Conjuror's House_ A Romance of the Free Forest
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.
A Romance of the Free Forest
Stewart Edward White
AUTHOR OF THE WESTERNERS,
THE BLAZED TRAIL,
GROSSET & DUNLAP
PUBLISHERS : NEW YORK
Copyright, 1903, by
STEWART EDWARD WHITE
Copyright, 1902, by Curtis Publishing Company
Published, March, 1903. R.
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 into remoteness,stretched the stern Northern wilderness, untrodden save by thetrappers, the Indians, and the beasts. Close about the littlesettlement crept the balsams and spruce, the birch and poplar, behindwhich lurked vast dreary muskegs, a chaos of bowlder-splits, theforest. The girl had known nothing different for many years. Once asummer the sailing ship from England felt its frozen way through theHudson Straits, down the Hudson Bay, to drop anchor in the mightyRiver of the Moose. Once a summer a six-fathom canoe manned by a dozenpaddles struggled down the waters of the broken Abítibi. Once a year alittle band of red-sashed voyageurs forced their exhaustedsledge-dogs across the ice from some unseen wilderness trail. That wasall.
Before her eyes the seasons changed, all grim, but one by the verypathos of brevity sad. In the brief luxuriant summer came the Indiansto trade their pelts, came the keepers of the winter posts to rest,came the ship from England bringing the articles of use or ornamentshe had ordered a full year before. Within a short time all were gone,into the wilderness, into the great unknown world. The snow fell; theriver and the bay froze. Strange men from the North glided silentlyto the Factor's door, bearing the meat and pelts of the seal. Bitteriron cold shackled the northland, the abode of desolation. Armies ofcaribou drifted by, ghostly under the aurora, moose, lordly andscornful, stalked majestically along the shore; wolves howledinvisible, or trotted dog-like in organized packs along the riverbanks. Day and night the ice artillery thundered. Night and day thefireplaces roared defiance to a frost they could not subdue, while thepeople of desolation crouched beneath the tyranny of winter.
Then the upheaval of spring with the ice-jams and terrors, the Mooseroaring by untamable, the torrents rising, rising foot by foot to thevery dooryard of her father's house. Strange spirits were abroad atnight, howling, shrieking, cracking and groaning in voices of ice andflood. Her Indian nurse told her of them all—of Maunabosho, the good;of Nenaubosho the evil—in her lisping Ojibway dialect that soundedlike 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 singing birdssprang from the soil, the wild goose cried in triumph. Overhead shonethe hot sun of the Northern summer.
From the wilderness came the brigades bearing their pelts, the hardytraders of the winter posts, striking hot the imagination through themysterious and lonely allurement of their callings. For a briefseason, transient as the flash of a loon's wing on the shadow of alake, the post was bright with the thronging of many people. TheIndians pitched their wigwams on the broad meadows below the bend; thehalf-breeds sauntered about, flashing bright teeth and wicked darkeyes at whom it might concern; the traders gazed stolidily over theirlittle black pipes, and uttered brief sentences through their thickblack beards. Everywhere was gay sound—the fiddle, the laugh, thesong; everywhere was gay color—the red sashes of the voyageurs, thebeaded moccasins and leggings of the mètis, the capotes of thebrigade, the variegated costumes of the Crees and Ojibways. Like thewild roses around the edge of the muskegs, this brief flowering of theyear passed. 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 the riverfrom the bay's offing. She was clad in gray wool, and wore no hat. Hersoft hair, the color of ripe wheat, blew about her temples, shadowingeyes of fathomless black. The wind had brought to the light anddelicate brown of her complexion a trace of color to match her lips,whose scarlet did not fade after the ordinary and imperceptible mannerinto the tinge of her skin, but continued vivid to the very edge; hereyes were wide and unseeing. One hand rested idly on the breech of anornamented bronze field-gun.
McDonald, the chief trader, passed from the house to the store wherehis bartering with the Indians was daily carried on; the otherScotchman in the Post, Galen Albret, her father, and the head Factorof all this region, paced back and forth across the veranda of thefactory, caressing his white beard; up by the stockade, young AchillePicard tuned his whistle to the note of the curlew; across the meadowfrom the church wandered Crane, the little Church of Englandmissionary, peering from short-sighted pale blue eyes; beyond thecoulee, Sarnier and his Indians chock-chock-chocked away at theseams of the long coast-trading bateau. The girl saw nothing, heardnothing. She was dreaming, she was trying to remember.
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 pride ofcaste. Of all this region her father was the absolute lord, feared,loved, obeyed by all its human creatures. When he went abroad, hetravelled in a state almost mediæval in its magnificence; when hestopped at home, men came to him from the Albany, the Kenógami, theMissináibe, the Mattágami, the Abítibi—from all the rivers of theNorth—to receive his commands. Way was made for him, his lightestword was attended. In his house dwelt ceremony, and of his house shewas the princess. Unconsciously she had taken the gracious habit ofcommand. She had come to value her smile, her word, to value herself.The lady of a realm greater than the countries of Europe, she movedserene, 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, below theportrait of the Company's greatest explorer, Sir George Simpson,dispensing crude fare in gracious manner, listening silently to theconversation, finally withdrawing at the last with a sweeping courtesyto play soft, melancholy, and world-forgotten airs on the old piano,brought over years before by the Lady Head, while the guests mademerry with the mellow port and ripe Manila cigars which the Companysupplied its servants. Then coffee, still with her natural Old Worldcharm of the grande dame. Such guests were not many, nor came often.There was McTavish of Rupert's House, a three days' journey to thenortheast; Rand of Fort Albany, a week's travel to the northwest;Mault of Fort George, ten days beyond either, all grizzled in theCompany's service. With them came their clerks, mostly English andScotch younger sons, with a vast respect for the Company, and avaster for their Factor's daughter. Once in two or three yearsappeared the inspectors from Winnipeg, true lords of the North, withtheir six-fathom canoes, their luxurious furs, their red bannerstrailing like gonfalons in the water. Then this post of Conjuror'sHouse feasted and danced, undertook gay excursions, discussed inpublic or private conclave weighty matters, grave and reverendadvices, cautions, and commands. They went. Desolation again crept in.
The girl dreamed. She was trying to remember. Far-off, half-forgottenvisions of brave, courtly men, of gracious, beautiful women, peopledthe clouds of her imaginings. She heard them again, as voices beneaththe roar of rapids, like far-away bells tinkling faintly through awind, pitying her, exclaiming over her; she saw them dim andchanging, as wraiths of a fog, as shadow pictures in a mist beneaththe moon, leaning to her with bright, shining eyes full of compassionfor the little girl who was to go so far away into an unknown land;she felt them, as the touch of a breeze when the night is still,fondling her, clasping her, tossing her aloft in farewell. One shefelt plainly—a gallant youth who held her up for all to see. One shesaw clearly—a dewy-eyed, lovely woman who murmured loving, brokenwords. One she heard distinctly—a gentle voice that said, "God's lovebe with you, little one, for you have far to go, and many days to passbefore you see Quebec again." And the girl's eyes suddenly swambright, for the northland was very dreary. She threw her palms out ina gesture of weariness.
Then her arms dropped, her eyes widened, her head bent forward in theattitude 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's voicesfrom the south.
"Grace à Dieu!" cried Achille. "Eet is so. Eet is dat brigade!"
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 the tallflag-staff the blood-red banner of the Company. Speculation, excitedand earnest, arose among the men as to which of the branches of theMoose this brigade had hunted—the Abítibi, the Mattágami, or theMissináibie. The half-breed women shaded their eyes. Mrs. Cockburn,the doctor's wife, and the only other white woman in the settlement,came and stood by Virginia Albret's side. Wishkobun, the Ojibwaywoman from the south country, and Virginia's devoted familiar, tookher half-jealous stand on the other.
"It is the same every year. We always like to see them come," saidMrs. 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 the SilentPlaces, 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's brownhand.
A shout arose. Around the bend shot a canoe. At once every paddle init was raised to a perpendicular salute, then all together dashedinto the water with the full strength of the voyageurs wieldingthem. The canoe fairly leaped through the cloud of spray. Anotherrounded the bend, another double row of paddles flashed in thesunlight, another crew, broke into a tumult of rapid exertion as theyraced the last quarter mile of the long journey. A third burst intoview, a fourth, a fifth. The silent river was alive with motion,glittering with color. The canoes swept onward, like race-horsesstraining against the rider. Now the spectators could make out plainlythe boatmen. It could be seen that they had decked themselves out forthe occasion. Their heads were bound with bright-colored fillets,their necks with gay scarves. The paddles were adorned with gaudywoollen streamers. New leggings, of holiday pattern, wereintermittently visible on the bowsmen and steersmen as they half roseto give added force to their efforts.
At first the men sang their canoe songs, but as the swift rush of thebirch-barks brought them almost to their journey's end, they burstinto wild shrieks and whoops of delight.
All at once they were close to hand. The steersman rose to throw hisentire weight on the paddle. The canoe swung abruptly for the shore.Those in it did not relax their exertions, but continued theirvigorous strokes until within a few yards of apparent destruction.
"Holá! holá!" they cried, thrusting their paddles straight down intothe water with a strong backward twist. The stout wood bent