Agnes C. Laut.

Heralds of Empire Being the Story of One Ramsay Stanhope, Lieutenant to Pierre Radisson in the Northern Fur Trade online

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stumbled across Jack Battle's feet with a scream that rings, and rings,
and rings in memory like the tocsin of a horrible dream. She was
wounded in the shoulder. Getting to her knees she threw her arms round
Jack with such a terrified look of helpless pleading in her great eyes
as would have moved stone.

"Don't touch her! Don't touch her! Don't touch her!" screamed
Godefroy, jerking to pull Jack free. "It will do no good! Don't help
her! They'll kill you both - "

"Great God!" sobbed Jack, with shivering horror, "I can't help helping
her - "

But there leaped from the mist a figure with uplifted spear.

May God forgive it, but I struck that man dead!

It was a bootless sacrifice at the risk of three lives. But so was
Christ's a bootless sacrifice at the time, if you measure deeds by
gain. And so has every sacrifice worthy of the name been a bootless
sacrifice, if you stop to weigh life in a goldsmith's scale!

Justice is blind; but praise be to God, so is mercy!

And, indeed, I have but quoted our Lord and Saviour, not as an example,
but as a precedent. For the act I merited no credit. Like Jack, I
could not have helped helping her. The act was out before the thought.

Then we were back to back fighting a horde of demons.

Godefroy fought cursing our souls to all eternity for embroiling him in
peril. Jack Battle fought mumbling feverishly, deliriously,
unconscious of how he shot or what he said - "Might as well die here as
elsewhere! Might as well die here as elsewhere! Damn that Indian!
Give it to him, Ramsay! You shoot while I prime! Might as well die
here as elsewhere - - "

And all fought resolute to die hard, when, where, or how the dying came!

To that desperate game there was but one possible end. It is only in
story-books writ for sentimental maids that the good who are weak
defeat the wicked who are strong. We shattered many an assailant
before the last stake was dared, but in the end they shattered my
sword-arm, which left me helpless as a hull at ebb-tide. Then
Godefroy, the craven rascal, must throw up his arms for surrender,
which gave Le Borgne opening to bring down the butt of his gun on
Jack's crown.

The poor sailor went bundling over the snow like a shot rabbit.

When the frost smoke cleared, there was such a scene as I may not
paint; for you must know that your Indian hero is not content to kill.
Like the ghoul, he must mutilate. Of all the Indian band attacked by
our forces, not one escaped except the girl, whose form I could descry
nowhere on the stained snow.

Jack Battle presently regained his senses and staggered up to have his
arms thonged behind his back. The thongs on my arms they tightened
with a stick through the loop to extort cry of pain as the sinew cut
into the shattered wrist. An the smile had cost my last breath, I
would have defied their tortures with a laugh. They got no cry from
me. Godefroy, the trader, cursed us in one breath and in the next
threatened that the Indians would keep us for torture.

"You are the only man who can speak their language," I retorted. "Stop
whimpering and warn these brutes what Radisson will do if they harm us!
He will neither take their furs nor give them muskets! He will arm
their enemies to destroy them! Tell them that!"

But as well talk to tigers. Le Borgne alone listened, his foxy glance
fastened on my face with a strange, watchful look, neither hostile nor
friendly. To Godefroy's threats the Indian answered that "white-man
talk - not true - of all," pointing to Jack Battle, "him no friend great
white chief - him captive - - "

Then Godefroy burst out with the unworthiest answer that ever passed
man's lips.

"Of course he's a captive," screamed the trader, "then take him and
torture him and let us go! 'Twas him stopped the Indian getting the
girl!"

"Le Borgne," I cut in sharply, "Le Borgne, it was I who stopped the
Indian killing the girl! You need not torture the little white-man.
He is a good man. He is the friend of the great white chief."

But Le Borgne showed no interest. While the others stripped the dead
and wreaked their ghoulish work, Le Borgne gathered up the furs of the
Little Sticks and with two or three young men stole away over the crest
of the hill.

Then the hostiles left the dead and the half-dead for the wolves.

Prodded forward by lance-thrusts, we began the weary march back to the
lodges. The sun sank on the snowy wastes red as a shield of blood; and
with the early dusk of the northern night purpling the shadowy fields
in mist came a south wind that filled the desolate silence with
restless waitings as of lament for eternal wrong, moaning and sighing
and rustling past like invisible spirits that find no peace.

Some of the Indians laid hands to thin lips with a low "Hs-s-h," and
the whole band quickened pace. Before twilight had deepened to the
dark that precedes the silver glow of the moon and stars and northern
lights, we were back where Le Borgne had killed the old man. The very
snow had been picked clean, and through the purple gloom far back
prowled vague forms.

Jack Battle and I looked at each other, but the Indian fellow, who was
our guard, emitted a harsh, rasping laugh. As for Godefroy, he was
marching abreast of the braves gabbling a mumble-jumble of pleadings
and threats, which, I know very well, ignored poor Jack. Godefroy
would make a scapegoat of the weak to save his own neck, and small good
his cowardice did him!

The moon was high in mid-heaven flooding a white world when we reached
the lodges. We three were placed under guards, while the warriors
feasted their triumph and danced the scalp-dance to drive away the
spirits of the dead. To beat of tom-tom and shriek of gourd-rattles,
the whole terrible scene was re-enacted. Stripping himself naked, but
for his moccasins, the old wizard pranced up and down like a fiend in
the midst of the circling dancers. Flaming torches smoked from poles
in front of the lodges, or were waved and tossed by the braves.
Flaunting fresh scalps from lance-heads, with tomahawk in the other
hand, each warrior went through all the fiendish moves and feints of
attack - prowling on knees, uttering the yelping, wolfish yells,
crouching for the leap, springing through mid-air, brandishing the
battle-axe, stamping upon the imaginary prostrate foe, stooping with a
glint of the scalping knife, then up, with a shout of triumph and the
scalp waving from the lance, all in time to the dull thum - thum - thum
of the tom-tom and the screaming chant of the wizard. Still the south
wind moaned about the lodges; and the dancers shouted the louder to
drown those ghost-cries of the dead. Faster and faster beat the drum.
Swifter and swifter darted the braves, hacking their own flesh in a
frenzy of fear till their shrieks out-screamed the wind.

Then the spirits were deemed appeased.

The mad orgy of horrors was over, but the dancers were too exhausted
for the torture of prisoners. The older men came to the lodge where we
were guarded and Godefroy again began his importunings.

Setting Jack Battle aside, they bade the trader and me come out.

"Better one be tortured than three," heartlessly muttered Godefroy to
Jack. "Now they'll set us free for fear of M. Radisson, and we'll come
back for you."

But Godefroy had miscalculated the effects of his threats. At the door
stood a score of warriors who had not been to the massacre. If we
hoped to escape torture the wizard bade us follow these men. They led
us away with a sinister silence. When we reached the crest of the
hill, half-way between the lodges and the massacre, Godefroy took
alarm. This was not the direction of our fort. The trader shouted out
that M. Radisson would punish them well if they did us harm. At that
one of the taciturn fellows turned. They would take care to do us no
harm, he said, with an evil laugh. On the ridge of the hill they
paused, as if seeking a mark. Two spindly wind-stripped trees stood
straight as mast-poles above the snow. The leader went forward to
examine the bark for Indian signal, motioning Godefroy and me closer as
he examined the trees.

With the whistle of a whip-lash through air the thongs were about us,
round and round ankle, neck, and arms, binding us fast. Godefroy
shouted out a blasphemous oath and struggled till the deer sinew cut
his buckskin. I had only succeeded in wheeling to face our treacherous
tormentors when the strands tightened. In the struggle the trader had
somehow got his face to the bark. The coils circled round him. The
thongs drew close. The Indians stood back. They had done what they
came to do. They would not harm us, they taunted, pointing to the
frost-silvered valley, where lay the dead of their morning crime.

Then with harsh gibes, the warriors ran down the hillside, leaving us
bound.




CHAPTER XVIII

FACING THE END

Below the hill on one side flickered the moving torches of the
hostiles. On the other side, where the cliff fell sheer away, lay the
red-dyed snows with misty shapes moving through the frosty valley.

A wind of sighs swept across the white wastes. Short, sharp barkings
rose from the shadowy depth of the ravine. Then the silence of
desolation . . . then the moaning night-wind . . . then the shivering
cry of the wolf-pack scouring on nightly hunt.

For a moment neither Godefroy nor I spoke. Then the sinews, cutting
deep, wakened consciousness.

"Are they gone?" asked Godefroy hoarsely.

"Yes," said I, glancing to the valley.

"Can't you break through the thongs and get a hand free?"

"My back is to the tree. We'll have to face it, Godefroy - don't break
down, man! We must face it!"

"Face what?" he shuddered out. "Is anything there? Face what?" he
half screamed.

"The end!"

He strained at the thongs till he had strength to strain no more. Then
he broke out in a volley of maledictions at Jack Battle and me for
interfering with the massacre, to which I could answer never a word;
for the motives that merit greatest applause when they succeed, win
bitterest curses when they fail.

The northern lights swung low. Once those lights seemed censers of
flame to an invisible God. Now they shot across the steel sky like
fiery serpents, and the rustling of their fire was as the hiss when a
fang strikes. A shooting star blazed into light against the blue, then
dropped into the eternal darkness.

"Godefroy," I asked, "how long will this last?"

"Till the wolves come," said he huskily.

"A man must die some time," I called back; but my voice belied the
bravery of the words, for something gray loomed from the ravine and
stood stealthily motionless in the dusk behind the trader.
Involuntarily a quick "Hist!" went from my lips.

"What's that?" shouted Godefroy. "Is anything there?"

"I am cold," said I.

And on top of that lie I prayed - prayed with wide-staring eyes on the
thing whose head had turned towards us - prayed as I have never prayed
before or since!

"Are you sure there's nothing?" cried the trader. "Look on both sides!
I'm sure I feel something!"

Another crouching form emerged from the gloom - then another and
another - silent and still as spectres. With a sidling motion they
prowled nearer, sniffing the air, shifting watchful look from Godefroy
to me, from me to Godefroy. A green eye gleamed nearer through the
mist. Then I knew.

The wolves had come.

Godefroy screamed out that he heard something, and again bade me look
on both sides of the hill.

"Keep quiet till I see," said I; but I never took my gaze from the
green eyes of a great brute to the fore of the gathering pack.

"But I feel them - but I hear them!" shouted Godefroy, in an agony of
terror.

What gain to keep up pretence longer? Still holding the beast back
with no other power than the power of the man's eye over the brute, I
called out the truth to the trader.

"Don't move! Don't speak! Don't cry out! Perhaps we can stare them
back till daylight comes!"

Godefroy held quiet as death. Some subtle power of the man over the
brute puzzled the leader of the pack. He shook his great head with
angry snarls and slunk from side to side to evade the human eye, every
hair of his fur bristling. Then he threw up his jaws and uttered a
long howl, answered by the far cry of the coming pack. Sniffing the
ground, he began circling - closing in - closing in - -

Then there was a shout - a groan, a struggle - a rip as of teeth - from
Godefroy's place!


Then with naught but a blazing of comets dropping into an everlasting
dark, with naught but a ship of fire billowing away to the flame of the
northern lights, with naught but the rush of a sea, blinding,
deafening, bearing me to the engulfment of the eternal - I lost
knowledge of this life!




CHAPTER XIX

AFTERWARD

A long shudder, and I had awakened in stifling darkness. Was I dreaming,
or were there voices, English voices, talking about me?

"It was too late! He will die!"

"Draw back the curtain! Give him plenty of air!"

In the daze of a misty dream, M. Picot was there with the foils in his
hands; and Hortense had cried out as she did that night when the button
touched home. A sweet, fresh gust blew across my face with a faint odour
of the pungent flames that used to flicker under the crucibles of the
dispensary. How came I to be lying in Boston Town? Was M. Radisson a
myth? Was the northland a dream?

I tried to rise, but whelming shadows pushed me down; and through the
dark shifted phantom faces.

Now it was M. Radisson quelling mutiny, tossed on plunging ice-drift,
scouring before the hurricane, leaping through red flame over the fort
wall, while wind and sea crooned a chorus like the hum of soldiers
singing and marching to battle. "Storm and cold, man and beast, powers
of darkness and devil - he must fight them all," sang the gale. "Who?"
asked a voice. In the dark was a lone figure clinging to the spars of a
wreck. "The victor," shrieked the wind. Then the waves washed over the
cast-away, leaving naught but the screaming gale and the pounding seas
and the eternal dark.

Or it was M. Picot, fencing in mid-room. Of a sudden, foils turn to
swords, M. Picot to a masked man, and Boston to the northland forest. I
fall, and when I awaken M. Picot is standing, candle in hand, tincturing
my wounds.

Or the dark is filled with a multitude - men and beasts; and the beasts
wear a crown of victory and the men are drunk with the blood of the slain.

Or stealthy, crouching, wolfish forms steal through the frost mist,
closer and closer till there comes a shout - a groan - a rip as of
teeth - then I am up, struggling with Le Borgne, the one-eyed, who pushes
me back to a couch in the dark.

Like the faces that hover above battle in soldiers' dreams was a white
face framed in curls with lustrous eyes full of lights. Always when the
darkness thickened and I began slipping - slipping into the folds of
bottomless deeps - always the face came from the gloom, like a star of
hope; and the hope drew me back.

"There is nothing - nothing - nothing at all to fear," says the face.

And I laugh at the absurdity of the dream.

"To think of dreaming that Hortense would be here - would be in the
northland - Hortense, the little queen, who never would let me tell
her - - "

"Tell her what?" asks the face.

"Hah! What a question! There is only one thing in all this world to
tell her!"

And I laughed again till I thought there must be some elf scrambling
among the rafters of that smothery ceiling. It seemed so absurd to be
thrilled with love of Hortense with the breath of the wolves yet hot in
one's face!

"The wolves got Godefroy," I would reason, "how didn't they get me? How
did I get away? What was that smell of fur - "

Then some one was throwing fur robes from the couch. The phantom
Hortense kneeled at the pillow.

"There are no wolves - it was only the robe," she says.

"And I suppose you will be telling me there are no Indians up there among
the rafters?"

"Give me the candle. Go away, Le Borgne! Leave me alone with him," says
the face in the gloom. "Look," says the shadow, "I am Hortense!"

A torch was in her hand and the light fell on her face. I was as certain
that she knelt beside me as I was that I lay helpless to rise. But the
trouble was, I was equally certain there were wolves skulking through the
dark and Indians skipping among the rafters.

"Ghosts haven't hands," says Hortense, touching mine lightly; and the
touch brought the memory of those old mocking airs from the spinet.

Was it flood of memory or a sick man's dream? The presence seemed so
real that mustering all strength, I turned - turned to see Le Borgne, the
one-eyed, sitting on a log-end with a stolid, watchful, unreadable look
on his crafty face.

Bluish shafts of light struck athwart the dark. A fire burned against
the far wall. The smoke had the pungent bark smell of the flame that
used to burn in M. Picot's dispensary. This, then, had brought the
dreams of Hortense, now so far away. Skins hung everywhere; but in
places the earth showed through. Like a gleam of sunlight through dark
came the thought - this was a cave, the cave of the pirates whose voices I
had heard from the ground that night in the forest, one pleading to save
me, the other sending Le Borgne to trap me.

Leaning on my elbow, I looked from the Indian to a bearskin partition
hiding another apartment. Le Borgne had carried the stolen pelts of the
massacred tribe to the inland pirates. The pirates had sent him back for
me.

And Hortense was a dream. Ah, well, men in their senses might have done
worse than dream of a Hortense!

But the voice and the hand were real.

"Le Borgne," I ask, "was any one here?"

Le Borgne's cheeks corrugate in wrinkles of bronze that leer an evil
laugh, and he pretends not to understand.

"Le Borgne, was any one here with you?"

Le Borgne shifts his spread feet, mutters a guttural grunt, and puffs out
his torch; but the shafted flame reveals his shadow. I can still hear
him beside me in the dark.

"Le Borgne is the great white chief's friend," I say; "and the white-man
is the great white chief's friend. Where are we, Le Borgne?"

Le Borgne grunts out a low huff-huff of a laugh.

"Here; white-man is here," says Le Borgne; and he shuffles away to the
bearskin partition hiding another apartment.

Ah well as I said, one might do worse than dream of Hortense. But in
spite of all your philosophers say about there being no world but the
world we spin in our brains, I could not woo my lady back to it. Like
the wind that bloweth where it listeth was my love. Try as I might to
call up that pretty deceit of a Hortense about me in spirit, my perverse
lady came not to the call.

Then, thoughts would race back to the mutiny on the stormy sea, to the
roar of the breakers crashing over decks, to M. Radisson leaping up from
dripping wreckage, muttering between his teeth - "Blind god o' chance,
they may crush, but they shall not conquer; they may kill, but I snap my
fingers in their faces to the death!"

Then, uncalled, through the darkness comes her face.

"God is love," says she.

If I lie there like a log, never moving, she seems to stay; but if I feel
out through the darkness for the grip of a living hand, for the substance
of a reality on which souls anchor, like the shadow of a dream she is
gone.

I mind once in the misty region between delirium and consciousness, when
the face slipped from me like a fading light, I called out eagerly that
love was a phantom; for her God of love had left me to the blind gods
that crush, to the storm and the dark and the ravening wolves.

Like a light flaming from dark, the face shone through the gloom.

"Love, a phantom," laughs the mocking voice of the imperious Hortense I
knew long ago; and the thrill of her laugh proves love the realest
phantom life can know.

Then the child Hortense becomes of a sudden the grown woman, grave and
sweet, with eyes in the dark like stars, and strange, broken thoughts I
had not dared to hope shining unspoken on her face.

"Life, a phantom-substance, the shadow - love, the all," the dream-face
seems to be saying. "Events are God's thoughts - storms and darkness and
prey are his puppets, the blind gods, his slaves-God is love; for you are
here! . . . You are here! . . . You are here with me!"

When I feel through the dark this time is the grip of a living hand.

Then we lock arms and sweep through space, the northern lights curtaining
overhead, the stars for torches, and the blazing comets heralding a way.

"The very stars in their courses fight for us," says Hortense.

And I, with an earthy intellect groping behind the winged love of the
woman, think that she refers to some of M. Picot's mystic astrologies.

"No - no," says the dream-face, with the love that divines without speech,
"do you not understand? The stars fight for us - because - because - - "

"Because God is love," catching the gleam of the thought; and the stars
that fight in their courses for mortals sweep to a noonday splendour.

And all the while I was but a crazy dreamer lying captive, wounded and
weak in a pirate cave. Oh, yes, I know very well what my fine gentlemen
dabblers in the new sciences will say - the fellow was daft and
delirious - he had lost grip on reality and his fevered wits mixed a
mumble-jumble of ancient symbolism with his own adventures. But before
you reduce all this great universe to the dimensions of a chemist's
crucible, I pray you to think twice whether the mind that fashioned the
crucible be not greater than the crucible; whether the Master-mind that
shaped the laws of the universe be not greater than the universe; whether
when man's mind loses grip - as you call it - of the little, nagging,
insistent realities it may not leap free like the jagged lightnings from
peak to peak of a consciousness that overtowers life's commoner levels!
Spite of our boastings, each knows neither more nor less than life hath
taught him. For me, I know what the dream-voice spoke proved true: life,
the shadow of a great reality; love, the all; the blind gods of storm and
dark and prey, the puppets of the God of gods, working his will; and the
God of gods a God of love, realest when love is near.

Once, I mind, the dark seemed alive with wolfish shades, sniffing,
prowling, circling, creeping nearer like that monster wolf of fable set
on by the powers of evil to hunt Man to his doom. A nightmare of fear
bound me down. The death-frosts settled and tightened and closed - but
suddenly, Hortense took cold hands in her palms, calling and calling and
calling me back to life and hope and her. Then I waked.

Though I peopled the mist with many shadows, Le Borgne alone stood there.




CHAPTER XX

WHO THE PIRATES WERE

How long I lay in the pirates' cave I could not tell; for day and night
were alike with the pale-blue flame quivering against the earth-wall,
gusts of cold air sweeping through the door, low-whispered talks from
the inner cave.

At last I surprised Le Borgne mightily by sitting bolt upright and
bidding him bring me a meal of buffalo-tongue or teal. With the stolid
repartee of the Indian he grunted back that I had tongue enough; but he
brought the stuff with no ill grace. After that he had much ado to
keep me off my feet. Finally, I promised by the soul of his
grandfather neither to spy nor listen about the doors of the inner
cave, and he let me up for an hour at a time to practise walking with
the aid of a lance-pole. As he found that I kept my word, he trusted
me alone in the cave, sitting crouched on the log-end with a buckskin
sling round my shattered sword-arm, which the wolves had not helped
that night at the stake.

In the food Le Borgne brought was always a flavour of simples or drugs.
One night - at least I supposed it was night from the chill of the air
blowing past the bearskin - just as Le Borgne stooped to serve me, his
torch flickered out. Before he could relight, I had poured the broth
out and handed back an empty bowl.

Then I lay with eyes tight shut and senses wide awake. The Indian sat
on the log-end watching. I did not stir. Neither did I fall asleep as
usual. The Indian cautiously passed a candle across my face. I lay
motionless as I had been drugged. At that he stalked off. Voices
began in the other apartment. Two or three forms went tip-toeing about
the cave. Shadows passed athwart the flame. A gust of cold; and with
half-closed eyes I saw three men vanish through the outer doorway over


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