The Moccasin Maker

by Emily Pauline Johnson

The Derelict

    CRAGSTONE had committed what his world called a crime—an inexcusable offence that caused him to be shunned by society and estranged from his father’s house. He had proved a failure.
    Not one of his whole family connections could say unto the others, “I told you so,” when he turned out badly.
    They had all predicted that he was born for great things, then to discover that they had overestimated him was irritating, it told against their discernment, it was unflattering, and they though him inconsiderate.
    So, in addition to his failure, Cragstone had to face the fact that he had made himself unpopular among his kin.
    As a boy he had been the pride of his family, as a youth, its hope of fame and fortune; he was clever, handsome, inventive, original, everything that society and his kind admired, but he criminally fooled them and their expectations, and they never forgave him for it.
    He had dabbled in music, literature, law, everything—always with semi-success and brilliant [Page 239] promise; he had even tried the stage, playing the Provinces for an entire season; then, ultimately sinking into mediocrity in all these occupations, he returned to London, a hopelessly useless, a pitiably gifted man. His chilly little aristocratic mother always spoke of him as “poor, dear Charles.” His brothers, clubmen all, graciously alluded to him with, “deuced hard luck, poor Charlie.” His father never mentioned his name.
    Then he went into “The Church,” sailed for Canada, idled about for a few weeks, when one of the great colonial bishops, not knowing what else to do with him, packed him off north as a missionary to the Indians.
    And, after four years of disheartening labor amongst a semi-civilized people, came this girl Lydia into his life. This girl of the mixed parentage, the English father, who had been swept northward with the rush of lumber trading, the Chippewa mother, who had been tossed to his arms by the tide of circumstances. The girl was a strange composition of both, a type of mixed blood, pale, dark, slender, with the slim hands, the marvellously beautiful teeth of her mother’s people, the ambition, the small tender mouth, the utter fearlessness of the English race. But the strange, laughless eyes, the silent step, the hard sense of honor, proclaimed her far more the daughter of red blood than of white.
    And, with the perversity of his kind, Cragstone loved her; he meant to marry her because he [Page 240] knew that he should not. What a monstrous thing it would be if he did! He, the shepherd of this half-civilized flock, the modern John Baptist; he, the voice of the great Anglican Church crying in this wilderness, how could he wed with this Indian girl who had been a common serving-maid in a house in Penetanguishene, and been dismissed therefrom with an accusation of theft that she could never prove untrue? How could he bring this reproach upon the Church? Why, the marriage would have no precedent; and yet he loved her, loved her sweet, silent ways, her listening attitudes, her clear, brown, consumptive-suggesting skin. She was the only thing in all the irksome mission life that had responded to him, had encouraged him to struggle anew for the spiritual welfare of this poor red race. Of course, in Penetanguishene they had told him she was irreclaimable, a thief, with ready lies to cover her crimes; for that very reason he felt tender towards her, she was so sinful, so pathetically human.
    He could have mastered himself, perhaps, had she not responded, had he not seen the laughless eyes laugh alone for him, had she not once when a momentary insanity possessed them both confessed in words her love for him as he had done to her. But now? Well, now only this horrible tale of theft and untruth hung between them like a veil; now even with his arms locked about her, his eyes drowned in hers, his ears caught the whispers of calumny, his thoughts were perforated [Page 241] with the horror of his Bishop’s censure, and these things rushed between his soul and hers, like some bridgeless deep he might not cross, and so his lonely life went on.
    And then one night his sweet humanity, his grand, strong love rose up, battled with him, and conquered. He cast his pharisaical ideas, and the Church’s “I am better than thou,” aside forever; he would go now, to-night, he would ask her to be his wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for—
    A shadow fell across the doorway of his simple home; it was August Beaver, the trapper, with the urgent request that he would come across to French Island at once, for old “Medicine” Joe was there, dying, and wished to see the minister. At another time Cragstone would have felt sympathetic, now he was only irritated; he wanted to find Lydia, to look in her laughless eyes, to feel her fingers in his hair, to tell her he did not care if she were a hundred times a thief, that he loved her, loved her, loved her, and he would marry her despite the Church, despite—
    “Joe, he’s near dead, you come now?” broke in August’s voice. Cragstone turned impatiently, got his prayer-book, followed the trapper, took his place in the canoe, and paddled in silence up the bay.
    The moon arose, large, limpid, flooding the cabin with a wondrous light, and making more [Page 242] wan the features of a dying man, whose fever-wasted form lay on some lynx skins on the floor.
    Cragstone was reading from the Book of Common Prayer the exquisite service of the Visitation of the Sick. Outside, the loons clanged up the waterways, the herons called across the islands, but no human things ventured up the wilds. Inside, the sick man lay, beside him August Beaver holding a rude lantern, while Cragstone’s matchless voice repeated the Anglican formula. A spasm, an uplifted hand, and Cragstone paused. Was the end coming even before a benediction? But the dying man was addressing Beaver in Chippewa, whispering and choking out the words in his death struggle.
    “He says he’s bad man,” spoke Beaver. A horrible, humorous sensation swept over Cragstone; he hated himself for it, but at college he had always ridiculed death-bed confessions; but in a second that feeling had vanished, he bent his handsome, fair face above the copper-colored countenance of the dying man. “Joe,” he said, with that ineffable tenderness that had always drawn human hearts to him; “Joe, tell me before I pronounce the Absolution, how you have been ‘bad’?”
    “I steal three times,” came the answer. “Oncet horses, two of them from farmer near Barrie. Oncet twenty fox-skins at North Bay; station man he in jail for those fox-skins now. Oncet gold watch from doctor at Penetanguishene.” [Page 243]
    The prayer-book rattled from Cragstone’s hands and fell to the floor.
    “Tell me about this watch,” he mumbled. “How did you come to do it?”
    “I liffe at the doctor’s; I take care his horse, long time; old River’s girl, Lydia, she work there too; they say she steal it; I sell to trader, the doctor he nefer know, he think Lydia.”
    Cragstone was white to the lips. “Joe,” he faltered, “you are dying; do you regret this sin, are you sorry?”
    An indistinct “yes” was all; death was claiming him rapidly.
    But a great, white, purified love had swept over the young clergyman. The girl he worshipped could never now be a reproach to his calling, she was proved blameless as a baby, and out of his great human love arose the divine calling, the Christ-like sense of forgiveness, the God-like forgetfulness of injury and suffering done to his and to him, and once more his soft, rich voice broke the stillness of the Northern night, as the Anglican absolution of the dying fell from his lips in merciful tenderness:
    “O Lord Jesus Christ, who hath left power to His Church to absolve all sinners who truly repent and believe in Him, of His great mercy forgive thee thine offences, and by His authority committed to me I absolve thee from all thy sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.” [Page 244]
    Beaver was holding the lantern close to the penitent’s face; Cragstone, kneeling beside him, saw that the end had come already, and, after making the sign of the Cross on the dead Indian’s forehead, the young priest arose and went silently out into the night.

*          *          *          *          *          *

    The sun was slipping down into the far horizon, fretted by the inimitable wonder of islands that throng the Georgian Bay; the blood-colored skies, the purpling clouds, the extravagant beauty of a Northern sunset hung in the west like the trailing robes of royalty, soundless in their flaring, their fading; soundless as the unbroken wilds which lay bathed in the loneliness of a dying day.
    But on the color-flooded shore stood two, blind to the purple, the scarlet, the gold, blind to all else save the tense straining of the other’s eyes; deaf to nature’s unsung anthem, hearing only the other’s voice. Cragstone stood transfixed with consternation. The memory of the past week of unutterable joy lay blasted with the awfulness of this moment, the memory of even that first day—when he had stood with his arms about her, had told her how he had declared her reclaimed name far and wide, how even Penetanguishene knew now that she had suffered blamelessly, how his own heart throbbed suffocatingly with the honor, the delight of being the poor means through which she had been righted in the accusing [Page 245] eyes of their little world, and that now she would be his wife, his sweet, helping wife, and she had been great enough not to remind him that he had not asked her to be his wife until her name was proved blameless, and he was great enough not to make excuse of the resolve he had set out upon just when August Beaver came to turn the current of his life.
    But he had other eyes to face to-night, eyes that blurred the past, that burned themselves into his being—the condemning, justly and righteously indignant eyes of his Bishop—while his numb heart, rather than his ears, listened to the words that fell from the prelate’s lips like curses on his soul, like the door that would shut him forever outside the holy place.
    “What have you done, you pretended servant of the living God? What use is this you have made of your Holy Orders? You hear the confessions of a dying man, you absolve and you bless him, and come away from the poor dead thief to shout his crimes in the ears of the world, to dishonor him, to be a discredit to your calling. Who could trust again such a man as you have proved to be—faithless to himself, faithless to his Church, faithless to his God?”
    But Cragstone was on the sands at his accuser’s feet. “Oh! my Lord,” he cried, “I meant only to save the name of a poor, mistrusted girl, selfishly, perhaps, but I would have done the same thing just for humanity’s sake had it been another to whom injustice was done.” [Page 246]
    “Your plea of justice is worse than weak; to save the good name of the living is it just to rob the dead?”    
    The Bishop’s voice was like iron.
    “I did not realize I was a priest, I only knew I was a man,” and with these words Cragstone arose and looked fearlessly, even proudly, at the one who stood his judge.
    “Is it not better, my Lord, to serve the living than the dead?”
    “And bring reproach upon your Church?” said the Bishop, sternly.
    It was the first thought Cragstone ever had of his official crime; he staggered under the horror of it, and the little, dark, silent figure, that had followed unseen, realized in her hiding amid the shadows that the man who had lifted her into the light was himself being thrust down into irremediable darkness. But Cragstone only saw the Bishop looking at him as from a supreme height, he only felt the final stinging lash in the words: “When a man disregards the most sacred offices of his God, he will hardly reverence the claims of justice of a simple woman who knows not his world, and if he so easily flings his God away for a woman, just so easily will he fling her away for other gods.”
    And Lydia, with eyes that blazed like flame, watched the Bishop turn and walk frigidly up the sands, his indignation against this outrager of the Church declaring itself in every footfall. [Page 247]
    Cragstone flung himself down, burying his face in his hands. What a wreck he had made of life! He saw his future, loveless, for no woman would trust him now; even the one whose name he had saved would probably be more unforgiving than the Church; it was the way with women when a man abandoned God and honor for them; and this nameless but blackest of sins, this falsity to one poor dying sinner, would stand between him and heaven forever, though through that very crime he had saved a fellow being. Where was the justice of it?
    The purple had died from out the western sky, the waters of the Georgian Bay lay colorless at his feet, night was covering the world and stealing with inky blackness into his soul.
    She crept out of her hiding-place, and, coming, gently touched his tumbled fair hair; but he shrank from her, crying: “Lydia, my girl, my girl, I am not for a good woman now! I, who thought you an outcast, a thief, not worthy to be my wife, to-night I am not an outcast of man alone, but of God.”
    But what cared she for his official crimes? She was a woman. Her arms were about him, her lips on his; and he who had, until now, been a portless derelict, who had vainly sought a haven in art, an anchorage in the service of God, had drifted at last into the world’s most sheltered harbor—a woman’s love.
    But, of course, the Bishop took away his gown. [Page 248]