AS IT WAS IN THE BEGINNING by E Pauline Johnson
The stage performance
They account for it by the fact that I am a Redskin, but I am something else, too–I am a woman. I remember the first time I saw him. he came up the trail with some Hudson’s Bay trappers, and they stopped at the door of my father’s tepee. He seemed even then, fourteen years ago, and old man; his hair seemed just as thin and white, his hands just as trembling and fleshless as they were a month since, when I saw him for what I pray his God is the last time.
My father sat in the tepee, polishing buffalo horns and smoking; my mother, wrapped in her blanket, crouched over her quill-work, on the buffalo-skin at his side; I was lounging at the doorway, idling, watching, as I always watched, the thin, distant line of sky and prairie; wondering, as I always wondered, what lay beyond it. then he came, this gentle old man with his white hair and thin, pale face. He wore a long black coat, which I now know was the sign of his office, and he carried a black leather-covered book, which, in all the years I have known him, I have never seen him without.
The trappers explained to my father who he was, the great Teacher, the heart’s Medicine Man, the “Blackcoat” we had heard of, who brought peace where there was war, and the magic of whose black book brought greater things than all the happy Hunting Grounds of our ancestors.
He told us many things that day, for he could speak the Cree tongue, and may father listened, and listened, and when at last they left us, my father said for him to come and sit within the tepee again.
His stories fascinated me. I used to listen intently to the tale of the strange new place he called “heaven,” of the gold crown, of the white dress, of the great music; and then he would tell of that other strange place-hell. My father and I hated it; we feared it, we dreamt of it, we trembled at it. Oh, if the “Blackcoat” would only cease to talk of it! Now I know he saw its effect upon us, and he used it as a whip to lash us into his new religion, but even then my mother must have known, for each time he left the tepee she would watch him going slowly away across the prairie; then when he was disappearing in to the far horizon she would laugh scornfully, and say:
“If the white man make this Blackcoat’s hell, let him go to it. It is for the man who found it first. No hell for Indians, just Happy Hunting Grounds. Blackcoat can’t scare me.”
And then, after weeks had passed, one day as he stood at the tepee door he laid his white, old hand on my head and said to my father: “Give me this little girl, chief. Let me take her to the mission school; let me keep her, and teach her the great God and His eternal heaven. She will grow to be a noble woman, and return perhaps to bring her people to the Christ.”
My mother’s eyes snapped. “No,” she said. It was the first word she ever spoke to the “Blackcoat.” My father sat and smoked. At the end of a half-hour he said:
“I am an old man, Blackcoat. I shall not leave the God of my fathers. I like not your strange God’s ways-all of them. I like not His two new places for me when I am Dead. take the child, Blackcoat, and save her from hell.”
The first grief of my life was when we reached the mission. they took my buckskin dress off, saying I was now a little Christian girl and must dress like all the white people at the mission. Oh, how I hated that stiff new calico dress and those leather shoes! But, little as I was, I said nothing, only thought of the time when I should be grown, and do as my mother did, and wear the buckskins and the blanket.
My next serious grief was when I began to speak the English, that they forbade me to use any Cree words whatever. the rule of the school was that any child heard using its native tongue must get a slight punishment. I never understood it, I cannot understand it now, why the use of my dear Cree tongue could be a matter for correction or an action deserving punishment.
She was strict, the matron of the school, but only justly so, for she had a heart and face like her brothers’s, the “Blackcoat.” I had long since ceased to call him that. The trappers at the post called him “St. Paul,” because, they told me, of his self-sacrificing life, his kindly deeds, his rarely beautiful old face; so I, too, called him “St. Paul,” though oftener “Father Paul,” though he never liked the latter title, for he was a Protestant. But as I was his pet, the darling of the whole school, he let me speak of him as I would, knowing it was but my heart speaking in love. His sister was a widow, and mother to a laughing yellow-haired little boy of about my own age, who was my constant playmate and who taught me much of English in his own childish way. I used to be fond of their child, just as I was fond of his mother and of his uncle, my “Father Paul,” but as my girlhood passed away, as womanhood came upon me, I got strangely wearied of them all; I longed, oh, God, how I longed for the old wild life! It came with my womanhood, with my years.
What mattered it to me now that they had taught me all their ways?-Their tricks of dress, their reading, their writing, their books. What matted it that “Father Paul” loved me, that the traders at the post called me pretty, that I was a pet of all, from the factor to the poorest trapper in the service? I wanted my own people, my own old life, my blood called out for it, but they always said I must not return to my father’s tepee. I heard them talk amongst themselves of keeping me away from pagan influences; they told each other that if I returned to the prairies, the tepees, I would degenerate, slip back to the paganism, as other girls had done; marry, perhaps, with a pagan-and all their years of labor and teaching would be lost.
I said nothing, but I waited. And then one night the feeling overcame me. I was in the Hudson’s Bay store when an Indian came in from the north with a large pack of buckskin. As they unrolled it a dash of its insinuation odor filled the store. I went over and leaned above the skins a second, then buried my face in them, swallowing, drinking the fragrance of them, that went to my head like wine. Oh, the wild wonder of that wood-smoked tan, the subtlety of it, the untamed smell of it! I drank it into my lungs, my innermost being was saturated with it, till my mind reeled and my heart seemed twisted with a physical agony. My childhood recollections rushed upon me, devoured me. I left the store in a strange, calm frenzy, and going rapidly to the mission house I confronted my Father Paul and demanded to be allowed to go “home,” if only for a day. He received the request with the same refusal and the same gentle sigh that I had so often been greeted with, but this time the desire, the smoke-tan, the heartache, never lessened.
Night after night I would steal away by myself and go to the border of the village to watch the sun set in the foothills, to gaze at the far line of sky and prairie, to long and long for my father’s lodge. And Laurence-always Laurence-my fair-haired, laughing, child playmate, would come calling and calling for me: “Esther, where are you? We miss you; come in, Esther, come in with me.” And if I did not turn at once to him and follow, he would come and place his strong hands on my shoulders and laugh into my eyes and say, “Truant, truant, Esther; can’t we make you happy?”
My old child playmate had vanished years ago. He was a tall, slender young man now, handsome as a young chief, but with laughing blue eyes, and always those yellow curls about his temples. He was my solace in my half-exile, my comrade, my brother, until one night it was, “Esther, Esther, can’t I make you happy?”
I did not answer him; only looked out across the plains and thought of the tepees. He came close, close. He locked his arms about me, and with my face pressed up to his throat he stood silent. I felt the blood from my heart sweep to my very fingertips. I loved him. Oh God, how I loved him! In a wild, blind instant it all came, just because he held me so and was whispering brokenly, “Don’t leave me, don’t leave me, Esther; my Esther, my child-love, my playmate, my girl-comrade, my little Cree sweetheart, will you go away to your people, or stay, stay for me, for my arms, as I have you now?”
No more, no more the tepees; no more the wild stretch of prairie, the intoxication fragrance of the smoke-tanned buckskin; no more the bed of buffalo hide, the soft, silent moccasin; no more the dark faces of my people, the dulcet cadence of the sweet Cree tongue–only this man, this fair, proud, tender man who held me in his arms, in his heart. My soul prayed to his great whit God, in that moment, that He let me have only this. It was twilight when we re-entered the mission gate. We were both excited, feverish. Father Paul was reading evening prayers in the large room beyond the hallway; his soft, saint-like voice stole beyond the doors, like a benediction upon us. I went noiselessly upstairs to my own room and sat there undisturbed for hours.
The clock downstairs struck one, startling me from my dreams of happiness, and at the same moment a flash of light attracted me. My room was in an angle of the building, and my window looked almost directly down into those of Father Paul’s study, into which at that instant he was entering, carrying a lamp. “Why, Laurence,” I heard him exclaim, “what are you doing here? I thought, my boy, you were in bed hours ago.”
“No, uncle, not in bed, but in dreamland,” replied Laurence, arising from the window, where evidently he, too, had spent the night hours as I had done.
Father Paul fumbled about for a moment, found his large black book, which for once he seemed to have got separated from, and was turning to leave, when the curious circumstance of Laurence being there at so unusual and hour seemed to strike him anew. “Better go to sleep, my son,” he said simply, then added curiously, “Has anything occurred to keep you up?”
Then Laurence spoke: “No, uncle, only–only, I’m happy, that’s all.”
Father Paul stood irresolute. then: “It is –?”
“Esther,” said Laurence quietly, but he was at the old man’s side, his hand was on the bent old shoulder, his eyes proud and appealing.
Father Paul set the lamp on the table, but, as usual, one hand held that black book, the great text of his life. His face was paler than I had ever seen it–graver.
“Tell me of it,” he requested.
I leaned far out of my window and watched them both. I listened with my very heart, for Laurence was telling him of me, of his love, of the new-found joy of that night.
“You have said nothing of marriage to her?” asked Father Paul.
“Well-no; but she surely understands that–“
“Did you speak of marriage?” repeated Father Paul, with a harsher ring in his voice that was new to me.
“No, uncle, but–“
“Very well, then; very well.”
There was a brief silence. Laurence stood staring at the old man as though he were a stranger; he watched him push a large chair up to the table, slowly seat himself; then mechanically following his movements, he dropped onto a lounge. The old man’s head bent low, but his eyes were bright and strangely fascinating. He began:
“Laurence, my boy, your future is the dearest thing to me of all earthly interests. Why, you can’t marry this girl–no, no, sit, sit until I have finished,” he added, with raised voice, as Laurence sprang up, remonstrating. “I have long since decided that you marry well; for instance, the Hudson’s Bay factor’s daughter.”
Laurence broke into a fresh, rollicking laugh. “What, uncle,” he said, “little Ida McIntosh? Marry that little yellow haired fluff ball, that kitten, that pretty little dolly?”
“Stop,” said Father Paul. Then, with a low, soft persuasiveness, “She is white, Laurence.”
My lover started. “Why, Uncle, what do you mean?” He faltered.
“Only this, my son: poor Esther comes of uncertain blood; would it do for you-the missionary’s nephew, and adopted son, you might say- marry the daughter of a pagan Indian? Her mother is hopelessly uncivilized; her father has a dash of French somewhere-half-breed, you know, my boy, half-breed.” Then, with still lower tone and half-shut, crafty eyes, he added: “The blood is a bad, bad mixture, you know that; you know, too, that I am very fond of the girl, poor dear Esther. I have tried to separate her from evil pagan influences; she is the daughter of the Church; I want her to have no other parent; but you never can tell what lurks in a caged animal that has once been wild. My whole heart is with the Indian people, my son; my whole heart, my whole life, has been devoted to bringing them to Christ, but it is a different thing to marry with one of them.”
His small old eyes were riveted on Laurence like a hawk’s on a rat. My heart lay like ice in my bosom.
Laurence, speechless and white, stared at him breathlessly. “Go away somewhere,” the old man was urging, “to Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal; forget her, then come back to Ida McIntosh. A union of the Church and the Hudson’s Bay will mean great things, and may ultimately result in my life’s ambition, the civilization of this entire tribe, that we have worked so long to bring to God.”
I listened, sitting like one frozen. Could those words have been uttered by my venerable teacher, by him whom I revered as I would one of the saints in his own black book? Ah, there was no mistaking it. My white father, my life-long friend who pretended to love me, to care for my happiness, was urging the man I worshipped to forget me, to marry with the factor’s daughter because of what? Of my red skin; my good, old, honest pagan mother; my confiding French-Indian father. In a second all the care, the hollow love he had given me since my childhood, were as things that never existed. I hated that old mission priest as I hated his white man’s hell. I hated his long, white hair; I hated his thin, white hands; I hated his body, his soul, his voice, his black book–oh, how I hated the very atmosphere of him!
Laurence sat motionless, his face buried in his hands, but the old man continued: “No, no; not the child of that pagan mother; you can’t trust her, my son. What would you do with a wife who might any day break from you to return to her prairies and her buckskins? You can’t trust her.” His eyes grew smaller, more glittering, more fascinating then, and leaning with an odd, secret sort of movement towards Laurence, he almost whispered, “Think of her silent ways, he noiseless step; the girl glides about like an apparition; her quick finger, her wild longings-I don’t know why, but with all my fondness for her, she reminds me sometimes of a strange snake.”
Laurence shuddered, lifted his face, and said hoarsely: “You’re right, uncle; perhaps I’d better not; I’ll go away, I’ll forget her, and then-well, then-yes, you are right, it is a different thing to marry one of them.” the old man arose. his feeble fingers still clasped his black book; his soft white hair clung about his forehead like hat of an Apostle; his eyes lost their peering, crafty expression; his bent shoulders resumed the dignity of a minister of the living God; he was the picture of what the trader called him–“St. Paul.”
“Good-night, son,” he said.
“Good-night, Uncle, and thank you for bringing me to my self.”
They were the last words I ever heard utter by either that old archfiend or his weak, miserable kinsman. Father Paul turned and left the room. I watched his withered hand-the hand I has so often felt resting on my head in holy benedictions–clasp the door-know, turn it slowly, them with bowed head and his pale face rapt in thought, he left the room-let it with the mad venom of my hate pursuing him like the very Evil One he taught me of.
What were his years of kindness and care now? What did I care for his God, his heaven, his Hell? He robbed me of my native faith, of my parents, of my people, of this last, this life of love that would have made a great, good woman of me. God! How I hated him!
I crept to the closet in my dark little room. I felt for a bundle I had not looked at for years-yes, it was there, the buckskin dress I had worn as a little child when the brought me to the mission. I tucked it under my arm and descended the stairs noiselessly. I would look into the study and speak good-bye to Laurence; then I would–
I pushed open the door. He was lying on the couch where a short time previously he had sat, white and speechless, listening to Father Paul. I moved towards him softly. God in heaven, he was already asleep. As I bent over him the fullness of his perfect beauty impressed me for the first time: his slender form, his curving mouth that almost laughed even in sleep, his fair, tossed hair, his smooth, strong-pulsing throat. God! How I loved him!
Then there arose the picture of the factor’s daughter. I hated her. I hated her baby face, her yellow hair, her whitish skin. “She shall not marry him,” my soul said. “I will kill him first–kill his beautiful body, his lying heart.” Something in my heart seemed to speak; it said over and over again, “Kill him, kill him; she will never have him. Kill him. It will break Father Paul’s heart and blight his life. He has killed the best of you, of your womanhood; kill his best, his pride, his hope–his sister’s son, his nephew Laurence.” But how? How?
What had that terrible old man said I was like? A strange snake. A snake? The idea wound itself about me like the very coils of a serpent. What was this in the beaded bag of my buckskin dress? This little thing rolled in tan that my mother had given me at parting with the words, “Don’t touch much, but sometime maybe you want it!” Oh! I knew well enough what it was–a small flint arrow-head dipped in the venom of some strange snake.
I knelt beside him and laid my hot lips on his hand. I worshipped him, oh, how I worshipped him! Then again the vision of her baby face, her yellow hair–I scratched his wrist twice with the arrow-tip. A single drop of red blood oozed up; he stirred. I turned the lamp down and slipped out of the room–out of the house.
I dream nightly of the horrors of the white man’s hell. Why did they teach me of it, only to fling me into it?
Last night as I crouched beside my mother on the buffalo-hide, Dan Henderson, the trapper, came in to smoke with my father. He said old Father Paul was bowed with grief, that with my disappearance I was suspected, but that there was no proof. Was it not merely a snake bite?
They account it for by the fact that I am a Redskin.
They seem to have forgotten I am a woman.
story by E Pauline Johnson
Feature image Jamie Foxx as Django-in-performance (dressed as Thomas Gainsborough’s Blue Boy) in Django Unchained
1 Pauline Johnson in performance
2 artist Kent Monkman
3 poster for movie Django Unchained
4 artist Monkman “I will kill him first–kill his beautiful body, his lying heart.”