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Pierre And His People (18)

2006-08-28 15:33

  Volume V Antoine and Angelique

  "The birds are going south, Antoine——see——and it is so early!"

  "Yes, Angelique, the winter will be long."

  There was a pause, and then: "Antoine, I heard a child cry in the night, and I could not sleep."

  "It was a devil-bird, my wife; it flies slowly, and the summer is dead."

  "Antoine, there was a rushing of wings by my bed before the morn was breaking."

  "The wild-geese know their way in the night, Angelique; but they flew by the house and not near thy bed."

  "The two black squirrels have gone from the hickory tree."

  "They have hidden away with the bears in the earth; for the frost comes, and it is the time of sleep."

  "A cold hand was knocking at my heart when I said my aves last night, my Antoine."

  "The heart of a woman feels many strange things: I cannot answer, my wife."

  "Let us go also southward, Antoine, before the great winds and the wild frost come."

  "I love thee, Angelique, but I cannot go."

  "Is not love greater than all?"

  "To keep a pledge is greater."

  "Yet if evil come?"

  "There is the mine."

  "None travels hither; who should find it?"

  He said to me, my wife: 'Antoine, will you stay and watch the mine until I come with the birds northward, again?' and I said: 'I will stay, and Angelique will stay; I will watch the mine.'"

  "This is for his riches, but for our peril, Antoine."

  "Who can say whither a woman's fancy goes? It is full of guessing. It is clouds and darkness to-day, and sunshine——so much——to-morrow. I cannot answer."

  "I have a fear; if my husband loved me——"

  "There is the mine," he interrupted firmly.

  "When my heart aches so——"

  "Angelique, there is the mine."

  "Ah, my Antoine!"

  And so these two stayed on the island of St. Jean, in Lake Superior, through the purple haze of autumn, into the white brilliancy of winter, guarding the Rose Tree Mine, which Falding the Englishman and his companions had prospected and declared to be their Ophir.

  But St. Jean was far from the ways of settlement, and there was little food and only one hut, and many things must be done for the Rose Tree Mine in the places where men sell their souls for money; and Antoine and Angelique, French peasants from the parish of Ste. Irene in Quebec, were left to guard the place of treasure, until, to the sound of the laughing spring, there should come many men and much machinery, and the sinking of shafts in the earth, and the making, of riches.

  But when Antoine and Angelique were left alone in the waste, and God began to draw the pale coverlet of frost slowly across land and water, and to surround St. Jean with a stubborn moat of ice, the heart of the woman felt some coming danger, and at last broke forth in words of timid warning. When she once had spoken she said no more, but stayed and builded the heaps of earth about the house, and filled every crevice against the inhospitable Spirit of Winds, and drew her world closer and closer within those two rooms where they should live through many months.

  The winter was harsh, but the hearts of the two were strong. They loved; and Love is the parent of endurance, the begetter of courage. And every day, because it seemed his duty, Antoine inspected the Rose Tree Mine; and every day also, because it seemed her duty, Angelique said many aves. And one prayer was much with her——for spring to come early that the child should not suffer: the child which the good God was to give to her and Antoine.

  In the first hours of each evening Antoine smoked, and Angelique sang the old songs which their ancestors learned in Normandy. One night Antoine's face was lighted with a fine fire as he talked of happy days in the parish of Ste. Irene; and with that romantic fervour of his race which the stern winters of Canada could not kill, he sang, 'A la Claire Fontaine,' the well-beloved song-child of the 'voyageurs'' hearts.

  And the wife smiled far away into the dancing flames——far away, because the fire retreated, retreated to the little church where they two were wed; and she did as most good women do——though exactly why, man the insufficient cannot declare——she wept a little through her smiles. But when the last verse came, both smiles and tears ceased. Antoine sang it with a fond monotony:

  "Would that each rose were growing Upon the rose-tree gay,And that the fatal rose-tree Deep in the ocean lay. 'I ya longtemps que je t'aime Jamais je ne t'oublierai."

  Angelique's heart grew suddenly heavy. From the rose-tree of the song her mind fled and shivered before the leafless rose-tree by the mine; and her old dread came back.

  Of course this was foolish of Angelique; of course the wise and great throw contumely on all such superstition; and knowing women will smile at each other meaningly, and with pity for a dull man-writer, and will whisper, "Of course, the child." But many things, your majesties, are hidden from your wisdom and your greatness, and are given to the simple ——to babes, and the mothers of babes.

  It was upon this very night that Falding the Englishman sat with other men in a London tavern, talking joyously. "There's been the luck of Heaven," he said, "in the whole exploit. We'd been prospecting for months. As a sort of try in a back-water we rowed over one night to an island and pitched tents. Not a dozen yards from where we camped was a rose-tree-think of it, Belgard, a rose-tree on a rag-tag island of Lake Superior! 'There's luck in odd numbers, says Rory O'More.' 'There's luck here,' said I; and at it we went just beside the rose-tree. What's the result? Look at that prospectus: a company with a capital of two hundred thousand; the whole island in our hands in a week; and Antoine squatting on it now like Bonaparte on Elbe."

  "And what does Antoine get out of this"? said Belgard.

  "Forty dollars a month and his keep."

  "Why not write him off twenty shares to propitiate the gods——gifts unto the needy, eh!——a thousand-fold——what?"

  "Yes; it might be done, Belgard, if——"

  But someone just then proposed the toast, "The Rose Tree Mine!" and the souls of these men waxed proud and merry, for they had seen the investor's palm filled with gold, the maker of conquest. While Antoine was singing with his wife, they were holding revel within the sound of Bow Bells. And far into the night, through silent Cheapside, a rolling voice swelled through much laughter thus:

  "Gai Ion la, gai le rosier,Du joli mois de Mai."

  The next day there were heavy heads in London; but the next day, also, a man lay ill in the hut on the island of St. Jean.

  Antoine had sung his last song. He had waked in the night with a start of pain, and by the time the sun was halting at noon above the Rose Tree Mine, he had begun a journey, the record of which no man has ever truly told, neither its beginning nor its end; because that which is of the spirit refuseth to be interpreted by the flesh. Some signs there be, but they are brief and shadowy; the awe of It is hidden in the mind of him that goeth out lonely unto God.

  When the call goes forth, not wife nor child nor any other can hold the wayfarer back, though he may loiter for an instant on the brink. The poor medicaments which Angelique brings avail not; these soothing hands and healing tones, they pass through clouds of the middle place between heaven and earth to Antoine. It is only when the second midnight comes that, with conscious, but pensive and far-off, eyes, he says to her: "Angelique, my wife."

  For reply her lips pressed his cheek, and her fingers hungered for his neck. Then: "Is there pain now Antoine?"

  "There is no pain, Angelique."

  He closed his eyes slowly; her lips framed an ave. "The mine," he said, "the mine——until the spring."

  "Yes, Antoine, until the spring."

  "Have you candles——many candles, Angelique?"

  "There are many, my husband."

  "The ground is as iron; one cannot dig, and the water under the ice is cruel——is it not so, Angelique?"

  "No axe could break the ground, and the water is cruel," she said.

  "You will see my face until the winter is gone, my wife."

  She bowed her head, but smoothed his hand meanwhile, and her throat was quivering.

  He partly slept——his body slept, though his mind was feeling its way to wonderful things. But near the morning his eyes opened wide, and he said: "Someone calls out of the dark, Angelique."

  And she, with her hand on her heart, replied: "It is the cry of a dog, Antoine."

  "But there are footsteps at the door, my wife."

  "Nay, Antoine; it is the snow beating upon the window."

  "There is the sound of wings close by——dost thou not hear them, Angelique?"

  "Wings——wings," she falteringly said: "it is the hot blast through the chimney; the night is cold, Antoine."

  "The night is very cold," he said; and he trembled. . . "I hear, O my wife, I hear the voice of a little child . . . the voice is like thine, Angelique."

  And she, not knowing what to reply, said softly:

  "There is hope in the voice of a child;" and the mother stirred within her; and in the moment he knew also that the Spirits would give her the child in safety, that she should not be alone in the long winter.

  The sounds of the harsh night had ceased——the snapping of the leafless branches, the cracking of the earth, and the heaving of the rocks: the Spirits of the Frost had finished their work; and just as the grey forehead of dawn appeared beyond the cold hills, Antoine cried out gently: "Angelique . . . Ah, mon Capitaine . . . Jesu" . . . and then, no more.

  Night after night Angelique lighted candles in the place where Antoine smiled on in his frozen silence; and masses were said for his soul——the masses Love murmurs for its dead. The earth could not receive him; its bosom was adamant; but no decay could touch him; and she dwelt alone with this, that was her husband, until one beautiful, bitter day, when, with no eye save God's to see her, and no human comfort by her, she gave birth to a man-child. And yet that night she lighted the candles at the dead man's head and feet, dragging herself thither in the cold; and in her heart she said that the smile on Antoine's face was deeper than it had been before.

  In the early spring, when the earth painfully breathed away the frost that choked it, with her child for mourner, and herself for sexton and priest, she buried Antoine with maimed rites: but hers were the prayers of the poor, and of the pure in heart; and she did not fret because, in the hour that her comrade was put away into the dark, the world was laughing at the thought of coming summer.

  Before another sunrise, the owners of the island of St. Jean claimed what was theirs; and because that which had happened worked upon their hearts, they called the child St. Jean, and from that time forth they made him to enjoy the goodly fruits of the Rose Tree Mine.

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