Fiction

Air-nest and La Belle Dame

Romeo had his Juliet; Antony his Cleopatra, Abelard his Heloise. Why, then should a little thing like four husbands keep Air-nest from Vi’let, the woman he loved

W. O. MITCHELL November 1 1948
Fiction

Air-nest and La Belle Dame

Romeo had his Juliet; Antony his Cleopatra, Abelard his Heloise. Why, then should a little thing like four husbands keep Air-nest from Vi’let, the woman he loved

W. O. MITCHELL November 1 1948

Air-nest and La Belle Dame

W. O. MITCHELL

AT first, he had put down Ernest’s behavior to a slight touch of cabin fever, the yeast of spring effervescent in his veins after a long winter. Now, after two weeks, he was not so sure.

With face gaunt between the ear flaps of his cap, Andrew MacNab, of the hunting and fishing guide company of MacNab and Dart, watched his partner shave over the red-rimmed basin on the back stoop of Ecclefechan Retreat, the lodge they operated thirty miles as the eagle flies from Banff in the Alberta Rockies. With incredulous eye and deep disapproval giving him more and more the appearance of a dyspepfic goshawk in blinkers, he saw Ernest slick down his sparse hair with the water remaining in the bottom of the basin then, in stiff, new levis, go off in the direction of the corrals, whistling what might have been: “The West, A

Nest, and You, Dear.” With the bright blue pants at almost half-mast on bis hips, so that the seat from behind showed even with the backs of his knees, Ernest had a constricted look from the belt down; from the Iwlt up he ballooned.

MacNab entered the cabin; through the window be saw Ernest on Dishface, riding off in the direction of the river. Two weeks since Ernest’s strange behavior had begun. MacNab sat by the kitchen stove, Plato’s “Republic” opened on bis sharp knees, his t houghts not concerned with philosophic matters, but rather with Ernest’s regular absences. Through tlie door slightly ajar, stole the resin scent of pine, the cooling dankness of leaf mold, the unending lament of the Highwood River.

Not cabin fever; if would have long ago run its course. He had asked Ernest where he went. Ernest’s round face became embarrassed and diffident. He was going to Blackjack’s pool, he said. And the red brows of MacNab lifted only slightly. He knew that the spot had some sentimental attachment for Ernest. There in nineteen-two Blackjack Riley, after quailing a dipper of gopher poison, had leaped to a watery grave, sorrowing for the Snake wife who had run off with t he pig boss from a nearby Hut terite colony.

Local legend had it that on dark nights the red flannel underwear in which Blackjack had met his death, still made a blaze of color along the Highwood banks as he walked in uneasy search for his faithless wife.

But why, MacNab asked himself as he sat with sock feet on the oven door, why should Ernest be going nightly to Blackjack’s pool? The man acted just as though—The “Republic” came shut with a snap. MacNab got to his feet.

“There’s no doot a boot it,” he said to the whistling marmot pelt on the wall. “That’s it!”

He stood for long moments, a lank, tense figure in the lamp light. “But—who—or which one? Sally Three-Pairsons—Nancy Rolling-in-the-mud— Margaret Crazy-horse,” he exhausted the romantic possibilities of the Stony tribe nearby, then returned to his chair. “Na—na—it canna be that.” Then a good half hour later—“At his age!”

jl/TACNAB was still seated in the kitchen three IT l hours later when his ear caught the lilt of a far-off whistle. The tune could have been either “When You Wore a Tulip and I Wore a Bright Red Rose,” or “The Baggage Coach Ahead.”

MacNab appeared engrossed in filling his pipe as Ernest entered. “Ye’re late, Air-nest.”

Ernest seated himself without reply on an elkhorn chair.

“Blackjack’s pool again?”

Ernest shook his head. “Anchor E,” he named the ranch four miles down the river.

“And whit did ye there, my handsome young mon?”

“Visitin’.”

“Vusutin’?”

“Uh-huh.”

MacNab emitted a singularly patient sigh.

“Bin runnin’ with the cook.”

“Chan-moy !”

“Vi’let the Chinaman went into business with his nephew in Bluebell—name of Vi’let Henchbaw. She’s the new cook.”

“So ye said,” said MacNab. “And that’s how it. is. Would she be the widow o’ Mike Henchbaw rode for the Three Walking Sticks?”

“Yep.”

“Disna seem proper for a mon suxty-five—” “Sixty-four.”

“•■—takin’ up wi’ wimmen.”

“I ain’t takin’ up with wimmen,” protested Ernest, “jist sort of runnin’ with Vi’let some.” “ ’Tis impossible for a mon tae sort of run wi’ a wuman—some,'’ said MacNab. “Ye tread upon treacherous muskeg there, Air-nest. If she’s the wuman I ha’e in mind, she’s a’ready had five husbands.”

“Four.”

“Four is it? Had ye notion o’ becomin’ number five?”

“We jist visit in the cookhouse,” explained Ernest. “She’s good company—seems like a sensible sort of a woman—you settin’ in a draft?” “Na—na—I cannot help but shudder when I hear such a blazin’ contradiction in tairins.” On sock feet MacNab went to the wood box. He turned with a pine chunk in each hand. “Love,” he an-

nounced with continuing solemnity, “is a greatly o’erestimated sentiment.”

“That mean you ain’t fussy about it?”

“It does.”

“I dunno,” mused Ernest. “Seems to me when a fella picks him out a woman—”

“Say whit ye wull, Air-nest, the selection of a mate by a mon is a great deal like the selection of a dry-fly pattern by a fush—purely a motter of illusion — and tae the mon — or the fush - unfortunate.”

“I don’t see her that way,” said Ernest stubbornly. “You take Vi’let—”

“Tak’ Vi’let an’ ye wull not be enterin’ a marriage contract, Air-nest,” warned MacNab, “ye wull be joinin’ a lodge.”

Ernest had just set the flapjacks on the table as MacNab entered the kitchen in the morning. Ernest did not touch his plate, but sat with absent eyes upon the Continued on page 28

Continued on page 28

Romeo had his Juliet; Antony his Cleopatra, Abelard his Heloise. Why, then should a little thing like four husbands keep Air-nest from Vi’let, the woman he loved

Air-nest and La Belle Dame

Continued from page 20

damper of the stovepipe. At the end of breakfast, MacNab said:

“I was under the impression that the state in whuch ye noo find yersel’, is a hoppy one—a shinin’ and a rainbow • hing.”

“Huh!”

“I see no evidence that ye are bubblin’ o’er wi’ joy an’ jubilance.” “Me?”

“Aye.”

“I’m all right.” He got up from the table. “I’ll emp’y the slop pail whilst you get the dishes started.” When Ernest had returned and picked up a dish towel, MacNab said, “Are ye not prood o’ her, Air-nest?” “Why, sure.”

“Ye dinna bring her tae the cobin.” “We jist set in the Anchor E cookhouse.”

“How do ye poss the time?” “Workin’ the weegie board,” said Ernest.

“And whit kind o’ a creature might that be?”

“Why, it’s sort of like a little table with three legs. You put your fingers onto it an’ then the spirits—”

“Block mogic!” ejaculated MacNab. “No—jist this here rig—an’ then Pete an’ Clem an’ Herb—”

“Are ye not alone in yer possion for this-—”

“Her husbands—use to be—they sort of get control an’ that thing goes kitin’ all over the place answerin’ yer questions. You oughta—”

“Na thanks, Air-nest. She— why do ye no bring her aroon?”

“I am,” said Ernest. “She’s cornin’ to visit tonight.”

“Wi’oot herher weegie boord, I hope.”

Ernest nodded.

MacNab breathed his relief. “ ’Twould be a wee bit crowded— the three o’ us an’ her five husbands besides.”

“Four.”

Throughout the day MacNab watched Ernest as they cut their summer’s supply of pine chunks. He moved as a man in a dream through the soft spring day tender as a lass in first love.

IT HAD been two weeks since spring had first come to Eeclefechan Retreat, come with the shameless urgency of a political campaign. The highest peak in the locality, Senator’s Snout, had emerged with parliamentary dignity from the long grey session of winter mists. Crows uttered their hoarse orations through dark pines; red squirrels and chipmunks filibustered; rainbow and cutthroat, with the purposefulness of conscientious citizens on their way to the polling booths, moved upstream to the deep and quiet pools.

That evening Ernest left again on Dishface to bring back Violet Henchbaw.

When they returned, and she stepped into the cabin ahead of Ernest, it was evident immediately to MacNab that she had no need of a Ouija board and four husbands to make the place crowded. She was there and the walls of the cabin seemed promptly to have contracted.

“So this is Mr. MacNab,” she greeted him at the top of her voice. “Put me in mind of Herb, just like I told Ernie. Sounds jist like Herb, I said, long an’ lanky kind and not much tallow—set down—don’t stand on account of me— bad stummicks—like Herb says to me, ‘Got a pain .here — high up under the brisket.’ ‘Herb,’

1 says, ‘you take a lay-down on the die-van in there,’ and he did. only he got worse— vellah as a buttercup, an'

I went in to get Doc Trumble, only he was five miles south of town spayin’ a cow for Shorty MacLaughlin—that was when 1 first met Mike Henchbaw -—Doc took one look at him—‘Get him to town, Vi’let,’ he says, ‘ain’t nothin’ we kin do here.’ ‘Is he gonna need the knife?’ I says. ‘He is,’ he says,! Big as marbles—never got off of the table. Lost two to the knife an’—my, smell that there air—real spring—” j MacNab felt as though he were being buffeted about in a major weather dis-! turbance. As she talked she moved her head, her shoulders, her hands! And through it all Ernest sat dazed: a fly drunk with sun, a frog in a tepid! slough.

“ all the fiats is planted—ought to have onion sets in—what’s that?” MacNab came to with a start to find the cabin in dead silence.

“There on the wall.” Violet was pointing. “Next the badger and the link pelt.”

“That,” said MacNab, “isa chanter. “A what?”

“ ’Tis a practice instrument—foi pipe tunes—has just the one reed—ye may blow airs through it but ye save: yer wund.”

“Oh—bagpipes! Anel some folks carj even hear music in them—me—I always say take a row of cats—lay ’em out with their tails an’ go down ’em steppin’ onto their tails an’ you get the same—”

“Mrs. Henchbaw!” MacNab’s voice was a whiplash. “I wouldna cast aspairsions on yer musical appreciation or yer artistic sensibilities, but when ye slonder the musico’ the pipes ye— “No need to get hot about it, Mr. “The music o’ the bagpipes is composed tae t he pentatonic scale—whuch is b a s e d o n l h e old scale o D a m a sens - ’ ’

“Still sounds just like a bunch—”

“—the great laments o’ classical music, or pibroch as it is called by—’] “Don’t sound classical—don’t ever sound civilized to me—only time I ever—”

“Who said onything aboot its bein cuvulized—”

“Take a bunch of kiyoots howlin’ at night—”

“Haud yer tongue, wuman!” thundered MacNab. ‘“Fill ye ha’e hairc and appreciated the delicate strains o such pastorals as ‘Salute Tae the Corrit o’ the Tiny Ford—”

“They sound just like pipes squealin to—”

“Yer heart an’ insides run taegithei wi’ the soond o’ ‘The March o’ Black DonaF Balloch Tae the Bottle o Inverlochie’ when ye live again the ‘Massacre o’ Glencoe’—‘The Route o Geen Fruin’— yer throat an’ yer eyef fill wi’ ‘Flora Macdonal’s Lament’—’ “Takes all sorts of tastes to make up a world.” She got up.

“Music whuch expresses the sorrow o’ the gallant adventure o’ the Fortyfive -— the wdnnin’ o’ the day at Otterburn!”

“It’s a long ride, Ernie.”

“Uh-huh ”

“Then do ye tread in the wake o kings!”

“Got to get to work early in the morning. Good night, Mr. MacNab Into the saddle, Ernie.”

“ ’Tis not music, wuman, ’Tis poetm fit tae express—” The cabin doo¡

banged shut, “—the inarticulate emotions o’ a soul in great grief in blindin glodness when the common argv-barg\ o’ words soiled wi’ everyday use canne carry—’tis not music—’tis history —tradition—” MacNab stopped, stood alone in the cabin, aware now that Ernest and Violet Henchbaw had left him.

Shaking with rage and with indignation, face blacker than Rannoch Moor.

he stood; then the rigidness left his figure suddenly, his shoulders slumped. He shook his head slowly.

‘The sedge is withered on the lake,’ ” he quoted to the empty stillness, “ ‘And no bairds sing.’ Air-nest Air-nest— ‘La belle dame hath thee in thrall!’ ”

IT WAS two hours later that Ernest.

returned. MacNab had not yet turned in.

“You shouldn’t ought to of told her to shut up,” said Ernest mildly. “Aye,” said MacNab.

“She was real upset about it—said a gentleman wouldn’t talk to a lady that way.”

“Aye.”

“Took me the whole way to the Anchor E an’ then some to git her calmed down—kind of scairy bein’ out after dark anyways—an’ you upsettin’ her that way—”

“Aye.”

Ernest began to haul bis shirt over Ids head, preparatory to going to bed. MacNab knocked the dottle from his pipe. As Ernest emerged from his shirt, he said:

“We’re gittin’ married June fifteen.” MacNab stared at him with mouth ajar.

“Gonna move into the honeymoon cabin on Tongue Creek.” Ernest unbuckled his belt.

MacNab’seyes were still incredulous. Ernest began to unlace his felt boots. “One - an’ - a - half - step Toovey’s best man—we worked it all out on the weegie board.”

MacNab still stared silently.

“Í told her that was the openin' of fishin’ season we had two parties booked—kind of hated after thirty yearsleavin’ you.” Ernest stood uncertain in his underwear. “Weegie board said that was the way she’d be — Vi'let said a real partner wouldn't stand in a fella’s way when he found true love.”

“Aye,” said MacNab. “Aye, Airnest.” He rose from his chair, walked to the far wall of the cabin. Wordlessly he took down the chanter and, without looking at Ernest, went out into the mountain night.

Breakfast was a glum affair the next morning. MacNab pushed aside his empty plate.

“We’ll get tae it immediately, Air-nest.”

“Hub!”

“It had best be a clean break.” “What you talkin’ about?”

“The divusion o’ oor possessions.” “But we ain’t gittin’ hitched till—” “I’m no goin’ tae stond in yer way —we ll divy noo.”

An hour later two heaps of supplies lay on the cabin floor, one at the foot of each partner; beans, flour, salt, tinned goods, bedding, pelts.

“A n ' noo,’’ s a i d M a e N a h . “ E celefechan.”

“Ecelefechan—you can’t divide that

up!”

“That’s right—we’ll ha’e tae shoot it oot.”

“Look—I don’t-—”

“We’ll flip a coin,” said MacNab. “The one whueh wins—that mon is the owner o’ Ecelefechan cobin, corrals —quarter section—the fushin’ an’ huntin’ guide business—the other tae keep the contract wi’ the cottle assoeiation for tae look after the cottle in the resairve— we ll divide our own herd in fall when we coont them oot o’ the forest resairve.”

“But—look,” protested Ernest, “I didn’t mean for us to bust right up

an’—”

“A clean break. Air-nest.” MacNab took out a black pouch purse and from it drew a nickel. “Ye may ca’ it.”

“Now look — I wasn’t — I ain’t —heads.”

MacNab flipped the coin, smacked a hand over it, withdrew it.

“May I gie ye a hond wi' your things tae the Tongue Creek honeymoon cobin, Air-nest?”

AFTER Ernest had moved with his things to the Tongue Creek cabin, MacNab returned to Ecelefechan; he slipped the saddle and bridle from Spider, turned him loose.

The silence within the cabin was empty, relieved only by the impudent tick of the kitchen clock. In his chair MacNab sat straight and motionless. The late afternoon sun streaming through the window sharpened the outline of his body, the profile of his hawklike face.

Finally he rose from the chair. He put his boots on. He took the chanter down from the wall. He left the cabin.

'That night was a lonely one, and the next, and the next. It did him no good to tell himself over and over again that Ernest had been “hupnotized,” that he had been “o’erpowered.” He was filled with bitter self-recrimination, with self-pity and with loneliness.

Chanter in hand, on an evening a week after Ernest had left, barely a week before the wedding, MacNab walked toward the river ford. Ht1 stood there, a gaunt figure, where the buckbrush moved stiffly in the evening breeze. It was a utilitarian enough reason that bad brought him there; it was Saturday night and in his pocket he carried a cake of soap and a wash-

cloth. A great believer in the tonic effect upon the system of mountain water, he customarily, each Saturday in spring and summer, took a bath —usually at the edge of Blackjack’s pool.

Tonight he wandered down the Highwood banks to a subsidiary pool, well upstream that he might not be startled in his ablutions by Ernest and Vi’let in their regular tryst. At the spot he selected, he stood hesitant a moment, then placed the chanter to his mouth, blew one tentative note. Feathered creatures overhead stilled their chirpings. Three miles away, as the sound of the note came faintly keening, a bull moose lifted palmed and dripping antlers from the swamp water where he had been searching out succulence, sent out a high whistling challenge, thought better of it and with high steps took off in the direction of British Columbia.

Up and down the Highwood, MacNab paced in his chanter concerto —solo in sadness—obligato of loneliness against the orchestra of the evening sounds: the long-drawn remorse of a coyote; the reiterated lament of the river, the staccato bark of a fox far-off. And when the last mournful breath was gone from “Maecrimmon Will Never Return,” MacNab stood purged, while round him the souls of poorly buried Cree warriors and uneasy Stony hunters sighed with the wind through the dark pines.

He stripped down to his skin and laid his clothes on a stump, underwear first, that they might not absorb the moisture from the ground. He stepped into the chill embrace of the Highwood.

He had stepped out again, refreshed, was on the third button of his underwear, when he heard the popping and crackling in the underbrush some distance off.

“A stray steer na doot,” he said to himself, then froze to listening stillness. The tune that was borne to him could have been either: “Ramona,” or “Roses in Picardy.”

He bounded across the clearing in the opposite direction and into a sheltering clump of wolf willow. Moments later Ernest and Violet appeared.

“This looks like a nice place to set, Ernie. You tie up Molly an’ Dishface —after you told me about that, fellow jumping in there on account of that woman—his wife—-an’ them bein’ so happy together for so long—”

“Blackjack claimed he lived thirty years with a Snake an’ never got bit,” said Ernest. “I’ll help you down.”

“Give me the shivers—I’m like you, Ernie— sensitive—all nerves.”

“Uh-huh.”

MacNab. peering, could see them, standing by their horses at the opposite end of the clearing. He would complete his dressing now and—mon, mon, here he was! There they were the rest of his clothes and the chanter—on the stump! He saw that they were partially screened from the lovers by bushes: he also saw that he himself could not possibly hope to be sheltered from their view if he were to try to get to the clothes.

“— so’s ! could set on it. Pete always used to say 1 was the prettiest roan he ever saw

He’d have to wait. The dying sun was already bathing the tips of the pines in fire; sunset would be a sudden affair, t hen in t he protect ion of the dusk he could steal to the clothes.

“•—all the stuff 1 already had and four pillow slips I stitched— it ain’t even a week now, Ernie, an’ you an’ me—”

jl/TOUNTAIN evenings were chill J.Tthings; the wind that came down the frigid draws of Senator’s Snout with

cold fingers searched out the apertures in the underwear of MacNab.

“—makin’ our little home—what’s that!”

“Huh!”

“That sound — over by them willows.”

“Jist the wind,” assured Ernest. With shaking hand, MacNab in his icy bower removed from his mouth the clacking dentures that had almost betrayed him.

“—so jumpy—take whenever I go to the dentist—near nerves in all of my teeth—”

Blessedly sudden the mountain nightfall was an accomplished fact.

“An’ noo tae retrieve ma—” With difficulty MacNab suppressed a stricken cry.

He glowed. With a softly luminous, firefly light, he glowed from the neckline of his flat-locked-seam-reinforcedat-points-of-strain underwear to their sixty-per-cent-pure-wool ribbed ankles. He peered from the willow, saw that the stump upon which his clothes lay was also glowing in the night.

The stump after years of slow rot had turned to phosphorescent punk. The softly glowing stuff had rubbed off on MacNab’s underwear as it lay there.

“Phosphorus,” he breathed to himself, “a rotten stump—an’ noo I canna mak’ it unseen tae.” He stopped. “Nairves, she says, spurrits an’ weegie boords and’ dead husbands an’ Blackjack Riley an’ no music in the pipes!” He stepped out of the wolf willow. “—I can’t get that poor fellow out of my head—drinking that poison and then jump-—”

It was the sound, in its plaintiveness, of a killdeer at twilight. It shrilled higher like a doe in death agony, then wailing, thinned to a spider thread of sound impatient as the mating call of a rutting mosquito.

“Him! Ernie! Over there—look!” Toward the lovers moved the lighted apparition and with it moved a plume of sound, the wail of a soul in unbearable torment.

“Blackjack!” yelled Ernest. “Underwear an’ all—-an’ a skinful of gopher poison still eatin’ at his gizzard—Vi’let —Vi’let!”

The cracking in the underbrush had the untidy urgency of a large body in headlong and terror-stricken flight.

“An’ noo,” muttered the ghost of Blackjack Riley softly as he slapped the chanter against one underweared thigh, “ dawd o’ ‘The Floo’ers o’ the Forest Are A’ Faded Awa’ ’ wi’ some o’ the gloom o’ ‘Flora Macdonal’s Lament’ an’ for the thaird an’ final movement—‘The Massacre o’ Glencoe.’ ”

In fresh underwear, seated in his chair by the cabin stove, MacNab looked up to Ernest.

“Him a-screechin’—lighted up like a Christmas tree—enough to give a mink the heartburn!”

“An’ there isna goin’ tae be a marriage?”

Ernest shook his head. “Says I’m too sensitive—to spurrits. Didn’t have no kick her husbands cornin’ back through me—sort of relations—in the family —but Blackjack hangin’ around —she said that was too much for her.” “I see,” said MacNab.

Ernest was uncomfortably silent; he swallowed loudly. “I sort of missed you.”

“Did ye noo.”

“Yeah. I was wonderin’—you—you knew Blackjack pretty well—”

“Aye.”

“You recall—uh—I don’t remember he played the bagpipes none.”

“He didna.”

“Like I thought,” said Ernest.

He began to haul his shirt over his head preparatory to going to bed. ★