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Cyrus Macmillan

The Partridge and His Drum

I N far back times when only Indians dwelt in Canada, Glooskap, who was Lord and Master of the tribes, chose Partridge from among all his creatures to be the boat-builder for the birds of the sea. Partridge was then a very wonderful bird, very different from what he is to-day. He dwelt always along the ocean shore, on the banks of great rivers, and he could swim like a duck or a gull. He could change his shape to that of a man. He knew all the country well, and often he wandered far through the woods looking for good trees from which to build his boats. Among all the people he was held in high regard because of his skill. He was always industrious and always busy, and at all hours of the day and late into the night, he could be heard hammering at his canoes, making a sound like a man tapping quickly on a drum. But he lost his reputation through no fault of his own. He no longer builds boats; the power to make the strange sound of his hammering is all that remains with him of his former greatness.

It happened that one very cold day Partridge walked alone over the snow in the deep forest near the shore of a great lake, looking for lumber for his boats. On the bank of a stream he saw four beautiful maidens sitting on the ice braiding their long hair. He knew that they were the nymphs or fairies of the stream, and he watched them from behind a tree. He had long desired to win a stream fairy for his bride, but up to that time he had found it an impossible task, for the fairies were very timid. As he watched them now, he thought to himself, "Perhaps I can catch one of them and carry her off." So he stealthily slipped from behind the tree and crept along towards the bank. But the water-nymphs, who could hear the smallest sound, heard his footsteps, and looking around, they spied him among the trees. "Oh, oh!" they all cried, and at once they all dropped into the icy water and disappeared.


he saw four beautiful maidens sitting on the ice braiding their long hair.

Now, Partridge, being then a river-dweller and of very great strength, was a good fisherman. Many a time he had caught the slippery harbour seals, and often he had dined plentifully on their meat. He hit upon a crafty trick by which to seize a nymph. He cut a number of branches from a spruce tree, and sticking them upright in the snow on the shore he hid behind them, and waited for the nymphs to appear again. Sure enough they soon came back and sat again upon the ice braiding their long hair. Partridge put his head over the boughs to take a peep at them so that he might pick out the most beautiful, but again they saw him, and with the same frightened cry, "Oh, oh!" they dropped quickly into the sea. After them went Partridge, although he knew that the water was very cold. He caught one, but she slipped from his arms, and when he came to the surface, he had only her hair ribbon in his hand.

Now, in those old days water-nymphs in this part of the sea could not live long without their hair ribbons, for the ribbons contained always much of their magic power. Partridge knew this, and he knew too that sooner or later the nymph would wander about on land looking for her lost charm. So he put the ribbon in his pocket and with a light heart he went about his business of seeking wood for his boats. That night when he went back to his tent he hid the ribbon not far from his hand in hope of the fairy's visit; then, pretending to sleep, he closed his eyes and waited. He had not been there long when there came in very softly the beautiful water-nymph in search of her lost ribbon. Now, when a water-nymph sets foot in the dwelling of man or animal without her hair ribbon, she is always powerless. This Partridge knew well. He sprang quickly from his couch, caught her with little trouble, and easily persuaded her to remain with him as his wife. This was against Glooskap's orders, for Glooskap knew that if one of his people married a water-nymph no good could come of it. But Glooskap said nothing.

Partridge and his nymph-wife lived happily enough for a time. But he always feared for her safety when he went far away looking for lumber for his boats, for many evil creatures were always about in the forest. And he always said to her before he went away, "Keep the doors tightly barred while I am gone, for many wicked people and robbers prowl through the woods, and they will try to enter the tent perhaps to kill you." And she always promised to be on her guard.

One day Partridge went far away in search of lumber for a new fleet of boats he was then building. In the afternoon he came to a grove of wonderful cedar trees. He wished to examine it carefully, and as night was coming on—for winter nights come early in the Canadian woods—he decided to stay there until the next day. So as the day went down, he made a bed of boughs and went to sleep. He had no fear for his wife's safety, for she had promised to keep the doors barred.

Meanwhile, his wife waited at home for his coming. When the stars came out, she knew that he would not come home that night, and being sleepy she went to bed, first seeing that the doors were securely fastened. She felt very lonely all by herself in the big tent, for Partridge, because of the troublesome noise of his boat-building, dwelt a good distance away from his neighbours. At midnight she was awakened by a loud knocking at the door. "Open the door," said a voice outside; "I am cold and hungry and I have come far." But mindful of the warning of Partridge, the nymph-wife paid no heed to the call. Now, the voice was that of a wicked sorcerer who always prowled through the forest, and who knew that Partridge was away. He wished to kill and eat the nymph. He was a very clever and sly fellow, and he could imitate the voices of all men and animals to lure people to their death. For a long time after his first call he was silent. Then he knocked again and imitated the voice of the nymph's brothers and sisters, and said, "Oh, sister, we have followed you for a long time until at last we have found you; open the door to us." But still the nymph was suspicious and refused to unbar the door. Then the sorcerer imitated her father's voice and called her "daughter." But still she would not let him in. At last he talked like her mother, and said, "Oh, daughter, open the door; I have come far in search of you, and I am very cold and hungry and tired." The nymph-wife was deceived at last, for she thought the voice was that of her old mother from the stream. Hastily she opened the door. At once the wicked sorcerer—the evil spirit of the woods—pounced upon her, and killing her at a blow, he greedily devoured her like a wolf, until not a bone was left.

The next morning Partridge came home. He found the door of his house open and his wife absent. He wondered greatly, for he remembered her promise, and he could not believe that she had been killed. So he resolved to use his magic power to learn where she had gone. He took his magic wooden plate and filled it with water, and placed it in a corner of the tent while he slept. When he awoke, the dish was full not of water but of blood, and he knew from this sign that his wife had been killed by the sorcerer. He determined to punish her slayer, and taking his axe and his bow and arrows and his magic charm, he left his work and set out in pursuit of the sorcerer. He knew that the sorcerers travelled in pairs; he knew, too, that they had many tricks by which to escape punishment, and that they could take on various shapes. So he went along cautiously.

By evening he reached a great lone land in the far north where he thought he found traces of two of the evil ones. He came to a large cave which he entered, intending to pass the night there. From a huge rock at the side of the cave a man's foot was sticking. He knew that here was one of the sorcerers who had gone into the rock to sleep as was their custom, leaving his foot sticking out so that his comrade could pull him out when he had slept long enough. Partridge quickly cut off the foot close to the rock, and there the sorcerer was left closed up forever in the stone. There the rock remains to this day. Just as Partridge had finished the cutting, the sorcerer's companion came in, and Partridge knew,—for he had seen him often about his tent,—that here at last was the murderer of his wife. When the sorcerer saw no foot sticking from the rock, he knew at once that his brother was forever locked up in the stone, and he became very angry. Then he saw Partridge, whom he knew to be his brother's slayer, but giving no sign of his knowledge, he received him kindly. He bolted the door of the cave, and then made a great fire, thinking to roast Partridge alive and thereby have a good meal. But Partridge used his magic charm against heat and helped the sorcerer to pile more wood on the fire, saying that he was very cold. Soon the cave grew hotter and hotter until at last its sides became red and the flames shot high to the roof, and even before he knew it the sorcerer was overcome by the great heat. Partridge threw him upon the fire, where he was quickly burned to cinders. Then, well pleased with his vengeance, he returned quickly to his home.

But from that day poor Partridge was never himself again. He sorrowed greatly for his dead nymph-wife, until he became stupid and could not do his work well, but he went faithfully about his duties, finishing the great fleet of boats for the birds and animals. Finally came the day when all were to be launched, and Glooskap and all his people gathered to see the fleet go by. It was a very wonderful sight on a great inland sea. The eagle had a large canoe which he paddled with the ends of his wings; all the birds of the sea and the river had very wonderful boats,—the crane and the duck, the snipe and the curlew, the plover and the gull, the wild goose and the loon and the kingfisher. And the boats were all of different colours, each colour the same as that of the bird for whom the boat was made. All the birds were supplied with boats. Even the humming-bird had a tiny canoe of many wonderful colours, and he had a little paddle not larger than a small pin.

Partridge's own canoe was the last to be launched. The people all watched for it in patience and eagerness, for they thought that because he had built such wonderful boats for the other birds, he would have a particularly good one for himself. Now, Partridge had built his own canoe last, while he sorrowed for his dead wife. His brain had been muddled by his great grief. He reasoned foolishly that since a boat with two ends could be rowed in two directions, a boat with no ends at all could be rowed in all directions. So he made his own boat round like a saucer. But when it was launched and he tried to paddle it, he made no headway, for it turned round and round but always stayed in one place. All the people and the birds when they saw it laughed heartily at him and called him "fool." Then poor Partridge's grief was increased. He knew that he had forever lost his reputation as a boat-builder among the birds of the sea. He had no wish to dwell longer among them, and he decided to leave them for ever. So he flew far away into the forest, and since that time he has never been seen upon the shore of the sea, nor near a river or lake. He stays on land,—far in the deep woods, and he has forgotten even how to fish and how to swim. But he still keeps one remnant of his old life. He still makes a drumming noise as if he is hammering a canoe, and deep in the forest you can still hear his strange sound. You know then that he is mindful of old times when he built boats upon the shore and all day long and far into the night tapped lightly with his hammer.