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- The Honor of the Big Snows - 1/35 -


THE HONOR OF THE BIG SNOWS

By JAMES OLIVER CURWOOD

Author of "The Danger Trail," "The Courage of Captain Plum," etc.

NEW YORK

1911

CHAPTER I

THE MUSIC

"Listen, John--I hear music--"

The words came in a gentle whisper from the woman's lips. One white, thin hand lifted itself weakly to the rough face of the man who was kneeling beside her bed, and the great dark eyes from which he had hidden his own grew luminously bright for a moment, as she whispered again:

"John--I hear--music--"

A sigh fluttered from her lips. The man's head drooped until it rested very near to her bosom. He felt the quiver of her hand against his cheek, and in its touch there was something which told John Cummins that the end of all life had come for him and for her. His heart beat fiercely, and his great shoulders shook with the agony that was eating at his soul.

"Yes, it is the pretty music, my Mélisse," he murmured softly, choking back his sobs. "It is the pretty music in the skies."

The hand pressed more tightly against his face.

"It's not the music in the skies, John. It is real--REAL music that I hear--"

"It's the sky music, my sweet Mélisse! Shall I open the door so that we can hear it better?"

The hand slipped from his cheek. Cummins lifted his head, slowly straightening his great shoulders as he looked down upon the white face, from which even the flush of fever was disappearing, as he had seen the pale glow of the northern sun fade before a thickening snow. He stretched his long, gaunt arms straight up to the low roof of the cabin, and for the first time in his life he prayed--prayed to the God who had made for him this world of snow and ice and endless forest very near to the dome of the earth, who had given him this woman, and who was now taking her from him.

When he looked again at the woman, her eyes were open, and there glowed in them still the feeble fire of a great love. Her lips, too, pleaded with him in their old, sweet way, which always meant that he was to kiss them, and stroke her hair, and tell her again that she was the most beautiful thing in the whole world.

"My Mélisse!"

He crushed his face to her, his sobbing breath smothering itself in the soft masses of her hair, while her arms rose weakly and fell around his neck. He heard the quick, gasping struggle for breath within her bosom, and, faintly again, the words:

"It--is--the--music--of--my--people!"

"It is the music of the angels in the skies, my sweet Mélisse! It is OUR music. I will open the door."

The arms had slipped from his shoulders. Gently he ran his rough fingers through the loose glory of the woman's hair, and stroked her face as softly as he might have caressed the cheek of a sleeping child.

"I will open the door, Mélisse."

His moccasined feet made no sound as he moved across the little room which was their home. At the door he paused and listened; then he opened it, and the floods of the white night poured in upon him as he stood with his eyes turned to where the cold, pale flashes of the aurora were playing over the pole. There came to him the hissing, saddening song of the northern lights--a song of vast, unending loneliness, which they two had come to know as the music of the skies.

Beyond that mystery-music there was no sound. To the eyes of John Cummins there was no visible movement of life. And yet he saw signs of it--signs which drew his breath from him in choking gulps, and which sent him out into the night, so that the woman might not hear.

It was an hour past midnight at the post, which had the Barren Lands at its back door. It was the hour of deep slumber for its people; but to-night there was no sleep for any of them. Lights burned dimly in the few rough log homes. The company's store was aglow, and the factor's office, a haven for the men of the wilderness, shot one gleaming yellow eye out into the white gloom. The post was awake. It was waiting. It was listening. It was watching.

As the woman's door opened, wide and brimful of light, a door of one of the log houses opened, and then another, and out into the night, like dim shadows, trod the moccasined men from the factor's office, and stood there waiting for the word of life or death from John Cummins. In their own fashion these men, who, without knowing it, lived very near to the ways of God, sent mute prayers into the starry heavens that the most beautiful thing in the world might yet be spared to them.

It was just two summers before that this beautiful thing had come into Cummins' life, and into the life of the post. Cummins, red-headed, lithe as a cat, big-souled as the eternal mountain of the Crees, and the best of the company's hunters, had brought Mélisse thither as his bride. Seventeen rough hearts had welcomed her. They had assembled about that little cabin in which the light was shining now, speechless in their adoration of this woman who had come among them, their caps in their hands, their faces shining, their eyes shifting before the glorious ones that looked at them and smiled at them as the woman shook their hands, one by one.

Perhaps she was not strictly beautiful, as most people judge; but she was beautiful here, four hundred miles beyond civilization. Mukee, the half-Cree, had never seen a white woman, for even the factor's wife was part Chippewayan; and no one of the others went down to the edge of the southern wilderness more than once each twelvemonth or so.

Melisse's hair was brown and soft, and it shone with a sunny glory that reached far back into their conception of things dreamed of but never seen. Her eyes were as blue as the early wild flowers that came after the spring floods, and her voice was the sweetest sound that had ever fallen upon their ears. So these men thought when Cummins first brought home his wife, and the masterpiece which each had painted in his soul and brain was never changed. Each week and month added to the deep-toned value of that picture, as the passing of a century might add to a Raphael or a Vandyke.

The woman became more human, and less an angel, of course, but that only made her more real, and allowed them to become acquainted with her, to talk with her, and to love her more. There was no thought of wrong, for the devotion of these men was a great, passionless love unhinting of sin. Cummins and his wife accepted it, and added to it when they could, and were the happiest pair in all that vast Northland.

The girl--she was scarce more than budding into womanhood--fell happily into the ways of her new life. She did nothing that was elementally unusual, nothing more than any pure woman reared in the love of God and of a home would have done. In her spare hours she began to teach the half-dozen wild little children about the post, and every Sunday she told them wonderful stories out of the Bible. She ministered to the sick, for that was a part of her code of life. Everywhere she carried her glad smile, her cheery greeting, her wistful earnestness, to brighten what seemed to her the sad and lonely lives of these silent men of the North.

And she succeeded, not because she was unlike other millions of her kind, but because of the difference between the fortieth degree and the sixtieth--the difference in the viewpoint of men who fought themselves into moral shreds in the big game of life and those who lived a thousand miles nearer to the dome of the earth.

A few days before there had come a wonderful event in the history of the company's post. A new life was born into the little cabin of Cummins and his wife. After this the silent, wordless worship of their people was filled with something very near to pathos. Cummins' wife was a mother! She was one of them now, an indissoluble part of their existence--a part of it as truly as the strange lights for ever hovering over the pole, as surely as the countless stars that never left the night skies, as surely as the endless forests and the deep snows!

Then had come the sudden change, and the gloom, that brought with it the shadow of death, fell like a pall upon the post, stifling its life, and bringing with it a grief that those who lived there had never known before.

There came to them no word from Cummins now.

He stood for a moment before his lighted door, and then went back, and the word passed softly from one to another that the most beautiful thing in the world was still living her sweet life in that little cabin at the end of the clearing.

"You hear the music in the skies--now, my Mélisse?" whispered the man, kneeling beside her again. "It is very pretty to-night!"

"It was not that," repeated the woman.

She attempted to stroke his face, but Cummins saw nothing of the effort, for the hand lay all but motionless. He saw nothing of the fading softness that glowed in the big, loving eyes, for his own eyes were blinded by a hot film. And the woman saw nothing of the hot film, so torture was saved them both. But suddenly the woman quivered, and Cummins heard a thrilling sound.

"It is the music!" she panted. "John, John, it is--the music--of--my-- people!"


The Honor of the Big Snows - 1/35

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