I suggested. I had been rude, and I repented it, and more than that, there was something in the man that tempted me to offer him flattery even as I desire to give sweets to an engaging child.
But this cajolery he swept away with a fling of his heavy arm. "The key to an empire!" he echoed contemptuously. "They are fine words, and the mischief is that they are true. Yet food in my stomach, and money in my pocket, would mean more to me just now. I must speak to this Indian. Will you wait for me, monsieur? I have business with you."
I bowed, and resumed my walk. "The key to an empire!" I said my own words over, and could have blushed for their tone of bombast. They were true, but they sounded false, I looked at my surroundings, and marveled that a situation that was of real dignity could wear so mean a garb. The sandy cove where I stood was on the mainland, and sheltered four settlements. Behind lay the forest; in front stretched Lake Huron, a waterway that was our only link with the men and nations we had left behind. The settlements were contiguous in body, but even my twenty-four hours' acquaintance had shown me that they were leagues apart in mind. There were a French fort, a Jesuit convent, a village of Ottawas, and, barred by the aristocracy of a palisade, a village of Hurons. The scale of precedence was plain to read. The huts of the savages were wattled, interlaced of poles and bark; the French buildings were of wood, but roofed with rough cedar; the only houses with board roofs were those of the Jesuits. In later times when I found Father Carheil hard to understand, I used to say to myself that he was not to be held too strictly to account for his contradictions, for though one learns to think great thoughts in the wilderness, it is not done easily when there is sawed lumber to shut away the sky.
Cadillac came back to me in a few moments. He had lost his swelling port, and was frowning with thought. "I saw you in the Huron camp, Montlivet," he said. "Do you understand their speech?"
Now this was a question that I thought it as well to put by. "Would you call it speech?" I demurred. "It sounded more like snarling."
"Then you do understand it?"
I kicked at the dogs at my feet. "Frowns are a common language. I could understand them, at least. The camp is restless. Are they hungry?"
Cadillac shrugged his shoulders. "Possibly. But it is not hunger that sagamite or maize cakes can reach. Would a taste of Iroquois broth put them in better condition, do you think?"
I turned away somewhat sickened. "It is a savage remedy," I broke out. "And a good cook will catch his hare before he talks of putting it in the pot. Where is your Iroquois hare, Monsieur de la Mothe-Cadillac?"
The commandant shook his head. "My hare is still at large," he confessed. "Though just now—— Come, Monsieur de Montlivet, let us to plain speech. We are talking as slantingly as savages. I have a Huron messenger at my quarters. Come with me, and interpret."
"A messenger from your own camp?"
"Is it my own camp?" he queried soberly. "I do not know. I have reason to think that many of my Hurons are ripe for English bribes,—or even for the Iroquois. It is a strange menagerie that I rule over here, and the Hurons are the foxes,—when they are not trying to be lions. You say that their camp is restless. I do not speak their language, but I can tell you more. They are in two factions. Those who follow old Kondiaronk, the Rat, are fairly loyal, but the faction under the Baron would sell us to the English for the price of a cask of rum. Truly our scalps sit lightly on our heads here in this garrison."
I hesitated. I did not like this situation, and prudence whispered that I had best cut the conversation here, and make my way as swiftly as possible to the west. But curiosity urged me to one more question. I asked it with my lips pursing to a whistle, that I might seem indifferent. "Is the messenger from the Baron?"
Cadillac nodded contentedly. "So you have decided to help me," he said, with a smile that read my indecision perfectly, and I felt, with a rush of blood to my face, much less sure of myself, and more respect for him. "I wish that I had inducements to keep you here," he went on, "for I hear from Montreal that you have wonderful command of Indian dialects. But I will take what you are willing to give, and be thankful. As to this messenger,—this is the tale. Some months ago a small band of Hurons left here for the south. Hunting, or war, or diplomacy, how shall I say what was their errand? But I mistrust them, for they are followers of the Baron. They returned this morning, and are in camp on the island. Their sending a messenger in advance looks as if they had a prisoner, and so desired to be welcomed in state. If the prisoner should be an Iroquois"——
Now certain tales were fresh in my ears, and so I did not like the implication of the unfinished sentence, and hastened to cover it. "It is a favorable sign, monsieur, that the messenger came to you first."
"How do I know that he came to me first? He came to me—yes. But because a snake slips out of one hole, can you swear that he has not been in another? Will you go to him now?"
There was no door open for escape, and the matter was not important enough for me to be willing to force one. "If you wish," I agreed.
Cadillac looked relieved. "Good! You will find the messenger at my quarters. I shall let you go alone, for I can make nothing of the man's speech, and he smells somewhat rancid for a close acquaintance. When you are through, you will find me here."
I bowed, and made my way to his quarters. I knew as I opened his door that I might be entering more than appeared upon the surface, but the excitement of the game was worth the hazard,—even the hazard of a possible delay,—and I pushed the door wide, and went in.
The Huron was sitting in the middle of the floor, handling his calumet with some ostentation. The Hurons were but the remnant of a race, for Iroquois butchery had reduced them in numbers and in spirit, but even in their exile they preserved a splendor of carriage that made the Ottawas, who camped beside them here, seem but a poor and shuffling people. This man was a comely specimen, and he was decked to do honor to the moment. His blanket was clean, and his head freshly shaved except for a bristling ridge that ran, like a cock's comb, across his crown, and that dripped sunflower oil over his shoulders.
He handed me his calumet, and we smoked for the time required by ceremony, then he rose, and drew two beaver skins from the folds of his blanket.
"The sun has smiled upon us," he said, with a certain sedate pomposity which, like the black crest on his head, might be ludicrous in itself, but seemed fitting enough in him. "I speak for my people who are in camp upon the island. We have been upon strange rivers, and over mountains where the very name of Frenchman is unknown. Yet we have returned, and we come to you at once, as the partridge to her young. We are glad to see a Frenchman's face again. We confirm what we have said by giving these beavers."
I smoked for a moment, then leaned over and kicked the skins into the corner. "Why these words?" I asked, with a slow shrug. "Does the leg thank the arm for its service? Does the mouth give flatteries and presents to the tongue? We of Michillimackinac are all of one body. My brother must be drunk with the bad rum of the English traders, that he should come to me in this way. No, if my brother has anything to say, let him think it aloud without ceremony, as if speaking to his own heart. Let him save his beavers till he goes to treat with strangers."
There was a long silence. The Huron wrapped his blanket closer, and looked at me, while I stared back as unwinkingly. His face was a mask, but I thought—as I have thought before and since when at the council fire—that there was amusement in the very blankness of his gaze, and that my effort to outdo him at his own mummery somewhat taxed his gravity. When he spoke at last he told his story concisely.
A half hour later, I went in search of Cadillac. He heard my step on the crunching gravel, and when I was still rods away, he laid his finger on his lips for silence. I went to him rather resentfully, for I had had no mind to shout my news in the street of the settlement, and I thought that he was acting like a child. But he took no notice of my pique, and clapped me on the shoulder as if we were pot-companions.
"Hush, man," he whispered fretfully. "Your look is fairly shouting the news abroad. No need to keep your tongue sealed, when you carry such a tell-tale face. So they have an Iroquois?"
I dropped my shoulder away from under his hand. "If that is the news that you say I shouted, no harm is done,—save to my honor. No, they have no Iroquois."
Cadillac stopped. "No Iroquois!" he echoed heavily.
"No, monsieur. They have an Englishman."
It was as if I had struck him. He stepped back, and his face grew dull red.
I shook my head. I could feel my blood pumping hard, but I answered by rote. "Not by the Huron's story."
The commandant snapped his fingers. "That for his story! As idle as wind in the grass!" he snorted. "But what did he say?"
I grew as laconic as the Huron. "That they left here as a hunting party," I said categorically.
"That they soon joined a war party of Algonquins, and went with them to the English frontier. I could make little of his geography, but I infer that they went in the direction of Boston,—though not so far. There the Algonquins fell upon a village, where they scalped and burned to their fill. He says that the Hurons remained neutral, and this prisoner, he maintains, is theirs by purchase. They bought him from the Algonquins for two white dressed deerskins, and they have treated him well. They have found him a man of spirit and importance, and they ask that you make a suitable feast in honor of what they have done. The Huron is waiting for your answer."
Cadillac had listened nodding, and his reply was ready. "Tell him that they must bring the prisoner to-morrow early,—soon after daybreak. Tell him that Monsieur de la Mothe-Cadillac knows his part, and that the kettles shall be full of dog-meat, and the young men painted and ready for the dancing." He spoke rapidly, his hand on his sword, and his great shoulders lifted as if eager to meet their new burden. He turned to me with a smile that would have conquered enmity in a wolf. "This is great news, Montlivet. I could almost ask you to drink the health of the Baron, and all his scurvy, seditious crew. For, look you, even if the Englishman is a spy, and the Hurons have brought him here to make a secret treaty, why, he is in our hands, and Boston is a continent away. He will have opportunity to learn some French before he goes back to his codfish friends. What say you, monsieur?"
I laughed rather ruefully. I saw that the game was to be exciting, and I had never been backward at a sport. Yet I knew that I must turn my face from it.
"What do I say?" I repeated. "Nothing, monsieur, but that I am a trader, not a diplomat, and that to-morrow I must be on my way to the west. I will take your answer to the Huron. Monsieur, I hope you will sleep long and sweetly to-night. You will need a clear head to-morrow."
Cadillac looked at me, and wagged his head. "Good-day to you, trader," he said, with one of his noiseless laughs. "How well you must sleep who have no thought beyond your beaver skins,—even though you do carry brandy and muskets hidden in your cargo. Never mind, never mind. Keep your secrets. Only see that Father Carheil does not smell your brandy, or I may be forced to send you back to Montreal."
I woke the next morning, saying, "I must keep out of this," and I knew that I had said it in my slumber. It is pitiful that a man should be so infirm of will that he need cosset his resolution in this fashion, and I kicked the dogs from the door of my cabin, and went out to meet the world in a bad humor.
It was a still world in the great sky and water spaces, but a noisy one upon the shore. Early as it was—the night dusk was still lingering—the kettles were simmering, and the Indians decked for a holiday. The sense of approaching action was powder to my nostrils, and added to my spleen; so though I went down upon the beach, and joined Cadillac and his officers, I was but surly company, and soon turned my back upon them, to stare off at the lake.
It was a breezeless morning, and the lake was without ripple. It lay like one of the metal mirrors that we sell the Indians, a lustreless gray sheet that threw back twisted pictures. I looked off at the east, and thought of the dull leagues that lay behind me, and the uncounted ones before, and I realized that the morning air was cold, and that I hated the dark, secret water that led through this strange land. Yet, even as I scowled at it, the disk of the sun climbed over the island's rim, and laid a shining pathway through the gray,—a pathway that ended at my feet.
I felt my pulse quicken. After all, it was a fair world, and the air, though keen, was a cordial. I let my gaze travel up that shining, glimmering track, and while I looked it was suddenly flecked with canoes. Long and brown, they swung down toward me like strong-winged birds upheld by the path of the sunrise.
I looked back at the Indians. They, too, had seen the canoes, but they made no sound of welcome. Bedizened and wolf-eyed, they stood in formal ranks as attentive as children at a pantomime. In a moment the canoes took clearer shape, and the shine of the paddles could be seen as the flat of the blades slanted toward the light. The men at the paddles were indistinguishable, crouching shapes, but their prisoner was standing. He stood in the foremost canoe, and as his figure was outlined against the sun I saw that he was rigid as a mummy. I turned to Cadillac. To see a white man bound! I could feel the thongs eating into my own flesh.
"They have bound the Englishman!" I protested. "Let us hope that they are not daring enough—or crazed enough—to make him sing to grace their triumph."
But he laughed at my tone. "What does it matter?" he shrugged. "These wards of mine—my happy family—must have their fete in their own fashion, or they will ask that I pay the piper. Well, whatever they do, the prisoner is in our hands, and it will be long before he escapes them. Yes, listen,—oh, the play-acting dogs!—they are making him sing now."
He had a keen ear, for, even to my forest-trained sense, the sound came but faintly. The crowd hushed its breathing, and the air was unwholesomely still. A dog yelped, and an Indian silenced it with a kick. Each paddle-stroke threw the canoes into sharper relief, and we could distinguish lank arms, and streaming hair. The prisoner's voice echoed as clear as if he were in some great playhouse, and were singing to gain the plaudits of a friendly throng.
I felt my blood tingling in my fingers' ends. It was a brave song, bravely sung. I could not understand the English words, but the sound was rollicking with defiance. It was a glove thrown in our faces; the challenge of a brave man to a cowardly foe.
"The plucky beggar!" I said half aloud, and I set my teeth hard.
But Cadillac was nudging my elbow. "You said that the prisoner was a man of importance," he accused, with a perplexed frown. "But, listen! He has the voice of a boy."
I was greedy to hear, so, with a wave of the hand, I shook Cadillac away. But, in truth, I was disturbed. The tones were certainly boyish.
The canoes came within bowshot, and the hush that held the camp suddenly broke like the release of pent waters. There were yells and stamping, the smash of tom-toms, and a scattering salvo of musketry. It was a united roar that shut out from our consciousness the thought of the calm sky and the silent water.
The canoes had come as unswervingly as arrows, and the one that held the prisoner landed at my feet. I looked up, and met his eyes, and I swept my hat from my head.
"You are among friends," I called, not knowing that I did so.
It was a foolish speech, since the prisoner could not understand; but I suppose that my tone was kind, for it apparently gave him courage. At least, a flush that might have been the color of returning hope rose in his cheeks. I was relieved at his appearance, for he was not the little lad that his song had made me fear. He was slim and beardless, but there were sorrow and understanding in his look that could not come with childhood. For the rest, he was dark and gaunt from exposure and privation. His rough woolen suit, leather-lined, hung loosely on him, but he wore it with a jauntiness that matched the bravado of his song.
Cadillac came forward in welcome. He was always an orator that the Indians themselves envied, and now his rhetoric was as unhampered as though he thought that the prisoner was following each flowing syllable. As he unbound the stiffened arms—they were pitifully thin and small, I thought—he called all mythology to witness his deep regret that this indignity should have been offered to his brother of the white race. I followed him and listened, storing away metaphors even as I carried beads in my cargo. I should need all the eloquence at my command before the close of the summer, and my own tongue was always too direct of speech.
Cadillac felt me at his elbow, and when he saw my listening face he stopped to give me a slow wink. "Will monsieur turn pupil to learn swaggering?" he asked, with an upward cock of the eye. "I had thought him too old for a school."
I bowed, and hated myself for my lagging wits that would not furnish a retort. "Never too old to sit at your feet," I assured him, and I went away knowing that I had been slow, and that the honors were with him, but knowing, also, that somehow I liked the man, and that I should drink his health when I opened my next tierce of canary.
I went to find my men, and it was time that I bestirred myself. License was in order, and the revel assaulted eyes, ears, and nose, till a white man was wise if he forsook his dignity, and ran like a fox to cover. The air was surfeiting with the steam of food. Dog-meat bubbled in great caldrons, and maize cakes crackled on hot stones. A bear had been brought in, and was being hacked in pieces to add to the broth. The women did this, and as I passed them they stopped, with their hands dripping red, and shook their wampum necklaces at me, and pointed meaningly toward a neighboring hut, where I had been told that rum could be bought if you were discreet in choosing your occasion. I tossed them a handful of small coins, and warned them in Huron that if they molested my men I should report them to the commandant. I felt yet more haste to see my canoes under way.
I was plunging on in this fashion when Father Carheil plucked at my sleeve. "Do you think you are running from the Iroquois?" he grumbled, and he pushed his irritable, brilliant face close to mine. It was an old face, lined and withered, and the hair above it was scanty and gray, but never have I met a look that showed more fire and unconquerable will. "The commandant wishes you," he went on. "He asked me to fetch you. I should not have complied—it is I who should ask services of him—but I wished to speak to you on my own account. Monsieur, do you know these men that you have in your employ?"
I nodded. "As well as I know my own heart. They are my habitants."
"Your habitants! Then you have a seigniory? Why do you not stay there as the king wishes?"
I shook my head at him. "We use large words in this new land, father. Yes, I have a seigniory. That is, I own some barren acres near Montreal that I can occupy only at risk of my scalp. As to the king, I think he wishes me to trade,—at least I carry his license to that effect. But what are my men doing?"
The Jesuit's thin old hands clutched each other. "They are turning this place into a Sodom," he said passionately. "They are drinking and carousing with the Indian women. You traders are our ruin. But we will shut you out of the country yet. Mark my words. Those twenty-five licenses will be revoked before the season ends, and you will have to find other excuses to bring your rabble here to debauch our missions."
In view of what I had just seen, I felt impatient. "You do my handful of stolid peasants too much honor," I said dryly. "They would need more wit and ingenuity than I have ever seen in them to be able to teach outlawry to anything that they find here. But I am looking for them now. You will pardon me if I hasten."
But his hand pulled at me. "Is one of your men lipped like a bull-moose and red as Rufus?"
"Pierre Boudin to the life," I chuckled. "What deviltry is he at now?"
The priest's face lost its flame. He looked suddenly the old man worn out in the service of a savage people. "He is with an Ottawa girl," he said sadly; "a girl the Indians call Singing Arrow for her wit and her laughter. She is not a convert, but she is a good girl. I wish you would get your man away."
I felt shame for my man and myself. "I will go at once," I promised soberly. "I will be westward bound by afternoon."
The old priest looked at me with friendly eyes. "There will be trouble before sundown," he said gravely. "If you wish to get away, go quickly, or you may not go at all. Now you must report to the commandant."
But I had turned my face the other way. "Not till I have found Pierre," I returned.
I had no summer stroll before me. Pierre, Anak that he was, was as lost as a leaf in a whirlpool, and though I had quick eyes, and shoulders that could force a passage for me in a crowd, I could see no sign of his oriole crest of red head in all the bobbing multitude of blackbirds. Instead I stumbled upon Cadillac.
He linked his arm in mine. "Do you know," he said abruptly, "the prisoner has spirit and to spare. He may be a man of importance after all."
I answered like a fool. "I think not. He is dressed like a yeoman."
Cadillac put me at arm's length, and puffed his cheeks with silent laughter. "Plumage, eh? Are you willing to be judged by your own?" He stopped to let his glance rest on my shabby gear. "Truly it must be a long year since you fronted a mirror, or you would not be so complacent. No, monsieur, the prisoner is a gentleman. No yeoman ever carried his head with such a poise. But who is he? I would give all the pistoles in my pocket—though, in faith, they're few enough—if I could understand English. But you may be able to help me. Go speak to the prisoner in Huron. He must have picked up something of the Indian speech in his trip here."
This was my opportunity. "Monsieur," I said, "I should like an understanding. Remember how little all this can mean to me,—a trader,—and do not think me churlish if I try to keep myself free from this intrigue. I will go to the prisoner now, if you wish; but, that done, I beg you to hold me excused of any further service in this matter."
Cadillac looked me over, and now his glance went, not to my doublet, but to the man within. "A trader!" he said curtly. "A trader carrying contraband brandy. A good commandant would send you back where you belong. No, no, monsieur, wait! I am not threatening you. Though you know as well as I that the thumb-screws are rather convenient to my hand should I care to use them. But there should be no necessity for that. Montlivet, I hardly understand your reluctance in the matter of this Englishman. We should be one in this affair, whatever our private concerns. Even Black Gown and I—and the world says we are not lovers—are working together. Why do you draw back?"
I could not meet him with less than the truth. "You have stated the reason, monsieur. My private concerns,—they seem large to me, and I fear to jeopard them by becoming entangled here. I regret this. You have shown me great clemency in the matter of the brandy,—though if you had confiscated it I should still have pushed on,—and for that, and for your own sake, monsieur, I should be glad to serve you."
He looked at my outstretched palm, and laid his own upon it. "'T is fairly spoken," he said slowly, "and I think you mean it." Then he grew peevish. "A pest on this country!" he cried. "We are all kings in disguise, and have a monarchy hidden in our hats. And what does it amount to? No bread, no wine, no thanks; a dog's life and a jackal's death,—and all to hold some leagues of barren land for his petticoat-ridden majesty at Versailles. Oh, why not say it? We can tell the truth here without losing our heads."
"The king's arm"—I began.
"Is long," he interrupted. "Yet, in truth, your face is longer. Are you so eager to be gone? Well, get you to the prisoner, and, my hand on it, I shall ask for nothing more."
BEHIND THE COMMANDANT'S DOOR
The commandant's door had come to be the portal through which I stepped from safety into meddling. Yet I opened it now with laughter peeping from my sleeve. To bait the Englishman in Huron seemed a good-natured enough jest, and full of possibilities.
But one look at the prisoner drained my laughter. He was lying on a bench, his face hidden in his out-flung arms, and his slenderness and helplessness pulled at me hard. I knew that despair, and even tears, must have conquered now that he was alone, and I wished that I might save his pride, and slip away until he had fought back his bravery, and had himself in hand.
But he had heard my step, and drew himself up to face me. He turned with composure, and fronted me with so much dignity that I stood like a blundering oaf trapped by my own emotion. There was no emotion in his look. He had been thinking, not despairing, and his face was sharpened and lighted with such concentration that I felt slapped with cold steel. He looked all intellect and determination,—a thing of will-power rather than flesh and brawn.
My Huron speech seemed out of place, but there was no choice left me, so I used it. There was refuge for my dignity in the sonorous syllables, and I spoke as to a fellow sachem. Then I asked the prisoner his name, and waited for response.
None came. I knew that I had spoken rapidly, so I tried again. I chose short words, and framed my sentences like a schoolmaster. The prisoner listened negligently. Then he put out his hand. "Pardon, monsieur. But I speak French,—though indifferently," he said, with a slight shrug.
My anger made my ears buzz; I would not bandy words with a man of so small and sly a spirit. I turned to leave.
But the prisoner stepped between me and the door. "You were sent here with a message," he said; "I am listening."
His sunken brown eyes were so deep in melancholy that I could not hold my wrath. "Was it a gentleman's part to lead me on to play the clown?" I asked. "I came in kindness."
He smiled a little,—a bitter smile that did not reach his eyes. "I am not, like you, a gentleman by birth, monsieur," he said slowly, "and so often trip in my behavior. Granted that you were amusing,—and you were, monsieur,—can you blame me for using you for a diversion? I infer that you have come to tell me that the time left me, either for amusement or penitence, is short."
It was bravely said, but I knew from the careful repression of his tone that his hardness was a brittle veneer. He was young to carry so bold a front when his heart must be hammering, and I would willingly have talked any doggerel to have afforded him another smile.
"I know nothing of your future," I hastened, "save that, arguing from your youth, it will probably be a long one. It was your past that I was sent to ask concerning. The commandant sent me. Since you speak French, my mission is over. The commandant will come himself."
The prisoner laid his hand upon a chair. "Will you sit? I would rather it be you than the commandant, if it must be any one. What were you sent to ask?"
I waved away the chair, for I thought of the passing moments and of what I had promised Father Carheil. "I must hasten," I said irritably. "What was I to ask? Why, your name, the account of your capture,—the story of your being here, in brief."
He saw that I glanced at the door, and he walked over to it. "Wait!" he interposed. "I can answer you in a line. But one question first. Monsieur, I—I"—
"Monsieur, I—I must think a moment. Be patient, if you will."
His voice was calm, but there was something in his look that forced my pity. "Tell me nothing that I must not tell the commandant," I warned. "But be assured of my good will."
I think he did not hear. He sat with his forehead on his hand, and I knew that he was thinking. He looked up with a new decision in his glance.
"Monsieur, you lead a strange life in this place. I see nothing but men. Have you no families?"
I swore under my breath. I had expected some meat from his remark, and he gave me trivialities. I had no time for social preliminaries, and I felt sudden distaste for him. I pointed him to the window.
"We are not all men. There are Indian women in plenty. Shall I draw the shade that you may see? There are many of my countrymen to tell you that they find them fair."
"But are there no white families in the settlement?" He was leaning forward, and he ignored the insult of my air.
I shook my head. "None, monsieur. None short of Montreal."
He tapped the floor, and frowned. His look went beyond me, and he was absorbed. "None short of Montreal. Indeed you live a strange life. Monsieur, is it far to Montreal?"
I shrugged. "Yes, it is a long journey. Come, monsieur, we waste time. I wish you good-day."
He glanced up quickly. His was a misleading face, for while his words were meaningless, and showed him of a small and trifling mind, his look was yet keen. He saw that I had wearied of him, and he put out his hand to beg my attention.
"Wait, monsieur!" he cried.
"Monsieur, you waste my time."
"I shall waste no more. I have made up my mind. Listen. I promised you my story." He had regained all his quiet arrogance. "It is soon told. I am an Englishman,—or a colonist, if you like the term better. I was in a village on the Connecticut frontier, when your savages came down upon us. No, I am wrong. They did nothing so manly as to come down upon us boldly. They slid among us like foul vermin afraid of the light. They achieved a notable victory, monsieur. I see that you recognize their prowess, and that the feast you have prepared for them is lavish. It was a noble battle. I regret you could not have seen it. There were some hundreds of the Indians, and a scattering handful of us. A quiet farming community, monsieur, that worked hard, supped early, and slept the deep sleep of quiet living and sober minds. We waked to find the scalping knives at our throats, and the death scream of children in our ears. Look over the bags of scalps, and see the number of women and old men that your braves had to overcome. You will be proud of them, monsieur."
I clenched my hand, and wished myself elsewhere. "But our Hurons say they were neutral," I defended.
He lifted his brows. "You prefer to give all the praise to the Algonquins?" he asked smoothly. "I understand. Yes, I have heard that the Algonquins stand even closer to you than your Hurons here. They are more than brothers. Indeed, it is said that your Count Frontenac calls them his children. Well, they did you credit. It took ten of them to silence Goodman Ellwood's musket, but they butchered him in the end. If you find a scalp with long silky white hair, monsieur, it belongs to John Ellwood. Value it, and nail it among your trophies, for it cost you the lives of a full half-dozen Algonquin braves."
I kept my eyes down. I had come here to unearth a certain fact, and I would pursue it. "But were the Hurons neutral?" I persisted.
I could not even guess at what raw nerve I touched, but he suddenly threw his arms wide as men do when a shot is mortal. His cool insolence dropped from him, and he was all fire and helpless defiance. He stamped his foot, till, slender as he was, the boards rang. "Were the Hurons neutral?" he mocked, in a voice so like my own I could have sworn it was an echo. "What manner of man are you? Are you made of chalk? If you had seen a child's brains dashed out against a tree, would you stop to ask the Indian who held the dripping corpse what dialect he spoke? Oh, a man should be ashamed to live who has seen such things, and who keeps his sword sheathed while one of your Indian family—brothers or children—remains alive! If you had blood in your veins, you would be man enough not to put even an enemy upon the rack, in this way, and force him to live that time over to glut your curiosity. Here is my answer, which you may take to your commandant. I am an Englishman, I am your prisoner, and you are to remember that I am, first, last, and at all times, your foe. Now go to your commandant, and tell him to keep himself and his schoolboy orations out of my way."
He was shaking, and his face was dead white. I did not answer, but I took him by the arm, and led him to a chair. He tried to resist, but I am strong. Then I brought him a cup of water from a pail that stood near by.
"Drink it," I said, "and when food is sent you, eat what you can. Your race is not over, and if you wish to trick and outwit us,—as you were planning when I found you lying here,—you will need more strength than you are showing now. I have but one more question. You must tell me your name."
For a moment he did not reply. He was still shaking painfully, and water from the cup in his hand splashed over him. "My name," he said slowly, "my name is—is Benjamin Starling."
I took the cup away. "I am waiting," I said after a pause.
"Waiting for what, monsieur?" When he willed, he could speak winningly, and he did it now.
I took paper from my pocket. "For your real name," I answered. "I shall write it here, and you must swear that it is true. Don't squander lies. Plain dealing will be best for us both."
He was as changeable as June weather. Now it was his cue to look pleading. "The Indians called me by a name that meant bitter waters," he said hesitatingly. "But my baptismal records say Starling. I am telling you the truth, monsieur."
I wrote the name so that he could see. "You give me your word as a gentleman," I said, "that your name is Benjamin Starling."
He stopped a moment. "Can a yeoman swear himself a gentleman?" he asked. "I think not. I will be more explicit. I give you my oath as a truth-loving person that my name is Starling."
I put up the paper. "Thank you," I said. "And now. Monsieur Starling, we will say good-by. I am only a chance wayfarer here, and leave in an hour. I cannot wish you success, since you are my foe, but I can wish you a safe return to your own kind. I hope that we shall meet again. When I am dealing with a foe that I respect, I prefer him with his hands unbound. Good-day, monsieur."
But he was before me at the door. I saw that my news troubled him.
"You mean," he asked, "that you are leaving here for several days?"
I laid my hand on the latch. "No," I answered. "I leave for several months, monsieur."
"For months! Oh no!" he cried, and he drew back and looked at me. "Then I am like never to see you again," he said thoughtfully. "You have been kind to me." He suddenly thrust out his hand. "Monsieur, I will be more generous than you. I wish you success."
But I would not take his hand on those terms.
"Don't!" I said roughly. "You cannot wish me success. It will mean failure to you—to your people. No, we are foes, and let us wear our colors honestly. Again, I wish you good-day," and, bowing, I raised the latch, and made my way out of the commandant's door.
IN THE OTTAWA CAMP
Chance was disposed to be in a good humor. I had scarcely stepped into the crowd when I saw Pierre.
I went to him knowing that I should find opportunity for reproof, but should probably lack the will. For Pierre was my harlequin, and what man can easily censure his own amusements even when he sees their harm? Then there was more to make me lenient. The man's family had served my own for as many generations as the rooks had builded in our yews, and so, on one side at least, he inherited blind loyalty to my name. I say on one side, for his blood was mixed; his father had married a vagrant, a half-gypsy Irish girl who begged among the villages. It was the union of a stolid ox and a wildcat, and I had much amusement watching the two breeds fight for the mastery in the huge Pierre. The cat was quicker of wit, but the ox was of more use to me in the long run, so I tried to keep an excess of stimulants—whether of brandy or adventure—out of Pierre's way.
He was a figure for Bacchus when I found him, and I pricked at him with my sword, and drove him to the water, where I saw him well immersed.
"Now for quick work," I admonished. "I must see the commandant, but only for a moment. You gather the men, and have the canoes in waiting. There will be no tobacco for you to-night, if you are not ready when I come."
He shook the water from his red locks, and wagged his head in much more docile fashion than I had expected. "My master cannot go too fast for me," he said, with a twist of his great protruding lip. "I have no liking for white meat broth myself."
He drew back like one who has hit a bull's-eye and waited for me to ask questions, but I thought that I knew my man, and laughed at his childishness.
"No more of that!" I said with perfunctory sternness. "What pot-house rabble of Indians have you been with that you should prattle of making broth of white men, and dare bring such speech to me as a jest! That is not talk for civilized men, and if you repeat it I shall send you back to France. You are more familiar with the savages than I like a man of mine to be. Remember that, Pierre. Now go."
But he lingered. "It is no pot-house story," he defended sulkily. "The Ottawas say they will go to war if the prisoner is not put in the pot before to-morrow morning. And what can the commandant do? The Ottawas are two thousand strong."
I knew, without comment, that he was telling me the truth, and I stood still. The din of the dancing and feasting was growing more and more uproarious, and the Indians were ripe for any insanity. I saw that the sun was already casting long shadows, and that the night would be on us before many hours. I looked at the garrison. Two hundred Frenchmen all told, and most of them half-hearted when it came to defending an Englishman and a foe! I turned to my man.
"You have been with an Ottawa girl, called Singing Arrow," I said. "Are you bringing me some woman's tale you learned from her?"
He squirmed like a clumsy puppy, but I could see his pride in my omniscience. "She is smarter than a man," he said vaguely.
And Pierre were the man, I thought that likely. "Take me to her," I commanded.
I expected to follow him among the revelers, but he turned his back on them, and led the way through a labyrinth of huts, a maze so winding that I judged him more sober than I had thought. When we found the girl, she was alone, and I saw from her look that this was not the first visit Pierre had made.
He summoned her importantly, while I withdrew to a distance, that I might have her brought to me in form. I was intent and uneasy, but I had room in my heart for vain self-satisfaction that I knew something of the Ottawa speech. My proficiency in Indian dialects, for which the world praised me lightly, as it might commend the cut of my doublet, had cost me much drudgery and denial, and my moments of reward were rare.
Singing Arrow came forward, and curtsied as the priests had taught her. I was forced to approve my man's taste. Not that she was beautiful to my eyes, for brown women were never to my liking; but she had youth and neatness, and when she raised her eyes I saw that I might look for intelligence and daring. I motioned her to come nearer.
"Singing Arrow," I said, in somewhat halting Ottawa, "my man here tells me that your people are talking as if they were asleep, and were dreaming that they were all kings. Now when a dog barks at the moon, we do not stop to tremble for the safety of the moon, but we ask what is the matter with the dog. That is what I would ask of you. What do the Ottawas care what Monsieur de la Mothe-Cadillac, the commandant, does with the English prisoner?"
She thought a moment, and plaited the folds of her beaver-skin skirt as I have seen many a white girl do. "I know of no dog," she said, with a slow upward glance that tried to gauge my temper. "And as for the moon, it shines alike on the grass and the tall trees, and I have seen no Frenchman yet who could reach up and pluck it from its place. But I have seen a chain that was once bright like silver grow dull and eaten with rust. A wise man will throw such a chain away, and ask for a new one."
I shrugged. "You have sharp eyes," I said, shrugging yet more, "if you can see rust on the covenant chain that binds the French to the Ottawas. Is that what you mean?"
She looked up with a flash of fun and diablerie such as I never thought to see in a savage face. "Then monsieur has seen it himself?"
Now this would not do; I would leave all gallantries to my subordinate. "This is idle talk," I said, as I lit my pipe, and prepared as if to go. "It is the clatter of water among stones that makes a great noise, but goes nowhere. I have seen many strange things in my life, but never a cat that could fight fair, nor a woman that could answer a direct question. Look at this now. I ask you about the English prisoner, and you talk to me of covenant chains."
She looked at me with impassive good humor, her hands busy with her wampum necklaces, and I saw, not only that I had failed to entrap her into losing her temper, but that I was dealing with a quick-witted woman of a race whose women were trained politicians. But, for reasons of her own, she chose to answer me fairly.
"The Frenchman is right," she said, with a second swift upward look to test the ice where she was venturing. "I was wrong to talk of the covenant between the French and my people, for the chain is too weak to bear even the weight of words. It is rusted till it is as useless as a band of grasses to bind a wild bull. But blood will cleanse rust. What can the French want with their enemy, the Englishman? Why should not the prisoner's blood be used to brighten the chain between the Ottawas and the French?"
Now this was plain language. I listened to the girl's speech, which was as gently cadenced as if she talked of flowers or summer pleasures, and thought that here was indeed snake's venom offered as a sweetmeat. But why did she warn me? I had a flash of sense. I went to her, and compelled her to stop playing with her necklaces, and raise her eyes to mine.
"Answer me, Singing Arrow," I commanded. "You are repeating what was said in council, but you do not agree with it. You would like to save the prisoner. Look at me again. Am I right?"
I could as well have held an eel. She slipped from my hands, and ran back to her lodge. "So!" she cried, as she lifted the mat before her door. "So it is not the dog alone that smells at its food before it will eat. Why stay here? I have given you what you came to find. Take it." And with a look at Pierre she disappeared.
Pierre gave a great bellow of laughter. "I will catch her," he volunteered, and made a plunge in the direction of the lodge; but I caught him by the hood of his blanket coat, and let his own impetus choke him.
"Now look you, Pierre Boudin," I said, "if you cross the door of that lodge on any errand,—on any errand, mind you,—you are no longer man of mine. I mean that; you are no longer man of mine. Now begone. Gather the men, go to the canoes, and wait there till I come. I may come soon; I may not come till morning."
Pierre was still swelling. "As the master wishes," he said, with his eyes down; but I thought that he hesitated, and I called him to me.
"Pierre," I said, "do you want to be sent back to Montreal, and have Francois Labarthe put in your place?"
The giant looked up to see how much I was in earnest, and, as I returned his look, all his bravado oozed away. It does not seem quite the part of a man to cow a subordinate till he looks at you with the eyes of a whipped hound; but it was the only method to use with Pierre, and I went away satisfied.
I turned my steps toward the main camp of Ottawas, and there I idled for an hour. The braves were good-humored with me, for I was a trader, not an officer, and their noses were keen for the brandy that I might have for barter. So that I was free to watch them at their gambling, or dip my ladle in their kettles if I willed. All this was good, but it went no further. With all my artifices, I could not make my way into the great circle around the camp fire, and I grew sore with my incapacity, for I saw that Longuant, the most powerful chief of the Ottawas, was speaking. I picked up a bone and threw it among the dogs with an oath for my own slowness.
The bone was greasy, and I took out my handkerchief, but before I could use it to wipe my hands, a young squaw pushed her way up to me, and offered her long black hair as a napkin. She threw the oily length across my arm, and flattered me in fluent Ottawa.
Then I forgot myself. The body frequently plays traitor in emergencies, and my repugnance conquered me so that I pushed her away before I had time to think. Then I knew that I must make amends.
"The beauty of your hair is like the black ice with the moon on it," I said in Ottawa. "You must not soil it."
She giggled with pleasure to hear me use her own tongue, and would have come close to me again, but I motioned her away.
"Stay there, and catch this," I called, and I tossed her a small coin.
For all her squat figure and her broad, dull face, she was quick of action as a weasel. She put her hands behind her, and, thrusting her head forward, caught the coin in her teeth. It was well done; so well that I said "Brava," and the braves around me gave approving grunts.
"Look at the stupid Frenchman!" I heard a brave say. "For all his red coat, and his manners, he cannot catch as well as a squaw."
I pointed my finger at him, and twirled my mustaches as if I were playing villain in a comedy. "A Frenchman does not stoop to catch money," I vaunted, with my arm akimbo. "Money is for slaves and women. Give the Frenchman a spear, a man's weapon, and then see if he can be beaten at throwing by a squaw."
There was a laugh at this, and the squaw to whom I had thrown the coin seized a sturgeon spear that leaned against a kettle, and hurled it at me. I turned my back, and caught it over my shoulder. There was a hush among the braves for a moment, then a low growl of applause. "Let him do it again," several voices cried.
I did it again, and yet again, in varying ways. The squaw threw well, and caught better, but she was no match for my longer reach and better training. Still we kept the spear hurtling. With each throw I backed a pace or two toward the council fire, and the crowd made way for me.
"This is enough," I cried at length. "Have you no men among you who can throw better than your women?"
A dozen braves, each clamoring, leaped forward, but before I could select one of them, a young Huron elbowed his way into the midst of them and placed himself before me.
"Try your skill with me," he cried, striking his breast, and though he spoke a broken mixture of Huron and Ottawa, his air was so rhetorical that the Ottawas, always keen for a dramatic moment, stopped to listen.
I balanced the spear in my hand. "I am trying my skill with the Ottawas," I said. "Since when has Pemaou, the Huron, forsaken his own camp?"
The Huron drew back. He was a son of that adroit traitor, the Baron, and what his presence in this camp meant, I could only surmise. But that he was of the Baron's blood was enough for me, and I was prepared to dislike him without searching for excuse. He, on his part, looked equally unfriendly. He resented my recognition, and taking his war spear from his belt he sent it at me with a vicious fling.
This heated my blood. I caught the spear, and tested it across my knee. It was pliant but tough, and wickedly barbed,—a weapon for a man to respect. "So you wanted the color of my blood," I called angrily. "You have a good spear; all that was lacking was a man to aim it;" and with a contemptuous laugh I tossed the spear back to his hand.
Now this was mere childishness, and I knew it, and hoped, with shame for my own lack of sense, that Pemaou would not accept my covert challenge, and that the matter would end there. But Pemaou had purposes of his own. He looked at the spear for a moment, then sent it spinning toward my head. "On guard!" he cried in my own tongue, and I remembered that he had spent some time among the French at Montreal.
I caught the spear, and cursed myself for a fool. The Indians again gave tongue to their approval, and gathered in a ring, leaving the space between Pemaou and myself clear. All was ready for the game to proceed. I hesitated a moment, and the Ottawas laughed, while Pemaou looked disdainful.
All animals are braggarts, from the cock in the barnyard to the moose when he hears his rival, and man is not much better. I pricked the spear point against my hand, and looked at it critically.
"It is as dull as the Huron's wits," I scoffed, "but we will do the best that we can with it;" and stepping back several feet nearer the council fire, I put the weapon into play.
I have been in weightier occasions than the one that followed, but never in one that I can remember in more detail. In all lives there are moments that memory paints in bright, crude colors, like pictures in a child's book, and so this scene looks to me now. I can see the crowding Ottawas, their bodies painted red and black, their nose pendants—a pebble hung on a deer-sinew—swinging against their greasy lips as they shouted plaudits or derision. But best I can see Pemaou, dancing between me and the sun like some grotesque dream fantasy. He was in full war bravery, his body painted red, barred with white stripes to imitate the lacing on our uniforms, and his hair feather-decked till he towered in height like a fir tree. I say that he was grotesque, but at the time I did not think of his appearance; I thought only that here was a man who was my mate in cunning, and who wished me ill.
This was no squaw's game, for each cast was made with force and method. We both threw warily, and the spear whistled to and fro as regularly as a weaver's shuttle. I backed my way toward the council fire until I could hear Longuant distinctly, then I prayed my faculties to serve me well, and stood my ground. My mind was on the rack. I could not, for the briefest instant, release the tension of my thought as to the game before me, yet I missed no sound from the group around the fire. The low, red sun dazzled my eyes, and I waited, with each throw from the Huron, for one that should be aimed with deadlier intent.
For I realized that Pemaou was not doing his best, and, since I had seen hate in his eyes, this clemency troubled me. I wondered if he were a decoy, and if some one were coming upon me from the rear, and I stopped and stared at him with defiance, only to see that he was looking, not at me, nor at the attentive audience around us, but over my head at the council fire.
Then, indeed, the truth clapped me in the face, and I could have laughed aloud to think what a puppet I had been, just when I was comforting my vanity with my own shrewdness. Of course, Pemaou would spare me, and so prolong the game. As the son of the leader of the Hurons, he had more to learn from Longuant's speech than I. We were playing with the same cards, but his stakes were the larger. I suddenly realized that I was enjoying myself more than in a long time.
But the test was to come. When Pemaou had heard all he wished, he would aim the spear at my throat, and so, though I threw negligently, I watched like a starved cat. I heard the council agree upon a decisive measure, and I knew that the Huron's moment had arrived. He seized it. His spear whistled at me like a bullet, but my muscles were braced and waiting. I caught the weapon, and held it, though the wood ate into my palms. The savages told the Huron in a derisive roar that the Frenchman was the better man.
And now it was my turn. So far I had thrown fair, without twist or trickery, but I knew one turn of the wrist that could do cruel work. Should I use it? Pemaou had tried to murder me. I looked at his red-and-white body, and reptile eyes, and hate rushed to my brain like liquor. I took the spear and snapped it.
"Take your plaything!" I cried, and I tossed the fragments in his face. "Learn to use it if you care for a whole skin, for I promise you that we shall meet again." And turning my back on him, I strode out of the Ottawa camp the richer by some information, and one foe.
I found Cadillac in his private room at the fort, and said to myself that he looked like a man stripped for running. Not that his apparel had altered since I had met him swaggering upon the beach the day before, but his bearing had changed. He had dropped superfluities, and was hardened and sinewed for action.
I expected him to rate me for my tardiness in reporting my interview with the Englishman, but, instead, he greeted me with so much eagerness that I saw that some of my news must have run before.
"What do you know?" I cried.
He looked at the crowd swarming outside the window. "That we are in a hornets' nest," he said, with a wry smile. "But never mind that now. We must talk rapidly. I have been waiting for you. I could not act till I learned what you had done."
I bowed my regrets. "I was delayed. I saw the Englishman, and"——
He cut me short. "Never mind the Englishman," he cried, with a wave of his impatient hand. "Tell me of the Ottawa camp. You have been there an hour. I hear that you danced where they danced, and shared dog-meat and jest alike. In faith, Montlivet, I have a good will to keep you here in irons if I can do it in no gentler way. But what did Longuant say at the council fire?"
I made sure that we were alone, and dropped into a chair. My muscles were complaining, yet I knew that I had but begun my day's work. "It was a long council," I said, "and all the old men were there. Longuant was leader, but he was but one of many. The Ottawas are much stirred."
"About the prisoner?"
I shook my head. "The prisoner is the excuse,—the touchstone. The real matter goes deep. You have not blinded these people. They know that England and France are at war, but they know, too, that peace may be declared any day. They know that the Baron has made an underground treaty with the English and the Iroquois, and they realize that the Iroquois may attack this place at any time with half the band of Hurons at their back. They have no illusions as to what such an attack would mean. They know that the French would make terms and be spared, but that the Ottawas and the loyal Hurons would be butchered. They are far-sighted."
Cadillac nodded heavily. "So they think that we would desert them, and hand them over to the Iroquois? We must reassure them."
I rapped on the table. "We did desert them once," I reminded him. "They know how we abandoned the refugee Hurons at Quebec, and they hold our word lightly. It shames us to say this, but we must see matters as they are. No, the Ottawas do not trust us, but they trust the English less. It is a choice of evils. But they are shrewd enough to see that their greatest peril lies in a truce between ourselves and the English. Then they would indeed be between two stools. Now, they see that there are two paths open."
Cadillac was breathing heavily. "You mean"—he asked.
I spoke slowly. "I mean," I said, "that they must either go over to the English themselves, or succeed in embroiling us with the English."
"And they chose?"
"They did not choose. They temporized. They see the advantages of a union with the English. A better beaver market, and plenty of brandy. It goes hard with them that we are frugal with our muskets, while the English keep the Iroquois well armed. Longuant says, and justly, that it is difficult to kill men with clubs. On the other hand they like us, and find the English abhorrent. So they have virtually agreed to leave the casting vote with you. They will come after sundown and demand that the prisoner be given them for torture. If you agree, they will feel that you have declared your position against the English; if you refuse"—— I broke off, and leaned back in the chair. I had not realized, till my own voice stated it, how black a case we had in hand.
We sat in silence for a time. Cadillac scowled and beat his palm upon his knee as a flail beats grain, and I knew he needed no words of mine. I thought that he was going over his defenses in his mind, and I began to calculate how many rounds of shot I had in my canoes, and to hope that my men would not prove cravens. I knew, without argument with myself, that the beaver lands did not need me half as much as I was needed here.
At length Cadillac looked up. "Do you think the prisoner is a spy?" he asked.
I had dreaded this question. "I am afraid so, but judge of him yourself. He speaks French."
Cadillac half rose. "He speaks French? Yet he is an Englishman?"
I nodded. "Undoubtedly an Englishman."
"And you made nothing of him?"
I could only shake my head. "Nothing. He tells the story that I should tell if I were lying,—yet he may be telling the truth. He is a bundle of inconsistencies; that may be nature or art. He may be a hot-headed youth, who knows nothing beyond his own bitterness over his capture, or he may be a clever actor. I do not know."
Cadillac gave a long breath that was near a sigh. "Poor soul!" he said unexpectedly. "Well, spy or otherwise, it matters little for the few hours remaining."
I caught his arm across the table. "Cadillac!" I cried, with an oath. "You would not do that!"
He shook off my hand, and looked at me with more regret than anger. "I am the rat in the trap," he said simply. "What did you expect me to do?"
I rose. "Do you mean," I cried, my voice rasping, "that you will not attempt a defense? that you will hand a man, a white man, over to those fiends of hell? Good God, man, you are worse than the Iroquois!"
He came over, and seized my arm. "I could run you through for that speech," he said, his teeth grating. "Are you a child, that you cannot look beyond the moment? Suppose I defy the Ottawas. Then I must call on the Baron to help me, since it was his men who brought the prisoner to camp. Why, man, are you crazed? Look at the situation. Kondiaronk, the Huron, will reason as the Ottawas have done, and throw his forces on their side. I should be left with only the Baron to back me,—the Baron, who has been whetting his knife for my throat for the last year. Why, this is what he wants; this is why he brought the prisoner here! Would you have me walk into his trap? Would you have me sacrifice my men, this garrison, why, this country even, to save the life of one puny Englishman, who is probably himself a spy?" He stopped a moment. "Why, man, you sicken me!" he cried, and he slashed at me with his sword as if I were a reptile.
I took my own sword, and laid it on the table. "I am a fool," I said, not for the first time that day. "But how will Frontenac look at your handing a white man over to torture?"
Cadillac put up his sword. "My orders are plain," he said, tapping a sheaf of papers on his desk. "They came in the last packet. I am to treat all prisoners in the Indian manner. As you say, the Indians have come to think us chicken-hearted. We must give them more than words if we are to hold them as allies."
I seized sword and hat. "You are a good servant," I said. "I wish you joy of your obedience," and I plunged toward the door.
But an orderly stopped me on the threshold. "Is Monsieur de la Mothe-Cadillac within?" he asked. "The Baron desires an audience with him."
Cadillac pushed up behind me. "I am here," he called to the orderly. "Tell the Baron that I will see him when the sun touches the water-line." Then he pulled me back into the room. "How much do you think the Baron knows?" he demanded.
I felt shame for my forgetfulness. "Pemaou was in the Ottawa camp," I said, and I told him what had happened.
Cadillac's face hardened. "Then they have sent to demand the prisoner," he pondered moodily. "I had hoped for a few hours' respite. There might have been some way for the prisoner to escape."
I had been walking the floor, grinding my mailed heels into the pine wood. "Escape!" I cried at him. "Escape! To starve or be eaten by wolves! The torture of the Ottawas were kinder. Now it is your turn to play the child. Escape? Yes, but not alone. Go, go, monsieur! Go and meet the Baron. Go before I change my mind. Tell the Baron he can have the prisoner. Then go to Longuant, and make what terms you will with him. Make any concessions. Feather your nest while you can. I want some one to win at this, since I must lose. I will take the prisoner west with me."
Cadillac seized me. "Montlivet, you mean this?" he demanded. His grip ate into my arm.
I reached up, and unclasped his fingers. "Unhand me!" I grumbled. "I must be on my way."
But he paid no heed. "You mean this?" he reiterated, taking a fresh grip. "The prisoner will hamper you."
I tore my arm away. "Hamper me!" I jerked out. "He will clog me, manacle me! But it is the only thing to do. Now go, while this mood holds with me. Five minutes hence I may not see things in this way. Go! I will arrange the escape. You, as commandant, must not connive with me at that. Go to the Indians, and make your terms. If you can hold them off till moonrise, I promise you the prisoner shall be gone."
But Cadillac would not hasten. He gave me the long estimating glance that I had seen him use once before. "Montlivet," he said, with his arm across my shoulder, "you are doing a great thing; a great thing for France. No man could serve his country more fully than you are doing at this moment. It is an obscure deed, but a momentous one. No one can tell what you may be doing for the empire by helping us through this crisis."
But I was in no mood for heroics. "I am not doing this for France," I cried irritably. "I live to serve France, yes; but I want to serve her in my own way. Not to have this millstone tied around my neck, whether I will or no. Don't think for a moment that I do this because I wish."
Cadillac removed his arm and looked at me. "Then you do it from liking for the Englishman?"
I should have had the grace to laugh at this, but now it was the torch to the magazine. "Like him! No!" I shouted, with an oath. "He is bitter of tongue, and, I think, a spy. He is obnoxious to me. No, I am doing this because I am, what the Ottawas call us all,—chicken-hearted!" and sick with myself and what I had undertaken, I flung out of the door.
The first thing to do was to see the Englishman. For the third time in twenty-four hours I went to the commandant's quarters.
The prisoner was at the window when I entered, and again I caught his look of keen intelligence; a look which he apparently tried to veil as his eyes met mine. That bred suspicion in me. Yet I could not mistake the welcome with which he greeted me.
"I am gratified to see you again, monsieur." Now it was a civil phrase, and well spoken, but it annoyed me. I could not understand his change of look, and I dislike complexities. What was the man concealing that he should drop his eyes before me. In spite of the seriousness of our joint state, I felt much inclination to take time, then and there, to box his ears, and tell him to be more forthright. My annoyance made it easier for me to come without phrases to the meat of the matter. I pressed him to a chair, and stood over him.
"You looked out of the window, Monsieur Starling. What did you learn?"
He glanced upward. "The Indians are excited. Am I the cause?"
His glance fell. "They want me—for torture," he said, with steadiness I could not but commend. Then he turned suddenly. "Can your commandant protect me?"
Now this was unexpected. I had intended to lead up to this situation gradually, and the question caught me unguarded. The prisoner was looking me full in the face, and he read there what I had hoped to hide.
"I understand," he said.
I have been with many men when they heard their death sentence, and those who take it as this man did, with spirit and knowledge, rob me of my hold on myself, so that I show emotion of which I am ashamed. I turned away. "Wait, wait, monsieur, I have not said all!" I cried. "There is still one chance for you."
He shook his head. "Small chance for me with that swarm outside. Well, what must come, will come." He was white, and his eyes grew even more sombre; but, though his blood might play him traitor, his will was unshaken. I saw that. I saw, too, that his manner had lost all bravado. He suddenly came to me, and laid his hand on my arm. "I am glad, monsieur, that it was you who came to tell me. It is much easier to hear it from you. All day you have been thoughtful for me; for me, a stranger and an enemy. I wish that my blessing might bring you happiness, monsieur." And before I could check him, he raised my hand to his lips.
I was greatly disturbed. "Stop! Stop! Stop!" I expostulated, too much stirred to think what I was saying. "This is not the end. You are to go west with me."
He drew away. "With you? Who are you? What is the west? You said—you said that I had to die."
I felt unsteady, and ill at ease. "Let us discuss this like sane men!" I exclaimed, angry at myself. "You jump at conclusions. That is a woman's foible. Who am I? A trader, Armand de Montlivet, from Montreal. I am going west for peltries. It will be a hard trip, and you will suffer; but it is your only chance. I will get you to the canoe in some fashion soon after dusk. I have not made my plans. I must reconnoitre. Hold yourself ready to do what I ask."
Still he drew away. "I shall be a burden. Tell me the truth, shall I be a burden?"
He did not look angered. Indeed, his eyes softened till I thought him near tears. "And you will do this for me! Run all this risk! And yet you never saw me before to-day!" He touched his hand to mine.
Somehow this again annoyed me. The man was concealing something from me, yet affected to be moved to open emotion by his gratitude. I was not at the bottom of him yet. I removed his hand.
"Monsieur, you forget," I corrected. "You said we were foes, and we are. I never embraced an Englishman, and I shall not begin now—now that our nations are at war. You may be a spy."
"You think me a spy!"
I sighed from exasperation, and pointed to the window. "Monsieur Starling, wake up to this situation. What does it matter what you are, or what I think? We waste time. Say that you will follow me, and I shall go and make my plans."
But still he looked at me. "Then you encumber yourself with me from abstract duty. Personally you distrust me."
The truth seemed best. I bowed.
He thought this over. "Then I refuse to go," he decided quietly. "I refuse." And he bowed toward the door to put a period to our interview.
But here my patience broke. I took him by the arm, and held him ungently. "Words! Words! Words!" I mocked at him. "What would you have me say? That I love you? In faith, I don't. You irritate me; annoy me. But save you I will, if only for my peace of mind. Look at me. Look at me, I say."
He obeyed. All his hard nonchalance had returned.
"Do you trust me?" I demanded.
"Then you will come with me?"
This was madness—and it took time. "Indeed you will come," I said between my teeth. "And that without more words. Good-by."
But he caught my sleeve. "Then you take me against my will."
I brushed him away. "And against mine, too, if you balk my wishes at every turn. But I will take you. It is the only chance you have, and if you are mad enough to refuse it, I must force it on you. Remember, I shall use force. Now stay by the window, and await my signal. I shall come when I can."
He followed to the door. "You will not need to use force with me, monsieur," he said soberly. "If you insist on taking me, I shall follow your directions, and use what wit I can. But I cannot thank you, for I cannot feel grateful. You give under protest, and I accept in the same way. It is a forced companionship. I do not wish to die; but, after all, it will soon be over, and life has not been sweet. I would rather risk what meets me here than take help from you, now that I see you give it grudgingly."
This chilled me, and excuses pressed hot on my tongue. Yet it was unwise to protest. Why should I wish his gratitude? It would hamper us both. I had no desire to bind him to me with obligations. I felt shame for my coldness; but, for once, my head ruled, and I let the situation stand.
"You are a brave man, monsieur," I said inconsequently. "I know that you will bear your share to-night."
He laid his hand on the door, and searched me with his sad eyes. "One last word," he said, "and then I shall bury this for aye. Monsieur, if I bring you misfortune, I ask you to remember—to remember from now on—that you took me against my will."
For all my impatience, I had some effort not to smile. He would be a burden, he might be a nuisance, but he could hardly be a misfortune. He had a weighty sense of his importance, to use so large a term. But I would not ridicule him. "I promise," I said.
He held out his hand. "Say that again with your hand in mine. Promise me that, whatever disaster I bring you, you will remember that I came against my will."
Somehow that sobered me. "I promise," I repeated, and touching his hand, and again bidding him be on the watch, I went away.
I had no plans. My mind was cloudy as muddy water, and I sauntered around the camp looking important and weighty with calculation, but feeling resourceless and slow. Then I bethought me of Singing Arrow.
I shouldered my way to her lodge with speed that made me a target for scantily hidden laughter. But I could not find her. Lodge and fire were alike deserted. I asked questions, but was met by shrugs. My eagerness had been unwise. I had sought too openly and brusquely, and the Ottawas suspected my zeal of being official rather than personal. I saw myself in their eyes as an officer of the law, and knew that I had closed one door in my own face. I told myself contemptuously that I had made so many blunders in that one day that I must, by this time, have exhausted the list, and that I would soon stumble on the right road as the only one left.
And so it proved. For I went to my canoes, and there, perched bird-wise on my cargo, and flinging jests and laughter at Pierre and the men, sat Singing Arrow.
It was what I most wanted, and so relieved was I at finding it, that I could not forbear a word of reproof.
"I told you to keep away from Singing Arrow!" I stormed at Pierre, like the mother who stops to shake her recovered child before she cries over it.
Pierre grinned shamefacedly, but Singing Arrow smiled like May sunlight.
"Has monsieur been looking for me?" she asked. "He carries the wet red clay that lies in front of my wigwam," and she pointed a curving finger at my boots.
I could have embraced her. If I had no wit, she had it and to spare. I made up my mind, then and there, to trust her. It was a mad chance, but a good gamester likes a dangerous throw.
"Come here, Singing Arrow," I commanded, and I would have led her down the beach out of earshot.
She followed but a step or two, then halted, balancing herself on one foot like a meditative crane. "I want sunset-head to go too," she insisted, darting her covert bird-glance at Pierre, and when I would have objected, I saw her mouth pinch together, and I remembered that no Indian will submit to force. So I let her have her will.
We held short council: Pierre the peasant, Singing Arrow the squaw, and I, the Seignior de Montlivet. We mingled suggestions and advice, and struck a balance. The sunset flamed in the woods behind us, and I knew that the moon rose early. I could have used a knife upon Pierre for the time it took me to convince him that our canoes could carry one man more. Heretofore my nod had been enough to bring him to my heels, but now he thought his head in danger, so he fought with me like an animal or an equal. The equal I would not tolerate, and the animal I cowed in brute fashion. Then I sent Singing Arrow to do her work, and I went to the Englishman.
The Englishman saw me from the window, and was at the door before I could lift the latch. Yet his eagerness did not trip him into carelessness, and so long as the guards could see, he greeted me with a hostile stare.
I pushed him within, and closed the door. "Have you seen any one?" I asked.
"Only the guard with my supper."
I drew a freer breath. "Good tidings. Then Cadillac has succeeded in holding off the Indians until moonrise."
He glanced out at the dusk. "That is not long," he said dispassionately.
I put out my hand. Somehow this youth could move me curiously by his calmness, although I was no stranger to brave men.
"The time is terribly short," I agreed, "but we will make it suffice. And we need not haste. We can do nothing till it is a little darker, then we shall move swiftly. A young squaw, Singing Arrow, will be here in a few minutes. You are to escape in her dress."
He wasted no time in comment. "Am I dark enough?" he demurred. "My neck, where I am not sunburned, is very white."
I had thought of this, and had warned Singing Arrow. "There is no opportunity to stain your skin," I said, "so we must trust to the dark, and a blanket wrapping. The Indian will wear leggings, skirt and blouse of skin, so you will be fairly covered. The hands and hair are the weak points. You will have to keep them in the blanket."
He hesitated. "You can trust this girl?" he asked slowly.
Now why should he ask what he knew I could not answer? "Can you trust me—or I you, for the matter of that?" I jerked out with a frown. "This is an outlaw's land, and the wise man trusts no one except under compulsion. I would not trust Singing Arrow for a moment if I could help myself, but she is our only hope, so I trust her implicitly. I advise you to do the same. Half measures are folly. If you try to be cautious in your dealings with her, you will tie her hands so that the whole thing will fall through. If she betrays us—well, you are in no worse estate than now, and we will still have my sword and my men to depend on. But that is a slender hope, and we will save it for a last resort. Now we will hazard everything on this plan."
I had made my long speech nervously, knowing, in my heart, that what I asked the man to do would take more courage of soul than one would expect to find in his slender frame. For I might be throwing him over to fiendish torment. The Indian women were cruel as weasels, and more ingenious in their trap-setting than the men. It cooled my blood to think what Singing Arrow's friendliness might really mean.
The prisoner heard me without flinching. "But what is Singing Arrow's motive?" he asked, with his mournful eyes full on my own. "We cannot read men's hearts, but, after all, there are but few springs that rule their action. You know that I will be loyal to you to save my head, to which, though it has served me badly, I yet cling. I know that you will be loyal to me because I see that God gave you a softness of heart which your brain tells you is unwise. But what string pulls this Indian that she should be a traitor to her people? If you will give me a hint, I will play upon it as best I can."
I could only shrug. "It may be my man, Pierre," I hazarded. "He is red as a flamingo, and a fool into the bargain; but he has shoulders like an ox, so the women want him. I can see no other motive. Will you trust to that, monsieur?"
He looked back at me with the flicker of a smile. "It is sufficient."
I do not like smiles that I cannot understand, so I changed the subject. "The plan is simple, monsieur," I said briskly. "Singing Arrow will come to the window, and you are to make love to her. After a time—not too long—you are to beguile her inside. I think the guards will be complaisant, if you play your part well. Be as debonair as possible. A soldier is always tempted to be lenient to a jaunty foe."
The prisoner nodded. "And you will meet me?"
"Outside in the camp. I shall stand near a fire, so that you can find me at once. Remember, monsieur, that you are Singing Arrow, and that it will be your cue to follow me, and mine to shrug you away."
The Englishman drew a long breath. "I am ready, monsieur," he said, with a little squaring of the shoulders, and I saw that, mortal danger that he was in, his spirit yet responded to the touch of comedy in the game.
I saluted him with a laugh of my own. "Then I will go, monsieur. Go into the next room to change your clothing, or the guard may come in and find you. One thing more. Remember you have overpowered Singing Arrow, and taken your disguise by force. It may be well to lock her in that inside room before you leave; but do as you like. I leave details to you."
He made acknowledgment with a sweeping bow. "I will be a monster of cruelty," he promised, and he pulled at imaginary mustachios like a child at play.
Now it may be well to commend nonchalance, but there are bounds that should not be passed. Had this man no reverence toward the mystery of his own life that he jested on the edge of it? I had rather have seen him with a rosary in his hand than with defiance on his lips.
"Is life all bitterness and sharp-edged laughter with you, monsieur?" I asked bluntly. "This may be our last talk. It is hardly a seemly one. If you have messages to send that will not compromise you, I will try and get them through—in case our plans fail."
The prisoner eyed me oddly. "And in case you still live, monsieur," he corrected. "You show much solicitude that I meet my end decorously, yet I cannot see that you display any dolor over your own condition. Why should I have less fortitude? You are like a man who cares not for religion for himself, yet insists upon it for children and for his womenkind,—for his inferiors in general. Why should you feel that I need so much prompting?" His voice suddenly hardened. "Tell me. Is it my youth that makes you feel yourself my mentor, or have I failed you in any way? Answer." And he gave the stamp of the foot that I had heard once before.
How could I answer but with laughter? "You are a leopard, and a lamb, and a bantam cock all in one," I jeered at him. "No wonder that I feel you need a priest to shrive you;" and I laughed again, and would not notice the hurt shining of his eyes as I went away.
I had not vaunted idly when I told the prisoner that our plans were ready. I had scarcely dropped the latch of the commandant's door when I saw Singing Arrow sauntering near.
She was graceful in her finery. Even a white man might commend. Her skin garments looked soft and clean, and draped her cunningly. In the dusk and the firelight with the bright blanket falling from her hair, she looked so winning that I thought the guards could find excuse if the prisoner loitered at the window.
And loiter he did. I sauntered and watched while the prisoner and Singing Arrow threw glances that proved them no tyros in the game of love and life. The comedy was pleasing, and I did not wonder that the guards tilted their heads to one side, and looked on with grins. Singing Arrow bridled, and drew away and then drew near. All was going as we planned, till Pemaou and a band of his Hurons came around the corner of the house.
I had done Pemaou the justice to hate him when I first saw him. And one does not hate an inferior. He had as keen a mind as I have ever known, and he was not hampered by any of the scruples and decencies that interfere with a white man. So he was my superior in resource. I knew, as I saw him look at me now, that my share in the game was over. He had seen me listening to Longuant. Where had my wits been lagging that I had not foreseen that he would have spies watching me, and would trace some connection between the prisoner and myself? Well, there was nothing left me but to stroll away. I did not dare go in the direction of the canoes; it would be unwise to seek Cadillac; so I turned boldly to the Ottawa camp. Hardly knowing what I planned, I asked for Longuant.
Somewhat to my surprise, the Ottawas listened with respect. I had apparently won some reputation among them, and without demur they took me to the chief.
Longuant was squatting before his lodge. A piece of wood was laid across his lap, and he was chopping rank tobacco with a scalping knife. He smelled of oil, and smoke, and half-cured hides; yet he met me as a ruler meets an ambassador. As I stumbled after him into his dark lodge, I saw that he was preparing to greet me with all the silence and circumlocution of a state messenger. I had no time for that,—though it gratified me. I tramped my way through all ceremony and plunged at my point.
"I am no envoy," I began, shaking my head in refusal of the proffered seat upon the mat beside him. "I am only a voice. A bird that calls 'beware' from the branches, and then flits away. Why watch the old wolf, and let the cub play free? Would you make yourself a laughing-stock among your people, by letting the Englishman escape into the Baron's hands? Pemaou, son of the Baron, stands with his followers outside the Englishman's window. What does he seek? I am no Ottawa. I am a free man, bound to no clan, and to no covenant, and friend to the Ottawas and Hurons alike. But I do not like to see a wise man tricked by a boy. I have spoken."
Longuant rose. "My brother's voice speaks the truth," he said, gathering his robes to leave me. "My brother sent his words, even as he flung his spear at Pemaou, straight at the mark. Only one word goes astray. My brother is not the free man he vaunts himself. He is tied by hate;" and pushing out his lip till his huge nose pendant stood at a right angle, he went on his way to be my willing, but entirely unhoodwinked agent.
I went to my canoes, stumbling a little, for I was tired. It was dark now, and the fires glowed brazenly, so that the Indians showed like dancing silhouettes. The sky was cloudless, and to the east lay a band of uncertain light that meant the rising moon. This was the time that I had planned to use in action, and the knowledge that I was powerless to accomplish anything myself made me so irritable that I could not bear to speak even to Pierre and the men. I sent them to a distance, and sat down on the sand so torn and frayed by anxiety that I was like a sick man.
And here, after long minutes, Singing Arrow found me. She came running down the beach, slipping on the rolling pebbles, and careless either of her grace, or of the noise she made.
"And you sit here doing nothing!" she cried, quite as a white girl might have done.
I pushed her down on the sand. "Stop!" I said. "I knew you would seek me here. Now answer briefly. Pemaou and his men would not let you get near the window?"
"They had seen you with me," I explained. "I feared it. Did Longuant and his men come?"
"Like bees," she answered, with a fling of her arms. "They are everywhere. We can do nothing;" and she dropped her head in her arms and cried.
Now what indeed could be her motive? "Never mind, Singing Arrow," I said experimentally. "What is it to you, after all?"
She wriggled her head to throw me a wrathful look. "I always win at a game," she mumbled.
She was as hard to read as a purring cat, but that did not matter. "We've not lost yet," I said, as slowly and coolly as if I did not see the disk of the moon looking at me. "I sent Longuant there. I was sure that Pemaou would keep you away, and I am playing for time. So long as the Ottawas and Hurons are squabbling with one another, Cadillac will not deliver the prisoner. But we must get them farther away. Singing Arrow, I have brandy in my cargo. I have drawn off two large flasks. Could you carry them to the other end of the camp, and send word among the braves?"
Now this was a contemptible thing to suggest; but any one who stoops, as I was letting myself do, to use a cat's-paw to work out his ends will surely soil his fingers. The sword is the clean weapon. I felt that even this Indian would look at me with disdain, but she did not. She thought a moment, then wagged her head in assent.
"But I promised Father Carheil not to drink any brandy myself," she added defiantly, as if she feared I might protest, and I felt myself as low as the hound that I had kicked that day because it would have stolen a child's sagamite.
"Make haste!" I cried, in a fury with myself, and with the speeding time. "Tell the prisoner to saunter away from the door, to pass the largest fire, and then to go straight through the old maize field toward the timber. I will be waiting there."
"I can do it," she vaunted, and she gathered the brandy under her blanket, and ran like a quail, while I went to my red-topped giant.
"Pierre Boudin," I cried, with my hand on his collar, "if we get back to this place alive, you are to marry that Ottawa girl; to marry her fairly with priest and book. Remember that."
My man turned a complacent eye. "If the master wishes," he said dutifully. Then he gave a fat chuckle. "I promised to marry her when we came back if she would save the Englishman,—but then I thought that we should go home the other way."
Why try to teach decency to a barnyard brood! I dusted my fingers free from the soil of him. "I will marry her to you, if only to see her flout you," I promised vengefully. "Now to the canoes, and have your paddles ready." I had no smile for him, though he sought it, as I walked away.
The moon had swung free of the horizon, and cabins and trees stood out as if made of white cardboard. The night was chilly, and as I crept along the edge of the maize field, I caught my numbed toes on the stiffened clods of earth turned up by last year's plowing. Yet I moved silently, and by keeping in the shadow of blackened stumps and withered maize stalks, I reached bow-shot of the commandant's door.
Truly one part of my plan had succeeded. The house was the centre of an ant-like swarm skurrying here and there, apparently without method, but with a jerkiness of movement that suggested attack and recoil. I could distinguish the nose pendants of the Ottawas and the bristling crests of the Hurons. It was a crew with choice potentialities for mischief. Cadillac was justified in feeling that his scalp sat but unsteadily upon his head.
I had given Singing Arrow fifteen minutes to hide her brandy and send word to the braves, and I counted off the time to myself, trying to numb my anxiety. But among savages news runs underground as well as over, and I had scarcely covered half the space that I had set for myself before the crowd began to disappear. It slipped away like water between the fingers, and in a moment there remained only the guards, Pemaou, and a few Ottawas. The guards, relieved from immediate anxiety of a riot, leaned listlessly on their muskets, the Ottawas would not interfere with a girl of their own tribe, and Pemaou could not watch all quarters at once. Now was certainly the time to act; but where was Singing Arrow? My inaction pressed on me like a hideous weight. It seemed days instead of hours that I had sat like a crone by her distaff and let others do my work—or fail to do it. Why was Singing Arrow so slow to come?
I thought that I had not shifted my gaze from the house for more than an instant; but now, as I watched the door, I learned, and not for the first time, that a white man should have a score of eyes instead of two when it comes to watching an Indian. For the commandant's door suddenly opened, and out came a blanket-draped, skin-clad figure. My muscles stiffened. It was the Englishman. Singing Arrow had brought him the clothing, and I had not seen.
So the moment had come. I gripped my sword as one turns instinctively to the friend loved best. Would the prisoner act his part? So keen was my anxiety, that I felt my spirit leap out to stand by his side, and I shut my teeth upon the cry of encouragement that welled within me.
But he needed no help of mine. He made his way leisurely past the great fire, walking with wonderful mimicry of a woman's gait, and he kept his face well in the shelter of the blanket in a way that suggested coquetry rather than disguise.
And in this manner he came straight to me. He came, unerringly as a sleep-walker, past fires, past Indians, and through the gaunt rows of maize. He looked neither to right nor left, and no one molested him. He came to where I stood silent, and put out his hand to touch mine.
"It is done," he said quietly.
His fingers were warm, and his touch tingled. I marveled. "It is a miracle," I said.
He looked at me in question. "Your hand is very cold. Monsieur, monsieur, did you fear for me so much?"
I bowed. "Yes. I did not think it could be done. You are an able man, monsieur."
He did not answer for a moment, and he followed me silently along the edge of the maize field. Then he touched my shoulder.
"Monsieur, how strange the world looks to-night. The moon,—have you ever seen it so remote and chill? Oh, we are puppets! No, it was not my wit that carried me through. It was Fate. Life has been hard on me. She is saving me now for some further trick she has to play. I pray that it may not bring you ill, monsieur."