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   Chapter 6 CONTAINS THE APOLOGUE OF MANABOZHO'S TOE.

Fort Amity By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 21350

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


They had threaded their course through the many islets at the foot of the lake, and were speeding down the headwaters of the Richelieu. The forests had closed in upon them, shutting out the mountains. The convoy-officered for the most part by Canadian militiamen with but a sprinkling of regulars such as Sergeant Barboux-soon began to straggle. The prisoners were to be delivered at Montreal. Montcalm had dispatched them thither, on short rations, for the simple reason that Fort Carillon held scarcely food enough to support his own army; but he could detach very few of his efficients for escort, and, for the rest, it did not certainly appear who was in command. Barboux, for example, was frankly insubordinate, and declared a dozen times a day that it did not become gentlemen of the Béarn and Royal Roussillon to take their orders from any coureur de bois who might choose to call himself Major.

Consequently the convoy soon straggled at will, the boatmen labouring if the fancy took them, or resting their paddles across their thighs and letting their canoes drift on the current. Now and again they met a train of bateaux labouring up with reinforcements, that had heard of the victory from the leading boats and hurrahed as they passed, or shouted questions which Barboux answered as a conscious hero of the fight and with no false modesty. But for hour after hour John lived alone with his own boat's company and the interminable procession of the woods.

They descended to the river, these woods, and overhung it-each bank a mute monotonous screen of foliage, unbroken by glade or clearing; pine and spruce and hemlock, maple and alder; piled plumes of green, motionless, brooding, through which no sunrays broke, though here and there a silver birch drew a shaft of light upon their sombre background. Here were no English woodlands, no stretches of pale green turf, no vistas opening beneath flattened boughs, with blue distant hills and perhaps a group of antlers topping the bracken. The wild life of these forests crawled among thickets or lurked in sinister shadows. No bird poured out its heart in them; no lark soared out of them, breasting heaven. At rare intervals a note fell on the ear-the scream of hawk or eagle, the bitter cackling laugh of blue jay or woodpecker, the loon's ghostly cry-solitary notes, and unhappy, as though wrung by pain out of the choking silence; or away on the hillside a grouse began drumming, or a duck went whirring down the long waterway until the sound sank and was overtaken again by the river's slow murmur.

When night had hushed down these noises, the forest would be silent for an hour or two, and then awake more horribly with the howling of wolves. John slept little of nights; not on account of the wolves, but because the mosquitoes allowed him no peace. (They were torture to a wounded man; but he declared afterwards that they cured his wounded arm willynilly, for they forced him to keep it active under pain of being eaten alive.) By day he dozed, lulled by the eternal woods, the eternal dazzle on the water, the eternal mutter of the flood, the paddle-strokes, M. le Chameau's singing.

They were now six in the canoe-the sergeant, le Chameau, the two Indians, John à Cleeve and the elder Highlander, Corporal Hugh McQuarters.

By this time-that is to say, having seen him-John understood the meaning of M. le Chameau's queer name. He was a hunchback, but a gay little man nevertheless; reputedly a genius in the art of shooting rapids. He was also a demon to work, when allowed; but the sergeant would not allow him.

It suited the sergeant's humour to lag behind the other boats by way of asserting his dignity and proving that he, Barboux, held himself at no trumpery colonial's beck and call. Also he had begun to nurse a scheme; as will appear by and by.

At present it amused him to order the canoe to shore for an hour or two in the heat of the day, lend his bayonet to the Indians, and watch, smoking, while they searched the banks and dug out musquashes. These they cooked and ate; which Barboux asserted to be good economy, since provisions were running short. It occurred to John that this might be a still better reason for hurrying forward, but he was grateful for the siesta under the boughs while the Indians worked. They were Ojibways both, the elder by name Menehwehna and the younger (a handsome fellow with a wonderful gift of silence) Muskingon.

Since that one stealthy act of kindness Menehwehna had given no sign of cordiality. John had tried a score of times to catch his eye, and had caught it once or twice, but only to find the man inscrutable. Yet he was by no means taciturn; but seemed, as his warpaint of soot and vermilion wore thinner, to thaw into what (for an Indian) might pass for geniality. After a successful rat-hunt he would even grow loquacious, seating himself on the bank and jabbering while he skinned his spoils, using for the most part a jargon of broken French (in which he was fluent) and native words of which Barboux understood very few and John none at all. When he fell back on Ojibway pure and simple, it was to address Muskingon, who answered in monosyllables, and was sparing of these. Muskingon and McQuarters were the silent men of the party-the latter by force as well as choice, since he knew no French and in English could only converse with John. He and Muskingon had this further in common-they both detested the sergeant.

John, for his part, had patched up a peace with the man, after this fashion: On the second day Barboux had called upon le Chameau for a song; and, the little hunchback having given "En roulant ma boule," demanded another.

"But it is monsieur's turn, who has a charming voice," suggested le Chameau politely.

"It has the misfortune to grate on the ears of our English milord," Barboux answered with an angry flush, stealing a malevolent glance at John. "And I do not sing to please myself."

John doubted this; but being by nature quick to forgive and repent a quarrel, he answered with some grace: "I was annoyed, Sergeant Barboux, and said what I thought would hurt rather than what was just. You possess, indeed, a charming voice, and I regret to have insulted it."

"You mean it?" asked Barboux, still red in the face, but patently delighted.

"So entirely that I shall not pardon myself until you have done us the favour to sing."

The sergeant held out his hand. "And that's very handsomely said! Given or taken, an apology never goes astray between brave fellows. And, after all," he added, "I had, if I remember, something the better of that argument! You really wish me to sing, then?"

"To be sure I do," Jack assured him, smiling.

Barboux cleared his throat, wagged his head once or twice impassively and trolled out:

"Belle meunière, en passant par ici,

Ne suis-je-t'y pas éloigné d'ltalie.…"

From this graceful opening the song declined into the grossest filth; and it was easy to see, watching his face, why McQuarters, without understanding a word of French, had accused him of singing "sculduddery." John, though disgusted, could not help being amused by a performance which set him in mind now of a satyr and now of a mincing schoolgirl-vert galant avec un sourire de cantatrice- lasciviousness blowing affected kisses in the intervals of licking its chops. At the conclusion he complimented the singer, with a grave face.

Barboux bowed. "It has, to say true, a little more marrow in it than le Chameau's rossignols and rosiers. Holà, Chameau; the Englishman here agrees that you sing well, but that your matter is watery stuff. You must let me teach you one or two of my songlets-"

"Pardon, m'sieur, mais ca sera un peu trop-trop vif; c'est-à dire pour moi," stammered the little hunchback.

Barboux guffawed. The idea of le Chameau as a ladies' man tickled him hugely, and he tormented the patient fellow with allusions to it, and to his deformity, twenty times a day.

And yet the sergeant was not ill-natured-until you happened to cross him, when his temper became damnable-but merely a big, vain, boisterous lout. John, having taken his measure, found it easy to study him philosophically and even to be passably amused by him. But he made himself, it must be owned, an affliction; and an affliction against which, since the boats had parted company, there was no redress. He was conceited, selfish, tyrannical, and inordinately lazy. He never took a hand with the paddle, but would compel the others to work, or to idle, as the freak took him. He docked the crew's allowance but fed himself complacently on more than full rations, proving this to be his due by discourse on the innate superiority of Frenchmen over Canadians, Englishmen or Indians. He would sit by the hour bragging of his skill with the gun, his victories in love, his feats of strength-baring his chest, arms, legs, and inviting the company to admire his muscles. He jested from sunrise until sundown, and never made a jest that did not hurt. Worst of all was it when he schooled le Chameau to sing his obscenities after him, line for line.

"No, no, I beg you, monsieur," the little fellow would protest, "c'est-c'est sale!"-and would blush like a girl.

"Sale, you dog? I'll teach you-" A blow would follow. M. Barboux was getting liberal with his blows. Once he struck Muskingon. Menehwehna growled ominously, and the growl seemed to warn not only Barboux but Muskingon, who for the moment had looked murderous.

John guessed that some tie, if not of blood-relationship, at least of strong affection, bound the two Indians together.

For himself, as soon as his wound allowed him to sit upright, which it did on the second day-the bullet having glanced across his ribs and left but its ugly track in the thin flesh covering them-the monotony of the woods and the ceaseless glint of the water were a drug which he could summon at will and so withdraw himself within a stupor untroubled by Barboux or his boastings. He suffered the man, but saw no necessity for heeding him.

He had observed two or three hanks of fishing-line dangling from the thin strips of cedar which sheathed the canoe within, a little below the gunwale. They had hooks attached, and from the shape of these hooks he judged them to belong to the Indians. He unhitched one of the lines, and more for the sake of killing time than for any set purpose, began to construct a gaudy salmon-fly with a few frayed threads of cloth from his tunic. After a minute or two he was aware of Muskingon watching him with interest, and by signs begged for a feather from the young Indian's top-knot. Musk

ingon drew one forth and, under instructions, plucked off a piece of fluff from the root of the feather, a small quill or two, and handed them over. With a length of red silk drawn from his sash John, within half an hour, was bending a very pretty fly on the hook. It did not in the least resemble any winged creature upon earth; but it had a meretricious air about it, and even a "killing" one when he finished up by binding its body tight with an inch of gilt thread from his collar. Meanwhile, his ambition growing with success, he had cast his eyes about, to alight on a long jointed cane which the canoe carried as part of its appanage, to be lifted on cross-legs and serve as the ridge of an awning on wet nights. It was cumbrous, but flexible in some small degree. Muskingon dragged it within reach, and sat watching while John whipped a loop to its end and ran the line through it.

He had begun in pure idleness, but now the production of the rod had drawn everyone's eyes. Barboux was watching him superciliously, and Menehwehna with grave attention, resting his paddle on his knees while the canoe drifted. Fish had been leaping throughout the afternoon-salmon by the look of them. John knew something of salmon; he had played and landed many a fish out of the Dart above Totnes, and in his own river below Cleeve Court. The sun had dropped behind the woods, the water was not too clear, and in short it looked a likely hour for feeding. He lifted his clumsy rod in his right hand, steadied it with his injured left, and put all his skill into the cast.

As he cast, the weight of his rod almost overbalanced him: a dart of pain came from his closing wound and he knew that he had been a fool and overtaxed his strength. But to his amazement a fish rose at once and gulped the fly down. He tossed the rod across to Muskingon, calling to him to draw it inboard and sit quite still; and catching the line, tautened it and slackened it out slowly, feeling up to the loop in which (as was to be expected) it had kinked and was sticking fast.

He had the line in both hands now, with Muskingon paying out the slack behind him; and if the hook held-the line had no gut-he felt confident of his fish. By the feel of him he was a salmon-or a black bass. John had heard of black bass and the sport they gave. A beauty, at any rate!

Yes, he was a salmon. Giving on the line but never slackening it, though it cut his forefinger cruelly (his left being all but useless to check the friction), John worked him to the top of the water and so, by little and little, to the side of the canoe. But his own strength was giving out, faster now than the salmon's. His wound had parted; and as he clenched his teeth he felt the line fraying. The fish would have been lost had not Muskingon, almost without shaking the canoe, dropped overboard, dived under and clenched both hands upon his struggles.

It was Menehwehna who dragged the salmon across the gunwale; for John had fainted. And when he recovered, Menehwehna was coolly gutting the monster-if a fish of eighteen pounds can be called a monster; as surely he can when taken in such fashion.

After this, John being out of action, Sergeant Barboux must take a turn with the rod. He did not (he protested) count on landing a fish; but the hooking of one had been so ridiculously prompt and easy that it was hard to see how he could fail.

But he did. He flogged the water till nightfall, confidently at first though clumsily, at length with the air of a Xerxes casting chains into the flood; but never a bite rewarded him. He gave over the rod in a huff, but began again at dawn, to lay it down after an hour and swear viciously. As he retired Muskingon took the pole; he had watched John's one and only cast and began to imitate it patiently, while the sergeant jeered and the canoe drifted. Towards noon he felt a bite, struck, and missed; but half an hour later he struck again and Menehwehna shouted and pointed as John's fly was sucked under in a noble swirl of water. Muskingon dragged back his rod and stretched out a hand for the line; but Barboux had already run forward and clutched it, at the same moment roughly thrusting him down on his seat; and then in a moment the mischief was done. The line parted, and the sergeant floundered back with a lurch that sent the canoe down to her gunwale.

McQuarters laughed aloud and grimly. Menehwehna's dark eyes shone. Even John, though the lurch obliged him to fling out both hands to balance the boat, and the sudden movement sent a dart of pain through his wound, could not hold back a smile. Barboux was furious.

"Eh? So you are pleased to laugh at me, master Englishman! Wait then, and we'll see who laughs last. And you, dog of an Indian, at what are you rubbing your hands?"

"Your exploit, O illustrious warrior," answered Menehwehna with gravity, "set me in mind of Manabozho; and when one thinks upon Manabozho it is permitted and even customary to rub the hands."

"Who the devil was Manabozho?"

"He was a very Great One-even another such Great One as yourself. It was he who made the earth once on a time, by accident. And another time he went fishing."

"Have a care, Menehwehna. I bid you beware if you are poking fun at me."

"I am telling of Manabozho. He went fishing in the lake and let down a line. 'King Fish,' said he, 'take hold of my bait,' and he kept saying this until the King Fish felt annoyed and said, 'This Manabozho is a nuisance. Here, trout, take hold of his line.' The trout obeyed, and Manabozho shouted, 'Wa-i-he! Wa-i-he! I have him!' while the canoe rocked to and fro. But when he saw the trout he called, 'Esa, esa! Shame upon you, trout; I fish for your betters.' So the trout let go; and again Manabozho sank his line, saying, 'O King Fish, take hold of my bait.' 'I shall lose my temper soon with this fellow,' said the King Fish; 'here, sunfish, take hold of his line.' The sunfish did so, and Manabozho's canoe spun round and round; but when he saw what he had caught, he cried out, 'Esa, esa! Shame upon you, sunfish; I am come for your betters.' So the sunfish let go, and again Manabozho-"

"Joli amphigouri!" yawned the sergeant. "Pardon, M. Menehwehna, but this story of yours seems likely to last."

"Not so, O chief; for this time the King Fish took the bait and swallowed Manabozho, canoe and all."

John laughed aloud; but enough sense remained in Barboux to cover his irritation. "Well, that was the last of him, and the Lord be praised!"

"There is much more of the story," said Menehwehna, "and all full of instruction."

"We will postpone it, anyhow. Take up your paddle, if you have not forgotten how to work."

So Menehwehna and the hunchback paddled anew, while the great Barboux sat and sulked-a sufficiently childish figure. Night fell, the canoe was brought to shore, and the Indians as usual lifted out the wounded men and laid them on beds of moss strewn with pine-boughs and cedar. While Menehwehna lit the camp-fire, Muskingon prepared John's salmon for supper, and began to grill it deftly as soon as the smoke died down on a pile of clear embers.

John sleepily watched these preparations, and was fairly dozing when he heard Barboux announce with an oath that for his impudence the dog of an Englishman should go without his share of the fish. The announcement scarcely awoke him-the revenge was so petty. Barboux in certain moods could be such a baby that John had ceased to regard him except as an object of silent mirth. So he smiled and answered sweetly that Sergeant Barboux was entirely welcome; for himself a scrap of biscuit would suffice. And with that he closed his eyes again.

But it seemed that, for some reason, the two Indians were angry, not to say outraged. By denying him his share Barboux had-no doubt ignorantly-broken some sacred law in the etiquette of hunting. Muskingon growled; the firelight showed his lips drawn back, like a dog's, from his white teeth. Menehwehna remonstrated. Even le Chameau seemed to be perturbed.

Barboux, however, did not understand; and as nobody would share in John's portion, ate it himself with relish amid an angry silence, which at length impressed him.

"Eh? What the devil's wrong with you all?" he demanded, looking about him.

Menehwehna broke into a queer growl, and began to rub his hands. "Manabozho-" he began.

"Fichtre! It appears we have not heard the end of him, then?"

"It is usual," Menehwehna explained, "to rub one's hands at the mention of Manabozho. In my tribe it is even necessary."

"Farceur de Manabozho! the habit has not extended to mine," growled Barboux. "Is this the same story?"

"O slayer of heads, it is an entirely different one." The sergeant winced, and John cast himself back on his leafy bed to smile up at the branches. Tueur de têtes may be a high compliment from an Indian warrior, but a vocalist may be excused for looking twice at it.

"This Manabozho," Menehwehna continued tranquilly, "was so big and strong that he began to think himself everybody's master. One day he walked in the forest, cuffing the ears of the pine-trees for sport, and knocking them flat if they took it ill; and at length he came on a clearing. In the clearing was a lodge, and in the lodge was no one but a small child, curled up asleep with its toe in its mouth. Manabozho gazed at the child for a long while, and said he, 'I have never seen anyone before who could lie with his toe in his mouth. But I can do it, to be sure.' Whereupon he lay down in much the same posture as the child, and took his right foot in his hand. But it would not reach by a long way. 'How stupid I am,' cried Manabozho, 'when it was the left foot all the time!' So he tried the left foot, but this also would not reach. He rolled on his back, and twisted and bent himself, and strained and struggled until the tears ran down his face. Then he sat up in despair; and behold! he had awakened the child, and the child was laughing at him. 'Oh, oh!' cried Manabozho in a passion, 'am I then to be mocked by a babe!' And with that he drew a great breath and blew the child away over the mountains, and afterwards walked across and across the lodge, trampling it down until not a trace of it remained. 'After all,' said Manabozho, 'I can do something. And I see nobody hereabouts to deny that I can put my toe in my mouth!'"

As Menehwehna concluded, John waited for an explosion of wrath. None came. He raised his head after a minute and looked about him. Barboux sat smoking and staring into the camp-fire. The Indian had laid himself down to slumber, with his blanket drawn up to his ears.

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