Great Godfrey's Lament by Edward William Thomson
"Hark to Angus! Man, his heart will be
sore the night! In five years I have
not heard him playing 'Great Godfrey's Lament,'"
said old Alexander McTavish, as with
him I was sitting of a June evening, at sundown,
under a wide apple-tree of his orchard-lawn.
When the sweet song-sparrows of the Ottawa
valley had ceased their plaintive strains, Angus
McNeil began on his violin. This night, instead
of "Tullochgorum" or "Roy's Wife" or
"The March of the McNeils," or any merry
strathspey, he crept into an unusual movement,
and from a distance came the notes of an exceeding
strange strain blent with the meditative
murmur of the Rataplan Rapids.
I am not well enough acquainted with musical
terms to tell the method of that composition
in which the wail of a Highland coronach
seemed mingled with such mournful crooning as
I had heard often from Indian voyageurs north
of Lake Superior. Perhaps that fancy sprang
from my knowledge that Angus McNeil's father
had been a younger son of the chief of the
McNeil clan, and his mother a daughter of the
greatest man of the Cree nation.
"Ay, but Angus is wae," sighed old McTavish.
"What will he be seeing the now? It
was the night before his wife died that he played
yon last. Come, we will go up the road. He
does be liking to see the people gather to
We walked, maybe three hundred yards, and
stood leaning against the ruined picket-fence
that surrounds the great stone house built by
Hector McNeil, the father of Angus, when he
retired from his position as one of the "Big
Bourgeois" of the famous Northwest Fur Trading
The huge square structure of four stories and
a basement is divided, above the ground floor,
into eight suites, some of four, and some of five
rooms. In these suites the fur-trader, whose
ideas were all patriarchal, had designed that he
and his Indian wife, with his seven sons and
their future families, should live to the end of
his days and theirs. That was a dream at the
time when his boys were all under nine years
old, and Godfrey little more than a baby in
The ground-floor is divided by a hall twenty-five
feet wide into two long chambers, one
intended to serve as a dining-hall for the multitude
of descendants that Hector expected to
see round his old age, the other as a withdrawing-room
for himself and his wife, or for festive
occasions. In this mansion Angus McNeil now
He sat out that evening on a balcony at the
rear of the hall, whence he could overlook the
McTavish place and the hamlet that extends a
quarter of a mile further down the Ottawa's
north shore. His right side was toward the
large group of French-Canadian people who
had gathered to hear him play. Though he
was sitting, I could make out that his was a
"Ay—it will be just exactly 'Great Godfrey's
Lament,'" McTavish whispered. "Weel
do I mind him playing yon many's the night
after Godfrey was laid in the mools. Then he
played it no more till before his ain wife died.
What is he seeing now? Man, it's weel kenned
he has the second sight at times. Maybe he
sees the pit digging for himself. He's the last
"Who was Great Godfrey?" I asked, rather
Angus McNeil instantly cut short the "Lament,"
rose from his chair, and faced us.
"Aleck McTavish, who have you with you?"
he called imperiously.
"My young cousin from the city, Mr. McNeil,"
said McTavish, with deference.
"Bring him in. I wish to spoke with you,
Aleck McTavish. The young man that is not
acquaint with the name of Great Godfrey McNeil
can come with you. I will be at the great
"It's strange-like," said McTavish, as we
went to the upper gate. "He has not asked
me inside for near five years. I'm feared his
wits is disordered, by his way of speaking.
Mind what you say. Great Godfrey was most
like a god to Angus."
When Angus McNeil met us at the front
door I saw he was verily a giant. Indeed, he
was a wee bit more than six and a half feet tall
when he stood up straight. Now he was
stooped a little, not with age, but with consumption,—the
disease most fatal to men of
mixed white and Indian blood. His face was
dark brown, his features of the Indian cast, but
his black hair had not the Indian lankness. It
curled tightly round his grand head.
Without a word he beckoned us on into the
vast withdrawing room. Without a word he
seated himself beside a large oaken centre-table,
and motioned us to sit opposite.
Before he broke silence, I saw that the windows
of that great chamber were hung with
faded red damask; that the heads of many a
bull moose, buck, bear, and wolf grinned among
guns and swords and claymores from its walls;
that charred logs, fully fifteen feet long, remained
in the fireplace from the last winter's
burning; that there were three dim portraits
in oil over the mantel; that the room contained
much frayed furniture, once sumptuous of red
velvet; and that many skins of wild beasts lay
strewn over a hard-wood floor whose edges still
retained their polish and faintly gleamed in
rays from the red west.
That light was enough to show that two of
the oil paintings must be those of Hector McNeil
and his Indian wife. Between these hung
one of a singularly handsome youth with yellow
"Here my father lay dead," cried Angus
McNeil, suddenly striking the table. He stared
at us silently for many seconds, then again
struck the table with the side of his clenched
fist. "He lay here dead on this table—yes!
It was Godfrey that straked him out all alone
on this table. You mind Great Godfrey, Aleck
"Well I do, Mr. McNeil; and your mother
yonder,—a grand lady she was." McTavish
spoke with curious humility, seeming wishful, I
thought, to comfort McNeil's sorrow by exciting
"Ay—they'll tell hereafter that she was
just exactly a squaw," cried the big man,
angrily. "But grand she was, and a great lady,
and a proud. Oh, man, man! but they were
proud, my father and my Indian mother. And
Godfrey was the pride of the hearts of them
both. No wonder; but it was sore on the
rest of us after they took him apart from our
Aleck McTavish spoke not a word, and big
Angus, after a long pause, went on as if almost
unconscious of our presence:—
"White was Godfrey, and rosy of the cheek
like my father; and the blue eyes of him would
match the sky when you'll be seeing it up
through a blazing maple on a clear day of
October. Tall, and straight and grand was
Godfrey, my brother. What was the thing Godfrey
could not do? The songs of him hushed
the singing-birds on the tree, and the fiddle he
would play to take the soul out of your body.
There was no white one among us till he was
"The rest of us all were just Indians—ay,
Indians, Aleck McTavish. Brown we were,
and the desire of us was all for the woods and
the river. Godfrey had white sense like my
father, and often we saw the same look in his
eyes. My God, but we feared our father!"
Angus paused to cough. After the fit he sat
silent for some minutes. The voice of the
great rapid seemed to fill the room. When he
spoke again, he stared past our seat with fixed,
dilated eyes, as if tranced by a vision.
"Godfrey, Godfrey—you hear! Godfrey,
the six of us would go over the falls and not
think twice of it, if it would please you, when
you were little. Oich, the joy we had in the
white skin of you, and the fine ways, till my
father and mother saw we were just making an
Indian of you, like ourselves! So they took you
away; ay, and many's the day the six of us went
to the woods and the river, missing you sore.
It's then you began to look on us with that
look that we could not see was different from
the look we feared in the blue eyes of our
father. Oh, but we feared him, Godfrey! And
the time went by, and we feared and we hated
you that seemed lifted up above your Indian
"Oich, the masters they got to teach him!"
said Angus, addressing himself again to my
cousin. "In the Latin and the Greek they
trained him. History books he read, and
stories in song. Ay, and the manners of
Godfrey! Well might the whole pride of my
father and mother be on their one white son.
A grand young gentleman was Godfrey,—Great
Godfrey we called him, when he was eighteen.
"The fine, rich people that would come up
in bateaux from Montreal to visit my father
had the smile and the kind word for Godfrey;
but they looked upon us with the eyes of the
white man for the Indian. And that look
we were more and more sure was growing
harder in Godfrey's eyes. So we looked back
at him with the eyes of the wolf that stares at
the bull moose, and is fierce to pull him down,
but dares not try, for the moose is too great
"Mind you, Aleck McTavish, for all we
hated Godfrey when we thought he would be
looking at us like strange Indians—for all that,
yet we were proud of him that he was our own
brother. Well, we minded how he was all like
one with us when he was little; and in the
calm looks of him, and the white skin, and the
yellow hair, and the grandeur of him, we had
pride, do you understand? Ay, and in the
strength of him we were glad. Would we not
sit still and pleased when it was the talk how
he could run quicker than the best, and jump
higher than his head—ay, would we! Man,
there was none could compare in strength with
Great Godfrey, the youngest of us all!
"He and my father and mother more and
more lived by themselves in this room. Yonder
room across the hall was left to us six Indians.
No manners, no learning had we; we were no
fit company for Godfrey. My mother was like
she was wilder with love of Godfrey the more
he grew and the grander, and never a word for
days and weeks together did she give to us. It
was Godfrey this, and Godfrey that, and all her
thought was Godfrey!
"Most of all we hated him when she was
lying dead here on this table. We six in the
other room could hear Godfrey and my father
groan and sigh. We would step softly to the
door and listen to them kissing her that was
dead,—them white, and she Indian like ourselves,—and
us not daring to go in for the fear
of the eyes of our father. So the soreness was
in our hearts so cruel hard that we would not
go in till the last, for all their asking. My God,
my God, Aleck McTavish, if you saw her!
she seemed smiling like at Godfrey, and she
looked like him then, for all she was brown
as November oak-leaves, and he white that day
as the froth on the rapid.
"That put us farther from Godfrey than
before. And farther yet we were from him
after, when he and my father would be walking
up and down, up and down, arm in arm, up
and down the lawn in the evenings. They
would be talking about books, and the great
McNeils in Scotland. The six of us knew we
were McNeils, for all we were Indians, and we
would listen to the talk of the great pride and
the great deeds of the McNeils that was our
own kin. We would be drinking the whiskey
if we had it, and saying: 'Godfrey to be the
only McNeil! Godfrey to take all the pride of
the name of us!' Oh, man, man! but we
hated Godfrey sore."
Big Angus paused long, and I seemed to see
clearly the two fair-haired, tall men walking arm
in arm on the lawn in the twilight, as if unconscious
or careless of being watched and overheard
by six sore-hearted kinsmen.
"You'll mind when my father was thrown
from his horse and carried into this room,
Aleck McTavish? Ay, well you do. But you
nor no other living man but me knows what
came about the night that he died.
"Godfrey was alone with him. The six of
us were in yon room. Drink we had, but
cautious we were with it, for there was a deed
to be done that would need all our senses.
We sat in a row on the floor—we were
Indians—it was our wigwam—we sat on the
floor to be against the ways of them two.
Godfrey was in here across the hall from us;
alone he was with our white father. He would
be chief over us by the will, no doubt,—and if
Godfrey lived through that night it would be
"We were cautious with the whiskey, I told
you before. Not a sound could we hear of
Godfrey or of my father. Only the rapid,
calling and calling,—I mind it well that night.
Ay, and well I mind the striking of the great
clock,—tick, tick, tick, tick, tick,—I listened
and I dreamed on it till I doubted but it was
the beating of my father's heart.
"Ten o'clock was gone by, and eleven was
near. How many of us sat sleeping I know
not; but I woke up with a start, and there was
Great Godfrey, with a candle in his hand, looking
down strange at us, and us looking up
strange at him.
"'He is dead,' Godfrey said.
"We said nothing.
"'Father died two hours ago,' Godfrey said.
"We said nothing.
"'Our father is white,—he is very white,'
Godfrey said, and he trembled. 'Our mother
was brown when she was dead.'
"Godfrey's voice was wild.
"'Come, brothers, and see how white is our
father,' Godfrey said.
"No one of us moved.
"'Won't you come? In God's name, come,'
said Godfrey. 'Oich—but it is very strange!
I have looked in his face so long that now I do
not know him for my father. He is like no
kin to me, lying there. I am alone, alone.'
"Godfrey wailed in a manner. It made me
ashamed to hear his voice like that—him that
looked like my father that was always silent as
a sword—him that was the true McNeil.
"'You look at me, and your eyes are the
eyes of my mother,' says Godfrey, staring
wilder. 'What are you doing here, all so
still? Drinking the whiskey? I am the same
as you. I am your brother. I will sit with you,
and if you drink the whiskey, I will drink the
"Aleck McTavish! with that he sat down on
the floor in the dirt and litter beside Donald,
that was oldest of us all.
"'Give me the bottle,' he said. 'I am as
much Indian as you, brothers. What you do I
will do, as I did when I was little, long ago.'
"To see him sit down in his best,—all his
learning and his grand manners as if forgotten,—man,
it was like as if our father himself was
turned Indian, and was low in the dirt!
"What was in the heart of Donald I don't
know, but he lifted the bottle and smashed it
down on the floor.
"'God in heaven! what's to become of
the McNeils! You that was the credit of the
family, Godfrey!' says Donald with a groan.
"At that Great Godfrey jumped to his feet
like he was come awake.
"'You're fitter to be the head of the
McNeils than I am, Donald,' says he; and with
that the tears broke out of his eyes, and he cast
himself into Donald's arms. Well, with that
we all began to cry as if our hearts would break.
I threw myself down on the floor at Godfrey's
feet, and put my arms round his knees the same
as I'd lift him up when he was little. There I
cried, and we all cried around him, and after a
bit I said:—
"'Brothers, this was what was in the mind
of Godfrey. He was all alone in yonder. We
are his brothers, and his heart warmed to us,
and he said to himself, it was better to be like
us than to be alone, and he thought if he came
and sat down and drank the whiskey with us,
he would be our brother again, and not be any
"'Ay, Angus, Angus, but how did you
know that?' says Godfrey, crying; and he put
his arms round my neck, and lifted me up till
we were breast to breast. With that we all put
our arms some way round one another and
Godfrey, and there we stood sighing and swaying
and sobbing a long time, and no man saying
"'Oh, man, Godfrey dear, but our father is
gone, and who can talk with you now about the
Latin, and the history books, and the great
McNeils—and our mother that's gone?' says
Donald; and the thought of it was such pity
that our hearts seemed like to break.
"But Godfrey said: 'We will talk together
like brothers. If it shames you for me to be
like you, then I will teach you all they taught
me, and we will all be like our white father.'
"So we all agreed to have it so, if he would
tell us what to do. After that we came in here
with Godfrey, and we stood looking at my
father's white face. Godfrey all alone had
straked him out on this table, with the silver-pieces
on the eyes that we had feared. But
the silver we did not fear. Maybe you will not
understand it, Aleck McTavish, but our father
never seemed such close kin to us as when we
would look at him dead, and at Godfrey, that
was the picture of him, living and kind.
"After that you know what happened yourself."
"Well I do, Mr. McNeil. It was Great
Godfrey that was the father to you all," said
"Just that, Aleck McTavish. All that he
had was ours to use as we would,—his land,
money, horses, this room, his learning. Some
of us could learn one thing and some of us
could learn another, and some could learn
nothing, not even how to behave. What I
could learn was the playing of the fiddle.
Many's the hour Godfrey would play with me
while the rest were all happy around.
"In great content we lived like brothers,
and proud to see Godfrey as white and fine, and
grand as the best gentleman that ever came up
to visit him out of Montreal. Ay, in great
content we lived all together till the consumption
came on Donald, and he was gone. Then
it came and came back, and came back again,
till Hector was gone, and Ranald was gone,
and in ten years' time only Godfrey and I were
left. Then both of us married, as you know.
But our children died as fast as they were born,
almost,—for the curse seemed on us. Then
his wife died, and Godfrey sighed and sighed
ever after that.
"One night I was sleeping with the door of
my room open, so I could hear if Godfrey
needed my help. The cough was on him
then. Out of a dream of him looking at my
father's white face I woke and went to his bed.
He was not there at all.
"My heart went cold with fear, for I heard
the rapid very clear, like the nights they all
died. Then I heard the music begin down
stairs, here in this chamber where they were
all laid out dead,—right here on this table
where I will soon lie like the rest. I leave it
to you to see it done, Aleck McTavish, for you
are a Highlandman by blood. It was that I
wanted to say to you when I called you in. I
have seen myself in my coffin three nights.
Nay, say nothing; you will see.
"Hearing the music that night, down I came
softly. Here sat Godfrey, and the kindest
look was on his face that ever I saw. He had
his fiddle in his hand, and he played about all
"He played about how we all came down
from the North in the big canoe with my father
and mother, when we were little children and
him a baby. He played of the rapids we
passed over, and of the rustling of the poplar-trees
and the purr of the pines. He played till
the river you hear now was in the fiddle, with
the sound of our paddles, and the fish jumping
for flies. He played about the long winters
when we were young, so that the snow of those
winters seemed falling again. The ringing of
our skates on the ice I could hear in the fiddle.
He played through all our lives when we were
young and going in the woods yonder together—and
then it was the sore lament began!
"It was like as if he played how they kept
him away from his brothers, and him at his
books thinking of them in the woods, and him
hearing the partridges' drumming, and the
squirrels' chatter, and all the little birds singing
and singing. Oich, man, but there's no words
for the sadness of it!"
Old Angus ceased to speak as he took his
violin from the table and struck into the middle
of "Great Godfrey's Lament." As he played,
his wide eyes looked past us, and the tears
streamed down his brown cheeks. When the
woful strain ended, he said, staring past us:
"Ay, Godfrey, you were always our brother."
Then he put his face down in his big brown
hands, and we left him without another word.