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THE FLASH FROM THE SPURT OF FLAME
The presence of the women in the settlement brought about a magic change. Beards were clipped, locks were trimmed, clothes overhauled, and the needle and thread performed an almost forgotten office; the jest was modified, and the meal hours were quiet and decorous. The women were given a separate cabin in which they were to sleep, and every one contributed something toward their comfort. Father Le Mercier even went so far as to delay mass the first morning in order that the women might be thoroughly rested. Thus, a grain of humor entered into the lives of these grim men.
"Madame," said the Chevalier, "permit me to felicitate you upon your extraordinary escape." This was said during the first morning.
Madame courtesied. Her innate mockery was always near the surface.
"Will you grant me the pleasure of showing you the mission?"
"No, Monsieur le Chevalier; Monsieur de Saumaise and Brother Jacques have already offered to do that service. Monsieur," decidedly, "is it to be peace or war?"
"Should I be here else?"
"Else what, peace or war?"
"Neither. I shall know no peace. I have followed you, as I said, though indirectly."
"Ah! then you really followed me this time? Did you read that letter which I sent to you?"
"Letter? I have seen no letter from you."
"I believe I sent you one . . . after that morning."
"I have not seen it."
She breathed a sigh of relief. He did not know, then? So the comedy must go on as of old. "So you followed me," as if musing.
"Ah, Madame, what else could I do?"
"Why, you might not have followed me;" and with this ambiguous retort, she moved away,
The Chevalier shouldered his ax and made off toward a clump of maples where several woodsmen were at work. His heart was gay rather than sad. For would she not be forced to remain here indefinitely? And whenever Father Chaumonot could spare the men, would he not be one of them to return to Quebec with her?
The poet and Brother Jacques escorted the two women about the mission; and squaws, children, and young braves followed them curiously. When they arrived at the rude chapel, all four knelt reverently. Piles of lumber, the harvest of the forest, lay on the ground. The women breathed long and deeply the invigorating odor which hangs like incense over freshly hewn wood. They drank the bubbling waters of the Jesuits' well, and wandered about the salt marshes, Victor going ahead with a forked stick in case the rattlesnake should object to their progress. Madame was in great spirits. She laughed and sang snatches of song. Never had Victor seen her more blithe.
"And it was here that Hiawatha came with his white canoe!" she cried; and tried to conjure up a picture of a venerable Indian with white hair.
"Yes," said Brother Jacques, but without enthusiasm. He could never hear again that name without experiencing the keenest pain and chagrin.
"Do not look so sad, Brother Jacques," Anne requested. "The terrible journey is over, and you were not to blame."
Brother Jacques looked out over the water. It was the journey to come which appalled him. Ah, but that journey which was past! Were he but free from these encumbering robes; were he but a man like the poet or the Chevalier! Alas, Brother Jacques!
"Victor," said madame, on the return to the palisade, "stay with me as much as possible. Do not let Cévennes, D'Hérouville, or the vicomte come near me alone."
"Gabrielle, in the old days you were not quite fair to me."
"I know it, Victor; pardon, pardon," pressing his hand. "I am very unhappy over what I have done." As, indeed, she was.
"Do you love the Chevalier?" he asked, quietly.
"Love him?" The scorn which may be thrown into two words! "Love him, Victor?" She laughed. "As I love the vicomte; as I love D'Hérouville! Victor, I am proud. Monsieur le Chevalier du Cévennes ground a portrait of mine under his heel . . . . without so much as a glance at it. Neither my vanity nor my pride will forgive that."
"He did not know. Had he but glanced at that miniature, he would have sought you to the ends of the world. Gabrielle, Gabrielle! how could he help it?"
"If you talk like that, Victor, you will make me cry. I am wretched. Why did I leave France?"
"I am very curious to know," with a faint smile. "You were to become a nun?"
"But the sight of those grim walls of the Ursulines!"
"Mademoiselle de Vaudemont intends to enter them."
"She is not frivolous, changeable, inconsistent, like me."
"Nor so lovable!" he whispered.
"What did you say then?" she asked.
"Nothing. I will do what I can to aid you to avoid those you dislike." And how, with madame here, to keep these three men from killing each other? He would that morning speak to Du Puys. The soldier might find a way.
"Victor, what has Monsieur le Chevalier done that he comes to this land?"
"He and his father had a difference of opinion; that is all I can say."
"But here, in this wilderness! Why not back to Paris, where Mazarin restored him to favor?"
"Who can explain?"
The day wore on. Madame was very successful in her manoeuvers to keep out of the way of her persecutors, as she had now come to call them. They saw her only at the evening meal, seated at a table some distance from the regular mess; and the presence of the Father Superior kept them from approaching.
It was a brave meal; the Frenchmen noisy and hungry, the priests austere and quiet, the Indian converts solemnly impressed by their new dignity. When the meal was over and the women had repaired to their cabin for the night. Major du Puys signified that he desired to speak in private to Messieurs d'Hérouville, d'Halluys, and du Cévennes; and they wonderingly followed him into the inclosure.
"Messieurs," began the major, "there must he no private quarrels here. Men found with drawn swords shall be shot the following morning without the benefit of court-martial."
"Monsieur!" exclaimed D'Hérouville.
The Chevalier stamped restlessly, and the vicomte frowned.
"Have the patience to hear me through. There is ill-blood between you three. The cause does not interest me, but here my word is law. The safety of the mission depends wholly upon our order and harmony. The savage is always quarreling, and he looks with awe upon the tranquillity with which we go about our daily affairs. To maintain this awe there must be no private quarrels. Digest this carefully. Draw your weapons in a duel, just or unjust, and I promise to have you shot."
"That appears to be final," remarked the vicomte. He was chagrined, but it was not noticeable in his tones. "What industrious friend has acquainted you with the state of affairs?"
"I was watching your actions last night," replied the major.
"And you saw the blow Monsieur du Cévennes struck me?" snarled D'Hérouville.
"When you arrive again in Quebec, Messieurs, you may fight as frequently as you please; but here I am master. I am giving you this warning in a friendly spirit, and I hope you will accept it as such. Good evening."
"Bah!" The vicomte slapped his sword angrily; "how many more acts are there to this comedy? Eh, well, Chevalier, let us go and play dominoes with Monsieur Nicot."
"All this is strangely fortunate for you two gentlemen," said D'Hérouville, as they moved toward the fort.
"Or for you, Monsieur d'Hérouville," the vicomte sent back.
Three days trickled through the waist of the glass of time. The afternoon of the fourth day was sunless, and the warning of an autumn storm spoke from the flying grey clouds and the buoyant wind which blew steadily from the west. Madame and her companion sat upon the shore, attracted by the combing swells as they sifted and shifted the yellow sand, deadwood, and weed. Pallid greens and browns flashed hither and thither over the tops of the whispering rushes; and from their deeps the blackbird trilled a querulous note. A flock of crows sped noisily along the shore, and a brace of loons winged toward the north in long and graceful loops of speed, and the last yellow butterflies of the year fluttered about the water's edge. Far away to the southwest the moving brown patch was a deer, brought there by his love of salt. From behind, from the forest, came the faint song of the ax. A short distance from the women Brother Jacques was mending a bark canoe; and from time to time he looked up from his labor and smiled at them.
The women were no longer in rags. Atotarho had presented to them dresses which Huron captives had made for his favorite wife. Not in many days had they laughed genuinely and with mirth; but the picture made for each other's eyes,--in fringed blouse, fringed skirt, fringed pantaloons,--overcame their fugitive melancholy; and from that hour they brightened perceptibly. Trouble never prolongs its acquaintance with youth, for the heart and shoulders of youth are strong.
Madame watched the quick movements of Brother Jacques's arms.
"How strong this life makes a man!"
"And I should have died but for those strong arms of Brother Jacques. What would we have done without him?" Anne shuddered as she recalled the long nights in the forests and upon the dark waters.
Far away madame discerned the Chevalier and Victor dragging logs toward the palisade. "To the ends of the world!" A fear settled upon her and darkened for the nonce her new-found gaiety. She was paying dearly for her mad caprice. All these months she might have been snug in the Béarn Château or in Spain. What lay behind the veil of days to come? How she hated all these men!
At length Brother Jacques pushed the canoe into the water and came toward the women. He spoke to them cheerily, all the while his melancholy thoughts drawing deeper lines in his face. Madame noted his nervous fingers as they ran up and down his beads, and she was puzzled. Indeed, this black gown had always puzzled her.
"I must go," he said presently. Whither did not matter; only to get away by himself. He strode rapidly into the eternal twilight of the forest, to cast himself down full length on the earth, to hide his face in his arms, to weep!
Ah, cursed heart to betray him thus! That he should tremble in the presence of a woman, become abstracted, to lose the vigor and continuity of thought . . . to love! Never he stood beside her but his flesh burned again beneath the cool of her arms; never he saw her lips move but he felt the sweet warm breath upon his throat. He wept. Who had loved him save Father Chaumonot? None. Like an eagle at sea, he was alone. God had given him a handsome face, but He had also given him an alternate--starvation or the robes. He was a beggar; the gown was his subsistence. By and by his sobs subsided, and he heard a voice.
"So the little Father grows weak?" And the Black Kettle leaned against a tree and looked curiously down upon the prostrate figure in black. "Is he thinking of the house of his fathers; or, has he looked too long upon Onontio's daughter? I have seen; the eagle's eye is not keener than the Black Kettle's, nor his flight swifter than the Black Kettle's thought. Her cheeks are like the red ear; her eyes are like the small blue flower that grows hidden in the forest at springtime; her hair is like the corn that dries in the winter; but she is neither for the Black Kettle nor for his brother who weeps. Why do you wear the black robe, then? I have seen my brother weep! I have seen him face the torture with a smile--and a woman makes him weep!"
Brother Jacques was up instantly. He grasped the brawny arms of the Onondaga and drew him toward him.
"The little Father has lost none of his strength," observed the Onondaga, smiling.
"No, my son; and the tears in his eyes are of rage, not of weakness. Let Dominique forget what he has seen."
"He has already forgotten. And when will my brother start out for the stone house of Onontio?"
"As soon as possible." Aye, how fared Monsieur le Marquis these days?
"But not alone," said the Black Kettle. "The silence will drive him mad, like a brother of his I knew."
"The Great Master of Breath wills it; I must go alone," said Brother Jacques. He was himself again. The tempest in his soul was past.
"I should like to see Onontio's house again;" and the Indian waited.
"Perhaps; if the good Fathers can spare you."
And together they returned to the shore of the lake. The vibrant song of the bugle stirred the hush. It was five o'clock. The soldiers had finished the day's work, and the settlers had thrown down the ax. All were mustered on the parade ground before the palisade. The lilies of France fluttered at the flagstaff. There were fifty muskets among the colonists, muskets of various makes and shapes. They shone dully in the mean light. Here and there a comparatively new uniform brightened the rank and file. They had been here for more than a year, and the seventeenth of May, the historic date of their departure from Quebec, seemed far away. Few and far between were the notes which came to their ears from the old world, the world they all hoped to see again some day. The drill was a brave sight; for the men went through their manoeuvers with all the pomp of the king's musketeers. A crowd of savages looked on, still awed. But some of the Onondagas laughed or smiled. There was something going on at the Long House in the hills which these Frenchmen knew nothing about. And other warriors watched the scene with the impassiveness of a spider who sees a fly moving toward the web.
The pioneers were hardy men; that some wore skins of beasts, ragged silks and velvets which had once upon a time aired themselves among the fashionable in Paris, and patched and faded uniforms, mattered but little. They were men; and even the Iroquois were impressed by this fact more than any other. Du Puys and Nicot saw that there was no slipshod work; for while the drilling was at present only for show and to maintain awe, the discipline would prove effective in time of need. Neither of these good soldiers had the faith in the Iroquois which made the Jesuit Fathers so trustful. Who could say that all this was not a huge trap, the lid of which might fall any day?
Madame had wandered off by herself to view the scene from a distance; but her interest soon died away and her thoughts became concerned with her strange fate. She regretted her beauty; for she was conscious that she possessed this physical attribute. It had been her undoing; she had used it in play, to this miserable end. It was only when large drops of rain splashed on her face that she realized where she was or that a storm had burst upon the valley.
"Madame, will you do me the honor to accept my cloak?"
Drearily she inclined her head toward the voice, and became awake to the actualities of the moment. For the speaker was D'Hérouville. It was the first opportunity he had found to address her, and he was determined to make the most of it.
"Will you accept my cloak, Madame?" he repeated. "It is raining."
"Accept your cloak? Touch anything which belongs to you? I think not, Monsieur!" She went on. She even raised her face toward the cold, sweet-smelling torrents.
"Monsieur, is it not a grey cloak which you have to offer?" with sudden inspiration. For madame had been thinking lately of that garment which had played so large a part in her destiny. "Have you not the cloak to offer which made me a widow? Monsieur, the sight of you makes me ill. Pray, go about your affairs and leave me in peace. Love you? I abhor you. I can not speak in plainer language."
He muttered an oath inarticulately.
"Take care, Madame!" standing in front of her. How easily he might crush the life from that delicate throat! He checked his rage. Within three hundred yards was the palisade. "I would not be here in these cursed wilds but for your sake. You know the persistence of my love; take heed lest you learn the quality of my hate."
"Neither your love nor your hate shall in the future disturb me. There are men yonder. Do you wish me to shame you by calling them?"
"I have warned you!"
He stepped aside, and she passed on, the rain drenching her hair and face. His gaze, freighted with love and hate and despair, followed her. She was lost to him. He knew it. She had always been lost to him, only her laughter and her smiles had blinded him to the truth. Suddenly all that was good in him seemed to die. This woman should be his; since not honestly, dishonestly. Revenge, upon one and all of them, priests, soldiers, and women, and the other three fools whom madame had tricked as she had him. One of his furies seized him. Some men die of rage; D'Hérouville went mad. He looked wildly around for physical relief, something upon which to vent his rage. The blood gushed into his brain--something to break, to rend, to mangle. He seized a small sapling, bore it to the ground, put his foot on it and snapped it with ease. He did not care that he lacerated his hands or that the branches flying back scratched his face. He laughed fiercely. The Chevalier first, that meddling son of the left-hand whom his father had had legitimatized; then the vicomte and the poet. As for madame . . . Yes, yes! That would be it. That would wring her proud heart. Agony long drawn out; agony which turns the hair grey in a single night. That would be it. He could not return to the fort yet; he must regain his calm. Money would buy what he wanted, and the ring on his finger was worth many louis, the only thing of value he had this side of France. But it was enough. A deer fled across his path, and a partridge blundered into his face. They had played him the man in the motley; let them beware of the fool's revenge.
At seven the storm had passed. Around the mess-table sat the men, eating. Victor had thrown his grey cloak over the back of his chair. Occasionally his glance wandered toward madame and Anne. Brother Jacques sat opposite, and the vicomte sat at his side. As they left the table to circle round the fire in the living-room, Victor forgot his cloak, and the vicomte threw it around his own shoulders, intending to follow the poet and join him in a game of dominoes. A spurt of flame crimson-hued his face and flashed over the garment.
Brother Jacques started, his mouth agape.
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