The Lane that had No Turning/Parables of a Province/The Guardian of the Fire

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THE GUARDIAN OF THE FIRE

"Height unto height answereth knowledge."


HIS was the first watch, the farthest fire, for Shaknon Hill towered above the great gulf, and looked back also over thirty leagues of country towards the great city. There came a time again when all the land was threatened. From sovereign lands far off, two fleets were sailing hard to reach the wide basin before the walled city, the one to save, the other to destroy. If Tinoir, the Guardian of the Fire, should sight the destroying fleet, he must light two fires on Shaknon Hill, and then, at the edge of the wide basin, in a treacherous channel, the people would send out fire-rafts to burn the ships of the foe. Five times in the past had Tinoir been the Guardian of the Fire, and five times had the people praised him; but praise and his scanty wage were all he got.

The hut in which he lived with his wife on another hill, ten miles from Shaknon, had but two rooms, and their little farm and the garden gave them only enough to live—no more. Elsewhere there was good land in abundance, but it had been said years ago to Tinoir by the great men, that he should live not far from Shaknon, so that in times of peril he might guard the fire and be sentinel for all the people. Perhaps Tinoir was too dull to see that he was giving all and getting naught; that while he waited and watched he was always poor, and also was getting old. There was no house or home within fifty miles of them, and only now and then some wandering Indians lifted the latch, and drew in beside their hearth, or a good priest with a soul of love for others, came and said Mass in the room where a little Calvary had been put up. Two children had come and gone, and Tinoir and Dalice had dug their graves and put them in a warm nest of maple leaves, and afterwards lived upon the memories of them. But after these two, children came no more; and Tinoir and Dalice grew closer and closer to each other, coming to look alike in face, as they had long been alike in mind and feeling. None ever lived nearer to nature than they, and wild things grew to be their friends; so that you might see Dalice at her door tossing crumbs with one hand to birds, and with the other bits of meat to foxes, martens, and wild dogs, which came and went unharmed by them. Tinoir shot no wild animals for profit—only for food and for skins and furs to wear. Because of this he was laughed at by all who knew, save the priest of St. Sulpice, who, on Easter Day, when the little man came yearly to Mass over two hundred miles of country, praised him to his people, and made much of him, though Tinoir was not vain enough to see it.

When word came down the river, and up over the hills to Tinoir, that war was come and that he must go to watch for the hostile fleet and for the friendly fleet as well, he made no murmur, though it was the time of harvest, and Dalice had had a sickness from which she was not yet recovered.

"Go, my Tinoir," said Dalice, with a little smile, "and I will reap the grain. If your eyes are sharp you shall see my bright sickle moving in the sun."

"There is the churning of the milk too, Dalice," answered Tinoir; "you are not strong, and sometimes the butter comes slow; and there’s the milking also."

"Strength is coming to me fast, Tinoir," she said, and drew herself up; but her dress lay almost flat on her bosom. Tinoir took her arm and felt it above the elbow.

"It is like the muscle of a little child," he said.

"But I will drink those bottles of red wine the Governor sent the last time you watched the fire on Shaknon," she said, brightening up, and trying to cheer him.

He nodded, for he saw what she was trying to do, and said: "Also a little of the gentian and orange root three times a day—eh, Dalice?"

After arranging for certain signs, by little fires, which they were to light upon the hills and so speak with each other, they said, "Good day, Dalice," and "Good day, Tinoir," drank a glass of the red wine, and added: "Thank the good God;" then Tinoir wiped his mouth with his sleeve, and went away, leaving Dalice with a broken glass at her feet, and a look in her eyes which it was well that Tinoir did not see.

But as he went he was thinking how, the night before, Dalice had lain with her arm round his neck hour after hour as she slept, as she did before they ever had a child; and that even in her sleep, she kissed him as she used to kiss him before he brought her away from the parish of Ste. Geneviève to be his wife. And the more he thought about it the happier he became, and more than once he stopped and shook his head in pleased retrospection. And Dalice thought of it too as she hung over the churn, her face drawn and tired and shining with sweat; and she shook her head, and tears came into her eyes, for she saw further into things than Tinoir. And once as she passed his coat on the wall, she rubbed it softly with her hand, as she might his curly head when he lay beside her.

From Shaknon Tinoir watched; but of course he could never see her bright sickle shining, and he could not know whether her dress still hung loose upon her breast, or whether the flesh of her arms was still like a child’s. If all was well with Dalice a little fire should be lighted at the house door just at the going down of the sun, and it should be at once put out. If she was ill, a fire should be lit and then put out two hours after sundown. If she should be ill beyond any help, this fire should burn on till it went out.

Day after day Tinoir, as he watched for the coming fleet, saw the fire lit at sundown, and then put out. But one night the fire did not come till two hours after sundown, and it was put out at once. He fretted much, and he prayed that Dalice might be better, and he kept to his post, looking for the fleet of the foe. Evening after evening was this other fire lighted and then put out at once; and a great longing came to him to leave this guarding of the fire, and go to her—"For half a day," he said—"just for half a day!" But in that half day the fleet might pass, and then it would be said that Tinoir had betrayed his country. At last sleep left him, and he fought a demon night and day; and always he remembered Dalice’s arm about his neck, and her kisses that last night they were together. Twice he started away from his post to go to her, but before he had gone a hundred paces he came back.

At last one afternoon he saw ships, not far off, rounding the great cape in the gulf, and after a time, at sunset, he knew by their shape it was the fleet of the foe, and so he lighted his great fires, and they were answered leagues away towards the city by another beacon.

Two hours after sunset of this day the fire in front of Tinoir’s home was lighted, and was not put out, and Tinoir sat and watched it till it died away. So he lay in the light of his own great war-fire till morning, for he could not travel at night, and then, his duty over, he went back to his home. He found Dalice lying beside the ashes of her fire, past hearing all he said in her ear, unheeding the kiss he set upon her lips.

Two nights afterwards, coming back from laying her beside her children, he saw a great light in the sky towards the city, as of a huge fire. When the courier came to him bearing the Governor’s message and the praise of the people, and told of the enemy’s fleet destroyed by the fire-rafts, he stared at the man, then turned his head to a place where a pine cross showed against the green grass, and said:

"Dalice—my wife—is dead."

"You have saved your country, Tinoir," answered the courier kindly.

"What is that to me!" he said, and fondled the rosary Dalice used to carry when she lived; and he would speak to the man no more.