The Shaman/Chapter 4

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I awoke on the following morning to hear a peculiar scraping noise in the room that was still in the gloom of the arctic forenoon, and oddly enough it did not seem unnatural that I should be there resting in a comfortable bed in a very comfortable room which was not uncomfortably cold because of a half-opened door leading to the hallway in a well-heated house.

The noise continued. I leaned upon an elbow, lifted my head, and discovered Jack in the painful act of shaving his face. Shaving away a beard of weeks' growth is trying, enough for a man with full use of his eyes: but for one who is blinded and works by touch I presume it must be a harrowing operation. I could gather this from muttered objurgations, subdued lest by full explosion they disturb me.

“Hello! Why for the remarkable toilet?” I queried.

He turned toward me, with razor in hand.

“Wish to the Lord I could see! It seems to me we're in a place where it's a sort of duty to at least look clean. Would you mind taking a look to see if I'm unpresentable?”

He wasn't, by any means.

We were awaiting our breakfast in the main room when Madame Malitka appeared, and I observed that she was attracted by the change in Braith. She gave me a subtle feeling that she had sufficient femininity left to consider her own toilet. I saw her eyes glance downward at her own apparel, and then back at Braith's bandages. Upon me she bestowed no more than a glance. Why should she? She was young, I a gray-haired, hard-visaged man with the scars of my wanderings and my years ineradicably imprinted upon what had never been a comely face. I doubt if her years were more than thirty. My partner was almost young enough to be my son, a bare thirty-three.

“You will be pleased to learn that your dogs are well on their feet again,” observed Madame Malitka, “and that within a few days they will be as good as ever. That leader of yours has too much timber wolf in him to make friends readily, but he permitted me to caress him this morning.”

“You have been out to see them—this morning? So early?” I asked, pausing to stare at her.

“Yes. I make a round of the village every morning, long before this hour. Natives are but children, after all. The only way through which they can be disciplined is by an example of regularity. I set their tasks, hear their complaints, render judgment in disputes. Sometimes it requires much patience, and—the demands for things that hurt! But one must not flinch.”

She frowned, and then, recalling herself as if from unpleasant memories, diverted us from the topic by making inquiries concerning the broader affairs and happenings of the outside world from which we had ventured. It was not until we had finished our breakfast and the brief cold glare of a mid-winter arctic sun had arisen to its strongest light that she turned to me.

“Your friend,” she said, “must not, of course, venture out. Within a few days he may; but now he must submit to his bandages and treatment. I will care for him. But, if you feel restless, you may move as you will. Your dogs are being kept by Peluk, the shaman. If you wish to see them, or him, his house is the last down the street you see—the big double cabin at the end.”

I didn't know whether to take this as a leave of absence or a discharge at liberty. But I was eager for a more studied inspection of our unique surroundings.

“Yes,” I admitted, “I should like to take a walk. I do wish to see our dogs. They've saved us, after working for us until they were but hide and bone.”

I garbed myself for outdoors and walked slowly along the village street. Now that my brain had come back to its own, I marveled more than ever at what I saw; for here were indubitable evidences of orderliness and cleanliness. There was not a cabin that did not have at least one glazed window. To one who has never been in such a country as that great interior was at that time, this may seem a strange cause for amazement; for only the experienced can know that a pane of glass was far more difficult to obtain than gold. Another strange feature was that the cabins were not crude hovels, but were well constructed with corners turned in the curious fashion employed by none but Russians. This led me to believe that at one time or another, perhaps prior to the Alaskan purchase, a Russian trader or perhaps officer with his tiny garrison has founded this place.

Readily enough, I found my way to the shaman's house, escorted by a pack of curious dogs, great, well-fed beasts somewhat crossed into the wolf breed—an increasing pack that appeared none too friendly. The shaman himself came rushing from his door to scatter them with guttural shouts.

“You better,” he commented. “Feel all right now? You come see dogs?”

When I told him that I had he led me around to the rear of his cabin where, in a warm little outhouse, half cellar, but cozy and comfortable, my faithful friends charged round me with that welcome which not even a man may surpass. I knelt among them patting the upturned heads, caressing the bony bodies, talking to them.

“Very good. Pretty soon all right. Few days plenty grub,” the shaman said as we dosed the door and he led me toward his own house. “You come in while? Ummh?”

Secretly eager to learn whether the outward indications of thrift and cleanliness were maintained within, I followed. I was scarcely surprised, so accustomed had I be come to the unexpected in this extraordinary place, to find that the house was floored with what was evidently worn, whipsawed timber, that it contained rough but substantial furniture, and that there were not wanting many small devices of civilization, including an alarm clock and a cheap little phonograph that from its prominence of position I deemed to be the shaman's most prized possession. A squaw, fat and ungainly, but clean, and dressed in denim, stood stupidly staring at us until reminded of her manners when she grinned fatly and said, “How-do.”

The shaman insisted on my taking a seat.

“Very good you found trail here. Lady Malitka very angry by those trail. Young men go with no word from her or me—who must say 'yes' before anybody come or go.”

“What's that?” I asked, to make sure that his hesitant painful English had not been at fault. “You say no one can come or go out of this valley without madame's or your consent?”

“Yes. That it. Just so.”

“But—but suppose any one refused? Suppose they came or went, anyhow?”

“Oh, we killum! That's all,” he said complacently. “Long time now since must killum any one. Two mans from village long way off come here. Make lies. Get one mans here who think like go with 'em and maybe come back with lots mans. We find out after they slip 'way. Klootch tell what she hear talk. Me take ten men. Go after. Very hard work. They go fast. Nine sleeps before we can catchum and shootum. One man white, same as you. Very big man. Scar on face. Black beard. Black hair those man had.”

For an instant I did not speak in response to this callously told tale; for in my head ran that description. It pretty accurately fitted that of Barnes, whom, or news of whose fate, we sought. Had this been his finish, after all? Seeking a place to establish his trading posts, had he come upon this well-made village, a remnant of staid and substantial Russian architecture that had, in its situation and substantiality, the ideal requisites for his purposes and plans? If he had, and could have established himself here and then thrown out radiating outposts, he certainly might have commanded in time a little kingdom that even the great Hudson's Bay Company could not destroy. And by the time the company learned of it, for it was far distant from their nearest posts, his ramifications would have been unassailable.

For the moment I did not consider the possibilities of our own peril; but now they recurred to me, together with a vague speculation on the extent of mercilessness that apparently lay masked in the heart of Madame Malitka. The thought prompted me to caution.

“Of course natives from other villages can come here?” I questioned idly, as if not much interested in this ruffian's story of murder.

He grinned meaningly, almost happily at me, and his eyes twinkled as if with savage delight.

“Nope. Know better. Keep long way off. Afraid. Think lady very bad spirit witch. Makeum die if come, maybe makeum die if talk. All keep long way—many sleeps off. Many not know that village here at all. Think, many years ago, this place got spirits—what you say—ghosts.”

Suddenly it dawned on me why I had been unable to follow the map given by that ancient native so many miles away. Out of his kindness of heart that aged man had given me a map to the best of his ability, showing us not how to reach this village and Malitka, its evil spirit, but how to avoid it! Truly our escape from starvation had been by the mere accident of restlessness of some of her young hunters who had broken her hard laws and left a trail.

Fearing that my face might betray my anxieties, I asked him casually where he had learned to speak English.

“Lady Malitka teach some. And some I——” He stopped, as if weighing his words and then added: “Me shaman. When need things from outside—clocks, music machines, flour, medicine, white man's clothes, matches, tobacco—all that—must go myself. Must speak little English. Ummh? So learn all can. Me travel far. Once go on big ship to Juneau where mining ma chines go clumpety-clump all time. You been Juneau?”

His sharp eyes that had been inspecting the floor suddenly fixed themselves upon me as if he were a lawyer in cross-examination.

“No,” I admitted, “I have never been there. Why?”

He chuckled heavily and said: “When go to Juneau, buy things lady wanted, paid gold. White miners try find where got gold. When leave, follow long time. Hard work loseum. Think maybe they never got back to Juneau.”

There was a grin of significance in his final sentence that did not escape me, and warned me against inquisitiveness. I took advantage of the rushing entrance of a small boy to twist in my chair and look away. The boy paused, regarded me doubtfully for a moment, and then with a delightful little smile came forward and made friends. I caught the chubby, black-eyed little chap up to my knee, and for the moment forgot Peluk. I was made aware of his regard by his next words.

“Very funny, ummh? That boy not make friends so easy most times. Him got no father, no mother." Him got nobody but her——” He pointed a strong finger at the old woman who had suddenly approached and, as if horrified by the child's familiarity, clutched him from my arms and carried him, rebellious, away.

“That old devil,” said the shaman with a grin, “my mother's sister. Keep my house. That boy's mother her daughter. His father got squaw already. So when that boy born, Indians go kill boy's father and kill boy's mother. That natives' law. Unnerstan'! That boy what you call bassard, ummh? What think now?”

“That, Peluk,” said I, somewhat overcome with indignation, “is not the boy's fault. He may grow up to be better than any of those who killed his mother. The brutes!”

“White man not do same?” he questioned me. And then, when I did not immediately find words to explain the white man's attitude toward the illegitimate offspring of their tribes, he added softly: “Think your people not likeum either, ummh? Maybe not kill father, mother, but makeum what you call hell for child what not can help itself, ummh?”

And then I couldn't answer; for it was true. With an absurd sense of being cornered by a mere savage, I blurted, “I don't give a damn what others do! I'll not visit the sins of the parents on their children who can't help themselves.”

“Ummh? Say again. Slow. No can unnerstan' when speak quick,” he said, and I repeated it. He made no response or comment.

“So you did as I would have done—took the boy in and cared for him, did you?” I asked when the wait became irksome.

“Yes,” he said. And then, after a time, “And Malitka stop all that kill girl who go bad. Same with many things. Maybe Indian not lissen to me but—what lady say—well, mus' be done.”

“And suppose they didn't obey what she says?” I queried, more interested in his reply than he knew.

“Then they die. We killum,” he answered without hesitation.

“Good Lord!” I cried aghast. “You kill any one that doesn't do what you tell them to do?”

He stopped and then at my look of horror became more eloquent.

“You think not best, ummh? Fool! Many sleeps away, Indian village where live dirty. Starve when bad winter. Die. Here—no. There cold. Here—warm. There bad barrabara—here good cabeen. There dirty—here clean. There nothings—here rich. Long time natives here not unnerstan'; then, bimeby, see this way best. Lady tell us. We do. So what lady says, muss be done, ummh? Me shaman. Makeum do. If don't do, muss killum. Now everybody see this way best. Faugh! Other Indians nothing! We reech, beeg! Got all this!”

He waved his hand around with a gesture that embraced all his proud possessions and evidence of wealth. I suppose that from his viewpoint he was a Croesus with everything his heart might wish at his command. Perhaps he was right. There are dwellers in other places who know neither bodily com fort, freedom from want, nor satisfaction of possession. A great and powerful man this urbane, semibarbarous savage who was prime minister to an accepted and respected queen.

I returned to the big house at the end of the street with many queries in my mind and many doubts; but of one thing I was convinced, that only by cultivating the shaman to a point of confidence could I gain proof of what I suspected, which was that the white man he and his companion trailers had killed was Barnes. I had reached the very doorstep before I came to the conclusion that it were better for me to retain what knowledge I had gained to myself for the time being, lest Jack, if he knew of it, might so change his attitude as to lead our dangerous hostess to alter her mind about our departure. I found them quietly conversing, and it was difficult for me to think that this undoubtedly cultured and apparently refined woman could, on occasion, calmly pass sentence of remorseless death on any who crossed her will.