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The Magic Forest
WHEN James Ferris was only five years old, he slipped from his bed, pattered barefooted through the bedroom and down the hall, and was finally reclaimed by an excited mother just as he was about to crawl through the window on to the sloping roof of the veranda. James was promptly spanked, although he disclaimed all knowledge of the episode. About a year later he left his sleeping-car berth, and was only restrained All by the porter from stepping off the moving train. At the age of seven he horrified his family by climbing down four stories of a hotel fire-escape. The third coincidence set his mother's wits to work. After a time it became fully established that Jimmy Ferris was a somnambulist, or sleep-walker.
Jimmy did not know this. It was considered best to keep him in ignorance of the fact. The recurrence of his night prowlings was rare, and after his condition became recognized, he was never awakened. In fact, until the age of nine, at which time this story opens, he had made but six such excursions.
Aside from this unfortunate tendency, he had never been very strong.
His passion had always been for out-of-door life, and that would have been the very best thing for him; but his mother was too worried about him. She exercised a general supervisory authority over such things as rubbers, flannel bands, sponge cake, and oatmeal, which convinced Jimmy that mortal man would die if his feet got wet or if his diet were in the least irregular. It is natural for a boy to pattern his mental cast by that of his mother, and Jimmie's mother was very anxious. Indeed, about this time she imagined that Jimmie's lungs were weak, and so nothing would do but that they must all go to Monterey for the summer and Santa Barabara for the winter. As Jimmy's great but thwarted ambition had always been to see the "big woods," he was more than delighted.
They set out by the Canadian Pacific railroad early in May. Jimmy was at the car window all of the daylight hours, marvelling at the Canadian country, the stretches of forest, the numerous lakes. North of Lake Superior he was surprised to see still a great deal of snow lying in the hollows, and in fact, late one afternoon, the big, white flakes began to zigzag slowly through the air. Jimmy was filled with wonder. A snow-storm in May!
All the afternoon he flattened his little nose against the window, his eye wide with the mystery of the forest. He could see into it just about ten feet, but who knew what lay beyond that? His restless mind conjured up the hollows, the streams, the springs, the wild beasts. Up in through that country lay the Long Trail to the fur regions. At Sudbury, late in the afternoon, he had glimpsed a voyageur just from the wilds. The man had worn a fur cap with the tail hanging down behind! He had been wrapped in a long blanket coat bound with a red sash, and his feet were encased in beaded moccasins! Jimmy's mind went galloping off on the leagues of the Long Trail and after he had gone to bed he dreamed of it. He too travelled in the Silent Places.
About five o'clock in the morning the train paused an instant because the driving wheels could not grip the slippery rails on the grade. The engineer promptly turned on his sand. Five minutes later he had forgotten the circumstance.
But in that pause something had happened. Jimmy Ferris, travelling the Trail in imagination, had wandered down the aisle of the car, had stepped from the platform at precisely the moment the engineer reached for his sand lever, and was now blundering aimlessly through the falling snow, over rolling bald hills, clad only in his slippers, a pair of trousers, and his nightgown, firmly convinced in his own mind that he was discovering the North Pole.
Two hours and a half later, which of course meant seventy or eighty miles farther on, Mrs. Ferris discovered her son's berth empty. Then there was trouble! Telegrams, questions, conjectures, flew. Section men scurried over every inch of the track on hand-cars, thinking to find Jimmy's mutilated body. He was evidently not on the train: it seemed impossible that he could have left it while moving without receiving some injury. Nobody remembered that labored moment when the engine had coughed its protest of the grade. No sign nor clew could be discovered. Mrs. Ferris was prostrated; Mr. Ferris stricken to the heart; everybody else was supremely puzzled. Jimmy had simply vanished into thin air.
In the meantime Jimmy went on discovering the North Pole, and the arctic weather became more and more severe. He was just on the point of plucking the pole to take home with him, from which happy event he was being prevented however by the numbness of his hands, when he awoke and looked about him.
He knew perfectly well he was no longer dreaming, but for a moment he seriously doubted whether he was alive. His last moments of consciousness had felt the yielding of a Pullman berth, had heard the regular clinkety-clank of the car wheels, had seen the thin crack of light that swayed between his curtains. And here all at once he was out on a gray, bleak, boulder-strewn hillside, without a sign of berth, or car, or even track anywhere within sight. You must remember that he knew nothing whatever of his sleep-walking propensities. He could not summon to his bewildered brain even a wild solution of the affair.
Before him stretched a mistlike forest country, indistinct in the early light, about whose skeleton branches lingered a faint, wraithlike fog. And all about him was a great silence.
He was not frightened; the whole thing was too unexplained for that, and, being unable to account for himself in any way, he was as yet unterrified by a feeling of responsibility. But he was very cold. His thin slippers, which he had instinctively assumed before setting out to discover the North Pole, were wet through by the damp snow; his bare shanks were goose-fleshed, and a thin, cotton nightgown and a pair of knee breeches are not precisely an early May costume in the North. Having been taught that damp feet meant pneumonia and inadequate clothing consumption, Jimmy immediately gave himself up for lost. "I must get back," he said to himself.
Get back where? He had never seen this country before. That Pullman car might be on the other side of the world. For a moment he imagined he might be dead, but. then a certain sturdy little piety
of his own came to his aid. It was not that. But since the human mind must have explanations or perish, and since Jimmy was only nine years old and more conversant with Grimm and Andersen than with medical authorities, and since sorcery is after all much nearer to the hearts of most of us than such a stupendous metamorphosis as this, he shortly concluded that he was living a fairy tale and that this must be the Magic Forest.
In that case he must go somewhere. He struck out sturdily, his mind quite at rest from the fears that would have assailed it had he been lost in an ordinary and comprehensible manner.
Of course he set out in the wrong direction. Even had he known enough to follow a back track, it would have been impossible for him to have done so. The back track was covered by the light fall of snow. Travel was difficult enough and uncomfortable enough in any direction, but level places are easier than hills. Accordingly, Jimmy took his way down toward the wraith of vapor, and so, shortly after an hour's stumbling through a fringe of wood, found himself on the banks of a brawling north country river. By this time the sun was well over the horizon, the clouds had scattered, and Jimmy's blood was circulating, so that, had he only known it, the danger of pneumonia or a harmful chill had passed.
But Jimmy did not know it. He only knew that the repeated contact with melting snow had turned his feet positively blue, that his thin, wet garments sent a spasm of cold through his body every time a new movement brought their smooth clamminess next his skin in a fresh place, that the wood's brush had scraped and torn his skin cruelly. Once something abrupt and strange had glided away like a streak of brown from a thicket before him, startling him into a cry, which returned from the great silence to strangle in his throat. Now he stared in helpless bewilderment at the swift stream, and wondered what new thing he must do. It would not have surprised him to have been whisked back at any moment to his berth in the Pullman car. Above the little stone beach on which he stood, the river boiled and tumbled and whirled down a slope strewn with big and little boulders. The water was broken into foam, slid in a smooth green apron, twisted in savage eddies. The pool before him was filled with white froth. And Jimmy was a very lonesome little boy in a great, strange place.
Suddenly at the extremity of the vista something sprang into view and came shooting down the hurried waters. It stopped abruptly, worked jerkingly sideways, to slant with terrific impetus across the smooth apron. Jimmy's bewildered vision made out a canoe, a birch-bark canoe of bright yellow with up-curved bows, of the sort he had seen pictures of in his father's Parkman. It contained two men. As the canoe leaped nearer and nearer, the men came more plainly into view. Their bold, copper-colored faces were set in rigid lines of attention, their beady black eyes were fixed unwaveringly on the difficulties of the descent, their sinewy brown hands wielded long paddles whose blades were colored vermilion.
Both wore their hair long about the napes of their necks and over their ears, and bound it in place by bands about their foreheads. Even before the boy's quick faculties had sensed these things, the craft had reached a spot where the current divided about a great boulder to tumble over a sunken ledge in a cataract. The men simultaneously rose to their knees and thrust at their paddles in one superhuman effort. The canoe quivered, jumped sideways, shot forward just to clear the boulder, and rushed on the cataract.
"Ae! hi, hi, hi-yah!" shrieked the men in an ecstasy.
"The canoe quivered,... and rushed the cateract."
The craft leaped directly out in the air. A smother of spray arose. It floated peacefully in the eddy of the pool.
Another canoe appeared, another, then two, all rushing down the current, all taking the leap. The air was full of shoutings, of laughter. Some set to work at once bailing water, others looked eagerly up-stream to watch their successors shoot the rapids. Almost instantaneously, as it seemed, the empty place was alive.
And the little boy, shivering in the shadow of the wood, shivered still more with mingled terror and delight; for now he saw that these were Indians, the wild Indians of the woods, of a hundred years ago, whose wigwams had given place to the New York he knew, about whom his father had read to him in Cooper, come back from the mysterious, romantic past to traverse the Magic Forest. He was frightened, and yet he was glad. They were Indians, and yet they looked kind. He did not know whether to flee or whether to reveal himself and ask for aid.
The trouble of a decision was saved him, however. The keen eyes of the savages did not long overlook him. Instantly he was surrounded by a curious group, eager to know the meaning of his appearance.
The strange, handsome men in moccasins talked to one another in beautiful singing syllables; then an old man knelt before him.
"You get los'?" he asked laboriously. Jimmy only stared. You see he really did not know himself.
"Where you liv'?"
"New York," replied Jimmy.
"New Yo'k," they repeated to one another, puzzled. They thought they knew the place, for far up on the shores of the Hudson Bay is a fur-trading post called York Factory. But how did this child come to be here?
"You go dere now?" inquired the old Indian after a moment. He spoke swiftly to his companions.
"You wan' go to York?" he asked.
"Yes! Yes!" cried Jimmy.
"A' right," replied the Indian.
"Is it far?" asked Jimmy.
"Ver' far." In the meantime a little fire had been built, over which already a tin pail was bubbling. After a moment the Indian gave Jimmy a tin cup.
"Drink him," said he.
It was tea, coal-black, red-hot, without sugar and cream. Jimmy had never been allowed to drink tea at home, but he gulped this down, almost scalding his throat in the process, and at once felt better. While thus engaged, other Indians came through the woods, bearing heavy packs by means of straps passed across their foreheads. Other canoes, managed no less skilfully by women, shot the rapids. Children, half-grown youths, girls, dogs, joined the group. A soft lisp of excited conversation arose. Old Makwa, the Indian who had interrogated Jimmy, told them what he had learned. It was surmised that the boy had become possessed by homesickness and had started for York Factory on foot, ignorant of the length of the journey; or perhaps that he had been lost from a party already well on its way toward that distant post. The band had just been in to trade its furs at Chapleau. It could not return south.
Makwa cut the discussion short. There was occasion for haste. He unceremoniously bundled thinly clad little Jimmy in a robe and deposited him gently in the waist of his canoe. The boy was well with them. Later, perhaps, when they returned to Chapleau in the fall.
He thrust the canoe strongly into the current. It shot away. Ah-kik, the bowsman, headed it down-stream. The paddles dipped.
And now indeed, although he did not for a moment suspect the fact, little Jimmy Ferris was setting out on the Long Trail.