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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Pish! Pish! That frump and her fits! Bad blood, Ramsay; low-bred,
low-bred! 'Tis ever the way of her kind to blab of aches and stuffed
stomachs that were well if left empty. An she come prying into my
chemicals, taking fits when she's caught, I'll mix her a pill o'
Deliverance!" And M. Picot laughed heartily at his own joke.

The next morning I was off to the trade. Though I hardly acknowledged
the reason to myself, any youth can guess why I made excuse to come
back soon. As I rode up, Rebecca stood at our gate. She had no smile.
Had I not been thinking of another, I had noticed the sadness of her
face; but when she moved back a pace, I flung out some foolishness
about a gate being no bar if one had a mind to jump. Then she brought
me sharp to my senses as I sprang to the ground.

"Ramsay," she exclaimed, "M. Picot and Mistress Hortense are in jail
charged with sorcery! M. Picot is like to be hanged! An they do not
confess, they may be set in the bilboes and whipped. There is talk of
putting Mistress Hortense to the test."

"The test!"

'Twas as if a great weight struck away power to think, for the test
meant neither more nor less than torture till confession were wrung
from agony. The night went black and Rebecca's voice came as from some
far place.

"Ramsay, you are hurting - you are crushing my hands!"

Poor child, she was crying; and the words I would have said stuck fast
behind sealed lips. She seemed to understand, for she went on:

"Deliverance Dobbins saw strange things in his house. She went to spy.
He hath crazed her intellectuals. She hath dumb fits."

Now I understood. This trouble was the result of M. Picot's threat;
but little Rebecca's voice was tinkling on like a bell in a dome.

"My father hath the key to their ward. My father saith there is like
to be trouble if they do not confess - "

"Confess!" I broke out. "Confess what? If they confess the lie they
will be burned for witchcraft. And if they refuse to confess, they
will be hanged for not telling the lie. Pretty justice! And your holy
men fined one fellow a hundred pounds for calling their justices a pack
of jackasses - - "

"Sentence is to be pronounced to-morrow after communion," said Rebecca.

"After communion?" I could say no more. On that of all days for
tyranny's crime!

God forgive me for despairing of mankind that night. I thought freedom
had been won in the Commonwealth war, but that was only freedom of
body. A greater strife was to wage for freedom of soul.




CHAPTER IV

REBECCA AND JACK BATTLE CONSPIRE

'Twas cockcrow when I left pacing the shore where we had so often
played in childhood; and through the darkness came the howl of M.
Picot's hound, scratching outside the prison gate.

As well reason with maniacs as fanatics, say I, for they hide as much
folly under the mask of conscience as ever court fool wore 'neath
painted face. There was Mr. Stocking, as well-meaning a man as trod
earth, obdurate beyond persuasion against poor M. Picot under his
charge. Might I not speak to the French doctor through the bars of his
window? By no means, Mr. Stocking assured. If once the great door
were unlocked, who could tell what black arts a sorcerer might use?

"Look you, Ramsay lad," says he, "I've had this brass key made against
his witchcraft, and I do not trust it to the hands of the jailer."

Then, I fear, I pleaded too keenly; for, suspecting collusion with M.
Picot, the warden of the court-house grew frigid and bade me ask Eli
Kirke's opinion on witchcraft.

"'Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,'" rasped Eli Kirke, his stern
eyes ablaze from an inner fire. "'A man' also, or woman, that hath a
familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death.'
Think you M. Picot burns incense to the serpent in his jars for the
healing of mankind?" he demanded fiercely.

"Yes," said I, "'tis for the healing of mankind by experimentation with
chemicals. Knowledge of God nor chemicals springs full grown from
man's head, Uncle Eli. Both must be learned. That is all the meaning
of his jars and crucibles. He is only trying to learn what laws God
ordained among materials. And when M. Picot makes mistakes, it is the
same as when the Church makes mistakes and learns wisdom by blunders."

Eli Kirke blinked his eyes as though my monstrous pleadings dazed him.

"'Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,'" he cried doggedly. "Do the
Scriptures lie, Ramsay Stanhope? Tell me that?"

"No," said I. "The Scriptures condemn liars, and the man who pretends
witchcraft _is_ a liar. There's no such thing. That is why the
Scriptures command burning." I paused. He made no answer, and I
pleaded on.

"But M. Picot denies witchcraft, and you would burn him for not lying."

Never think to gain a stubborn antagonist by partial concession. M.
Radisson used to say if you give an enemy an inch he will claim an ell.
'Twas so with Eli Kirke, for he leaped to his feet in a fine frenzy and
bade me cease juggling Holy Writ.

"'Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,'" he shouted. "'Tis
abomination! It shall utterly be put away from you! Because of this
hidden iniquity the colony hath fallen on evil days. Let it perish
root and branch!"

But Tibbie breaks in upon his declamation by throwing wide the library
door, and in marches a line of pale-faced ascetics, rigid of jaw, cold
of eye, and exalted with that gloomy fervour which counts burning
life's highest joy. Among them was the famous witch-hanger of after
years, a mere youth then, but about his lips the hard lines of a
spiritual zeal scarce differing from pride.

"God was awakening the churches by marvellous signs," said one,
extending a lank, cold hand to salute Eli Kirke.

"Have we not wrestled mightily for signs and wonders?" demanded another
with jaw of steel. And one description of the generation seeking signs
was all but off the tip of my tongue.

"Some aver there be no witches - so fearfully hath error gone abroad,"
lamented young Mather, keen to be heard then, as he always was.
"Brethren, toleration would make a kingdom of chaos, a Sodom, a
Gomorrah, a Babylon!"

Faith, it needed no horoscope to forecast that young divine's dark
future!

I stood it as long as I could, with palms itching to knock their solemn
heads together like so many bowling balls; but when one
cadaverous-faced fellow, whose sanctity had gone bilious from lack of
sunshine, whined out against "the saucy miss," meaning thereby Mistress
Hortense, and another prayed Heaven through his nose that his daughter
might "lie in her grave ere she minced her steps with such
dissoluteness of hair and unseemly broideries and bright colours,
showing the lightness of her mind," and a third averred that "a
cucking-stool would teach a maid to walk more shamefacedly," I whirled
upon them in a fury that had disinherited me from Eli Kirke's graces
ere I spake ten words.

"Sirs," said I, "your slatternly wenches may be dead ere they match
Mistress Hortense! As for wearing light colours, the devil himself is
painted black. Let them who are doing shameful acts to the innocent
walk shamefacedly! For shame, sirs, to cloak malice and jealousy of M.
Picot under religion! New England will remember this blot against you
and curse you for it! An you listen to Deliverance Dobbins's lies,
what hinders any lying wench sending good men to the scaffold?"

At first they listened agape, but now the hot blood rushed to their
faces.

"Hold thy tongue, lad!" roared Eli Kirke. Then, as if to atone for
that violence: "The Lord rebuke thee," he added solemnly.

And I flung from the house dumb with impotent rage.

My thoughts were as the snatched sleep of a sick man's dreams. Again
the hideous nightmare of the old martyr at the shambles; but now the
shambles were in the New World and the martyr was M. Picot. Something
cold touched my hand through the dark, and there crouched M. Picot's
hound, whining for its master. Automatically I followed across the
commons to the court-house square. It stopped at the prison gate,
sniffing and whining and begging in. Poor dog! What could I do? I
tried to coax it away, but it lay at the wall like a stone.

Of the long service in the new-built meeting-house I remember very
little. Beat of drums, not bells, called to church in those days, and
the beat was to me as a funeral march. The pale face of the preacher
in the high pulpit overtowering us all was alight with stern zeal. The
elders, sitting in a row below the pulpit facing us, listened to the
fierce diatribe against the dark arts with looks of approbation that
boded ill for M. Picot; and at every fresh fusillade of texts to
bolster his argument, the line of deacons below the elders glanced back
at the preacher approvingly. Rebecca sat on that side of the
congregation assigned to the women with a dumb look of sympathy on the
sweet hooded face. The prisoners were not present. At the end of the
service the preacher paused; and there fell a great hush in which men
scarce breathed, for sentence was to be pronounced. But the preacher
only announced that before handing the case to the civil court of oyer
and terminer for judgment, the elders wished to hold it in meditation
for another day.

The singing of the dismissal psalm began and a smothered cry seemed to
break from Rebecca's pew. Then the preacher had raised his hands above
bowed heads. The service was over. The people crowded solemnly out,
and I was left alone in the gathering darkness - alone with the ghosts
of youth's illusions mocking from the gloom. Religion, then, did not
always mean right! There were tyrants of souls as well as tyrants of
sword. Prayers were uttered that were fitter for hearing in hell than
in Heaven. Good men could deceive themselves into crime cloaking
spiritual malice, sect jealousy, race hatred with an unctuous text.
Here, in New England, where men had come for freedom, was tyranny
masking in the guise of religion. Preachers as jealous of the power
slipping from their hands as ever was primate of England! A poor
gentleman hounded to his death because he practised the sciences!
Millions of victims all the world over burned for witchcraft,
sacrificed to a Moloch of superstition in the name of a Christ who came
to let in the light of knowledge on all superstition!

Could I have found a wilderness where was no human face, I think I had
fled to it that night. And, indeed, when you come to think of my
breaking with Eli Kirke, 'twas the witch trial that drove me to the
wilderness.

There was yet a respite. But the Church still dominated the civil
courts, and a transfer of the case meant that the Church would throw
the onus of executing sentence on those lay figures who were the
puppets of a Pharisaical oligarchy.

There was no time to appeal to England. There was no chance of sudden
rescue. New England had not the stuff of which mobs are made.

I thought of appealing to the mercy of the judges; but what mercy had
Eli Kirke received at the hands of royalists that he should be merciful
to them?

I thought of firing the prison; but the walls were stone, and the night
wet, and the outcome doubtful.

I thought of the cell window; but if there had been any hope that way,
M. Picot had worked an escape.

Bowing my head to think - to pray - to imprecate, I lost all sense of
time and place. Some one had slipped quietly into the dark of the
church. I felt rather than saw a nearing presence. But I paid no
heed, for despair blotted out all thought. Whoever it was came feeling
a way down the dark aisle.

Then hot tears fell upon my hands. In the gloom there paused a
childlike figure.

"Rebecca!"

She panted out a wordless cry. Then she came closer and laid a hand on
my arm. She was struggling to subdue sobs. The question came in a
shivering breath.

"Is Hortense - so dear?"

"So dear, Rebecca."

"She must be wondrous happy, Ramsay." A tumult of effort. "If I could
only take her place - - "

"Take her place, Rebecca?"

"My father hath the key - if - if - if I took her place, she might go
free."

"Take her place, child! What folly is this - dear, kind Rebecca? Would
't be any better to send you to the rope than Hortense? No - no - dear
child!"

At that her agitation abated, and she puzzled as if to say more.

"Dear Rebecca," said I, comforting her as I would a sister, "dear
child, run home. Forget not little Hortense in thy prayers."

May the angel of forgiveness spread a broader mantle across our
blunders than our sins, but could I have said worse?

"I have cooked dainties with my own hands. I have sent her cakes every
day," sobbed Rebecca.

"Go home now, Rebecca," I begged.

But she stood silent.

"Rebecca - what is it?"

"You have not been to see me for a year, Ramsay."

I could scarce believe my ears.

"My father is away to-night. Will you not come?"

"But, Rebecca - - "

"I have never asked a thing of you before."

"But, Rebecca - - "

"Will you come for Hortense's sake?" she interrupted, with a little
sharp, hard, falsetto note in her baby voice.

"Rebecca," I demanded, "what do you mean?"

But she snapped back like the peevish child that she was: "An you come
not when I ask you, you may stay!" And she had gone.

What was she trying to say with her dark hints and overnice scruples of
a Puritan conscience? And was not that Jack Battle greeting her
outside in the dark?

I tore after Rebecca at such speed that I had cannoned into open arms
before I saw a hulking form across the way.

"Fall-back - fall-edge!" roared Jack, closing his arms about me. "'Tis
Ramsay himself, with a sword like a butcher's cleaver and a wit like a
broadaxe!"

"Have you not heard, Jack?"

"Heard! Ship ahoy!" cried Jack. "Split me to the chin like a cod!
Stood I not abaft of you all day long, packed like a herring in a
pickle! 'Twas a pretty kettle of fish in your Noah's ark to-day! 'Tis
all along o' goodness gone stale from too much salt," says Jack.

I told him of little Rebecca, and asked what he made of it. He said he
made of it that fools didn't love in the right place - which was not to
the point, whatever Jack thought of Rebecca. Linking his arm through
mine, he headed me about.

"Captain Gillam, Ben's father, sails for England at sunrise," vouched
Jack.

"What has that to do with Mistress Hortense?" I returned testily.

"'Tis a swift ship to sail in."

"To sail in, Jack Battle?" - I caught at the hope. "Out with your plan,
man!"

"And be hanged for it," snaps Jack, falling silent.

We were opposite the prison. He pointed to a light behind the bars.

"They are the only prisoners," he said. "They must be in there."

"One could pass a note through those bars with a long pole," I
observed, gazing over the yard wall.

"Or a key," answered Jack.

He paused before Rebecca's house to the left of the prison.

"Ramsay," inquired Jack quizzically, "do you happen to have heard who
has the keys?"

"Rebecca's father is warden."

"And Rebecca's father is from home to-night," says he, facing me
squarely to the lantern above the door.

How did he know that? Then I remembered the voices outside the church.

"Jack - what did Rebecca mean - - "

"Not to be hanged," interrupts Jack. "'Tis all along o' having too
much conscience, Ramsay. They must either lie like a Dutchman and be
damned, or tell the truth and be hanged. Now, ship ahoy," says he, "to
the quarterdeck!" and he flung me forcibly up the steps.

Rebecca, herself, red-eyed and reserved, threw wide the door. She
motioned me to a bench seat opposite the fireplace and fastened her
gaze above the mantel till mine followed there too. A bunch of keys
hung from an iron rack.

"What are those, Rebecca?"

"The largest is for the gate," says she with the panic of conscience
running from fire. "The brass one unlocks the great door,
and - and - the - M. Picot's cell unbolts," she stammered.

"May I examine them, Rebecca?"

"I will even draw you a pint of cider," says Rebecca evasively, with
great trepidation, "but come back soon," she called, tripping off to
the wine-cellar door.

Snatching the keys, I was down the steps at a leap.

"The large one for the gate, Jack! The brass one for the big door, and
the cell unbolts!"

"Ease your helm, sonny!" says Jack, catching the bunch from my clasp.
"Fall-back - fall-edge!" he laughed in that awful mockery of the
axeman's block. "Fall-back - fall-edge! If there's any hacking of
necks, mine is thicker than yours! I'll run the risks. Do you wait
here in shadow."

And he darted away. The gate creaked as it gave.

Then I waited for what seemed eternity.

A night-watchman shuffled along with swinging lantern, calling out:
"What ho? What ho?" Townsfolks rode through the streets with a
clatter of the chairmen's feet; but no words were bandied by the
fellows, for a Sabbath hush lay over the night. A great hackney-coach
nigh mired in mud as it lumbered through mid-road. And M. Picot's
hound came sniffing hungrily to me.

A glare of light shot aslant the dark. Softly the door of Rebecca's
house opened. A frail figure was silhouetted against the light. The
wick above snuffed out. The figure drew in without a single look,
leaving the door ajar. But an hour ago, the iron righteousness of
bigots had filled my soul with revolt. Now the sight of that little
Puritan maid brought prayers to my lips and a Te Deum to my soul.

The prison gate swung open again with rusty protest. Two hooded
figures slipped through the dark. Jack Battle had locked the gate and
the keys were in my hand.

"Take them back," he gurgled out with school-lad glee. "'Twill be a
pretty to-do of witchcraft to-morrow when they find a cell empty. Go
hire passage to England in Captain Gillam's boat!"

"Captain Gillam's boat?"

"Yes, or Master Ben's pirate-ship of the north, if she's there," and he
had dashed off in the dark.

When Rebecca appeared above the cellar-way with a flagon that reamed to
a beaded top, the keys were back on the wall.

"I was overlong," panted Rebecca, with eyes averted as of old to the
folds of her white stomacher. "'Twas a stubborn bung and hard to draw."

"Dear little cheat! God bless you! - and bless you! - and bless you,
Rebecca!" I cried.

At which the poor child took fright.

"It - it - it was not all a lie, Ramsay," she stammered. "The bung was
hard - and - and - and I didn't hasten - - "

"Dear comrade - good-bye, forever!" I called from the dark-of the step.

"Forever?" asked the faint voice of a forlorn figure black in the
doorway.

Dear, snowy, self-sacrificing spirit - 'tis my clearest memory of her
with the thin, grieved voice coming through the dark.

I ran to the wharf hard as ever heels nerved by fear and joy and
triumph and love could carry me. The passage I easily engaged from the
ship's mate, who dinned into my unlistening ears full account of the
north sea, whither Captain Gillam was to go for the Fur Company, and
whither, too, Master Ben was keen to sail, "a pirateer, along o' his
own risk and gain," explained the mate with a wink, "pirateer or
privateer, call 'em what you will, Mister; the Susan with white sails
in Boston Town, and Le Bon Garçon with sails black as the devil himself
up in Quebec, ha - ha - and I'll give ye odds on it, Mister, the devil
himself don't catch Master Ben! Why, bless you, gentlemen, who's to
jail 'im here for droppin' Spanish gold in his own hold and poachin'
furs on the king's preserve o' the north sea, when Stocking, the
warden, 'imself owns 'alf the Susan and Cap'en Gillam, 'is father, is
master o' the king's ship?"

"They do say," he babbled on, "now that Radisson, the French
jack-a-boots, hath given the slip to the King's Company, he sails from
Quebec in ship o' his own. If him and Ben and the Capiten meet - oh,
there'll be times! There'll be times!"

And "times" there were sure enough; but of that I had then small care
and shook the loquacious rascal off so that he left me in peace.

First came the servants, trundling cart-loads of cases, which passed
unnoticed; for the town bell had tolled the close of Sabbath, and
Monday shipping had begun.

The cusp of a watery moon faded in the gray dawn streaks of a muffled
sky, and at last came the chairmen, with Jack running alert.

From the chairs stepped the blackamoor, painted as white as paste.
Then a New Amsterdam gentleman slipped out from the curtains, followed
by his page-boy and servants.

"Jack," I asked, "where is Hortense?"

The page glanced from under curls.

"Dear Jack," she whispered, standing high on her heels nigh as tall as
the sailor lad. And poor Jack Battle, not knowing how to play down,
stood blushing, cap in hand, till she laughed a queer little laugh and,
bidding him good-bye, told him to remember that she had the squirrel
stuffed.

To me she said no word. Her hand touched mine quick farewell. The
long lashes lifted.

There was a look on her face.

I ask no greater joy in Paradise than memory of that look.

* * * * * *

One lone, gray star hung over the masthead. The ship careened across
the billows till star and mast-top met.

Jack fetched a deep sigh.

"There be work for sailors in England," he said.

In a flash I thought that I knew what he had meant by fools not loving
in the right place.

"That were folly, Jack! She hath her station!"

Jack Battle pointed to the fading steel point above the vanishing
masthead.

"Doth looking hurt yon star?" asks Jack.

"Nay; but looking may strain the eyes; and the arrows of longing come
back void."

He answered nothing, and we lingered heavy hearted till the sun came up
over the pillowed waves turning the tumbling waters to molten gold.

Between us and the fan-like rays behind the glossy billows - was no ship.

Hortense was safe!

There was an end-all to undared hopes.




CHAPTER V

M. RADISSON AGAIN

"Good-bye to you, Ramsay," said Jack abruptly.

"Where to, Jack?" I asked, bestirring myself. I could no more go back
to Eli Kirke.

But little Jack Battle was squirming his wooden clogs into the sand as
he used to dig his toes, and he answered not a word.

"'Tis early yet for the Grand Banks, Jack. Ben Gillam's ship keeled
mast over hull from being ice-logged last spring. The spars were solid
with frozen sleet from the crosstrees to the crow's nest. Your dories
would be ice-logged for a month yet."

"It - it - it aren't the Grand Banks no more," stammered Jack.

His manner arrested me. The honest blue eyes were shifting and his
toes at work in the sand.

"There be gold on the high seas for the taking," vouched Jack. "An
your fine gentlemen grow rich that way, why mayn't I?"

"Jack," I warned, thinking of Ben Gillam's craft rigged with sails of
as many colours as Joseph's coat, "Jack - is it a pirate-ship?"

"No," laughed the sailor lad sheepishly, "'tis a pirateer," meaning
thereby a privateer, which was the same thing in those days.

"Have a care of your pirateers - privateers, Jack," said I, speaking
plain. "A gentleman would be run through the gullet with a clean
rapier, but you - you - would be strangled by sentence of court or sold
to the Barbadoes."

"Not if the warden o' the court owns half the ship," protested Jack,
smiling queerly under his shaggy brows.

"Oh - ho!" said I, thinking of Rebecca's father, and beginning to
understand who supplied money for Ben Gillam's ventures.

"I'm tired o' being a kick-a-toe and fisticuff to everybody. Now, if
I'd been rich and had a ship, I might 'a' sailed for M. Picot."

"Or Mistress Hortense," I added, which brought red spots to the sailor
lad's cheeks.

Off he went unanswering, leaving me at gaze across an unbroken sea with
a heart heavy as lead.

"Poor fellow! He will get over it," said I.

"Another hath need o' the same medicine," came a voice.

I wheeled, expecting arrest.

A tall, wiry man, with coal-black hair and deep-set eyes and a scar
across his swarth skin, smiled pleasantly down at me.

"Now that you have them safely off," said he, still smiling, "better
begone yourself."

"I'll thank you for your advice when I ask it, sir," said I, suspicious
of the press-gang infesting that port. Involuntarily I caught at my
empty sword-belt.

"Permit me," proffered the gentleman, with a broader smile, handing out
his own rapier.

"Sir," said I, "your pardon, but the press-gang have been busy of late."

"And the sheriffs may be busy to-day," he laughed. "Black arts don't
open stone walls, Ramsay."


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