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    Chapter 19

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    Chapter 20
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    THE LODGES IN THE SNOW.

    The fat lay six inches deep on the bear's ribs; and, being boiled down, filled six porcupine skins.

    "Said I not that Netawis would bring us good luck?" demanded Menehwehna.

    But Meshu-kwa claimed the head of her ancestress, and set it up on a scaffold within the lodge, spreading a new blanket beneath it and strewing tobacco-leaf in front of its nose. As though poor Azoka had not enough misery, her mother took away her trinkets to decorate the bear, and forced her to smear her pretty, ochred face with cinders. Then for a whole day the whole family sat and fasted; and Azoka hated fasting. But next morning she and Seeu-kwa swept out the lodge, making all tidy. Pipes were lit, and Menehwehna, after blowing tobacco-smoke into the bear's nostrils, began a long harangue on the sad necessity which lay upon men to destroy their best friends. His wife's eye being upon him, he made an excellent speech, though he did not believe a word of it; but as a chief who had married the daughter of a chief, he laid great stress upon her pedigree, belittling his own descent from the canicu, or war eagle, with the easier politeness because he knew it to be above reproach. When he had ended, the family, Meshu-kwa included, seated themselves and ate of the bear's flesh very heartily.

    A few days later, they struck their camp and moved inland, for the beaver were growing scarcer, and the heavy fall of snow hid their houses and made it difficult to search the banks for washes. But raccoon were plentiful at their new station, and easy to hunt. Before the coming of the Cold Moon--which is January--John was set to number the peltries, which amounted to three hundred odd; and the scaffold, on which the dried venison hung out of reach of the wolves, was a sight to gladden the heart. Only the women grumbled when Menehwehna gave order to strike camp, for theirs were the heaviest loads.

    Azoka did not grumble. She could count now on Ononwe to help her with her burden, since, like a sensible girl, she had long since made up her quarrel with him and they were to be married in the spring on their return to the village. She had quite forgiven Netawis. Hers was that delicious stage of love when the heart, itself so happy, wants all the world to be happy too. Once or twice John caught her looking at him with eyes a little wistful in their gladness; he never guessed that she had overheard his secret and pitied him, but dared not betray herself. Ononwe, possessed with his new felicity, delighted to talk of it whenever he and John hunted together.

    Did it hurt? Not often; and at the moment not much. But at night, when sleep would not come, when John lay staring at the chink in the doorway beyond which the northern lights flickered, then the wound would revive and ache with the aching silence. Once, only once, he had started out of sleep to feel his whole body flooded with happiness; in his dream the curtains of the lodge had parted and through them Diane had come to him. Standing over his head she had shaken the snow from her cloak and from her hair, and the scattered flakes had changed into raindrops, and the raindrops into singing birds, and the lodge into a roof of sunlit boughs, breaking into leaf with a scent of English hawthorn, as she stretched out her hands and knelt and he drew her to his heart. Her cheek was cold from her long journey; but a warm breeze played beneath the boughs, and under her falling hair against his shoulder her small hand stole up and touched his silver armlets. Nay, surely that touch was too real for any dream. . . .

    He had sprung up and pulled aside the curtain; but she was gone. His eyes searched across a waste where only the snow-wraiths danced, and far to the north the Aurora flickered with ribbons of ghostly violet.

    Would she come again? Yes, surely, under the stars and across the folds and hollows of the snow, that vision would return, disturbing no huddled wild creature, waking no sleeper in the lodge; would lift the curtain and stretch out both hands and be gathered to him. Though it came but once in a year he could watch for it by night, live for it by day.

    But by day he knew his folly. He was lost, and in forgetting lay his only peace. He never once accused his fortune nor railed against a God he could not believe in. He had come to disaster through his own doubts; himself had been the only real enemy, and that sorry self must be hidden and buried out of sight.

    On the whole he was burying it successfully. He liked these Ojibways, and had unlearnt his first disgust of their uncleanly habits, though as yet he could not imitate them. He had quite unlearnt his old loathing of Menehwehna for the sergeant's murder. Menehwehna was a fine fellow, a chief too, respected among all the nations west of Fort Niagara. John's surprise had begun at Fort Rouille, where, on Menehwehna's word of credit only, the Tobacco Indians had fetched out paint and clothes to disguise him, and had smuggled him, asking no questions, past the fort and up through the Lake aux Claies to Lake Huron. At Michilimackinac a single speech from Menehwehna had won his welcome from the tribe; and they were hunting now on the borders of the Ottawas through the favour of Menehwehna's friendship with the Ottawa chief at l'Arbre Croche. John saw that the other Indians considered him fortunate in Menehwehna's favour, and if he never understood the full extent of the condescension, at least his respect grew for one who was at once so kingly and so simple, who shared his people's hardships, and was their master less by rank than by wisdom in council, skill of hand, and native power to impress and rule.

    Of the deer especially Menehwehna was a mighty hunter; and in February the wealth of the camp increased at a surprising rate. For at this season the snow becomes hard enough to bear the hunter and his dogs, but the sharp feet of the deer break through its crust and his legs are cut to the bone. Often a hunting party would kill a dozen stags in two or three hours, and soon the camp reckoned up five thousand pounds of dried venison, all of which had to be carried back seventy miles to the shore of the lake near l'Arbre Croche, where the canoes had been left.

    Early in March the women began to prepare the bundles, and in the second week the return began, all starting at daybreak with as much as they could carry, and marching until noon, when they built a scaffold, piled their loads upon it, and returned to the camp for more. When all had been carried forward one stage, the lodge itself was removed, and so, stage by stage, they brought their wealth down to the coast. As they neared it they fell in with other lodges of Ojibways, mostly from Michilimackinac, gathering for the return voyage up the lake.

    Having recovered and launched their canoes, which had lain hidden among the sandhills, they loaded up and coasted cheerfully homewards by way of La Grande Traverse and l'Arbre Croche, and on the last day of April landed under the French fort of Mackinac, which looked across the strait to Cap Saint-Ignace. A dozen traders were here awaiting them; and with these Menehwehna first settled out of the common fund for guns, powder, and stores supplied on credit for the winter's hunting. He then shared the residue among the camp, each hunter receiving the portion fixed by custom; and John found himself the owner of one hundred and twenty beaver skins, fifty raccoon, and twelve otter, besides fifty dubious francs in cash. The bear skin, which also fell to his share, he kept for his wedding gift to Ononwe. Twenty pounds of beaver bought a couple of new shirts; another twenty a blanket; and a handsome pair of scarlet mitases, fashionably laced with ribbon, cost him fifteen. Out of what remained he offered to pay Menehwehna for his first outfit, but received answer that he had amply discharged this debt by bringing good luck to the camp. Under Menehwehna's advice, therefore, he spent his gains in powder and ball, fishing-lines, tobacco, and a new lock for his gun.

    "And I am glad," said Menehwehna, "that you consulted me to-day, for to-night I shall drink too much rum."

    So indeed he did. That night his people--women and men--lay around the fort in shameless intoxication. It pleased John to observe that Azoka drank nothing; but on the other hand she made no attempt to restrain her lover, who, having stupefied himself with rum, dropped asleep with his head on her lap.

    John, seated and smoking his pipe by the camp fire, watched her across its blaze. She leaned back against a pole of the lodge, her hands resting on Ononwe's head, her eyes gazing out into the purple night beyond the doorway. They were solemn, with the awe of a deep happiness. "And why not?" John asked himself. Her father, mother, and kinsfolk lay drunk around her; even the children had taken their share of the liquor. A disgusting sight, no doubt! yet somehow it did not move him to reprobation. He had lived for six months with this people, and they had taught him some lessons outside the craft of hunting: for example, that it takes all sorts to make a world, and that only a fool condemns his fellows for being unlike himself. At home in Devonshire he had never understood why the best farm-labourers and workmen broke out at times into reckless drinking, and lay sodden for days together; or how their wives could accept these outbursts as a matter of course. He understood now, having served apprentice to hardship, how the natural man must revolt now and again from the penalty of Adam, the grinding toil, day in and day out, to wrest food from the earth for himself, his womenkind, and children. He understood, too, how noble is the discipline, though pardonable the revolt. He had discovered how little a man truly needs. He had seen in this strange life much cruelty, much crazy superstition, much dirt and senseless discomfort; but he had made acquaintance with love and self-denial. He had learnt, above all, the great lesson--to think twice before judging, and thrice before condemning.

    The camp fire was dying down untended. He arose and cast an armful of logs upon it; and at the sound Azoka withdrew her eyes from the doorway and fastened them upon him.

    "Netawis," said she, "when will you be leaving us?"

    "I have no thought of leaving."

    "You are not telling me the truth, now."

    "Indeed, I believe I am," John assured her.

    "But what, then, of the girl yonder, whom you wanted to marry? Has she married another man, or is she dead? Yes, I know something about it," Azoka went on, as he stood staring amazedly. "For a long time I have wanted to tell you. That night, after you had killed the bear and Ononwe took you aside--I was afraid that you two would be quarrelling, and so I crept after you--" She waited for him to understand.

    "I see," said John gravely.

    "Tell me what has become of her."

    "I suppose that she is living still with her own people; and there is nothing more to tell, Azoka, except that she cannot be mine, and would not if she could."

    "Whose fault was it, Netawis? Yours or hers?"

    "There was much fault indeed, and all of it mine; but against my marrying her it did not count, for that was impossible from the beginning. Suppose, now, your nation were at war with the Ottawas, and a young Ottawa brave fell in love with you. What would you do?"

    "That is idle talk, for of course I should do nothing," said Azoka composedly. "But if I were a man and fell in love with an Ottawa maiden, it would be simple. I should carry her off."

    John, being unable to find an answer to this, lit his pipe and sat staring into the fire.

    "Was she an Englishwoman then?" Azoka asked after a while.

    "An Englishwoman?" He looked up in surprise; then, with a glance around at the sleepers, he leaned forward until his eyes met the girl's at close range across the flame. "Since you have learnt one secret, Azoka, I will tell you another. She was a Frenchwoman, and it is I who am English."

    But Azoka kept her composure. "My father is always wise," she said quietly. "If he had told the truth, you would have been in great danger; for many had lost sons and brothers in the fighting, and those who came back were full of revenge. You heard their talk."

    "Then you have only to tell them, Azoka, and they may take their revenge. I shall not greatly care."

    "I am no babbler, Netawis; and, moreover, the men have put their revenge away. When the summer comes very few will want to go fighting. For my part I pay little heed to their talk of killing and scalping; to me it is all boys' play, and I do not want to understand it. But from what I hear they think that the Englishmen will be victorious, and it is foolishness to fight on the losing side. If so--" Azoka broke off and pressed her palms together in sudden delight.

    "If so?" echoed John.

    "If the English win, why then you may carry off your Frenchwoman, Netawis! I do very much want you to be happy."

    "And I thank you a thousand times, Azoka, for your good wishes; but I fear it will not happen in that way."

    She smoothed the head of Ononwe in her lap. "Oh yes, it will," she assured him. "My father told me that you would be leaving us, some day; and now I know what he meant. He has seen her, has he not?"

    "He has seen her."

    "My father is never mistaken. You will go back when the time comes, and take her captive. But bring her back that I may see her, Netawis."

    "But if she should resist?"

    Azoka shook her pretty head. "You men never understand us. She will not resist when once you have married her; and I do very much want you to be happy."

    For three days the Ojibways sprawled in drunkenness around Fort Mackinac, but on the fourth arose and departed for their island; very sullenly at first, as they launched their canoes, but with rising spirits as they neared home. And two days after their arrival Ononwe and Azoka were married.

    In the midst of the marriage feast, which lasted a week, the great thaw began; and thereafter for a month Menehwehna watched John closely. But the springtime could not thaw the resolve which had been hardening John's heart all the winter--to live out his life in the wilderness and, when his time came, to die there a forgotten man. He wondered now that he had ever besought Menehwehna for help to return. Although it could never be proved against him, he must acknowledge to himself that he, a British officer, was now in truth a willing deserter. But to be a deserter he found more tolerable than to return at the price of private shame.

    Menehwehna, cheated of his fears, watched him with a new and growing hope. The snows melted; May came with its flowers, June with its heat, July with the roaring of bucks in the forest; and still the men hung about the village, fishing and shooting, or making short excursions to Sault Sainte-Marie or the bay of Boutchitouay, or the mouth of the Mississaki river on the north side of the lake (where the wildfowl were plentiful), but showing no disposition to go out again upon the war-path as they had gone the year before. The frenzy which then had carried them hundreds of miles from their homes seemed now to be entirely spent, and the war itself to have faded far away. Once or twice a French officer from Fort Mackinac was paddled across and landed and harangued the Indians; and the Indians listened attentively, but never stirred. Of the French soldiers drilling at the fort they spoke now with contempt.

    John saw no reason for this change, and set it down to that flightiness of purpose which--as he had read in books--is common to all savages. He had yet to learn that in solitary lands the very sky becomes as it were a vast sounding-board, and rumour travels, no man knows how.

    It was on his return from the isles aux Castors, where with two score young men of his tribe he had spent three weeks in fishing for sturgeon, that he heard of the capture of Fort Niagara by the English. Azoka announced it to him.

    "Said I not how it would happen?" she reminded him. "But if you leave us now, you must come back with her and see my boy. When he comes to be born he shall be called Netawis. Ononwe and I are agreed on it."

    "I have no thought of leaving," John answered. "Fort Niagara is far from here."

    "They say also," Menehwehna announced later, "that Stadacona has fallen."

    "Stadacona?"

    "The great fortress--Quebec."

    John mused for a while. "I had a dear friend once," he said, "and he laid me a wager that he would enter Quebec before me. It appears that he has won."

    "A friend, did my brother say?"

    "And a kinsman," John answered, recognising the old note of jealousy in Menehwehna's voice. "But there's no likeness between us; for he is one that always goes straight to his mark."

    "There was a name brought me with the news. Your chief was the Wolf, they said; but whether it be his own name or that of his manitou, I know not."
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