A Celebration of Women Writers

"The Grey Archway" by E. Pauline Johnson [Tekahionwake] (1862-1913)
From: Legends of Vancouver. by E. Pauline Johnson. Vancouver: David Spencer, Limited, 1911. pp. 99-111.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 99] 

The Grey Archway

THE steamer, like a huge shuttle, wove in and out among the countless small islands; its long trailing scarf of grey smoke hung heavily along the uncertain shores, casting a shadow over the pearly waters of the Pacific, which swung lazily from rock to rock in indescribable beauty.

After dinner I wandered astern with the traveller's ever-present hope of seeing the beauties of a typical Northern sunset, and by some happy chance I placed my deck-stool near an old tillicum, who was leaning on the rail, his pipe between his thin, curved lips, his brown hands clasped idly, his sombre eyes looking far out to sea, as though they searched the future–or was it that they were seeing the past?

"Kla-how-ya, tillicum!" I greeted. [Page 100] 

He glanced round, and half smiled.

"Kla-how-ya, tillicum!" he replied, with the warmth of friendliness I have always met with among the Pacific tribes.

I drew my deck-stool nearer to him, and he acknowledged the action with another half smile, but did not stir from his entrenchment, remaining as if hedged about with an inviolable fortress of exclusiveness. Yet I knew that my Chinook salutation would be a drawbridge by which I might hope to cross the moat into his castle of silence.

Indian-like, he took his time before continuing the acquaintance. Then he began in most excellent English:

"You do not know these northern waters?"

I shook my head.

After many moments he leaned forward, looking along the curve of the deck, up the channels and narrows we were threading, to a broad strip of waters off the port bow. Then he pointed with that peculiar, thoroughly Indian gesture of the palm uppermost.

"Do you see it–over there? The [Page 101]  small island? It rests on the edge of the water, like a grey gull."

It took my unaccustomed eyes some moments to discern it; then all at once I caught its outline, veiled in the mists of distance–grey, cobwebby, dreamy.

"Yes," I replied, "I see it now. You will tell me of it–tillicum?"

He gave a swift glance at my dark skin, then nodded. "You are one of us," he said, with evidently no thought of a possible contradiction. "And you will understand, or I should not tell you. You will not smile at the story, for you are one of us."

"I am one of you, and I shall understand," I answered.

It was a full half-hour before we neared the island, yet neither of us spoke during that time; then, as the "grey gull" shaped itself into rock and tree and crag, I noticed in the very centre a stupendous pile or stone lifting itself skyward, without fissure or cleft; but a peculiar haziness about the base made me peer narrowly to catch the perfect outline. [Page 102] 

"It is the 'Grey Archway,'" he explained simply.

Only then did I grasp the singular formation before us: the rock was a perfect archway, through which we could see the placid Pacific shimmering in the growing colours of the coming sunset at the opposite rim of the island.

"What a remarkable whim of Nature!" I exclaimed, but his brown hand was laid in a contradictory grasp on my arm, and he snatched up my comment almost with impatience.

"No, it was not Nature," he said. "That is the reason I say you will understand–you are one of us–you will know what I tell you is true. The Great Tyee did not make that archway, it was–" here his voice lowered–"it was magic, red man's medicine and magic–you savvy?"

"Yes," I said. "Tell me, for I–savvy."

"Long time ago," he began, stumbling into a half-broken English language, because, I think, of the atmosphere and environment, "long before you were [Page 103]  born, or your father, or grandfather, or even his father, this strange thing happened. It is a story for women to hear, to remember. Women are the future mothers of the tribe, and we of the Pacific Coast hold such in high regard, in great reverence. The women who are mothers–o-ho!–they are the important ones, we say. Warriors, fighters, brave men, fearless daughters, owe their qualities to these mothers–eh, is it not always so?"

I nodded silently. The island was swinging nearer to us, the "Grey Archway" loomed almost above us, the mysticism crowded close, it enveloped me, caressed me, appealed to me.

"And?" I hinted.

"And," he proceeded, "this 'Grey Archway' is a story of mothers, of magic, of witchcraft, of warriors, of–love."

An Indian rarely uses the word "love," and when he does it expresses every quality, every attribute, every intensity, emotion, and passion embraced in those four little letters. Surely this was an exceptional story I was to hear. [Page 104] 

I did not answer, only looked across the pulsing waters toward the "Grey Archway," which the sinking sun was touching with soft pastels, tints one could give no name to, beauties impossible to describe.

"You have not heard of Yaada?" he questioned. Then, fortunately, he continued without waiting for a reply. He well knew that I had never heard of Yaada, so why not begin without preliminary to tell me of her?–so–

"Yaada was the loveliest daughter of the Haida tribe. Young braves from all the islands, from the mainland, from the upper Skeena country, came, hoping to carry her to their far-off lodges, but they always returned alone. She was the most desired of all the island maidens, beautiful, brave, modest, the daughter of her own mother.

"But there was a great man, a very great man–a medicine-man, skilful, powerful, influential, old, deplorably old, and very, very rich; he said, 'Yaada shall be my wife.' And there was a young fisherman, handsome, loyal, boyish, poor, [Page 105]  oh! very poor, and gloriously young, and he, too, said, 'Yaada shall be my wife.'

"But Yaada's mother sat apart and thought and dreamed, as mothers will. She said to herself, 'The great medicine-man has power, has vast riches, and wonderful magic, why not give her to him? But Ulka has the boy's heart, the boy's beauty; he is very brave, very strong; why not give her to him?'

"But the laws of the great Haida tribe prevailed. Its wise men said, 'Give the girl to the greatest man, give her to the most powerful, the richest. The man of magic must have his choice.'

"But at this the mother's heart grew as wax in the summer sunshine–it is a strange quality that mothers' hearts are made of! 'Give her to the best man–the man her heart holds highest,' said this Haida mother.

"Then Yaada spoke: 'I am the daughter of my tribe; I would judge of men by their excellence. He who proves most worthy I shall marry; it is not riches that make a good husband; it is [Page 106]  not beauty that makes a good father for one's children. Let me and my tribe see some proof of the excellence of these two men–then, only, shall I choose who is to be the father of my children. Let us have a trial of their skill; let them show me how evil or how beautiful is the inside of their hearts. Let each of them throw a stone with some intent, some purpose in their hearts. He who makes the noblest mark may call me wife.'

"'Alas! Alas!' wailed the Haida mother. 'This casting of stones does not show worth. It but shows prowess.'

"'But I have implored the Sagalie Tyee of my father, and of his fathers before him, to help me to judge between them by this means,' said the girl. 'So they must cast the stones. In this way only shall I see their innermost hearts.'

"The medicine-man never looked so old as at that moment; so hopelessly old, so wrinkled, so palsied: he was no mate for Yaada. Ulka never looked so godlike in his young beauty, so gloriously young, so courageous. The girl, looking at him, loved him–almost was she placing [Page 107]  her hand in his, but the spirit of her forefathers halted her. She had spoken the word–she must abide by it. 'Throw!' she commanded.

"Into his shrivelled fingers the great medicine-man took a small, round stone, chanting strange words of magic all the while; his greedy eyes were on the girl, his greedy thoughts about her.

"Into his strong young fingers Ulka took a smooth, flat stone; his handsome eyes were lowered in boyish modesty, his thoughts were worshipping her. The great medicine-man cast his missile first; it swept through the air like a shaft of lightning, striking the great rock with a force that shattered it. At the touch of that stone the 'Grey Archway' opened and has remained open to this day.

"'Oh, wonderful power and magic!' clamoured the entire tribe. 'The very rocks do his bidding.'

"But Yaada stood with eyes that burned in agony. Ulka could never command such magic–she knew it. But at her side Ulka was standing erect, tall, slender, and beautiful, but just as he cast his [Page 108]  missile the evil voice of the old medicine man began a still more evil incantation. He fixed his poisonous eyes on the younger man, eyes with hideous magic in their depths–ill-omened and enchanted with 'bad medicine.' The stone left Ulka's fingers; for a second it flew forth in a straight line, then, as the evil voice of the old man grew louder in its incantations, the stone curved. Magic had waylaid the strong arm of the young brave. The stone poised an instant above the forehead of Yaada's mother, then dropped with the weight of many mountains, and the last long sleep fell upon her.

"'Slayer of my mother!' stormed the girl, her suffering eyes fixed upon the medicine-man. 'Oh, I now see your black heart through your black magic. Through good magic you cut the "Great Archway," but your evil magic you used upon young Ulka. I saw your wicked eyes upon him; I heard your wicked incantations; I know your wicked heart. You used your heartless magic in hope of winning me–in hope of making him an outcast of the tribe. You cared not for [Page 109]  my sorrowing heart, my motherless life to come.' Then, turning to the tribe, she demanded: 'Who of you saw his evil eyes fixed on Ulka? Who of you heard his evil song?'

"'I,' and 'I,' and 'I,' came voice after voice.

"'The very air is poisoned that we breathe about him,' they shouted. 'The young man is blameless, his heart is as the sun; but the man who has used his evil magic has a heart black and cold as the hours before the dawn.'

"Then Yaada's voice arose in a strange, sweet, sorrowful chant:

My feet shall walk no more upon this island,
  With its great, Grey Archway.
My mother sleeps for ever on this island,
  With its great, Grey Archway.
My heart would break without her on this island,
  With its great, Grey Archway.

My life was of her life upon this island,
  With its great, Grey Archway.
My mother's soul has wandered from this island,
  With its great, Grey Archway.
My feet must follow hers beyond this island,
  With its great, Grey Archway.

"As Yaada chanted and wailed her farewell she moved slowly towards the [Page 110]  edge of the cliff. On its brink she hovered a moment with outstretched arms, as a sea-gull poises on its weight–then she called:

"'Ulka, my Ulka! Your hand is innocent of wrong; it was the evil magic of your rival that slew my mother. I must go to her; even you cannot keep me here; will you stay, or come with me? Oh! my Ulka!"

"The slender, gloriously young boy sprang toward her; their hands closed one within the other; for a second they poised on the brink of the rocks, radiant as stars; then together they plunged into the sea."

. . . . .

The legend was ended. Long ago we had passed the island with its "Grey Archway" ; it was melting into the twilight, far astern.

As I brooded over this strange tale of a daughter's devotion I watched the sea and sky for something that would give me a clue to the inevitable sequel that the tillicum, like all his race, was surely withholding until the opportune moment. [Page 111] 

Something flashed through the darkening waters not a stone's-throw from the steamer. I leaned forward, watching it intently. Two silvery fish were making a succession of little leaps and plunges along the surface of the sea, their bodies catching the last tints of sunset, like flashing jewels. I looked at the tillicum quickly. He was watching me–a world of anxiety in his half-mournful eyes.

"And those two silvery fish?" I questioned.

He smiled. The anxious look vanished. "I was right," he said; "you do know us and our ways, for you are one of us. Yes, those fish are seen only in these waters; there are never but two of them. They are Yaada and her mate, seeking for the soul of the Haida woman–her mother." [Page 112] 

[Page 113]

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom