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- Castle Nowhere - 20/23 -
'Singular,' I said. 'He has nothing of the hermit about him. He has what I should call a courtly manner.'
'That is it,' replied my hostess, taking up the word; 'some say he came from the French court,--a nobleman exiled for political offences; others think he is a priest under the ban; and there is still a third story, to the effect that he is a French count, who, owing to a disappointment in love, took orders and came to this far-away island, so that he might seclude himself forever from the world.'
'But no one really knows?'
'Absolutely nothing. He is beloved by all the real old island families, whether they are of his faith or not; and when he dies the whole Strait, from Bois Blanc light to far Waugoschance, will mourn for him.'
At sunset the Father came again to see me; the front door of my room was open, and we seated ourselves on the piazza outside. The roof of bark thatch had fallen away, leaving the bare beams overhead twined with brier-roses; the floor and house side were frescoed with those lichen colored spots which show that the gray planks have lacked paint for many long years; the windows had wooden shutters fastened back with irons shaped like the letter S, and on the central door was a brass knocker, and a plate bearing the words, 'United States Agency.'
'When I first came to the island,' said Father Piret, 'this was the residence par excellence. The old house was brave with green and white paint then; it had candelabra on its high mantles, brass andirons on its many hearthstones, curtains for all its little windows, and carpets for all its uneven floors. Much cooking went on, and smoke curled up from all these outside chimneys. Those were the days of the fur trade and Mackinac was a central mart. Hither twice a year came the bateaux from the Northwest, loaded with furs; and in those old, decaying warehouses on the back street of the village were stored the goods sent out from New York, with which the bateaux were loaded again, and after a few days of revelry, during which the improvident voyagers squandered all their hard-earned gains, the train returned westward into 'the countries,' as they called the wilderness beyond the lakes, for another six months of toil. The officers of the little fort on the height, the chief factors of the fur company, and the United States Indian agent, formed the feudal aristocracy of the island; but the agent had the most imposing mansion, and often have I seen the old house shining with lights across its whole broadside of windows, and gay with the sound of a dozen French violins. The garden, now a wilderness, was the pride of the island. Its prim arbors, its spring and spring-house, its flowerbeds, where, with infinite pains, a few hardy plants were induced to blossom; its cherry-tree avenue, whose early red fruit the short summer could scarcely ripen; its annual attempts at vegetables, which never came to maturity,--formed topics for conversation in court circles. Potatoes then as now were left to the mainland Indians, who came over with their canoes heaped with the fine, large thin-jacketed fellows, bartering them all for a loaf or two of bread and a little whiskey.
'The stockade which surrounds the place was at that day a not unnecessary defence. At the time of the payments the island swarmed with Indians, who came from Lake Superior and the Northwest, to receive the government pittance. Camped on the beach as far as the eye could reach, these wild warriors, dressed in all their savage finery, watched the Agency with greedy eyes, as they waited for their turn. The great gate was barred, and sentinels stood at the loopholes with loaded muskets; one by one the chiefs were admitted, stalked up to the office,--that wing on the right,--received the allotted sum, silently selected something from the displayed goods, and as silently departed, watched by quick eyes, until the great gate closed behind them. The guns of the fort were placed so as to command the Agency during payment time; and when, after several anxious, watchful days and nights, the last brave had received his portion, and the last canoe started away toward the north, leaving only the comparatively peaceful mainland Indians behind, the island drew a long breath of relief.'
'Was there any real danger?' I asked.
'The Indians are ever treacherous.' replied the Father. Then he was silent, and seemed lost in revery. The pure, ever-present breeze of Mackinac played in his long silvery hair, and his bright eyes roved along the wall of the old house; he had a broad forehead, noble features, and commanding presence, and as he sat there, recluse as he was,--aged, alone, without a history, with scarcely a name or a place in the world,--he looked, in the power of his native-born dignity, worthy of a royal coronet.
'I was thinking of old Jacques,' he said, after a long pause.
'He once lived in these rooms of yours, and died on that bench at the end of the piazza, sitting in the sunshine, with his staff in his hand.'
'Who was he?' I asked. 'Tell me the story, Father.'
'There is not much to tell, madame; but in my mind he is so associated with this old house, that I always think of him when I come here, and fancy I see him on that bench.
'When the United States agent removed to the Apostle Islands, at the western end of Lake Superior, this place remained for some time uninhabited. But one winter morning smoke was seen coming out of that great chimney on the side; and in the course of the day several curious persons endeavored to open the main gate, at that time the only entrance. But the gate was barred within, and as the high stockade was slippery with ice, for some days the mystery remained unsolved. The islanders, always slow, grow torpid in the winter like bears; they watched the smoke in the daytime and the little twinkling light by night; they talked of spirits both French and Indian as they went their rounds, but they were too indolent to do more. At length the fort commandant heard of the smoke, and saw the light from his quarters on the height. As government property, he considered the Agency under his charge, and he was preparing to send a detail of men to examine the deserted mansion in its ice-bound garden, when its mysterious occupant appeared in the village; it was an old man, silent, gentle, apparently French. He carried a canvas bag, and bought a few supplies of the coarsest description, as though he was very poor. Unconscious of observation, he made his purchases and returned slowly homeward, barring the great gate behind him. Who was he? No one knew. Whence and when came he? No one could tell.
'The detail of soldiers from the fort battered at the gate, and when the silent old man opened it they followed him through the garden, where his feet had made a lonely trail over the deep snow, round to the side door. They entered, and found some blankets on the floor, a fire of old knots on the hearth, a long narrow box tied with a rope; his poor little supplies stood in one corner,--bread, salted fish, and a few potatoes,--and over the fire hung a rusty tea-kettle, its many holes carefully plugged with bits of rag. It was a desolate scene; the old man in the great rambling empty house in the heart of an arctic winter. He said little, and the soldiers could not understand his language; but they left him unmolested, and going back to the fort, they told what they had seen. Then the major went in person to the Agency, and gathered from the stranger's words that he had come to the island over the ice in the track of the mail-carrier; that he was an emigrant from France on his way to the Red River of the North, but his strength failing, owing to the intense cold, he had stopped at the island, and seeing the uninhabited house, he had crept into it, as he had not enough money to pay for a lodging elsewhere. He seemed a quiet inoffensive old man, and after all the islanders had had a good long slow stare at him he was left in peace, with his little curling smoke by day and his little twinkling light by night, although no one thought of assisting him; there is a strange coldness of heart in these northern latitudes.
'I was then living at the Chenaux; there was a German priest on the island; I sent over two half-breeds every ten days for the mail, and through them I heard of the stranger at the Agency. He was French, they said, and it was rumored in the saloons along the frozen docks that he had seen Paris. This warmed my heart; for, madame, I spent my youth in Paris,--the dear, the beautiful city! So I came over to the island in my dog-sledge; a little thing is an event in our long, long winter. I reached the village in the afternoon twilight, and made my way alone to the Agency; the old man no longer barred his gate, and swinging it open with difficulty, I followed the trail through the snowy silent garden round to the side of this wing,--the wing you occupy. I knocked; he opened; I greeted him and entered. He had tried to furnish his little room with the broken relics of the deserted dwelling; a mended chair, a stool, a propped-up table, a shelf with two or three battered tin dishes, and some straw in one corner comprised the whole equipment, but the floor was clean, the old dishes polished, and the blankets neatly spread over the straw which formed the bed. On the table the supplies were ranged in order; there was a careful pile of knots on one side of the hearth; and the fire was evidently husbanded to last as long as possible. He gave me the mended chair, lighted a candle-end stuck in a bottle, and then seating himself on the stool, he gazed at me in his silent way until I felt like an uncourteous intruder. I spoke to him in French, offered my services; in short, I did my best to break down the barrier of his reserve; there was something pathetic in the little room and its lonely occupant, and, besides, I knew from his accent that we were both from the banks of the Seine.
'Well, I heard his story,--not then, but afterward; it came out gradually during the eleven months of our acquaintance; for he became my friend,--almost the only friend of fifty years. I am an isolated man, madame. It must be so. God's will be done!'
The Father paused, and looked off over the darkening water; he did not sigh, neither was his calm brow clouded, but there was in his face what seemed to me a noble resignation, and I have ever since felt sure that the secret of his exile held in it a self-sacrifice; for only self-sacrifice can produce that divine expression.
Out in the straits shone the low-down green light of a schooner; beyond glimmered the mast-head star of a steamer, with the line of cabin lights below, and away on the point of Bois Blanc gleamed the steady radiance of the lighthouse showing the way to Lake Huron; the broad overgrown garden cut us off from the village, but above on the height we could see the lighted windows of the fort, although still the evening sky retained that clear hue that seems so much like daylight when one looks aloft, although the earth lies in dark shadow below. The Agency was growing indistinct even to our near eyes; its white chimneys loomed up like ghosts, the shutters sighed in the breeze, and the planks of the piazza creaked causelessly. The old house was full of the spirits of memories, and at twilight they came abroad and bewailed themselves. 'The place is haunted,' I said, as a distant door groaned drearily.
'Yes,' replied Father Piret, coming out of his abstraction, 'and this wing is haunted by my old French friend. As time passed and the spring came, he fitted up in his fashion the whole suite of five rooms. He
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