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Rolf in the Woods(Chapter43)

2006-09-08 19:43

  CHAPTER XLIII Sunday in the Woods

  Rolf still kept to the tradition of Sunday, and Quonab had in a manner accepted it. It was a curious fact that the red man had far more toleration for the white man's religious ideas than the white man had for the red's.

  Quonab's songs to the sun and the spirit, or his burning of a tobacco pinch, or an animal's whiskers were to Rolf but harmless nonsense. Had he given them other names, calling them hymns and incense, he would have been much nearer respecting them. He had forgotten his mother's teaching: "If any man do anything sincerely, believing that thereby he is worshipping God, he is worshipping God." He disliked seeing Quonab use an axe or a gun on Sunday, and the Indian, realizing that such action made "evil medicine" for Rolf, practically abstained. But Rolf had not yet learned to respect the red yarns the Indian hung from a deer's skull, though he did come to understand that he must let them alone or produce bad feeling in camp.

  Sunday had become a day of rest and Quonab made it also a day of song and remembrance.

  They were sitting one Sunday night by the fire in the cabin, enjoying the blaze, while a storm rattled on the window and door. A white-footed mouse, one of a family that lived in the shanty, was trying how close he could come to Skookum's nose without being caught, while Rolf looked on. Quonab was lying back on a pile of deer skins, with his pipe in his mouth, his head on the bunk, and his hands clasped back of his neck.

  There was an atmosphere of content and brotherly feeling; the evening was young, when Rolf broke silence:

  "Were you ever married, Quonab?"

  "Ugh," was the Indian's affirmative.

  "Where?"

  "Myanos."

  Rolf did not venture more questions, but left the influence of the hour to work. It was a moment of delicate poise, and Rolf knew a touch would open the door or double bar it. He wondered how he might give that touch as he wished it. Skookum still slept. Both men watched the mouse, as, with quick movements it crept about. Presently it approached a long birch stick that stood up against the wall. High hanging was the song-drum. Rolf wished Quonab would take it and let it open his heart, but he dared not offer it; that might have the exact wrong effect. Now the mouse was behind the birch stick. Then Rolf noticed that the stick if it were to fall would strike a drying line, one end of which was on the song-drum peg. So he made a dash at the mouse and displaced the stick; the jerk it gave the line sent the song-drum with hollow bumping to the ground. The boy stooped to replace it; as he did, Quonab grunted and Rolf turned to see his hand stretched for the drum. Had Rolf officiously offered it, it would have been refused; now the Indian took it, tapped and warmed it at the fire, and sang a song of the Wabanaki. It was softly done, and very low, but Rolf was close, for almost the first time in any long rendition, and he got an entirely new notion of the red music. The singer's face brightened as he tummed and sang with peculiar grace notes and throat warbles of "Kaluscap's war with the magi," and the spirit of his people, rising to the sweet magic of melody, came shining in his eyes. He sang the lovers' song, "The Bark Canoe." (See F. R. Burton's "American Primitive Music.)

  "While the stars shine and falls the dew, I seek my love in bark canoe."

  And then the cradle song,

  "The Naked Bear Shall Never Catch Thee."

  When he stopped, he stared at the fire; and after a long pause Rolf ventured, "My mother would have loved your songs."

  Whether he heard or not, the warm emanation surely reached the Indian, and he began to answer the question of an hour before:

  "Her name was Gamowini, for she sang like the sweet night bird at Asamuk. I brought her from her father's house at Saugatuck. We lived at Myanos. She made beautiful baskets and moccasins. I fished and trapped; we had enough. Then the baby came. He had big round eyes, so we called him Wee-wees, 'our little owl,' and we were very happy. When Gamowini sang to her baby, the world seemed full of sun. One day when Wee-wees could walk she left him with me and she went to Stamford with some baskets to sell. A big ship was in the harbour. A man from the ship told her that his sailors would buy all her baskets. She had no fear. On the ship they seized her for a runaway slave, and hid her till they sailed away.

  "When she did not come back I took Wee-wees on my shoulder and went quickly to Stamford. I soon found out a little, but the people did not know the ship, or whence she came, or where she went, they said. They did not seem to care. My heart grew hotter and wilder. I wanted to fight. I would have killed the men on the dock, but they were many. They bound me and put me in jail for three months. 'When I came out Wee-wees was dead. They did not care. I have heard nothing since. Then I went to live under the rock, so I should not see our first home. I do not know; she may be alive. But I think it killed her to lose her baby."

  The Indian stopped; then rose quickly. His face was hard set. He stepped out into the snowstorm and the night. Rolf was left alone with Skookum.

  Sad, sad, everything seemed sad in his friend's life, and Rolf, brooding over it with wisdom beyond his years, could not help asking: "Had Quonab and Gamowini been white folk, would it have happened so? Would his agony have been received with scornful indifference? Alas! he knew it would not. He realized it would have been a very different tale, and the sequent questions that would not down, were, "Will this bread cast on the waters return after many days?" "Is there a God of justice and retribution?" "On whom will the flail of vengeance fall for all these abominations?"

  Two hours later the Indian returned. No word was spoken as he entered. He was not cold. He must have walked far. Rolf prepared for bed. The Indian stooped, picked up a needle from the dusty ground, one that had been lost the day before, silently handed it to his companion, who gave only a recognizant "Hm," and dropped it into the birch-bark box.

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