The Uncollected Short Stories of Duncan Campbell Scott

By Duncan Campbell Scott, edited by Tracy Ware

Their Wedding Eve: A Story of the War of 1812

    There was no snow on the ground. It was Christmas Eve. We were waiting for conveyance to Amherstburg. It was late in the afternoon, and the sky over Lake Erie was looming dark with snow. My companion was a dignified old man whose name I did not know. Long white hair fell upon his shoulders; his features were regular; his eyes were piercing and dark. His complexion was swarthy: the strain of some wild blood followed his veins.
    Before the driver turned the stage out of the hostelry sheds single snowflakes began to fall slowly. We could count them. But as we left the hamlet behind us we came suddenly into flocks of these slow-moving flakes. They fell in groups, clinging to one another; they melted as they fell; they fell silently; the air was moving with the constant fluttering mass. They gathered in dark blotches upon our coats and melted upon our faces.
    “We will have a wet drive,” I said to my sole companion.
    “Yes,” he replied.
    “But,” I resumed, “before morning the wind will shift into the north and it will freeze hard.” He turned and gazed intently at me.
    “What you have just said is very curious,” he remarked. “I have heard that it happened so on Christmas Eve seventy-two years ago.”
    “Yes?” said I, interrogatively.
    The story which he then and there began absorbed me; the road shrank and I became unconscious of the snow falling ceaselessly.

•     •     •

    On the shore of Lake Erie, near enough for the beating of the waves to be heard within its walls, stood a house almost surrounded by forest. To the front there was the great openness of the lake, with its constant play of color, light and darkness. The house was little better than a shanty, built of logs, covered with a scoop roof. [Page 115]
    The fire leaping in the rude chimney of the one apartment which this house contained lit up a singular group. There was a large man in the dress of a trapper. He had a face marked for violence and evil deeds, and its villainous expression was heightened by several scars, one of which lay in a bluish welt across his forehead. His left nostril had been slit by a knife, and the stroke had gone down into the hair upon his lip, showing redly through it. He had one enormous hand, as large as a giant’s. There was a Pottowattamie Indian, whose name signified “Man-looking-beyond.” He wore the old tunic of a British soldier, and wore it falsely, for his heart hated it. On his head was a Glengarry bonnet without the ribbons; a pair of riding breeches came to his knees, and his feet were covered with moccasins. There was a young girl, somewhat picturesquely clad. She wore a jacket of bright red and a skirt of brown drugget falling to the knee. Her black, luxuriant hair was braided and coiled closely. Her costume was completed by a pair of deerskin moccasins and leggings, highly ornamented with designs in porcupine quills. Her face was brown, and at a glance her Indian blood was discernible, but her features were finely moulded, and her figure was alert, slender and beautifully modelled. The fourth figure in the group was that of a young man clothed in a complete Indian costume, but he evidently wore it from whim, for his face was fair, and England spoke from his eyes. The Indian stood; the rest were seated on the floor upon skins; the pelt of a black bear filled the space between them.
    “Well, Captain Pring of his Majesty’s 4th, what do you think of this turn in your fortunes? It isn’t six months since you were for hanging Ebenezer Allen, and now Ebenezer Allen is for hanging you or getting rid of you in some more decent way, for there is really nothing mean about me, although I hate you bad enough to eat your heart. I’ve heard of a soldier’s death and all that. What do you say?”
    “I have nothing to say. I know perfectly well that you are a scoundrel who should have been hanged long ago.”
    “You’re bold for a lad who has his hands tied behind his back and a devil of a Pottowattamie ready to push a knife into his ribs if I was to hold up a finger; but there’s nothing mean about me. I’ve caught you fair, and I hold that when war’s in the country every man carries the law behind his eyes.” The Pottowattamie grunted approvingly. Berenice glanced at Captain Pring, who had not taken his eyes from Allen.
    “The law that you carry in your head will be mighty ruthless,” he remarked.
    “As ruthless as yours when you said I could be hanged for the catching.” [Page 116]
    “You were a traitor—” but here Berenice put her hand over his mouth.
    “Let him talk,” said Allen, darkness coming upon his face. “The likes of him calls me a traitor, and I listen; but if I was half as bad as I feel I’d tie the two of you together and sink you between here and Pelee Island.”
    “Man-looking-beyond” approved in the Indian fashion.
    “He did not mean it, father,” said Berenice.
    “Meant it as much as I would if I called you the same for giving away your father’s plans, and sending Baptiste Cadotte the other way last July, when I had five lads in wait for him. You Britishers are all alike; you think you own this country, when there are plenty of lads within a ten-mile of here who would run the Stars and Stripes up at Malden if they had their way.” Pring strained at his thongs.
    “You lie!” he cried. “If I were free you wouldn’t speak in that way.” The blood blinded his eyes. Allen laid his hideous, huge hand on the bearskin.
    “Come, come,” he said, in mock conciliation, “don’t let us quarrel. I propose a little game of cards. What do you say? To-morrow, early, you are going to the happy hunting ground. The red lad here can hardly keep his fingers off you. I don’t mind in the least doing the little business myself, but there are three of us (this with a leer at Berenice); suppose we play a little simple game.” He produced an evil-looking pack of cards from under the bearskin. “There are four aces; the ace of spades will be the Indian, I will take clubs, the Captain diamonds and Berenice hearts. Now, whichever ace is played after the ace of diamonds, the Captain’s card, will settle the affair. That will give us an equal chance.”

“Then early in the morning—
Before the break of day,
The one whose ace is played after his
Will blow the gallant Pring away.”

    He broke into a villainous imitation of a song. The Indian squatted upon the floor. Berenice glanced at Pring, who half shut his eyes contemptuously.
    “If I am to play the game,” he said, “cut these thongs.”
    “Not a bit of it,” said Allen; “you’d be playing another game.”

    “This girl will play for you, and oh!” he cried, with an oath, “it would be a joke on the Britisher if his own sweetheart had to shoot him so early in the morning.”
    Berenice shuddered. There could be but one outcome to the game so devised. Allen proceeded to shuffle the cards. But just at that moment there came a sharp stroke on the door. [Page 117]
    Glad of any interruption, Berenice sprang to her feet. She opened the door. A man was standing there, huge in bulk, clad in a rough bearskin coat, with the snow falling around him. The slow, gentle flakes passed his shoulders and floated into the room. They were all about him, crowding into the light. With one stride he was within the circle of the fire.
    “Friends,” he said, “my name is Absalom Ivory. By the great mercy of God I preach His Son Jesus, and warn sinners of the wrath to come. May I rest here before I go upon my way?”
    “A parson?” cried Allen, with an oath on his lips. He was about to refuse him shelter, but the Reverend Absalom Ivory had caught sight of the bright cards strewn upon the bearskin.
    “Oh, ye hell-bound souls!” he cried, with an uncontrollable spiritual impulse. “For every time ye touch these devil’s pictures a flake of fire will burn your bodies in eternal torment. Oh, God have mercy,” he implored, throwing off his cap and falling on his knees, “destroy these engines of the Evil One and make this Christmas Eve great with joy for these Thy lost souls.”
    He rose, and before anyone could prevent him, he had gathered most of the cards, and had scattered them in the fire.
    Allen had been prepared to expel the intruder but this sally cowed him. His eye took in Ivory’s stature, which rivalled his own, and he was afraid to try this unknown force. Moreover, he had Captain Pring on his mind; he was anxious to get rid of his visitor peaceably before he discovered that one of his Majesty’s officers was in his power and would meet the pitfall on the path of glory on the morrow morn. “Man-looking-beyond” was only awaiting a signal from Allen to draw his knife. But instead of letting loose the savage, he said abruptly in answer to Mr. Ivory’s initial question, “You may stay for a while; better look after your beast. Berenice!” His gesture said that his daughter was to show the itinerant where to shelter his horse.
    As soon as they had stepped into the dark and the snowflakes, which seemed to fall toward them in friendliness, Berenice caught the stranger by the arm. “Come away from the door. I must speak to you. I am in trouble. Help me if you can. This afternoon my father overheard us when we were talking—Captain Pring and I. He hates him, and now he hates me, for he heard me say that I had warned a scout last July and saved the King’s despatches. He was on the way to Fort George and my father had money from General Hull to capture him and he had five men waiting for him. But I am British and I sent him by another way. Now he would kill me, and to-morrow he is going to shoot Captain Pring. Yes—yes.” Ivory could not stop the rush of her words, but he comprehended the situation. The war which had [Page 118] been active in the vicinity during the past summer was then smouldering. He knew he was in a part of the country where desperate men abounded; in truth, he had an exaggerated idea of the vice and villainy of the section.
    “And you would have me save him?”
    “Yes; that is it. I will tell you—I will keep back nothing. I love him. We had planned to go to Amherstburg to-night. His man is to come to the edge of the clearing with two horses. He will cry like a lynx; but I cannot go out to him; my father will watch me.”
    The Methodist preacher was, like the rest of his class in those pioneer days, ready for any emergency, bold as a lion, sometimes rough and rash in his methods, using every power of his mind and every muscle of his body for the glory of his Master and the saving of souls.
    “When the lynx-cry comes,” he said, quietly, “I will go out, and you may leave the rest to me; but if you get away safe to Malden you must give your heart to God. Promise me.” He was not the least above driving a bargain for a soul.
    “I promise,” she said, simply.
    Hardly five minutes had passed before they returned, but in the interval Captain Pring had disappeared. Absalom Ivory made no observation upon his absence and did not seem to notice it. But the sharp-eyed Berenice knew that he had been lifted to the bunk above her father’s and that it was the strongest place in which he could have been secreted. Her heart stopped when she reflected that no one could approach him without waking a wolf.
    She found an opportunity when she was preparing supper for the preacher to indicate to him where the captive was concealed. To his eye the bunk was merely heaped with blankets.
    Allen had not expected to keep his guest over night, but when he calmly made preparations to stay he did not demur. His caution had been disarmed by the seeming ingenuousness of the stranger, and he was rather amused than otherwise at the strong assault which the man of God directed against him, expounding the Word in vigorous English and warning him in terrific language of future pains and penalties.
    But his amusement gradually waned and he began preparations for the night. The fire was banked and before long the only sounds in the room were the steady breathing of five persons verging on slumber and the smothered nestling of the coals. Berenice’s rude couch was near the chimney. The Indian slept in a bunk next his leader. Captain Pring and Ebenezer Allen were, one above the other, in the double bunk, and the Rev. Absalom [Page 119] Ivory lay upon the floor before the fire, covered with his bearskin coat, his head upon his arm.

•     •     •

    Early on the same afternoon within the barracks of Fort Malden two men were talking before the fire. One wore the uniform of the 4th; the other was dressed in the garb of a voyageur. A mug of rum, supported by a shovel stuck between the bars of the grate, was warming before the fire.
    “And now,” said the soldier, “what are you making up to me for, Baptiste Cadotte, talking around something and wagging your tongue as if it was hung in the middle?”
    “Well, then,” said Cadotte, “it’s this—you’re on duty to-night.”
    “Ah, now what trick are you up to?”
    Cadotte spoke English with a French accent, and his manner was as vivacious as his eyes, which danced with animation. He was rather under the average height, but did not lack a certain dignity, despite his spare figure and his restless movement—a dignity which came from the knowledge that he was trusted as no other scout in the service.
    “No trick, but just plain business,” he answered, “but before the sentries are changed to-night I want you to let me by, me Baptiste Cadotte, with two horses.”
    “Never a bit, unless you tell me what you are up to.”
    Cadotte thought for a moment.
    “It is some other person’s affair, not mine, and so I cannot tell.”
    “Well, inside the fort you stay to-night.”
    Cadotte thought again. The soldier turned the mug of rum and tested the temperature of the liquid by dipping into it his little finger.
    “Well, you will have to swear not to tell.”
    “What am I to get for this oath and for breaking orders?”
    “Captain Pring will do something for you, and I—well, on Christmas Day I will give you my extra ration of rum.”
    “Done. So it’s Captain Pring’s affair? And that’s where he is, and I heard the Colonel asking for him an hour ago.”
    “You know this Ebenezer Allen?” said Cadotte, beginning at the very end of the story.
    “Him that lives at Colchester? Yes, I’ve heard of him.”
    “Well, he has a daughter, and Captain Pring—“
    The soldier began to laugh. Cadotte sprang to his feet and began to walk excitedly the length of the chamber. [Page 120]
    “You laugh!” he cried. “You laugh and you do not know what you laugh at. She is brave, that girl. Last summer she saved my life. True! When I was on the way to Fort George with despatches her old rascal of a father laid an ambush for me, and she risked her life to warn me.”
    “Well, she may be brave enough and honest enough; I know nothing about that.”
    “Captain Pring loves her for that and for herself, and he is going to steal her away from old Allen and marry her to-morrow.”
    “And what will his fine relations in England say to that?”
    “I don’t know. What I have promised to do I will do. To-night I will take the horses; I go down the trail to Colchester; I go to Allen’s cabin; I make sound like a lynx. Then they come away.”
    “And you walk back ten miles or so to Malden and maybe face old Allen, who is a sort of devil, I hear?”
    “Yes, for them I would walk many times as far and face many devils as wild as Ebenezer Allen.”
    “Well, everyone to his trade. You’re a scout and like that sort of thing,” said the soldier, proceeding to toss off the hot rum, “but as for me—“He broke off, threw on his cap and overcoat, and without answering Cadotte’s frantic question, “Well, then, to-night—to-night—?” he swung out, leaving him without a promise.
    It was in vain that the scout attempted to get a word with his friend before he went on duty. The fellow was always in company, and gazed blankly at the pantomime which Cadotte carried on. Night fell, and the storm-cloud laden with snow drew up from Lake Erie. The flakes began to fall slowly at first, but soon the air was moving with the constant fluttering mass. Cadotte saddled his horses early, and when the lights were extinguished in the officers’ quarters he led them forth, a rein in each hand.
    It was intensely dark. The snow falling slowly was heavy with moisture. Moving with confidence, he was met with a challenge and felt a bayonet at his breast. The dark mass of the sentry loomed before him in the snow; behind him towered the stockade.
    “What’s the word?”
    Cadotte replied in a flash: “Berenice Allen.”
    “Captain Pring,” rejoined the sentry, with a laugh, and soon Cadotte was outside the fort and on his way to Colchester.
    The trail lay through dense forest for the most part. The snow, melting as it fell, clung to the horses and turned to water on Cadotte’s face. But soon the clouds thinned, colder grew the wind, the snow came in finer flakes, then almost ceased, and before he reached Allen’s clearing the sky [Page 121] before him was full of stars, and behind him, dividing the heaven, hung the black cloud still carrying the storm.

•     •     •

    It seemed like a lifetime to Berenice before she heard from the stillness of the night the lonely cry of a lynx. It rose clear and wild. A moment later Ivory got upon his feet and went out without making any attempt to conceal his movements. Allen turned in his bunk. “It’s only old death and damnation,” he growled, and when the preacher returned he was again sound asleep. It was not absolutely dark in the room; the small flames that played about the fire threw fitful lights into the shadow. Berenice, alert, with every sense on the strain, saw in the dimness the huge bulk of the stranger, and as she gazed she seemed to see a figure much smaller drop away from him, stretch upon the floor and creep into the darkest corner.
    Ivory laid himself upon the hearth-stone. Again there was silence. Time seemed to draw moments into hours. Suddenly rose the chirp of a cricket, sharp, insistent. It seemed to Berenice that at once, by some magic, the room was in a turmoil. She sprang to the fire, hurled the ashes aside, grasped a brand, whirled it in the air, and in an instant the cabin was illuminated. Something had already happened in the darkness. Upon the signal of the cricket’s chirp Ivory had leaped to his feet and pinioned Allen into his bunk. The little man who had slipped into the room under the flap of Ivory’s coat had met the Pottowattamie and altered his name to the past tense. He was no longer “Man-looking-beyond,” he was “Man-who-had-looked-beyond.” He had seen the happy hunting grounds where his forefathers inhabited. Pring, always ready for action, despite his pinioned arms, had rolled himself out of his bunk, struck upon the ample shoulders of Ivory, and had fallen upon the floor.
    Then came the light. Berenice held it aloft. Allen was struggling like a leviathan, his enormous hand clutching Ivory’s coat at the neck. He had worked his left hand free, and with a prodigious effort he had forced himself out of the bunk. The little man rushed upon him, tripped over the Captain’s legs and fell with his arms extended upon the floor. At the same moment Allen, with his hand disengaged, had grasped a cutlass which he had by his side in the bunk, and had made a random sweep with it. It fell upon the little man’s right arm, just above the wrist and went clean through it to the floor. Allen did not swing it again. Berenice thrust the brand into his face, and the next instant Ivory had overpowered him. [Page 122]
    A very few moments later Captain Pring was free and the thongs which had bound him held Allen as firmly. Berenice stood in the shadow gazing at the group of three, Captain Pring and the Rev. Absalom Ivory bending over the wounded man, as they made a rude tourniquet and stopped the flow of blood. Now that there was a steady light in the room she recognized the little man as the scout whom she had saved with his despatches from the clutches of her father’s men as he came from Malden on his way to Fort George in the previous July. She heard Pring calling him Cadotte, and she knew that the brave scout had kept his promise, hurriedly given on that summer day, to aid her if it ever lay in his power.
    “Never mind, Captain,” cried out Cadotte, to quiet Captain Pring, who was cursing the fate which had maimed him in such a service. “I couldn’t have lost a hand in better sport. I’ll practice with my left and will live to let light into that scoundrel yet.”
    “I will go up and send the surgeon down at once,” said the Captain.
    “All right,” responded Cadotte. “Hurry him up; to-morrow is pay day, and I want to be there to sign the list. The horses are here; better take the girl with you, now you have her safe.”
    He seemed exhausted, but out he went into the night to see them mount and ride away. The stars were clear in a deep sky. The cloud had left pure snow in the woods. The air was growing keen with frost. Cadotte’s wound stung him.
    “I kept my promise, didn’t I?” he said to Berenice, as he tried bravely to fix her foot in the stirrup.
    “Yes,” she said, as she bent over him. “Yes, I helped you, you helped me; we will never forget.” They followed the road into the bush. Cadotte shouted merrily after them.
    Half an hour later he began to fret. “Say, parson,” he cried, “are you going to start soon?”
    “I never move,” said “Absalom Ivory, “till I snatch this man’s soul from the bottomless pit.” Then and there he fell upon his knees beside Ebenezer Allen. Said Cadotte to himself: “I can’t stand this praying. If the parson is going to stay on his knees till he prays this scoundrel out of hell, he won’t need his horse again in this life. I’ll be off and be in with the rest of the lads.”
    The Rev. Absalom Ivory prayed without ceasing in such thunders of supplication that Allen withered beneath the force. He was bound hand and foot, lying helpless upon the floor, and over him knelt this gigantic figure. His soul was wrestled for in tones rising from height to height of power, and in language burning with imagery, barbed with all the power of Scripture [Page 123] quotation. Soon he began to roll from side to side in an agony of fear and repentance. But the intercession continued, amplifying in illustration, dropping sometimes to a colloquialism directed more at the sinner than at the throne, and again rising in a fury of impassioned pleading, until Allen had passed through all the stages known to a convert under these methods, and until tears of joy were downstreaming on his face.
    In the grey dawn the triumphant evangelist began his walk to Amherstburg; Cadotte had borrowed his horse.
    The preacher turned back the surgeon and the men who accompanied him from the fort. They had not met Cadotte, who had taken a short trail through the woods. They found him in one of the open fields near the village. Absalom Ivory’s horse stood faithful beside him, marking the place where he had fallen. He lay, frozen into one of the shallow pools in the rough field. In some way, probably by the jolting of his horse, the tourniquet had become loosened, and his blood had gradually left him. He had dismounted and had stumbled into the water, possibly as dawn was lighting the flagstaff at Malden. His calm face was framed by thin ice. The rest of his body was under the surface, except his hands, which were clasped over his heart.
    “His hands!” I interrupted, with an involuntary start.
    “Yes,” said the old man, quietly. “He had brought his severed right hand with him, probably from some whim about signing the ration roll; or, maybe, thinking that the surgeon might sew it on again, and when he fell he held it to his breast, and so they found him.”
    “He was a good bit of stuff,” said the driver, who had checked his horses to light his pipe, “a right proper bit of stuff.”
    “But did the girl keep her promise to the parson?”
    “She did, indeed,” said the narrator, who had fixed his eyes on Amherstburg, gleaming through the snow, and then with a sigh of remembrance he added: “My mother was an angel.”
    Whereupon we understood and no one spoke again. [Page 124]