Kings in Exile - Part 4

Part 4


After this ignominy, for days the King was submissive, with the sullen numbness of despair. Life for him became a succession of stunning shocks and roaring change. He would be put into strange box-prisons, which would straightway begin to rush terribly through the world with a voice of thunder. Through the cracks in the box he would watch trees and fields and hills race by in madness of flight. He would be taken out of the box, and murmuring crowds would gape at him till the black mane along his neck would begin to rise in something of his old anger.

Then some one would drive the crowd away, and he would slip back into his stupor. He did not know which he hated most,--the roaring boxes, the fleeing landscapes, or the staring crowds. At last he came to a loud region where there were no trees, but only what seemed to him vast, towering, naked rocks, red, gray, yellow, brown, full of holes from which issued men in swarms. These terrible rocks ran in endless rows, and through them he came at last to a wide field, thinly scattered with trees. There was no seclusion in it, no deep, dark, shadowy hemlock covert to lie down in; but it was green, and it was s.p.a.cious, and it was more or less quiet. So when he was turned loose in it, he was almost glad. He lifted his head, with a spark of the old arrogance returning to his eyes. And through dilating nostrils he drank the free air till his vast lungs thrilled with almost forgotten life.

The men who had brought him to the park--this bleak barren he would have called it, had he had the faculty of thinking in terms of human speech, this range more fitted for the frugal caribou than for a ranger of the deep forests like himself--these men stood watching him curiously after they had loosed him from his bonds. For a few minutes he forgot all about them. Then his eyes fell on them, and a heat crept slowly into his veins as he looked. Slowly he began to resume his kingship. His eyes changed curiously, and a light, fiery and fearless, flamed in their depths. His mane began to bristle.

"It's time for us to get out of this. That fellow's beginning to remember he has some old scores to settle up!" remarked the Director coolly to the head-keeper and his a.s.sistants; and they all stepped backwards, with a casual air, towards the big gate, which stood ajar to receive them. Just as they reached it, the old fire and fury surged back into the exile's veins, but heated seven fold by the ignominies which he had undergone. With a hoa.r.s.e and bawling roar, such as had never before been heard in those guarded precincts, he launched himself upon his gaolers. But they nimbly slipped through the gate and dropped the ma.s.sive bars into their sockets.

They were just in time. The next instant the King had hurled himself with all his weight upon the barrier. The st.u.r.dy ironwork and the panels on either side of the posts clanged, groaned, and even yielded a fraction of an inch beneath the shock. But in the rebound they thrust their a.s.sailant backward with startling violence. Bewildered, he glared at the obstacle, which looked so slender, yet was so strong to balk him of his vengeance. Then, jarred and aching, he withdrew haughtily to explore his new domain. The Director, gazing after him, nodded with supreme satisfaction.

"Those fellows up in New Brunswick told no lies!" said he.

"He certainly is a peach!" a.s.sented the head-keeper heartily. "When he grows his new antlers, I reckon we will have to enlarge the park."

The great exile found his new range interesting to explore, and began to forget his indignation. Privacy it had not, for the trees at this season were all leafless, and there were no dense fir or spruce thickets into which he could withdraw, to look forth unseen upon this alien landscape. But there were certain rough boulders behind which he could lurk. And there were films of ice, and wraiths of thin snow in the hollows, the chill touch of which helped him to feel more or less at home. In the distance he caught sight of a range of those high, square rocks wherein the men dwelt; and hating them deeply, he turned and pressed on in the opposite direction over a gentle rise and across a little valley; till suddenly, among the trees, he came upon a curious barrier of meshed stuff, something like a gigantic cobweb.

Through the meshes he could distinctly see the country beyond, and it seemed to be just the country he desired, more wooded and inviting than what he had traversed. Confidently he pushed upon the woven obstacle; but to his amazement it did not give way before him. He eyed it resentfully. How absurd that so frail a thing should venture to forbid him pa.s.sage! He thrust upon it again, more brusquely, to be just as brusquely denied. The hot blood blazed to his head, and he dashed himself upon it with all his strength. The impenetrable but elastic netting yielded for a s.p.a.ce, then sprang back with an impetuosity that flung him clear off his feet. He fell with a loud grunt, lay for a moment dismayed, then got up and eyed his incomprehensible adversary with a blank stare. He was learning so many strange lessons that it was difficult to a.s.similate them all at once.

The following morning, when he was feasting on a pile of the willow and poplar forage which he loved, and which had appeared as if by magic close beside the mysterious barrier, he saw some men, perhaps a hundred yards away, throw open a section of the barrier. Forgetting to be angry at their intrusion on his range, he watched them curiously. A moment more, and a little herd of his own kind, apparently quite indifferent to the men, followed them into the range. He was not surprised at their appearance, for his nose had already told him there were moose about. But he was surprised to see them on friendly terms with man.

There were several cows in the herd, with a couple of awkward yearlings; and the King, much gratified, ambled forward with huge strides to meet them and take them under his gracious protection. But a moment later two fine young bulls came into his view, following the rest of the herd at a more dignified pace. The King stopped, lowered his mighty front, laid back his ears like an angry stallion, and grunted a hoa.r.s.e warning. The stiff black hair along his neck slowly arose and stood straight up.

The two young bulls stared in stupid astonishment at this tremendous apparition. It was not the fighting season, so they had no jealousy, and felt nothing but a cold indifference toward the stranger. But as he came striding down the field his att.i.tude was so menacing, his stature so formidable, that they could not but realize there was trouble brewing. It was contrary to all traditions that they should take the trouble to fight in midwinter, when they had no antlers and their blood was sluggish. Nevertheless, they could not brook to be so affronted, as it were, in their own citadel.

Their eyes began to gleam angrily, and they advanced, shaking their heads, to meet the insolent stranger. The keepers, surprised, drew together close by the gate; while one of them left hurriedly and ran towards a building which stood a little way off among the trees.

As the King swept down upon the herd, bigger and blacker than any bull they had ever seen before, the cows shrank away and stood staring placidly. They were well fed, and for the time indifferent to all else in their sheltered world. Still, a fight is a fight, and if there was going to be one, they were ready enough to look on.

Alas for the right of possession when it runs counter to the right of might! The two young bulls were at home and in the right, and their courage was sound. But when that black whirlwind from the fastnesses of Old Saugamauk fell upon them, it seemed that they had no more rights at all.

Side by side they confronted the onrushing doom. At the moment of impact, they reared and struck savagely with their sharp hoofs. But the gigantic stranger troubled himself with no such details. He merely fell upon them, like a blind but raging force, irresistible as a falling hillside and almost as disastrous. They both went down before him like calves, and rolled over and over, stunned and sprawling.

The completeness of this victory, establishing his supremacy beyond cavil, should have satisfied the King, especially as this was not the mating season and there could be no question of rivalry. But his heart was bursting with injury, and his thirst for vengeance was raging to be glutted. As the vanquished bulls struggled to recover their feet, he bounded upon the nearest and trod him down again mercilessly. The other, meanwhile, fled for his life, stricken with shameless terror; and the exile, leaving his victim, went thundering in pursuit, determined that both should be annihilated. It was a terrifying sight, the black giant, mane erect, neck out-thrust, mouth open, eyes glaring with implacable fury, sweeping down upon the fugitive with his terrific strides.

But just then, when another stride would have sufficed, a strange thing happened! A flying noose settled over the pursuer's head, tightened, jerked his neck aside, and threw him with a violence that knocked the wind clean out of his raging body. While his vast lungs sobbed and gasped to recover the vital air, other nooses whipped about his legs; and before he could recover himself even enough to struggle, he was once more trussed up as he had been by Uncle Adam amid the snows of Saugamauk.

In this ignominious position, his heart bursting with shame and impotence, he was left lying while his two battered victims were la.s.soed and led away. Since it was plain that the King would not suffer them to live in his kingdom, even as humble subjects, they were to be removed to some more modest domain; for the King, whether he deserved it or not, was to have the best reserved for him.

It was little kingly he felt, the fettered giant, as he lay there panting on his side. The cows came up and gazed at him with a kind of placid scorn, till his furious snortings and the undaunted rage that flamed in his eyes made them draw back apprehensively. Then, the men who had overthrown him returned. They dragged him unceremoniously up to the gate, slipped his bonds, and discreetly put themselves on the other side of the barrier before he could get to his feet. With a grunt he wheeled and faced them with such hate in his eyes that they thought he would once more hurl himself upon the bars. But he had learned his lesson. For a few moments he stood quivering. Then, as if recognizing at last a mastery too absolute even for him to challenge, he shook himself violently, turned away, and stalked off to join the herd.

That evening, about sundown, it turned colder. Clouds gathered heavily, and there was the sense of coming snow in the air. A great wind, rising fitfully, drew down out of the north. Seeing no covert to his liking, the King led his little herd to the top of a naked knoll, where he could look about and choose a shelter. But that great wind out of the north, thrilling in his nostrils, got into his heart and made him forget what he had come for. Out across the alien gloom he stared, across the huddled, unknown of the dark, till he thought he saw the bald summit of Old Saugamauk rising out of its forests, till he thought he heard the wind roar in the spruce tops, the dead branches clash and crack. The cows, for a time, huddled close to his ma.s.sive flanks, expecting some new thing from his vast strength. Then, as the storm gathered, they remembered the shelter which man had provided for them, and the abundant forage it contained.

One after the other they turned and filed away slowly down the slopes, through the dim trees, towards the corner where they knew a gate would stand open for them, and then a door into a warm-smelling shed. The King, lost in his dream, did not notice their going. But suddenly, feeling himself alone, he started and looked about. The last of the yearlings, at its mother's heels, was just vanishing through the windy gloom. He hesitated, started to follow, then stopped abruptly. Let them go! They would return to him probably. Turning back to his station on the knoll, he stood with his head held high, his nostrils drinking the cold, while the winter night closed in upon him, and the wind out of his own north rushed and roared solemnly in his face.




Why he was so much bigger, more powerful, and more implacably savage than the other members of the gray, spectral pack, which had appeared suddenly from the north to terrorize their lone and scattered clearings, the settlers of the lower Quah-Davic Valley could not guess. Those who were of French descent among them, and full of the old Acadian superst.i.tions, explained it simply enough by saying he was a _loup-garou_, or "wer-wolf," and resigned themselves to the impossibility of contending against a creature of such supernatural malignity and power. But their fellows of English speech, having no such tradition to fall back upon, were mystified and indignant. The ordinary gray, or "cloudy," wolf of the East they knew, though he was so rare south of Labrador that few of them had ever seen one. They dismissed them all, indifferently, as "varmin." But this unaccountable gray ravager was bigger than any two such wolves, fiercer and more dauntless than any ten. Though the pack he led numbered no more than half a dozen, he made it respected and dreaded through all the wild leagues of the Quah-Davic. To make things worse, this long-flanked, long-jawed marauder was no less cunning than fierce. When the settlers, seeking vengeance for sheep, pigs, and cattle slaughtered by his pack, went forth to hunt him with dogs and guns, it seemed that there was never a wolf in the country. Nevertheless, either that same night or the next, it was long odds that one or more of those same dogs who had been officious in the hunt would disappear. As for traps and poisoned meat, they proved equally futile. They were always visited, to be sure, by the pack, at some unexpected and indeterminable moment, but treated always with a contumelious scorn which was doubtless all that such clumsy tactics merited. Meanwhile the ravages went on, and the children were kept close housed at night, and cool-eyed old woodsmen went armed and vigilant along the lonely roads. The French _habitant_ crossed himself, and the Saxon cursed his luck; and no one solved the mystery.

Yet, after all, as Arthur Kane, the young schoolmaster at Burnt Brook Cross-Roads, began dimly to surmise, the solution was quite simple. A lucky gold-miner, returning from the Klondike, had brought with him not only gold and an appet.i.te, but also a lank, implacable, tameless whelp from the packs that haunt the sweeps of northern timber. The whelp had gnawed his way to freedom. He had found, fought, thrashed, and finally adopted, a little pack of his small, Eastern kin. He had thriven, and grown to the strength and stature that were his rightful heritage. And "the Gray Master of the Quah-Davic," as Kane had dubbed him, was no _loup-garou_, no outcast human soul incarcerate in wolf form, but simply a great Alaskan timber-wolf.

But this, when all is said, is quite enough. A wolf that can break the back of a full-grown collie at one snap of his jaws, and gallop off with the carca.s.s as if it were a chipmunk, is about as undesirable a neighbor, in the night woods, as any _loup-garou_ ever devised by the _habitant's_ excitable imagination.

All up and down the Quah-Davic Valley the dark spruce woods were full of game,--moose, deer, hares, and wild birds innumerable,--with roving caribou herds on the wide barren beyond the hill-ridge. Nevertheless, the great gray wolf would not spare the possessions of the settlers.

His pack haunted the fringes of the settlements with a needless tenacity which seemed to hold a challenge in it, a direct and insolent defiance. And the feeling of resentment throughout the Valley was on the point of crystallizing into a concerted campaign of vengeance which would have left even so cunning a strategist as the Gray Master no choice but to flee or fall, when something took place which quite changed the course of public sentiment. Folk so disagreed about it that all concerted action became impossible, and each one was left to deal with the elusive adversary in his own way.

This was what happened.

In a cabin about three miles from the nearest neighbor lived the Widow Baisley, alone with her son Paddy, a lad under ten years old, and little for his age. One midwinter night she was taken desperately ill, and Paddy, reckless of the terrors of the midnight solitudes, ran wildly to get help. The moon was high and full, and the lifeless backwoods road was a narrow, bright, white thread between the silent black of the spruce forest. Now and then, as he remembered afterwards, his ear caught a sound of light feet following him in the dark beyond the roadside. But his plucky little heart was too full of panic grief about his mother to have any room for fear as to himself.

Only the excited amazement of his neighbors, over the fact that he had made the journey in safety, opened his eyes to the hideous peril he had come through. Willing helpers hurried back with him to his mother's bedside. And on the way one of them, a keen huntsman who had more than once pitted his woodcraft in vain against that of the Gray Master, had the curiosity to step off the road and examine the snow under the thick spruces. Perhaps imagination misled him, when he thought he caught a glimpse of savage eyes, points of green flame, fading off into the black depths. But there could be no doubt as to the fresh tracks he found in the snow. There they were,--the footprints of the pack, like those of so many big dogs,--and among them the huge trail of the great, far-striding leader. All the way, almost from his threshold, these sinister steps had paralleled those of the hurrying child. Close to the edge of the darkness they ran,--close, within the distance of one swift leap,--yet never any closer!

Why had the great gray wolf, who faced and pulled down the bull moose, and from whose voice the biggest dogs in the settlements ran like whipped curs--why had he and his stealthy pack spared this easy prey?

It was inexplicable, though many had theories good enough to be laughed to scorn by those who had none. The _habitants_, of course, had all their superst.i.tions confirmed, and with a certain respect and refinement of horror added: Here was a _loup-garou_ so crafty as to spare, on occasion! He must be conciliated, at all costs. They would hunt him no more, his motives being so inexplicable. Let him take a few sheep, or a steer, now and then, and remember that _they_, at least, were not troubling him. As for the English-speaking settlers, their enmity cooled down to the point where they could no longer get together any concentrated bitterness. It was only a big rascal of a wolf, anyway, scared to touch a white man's child, and certainly nothing for a lot of grown men to organize about. Some of the women jumped to the conclusion that a certain delicacy of sentiment had governed the wolves in their strange forbearance, while others honestly believed that the pack had been specially sent by Providence to guard the child through the forest on his sacred errand. But all, whatever their views, agreed in flouting the young schoolteacher's uninteresting suggestion that perhaps the wolves had not happened, at the moment, to be hungry.

As it chanced, however, even this very rational explanation of Kane's was far from the truth. The truth was that the great wolf had profited by his period of captivity in the hands of a masterful man. Into his fine sagacity had penetrated the conception--hazy, perhaps, but none the less effective--that man's vengeance would be irresistible and inescapable if once fairly aroused. This conception he had enforced upon the pack. It was enough. For, of course, even to the most elementary intelligence among the hunting, fighting kindreds of the wild, it was patent that the surest way to arouse man's vengeance would be to attack man's young. The intelligence lying behind the wide-arched skull of the Gray Master was equal to more intricate and less obvious conclusions than that.

Among all the scattered inhabitants of the Quah-Davic Valley there was no one who devoted quite so much attention to the wonderful gray wolf as did the young school-teacher. His life at the Burnt Brook Cross-Roads, his labors at the little Burnt Brook School, were neither so exacting nor so exciting but that he had time on his hands. His preferred expedients for spending that time were hunting, and studying the life of the wild kindreds. He was a good shot with both rifle and camera, and would serve himself with one weapon or the other as the mood seized him. When life, or his dinner, went ill with him, or he found himself fretting hopelessly for the metropolitan excitement of the little college city where he had been educated, he would choose his rifle. And so wide-reaching, so mysterious, are the ties which enmesh all created beings, that it would seem to even matters up and relieve his feelings wonderfully just to kill something, if only a rabbit or a weasel.

But at other times he preferred the camera.

Naturally Kane was interested in the mysterious gray wolf more than in all the other prowlers of the Quah-Davic put together. He was quite unreasonably glad when the plans for a concerted campaign against the marauder so suddenly fell through. That so individual a beast should have its career cut short by an angry settler's bullet, to avenge a few ordinary pigs or sheep, was a thing he could hardly contemplate with patience. To scatter the pack would be to rob the Quah-Davic solitudes of half their romance. He determined to devote himself to a study of the great wolf's personality and characteristics, and to foil, as far as this could be done without making himself unpopular, such plots as might be laid for the beast's undoing.

Recognizing, however, that this friendly interest might not be reciprocated, Kane chose his rifle rather than his camera as a weapon, on those stinging, blue-white nights when he went forth to seek knowledge of the gray wolf's ways. His rifle was a well-tried repeating Winchester, and he carried a light, short-handled axe in his belt besides the regulation knife; so he had no serious misgivings as he trod the crackling, moonlit snow beneath the moose-hide webbing of his snowshoes. But not being utterly foolhardy, he kept to the open stretches of meadow, or river-bed, or snow-buried lake, rather than in the close shadows of the forest.

But now, when he was so expectant, the wolf-pack seemed to find business elsewhere. For nights not a howl had been heard, not a fresh track found, within miles of Burnt Brook Cross-Roads. Then, remembering that a watched pot takes long to boil, Kane took fishing-lines and bait, and went up the wide, white brook-bed to the deep lake in the hills, whence it launches its shallow flood towards the Quah-Davic. He took with him also for companionship, since this time he was not wolf-hunting, a neighbor's dog that was forever after him--a useless, yellow lump of mongrel dog-flesh, but friendly and silent. After building a hasty shelter of spruce boughs some distance out from sh.o.r.e in the flooding light, he chopped holes through the ice and fell to fishing for the big lake trout that inhabited those deep waters. He had luck. And soon, absorbed in the new excitement, he had forgotten all about the great gray wolf.

It was late, for Kane had slept the early part of the night, waiting for moonrise before starting on his expedition. The air was tingling with windless cold, and ghostly white with the light of a crooked, waning moon. Suddenly, without a sound, the dog crept close against Kane's legs. Kane felt him tremble. Looking up sharply, his eyes fell on a tall, gray form, sitting erect on the tip of a naked point, not a hundred yards away, and staring, not at him, but at the moon.

In spite of himself, Kane felt a p.r.i.c.king in his cheeks, a creeping of the skin under his hair. The apparition was so sudden, and, above all, the cool ignoring of his presence was so disconcerting. Moreover, through that half-sinister light, his long muzzle upstretched towards the moon, and raised as he was a little above the level on which Kane was standing, the wolf looked unnaturally and impossibly tall. Kane had never heard of a wolf acting in this cool, self-possessed, arrogantly confident fashion, and his mind reverted obstinately to the outworn superst.i.tions of his _habitants_ friends. But, after all, it was this wolf, not an ordinary brush-fence wolf, that he was so anxious to study; and the unexpected was just what he had most reason to expect! He was getting what he came for.

Kane knew that the way to study the wild creatures was to keep still and make no noise. So be stiffened into instant immobility, and regretted that he had brought the dog with him. But he need not have worried about the dog, for that intelligent animal showed no desire to attract the Gray Master's notice. He was crouched behind Kane's legs, and motionless except for his shuddering.

For several minutes no one stirred--nothing stirred in all that frozen world. Then, feeling the cold begin to creep in upon him in the stillness, Kane had to lift his thick-gloved hands to chafe his ears.

He did it cautiously, but the caution was superfluous. The great wolf apparently had no objection to his moving as much as he liked. Once, indeed, those green, lambent eyes flamed over him, but casually, in making a swift circuit of the of the lake and the black fringe of the firs; but for all the interest which their owner vouchsafed him, Kane might as well have been a juniper bush.

Knowing very well, however, that this elaborate indifference could not be other than feigned, Kane was patient, determined to find out what the game was. At the same time, he could not help the strain beginning to tell on him. Where was the rest of the pack? From time to time he glanced searchingly over his shoulder towards the all-concealing fir woods.