Constance Fenimore Woolson
Originally published in Scribner's Monthly 9 (Dec. 1874): 232-43. Reprinted in Castle Nowhere; Lake Country Sketches, J. R. Osgood & C0, 1875. This is the 1874 version.
Before the war for the Union, in the times of the old army, there had been peace throughout the country for thirteen years. Regiments existed in their officers, but the ranks were thin--the more so the better, since the United States possessed few forts and seemed in chronic embarrassment over her military children, owing to the flying foot-ball of public opinion, now "standing army pro," now "standing army con," with more or less allusion to the much-enduring Cæsar and his legions, the ever-present ghost of the political arena.
In those days the few forts were full and much state was kept up; the officers were all graduates of West Point, and their wives graduates of the first families. They prided themselves upon their antecedents, and if there was any aristocracy in the country, it was in the circles of army life.
Those were pleasant days--pleasant for the old soldiers who were resting after Mexico--pleasant for young soldiers destined to die on the plains of Gettysburg or the cloudy heights of Lookout Mountain. There was an esprit de corps in the little band, a dignity of bearing, and a ceremonious state, lost in the great struggle which came afterward. That great struggle now lies ten years back; yet, to-day, when the silver-haired veterans meet, they pass it over as a thing of the present, and go back to the times of the "old army."
Up in the northern straits, between blue Lake Huron, with its clear air, and gray Lake Michigan, with its silver fogs, lies the bold Island of Mackinac. Clustered along the beach, which runs around its half-moon harbor, are the houses of the old French village, nestling at the foot of the cliff rising behind, crowned with the little white fort, the stars and stripes floating above it against the deep blue sky. Beyond, on all sides, the forest stretches away, cliffs finishing it abruptly, save one slope at the far end of the island, three miles distant, where the British landed in 1812. That is the whole of Mackinac.
The island has a strange sufficiency of its own; it satisfies; all who have lived there feel it. The island has a wild beauty of its own; it fascinates; all who have lived there love it. Among its aromatic cedars, along the aisles of its pine-trees, in the gay company of its maples, there is companionship. On its bald northern cliffs, bathed in sunshine and swept by the pure breeze, there is exhilaration. Many there are, bearing the burden and heat of the day, who look back to the island with the tears that rise but do not fall, the sudden longing despondency that comes occasionally to all, when the tired heart cries out: "O, to escape, to flee away, far, far away, and be at rest!"
In 1856 Fort Mackinac held a major, a captain, three lieutenants, a chaplain and a surgeon, besides those subordinate officers who wear stripes on their sleeves, and whose rank and duties are mysteries to the uninitiated. The force for this array of commanders was small, less than a company; but what it lacked in quantity it made up in quality, owning to the continual drilling it received.
The days were long at Fort Mackinac; happy thought! drill the men. So when the major had finished, the captain began, and each lieutenant was watching his chance. Much state was kept up also. Whenever the major appeared--"commanding officer; guard, present arms," was called down the line of men on duty, and the guard hastened to obey, the major acknowledging the salute with stiff precision. By day and by night sentinels paced the walls. True, the walls were crumbling, and the whole force was constantly engaged in propping them up, but none the less did the sentinels pace with dignity. What was it to the captain if, while he sternly inspected the muskets in the block-house, the lieutenant, with a detail of men, was hard at work strengthening it underpinning? None the less did he inspect. The sally-port, mended but imposing, the flag-staff with its fair weather and storm flags, the frowning iron grating, the sidling white causeway, constantly falling down and as constantly repaired, which led up to the main entrance; the well-preserved old cannon--all showed a strict military rule. When the men were not drilling they were propping up the fort, and when they were not propping up the fort they were drilling. In the early days, the days of the first American commanders, military roads had been made through the forest, roads even now smooth and solid, although trees of a second growth meet overhead. But that was when the fort was young and stood firmly on its legs. In 1856 there was no time for road-making, for when military duty was over there was always more or less mending to keep the whole fortification from sliding down hill into the lake.
On Sunday there was service in the little chapel, an upper room overlooking the inside parade-ground. Here the kindly Episcopal chaplain read the chapters about Balaam and Balak, and always made the same impressive pause after "Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his." (Dear old man! he has gone. Would that our last end might indeed be like his.) Not that the chaplain confined his reading to the Book of Numbers; but as those chapters are appointed for the August Sundays, and as it was in August that the summer visitors came to Mackinac, the little chapel is in many minds associated with the patient Balak, his seven altars, and his seven rams.
There was state and discipline in the fort even on Sundays; bugle-playing marshaled the congregation in, bugle-playing marshaled them out. If the sermon was not finished, so much the worse for the sermon, but it made no difference to the bugle; at a given moment it sounded, and out marched all the soldiers, drowning the poor chaplain's hurrying voice with their tramp down the stairs. The officers attended service in full uniform, sitting erect and dignified in the front seats. We used to smile at the grand air they had, from the stately gray-haired major down to the youngest lieutenant fresh from the Point. But brave hearts were beating under those fine uniforms, and when the great struggle came, one and all died on the field in the front of the battle. Over the grave of the commanding officer is inscribed "Major-General," over the captain's is "Brigadier," and over each young lieutenant is "Colonel." They gained their promotion in death.
I spent many months at Fort Mackinac with Archie; Archie was my nephew, killed at Shiloh.* In the short, bright summer came the visitors from below; all the world outside is "below" in island vernacular. In the long winter the little white fort looked out over unbroken ice-fields, and watched for the moving black dot of the dog-train bringing the mails from the mainland. One January day I had been out walking on the snow crust, breathing the cold, still air, and, returning within the walls to our quarters, I found my little parlor already occupied. Jeannette was there, petite Jeanneton, the fisherman's daughter. Strange beauty sometimes results from a mixed descent, and this girl had French, English, and Indian blood in her veins, the three races mixing and intermixing among her ancestors according to the custom of the North-western border. A bold profile delicately finished, heavy blue-black hair, light blue eyes looking out unexpectedly from under black lashes and brows; a fair white skin, neither the rose-white of the blonde nor the cream-white of the oriental brunette; a rounded form with small hands and feet--showed the mixed beauties of three nationalities. Yes; there could be no doubt but that Jeannette was singularly lovely, albeit ignorant utterly. Her dress was as much of a mélange as her ancestry: a short skirt of military blue, Indian leggins and moccasins, a red jacket and little red cap embroidered with beads. The thick braids of her hair hung down her back, and on the lounge lay a large blanket-mantle lined with fox skins and ornamented with the plumage of birds. She had come to teach me bead-work; I had already taken several lessons to while away the time, but found myself an awkward scholar.
"Bonjou', madame," she said, in her patois of broken English and degenerate French. "Pretty here."
My little parlor had a square of carpet, a hearth-fire of great logs, turkey-red curtains, a lounge and arm-chair covered with chintz, several prints on the cracked walls, and a number of books--the whole well used and worn, worth perhaps twenty dollars in any town below, but ten times twenty in icy Mackinac. I began the bead-work, and Jeannette was laughing at my mistakes, when the door opened, and our surgeon came in, pausing to warm his hands before going up to his room in the attic. A taciturn man was our surgeon, Rodney Prescott, not popular in the merry garrison circle, but a favorite of mine; the Puritan, the New Englander, the Bostonian, were as plainly written upon his face as the French and Indian were written upon Jeannette.
"Sit down, Doctor," I said.
He took a seat and watched us carelessly, now and then smiling at Jeannette's chatter as a giant might smile upon a pigmy. I could see that the child was putting on all her little airs to attract his attention; now the long lashes swept the cheeks, now they were raised suddenly, disclosing the unexpected blue eyes; the little moccasined feet must be warmed on the fender, the braids must be swept back with an impatient movement of the hand and shoulder, and now and then there was a coquettish arch of the red lips, less than a pout, what she herself would have called "une p'tite moue." Our surgeon watched this pantomime unmoved.
"Isn't she beautiful?" I said, when, at the expiration of the hour, Jeannette disappeared wrapped in her mantle.
"No; not to my eyes."
"Why,--what more can you require, Doctor? Look at her rich coloring, her hair----"
"There is no mind in her face, Mrs. Corlyne."
"But she is still a child."
"She will always be a child; she will never mature," answered our surgeon, going up the steep stairs to his room above.
Jeannette came regularly, and one morning, tired of the bead-work, I proposed teaching her to read. She consented, although not without an incentive in the form of shillings; but, however gained, my scholar gave to the long winter a new interest. She learned readily, but as there was no foundation, I was obliged to commence with A, B, C.
"Why not teach her to cook?" suggested the major's fair young wife, whose life was spent in hopeless labors with Indian servants, who, sooner or later, ran away in the night with spoons and the family apparel.
"Why not teach her to sew?" said Madame Captain, wearily raising her eyes from the pile of small garments before her.
"Why not have her up for one of our sociables?" hazarded our most dashing lieutenant, twirling his mustache.
"Frederick!" exclaimed his wife, in a tone of horror--she was aristocratic, but sharp in outlines.
"Why not bring her into the church? Those French half-breeds are little better than heathen," said the chaplain.
Thus the high authorities disapproved of my educational efforts. I related their comments to Archie, and added: "The surgeon is the only one who has said nothing against it."
"Prescott? Oh, he's too high and mighty to notice anybody, much less a half-breed girl. I never saw such a stiff, silent fellow; he looks as though he had swallowed all his straight-laced Puritan ancestors. I wish he'd exchange."
"Oh, yes, without doubt; certainly, and amen. I know you like him, Aunt Sarah," said my handsome boy-soldier, laughing.
The lessons went on. We often saw the surgeon during study hours, as the stairway leading to his room opened out of the little parlor. Sometimes he would stop awhile and listen as Jeannette slowly read: "The good boy likes his red top;" "the good girl can sew a seam," or watched her awkward attempts to write her name, or add a one and a two. It was slow work, but I persevered, if from no other motive than obstinacy. Had not they all prophesied a failure? When wearied with the dull routine, I gave an oral lesson in poetry. If the rhymes were of the chiming, rhythmic kind, Jeannette learned rapidly, catching the verses as one catches a tune, and repeating them with a spirit and dramatic gesture all her own. Her favorite was Macaulay's "Ivry." Beautiful she looked as, standing in the center of the room, she rolled out the sonorous lines, her French accent giving a charming foreign coloring to the well-known verses:
"Now by the lips of those ye love, fair gentlemen of France,
Charge for the golden lilies--upon them with the lance!
A thousand spurs are striking deep, thousand spears in rest,
A thousand knights are pressing close behind the snow- white crest;
And in they burst, and on they rushed, while, like a guiding star,
Amidst the thickest carnage blazed the helmet of Navarre."
And yet, after all my explanations, she only half understood it; the "knights" were always "nights" in her mind, and the "thickest carnage" was always the "thickest carriage."
One March day she came at the appointed hour, soon after our noon dinner. The usual clear winter sky was clouded, and a wind blew the snow from the trees where it had lain quietly month after month. "Spring is coming," said the old sergeant that morning, as he hoisted the storm-flag; "it's getting wild-like."
Jeannette and I went through the lessons, but toward three o'clock, a north wind came sweeping over the Straits and enveloped the island in a whirling snow-storm, partly eddies of white splinters torn from the ice-bound forest, and partly a new fall of round snow pellets careering along on the gale, quite unlike the soft, feathery flakes of early winter. "You cannot go home now, Jeannette," I said, looking out through the little west window; our cottage stood back on the hill, and from this side window we could see the Straits, going down toward far Waugoschance; the steep foot-hill outside the wall; the long meadow, once an Indian burial-place, below; and beyond on the beach the row of cabins inhabited by the French fishermen, one of them the home of my pupil. The girl seldom went round the point into the village; its one street and a-half seemed distasteful to her. She climbed the stone wall on the ridge behind her cabin, took an Indian trail through the grass in summer, or struck across on the snow crust in winter, ran up the steep side of the fort hill like a wild chamois, and came into the garrison inclosure with a careless nod to the admiring sentinel, as she passed under the rear entrance. These French half-breeds, like the gypsies, were not without a pride of their own. They held themselves aloof from the Irish of Shanty-town, the floating sailor population of the summer, and the common soldiers of the garrison. They intermarried among themselves, and held their own revels in their beach-cabins during the winter, with music from their old violins, dancing and songs, French ballads with a chorus after every two lines, quaint chansons handed down from voyageur ancestors. Small respect had they for the little Roman Catholic church beyond the old Agency garden; its German priest they refused to honor; but, when stately old Father Piret came over to the island from his hermitage in the Cheneaux, they ran to meet him, young and old, and paid him reverence with affectionate respect. Father Piret was a Parisian, and a gentleman; nothing less would suit these far-away sheep in the wilderness!
Jeannette Leblanc had all the pride of her class; the Irish saloon-keeper with his shining tall hat, the loud-talking mate of the lake schooner, the trim sentinel pacing the fort walls, were nothing to her, and this somewhat incongruous hauteur gave her the air of a little princess.
On this stormy afternoon the captain's wife was in my parlor preparing to return to her own quarters with some coffee she had borrowed. Hearing my remark, she said:
"Oh, the snow won't hurt the child, Mrs. Corlyne; she must be storm-proof, living down there on the beach! Duncan can take her home."
Duncan was the orderly, a factotum in the garrison.
"Non," said Jeannette, tossing her head proudly as the door closed behind the lady, "I wish not of Duncan; I go alone."
It happened that Archie, my nephew, had gone over to the cottage of the commanding officer to decorate the parlor for the military sociable; I knew he would not return, and the evening stretched out before me in all its long loneliness. "Stay, Jeannette," I said. "We will have tea together here, and when the wind goes down, old Antoine shall go back with you." Antoine was a French wood-cutter, whose cabin clung half-way down the fort-hill like a swallow's nest.
Jeannette's eyes sparkled; I had never invited her before; in an instant she had turned the day into a high festival. "Braid hair?" she asked, glancing toward the mirror; "faut que je m'fasse belle." And the long hair came out of its close braids, enveloping her in its glossy dark waves, while she carefully smoothed out the bits of red ribbon that served as fastenings. At this moment the door opened, and the surgeon, the wind, and a puff of snow came in together. Jeannette looked up, smiling and blushing; the falling hair gave a new softness to her face, and her eyes were as shy as the eyes of a wild fawn.
Only the previous day I had noticed that Rodney Prescott listened with marked attention to the captain's cousin, a Virginia lady, as she advanced a theory that Jeannette had negro blood in her veins. "Those quadroon girls often have a certain kind of plebeian beauty like this pet of yours, Mrs. Corlyne," she said, with a slight sniff of her high-bred, pointed nose. In vain I exclaimed, in vain I argued; the garrison ladies were all against me, and, in their presence, not a man dared come to my aid; and the surgeon even added: "I wish I could be sure of it."
"Sure of the negro blood?" I said indignantly.
"But Jeannette does not look in the least like a quadroon."
"Some of the quadroon girls are very handsome, Mrs. Corlyne," answered the surgeon, coldly.
"Oh, yes," said the high-bred Virginia lady. "My brother has a number of them about his place, but we do not teach them to read, I assure you. It spoils them."
As I looked at Jeannette's beautiful face, her delicate eagle profile, her fair skin and light blue eyes, I recalled this conversation with vivid indignation. The surgeon, at least, should be convinced of his mistake. Jeannette had never looked more brilliant; probably the man had never really scanned her features--he was such a cold, unseeing creature; but to-night he should have a fair opportunity, so I invited him to join our storm-bound tea-party. He hesitated.
"Ah, do, Monsieur Rodenai," said Jeannette, springing forward. "I sing for you, I dance; but, no, you not like that. Bien, I tell your fortune then." The young girl loved company. A party of three, no matter who the third, was to her infinitely better than two.
The surgeon stayed.
A merry evening we had before the hearth fire. The wind howled around the block-house and rattled the flag-staff, and the snow pellets sounded on the window panes, giving that sense of warm comfort within that comes only with the storm. Our servant had been drafted into service for the military sociable, and I was to prepare the evening meal myself.
"Not tea," said Jeannette, with a wry face; "tea,--c'est médecine!" She had arranged her hair in fanciful braids, and now followed me to the kitchen, enjoying the novelty like a child. "Café," she said. "Oh, please, madame! I make it."
The little shed kitchen was cold and dreary, each plank of its thin walls rattling in the gale with a dismal creak; the wind blew the smoke down the chimney, and finally it ended in our bringing everything into the cozy parlor, and using the hearth fire. Jeannette made coffee and baked little cakes over the coals. Mackinac cream and butter are unrivaled, and our repast was crowned by a remarkable stew made in an iron pot hung over the fire, gypsy-fashion, the commonplace ingredients of cold meat, cold potatoes, and bread toasted to a crisp coming out with quite a foreign air, owing to the herbs and spices in minute quantities put in at various stages of the boiling by the deft hands of our little French cook.** The meal over, Jeannette sang her songs, sitting on the rug before the fire. "Le Beau Voyageur," "Les Neiges de La Cloche," ballads in Canadian patois sung to minor airs brought over from France two hundred years before.
The surgeon sat in the shade of the chimney-piece, his face shaded by his hand, and I could not discover whether he saw anything to admire in my protégée until, standing in the center of the room, she gave us "Ivry" in glorious style. Beautiful she looked as she rolled out the lines:
"'And if my standard-bearer fall, as fall full well he may--
For never saw I promise yet of such a bloody fray--
Press where ye see my white plume shine amidst the ranks of war,
And be your oriflamme to-day the helmet of Navarre.'"
Rodney sat in the full light now, and I secretly triumphed in his rapt attention.
"Something else, Jeannette," I said, in the pride of my heart. Instead of repeating anything I had taught her, she began in French:
"'Marie, enfin quitte l'ouvrage,
Voici l'étoile du berger.'
--'Ma mère, un enfant du village
Languit captif chez l'étranger;
Pris sur mer, loin de sa patrie,
Il s'est rendu,--mais le dernier.'
File, file, pauvre Marie,
Pour secourir le prisonnier;
File, file, pauvre Marie,
File, file, pour le prisonnier.
"'Pour lui je filerais moi-méme
Mon enfant,--mais--j'ai tant vieilli!'
---- 'Envoyez à celui que j'aime
Tout le gain par moi recueilli.
Rose à sa noce en vain me prie;--
Dieu! j'entends le ménétrier!'
File, file, pauvre Marie,
Pour secourir le prisonnier;
File, file, pauvre Marie,
File, file, pour le prisonnier.
"'Plus près du feu file,ma chère;
La nuit vient refroidir le temps.'
---- 'Adrien, m'a-t-on dit, ma mère,
Gémit dans des cachots flottants.
On repousse la main flétrie
Qu'il étend vers un pain grossier.'
File, file, pauvre Marie,
Pour secourir le prisonnier;
File, file, pauvre Marie,
File, file, pour le prisonnier.***
Jeannette repeated these lines with a pathos so real that I felt a moisture rising in my eyes.
"Where did you learn that, child?" I asked.
"Father Piret, madame."
"What is it?"
"Je n' sais."
"It is Béranger,--'The Prisoner of War,'" said Rodney Prescott. "But you omitted the last verse, mademoiselle; may I ask why?"
"More sad so," answered Jeannette. "Marie she die now."
"You wish her to die?"
"Mais oui; she die for love; c'est beau!"
And there flashed a glance from the girl's eyes that thrilled through me, I scarcely knew why. I looked toward Rodney, but he was back in the shadow again.
The hours passed. "I must go," said Jeannette, drawing aside the curtain. Clouds were still driving across the sky, but the snow had ceased falling, and at intervals the moon shone out over the cold white scene; the March wind continued on its wild career toward the south.
"I will send for Antoine," I said, rising, as Jeannette took up her fur mantle.
"The old man is sick to-day," said Rodney. "It would not be safe for him to leave the fire to-night. I will accompany Mademoiselle."
Pretty Jeannette shrugged her shoulders. "Mais, monsieur," she answered, "I go over the hill."
"No, child; not to-night," I said decidedly. "The wind is violent, and the cliff doubly slippery after this ice-storm. Go round through the village."
"Of course we shall go through the village," said our surgeon, in his calm, authoritative way. They started. But in another minute I saw Jeannette fly by the west window, over the wall, and across the snowy road, like a spirit, disappearing down the steep bank, now slippery with glare ice. Another minute, and Rodney Prescott followed in her track.
With bated breath I watched for the reappearance of the two figures on the white plain, one hundred and fifty fee below; the cliff was difficult at any time, and now in this ice! The moments seemed very long, and, alarmed, I was on the point of arousing the garrison, when I spied the two dark figures on the snowy plain below, now clear in the moonlight, now lost in the shadow. I watched them for some distance; then a cloud came, and I lost them entirely.
Rodney did not return, although I sat late before the dying fire. Thinking over the evening, the idea came to me that perhaps, after all, he did admire my protégée and, being a romantic old woman, I did not repel the fancy; it might go a certain distance without harm, and an idyl is always charming, doubly so to people cast away on a desert island. One falls into the habit of studying persons very closely in the limited circle of garrison life.
But, the next morning, the Major's wife gave me an account of the sociable. "It was very pleasant," she said. "Toward the last Dr. Prescott came in, quite unexpectedly. I had no idea he could be so agreeable. Augusta can tell you how charming he was!"
Augusta, a young lady cousin, of pale blonde complexion, neutral opinions, and irreproachable manners, smiled primly. My idyl was crushed!
The days passed. The winds, the snows, and the high-up fort remained the same. Jeannette came and went, and the hour lengthened into two or three; not that we read much, but we talked more. Our surgeon did not again pass through the parlor; he had ordered a rickety stairway on the outside wall to be repaired, and we could hear him going up and down its icy steps as we sat by the hearth fire. One day I said to him: "My protégée is improving wonderfully. If she could have a complete education, she might take her place with the best in the land."
"Do not deceive yourself, Mrs. Corlyne," he answered coldly. "It is only the shallow French quickness."
"Why do you always judge the child so harshly, Doctor?"
"Do you take her part, Aunt Sarah?" (For sometimes he used the title which Archie had made so familiar.)
"Of course I do, Rodney. A poor, unfriended girl living in this remote place, against a United States surgeon with the best of Boston behind him."
"I wish you would tell me that every day, Aunt Sarah," was the reply I received. It set me musing, but I could make nothing of it. Troubled without knowing why, I suggested to Archie that he should endeavor to interest our surgeon in the fort gayety; there was something for every night in the merry little circle--games, suppers, tableaux, music, theatricals, readings, and the like.
"Why, he's in the thick of it already, Aunt Sarah," said my nephew. "He's devoting himself to Miss Augusta; she sings, "The Harp that once----" to him every night."
("The Harp that once through Tara's Halls" was Miss Augusta's dress-parade song. The Major's quarters not being as large as the halls aforesaid, the melody was somewhat overpowering.)
"Oh, does she?" I thought, not without a shade of vexation. But the vague anxiety vanished.
The real spring came at last--the rapid, vivid spring of Mackinac. Almost in a day the ice moved out, the snows melted, and the northern wild flowers appeared in the sheltered glens. Lessons were at an end, for my scholar was away in the green woods. Sometimes she brought me a bunch of flowers, but I seldom saw her; my wild bird had flown back to the forest. When the ground was dry and the pine droppings warmed by the sun, I, too, ventured abroad. One day, wandering as far as the Arched Rock, I found the surgeon there, and together we sat down to rest under the trees, looking off over the blue water flecked with white-caps. The Arch is a natural bridge over a chasm one hundred and fifty feet above the lake, a fissure in the cliff which has fallen away in a hollow, leaving the bridge by itself far out over the water. The bridge springs upward in the shape of an arch; it is fifty feet long, and its width is in some places two feet, in others only a few inches--a narrow, dizzy pathway hanging between sky and water.
"People have crossed it," I said.
"Only fools," answered our surgeon, who despised foolhardiness. "Has a man nothing better to do with his life than risk it for the sake of a silly feat like that? I would not so much as raise my eyes to see any one cross."
"Oh yes, you would, Monsieur Rodenai," cried a voice behind us. We both turned and caught a glimpse of Jeannette as she bounded through the bushes and out to the very center of the Arch, where she stood balancing herself and laughing gayly. Her form was outlined against the sky; the breeze swayed her skirt; she seemed hovering over the chasm. I watched her, mute with fear; a word might cause her to lose her balance; but I could not turn my eyes away, I was fascinated with the sight. I was not aware that Rodney had left me until he, too, appeared on the Arch, slowly finding a foothold for himself and advancing toward the center. A fragment of the rock broke off under his foot and fell into the abyss below.
"Go back, Monsieur Rodenai," cried Jeannette, seeing his danger.
"Will you come back too, Jeannette?"
"Moi? C'est aut' chose," answered the girl, gayly tossing her pretty head.
"Then I shall come out and carry you back, willful child," said the surgeon.
A peal of laughter broke from Jeannette as he spoke, and then she began to dance on her point of rock, swinging herself from side to side, marking the time with a song. I held my breath; her dance seemed unearthly; it was as though she belonged to the Prince of the Powers of the Air.
At length the surgeon reached the center and caught the mocking creature in his arms; neither spoke, but I could see the flash of their eyes as they stood for an instant motionless. Then they struggled on the narrow foothold and swayed over so far that I buried my face in my trembling hands, unable to look at the dreadful end. When I opened my eyes again all was still; the Arch was tenantless, and no sound came from below. Were they, then, so soon dead? Without a cry? I forced myself to the brink to look down over the precipice, but while I stood there, fearing to look, I heard a sound behind me in the woods. It was Jeannette singing a gay French song. I called to her to stop. "How could you?" I said severely, for I was still trembling with agitation.
"Ce n'est rien, madame. I cross l'Arche when I had five year. Mais, Monsieur Rodenai le Grand, he raise his eye to look this time, I think," said Jeannette, laughing triumphantly.
"Where is he?"
"On the far side, gone on to Scott's Pic [Peak.] Féroce, oh, féroce, comme un loupgarou! Ah! c'est joli, ça!" And, overflowing with the wildest glee, the girl danced along through the woods in front of me, now pausing to look at something in her hand, now laughing, now shouting like a wild creature, until I lost sight of her. I went back to the fort alone.
For several days I saw nothing of Rodney. When at last we met, I said; "That was a wild freak of Jeannette's at the Arch."
"Planned to get a few shillings out of us."
"Oh, Doctor! I do not think she had any such motive," I replied, looking up deprecatingly into his cold, scornful eyes.
"Are you not a little sentimental over that ignorant, half-wild creature, Aunt Sarah?"
"Well," I said to myself, "perhaps I am!"
The summer came, sails whitened the blue straits again, steamers stopped for an hour or two at the island docks, and the summer travelers rushed ashore to buy "Indian curiosities," made by the nuns in Montreal, or to climb breathlessly up the steep fort hill to see the pride and panoply of war. Proud was the little white fort in those summer days; the sentinels held themselves stiffly erect, the officers gave up lying on the parapet half asleep, the best flag was hoisted daily, and there was much bugle-playing and ceremony connected with the evening gun, fired from the ramparts at sunset; the hotels were full, the boarding-house keepers were in their annual state of wonder over the singular taste of these people from "below," who actually preferred a miserable white-fish to the best beef brought up on ice all the way from Buffalo! There were picnics and walks, and much confusion of historical dates respecting Farther Marquette and the irrepressible, omnipresent Pontiac. The fort officers did much escort duty; their buttons gilded every scene. Our quiet surgeon was foremost in everything.
"I am surprised! I had no idea Dr. Prescott was so gay," said the major's wife.
"I should not think of calling him gay," I answered.
"Why, my dear Mrs. Corlyne! He is going all the time. Just ask Augusta."
Augusta thereupon remarked that society, to a certain extent, was beneficial; that she considered Dr. Prescott much improved; really, he was now very "nice."
I silently protested against the word. But then I was not a Bostonian.
One bright afternoon I went through the village, round the point into the French quarter, in search of a laundress. The fishermen's cottages faced the west; they were low and wide, not unlike scows drifted ashore and moored on the beach for houses. The little windows had gay curtains fluttering in the breeze, and the rooms within looked clean and cheery; the rough walls were adorned with the spoils of the fresh-water seas, shells, green stones, agates, spar, and curiously shaped pebbles; occasionally there was a stuffed water-bird, or a bright-colored print, and always a violin. Black-eyed children played in the water which bordered their narrow beach-gardens, and slender women, with shining black hair, stood in their door-ways knitting. I found my laundress, and then went on to Jeannette's home, the last house in the row. From the mother, a Chippewa woman, I learned that Jeannette was with her French father at the fishing grounds off Drummond's Island.
"How long has she been away?" I asked.
"Veeks four," replied the mother, whose knowledge of English was confined to the price list of white-fish and blue-berries, the two articles of her traffic with the boarding-house keepers.
"When will she return?"
She knitted on, sitting in the sunshine on her little door-step, looking out over the western water with tranquil content in her beautiful gentle eyes. As I walked up the beach, I glanced back several times to see if she had the curiosity to watch me; but no, she still looked out over the western water. What was I to her? Less than nothing. A white-fish was more.
A week or two later I strolled out to the Giant's Stairway and sat down in the little rock chapel. There was a picnic at the Lovers' Leap, and I had that side of the island to myself. I was leaning back, half asleep in the deep shadow, when the sound of voices roused me; a birch-bark canoe was passing close in-shore, and two were in it, Jeannette and our surgeon. I could not hear their words, but I noticed Rodney's expression as he leaned forward. Jeannette was paddling slowly; her cheeks were flushed, and her eyes brilliant. Another moment, and a point hid them from my view. I went home troubled.
"Did you enjoy the picnic, Miss Augusta?" I said, with assumed carelessness, that evening. "Dr. Prescott was there, as usual, I suppose?"
"He was not present, but the picnic was highly enjoyable," replied Miss Augusta, in her even voice and impartial manner.
"The Doctor has not been with us for some days," said the major's wife archly; "I suspect he does not like Mr. Piper."
Mr. Piper was a portly widower, of sanguine complexion, a Chicago produce dealer, who was supposed to admire Miss Augusta, and was now going through a course of "The Harp that once."
The last days of summer flew swiftly by; the surgeon held himself aloof; we scarcely saw him in the garrison circles, and I no longer met him in my rambles.
"Jealousy!" said the major's wife.
September came. The summer visitors fled away homeward; the remaining "Indian Curiosities" were stored away for another season; the hotels were closed, and the forests deserted; the blue-bells swung unmolested on their heights, and the plump Indian-pipes grew in peace in their dark corners. The little white fort, too, began to assume its winter manners; the storm-flag was hoisted; there were evening fires upon the broad hearth-stones; the chaplain, having finished everything about Balak, his seven altars and seven rams, was ready for chess-problems; books and papers were ordered; stores laid in, and anxious inquiries made as to the "habits" of the new mail-carrier--for the mail-carrier was the hero of the winter, and if his "habits" led him to whiskey, there was danger that our precious letters might be dropped all along the northern curve of Lake Huron.
Upon this quiet, matter-of-course preparation, suddenly, like a thunder-bolt from a clear sky, came orders to leave. The whole garrison, officers and men, were ordered to Florida.
In a moment all was desolation. It was like being ordered into the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Dense everglades, swamp-fevers, malaria in the air, poisonous underbrush, and venomous reptiles and insects, and now and then a wily unseen foe picking off the men, one by one, as they painfully cut out roads through the thickets--these were the features of military life in Florida at that period. Men who would have marched boldly to the cannon's mouth, officers who would have headed a forlorn hope, shrank from the deadly swamps.
Families must be broken up, also; no women, no children, could go to Florida. There were tears and the sound of sobbing in the little white fort, as the poor wives, all young mothers, hastily packed their few possessions to go back to their fathers' houses, fortunate if they had fathers to receive them. The husbands went about in silence, too sad for words. Archie kept up the best courage; but he was young, and had no one to leave save me.
The evening of the fatal day--for the orders had come in the early dawn--I was alone in my little parlor, already bare and desolate with packing-cases. The wind had been rising since morning and now blew furiously from the west. Suddenly the door burst open and the surgeon entered. I was shocked at his appearance, as pale, haggard, with disordered hair and clothing, he sank into a chair, and looked at me in silence.
"Rodney, what is it?" I said.
He did not answer, but still looked at me with that strange gaze. Alarmed, I rose and went, toward him, laying my hand on his shoulder with a motherly touch. I loved the quiet, gray-eyed youth next after Archie.
"What is it, my poor boy? Can I help you?"
"Oh, Aunt Sarah, perhaps you can, for you know her."
"Her?" I repeated, with sinking heart.
I sat down and folded my hands; trouble had come, but it was not what I apprehended--the old story of military life, love, and desertion; the ever-present ballad of the "gay young knight who loves and rides away." This was something different.
"I love her; I love her madly, in spite of myself," said Rodney, pouring forth his words with feverish rapidity. "I know it is an infatuation, I know it is utterly unreasonable, and yet--I love her. I have striven against it, I have fought with myself, I have written out elaborate arguments wherein I have clearly demonstrated the folly of such an affection, and I have compelled myself to read them over slowly, word for word, when alone in my own room, and yet--I love her! Ignorant, I know she would shame me; shallow, I know she could not satisfy me; as a wife she would inevitably drag me down to misery, and yet--I love her! I had not been on the island a week before I saw her, and marked her beauty. Months before you invited her to the fort I had become infatuated with her singular loveliness; but, in some respects, a race of the blood-royal could not be prouder than these French fishermen. They will accept your money, they will cheat you, they will tell you lies for an extra shilling; but make one step toward a simple acquaintance and the door will be shut in your face. They will bow down before you as a customer, but they will not have you for a friend. Thus I fund it impossible to reach Jeannette. I do not say that I tried, for all the time I was fighting myself; but I went far enough to see the barriers. It seemed a fatality that you should take a fancy to her, have her here, and ask me to admire her--admire the face that haunted me by day and by night, driving me mad with its beauty.
"I realized my danger, and called to my aid all the pride of my race. I said to my heart: 'You shall not love this ignorant half-breed girl to your ruin.' I reasoned with myself, and said: 'It is only because you are isolated on this far-away island. Could you present this girl to your mother? Could she be a companion for your sisters?' I was beginning to gain a firmer control over myself, in spite of her presence, when you unfolded your plan of education. Fatality again. Instantly a crowd of hopes surged up. The education you began could I not finish? She was but young; a few years of careful teaching might work wonders. Could I not train this forest flower so that it could take its place in the garden? But, when I actually saw this full-grown woman unable to add the simplest sum or write her name correctly, I was again ashamed of my infatuation. It is one thing to talk of ignorance, it is another to come face to face with it. Thus I wavered, at one moment ready to give up all for pride, at another to give up all for love.
"Then came the malicious suggestion of negro blood. Could it be proved, I was free; that taint I could not pardon. [And here, even as the surgeon spoke, I noticed this as the peculiarity of the New England abolitionist. Theoretically he believed in the equality of the enslaved race, and stood ready to maintain the belief with his life, but practically he held himself entirely aloof from them; the Southern creed and practice were the exact reverse.] I made inquiries of Father Piret, who knows the mixed genealogy of the little French colony as far back as the first voyageurs of the Fur Trade, and found, as I--shall I say hoped or feared? that the insinuation was utterly false. Thus I was thrown back into the old tumult.
"Then came that evening in this parlor when Jeannette made the coffee and baked little cakes over the coals. Do you remember the pathos with which she chanted 'File, file, pauvre Marie; File, file pour le prisonnier?' Do you remember how she looked when she repeated 'Ivry?' Did that tender pity, that ringing inspiration come from a dull mind and shallow heart? I was avenged of my enforced disdain, my love gave itself up to delicious hope. She was capable of education, and then----! I made a pretext of old Antoine's cough in order to gain an opportunity of speaking to her alone; but she was like a thing possessed, she broke from me and sprang over the icy cliff, her laugh coming back on the wind as I followed her down the dangerous slope. On she rushed, jumping from rock to rock, waving her hand in wild glee when the moon shone out, singing, and shouting with merry scorn at my desperate efforts to reach her. It was a mad chase, but only on the plain below could I come up with her. There, breathless and eager, I unfolded to her my plan of education. I only went so far as this: I was willing to send her to school, to give her opportunities of seeing the world, to provide for her whole future. I left the story of my love to come afterward. She laughed me to scorn. As well talk of education to the bird of the wilderness! She rejected my offers, picked up snow to throw in my face, covered me with her French sarcasms, danced around me in circles, laughed, and mocked, until I was at a loss to know whether she was human. Finally, as a shadow darkened the moon, she fled away; and when it passed she was gone, and I was alone on the snowy plain.
"Angry, fierce, filled with scorn for myself, I determined resolutely to crush out my senseless infatuation. I threw myself into such society as we had; I assumed an interest in that inane Miss Augusta; I read and studied far into the night; I walked until sheer fatigue gave me tranquillity; but all I gained was lost in that encounter at the Arch; you remember it? When I saw her on that narrow bridge, my love burst its bonds again, and, senseless as ever, rushed to save her--to save her, poised on her native rocks, where every inch was familiar from childhood! To save her--sure-footed and light as a bird! I caught her. She struggled in my arms, angrily, as an imprisoned animal might struggle, but--so beautiful! The impulse came to me to spring with her into the gulf below, and so end the contest forever. I might have done it,--I cannot tell,--but, suddenly, she wrenched herself out of my arms and fled over the Arch, to the farther side. I followed, trembling, blinded, with the violence of my emotion. At that moment I was ready to give up my life, my soul, into her hands.
"In the woods beyond she paused, glanced over her shoulder toward me, then turned eagerly. 'Voilà,' she said, pointing. I looked down and saw several silver pieces that had dropped from my pocket as I sprang over the rocks, and, with an impatient gesture, I thrust them aside with my foot.
"'Non,' she cried, turning toward me and stooping eagerly--'so much! Oh, so much! See! four shillings!' Her eyes glistened with longing as she held the money in her hand and fingered each piece lovingly.
"The sudden revulsion of feeling produced by her words and gesture filled me with fury. 'Keep it,--and buy yourself a soul if you can!' I cried, and turning away, I left her with her gains.
"'Merci, monsieur,' she answered gayly, all unmindful of my scorn, and off she ran, holding her treasure tightly clasped in both hands. I could hear her singing far down the path.
"It is a bitter thing to feel a scorn for yourself! Did I love this girl who stooped to gather a few shillings from under my feet? Was it, then, impossible for me to conquer this ignoble passion? No; it could not and it should not be! I plunged again into all the gayety; I left myself not one free moment; if sleep came not, I forced it to come with opiates; Jeannette had gone to the fishing-grounds, the weeks passed, I did not see her. I had made the hardest struggle of all, and was beginning to recover my self-respect when, one day, I met her in the woods with some children; she had returned to gather blue-berries. I looked at her. She was more gentle than usual, and smiled. Suddenly, as an embankment which has withstood the storms of many winters gives way at last in a calm summer night, I yielded. Without one outward sign, I laid down my arms. Myself knew that the contest was over, and my other self rushed to her feet.
"Since then I have often seen her; I have made plan after plan to meet her, I have, O degrading thought! paid her to take me out in her canoe under the pretense of fishing. I no longer looked forward; I lived only in the present, and thought only of when and where I could see her. Thus it has been until this morning when the orders came. Now, I am brought face to face with reality; I must go; can I leave her behind? For hours I have been wandering in the woods. Aunt Sarah,--it is of no use,--I cannot live without her,--I must marry her."
"Marry Jeannette!" I exclaimed.
"An ignorant half-breed?"
"As you say, an ignorant half-breed."
"You are mad, Rodney."
"I know it."
I will not repeat all I said; but, at last, silenced, if not convinced by the power of this great love, I started with him out into the wild night to seek Jeannette. We went through the village and round the point, where the wind met us, and the waves broke at our feet with a roar. Passing the row of cabins, with their twinkling lights, we reached the home of Jeannette and knocked at the low door. The Indian mother opened it. I entered, without a word, and took a seat near the hearth, where a drift-wood fire was burning. Jeannette came forward with a surprised look. "You little think what good fortune is coming to you, child," I thought, as I noted her coarse dress and the poor furniture of the little room.
Rodney burst at once into his subject.
"Jeannette," he said, going toward her, "I have come to take you away with me. You need not go to school; I have given up that idea--I accept you as you are. You shall have silk dresses and ribbons like the ladies at the Mission-House this summer. You shall see all the great cities, you shall hear beautiful music. You shall have everything you want--money, bright shillings, as many as you wish. See! Mrs. Corlyne has come with me to show you that it is true. This morning we had orders to leave Mackinac--in a few days we must go. But--listen, Jeannette; I will marry you. You shall be my wife. Do not look so startled. I mean it; it is really true."
"Qu' est-ce-que-c'est?" said the girl, bewildered by the rapid, eager words.
"Dr. Prescott wishes to marry you, child," I explained, somewhat sadly, for never had the disparity between them seemed so great. The presence of the Indian mother, the common room, were like silent protests.
"Marry!" ejaculated Jeannette.
"Yes, love," said the surgeon ardently. "It is quite true; you shall be my wife. Father Piret shall marry us. I will exchange into another regiment, or, if necessary, I will resign. Do you understand what I am saying, Jeannette? See! I give you my hand, in token that it is true."
But, with a quick bound, the girl was across the room. "What!" she cried. "You think I marry you? Have you not heard of Baptiste? Know, then, that I love one finger of him more than all you, ten times, hundred times."
"Baptiste?" repeated Rodney.
"Oui, mon cousin, Baptiste, the fisherman. We marry soon--tenez--la fête de Saint André.
Rodney looked bewildered a moment, then his face cleared. "Oh! a child engagement? That is one of your customs, I know. But never fear; Father Piret will absolve you from all that. Baptiste shall have a fine new boat; he will let you off for a handful of silver pieces. Do not think of that, Jeannette, but come to me--"
"Je vous abhorre; je vous déteste," cried the girl with fury as he approached. "Baptiste not love me? He love me more than boat and silver dollar,--more than all the world! And I love him; I die for him! Allez-vous-en, traître!
Rodney had grown white; he stood before her, motionless, with fixed eyes.
"Jeannette," I said in French, "perhaps you do not understand. Dr. Prescott asks you to marry him; Father Piret shall marry you, and all your friends shall come. Dr. Prescott will take you away from this hard life; he will make you rich; he will support your father and mother in comfort. My child, it is wonderful good fortune. He is an educated gentleman, and loves you truly."
"What is that to me," replied Jeannette, proudly. "Let him go, I care not." She paused a moment; then, with flashing eyes, she cried: "Let him go with his fine new boat and silver dollars! He does not believe me? See, then, how I despise him!" And, rushing forward, she struck him on the cheek.
Rodney did not stir, but stood gazing at her while the red mark glowed on his white face.
"You know not what love is," said Jeannette, with indescribable scorn. "You! You! Ah, mon Baptiste, où es-tu? But thou wilt kill him,--kill him for his boats and silver dollars!"
"Child!" I said, startled by her fury.
"I am not a child. Je suis femme, moi!" replied Jeannette, folding her arms with haughty grace. "Allez!" she said, pointing toward the door. We were dismissed. A queen could not have made a more royal gesture.
Throughout the scene, the Indian mother had not stopped her knitting.
In four days we were afloat, and the little white fort was deserted. It was a dark afternoon, and we sat clustered on the stern of the steamer, watching the flag come slowly down from its staff in token of the departure of the commanding officer. "Isle of Beauty, fare thee well," sang the major's fair young wife, with the sound of tears in her sweet voice.
"We shall return," said the officers. But not one of them ever saw the beautiful island again.****
Rodney Prescott had remained sunk in a strange gloom. He spoke not; even to me he was silent. I kept his secret faithfully, and trusted to time's soothing influence, glad in my own heart that the infatuation had ended so. Once away, he would forget her. I shielded him, also, as much as I could.
"His health has given way," I said; "he is suffering from a low fever."
"Oh, no," said the garrison ladies. "Depend upon it, he has heard of Miss Augusta's engagement to Mr. Piper."
I went with Archie as far as New York. There, just before they sailed, I said goodbye to the little group of silent men.
"Aunt Sarah," said Rodney, in a low voice, looking at me with heavy-lidded eyes, "I cannot live without her."
I never saw him again. He died in the Florida everglades before the year was out. "Out of his head most of the time," wrote Archie, "but we could not make out what he was raving about, for he seemed suspicious of us to the last. He was a good fellow, and I know you liked him, Aunt Sarah. But he was always odd, and, to tell the truth, we think he has been more than half-crazy ever since we left Mackinac."
Last year I met an islander on the cars, going eastward. It was the first time he had ever been "below;" but he saw nothing to admire, that dignified citizen of Mackinac!
"What has become of Jeannette Leblanc?" I asked.
"Jeannette? Oh, she married that Baptiste, a lazy, good-for-nothing fellow. They live in the same little cabin round the point and pick up a living most anyhow for their tribe of young ones."
"Are they happy?"
"Happy?" repeated my islander, with a slow stare. "Well, I suppose they are, after their fashion; I don't know much about them. In my opinion they are a shiftless set, those French half-breeds round the point."
* In the 1875 version, "killed at Shiloh" is replaced by "a young lieutenant."
** This sentence is omitted in the 1875 version.
*** "Le Prisonnier de Guerre."--Béranger. Note included in both the 1874 and 1875 versions.
**** The next several paragraphs were changed in the 1875 version. The new version reads:
Rodney Prescott served a month or two in Florida, "taciturn and stiff as ever," Archie wrote. Then he resigned suddenly, and went abroad. He has never returned, and I have lost all trace of him, so that I cannot say, from any knowledge of my own, how long the feeling lived,--the feeling that swept me along in its train down to the beach-cottage that wild night.
Each man who reads this can decide for himself.
Each woman has decided already.
The 1875 story returns to the original text with the section that begins, "Last year I met an islander..."