to Angus! Man, his heart will be sore the night!
In five years I have not heard him playing ‘Great
Godfrey’s Lament,’” said old Alexander
McTavish, as with him I was sitting of a June evening,
at sundown, under a wide apple-tree of his orchard-lawn.
When the sweet song-sparrows
of the Ottawa valley had ceased their plaintive strains,
Angus McNeil began on his violin. This night,
instead of “Tullochgorum” or “Roy’s
Wife” or “The March of the McNeils,”
or any merry strathspey, he crept into an unusual movement,
and from a distance came the notes of an exceeding strange
strain blent with the meditative murmur of the Rataplan
Rapids. [Page 67]
I am not well enough acquainted
with musical terms to tell the method of that composition
in which the wail of a Highland coronach seemed mingled
with such mournful crooning as I had heard often from
Indian voyageurs north of Lake Superior. Perhaps
that fancy sprang from my knowledge that Angus McNeil’s
father had been a younger son of the chief of the McNeil
clan, and his mother a daughter of the greatest man
of the Cree nation.
“Ay, but Angus is wae,”
sighed old McTavish. “What will he be seeing
the now? It was the night before his wife died
that he played yon last. Come, we will go up the
road. He does be liking to see the people gather
We walked, maybe three hundred
yards, and stood leaning against the ruined picket-fence
that surrounds the great stone house built by Hector
McNeil, the father of Angus, when he retired from his
position as one of the “Big Bourgeois” of
the famous Northwest Fur Trading Company. [Page
The huge square structure of
four stories and a basement is divided, above the ground
floor, into eight suites, some of four, and some of
five rooms. In these suites the fur-trader, whose
ideas were all patriarchal, had designed that he and
his Indian wife, with his seven sons and their future
families, should live to the end of his days and theirs.
That was a dream at the time when his boys were all
under nine years old, and Godfrey little more than a
baby in arms.
The ground-floor is divided
by a hall twenty-five feet wide into two long chambers,
one intended to serve as a dining-hall for the multitude
of descendants that Hector expected to see round his
old age, the other as a withdrawing-room for himself
and his wife, or for festive occasions. In this
mansion Angus McNeil now dwelt alone.
He sat out that evening on a
balcony at the rear of the hall, whence he could overlook
the McTavish place and the hamlet that extends a [Page
69] quarter of a mile further down the Ottawa’s
north shore. His right side was toward the large
group of French-Canadian people who had gathered to
hear him play. Though he was sitting, I could
make out that his was a gigantic figure.
“Ay—it will be just
exactly ‘Great Godfrey’s Lament,’”
McTavish whispered. “Weel do I mind him
playing yon many’s the night after Godfrey was
laid in the mools. Then he played it no more till
before his ain wife died. What is he seeing now?
Man, it’s weel kenned he was the second sight
at times. Maybe he sees the pit digging for himself.
He’s the last of them.”
“Who was Great Godfrey?”
I asked, rather loudly.
Angus McTavish instantly cut short
the “Lament,” rose from his chair, and faced
“Aleck McTavish, who have
you with you?” he called imperiously.
“My young cousin from
the city, Mr. McNeil,” said McTavish, with deference.
“Bring him in. I
wish to spoke with you, Aleck McTavish. The young
man that is not acquaint with the name of Great Godfrey
McNeil can come with you. I will be at the great
said McTavish, as we went to the upper gate. “He
had not asked me inside for near five years. I’m
feared his wits is disordered, by his way of speaking.
Mind what you say. Great Godfrey was most like
a god to Angus.”
When Angus McNeil met us at
the front door I saw he was verily a giant. Indeed,
he was a wee bit more than six and a half feet tall
when he stood up straight. Now he was stopped
a little, not with age, but with consumption,—the
disease most fatal to men of mixed white and Indian
blood. His face was dark brown, his features of
the Indian cast, but his black hair had not the Indian
lankness. It curled tightly round his grand head.
Without a word he beckoned us
on into the [Page 71] vast withdrawing
room. Without a word he seated himself beside
a large oaken centre-table, and motioned us to sit opposite.
Before he broke silence, I saw
that the windows of that great chamber were hung with
faded red damask; that the heads of many a bull moose,
buck, bear, and wolf grinned among guns and swords and
claymores from its walls; that charred logs, fully fifteen
feet long, remained in the fireplace from the last winter’s
burning; that there were three dim portraits in oil
over the mantel; that the room contained much frayed
furniture, once sumptuous of red velvet; and that many
skins of wild beasts lay strewn over a hard-wood floor
whose edges still retained their polish and faintly
gleamed in rays from the red west.
That light was enough to show
that two of the oil paintings must be those of Hector
McNeil and his Indian wife. Between these hung
one of a singularly handsome youth with yellow hair.
“Here my father lay dead,”
cried Angus McNeil, suddenly striking the table.
He stared at us silently for many seconds, then again
struck the table with the side of his clenched fist.
“He lay here dead on this table—yes!
It was Godfrey that straked him out all alone on this
table. You mind Great Godfrey, Aleck McTavish.”
“Well I do, Mr. McNeil;
and your mother yonder,—a grand lady she was.”
McTavish spoke with curious humility, seeming wishful,
I thought, to comfort McNeil’s sorrow by exciting
tell hereafter that she was just exactly a squaw,”
cried the big man, angrily. “But grand she
was, and a great lady, and a proud. Oh, man, man!
but they were proud, my father and my Indian mother.
And Godfrey was the pride of the hearts of them both.
No wonder; but it was sore on the rest of us after they
took him apart from our ways.” [Page 73]
Aleck McTavish spoke not a word,
and big Angus, after a long pause, went on as if almost
unconscious of our presence:—
“White was Godfrey, and
rosy of the cheek like my father; and the blue eyes
of him would match the sky when you’ll be seeing
it up through a blazing maple on a clear day of October.
Tall, and straight, and grand was Godfrey, my brother.
What was the thing Godfrey could not do? The songs
of him hushed the singing-birds on the tree, and the
fiddle he would play to take the soul out of your body.
There was no white one among us till he was born.
“The rest of us all were
just Indians—ay, Indians, Aleck McTavish.
Brown we were, and the desire of us was all for the
woods and the river. Godfrey had white sense like
my father, and often we saw the same look in his eyes.
My God, but we feared our father!”
Angus paused to cough.
After the fit he sat silent for some minutes.
The voice of the [Page 74] great rapid
seemed to fill the room. When he spoke again,
he stared past our seat with fixed, dilated eyes, as
if tranced by a vision.
hear! Godfrey, the six of us would go over the
falls and not think twice of it, if it would please
you, when you were little. Oich, the joy we had
in the white skin of you, and the fine ways, till my
father and mother saw we were just making an Indian
of you, like ourselves! So they took you away;
ay, and many’s the day the six of us went to the
woods and the river, missing you sore. It’s
then you began to look on us with that look that we
could not see was different from the look we feared
in the blues eyes of our father. Oh, but we feared
him, Godfrey! And the time went by, and we feared
and we hated you that seemed lifted up above your Indian
“Oich, the masters they
got to teach him!” said Angus, addressing himself
again to my cousin. “In the Latin and the
Greek they [Page 75] trained him.
History books he read, and stories in song. Ay,
and the manners of Godfrey! Well might the whole
pride of my father and mother be on their one white
son. A grand young gentleman was Godfrey,—Great
Godfrey we called him, when we was eighteen.
“The fine, rich people
that would come up in bateaux from Montreal to visit
my father had the smile and the kind word for Godfrey;
but they looked upon us with the eyes of the white man
for the Indian. And that look we were more and
more sure was growing harder in Godfrey’s eyes.
So we looked back at him with the eyes of the wolf that
stares at the bull moose, and is fierce to pull him
down, but dares not try, for the moose is too great
“Mind you, Aleck McTavish,
for all we hated Godfrey when we thought he would be
looking at us like strange Indians—for all that,
yet we were proud of him that he was our own brother.
Well, we minded how he was all like [Page 76]
one with us when he was little; and in the calm looks
of him, and the white skin, and the yellow hair, and
the grandeur of him, we had pride, do you understand?
Ay, and in the strength of him we were glad. Would
we not sit still and pleased when it was the talk how
he could run quicker than the best, and jump higher
than his head—ay, would we! Man, there was
none could compare in strength with Great Godfrey, the
youngest of us all!
“He and my father and
mother more and more lived by themselves in this room.
Yonder room across the hall was left to us six Indians.
No manners, no learning had we; we were no fit company
for Godfrey. My mother was like she was wilder
with love of Godfrey the more he grew and the grander,
and never a word for days and weeks together did she
give to us. It was Godfrey this, and Godfrey that,
and all her thought was Godfrey!
“Most of all we hated
him when she was lying dead here on this table.
We six in the [Page 77] other room
could hear Godfrey and my father groan and sigh.
We would step softly to the door and listen to them
kissing her that was dead,— them white, and she
Indian like ourselves,—and us not daring to go
in for the fear of the eyes of our father. So
the soreness was in our hearts so cruel hard that we
would not go in till the last, for all their asking.
My God, my God, Aleck McTavish, if you saw her!
she seemed smiling like at Godfrey, and she looked like
him then, for all she was brown as November oak-leaves,
and he white that day as the froth on the rapid.
“That put us farther from
Godfrey than before. And farther yet we were from
him after, when he and my father would be walking up
and down, up and down, arm in arm, up and down the lawn
in the evenings. They would be talking about books,
and the great McNeils in Scotland. The six of
us knew we were McNeils, for all we were Indians, and
we would listen to the talk of the great pride and [Page
78] the great deeds of the McNeils that was
our own kin. We would be drinking the whiskey
if we had it, and saying: ‘Godfrey to be the only
McNeil! Godfrey to take all the pride of the name
of us!’ Oh, man, man! but we hated Godfrey sore.”
Big Angus paused long, and I
seemed to see clearly the two fair-haired, tall men
walking arm in arm on the lawn in the twilight, as if
unconscious or careless of being watched and overheard
by six sore-hearted kinsmen.
“You’ll mind when
my father was thrown from his horse and carried into
this room, Aleck McTavish? Ay, well you do.
But you nor no other living man but me knows what came
about the night that he died.
“Godfrey was alone with
him. The six of us were in yon room. Drink
we had, but cautious we were with it, for there was
a deed to be done that would need all our senses.
We sat in a row on the floor—we were Indians—it
was our wigwam —we sat on the [Page 79]
floor to be against the ways of them two. Godfrey
was in here across the hall from us; alone he was with
our white father. He would be chief over us by
the will, no doubt,—and if Godfrey lived through
that night it would be strange.
“We were cautious with
the whiskey, I told you before. Not a sound could
we hear of Godfrey or of my father. Only the rapid,
calling and calling,—I mind it well that night.
Ay, and well I mind the striking of the great clock,—tick,
tick, tick, tick, tick,—I listened and I dreamed
on it till I doubted but it was the beating of my father’s
“Ten o’clock was
gone by, and eleven was near. How many of us sat
sleeping I know not; but I woke up with a start and
there was Great Godfrey, with a candle in his hand,
looking down strange at us, and us looking up strange
“‘He is dead,’
“We said nothing.
“‘Father died two
hours ago,’ Godfrey said.
“We said nothing.
“‘Our father is
white,—he is very white,’ Godfrey said,
and he trembled. ‘Our mother was brown when
she was dead.’
and see how white is our father,’ Godfrey said.
“No one of us moved.
come? In God’s name, come,’ said Godfrey.
‘Oich—but it is very strange! I have
looked in his face so long that now I do not know him
for my father. He is like no kin to me, lying
there. I am alone, alone.’
“Godfrey wailed in a manner.
It made me ashamed to hear his voice like that—him
that looked like my father that was always silent as
a sword—him that was the true McNeil.
“‘You look at me,
and your eyes are the eyes of my mother,’ says
Godfrey, staring widler. ‘What are you doing
here, all so still? Drinking the whiskey?
I am the same [Page 81] as you.
I am your brother. I will sit with you, and if
you drink the whiskey, I will drink the whiskey, too.’
“Aleck McTavish! with
that he sat down on the floor in the dirt and litter
beside Donald, that was the oldest of us all.
“‘Give me the bottle,’
he said. ‘I am as much Indian as you, brothers.
What you do I will do, as I did when I was little, long
“To see him sit down in
his best,—all his learning and his grand manners
as if forgotten,—man, it was like as if our father
himself was turned Indian, and was low in the dirt!
“What was in the heart
of Donald I don’t know, but he lifted the bottle
and smashed it down on the floor.
“‘God in heaven!
what’s to become of the McNeils! You that
was the credit of the family, Godfrey!’ says Donald
with a groan.
“At that Great Godfrey
jumped to his feet like was come awake.
to be the head of the [Page 82] McNeils
than I am, Donald,’ says he; and with that the
tears broke out of his eyes, and he cast himself into
Donald’s arms. Well, with that we all began
to cry as if our hearts would break. I threw myself
down on the floor at Godfrey’s feet, and put my
arms round his knees the same as I’d lift him
up when he was little. There I cried, and we all
cried around him, and after a bit I said:—
was what was in the mind of Godfrey. He was all
alone in yonder. We are his brothers, and his
heart warmed to us, and he said to himself, it was better
to be like us than to be alone, and he thought if he
came and sat down and drank the whiskey with us, he
would be our brother again, and not be any more alone.’
“‘Ay, Angus, Angus,
but how did you know that?’ says Godfrey, crying;
and he put his arms round my neck, and lifted me up
till we were breast to breast. With that we all
put our arms some way round one another and [Page
83] Godfrey, there we stood sighing and swaying
and sobbing a long time, and no man saying a word.
“‘Oh, man, Godfrey
dear, but our father is gone, and who can talk with
you now about the Latin, and the history books, and
the great McNeils—and our mother that’s
gone?’ says Donald; and the thought of it was
such a pity that our hearts seemed like to break.
“But Godfrey said: ‘We
will talk together like brothers. If it shames
you for me to be like you, then I will teach you all
they taught me, and we will all be like our white father.’
“So we all agreed to have
it so, if he would tell us what to do. After that
we came in here with Godfrey, and we stood looking at
my father’s white face. Godfrey all alone
had straked him out on this table, with the silver-pieces
on the eyes that we had feared. But the silver
we did not fear. Maybe you will not understand
it, Aleck McTavish, but our father never seemed such
close kin to us as when we [Page 84]
would look at him dead, and at Godfrey, that was the
picture of him, living and kind.
“After that you know what
“Well I do, Mr. McNeil.
It was Great Godfrey that was the father to you all,”
said my cousin.
“Just that, Aleck McTavish.
All that he had was ours to use as we would,—his
land, money, horses, this room, his learning.
Some of us could learn one thing and some of us could
learn another, and some could learn nothing, not even
how to behave. What I could learn was the playing
of the fiddle. Many’s the hour Godfrey would
play with me while the rest were all happy around.
“In great content we lived
like brothers, and proud to see Godfrey as white and
fine and grand as the best gentleman that ever came
up to visit him out of Montreal. Ay, in great
content we lived all together till the consumption came
on Donald, and he was gone. Then [Page
85] it came and came back, and came back again,
till Hector was gone, and Ranald was gone, and in ten
years’ time only Godfrey and I were left.
Then both of us married, as you know. But our
children died as fast as they were born, almost, —for
the curse seemed on us. Then his wife died, and
Godfrey sighed and sighed ever after that.
“One night I was sleeping
with the door of my room open, so I could hear if Godfrey
needed my help. The cough was on him then.
Out of a dream of him looking at my father’s white
face I woke and went to his bed. He was not there
“My heart went cold with
fear, for I heard the rapid very clear, like the nights
they all died. Then I heard the music begin down
stairs, here in this chamber where they were all laid
out dead,—right here on this table where I will
soon lie like the rest. I leave it to you to see
it done, Aleck McTavish, for you are a Highlandman by
blood. It was that I [Page 86]
wanted to say to you when I called you in. I have
seen myself in my coffin three nights. Nay, say
nothing; you will see.
“Hearing the music that
night, down I came softly. Here sat Godfrey, and
the kindest look was on his face that ever I saw.
He had his fiddle in his hand, and he played about all
“He played about how we
all came down from the North in the big canoe with my
father and mother, when we were little children and
him a baby. He played of the rapids we passed
over, and of the rustling of the poplar-trees and the
purr of the pines. He played till the river you
hear now was in the fiddle, with the sound of our paddles,
and the fish jumping for flies. He played about
the long winters when we were young, so that the snow
of those winters seemed falling again. The ringing
of our skates on the ice I could hear in the fiddle.
He played through all our lives when we were young and
going in the woods yonder together—and then it
was the sore lament began! [Page 87]
“It was like as if he
played how they kept him away from his brothers, and
him at his books thinking of them in the woods, and
him hearing the partridges’ drumming, and the
squirrels’ chatter, and all the time the little
birds singing and singing. Oich, man, but there’s
no words for the sadness of it!”
Old Angus ceased to speak as
he took his violin from the table and struck into the
middle of “Great Godfrey’s Lament.”
As he played, his wide eyes looked past us, and the
tears streamed down his brown cheeks. When the
woful strain ended, he said, staring past us:
“Ay, Godfrey, you were always our brother.”
Then he put his face down in
his big brown hands, and we left him without another
word. [Page 88]