The Honor of the Big Snows
James Oliver Curwood
Part 4 out of 4
"And it is morning," exclaimed Jan, rising and looking above the
spruce tops. "You are kind, m'sieur. I wish I might do as much for
"You can," said Thornton quietly. "Where are you going--from here?"
"To the company's offices at Prince Albert. We will start within an
"Will you take me with you?" Thornton asked.
"With pleasure!" cried Jan. "But it will be a hard journey, m'sieur. I
must hurry, and you may not be accustomed to running behind the dogs."
Thornton rose and stretched out a hand.
"It can't be too hard for me," he said. "I wish--"
He stopped, and something in his low voice made Jan look straight into
his eyes. For a moment they gazed at each other in silence, and again
Jan saw in Thornton's face the look of loneliness and grief which he
had first seen in the half gloom of the hotel. It was the suppressed
note in Thornton's voice, of despair almost, that struck him deepest,
and made him hold the other's hand a moment longer. Then he turned to
his pack upon the sledge.
"I've got meat and coffee and hard biscuits," he said. "Will you have
breakfast with me?"
That day Jan and Thornton made fifty miles westward over the level
surface of the Saskeram, and camped again on the Saskatchewan. The
second day they followed the river, passed the Sipanock, and struck
south and west over the snow-covered ice for Prince Albert. It was
early afternoon of the fourth day when at last they came to the town.
"We will go to the offices of the great company," said Jan. "We will
lose no time."
It was Thornton now who guided him to the century-old building at the
west edge of the town. It was Thornton who led him into an office
filled mostly with young women, who were laboring at clicking
machines; and it was Thornton who presented a square bit of white card
to a gray-haired man at a desk, who, after reading it, rose from his
chair, bowed, and shook hands with him. And a few moments later a door
opened, and Jan Thoreau, alone, passed through it, his heart
quivering, his breath choking him, his hand clutching at the papers in
his breast pocket.
Outside Thornton waited. An hour passed and still the door did not
reopen. The man at the desk glanced curiously at Thornton. Two girls
at typewriters exchanged whispered opinions as to who might be this
wild-looking creature from the north who was taking up an hour of the
sub-commissioner's time. Nearly two hours passed before Jan appeared.
Thornton, still patient, rose as the door opened. His eyes first
encountered the staring face of the sub-commissioner. Then Jan came
out. He had aged five years in two hours. There was a tired stoop to
his shoulders, a strange pallor in his cheeks. To Thornton his thin
face seemed to have grown thinner. With bowed head, looking nowhere
but ahead of him, Jan passed on, and as the last door opened to let
them out into the pale winter sun, Thornton heard the muffled sobbing
of his breath. His fingers gripped Jan's arm, his eyes were blazing.
"If you're getting the wrong end of anything up there," he cried
fiercely; "if you're in trouble, and they're taking the blood out of
you--tell me and I'll put the clamps on 'em, so 'elp me God! They'll
buck the devil when they buck Jack Thornton, and if it needs money to
show 'em so, I've got half a million to teach 'em the game!"
"Thanks, m'sieur," struggled Jan, striving to keep a lump out of his
throat. "It's nothing like that. I don't need money. Half a million
would just about buy--what I've given away up there."
He clutched his hand for an instant to the empty pocket where the
papers had been.
That night, leaving Thornton still at supper in the little old Windsor
Hotel, Jan slipped away, and with Kazan at his heels, crossed the
frozen Saskatchewan to the spruce forest on the north shore. He wanted
to be alone, to think, to fight with himself against a desire which
was almost overpowering him. Once, long ago, he had laid his soul bare
to Jean de Gravois, and Jean had given him comfort. To-night he longed
to go to Thornton, as he had gone to Jean, and to tell him the same
story, and what had passed that day in the office of the sub-
commissioner. In his heart there had grown something for Thornton that
was stronger than friendship--something that would have made him fight
for him, and die for him, as he would have fought and died for Jean de
Gravois. It was a feeling cemented by a belief that something was
troubling Thornton--that he, too, was filled with a loneliness and a
grief which he was trying to conceal. And yet he fought to restrain
himself from confiding in his new friend. It would do no good, he
knew, except by relieving him of a part of his mental burden. He
walked along the shore of the river and recrossed it again near the
company's offices. All were dark with the exception of the sub-
commissioner's room. In that there glowed a light. The sub-
commissioner was keeping his promise. He was working. He worked until
late, for Jan came back two hours after and saw the light still there.
A week--it might be ten days, the sub-commissioner had told him, and
it would be over. Always something in the north drew Jan's eyes, and
he looked there now, wondering what would happen to him after that
week was over.
Lights were out and people were in bed when he and Kazan returned to
the hotel. But Thornton was up, sitting by himself in the gloom, as
Jan had first seen him at Le Pas. Jan sat down beside him. There was
an uneasy tremor in Thornton's voice when he said:
"Jan, did you ever love a woman--love her until you were ready and
willing to die for her?"
The suddenness of the question wrung the truth from Jan's lips in a
low, choking voice. For an instant he thought that Thornton must have
guessed his secret.
Thornton leaned toward him, gripping his knees, and the misery in his
face was deeper than Jan had ever seen it before.
"I love a woman--like that," he went on tensely. "A girl--not a woman,
and she is one of your people, Jan--of the north, as innocent as a
flower, more beautiful to ME than--than all the women I have ever seen
before. She is at Oxford House. I am going home to--to save myself."
"Save yourself!" cried Jan. "Mon Dieu, m'sieur--does she not love
"She would follow me to the end of the earth!"
Thornton straightened himself and wiped his pale face. Suddenly he
rose to his feet and motioned for Jan to follow him. He walked swiftly
out into the night, and still faster after that, until they passed
beyond the town. From where he stopped they could look over the
forests far into the pale light of the south.
"THAT'S hell for me!" said Thornton, pointing. "It's what we call
civilization--but it's mostly hell, and it's all hell for me. It's a
hell of big cities, of strife, of blood-letting, of wickedness. I
never knew how great a hell it was until I came up here--among YOU. I
wish to God I could stay--always!"
"You love her," breathed Jan. "You can stay."
"I can't," groaned Thornton. "I can't--unless--"
"Unless I lose everything--but her."
Jan's fingers trembled as they sought Thornton's hand.
"And everything is--is--nothing when you give it for love and
happiness," he urged. "The great God, I know--"
"Everything," cried Thornton. "Don't you understand? I said
EVERYTHING!" He turned almost fiercely upon his companion. "I'd give
up my name--for HER. I'd bury myself back there in the forests and
never go out of them--for HER. I'd give up fortune, friends, lose
myself for ever--for HER. But I can't. Good God, don't you
Jan stared. His eyes grew large and dark.
"I've spent ten years of WORSE than hell down there--with a woman,"
went on Thornton. "It happens among us--frequently, this sort of hell.
I came up here to get out of it for a time. You know--now. There is a
woman down there who--who is my wife. She would be glad if I never
returned. She is happy now, when I am away, and I have been happy--for
a time. I know what love is. I have felt it. I have lived it. God
forgive me, but I am almost tempted to go back--to HER!"
He stopped at the change which had come in Jan, who stood as straight
and as still as the blank spruce behind them, with only his eyes
showing that there was life in him. Those eyes held Thornton's. They
burned upon him through the gray gloom as he had never seen human eyes
burn before. He waited, half startled, and Jan spoke. In his voice
there was nothing of that which Thornton saw in his eyes. It was low,
and soft, and though it had that which rung like steel, Thornton could
not have understood or feared it more.
"M'sieur, how far have you gone--WITH HER?" Thornton understood and
advanced with his hands reaching out to Jan.
"Only as far as one might go with the purest thing on earth," he said.
"I have sinned--in loving her, and in letting her love me, but that is
all, Jan Thoreau. I swear that is all!"
"And you are going back into the south?"
"Yes, I am going back into the south."
The next day Thornton did not go. He made no sign of going on the
second day. So it was with the third, the fourth, and the fifth. On
each of these days Jan went once, in the afternoon, to the office of
the sub-commissioner, and Thornton always accompanied him. At times,
when Jan was not looking, there was a hungry light in his eyes as he
followed the other's movements, and once or twice Jan caught what was
left of this look when he turned unexpectedly. He knew what was in
Thornton's mind, and he pitied him, grieved with him in his own heart
until his own secret almost wrung itself from his lips. Somehow, in a
way that he could not understand, Thornton's sacrifice to honor, and
his despair, gave Jan strength, and a hundred times he asked himself
if a confession of his own misery would do as much for the other. He
repeated this thought to himself again and again on the afternoon of
the ninth day, when he went to the sub-commissioner's office alone.
This time Thornton had remained behind. He had left him in a gloomy
corner of the hotel room from which he had not looked up when Jan went
out with Kazan.
This ninth day was the last day for Jan Thoreau. In a dazed sort of
way he listened as the sub-commissioner told him that the work was
ended. They shook hands. It was dark when Jan came out from the
company's offices, dark with a pale gloom through which the stars were
beginning to glow--with a ghostly gloom, lightened still more in the
north with the rising fires of the northern lights. Alone Jan stood
for a few moments close down to the river. Across from him was the
forest, silent, black, reaching to the end of the earth, and over it,
like a signal light, beckoning him back to his world, the aurora sent
out its shafts of red and gold. And as he listened there came to him
faintly a distant wailing sound that he knew was the voice from that
world, and at the sound the hair rose along Kazan's spine, and he
whined deep down in his throat. Jan's breath grew quicker, his blood
warmer. Over there--across the river--his world was calling to him,
and he, Jan Thoreau, was now free to go. This very night he would bury
himself in the forest again, and when he lay down to sleep it would be
with his beloved stars above him, and the winds whispering sympathy
and brotherhood to him in the spruce tops. He would go--NOW. He would
say good-by to Thornton--and GO.
He found himself running, and Kazan ran beside him. He was breathless
when he came to the one lighted street of the town. He hurried to the
hotel and found Thornton sitting where he had left him.
"It is ended, m'sieur," he cried in a low voice. "It is over, and I am
going. I am going to-night."
Thornton rose. "To-night," he repeated.
"Yes, to-night--now. I am going to pick up my things. Will you come?"
He went ahead of Thornton to the bare little room in which he had
slept while at the hotel. He did not notice the change in Thornton
until he had lighted a lamp. Thornton was looking at him doggedly.
There was an unpleasant look in his face, a flush about his eyes, a
rigid tenseness in the muscles of his jaws.
"And I--I, too, am going to-night," he said. "Into the South,
"No, into the NORTH." There was a fierceness in Thornton's emphasis.
He stood opposite Jan, leaning over the table on which the light was
placed. "I've broken loose," he went on. "I'm not going south--back to
that hell of mine. I'm never going south again. I'm dead down there--
dead for all time. They'll never hear of me again. They can have my
fortune--everything. I'm going North. I'm going to live with YOU
people--and God--AND HER!"
Jan sank into a chair, Thornton sat down in one across from him.
"I am going back to her," he repeated. "No one will ever know."
He could not account for the look in Jan's eyes nor for the nervous
twitching of the lithe brown hands that reached half across the table.
But Kazan's one eye told him more than Thornton could guess, and in
response to it that ominous shivering wave rose along his spine.
Thornton would never know that Jan's fingers twitched for an instant
in their old mad desire to leap at a human throat.
"You will not do that," he said quietly.
"Yes, I will," replied Thornton. "I have made up my mind. Nothing can
stop me but--death."
"There is one other thing that can stop you, and will, m'sieur," said
Jan as quietly as before. "I, Jan Thoreau, will stop you."
Thornton rose slowly, staring down into Jan's face. The flush about
his eyes grew deeper.
"I will stop you," repeated Jan, rising also. "And I am not death."
He went to Thornton and placed his two hands upon his shoulders, and
in his eyes there glowed now that gentle light which had made Thornton
love him as he had loved no other man on earth.
"M'sieur, I will stop you," he said again, speaking as though to a
brother. "Sit down. I am going to tell you something. And when I have
told you this you will take my hand, and you will say, 'Jan Thoreau, I
thank the Great God that something like this has happened before, and
that it has come to my ears in time to save the one I love.' Sit down,
Jan had aged five years during those two hours in the office of the
sub-commissioner; he aged now as Thornton looked at him. There came
the same tired, hopeless glow into his eyes, the same tense lines in
his face. And yet, quickly, he changed as he had not changed on that
afternoon. Two livid spots began to burn in his cheeks as he sat down
opposite Thornton. He turned the light low, and his eyes glowed more
darkly and with an animal-like luster in the half gloom. Something in
him now, a quivering, struggling passion that lay behind those eyes,
held Thornton white and silent.
"M'sieur," he began in the low voice which Thornton was beginning to
understand, "I am going to tell you something which I have told to but
two other human beings. It is the story of another man--a man from
civilization, like you, who came up into this country of ours years
and years ago, and who met a woman, as you have met this girl at
Oxford House, and who loved her as you love this one, and perhaps
more. It is singular that the case should be so similar, m'sieur, and
it is because of this that I believe Our Blessed Lady gives me courage
to tell it to you. For this man, like you, left a wife--and two
children--when he came into the North. M'sieur, I pray the Great God
to forgive him, for he left a third child--unborn."
Jan leaned upon his hand so that it shaded his face.
"It is not so much of THAT as of what followed that I am going to tell
you, m'sieur," he went on. "It was a beautiful love--on the woman's
part, and it would have been a beautiful love on the man's part if it
had been pure. For her he gave up everything, even his God--as you
would give up everything--and your God--for this girl at Oxford House.
M'sieur, I will speak mostly of the woman now. She was beautiful. She
was one of the three most beautiful things that God ever placed in our
world, and she loved this man. She married him, believed in him, was
ready to die for him, to follow him to the ends of the earth, as our
women will do for the men they love. God in Heaven, can you not guess
what happened, m'sieur? A CHILD WAS BORN!"
So fiercely did Jan cry out the words that Thornton jerked back as
though a blow had been struck at him from out of the gloom.
"A child was born!" repeated Jan, and Thornton heard his nails digging
in the table. "That was the first curse of God--a child! La Charogne--
les bętes de charogne--that is what we call them--beasts of carrion
and carrion eaters, breeders of devils and sin! Mon Dieu, that is what
happened! A child was born, with the curse of God upon him!"
Jan stopped, his nails digging deeper, his breath escaping from him as
though he had been running.
"Down in YOUR world he would have grown up a MAN," he continued,
speaking more calmly. "I have heard that--since. It is common down
there to be a two-legged carrion--a man or a woman born out of
wedlock. I have been told so, and that it is a curse not without hope.
But here it is different. The curse never dies. It follows, day after
day, year after year. And this child--more unfortunate than the wild
things, was born one of them. Do you understand, m'sieur? If the winds
had whispered the secret nothing would have come near him--the Indian
women would sooner have touched the plague--he would have been an
outcast, despised as he grew older, pointed at and taunted, called
names which are worse than those called to the lowest and meanest
dogs. THAT is what it means to be born under that curse--up here."
He waited for Thornton to speak, but the other sat silent and moveless
across the table.
"The curse worked swiftly, m'sieur. It came first--in remorse--to the
man. It gnawed at his soul, ate him alive, and drove him from place to
place with the woman and the child. The purity and love of the woman
added to his suffering, and at last he came to know that the hand of
God had fallen upon his head. The woman saw his grief but did not know
the reason for it. And so the curse first came to her. They went
north--far north, above the Barren Lands, and the curse followed
there. It gnawed at his life until--he died. That was seven years
after the child was born."
The oil lamp sputtered and began to smoke, and with a quick movement
Jan turned the wick down until they were left in darkness.
"M'sieur, it was then that the curse began to fall upon the woman and
the child. Do you not believe that about the sins of the fathers
falling upon others? Mon Dieu, it is so--it is so. It came in many
small ways--and then--the curse--it came suddenly--LIKE THIS." Jan's
voice came in a hissing whisper now. Thornton could feel his hot
breath as he leaned over the table, and in the darkness Jan's eyes
shone like two coals of fire. "It came like THIS!" panted Jan. "There
was a new missioner at the post--a--a Christian from the South, and he
was a great friend to the woman, and preached God, and she BELIEVED
him. The boy was very young, and saw things, but did not understand at
first. He knew, afterward, that the missioner loved his mother's
beauty, and that he tried hard to win it--and failed, for the woman,
until death, would love only the one to whom she had given herself
first. Great God, it happened THEN--one night when every soul was
about the big fires at the caribou roast, and there was no one near
the lonely little cabin where the boy and his mother lived. The boy
was at the feast, but he ran home--with a bit of dripping meat as a
gift for his mother--and he heard her cries, and ran in to be struck
down by the missioner. It happened THEN, and even the boy knew, and
followed the man, shrieking that he had killed his mother." There was
a terrible calmness now in Jan's voice. "M'sieur, it was true. She
wasted away like a flower after that night. She died, and left the boy
alone with the curse. And that boy, m'sieur, was Jan Thoreau. The
woman was his mother."
There was silence now, a dead, pulseless quiet, broken after a moment
by a movement. It was Thornton, groping across the table. Jan felt his
hands touch his arm. They groped farther in the darkness, until Jan
Thoreau's hands were clasped tightly in Thornton's.
"And that--is all?" he questioned hoarsely.
"No, it is but the beginning," said Jan softly. "The curse has
followed me, m'sieur, until I am the unhappiest man in the world. To-
day I have done all that is to be done. When my father died he left
papers which my mother was to give to me when I had attained manhood.
When she died they came to me. She knew nothing of that which was in
them, and I am glad. For they told the story that I have told to you,
m'sieur, and from his grave my father prayed to me to make what
restitution I could. When he came into the North for good he brought
with him most of his fortune--which was large, m'sieur--and placed it
where no one would ever find it--in the stock of the Great Company. A
half of it, he said, should be mine. The other half he asked me to
return to his children, and to his real wife, if she were living. I
have done more than that, m'sieur. I have given up all--for none of it
is mine. A half will go to the two children whom he deserted. The
other half will go to the child that was unborn. The mother--is--
After a time Thornton said,
"There is more, Jan."
"Yes, there is more, m'sieur," said Jan. "So much more that if I were
to tell it to you it would not be hard for you to understand why Jan
Thoreau is the unhappiest man in the world. I have told you that this
is but the beginning. I have not told you of how the curse has
followed me and robbed me of all that is greatest in life--how it has
haunted me day and night, m'sieur, like a black spirit, destroying my
hopes, turning me at last into an outcast, without people, without
friends, without--that--which you, too, will give up in this girl at
Oxford House. M'sieur, am I right? You will not go back to her. You
will go south, and some day the Great God will reward you."
He heard Thornton rising in the dark.
"Shall I strike a light, m'sieur?"
"No," said Thornton close to him. In the gloom their hands met. There
was a change in the other's voice now, something of pride, of triumph,
of a glory just achieved. "Jan," he said softly, "I thank you for
bringing me face to face with a God like yours. I have never met Him
before. We send missionaries up to save you, we look upon you as wild
and savage and with only half a soul--and we are blind. You have
taught me more than has ever been preached into me, and this great,
glorious world of yours is sending me back a better man for having
come into it. I am going--south. Some day I will return, and I will be
one of this world, and one of your people. I will come, and I will
bring no curse. If I could send this word to HER, ask her forgiveness,
tell her what I have almost been and that I still have hope--faith--I
could go easier down into that other world."
"You can," said Jan. "I will take this word for you, m'sieur, and I
will take more, for I will tell her what it has been the kind fate for
Jan Thoreau to find in the heart of M'sieur Thornton. She is one of my
people, and she will forgive, and love you more for what you have
done. For this, m'sieur, is what the Cree god has given to his people
as the honor of the great snows. She will still love you, and if there
is to be hope it will burn in HER breast, too. M'sieur--"
Something like a sob broke through Thornton's lips as he moved back
through the darkness.
"And you--I will find you again?"
"They will know where I go from Oxford House. I will leave word--with
HER," said Jan.
"Good-by," said Thornton huskily.
Jan listened until his footsteps had died away, and for a long time
after that he sat with his head buried in his arms upon the little
table. And Kazan, whining softly, seemed to know that in the darkened
room had come to pass the thing which broke at last his master's
THE MUSIC AGAIN
That night Jan Thoreau passed for the last time back into the shelter
of his forests; and all that night he traveled, and with each mile
that he left behind him something larger and bolder grew in his breast
until he cracked his whip in the old way, and shouted to the dogs in
the old way, and the blood in him sang to the wild spirit of the
wilderness. Once more he was home. To him the forest had always been
home, filled with the low voice of whispering winds and trees, and to-
night it was more his home than ever. Lonely and sick at heart, with
no other desire than to bury himself deeper and deeper into it, he
felt the life, and sympathy, and love of it creeping into his heart,
grieving with him in his grief, warming him with its hope, pledging
him again the eternal friendship of its trees, its mountains, and all
of the wild that it held therein.
And from above him the stars looked down like a billion tiny fires
kindled by loving hands to light his way--the stars that had given him
music, peace, since he could remember, and that had taught him more of
the silent power of God than the lips of man could ever tell. From
this time forth Jan Thoreau knew that these things would be his life,
his god. A thousand times in fanciful play he had given life and form
to the star-shadows about him, to the shadows of the tall spruce, the
twisted shrub, the rocks and even the mountains. And now it was no
longer play. With each hour that passed this night, and with each day
and night that followed, they became more real to him, and his fires
in the black gloom painted him pictures as they had never painted them
before, and the trees and the rocks and the twisted shrub comforted
him more and more in his loneliness, and gave to him the presence of
life in their movement, in the coming and going of their shadow-forms.
Everywhere they were the same old friends, unvarying and changeless.
The spruce-shadow of to-night, nodding to him in its silent way, was
the same that had nodded to him last night--a hundred nights ago; the
stars were the same, the winds whispering to him in the tree-tops were
the same, everything was as it was yesterday--years ago--unchanged,
never leaving him, never growing cold in their devotion. He had loved
the forest--NOW he worshipped it. In its vast silence he still
possessed Mélisse. It whispered to him still of her old love, of their
days and years of happiness, and with his forest he lived these days
over and over again, and when he slept with his forest he dreamed of
Nearly a month passed before he reached Oxford House and found the
sweet-faced girl whom Thornton loved. He did as Thornton had asked,
and went on--into the north and east. He had no mission now, except to
roam in his forests. He went down the Hayes, getting his few supplies
at Indian camps, and stopped at last, with the beginning of spring,
far up on the Cutaway. Here he built himself a camp and lived for a
time, setting dead-falls for bear. Then he struck north again, and
still east--keeping always away from Lac Bain. When the first chill
winds of the bay brought warning of winter down to him he was filled
for a time with a longing to strike north--and WEST, to go once more
back to his Barren Lands. But, instead, he went south, and so it came
to pass that a year after he had left Lac Bain he built himself a
cabin deep in the forest of God's River, fifty miles from Oxford
House, and trapped once more for the company. He had not forgotten his
promise to Thornton, and at Oxford House left word where he could be
found if the man from civilization should return.
In late mid-winter Jan returned to Oxford House with his furs. It was
on the night of the day that he came into the post that he heard a
Frenchman who had come down from the north speak of Lac Bain. None
noticed the change in Jan's face as he hung back in the shadows of the
company's store. A little later he followed the Frenchman outside, and
stopped him where there were no others near to overhear.
"M'sieur, you spoke of Lac Bain," he said in French. "You have been
"Yes," replied the other, "I was there for a week waiting for the
first sledge snow."
"It is my old home," said Jan, trying to keep his voice natural. "I
have wondered--if there are changes. You saw--Cummins--the factor?"
"Yes, he was there."
"And--and Jean de Gravois, the chief man?"
"He was away. Mon Dieu, listen to that! The dogs are fighting out
"A moment, m'sieur," begged Jan, as the Frenchman made a movement as
if to run in the direction of the tumult. "The factor had a daughter--
"She left Lac Bain a long time ago, m'sieur," interrupted the trapper,
making a tremendous effort to be polite as he edged toward the sound
of battle. "M'sieur Cummins told me that he had not seen her in a long
time--I believe it was almost a year. Sacre, listen to that! They are
tearing one another to bits, and they are MY dogs, m'sieur, for I can
tell their voices among a thousand!"
He sprang through the darkness and Jan made a movement to follow. Then
he stopped, and turned instead to the company's store. He took his
pack to the sledge and dogs in the edge of the spruce, and Kazan
leaped to greet him at the end of his babiche. This night as Jan
traveled through the forest he did not notice the stars or the
"A year," he repeated to himself, again and again, and once, when
Kazan rubbed against his leg and looked up into his face, he said,
"Ah, Kazan, our Mélisse went away with the Englishman. May the Great
God give them happiness!"
The forest claimed him more than ever after this. He did not go back
to Oxford House in the spring but sold his furs to a passing half-
breed, and wandered through all of that spring and summer in the
country to the west. It was January when he returned to his cabin,
when the snows were deepest, and three days later he set out to outfit
at the Hudson's Bay post on God's Lake instead of at Oxford House. It
was while they were crossing a part of the lake that Kazan leaped
aside for an instant in his traces and snapped at something in the
Jan saw the movement but gave no attention to it until a little later,
when Kazan stopped and fell upon his belly, biting at the harness and
whining in pain. The thought of Kazan's sudden snap at the snow came
to him then like a knife-thrust, and with a low cry of horror and fear
he fell upon his knees beside the dog. Kazan whimpered and his bushy
tail swept the snow as Jan lifted his great wolfish head between his
two hands. No other sound came from Jan's lips now, and slowly he drew
the dog up to him until he held him in his arms as he might have held
a child, Kazan stilled the whimpering sounds in his throat. His one
eye rested on his master's face, faithful, watching for some sign--for
some language there, even as the burning fires of a strange torture
gnawed at his life, and in that eye Jan saw the deepening reddish film
which he had seen a hundred times before in the eyes of foxes and
wolves killed by poison bait.
A moan of anguish burst from Jan's lips and he held his face close
down against Kazan's head, and sobbed now like a child, while Kazan
rubbed his hot muzzle against his cheek and his muscles hardened in a
last desire to give battle to whatever was giving his master grief. It
was a long time before Jan lifted his face from the shaggy head, and
when he did he knew that the last of all love, of all companionship,
of all that bound him to flesh and blood in his lonely world, was
gone. Kazan was dead.
From the sledge he took a blanket and wrapped Kazan in it, and carried
him a hundred yards back from the trail. With bowed head he came
behind his four dogs into God's House. Half an hour later he turned
back into the wilderness with his supplies. It was dark when he
returned to where he had left Kazan. He placed him upon the sledge and
the four huskies whined as they dragged on their burden, from which
the smell of death came to them. They stopped in the deep forests
beyond the lake and Jan built a fire.
This night, as on all nights in his lonely life, Jan drew Kazan close
to him, and he shivered as the other dogs slunk back from him
suspiciously and the fire and the spruce tops broke the stillness of
the forest. He looked at the crackling flames, at the fitful shadows
which they set dancing and grimacing about him, and it seemed to him
now that they were no longer friends, but were taunting him--gloating
in Kazan's death, and telling him that he was alone, alone, alone. He
let the fire die down, stirring it into life only when the cold
stiffened him, and when at last he fell into an unquiet slumber it was
still to hear the spruce tops whispering to him that Kazan was dead,
and that in dying he had broken the last fragile link between Jan
Thoreau and Mélisse.
He went on at dawn, with Kazan wrapped in his blanket on the sledge.
He planned to reach the cabin that night, and the next day he would
bury his old comrade. It was dark when he came to the narrow plain
that lay between him and the river. The sky was brilliant with stars
when he slowly climbed the big, barren ridge at the foot of which was
his home. At the summit he stopped and seated himself on the edge of a
rock, with nothing but a thousand miles of space between him and the
pale glow of the northern lights. At his feet lay the forest, black
and silent, and he looked down to where he knew his cabin was waiting
for him, black and silent, too.
For the first time it came upon him that THIS was home--that the
forest, and the silence, and the little cabin hidden under the spruce
tops below held a deeper meaning for him than a few hours before, when
Kazan was a leaping, living comrade at his side. Kazan was dead. Down
there he would bury him. And he had loved Kazan;--he knew, now, as he
clutched his hands to his aching breast, that he would have fought for
Kazan--given up his life for him--as he would have done for a brother.
Down there, under the silent spruce, he would bury the last that had
remained to him of the old life, and there swelled up in his heart a
longing, almost a prayer, that Mélisse might know that he, Jan
Thoreau, would have nothing left to him to-morrow but a grave, and
that in that grave was their old chum, their old playmate--Kazan. Hot
tears blinded Jan's eyes and he covered his face with his hands, and
sobbed as he had sobbed years before, when in the southern wilderness
word came to him that Mélisse was dying.
"Mélisse--Mélisse--" He moaned her name aloud, and stared through the
hot film in his eyes away into the north, sobbing to her, calling to
her in his grief, and looking through that thousand miles of starlit
space as though from out of it her sweet face would come to him once
more. And as he called there seemed to come to him from out of that
space a sound, so sweet, and low, and tender that his heart stood
still and he stood up straight and stretched his arms up to Heaven,
for Jan Thoreau knew that it was the sound of a violin that came to
him from out of the north--that Mélisse, an infinity away, had heard
his call, his prayer, and was playing for him and Kazan!
And suddenly, as he listened, his arms fell to his sides, and there
shot into his eyes all of the concentrated light of the stars, for the
music came nearer and nearer, and still nearer to him, until he caught
Kazan in his arms and ran with him down the side of the mountain. It
died now in the forest--then rose again, softer and more distant it
seemed to him, luring him on into the forest gloom. For a few moments
consciousness of all else but that sound remained with him only in a
dazed, half real way, and as John Cummins had called upon the angels
at Lac Bain many years ago when he, too, had gone out into the night
to meet this wonderful music, so Jan Thoreau's soul cried to them now
as he clutched Kazan to him, and stumbled on. Then, suddenly, he came
upon the cabin, and in the cabin there was a light!
Gently he laid Kazan down upon the snow, and for a full minute he
stood and listened, and heard, lower and sweeter still, the gentle
music, of the violin. Some one was in his cabin--living hands were
playing! After all it was not the spirit of Mélisse that had come to
him in the hour of his deepest grief, and a sob rose in his throat. He
went on, step by step, and at the door he stopped again, wondering if
he was mad, if the spirits of the forest were taunting him still, if--
One step more--
The Great God, he heard it now--the low, sweet music of the old Cree
love song, played in the old, old way, with all of its old sadness,
its whispering joy, its weeping song of life, of death, of love! With
a great cry he flung open the door and leaped in, with his arms
reaching out, his eyes blinded for a moment by the sudden light--and
with a cry as piercing as his own, something ran through that light to
meet him--Mélisse, the old, glorious Mélisse, crushing her arms about
his neck, sobbing his name, pleading with him in her old, sweet voice
to kiss her, kiss her, kiss her--while Jan Thoreau for the first time
in his life felt sweeping over him a resistless weakness, and in this
vision he knew that Jean de Gravois came to him, too, and held him in
his arms, and that as the light faded away from about him he still
heard Mélisse calling to him, felt her arms about him, her face
crushed to his own. And as the deep gloom enveloped him more densely,
and he felt himself slipping down through it, he whispered to the
faces which he could no longer see,
For a long time Jan fought to throw off the darkness, and when he
succeeded, and opened his eyes again, he knew that it was Mélisse who
was sitting beside him, and that it was Mélisse who flung her arms
about him when he awoke from his strange sleep, and held his wild head
pressed against her bosom--Mélisse, with her glorious hair flowing
about her as he had loved it in their old days, and with the old love
shining in her eyes, only more glorious now, as he heard her voice.
"Jan--Jan--we have been hunting for you--so long," she cried softly.
"We have been searching--ever since you left Lac Bain. Jan, dear Jan,
I loved you so--and you almost broke my heart. Dear, dear Jan," she
sobbed, stroking his face now, "I know why you ran away--I know, and I
love you so that--that I will die if--you go away again."
"You know!" breathed Jan. He was in his cot, and raised himself,
clasping her beautiful face between his two hands, staring at her with
the old horror in his eyes. "You know--and you come--to me!"
"I love you," said Mélisse. She slipped up to him and laid her face
upon his breast, and with her fingers clutched in his long hair she
leaned over to him and kissed him. "I love you!"
Jan's arms closed about her, and he bowed his face so that it was
smothered in her hair and he felt against it the joyous tremble of her
"I love you," she whispered again, and under her cloud of hair their
lips met, and she whispered again, with her sweet breath still upon
his lips, "I love you."
Outside Jean de Gravois was dancing up and down in the starlit edge of
the forest, and Iowaka was looking at him.
"And NOW what do you think of your Jean de Gravois?" cried Jean for
the hundredth time at least. "NOW what do you think of him, my
beautiful one?" and he caught Iowaka's head in his arms, for the
hundredth time, too, and kissed her until she pushed him away. "Was it
not right for me to break my oath to the Blessed Virgin and tell
Mélisse why Jan Thoreau had gone mad? Was it not right, I say? And did
not Mélisse do as I told that fool of a Jan that she WOULD do? And
didn't she HATE the Englishman all of the time? Eh? Can you not speak,
my raven-haired angel?"
He hugged Iowaka again in his arms, and this time he did not let her
go, but turned her face so that the starlight fell upon it.
"And NOW what if Jan Thoreau still feels that the curse is upon him?"
he asked softly. "Ho, ho, we have fixed that--you, my sweet Iowaka,
and your husband, Jean de Gravois. I have it--here--in my pocket--the
letter signed by the sub-commissioner at Prince Albert, to whom I told
Jan's story when I followed his trail down there--the letter which
says that the other woman died BEFORE the man who was to be Jan
Thoreau's father married the woman who was to be his mother. And NOW
do you understand why I did not tell Mélisse of this letter, ma
chérie? It was to prove to that fool of a Jan Thoreau that she loved
him--WHATEVER HE WAS. NOW what do you think of Jean de Gravois, you
daughter of a princess, you--you--"
"Wife of the greatest man in the world," laughed Iowaka softly. "Come,
my foolish Jean, we can not stand out for ever. I am growing cold. And
besides, do you not suppose that Jan would like to see ME?"
"Foolish--foolish--foolish--" murmured Jean as they walked hand in
hand through the starlight. "She, my Iowaka, my beloved, says that I
am foolish--AND AFTER THIS! Mon Dieu, what can a man do to make
himself great in the eyes of his wife?"
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