A Girl of the North. A Story of London and Canada
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The world called it failure: he called it success, and the thought evolved itself into happiness for a time.
George Archer was a man of unusual talent and power. He had translated the most recent book by a celebrated Danish naturalist, besides which he had acquired some fame as a naturalist on his own account; and the small world of men, who trouble about such things, mentioned his name with a certain amount of respect as that of one to whom mysteries are revealed.
He was rich. He had travelled all over the world. At last, wishing to go to Canada, the idea of writing a book on the different varieties of Canadian fish came to him with the charm of inspiration, of freedom, and of novelty.
He was singularly unpractical, and given to great enthusiasms.
The glamour of Canada fell upon him; he was fascinated by the long cold winter, with its tempests and swinging winds, its drifting snow, and the endless battle with the princes and powers of the air: by the spring, too, with its force when all the brooks ran and overflowed with the melting of the snow in the hot sun, and the glorious long, light, glowing days, when everything broke into life with suddenness. After this came a gorgeous summer, with hot vibrating days, which brought magnificent flowers into blossom; and then autumn with its Indian summer and stillness – a sort of grey stillness, as if the dear dead came back for a space. The wind died then, and there was only a movement of the air laden with sweetness as it passed over blueberry barrens and lonely stretches of black, still lakes, which possessed the charm of the unknown, the fascination of the forest crowded with moose and bears. George Archer loved the country with its colouring of triumph – trees, sky, and water, all shared in the same glory.
When he came out, he brought letters to various people in Canada, and he collected many important facts for his piscatorial work during his first summer – in the autumn he met Naomi Fontaine, one quarter French, more than a quarter English (her enemies added one half Indian). Archer loved her and married her.
They settled down in an old house, which he rebuilt and made more than comfortable. It stood near an arm of the sea, about two miles from a town called Musquodobit, and in the middle of woods, of salmon rivers, and lakes.
They were happy – perfectly, gloriously happy. They made no plans for the future. To-day was theirs; they loved it, and for three years their happiness lasted. Then Naomi died of pneumonia, and left him alone with their daughter Launa.
Mr. Archer stayed at Musquodobit, for he had no desire to return to England, his relations having received the news of his marriage with certain questions – was Naomi a native? Their idea of natives was hazy, and ran to wild orgies, cannabalism, and no clothing. Had she any relations? George said she was a Roman Catholic and a Canadian, then the letters grew fewer and fewer.Archer did not remember his people. He loved his life; the freedom of it enthralled him. He fished and hunted at the same time he pursued the research about bones, which brought him many letters, much contradiction, and labour.
He could not bear to leave the land which Naomi had loved, whilst dwelling there without her was misery and torment, and yet he loved it too. That land exercises an indescribable fascination over impressionable folk; its intenseness, its wild beauty and passion, the rapid, boiling rivers full of fish, and the quiet, still lakes; the grandeur of the granite rocks, the hills, and vast forests of pine, fir, and maple; and, above all, the turbulent rapture and stormy joy of the sea, crashing against the iron-bound coast. Archer’s home was situated about one hundred yards from the shore. The bay was well sheltered, and two miles below lay the open sea. It was near enough to be within reach when Archer wearied of the calm of the bay; and near enough for them to hear it surge, moan, and roar at times, and to be always in sun and storm – altogether loveable.
Launa Archer was an ugly baby. When her mother died she was a year old, and soon became intelligent enough to interest her father. He was often away, and left her in charge of her nurse Eliza, who loved her; and the child grew from babyhood into a sprite of mischief, always cheerful, always laughing, often naughty, and fond of forgiving Eliza, with much kindness and bounteousness, when she reproved her.
Mr. Archer’s house, “Solitude,” was a large building, with an appearance of care and comfort. There were neighbours three and four miles away. But he cared little for them while Naomi lived, and less after her death. So Launa grew from infancy into childhood alone. She played with the dogs, and in summer let them run among the long grass, which was for hay, and which their wild bounding did not improve. How she loved to see them tearing through it and chasing each other. And then she spent days by the brook, sailing boats and paddling and splashing. Many mighty fleets she launched, which sailed away and never came back, drifting down the current to the sea. She played with the big white daisies in the pasture, and gathered them with huge yellow buttercups. She dabbled in the salt water, and ran up and down the beach, while the dogs hunted the kingfishers and yapped in vain at the crows. It was a heavenly life for a child – lonely never, solitary, perhaps, for she had but frequent glimpses of her father, who journeyed north, south, east, and west, seeking many things, principally forgetfulness, or rather a memory that should revive no pain.
When Launa Archer was ten years old her father realised that she must be taught; so he went forth to seek a governess.
Mr. Archer had grown into a silent man, as is often very naturally the case with men who spend much of their lives in the woods. But Launa found him an excellent companion, full of knowledge about all the beasts of the field and fowls of the air, and able to tell wonderful stories of “Ring, the king’s son,” Norwegian fairy stories, and Indian legends. Archer found the governess problem hard to solve. For once in his life he distrusted his own inclinations, and asked advice of Mrs. Butler, the wife of one of his neighbours. She had no children, but she longed to be consulted about Launa, on the principle that childless women know most about children. Mrs. Butler disapproved of Launa, for she was shy, had retired under the table during one of Mrs. Butler’s visitations, and refused to come forth until the lady had left, giving as an excuse that Mrs. Butler shook hands too much and too often.
Mrs. Butler grew voluble, and George Archer somewhat distressed. She strongly advised school; indeed, it was her war-cry. School would endow Launa with lady-like habits. Her listener frowned. School would give her pleasant companionship, and a knowledge of all those things which it was necessary for young ladies to acquire.
“Is not curiosity, the hereditary tendency of Mother Eve strongly inherent in all women?” asked Mr. Archer. “Launa will learn for herself.”
“Yes, perhaps,” vaguely murmured Mrs. Butler. “Still, if I were you I would send her to school.”
George Archer immediately became conscious of many things he did not want his Launa to become or to learn. She would either be miserable at school or dislike “Solitude” on her return thither; either result would be disagreeable. He wanted Launa to remain natural; consequently he did not advertise for a governess. He had an idea he might meet a suitable teacher. Mrs. Butler told him that in all probability he would marry such a paragon as he desired, and he smiled without contradicting her.
He visited his friends at Baltimore, New York, and Halifax, which was near where he lived, and in New York he found what he sought. Her name was Black; she was a German-American. Her age was thirty, though her face suggested forty and her figure twenty. When she played the piano Archer almost worshipped her talent. He had found the long-looked-for solace – in the music he saw Naomi; they were together again. And whenever Miss Black played he seemed to lose himself in a heavenly dream. If she could teach the wild little lady at “Solitude” to play! Miss Black could row and paddle; she had read, and did read; she could walk far, and play tennis. She was full of intelligence, and her German was good.
It seemed to the perplexed parent that the day of the millennium was about to dawn when he went, home with this trophy. If the dogs and Launa liked her then he could dare to be content.
Launa had never known anyone she did not like except Mrs. Butler, who reciprocated the feeling. The idea of a governess had no dreaded associations for her; a companion was her greatest desire. Eliza had grown too fat to climb fences and to go out in the canoe – a form of pleasure she dreaded and detested, for Eliza could not swim, nor would she learn.
Miss Black – Launa christened her “Whitey” – was a success. When Mrs. Butler heard of her she said the world would talk, but when she saw Whitey’s livid face and weather-beaten countenance, she wanted to know what her history was, and talked about Mr. Archer’s lonely and defenceless situation as though he were a castle facing north-east.
The dogs loved Miss Black; her sitting-room was always a haven of refuge when they were wet and tired, also when Launa had steeplechases and Fatsey, an old dog, would not and could not jump over a broomstick three feet from the ground, then, he too, sought sanctuary with Whitey.
Whitey taught Launa music, and the child worked earnestly, undismayed by the drudgery, with the hope of some day being able to play like her teacher, and her reward always came in the form of freedom for a while. With Whitey, she read many books, stories, history, and poetry. And as Miss Black had travelled far and wide she made all she taught interesting.
This odd couple were very happy together. In the winter they snowshoed, going for long tramps through the woods. They were frequently out in stormy weather, for Miss Black loved the wind as much as Launa did, and the wild turmoil of snow and tempest attracted them both. They explored the whole surrounding country together. Miss Black and Launa were also very fond of wandering to the far away lakes – the big black lakes with long shadows and deep reflections of trees and rocks – lakes whose solitude and silence filled one with a sort of apprehension, that whispered of horrors, past or to come – the ghosts of dead braves might wander there as a foretaste of the happy hunting ground. The hills were high and steep, covered with brushwood which was very thick, and at intervals there were rocks and holes that made climbing perilous, but Launa and Miss Black did not mind difficulties. On one occasion Mr. Archer took them to camp out for a week and to fish. How they loved it! The queer smell of the wood smoke, the joy of cooking in the ashes, and the talk round the fire in the twilight before bedtime, when the stars came out and the moon hung half-way up in the sky, while the firelight threw shadows all around, making the white birch trees look ghostly in the dim light, while in the distance the little stream rushed on to the sea.
When Launa, who had a queer, passionate temper, a horror of restraint of any kind, and a great dislike to being disappointed or thwarted, was fifteen, she was tall, and slight, all arms and legs, with long thin fingers, and well-shaped feet. Her skin was tanned, with a tinge of red in her cheeks, her eyes were brown, as was her hair. She could paddle, and walk on snowshoes like an Indian, her voice had a low soft richness in it that reminded Mr. Archer of a squaw – which made him wonder whether there had been Indian blood in Naomi or not?
But Launa had a stronger look than her mother; she was less of the dainty French girl, and she possessed a greater desire to rise, to achieve something, possessing a less sublime acquiescence in fate or destiny than Naomi, who had been sweeter, more yielding, and fulfilling Mr. Archer’s preconceived, primeval idea of a woman. Sometimes he feared for his daughter, and that curious belief in herself, which she displayed with a half-expressed idea, that she would be able to command fate, an early sign of her masterful independence.
“When I am big,” Launa said to her father one day, “I shall write a book about the woods and the Indians; no one writes about them, or seems to know how.”
Her father smiled.
“You must learn to keep still.”
“The arranging and selecting of ideas must be difficult,” she said, “and I always come to grief over commas. I love full stops, but Whitey says my sentences are jerky. It must be difficult to disguise one’s mood when writing books, to write when one is tired or weary; I could not do it.”
“You will perhaps be glad to do it some day.” Then changing the subject, he said, “I am going to the Reserve to-day, will you come?”
“What time shall we go?”
“At three,” he answered.
Launa rushed off to order tea to take with them, as well as some tea and sugar for presents to the Indians.
They drove about six miles to the Reserve. It was a desolate piece of country, and lay along the side of a large lake, from which ran a little trout stream. The Indians lived in cottages, poorly built shanties, and they welcomed the Archers with joy. There was an old grandmother, a terrible old person in a red flannel bed-jacket, a very short skirt, and a short pipe, which she smoked with fervour. Her grey hair hung down on both sides of her brown face, and she waved her long thin fingers as she related tales of her magic cures, for she was a doctor and made herb decoctions for anyone who was ailing. She talked in a low mysterious voice.
“I give him little medicine, yer know,” she said, with a leer and a drawl, nodding her funny old head with an air of confidence in her listener’s understanding and belief.
Miss Black was afraid of her, and always felt sure that Mrs. Andrew would not be too good to omit mixing poison with her medicine, if she considered it desirable the sick person should not recover.
Launa listened to the old grandmother’s stories with rapt attention, until Andrew, the witch’s husband, came to say he had lighted a fire by the lake, and that Abram had launched his canoe to take Launa in it after tea.
Andrew and Launa caught some trout, which they cooked at the wood fire, and Launa made tea. She presented Mrs. Andrew with a large parcel of it to that lady’s joy, though she merely grunted her thanks, and then offered Launa a cup out of her own tea-pot. But as the Indians seldom or never empty the tea-pot (they consider it a waste to throw away the old leaves, and keep on adding a few new ones, which they let boil to get their full flavour), Launa knew better than to drink it. It was, in truth, a deadly concoction.
Abram pushed his canoe into the water, and taking a paddle in one hand started with a little run and then jumped into the end of the canoe, which shot out into the middle of the lake. It was a wonderful jump, and Launa never tired of seeing it.
“There is no one who can do that as Abram does,” she said with admiration. “He is splendid, isn’t he, Andrew? Abram, Abram!” called Launa. “Take me up to the end of the lake!”
He brought the canoe in again, and she took her paddle and knelt in the bow. They went off together, her firm figure, with its graceful arm movement, erect, muscular, and supple. Oh! the joy of those days! The joy of living and of doing! The rapid, firm strokes, and the movement!
Launa paid her visit to the opera house in New York, whither her father took her with Miss Black for a winter, and then her dreams were realised. She heard the “Nibelungenlied,” “The Meistersinger,” “Tannhauser,” besides selections from “Parsifal”; she also attended numerous concerts. Music took the place of her out-of-door life, and she became so absorbed in it that she only occasionally missed and regretted her former wanderings. It was as if she had experienced its wonderful power for the first time, and drank from a cup of intoxicating sweetness.
She went to dances, and discovered that men found her attractive, and naturally she soon learned how to make herself agreeable. At the same time she realised that most men love a woman for her bodily charm.
“Men are very animalish, Whitey,” said Launa one day, after having made a successful appearance at an evening reception.
Miss Black gasped. She had ignored the existence of men as lovers, except in history and in books, while teaching Launa.
“All men are not alike,” she said vaguely.
“No, of course not. Father is perfect. Few men are like him.”
When they returned to “Solitude,” Launa worked with renewed ardour, and practised with joy – she wanted to play well. She read all sorts of books, and after a course of lectures on Greek literature, she turned with avidity to Plato, to Epictetus. Of German books she read many; to Miss Black’s regret she had outgrown Marlitt. For a woman who could do things, who did not fear storm or rain, Miss Black was singularly afraid of the knowledge of good and evil. Evil belonged especially to the poor and low, and to men, who gave it up when they put on dress-clothes, and were in the society of ladies – the humanising influence of ladies! A dress suit was the veneer that completely covered the brute-beast in a man.
About this time Launa turned affectionately to her father. She found him sympathetic, for he understood her, and he never gasped.
“You remind me of your mother,” he said one day to her.
“Tell me about her,” she said, flushing with pleasure.
“She was very sweet – how can I tell you? I loved her; half of me, the best, the happy half died with her; it was as if I were killed… And we were so happy.”
“It was terrible,” said Launa. “Life, father, seems sometimes to be horribly, terribly sad.” She said this with the air of one who has made a new discovery, and it amused her father.
“Why is it?” she asked.
“I do not know.”
“And what is the good?”
He did not answer.
It dawned upon the small world round “Solitude” that Launa was attractive, and so the inhabitants came to visit and to criticise. They all went to Quebec, and they stayed several nights at different houses, where she enjoyed herself, and where she was admired – especially at one of the balls she attended.
Among all the men she met, English as well as Canadian, for there was a garrison in Halifax, a man named Paul Harvey interested her most. He was a Canadian, who possessed a place about twenty miles from “Solitude.” He was tall and dark. His skin was tanned from the out-of-door life he led; he had a peculiarly high forehead, and high cheek bones, and his body had the lithe look common to men who spend their lives in doing, and who are never troubled with superfluous flesh. His keen eyes glanced into one’s inner consciousness, and seemed hard, until he smiled. He walked with the Indian stride, which is quick and quiet. Of course he could ride, and he had the strong capable hands of a man who has been brought up to do things, and who could do them well. Paul Harvey and Launa soon became firm friends, for they understood each other. They loved the same things; the witchery of the woods, of the canoe, and of the sea was real and tangible to them both, and he loved music, as did she. In the long spring days they often met, and he was full of admiration for this girl, who was so strong and so fearless.
George Archer frequently invited Paul to “Solitude,” without the least idea of encouraging any feeling on Paul’s part for Launa, who in her father’s eyes was still a child; that any man should think of her as a possible wife never occurred to him, but then Archer’s idea of a wife (the other man’s wife) was a submissive woman, and Launa was not that.
One day in May Mr. Archer had gone to Chezettcook to fish, and Launa was anxious to pay him a visit. Paul expressed himself desirous of driving her down to the river which her father owned.
So the two left “Solitude” at two o’clock on a still day, very sultry and hot; a haze lay thick over the land, and the sun shone red with a lurid glare, for the haze was the smoke of fires in the woods.
They drove along very rapidly, not talking much, though occasionally Paul would look at her and she at him, and they smiled with a sense of well-being and mutual bliss.
“I think,” said Paul at last, “that the Bible makes a mistake when it says, ‘Godliness with contentment is great gain’; it should be love.”
“Oh, Paul,” she exclaimed. “The smoke! it is getting so thick.”
Paul was holding his head down.
“Shall we turn back? The fire is crossing the road in front of us. I am afraid we can’t get through it.”
He turned his horse quickly.
“Launa, it seems as if it were cutting us off.”
They were in a winding road, a crosscut. He started Micmac at a gallop. If the fire were before them! There was a long hill to climb.
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