“No, no, m’sieu’ the governor, they did not tell you right. I was with him, and I have known Little Babiche fifteen years–as long as I’ve known you…. It was against the time when down in your world there they have feastings, and in the churches the grand songs and many candles on the altars. Yes, Noel, that is the word–the day of the Great Birth. You shall hear how strange it all was–the thing, the time, the end of it.”
The governor of the great Company settled back in a chair, his powerful face seamed by years, his hair grey and thick still, his keen, steady eyes burning under shaggy brows. He had himself spent long solitary years in the wild fastnesses of the north. He fastened his dark eyes on Pierre, and said: “Monsieur Pierre, I shall be glad to hear. It was at the time of Noel–yes?”
Pierre began: “You have seen it beautiful and cold in the north, but never so cold and beautiful as it was last year. The world was white with sun and ice, the frost never melting, the sun never warming–just a glitter, so lovely, so deadly. If only you could keep the heart warm, you were not afraid. But if once–just for a moment–the blood ran out from the heart and did not come in again, the frost clamped the doors shut, and there was an end of all. Ah, m’sieu’, when the north clinches a man’s heart in anger there is no pain like it–for a moment.”
“Yes, yes; and Little Babiche?”
“For ten years he carried the mails along the route of Fort St. Mary, Fort O’Glory, Fort St. Saviour, and Fort Perseverance within the circle-just one mail once a year, but that was enough. There he was with his Esquimaux dogs on the trail, going and coming, with a laugh and a word for anyone that crossed his track. ‘Good-day, Babiche’ ‘Good-day, m’sieu’.’ ‘How do you, Babiche?’ ‘Well, thank the Lord, m’sieu’.’ ‘Where to and where from, Babiche?’ ‘To the Great Fort by the old trail, from the Far-off River, m’sieu’.’ ‘Come safe along, Babiche.’ ‘Merci, m’sieu’; the good God travels north, m’sieu’.’ ‘Adieu, Babiche.’ ‘Adieu, m’sieu’.’ That is about the way of the thing, year after year. Sometimes a night at a hut or a post, but mostly alone–alone, except for the dogs. He slept with them, and they slept on the mails–to guard: as though there should be highwaymen on the Prairie of the Ten Stars! But no, it was his way, m’sieu’. Now and again I crossed him on the trail, for have I not travelled to every corner of the north? We were not so great friends, for–well, Babiche is a man who says his aves, and never was a loafer, and there was no reason why he should have love for me; but we were good company when we met. I knew him when he was a boy down on the Chaudiere, and he always had a heart like a lion-and a woman. I had seen him fight, I had seen him suffer cold, and I had heard him sing.
“Well, I was up last fall to Fort St. Saviour. Ho, how dull was it! Macgregor, the trader there, has brains like rubber. So I said, I will go down to Fort O’Glory. I knew someone would be there–it is nearer the world. So I started away with four dogs and plenty of jerked buffalo, and so much brown brandy as Macgregor could squeeze out of his eye! Never, never were there such days–the frost shaking like steel and silver as it powdered the sunlight, the white level of snow lifting and falling, and falling and lifting, the sky so great a travel away, the air which made you cry out with pain one minute and gave you joy the next. And all so wild, so lonely! Yet I have seen hanging in those plains cities all blue and red with millions of lights showing, and voices, voices everywhere, like the singing of soft masses. After a time in that cold up there you are no longer yourself–no. You move in a dream. Eh bien, m’sieu’, there came, I thought, a dream to me one evening–well, perhaps one afternoon, for the days are short–so short, the sun just coming over a little bend of sky, and sinking down like a big orange ball. I come out of a tumble of little hills, and there over on the plains I saw a sight! Ragged hills of ice were thrown up, as if they’d been heaved out by the breaking earth, jutting here and there like wedges–like the teeth of a world. Alors, on one crag, shaped as an anvil, I saw what struck me like a blow, and I felt the blood shoot out of my heart and leave it dry. I was for a minute like a pump with no water in its throat to work the piston and fetch the stream up. I got sick and numb. There on that anvil of snow and ice I saw a big white bear, one such as you shall see within the Arctic Circle, his long nose fetching out towards that bleeding sun in the sky, his white coat shining. But that was not the thing–there was another. At the feet of the bear was a body, and one clawed foot was on that body–of a man. So clear was the air, the red sun shining on the face as it was turned towards me, that I wonder I did not at once know whose it was. You cannot think, m’sieu’, what that was like–no. But all at once I remembered the Chant of the Scarlet Hunter. I spoke it quick, and the blood came creeping back in here.” He tapped his chest with his slight forefinger.