The Circle of Affection and Other Pieces in Prose and Verse

by Duncan Campbell Scott


 

TÊTE-JAUNE


 

PAUL LAROCHE RETURNED HOME in the spring after an absence of nearly three years. He was welcome, but, as it happened before, no one made a great fuss over him. Heron Bay was very nearly as he had left it. On the north shore of Lake Superior there was a harbour with rocky shores and deep water beyond a small sand beach. Laroche had established himself there when he was a young man and, although he was not an old man on the day of his eventful return, he might be thought patriarchal, for he was the founder of the little settlement, its lawgiver and chief support. Bonhomme Laroche he was affectionately called. On the second day after his advent, when he had noted material changes, which were few, he was confronted by something surprising and diverting. When he came into his house, about noon, he saw a small child balancing himself on sturdy legs, clinging to the bunk against the wall. He was fair and ruddy of face, with a crown of yellow hair and bright blue eyes. Bonhomme looked at him intently for a moment. The shining appearance of the child was foreign to the black-haired, brown-skinned, dark-eyed dwellers in that community of half-breeds and Indians.

    “What’s this?” asked Bonhomme.

    “He’s mine, he’s my boy,” said his wife Marie, snatching the child off the floor and holding him in her arms, his gold head against her black head. She had been waiting anxiously for this disclosure. Laroche looked at the two as if he had seen a vision, incredulous for a moment. Rather slow of thought, and in the circumstances slower than usual, he at length understood. His wife claimed the child with a boldness that was defiant, and he knew that he could not be the father of such a bright creation. He looked upon them comprehendingly for another moment, turned on his shoe-packs and walked away. He forgot about his dinner and went down by the lakeshore to think; his thoughts were never confused, but always intense and simple. He had a charitable, forgiving heart and was not called Bonhomme without reason. He had been away on a long journey for the Fur Company and had left the family well provided for; and in his absence his wife had been unfaithful. That word hardly matched his thought. The lines of faith and unfaith were not so sharply drawn in that wild country, in that year of grace. Moreover, a review of his wife’s conduct inevitably caused a survey of his own. He had been away for a long time, and traveled far into the North, had worked hard and had suffered much; but he had been consoled in his trials, and we are all subject to times, happenings and faults. After all, then—well!

    He ate a good supper that night and was more silent that usual. The family was all about him and the bright enigma was kept out of sight. After supper he ordered a general scavenging and tidying up of the shore-line and of the gardens and cleared lands around the houses. Bonfires were lighted, and night came on before they died down. The delight of the children had ceased and sleep had come to most. Bonhomme sat on a log by the shore; the irritation of issuing so many orders had left him and his heart was tranquil. The spring night was cool; the lake was dark in its blue depth, still as the heart of a sapphire; stars were glistening behind the cedars; there was no sound but the crystalline shrinking of snow left in the north hollows. Suddenly a movement began in the lake. The water broke into a small wave on the sand, a mimic flowing tide, and the sound was like the full cadence of a melody begun far off in the bosom of the lake.

    Two months had passed before Bonhomme was confronted again with the problem of the child. The family, one and all, had conspired to keep him out of sight, and it was not until Père Dugas, the priest from the Mission, arrived on his annual visit that he suddenly came to life again. He had not been baptized, and, after two arrivals, in other families, since the priest’s last visit had been blessed and named, the priest remarked, “What about that other one?”

    “What one?” asked Bonhomme.

    “That fair-haired fellow; I think you’d better let me take him to the Mission.”

    “Make a priest of him?” Bonhomme smiled.

    “I would have taken him last time, but his mother wouldn’t let him go.”

    “Then we’ll keep him; let him have a chance before we make a priest of him,” said Laroche.

    “Well, what name will you give him?”

    “Name? Call him Désiré.”

    “He wasn’t wanted. Why call him Désiré? That’s a girl’s name” But Père Dugas was prepared for any whimsicality from Bonhomme; one of his boys was named Hyacinth, one of his girls Robert, and there seemed to be no convention in his naming of the brood. Pere Dugas recognized his acceptance of the child as another evidence of the warm heart of the man. He had often known him to be stirred by currents of feeling, leading to action that seemed quixotic even to the very human priest. “Laroche, it’s the good old French blood in you,” he would say; “there’s no Indian in you when that old strain comes out.” This time he laughed and said, “Well, you can have your way; although he’s none of yours.”

    “True,” said Bonhomme, with an odd smile, “he’s none of mine. I didn’t get him. I was away for nearly three years, but he was caught in my trap.” And so the fair-haired fellow was christened Désiré Laroche.

    The years went by and, although Bonhomme remained at home looking after his trap-lines and his fishing, Marie bore no other children. The family of eight was large enough: Désiré made nine and Olivine ten. She also was of doubtful parentage, a waif gathered into the settlement; but no one questioned her right to be there. The eight were dark and wild; these two were in sharp contrast—Désiré fair-skinned, with bright blue eyes; Olivine with complexion darker than old ivory, eyes mild and full of brown lights. She was four years older than Désiré and almost from the day of his birth she mothered him. Bonhomme did not pay much attention to his children, taking them for granted. He kept them in order and settled their disputes with genial kick, but lavished no affection upon them. Feeling was present, not easily stirred, but when aroused it wholly possessed him. Pere Dugas, who knew his friend well, could usually depend on him for an even level of good-humour, but at times could not account for the strength of his passions except by referring to that ancient blood heritage

    One day, when Désiré was about eight, Bonhomme was watching him and Laus teasing a young bear, when they suddenly left the cub and began to wrestle. Laus was two years older than Désiré and the feud was perpetual. They struggled together and parted, Désiré the victor, and suddenly Laus struck him in the face. Désiré closed with him, threw him and stood over him, his face set with a look of power and contempt. Laus slunk away. “Come here, you fellow,” said Bonhomme. Holding him between his knees, he felt the hard young body. He took the mass of yellow hair roughly with one hand and bent back the resolute head. The boy looked him steadily in the eyes, his face still set with strong passion. Bonhomme relaxed his grasp and a happy light came into his face. “Tête-Jaune,” he said, “Tête-Jaune.” He held the lad close for a moment, stroked his hair, and gently pushed him away. What had he seen in the boy’s eyes? He could not have told, but his whole outlook on life was altered. From that moment he was absorbed in Désiré’s life. He was Tête-Jaune, Yellowhead now, a different personality.

    In the years that followed he devoted himself to the growing lad. He taught him all his knowledge of the forests and the waters, the ways of wild things and the lures of the trapper and hunter. He saw him develop great strength, courage, and resource; with physical beauty that to a civilized observer would have called up the typical Viking. This concentrated affection did not affect any member except Laus, who hated Tête-Jaune. There had always been rivalry between them, and Désiré’s mastery was as constant as the struggle. Physically, Laus had been conquered in boyhood. Désiré could match Laus’ dark cunning with bright open-air confidence, his sinister moods with laughter. Everyone accepted Désiré as the leader, and Laus was left to himself and his evil jealousy. He found the life intolerable and when he was twenty-one he left the village and did not return for five years. But no one missed him. For his part, Désiré carelessly accepted what was given him. If he understood this clear preference he gave no sign and even treated his benefactor coldly, with a detachment which provoked Bonhomme. He wanted the youth to treat him as his father and to call him ‘père’ like the rest of the children. The feeling grew intensely as the years went by and he determined to open the question and put it to the proof.

    They were visiting a line of traps one day and had rested for a while about noon. In a sheltered place surrounded by a screen of spruces they were warm in the sunshine. Tête-Jaune threw down two silver foxes and Bonhomme handed him a piece of bannock. Tête-Jaune unclasped his knife, but before he could use it Bonhomme said, “How’s this, Tête-Jaune? You never call me ‘père’, like the others?” Tête-Jaune cut a bit of bannock, put it in his mouth and said nothing. “Back there it’s always ‘père’, or ‘grand-père’ from everybody; you call me nothing mostly, sometimes Bonhomme,—and I hear you say to the others, ‘What’s the old man doing? Where’s the old fellow going now?’ Why is it never ‘père’, like the others?” Tête-Jaune bit into his bannock, looked down on the foxes and said nothing. Bonhomme waited and then pressed the question, “Why don’t you?” Tête-Jaune said simply, “Because you’re not my father.”

    A look of confusion came into Bonhomme’s face. Consternation is the word for his feeling. In his simple devotion, in his own acceptance of the relationship, it had never occurred to him that Désiré might know of his doubtful parentage. He was speechless, and they were both still as the spruces around them. Slowly the import of those few words came upon Bonhomme’s mind and his heart felt weak; their fullest implications did not come to him until some time afterwards; he followed trails of thought with difficulty. At that moment he had nothing but a sense of ruin and trouble. A bird fluttered through the branches and threw down a wisp of bright snow that vanished in sparkles before it reached the level. Tête-Jaune spoke as abruptly as before, “Père Dugas told me, a long time ago.” Bonhomme heard that and anger rose from his stricken heart. Anger came as a relief, for there was not perplexity mixed with that feeling. Père Dugas’ treachery, as he thought it, was firmly established from the moment the words fell upon his ears, and the priest never regained his former standing. But his affection for Désiré remained unshaken, indeed intensified. The false relationship was destroyed, and they were face to face with facts. There arose also a warmer feeling on Désiré’s part. He was less careless and arrogant, and something like a filial tone, at times, came into his voice when speaking to Bonhomme; but he did not call him ‘père.’

    One spring morning life at Heron Bay was disturbed by the reappearance of Laus, whose wife and wife’s mother were with him. They had slipped in under cover of darkness in a single canoe, with no possession save an old tent, a couple of blankets, a tea-pail and a frying pan. They seemed a destitute group, but a few days they were comfortably established. Laus was as furtive, as silent as of old, but experience had written some sinister lines on his face; he looked dissipated and there was a dangerous confidence in his manner. Veronique, his wife, was dark and slender, and needed to be as subtle as she was to fend off Laus’ cruelty. Her mother, whom she called Mou-mou, became in a week Mou-mou to the whole village. She was friendly, helpful and garrulous, and liked everyone and everything at Heron Bay. Laus spent the summer in idleness. His hatred for Tête-Jaune, whose standing he found almost equal to Bonhomme’s, was as deadly as ever, and, when that hatred infected all his relations with his neighbours, his life in the community again became intolerable. In the following October he disappeared after beating Veronique and Mou-mou. When their bruises were healed they and everyone else seemed much happier.

    But Bonhomme, as winter came on, was troubled. A change had come over the place; youth seemed livelier; there was more music and dancing. The change seemed to radiate from Veronique. Mou-mou’s friendliness made their home a rendezvous. Veronique, free of Laus, came to her true self; she slipped from shadow into sunlight, and her beauty flashed and smouldered as her whim prompted. Her vitality quickened the pulse of the village; house lights burned longer at night, and often Bonhomme was wakened by singing and laughter, even later than midnight, and saw groups under the white moonshine, black as spruces, moving on the shining snow. He was troubled. In this, as in everything, Tête-Jaune was for him the index; in him was summed up the restless passion that had crept into life. Safety lay in the coming of winter and Bonhomme prepared as usual for the trapping. But Tête-Jaune took no interest, and one day when Bonhomme mildly found him at fault he said abruptly, “I’m not going to the woods this winter.” Argument seemed futile and Bonhomme dallied until after Christmas. Then suddenly Tête-Jaune changed his mind, in moody haste got ready and, without a farewell to anyone, left with Bonhomme for the upper Pic River. But the expedition was a failure. Tête-Jaune seemed distrait; he grew lean and there was a tormented light in his eyes. “Look here, old chap,” he said one morning early in March, “I’m through, I’m going back.” There was no arguing with him, “Why go back now? there’s no reason; only the women there.” “That’s reason enough.” Then Bonhomme understood fully what he had before only imagined and feared. “You’re only heading for trouble, only for trouble.” It was useless; all words were useless. One brilliant morning, when tufts of snow, loosened by the sun, were falling from the spruces, he was alone.

    When he came back to the village he found Tête-Jaune’s spirits much improved; he showed alertness and energy and the old careless arrogance. Beauty was hardly apprehended by Bonhomme, who knew no more of statues than he knew of northern myths, or he might have seen in Tête-Jaune an incarnation of legend. He knew nothing of the fascination of contrast and the world-old witchery of the serpent woman, or he might have seen them combined in Veronique. Love to him was merely taking and giving. While he could not appreciate the contest between these two, he knew the danger. “Why meddle with Laus’ wife? That’s all she is, another man’s wife; nothing but trouble will come of it.” He ordered Mou-mou to interfere; but she, who was, in this environment, a woman of the world, merely shrugged her shoulders. If Laus was not there to protect his interests she would not represent the conventions. She was excited by this approach of passion; it brought back her own youth.

    “That girl’s nothing but a bush fire,” said Bonhomme, with an unusual touch of metaphor. “You’re a cold fellow and she’ll burn you; you’ll catch it, my lad; just leave her alone.” Tête-Jaune laughed. “Look here, old fellow, don’t you bother yourself; I can manage my own business.” Later, when Bonhomme was angry and hopeless, he said: “See here, Tête-Jaune, if you want a woman take Olivine; take her now and marry her when the priest comes. Now there’s a girl for you, I know what’s in that girl’s head, always looking after you.” “Why, old fellow, Bonhomme, isn’t she one of the family?” And that question was all the meed that Olivine received for a lifelong devotion. Even in the wild places there is heartbreak. “She’s none of our blood, we just found her one day; settle down with her and stop running after that bitch; anyone could have her, she’s a bad one.” Tête-Jaune took him roughly by the shoulders. “No more of that; no more of that! She’s mine, mine!” There was such light in his eyes, such exaltation in his voice, that Bonhomme felt abashed, almost humbled before him.

    Veronique, who had been wary at first, had lost the power of evasion and dalliance and had given herself with passion as intense and consuming as Désiré’s. One spring morning they were missing. Bonhomme found one of the sailboats gone. They had taken a tent and blankets, a net, some food and utensils, and had vanished. Very early, when light had just begun to flow, they had rowed, through the mist on the bay, out into the deep lake, and had seen the morning star and the colour of dawn.Bonhomme sat all day in despair. He knew that he had lost Désiré. His despair was final when they came back in September. Veronique’s condition became more evident as month followed month. “Now, you see,” he said plaintively to Tête-Jaune, “what are you going to do now?”

    “Nothing.”

    “What about Laus?”

    “He won’t come here; and if he does, what did you do?”

    Bonhomme was taken aback; he disputed: “Things were different then. Everyone did as he pleased; now it’s a scandal; the country’s full of people; they’re building a railway; they come here and take our names, and ask questions; nothing is the same.” He was confused by this reference to the past and began, as he reflected, to understand how he had changed. He was arguing against his old self, but he could not imagine Laus in his place. So far as he was concerned Désiré’s father had never existed, but Tête-Jaune was visible and lusty in the flesh. “Laus won’t do as I did! maybe I was a fool. I should have let Pere Dugas make a priest of you as he wanted to; but I was careless, and then my head got full of fancies.” That was all Bonhomme could say for himself, but Désiré reassured him, “Well then, don’t bother about anything; just keep cool and let me manage my own affairs.” Tête-Jaune had grown quieter, and there was gravity in his careless arrogance.

    When Veronique’s boy was born it seemed to Bonhomme that an end had come to a long struggle. He was no more of any use. Tête-Jaune was as separate from him as any of the others. He asked only one question, “What will you do if Laus comes back?” The answer was fierce, with something of the old high-handed abruptness: “I’ll throw him into the lake.” But the question was always in Bonhomme’s mind; and the reply, to his ear, had not the old ring of command and resolve.

    Then when life seemed to be settling into routine, with adjustment to the new relationship, Laus returned. He came overland carrying a pack and a rifle. He bore signs of hardship, he was gaunt and his eyes were fiery. There was an ugly unhealed wound on his forehead, half gash and half bruise. It was late afternoon and no one was in the house when he slunk in. Finding a flask in his pack, he took a drink of whiskey and threw himself down thoroughly exhausted. Rumours of events at Heron Bay had reached him where he was working on the right-of-way. Hearing voices, he roused himself,—Veronique’s voice and Mou-mou’s. He rushed out towards them on the path. Veronique was carrying her boy. Laus sprang like a wildcat, but Mou-mou was between them, and screamed and attacked him with her claws. Veronique escaped. In a few moments everyone knew that Laus had come back, everyone but Bonhomme and Tête-Jaune, who were on the lake fishing. Mou-mou, who was not afraid of Laus, wheedled him into the house and tried to quiet him. Although she was cold with fear for Veronique’s safety, she endeavoured to keep up a meaningless, one-sided conversation, for Laus never spoke. Always ready to minister she got water and washed the wound on his forehead; he submitted as if dazed or indifferent. She tried to get the rifle away from him; he held it firm under his arm on the table and after a while he went to sleep resting on it and grasping the whiskey bottle. Mou-mou could get neither. He woke after an hour and took another drink. The sound of oars came from the lake, and some loud talking. They were trying to tell Bonhomme before he landed that Laus had come back. They took the news each after his own fashion; Tête-Jaune was indifferent, Bonhomme perplexed by this development which he had forseen and feared. What was to be done now? Laus sat still listening. Then he sprang up, reeled, steadied himself, and struck Mou-mou a stunning blow. Désiré was coming up the bank with Bonhomme behind him. The rifle flashed and the shot echoed around the shore.

    Bonhomme felt the whole of Désiré’s weight fall upon him. The great head lay on his shoulder. There was a second or two of intense stillness. Bonhomme heard a voice in his ear, hardly above a whisper, but distinct. Tête-Jaune’s voice. “Mon père,—mon père,—mon …” The breath stopped. Then all rushed together to lift and carry him. Bonhomme held his head and shoulders; Olivine caught one arm around her neck; they were thick around the body; even the children tried to touch and carry him. The cortège moved slowly, painfully, from the lake shore up the bank and on to the house.

    Later, when dusk had fallen and they had lighted a few candles, Bonhomme, who had hardly spoken, shouted loudly, “Tell Laus to get away; drive him away; no one wants to look at him; let the law get him if it wants him!” But Laus had gone already and no one ever saw him again. Later still, the room was quieter, only a low whispering in the shadow. At last, there were only Olivine and Bonhomme. She sat on the floor with Désiré’s head in her lap. She had closed his eyes and folded his hands on his breast. No one knew of the ache at her heart. Suddenly tears rushed down Bonhomme’s cheeks. He roused himself, and cried out with a note of piteous inquiry, “Did you hear what he called me; did you…?”

    But no one had heard.

    After that, Bonhomme lost his hold on life. For a few seasons he hunted as usual, but without the old vigour, and each summer he did less and less. No one knew how old he was, he did not know himself. Dates were vague to him and seemed to change with his feelings. When he was well and lively the date of his birth was not so far in the past; when he was worn out or in pain it was long, long ago. His was of life from the early years had been strenuous; men age quickly when exposed to the hazards of the voyageur and trapper. One winter when he was alone, making an old-fashioned bear-trap, a log fell on his head. After two days they found him and brought him home. His hunting was over. He seemed dazed, spoke very little and with difficulty. Olivine cared for him, watched over him, saw that his food was good and led him about.

    One evening she had left him at his favourite place on the lake-shore. The boys had lighted a fire and were feeding it with driftwood. Bonhomme watched them dully. Then suddenly something seemed to arouse his attention. A lad had come into the firelight. He was tugging at a log too heavy for him, struggling to get it to the fire; about eight years old, strongly built, with bright, determined face, and with a mass of fair hair falling over his forehead. He was Désiré’s son. Bonhomme straightened himself and gazed intently. He had never paid attention to the lad, and seemed to see him now for the first time. But was it this lad that he saw? He strove to rise: then pointing with his left hand and making a beckoning, imploring motion with his right, he forced out the words, brokenly: “Tête-Jaune,—Tête-Jaune!— ” and again, “Tête-Jaune!” No one heard him. The lad pushed the log on the fire, paused, smiled triumphantly and turned away. Bonhomme’s hands fell to knees; he muttered awhile to himself.

    The fire died, the water began to murmur, night was falling, and, as if the lake were breathing, a cold air flooded the shore. When Olivine came for him, they went slowly up the slope towards the house. Once he stopped, put her gently aside, looked at her searchingly and tried to say something. She waited patiently, but no words came. Then she took his arm and they went on together in silence.