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- Castle Nowhere - 1/23 -
CONSTANCE FENIMORE WOOLSON
Not many years ago the shore bordering the head of Lake Michigan, the northern curve of that silver sea, was a wilderness unexplored. It is a wilderness still, showing even now on the school-maps nothing save an empty waste of colored paper, generally a pale, cold yellow suitable to the climate, all the way from Point St. Ignace to the iron ports on the Little Bay de Noquet, or Badderknock in lake phraseology, a hundred miles of nothing, according to the map-makers, who, knowing nothing of the region, set it down accordingly, withholding even those long-legged letters, 'Chip-pe-was,' 'Ric-ca-rees,' that stretch accommodatingly across so much townless territory farther west. This northern curve is and always has been off the route to anywhere; and mortals, even Indians, prefer as a general rule, when once started, to go somewhere. The earliest Jesuit explorers and the captains of yesterday's schooners had this in common, that they could not, being human, resist a cross-cut; and thus, whether bark canoes of two centuries ago or the high, narrow propellers of to-day, one and all, coming and going, they veer to the southeast or west, and sail gayly out of sight, leaving this northern curve of ours unvisited and alone. A wilderness still, but not unexplored; for that railroad of the future which is to make of British America a garden of roses, and turn the wild trappers of the Hudson's Bay Company into gently smiling congressmen, has it not sent its missionaries thither, to the astonishment and joy of the beasts that dwelt therein? According to tradition, these men surveyed the territory, and then crossed over (those of them at least whom the beasts had spared) to the lower peninsula, where, the pleasing variety of swamps being added to the labyrinth of pines and sand-hills, they soon lost themselves, and to this day have never found what they lost. As the gleam of a camp-fire is occasionally seen, and now and then a distant shout heard by the hunter passing along the outskirts, it is supposed, that they are in there somewhere surveying still.
Not long ago, however, no white man's foot had penetrated within our curve. Across the great river and over the deadly plains, down to the burning clime of Mexico and up to the arctic darkness, journeyed our countrymen, gold to gather and strange countries to see; but this little pocket of land and water passed they by without a glance, inasmuch as no iron mountains rose among its pines, no copper lay hidden in its sand ridges, no harbors dented its shores. Thus it remained an unknown region, and enjoyed life accordingly. But the white man's foot, well booted, was on the way, and one fine afternoon came tramping through. 'I wish I was a tree,' said this white man, one Jarvis Waring by name. 'See that young pine, how lustily it grows, feeling its life to the very tip of each green needle! How it thrills in the sun's rays, how strongly, how completely it carries out the intention of its existence! It never, has a headache, it--Bah! what a miserable, half-way thing is man, who should be a demigod, and is--a creature for the very trees to pity!' And then he built his camp-fire, called in his dogs, and slept the sleep of youth and health, none the less deep because of that Spirit of Discontent that had driven him forth, into the wilderness; probably the Spirit of Discontent knew what it was about. Thus for days, for weeks, our white man wandered through the forest and wandered at random, for, being an exception, he preferred to go nowhere; he had his compass, but never used it, and, a practised hunter, eat what came in his way and planned not for the morrow. 'Now am I living the life of a good, hearty, comfortable bear,' he said to himself with satisfaction.
'No, you are not, Waring,' replied the Spirit of Discontent, 'for you know you have your compass in your pocket and can direct yourself back to the camps on Lake Superior or to the Sault for supplies, which is more than the most accomplished bear can do.'
'O come, what do you know about bears?' answered Waring; 'very likely they too have their depots of supplies,--in caves perhaps--'
'No caves here.'
'In hollow trees, then.'
'You are thinking of the stories about bears and wild honey,' said the pertinacious Spirit.
'Shut up, I am going to sleep,' replied the man, rolling himself in his blanket; and then the Spirit, having accomplished his object, smiled blandly and withdrew.
Wandering thus, all reckoning lost both of time and place, our white man came out one evening unexpectedly upon a shore; before him was water stretching away grayly in the fog-veiled moonlight; and so successful had been his determined entangling of himself in the webs of the wilderness, that he really knew not whether it was Superior, Huron or Michigan that confronted him, for all three bordered on the eastern end of the upper peninsula. Not that he wished to know; precisely the contrary. Glorifying himself in his ignorance, he built a fire on the sands, and leaning back against the miniature cliffs that guard the even beaches of the inland seas, he sat looking out over the water, smoking a comfortable pipe of peace, and listening meanwhile to the regular wash of the waves. Some people are born with rhythm in their souls, and some not; to Jarvis Waring everything seemed to keep time, from the songs of the birds to the chance words of a friend; and during all this pilgrimage through the wilderness, when not actively engaged in quarrelling with the Spirit, he was repeating bits of verses and humming fragments of songs that kept time with his footsteps, or rather they were repeating and humming themselves along through his brain, while he sat apart and listened. At this moment the fragment that came and went apropos of nothing was Shakespeare's sonnet,
'When to the sessions of sweet silent thought, I summon up remembrance of things past.'
Now the small waves came in but slowly, and the sonnet in keeping time with their regular wash, dragged its syllables so dolorously that at last the man woke to the realisation that something was annoying him.
'When to--the ses--sions of--sweet si--lent thought,'
chanted the sonnet and waves together.
'O double it, double it, can't you?' said the man impatiently, 'this way:--
"When to the ses--sions of sweet si--lent thought, te-tum, --te-tum, te-tum."
But no; the waves and the lines persisted in their own idea, and the listener finally became conscious of a third element against him, another sound which kept time with the obstinate two and encouraged them in obstinacy,--the dip of light oars somewhere out in the gray mist.
'When to--the ses--sions of--sweet si--lent thought, I sum--mon up--remem--brance of--things past,'
chanted the sonnet and the waves and the oars together, and went duly on, sighing the lack of many things they sought away down to that 'dear friend' who in some unexplained way made all their 'sorrows end.' Even then, while peering through the fog and wondering where and what was this spirit boat that one could hear but not see, Waring found time to make his usual objections. 'This summoning up remembrance of things past, sighing the lack, weeping afresh, and so forth, is all very well,' he remarked to himself, 'we all do it. But that friend who sweeps in at the death with his opportune dose of comfort is a poetical myth whom I, for one, have never yet met.'
'That is because you do not deserve such a friend,' answered the Spirit, briskly reappearing on the scene. 'A man who flies in the wilderness to escape--'
'Spirit, are you acquainted with a Biblical personage named David?' interrupted Waring, executing a flank movement.
The spirit acknowledged the acquaintance, but cautiously, as not knowing what was coming next.
'Did he or did he not have anything to say about flying to wildernesses and mountain-tops? Did he or did he not express wishes to sail thither in person?'
'David had a voluminous way of making remarks,' replied the Spirit, 'and I do not pretend to stand up for them all. But one thing is certain; whatever he may have wished, in a musical way, regarding wildernesses and mountain-tops, when it came to the fact he did not go. And why? Because he--'
'Had no wings,' said Waring, closing the discussion with a mighty yawn. 'I say, Spirit, take yourself off. Something is coming ashore, and were it old Nick in person I should be glad to see him and shake his clawed hand.'
As he spoke out of the fog and into the glare of the fire shot a phantom skiff, beaching itself straight and swift at his feet, and so suddenly that he had to withdraw them like a flash to avoid the crunch of the sharp bows across the sand. 'Always let the other man speak first,' he thought; 'this boomerang of a boat has a shape in it, I see.'
The shape rose, and, leaning on its oar, gazed at the camp and its owner in silence. It seemed to be an old man, thin and bent, with bare arms, and a yellow handkerchief bound around its head, drawn down almost to the eyebrows, which, singularly bushy and prominent, shaded the deep-set eyes, and hid their expression.
'But supposing he won't, don't stifle yourself,' continued Waring; then aloud, 'Well, old gentleman, where do you come from?'
'And where are you going?'
'Couldn't you take me with you? I have been trying all my life to go nowhere, but never could learn the way: do what I would, I always found myself going in the opposite direction, namely, somewhere.'
To this the shape replied nothing, but gazed on.
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