The Shaman/Chapter 7

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CHAPTER VII

Madame was out on her rounds when I returned, and Jack, having endured a restless night, had not arisen. With hands in pockets I loitered restlessly about the big living room until I came to one of the bookcases which were merely painted boards in series of shelves. By chance my gaze fell upon an oilcloth-bound notebook that I had previously noticed, but had not examined. I took it from its place and opened it. Instantly it held my attention; for it was nothing less than a grammar and pronouncing dictionary of the native tongue. I proved this because I had picked up, inadvertently, several words of common and frequent-use. The book was written in a minute, compact handwriting, with here and there corrections as if its compiler had sought exactitude with increasing knowledge.

It was an admirable work, the best I had ever seen on any tribal language. Through out a considerable portion of my life native languages have fascinated me, and knowledge of them has sometimes been of imperative necessity. The distinct excellence and notable simplicity of this work, and its unusual method, interested me. I reflected that it was a quick method that could be applied to almost any tribal language on earth, and enthused with the thought I carried the book to my own room where I had an ordinary field notebook, and became engrossed in copying it.

Jack, in the meantime, had arisen and groped his way to the living room. Although the grammar was limited in scope due to the smallness of the native vocabulary, I had not completed it when Madame Malitka returned and the midday meal was announced. The thought of any secrecy did not enter my mind, but I put the book and my unfinished work into a drawer lest they be disturbed, or the book itself accidentally injured. I do not remember why I did not refer to it in our idle table conversation, unless it was that I was still thinking of it. Moreover, conversation between us three white residents of the great house had imperceptibly drifted until it was mostly confined to madame and my friend—perhaps out of respect to my habitual reticence and the fact that I am but a poor and unentertaining conversationalist.

Our meal was not a slow one on this day. A child was to be born in the village, and madame, in her combined capacity of village dictator and village doctor, did not long delay her departure. Nor was her absence unwelcome to me, although Jack now and then growled at his loneliness and objurgated his misfortune. Long before madame had returned from her mission I had completed my copy and restored the book to its original place on the shelf.

Thereafter, for days on end, I amused myself when alone by mumblingly memorizing the vocabulary, and by listening whenever possible to the native speech. There was but one feature that prevented me from putting my new knowledge to the test, and that was the fear that if it came to madame's or Peluk, the shaman's ears, they might believe me guilty of prying into that greater secret of theirs—a suspicion that to Jack and me might prove dangerous!

This listening reticence led to a most peculiar discovery, which was that the natives among themselves never referred to the secret mine, although totally unaware that I had mastered their tongue sufficiently to understand practically all they said. It was as if they were bound by some secret understanding and pledge; as if the subject were taboo even among themselves in their vast isolation and enforced security. This secret accomplishment I had so casually gained did, however, speedily inform me of Jack's and my status in the village. It was not reassuring; for I soon perceived that we were there on sufferance, and remained there unmolested merely through madame's will and orders. On one occasion I had most ample proof of this. It was when I ventured into a house where there were some Indian curios that interested me, learned that its owner, one of those who spoke some English, was absent and overheard a querulous conversation.

The house itself was one of the best in the settlement. The homes of the chosen few who had been instructed in the English tongue always were—as if they were of the elect, superior to their fellow townsmen, selected for strange missions, envoys in great affairs, mighty travelers into the unknown and formidable beyond, men who were repositories for preserved secrets, and—men who could brave foreign dangers and remorselessly kill those who sought to intrude therein!

A gnarled and malevolent old crone, veteran of vicissitudes, of hard game trails and past starvations, disdaining the innovation of chairs and squatted morosely in the corner of the room upon the floor, addressed the woman who was evidently her son's wife.

“Why come these two white men?” she demanded, peering at me with rheumy eyes that doubtless had suffered in the smokes of many barrabaras and many camp fires. “Why did they reach here? Why are they still alive—the one who is with us and that other who is blind in the great house? Has the arm of Peluk weakened and grown fat and slow? Have we no longer a tyune?”

“Hush, mother! Hush! It is by the will of the great lady that they be left as they are. Peluk is still chief. But the wisdom of the great one bids us be friends with this and that other who is blind.”

For a little time the figure in the corner was silent and thoughtful, while I, pretending to have understood nothing, inspected a carved walrus tusk hung upon the wall. And then with an indescribable wail like a lament for the lost, the old hag began rocking to and fro, mumbling dolorously, rebelliously:

“Ayia! Ayia! Ayia!”

To me it sounded akin to the cry of the jungle dwellers of far eastern India, or the cry of bewailment of South Sea Islanders from which latter, perhaps, this tribe had sprung.

“You know not as I, who am so old!” she muttered. “White their skins—black their hearts! Do I not know? Many sleeps, many moons northward, they came and took from us furs, giving much that, not knowing thereof, we had never wished nor prized. They took the furs that kept us warm. They gave therefor strange goods and foolish things, and a drink that made our people mad. We died, up there, we of the broad and happy lands, because they came. Furs they wanted. Then came gold. For that they, too, went mad. Comes to us one who knows all this—the great lady—whose brain is cunning as the fox, who shows us the way. Do we live as we did, dying when there was no game, abiding in the earth in winter, fishing in rivers when the sun shone? And now this great one goes mad! Peluk has gone mad. He should slay. The dead tongue never speaks. It is good that I who am old must soon die! Ayia! Ayia! Ayia!”

The wail died away. The younger woman continued her household affairs. I passed outward through the door. I was profoundly disturbed by the indications that at least some of the natives clamored for our lives; for surely the old crone could not be the sole one who was rampant with hatred. There might be many others more physically capable of carrying desire to execution. Thus ruminating, I was convinced that our sole chance to escape lay in promptitude.

For some days Jack's eyes had been strengthening, and now he had discarded his bandages and protected his weakened sight with nothing more than an eye shade. Ordinarily conversation in the living room lagged or flowed with a languid tranquillity. When on this day I returned, perplexed and apprehensive, I found the outer door not ajar, but unlatched, and I suppose I entered noiselessly. I was brought up short by a sound that I had never heard before during our entire residence in that great house. It was the sound of madame's laughter. It came freely, as if she were amused by some utterance of my friend.

Since when, thought I, had he recovered or exerted his ability to amuse? How long had it been since last this quiet, austere woman had laughed? Standing there, pondering, I heard Jack's drawling tones, and again another outburst of her laughter, musical, caressing, free. I turned and closed the outer door sharply, stamped the light snow powder from the soles of my moccasins, hung my cap on the great antlers of a moose that served as hall rack, and entered.

It was as if my advent induced restraint and brought an end to congenial and oft-repeated conversations. Madame was seated in a great chair on one side of the fireplace, Jack on the other. He had discarded his eye shade and looked slowly around as I entered and his time-tried and time-proven affection was in his voice as he welcomed me.

“Hello, old sobersides! Where have you been? Out glaring at the Indians or staring at the tops of the hills and wondering whatever's behind 'em? Pack itch again, I suppose! Want to be off somewhere.”

He turned toward Malitka and said whimsically, “Madame, this sober, untalkative, unsmiling friend of mine might be the original Wandering Jew.”

Uttering some commonplace, politely banal reply to his banter, I dropped into the most convenient chair. That unexpected sound of unrestrained laughter had aroused me from a state of placid—no!—of disturbed lethargy. I studied our situation as I had not theretofore while those two others in the room fell into a most casual conversation. I don't to this time recall anything of what they said. I think it was something pertaining to the breeding and handling of dogs. Think of it! Dogs!

It is possible that my anxieties, suspicions, and surreptitious knowledge combined to make me unreasonably secretive and hesitant to act. I didn't know what to do. That is bald truth! Knowing my partner's impetuosity, his method of daring everything and going direct to confront any crisis or danger, I doubted if I could trust him with my entire confidence. Once, in Tibet, where the exercise of nothing more than tact, diplomacy, and the preservation of an undisturbed demeanor might have rendered our pathway smooth, he had proven unequal to the task of concealment and betrayed us by sheer inability to play for a very little while his part. That failure cost us much suffering. He was candor itself, in everything he undertook or did. I concluded that I must study the conditions betrayed by that laugh, that cessation of conversation when I entered the room.

My opportunity did not come for some days, because I dared not discuss the matter with him. I suspected at least two servants in the house of understanding some English, and of keeping a silent and perhaps listening watch over us. I was not even certain but that this espionage extended to actual eavesdropping. And so, being cautious, it was not until the day that Jack could venture out into the open for the first time, and we were well away from the great house and the possibility of being overheard, that I broached the matters uppermost in my mind.

“Madame Malitka is a remarkable woman,” I remarked casually.

“By Jove! She is!” he answered with enthusiasm. “And I want to tell you something else. I think her about the finest woman I have ever known in all my life. Marvelous! Don't you think her the most beautiful woman you have ever seen?”

“Yes,” I admitted slowly and without looking at him, “she is—well—at least good looking.”

“Lord! She's more than that!” And then he laughed as though at my lack of discernment. “You old misogynist. I might have known that you have probably never so much as taken the trouble to look at her—or any other woman, for that matter. It makes me think of the time you and I saw the woman accidentally unveiled in Cashmere and I stopped and gasped and you went——

“But—we're not in Cashmere just now!” I interrupted. “Madame Malitka—I wonder if she could be entirely trusted. I wonder if——

“I'd trust her with my life!” he exclaimed quite as if defending her from an aspersion. “Look here, old man, if you've got any bees in your bonnet about her, shoot them out. I don't know how she got here, or why. A gentleman can't ask his hostess questions of that sort, can he? He must let her volunteer them, if they are to be mentioned at all, mustn't he? If you care to know how I regard her—and here let me remark that I have talked with her, and been alone with her, and studied her a lot more frequently than you have!—I'll tell you frankly that I'm for her.”

He had halted in the very middle of the street and faced me, bending his handsome head a trifle to adjust that difference in stature between us.

“What have you got up your sleeve?” he demanded at last, in our old familiar vernacular. “You don't like her, do you?” And then when I did not immediately answer, laughed as if at an absurdity and thumped my shoulder with, one of his big, fur-protected hands. “Come on! Don't be a damned fool!” he exclaimed, turning away and resuming his stride, while I, a little in the rear, trudged after him.

But I wasn't walking carefree, for now I was positive that I dared not tell him what I knew, what I suspected, what I feared.

“In any case, what I think of Madame Malitka, or the others, doesn't count,” I said. “But what to me is important is that we get away from here as soon as we can. We came up here into this country to learn what we could of Harris Barnes. That's what we are paid for. Here nobody knows anything about him, and of him we can learn nothing. We've got to go on—out into the northwest. We are rested. Our dogs are rested. You will soon be able to travel. And so—all I can say is that we must begin to think of a start.”

I saw reluctance and disinclination in his face. His aversion was voiced in a single and indicative phrase.

“There's no rush about it,” he said, “because the snow holds for months to come.”

“Not for us,” I objected stubbornly. “We don't know how far we have to go. All we know is that Barnes must have gone on into the northwest. Off there, a long way off, lies the Bering Sea. He may have crossed the narrow straits and plunged into Siberia. We can travel only when the snow is hard and deep enough to cover the undergrowth. We must go.”

I saw that he recognized my logic. He breathed deeply, as if in resignation, hesitated as though to find an alternative reason for delay and, finding none, was slow to reply.

“Yes,” he soberly admitted, “we came up here to do a certain thing. We took money for it. We're obligated to do our best. Well—we will do it. But—by heavens!—I wish it were different!” He stopped as if to better regard me, and demanded, “When do you think we should go?”

“Not later than day after to-morrow,” I said. “Provided, of course, that the weather holds. And, if I can, I wish to get Peluk, the shaman, to go with us for at least a day or two as a guide.”

“He'd be a good one,” Jack muttered; “but why particularly him?”

“Because, if I can, I'd like to induce him to show me—something that he told me of—some days since.”

I couldn't very well explain that I hoped to induce Peluk to lead me to the place where, in my belief, he or his followers had murdered a white man whose name, if my conjecture was justified, was none other than Harris Barnes.

“All right,” he said. “I'll be ready when you are. But I'll tell you this, Jim, I'm lazy. I hate to go. And—Jim—I understand Malitka better than you do. And I like her! ”

His familiarity of designation did not escape me. To him she was neither “our lady” nor “madame.” She was Malitka.

To tell him all I knew would clearly be disastrous to our mission. He had become subject to her through the least logical and sane of all human influences, that of affection. Noble ideals, empires, wealth, the welfare of nations, and so on downward to merely individual aspirations, have been squandered, wasted, lost, or defeated at the foot of that fallacious, alluring, conquering shrine.