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   Chapter 27 ONONDAGA

The Grey Cloak By Harold MacGrath Characters: 23280

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

The Oneida village lay under the grey haze of a chill September night. Once or twice a meteor flashed across the vault of heaven; and the sharp, clear stars lighted with magic fires the pure crystals of the first frost. The hoot of an owl rang out mournfully in answer to the plaintive whine of the skulking panther. A large hut stood in the center of the clearing. The panther whined again and the owl hooted. The bear-skin door of the hut was pushed aside and a hideous face peered forth. There was a gutteral call, and a prowling cur slunk in.

Within the hut, which was about twenty feet square, men, women and children had packed themselves. The air was foul, and the smoke from the blazing pine knots, having no direct outlet, rolled and curled and sank. The savages sprawled around the fire, bragging and boasting and lying as was their wont of an evening. Near-by the medicine man, sorcerer so-called, beat upon a drum in the interest of science and rattled bears' claws in a tortoise-shell. A sick man lay huddled in skins at the farthest end of the hut. His friends and relatives gave him scant attention. Indians were taught to scorn pity. Drawings on the walls signified that this was the house of the Tortoise.

Four white men sat among them; sat doggedly in defeat. Gallantry is a noble quality when joined to wisdom and foresight; alone, it leads into pits and blind alleys. And these four men recognized with no small bitterness the truth of this aphorism. They had been ambushed scarce four hours from Quebec by a baud of marauding Oneidas. Only Jean Pauquet had escaped. They had been captives now for several weeks. Rage had begun to die out, fury to subside; apathy seized them in its listless embrace. Heavy, unkempt beards adorned their faces, and their hair lay tangled and matted upon their shoulders. They were all pictures of destitution, and especially the whilom debonair poet. His condition was almost pitiable. Some knavish rascal had thrust burdocks into his hair and another had smeared his face with balsam sap. He had thrashed one of these tormentors, and had been belabored in return. He had by now grown to accept each new indignity with the same patient philosophy which made the Chevalier and the vicomte objects of admiration among the older redskin stoics. As for D'Hérouville, he had lost but little of his fire, and flew into insane passions at times; but he always paid heavily for the injuries which he inflicted upon his tormentors. His wound, however, had entirely healed, and the color on his cheeks was healthful. He would become a formidable antagonist shortly. And there were intervals when the vicomte eyed him morosely.

The Chevalier completely ignored the count, either in converse or in looks. D'Hérouville was not at all embarrassed. Rather it added to the zest of this strange predicament in which they were placed. It was a tonic to his superb courage to think that one day or another he must fight and kill these three men or be killed himself.

Occasionally the vicomte would stare at the Chevalier, long and profoundly. Only Victor was aware of this peculiar scrutiny. It often recalled to him that wild night at the H?tel de Périgny in Rochelle. But the scrutiny was untranslatable.

No one spoke of madame; there was no need, as each knew instinctively that she was always in the others' thoughts. The Chevalier no more questioned the poet as to her identity. Was she living or dead, in captivity or safe again in Quebec? Not one laid his head down at night without these questions.

The monotonous beating of the drum went on. Harsh laughter rose; for every night the Indians contrived to find new epithets with which to revile the captives. So far there had been no hint of torture save the gamut. The Chevalier, even with his inconsequent knowledge of the tongue, caught the meaning of some of the words. The jests were coarse and vulgar, and the women laughed over them as heartily as the men. Modesty and morality were not among the red man's immediate obligations.

The Chevalier devoted his time to dreaming. It was an occupation which all shared in, as it took them mentally away from their surroundings. He conjured up faces from the sparkle of the fire. He could see the Rubens above the mantel at the h?tel in Rochelle, the assembly at the Candlestick, the guardroom at the Louvre, the kitchens along the quays, or the cabarets in the suburbs. A camp song rises above the clinking of the bottles and glasses; a wench slaps a cornet's face for a pilfered kiss; a drunken guardsman quarrels over an unduly heavy die.

"Count," said the vicomte to D'Hérouville, "did you ever reckon what you should do with those ten thousand livres which you were to receive for that paper of signatures?"

At any other time this remark would have interested Victor.

D'Hérouville, having concentrated his gaze upon the ragged soles of his boots, saw no reason why he should withdraw it. He was weary of the vicomte's banter. All he wanted was a sword and a clear sweep, with this man opposing him.

"Now, if I had those livres," went on the vicomte, whose only object was to hear the sound of his own voice, "and were at Voisin's, I should order twelve partridge pies and twelve bottles of bordeaux."

"Bordeaux," said Victor, absently.

The Chevalier looked up, but seeing that he was not addressed, resumed his dreams.

"Yes, my poet, bordeaux, red and friendly. And on top of that should be a fish salad, with that wonderful vinegar and egg dressing which Voisin alone knows how to make."

"And then?" urged Victor, falling into the grim humor of the thing.

"Then, two bottles of champagne." The vicomte stood up. He appeared to be counting on his fingers. "That would make fourteen bottles."

"You would be drunk."

"Drunk as a fiddler on Saturday night. Now, I am going to promote my character among these rascals by doing some medicine work myself." And he burst forth sonorously in profanity, waving his hands and swaying his body. He recalled every oath in his extensive camp vocabulary. The expression on his face was sober, and Victor had a suspicion that this exhibition was not all play. The savages regarded the vicomte as one suddenly gone demented, till it dawned upon one of them that the white man was committing a sacrilege, mocking the reverend medicine man. He rose up behind the vicomte, reached over and struck him roughly on the mouth. The vicomte wheeled like a flash. The Indian folded his arms across his bronzed chest and looked the furious man calmly in the eye. The vicomte presently dropped his balled fists, shrugged, and sat down. It was the best and wisest thing he could do.

D'Hérouville, roused from his apathy, laughed. "Eh, you laugh?" said the vicomte, wiping his bloody lips. His eyes snapped wickedly.

"It is a habit I have," retorted D'Hérouville, glancing boldly at the Chevalier.

"Some day your habit will choke you to death."

D'Hérouville's cheeks darkened. He returned to the contemplation of his boots.

"Ten thousand livres!" The vicomte wiped his lips again, and became quiet.

This was one evening among many of its like. The poet busied himself with taking some of the burs from his hair and absently plucking them to pieces. … And Paul had had an intrigue with Gabrielle which had lasted nearly two years! And madame was unknown to him! What was her purpose? Blind fool that he had been, with all his dreams. Ever was he hearing the music of her voice, breathing the vague perfume of her flowering lips, seeing the heavenly shadows in her eyes. Once he had come upon her while she slept. Oh, happy thief, to have pressed his lips upon that cheek, blooming delicately as a Persian peach! And that memory was all he had. She did not love him!

The musing came to an abrupt end. A moccasined foot shot out and struck Victor in the small of the back, sending him reeling toward the fire. In trying to save himself he extended his hands. He fell upon a glowing ember, and his palms were burned cruelly. Cries of laughter resounded through the hut. Victor bit his lips to repress the cry of pain.

With the agility of a panther, the Chevalier sprang toward the bully. There was a terrible smile on his face as he seized the young brave's wrists in a grip of iron. The Oneida was a strong youth, but he wrestled in vain. The Chevalier had always been gifted with strength, and these weeks of toil and hardship had turned his muscles into fibers unyielding as oak. Gradually he turned the Indian around. The others watched the engagement with breathless interest. Presently the Indian came to his knees. Quick as light the Chevalier forced him upon his face, caught an arm by the elbow and shoved the brown hand into the fire. There was a howl of pain and a yell of laughter. Without seeming effort the Chevalier then rolled the bully among the evil-tempered dogs. So long as he continued to smile, the Indians saw nothing but good-natured play, such as had been the act which caused Victor his pain. The Chevalier sat down, drew his tattered cloak around his shoulders, and once more resumed his study of the fire.

"Hoh!" grunted the fighting braves, who frankly admired this exhibition of strength.

"Curse it, why didn't I think of that?" said the vicomte, his hand seeking his injured mouth again.

"God bless you for that, Paul," murmured Victor, the sparkle of tears in his eyes. "My hands do not hurt half so much now."

"Would to God, lad, you had gone to Spain. I am content to suffer alone; that is my lot; but it triples my sufferings to see you in pain."

"Good!" said D'Hérouville. "The cursed fool of a medicine man has stopped his din. We shall be able to sleep." He doubled up his knees and wrapped his arms around them.

A squaw gave Victor some bears' grease, and he rubbed his palms with it, easing the pain and the smart.

One by one the Indians dozed off, some on their bellies, some on their backs, some with their heads upon their knees, while others curled themselves up among the warm-bodied dogs. Monsieur Chouan hooted once more; the panther's whine died away in the distance; from another part of the village a cur howled: and stillness settled down.

Victor, kept awake by his throbbing hands, which he tried to ease by gently rocking his body, listened dully to all these now familiar sounds. Across his shoulders was flung the historic grey cloak. In the haste to pursue madame's captors, it had mysteriously slipped into the bundle they had packed. Like a Nemesis it followed them relentlessly. This inanimate witness of a crime had followed them with a purpose; the time for its definition had not yet arrived. The Chevalier refused to touch it, and heaped curses upon it each time it crossed his vision. But Victor had ceased to feel any qualms; it kept out the chill at night and often served as a pillow. Many a time D'Hérouville and the vicomte discovered each other gaping at it. If caught by D'Hérouville, the vicomte shrugged and smiled; on the other hand, D'Hérouville scowled and snarled his beard with his fingers. There was for these two men a peculiar fascination attached to that grey garment, of which neither could rid himself, try as he would. Upon a time it had represented ten thousand livres, a secure head, and a woman's hand if not her heart.

Once Victor thoughtlessly clasped his hands, and a gasp of pain escaped him.

"Does it pain you much, lad?" asked the Chevalier, turning his head.

"I shut them, not thinking. I shall be all right by morning."

The Chevalier dropped his head upon his knees and

dozed. The vicomte and the poet alone were awake and watchful.

A sound. It drifted from afar. After a while it came again, nearer. The sleeping braves stirred restlessly, and one by one sat up. A dog lifted his nose, sniffed, and growled. Once more. It was a cry, human and designed. It consisted of a prolonged call, followed by several short yells. The old chief rose, and putting his hands to his mouth, uttered a similar call. It was immediately answered; and a few minutes later three Indians and two Jesuit priests pushed aside the bearskin and entered the hut.

"Chaumonot!" exclaimed the Chevalier.

The kindly priest extended his hands, and the four white men respectfully brushed them with their lips. It was a tribute less to his office than to his appearance; for not one of them saw in his coming aught else than a good presage and probable liberation.

Chaumonot was accompanied by Father Dablon, the Black Kettle,-now famous among his Onondaga brothers as the one who had crossed the evil waters, and two friendly Oneida chiefs. There ensued a prodigious harangue; but at the close of it the smile on Chaumonot's face signified that he had won his argument.

"You are free, my sons," he said. "It took some time to find you, but there is nothing like perseverance in a good cause. At dawn you will return with me to Onondaga. Monsieur," addressing the Chevalier; "and how is the health of Monsieur le Marquis, your kind father?"

The smile died from the Chevalier's face. "Monsieur le Marquis is at Quebec; I can not say as regards his health."

"In Quebec?"

"Yes, Father," Victor interposed.

"How did you know that we were here ?" asked the vicomte.

"Pauquet, in his wanderings, finally arrived at Onondaga two weeks ago. Upon hearing his story I at once began a search. We are virtually at peace with the Senecas and the Oneidas."

"And … the women?" inquired Victor, his heart's blood gushing to his throat.

The two Jesuits solemnly shook their heads.

Victor laid his head against the Chevalier's arm to hide the bitter tears.

"No sign?" asked the Chevalier calmly. All the joy of the rescue was gone.

"None. They were taken by a roving band of Senecas, of whom nothing has been heard. They are not at the Senecas' chief village."

However great the vicomte's disappointment may have been, his face remained without any discernible emotion. But he turned to D'Hérouville, his tone free from banter and his dark eyes full of menace:

"Monsieur le Comte, you and I shall soon straighten out our accounts."

"For my part, I would it were to-morrow. Our swords will be given back to us. Take heed, Vicomte," holding out a splendid arm, as if calling the vicomte's attention to it.

The vicomte twisted his shoulder and made a grimace. "I will kill you as certainly as we stand here. It is written. And after you …"

D'Hérouville could not piece together this broken sentence.

Four days later, the first of October, they came to the mission. The lake of Onondaga lay glittering in the sunshine, surrounded by green valleys, green hills, and crimsoning forests. As they arrived at the palisade and fort, Du Puys, sighting them, fired a salute of welcome. The echoes awoke, and hurried to the hills and back again with thrilling sound. The deer lifted his lordly antlers and trembled; the bear, his jaws dripping with purloined honey, flattened his ears restlessly; the dozing panther opened his eyes, yellow and round as a king's louis; and from the dead arms of what was once a kingly pine, the eagle rose and described circles as he soared heavenward. The gaze of the recent captives roved. Here were fruitful valley and hill; pine, oak, beech, maple and birch; luscious grape and rosy apple; corn and golden pumpkin. They saw where the beaver burrowed in his dams, and in the golden shallows and emerald deeps of the lake caught glimpses of trout, bass, salmon and pickerel. And what a picture met their eyes as they entered the palisades: the black-robed priests, the shabby uniforms of the soldiers and their quaint weapons and dented helmets, the ragged garbs of the French gentlemen who had accompanied the expedition, the painted Indian and his ever-inconsolable dog.

"Here might a man dwell in peace," said the Chevalier.

"Not with ambition for his bride," was the vicomte's observation.

The beginning of the end came on the seventh of October, after a famous hunting day. A great fire was built on the shores of the lake. The moon, crooked in shape and mellow as a fat pumpkin, hung low over the forest crests. The water was golden and red: the moon and the flames. The braves were holding a hunting dance in honor of the kill. There were at this time about sixty warriors encamped around the mission. The main body was at the Long House, far back among the hills. A weird chanting broke the stillness of the night. The outer circle was composed of the older braves and chieftains, the colonists, the Jesuits, and the four unhappy men who were their guests. None of the four took particular interest in the unique performance. Here they were, but little better situated than at Oneida. True, they were no longer ill-treated and food was plentiful, but they were held here in a captivity no less irksome. They were prisoners of impotency. Chance and the god of whims had put them upon a sorry highway to the heart's desire. It mattered nothing that madame had said plainly that she loved none of them. The conceit of man is such that, like hope, it dies only when he dies. Perhaps the poet's heart was the most peaceful: he had bravely turned over the alluring page.

The dance grew wilder and noisier.

Chaumonot guilelessly pushed his inquiries regarding Monsieur le Marquis. Those thousand livres had done so much! That generosity was so deeply imbedded in his mind! And what had brought Monsieur le Marquis to Quebec, and how long was he to remain? The Chevalier's jaws knotted and knotted; but he succeeded in answering each question courteously or avoiding it adroitly by asking a question himself. More than once he felt the desire to leap up and dash into the forest. Anything but that name … Monsieur le Marquis! "Tell Monsieur le Comte for me that I am sleeping and may not be disturbed!" It had been a cup of gall indeed that he drank outside his father's chamber.

All this while D'Hérouville smiled and smiled; the vicomte labored over the rust on his blade. When at length the good Father moved to another side of the circle, where Du Puys and Nicot sat, the Chevalier stood up and stepped before D'Hérouville.

"Rise, Monsieur," he said. His voice was even.

D'Hérouville rose, wondering. Victor ceased to inspect his hands, and the vicomte let the blade sink to his knees.

"You have laughed, Monsieur D'Hérouville; you have laughed at misfortune." The Chevalier still spoke quietly. Only Victor surmised the raging fire beneath those quiet tones.

"And will," retorted D'Hérouville, his eyes lighting with intelligence.

"At Quebec you held an unmanly threat above my head. Come with me; there is no woman here."

"Fight you? I believe we have settled that matter," insolently.

The Chevalier brought the back of his hand swiftly against D'Hérouville's mouth.

The laugh which sounded came from the vicomte. This would be interesting if no one interfered. But he was up almost as quickly as Victor, who rushed between the two men. D'Hérouville's sword was half free.

"Wherever you say!" he cried hoarsely.

"A moment, gentlemen!" said the vicomte, pointing toward the dancing circle.

A tall figure had stepped quietly into the dancing circle, raising his hands to command silence. It was the Black Kettle, son of Atotarho.

"Two stranger canoes are coming up the river. Let us go to meet them," said the Black Kettle. "Either they are friends, or they are enemies."

"Let us wait and see what this is," and the vicomte touched the Chevalier on the arm.

"Curse you all!" cried D'Hérouville passionately. "Liar!" He turned upon Victor. "But for your lying tongue, I should not be here."

"After Monsieur le Chevalier," said the poet, forgetting that he could not hold a sword.

"Rather say after me, Saumaise;" and the vicomte smiled significantly.

"All of you, together or one at a time!" D'Hérouville was mad with rage.

"One at a time," replied the banterer; "the Chevalier first, and if he leaves anything worth fighting, I; as for you, my poet, your chances are nil."

Meanwhile a dozen canoes had been launched. A quarter of an hour passed anxiously; and then the canoes returned, augmented by two more. Father Chaumonot hailed. An answering hail came back.

"Father Chaumonot?"

"Who calls me by name?" asked the Jesuit.

"Brother Jacques!"

Brother Jacques! The human mind moves quickly from one thing to another. For the time being all antagonism was gone; a single thought bound the four men together again.

"Are you alone?" asked Chaumonot. His voice quavered in spite of his effort.

"No!" sang out Brother Jacques's barytone; and there was a joyous note in it. "Two daughters of Onontio are captives with me."

Two daughters of Onontio; two women from the Chateau St. Louis! A rare wine seemed to infuse the Chevalier's blood. He forgot many things in that moment.

"Women?" murmured Father Chaumonot, in perplexity. "Oh, this is fortunate and yet unfortunate! What shall we do with them here? I can spare no men to take them back to Quebec; and the journey would only plunge them into danger even worse."

The Senecas, sullen but dignified, and their captives were brought ashore and led toward the fire. The Onondagas crowded around. These, then, were the fair flowers which grew in the gardens of the white man; and the young braves, who had never before set eyes upon white women, gazed wonderingly and curiously at the two marvels. The women sustained with indifference and composure this mild investigation. They had gone through so much that they were not interested in what they saw. The firelight illumined their sadly arrayed figures and played over their worn and weary faces. Father Chaumonot extended his hands toward them reassuringly; and they followed his every gesture with questioning eyes. Corn Planter, the Seneca chief, began to harangue. Since when had the Onondaga brother taken it upon himself to meddle with the affairs of the Senecas? Was not the law written plainly? Did the Onondaga wish to defy the law of their forefathers? The prisoners were theirs by right of their cunning. Let the Senecas proceed with their captives, as their villages were yet very far away, and they had spent much time in loitering.

"We will buy," said Father Chaumonot, knowing the savage's cupidity. "Two belts of wampum."

The Corn Planter made a negative sign.

"Ten beaver skins," said the priest.

"The daughters of Onontio are worth a thousand beaver skins."

"Well, then," said leather Chaumonot, reaching down and taking a musket from the ground, "this with powder and ball to go with it."

The Corn Planter wavered. He took the gun and inspected it, turned it over to his companions that they might also pass judgment upon it; and they whispered among themselves for a space.

"Corn Planter accepts the thunderer for himself and ten beaver skins for his brave warriors," and the barter was consummated.

It was now that madame saw four familiar faces beyond the fire. These men, these men; even here, in the heart of the wilderness! With an odd little smile she extended her hands, swayed, and became limp upon Brother Jacques's arm.

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