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THE WHITE TUNIC.
John a Cleeve lay on his bed in the guest-room of the Seigniory, listening to the sound of the distant falls.
That song was his anodyne. All day he had let it lull his conscience, rousing himself irritably as from a drugged sleep to answer the questions put to him by Dominique or the priest. Dominique's questions had been few and easily answered, the most of them relating to the battle.
"A brother of mine was there beyond doubt," he had wound up wistfully. "He is a bateau-man, by name Baptiste Guyon. But of course you will not know him?"
"Ils m'ont tire pour la battue, moi," John had fenced him off with a feeble joke and a feeble laugh. (Why should he feel ashamed? Was this not war, and he a prisoner tricking his captors?)
But the priest had been a nuisance. Heaven be praised for his going!
And now the shadows were closing upon the room, and in the hush of sunset the voice of the waters had lifted its pitch and was humming insistently, with but a semitone's fall and rise. During the priest's exhortations he had turned his face to the wall; but now for an hour he had lain on his other side, studying the rafters, the furniture, the ray of sunlight creeping along the floor-boards and up the dark, veneered face of an armoire built into the wall. Behind the doors of it hung Sergeant Barboux's white tunic; and sometimes it seemed to him that the doors were transparent and he saw it dangling like a grey ghost within.
It was to avoid this sight that he had turned to the wall when the priest began to interrogate him. Heavens! how incurably, after all, he hated these priests!
Menehwehna had answered most of the questions, standing by the bed's foot: and Menehwehna was seated there still in the dusk.
How many lies had Menehwehna told? John himself had told none, unless it were a lie to pronounce his name French-fashion--"John a Cleeve," "Jean a Clive." And, once more, was not this war?
For the rest and for his own part, it was astonishing how easily, the central truth being hidden--that the tunic in the armoire was not his--the deception had run on its own wheels. Why, after all, should that tunic frighten him? He, John a Cleeve, had not killed its wearer. He had never buttoned it about him nor slipped an arm into one of its sleeves. Menehwehna had offered to help him into it and had shown much astonishment on being refused. John's own soiled regimentals they had weighted with a stone and sunk in the river, and he had been lying all but naked, with the accursed garment over his legs, when the rescue-party found them on the bank.
How many lies had Menehwehna told? John could remember the sound of two voices, the priest's and the Indian's, questioning and explaining; but the sound only. As soon as he shut his eyes and tried to recall the words, the priest's voice faded down the song of the falls, and only the Indian and himself were left, dropping-- dropping--to the sound, over watery ledges and beneath pendent boughs. Then, as the walls of the room dissolved and the priest's figure vanished with them, Menehwehna's voice grew distinct. At one time it said: "What is done is done. Come with me, and we will go up through the Great Lakes, beyond Michilimackinac, to the Beaver Islands which are in the mouth of Lake Michigan. There we will find the people of my tribe, and when the snow comes and they separate, you shall go with me to the wintering-grounds and learn to be a hunter."
In another dream the voice said: "You will not come because you weary of me and wish to leave me. We have voyaged together, and little by little my heart has been opened to you; but yours will not open in return. I would have made you to me all that Muskingon was; but you would not. When I killed that man, it was for your sake no less than Muskingon's. I told him so when he died. Of what avail is my friendship, brother, when you will give me none in exchange? . . ."
In yet a third dream the canoe floated on a mirror, between a forest and the image of a forest. . . . His eyes followed the silver wake of a musk-rat swimming from shore to shore, and in his ear Menehwehna was saying, "Your head is weak yet: when it grows stronger you will wish to come. Muskingon struck you too hard--so--with the flat of his tomahawk. He did not mean it, but his heart was jealous that already so much of my love had passed over to you. Yet he was a good lad, and my daughter's husband. The White-coat called across the stream to him, to kill you; but he would not, nor would he bring you over the ford until we had made the White-coat promise that you should not be killed for trying to run away. The man could do nothing against us two; but he bore ill-will to Muskingon afterwards, and left him to die when we could have saved him."
So, while John had lain senseless, fate had been binding him with cords--cords of guilt and cords of gratitude--and twining them inextricably. Therefore he feared sleep, because these dreams awoke him to pluck again at the knot of conscience. Ease came only with the brain's exhaustion, when in sheer weakness he could let slip the tangle and let the song of the rapids drug his senses once more.
He turned on his side and watched the sunbeam as it crept up the face of the armoire. "Menehwehna!" he called weakly.
From his seat in the corner among the shadows the Indian came and stood behind him.
"Menehwehna, this lying cannot go on! Make you for this fort they talk of; tell your tale there and push on to join your tribe. Let us fix a length of time, enough for your travel beyond reach, and at the end of it I will speak."
"And what will my brother tell them?"
"The truth--that I am no Frenchman but an English prisoner."
"It is weakness makes you lose patience," answered Menehwehna, as one might soothe a child. "Let the weak listen to the strong. All things I have contrived, and will contrive; there is no danger, and will be none."
John groaned. How could he explain that he abhorred this lying? Worse--how could he explain that he loathed Menehwehna's company and could not be friends with him as of old; that something in his blood, something deep and ineradicable as the difference between white man and red man, cried out upon the sergeant's murder? How could he make this clear? Menehwehna--who had preserved his life, nursed him, toiled for him cheerfully, borne with him patiently--would understand only that all these pains had been spent upon an ingrate. John tugged away from the bond of guilt only to tighten this other yet more hateful bond of gratitude. He must sever them both, and in one way only could this be done. He and Menehwehna must part. "I do not fear to be a prisoner. Moreover, it will not be for long. The river leads, after all, to Quebec; and the English, if they take Louisbourg, will quickly push up that way."
"The White-coat used to speak wisdom once in a while," answered Menehwehna gravely. "'It is a great battle,' he said, 'that battle of If; only it has the misfortune never to be fought.' Take heart, brother, and come with me to the Isles du Castor. When your countrymen take Quebec you shall return to them, if you still have the mind, and I will swear that we held you captive. But to tell this needless tale is a sick man's folly."
John could not meet the Indian's eyes, full as they were of a wondering simplicity. He feared they might read the truth--that his desire to escape was dead. During Father Launoy's exhortations he had lain, as it were, with his ear against its cold heart; had lain secretly whispering it to awake. But it would not. The questions and cross-questions about Douai he had answered almost inattentively. What did it all matter?
The priest had been merely tedious. Back on Lake Champlain and on the Richelieu, when the world of his ken, though lost, lay not far behind him, his hope had been to escape and seek back to it; his comfort against failure the thought that here in the north one restful, familiar face awaited him--the face of the Church Catholic. Now the hope and the consolation were gone together. Perhaps under the lengthening strain some vital spring had snapped in him, or the forests had slowly choked it, or it had died with a nerve of the brain under Muskingon's tomahawk.
He was not Sergeant a Clive of the regiment of Bearn; but almost as little was he that Ensign John a Cleeve of the Forty-sixth who had entered the far side of the Wilderness.
He wanted only to be quit of Menehwehna and guilt. It would be a blessed relief to lie lost, alone, as a ball tossed into a large country. As he had fallen, so he prayed to lie; empty in the midst of a great emptiness. The Communion of all the Saints could not comfort him now, since he had passed all need of comfort.
"You must go, Menehwehna. I will not speak until you are beyond reach."
"It is my brother that talks so. Else would I call it the twitter of a wren that has flown over. Is Menehwehna a coward, that he spoke with thought of saving himself?"
"I know that you did not," answered John, and cursed the knowledge. But the voice of the falls had begun to lull him. "We will talk of it to-morrow," he said drowsily.
"Yes, indeed; for this is a thought of sickness, that a man should choose to be a prisoner when by any means he may be free."
He found a tinder-box and lit the night-lamp--a wick floating in a saucer of oil: then, having shaken up John's pillow and given him to drink from a pannikin, went noiselessly back to his corner.
The light wavered on the dark panels of the armoire. While John watched, it fell into tune with the music of the distant falls. . . .
He awoke, with the rhythm of dance-music in his brain. In his dream the dawn was about him, and he stood on the lawn outside the Schuylers' great house above Albany. From the ballroom came the faint sound of violins, while he lingered to say good-bye to three night-gowned little girls in the window over the porch; and some way down the hill stood young Sagramore, of the Twenty-seventh, who was saying, "It is a long way to go. Do you think he is strong enough?"
Still in his dream John turned on him indignantly. And behold! it was not young Sagramore, but Dominique, standing by the bed and talking with Menehwehna.
"We are to start for the Fort, it appears," said Menehwehna to John.
"Let us first make sure," said Dominique, "that he is strong enough to dress." He thrust his hand within the armoire and unhitched the white tunic from its peg.
John shrank back into his corner.
"Not that!" he stammered.
Across the lamp smoking in the dawn, Dominique stared at him.
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