Agnes C. Laut.

Heralds of Empire Being the Story of One Ramsay Stanhope, Lieutenant to Pierre Radisson in the Northern Fur Trade online

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fields no longer snow-clad.

Had spring come? How long had I lain in the cave? Before I gained
strength to escape, would M. Radisson have left for Quebec? Then came
a black wave of memory - thought of Jack Battle, the sailor lad,
awaiting our return to rescue him. From the first Jack and I had held
together as aliens in Boston Town. Should I lie like a stranded hull
while he perished? Risking spies on the watch, I struggled up and
staggered across the cave to that blue flame quivering so mysteriously.
As I neared, the mystery vanished, for it was nothing more than one of
those northern beds of combustibles - gas, tar, or coal - set burning by
the ingenious pirates. [1]

The spirit was willing enough to help Jack, but the flesh was weak.
Presently I sank on the heaped pelts all atremble. I had promised not
to spy nor eavesdrop, but that did not prohibit escape. But how could
one forage for food with a right arm in bands and a left unsteady as
aim of a girl? Le Borgne had befriended me twice - once in the storm,
again on the hill. Perhaps he might know of Jack. I would wait the
Indian's return. Meanwhile I could practise my strength by walking up
and down the cave.

The walls were hung with pelts. Where the dry clay crumbled, the roof
had been timbered. A rivulet of spring water bubbled in one dark
corner. At the same end an archway led to inner recesses. Behind the
skin doorway sounded heavy breathing, as of sleepers. I had promised
not to spy. Turning, I retraced the way to the outer door. Here
another pelt swayed heavily in the wind. Dank, earthy smells of
spring, odours of leaves water-soaked by melting snows, the faint
perfume of flowers pushing up through mats of verdure, blew in on the
night breeze.

Pushing aside the flap, I looked out. The spur of a steep declivity
cut athwart the cave. Now I could guess where I was. This was the
hill down which I had stumbled that night the voices had come from the
ground. Here the masked man had sprung from the thicket. Not far off
M. Radisson had first met the Indians. To reach the French Habitation
I had but to follow the river.

That hope set me pacing again for exercise; and the faster I walked the
faster raced thoughts over the events of the crowded years. Again the
Prince Rupert careened seaward, bearing little Hortense to England.
Once more Ben Gillam swaggered on the water-front of Boston Town,
boasting all that he would do when he had ship of his own. Then Jack
Battle, building his castles of fortune for love of Hortense, and all
unconsciously letting slip the secret of good Boston men deep involved
in pirate schemes. The scene shifted to the far north, and a masked
man had leaped from the forest dark only to throw down his weapon when
the firelight shone on my face. Again the white darkness of the storm,
the three shadowy figures and Le Borgne sent to guide us back to the
fort. Again, to beat of drum and shriek of fife, M. Radisson was
holding his own against the swarming savages that assailed the New
Englanders' fort. Then I was living over the unspeakable horror of the
Indian massacre ending in that awful wait on the crest of the hill.

The memory brought a chill as of winter cold. With my back to both
doors I stood shuddering over the blue fire. Whatever logicians may
say, we do not reason life's conclusions out. Clouds blacken the
heavens till there comes the lightning-flash. So do our intuitions
leap unwarned from the dark. 'Twas thus I seemed to fathom the mystery
of those interlopers. Ben Gillam had been chosen to bring the pirate
ship north because his father, of the Hudson's Bay Company, could
screen him from English spies. Mr. Stocking, of Boston, was another
partner to the venture, who could shield Ben from punishment in New
England. But the third partner was hiding inland to defraud the others
of the furs. That was the meaning of Ben's drunken threats. Who was
the third partner? Had not Eli Kirke planned trading in the north with
Mr. Stocking? Were the pirates some agents of my uncle? Did that
explain why my life had been three times spared? One code of morals
for the church and another for the trade is the way of many a man; but
would the agents of a Puritan deacon murder a rival in the dark of a
forest, or lead Indians to massacre the crew of partners, or take furs
gotten at the price of a tribe's extermination?

Turning that question over, I heard the inner door-flap lift. There
was no time to regain the couch, but a quick swerve took me out of the
firelight in the shadow of a great wolfskin against the wall. You will
laugh at the old idea of honour, but I had promised not to spy, and I
never raised my eyes from the floor. There was no sound but the
gurgling of the spring in the dark and the sharp crackle of the flame.

Thinking the wind had blown the flap, I stepped from hiding. Something
vague as mist held back in shadow. The lines of a white-clad figure
etched themselves against the cave wall. It floated out, paused, moved
forward.

Then I remember clutching at the wolfskin like one clinching a
death-grip of reality, praying God not to let go a soul's anchor-hold
of reason.

For when the figure glided into the slant blue rays of the shafted
flame it was Hortense - the Hortense of the dreams, sweet as the child,
grave as the grown woman-Hortense with closed eyes and moving lips and
hands feeling out in the dark as if playing invisible keys.

She was asleep.

Then came the flash that lighted the clouds of the past.

The interloper, the pirate, the leader of Indian marauders, the
defrauder of his partners, was M. Picot, the French doctor, whom Boston
had outlawed, and who was now outlawing their outlawry. We do not
reason out our conclusions, as I said before. At our supremest moments
we do not _think_. Consciousness leaps from summit to summit like the
forked lightnings across the mountain-peaks; and the mysteries of life
are illumined as a spread-out scroll. In that moment of joy and fear
and horror, as I crouched back to the wall, I did not _think_. I
_knew_ - knew the meaning of all M. Picot's questionings on the fur
trade; of that murderous attack in the dark when an antagonist flung
down his weapon; of the spying through the frosted woods; of the
figures in the white darkness; of the attempt to destroy Ben Gillam's
fort; of the rescue from the crest of the hill; and of all those
strange delirious dreams.

It was as if the past focused itself to one flaming point, and the
flash of that point illumined life, as deity must feel to whom past and
present and future are one.

And all the while, with temples pounding like surf on rock and the roar
of the sea in my ears, I was not _thinking_, only _knowing_ that
Hortense was standing in the blue-shafted light with tremulous lips and
white face and a radiance on her brow not of this life.

Her hands ran lightly over imaginary keys. The blue flame darted and
quivered through the gloom. The hushed purr of the spring broke the
stillness in metallic tinklings. A smile flitted across the sleeper's
face. Her lips parted. The crackle of the flame seemed loud as tick
of clock in death-room.

"To get the memory of it," she said.

And there stole out of the past mocking memories of that last night in
the hunting-room, filling the cave with tuneless melodies like thoughts
creeping into thoughts or odour of flowers in dark.

But what was she saying in her sleep?

"Blind gods of chance" - the words that had haunted my delirium, then
quick-spoken snatches too low for me to hear - "no-no" - then more that
was incoherent, and she was gliding back to the cave.

She had lifted the curtain door - she was whispering - she paused as if
for answer-then with face alight, "The stars fight for us - " she said;
and she had disappeared.

The flame set the shadows flickering. The rivulet gurgled loud in the
dark. And I came from concealment as from a spirit world.

Then Hortense was no dream, and love was no phantom, and God - was what?

There I halted. The powers of darkness yet pressed too close for me to
see through to the God that was love. I only knew that He who throned
the universe was neither the fool that ignorant bigots painted, nor the
blind power, making wanton war of storm and dark and cold. For had not
the blind forces brought Hortense to me, and me to Hortense?

Consciousness was leaping from summit to summit like the forked
lightnings, and the light that burned was the light that transfigures
life for each soul.

The spell of a presence was there.

Then it came home to me what a desperate game the French doctor had
played. That sword-thrust in the dark meant death; so did the attack
on Ben Gillam's fort; and was it not Le Borgne, M. Picot's Indian ally,
who had counselled the massacre of the sleeping tribe? You must not
think that M. Picot was worse than other traders of those days! The
north is a desolate land, and though blood cry aloud from stones, there
is no man to hear.

I easily guessed that M. Picot would try to keep me with him till M.
Radisson had sailed. Then I must needs lock hands with piracy.

Hortense and I were pawns in the game.

At one moment I upbraided him for bringing Hortense to this wilderness
of murder and pillage. At another I considered that a banished
gentleman could not choose his goings. How could I stay with M. Picot
and desert M. de Radisson? How could I go to M. de Radisson and
abandon Hortense?

"Straight is the narrow way," Eli Kirke oft cried out as he expounded
Holy Writ.

Ah, well, if the narrow way is straight, it has a trick of becoming
tangled in a most terrible snarl!

Wheeling the log-end right about, I sat down to await M. Picot. There
was stirring in the next apartment. An ebon head poked past the door
curtain, looked about, and withdrew without detecting me. The face I
remembered at once. It was the wife of M. Picot's blackamoor. Only
three men had passed from the cave. If the blackamoor were one, M.
Picot and Le Borgne _must_ be the others.

Footsteps grated on the pebbles outside. I rose with beating heart to
meet M. Picot, who held my fate in his hands. Then a ringing
pistol-shot set my pulse jumping.

I ran to the door. Something plunged heavily against the curtain. The
robe ripped from the hangings. In the flood of moonlight a man pitched
face forward to the cave floor. He reeled up with a cry of rage,
caught blindly at the air, uttered a groan, fell back.

"M. Picot!"

Blanched and faint, the French doctor lay with a crimsoning pool wet
under his head. "I am shot! What will become of her?" he groaned. "I
am shot! It was Gillam! It was Gillam!"

Hortense and the negress came running from the inner cave. Le Borgne
and the blackamoor dashed from the open with staring horror.

"Lift me up! For God's sake, air!" cried M. Picot.

We laid him on the pelts in the doorway, Le Borgne standing guard
outside.

Hortense stooped to stanch the wound, but the doctor motioned her off
with a fierce impatience, and bade the negress lead her away. Then he
lay with closed eyes, hands clutched to the pelts, and shuddering
breath.

The blackamoor had rushed to the inner cave for liquor, when M. Picot
opened his eyes with a strange far look fastened upon me.

"Swear it," he commanded.

And I thought his mind wandering.

He groaned heavily. "Don't you understand? It's Hortense. Swear
you'll restore her - " and his breath came with a hard metallic rattle
that warned the end.

"Doctor Picot," said I, "if you have anything to say, say it quickly
and make your peace with God!"

"Swear you'll take her back to her people and treat her as a sister,"
he cried.

"I swear before God that I shall take Hortense back to her people, and
that I shall treat her like a sister," I repeated, raising my right
hand.

That seemed to quiet him. He closed his eyes.

"Sir," said I, "have you nothing more to say? Who are her people?"

"Is . . . is . . . any one listening?" he asked in short, hard breaths.

I motioned the others back.

"Listen" - the words came in quick, rasping breaths. "She is not
mine . . . it was at night . . . they brought her . . . ward o' the
court . . . lands . . . they wanted me." There was a sharp pause, a
shivering whisper. "I didn't poison her" - the dying man caught
convulsively at my hands - "I swear I had no thought of harming
her. . . . They . . . paid. . . . I fled. . . ."

"Who paid you to poison Hortense? Who is Hortense?" I demanded; for
his life was ebbing and the words portended deep wrong.

But his mind was wandering again, for he began talking so fast that I
could catch only a few words. "Blood! Blood! Colonel Blood!" Then
"Swear it," he cried.

That speech sapped his strength. He sank back with shut eyes and faint
breathings.

We forced a potion between his lips.

"Don't let Gillam," he mumbled, "don't let Gillam . . . have the furs."

A tremor ran through his stiffening frame. A little shuddering
breath - and M. Picot had staked his last pawn in life's game.


[1] In confirmation of Mr. Stanhope's record it may be stated that on
the western side of the northland in the Mackenzie River region are gas
and tar veins that are known to have been burning continuously for
nearly two centuries.




CHAPTER XXI

HOW THE PIRATES CAME

Inside our Habitation all was the confusion of preparation for leaving
the bay. Outside, the Indians held high carnival; for Allemand, the
gin-soaked pilot, was busy passing drink through the loopholes to a
pandemonium of savages raving outside the stockades. 'Tis not a pretty
picture, that memory of white-men besotting the Indian; but I must even
set down the facts as they are, bidding you to remember that the white
trader who besotted the Indian was the same white trader who befriended
all tribes alike when the hunt failed and the famine came. La
Chesnaye, the merchant prince, it was, who managed this low
trafficking. Indeed, for the rubbing together of more doubloons in his
money-bags I think that La Chesnaye's servile nature would have
bargained to send souls in job lots blindfold over the gangplank. But,
as La Chesnaye said when Pierre Radisson remonstrated against the
knavery, the gin was nine parts rain-water.

"The more cheat, you, to lay such unction to your conscience," says M.
de Radisson. "Be an honest knave, La Chesnaye!"

ForĂȘt, the marquis, stalked up and down before the gate with two guards
at his heels. All day long birch canoes and log dugouts and tubby
pirogues and crazy rafts of loose-lashed pine logs drifted to our
water-front with bands of squalid Indians bringing their pelts. Skin
tepees rose outside our palisades like an army of mushrooms. Naked
brats with wisps of hair coarse as a horse's mane crawled over our
mounted cannon, or scudded between our feet like pups, or felt our
European clothes with impudent wonder. Young girls having hair
plastered flat with bear's grease stood peeping shyly from tent flaps.
Old squaws with skin withered to a parchment hung over the campfires,
cooking. And at the loopholes pressed the braves and the bucks and the
chief men exchanging beaver-skins for old iron, or a silver fox for a
drink of gin, or ermine enough to make His Majesty's coronation robe
for some flashy trinket to trick out a vain squaw. From dawn to dusk
ran the patter of moccasined feet, man after man toiling up from
river-front to fort gate with bundles of peltries on his back and a
carrying strap across his brow.

Unarmed, among the savages, pacifying drunken hostiles at the
water-front, bidding Jean and me look after the carriers, in the
gateway, helping Sieur de Groseillers to sort the furs - Pierre Radisson
was everywhere. In the guard-house were more English prisoners than we
had crews of French; and in the mess-room sat Governor Brigdar of the
Hudson's Bay Company, who took his captivity mighty ill and grew
prodigious pot-valiant over his cups. Here, too, lolled Ben Gillam,
the young New Englander, rumbling out a drunken vengeance against those
inland pirates, who had deprived him of the season's furs.

Once, I mind, when M. Radisson came suddenly on these two worthies,
their fuddled heads were close together above the table.

"Look you," Ben was saying in a big, rasping whisper, "I shot him - I
shot him with a brass button. The black arts are powerless agen brass.
Devil sink my soul if I didn't shoot him! The red - spattered over the
brush - - "

M. Radisson raised a hand to silence my coming.

Ben's nose poked across the table, closer to Governor Brigdar's ear.

"But look you, Mister What's-y-er-name," says he.

"Don't you Mister me, you young cub!" interrupts the governor with a
pompous show of drunken dignity.

"A fig for Your Excellency," cries the young blackguard. "Who's who
when he's drunk? As I was a-telling, look you, though the red
spattered the bushes, when I run up he'd vanished into air with a flash
o' powder from my musket! 'Twas by the black arts that nigh hanged him
in Boston Town - - "

At that, Governor Brigdar claps his hand to the table and swears that
he cares nothing for black arts if only the furs can be found.

"The furs - aye," husks Ben, "if we can only find the furs! An our men
hold together, we're two to one agen the Frenchies - - "

"Ha," says M. Radisson. "Give you good-morning, gentlemen, and I hope
you find yourselves in health."

The two heads flew apart like the halves of a burst cannon-shell.
Thereafter, Radisson kept Ben and Governor Brigdar apart.

Of Godefroy and Jack Battle we could learn naught. Le Borgne would
never tell what he and M. Picot had seen that night they rescued me
from the hill. Whether Le Borgne and the hostiles of the massacre lied
or no, they both told the same story of Jack. While the tribe was
still engaged in the scalp-dance, some one had untied Jack's bands.
When the braves went to torture their captive, he had escaped. But
whither had he gone that he had not come back to us? Like the sea is
the northland, full of nameless graves; and after sending scouts far
and wide, we gave up all hope of finding the sailor lad.

But in the fort was another whose presence our rough fellows likened to
a star flower on the stained ground of some hard-fought battle. After
M. Radisson had quieted turbulent spirits by a reading of holy lessons,
Mistress Hortense queened it over our table of a Sunday at noon.
Waiting upon her at either hand were the blackamoor and the negress. A
soldier in red stood guard behind; and every man, officer, and commoner
down the long mess-table tuned his manners to the pure grace of her
fair face.

What a hushing of voices and cleansing of wits and disusing of oaths
was there after my little lady came to our rough Habitation!

I mind the first Sunday M. Radisson led her out like a queen to the
mess-room table. When our voyageurs went upstream for M. Picot's
hidden furs, her story had got noised about the fort. Officers,
soldiers, and sailors had seated themselves at the long benches on
either side the table; but M. Radisson's place was empty and a sort of
throne chair had been extemporized at the head of the table. An angry
question went from group to group to know if M. Radisson designed such
place of honour for the two leaders of our prisoners - under lock in the
guard-room. M. de Groseillers only laughed and bade the fellows
contain their souls and stomachs in patience. A moment later, the door
to the quarters where Hortense lived was thrown open by a red-coated
soldier, and out stepped M. Radisson leading Hortense by the tips of
her dainty fingers, the ebon faces of the two blackamoors grinning
delight behind.

You could have heard a pin fall among our fellows. Then there was a
noise of armour clanking to the floor. Every man unconsciously took to
throwing his pistol under the table, flinging sword-belt down and
hiding daggers below benches. Of a sudden, the surprise went to their
heads.

"Gentlemen," began M. Radisson.

But the fellows would have none of his grand speeches. With a cheer
that set the rafters ringing, they were on their feet; and to Mistress
Hortense's face came a look that does more for the making of men than
all New England's laws or my uncle's blasphemy boxes or King Charles's
dragoons. You ask what that look was? Go to, with your teasings! A
lover is not to be asked his whys! I ask you in return why you like
the spire of a cathedral pointing up instead of down; or why the muses
lift souls heavenward? Indeed, of all the fine arts granted the human
race to lead men's thoughts above the sordid brutalities of living,
methinks woman is the finest; for God's own hand fashioned her, and she
was the last crowning piece of all His week's doings. The finest arts
are the easiest spoiled, as you know very well; and if you demand how
Mistress Hortense could escape harm amid all the wickedness of that
wilderness, I answer it is a thing that your townsfolk cannot know.

It is of the wilderness.

The wilderness is a foster-mother that teacheth hard, strange
paradoxes. The first is _the sin of being weak_; and the second is
that _death is the least of life's harms_.


Wrapped in those furs for which he had staked his life like many a
gamester of the wilderness, M. Picot lay buried in that sandy stretch
outside the cave door. Turning to lead Hortense away before Le Borgne
and the blackamoor began filling the grave, I found her stonily silent
and tearless.

But it was she who led me.

Scrambling up the hillside like a chamois of the mountains, she flitted
lightly through the greening to a small open where campers had built
night fires. Her quick glance ran from tree to tree. Some wood-runner
had blazed a trail by notching the bark. Pausing, she turned with the
frank, fearless look of the wilderness woman. She was no longer the
elusive Hortense of secluded life. A change had come - the change of
the hothouse plant set out to the bufferings of the four winds of
heaven to perish from weakness or gather strength from hardship. Your
woman of older lands must hood fair eyes, perforce, lest evil masking
under other eyes give wrong intent to candour; but in the wilderness
each life stands stripped of pretence, honestly good or evil, bare at
what it is; and purity clear as the noonday sun needs no trick of
custom to make it plainer.

"Is not this the place?" she asked.

Looking closer, from shrub to open, I recognised the ground of that
night attack in the woods.

"Hortense, then it was you that I saw at the fire with the others?"

She nodded assent. She had not uttered one word to explain how she
came to that wild land; nor had I asked.

"It was you who pleaded for my life in the cave below my feet?"

"I did not know you had heard! I only sent Le Borgne to bring you
back!"

"I hid as he passed."

"But I sent a message to the fort - - "

"Not to be bitten by the same dog twice - I thought that meant to keep
away?"

"What?" asked Hortense, passing her hand over her eyes. "Was that the
message he gave you? Then monsieur had bribed him! I sent for you to
come to us. Oh, that is the reason you never came - - "

"And that is the reason you have hidden from me all the year and never
sent me word?"

"I thought - I thought - " She turned away. "Ben Gillam told monsieur
you had left Boston on our account - - "

"And you thought I wanted to avoid you - - "

"I did not blame you," she said. "Indeed, indeed, I was very
weak - monsieur must have bribed Le Borgne - I sent word again and
again - but you never answered!"

"How could you misunderstand - O Hortense, after that night in the
hunting-room, how could you believe so poorly of me!"

She gave a low laugh. "That's what your good angel used to plead," she
said.

"Good angel, indeed!" said I, memory of the vows to that miscreant
adventurer fading. "That good angel was a lazy baggage! She should
have compelled you to believe!"

"Oh - she did," says Hortense quickly. "The poor thing kept telling me
and telling me to trust you till I - "

"Till you what, Hortense?"

She did not answer at once.

"Monsieur and the blackamoor and I had gone to the upper river watching
for the expected boats - - "

"Hortense, were you the white figure behind the bush that night we were
spying on the Prince Rupert!"

"Yes," she said, "and you pointed your gun at me!"

I was too dumfounded for words. Then a suspicion flashed to my mind.
"Who sent Le Borgne for us in the storm, Hortense?"

"Oh," says Hortense, "that was nothing! Monsieur pretended that he


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