Pierre Gourdon had the love of God in his heart, a man’s love for a man’s God, and it seemed to him that in this golden sunset of a July afternoon the great Canadian wilderness all about him was whispering softly the truth of his faith and his creed. For Pierre was the son of a runner of the streams and forests, as that son’s father had been before him, and love of adventure ran in his blood, and romance, too; so it was only in the wild and silent places that he felt the soul in him attuned to that fellowship with nature which the good teachers at Ste. Anne de Beaupré did not entirely approve. Nature was Pierre’s God, and would ever be until he died. And though he had crept up the holy stair at Ste. Anne’s on his knees, and had touched the consecrated water from the sacred font, and had looked with awe upon mountains of canes and crutches left by those who had come afflicted and doubting and had departed cured and believing, still he was sure that in this sunset of a certain July afternoon he was nearer to the God he desired than at any other time in all his life.
Josette, his wife, slender and tired, her dark head bare in the fading sun, stood wistful and hoping at his side, praying gently that at last their long wanderings up the St. Lawrence and along this wilderness shore of Superior had come to an end, and that they might abide in this new paradise, and never travel again until the end of their days.
Back of them, where a little stream ran out of the cool forest, a tireless boy quested on hands and knees in the ferns and green grass for wild strawberries, and though strawberry season was late his mouth was smeared red.
The man said, pointing down, “It makes one almost think the big lake is alive, and a hand is reaching in for him.”
“Yes, they are Five Fingers of water reaching in from the lake,” agreed Josette, seating herself wearily upon a big stone, “though it seems to me there should be only four fingers, and one thumb.”
And so the place came to be named, and through all the years that have followed since that day it has tenaciously clung to its birthright.
The boy came to his mother, bringing her strawberries to eat; and the man, climbing a scarp of rock, made a megaphone of his hands and hallooed through it until an answering shout came from deep in the spruces and balsams, and a little later Dominique Beauvais came out to the edge of the slope, his whiskered face bright with expectancy, and with him his little wife Marie, panting hard to keep pace with his long legs.
When they were together Pierre Gourdon made a wide and all-embracing sweep with his arms.
“This will be a good place to live in,” he said. “It is what we have been looking for.”
With enthusiasm Dominique agreed. The women smiled. Again they were happy. The boy was hunting for strawberries. He was always empty, this boy.
Pierre Gourdon kissed his wife’s smooth hair as they went back to the camp they had made two hours earlier in the day, and broke into a wild boat song which his grandfather had taught him on his knee in the wicked days before he had known Josette at Ste. Anne, and Dominique joined in heartily through his whiskers.
The women’s smiles were sweeter and their eyes brighter, for fatigue seemed to have run away from them now that their questing men-folk were satisfied and had given them a promise of home.
That night, after supper, with their green birch camp-fire lighting up the blackness of the wilderness, they sat and made plans, and long after nine-year-old Joe had crawled into his blanket to sleep, and the women’s eyes were growing soft with drowsiness, Pierre and Dominique continued to smoke pipefuls of tobacco and to build over and over the homes of their dreams.
Young and happy, and overflowing with the adventurous enthusiasm of the race of coureurs from which they had sprung, they saw themselves with the rising of another sun pitched into the heart of realities which they had anticipated for a long time; and when at last Josette fell asleep, her head pillowed close to her boy’s, her red lips that had not lost their prettiness through motherhood and wandering were tender with a new peace and contentment. And a little later, while Pierre and Dominique still smoked and painted their futures, the moon rose over the forest-tops in a great golden welcome to the pioneers, and the wind came in softly and more coolly from the lake, and at the last, from far away, rose faintly a wilderness note that thrilled them—the cry of wolves.
Dominique listened, and silently emptied the ash from his pipe into the palm of his hand.
“Where wolves run there is plenty of game, and where there is game there is trapping,” he said.
And then came a sound which stopped the hearts of both for an instant, a deep and murmuring echo, faint and very far, that broke in a note of strange and vital music upon the stillness of the night.
“A ship!” whispered Pierre.
“Yes, a ship!” repeated Dominique, half rising to catch the last of the sound.
For this was a night of forty years ago, when on the north shore of Superior the cry of wolves in the forest was commoner than the blast of a ship’s whistle at sea.
The pioneers slept. The yellow moon climbed up until it was straight overhead. Shadows in the deep forest moved like living things. The wolves howled, circled, came nearer, and stopped their cry where the kill was made. Mellow darkness trembled and thrilled with life. Silent-winged creatures came and disappeared like ghosts. Bright eyes watched the sleeping camp of the home seekers. A porcupine waddled through it, chuckling and complaining in his foolish way. A buck caught the scent of it, stamped his foot and whistled. There were whisperings in the tall, dark spruce tops.
Caverns of darkness gave out velvety footfalls of life, and little birds that were silent in the day uttered their notes softly in the moon glow.
A bar of this light lay across Josette’s face, softening it and giving to its beauty a touch of something divine. The boy was dreaming. Pierre slept with his head pillowed in the crook of his arm. Dominique’s whiskers were turned to the sky, bristling and fierce, as if he had taken this posture to guard against harm the tired little wife who lay at his side.
That first day from which they began to measure their new lives the axes of Pierre and Dominique struck deep into the sweetly scented hearts of the cedar trees out of which they were to build their homes at Five Fingers. But first they looked more carefully into the prospects of their domain.
The forest was back of them, a forest of high ridges and craggy ravines, of hidden meadows and swamps, a picturesque upheaval of wild country which reached for many miles from the Superior shore to the thin strip of settlement lands along the Canadian Pacific. Black and green and purple with its balsam, cedar and spruce, silver and gold with its poplar and birch, splashed red with mountain ash, its climbing billows and dripping hollows were radiantly tinted by midsummer sun—and darkly sullen and mysterious under cloud or storm. Out of these fastnesses, choked with ice and snow in winter, Pierre knew how the floods must come roaring in springtime, and his heart beat exultantly, for he loved the rush and thunder of streams, and the music of water among rocks.
At the tip of the longest of the five inlets which broke like gouging fingers through the rock walls of the lake half a mile away they decided upon the sites for their cabins. Against those walls they could hear faintly the moaning of surf, never quite still even when there was no whisper of wind. But the long finger of water, narrow and twisted, as if broken at the joint, was a placid pool of green and silver over which the gulls floated, calling out their soft notes in welcome to the home builders, and in its white sand were the prints of many feet, both of birds and of beasts, who played and washed themselves there, and came down to drink. Between these two, the open and peaceful serenity of the inlet and the cool, still hiding-places of the forest, were the green meadowland and slopes and patches of level plain, a narrow strip of park-like beauty at the upper edge of which, in the very shadow of the forest, Pierre and Dominique struck off their plots and squared their angles, making ready for the logs in which the afternoon saw their axes buried.
The days passed. Each dawn the red squirrel chorus greeted the rising sun; through hours that followed came the ring of steel and the freedom of voice which is born of love and home. Pierre sang, as his grandfather had sung long years ago, and Dominique bellowed like a baying hound when the chorus came. Women’s laughter rose with the singing of the birds. Josette and Marie were girls again, and the boy was forever leading them to newly discovered strawberry patches hidden among the rocks and grass and ferns.
It was a new thing for the wilderness, this invasion of human life, and for a long time it fell away from them, listening, frightened and subdued. But the birds and the red squirrels gave it courage, and softly it returned, curious and shy and friendly. The deer came down to drink again in the dusk, and moose rattled their antlers up the ridge. Pop-eyed whisky jacks began to eat bannock crumbs close to Josette’s hands. Jays came nearer to scream their defiance, like wild Indians, in the tree-tops, and thrushes and warblers sang until their throats were ready to burst, and twenty times a day Pierre would pause in his labor and say, “This is going to be a fine place to live in, with the sea at our front door and the woods at our back.”
He called Superior “the sea,” and twice in the first week they saw far out in its hazy vastness white and shimmering specks which were sailing ships.
Log upon log the first of the cabins rose, until the roof was covered, and scarcely was it done when Josette and Marie were planting wild morning glories and crimson splashes of roses about it, and were digging in the dark, cool mold of birch and poplar thickets for violet roots, and out in the sheltered fens and meadow-dips for hyacinths and fire-flowers; and in the hour before dusk, when the day’s work was over and supper was eaten, they would go hand in hand with their men-folk to study and ponder over the fertile patches of earth here and there where next spring they would plant potatoes and carrots and turnips and all the other fine things they had known back in the land of Ste. Anne.
It was August when the two cabins were finished, small in dimensions but snug as dovecotes, and in the eyes of Josette and Marie grew a deeper and more serious look. For they were housewives again, with little to do with, but with a world full of endeavor and anticipation ahead of them. And it worried them to see that the fruits were ripening, red raspberries so thick the bears were turning into hulks of fat, black currants and saskatoons among the rocks, and all over the ridgesides great trees of wild plums and mountain ash berries, waiting for the first frosts to make them ready for preserves and jams.
So Dominique, one day, set out to blaze a trail to the nearest settlement, thirty miles away; and thereafter their men-folk took turns, one and then the other, going with empty pack and returning with sixty pounds of burden, and berries were put into cans and dried and preserved—until Pierre and Dominique began to tease their wives and ask them if they wanted their husbands to turn into bears and sleep on their fat all winter. It was this banter which reminded Josette of candles, and in September they killed two bears and made several hundred of them.
With the first frosts of autumn Pierre said even more frequently than before, “This is a fine place to live in,” and Josette and Marie, seeing what the frosts were doing, rose each morning with new wonder and new joy in their eyes. For if these frosts were giving to the waters of the lake a colder and harder sheen, with something of menace and gloom about it, they were also painting the ridges and hollows and all the forest land as far as they could see with a glory of color which they had never known at Ste. Anne.
Breath of winter came in the nights. Higher grew the great birch piles of firewood which Pierre and Dominique dragged close to the cabin doors, and very soon came the days when the carnival of autumn color was gone and all but the evergreen trees assumed the ragged distress of naked limbs and branches, and winds broke down fiercely over the wilderness, and the moan of the lake, beating against its rock walls, grew clearer and at times was a muffled and sullen roar half a mile away.
But these changes were not frightening to Pierre and his people. Canadian winter was, after all, the heart of their lives; long months of adventure and thrill of deep snows and stinging blizzards on the trap lines, of red-hot stoves, and snug evenings at home telling the tales of the day, and appetites as keen as the winds that howled down from the north.
This season, of all seasons, they would not have changed. It was then the wolf howl took on a new note, the foxes cried out hungrily at the edge of the clearing in the night. The call of the moose floated awesomely through the frost of still evenings, and the bears hunted their dens. One after another songbirds departed, leaving the whisky jacks and the jays behind, and the ravens gathered in flocks, while in the thickets and swamps the big snowshoe rabbits turned from brown to gray and from gray to white. All hunting things were astir, from the wolf and the fox and the little outlaw ermine to the owl and the dog-faced fisher-cat, and in November Pierre and Dominique dipped their traps in hot bear grease and prayed for the first snow.
It came in the night, so quietly that none heard the breathless fall of it, and the world was white when little Joe got out of his bed at dawn to look at his rabbit snares in the edge of the timber. That was the beginning of their first winter at Five Fingers. It was a cold, dry winter, and there was never a day that a haunch of venison or moose meat was not hanging behind the cabins. Trapping was good, and the store of pelts grew as the weeks went on, until Pierre and Dominique both swore in the same breath that it was a paradise that they had found on this north shore of Superior, and each day they made new promises of what they would buy for Josette and Marie in the spring. The snow piled itself deeper, and the lake froze over. In January it was thirty degrees below zero.
The white world, Josette called it, and at times they all played in it like children. There was Christmas, and then New Year’s, and a birthday for Marie, and games and stories at night round the crackling stoves in the cabins. Pierre and Dominique built toboggans, and from the crest of the ridge where they had first looked down upon the Five Fingers they sped in wild races over the open and halfway across the snow-crusted ice of the middle finger. And yet when Dominique came in one day and said quite casually that he had heard the chirp of a brush warbler back in the big swamp Marie gave a little cry of delight and Josette’s eyes grew suddenly bright.
It meant spring. A day or two later Pierre said the coats of the snowshoe rabbits were turning rusty, which meant early spring. Then came discovery of the first bear track, the track of a foolish bear who had come out hungrily, like a woodchuck, only to hunt himself a den again when he saw his shadow freezing in the snow. After this there was more sun in the morning and less of the cold of sullen twilight each night, and before even the crust of the snow had begun to thaw Pierre brought in a poplar twig to show how the buds were swelling until they seemed ready to pop. “I have never seen them fatter,” he said. “It means spring isn’t far away.”
When the first robin came Josette told her husband she could already smell the perfume of flowers. He was a cold-footed and crabbed-looking bird, forlorn and disappointed at the world’s chill aspect, and for a few minutes he sat humped up on the roof log and then flew away.
This was the beginning. The snow began to thaw on the sunny sides of the slopes, and after that the change came swiftly. In April a steady and swelling murmur ran through the forests, the music of the gathering waters. Meadows and flats became flooded, little creeks changed suddenly into rushing torrents, lakes and ponds crept up over their sides, and the tiny stream which passed near the cabins, quiet and gentle in summertime, was all at once a riotous and quarrelsome outlaw, roaring and foaming in its mad rush down to the Middle Finger. Half a mile away was a larger stream whose flood sounds came to them like the distant roar of a cataract. It was glorious music, with something in it that stirred the blood of Pierre and his people like tonic and wine. Pierre, in his optimism and love of life, explained it all by saying, “It is good to have a long, cold winter that we may fully enjoy the spring.”
The birds seemed to return in a night and a day—robins perky and glad to get back from the lazy southland, thrushes and catbirds and a dozen kinds of little brown warblers and brush sparrows whose voices were sweetest of all the spring songsters. The earth itself began to breathe with swelling roots and tips of green; the first flowers popped up; the poplar buds exploded into fuzzy leaves, and Pierre and Dominique worked from morning until night, clearing the patches they were to plant this year, and spading up the rich, dark soil.
It was about this time Pierre gave voice to a thought which had been growing in his head all winter. He was standing with Josette at the tip of the green ridge from which they had first looked down upon Five Fingers.
“Ste. Anne was never as fine as this, chérie,” he said.
“No, not even before the woods were cut,” agreed Josette.
He took her hand and held it softly in his own, and Josette laid her cheek against his shoulder so that his lips could touch her smooth hair. Pierre always liked it that way.
“I have been having a dream,” he said, his voice a little queer because of its secret, and because he knew how its confession would thrill the one at his side, “and I have said nothing about it, but have done much thinking. Would not a little church look pretty down there, just where the tip of the evergreen forest reaches to the Middle Finger?”
“A church!” whispered Josette, her heart giving a sudden swift beat.
“Yes, a church,” chuckled Pierre softly. “And over there, in that green bit of meadow—what a place for a home for our old friend Poleon Dufresne, and Sara, and all the children. And there is room for the Clamarts, too, and Jean Croisset and his wife. It is a big land, with plenty of fur and game and good rich soil underfoot, and I have thought it is not right to keep it all to ourselves, douce amie.”
From the door of her cabin some distance away Marie Beauvais wondered just why it was that Josette threw her arms so suddenly round her husband’s neck and kissed him. And Pierre, with a heart full of happiness, little guessed that with the fulfilment of his dreams would come tragedy into the wilderness paradise at Five Fingers.
Categories: English Literature