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March 25, 19—.
Listen, my beloved, while I sing you a song of Migwan. She has awakened at last to find herself famous, and the rest of us, by reason of reflected glory, found ourselves looked upon as different from all other animals, and wonderfully popular and run after by five o’clock in the afternoon, like Old Man Kangaroo. And, all precepts upon precepts to the contrary, it wasn’t conscientiously applying herself to her task that turned the trick, but deliberate shirking. After all, though, it was mostly a matter of chance, because if it hadn’t rained so that night last October, Migwan would have gone to the library as she should have, and the world would have lost a priceless contribution to Indian lore.
It happened thusly. One of Migwan’s cronies in the sophomore class has a weak throat and a condition in Indian History. On the night I have mentioned she trickled tearfully into Migwan’s room and confided that she simply had to have an Indian legend to read in class the following day or be marked zero. She had had all the week in which to look one up in the library, but, according to immemorial custom, she had left it for the last night. Now it was raining pitchforks and she didn’t dare go out, because she got a terrible attack of quinsy every time there was an east wind. Migwan, like the angel she is, promptly offered to go over and hunt one up for her.
“What kind of an Indian legend?” she inquired.
“Oh, any kind,” replied Harriet carelessly, “so long as it’s Indian. We’re studying the Soul of the Savage as revealed by legend, or something like that. Slip it under my door when you come back with it. I’m going to bed and coddle my throat. Be sure you don’t get one that’s too long,” she called back over her shoulder, “remember there are twenty in the class to help reveal the Savage Soul.”
Harriet ambled placidly back to her room and Migwan began hunting through her closet for her raincoat and rubbers. She didn’t find them, because she had lent them to somebody the week before and couldn’t remember whom she lent them to. She looked out of the window at the torrents coming down and decided that her little rocking chair by the lamp held out more attraction than a trip to the library. But she didn’t have the heart to disappoint Harriet by not getting her an Indian legend to read in class the next day, so she sat down and manufactured one, which is as easy as rolling off a log for Migwan. Harriet would never know the difference, and neither would the teacher, off hand, and a made-up legend would save the day for Harriet as well as a genuine one. The chances were she wouldn’t be called upon to read it anyway. You never are, you know, when you’ve broken your neck to be ready. Migwan slipped it under Harriet’s door and then forgot all about it.
Several weeks later, when the Monthly Morterboard came out, there was Migwan’s Indian legend, big as life. It had obviously been used to fill up space and was not credited to the literary talent of the college; but to Joseph Latoka, or “Standing Pine,” the Penobscot Indian who had collected the legends of his tribe into a book, which was in the college library and which was our authority on things Indian. Migwan laughed to herself over it, but never gave away the fact that she had written it. She discovered in a roundabout way that the Literary Editor of the Morterboard had been in despair over lack of material when the October number was due, and told her tale of woe to Miss Percival, one of the teachers, and asked her if she had any essays fit to print. Miss Percival replied that she hadn’t had a decent essay this semester, but a girl in one of her classes had brought in a rather remarkable Indian legend several days before, which might serve to cast into the breach. The Morterboard editor promptly hunted up Harriet and demanded the legend. Harriet still had it among her goods and chattels, and gave it to her readily, saying that it was one of Joseph Latoka’s Legends of the Penobscot Indians, which she honestly believed to be the fact. The Morterboard editor took her word for it and used the legend to fill up the chinks in the October issue.
It was not long after this that Very Seldom paid his annual visit to Brownell. His name really wasn’t Very Seldom; it was Jeremiah Selden, but everybody referred to him as Jerry, and it wasn’t long before “Jerry Selden” became “Very Seldom.” He used to be Professor of Sociology at Brownell, but he had to give up lecturing because he lost his voice. He was a sad little man with a plaintive droop to his white mustache and only a whisper of a voice. He had lost his whole family in some kind of a railroad accident and always went around with such a homeless air that everybody felt sorry for him. His hobby was Indian History, Indian Legends and Indian Relics. After he gave up teaching sociology he took to writing books, dry old essays and that sort of thing. Nobody ever read them, and he didn’t make much out of them, but he kept plodding along, always hoping that he would make a hit the next time.
Once every year he came back to Brownell to spend Sunday, to keep alive the memories of his former life, he used to explain sentimentally. Miss Allison, his successor as professor of sociology, and who has him beat forty miles for teaching, always entertained him at tea on the occasion of his visit, and used to ask him stacks of questions, jollying him along and making him believe she was in doubt about a lot of things she knew better than he did. Having his opinion consulted that way made him feel quite cheerful and important, and his visit to Brownell always put new life into him.
It happened that one Sunday afternoon Migwan went to Miss Allison’s room to ask her about something and ran into Very Seldom paying his annual visit. Miss Allison herself wasn’t there. She had been called out of town the night before and had turned over the job of entertaining Very Seldom to her room-mate, Miss Lee. Miss Lee taught mathematics and didn’t care a rap about sociology, and still less about Indians. Miss Lee is very fond of Migwan, and invited her to stay to tea. Migwan is forever getting asked to tea by the faculty; it’s because she always gets her hair parted so straight in the middle, and never upsets her teacup.
Migwan had heard about Very Seldom, and was just as anxious to help cheer him up as anybody, but this time he didn’t need any cheering. He was positively radiant. He was talking about his latest book and was nearly bursting with enthusiasm.
It seems that all his life he had been having an argument with another Indian History shark as to whether, before the coming of the white man to this continent, the eastern Indians had ever lived on, or visited the western plains. He maintained that they had, while his friend insisted that they hadn’t. Just recently he had read, in a magazine published by the Indian Society of North America, a hitherto unpublished legend of Joseph Latoka’s, a curious legend of the White Buffalo. To his mind this proved beyond a doubt that the Penobscot Indians had, at some time or other, lived on or visited the Great Plains, and had seen the Buffalo. It was the only Penobscot legend that mentioned the buffalo as an object of worship. He had immediately written a monograph on the subject which was even then in the hands of the publisher. It was a great point to have discovered. Fame would come to him at last. Very Seldom’s air of desolation had vanished; his hour of triumph had come.
It was at this point that Migwan, the expert tea drinker, suddenly upset her cup all over Miss Allison’s cherished Mexican drawnwork lunchcloth. That foolish legend that she had manufactured to save herself a trip to the library in the rain had been taken as authentic and had been copied from the Morterboard into other magazines! At the time she wrote it she was in too much of a hurry to pay attention to any such trifles as the difference between Eastern and Plains Indians. Anyway, she hadn’t said anywhere that they were Penobscot Indians, it was Harriet who had said so to the Morterboard editor.
Several times during the evening she tried to tell poor Very Seldom that the Legend of the White Buffalo, which proved his point so conclusively, was not a legend at all, but her own composition, but each time the words choked her. The little ex-Professor’s satisfaction was so great and his happiness so supreme that she didn’t have the heart to blot it out. The secret was hers. Everybody in college believed that legend to have come from the collection of Joseph Latoka. All the evening she debated with herself whether or not she should tell, or let the fake legend go down on record. In the end the professor’s happiness won the day and she decided not to mar his almost childish glee in his discovery.
“What does it matter, after all?” she thought. “About three-fourths of the things that are written about Indians aren’t true. Nobody will read his old monograph anyway, so no harm will be done. If it gives him so much pleasure to think he’s discovered something, why spoil it all?” The whole matter seemed so trivial to Migwan that it wasn’t worth fussing about. Just what difference did it make to the world, especially at this time, whether the eastern Indians of the United States had ever visited the western plains or not? It seemed about as important as whether the Fourth Emperor of the Ming Dynasty had carrots for dinner or parsnips. So she went home without revealing the origin of the Legend of the White Buffalo.
She thought the incident was decently interred, and had forgotten all about it, when—pop! out came Jack-in-the-box once more. Along in March came the celebrated lecturer on Indian costumes, Dr. Burnett. Handbills announcing his lecture were distributed all over town a week before his coming. The public was to be admitted and half the proceeds were to go to the library fund. Migwan picked up one of the handbills and glanced casually at the subject of the lecture. Then her hair nearly turned green. It was “The Legend of the White Buffalo,” based on the book of the late Professor Jeremiah Selden!
The first fact that struck Migwan was that Very Seldom was dead, which came as a shock of surprise. Poor Very Seldom! He had found a home at last. But before he went he had had his inning and had died happy that he had contributed an important link to the chains of Indian History.
Then Migwan realized what a horrible mess she had started by writing that legend and keeping still about it. If anybody ever found out about it now, Dr. Burnett’s reputation would be ruined.
An hour before the lecture was to begin found Migwan sitting in the parlor of the hotel waiting for Dr. Burnett to come down in answer to the note she sent up with a bellboy. He came presently, a long-haired, Van Dyke-y sort of man, who smiled genially at her and inquired affably what he could do for the charming miss.
“If you please,” said Migwan breathlessly, “could you give some other lecture just as well?”
“Could I give some other lecture just as well?” repeated Dr. Burnett in perplexity.
“Yes,” Migwan went on desperately, trying to get it over with quickly, “could you? You see, the Legend of the White Buffalo isn’t a legend at all.”
“The Legend of the White Buffalo isn’t a legend!” repeated Dr. Burnett again, looking at Migwan as if he thought she was not in her right mind. “Pray, what is it?”
“It’s—it’s a fake,” said Migwan.
“A fake!” exclaimed Dr. Burnett, in astonishment. “And how do you know it is a fake?”
“Because I wrote it myself,” said Migwan, trying to break the news as gently as possible, “because it was simply pouring, and Harriet had a sore throat.”
“You wrote it yourself because it was simply pouring and Harriet had a sore throat?” repeated Dr. Burnett, now acting as if he were sure she was out of her mind.
Then Migwan explained.
“But, my dear,” said Dr. Burnett, “you couldn’t have written that legend. No white man could have invented it. It is the very breath and spirit of the Indian. In it the Soul of the Savage stands revealed.”
“But I did,” insisted Migwan, and finally succeeded in convincing him that she was telling the truth.
Dr. Burnett usually spent from one to three months preparing a new lecture. He prepared one that night in an hour that knocked the shine out of all his previous ones. His speech entitled, “What Chance Has a Man When a Woman Takes a Hand” brought down the house. He told the story of the fake legend, and the audience was alternately laughing at the neat way Migwan had taken everybody in and weeping at the way she wouldn’t spoil poor Very Seldom’s pleasure.
Migwan was the heroine of the hour. The whole college sought her acquaintance forthwith. Of course, they found out all about the Winnebagos, and how Migwan came to know so much about Indian lore, and Hinpoha and I, being Winnebagos, too, came in for our share of the glory. Our humble apartment is filled to overflowing all day long with girls who want to make Migwan’s acquaintance and casually drop in on us in the hope of meeting her in our chamber. It is great to be fellow-Winnebago with a celebrity.
But I haven’t told you all yet. The day after the lecture Dr. Burnett had a solemn conference with that portion of the English Department which was so fortunate to have Migwan in its classes, after which Migwan was called in. She went with a kind of scary feeling because she thought Dr. Burnett might be going to have her arrested for perpetrating the fake, but instead of that she was informed that she showed such budding talent in composition and had such a positive genius for portraying the soul of the Indian that he wanted her to work with him in his research work after she graduated from college. She is to make a grand tour with him among the real Indians on the reservations and get them to tell tales of the old days as they remember them from the legends of their fathers and then she is to write them down to be published in a book.
Just imagine it! There is Migwan’s future all cut out for her with a cookie cutter, all because she was too lazy to go across the campus in the rain and get a real legend for a sick friend. Isn’t life queer?
P. S. O Katherine, mon amie, why aren’t you here? But from the tone of your last letters it seems that you have become reconciled to your lonely lot. So the “mysterious him” that came to you from out the Vast is teaching you French and History and reading Literature with you! Katherine Adams, you sly puss, you’ll be better educated yet than we!
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