A LITTLE BROWN WITCH
The last of the dark-faced children had departed, and Ellice was alone in the deserted school-room, with the afternoon sun slanting in through the doorway which the retreating troop had left open Her eye wandered mechanically over books and desks to see that they had been left in proper order, and half absently took note of various little details that made this long, low room unlike an ordinary school-room in "the States" — the American flag draped above the blackboard, the strange fern-like moss and the oddly carved arrows that decorated her table, and in one corner the little pile of white blankets which, borrowed from the " Home," had served as a bed for the two or three babies whose mothers came to be taught with their children. It had been a trying day, and the young teacher breathed a sigh of mingled weariness and relief as she turned her gaze to the outer world revealed by the window near her —the distant line of buildings that marked the village with its one short street, the mission chapel and Home on the outskirts, the half-ruined structure which told of a former Russian occupation, and the fringe of Indian dwellings straggling away in every direction. Low, half-buried huts were many of these last, while before the doors of the more pretentious cabins stood queer, tall, curiously carved poles, pointing their strange fingers skyward. Farther away was the background of towering Alaskan mountains, snow-crested here and there, but seen through thin veils that robed them in rose, amethyst, or emerald.
A breeze from the Pacific swept up the sound, and rustled the papers at Ellice's elbow; and it seemed to the girl like the voice of the wind among the old maples at home,—a far-away home where she was not "Teacher," but only "Nell," — and her thoughts wandered to the dear circle there. So busy were memory and fancy that the present and its surroundings were forgotten. She did not heed a swift step, nor notice that she was no longer alone, until a hand touched her arm.
The hurried voice, the agitated face, the anguish in the dark eyes bent upon her startled Ellice to her feet at once.
"What is it, Taluma ? Tell me what has happened?"
"My sister: My little only one! They have taken her for a witch
Ellice's face paled. One did not need to live long in Alaska to learn all the horror of such a statement, and Ellice, who knew how this sister's loyal heart was bound up in the life of the little one, grew sick with the sudden blow.
"Oh, Taluma! are you sure? Who did it?" But the Indian girl interrupted the questioning with an imperative gesture and imploring cry:
"Oh, Teacher, come!"
"We must get help. We must go to the Home," said Ellice, while she hastily donned hat and shawl. But even while she spoke, a swift remembrance flashed upon her that the superintendent had that morning been called to Fort Wrangell, and that the matron was just recovering from illness.
"No time; too late,— be too late, urged Taluma in agonized protest. "You come. Canoe down there."
There seemed indeed nothing else that could be done at onee. The village to which
Taluma belonged was but three miles distant, and Ellice reflected, as they
hastened down to the beach, that if they could reach the place before the child
was harmed, her influence, even though it failed to procure release, might avail
to stay proceedings until more potent authority could be summoned. Evidently
that was Taluma's hope. The white face, the civilized dress, the English tongue,
represented power; and yet she
stnic.189009.002.jpgknew,—alas, how well!—the strength of superstition and hatred that would oppose her. She had caught up the blankets that formed the bed in the school-room, (the little one might need them if they should be so fortunate as to bring her back), and, with the deference of habit, she arranged them for the teacher's seat; but she scarcely seemed to breathe until the canoe shot out of the water.
Once fairly under way, she was able to tell the story—meager enough in its details—as it had reached her through a friendly Indian. A woman in the village had suddenly become ill, and the "medicine-men," according to custom, ascribed it to witchcraft. They had declared the helpless little hunchback, a mere baby of seven years, to be the witch who must suffer torture and death.
"My little one! my darling!" moaned Taluma in her native tongue.
Ellice's heart was hot, and her eyes were wet, with indignation and pity. Pool Taluma, turning away from the darkness of the old life, had struggled upward so bravely! She and the little sister were orphans, and the strong, courageous girl had toiled for and shielded the little one, lavishing upon her all the tenderness of her untaught, hungry heart. She refused every offer that would separate them, until an uncle, the guardian of the girls, anxious to secure the price that would be paid for her as a wife, and enraged at her refusal to agree to his selecting a husband for her, determined to carry out his plan by force. Then, as the only alternative, Taluma ran away and begged for admittance at the Mission Home. But the shelter that received her was already full to overflowing. There was no room, no suitable place, for the little Wish, and, moreover, the enraged uncle refused to give up the child. But his opposition, which was due only to anger and not at all in accord with his sefl-interest,—since there was no prospect that any one would buy the crippled girl for a wife,—had gradually softened in the year and a half since Taluma, partly to compensate for his loss but more to make him kind toward little Wish, had carried him such peace offerings as she could contrive to earn; and it was understood that as soon as the new wing of the Home building should be finished, Wish should come also. To Taluma, study and the new ways she had opened a whole world of hope and aspiration. She drank in knowledge eagerly. No other pupil learned so rapidly or improved so marvelously, and it was all for the sake of Wish, who should be petted, shielded, and taught, and should never again feel the shadow of the old, hard life. Daily Taluma's handsome face had been growing brighter as she counted the weeks—only a few—until the little one could be with her.
And now this had come!
"Would your uncle give her up to those men? Could not he protect her?" questioned Ellice.
Taluma shook her head. She well knew that resistance often proved futile, even when the accused had many friends; and for this poor little orphan her uncle would not be likely to imperil his own life.
"Not care enough for do that!" she said bitterly.
Her strong young arms were well used to paddling, and nerved by love and fear that sent the light boat rapidly through the water. The lights and shadows, the changing tints of sky and wave, a glimpse of forest-clad islands, and the varied beauty of the indented shore made a picture of rare loveliness. But Taluma, with a gaze strained eagerly forward, saw only the distant point she longed to reach; and even Ellice, trying amid a whirl of thought to form some plan of action, was for once blind to the beauty around her.
Frantic haste and anxious planning were alike vain, however, for when they reached the village Wish was gone; she had been carried away by her captors and a motley troop of followers of both sexes and all ages to a deserted camp about two miles distant.
It was not easy to obtain details, for the excitement of the accusation and
arrest had aroused all the superstition of the natives, their awe of the Shaman
and the fear of witchcraft, and they were inclined to hold themselves aloof from
the sister of the "witch." There were also friends and relatives of the sick
woman who divined at once the mission of the new-comers, and followed them with
lowering and suspicious glances. Taluma's uncle was sullen and gloomy, and
stnic.189009.003.jpgseemed chiefly concerned about the "much trouble" that had been brought upon himself. Ellice sought one of the head men of the village, a chief whom, because of his knowing English and his long intercourse with the whites, she[illustration - Alaskan girl] hoped to influence; but he stoutly protested his inability to do anything. He had "made talk to the people," but they would not listen. It would be not only useless but dangerous to interfere. The people were enraged over the supposed discovery, and, moreover, had been drinking hoochinoo until they were wild, and whoever attempted to turn them from their purpose would only draw vengeance upon himself. He positively refused to go with the girls to seek the child's release, and declared that it would be madness for them to go. It was unsafe for them even to remain where they were; and he counseled their immediate return, suggesting that they could then send "governor, soldier, big missionary-man, to make talk" to the natives.
The girls understood that this plea was urged merely in the hope of getting rid of them, and because the chief knew full well that long before such aid could be summoned little Wish would have met her doom. But there was nothing to be gained from him, and they turned to go, Taluma herself leading the way back to the canoe as if she had accepted his decision. Ellice's eyes swept wave and sky with a wild thought of the network of wires that connected all places in the United States. If they could but telegraph to Sitka or Wrangell! But this land, so beautiful, was desolately far from help.
Taluma silently pushed out into the water, and then she turned a resolute face to her companion.
"Teacher, you go back. A little way down, I leave you; some boat will find to take you."
"And what will you do, Taluma?"
"I will go to her—my poor baby! my only one!" Again the tender names were wailed in the Indian tongue.
Ellice looked at her through a mist of tears. Back in her old New England home amid the rustling maple was a little sister, the pet of the household. A vision of that blue-eyed darling in cruel hands, left alone to meet torture and death, flashed upon Ellice its sudden horror. If certain death were before her she would never turn back and leave her own, and she could not ask Taluma to do so. Should she desert her? Memories, hopes, all that made her young life sweet, rose before her, but with them came some old words about losing one's life to save it, and a pitiful saving that was only losing.
" I will go with you," she said simply.
There was no answer in words, but the dark eyes flashed upon her one eloquent look. Presently, as she turned the prow of her craft from a little inlet into a narrower stream, Taluma explained:
"They go across land; it nearer by water. I know the place."
It had been one of their summer villages or camps, where the natives often met to gather fish-eggs and berries and prepare them for winter use. It was a lonely spot, and Taluma moored her canoe where a heavy strip of woodland running far down toward the water would conceal their landing, and might prevent the boat from being seen. Having removed the blankets, she took the further precaution of taking out the paddles also, so that, if the canoe were discovered, it might not be taken away.
"We will hide them," she said, leading the way in and out among the trees and
through the undergrowth of dogwood, berry-bushes, and wild roses that grew, in
this sheltered spot, in almost tropical luxuriance. She knew the ground well,
and soon paused where a tangled thicket had
stnic.189009.004.jpg formed a natural bower. Passing through the narrow opening, she hid paddles and blankets, and came again to Ellice's side. They had decided that whatever they did must be done either through stealth or strategy, for even where they stood there reached them the shouts and yells of the drunken, dancing Indians, clearly confirming all the chief had said. A short distance from them, the thick grove dwindled to a straggling fringe of trees; and beyond that was a clearing. They cautiously made their way forward, keeping out of sight, until [illustration - Alaskan war-canoe.] the whole scene was before them—a blazing fire, and the howling mob around it. At one side some fresh earth had been thrown up, showing where a shallow pit had been dug. Ellice understood its significance, and shuddered—these villagers buried their "witches" alive! Taluma's quick eyes assured her that the form she sought was not among the throng by the fire, and she pointed to a half-ruined hut on the outskirts of the crowd, and whispered:
"She tied there, alone."
There was no need to whisper, for the din was so great that loud speech would have been unheard. It was late by Ellice's watch, but the long Alaskan day had just reached its twilight, and they could hope for no more favorable opportunity, and whatever they did must be done at once. After a hurried consultation, Taluma emerged into the open space, while Ellice, whose face and dress would have at once attracted attention, remained behind the trees. Cautiously seeming to mingle with the people, and keeping away from any one who might recognize her, the Indian girl slowly edged her way toward the hut that held her treasure, until she stood in the shadow close beside it. The firelight gleamed in through the half-open door, dimly lighting up the rude interior. There were crevices enough through which she could discern the poor little captive, cruelly fastened so that her feet could scarcely touch the ground, and with her hands bound behind her. Her faint moan, a call on the only love she knew, rent the sister's heart:
Evidently the Indians did not dream of an attempt at rescue. In the security of
being all of one mind and far away from any interference, they made no special
effort to guard
stnic.189009.005.jpgthe cabin, and even the binding of the victim was more of a matter of ceremony than a precaution against her escape. Occasionally, one of the "medicine-men" entered to march in mystic circle around her while performing some mummery for the benefit of the sick woman, or some valiant brave ventured inside the door to shake his club at the poor little "witch;" but for the greater part of the time all were occupied with the ceremonies at the fire.
Watching her opportunity, Taluma slipped through the doorway. A low word of warning to the little one, the swift cutting of the bands that secured hands and feet, and in a minute or two she was outside again with the child in her arms.
She longed to fly, but dared make no hurried movement. Slowly, with Wish now painfully walking a few steps as less likely to attract observation, now lifted into the sister's strong arms to save time, they retreated toward the wood.
To Ellice, watching breathlessly, the dragging minutes seemed ages; but Taluma had almost reached the shelter of the trees when a sudden cry near the hut announced that the escape was discovered. Further caution was useless, and Taluma darted forward with her burden; but she was seen, and in an instant pursuit followed. The girls had the advantage of knowing where they were going, and they ran directly for the thicket; while their pursuers, not near enough to keep them in sight, now cirlced about almost aimlessly through the bushes.
But their capture seemed only delayed. Cowering in their hiding-place, the girls knew that it could afford them but brief shelter. Taluma clasped closely the little on whose trembling arms clung to her neck, and waited in dumb despair the vengeance her deed had provoked. To Ellice, the fierce beating of the bushes, and the shouts and cries, now nearer, now more distant, were maddening.
It seemed to her intolerable to wait ther inactive until those terrible hands should seize her. She felt a wild impulse to rush out and meet death half-way, since die she must; and she turned to the Indian girl with a questioning glance.
Then suddenly, born of her very desperation—or was it inspiration?—there darted through her brain a plan, hazardous indeed, but offering a faint gleam of hope. She caught up one of the blankets and pinned it closely about her throat, so that it would fall around her to the ground. The other blanket she fastened to one of the paddles, hastily twisting the top into a rude imitation of a head. Then taking the paddle in her hands, she held it up so that the blanket fastened to it fell around the upper part of her figure, concealing her head and forming altogether a grotesque figure of stupendous height.
Years before, in childish games at home, she had played "tall white lady" with her merry companions; but now her life hung on the success of the weird representation, and every heartthrob was a prayer as she crept out of the thicket, slipped from tree to tree, and then walked slowly out into a more open space, where she would be seen. With trembling limbs, but measured step, she traversed the little glade.
In a moment, a deafening yell announced that she had attracted attention, but the stillness that instantly followed showed that the figure had produced wonder if not terror.
That odd, white figure, supernaturally tall, moving slowly along in the dim light, and seemingly unconscious of any human presence, was strange and weird enough to have startled any beholder; and the effect on these ignorant and superstitious natives, excited as they were by all the "conjuring" of the afternoon, can scarcely be described.
With that same strange, noiseless, swaying motion the ghostlike form slowly traversed a circle, while the awe-struck observers, huddled closely together at a respectful distance, watched it with staring eyes.
The first triumphant shout of discovery had drawn nearly the whole party to the spot, and Ellice felt that they must not be allowed to examine too carefully, or have time for familiarity to lessen the first impression. So, though her heart beat fast with fear, she turned her steps deliberately toward them.
That was too much to be borne. With a howl of terror they all turned and fled,
the "medicine-men" leading in the frantic race, and the specter
stnic.189009.006.jpgwas left in full possession of the field. Gliding cautiously toward the thicket, she summoned Taluma; and, moving behind her, covered her retreat to the boat. Speedily they swept down [illustration - With a howl of terror they all turned and fled.] the little river, starting at every sound, and only breathed freely when they found themselves out upon the wider waters.
Even then they strained their eyes anxiously in every direction, and shrank from any dark spot on the water. But they made they voyage unmolested, and reached home in safety.
On Ellice the strain and excitement told heavily, and many days of illness and fever followed.
When once she began to mend, however, recovery was rapid; for there was Taluma bending above her with a face like sunshine, while at a pleasant window sat Wish, her little brown hands blissfully occupied with a doll, and her look of childish content answering with her voice to whoever asked her: "Me Berry happy."