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   Chapter 3 A WILDERNESS WAIF

If Any Man Sin By H. A. Cody Characters: 15487

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


The great Mackenzie River flowed with a strong and steady sweep on its way to the Arctic Sea. Two boats floated upon its surface, bearing northward, manned for the most part by half-breeds and Indians. Employees were they in the service of the notable Fur Trading Company, which for long years had ruled this wilderness land. For weeks these men had been pushing their way along this stream, contending with rocks, rapids, and portages. Their work was hard, but they did it with a rollicking good humour, and took every difficulty as all in the day's labour.

Martin Rutland worked as hard as the rest though he talked but little. A spirit of elation grew within him as they advanced into the great silent region. He rejoiced at the work, no matter how hard it might be. He had little time for thought during the day, but at night in camp he would sit somewhat apart and consider the new life which was now opening up to him. He seldom joined in talk with his companions, and they did not interfere with him in any way. This strange, silent, hard-working man was a mystery to both half-breeds and Indians alike. It was only when he brought forth his violin and began to play that they would gather eagerly around him. Music has charms when produced by a master, and such was Rutland. But never does it seem so entrancing as out in the open on a calm evening beneath the branches of the tall, over-shadowing trees. There is a mystic plaintiveness about the sound of a violin on such an occasion. Rutland's music was generally in a minor key. It expressed his inmost feelings, and often as he played the naturally superstitious half-breed would glance apprehensively among the shadowy trees. It awed them by its strange weirdness like wailing spirits, lost, wandering, and seeking vainly for refuge and peace. At other times Rutland would play bright airs and snatches of old songs, which delighted the hearts of his companions and banished their feeling of fear.

Each day of progress brought to Rutland a greater feeling of exultation. At last he was free from all influence of the Church which had cast him out. Here in this barren region he could live like the natives, free from care. He would seek some far-off band, and become one of them. He had read much about the Indians, and their picturesque life had always appealed to him most strongly. He would watch his opportunity, steal away, and live and die in their midst, more of an outcast than they.

At times he thought about the Church to which he had once belonged, and a contemptuous sneer always curled his lips when he thought of it. Lying among the trees, he often wondered how he had ever endured the thraldom of bygone days. He remembered how particular he had been about the observance of the slightest rule. In the performance of his duties he had followed the rubrics of the Prayer Book with the most punctilious care. The slightest deviation from the rules laid down filled him with much concern. Special days had been kept with great regularity, and the command of his bishop was as his conscience. But now all was changed. The solemn vows he had taken did not trouble him in the least, and the Church was to him merely a name. Neither did the sin which had driven him forth disturb him. The spirit of rebellion had reigned in his heart during all the years of his wandering life. He believed that he had been unjustly treated. He did not blame himself, but others. He thought of his comrades in the Ministry, and a feeling of pity and superiority came into his heart. He pictured them moving in their narrow, petty circle as of old, and he asked himself what did it all amount to anyway. The spell of the wilderness was now upon him, and he longed for the voyage to end. He would abandon the boat when it had reached its most northerly destination. Then, when his companions had started back, he would plunge into regions beyond and become lost forever to the world of civilization.

One evening after a hard day's work they came to a small Indian encampment just below a dangerous rapid. They had much difficulty in overcoming this turbulent piece of water, and very glad were they to rest after their arduous exertions. They found the Indians in a state of great excitement, the cause of which was soon apparent. That very day a young fur-trader and his wife had been drowned in an attempt to shoot the rapid in a canoe. Their little child, a girl of four years, had been rescued by the natives, and taken to their encampment. The woman's body was recovered, but of the man no trace could be found.

Rutland, with several of his companions, entered the lodge where the body of the unfortunate woman was lying. As he drew back the deer-skin robe which had been placed over her still form, he was surprised at the young and beautiful face which was presented to view. He stood there for some time after the rest of the men had taken a hurried look and departed. He could not get the face of the dead woman out of his mind, and he awoke in the deep of the night thinking that she was standing by his side. In his dream he beheld her, and she was pointing with her finger to something lying at his feet, which he saw to be a little child.

The Indian women had taken good care of the rescued child, and she awoke from a sound sleep none the worse for her cold plunge into the river the day before. Opening her eyes, she expected to see the loved faces of her parents looking down fondly upon her. Her bright, happy expression changed to one of terror when she saw instead the dusky native women bending over her. Wildly she called for her mother, but alas! for the first time in her young life her mother did not respond with loving words, nor hurry to her side.

Rutland, hearing the cry of terror, hastened to the lodge and entered. Why he did so he could not tell. He did not stop to analyse his feelings, but acted merely upon the impulse of the moment. It was sufficient for him to know that the little one was in distress and needed assistance. A large Indian woman was holding the child in her arms when Rutland appeared. Several squaws were gathered around trying to soothe her. But the more they talked in the native tongue the more terrified the child became. Rutland stood for an instant just within the entrance of the lodge. He saw the little girl, her face distorted with fear, struggling madly to free herself, and pleading vainly for her mother. Not for years had Rutland's heart been so stirred. He stepped quickly forward and reached out his hands to the child. The latter saw him and, intuitively realising that here was one who could be trusted, endeavoured to go to him, while a sob of relief escaped her lips. Rutland caught her in his arms, folded her to his breast, and began to calm her with words of comfort.

"Hush, hush, little one," he soothed, as he stroked her silken hair. "You are safe with me, so don't cry any more."

"Mamma, mamma. I want my mamma," wailed the child.

Rutland knew not how to reply. He was little accustomed to the ways of children, so all he could do was to hold her close to his breast and tell her that she was safe. Ere long his words had the desired effect, and soon she remained quietly in his arms looking up into his face with big, wondering eyes. Passing forth from the lodge, Rutland sat down upon the trunk of a fallen tree just outside the door. He placed the child upon his knee, and began to talk to her. He pointed out to her a squirrel sitting upon the branch of a jack-pine not far off. The child's eyes grew bright, her face beamed with pleasure, and she clapped her hands with delight. In a few moments they were the firmest of friends, and soon they started off in search of the ch

attering squirrel. It was a balmy morning, with not a ripple upon the surface of the river. A new feeling of peace stole into Rutland's heart as he walked by the side of the child with her soft hand in his. She was a beautiful little maid, with wavy brown hair, rosy cheeks, and clear, dark eyes. Her plaid dress was neatly made, and her shoes were of a light-tan colour. At her throat was a small silver clasp-pin, with the one word "Nance" engraven upon it, which Rutland believed must be her name.

After they had strolled about for a while they returned to the lodge, where the Indian women were preparing breakfast.

"You stay here, little one," Rutland said. "These women will give you something to eat. I must go away now, but I shall come back soon."

"No, no," the child cried, clinging close to him. "I don't want to stay. I want my mamma. Take me to my mamma. Where is my mamma?"

"She can't come to you now," Rutland replied. "But I promise you that I shall come back soon."

After much persuasion the child was induced to remain, but she watched her protector anxiously, with tears in her eyes, as he left her.

Rutland hurried at once toward the forest along an Indian trail, which led to a hill not far from the river. Here was a native burying ground where a new grave had been dug that morning. His companions were already assembled, and by the time Rutland arrived they had the body of the young woman lowered into the ground. This task was performed in deep silence, for the presence of death stilled the tongues of these usually garrulous men. No coffin had they in which to place the body. Instead, a grey blanket was used as a shroud, and this had been carefully wrapped around the stiffened form.

As Rutland stood by the grave and looked down upon all that remained of Nance's mother he thought of the dream which had come to him in the night, and he saw again the woman pointing silently to the child at his feet. Between him and the men standing by his side there was a great gulf fixed. They were rude and unlettered, while he was an educated man, capable of seeing things not always revealed to others. They saw only the shrouded form lying in the grave. He saw much more. He beheld a little home, which had been rudely shattered by the sudden death of husband and wife. He pictured loved ones far away waiting anxiously for news from the great northland, and then the sorrow when at last the tidings reached them, if ever they did, of the precious toll the wilderness had taken. He thought, too, of the little child so terribly bereaved, upon whom so much love and care had been bestowed. What would become of her? he asked himself.

He was roused from his reverie by the sound of shovels striking hard upon gravel. He looked quickly up and saw that the men were making ready to fill in the grave. For an instant only he hesitated and then straightening himself up he raised his right hand.

"Wait a moment," he commanded. "It is not right that we should lay this woman here without one word of prayer. Who will say it?"

At once every hat was doffed, and the men looked at one another.

"You go ahead, pard," said one at length. "You know best what to say."

Yes, Rutland knew very well what to say-the exact words-but why should he utter them? He had put everything connected with his Church away from him forever. He paused in an effort to think of something else. Twice he started, but each time floundered and stopped. He could not back down, for the men were watching him. He must say something over the body of Nance's mother. At length, pulling himself together, he repeated the words he had used so often in other days.

"Forasmuch as it hath pleased Almighty God of his great mercy to take to himself the soul of our dear sister here departed, we therefore commit her body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust." Here he paused, stooped, and seizing a handful of gravel sprinkled it three times upon the body. This done, he continued the prayer to the end. Then he stepped back and remained perfectly silent, watching the men as they rapidly filled in and rounded up the grave. In fact, he stood there until his companions had gone back to the river. Then he looked cautiously around to be sure that he was alone. Seeing no one in sight, he picked up two sticks lying upon the ground and fastened them together into the form of a cross, with a piece of a raw moose-hide thong he had in his pocket. This he placed at the head of the newly-made grave, thrusting it well down into the loose earth.

Rutland could not account for what he had done. If any one had told him when he awoke that morning that he would repeat that prayer and erect this rude cross, he would have scoffed at the idea. "I did it all for the child's sake," he said to himself, as an excuse for his temporary weakness. At once there flashed into his mind the words of the aged bishop. "Do you think that you can free yourself from the influence of the Church? I tell you that you are mistaken; it is impossible." Rutland's hands clenched hard as the memory of the past swept upon him. He reached down and laid his hand upon the cross he had just erected. He would tear it out and break it into a dozen pieces. But as he touched that symbol of redemption his outstretched arm dropped by his side, and his head drooped low. Though an outcast, and determined to have nothing more to do with his Church, he knew now that its influence was upon him still. It was harder than he had imagined to uproot the teaching which had been implanted in his heart and mind in early days, and carefully nourished throughout the years. But he would succeed. Never again would he allow such weakness to possess him. He would prove the bishop's words to be false.

When Rutland returned to the encampment he found that his companions were almost ready to depart. Nance saw him approaching, and with a cry of delight ran to meet him. He caught her in his arms, and his heart thrilled with joy at her confidence. Here was the one person in the whole world to greet him and look up to him for protection. He carried her to where several Indian women were squatting upon the ground.

"You stay here, little one," and he gently untwined her arms from around his neck as he spoke. "Be a good girl, and I shall come back to you some day."

For a few brief heart beats the child lifted her head, looked searchingly into his eyes, and then with a piteous wail of despair clung to him closer than ever.

"Don't leave me. Don't leave me," she sobbed. "Take me with you. Take me to my papa and mamma. I won't stay here. I won't."

Rutland did not know what to do. He seated himself upon a stump and placed Nance on his knee. He tried to reason with her, telling her how happy she would be with the Indian women, and how they would care for her. But his words were of no avail. The more he talked, the closer she clung to him, and begged him not to leave her.

A shout from the river warned Rutland that his companions were ready to depart. Quickly rising to his feet, he unloosened the child's arms, handed her to an old squaw, and moved rapidly away. At once wild shrieks of despair and terror filled the air. He endeavoured not to listen, and tried to steel his heart. But it was no use. He stopped and looked back. He saw the child where he had left her, her little hands stretched out appealingly toward him. The sight was more than he could endure. Hesitating no longer, he rushed back, seized her in his arms, bore her swiftly to the river, and placed her gently in one of the boats. In a few minutes they were speeding northward, and with them went Nance, the little waif of the wilderness.

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