The story of a desperate rescue and a valor more precious than the price of happiness
WILLIAM MERRIAM ROUSE
THERE was storm in the gray sky that bent implacably above the rolling mountains. They were black now, these Laurentian heights, under the cold arch of the heavens; and what light spread over the world was as though it had been filtered grudgingly to make a pretense of day. The forests lay darkly smeared upon that picture and even the snow had lost its lustre. The spirit of earth had withdrawn itself, shivering, from the chaos and dark night of the coming blizzard.
There was storm also in the heart of Rémi Carreau. His axe swung steadily, it fell true to eye and expert hand, but a veil as gray and thick as the one above was drawn over his happiness; a covering as impenetrable as that sky, where not even the sun was able to make a lighter spot. The darkness without was less than the darkness within.
Carreau gave little thought to the coming blizzard. The axe of his comrade, Narcisse Ferron, rang in answer to his own but he heard it as a sound from another world. It was from another world; a far-off world of happiness. It mocked him across that great distance. Had not Narcisse won Mariette Danjou, of the sun-gilt hair and the mystery-dark eyes? A month ago she had chosen, and she was promised to Ferron.
Carreau gave a final blow and stepped back. The rock maple that he had just cut went crashing down, mightily, sweeping with it two or three saplings; it fell in a welter of flying snow and twigs and breaking limbs. The tree rolled a little and settled to its final rest. That fall had been like the defeat of Rémi Carreau, he thought; and before he leaped up on the trunk to limb off, he stood forja moment in silent meditation upon this tree which was so like himself, tough and hard-fibred and well grown. A strong tree, sound to the heart, but about to be cut up and fed to the flames.
Hélas! Carreau filled a chest that strained his blue flannel shirt. That chest arched out over a waist no bigger than a woman’s; a waist girdled by the folds of an old-fashioned hand-woven belt of red and yellow wool. Until lately he had been proud of this ceinture fléchée, which was an heirloom of his skill with the axe, of the endurance that enabled him to march all day and all night with no more than a little bread and grease to eat. Now there was little pride of achievement left in him.
He lifted his head and listened to the sound of that other axe; a head with a well-shaped jaw and a pair of frank eyes. The sound came heavily, as it does in thick weather. Bon Dieu! He could not hate the man who had taken the girl they both wanted! Without doubt, Narcisse was handsomer; quicker with that fling of word and jest which Mariette liked so well. He seemed to be the better worker, because he made more show of what he did.
Narcisse was not a bad fellow. They had managed to live together without quarreling, these two choppers, in a log chantier of one room. No, not even over the occasional dish washing had they quarreled; and heaven itself knew that when two bûcherons did not dispute about the dish washing, if any, they were indeed amiable men.
Vlan! Vlin! Vlan! The steady rhythm of the axe of Ferron told that he had not yet got his tree down; but in a moment it crashed, and almost at once came the more irregular strokes of the limbing off. Narcisse was doing right. He, Carreau, ought to be hurrying with the maple, for a tree down and buried in fresh snow makes loss of time for the chopper. He jumped up to the trunk; and at that instant a cry pierced the still air with all the sharp insistence of terror.
“A moi! Help, Rémi ! Nom de dieu! I ... I ... ”
Carreau leaped down, wriggled his feet into the simple hitch on his snowshoes, and ran. He carried his axe from force of habit rather than fear that Ferron had been attacked. His fear was for that accident which is the reason why few choppers will live in a chantier alone and work far from help—a cut from the axe.
Narcisse was sitting in the snow with both hands holding a leg and his darkly handsome face turned toward Carreau; a face drained of color and knotted by fear and pain. Already the dark leather of his botte sauvage was red stained; a glancing blow, of course, and the blade had bit the inside of his foot, through leather and many layers of woollen socks. Ferron groaned and rocked back and forth.
“Blasphème!” he breathed. “It is a bad one, Rémi! Put on a tourniquet, quick, or I bleed to death!”
Carreau worked in silence and with lightning speed. His hunting-knife cut away boot and trouser leg. With a strip of the stout corduroy and a stick he made the tourniquet; he covered foot and wound with a crude bandage made of Ferron’s socks. Then he stood up and tightened his belt.
“Bon! Now, Narcisse, I will get you on to my back and to the cabane first of all ! After that to the doctor at St. Jean de Dieu!”
“Yes,” agreed Ferron, huskily. “Go up to the chantier Danjou and get the horse of old Baptiste. Tell Mariette to come. Maybe she will go with me.”
“Of course she will!” exclaimed Carreau. “You are a lucky man in spite of this accident!”
“I shall lose much time from work! That means money!”
“You have Mariette,” Rémi told him, with an ache in his heart. “Money is nothing!”
By now he had Ferron on his back and he set off for the cabin at a slow, steady gait. It was not hard, this carrying of Narcisse; he was a somewhat lighter man than Carreau and he knew how to throw his weight forward and hold on in a sensible manner. Moreover, Rémi was as nearly all bone and muscle as a man can be, and, like a true Canadien, practically indestructible.
He put Ferron down outside the cabin, the better to get him through the low doorway, when suddenly the door opened from within and Mariette Danjou stood before them. Rémi saw the laughter wiped from her curving red lips; saw the dark depths of her eyes fill with horror. She bore back from them, a trim and slender figure despite her heavy jacket and skirt.
“Narcisse!” she cried. “What’s happened?”
“My foot,” he said. “The axe . . .”
“He is badly hurt but it is not dangerous, Mariette,” said Rémi, when he realized the bitterness of Narcisse’s feeling about the accident. “When we get him to a doctor he will be all right.”
“Ah, I am glad you are here, Mariette!” exclaimed Ferron.
“Dieu!” she whispered. “You will be laid up for weeks!”
“I am sorry, Mariette!”
“No chopper drives an axe into his foot for amusement,” said Carreau, as he helped Narcisse to a bunk. There the girl bent over him, her bright head lowered to his face. Rémi turned away with teeth set hard. It was not easy for him to see that kiss. He got water to bathe the wound and he tore up a shirt to bandage it.
“We’ll want the horse of your father, Mariette,” he said. “I must get Narcisse to St. Jean de Dieu before the blizzard breaks. It has grown a little warmer and, with the sky, that means the storm is coming soon.”
“But he is sick, our ’Poleon!” she cried. “It is the end of that horse, I think! He cannot stand up, and that is why I am here now. I came down the trail to get Narcisse to help my father!”
“Sacré!” muttered Rémi, and he straightened up from the bandaging. As he stared into the beautiful eyes of Mariette, dark pools, uptilted a little at the corners, he found himself with strange thoughts. If Narcisse Ferron did not get to someone with skill enough to stop the bleeding of that wound, and as soon as possible . . life might change for Rémi
Carreau! The tourniquet had saved Ferron’s life there in the woods but that was not enough; it could not be left on indefinitely.
Already Narcisse was suffering from it. Even if there were no blizzard coming, and the doctor could be brought up to the chantier, it might be too long a time.
“What can you do, Rémi?” asked Ferron.
“If I had even a dog sled I could draw it myself and got you there !”
Suddenly Narcisse turne I his face to the wall; away from them. He understood.
Carreau finished with the bandaging and walked thoughtfully to one of the windows.
He stared out without seeing the dark wall of the bush, the gray-white snow. Then he became aware that Mariette had come and was standing beside him. The nearness of her made him tremble; he let a little interval of seconds pass before he trusted himself to turn and look into her eyes.
“Narcisse. . .’’she began. “Is it nocessary that he go? After the blizzard you cou :d bring the doctor!”
“I think it would be too late,” answered Rémi.
“He will . . . you mean he will die?”
“He must have help!”
“And at best he will be laid up for a long time?”
“He will not chop again for a month, six weeks. Maybe two months.”
“What bad luck!” murmured the girl.
“I must get him to St. Jean de Dieu!” said Rémi. “You will help, Mariette?”
“How is it possible, Rémi? And what can I do?”
“There are things you can do. If the woodroad is drifted in, you can go ahead and break trail. You can give him courage!”
“But I thought you had no sled!”
“I am going to carry him on my back,” he told her.
“Impossible!” cried Mariette.
“It is impossible but I shall do it!” said Rémi, looking grimly into the dark eyes. “And we start at once!”
' I 'HE road to St. Jean de Dieu lay downward winding like a crumpled white ribbon.
Here and there it had been blotted out by a drift since the last horse and sled had gone through. It was rough with lumps of frozen snow, slippery where sled runners had packed and polished it, uneven to the feet at best.
But for all that a man with a heavy burden could do better there in the road without snowshoes than he could marching through the bush with them. So Rémi Carreau kept to the road.
Three-quarters of the way from the chantier to the scattering little village, outpost of the cultivated valley of the St. Lawrence, Carreau made one of his many stops. With the help of Mariette he let the wounded man down from his shoulders. She supported Ferron, his arm thrown around her neck and his head hanging weakly, while Rémi straightened up and stretched and worked some of the stiffness out of his cramped muscles.
He had lost count of the number of times he had halted, and all this had been repeated. Always Mariette had a struggle to keep Narcisse from falling, there was a little breathing space for Carreau, and then together they lifted the nearly helpless man to Rémi’s back. At first they had talked, encouraging each other, but now for a long time there had been silence except for a few necessary words. “Ready? All right! Now! Let him down !”
Breath was needed by all of them. Besides helping at the halts, Mariette had gone ahead to break through the drifts where they covered the road, in order that Carreau might not stumble. Rémi had plodded steadily on, putting one foot in front of the other with dogged determination and resolutely keeping his mind set against the persistent whisper that the measure of his strength was less than the distance to St. Jean de Dieu.
At first it had been easy; easier, in fact, on the solid road than it had been to bring Narcisse in from the chopping on snowshoes. Then the weight upon his back and shoulders seemed to increase; the drag against his neck and shoulder muscles became a pain. Now there were times when Carreau’s legs jacked and threatened to buckle under him; times when it took a mighty effort of the will to cover the distance that he had decided upon between stops.
In the time since they left the cabin the heavens had grown to a darker gray. The threatening bowl had shut down closer and ever closer. Now there was a little whisper of wind occasionally among the pines and hemlocks; a faint sighing breath as though the earth were mourning, resigning itself to the blast which would shortly sweep over it. Except for this breath there was silence in the bush. The three human beings were the only living things that had not gone to cover. They stood between walls of black-green, with the dull white road winding ahead unendingly.
A single pinhead of snow struck against the sleeve of Carreau’s jacket. It was a tiny pellet, hard, icy; half melted and frozen somewhere on its passage through the upper layers of the air. This was no gentle snowflake. Rémi well knew from experience how these pellets stung a man’s face like fine shot; how they blinded him, and beat with such force that he could not keep his face to the wind for pain.
“It will come soon now,” he said to Mariette. “From the northeast, I suppose. It won’t be too bad while we are in the bush, but below, the road turns toward St. Jean de Dieu and we’ll have to take it nearly in the face!”
“Do you need to tell me?” she asked in a low voice, full of bitterness.
He saw that her lip was curved with something more than'its natural beauty. Her eyes could not become darker but they flared with an emotion which at the moment Rémi did not understand. Scorn? Perhaps she had expected him to be stronger. Did she know that there was not one in ten, even among the toughest of the bûcherons, who could do what he had already accomplished?
Narcisse, weak from shock and loss of blood and the pain of the tourniquet, apparently gave no heed to what they were saying. All of the power left in him was needed to hold to the neck and shoulders of Carreau; to help support himself on one leg during the periods of rest. His head drooped ; he breathed heavily, with open mouth.
“It is hard for you, Mariette,” said Rémi, “but you would not have been content to stay behind.”
“Content!” she echoed. “I do not believe it was necessary to come !”
Carreau was worn. Even more than he knew, these weary miles and the strain of trying to cover them before the blizzard struck had pulled at him. Otherwise what was in his heart would not have burst out in a cry that rang hollowly against the stillness and brought a change to the eyes of Mariette Danjou.
“Can’t you see that it is for you as well as for him? Mon Dieu! A good comrade in the bush must help when there is trouble . . . yes . . . but you love Narcisse! Is not that something to me?”
“I thought,” she said, slowly, “that you loved me!”
“Have I not said so?” exclaimed Carreau, bewildered. “But you loved Ferron! You promised to marry him !”
The head of Narcisse did not lift, or turn; nor did his arm move upon the shoulders of Mariette. She looked straight into the eyes of Rémi and the ghost of a very small smile played across her mouth, over the secret depths of her eyes.
“Marche done!” she said. “You do not deserve any more rest, Rémi !”
They went on, and the thoughts of Carreau were as tangled as the young brush that comes up after a fire. Women he did not even pretend to understand, nor had he ever bothered to try before this. Here, however, was an affair in which his heart had been crushed. Did she know what it cost him to see the arm of Narcisse around her neck, how that kiss in the cabin had stabbed him? One would think that mockery lay behind the velvet of her eyes. Why?
He watched her as she forged ahead to break a path through a drift, with her snowshoes and his own swinging over her shoulder. She turned and looked back at him and smiled. Even today she had not forgotten to draw her hair forward from under her tuque so that the face into which Rémi gazed was framed in rich gold. Was it any wonder that Narcisse and he both loved her?
TT WAS some time after they had left the shelter of the bush that the blizzard drove in from the northeast. A level country was before them, where the winter road into the mountains wound over the tops of fences which were marked occasionally by the top of a weathered post showing above the snow. The road turned off to the east and from this point one should be able to see the spire of the church at St. Jean de Dieu. But not today. Already the day had darkened so that they marched in a kind of twilight.
If only he could have a little more time, thought Carreau, swaying heavily onward; and then, as he glanced up, he knew that he had no time at all. A screen of those fine, hard particles of snow was between him and the horizon; a horizon which had closed in until only a few hundred yards of the road was visible. The advance guard of the storm was upon them, borne on a wind that swept it nearly horizontal with the earth. A gust struck them, bearing a handful of whiplashes. Mariette cried out and turned her head.
Carreau halted. When he had eased Ferron down he stood with his back to the wind and took the long ceinture fléchée from his waist. He gave it to Mariette.
“Wind that around your face,” he said. “Cover everything but your eyes!”
While she was muffling her head he pulled a knitted muffler from the neck of Ferron and wrapped the wounded man’s face against the storm. Then Rémi buttoned his own jacket to the neck and pulled his tuque down to meet the collar.
“Mariette?” asked Narcisse, feebly. “Are we almost there?”
“Yes,” she told him.
“I . . . can’t ...” The arm of Narcisse slid from her neck and before Carreau could catch him he had plunged face downward into the snow.
“Now that,” said Mariette, “might be called bad luck! Nearly in sight of St. Jean de Dieu, and the blizzard comes, and he faints!”
The world grew still darker: it closed in about them. They could see each other, but nothing more except the surrounding thick wall of gray. The wind beat and tore as though with hands. Carreau knelt and raised the head of Narcisse to his knee. He opened his jacket and laid a hand over his heart.
“That is all it is,” said Rémi. “A faint. I was afraid he was dead!”
Mariette stood looking down at the two men. Above the snow-crusted ceinture her eyes were bright; they searched the face of Rémi Carreau.
“How can you carry him now?” she
“I brought a rope,” he told her, “for I thought this might happen. I shall tie him on my back.”
“Rémi !” She leaned down and touched the cheek of Carreau lightly with her mittened hand. “Neither of you will live to see St. Jean de Dieu !”
“That is possible,” replied Rémi. He knew that it was more than possible; it was probable. Already his legs had turned to water. He was so tired that it required an effort of the will to make the smallest movement. Mariette knelt beside him, with her hand upon his shoulder and her face close to his.
“Without him,” she said, “we can do it!”
“Leave Narcisse?” he exclaimed.
“Come, Rémi! Come with me!”
Rémi Carreau caught his breath; the strong fingers clenched inside his mittens. Ahead lay life, with Mariette. He had not, after all, lost by such a wide margin to Ferron; for a time she had been equally interested in them. The hand on his shoulder crept forward a little. Her eyes were like strong bonds, pulling him up and forward.
“I cannot leave him, Mariette,” said Rémi, in a low voice.
The hand fell away from his shoulder. She rose, and for an instant stood looking down into his face.
“Adieu, Rémi!” she said. “I will tell them there are two men out here, but it will be too late!”
She turned and was gone, with her body bent against the wind. The slender figure grew dim. It vanished. Carreau was alone with his comrade of the bush. Narcisse stirred and muttered.
“Courage, mon brave!” said Rémi. “We go to her!”
Fumbling, he got out the rope that had been wound around his body. He looped it under the arms of Ferron and drew him up on to his back. Then Carreau made the rope fast across his chest and gathered the legs of the wounded man under his arms. It would not be long now that he could keep going.
While his body marched slowly, bowed and reeling, the mind of Rémi Carreau labored. Dying was not too great an evil. The greatest suffering of this hour was from Mariette. The girl he had loved was not the one who had gone toward St. Jean de Dieu. But where was she, this other Mariette?
His feet slipped from the hard packed road and he floundered shoulder deep in soft snow. That showed how far gone he was, he told himself. A man with any strength or sense left in him would be able to keep his feet on the road by the feeling under them, even if he could not see where he was going. With infinite difficulty Rcmi struggled back to the roadway. He rested upon hands and knees for a moment before he got up.
i Now the cold was seeping through his clothing. With his strength going fast he became an easy victim. Hands and feet already ached and he knew that his cheeks were frost-bitten. As though that would matter to a dead man! He lunged forward, kept himself upright by a miracle, and went on for a few more paces. He was bent almost double.
Suddenly Carreau realized that he was sinking down. He went to his knees. From the muffled head close behind his own came a murmur.
“Mariette . . . Mariette ...” “Courage!” muttered Rémi. He made a great effort and stood upon his feet. It was for a moment, only. This time he fell at full length with his face pressed against the snow.
A WHITE expanse met the eyes of Rémi Carreau. Snow? That could not be, for he was warm. Frozen? Dead? No, it was the white ceiling of a room. Between him and that ceiling interposed a face. He found himself looking at a girl whose dark hair was drawn down smoothly across a fair, broad forehead. He gazed into blue eyes so clear that there seemed to be no bottom to their depths. A shadow passed away from them as he looked and he saw a smile that was like the sparkle of sunlight on blue water.
“I . . . can see . . . into heaven!” he whispered.
A pleasant laugh tinkled in the room. Rémi, with the aid of slim, strong arms, sat up against enormous pillows. He saw the posts of an old-fashioned bed, windows set deep in stone walls, and an enormous and atrociously ugly sled dog. The dog wagged a long tail and allowed half a foot, more or less, of tongue to hang over his jaw in what was probably intended for a smile of greeting.
“Put up your tongue, Paddé!” exclaimed the girl. “Monsieur must not be made to laugh himself to death!”
“It is impossible to kill a bûcheron, mademoiselle,” Carreau assured her.
“I believe you!” she said. “Although last night I thought you and your friend were done for!”
“Who brought us here?” asked Rémi, feeling better each moment in spite of numerous burning spots of frostbite. “And whose house is this, if I may ask you?”
“I am Valère Blondin,” she replied, “and ours is the farthest house of St. Jean de Dieu. I was alone last night when the young lady, Mariette Danjou, fell against the door. When she told me she thought two men were dead in the snow I was much troubled. You would surely be dead by the time I could go on into the village and get help. So Paddé and I went to see whether you were dead. That is all, Monsieur Carreau!”
“To begin with, my name is Rémi!” he sat up higher against the pillows. He had never known that blue eyes were such powerful medicine. Why, they were like cognac! “And did you bring us in alone? You and the dog?”
“It was not far,” she said, “and Paddé is very strong. He can pull a man on a sled easily but as there were two of you I helped.”
“And Narcisse will live?”
“Yes, he is here. Mademoiselle and the doctor are with him now.”
“You are marvelous!” exclaimed Rémi. “To go into a blizzard, alone, and bring in two men!”
“I told you it was Paddé!” she smiled. “You are an angel,” continued Rémi, “and you are perfectly beautiful !”
“Monsieur!” She was not at all displeased but she shook her head emphatically. “You must not excite yourself!” “Even your dog is beautiful!” he said, and he found her hand before she could hide it.
Valère Blondin turned a most charming pink.
“For a sick man . . . one who was near death ...”
“I have just begun to live!” said Rémi, and he did not let go her hand.