THE GUARDIAN OF THE FIRE

THE GUARDIAN OF THE FIRE

"Height unto height answereth knowledge."

His was the first watch, the farthest fire, for Shaknon Hill towered
above the great gulf, and looked back also over thirty leagues of country
towards the great city. There came a time again when all the land was
threatened. From sovereign lands far off, two fleets were sailing hard to
reach the wide basin before the walled city, the one to save, the other
to destroy. If Tinoir, the Guardian of the Fire, should sight the
destroying fleet, he must light two fires on Shaknon Hill, and then, at
the edge of the wide basin, in a treacherous channel, the people would
send out fire-rafts to burn the ships of the foe. Five times in the past
had Tinoir been the Guardian of the Fire, and five times had the people
praised him; but praise and his scanty wage were all he got.

The hut in which he lived with his wife on another hill, ten miles from
Shaknon, had but two rooms, and their little farm and the garden gave
them only enough to live--no more. Elsewhere there was good land in
abundance, but it had been said years ago to Tinoir by the great men,
that he should live not far from Shaknon, so that in times of peril he
might guard the fire and be sentinel for all the people. Perhaps Tinoir
was too dull to see that he was giving all and getting naught; that while
he waited and watched he was always poor, and also was getting old. There
was no house or home within fifty miles of them, and only now and then
some wandering Indians lifted the latch, and drew in beside their hearth,
or a good priest with a soul of love for others, came and said Mass in
the room where a little Calvary had been put up. Two children had come
and gone, and Tinoir and Dalice had dug their graves and put them in a
warm nest of maple leaves, and afterwards lived upon the memories of
them. But after these two, children came no more; and Tinoir and Dalice
grew closer and closer to each other, coming to look alike in face, as
they had long been alike in mind and feeling. None ever lived nearer to
nature than they, and wild things grew to be their friends; so that you
might see Dalice at her door tossing crumbs with one hand to birds, and
with the other bits of meat to foxes, martens, and wild dogs, which came
and went unharmed by them. Tinoir shot no wild animals for profit--only
for food and for skins and furs to wear. Because of this he was laughed
at by all who knew, save the priest of St. Sulpice, who, on Easter Day,
when the little man came yearly to Mass over two hundred miles of
country, praised him to his people, and made much of him, though Tinoir
was not vain enough to see it.

When word came down the river, and up over the hills to Tinoir, that war
was come and that he must go to watch for the hostile fleet and for the
friendly fleet as well, he made no murmur, though it was the time of
harvest, and Dalice had had a sickness from which she was not yet
recovered.

"Go, my Tinoir," said Dalice, with a little smile, "and I will reap the
grain. If your eyes are sharp you shall see my bright sickle moving in
the sun."

"There is the churning of the milk too, Dalice," answered Tinoir; "you
are not strong, and sometimes the butter comes slow; and there's the
milking also."

"Strength is coming to me fast, Tinoir," she said, and drew herself up;
but her dress lay almost flat on her bosom. Tinoir took her arm and felt
it above the elbow.

"It is like the muscle of a little child," he said.

"But I will drink those bottles of red wine the Governor sent the last
time you watched the fire on Shaknon," she said, brightening up, and
trying to cheer him. He nodded, for he saw what she was trying to do, and
said: "Also a little of the gentian and orange root three times a day-eh,
Dalice?"

After arranging for certain signs, by little fires, which they were to
light upon the hills and so speak with each other, they said, "Good day,
Dalice," and "Good day, Tinoir," drank a glass of the red wine, and
added: "Thank the good God;" then Tinoir wiped his mouth with his sleeve,
and went away, leaving Dalice with a broken glass at her feet, and a look
in her eyes which it was well that Tinoir did not see.

But as he went he was thinking how, the night before, Dalice had lain
with her arm round his neck hour after hour as she slept, as she did
before they ever had a child; and that even in her sleep, she kissed him
as she used to kiss him before he brought her away from the parish of
Ste. Genevieve to be his wife. And the more he thought about it the
happier he became, and more than once he stopped and shook his head in
pleased retrospection. And Dalice thought of it too as she hung over the
churn, her face drawn and tired and shining with sweat; and she shook her
head, and tears came into her eyes, for she saw further into things than
Tinoir. And once as she passed his coat on the wall, she rubbed it softly
with her hand, as she might his curly head when he lay beside her.

From Shaknon Tinoir watched; but of course he could never see her bright
sickle shining, and he could not know whether her dress still hung loose
upon her breast, or whether the flesh of her arms was still like a
child's. If all was well with Dalice a little fire should be lighted at
the house door just at the going down of the sun, and it should be at
once put out. If she was ill, a fire should be lit and then put out two
hours after sundown. If she should be ill beyond any help, this fire
should burn on till it went out.

Day after day Tinoir, as he watched for the coming fleet, saw the fire
lit at sundown, and then put out. But one night the fire did not come
till two hours after sundown, and it was put out at once. He fretted
much, and he prayed that Dalice might be better, and he kept to his post,
looking for the fleet of the foe. Evening after evening was this other
fire lighted and then put out at once; and a great longing came to him to
leave this guarding of the fire, and go to her--"For half a day," he
said--"just for half a day!" But in that half day the fleet might pass,
and then it would be said that Tinoir had betrayed his country. At last
sleep left him, and he fought a demon night and day; and always he
remembered Dalice's arm about his neck, and her kisses that last night
they were together. Twice he started away from his post to go to her, but
before he had gone a hundred paces he came back.

At last one afternoon he saw ships, not far off, rounding the great cape
in the gulf, and after a time, at sunset, he knew by their shape it was
the fleet of the foe; and so he lighted his great fires, and they were
answered leagues away towards the city by another beacon.

Two hours after sunset of this day the fire in front of Tinoir's home was
lighted, and was not put out, and Tinoir sat and watched it till it died
away. So he lay in the light of his own great war-fire till morning, for
he could not travel at night, and then, his duty over, he went back to
his home. He found Dalice lying beside the ashes of her fire, past
hearing all he said in her ear, unheeding the kiss he set upon her lips.

Two nights afterwards, coming back from laying her beside her children,
he saw a great light in the sky towards the city, as of a huge fire. When
the courier came to him bearing the Governor's message and the praise of
the people, and told of the enemy's fleet destroyed by the fire-rafts, he
stared at the man, then turned his head to a place where a pine cross
showed against the green grass, and said:

"Dalice--my wife--is dead."

"You have saved your country, Tinoir," answered the courier kindly.

"I have lost Dalice!" he said, and fondled the rosary Dalice used to
carry when she lived; and he would speak to the man no more.

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