The Uncollected Short Stories of Duncan Campbell Scott

By Duncan Campbell Scott, edited by Tracy Ware



The Ducharmes of the Baskatonge



    In the heart of a northern wilderness, on the shore of an unnamed lake, stands the ruin of a small hut. Half the roof has fallen in. The logs are rotted and covered with moss. In the dark corners spectral weeds and ferns die longing for the sun. The winter wind, untamed out of the north, charges against its crumbling walls and drives the sifted snow, hissing like steam, across the surface of the lake. The haunts of men seem as far away as the stars that throb faintly in the lonely vastness of the summer sky. The silence that dwells forever in the waste places of the world is shaken by unheeded storms and the muffled cries of life in the gloom of the immense forests that darken beneath her brooding wings.
    “Ducharme! Ducharme! François—has—gone—over—the—rapids!” The words came in short gusts across the water to where Octave Ducharme stood, pike-pole in hand. They were running the logs on the St. Joseph. The river was racing over the rapids to where the falls were roaring and pulsing under the dome of mist which the April sun was smiting with rainbow shafts that broke and glanced upon its shifting sides.
    Ducharme struck his pole deep into the boom, and gazed under his hand up the gleaming river. The water was broken and curled, and came turning the sudden bend with foam-topped waves that were bright now in the afternoon sun. He looked steadily for a moment; then, as he saw something drift into sight other than the dipping logs, he pulled off his heavy boots, threw down his hat, and watched again. There was a rush of men on the river road, with waving of arms and confused cries. But Ducharme ever watched the speck in the swift water, that drew near to him and took the shape of a white face drawn with pain and rocked to and fro in the current. They were shouting from the bank: “Don’t go in!”—“You’ll both go over!”— “François!”—“Octave!”—shouts—groans—wild jostling of men, and waving of arms. But he stood as calmly as if he were watching a musk-rat cleave the brown waters of some quiet lake in an ever-widening wedge. Suddenly he drew himself up and plunged just in front of the floating face. [Page 3] The two men spoke to one another quickly as they were drifted swiftly together.
    “Oh! Octave, my leg, my leg!”
    “Never mind, little brother; put your hand on my shoulder.”
    The strong arms were making new eddies in the torn water. The crowd ran along the bank shouting wildly: “Get into the eddy!”—“Ducharme!”— “Ducharme!”—“Strike into the eddy, or you’ll go over!”—“My God!”— “Catch the boom!”—“Strike in!”—“We’ll pull you out!”
    They ran out on the boom where it was swinging dangerously at the mouth of the chute. The water there was curved in a great glassy heap with long wiry streaks. Above was the eddy, wheeling and turning. To get into its power was safety. The swimmer kept edging in. In a few moments he would be abreast of it. He was muttering, under his breath: “Keep up, little brother; keep up, little brother.”
    The men on the shore strained forward, struck in the air as if swimming, stamped with their feet, and reached out over the river.
    “My God! he’s safe!”—“No! he’s missed it!” One huge fellow sank on his knees and hid his face. “No! boys, he’s in!”—“They’ll get him!”— “They’re against the boom!”—“Baptiste has him!”—“They’re safe!”— and a wild yell of joy tore through the air.
    “Take him first,” Octave was saying; “two of you hang on—the water will carry him under—I’m all right—pull him along out of the current— there now.”
    The men stood around as they strove to bring François to, and when he opened his eyes they went back to their work and left him with Octave and the three who had taken him out of the water. His leg was broken in two places and his head was gashed; but he was all right, he said, and they carried him into the shanty.
    That was almost the first year they were on the river together, and all the dangers that crowded thickly about them in the years of toil that followed were warded off by the strength of four arms; for one Ducharme was never alone, and it was always “The Ducharmes,” not “François” or “Octave,” but “The Ducharmes,” “The Ducharmes of the Baskatonge.” Whether hunting, or logging, or driving, or running the rafts down to the St. Lawrence, or at home on the Baskatonge, it was always the same. “Have you the Ducharmes?” one foreman would say to another; “then you’re all right.”
    How the work went when there was Octave to sing and François to lead the musical cry, when all arms strained together! And they never seemed to think of one another. They went along unconsciously, working together, [Page 4] and when François was hurt it was Octave who stayed with him until he was better.
    “Octave, Octave,” François would say, but in return it was always “Little brother.” No one could tell why. One was as tall as the other, and as strong. They were like two stalwart young pines, straight and towering; only, if you watched them closely, François never even lit his pipe until he saw the smoke part Octave’s lips and curl about his face. Octave was always first. They did not know it themselves, but François always followed.
    Their little house back on the Baskatonge was heaped round with snow in the winter, and the frosty wind blew no wreaths of smoke from the chimney into the pines. But that had not always been so; there had been a time when there were four Ducharmes instead of two, and when the frost drew curtains across the windows of the happiest home in the north.
    Hypolite Ducharme was a trapper and hunter who sold his furs to the traders, and never swung an axe except to cut his own firewood. He had lived for some years on the Baskatonge, and did not find himself lonely until one day, when he took his winter’s haul of furs down the Gatineau, he saw a pair of brown eyes that told him plainly that he could not visit his traps day after day, and hear the sound of the wild fowl driving in a wedge southward to the sunlit sweeps of reeds and curved reaches of moving marsh grass, without seeing that house, back from the river about the flight of a wounded partridge, and the girl with the plaited hair working to the music of her own voice.
    At noon the next day many were the bends and rapids between him and the three logs where he had landed the night before; but, as his canoe steadied and swung out into the current, he was watched from the bushes, and until the river hid behind the stony spur of the hill, that never before looked as cold and hopeless, the dark eyes under the arch of brown hands timed the flashing paddle, and when the sun burned red for a moment on the canoe, as it turned behind the hill—would it ever come back?—the November mists came into that May day, and the wind kept turning the dead leaves in the forest.
    The way had never seemed so long before; the canoe was never so heavy, and one season he had twice as many furs. But when he turned north again it was a short road he had to travel; and when he reached the rocky point the current bore him a white wood-lily, which he took out of the water as it grazed the canoe-side.
    He travelled north again, but not alone, and many were the thickets that trembled to the unknown sound of a woman’s voice. For it was a little matter [Page 5] whether it was on the Baskatonge or the Gatineau that Marie Delorme lived so long as she was with the man she loved.
    But that was long ago; and all the marks which Hypolite Ducharme blazed on the trees have grown over in ridges, and when an otter is caught he is always the finest the trapper ever saw.
    Before Hypolite was killed by the bear, and before Marie died, the boys had learned all their father could teach them of hunting and trapping; but when they were left to themselves they chose to go to the shanties, where there was company and better pay. But in the summer, when the season’s work was over, they went back to their old home and hunted and fished until the autumn came again.
    When they were there alone they would often talk of their father and mother. Octave always remembered his father as he saw him striding through the bushes with a young doe across his shoulders; but François always remembered him as he found him, that night, dead under the bear. Their mother, too—whenever Octave spoke her name a cheery face looked out into the night to welcome the tired trappers; but François saw her pale, and heard the thin voice, “François, François, I am dying!” And now they were not so much alone as they had been. Gradually the settlement had crept boldly from the Desert, up the river and back into the country, and now in a day’s journey there were many families; on the Bras d’Or, Dubois and Granden; on the Claire, Charbonneau and Faubert; and on the Castor, McMorran—White McMorran, to distinguish him from his brother, who, however, was never called Black McMorran—and the Phelans and O’Dohertys.
    The Castor, where there were no beavers, but only broken dams, was five miles from the Baskatonge. There was a path through the woods, and an hour and a quarter would take a good walker from the Baskatonge to the McMorrans’. Octave Ducharme could walk that distance in an hour, but then few could walk as fast as Octave.
    Already the McMorrans’ place began to look like a farm; there were always fires eating into the bush, and the small barn was getting too small.
    The Ducharmes were favorites with their neighbors. Octave always did most of the talking; and as François was quick-tempered, he had sometimes to step forward and take the lead in a conversation that would have surely ended in blows. It was seldom that this last ever happened, as the general saying was, “fight one Ducharme, fight two,” and so François’s hot words usually passed unnoticed. But Octave was so good-tempered that the balance was kept even. [Page 6]
    The brothers seemed so entirely at one that the people were not surprised when they learned in after years that they had both fallen in love with the same girl. It seemed quite natural; and then, “you couldn’t blame them, for everyone was in love with Keila McMorran.”
    There were some things about it, though, that nobody could understand.
    “One of them didn’t know the other was in love with her.”
    “Well, I used to see them down there together, and they’d walk off home like two lambs.”
    “That couldn’t last you know.”
    “No, and it didn’t last.”
    This was the general drift of the remarks the neighbors made when they commenced to talk on the subject. It was an ever-recurring topic of conversation, and never was settled to the satisfaction of everyone, although some had decided for themselves.
    However these talks commenced, they always ended in one way. There would be a pause, then the words would come slowly, as if the speakers were dreaming of a form they could not forget.
    “Strong? I believe he could lift an ox.”
    “Yes; and he was the best chopper on the river.”
    “And what a man on the drive!”
    “And kind-hearted!”
    “Humph!”
    “Poor Octave!”

•     •     •

    It was a bright August morning, and François was sitting at his door smoking. He was watching a squirrel that was seated at the root of a tree, twirling something between his front feet, when a small, tattered boy, with wide, frightened eyes that turned to all sides as if he expected to be pounced on by some hidden enemy, came toward him from the bush. François turned and spoke to him. He answered:
    “I—I—want Octave.”
    “Gone away.”
    “But I must see Octave.”
    “Can’t.”
    “But I must.”
    “Can’t; gone away.”
    “Is he going to come back?”
    “To-night.”
    [Page 7]
    “But I must see him before to-night. I have to tell him something.”
    “Can’t; home to-night. Tell me.”
    It was the youngest of the McMorran boys—Tim. He could not understand François’s French, and François could speak but little English.
    “I can’t tell you. Will you tell Octave?”
    “Yes.”
    “Well, when I was fishing last night, down by the bank, two fellows came and talked near where I was, and I heard them, and one of the Phelan boys is going to shoot Octave to-night.”
    “To shoot Octave!” François jumped to his feet. “Why?”
    “Because our Keila won’t marry him, and he thinks she’s going to marry Octave.”
    “When?”
    “I don’t know.”
    “To shoot Octave—when?”
    “To-night, down at the old road.”
    “To shoot Octave—to-night—one of the Phelan boys—old road.”
    “Will you tell Octave?”
    “No!”—in a tone that set Tim’s teeth chattering—“Yes, yes, yes; go home.” The small boy ran away, but was soon stealing back. “Will—will— you tell Octave?”
    “Yes; go home.”
    François thought a long time, and then began to throw chips at the squirrel that was hanging head downward half way up the tree.

    It was twilight; and down where the path from the Ducharmes’ joined the old road a figure crouching in the bushes held a gun, steadied in the low crotch of a shrub and pointed right across the path. His jaws were tightly locked, and whenever he chanced to open them his teeth chattered as if the warm evening breeze that just stirred the bushes was a blast from the north. Every now and then his whole body shook convulsively, and the gun rattled in the forked branch. He was listening for a step in the path. Now he thought he heard it, and drew himself together with a great effort; but it was some other sound in the woods. He noticed nothing stirring behind him; and when a collie, with an angry growl, jumped out into the path and ran away, with its tail between its legs, the cold sweat burst out on his face and hands. But now he could make no mistake—there was someone coming, and he huddled over the gun. The twigs were cracking in the still air, and he thought he could hear the bushes sway; but before he could be sure, there was a grip on his neck like a vice, and his hands left the gun to grasp [Page 8] a pair of iron wrists. He turned slowly over on the ground, and a figure knelt on his chest, choking him until his eyes glared whitely in the darkness and his tongue shot out between his teeth, and held him among the little ferns and mosses so tightly that he could not even have stirred them with his breath. And now the twigs commenced to break, the rustle of leaves grew louder, and someone passed with long, swinging strides. They could hear him breathe, and it seemed like a century before the air was quiet again. Then the hands relaxed and an arm reached for the gun. The figure rose slowly, but the other did not stir. He drew in his tongue, grasped his throat with his hands, and continued glaring with white, distended eyes into the face of the form above him. The hands had grasped the gun, and had torn the stock from the barrel and thrown each in a different direction. Then the foot stirred the man who was struggling for breath on the ground. He turned over slowly and lay still for a moment; then he rose on his hands and knees and crawled, like a wounded snake, into the low, uncertain cedar shadows. Watching for a while where the darkness had swallowed up that cringing form, parting the bushes and standing on the path, where the first trembling star of evening was shining, François Ducharme stepped homeward to the Baskatonge.
    Octave had walked steadily until he came to where the path turned along the lake-side. There was a thin screen of bushes between the path and the shore, but where the ground rose suddenly the point that jutted into the water was bare of trees, save a maple or two. As he approached this point the sound of singing reached his ears, and he almost knelt as he stretched himself at full length to listen.
    From where the shore line shone like silver against the clear, black shades, from where the night was bending earthward, violet-shadowed, from where the night wind waited in the sedges; stilling the distant trilling and whirring, floating into the rocking reeds, trembling about the dreaming arrow-heads, waking evasive echoes from sleep-shrouded thickets, calling out the wondering stars—the voice floated on the lake to where the listener lay with hidden face and stilled breath.
    All the grass seemed stirring about him, and a leaf, withered before its time, dropped lightly on his head. How far away the singing sounded; and now he seemed not to hear it at all.
    The past years—the wide silence of the woods—the far-away fall of trees—the call of some moss-mantled stream—the mother’s quiet ways— the future, the future—a home somewhere—and Keila McMorran singing in the evening—until a wilful wind sprang up and caught the unfinished strain and bore it away up the hills, where the young birds just heard it and [Page 9] opened their wings and slept again. And the years that passed him slowly found him, with the unfinished song in his ears, waiting for the strain that went with the wind over the hill-tops.
    He rose and walked on to the McMorrans’, and when his face was set again toward the Baskatonge, and the moon was half way up the sky, there was a song in the air which the trees had never heard before.
    The house was dark. He opened the door quietly, and went softly to where François was sleeping on the low bed built against the wall. He sat down beside him and passed his hand gently over his face. Then François awoke, and the brothers talked for a long time in low tones.
    “It is all right. I have asked her.”
    “And?”
    “And she has said ‘Yes—Yes;’ Keila herself said ‘Yes.’ I am happy, little brother.”
    François’s face was white in the dimness.
    “And now what will you do?”
    “I will have a farm, and you will live with me.”
    “Not here?”
    “No, not here; down by the Castor, when I get money enough.”
    “You will have the money.”
    “No; it is yours too.”
    “But I don’t want it. I will live here just the same—only you, Octave,
you will not be here.”
    “No, little brother, you will live with me. Keila said so.”
    “Did she say that, Octave?” his voice trembled.
    “Yes; Keila said so.”
    Then there was a long silence, and the cry of the loons came from the lake, through the open door, across the strip of moonlight.
    “Will you come to bed, Octave?”
    “No, not yet.”
    He rose and closed the door behind him, shutting out the light, and walked up and down the beach until the sun drove the last laggard star out of the sky.

•     •     •

    Aside from the path, near to the Castor, in the dense forest, was a little oval plot of the greenest grass. The flowers never bloomed there, but hovered about the silver stems of the poplars that circled the spot, and when they commenced to die the wind carried their petals inside the close and [Page 10] strewed them on the grass. At one side a large stone had thrust itself for a foot or so into the space, and its moss-covered ledge formed a low bench.
    It was a June evening of the next year. The darkness had closed in early, and the poplars were the only trees that answered to the faint breeze. Octave was walking, almost as quickly as usual, in the direction of the Castor. The path was familiar to him, and even in the darkness he stepped over the logs and avoided the low branches. He was whistling to himself so softly that the breath just vibrated on his lips.
    As he approached the line of underbrush that separated the path from the little circle of grass, he heard the sound of voices. He went on, without slacking his pace, until he came to a place where the hazels were less thick. Then he stopped suddenly, as if he had stepped against a stone wall, and put his hand to his head.
    A voice was saying: “We should not have come here; we must go away.” He could make no mistake. That was Keila’s voice.
    “No; I have something to say.” It was when he heard these words that he put his hand to his head. That was, it must be, he knew it was François.
    He stepped off the path on the opposite side from where they were talking, and leaned against a young tree, twining his arms through the low branches. The words came very distinctly to him, mingled with the light shivering rustle of the poplars.
    “I know that you love me, Keila,” François was saying.
    “You must not say so.”
    “But I cannot live without you.”
    “You must. We must think of Octave; he is so good.”
    “Yes; but I wish he had never seen you. Why did you ever tell him you loved him?”
    “I did love him, François—only—only, you should never have come near me, then I would always have loved him the best.”

    “But now, Keila?”
    “Oh! François, you must not talk to me; you don’t know how Octave
loves me.”
    “And you don’t know how I love you.”
    “Yes; but think of Octave. How many times he has fought for you, and
saved your life.”

    “Yes; it is true. But what can we do?”
    “We can both be true to Octave. Yes, François, I must be true to Octave.”
    “Why can’t you go away with me down the river and never come back?”
    [Page 11]
    “You must go away alone, and never see me again.”
    “Keila, I cannot leave you.”
    “You must. Do promise me, François! Think of poor Octave.”
    There was a long silence. The wind had risen and all the trees were sighing softly.
    “Do promise me!”
    “Yes, Keila, I will promise you; but I must go away. I can never come back. Only let me see you once again, here, to-morrow night, and I will promise you anything.”

    “Well, François, I will come for a little while. You must not come home with me. Octave will come to-night. Good-by!”
    “Good-by!”
    They came out into the path and walked in opposite directions.

    Octave seemed to be thinking the words as they came to him so slowly. It could never be that they were there talking; but François passed quite close to him, and he could have no doubt.
    The words kept recurring as he had heard them, only the rustle of the trees was still, and from about his feet rose the smell of crushed moss and wet leaves. Very near him were a few large white lilies that shone through the darkness dimly, like shrouded stars. He hung there, like a stag caught by the antlers, waiting for death, until the dark forest pools commenced to brighten with the dawn, and the birds near him began to wake; then he drew himself up and walked away.
    He went, by paths through the tangled forest, toward the lake that was lying silvered somewhere in the north. He passed the spots where they used to set their traps when his father was alive. He seemed to be back in that faded time again, and paused often to wait for the little brother who would always lag behind.
    The lake was reached at last. He threw himself down where a group of poplars and a few maples made a shady place, where the shore was high and the water stretched away to the island, where the wrecked cedars lay blanched, like the bones of giants, on the broken shore.
    The day wore on. Now and then a small, shadowy cloud drifted dreamily out of the west and vanished like a vision. The winds touched the water lightly, making ripples that never reached the shore.
    All day long he lay quietly, as if asleep, and the shadows of leaves kept fluttering over him with countless soothing hands. The sun sank, leaving no color in the sky, and already the twilight was falling.
    The water was very quiet, and seemed to be heaving toward him as he gazed at it. He folded his arms, and a great calm stole over him, as he [Page 12] looked past the island where the lake seemed shoreless. And when it was dark he rose and went back by the track that he had followed in the morning, and stood at last very near to the place where he had paused the night before.
    There was a low talking in the bushes. He waited for a moment, and then parted the branches and stood just within the little circle.
    “François!” he said. His voice was very clear. They were seated on the low stone, and had not heard him. They started. François stood up and looked at Octave standing in among the ghostly white poplars.
    “François, do not speak. Last night I heard you. You need not go away, you and Keila. She loves you, and I—I love you both. I am older than you, little brother. And do you remember when I gave you the little doe I caught back by the Ruisseau?—so long ago; and now—now it is Keila that I give you. You need not go away, and I will come and see you sometimes.”
    Keila had hidden her face and was trembling, and François had turned away. When the voice ceased he came forward, but Octave said: “No, little brother, do not come near me—you will see me often—but I will go home now,” and the bushes closed behind him.

        

    The sun was setting one October evening, and under a steep ridge of rock, that rose in steps and made a jagged outline against the sky, two men were talking.
    “Where are you going, Octave?”
    “Home.”
    “To-night?”
    “Yes, to-night. You will stay here?”
    “Yes. Will you be down in the morning?”
    “I don’t know.”
    “You will come down for the wedding?”
    “Yes, I think so.”
    “You must come, Octave.”
    “Yes, I must come.”
    “Are you going now?”
    “Yes.”
    It was growing dark rapidly. The sun had set and the sky was flushed and knotted like the forehead of an angry god. François turned his back to the hill, but lingered to look after Octave. He could not see him leaping up from ledge to ledge, but suddenly he sprang from the low brow of the hill [Page 13] and stood for a moment outlined firmly against the sky, then as suddenly vanished. Into the gloom, François thought; but all the little hollow was filled with clear light, and away where the low bushes crouched along the stream a wakeful bird was uttering a few long-drawn, passionate notes. The night that followed was dark and starless, and the wind, searching for forgotten paths among the trees, heaved long, low, tremulous sighs.
    On the morrow there was a wedding at the Mission; but hearts would have been happier for the presence of one who never came, and eyes would have been brighter for the sight of one they never saw again.

•     •     •

    Years have passed. On many silent hills and in many lonely valleys the stumps of pines stand where the sun used to touch the green tops a hundred feet above them. The stalwart trunks have gone to cover homes in the south, and to shelter the heads of happy children from the storms which they learned to resist on their native hills in the north.
    But greater changes have taken place at the Castor. The lake seems wider now, but that is because there is only one little strip of forest on the west side. The fields rise gradually on the rounded hill, and the sun, which used to cast gloomy shadows into the lake, has to smile now across golden fields of ripe oats and barley.
    The rocky eastern shore remains unchanged; but on the west there are two houses, with their barns and low outbuildings.
    In the evening the collie drives home the cows, and the bells clang wildly through the bushes. A young voice keeps calling to him, and he answers with sharp yelps. Soon a stalwart lad bursts through the underbrush into the path, and goes singing after the cows. He hears a voice calling from the bars. “Octave! Octave! Octave!” His brother waits there for him to pass, and they put up the bars and go home together.
    Then there is often singing in the evening, and laughter; and White McMorran loves to come over and smoke, and listen to his grandchildren talk, and hold the youngest on his knees. But now it is always the Ducharmes of the Castor; no more the Ducharmes of the Baskatonge.
    In the heart of a northern wilderness, on the shore of an unnamed lake, stands the ruin of a small hut. Half the roof has fallen in. The logs are rotted and covered with moss. In the dark corners spectral weeds and ferns die longing for the sun. The spring winds, touching the water lightly, make ripples that never reach the shore. In early summer the small, shadowy clouds drift dreamily out of the west and vanish like a vision. [Page 14] In autumn the sky is flushed and knotted, like the forehead of an angry god; a wakeful bird, somewhere in the bushes, utters a few long-drawn, passionate notes; the night that follows is dark and starless, and the wind, searching for forgotten paths among the trees, heaves long, low, tremulous sighs. The winter wind, untamed out of the north, drives the sifted snow, hissing like steam, across the surface of the lake. The haunts of men seem as far away as the stars that throb faintly in the lonely vastness of the summer sky. The silence that dwells forever in the waste places of the world is shaken by unheeded storms and the muffled cries of life in the gloom of the immense forests that darken beneath her brooding wings. [Page 15]