The Cursed Patois
by Mary Hartwell Catherwood
As his boat shot to the camp dock of beach stones, the camper
thought he heard a child's voice behind the screen of brush. He leaped
out and drew the boat to its landing upon a cross-piece held by two
uprights in the water, and ascended the steep path worn in leaf mould.
There was not only a child, there was a woman also in the camp. And
Frank Puttany, his German feet planted outward in a line, his smiling
dark face unctuous with hospitality towards creatures whom he had
evidently introduced, in foolish helplessness gave his partner the
Hello, Puttany. Visitors?
Brown pulled off his cap to the woman. She was pretty, with eyes
like a deer's, with white teeth showing between her parted scarlet
lips, and much curling hair pinned up and blowing over her ears. She
had the rich tint of a quarter-breed, lightened in her case by a
constant suffusion which gave her steady color. She was dressed in a
mixture of patches, but all were fitted to her perfect shape with a
Parisian elegance sensed even by-backwoodsmen. Pressed against her knee
stood the dirtiest and chubbiest four-year-old child on the borders of
Brevoort Lakeperhaps the dirtiest on the north shore of Michigan. The
Indian mixed with his French had been improved on by the sun until he
was of a brick redness and hardness of flesh; a rosy-raeated thing,
like a good muskalonge. Brown suddenly remembered the pair. They were
Joe La France's wife and child. Joe La France was dead. Puttany had
recently told him that Joe La France left a widow and a baby without
shelter, and without relations nearer than Canada.
After greeting Brown the guest resumed her seat on one of the
camp-chairs, a box worn smooth by much use, having a slit cut in the
top through which the hand could be thrust to lift it.
The camp, in a small clearing, consisted of two tents, both of the
wedge-shaped kind. The sleeping-tent was nearly filled by the bed it
contained; and this, lifted a few inches above the ground on pole
supports, was of browse or brush and straw, covered with blankets. A
square canopy of mosquito-netting protected it. The cooking-tent had a
foundation of logs and a canvas top. The floor was of pure white sand.
Boxes like lockers were stored under the eaves to hold food, and in one
corner a cylindrical camp-stove with an oven thrust its pipe through a
tinned hole in the roof. Plenty of iron skillets, kettles, and pans
hung above the lockers on pegs in the logs; and the camp dinner service
of white ware, black-handled knives and forks, and metal spoons, neatly
washed, stood on a table. Jess, the Scotch collie, who was always left
to guard the tents in their owners' absence, sat at her usual post
within the door; and she and Brown exchanged repressed growls at the
strangers. Jess, being freed from her chain, trotted at his heels when
he went back to the beach to clean fish for supper. She sat and watched
his deft and work-hardened hands as he dipped and washed and drew and
scaled his spoil. He was a clean-skinned, blue-eyed Canadian Irishman,
well made and sinewy, bright and open of countenance. His blond hair
clung in almost flaxen tendrils to his warm forehead. No ill-nature was
visible about him, yet he turned like a man in fierce self-defence on
his partner, who followed Jess and stood also watching him.
Puttany, you fool! what have you brought these cursed patois into
Joe La France vas my old pardner, softly pleaded the German.
Damn you, man, we can't start an orphan-asylum and widows' home!
We'll get a bad name at the hotels. The real good people won't have us
She told me in Allanville she had no place to stay. She did not
know what to do. At the old voman's, where Joe put her, they have need
of her bed. The old voman is too poor to keep her any more.
I'd have done just what you did; that's what makes me so mad. How
long is she going to stay?
I don't know, sheepishly responded his partner.
A Dutchman ought to have more sense than to load up with a lot of
cursed patois. Nothing but French and Indian! We'll have to put the
precious dears in the sleeping-tent, and bunk down ourselves with
blankets in the other. Did you air the blankets good this morning,
They vos veil aired.
You're a soft mark, Frank! One of us will have to marry Joe La
France's widowthat's what it will come to! Brown slapped the water
in violent disgust, but Puttany blushed a dark and modest red.
Men of their class rarely have vision or any kind of foresight. They
live in the present and plan no farther than their horizon, being, like
children, overpowered by visible things. But the Irish Canadian had
lived many lives as lake sailor and lumberman, and he had a shrewd eye
and quick humor. It was he who had devised the conveniences of the
camp, and who delicately and skilfully prepared the meals so that the
two fared like epicures; while Puttany did the scullery-work, and was
superior only at deerstalking.
The perfume of coffee presently sifted abroad, and the table was
brought out and set under the evening sky. Lockers gave up their store
of bread and pastry made by the capable hands of the camp housekeeper.
The woman, their guest, sat watching him move from cook-tent to table,
and Puttany lounged on the dog-kennel, whittling a stick.
Frank, said his partner, with sudden authority, you take the kid
down to the water and scrub him.
All over? whispered Puttany, in confusion.
Nojust his hands and top. Supper is ready to put on.
The docile mother heard her child yelling and blubbering under
generous douches while nurse's duty was performed by one of her
entertainers, and she smiled in proof that her faith was grounded on
their righteousness. She was indeed a mere girl. Her short scarlet
upper lip showed her teeth with piquant innocence. As much a creature
of the woods as a doe, her lot had been that primitive struggle which
knows nothing about the amenities and proprieties of civilization. This
Brown could clearly see, and he addressed her with the same protecting
patronage he would have used with the child.
What's your kid's name?
Grégoire, but he call himself Gougou. Me, I am Françoise La
Yes, I know that..You have had a hard time since Joe died.
I been anxionshe clasped her hands and looked pleadingly at
himI been very anxion!
Well, you're all right now.
You let me do de mend'? I can sew. I use' learn to sew when I have
t'ing to sew on.
Jerusalem! look at them shirts on the line! We have more clothes to
sew on than any dude at the hotels. And if that isn't enough, I'll make
Puttany strip and stay in the brush while you do his clothes.
Françoise widened her smile.
I've been thinking we'll have to build you a house right over
there. Her entertainer indicated the shore behind her.
Oppos'? exclaimed Françoise, turning with pleased interest. Even
in her husband's lifetime little thought had ever been taken for her.
Yes, directly opposite. We can fix it up snug like our winter camp
at the other end of the lake.
Have you two camp?
Yesa winter camp and a summer camp. But we have stayed
comfortably here in the cook-tent until the thermometer went fourteen
degrees below zero. We'll sleep in it till we get your house done, and
you can take the tent. If there are no parties wanting guides, we might
as well begin it in the morning.
But, faltered Françoise, afterw'iles when de ice is t'ick, and
you go to de hudder camp
Oh, we'll take care of you, he promised. You and Gougou will go
with us. We couldn't leave you on this side.
In de dark nights, shuddered Françoise.
You needn't be afraid, any time. When we are off during the day we
always leave Jess and Jim to guard the camp. Jess is a Scotch collie
and Jim is a blood-hound. He's there in the kennel. Neither man nor
varmint would have any chance with them.
I been use' to live alone when my husban' is away, M'sieu' Brownee.
I not 'fraid like you t'ink. But if Gougou be cold and hongry.
Now that's enough, said Brown, with gentle severity. Gougou will
never be cold and hungry again while there's a stick of wood to be cut
on the shores of this lake, or any game to bag, or a 'lunge to spear
through the ice. We get about two days' lumbering a week down by St.
Ignace. No use to work more than two days a week, he explained,
jocosely. That gives us enough to live on; and everybody around here
owes us from fifty to a hundred dollars back pay for work, anyhow. I've
bought this ground, twenty acres of it, and another year I'm going to
turn it into a garden.
Oh, a garden, M'sieu' Brownee! Me, I love some garden! I plant
honion once, salade also.
But I want to get my fences built before I put in improvements. You
know what the silver rule is, don't you?
No, m'sieu', answered Françoise, vaguely. She knew little of any
The silver rule is different from the golden rule. It's 'Do your
neighbors, or your neighbors will do you.' If I don't protect myself,
all the loose cattle around Brevoort will graze over me. Every fellow
for himself. We can't keep the golden rule. We'd never get rich if we
You are rich mans? interrogated Françoise, focussing her curiosity
on that invisible power of wealth.
Millionaires, brazenly claimed the young man, as he put an
earthen-ware pitcher on the table. Set there, you thousand-dollar
dish! We don't have a yacht on the lake because we prefer small boats,
and we go out as guides to have fun with the greenhorns. The cooking at
the hotels is good enough for common hunters and fishermen who come
here from the cities to spend their money, but it isn't good enough for
me. You've come to the right place, you may make your mind easy on
Françoise smiled because he told her to make her mind easy, not
because she understood the irony of his poverty. To have secure
shelter, and such a table as he spread, and the prowess to achieve
continual abundant sustenance from the world, made wealth in her eyes.
She was as happy as Gougou when this strange family, gathered from
three or four nations, sat down to their first meal.
The sun went low like a scarlet eggy probing the mother-of-pearl
lake with a long red line of shadow, until it wasted into grayness and
so disappeared. Then home-returning sails became spiritualized, and
moved in mist as in a dreamfoggy lake and sky, as one body, seeming
to push in upon the land.
Françoise slept the sleep of a healthy woman, with her child on her
arm, until at dawn the closed flap of the tent yielded to a bounding
shape. She opened her startled eyes to see Jim the blood-hound at the
foot of the bed, jerking the mosquito-netting. He growled at the
interlopers, not being able in his canine mind to reconcile their
presence with his customary duty of waking his masters in that tent. A
call and a whistle at the other side of the camp drew him away
doubting. But in a day both he and Jess had adopted the new members of
the family and walked at Gougou's heels.
Gougou existed in wonderland. He regarded the men as great and
amiable powers, who could do what they pleased with the elements and
with the creatures of the earth. They had a fawn, which had followed
Brown home along the beach, feeding on leaves from his hand. They had
built it a sylvan home of cedar boughs behind the camp, from which it
wandered at will. And though at first shy of Gougou, the pretty thing
was soon induced to stand upon its hind feet and dance for bits of
cake. His Indian blood vearned towards the fawn; but Me-thuselah, the
mighty turtle, was more exciting. Methuselah lived a prisoner in one
side of the bait-tank, from which he was lifted by a rope around his
tail. He was so enormous that it required both Brown and Puttany to
carry him up the bank, and as he hung from the pole the sudden
projection of his snapping head was a danger. When he fastened his
teeth into a stick, the stick was hopelessly his as long as he chose to
keep it. He was like an elephant cased in mottled shell, and the
serrated ridge on his tail resembled a row of huge brown teeth.
Methuselah was a many-wrinkled turtle. When he contracted, imbedding
head in shoulders and legs in body, revealing all his claws and showing
wicked little eyes near the point of his nose, his helpless rage
stirred all the Indian; he was the most deliciously devilish thing that
Gougou had ever seen.
Then there was the joy of wintergreen, which both men brought to the
child, and he learned to forage for it himself. The fleshy dark green
leaves and red berries clustered thickly in the woods. He and his
mother went in the boat when the day was to be given to bass or
pickerel fishing, and he learned great lessons of water-lore from the
two men. If they trusted a troll line to his baby hands, he was in a
state of beatitude. His object in life was to possess a bear cub, and
many a porcupine creeping along the beach he mistook for that desirable
property, until taught to distinguish quills from fur. Gougou heard,
and he believed, that all porcupines were old lumbermen, who never
died, but simply contracted to that shape. He furtively stoned them
when he could, reflecting that they were tough, and delighting to see
the quills fly.
Françoise would sit in the camp like a picture of still life,
glowing and silent at her appointed labor. She sewed for all of them,
looking womanly and unhurried, with a pink-veined moccasin-flower in
her hair; while Brown, cooking and baking, rushed from tent to
wood-pile, his sleeves turned back from his white, muscular arms. He
lived more intensely than any other member of the sylvan household. His
blue eyes shone, and his face was vivid as he talked to her. He was a
common man, blunted in the finer nature by a life of hardship, yet his
shrewd spirit seized on much that less facile people like Puttany
learned slowly or not at all.
Puttany and the child were often together in one long play, broken
only by the man's periods of labor. They basked in a boat near rushes,
waiting for pickerel to strike, or waded a bog to a trout stream at the
other end of the lake, hid in a forest full of windfalls and hoary moss
and tropical growths of brake and fern. Gougou had new strong clothes
and buckskin shoes. For the patois had not been a week in camp before
Brown went to St. Ignace and brought back denim and white and black
calico, which he presented to Françoise.
She ought to have a kind of second mourning, he explained to
Puttany, who received his word on any matter as law. Joe La France
wasn't worth wearing first mourning for, but second mourning is decent
for her, and it won't show in the camp like bright colors would.
The world of city-maddened people who swarmed to this lake for their
annual immersion in nature did not often intrude on the camp. Yet the
fact of a woman's presence there could not be concealed, and Puttany
was disciplined to say to strangers, Dot vas my sister and her little
A tiny cabin was built for Françoise, with the luxuries of a
puncheon floor and one glazed window. She inhabited it in primitive
gladness, as a child adorns a play-house, and was careful to keep it in
that trim, military state which Brown demanded. Françoise had a regard
for M'sieu' Put-tanee, who was neat and ladylike in all his doings, and
smiled amiably at her over her boy's head; but her veneration of
M'sieu' Brownee extended beyond the reach of humor. If he had been a
priest he could have had no more authority. She used to watch him
secretly from her window at dawn, as he put himself through a morning
drill to limber his muscles. Some spectators might have laughed, but
she heard as seriously as if they were the motions of her own soul his
tactics with a stick:
Straight outacross the shoulderunder the armdown on the
There were days when the misty gray lake, dim and delicious, lay
veiled within its irregular shores. Then the lowering sun stood on
tree-tops, a pale red wraith like the ghost of an Indian. And there
were days of sharp, clear shine, when Black Point seemed to approach
across the water, and any moving object could be seen in the Burninga
growth of green springing where the woods had been swept by fire. The
men were often away, guiding fishing parties from dawn until sunset, or
hunting parties from sunset half the night. Françoise and Gou-gou dwelt
in the camp, having the dogs as their protectors, though neither
primitive nor civilized life menaced them there with any danger. Some
evenings, when few affairs had crowded the day, Brown sat like a
patriarch in the midst of his family, and took Gougou on his knee to
hear bear stories. He supervised the youngster's manners like a mother,
and Gougou learned to go down to the washing-place and use soap when
the signs were strong for bear-dens and deer-stalking.
I saw a bear come out on the beach once, Brown would tell him,
when I was stalking for deer and had a doe and fawn in the lake. I
smelt him, but couldn't get him to turn his eyes towards me. I killed
both deer, and skinned them, and cut up one. And that bear went into
the woods and howled for hours. I took all the venison I could carry,
but left part of the carcasses. When we went after them in the morning,
the bear had eaten all up clean.
Bear-dens, Gougou was informed, might be found where there was a
windfall. The bears stuffed cracks between the fallen trees with moss,
and so made themselves a tight house in which to hibernate. If you were
obliged to have bear meat that season when the game was thin, you could
cut a hole into a den, stand by it with an axe, and lop off the
inquiring head stuck out to investigate disturbances. Bears had very
small stomachs, but whatever they ate went to fat. They walked much on
their hind feet, and browsed on nuts or mast when their hunting was not
successful, being able to thrive on little. Usually a father, a mother,
and a cub formed one household in one den.
Brown's mind ran on the subject of households; and he sometimes
talked to Françoise about his mother.
My mother Gaelics like the Scotch, he said. Françoise could not
imagine what it was to Gaelic. People had not Gaelic-ed on the
Chaudière, where she was brought up until the children were obliged to
scatter from the narrow farm. But the priest had never warned her
against it, and since M'sieu' Brownee's mother was addicted to the
practice, it must be something excellent, perhaps even religious. She
secretly invoked St. Francis, her patron saint, to obtain for her that
mysterious power of Gaelic-ing of which M'sieu' Brownee spoke so
So the summer passed, and frost was already ripening to glory the
ranks on ranks of dense forest pressing to the lake borders. Brown and
Puttany rowed home through an early September evening, lifted their
boat to its cross-piece dock, and pulled the plug out of the bottom to
let it drain. There was no sound, even of the dogs, as they flung their
spoil ashore. It was the very instant of moon-rise. At first a copper
rim was answered by the faintest line in the water. Then the full
reddish disk stood upon a strong copper pillar, smooth and flawless in
a rippleless lake, and that became denuded of its capital as the ball
rose over it into the sky.
Seems still, remarked Brown, and he ran up the path, shaking leaf
loam like dry tobacco dust from the roots of ferns he had brought to
Françoise. He knew at once that she and Gougou had left the camp. He
sat down on the dog-kennel with his hands on his knees, staring at the
dim earth. Puttany went from tent to cabin, calling his daily playmate,
unable to convince himself that some unusual thing had happened, and he
hoped that Brown would contradict him when he felt compelled to
announce his slow discovery.
Dey vas gone!
Damn you, Puttany! exploded his partner, what did you bring her
here for? I didn't want to get into this! I wanted to steer clear of
women! You knew I was soft! You knew her black eyes, and the child that
made her seem like the Virgin, would get in their work on me!
No, I didn't, said Puttany, in phlegmatic consternation.
What's the matter, Frank? Haven't we behaved white to this woman?
Have you done anything, you stupid old Dutchman, cried Brown,
collaring his partner with abrupt violence, that would drive her out
of the camp without a word?
I svear, Prowny, the other gasped, as soon as he had breath for
swearing, I haf been so polite to her as my own mudder.
The younger man sat down again, dropping lax hands across his knees.
A growl inside the box reminded him that Jim the blood-hound should be
brought to account for this disappearance.
Come out here! he commanded, and the lithe beast crept wagging and
apologizing to his side. What kind of a way is this for you to keep a
campJess sitting in the kitchen, and you in the box, and somebody
carrying off Françoise and the boy, and every rag that would show they
had ever been hereand not a sound out of your cowardly head till we
come home and catch you skulking? I've a notion to take a board and
beat you to death!
Jim lay down with an abject and dismal whine.
Where is she?
Jim lifted his nose and sniffed hopefully, and his master rose up
and dragged him by the collar to the empty cabin. It was the first time
Brown had entered that little cell since its dedication to the woman
for whom it was built. He rubbed Jim's muzzle against the bed, and
pointed to nails in the logs where the clothes of the patois had hung.
Now you lope out and find themdo you hear?
Jim, crouching on his belly in acknowledgment that his apprehension
had been at fault during some late encounter, slunk across the camp and
took the path to the hotels.
Brown turned on Puttany following at his heels: Frank, are you sure
Joe La France is dead?
Oh yes, he is det.
Did you see him die? Were you there when he was buried? Was he put
underground with plenty of dirt on top of him, or did he merely drop in
I vas not there.
Maybe the lazy hound has resurrected. I've seen these lumbermen
dropped into the water and drowned too often. You can never be sure
they won't be up drinking and fighting to-morrow unless you run a knife
He is a det man, affirmed Puttany.
Then somebody else has carried her off, and I'm going to know all
about it before I come back to camp. If I never come back, you may have
the stuff and land. I'm in this heels over head, and I don't care how
soon things end with me.
But, Prowny, old poy, I vill help you
You stay here. This is my hunt.
Jim passed the rustic guest-houses without turning aside from the
trail. Brown took no thought of inquiring at their doors, for
throughout the summer Françoise had not once been seen at the hotels.
He did, however, hastily borrow a horse from the stable where he was
privileged, and pursuing the blood-hound along the lake shore, he
cantered over a causeway of logs and earth which had been raised above
The trail was very fresh, for Jim, without swerving, followed the
road where it turned at right angles from the shore and wound inland
among stumps. They had nearly reached Allanville, a group of log huts
beside a north-shore railroad, when Jim uttered the bay of victory.
Brown dropped from the saddle and called him sternly back. To be
hunting Françoise with a blood-hound out of leashhow horrible was
He tied his horse to a tree and took Jim by the collar, restraining
the creature's fierce joy of discovery. Françoise must be near, unless
a hound whose scent was unerring had become a fool.
What if she had left camp of her own will? She was so quiet, one
could not be sure of her thoughts. Brown was sure of his thoughts. He
grinned in the lonely landscape, seeing himself as he had appeared on
recent Sundays, in his best turtle-tail neck-tie mounted on velvet.
I've got it bad, he confessed.
Stooping to Jim's collar while the dog whined and strained, he
passed a cabin. And there Jim relaxed in the search and turned around.
The moon stood high enough to make a wan fairy daylight. Gougou, like a
gnome, started from the ground to meet them, and the dog at once lay
down and fawned at his feet.
More slowly approaching from the cabin, Brown saw Françoise, still
carrying in her hand the bundle of her belongings brought from camp. In
the shadow of the house a man watched the encounter, and a sift of rank
tobacco smoke hinted the pipes of fathers and sons resting from the
day's labor on the cabin door-sill or the sward. Voices of children
could be heard, and other dogs gave mouth, so that Brown laid severe
commands on Jim before he could tremblingly speak to Françoise.
Oh, M'sieu' Brownee, I t'ink maybe you come!
But, Françoise, what made you leave?
It is my husban's brudder. I not know what to do! He bring us to
dese folks to stay all night till de cars go.
Why didn't he show himself to us, and take you like a man?
Oh, M'sieu' Browneehe say de priest hexcommunicate meto
livesoin de camp! It is not my faultand I t'ink about you and
M'sieu' Put-taneeand Gougou he bite his honcle, and kick and scream!
Damn the uncle! swore Brown, deeply.
Oh, I been so anxion! sobbed Françoise.
We must be married right off, said Brown. I'll fix your
brother-in-law. Françoise, will yon have me for your husband?
Me, M'sieu' Brownee?
Yes, youyou cursed sweet patois!
M'sieu' Brownee, you may call me de cursed patois. I not know
anyt'ings. But when André La France take me away, oh, I t'ink I die!
Let me honly be Françoise to do your mend'! I be 'appier to honly look
at you dan some womans who 'ave 'usban'!
Françoise, kiss mekiss me! His voice broke with a sob. If you
loved me you would have me!
M'sieu' Brownee, I ado' you!
Suddenly giving way to passionate weeping, and to all the tenderness
which nature teaches even barbarians to repress, she abandoned herself
to his arms.