IT was the year of the small-pox. The Pawnees had died in their cold tepees by the fifties, the soldiers lay dead in the trenches without the fort, and many a gay French voyageur, who had thought to go singing down the Missouri on his fur-laden raft in the springtime, would never again see the lights of St. Louis, or the coin of the mighty Choteau company.
It had been a winter of tragedies. The rigors of the weather and the scourge of the disease had been fought with Indian charm and with Catholic prayer. Both were equally unavailing. If a man was taken sick at the fort they put him in a warm room, brought him a jug of water once a day, and left him to find out what his constitution was worth. Generally he recovered; for the surgeon's supplies had been exhausted early in the year. But the Indians, in their torment, rushed into the river through the ice, and returned to roll themselves in their blankets and die in ungroaning stoicism.
Every one had grown bitter and hard. The knives of the trappers were sharp, and not one whit sharper than their tempers. Some one said that the friendly Pawnees were conspiring with the Sioux, who were always treacherous, to sack the settlement. The trappers doubted this. They and the Pawnees had been friends many years, and they had together killed the Sioux in four famous battles on the Platte. Yet -- who knows? There was pestilence in the air, and it had somehow got into men's souls as well as their bodies.
So, at least, Father de Smet said. He alone did not despair. He alone tried neither charm nor curse. He dressed him an altar in the wilderness, and he prayed at it -- but not for impossible things. When in a day's journey you come across two lodges of Indians, sixty souls in each, lying dead and distorted from the plague in their desolate tepees, you do not pray, if you are a man like Father de Smet. You go on to the next lodge where the living yet are, and teach them how to avoid death.
Besides, when you are young, it is much easier to act than to pray. When the children cried for food, Father de Smet took down the rifle from the wall and went out with it, coming back only when he could feed the hungry. There were places where the prairie was black with buffalo, and the shy deer showed their delicate heads among the leafless willows of the Papillion. When they -- the children -- were cold, this young man brought in baskets of buffalo chips from the prairie and built them a fire, or he hung more skins up at the entrance to the tepees. If he wanted to cross a river and had no boat at hand, he leaped the uncertain ice, or, in clear current, swam, with his clothes on his head in a bundle.
A wonderful traveller for the time was Father de Smet. Twice he had gone as far as the land of the Flathead nation, and he could climb mountain passes as well as any guide of the Rockies. He had built a dozen missions, lying all the way from the Columbia to the Kaw. He had always a jest at his tongue's end, and served it out with as much readiness as a prayer; and he had, withal, an arm trained to do execution. Every man on the plains understood the art of self-preservation. Even in Cainsville, over by the council ground of the western tribes, which was quite the most civilized place for hundreds of miles, life was uncertain when the boats came from St. Louis with bad whiskey in their holds. But no one dared take liberties with the holy father. The thrust from his shoulder was straight and sure, and his fist was hard.
Yet it was not the sinner that Father de Smet meant to crush. He always supplemented his acts of physical prowess with that explanation. It was the sin that he struck at from the shoulder -- and may not even an anointed one strike at sin?
Father de Smet could draw a fine line, too, between the things which were bad in themselves, and the things which were only extrinsically bad. For example, there were the soups of Mademoiselle Ninon. Mam'selle herself was not above reproach, but her soups were. Mademoiselle Ninon was the only Parisian thing in the settlement. And she was certainly to be avoided -- which was perhaps the reason that no one avoided her. It was four years since she had seen Paris. She was sixteen then, and she followed the fortunes of a certain adventurer who found it advisable to sail for Montreal. Ninon had been bored back in Paris, it being dull in the mantua-making shop of Madame Guittar. If she had been a man she would have taken to navigation, and might have made herself famous by sailing to some unknown part of the New World. Being a woman, she took a lover who was going to New France, and forgot to weep when he found an early and violent death. And there were others at hand, and Ninon sailed around the cold blue lakes, past Sault St. Marie, and made her way across the portages to the Mississippi, and so down to the sacred rock of St. Louis. That was a merry place. Ninon had fault to find neither with the wine nor the dances. They were all that one could have desired, and there was no limit to either of them. But still, after a time, even this grew tiresome to one of Ninon's spirit, and she took the first opportunity to sail up the Missouri with a certain young trapper connected with the great fur company, and so found herself at Cainsville, with the blue bluffs rising to the east of her, and the low white stretches of the river flats undulating down to where the sluggish stream wound its way southward capriciously.
Ninon soon tired of her trapper. For one thing she found out that he was a coward. She saw him run once in a buffalo fight. That was when the Pawnee stood still with a blanket stretched wide in a gaudy square, and caught the head of the mad animal fairly in the tough fabric; his mustang's legs trembled under him, but he did not move, -- for a mustang is the soul of an Indian, and obeys each thought; the Indian himself felt his heart pounding at his ribs; but once with that garment fast over the baffled eyes of the struggling brute, the rest was only a matter of judicious knife- thrusts. Ninon saw this. She rode past her lover, and snatched the twisted bullion cord from his hat that she had braided and put there, and that night she tied it on the hat of the Pawnee who had killed the buffalo.
The Pawnees were rather proud of the episode, and as for the Frenchmen, they did not mind. The French have always been very adaptable in America. Ninon was universally popular.
And so were her soups.
Every man has his price. Father de Smet's was the soups of Mademoiselle Ninon. Fancy! If you have an educated palate and are obliged to eat the strong distillation of buffalo meat, cooked in a pot which has been wiped out with the greasy petticoat of a squaw! When Ninon came down from St. Louis she brought with her a great box containing neither clothes, furniture, nor trinkets, but something much more wonderful! It was a marvellous compounding of spices and seasonings. The aromatic liquids she set before the enchanted men of the settlement bore no more relation to ordinary buffalo soup than Chateaubrand's Indian maidens did to one of the Pawnee girls, who slouched about the settlement with noxious tresses and sullen slavish coquetries.
Father de Smet would not at any time have called Ninon a scarlet woman. But when he ate the dish of soup or tasted the hot corn-cakes that she invariably invited him to partake of as he passed her little house, he refrained with all the charity of a true Christian and an accomplished epicure from even thinking her such. And he remembered the words of the Saviour, "Let him who is without sin among you cast the first stone."
To Father de Smet's healthy nature nothing seemed more superfluous than sin. And he was averse to thinking that any committed deeds of which he need be ashamed. So it was his habit, especially if the day was pleasant and his own thoughts happy, to say to himself when he saw one of the wild young trappers leaving the cabin of Mademoiselle Ninon: "He has been for some of the good woman's hot cakes," till he grew quite to believe that the only attractions that the adroit Frenchwoman possessed were of a gastronomic nature.
To tell the truth, the attractions of Mademoiselle Ninon were varied. To begin with, she was the only thing in that wilderness to suggest home. Ninon had a genius for home-making. Her cabin, in which she cooked, slept, ate, lived, had become a boudoir.
The walls were hung with rare and beautiful skins; the very floor made rich with huge bear robes, their permeating odors subdued by heavy perfumes brought, like the spices, from St. Louis. The bed, in daytime, was a couch of beaver-skins; the fireplace had branching antlers above it, on which were hung some of the evidences of the fair Ninon's coquetry, such as silken scarves, of the sort the voyageurs from the far north wore; and necklaces made by the Indians of the Pacific coast and brought to Ninon by -- but it is not polite to inquire into these matters. There were little moccasins also, much decorated with porcupine- quills, one pair of which Father de Smet had brought from the Flathead nation, and presented to Ninon that time when she nursed him through a frightful run of fever. She would take no money for her patient services.
"Father," said she, gravely, when he offered it to her, "I am not myself virtuous. But I have the distinction of having preserved the only virtuous creature in the settlement for further usefulness. Sometimes, perhaps, you will pray for Ninon."
Father de Smet never forgot those prayers.
These were wild times, mind you. No use to keep your skirts coldly clean if you wished to be of help. These men were subduing a continent. Their primitive qualities came out. Courage, endurance, sacrifice, suffering without complaint, friendship to the death, indomitable hatred, unfaltering hope, deep-seated greed, splendid gayety -- it takes these things to subdue a continent. Vice is also an incidental, -- that is to say, what one calls vice. This is because it is the custom to measure these men as if they were governed by the laws of civilization, where there is neither law nor civilization.
This much is certain: gentlemen cannot conquer a country. They tried gentlemen back in Virginia, and they died, partly from lack of intellect, but mostly from lack of energy. After the yeomen have fought the conquering fight, it is well enough to bring in gentlemen, who are sometimes clever lawmakers, and who look well on thrones or in presidential chairs.
But to return to the winter of the smallpox. It was then that the priest and Ninon grew to know each other well. They became acquainted first in the cabin where four of the trappers lay tossing in delirium. The horrible smell of disease weighted the air. Outside wet snow fell continuously and the clouds seemed to rest only a few feet above the sullen bluffs. The room was bare of comforts, and very dirty. Ninon looked about with disgust.
"You pray," said she to the priest, "and I will clean the room."
"Not so," returned the broad-shouldered father, smilingly, "we will both clean the room." Thus it came that they scrubbed the floor together, and made the chimney so that it would not smoke, and washed the blankets on the beds, and kept the woodpile high. They also devised ventilators, and let in fresh air without exposing the patients. They had no medicine, but they continually rubbed the suffering men with bear's grease.
"It's better than medicine," said Ninon, after the tenth day, as, wan with watching, she held the cool hand of one of the recovering men in her own. "If we had had medicines we should have killed these men."
"You are a woman of remarkable sense," said the holy father, who was eating a dish of corn-meal and milk that Ninon had just prepared, "and a woman also of Christian courage."
"Christian courage?" echoed Ninon; "do you think that is what you call it? I am not afraid, no, not I; but it is not Christian courage. You mistake in calling it that." There were tears in her eyes. The priest saw them.
"God lead you at last into peaceful ways," said he, softly, lifting one hand in blessing. "Your vigil is ended. Go to your home and sleep. You know the value of the temporal life that God has given to man. In the hours of the night, Ninon, think of the value of eternal life, which it is also His to give."
Ninon stared at him a moment with a dawning horror in her eyes.
Then she pointed to the table.
"Whatever you do," said she, "don't forget the bear's grease." And she went out laughing. The priest did not pause to recommend her soul to further blessing. He obeyed her directions.
March was wearing away tediously. The river was not yet open, and the belated boats with needed supplies were moored far down the river. Many of the reduced settlers were dependent on the meat the Indians brought them for sustenance. The mud made the roads almost impassable; for the frost lay in a solid bed six inches below the surface, and all above that was semi- liquid muck. Snow and rain alternated, and the frightful disease did not cease its ravages.
The priest got little sleep. Now he was at the bed of a little half-breed child, smoothing the straight black locks from the narrow brow; now at the cot of some hulking trapper, who wept at the pain, but died finally with a grin of bravado on his lips; now in a foul tepee, where some grave Pawnee wrapped his mantle about him, and gazed with prophetic and unflinching eyes into the land of the hereafter.
The little school that the priest started had been long since abandoned. It was only the preservation of life that one thought of in these days. And recklessness had made the men desperate. To the ravages of disease were added horrible murders. Moral health is always low when physical health is so.
Give a nation two winters of grippe, and it will have an epidemic of suicide. Give it starvation and small-pox, and it will have a contagion of murders. There are subtle laws underlying these things, -- laws which the physicians think they can explain; but they are mistaken. The reason is not so material as it seems.
But spring was near in spite of falling snow and the dirty ice in the river. There was not even a flushing of the willow twigs to tell it by, nor a clearing of the leaden sky, -- only the almanac. Yet all men were looking forward to it The trappers put in the feeble days of convalescence, making long rafts on which to pile the skins dried over winter, -- a fine variety, worth all but their weight in gold. Money was easily got in those days; but there are circumstances under which money is valueless.
Father de Smet thought of this the day before Easter, as he plunged through the mud of the winding street in his bearskin gaiters. Stout were his legs, firm his lungs, as he turned to breathe in the west wind; clear his sharp and humorous eyes. He was going to the little chapel where the mission school had previously been held. Here was a rude pulpit, and back of it a much-disfigured virgin, dressed in turkey- red calico. Two cheap candles in their tin sticks guarded this figure, and beneath, on the floor, was spread an otter-skin of perfect beauty. The seats were of pine, without backs, and the wind whistled through the chinks between the logs. Moreover, the place was dirty. Lenten service had been out of the question. The living had neither time nor strength to come to worship; and the dead were not given the honor of a burial from church in these times of terror. The priest looked about him in dismay, the place was so utterly forsaken; yet to let Easter go by without recognition was not to his liking. He had been the night before to every house in the settlement, bidding the people to come to devotions on Sunday morning. He knew that not one of them would refuse his invitation. There was no hero larger in the eyes of these unfortunates than the simple priest who walked among them with his unpretentious piety. The promises were given with whispered blessings, and there were voices that broke in making them, and hands that shook with honest gratitude. The priest, remembering these things, and all the awful suffering of the winter, determined to make the service symbolic, indeed, of the resurrection and the life, -- the annual resurrection and life that comes each year, a palpable miracle, to teach the dullest that God reigns.
"How are you going to trim the altar?" cried a voice behind him.
He turned, startled, and in the doorway stood Mademoiselle Ninon, her short skirt belted with a red silk scarf, -- the token of some trapper, -- her ankles protected with fringed leggins, her head covered with a beribboned hat of felt, such as the voyageurs wore.
"Our devotions will be the only decorations we can hang on it. But gratitude is better than blossoms, and humanity more beautiful than green wreaths," said the father, gently.
It was a curious thing, and one that he had often noticed himself; he gave this woman -- unworthy as she was -- the best of his simple thoughts.
Ninon tiptoed toward the priest with one finger coquettishly raised to insure secrecy.
"You will never believe it," she whispered, "no one would believe it! But the fact is, father, I have two lilies."
"Lilies," cried the priest, incredulously, "two lilies?"
"That's what I say, father -- two marvellously fair lilies with little sceptres of gold in them, and leaves as white as snow. The bulbs were brought me last autumn by --; that is to say, they were brought from St. Louis. Only now have they blossomed. Heavens, how I have watched the buds! I have said to myself every morning for a fortnight: 'Will they open in time for the good father's Easter morning service?' Then I said: 'They will open too soon. Buds,' I have cried to them, 'do not dare to open yet, or you will be horribly passée by Easter. Have the kindness, will you, to save yourselves for a great event.' And they did it; yes, father, you may not believe, but no later than this morning these sensible flowers opened up their leaves boldly, quite conscious that they were doing the right thing, and to-morrow, if you please, they will be here. And they will perfume the whole place; yes."
She stopped suddenly, and relaxed her vivacious expression for one of pain.
"You are certainly ill," cried the priest. "Rest yourself." He tried to push her on to one of the seats; but a sort of convulsive rigidity came over her, very alarming to look at.
"You are worn out," her companion said gravely. "And you are chilled."
"Yes, I'm cold," confessed Ninon. "But I had to come to tell you about the lilies. But, do you see, I never could bring myself to put them in this room as it is now. It would be too absurd to place them among this dirt. We must clean the place."
"The place will be cleaned. I will see to it. But as for you, go home and care for yourself." Ninon started toward the door with an uncertain step. Suddenly she came back.
"It is too funny," she said, " that red calico there on the Virgin. Father, I have some laces which were my mother's, who was a good woman, and which have never been worn by me. They are all I have to remember France by and the days when I was -- different. If I might be permitted --" she hesitated and looked timidly at the priest.
"'She hath done what she could,'" murmured Father de Smet, softly. "Bring your laces, Ninon." He would have added: "Thy sins be forgiven thee." But unfortunately, at this moment, Pierre came lounging down the street, through the mud, fresh from Fort Laramie. His rifle was slung across his back, and a full game-bag revealed the fact that he had amused himself on his way. His curly and wind-bleached hair blew out in time-torn banners from the edge of his wide hat. His piercing, black eyes were those of a man who drinks deep, fights hard, and lives always in the open air. Wild animals have such eyes, only there is this difference: the viciousness of an animal is natural; at least one-half of the viciousness of man is artificial and devised.
When Ninon saw the frost-reddened face of this gallant of the plains, she gave a little cry of delight, and the color rushed back into her face. The trapper saw her, and gave a rude shout of welcome. The next moment, he had swung her clear of the chapel steps; and then the two went down the street together, Pierre pausing only long enough to doff his hat to the priest.
"The Virgin will wear no fresh laces," said the priest, with some bitterness; but he was mistaken. An hour later, Ninon was back, not only with a box of laces, but also with a collection of cosmetics, with which she proceeded to make startling the scratched and faded face of the wooden Virgin, who wore, after the completion of Ninon's labors, a decidedly piquant and saucy expression. The very manner in which the laces were draped had a suggestion of Ninon's still unforgotten art as a maker of millinery, and was really a very good presentment of Paris fashions four years past. Pierre, meantime, amused himself by filling up the chinks in the logs with fresh mud, -- a commodity of which there was no lack, -- and others of the neighbors, incited by these extraordinary efforts, washed the dirt from seats, floor, and windows, and brought furs with which to make presentable the floor about the pulpit.
Father de Smet worked harder than any of them. In his happy enthusiasm he chose to think this energy on the part of the others was prompted by piety, though well he knew it was only a refuge from the insufferable ennui that pervaded the place. Ninon suddenly came up to him with a white face.
"I am not well," she said. Her teeth were chattering, and her eyes had a little blue glaze over them. "I am going home. In the morning I will send the lilies."
The priest caught her by the hand.
"Ninon," he whispered, "it is on my soul not to let you go to-night. Something tells me that the hour of your salvation is come. Women worse than you, Ninon, have come to lead holy lives. Pray, Ninon, pray to the Mother of Sorrows, who knows the sufferings and sins of the heart." He pointed to the befrilled and highly fashionable Virgin with her rouge-stained cheeks.
Ninon shrank from him, and the same convulsive rigidity he had noticed before, held her immovable. A moment later, she was on the street again, and the priest, watching her down the street, saw her enter her cabin with Pierre.
It was past midnight when the priest was awakened from his sleep by a knock on the door. He wrapped his great buffalo-coat about him, and answered the summons. Without in the damp darkness stood Pierre.
"Father," he cried, "Ninon has sent for you. Since she left you, she has been very ill. I have done what I could; but now she hardly speaks, but I make out that she wants you." Ten minutes later, they were in Ninon's cabin. When Father de Smet looked at her he knew she was dying. He had seen the Indians like that many times during the winter. It was the plague, but driven in to prey upon the system by the exposure. The Parisienne's teeth were set, but she managed to smile upon her visitor as he threw off his coat and bent over her. He poured some whiskey for her; but she could not get the liquid over her throat.
"Do not," she said fiercely between those set white teeth, "do not forget the lilies." She sank back and fixed her glazing eyes on the antlers, and kept them there watching those dangling silken scarves, while the priest, in haste, spoke the words for the departing soul.
The next morning she lay dead among those half barbaric relics of her coquetry, and two white lilies with hearts of gold shed perfume from an altar in a wilderness.