CHARLES C. JENKINS
THE heavy voice of John Armstrong boomed out into the fantastic shadows beyond the shaded oil lamp’s yellow circle of light.
“It's a lie! It’s a lie!”
Then in a savage, stabbing whisper even more fearful: “It’s a lie—a damned—black—lie!”
Blizzard winds raging round the trading-post seemed to snatch up the hiss of it in a wail of ferocious emphasis and carry it in dying cadences far out and up into the Arctic unknown.
John Armstrong in the huge arm-chair of moosehide covering by the roaring box-stove was unmoved by the elemental accompaniment. What he had said, he had said. Its finality was spelled in the click of the dour square jaw. The incident was closed and must remain so.
But the bitterness it had brought in its wake was still upon him. He sat long with hands clinched on the arms of his chair, brow bent forward as though from sheer weight of that which oppressed the mind back of it, eyes upon the fire, his strong, heavily-lined face reflecting the conflict still raging in his being.
The old fur-trader had been trying to crush out absolutely the promptings of his own agitated better self. Lonely men in far-flung reaches of the world sooner or later acquire the habit of talking aloud to themselves, debating their problems thus as with a dual self, oftentimes to the extent of long and heated arguments—at that a sane and saving practice whose virtues only those who have for long been isolated from communion with their kind can appreciate. Armstrong met few white men at his distant post in the depth of Winter; of late he had studiously avoided even coming in contact with other white traders on the trails.
ILT IS present perturbation had been inspired by a paragraph in a letter lying open on the rough table that served him for a desk in the trading-post:
Jean, my husband, as you may have learned, died a year ago. I do not write to explain that which it is too late to explain. It is for Baby’s sake—Baby Mildred, who is the living image of what I was when I played at your knee—for her sake I dare appeal to you. I am in poor health and I shudder to think what might happen Baby should I break down or be taken from her entirely. I ask nothing for myself. What you might send would be devoted to Baby’s care alone. Father, if you will not help—then, oh God, my little Mildred will have to be turned over to strangers to rear. I am enclosing a little snapshot taken of Baby when she was just learning to walk.
John Armstrong read no further. With a great hairy hand he reached out and pushed letter and picture from him back into the shadow as though their mere presence annoyed him intensely.
“It is a lie.” He repeated it calmly this time. “Nina, my daughter, is dead and buried—dead and buried. My child died in the sweet innocence of her girlhood. How then could I have a grandchild?
Why should this letter come to deceive me who have been robbed of everything worth while?”
The tempest trumpeted with fiercer fury outside. Great gusts flung themselves like assailing legions of the night against the stout log avails of the post whose windows had become whited squares from the frosting within and the drift snow pounded upon them without.
John Armstrong opened the door of the great boxstove and threw a three-foot log-cut upon its bed of coals. He filled and lit a long-stemmed calumet with a blackened stone bowl and settled back in the chair.
The soothing fumes seemed to quiet him. But as the smoke-wreaths contorted weirdly in thin fading wisps up through the dull yellow glare of the hanging lamp he was in reality fighting down assailing memories whose bitterness was the bitterness of remembering happier days that could never come again.
He had spoken a part-truth out of the emptiness of his heart, had John Armstrong. He had lost everything that in the essence of things is to a man worth
Wife and daughter both had he lost, and with them had gone something more; something that had been the warm, responsive soul of John Armstrong now replaced by the worthless ashes of atheism. The years since had been to him lagging ages of drab, colorless existence. What a metamorphosis had come over all things in that time!
It had been a tragedy of the stark north woods which is not uncommon history. Love of a man may take a woman there to face its climatic rigors. Love of her home may buoy her up to meet its inconveniences, its loneliness and its tremendous difficulties, and to meet them triumphantly. But there is another thing a Thing intangiblethat few women not native-born to the strange, inexorable North may meet and conquer. It is a spirit out of the composite of the vast, limitless wastes; a brooding, hostile Presence, born of the endless days of mocking silence and witch-ridden nights when the aurora borealis boils up in noiseless fury and turns the dome of heaven to a cauldron of menacing
wrath. It had been this Thing that had preyed upon the young wife of John Armstrong before the baby was born whose entrance to the world had cost her her life. Her terror had left its prenatal impress upon the child.
Nina Armstrong was educated in Eastern Canada, boarding with a family who had been old friends of her father. When she had passed into the collegiate her father sent for her. He could stand being without her no longer. She who was the image of her mother was as the apple of her father’s eye. She went to him but with apprehensions weighing upon her spirit she dared tell no one.
Days when her father was away on his trading expeditions the sound of her own footfalls would startle her, and she crept about in horrible fear of she knew not what. Nights the Thing seemed to crouch out in the encircling woods, silent, waiting, watching —always wa &t; hing her.
She did not tell her father about it. But she had entreated him to return to the haunts of civilizat'on. He
urged her to be patient. A couple more years with furs at good prices and he would be rich enough to retire and live in one of the cities. Then they would leave the wilderness for good.
Nina Armstrong tried to be comforted, but when he left her the Terror returned. More than ever she could sense the elusive, sinister challenge of the deep silences. The fantastic outlines of the Laurentian cliffs became living gargoyles of derision; the ominous, close-packed spruce forests seemed peopled with menacing, crouching monsters.
She knew it was merely illusion; that these things were but imaginings. But the child could not understand the dread they sent to the roots of her being. A deadly fear that she was going mad seized her, a depression she cautiously hid from her stern, practical parent.
TUST about this time there came to the Ghost Lake district Jean Farrocher, good-looking, gay, carefree, chief cruiser for one of the big pulp and paper companies. He and his crew of helpers camped on the banks of the Ghost River less than a quarter of a mile from Armstrong’s trading-post. He came often to the pdst for supplies of one sort and another. John Armstrong could see no good in young Farrocher, and, after the manner of man he was, took no pains to hide his dislike. He forbade his daughter to have anything to do with the handsome timber cruiser beyond the routine of business transactions at the trading-post store.
The inevitable followed. The girl met Farrocher in secret. Encircled as she had been by the menace of the Great Silence this man and the world to which he belonged and could take her meant liberty, Life itself. Besides, he had told her—and she believed him—that he could not live without her.
Jean Farrocher moved his camp further south. Still there were days of each week when he met Nina Armstrong at one or another of their trysting-places along the ragged grey gorges of the Ghost River.
JOHN ARMSTRONG suspected nothing till one evening returning from a five-day expedition he entered the post to find it strangely silent. A brief note from his daughter explained. She had run away with Jean Farrocher and they were going to make their home in a distant eastern city. Nina could stand the bush no longer and she had fled from it and her father forever.
The blow bludgeoned John Armstrong into inactive melancholy. No moan escaped his lips, no catch came in his throat. That this thing could happen the angels themselves could not have convinced him. Proof that it had happened paralysed him mentally and spiritually.
But one token was left to remind him of her, a silk gown he had bought her on one of their rare summer trips to the East. She had left it laid out upon the length of the bed in her tiny room in the rear of the post. The attitude of the garment strangely coincided with the mood of her broken-hearted father.
Dry-eyed, ashen-faced, he stood staring down at the gown. “It is all a great black lie,” something subtle out of the Great Silence told him though his own lips uttered it. “Nina—my little Nina did not desert me. She is dead.”
That night he did not disturb or even touch the gown, but before the next evening it had strangely disappeared from the room.
John Armstrong returning in J;he gloaming evinced no surprise at its absence. He merely nodded to himself as one who finds things as he had preconceivedthey would be. He left every item in the room as he had found it and sealed the chamber against intrusion.
This had been the crucial moment. Had he broken down, wept over his daughter’s memory, he might have been saved. But it áeemed when he sealed his daughter’s chamber door the flood-gates of his soul too were sealed.
FROM that hour John Armstrong became a changed man, hard and smileless, a dour seorner who studiously effaced all outward show of the better elements of his nature. There is such a thing as furnaeing Life’s ideals so ardently that when the cold waters of Adversity are applied brittle, unyielding temper of mind results, and in the abrupt contraction the spirit is crushed out of all seeming existence. Armstrong in the solitudes had given himself over too seriously to dreams, though few who knew him might have guessed it.
In that caprice of Fortune which visits soul-deadened men John Armstrong met with immediate and sustained commercial success. One of the big fur companies bought out a section of his territory for many times what his total profits had been in the past, ten years. He contracted heavily for skins during a slum) in prices. Almost immediately after the pelts commenced to come in market prices went soaring. In a very short time John Armstrong became a wealthy man—wealthier than he had ever Continued on page 44
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dreamed of being back in bis hopeful struggling days. New trade drifted to him without the seeking. Something in the austere reserve of this great taciturn old white Canadian drew the Indian trappers to his post. They called him among themselves when out of his hearing Old-ManWho-Has-Lost-Something.
Success feazed him little. As time went on he grew sterner of mien, more cold and silent than ever. In the dull season he closed up his post, and with only his rille and belt-ax for company, spent protracted periods roaming the wilds. Out in the ghastly grey spaces, in the wastes of desolation, he found sympathetic echoes of his moods. He was training himself to believe that all that had gone before had been nothing more tangible than a dream, merely an inset of existence destroyed without trace, and that his daughter, Nina, was surely dead. And such is the overlording influence of harsh mental suggestion, brooded over day after day, he was succeeding in his morbid ambition.
NOW had come this letter from Toronto to remind him that it was not a dream nor an illusion, but a fact. He would have to commence all over again where he had started to build up his atheism, but first—• and the thought gave him no presentiment of remorse—he must destroy all evidence of this attempt to drag him back from his unbelief.
He decided to cast letter and picture into the fire next time he replenished the fire in the stove. Yes, burn them! Then there would be only ashes—grey ashes such as he imagined his soul had burned out to.
John Armstrong set his pipe aside. The atmosphere of the post had become devitalized with dry heat. Drowsily his gaze concentrated upon a reddened patch of the roaring box-stove. His eye-lids fluttered momentarily, then closed in sleep.
The hands of the wall-clock behind him had registered another hour when the door of the trading-post opened silently, and, with spectrelike tread, the figure of an Indian, swathed in heavy blanket-cloth, crossed the threshold.
With the nocturnal visitor came a great cloud of superfine drift-snow and a gust of wind that caught up the leaves of Nina Armstrong’s letter and the picture print of her baby and flung them abroad in con-
fusion. Noiselessly and with infinite care, the red man gathered up the scattered sheets and placed them in the open hand of the sleeping trader with the picture on top as he supposed things were before his gusty entrance disturbed them.
The storm-caught wanderer, who, after the manner of his race, sought refuge without asking in the first habitation he had come upon, warmed himself before the fire, then flung down on the bare floor between the wall and the stove and slept.
TOHN ARMSTRONG lurched forward •J with a startled, choking cry as his waking gaze fell upon the picture in his hand. It was not the great baby eyes staring up at him so wonderingly, not the chubby arms outstretched as though to twine their soft freshness about his neck, nor the wholesome, sturdy little form in the cheap cotton rompers alone that inspired that cry.
It was the embryo of his own soul, living and miniatured in baby innocence, he saw gazing up at him. It was as if his own baby Nina had come back to him from the beautiful long ago.
Not then did he question by what freak of chance the picture which he had spurned without a glance had been transferred to his hand. A wave of overpowering emotion gripped him with the strength of the tempest. It was pity—great, boundless pity—pity for his own flesh and blood such as only a father knows—that was upon him.
He sat for long transfixed, unheeding the flight of time, oblivious to his surroundings. The pipes of the box-stove set up a sibilant creaking as the fire in the stove below failed and died out. The encroaching cold struck at John Armstrong with its thousands of icy needle-points. And with the cold came down Silence—the yawning, mocking Silence that shrivelled emotion to a worthless husk of unbelief. A dry, harsh laugh broke from his lips as the vision of a moment ago flickered out and he was holding only a picture in his hand—a picture that meant nothing.
But the reaction this time provoked a struggle, a terrific struggle, in the being of John Armstrong. He no longer wanted to slide back into his recent hateful self; he had for the first time in many years known a moment of paradise.
Hunched up in the shadow of the stove, superstitious wonder upon his swarthy face, the Indian watched as the fur-trader sprang to his feet as though to grapple with an invisible foe.
“Out!” he cried in a calm, terrible voice. “Out, damned Unbelief! It is no lie! It is true! It is true! It is true!”
lie paced to the door and flung it wide. The blizzard storm had vanished. In its place was limitless white peace, silvered under clean, moonlit skies. The fur-trader donned his mackinaw and rat-skin cap and strode out into the night. The Indian, so soon as the other’s swishing tread faded in the distance, slipped out as stealthily as he had entered. “Old-Man-Who-Has-LostSomething too much not anybody with him,” he philosophized after the lights of his untutored mind. “Him go out to chase Wentigoes, I guess maybe.”
But at that moment, in a cavern in the hills, John Armstrong with the aid of pick and shovel was wrecking a cairn of stones, beneath which he prised the lid from a coffin-shaped pine box disclosing a woman’s silken gown laid out within—the garment his daughter Nina had left behind in her flight and which he, her father, had buried with her living memory years before.
He fled back to the trading-post with the gown clutched to his breast as he might carry a living child. Without waiting till morning he hastened with preparations for a journey east. On a second consideration, while he was packing his grips, he did not take the reclaimed gown with him.
“Nina shall have a new one when I find her and her baby,” he promised himself while tears trailed unheeded down his weather-bitten face. “They shall have all that my heart can bestow.”
John Armstrong had salvaged his wrecked soul from the Gulf of the Silences.