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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Honor Of The Big Snows - Chapter 17. The Renunciation
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The Honor Of The Big Snows - Chapter 17. The Renunciation Post by :mrtwist Category :Long Stories Author :James Oliver Curwood Date :May 2012 Read :3031

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The Honor Of The Big Snows - Chapter 17. The Renunciation


Jan was glad when the evening came, and was gone. Not until Jean and Iowaka had said good night with Croisset and his wife, and both Cummins and Melisse had gone to their rooms, did he find himself relieved of the tension under which he had struggled during all of that night's merry-making in the cabin.

From the first he knew that his nerves were strung by some strange and indefinable sensation that was growing within him--something which he could hardly have explained at first, but which swiftly took form and meaning, and oppressed him more as the hours flew by. Almost fiercely he strove to fight back the signs of it from his face and voice. Never had he played as on this night. His violin leaped with life, his voice rose high in the wild forest songs of Jean de Gravois and Croisset, he sprang aloft in the caribou dance until the tips of his fingers touched the log beams overhead; and yet there was none of the flush of excitement in his face, no joyous fire flashing from his eyes upon Melisse.

She saw this, and wondered. A dozen times her eyes encountered his, straight and questioning, when the others were not looking. She saw in response only a dull, lusterless glow that was not like the Jan who had pursued her that day on the mountain-top.

Jan was unaware of what was lacking in him. He smiled when she gave him these glances; deep down in him his heart trembled at the beauty of her flushed cheeks, the luster of her coiled hair, the swimming depths of her clear eyes; but the mask of the thing at which she wondered still remained.

After the others had gone, Cummins sat up to smoke a pipe. When he had finished, he went to his room. Jan was now sleeping in a room at the company's store, and after a time he rose silently to take down his cap and coat. He opened the outer door quietly, so as not to arouse Melisse, who had gone to bed half an hour before.

As he was about to go out, there came a sound--a low, gentle, whispered word.


He turned. Melisse stood in her door. She had not undressed, and her hair was still done up in its soft coils, with the crimson bakneesh shining in it. She came to him hesitatingly, until she stood with her two hands upon his arm, gazing into his tense face with that same question in her eyes.

"Jan, you were not pleased with me to-night," she whispered. "Tell me, why?"

"I was pleased with you, Melisse," he replied.

He took one of the hands that was clinging to his arm, and turned his face to the open night. Countless stars gleamed in the sky, as they had shone on another night fifteen years ago. From where they stood they saw the pale flicker of the aurora, sending its shivering arrows out over the dome of the earth, with the same lonely song that it had played when the woman died. Gaunt and solitary, the tall spruce loomed up against the silver glow, its thick head sighing faintly in the night wind, as if in wailing answer to that far-away music in the skies.

Suddenly there leaped up from Jan Thoreau's breast a breath that burst from his lips in a low cry.

"Melisse, Melisse, it was just fifteen years ago that I came in through that forest out there, starved and dying, and played my violin when your mother died. You were a little baby then, and since that night you have never pleased me more than now!"

He dropped her hand and turned squarely to the door, to hide what he knew had come into his face. He heard a soft, heart-broken little sob behind him, and something fell rustling upon his arm.

"Jan, dear Jan!"

Melisse crowded herself into his arms, her hair torn down and tumbling about her shoulders. In her eyes there were the old pride and the old love, the love and pride of what seemed to Jan to be, years ago, the old, childish pleading for his comradeship, for the fun of his strong arms, the frolic of his laugh. Irresistibly they called to him, and in the old glad way he tightened his arms about her shoulders, his eyes glowing, and life leaping back, flushed and full, into his face.

She laughed, happy and trembling, her lips held up to him.

"I didn't please you to-day," she whispered. "I will never do up my hair again!"

He kissed her, and his arms dropped from her shoulders.

"Never, never again--until you have forgotten to love me," she repeated. "Good night, Brother Jan!"

Across the open, through the thinned edge of the black spruce, deeper and deeper into the cold, unquivering lifelessness of the forest, Jan went from the door that closed between him and Melisse, her last words still whispering in his ears, the warm touch of her hair on his cheeks--and the knowledge of what this day had meant for him swiftly surging upon him, bringing with it a torment which racked him to the soul.

Fifteen years ago! He stopped and looked up, the starlight whitening his face. There was no change in this night from that other one of ages and ages ago. There were the same stars, like fierce eyes of pale fire, robbed of softness by the polar cold; there were the same cloudless blue space, the same hissing flashes of the aurora leaping through its infinity, the same trees that had listened to his moaning prayers on that night when he had staggered into Lac Bain.

He went on until he came to where the beaten trail swept up and away from a swamp. As vividly as if it had happened but yesterday, he remembered how he had dragged himself through this swamp, bleeding and starving, his violin clutched to his breast, guided by the barking of dogs, which seemed to come from a million miles away. He plunged into it now, picking his tangled way until he stood upon a giant ridge, from which he looked out through the white night into the limitless barrens to the north.

Along the edge of those barrens he had come, daring the hundred deaths between hunter's cabin and Indian wigwam, starving at times, almost dying of cold, building fires to keep the wolves back, and playing-- always playing to keep up his courage, until he found Melisse. Fifteen years had passed since then, and the cumulative force of the things that had grown out of those years had fallen upon him this day. He had felt it first when Melisse turned upon him at the foot of the mountain; and after that in the cabin, in every breath he drew, in every look that he gave her. For him she had changed for all time. She was no longer the little Melisse, his sister. And yet--

He was almost saying her last words aloud:

"Good night, Brother Jan!"

She had come to him that day to let him kiss her, as she had come to him a thousand times before; but he had not kissed her in the old way. It was a different love that his lips had given, and even now the hot blood surged again into his face as he thought of what he had done. His was a different idea of honor from that held by men born to the ways of passion.

In that which had stirred his blood, thrilling him with strange joy as he held her in his arms, he saw more than the shadow of sin--sacrilege against a thing which was more precious to him than life. Melisse came to him still as his sister, abiding in her glorious faith in him, unaware of his temptation; while he, Jan Thoreau--

He thrust a hand inside his coat and clutched at the papers that Jean de Gravois had read. Then he drew them forth, slowly, and held them crumpled in his fingers, while for many minutes he stared straight out into the gray gloom of the treeless plain.

His eyes shifted. Searchingly they traveled up the face of the crags behind him. They hunted where the starlight made deep pits of gloom in the twisting edge of the mountains. They went from rock to rock and from tree to tree until at last they rested upon a giant spruce which hung out over the precipitous wall of the ridge, its thick top beckoning and sighing to the black rocks that shot up out of the snow five hundred feet below.

It was a strange tree, weird and black, free of stub or bough for a hundred feet, and from far out on the barrens those who traveled their solitary ways east and west knew that it was a monument shaped by men. Mukee had told Jan its story. In the first autumn of the woman's life at Lac Bain, he and Per-ee had climbed the old spruce, lopping off its branches until only the black cap remained; and after that it was known far and wide as the "lobstick" of Cummins' wife. It was a voiceless cenotaph which signified that all the honor and love known to the wilderness people had been given to her.

To it went Jan, the papers still held in his hand. He had seen a pair of whisky-jacks storing food in the butt of the tree, two or three summers before, and now his fingers groped for the hole. When he found it, he thrust in the papers, crowded them down, and filled the hole with chunks of bark.

"Always my sister--and never anything more to Jan Thoreau," he said gently in French, as if he were speaking to a spirit in the old tree. "That is the honor of these snows; it is what the great God means us to be." The strife had gone from his voice; it rose strong and clear as he stretched his arms high up along the shorn side of the spruce, his eyes upon the silent plume that heard his oath. "I swear that Jan Thoreau will never do wrong to the little Melisse!"

With a face white and set in its determination, he turned slowly away from the tree. Far away, from the lonely depths of the swamp, there came the wailing howl of a wolf--a cry of hungerful savageness that died away in echoes of infinite sadness. It was like the howling of a dog at the door of a cabin in which his master lay dead, and the sound of it swept a flood of loneliness into Jan's heart. It was the death- wail of his own last hope, which had gone out of him for ever that night.

He listened, and it came again; but in the middle of it, when the long, moaning grief of the voice was rising to its full despair, there broke in a sharp interruption--a shrieking, yelping cry, such as a dog makes when it is suddenly struck. In another moment the forest thrilled with the deep-throated pack-call of the wolf who has started a fresh kill. Hardly had its echoes died away when, from deeper in the swamp, there came another cry, and still another from the mountain; and up and out of the desolation rose the calls of others of the scattered pack, in quick response to the comrade who had first found meat.

All the cries were alike, filled with that first wailing grief, except that of the swelling throat which was sending forth the call to food. A few minutes, and another of the mournful howls changed into the fierce hunt-cry; then a second, a third, and a fourth, and the sound of the chase swept swiftly from the swamp to the mountain, up the mountain and down into the barrens.

"A caribou!" cried Jan softly. "A caribou, and he is going into the barrens. There is no water, and he is lost!"

He ran and leaned over beside the old tree, so that the great plain stretched out below him. Into the west turned the pack, the hunt-cry growing fainter until it almost died away. Then, slowly, it grew again in volume, swinging into the north, then to the east--approaching nearer and nearer until Jan saw a dark, swiftly moving blot in the white gloom.

The caribou passed by within half a rifle-shot of him; another half rifle-shot behind followed the wolves, flung out fan-shape, their gray bodies moving like specters in a half-moon cordon, and their leaders almost abreast the caribou a dozen rods to each side.

There was no sound now. Below him, Jan could see the pale glimmer of ice and snow, where in summer there was a small lake. Desperately the caribou made an effort to reach this lake. The wolves drew in. The moon-shape of their bodies shrunk until it was nearer a circle. From the plain side the leading wolf closed until he was running at the caribou's forelegs. The mountain wolf responded on the opposite side. Then came the end, quick, decisive, and without sound.

After a few moments there came faintly the snapping of jaws and the crunching of bones. Torn and bleeding, and yet quivering with life, the caribou was given up to the feast.

Jan turned away from the scene. Torn and bleeding at his own heart, he went back to Lac Bain.

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CHAPTER XVIII. BROTHER JANWhen he came into the cabin for breakfast that morning, Jan's face showed signs of the struggle through which he had gone. Cummins had already finished, and he found Melisse alone. Her hair was brushed back in its old, smooth way; and when she heard him, she flung her long braid over her shoulder, so that it fell down in front of her. He saw the movement, and smiled his thanks without speaking."You don't look well, Jan," she said anxiously. "You are pale, and your eyes are bloodshot.""I am not feeling right," he admitted, trying to appear cheerful,

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CHAPTER XVI. BIRTHDAYSThe big room was empty when Jan came quietly through the open door. He stopped to listen, and caught a faint laugh from the other room, and then another; and to give warning of his presence, he coughed loudly and scraped a chair along the floor. A moment's silence followed. The farther door opened a little, and then it opened wide, and Melisse came out."Now what do you think of me, brother Jan?" She stood in the light of the window through which came the afternoon sun, her hair piled in glistening coils upon the crown of her head,