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L'ange by James Oliver Curwood

She stood in the doorway of a log cabin that was overgrown with woodvine and mellow with the dull red glow of the climbing bakneesh, with the warmth of the late summer sun falling upon her bare head. Cummins' shout had brought her to the door when we were still half a rifle shot down the river; a second shout, close to shore, brought her running down toward me. In that first view that I had of her, I called her beautiful. It was chiefly, I believe, because of her splendid hair. John Cummins' shout of homecoming had caught her with it undone, and she greeted us with the dark and lustrous masses of it sweeping about her shoulders and down to her hips. That is, she greeted Cummins, for he had been gone for nearly a month. I busied myself with the canoe for that first half minute or so.

Then it was that I received my introduction and for the first time touched the hand of Melisse Cummins, the Florence Nightingale of several thousand square miles of northern wilderness. I saw, then, that what I had at first taken for our own hothouse variety of beauty was a different thing entirely, a type that would have disappointed many because of its strength and firmness. Her hair was a glory, brown and soft. No woman could have criticized its loveliness. But the flush that I had seen in her face, flower-like at a short distance, was a tan that was almost a man's tan. Her eyes were of a deep blue and as clear as the sky; but in them, too, there was a strength that was not altogether feminine. There was strength in her face, strength in the poise of her firm neck, strength in every movement of her limbs and body. When she spoke, it was in a voice which, like her hair, was adorable. I had never heard a sweeter voice, and her firm mouth was all at once not only gentle and womanly, but almost girlishly pretty.

I could understand, now, why Melisse Cummins was the heroine of a hundred true tales of the wilderness, and I could understand as well why there was scarcely a cabin or an Indian hut in that ten thousand square miles of wilderness in which she had not, at one time or another, been spoken of as "L'ange Meleese." And yet, unlike that other "angel" of flesh and blood, Florence Nightingale, the story of Melisse Cummins and her work will live and die with her in that little cabin two hundred miles straight north of civilization. No, that is wrong. For the wilderness will remember. It will remember, as it has remembered Father Duchene and the Missioner of Lac Bain and the heroic days of the early voyageurs. A hundred "Meleeses" will bear her memory in name—for all who speak her name call her "Meleese," and not Melisse.

The wilderness itself may never forget, as it has never forgotten beautiful Jeanne D'Arcambal, who lived and died on the shore of the great bay more than one hundred and sixty years ago. It will never forget the great heart this woman has given to her "people" from the days of girlhood; it will not forget the thousand perils she faced to seek out the sick, the plague-stricken and the starving; in old age there will still be those who will remember the first prayers to the real God that she taught them in childhood; and children still to come, in cabin, tepee and hut, will live to bless the memory of L'ange Meleese, who made possible for them a new birthright and who in the wild places lived to the full measure and glory of the Golden Rule.

To find Meleese Cummins and her home in the wilderness, one must start at Le Pas as the last outpost of civilization and strike northward through the long Pelican Lake waterways to Reindeer Lake. Nearly forty miles up the east shore of the lake, the adventurer will come to the mouth of the Gray Loon—narrow and silent stream that winds under overhanging forests—and after that a two-hours' journey in a canoe will bring one to the Cummins' cabin.

It is set in a clearing, with the thick spruce and balsam and cedar hemming it in, and a tall ridge capped with golden birch rising behind it. In that clearing John Cummins raises a little fruit and a few vegetables during the summer months; but it is chiefly given up to three or four huge plots of scarlet moose-flowers, a garden of Labrador tea, and wild flowering plants and vines of half a dozen varieties. And where the radiant moose-flowers grow thickest, screened from the view of the cabin by a few cedars and balsams, are the rough wooden slabs that mark seven graves. Six of them are the graves of children—little ones who died deep in the wilderness and whose tiny bodies Meleese Cummins could not leave to the savage and pitiless loneliness of the forests, but whom she has brought together that they might have company in what she calls her, "Little Garden of God."

Those little graves tell the story of Meleese—the woman who, all heart and soul, has buried her own one little babe in that garden of flowers. One of the slabs marks the grave of an Indian baby, whose little dead body Meleese Cummins carried to her cabin in her own strong arms from twenty miles back in the forest, when the temperature was fifty degrees below zero. Another of them, a baby boy, a French half-breed and his wife brought down from fifty miles up the Reindeer and begged "L'ange Meleese" to let it rest with the others, where "it might not be lonely and would not be frightened by the howl of the wolves." It was a wild and half Indian mother who said that!

It was almost twenty years ago that the romance began in the lives of John and Meleese Cummins. Meleese was then ten years old; and she still remembers as vividly as though they were but memories of yesterday the fears and wild tales of that one terrible winter when the "Red Terror"—the smallpox—swept in a pitiless plague of death throughout the northern wilderness. It was then that there came down from the north, one bitter cold day, a ragged and half-starved boy, whose mother and father had died of the plague in a little cabin fifty miles away, and who from the day he staggered into the home of Henry Janesse, became Meleese's playmate and chum. This boy was John Cummins.

When Janesse moved to Fort Churchill, where Meleese might learn more in the way of reading and writing and books than her parents could teach her, John Cummins went with her. He went with them to Nelson House, and from there to Split Lake, where Janesse died. From that time, at the age of eighteen, he became the head and support of the home. When he was twenty and Meleese eighteen, the two were married by a missioner from Nelson House. The following autumn the young wife's mother died, and that winter Meleese began her remarkable work among her "people."

In their little cabin on the Gray Loon, one will hear John Cummins say but little about himself; but there is a glow in his eyes and a flush in his cheeks as he tells of that first day he came home from a three-days journey over a long trap line to find his home cold and fireless, and a note written by Meleese telling him that she had gone with a twelve-year-old boy who had brought her word through twenty miles of forest that his mother was dying. That first "case" was more terrible for John Cummins than for his wife, for it turned out to be smallpox, and for six weeks Meleese would allow him to come no nearer than the edge of the clearing' in which the pest-ridden cabin stood. First the mother, and then the boy, she nursed back to life, locking the door against the two husbands, who built themselves a shack in the edge of the forest. Half a dozen times Meleese Cummins has gone through ordeals like that unscathed. Once it was to nurse a young Indian mother through the dread disease, and again she went into a French trapper's cabin where husband, wife and daughter were all sick with the malady. At these times, when the "call" came to Meleese from a far cabin or tepee, John Cummins would give up the duties of his trap line to accompany her, and would pitch his tent or make him a shack close by, where he could watch over her, hunt food for the afflicted people and keep up the stack of needed firewood and water.

But there were times when the "calls" came during the husband's absence, and, if they were urgent, Meleese went alone, trusting to her own splendid strength and courage. A half-breed woman came to her one day, in the dead of winter, from twenty miles across the lake. Her husband had frozen one of his feet, and the "frost malady" would kill him, she said, unless he had help. Scarcely knowing what she could do in such a case, Meleese left a note for her husband, and on snowshoes the two heroic women set off across the wind-swept and unsheltered lake, with the thermometer fifty degrees below zero. It was a terrible venture, but the two won out. When Meleese saw the frozen man, she knew that there was but one thing to do, and with all the courage of her splendid heart she amputated his foot. The torture of that terrible hour no one will ever know. But when John Cummins returned to his home and, wild with fear, followed across the lake, he scarcely recognized the Meleese who flung herself sobbing into his arms when he found her. For two weeks after that Meleese herself was sick. Thus, through the course of years, it came about that it was, indeed, a stranger in the land who had not heard her name. During the summer months Meleese's work, in place of duty, was a pleasure. With her husband she made canoe journeys for fifty miles about her home, hearing with her the teachings of cleanliness, of health and of God. She was the first to hold to her own loving breast many little children who came into their wild and desolate inheritance of life. She was the first to teach a hundred childish lips to say "Now I lay me down to sleep," and more than one woman she made to see the clear and starry way to brighter life.

Far up on Reindeer Lake, close to the shore, there is a towering "lob-stick tree"—which is a tall spruce or cedar lopped of all its branches to the very crest, which is trimmed in the form of a plume. A tree thus shriven and trimmed is the Cree cenotaph to one held in almost spiritual reverence, and the tree far up on Reindeer Lake is one of the half dozen or more "lob-sticks" dedicated to Meleese. Six weeks Meleese and John Cummins spent in an Indian camp at this point, and when at last the two bade their primitive friends good-bye and left for home, the little Indian children and the women followed their canoe along the edge of a stream and flung handfuls of flowers after them.

Of what Meleese Cummins and her husband know of the great outside world, or of what they do not know, it is wisest to leave unsaid. Details have often marred a picture. They are children of the wilderness, born of that wilderness, bred of it, and life of it—a beating and palpitating part of a world which few can understand. I doubt if one or the other has ever heard of a William Shakespeare or a Tennyson, for it has not been in my mind or desire to ask; but they do know the human heart as it beats and throbs in a land that is desolation and loneliness, where poetry runs not in lines and meters, but in the bloom of the wild flower, the rush of the rapid, the thunder of the waterfall and the murmuring of the wind in the spruce tops; where drama exists not in the epic lines of literature, but in the hunt cry of the wolf, the death dirges of the storms that wail down from the Barrens, and in the strange cries that rise up out of the silent forests, where for a half of each year life is that endless strife that leaves behind only those whom we term the survival of the fittest.


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