AN ALGONQUIN MAIDEN
.


 

CHAPTER IV.

INDIAN ANNALS AND LEGENDS.

 


THE last flame of sunset had gone out on a horizon of ashy paleness, as the light bark of the Indian girl swept up the beach, and its occupant, after making it secure, loitered idly home.  Here, undismayed by observation, she was as gracefully at ease as a fawn in its leafy covert, and as quickly startled into flight at the tread of a stranger.
     So lightly did her moccasined feet press the underbrush that no sound preceded her coming, until she reached the blanketed opening of a wigwam where sat an aged Algonquin chief, very grave, very dignified, very far from being immaculately clean.  The young girl was not intimidated by this picturesque combination of dignity and dirt.  Perhaps it was the absence of these qualities in the young cadet that caused her sudden flight from him.  Seating herself on a bearskin, not far from her foster-father, she interchanged with him mellow syllables of greeting.  The chief placed a finger upon her moist brow, and inquired the cause of her haste.
     “It was the young kinsman of the Wild Rose who followed me.  His head is beautiful as the sun, but he moves, alas, yes, he moves more slowly.”
     “Then, why this haste?” queried the Indian, who, though he could boast all the keen and subtle instincts of his race, was apparently in some matters as obtuse as a white man.
     The girl bowed her face upon her slim brown hands.
     “I do not like the glances of his eye,” she said.  “They are strong and dazzling as sunbeams on the water.”
     The chief smoked in meditative silence.  “You go too often to the dwelling of the Wild Rose, my daughter.”
     “Ah, yes; but to-night her pink face is dewy wet, I know, [Page 46] and she is alone.  The Moon-in-a-black-cloud had gone to the home of her people.”
     “Then let her seek consolation in the slow moving sun.  The pale-faced nation are not fit associates for an Algonquin maiden.  Mother Earth has no love for them; they are quick to wash away her lightest finger-touch upon them.  They are pale and lifeless as a rock over which the stream washes continually.  Their men are afraid of the rain; their women of the sunshine.”
     “It is even so.  The Wild Rose covers her head, and even her hands, when she leaves the house.”
     At this mournful assent the chief warmed to his task of depreciation.
     “They are degraded, these pale faces, they are poor-spirited, mean, contemptible; unable to cope with the wild beasts of the forest, they settle down in weak resignation to grow vegetables; nothing stirs them from their state of ignoble content except the call to battle, and that is responded to not in defence of the lives of their fathers, their wives and children, but merely to settle some petty quarrel between the chiefs of their nations.
     “Ah, they are a strange, servile race!  They work with their hands.”  The Indian paused and looked down at the wrinkled yet shapely members that lay before him.  “They look upon the grand forest as their natural enemy, burning, cutting, mutilating, until they have made that odious thing ‘a clearing,’ when a house is built with the dead bodies of the beautiful trees that have fallen by their hand.”
     “But surely they are not wholly bad,” pleaded the girl, her kind heart refusing to accept the belief that even the lowest of humanity could be utterly worthless.
     The chief was not to be turned from the swift current of his thoughts by idle interruptions.
     “Their religion is dead, buried in a book, and they put it from them as easily as they put the book on the [Page 47] shelf.  Our religion is alive, broad as the earth, deep as the sky.  They go into a house to worship; our temple is fashioned by the great Spirit, and our prayers ascend continually like the white smoke from our wigwams.  Ah, but they should be pitied not blamed.  They are far from the heart of nature—they have ceased to be her children.”
     “It is money they worship, and the soul of a man becomes like that which he adores.  They mourn bitterly for their dead, because they feel how great is the distance between them and the land of spirits.  I have heard that there are white men who do not believe that this land exists, but that cannot be true.”
     There were some depths of degradation that even his far-reaching imagination failed to compass.  Wanda listened wearily, though she manifested no signs of impatience.
     “The pale-faced women are sometimes very beautiful,” she said.
     “Yes; but they are strange, unnatural creatures.  In times of anger they attack their helpless little ones, talking in a harsh voice, pinching, beating, slapping them, doing everything but bite them.”
     His listener did not shudder.  The Indian, no matter how much his feelings may be stirred, is unaccustomed to evince emotion.
     “With us,” continued the old man, “an angry woman frequently pulls her husband’s hair; for is he not her husband to do with what she likes?  but to fall upon her own flesh and blood—that is unnatural and horrible.  It is as if she should willfully injure her own person, bruise it with stones or sear it with hot irons.  Perhaps it is because the pale-faced tribes suffer so much in childhood that they are weak and cowardly in manhood.  They shrink and cry like a wounded panther at the touch of pain.”
     The girl who had not dwelt upon it except in her thoughts was nevertheless filled with a gently uplifting sense of race [Page 48] superiority.  Her admiration of Rose was tinged with pity.  Poor garden flower, confined for life to the dull walks and prim parterres of a fixed enclosure, when she might roam the wild paths of the forest; condemned to sleep in a close room, on stifling feathers, and bathe in an elongated tub, when she might feel the elasticity of hemlock boughs beneath her, inhale the perfumed breath of myriad trees, and plunge at sunrise into the gleaming waters of the lake.  It was indeed a pitiable life.
     They entered the wigwam, and seated themselves on the rush mats that lay upon the ground.  About them were carelessly disposed some dressed skins of the beaver and otter, a brace of wild duck, fishing tackle, and the accoutrements of the chase, a rifle, powder-horn and shot pouch.  The chief himself, in his buckskin garment, tightened by a wampum belt, his deer-skin moccasins, scarlet cloth leggings and blanket, was not the least picturesque object of the interior.  Usually reticent, he found great difficulty to-night in withdrawing his mind from the subject that had taken such violent possession of it.
     “The influence of the white race is spreading,” he said.  “Like the poison vines of the forest it touches all who come near it with fatal effect.  The tribe of the Hurons is infected with it, and they are becoming mere tillers of the soil—miserable earth worms!  Men were made to be free as the bounding deer or the flowing stream, but they have paled and weakened, they have become wretched grovellers on the ground.”
     Wanda’s large eyes held a smouldering fire of repressed indignation.  Her mother had been a Huron.
     The story of that dark time, far back in the annals of Canada, when the Huron hunting-grounds in this region were laid waste by the destroyer, had been told her so often that her childish imagination had been filled with horror, and a passionate sense of outraged justice and [Page 49] impossible revenge stirred within her at the bare mention of her mother’s martyred tribe.  She did not vent her feelings in bitter or retaliatory speech—that is the weakness of fairer-faced women—but through her brain rushed like a swift stream a vivid recollection of the tragic tale as it fell from the lips of her Huron mother upon her young horror-stricken heart.
     Less than two hundred years before, the poetry of Indian life among the peaceful shades of this virgin wilderness was turned into a tale too ghastly for human imagination, too terrible for human endurance.  At that time the Huron settlements on the borders of Lakes Simcoe and Couchiching, and between Nottawasaga and Matchedash bays, numbered from twenty to thirty thousand souls.  The picturesque country, thickly dotted with Indian towns, was for many years the scene of Champlain’s zealous efforts to erect in these western wilds the standard of the Cross.  While he won, among the Hurons, converts to his faith and a colony to his country, they found in him a leader in a fateful attack upon their ancient and most obdurate enemies, the Iroquois.  The result of the expedition was failure and discomfiture, but years afterwards, when Champlain was dead, and the “great-souled and giant-statured Jean de Brébeuf” became known as the apostle of the tribe, this foray brought most disastrous consequences upon the unsuspecting Hurons.
     Not so far from the present site of Barrie was the frontier town of St. Joseph, where the Jesuit Fathers, in view of the perils surrounding them, had concentrated their forces in a central stronghold, with a further inland defence at St. Marie, near the site of the present town of Penetanguishene.  Here, at St. Joseph, after years of incessant labour, of discomforts and discouragements, without parallel in the annals of our country, the ardent souls whose enthusiasm for faith and duty had become the dominant [Page 50] principle of their life, were swept away in the red tide of blood that was opened by the Iroquois.  One still fair morning in the summer of 1648, while most of the warriors were absent at the chase, and a company of devout worshippers were celebrating Mass in the Mission Chapel, their brutish enemies descended upon their peaceful domains, and by means of every torture conceivable to the savage imagination practically exterminated the tribe.  Before the century had half-ended the mission post of St. Ignace was similarly invaded by the Iroquois, who, after they wearied of the pastime of hacking the flesh off their prisoners with tomahawks and hatchets, and scorching them with red-hot irons, bound them at last to the stake and mercifully allowed the swift-mounting flames to end their sufferings.  Whole families were bound in their houses before the town was set on fire, and their wild cries mingled with the wilder laughter of their inhuman captors.  The few who escaped were so wounded and mutilated that before they could reach a place of safety numbers of them died frozen in the woods.
     The remembrance of this dark tale never failed to stir the young girl to a sort of slow self-contained fury, but the blood of the peace-loving Hurons was in her veins, and could not long be dominated by the vengeful propensities of her haughty Algonquin father.  Invariably with the mixture of blood comes the warring of diverse emotions, the dissatisfaction with the present life, the secret yearning for something better, the impulse towards something worse.  She sighed furtively, and half-impatiently went outside to tend the evening camp-fire.  The blazing branches illuminated the starless summer night, and cast a superb glow over the beautiful half-clothed figure crouching not far from them.  Beyond, the dark blue bay ebbed and flowed languidly.
     Some days elapsed before Wanda again made her appearance [Page 51] in the neighbourhood of the Commodore’s mansion.  This was caused partly by shyness, partly by fear of meeting the bold-eyed youth, whose interest in her had been so painfully apparent.  At length Rose, who had noted with wonder and a little anxiety this unusual absence, suggested to her brother that they call upon one of her Indian friends.  To this Edward demurred, on the ground that the work in which he happened to be engaged at the time could not possibly wait.  But when he learned that the beautiful Wanda was the friend alluded to he agreed to go with her at once, saying that the work he was doing could wait as well as not.  Such was the manner in which brotherly affection was manifested sixty years ago.
     It was a still, almost breathless evening in June.  From the meadows, thickly starred with dew, rose the thin high chorus of the crickets, while above, the commingling of gray cloud and crimson sunset had subsided into dusk and golden twilight, which were giving place to the white radiance of the moon slowly climbing the warm heights of heaven.  It was so quiet that the sound of waves and insects seemed like the softest whispers of nature.  Rose and Edward had rowed down the bay for Hélène, who usually accompanied them on their impromptu excursions by lake and wood.  Seen in the pale brilliance of sky and water her loveliness had an almost unearthly quality, perfectly akin to the night, but giving her a strange effect of soft remoteness from her friends.  The light from a brazier, fitted into a stanchion in the prow of the boat, in which some pieces of birch-bark were kindled, brought the deep dark shadow of the woods into sharp relief, and gave a more vivid brilliance to the immediate surroundings; but along the dimly-lit path in the forest all the magical influences of the night held sway.  Beneath the tangled underbrush they caught glimpses of the rich and fantastic [Page 52] vegetation with which the earth was clothed, while above them, intermingled with the shadows cast by the vaulted boughs, played the vivid brightness of the moon.  Some of the trees were deeply girdled—a slow method of killing them.  These lingering deaths affected the trio with melancholy.  A wounded inmate of the grove, standing in mute and pathetic resignation to its fate, loses first the feeling of the sap that, blood-like, circulates through every limb, then all its leafy honours fade, and its death is slow and inevitable as the death of a forsaken woman who carries a deep hurt at the heart.
     Near where a group of lofty elms lifted their beautiful heads up to the moonlight they found the old chief busily engaged in mending his seine.  He greeted them with entire self-possession, rising and giving his hand to each, after which he resumed his occupation in tranquil content, as though the duties of hospitality were now over.  The young ladies, however, without waiting for any further exhibition of courtesy, seated themselves on a mossy log, and bestowed upon their host and his employment the flattering attention, which, if it failed to make an impression upon him, would certainly prove him more—or less—than mortal man.  Edward, meantime, finding a convenient bough a few feet above his head, amused himself in swinging by his hands, with a view to muscular development.  The contrast between the sad dignity of the aged Indian, the lone survivor of a despised race, and the light-heartedness of the fair boy, upon whom all the hopes of his family centred, stuck both girls forcibly.  After a few sympathetic inquiries regarding the health of the chief, Rose asked after the whereabouts of Wanda.
     “She is not here,” he replied.  “She flies from our home as a bird flies from its cage, returning only when she is weary, or when the shades of night are upon the land.”
     “Do you know where she is?” inquired Edward, dropping [Page 53] to his feet, and seating himself on a log facing the others. 
     “Somewhere in the forest,” replied the Indian, indicating the direction by a broad sweep of the hand, which might include a thousand acres.
     This was sufficiently indefinite.  “It appears to be characteristic of this young lady that she is either a vanished joy, or just on the point of becoming one.  Have you any idea how far away she is?” he asked.
     “Something more than twice the flight of an arrow,” tranquilly answered the Indian—“yes, much more.  It used to be that she went short distances, but she now goes a papoose’s journey of half a sun—sometimes further.”  He viewed his impatient guest a moment with gravity, and added, “yes, much further.”
     “And you trust her all alone?”
     “She is an Algonquin Maiden.  She fears nothing.”
     “And why is an Algonquin superior to a Huron, for instance?”  The young man, leaning idly back, and caressing the Indian dog of the chief, pursued his questions without any definite purpose, but merely to draw out his reserved-looking host.
     “Why is the fleet deer that spurns the soil better than the dull ox that tills it?  Or why is the eagle better than the hen that picks up corn in your doorway?  But there was a time when in all the land no Indian could be found who was tame and stupid—what you call civilized.”
     “Tell us a legend of that time, will you not?” pleaded Rose, who had been watching in silence for a fitting opportunity to make her favourite request.
     “Ah, please do,” said Edward, and the three settled themselves comfortably to listen.
     “It was a great many moons ago,” began the chief, “long before the time of my grandfather.  All the Indian races were then as one people, living in peace, and speaking [Page 54] one tongue.  Not one of them worked with his hands.  The deer, the beaver, the otter, the antelope, and the bear flourished and fattened for all, and were caught with scarcely any skill or effort.  The men were never wearied in the chase, nor the women with pounding corn.  None of the white races had as yet come upon the earth to molest and insult the guardian spirits of hill and stream and stately wood, and the red men, then as now, were in the habit of propitiating these deities by offerings of maize, bright coloured flowers, or belts of wampum laid upon the mountains, or dropped into caves or streams.  Yes, every one lived without fear of his neighbour, and the red ochre with which our tribes paint their faces in war was used only to decorate the pipe of peace.
     “One day it happened that a few chosen ones of all these tribes were met together upon a plain, about the distance of four bow-shots across.  Very green and shining it looked to the eye, for it was in the Flower-moon, and the great star of day was bright in the heaven.  By its clear light they saw, far in the distance, two strange, enormous things moving towards them.  But whether these things were writhing wreaths of thunder clouds descended to earth, or gigantic trees denuded of their foliage and suddenly gifted with the power of motion, or whether they were wild beasts of a size never seen before, they could not tell.  But presently they found them to be immense creatures in the form of rattlesnakes, poisoning the air with their vile effluvia, and destroying every green tree and living thing in their path.  Every delicate plant and creeping thing was poisoned by their breath, and the larger animals were devoured in the flap of a bird’s wing.  With them came terrific lightnings that rent the trees and cleft the solid rock, and thunders which cause the earth to reel like a man who had drank many times of fire-water.  Nearer and nearer they approached, and now the chosen residents of this fair plain were filled [Page 55] with alarm for their lives, and at once began to build fortifications against the terrible intruders.  The snakes, who appeared to prefer the flesh of man to that of the other animals, crawled up close to the defence of their enemies, and flung their long horrible bodies against it, but in vain.  It was useless to attack them with bows and arrows, on account of the scales which enveloped them like an armour.  Those who ventured without the walls were instantly swallowed, while those within, who had fasted many suns, were growing weak from want of food.
     “Now there was among them a chief, called the Big Bear, who was very brave and cunning.  He had been a hunter of the deer and wolf ever since he had been pronounced a man.  No danger was so great that he could not find a trail out of it.  So when he began to speak all the people who remained gathered round him.
     “‘Brothers and chiefs,’ he said, ‘I perceive that one of our enemies is a woman, because she is less sluggish in her movements than the other, and her eyes are bright and deceitful.  Besides she cares not to eat all the time, but she will sometimes go to view herself in the river, or when she thinks no one is looking will slyly turn her head to see the graceful movements of her tail.  Brothers, my plan is this: Let me contrive to win the heart of this vain squaw-snake, and then with her aid I shall be able to destroy her husband; afterwards we may compass the destruction of the faithless wife.  If I perish it is in a good cause, I am a willing martyr.’
     “This good man proceeded that very night to carry out his noble purpose.  The sky was full of shining lights as he mounted the fortification, and bent toward her, murmuring:  ‘Ah, beautiful creature, thy form is graceful as a winding stream, and thine eyes are two stars reflected in it.  That stupid man-snake, lying in heavy sleep, how can he appreciate you?  He is withered and worthless as a last [Page 56] year’s leaf.  As for me I flee to you from the dull women of my tribe, who are like so many dead trees, that stand even after life has left them. You are alive and beautiful in every moment, like the long curving wave that breaks upon the beach.’
     “Oh, there is no doubt that Big Bear knew all about the best way to make love, for very soon the squaw-snake began to show great discontent with her husband, to scold him in a high voice, and to wish that he were dead; whereas she greeted Big Bear with much affection, warming her glittering head in his breast, and embracing him several times by coiling round and round him.  But she was careful to turn her head away, so as not to poison him by her breath.  As for Big Bear, though he was glad to win her love, he wished her not to love him too well as she had a wonderful dexterity in snapping off the heads of those whom she admired.  Her consent to the death of her husband was easily gained, and she bade him dip the points of two arrows in the poison of her sting.  This he did and after retiring within the fortification he levelled one arrow at the head of the husband, while he deposited the other in that of the wicked wife.  The horrid monsters rolled over in agony, and rent the air with their death-shrieks, while all the people gathering about Big Bear, called him their brother, because by his wonderful knowledge of the arts of flirtation he had delivered them from great peril.  But the most grievous result of the danger through which they had passed was this, that the poison ejected by the snakes in their death-agonies affected all the tribes of the earth to such an extent that each began to use a different language which could not be comprehended by the others.  Since that time a young man of one race very seldom weds with the daughter of another, because she does not understand the lies he tells.” [Page 57]
     “Is it necessary for him to tell her what is not true, in order to marry her?” asked Edward.
     “It is customary,” replied the chief, gravely returning to his task, without the suspicion of a smile.
     “Oh, strange peculiarity of the red men,” softly exclaimed Hélène.  She begged for another legend, but the Indian had relapsed into his normal state of imperious dignity; so, after thanking him for the extravaganza, to which they had listened with admirable self-possession, they returned to the beach, the dog plunging joyfully into the green depths of the forest before them.  The great woods were warm, odorous, breathless.  Rose pushed back the damp blonde locks from her brow.  “I wish you could have seen Wanda,” she said.  “The girl is quite a beauty.  Half wild, of course, but with a sort of barbaric splendour about her that dazzles and bewilders one.  You will understand when you see her, why the Indians speak the word ‘pale-face’ with a contemptuous inflection.”
     “I suppose,” mused Edward, “that paleness to them means weakness, lack of blood, vitality, courage, and all that most becomes a man.  Yet as a matter of taste I prefer white to copper colour.”  His blue eyes were bent upon the lily-like face of Hélène.
     “Wait till you see her,” was his sister’s laughing response.
     “And that will be many moons hence, to use the language of our story-teller, if she continues as elusive as the wind.  I have had glimpses of her, or rather of the flutter of her vanishing raiment.  A being with a wonderfully perfect face, clothed in heterogeneous and many-coloured garments, and educated on the amazing fictions with which her foster-father’s memory seems to be stored, would be worth waiting to see.”
     But he had not long to wait.  As he stood on the beach in the absence of his companions, who were carefully retracing their steps to the wigwam in search of a glove, [Page 58] presumably dropped by the way, he caught sight of the Indian girl, her back turned towards him, lazily rocking herself in his boat.  For a moment he thrilled with the excitement of a hunter in the presence of that desirable object, “a splendid shot.”  Then he crept stealthily forward, sprang into the boat, and before the startled girl could recover from her amazement, he was rowing her far out on the moonlit bay.  “There!” he cried, exultantly, bending an ardent yet laughing gaze upon her, “now you may run away as fast as you like.”
     The girl neither spoke nor moved.  A great fire of resentment was burning in her heart, and its flames mounted to her cheeks.  “My soul !” he murmured, “how beautiful you are!”  She faced him fully and fairly, with the magnificent disdain of an empress in exile.  In some way she gave him the impression that this brilliant little escapade was rather a poor joke after all.  “Do me the favour of moving a muscle,” he pleaded mockingly, and his request was lavishly granted.  Before he could guess her intention she was in the water, knocking an oar from his hand in her rapid exit, and swimming at an incredible rate of speed for the nearest point of land, from which she sped like a hunted thing to the woods.
     Left alone in this unceremonious fashion the young man paddled ruefully after his missing oar, and then struck out boldly after the escaped captive, with the intention of apologizing for what now seemed to him rather a cowardly performance; but the footsteps of the flying maiden left no trace upon the beach.  His discomfited gaze rested on no living thing save the approaching figures of his sister and her friend, whose humane inquiries and frequent jests concerning the half wild, wholly dripping, vision that had crossed their path, contributed in no way to the young man’s enjoyment of their homeward row. [Page 59]


[Chapter V]