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   Chapter 5 THE VOYAGEURS.

Fort Amity By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 13042

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Fringue, fringue sur la rivière;

Fringue, fringue sur l'aviron!

The man at the bow paddle set the chorus, which was taken up by boat after boat. John, stretched at the bottom of a canoe with two wounded Highlanders, wondered where he had heard the voice before. His wits were not very clear yet. The canoe's gunwale hid all the landscape but a mountain-ridge high over his right, feathered with forest and so far away that, swiftly as the strokes carried him forward, its serrated pines and notches of naked rock crept by him inch by inch. He stared at these and prayed for the moment when the sun should drop behind them. For hours it had been beating down on him. An Indian sat high in the stern, steering; paddling rhythmically and with no sign of effort except that his face ran with sweat beneath its grease and vermilion. But not a feature of it twitched in the glare across which, hour after hour, John had been watching him through scorched eyelashes.

Athwart the stern, and almost at the Indian's feet, reclined a brawn of a man with his knees drawn high-a French sergeant in a spick-and-span white tunic with the badge of the Béarnais regiment. A musket lay across his thighs, so pointed that John looked straight down its barrel. Doubtless it was loaded: but John had plenty to distract his thoughts from such a trifle-in the heat, the glare, the torment of his wounds, and, worst of all, the incessant coughing of the young Highlander beside him. The lad had been shot through the lungs, and the wound imperfectly bandaged. A horrible wind issued from it with every cough.

How many men might be seated or lying in the fore part of the canoe John could not tell, being unable to turn his head. Once or twice a guttural voice there growled a word of comfort to the dying lad, in Gaelic or in broken English. And always the bowman sang high and clear, setting the chorus for the attendant boats, and from the chorus passing without a break into the solo. "En roulant ma boule" followed "Fringue sur l'aviron "; and from that the voice slid into a little love-chant, tender and delicate:

"à la claire fontaine

M'en allant promener,

J'ai trouvé l'eau si belle

Que je m'y suis baigné.

Il y a longtemps que je t'aime,

Jamais je ne t'oublierai."

"II y a longtemps que je t'aime," broke in the chorus, the wide lake modulating the music as water only can. John remembered the abattis and all its slaughter, and marvelled what manner of men they were who, fresh from it, could put their hearts into such a song.

"Et patati, et patata!" rapped in the big sergeant. "For God's sake, Chameau, what kind of milk is this to turn a man's stomach?"

The chorus drowned his growls, and the bowman continued:

"Sur la plus haute branche

Le rossignol chantait,

Chante, rossignol, chante,

Toi qui as le c?ur gai…

Chante, rossignol, chante,

Toi qui as le c?ur gai;

Tu as le c?ur à rire,

Moi je l'ai-t à pleurer.…"

"Gr-r-r-" As the song ended, the sergeant spat contemptuously over the gunwale. "La-la-la, rossignol! et la-la-la, rosier!" he mimicked. "We are not rosières, my friend."

"The song is true Canayan, m'sieur, and your comrades appear to like it."

"Par exemple! Listen, Monsieur Chameau, to something more in their line." He inflated his huge lungs and burst into a ditty of his own:

"C'est dans la ville de Bordeaux

Qu'est arrivé trois beaux vaissaux-

Qu'est arrivé trois beaux vaissaux:

Les matelots qui sont dedans,

Vrai Dieu, sont de jolis galants."

The man had a rich baritone voice, not comparable indeed with the bowman's tenor, yet not without quality; but he used it affectedly, and sang with a simper on his face. His face, brick red in hue, was handsome in its florid way; but John, watching the simper, found it detestable.

"C'est une dame de Bordeaux

Qu'est amoureuse d'un matelot-"

Here he paused, and a few soldiers took up the refrain half-heartedly:

"-Va, ma servante, va moi chercher

Un matelot pour m'amuser."

The song from this point became indecent, and set the men in the nearer boats laughing. At its close a few clapped their hands. But it was not a success, and the brick red darkened on the singer's face; darkened almost to purple when a voice in the distance took up the air and returned it mockingly, caricaturing a roulade to the life with the help of one or two ridiculous gracenotes: at which the soldiers laughed again.

"I think, m'sieur," suggested the bowman politely, "they do not know it very well, or they would doubtless have been heartier."

But the sergeant had heaved himself up with a curse and a lurch which sent the canoe rocking, and was scanning the boats for the fellow who had dared to insult him.

"How the devil can a man sing while that dog keeps barking!" he growled, and let out a kick at the limp legs of the young Highlander.

Another growl answered. It came from the wounded prisoner behind John-the man who had been muttering in Gaelic.

"It is a coward you are, big man. Go on singing your sculduddery, and let the lad die quiet!"

The sergeant scowled, not understanding. John, whose blood was up, obligingly translated the reproof into French. "He says-and I also-that you are a cowardly bully; and we implore you to sing in tune, another time. Par pitié, monsieur, ne scalpez-vous pas les demi-morts!"

The shaft bit, as he had intended, and the man's vanity positively foamed upon it. "Dog of a ros-bif, congratulate yourself that you are half dead, or I would whip you again as we whipped you yesterday, and as my regiment is even now again whipping your compatriots." He jerked a thumb towards the south where, far up the lake, a pale saffron glow spread itself upon the twilight.

"The English are burning your fort, maybe," John suggested amiably.

"They are burning the mill, more like-or their boats. But after such a defeat, who cares?"

"If our general had only used his artillery-"

"Eh, what is that you're singing? Oui-da, if your general had only used his artillery? My little friend, that's a fine battle-that battle of 'If.' It is always won, too-only it has the misfortune never to be fought. So, so: and a grand battle it is too, for reputations. 'If the guns had only arrivéd '; and 'if the brigadier Chose had brought up the reserves as ordered'; and 'if the right had extended itself, and that devil of a left had not straggled'-why then we should all be heroes, we ros-bifs. Whereas we came on four to one, a

nd we were beaten; and we are being carried north to Montreal and our general is running south from an army one-third of his size and burning fireworks on his way. And at Albany the ladies will take your standards and stitch 'If' on them in gold letters a foot long. Eh, but it was a glorious fight-faith of Sergeant Barboux!"

And Sergeant Barboux, having set his vanity on its legs again, pulled out his pipe and skin of tobacco.

"Holà, M. le Chameau!" he called; "the gentleman desires better music than mine. Sing for him 'Malbrouck s'en va-t'en guerre'!"

M. le Chameau lifted his voice obediently; and thereupon John recognised the note and knew to whose singing he had lain awake in the woods so far behind and (it seemed) those ages ago.

He had been young then, and all possibilities of glory lay beyond the horizons to which he was voyaging. Darkness had closed down on them, but the beat of the paddles drove him forward. He stared up at the peering stars and tried to bethink him that they looked down on the same world that he had known-on Albany-Halifax-perhaps even on Cleeve Court in Devonshire. The bowman's voice, ahead in the darkness, kept time with the paddles:

"Il reviendra-z; à Paques-

Mironton, mironton, mirontaine!

Il reviendra-z à Paques,

Ou-à la Trinité!"

Yes, the question was of returning, now; a day had made that difference. Yet why should he wish to return? Of what worth would his return be? For weeks, for months, he had been living in a life ahead, towards which these paddles were faithfully guiding him; and if the hope had died out of it, and all the colour, what better lay behind that he should seek back to it?-a mother, who had shown him little love; a brother, who coldly considered him a fool; nearer, but only a little nearer-for already the leagues between seemed endless-a few friends, a few messmates…

His ribs hurt him intolerably; and his wrist, too, was painful. Yet his wounds troubled him with no thought of death. On the contrary, he felt quite sure of recovering and living on, and on, on, on-in those unknown regions ahead…

"La Trinité se passe-

Mironton, mironton, mirontaine!

La Trinité se passe-

Malbrouck ne revient pas."

What were they like, those regions ahead? For he was young-less than twenty-and a life almost as long as an ordinary man's might lie before him yonder. He remembered an old discussion with a seminary priest at Douai, on Nicodemus's visit by night and his question, "How can a man be born when he is old?"… and all his thoughts harked back to the Church he had left-that Church so Catholic, so far-reaching, so secure of herself in all climes and amid all nations of men. There were Jesuits, he knew, up yonder, beyond the rivers, beyond the forests. He would find that Church there, steadfast as these stars and, alone with them, bridging all this long gulf. In his momentary weakness the repose She offered came on him as a temptation. Had he but anchored himself upon her, all these leagues had been as nothing. But he had cut himself adrift; and now the world, too, had cut him off, and where was he with his doubts?… Or was She following now and whispering, "Poor fool, you thought yourself strong, and I granted you a short licence; but I have followed, as I can follow everywhere, unseen, knowing the hour when you must repent and want me; and lo! my lap is open. Come, let its folds wrap you, and at once there is no more trouble; for within them time and distance are not, and all this voyage shall be as a dream."

No; he put the temptation from him. For it was a sensual temptation after all, surprising him in anguish and exhaustion and bribing with promise of repose. He craved after it, but set his teeth. "Yes, you are right, so far. The future has gone from me, and I have no hopes. But it seems I have to live, and I am a man. My doubts are my doubts, and this is no fair moment to abandon them. What I must suffer, I will try to suffer.…"

The bowman had lit a lantern in the bows and passed back the resinous brand to an Indian seated forward, who in turn handed it back over John's head toward Sergeant Barboux, but, seeing that he dozed, crawled aft over the wounded men and set it to the wick of a second lantern rigged on a stick astern. As the wick took fire, the Indian, who had been steering hitherto hour after hour, grunted out a syllable or two and handed his comrade the paddle. The pair changed places, and the ex-steersman-who seemed the elder by many years- crept cautiously forward; the lantern-light, as he passed it, falling warm on his scarlet trowsers and drawing fiery twinkles from his belt and silver arm-ring.

With a guttural whisper he crouched over John, so low that his body blotted out the lantern, the stars, the whole dim arch of the heavens. Was this murder? John shut his teeth. If this were to be the end, let it come now and be done with; he would not cry out. The Highland lad had ceased his coughing and lay unconscious, panting out the last of his life more and more feebly. The elder Highlander moaned from time to time in his sleep, but had not stirred for some while. Forward the bowman's paddle still beat time like a clock, and away in the darkness other paddles answered it.

A hand was groping with the bandages about John's chest and loosening them gently until his wound felt the edge of the night wind. All his muscles stiffened to meet the coming stroke.…

The Indian grunted and withdrew his hand. A moment, and John felt it laid on the wound again, with a touch which charmed away pain and the wind's chill together-a touch of smooth ointment.

Do what he would, a sob shook the lad from head to foot.

"Thanks, brother!" he whispered in French. The Indian did not answer, but replaced and drew close the bandage with rapid hands, and so with another grunt crawled forward, moving like a shadow, scarcely touching the wounded men as he went.

For a while John lay awake, gazing up into the stars. His pain had gone, and he felt infinitely restful. The vast heavens were a protection now, a shield flung over his helplessness. He had found a friend.

Why?

That he could not tell. But he had found a friend, and could sleep.

In his dreams he heard a splash. The young Highlander had died in the night, and Sergeant Barboux and the Indian lifted and dropped the body overboard.

But John à Cleeve slept on; and still northward through the night, down the long reaches of the lake, the canoe held her way.

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