The Call of the North
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Title: The Call of the North
Author: Stewart Edward White
Release Date: March 3, 2004 [EBook #11426]
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THE CALL OF THE NORTH
Beyond the butternut, beyond the maple, beyond the white pine and the red, beyond the oak, the cedar, and the beech, beyond even the white and yellow birches lies a Land, and in that Land the shadows fall crimson across the snow.
THE CALL OF THE NORTH
Being a Dramatized Version of
A Romance of the Free Forest
Stewart Edward White
AUTHOR OF THE WESTERNERS,THE BLAZED TRAIL,ETC.
THE CALL OF THE NORTH
The girl stood on a bank above a river flowing north. At her backcrouched a dozen clean whitewashed buildings. Before her ininterminable journey, day after day, league on league intoremoteness, stretched the stern Northern wilderness, untrodden saveby the trappers, the Indians, and the beasts. Close about thelittle settlement crept the balsams and spruce, the birch andpoplar, behind which lurked vast dreary muskegs, a chaos ofbowlder-splits, the forest. The girl had known nothing differentfor many years. Once a summer the sailing ship from England feltits frozen way through the Hudson Straits, down the Hudson Bay, todrop anchor in the mighty River of the Moose. Once a summer asix-fathom canoe manned by a dozen paddles struggled down thewaters of the broken Abitibi. Once a year a little band ofred-sashed voyageurs forced their exhausted sledge-dogs acrossthe ice from some unseen wilderness trail. That was all.
Before her eyes the seasons changed, all grim, but one by the verypathos of brevity sad. In the brief luxuriant summer came theIndians to trade their pelts, came the keepers of the winter poststo rest, came the ship from England bringing the articles of use orornament she had ordered a full year before. Within a short timeall were gone, into the wilderness, into the great unknown world.The snow fell; the river and the bay froze. Strange men from theNorth glided silently to the Factor's door, bearing the meat andpelts of the seal. Bitter iron cold shackled the northland, theabode of desolation. Armies of caribou drifted by, ghostly underthe aurora, moose, lordly and scornful, stalked majestically alongthe shore; wolves howled invisible, or trotted dog-like inorganized packs along the river banks. Day and night the iceartillery thundered. Night and day the fireplaces roared defianceto a frost they could not subdue, while the people of desolationcrouched beneath the tyranny of winter.
Then the upheaval of spring with the ice-jams and terrors, theMoose roaring by untamable, the torrents rising, rising foot byfoot to the very dooryard of her father's house. Strange spiritswere abroad at night, howling, shrieking, cracking and groaning invoices of ice and flood. Her Indian nurse told her of them all—ofMannabosho, the good; of Nenaubosho the evil—in her lispingOjibway dialect that sounded like the softer voices of the forest.
At last the sudden subsidence of the waters; the splendid eagerblossoming of the land into new leaves, lush grasses, an abandon ofsweetbrier and hepatica. The air blew soft, a thousand singingbirds sprang from the soil, the wild goose cried in triumph.Overhead shone the hot sun of the Northern summer.
From the wilderness came the brigades bearing their pelts, thehardy traders of the winter posts, striking hot the imaginationthrough the mysterious and lonely allurement of their callings.For a brief season, transient as the flash of a loon's wing on theshadow of a lake, the post was bright with the thronging of manypeople. The Indians pitched their wigwams on the broad meadowsbelow the bend; the half-breeds sauntered about, flashing brightteeth and wicked dark eyes at whom it might concern; the tradersgazed stolidily over their little black pipes, and uttered briefsentences through their thick black beards. Everywhere was gaysound—the fiddle, the laugh, the song; everywhere was gaycolor—the red sashes of the voyageurs, the beaded moccasins andleggings of the metis, the capotes of the brigade, thevariegated costumes of the Crees and Ojibways. Like the wild rosesaround the edge of the muskegs, this brief flowering of the yearpassed. Again the nights were long, again the frost crept downfrom the eternal snow, again the wolves howled across barren wastes.
Just now the girl stood ankle-deep in green grasses, a bath ofsunlight falling about her, a tingle of salt wind humming up theriver from the bay's offing. She was clad in gray wool, and woreno hat. Her soft hair, the color of ripe wheat, blew about hertemples, shadowing eyes of fathomless black. The wind had broughtto the light and delicate brown of her complexion a trace of colorto match her lips whose scarlet did not fade after the ordinary andimperceptible manner into the tinge of her skin, but continuedvivid to the very edge; her eyes were wide and unseeing. One handrested idly on the breech of an ornamented bronze field-gun.
McDonald, the chief trader, passed from the house to the storewhere his bartering with the Indians was daily carried on; theother Scotchman in the Post, Galen Albret, her father, and the headFactor of all this region, paced back and forth across the verandaof the factory, caressing his white beard; up by the stockade,young Achille Picard tuned his whistle to the note of the curlew;across the meadow from the church wandered Crane, the little Churchof England missionary, peering from short-sighted pale blue eyes;beyond the coulee, Sarnier and his Indians chock-chock-chockedaway at the seams of the long coast-trading bateau. The girl sawnothing, heard nothing. She was dreaming, she was trying toremember.
In the lines of her slight figure, in its pose there by the old gunover the old, old river, was the grace of gentle blood, the prideof caste. Of all this region her father was the absolute lord,feared, loved, obeyed by all its human creatures. When he wentabroad, he travelled in a state almost mediaeval in itsmagnificence; when he stopped at home, men came to him from theAlbany, the Kenogami, the Missinaibe, the Mattagami, theAbitibi—from all the rivers of the North—to receive his commands.Way was made for him, his lightest word was attended. In his housedwelt ceremony, and of his house she was the princess.Unconsciously she bad taken the gracious habit of command. She hadcome to value her smile, her word; to value herself. The lady of arealm greater than the countries of Europe, she moved serene, pure,lofty amid dependants.
And as the lady of this realm she did honor to her father'sguests—sitting stately behind the beautiful silver service, belowthe portrait of the Company's greatest explorer, Sir GeorgeSimpson, dispensing crude fare in gracious manner, listeningsilently to the conversation, finally withdrawing at the last witha sweeping courtesy to play soft, melancholy, and world-forgottenairs on the old piano, brought over years before by the LadyHead, while the guests made merry with the mellow port and ripeManila cigars which the Company supplied its servants. Thencoffee, still with her natural Old World charm of the grandedame. Such guests were not many, nor came often. There wasMcTavish of Rupert's House, a three days' journey to the northeast;Rand of Fort Albany, a week's travel to the northwest; Mault ofFort George, ten days beyond either, all grizzled in the Company'sservice. With them came their clerks, mostly English and Scotchyounger sons, with a vast respect for the Company, and a vaster fortheir Factors daughter. Once in two or three years appeared theinspectors from Winnipeg, true lords of the North, with theirsix-fathom canoes, their luxurious furs, their red banners trailinglike gonfalons in the water. Then this post of Conjuror's Housefeasted and danced, undertook gay excursions, discussed in publicor private conclave weighty matters, grave and reverend advices,cautions, and commands. They went. Desolation again crept in.
The girl dreamed. She was trying to remember. Far-off,half-forgotten visions of brave, courtly men, of gracious,beautiful women, peopled the clouds of her imaginings. She heardthem again, as voices beneath the roar of rapids, like far-awaybells tinkling faintly through a wind, pitying her, exclaiming overher; she saw them dim and changing, as wraiths of a fog, as shadowpictures in a mist beneath the moon, leaning to her with bright,shining eyes full of compassion for the little girl who was to goso far away into an unknown land; she felt them, as the touch of abreeze when the night is still, fondling her, clasping her, tossingher aloft in farewell. One she felt plainly—a gallant youth whoheld her up for all to see. One she saw clearly—a dewy-eyed,lovely woman who murmured loving, broken words. One she hearddistinctly—a gentle voice that said, "God's love be with you,little one, for you have far to go, and many days to pass beforeyou see Quebec again." And the girl's eyes suddenly swam bright,for the northland was very dreary. She threw her palms out in agesture of weariness.
Then her arms dropped, her eyes widened, her head bent forward inthe attitude of listening.
"Achille!" she called. "Achille! Come here!"
The young fellow approached respectfully.
"Mademoiselle?" he asked.
"Don't you hear?" she said.
Faint, between intermittent silences, came the singing of men'svoices from the south.
"Grace a Dieu!" cried Achille. "Eet is so. Eet is datbrigade!"
He ran shouting toward the factory.
Men, women, dogs, children sprang into sight from nowhere, and ranpell-mell to the two cannon. Galen Albret, reappearing from thefactory, began to issue orders. Two men set about hoisting on thetall flag-staff the blood-red banner of the Company. Speculation,excited and earnest, arose among the men as to which of thebranches of the Moose this brigade had hunted—the Abitibi, theMattagami, or the Missinaibie. The half-breed women shaded theireyes. Mrs. Cockburn, the doctor's wife, and the only other whitewoman in the settlement, came and stood by Virginia Albret's side.Wishkobun, the Ojibway woman from the south country, and Virginia'sdevoted familiar, took her half-jealous stand on the other.
"It is the same every year. We always like to see them come," said
Mrs. Cockburn, in her monotonous low voice of resignation.
"Yes," replied Virginia, moving a little impatiently, for sheanticipated eagerly the picturesque coming of these men of theSilent Places, and wished to savor the pleasure undistracted.
"Mi-di-mo-yay ka'-win-ni-shi-shin," said Wishkobun, quietly.
"Ae," replied Virginia, with a little laugh, patting the woman'sbrown hand.
A shout arose. Around the bend shot a canoe. At once every paddlein it was raised to a perpendicular salute, then all togetherdashed into the water with the full strength of the voyageurswielding them. The canoe fairly leaped through the cloud of spray.Another rounded the bend, another double row of paddles flashed inthe sunlight, another crew broke into a tumult of rapid exertion asthey raced the last quarter mile of the long journey. A thirdburst into view, a fourth, a fifth. The silent river was alivewith motion, glittering with color. The canoes swept onward, likerace-horses straining against the rider. Now the spectators couldmake out plainly the boatmen. It could be seen that they haddecked themselves out for the occasion. Their heads were boundwith bright-colored fillets, their necks with gay scarves. Thepaddles were adorned with gaudy woollen streamers. New leggings,of holiday pattern, were intermittently visible on the bowsmen andsteersmen as they half rose to give added force to their efforts.