The Circle of Affection and Other Pieces in Prose and Verse

by Duncan Campbell Scott




FROM A SMALL HILL near Lake Achigan two girls were gazing into the valley beneath them. Through the light haze that hung in the air, shot with intense warmth from the June sun, they could see a figure in the cultivated patches which broke the undergrowth of the valley.

    He was hoeing potatoes. The elder of the two girls had just said “There he is.” “Who?” said her companion. “Our father.” They spoke a wild sort of French, but the heavy, black hair, dark skin, and vivid black eyes, told that their Chippewa blood had triumphed.

    While the younger girl was still gazing with parted lips, her sister was thinking. Her face betrayed her thought, for a contemptuous expression changed to one of moodiness. Suddenly she sprang to her feet. “Come on,” she said, and began to descend. They went down the hill-side breaking their way through raspberry bushes and patches of sumac. “Where are you going, Epinette?” asked the younger girl following the impulsive advance of her sister. Epinette paused instantly. “I’m going to take him home; don’t see why he should work always for those Boulays, Thomasine; he is our father too.”

    Thomasine waited when she reached the edge of the potato patch. Epinette went on and touched the bending figure on the shoulder. He turned his whole bulk around heavily, letting the hoe drop. He gazed on the girl without a sign of intelligence in his small eyes. His face was almost covered with hair. Above the bushy eyebrows, below a mink cap, water was standing in great beads; it collected at his temples, rolled into his beard and dropped upon the front of his shirt and upon the ground. Epinette caught him by the arm and led him away; he accompanied her unresistingly as an obedient child. Thomasine upon the outskirts of the plot, when she saw them advance, darted amongst the vines, seized the hoe and followed. As she went an inspiration seized her; she turned and obliterated their steps, filling them with the light sandy earth.

    In this order they proceeded to their home at Lake Achigan, which lay out of sight in a depression amid the hills.

    Thomasine who lagged a little in the rear peered curiously ahead; for as long as she could remember she had never been so close to her father. With her keen sense of smell she caught his particular odour, a mixture of old leather cured in smoke, crude tobacco, and the wild scent of dried blood and partridge feathers. She carried the hoe like a trophy; it shone like silver, worn as it was with toil and stones.

    After a sharp descent they found the edge of a clearing with the bright lake in front, hills on the distant shores, and a rude shanty.

    They were greeted with a cry from a young fellow who sprang into a sitting position where he was lolling. He was evidently too surprised to utter a word. Epinette paused and began vehemently as if renewing a discussion on the propriety of her acts. “Well, why should he work always for those Boulays, hoeing potatoes? We have potatoes to hoe. I brought him off, that’s all.” An older man, attracted by the sound of the protesting voice, appeared from the back of the shanty. When he saw the group which had paused in its marching order, he began to laugh and leaned against the house shaking as if all his bones were loosened by his mirth. A smoky cloud of passion blew across Epinette’s face; Thomasine began to giggle; the old bear-like man stood without movement.

    “Ambise, can’t you stop laughing? You’re a fool.” Ambise straightened up and resigned his mirth.

    “You’re a plucky one,” he said, coming forward, “brought over the old man. He hasn’t been here for fifteen years, eh, Laus?”

    “Better take him back again,” said the young fellow addressed.

    “Won’t!” said Epinette, angrily.

    “There’ll be trouble,” he said, “trouble with the Boulays.”

    “What, do I care?”

    “There might have been less if you hadn’t brought the hoe,” said Laus.

    They all looked at Thomasine who dropped her head and dug in the earth with her toes. The implement for which she was responsible hung over her shoulder. As an act of explanation she advanced to the house side and propped it there beside the native implement made of black birch with an ash sapling handle, with which Ambise was wont to labour. He, at least, received the reason as conclusive, free from all fear of the Boulays.

    Epinette with the free impulsive movement of a marauder and the defiant energy of a young woman who had stolen her own father, went into the house, leaving the old man as if her responsibility ceased. Then Laus rose up and led him to the bench by the wall which was in the shadow.

    When Agatha Boulay came over the hill to lead her father home, she did not find him. He and his hoe had disappeared. There was no mark of his footsteps; the earth might have devoured him. After calling several times she became frightened at the sound of her voice and dashed out of the potato patch and on toward home.

*         *         *         *         *

    Some years before this incursion it would have been impossible to lead the old man who now followed with such apathy the girl who boldly laid hands upon him. In his youth and middle age Clute Boulay was a terror, a man who was feared for his strength, for his lawlessness, and for his passion. He bent neither to God nor man. He struck with his hands; he went where he listed; ate what bread he chose. Frenchman by blood, savage by habit and inclination, he had not a friend in the settlement nor one in the camp.

    When he was a youth he appeared and disappeared, “learnin’ the country”, he said. The winters he would spend with pelt hunters, deep in the woods; the summers he would come out to the settlement. But one winter he spent at the settlement and people saw that his habits were changing. But it was not on account of age for he had begun to live young.

    In the spring of that year he went right through the village to the Orphanage where Père Ambrose cared for the children who were left alone in the world, and asked him for a wife. The good Father stared at his demand; he considered; he looked upon the uncouth figure and thought upon his charges.

    “Why,” he asked, “do you not marry a girl from the village?” Clute Boulay fixed his eyes on the spotless boards of the floor and replied, “I, Clute Boulay, want a wife who has no one to come between.”

    “But,” said Père Ambrose, “if you want to marry one of my girls I will ‘come between’.” Clute Boulay looked up at him and with the savagery on his face softened, said: “That will be different, I don’t want them smoking there, asking all sorts of questions.”

    The good Père Ambrose thought upon his girls, and he chose Lucette Laronde, who had no kin in the world so far as he knew. But before he would allow the marriage he counselled Lucette and showed her how she might lead Clute Boulay and have a wife’s power over him. So they were married, but the counsels of Père Ambrose were of no avail; Clute Boulay was still his own master. To Lucette he was not fierce; he treated her with kindness. They were together five years continuously. Then one autumn Clute Boulay showed signs of restlessness. Lucette had never seen him behave exactly in that way before. It was the longing of the woods which had possessed him. He went away without warning and was absent three years.

    When he returned, one spring, he seemed quite unchanged to the observer, but to his wife Lucette he was different. He would be away from home days together. One day when she was returning home from picking the blueberries upon the hills above Lake Achigan, she discovered the reason. Upon the shore of the lake where a chopper had built a shanty he had established himself anew. He had taken to himself a savage, in the manner of ancient, natural persons, a daughter of Chief Peau de Chat, of the Chippewas, “Woman at War” was her name.

    When Lucette discovered this she went to Père Ambrose. The good father rose and went in search of Clute Boulay, knowing that the time had arrived when he must ‘come between’.

    He found him in his camp surrounded by the primitive luxuries. The “Woman at War” had already small images of Clute Boulay at her knees. Père Ambrose remonstrated vigorously; Clute Boulay stood looking at the ground. Finally the priest said: “I promised you to ‘come between’, and I must. I made you husband to Lucette; back to her you go. I will save the soul of this heathen.”

    Suddenly anger overcame Clute Boulay. He seized Père Ambrose about the waist, shouldered him and carried him to a point below which rocks broke the waters of the lake. Over these he held him. Père Ambrose drew his crucifix and held it up, suspended as he was between earth and heaven.

    “I would kill you,” snarled Clute Boulay, “even at the feet of your Christ.”

    But nevertheless he drew him back and set him on the rock again and went into the woods. Père Ambrose, released from peril, attempted to find “Woman at War”, but she had disappeared with her covey, like a wary partridge. He related his failure to Lucette, but advised her to abide her time patiently. On his way to the Mission his lips moved to words that sounded like a prophecy.

    The only result from his visit was that Clute Boulay called the eldest of his new brood after the man of God, Ambrose, which speedily became corrupted to Ambise.

    In the years that followed he went and came as he pleased, living sometimes in the whitewashed house within sound of the Mission bells, and sometimes on the shores of the still lake, surrounded by sombre spruces, in the bosom of paganism.

    But in one night his power went from him. When he was living one winter under the shadow of the cross, he went into the village to witness the departure of a train of sleighs, loaded with provisions for the lumber shanties. There were many drivers there who hated him, and in the general carousal which preceded the departure, in which he shared, an old enemy beat him over the head with a sleigh stake. For months he was insensible, and he never afterwards possessed his mind, but moved a great bulk of strength without volition.

    When Père Ambrose heard of this occurrence his lips again were moved to words that sounded like an ancient prophecy, applicable to the unfolding circumstances of Clute Boulay’s life.

    As he was with Lucette at the time of the fight, he remained there, and gradually was put to some use in the small plantation which made up the farm. Until the wild Epinette, overcome with the injustice of his toil “always for the Boulays”, led him away captive.

*         *         *         *         *

    When Agatha Boulay rushed in breathless and told of the disappearance of the old man, her family rose up and told her she was beside herself, crazy.

    They never thought of the Peau de Chats, whom they hated from their childhood, taught by their mother, Lucette. For days they searched, helped by the neighbours, but no sign could they discover. Lucette, who had survived “Woman at War”, said it was the will of God, and the Boulay family settled back to work.

    In the meantime the Peau de Chats were as alert as a war party, and gradually, as the search failed, they took their father into the potato patch and watched him labour for them. Ambise, like a true Indian, smoked his pipe with infinite satisfaction and watched the play of the steel hoe amongst the vines. The old man did not observe much difference, but his sensations were heightened by the acrid smoke of the open fire in the caboose, the wild flavour of those stews which Epinette concocted in the black pot, and the uneven elasticity of his bunk covered with spruce poles and marsh hay.

    In the old days Epinette had been his favourite among all his children, and still, through his clouded mind, the old affection seemed to grope. She looked to his comfort in a rude way, led him out of the rain, covered him at night, gave him what he liked best of her primitive cookery. She remembered him in his lawless days, and she had a perception of the pathetic in his condition of tyrant in servitude.

    Very soon boldness took the place of caution and before the corn was ripe Clute Boulay was allowed to sit on the bench in the shadow, when there was no work for him to do.

    So it happened that when one of the Boulay cows took to the woods, Cesar, beating the shore of Lake Achigan, came suddenly on his father on the other side of the Indians’ corn patch, and when Laus went out to bring him in he was not to be found, being already within sight of the Mission. Whereupon a fatal anger sprang up in all their hearts; the Peau de Chats were wild with rage; and the Boulays could hardly rest; their old hatred burned up like fire in a dry cedar.

    Epinette spent all her days watching her opportunity to carry off her father. At length it came, when Clute Boulay was led down into the field guarded by Athanase and Agatha. Down swooped Epinette like a young eagle, frightened Agatha by a yell, and clawing Athanase, who clung to her father, finally overcame her by a blow upon the mouth which sent her home bleeding.

    But in the capture there was no chance of concealment, the person had been taken by force and by wounds. Swiftly the Boulays began to prepare for a fray which would humble their enemies, heal the stroke given to Athanase, and return the old man to his lawful habitation.

    And with the primeval instinct for defence, the Peau de Chats prepared to resist them. They knew that it was war and rejoiced thereat.

    They were equally matched as to numbers. Cesar, ‘Poleon, Athanase and Agatha of the Boulays; of the Peau de Chats, Ambise, Laus, Epinette and Thomasine; Clute Boulay and Lucette on either side were non-combatants. They were equal in courage and resource; their mutual hatred was vindictive and consuming.

    In front of the Peau de Chat shanty was a well-cleared space stretching about one hundred feet to the lake. Upon this stage was the vendetta to be satisfied.

    It was the noon of a September day when Lucette blessed the banner and watched the small procession file over the hill. Thomasine, who was on duty as scout, sank back into the woods like a shadow and fled to the lake. In an hour the Boulays surrounded the cabin in a stillness so absolute that the chatter of a squirrel throwing cones in the lake from the highest branch of a pine sounded like a fusilade.

    It was expected by the Boulays that the Peau de Chats held the small shanty in force, but only Epinette and Thomasine with Clute Boulay were there. The hiding place of Ambise was revealed the moment ‘Poleon moved in the bracken, a breathing motion that would have meant a little sway of the frond to a less keen eye. A bullet took the skin off his elbow and sent shattering sensations from his wrist to his shoulder. Ambise was behind a giant cedar that leant into the lake. When the shot broke out Epinette began to scream in a way to call for scalps and a general massacre; she also threw open the door and uttered an unintelligible defiance mingled in two languages.

    Quiet fell again. Cesar made no sound as he crept like a snake through the corn waiting for a sight of Ambise behind the cedar. At length, after minutes of straining, he saw him crouching there loading his rifle as cautiously as he could. Small movements of the corn gave him to Cesar’s eyes, and then obscured him. He worked his gun into range, and when the leaves unveiled the swarthy figure he fired.

    Ambise leaped to his feet and fell with his weight against the cedar; his dead body slid around the tree and was hidden in the underbrush at its roots.

    Laus, who was below the cedar under the overhanging bank, sprang up, bounded across the open space and into the corn like a panther. ‘Poleon’s shot at him went into the lake. Not wasting his breath in a sound, he dashed on brandishing his knife and was upon Cesar before he could rise to his feet or club his rifle. There they fought, rolling in the corn that creaked and clashed about them; fought while Cesar could keep a grip of the knife which was constantly slashing him, fought until the corn could close over him again, hiding his body where it lay.

    Epinette was a better shot than either of her brothers, and from her vantage ground she espied, through chinks in the wall, Athanase behind the clump of dwarf cedars. Then she crouched over her rifle, and when she was sure she fired, sending hate all the way with the ball.

    Behind the cedar there was no movement; but Agatha started up, half demented at the sight of her sister and rushed up the path into the woods for home.

    Her success had a strange effect on Epinette; she ran straight out in the open space before the house swinging her rifle around her head, shrieking out a defiant chant. She swirled about like a column of flame fanned by inner currents of passion. Her eyes glowed with furious lustre.

    ‘Poleon, his arm still burning from the shock of the ball, gazed for a moment in stupefaction at this vision of savage beauty. He felt his gun and hesitated. Suddenly he glanced over to where Athanase had been concealed, twenty feet away. If she had not been injured, she was very still. Suddenly her hair streaming over the log, hanging down from her lifeless body, became apparent. He cursed, and as Epinette’s figure seemed brandished before him in hate and defiance, he fired.

    She staggered, dropped the rifle, and fell backwards through the door of the shanty. Before the smoke cleared away from ‘Poleon’s eyes, Laus dashed out upon him from behind the house. He had thrown away his gun; he was a fighter who preferred the knife and a close struggle. But ‘Poleon stepped out of the bracken, felt his feet on the level, clubbed his rifle, and as the savage leaped upon him he swung it down, breaking through the guard of his uplifted arm and crashing into his head. He reeled, tried to gather his knees under him, but before he fell another swinging blow drove him to earth. He lay still amongst the bracken.

    Clute Boulay was seated on his bunk facing the smouldering fire. In the dimness of the place he looked like some ancient idol; sacred fire before him, and the smoke of the incense veiling his face. His hands were upon his knees; on his head a huge mink cap. He heard the firing dimly, as one hears sounds under water. Suddenly something pierced his lethargy. Epinette fell across his knees.

    The life was slowly leaving her magnificent body. He felt her hair with his seamed fingers, and the round of her arm that lay nearest him. He shook himself and rose up like an awful giant, placing her gently upon the bunk. He was full of anger; the sensation which he had last felt in that old fight, years before, flowed back upon him, a sensation so strong that his very feeling seemed mighty enough to break iron.

    He came out into the light hardly seeing ‘Poleon except as a mass that approached him. He was coming to lead him with his hands extended. Closer he came and closer; Clute Boulay felt him with his hands; then he knew what to do. He put his arms around him and crushed him as a bear crushes a hunter’s dog. Crushed him together and threw him down like a sack, before ‘Poleon could summon breath to utter a groan.

    Clute Boulay looked down upon him and wondered; then he went back into the shanty and bore out the body of Epinette. A little way he carried it sacredly; then he laid it down and looked upon the earth as if he would bury it. Thomasine the only living thing there watched him. Then he wandered about for a little, coming back to lay his hand upon her heart and dwelling upon her face as if groping in his mind for some clue, some explanation.

    Then he rose suddenly and went away, as an animal does who is satisfied. He went into the deepest forest, and for a long time he could be heard crashing though the underbrush. He was never seen again, not even a trace of him.

    Then at last there was deep silence about the shores of Lake Achigan; and over came the night with the lonely sound of night-birds, and stars in the tranquil heaven looking down at stars in the tranquil water.

    Many years ago that happened, many, many years ago; but they still remember the words that Père Ambrose spoke when they told him.

    “To the pure, sorrow will come with night time and joy in the time of morning; he shall be established; but though the wicked be strong as a lion his sin shall abide, and presently he shall be no more in the desert of his iniquity.”