WHEN at the end of supper Madame Gagnon marched in with a bottle of native wine and six assorted glasses on a tray we had finally to face the fact that this was an occasion. From the moment, at midday, when we had met in our accustomed corner of the Windsor Station to catch the Snowbird Special, each of us had carried the thought that it was likely to be the last ski week end of the winter and, with George donning khaki, the last week end of all for our little crowd for who knew how long a time. Yet our greetings to George, arriving late, were the same old greetings:
“Hi, George, we thought the Income Tax had found you out.”
“Hello, Berger Rudd.”
“Cheri, I thought you had jilted me over.” This, of course, from Blanche Emard, the little kitten.
Yes, this was to be a week end of pretending— unless, perhaps, George himself would clear the air. There we were, relying on George, as usual.
The banter on the train—among ourselves, and with all the others we knew from years on the trails —was as gay as we could make it ; and a bright sun on sugar-snow put our afternoon of skiing beyond souring from any cause. But over the supper table a tension had begun to be felt and I think we were all relieved when Madame carried in the ceremonial wine, and toasts were in order.
Looking around the table I thought, as I often had, how little suited to one another we seemed to be and how close skiing had made us. I knew, though, as we all knew, that George was the core of our group and that it had needed him to keep us together. I had fellow lawyers who skied at St. Jovite and Val Morin and would often have joined them if I had felt quite free to do so. Jaques Clement, whose family had a summer cottage just out of the village, was always being sought by friends who kept their country places open the year round. Blanche was Jaques’ girl and would, of course, be wherever he was. Marit Senders, though, did seem to belong to us and no one else. For all her sense of fun Marit had pride; it was in her walk and her voice, and I always felt our group suited her because she was too much the working girl to be accepted by the Penguins—the Junior League on skis—and could not bear to run with a second-best club. Silly, but there it was.
Jaques and Blanche, Marit, George and I—these were the regulars. From time to time there was a third girl—usually someone I had in tow. This year it had been Pat Fellows, the daughter of old Cliif Fellows, senior partner of my firm. Pat was a clear-eyed youngster who lived for her skiing and her paintbox and liked to get away from her post-debutante friends over the week ends.
Madame poured the wine, and placed the bottle before Jaques; she had known him from boyhood and it was through him that most of our arrangements with her were made. Jaques insisted that a glass be poured for Madame, and she seated herself close to the kitchen door. Then, discarding all trace of his usual heartiness, he proposed a toast to George with a graciousness that was enhanced by an occasional French twist of phrasing and pronunciation. He recalled the day when, three years before, we had met by chance in Madame’s pension, and how we had decided to come back the following week,-and then the next one, and the next, and thus had become known on the trails as the “Gang from Gagnon’s.” He spoke only of the past and thanked George, the best skier among us, for what he had taught us of the game and how to enjoy it. Of George’s songs and stories too, he spoke, and of the long evenings of talk in which the forthright George did much to keep our feet on the ground.
Perhaps we read more into the words than was there; anyway, when George stood to reply we were anything but a self-possessed lot. George, redder than the sun had made him, smiled awkwardly, hesitated, and said, “I want to thank you all. You know, I think, just as well as I could tell you what these week ends have meant to me.” He paused and added, “There’s really nothing more than that to say.”
Then Madame jumped out of her chair exclaiming, “Mon Dieu, my cake,” and bustled into the kitchen. One or two of us shouted comments at her as she went, and we were more like ourselves again. I’ve never asked Madame if there was a cake in the oven or not.
GEORGE was leaving his job in the sales end of VF an oil company in Montreal for the Army. It was planned that each of us, before he left, would give him a personal present of some kind, rather than combine on anything pretentious. Blanche had prepared a snapshot album full of the pictures that had been taken of the gang. Jaques had bought a life-member’s badge in the Laurentian Ski-Club, to which we all belonged. Pat had worked on a pastel of the Gagnon home from an angle that embraced what we called the Home Hill. In spite of some pondering I hadn’t been able to think of ar.ything but the conventional “Army” type of gift ard I had decided to throw a final party in town as my offering if I could not think of something more fitting in the meantime. No one knew what Marit had planned.
After supper we talked over the day’s skiing, as we always did, kidding each other for our falls and giving praise for difficult runs and turns that had been made. With George in the lead, as usual, we had taken in as many as possible of our favorite hills and trails—it may be that he wanted a last look at them. A number of these we regarded as our own, either by right of discovery or because of incidents that had given them a special meaning to us. There was George’s Trail—a sporting run of several miles that George had marked and which the Ski Club was quick to approve and develop. There was Deer Hill where we once had seen a doe so graceful that we skiers had felt clumsy for the rest of the day. There was Lost Hill, a swift descent through the wood which we found one day in our wanderings, and could not locate again for several weeks. On most days we would veer off from the trail at some point for a bit of exploring, or “bushwhacking”; this earned us friendly derision from the other trail runners and pity from the downhill skiers.
There was little if any drinking on those Saturday nights, but, as I say, we felt that this was an occasion. Someone started to pour the wine and it was then that Marit surprised us. “No, thanks,” she said. “You see, I’m racing in the Spring Downhill over at Mont Helene tomorrow.” We were stunned. Marit, racing! Marit, the only one of us who was good enough to race, and who scorned it more than any.
“Yes,” she said, “I’m racing tomorrow. I’m racing for George. I’ve had skis since I was six, but it’s George who has really taught me to ski. You all know how he has told me time and again that I ought to run a downhill race and how I’ve said that some time perhaps I would, just once. Well, kids, tomorrow is my last chance to race for George and if I don’t win a cup for him I’m going to steal my starting number and give it to him.”
George was transparently pleased and proud, but he managed to say, “Marit you mustn’t; I like racing and I’d do it if I were sure my ankle would let me, but you hate the very idea; you just haven’t got the competitive instinct; you mustn’t do it.”
“Georges, mon ami,” she replied, “for one day I’m going to have the killer instinct. At that maybe you’ll only be the richer by one square of cotton and a glimpse of a morning-glory out of season—and now I’m going for a run on the blades to make me ready for bed.”
“I’ll go too,” said George. He spoke with a certain intentness, but I thought nothing of it at the time. I was thinking of Marit—thinking how little I really knew her and yet how much I would miss her when the “gang” broke up. Part of our code was that we were all just playmates, men and girls alike, on those week ends. Except for Jaques and Blanche, who could hold hands in public if they wanted to, our ski days were holidays from our real lives and whatever entanglements they might have. Once or twice each summer I had taken Marit out to the Yacht Club for dinner or for a drive and a swim, and was always delighted by her warmth and sparkle, but I had avoided any temptation to have a part in her personal life or even to enquire into it. I had met her parents, of fine Norwegian lineage; and I knew that in her work-a-day world she was secretary to a vice-president in the Telephone Company. The rest of her life was vague to all of us. In spite of a gift for retailing droll incidents of her daily round she rarely spoke of her friends, and never of her problems. I did know that there were depths in her that could not easily be sounded. Everyone, of course, feels something of the beauty, the portent, in a night of stars and snow; such nights left Marit speechless.
IN MARCH only the early risers catch the wash A of pink which the first sunlight lays upon the snow. 1 was up and out by seven. Rounding the house 1 saw the figure of another skier on the Home Hill. It was Marit. As I approached we each raised a pole in greeting and Marit waited at the top of the Hill.
“It’s glorious,” she said, when I was beside her. “Glorious.”
Without further words we stood looking down the valley of the Brochet with its sloping fields and the evergreens which mantled the hilltops here and there and ran raggedly down to the river.
The snow would soften later, but now it was firm under the skis. With a push of her poles Marit was olí and down the slope in a string of suant Christies; but for the accent of her skis, as they bit on each turn, the illusion of flight would have been complete. I followed, having for once that sense of mastery which we Easterners usually associate with the powder snow of higher altitudes. We skied lazily on the open hills for an hour or more, revelling in the day and the conditions, rather than trying any exacting runs. Finally, at the top of Home Hill again, Marit shouted, “Last in is a hiker” and was well started before I could dig in my poles. I couldn’t quite catch her and had to face her taunts as we joined the others at breakfast.
Around the table there was only one topic—the race. The Spring Downhill was inaugurated some years ago as a postseason exhibition affair to give the girls who enjoyed racing a final fling at competition after the more serious Zone, Provincial and Dominion events were over. With each succeeding season, however, the Spring Downhill became of more importance, partly because all the best racers in the Laurentians seemed to find their way to it and partly because, in the expectation that snow conditions would be slow, one of the stiffer courses, ordinarily reserved for men, was usually chosen. This year added interest was given through the presence of the Dominion Champion, Greta Weston of Vancouver, who had won the title at St. Jovite a few weeks earlier and was now back in Canada after competing in several New England meets. The Committee had selected the Mile-a-Minute run down the wooded slopes of Mont Helene—a reasonably wide and very steep course which could be taken slow or fast according to the ability of the competitor.
We had fun assigning ourselves duties. George, already manager, of course, appointed himself waxer and ski-bearer. As ski-bearer he would carry Marit ’s skies to the top of the run and descend after the last competitor. Characteristically, if Marit was racing for him he did not want to be at the finish line lest it make her self-conscious in the last difficult hundred yards of sloping out-run where every ounce of fight was needed to keep upright after the strain of the turns and schusses was over and the end was in sight.
I was elected legal adviser and contact man, to make the arrangements with the Committee and guard against Foul Play. Pat, the little sapling, was told off as Motherly Bosom. Jaques and Blanche were Cheering Section.
With a hoarse solemnity Marit authorized George, as her manager, to reveal the Plan of the Race, since she felt it would be safe with us against bribe or cajolery from the other contestants. The Plan was simple. Each racer had to run the course twice, the combined times to count. “Our entry,” said George, “will make the first run under control, taking no chances on a fall. Her time will then be compared with that of the leaders and the manner of the second descent will depend on (a) the amount of time to be made up and (b) the quality of the skiers ahead of her. If some of the Great Ones have a considerable lead our entry will make another controlled run, finish about tenth, and exit from competitive skiing with dignity and a whole skin. But—and I hope you are listening—if it seems that a Suicide Plunge might gain the palm, then, my friends, we shall have the sweet agony of watching Marit the Meteor call the dice with fate.”
The plan made sense, and glancing at Marit, I caught a ruminative, reckless look in her eye which told me that she meant to carry it through. Suddenly I was apprehensive about the whole project and cast about in my mind for some reasonable way to stop it. However, I could think of nothing.
Marit decided to ski no more until the race and I found some excuse to spend the morning with her. We had our coffee in the kitchen in order that Madame might give us an account of parish matters as she carried on her work.
The house faced south and by eleven o’clock it was warm enough for Marit and myself to bundle up in our overcoats and sit on the narrow veranda with our backs to the clapboards. In front of us water dripped readily from the icicles on the veranda roof and at a neighboring farm we could see the cows out in the yard, taking the sun like ourselves. A peace lay over everything and I had a feeling that by some easy magic we might find ourselves transposed to the walls of a gallery for all time as part of a “Laurentian Landscape— Early Spring.”
Madame began to play the gramophone and the tunes which we would always link with her place came drifting out to us. An early arrangement of “Star Dust,” a collection of FrenchCanadian Songs and a much worn “Gems from the Chocolate Soldier” were among those we had played most often.
“Good-by Star Dust,” Marit’s voice was low— “good-by Madame, good-by St. Angers—good-by John.”
“No, Marit, your good-by to me will come some year when the sleigh bells are ringing in July.”
“Now, you mustn’t get mawkish, my sweet—I thought of it first.” Then, in a tone which tried to be matter-of-fact, “John, what do you find yourself wanting most in this world? Do you want things and stuff, do you want people saying, ‘That’s John Hendrick over there,’ do you want sunshine and quiet, or what?”
“I wish I knew. Occasionally, when I’m running the Lost Trail or having some laughs with the boys or working like hell on a case, it strikes me that life right then is justified and that is what it is for. Then I see John Doe going without a haircut so his kids can buy schoolbooks, and I wonder. How about you?”
“I don’t know either. At one .time it seemed that show was worth the candle in itself and I thought in terms of making a new friend, or seeing new country, or doing something different.”
We were weaving the same piece and the pattern might soon have been there for us to see, but suddenly in a flurry of laughter and christies, the rest of the gang were back with us. Then there was lunch, and the stories,of the morning’s exploits. Charges of stemming were met with counter-charges of pole-riding, and bits of smart running were built into feats that Jerry Olsand himself might envy. George had apparently bushwhacked his way down an unknown hill with the daring and luck that he could combine so well. He beamed like a baby as, in the telling, his descent became a dive, the hill a precipice, and the scattered trees as dense as skis in front of a lodge.
The race was not mentioned until abruptly George asked, “How are you feeling, Marit?”
“Like jelly in July,” she replied.
AS WE were smoking our cigarettes after dinner the clock struck half past one. We all hated to hurry but there was nothing else for it. Starting time for the race was three o’clock and Mont Helène was about four miles distant by the river road. We called to M’sieu Gagnon to hitch up Noirette, while George started to slap a coating of downhill wax on Marit’s skis. She and I had renewed the base wax during the morning and taken the skis into the kitchen, where they would be warm and ready in case George might consider that this treatment should underly the final parafin.
It was now too soft in the open for good skiing so, leaving George to accompany Marit—and to paraffin en route as best he could—the rest of us stowed our skis in the back of the cariole and struck out on foot, carrying our poles.
“Do you think Marit’s really nervous?” Jaques quietly asked me.
“I don’t know. Let’s see what the girls say. Blanche, do you think Marit is dithery? We males can’t tell.”
“She’s not scared. But there is something. I feel it. She seems gcnee—troubled, I guess you would say.”
Pat, who sometimes surprised us with her perceptions, said, “She makes me think of a young pilot called out for battle flight—he’s going to find out things about himself up there and he doesn’t know what they are.”
“I wish it were over,” said Jaques, mostly to himself, and he spoke for all of us.
The Committee, fortunately, was still at the Golf Club which served as Race Headquarters and I was able to file Marit’s entry and get her number and starting position without difficulty. Everyone was delighted to know she was going to compete and our spirits rose under the general exchange of greetings and the mock horror that one of Gagnon’s gang had turned racer. By the time Noirette came plodding along the Golf Club drive there had been a general movement of racers, spectators and officials to the hill, and as our Gang crossed the fields it seemed as though all we lacked was a flag to declare ourselves as a little army on the attack. The effect was not lost in the crowd around the finish line, and our approach was hailed with gibes like, “Cut your throats, girls, the Iroquois are on us!” and “Where did you leave your wooden horse?”
Marit had skied across from the clubhouse, but would climb the course on foot. As she was unbuckling her skis Jack Baker, whose blue blazer was to be seen at any ski gathering from Piedmont to St. Jovite, came over to us with a trim little racer whom I could not remember having seen before. This was explained when he introduced her— she was Greta Weston, the new Dominion Champion.
Jack, hearing that George was Marit’s manager, had become self-appointed manager to Greta. “Champion meets Dark Horse as rival managers snarl,” he said, haring his teeth at George.
The girls were as nice as pie to each other—vinegar pie.
Greta: I love your Laurentian country.
Marit: It must make for tame skiing after the Rockies.
Greta: Oh well, a race is a race, everywhere.
Marit: I’m afraid so. This is my first.
Greta: Really? I hope you’ll enjoy it.
Marit: There’s really only one way to enjoy a race, isn’t there?
Greta: Perhaps you’re right—I’ll certain'y stop racing when I stop winning.
At this point George shouldered Marit’s skis and his own with an abrupt, “Come on, Marit, you’ll want a couple of minutes at the top.”
They moved off and then, on impulse, I found myself hurrying after them. As I caught up, Marit turned with an air of knowing that I would come. I reached out my hand rather awkwardly. Marit took it, looked at me with a half-smile and was on her way again.
Up the steep final schuss they climbed, digging in their boots, and around the bend above and so out of sight-George first, Marit following. Marit had drawn twenty as a starting number in a field of twenty-five -there would be a longish wait at the top. George would run the paraffin block carefully over the skis again, Marit would stand around in her greatcoat making conversation with the other girls and, like the rest, watching each new starter out of sight. When Number Nineteen had gone she would give her coat to George and stand at the starting line waiting. The seconds would pass slowly. Perhaps if she were lucky Number Nineteen would make a good run and the starter at his telephone would get the “All Clear” in little more than a minute. Perhaps there would he a long silence—was Number Nineteen lost, or what? Perhaps, worst of all, there would be the crack of a course warden’s pistol from somewhere down the run, summoning the first-aid toboggan from the bottom. It wasn’t fun to be next in line after that; but you had to push off, gallantly if you could, when the starter leaned forward and spoke to you and to his telephone, “Ready, Number Twenty. One, two, three. Go!”
Those were my thoughts as I stood, Pat beside me, a couple of hundred feet above the finish line. Then there came a shout of “Track” from above; the chattering round about stopped, and the first racer—little Jeanie Mills—came into sight, fighting for control on the bend above the schuss. She made her skis behave, checked j nearly to a stop, and took the drop. | The effort had tired her; as she j entered the out-run she was weaving ! again, but she managed to struggle across the line before falling and earned a cheer from the crowd. Her time would probably be neither good nor bad. After two or three others ; had completed the run Jeanie started making her way up the course again, and as she approached us, Pat hailed her. “Beautiful run, Jeanie. What was your time?”
“They won’t give the times till everyone is down. I ran it like a washerwoman.”
“It looked grand.” Pat lied. “How was the course?”
“Damn tricky and steep. I waxed for slush but it’s not that soft; I was too fast on the sunny parts and was gripping a bit in the shade. Everybody seems to he using something different.”
“What about Weston?”
“The innocent—she only shrugs and says she is using some kind of wet-snow wax that Vorberg made for her before she came East. She confided to Syb Tolley that she was mostly afraid of the bump on the straightaway — knowing how Syb hates bumps. I hope she casts a shoe.”
“How was Marit — nervous?” asked Ruthie.
“Her manager had made no statement., when I left.” Then with a self-critical “Meow” Jeanie laughed and continued her climb.
Racer followed racer and as the numbers neared twenty I saw that Pat wasn’t feeling very blithe; I was blackly cross by that time and let her suffer—anyway, there was nothing to be said.
Actually Marit’s run was over almost before we knew it. It was like watching her take the Home Hill or George’s as we had dozens of times—the same command, the same grace, the same sense of enjoyment.
If Marit looked competent Weston in her turn was brilliant. She glided around the curve like a gull, making the turn with a flourish which checked her speed without seeming to, and took the schuss with a definite vorlage, or forward lean, which none of the others had attempted. When she made a graceful pretence of poling as she passed us on the out-run there were some who scoffed, but I can take a bit of showmanship and liked her for it.
When the timers released the results of the first run Weston was best with a minute and seventeen seconds, hut had a margin of only four seconds over Yvette Godin, the mighty atom from Ste. Celeste. Apparently the champion had done more stemming than poling on the less populous upper stretch. Marit was fourth with 1.25. There was a girl one second better and another a second slower; the rest were all well over the minute and a half.
Marit joined Pat and me, and Jaques and Blanche came stemming down from the last corner, where they had stationed themselves. Everyone wondered if Marit would try to make up the eight seconds on the second run. No one would ask.
“Did you enjoy it, Marit?” Blanche ventured.
“It wasn’t like running for fun,” she replied slowly. “I don’t remember the wind in my face; I didn’t feel glad. But yes, I enjoyed it.”
I had planned to carry up Marit’s skis for the second run, hut Jaques took them and was away, saying that he was chilled and wanted the exercise. I skied along beside Marit to the foot of the schuss.
“Have fun, pal,” I said, as carelessly as I could. “Take it easy.”
“I’ll have fun. But will you he down there, please, when it’s over?”
“Yes, I’ll he there.”
“Thanks. Don’t come farther. So long now.”
“So long, Marit.”
And so the second run started, and I got to feeling pretty grim. Down they came, some covered with snow from a real header, others with only the telltale badge of a sitzmark. I scarcely tried to distinguish one from another hut I sensed that the course had become much faster. The hill was all in shade now and the spectators were stamping their feet and heating their hands together to keep warm. Most of the racers were checking to the limit as they came in sight and the clever ones took a slow Christie as they approached the schuss, and thus took part of it in a side slip, before straightening out.
Number Twenty was next. I looked down at the timer with the telephone, and saw him nod his head to the rhythm of “one, two, three. Go!” It would soon be over now. “Check, Marit, check.”
In spite of myself I was counting off the seconds—or what I thought were seconds, until she would swing into sight on the turn. Before I thought it possible the little black figure appeared. The turn itself seemed like a schuss so quickly she took it—“Check, Marit, check. Or can you? Are you too fast to check?” By choice or necessity she dove into the schuss, without stem or swing, and dropped like a plummet.
There was not a cheer or a shout, or even a quick comment; nothing hut a general stare, an even turning of heads, and one thought “Can she hold it?”
Was it crazy skiing or perfection? Was she lucky or inspired? I’ll never be sure. But on she came, holding it, past me and over the line, still holding it. Marit had done her “something for George.”
INSTEAD of checking and stopping after passing the finish post Marit let herself slide out across the field and along the trail, back to the clubhouse. For a few seconds I watched her go; I don’t think I could have moved. Then I skied out on the trail and poled down after her—fortunately the next racer was still somewhere above, for I had forgotten the race and knew only that Marit somehow seemed very much alone. The little crowd at the finish line must have seen a look on my face for there was not a word of greeting or banter as I went through them.
As I approached I saw that Marit had stopped. She was hunched over her poles and she was crying. As I came beside her she seized my arms as though to steady herself, and still sobbing, pushed her face against my jacket without a word or a glance. Finally against my protests she began to speak, almost incoherently.
“Oh, John,” she gasped, “I’m scared, I’m frightened . .
“Not as scared as four hundred people were when you came around that bend,” I replied, relieved to think it was just a case of after-the-race reaction.
“That’s it. That’s the trouble,” she said, and her whole person was tense? “I wasn’t scared then—not scared at all. I just wanted to win. Nothing else mattered. I’d have plowed through little children on the trail but stop or check I couldn’t. John, 1 was possessed—possessed of a devil. And I want to do it again. I wish there was a race tomorrow and the next day, and the next—And so I’ll never run another race, never — That queer heaven—John, promise! Promise you won’t let me race again.”
“I promise, dear,” I said, and as soon as I dared, I added, “and now you’re going to stick your nose into a hot drink.”
We skied silently up to the Club. The lounge, attractive with its beams and hooked rug tapestries, was deserted. I gave my order to a waiter and we went over to the fire. We stood without a word, taking in the warmth. Nothing could have been spoken at that moment except what lay very deep in us. Finally I asked her quite bluntly to marry me. Whatever the words were they sounded trite and owlish as I spoke them.
There was no response and I stood staring at the fire. At last Marit reached over and took the glass from my hand. As I watched she poured the drink into hers and then emptied part of her glass into mine again and handed it back to me. She gave the toast with steady eyes hut her voice was a whisper: “Like this for always, John. Ad fundem.”
AS WE drained our glasses the crowd came in, clamoring for Marit. She had won, of course, and by a good margin. I was proud of her composure under the congratulations knowing how stifled she must have felt as she spoke the banalities the occasion demanded—“Beginner’s luck . . . Say it to George, he did the waxing . . . Too bad you hit that ice, Grace, you’d have had me by five seconds.”
George, as manager, came in for a lot of friendly ribbing and some of the girls made extravagant offers to be taken into his stable. He parried it all with his usual buoyancy hut was a hit constrained, I thought, when Marit rose and kissed him as he came over to congratulate her. Soon afterward I caught him somberly looking out the window as the March twilight began to smear the shadows of the woods across the snow; I thought he was saying his good-bys, one by one, so at the last they might not be too much for him.
We decided to have supper at the Club and take a later train than usual to town. Broken as it was by shouts from other tables and visits from friends of the trail this last meal seemed as happy as any we had had.
At the first chance I whispered to Marit, “May I tell them?” but her “please, no,” was definite. How much the others guessed I could not tell although I thought that perhaps Blanche and Jaques had ways of reading signs the others could not see.
Then came the presentation of prizes. Marit was given a huge Challenge cup and a miniature. As she took the Challenge cup she made a move at me and I returned a gesture of promise; the cup would go undefended. Blushing, the champion managed a pretty little speech which she ended by saying “—and now I wish, in turn, to make a presentation. I am giving this little cup to George Dunlop, not as the tyrannical Manager, but as George of the trails to whom we have to say good-by.” Here she faltered and only those of us near-by heard her say, “George, please, please, don’t ever let it tarnish!”
The confusion of applause gave her a chance to place the cup before George and get to her seat, without too many being aware of her tears. Then there were shouts for George. He rose, contrived a smile, shook his head and sat down to a great ovation.
Supper over, we sleighed back to Madame’s. The night was still and starbright, as the night which follows a clear March day must be, and we were glad to snuggle down under the buffalo robes. A stranger to the province might have thought that winter still was strong but we knew that the stars had lost their pin-point brilliance, that the sleigh bells had a fuller tinkle, and that Noirette was treading a road which was not the hard dry road of January. The little knives were no longer in the air and a deep breath could be a pleasure. It was the skiers’autumn —the final phase and the most cherished, because there is the thought that each day may be the last before rain and south winds and break-up.
For a while, led by George as always, we sang some of the old picnic favorites; I remember, “Frankie and Johnnie,” “On Moonlight Bay” and “Tea for Two.” Then we were quiet, for it seemed as though sentiment might join its voice and that, of course, was outside the code.
During the drive Marit and I had again been part of Gagnon’s gang; but once in the house we rushed our packing as though by agreement and met downstairs by the fire. It was still half an hour before train time; in the kitchen we could hear Madame embarking on one of her salty accounts of village affairs.
Now all our excursions of the past had a new coloring and, looking back, we could discover portent in the most commonplace incidents on the trail and at Madame’s.
“Let’s plan things,” said Marit. “Let’s buy the old gramophone and all its records.”
“And never tell strangers why we have it.”
“And play Star Dust every year on the second Sunday in March.”
Oh, we plotted a bright, enduring future. Of children Marit said, “We’ll just save the best. When each is ten years old we’ll give it a push down the Lost Hill; if it falls we’ll cover it up with snow and leave it there—no I couldn’t bear that— we’ll give it ten dollars, a clean hankie and a ticket to Tahiti.”
Suddenly I had another idea. “Marit, I’ve thought of something for George that will really make him happy.”
“Well, you see, Gagnon’s gang is really George’s gang. And this mad fancy we have for each other is really of his brewing.”
“Aye lad, poetic too. And so?”
“I’m going to ask him to be best, man at our wedding.”
Silence for a while. Then Marit gave me a wry smile and said, “No, John, you’ll have to think of something else for George—I had hoped that you’d never know—but last night, out at Squirrel Hill, George asked me to marry him.”
EIGHTEEN months later George was one of a khaki-clad group at the end of a big room at Buckingham Palace. They had all been through Dieppe. A band was there, and a good many people; I was in the crowd, and feeling pretty good, too.
The King had something for George.