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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to take the St. Pierre broadside.

"Helm hard alee!" shouts Radisson in the teeth of the gale.

For the fraction of a second we were driving before the oncoming rush.

Then the sea rose up in a wall on our rear.

There was a shattering crash. The billows broke in sheets of whipping
spray. The decks swam with a river of waters. One gun wrenched loose,
teetered to the roll, and pitched into the seething deep. Yard-arms
came splintering to the deck. There was a roaring of waters over us,
under us, round us - then M. de Radisson, Jean, and I went slithering
forward like water-rats caught in a whirlpool. My feet struck against
windlass chains. Jean saved himself from washing overboard by
cannoning into me; but before the dripping bowsprit rose again to mount
the swell, M. de Radisson was up, shaking off spray like a water-dog
and muttering to himself: "To be snuffed out like a candle - no - no - no,
my fine fellows! Leap to meet it! Leap to meet it!"

And he was at the wheel himself.

The ship gave a long shudder, staggered back, stern foremost, to the
trough of the swell, and lay weltering cataracts from her decks.

There was a pause of sudden quiet, the quiet of forces gathering
strength for fiercer assault; and in that pause I remembered something
had flung over me in the wash of the breaking sea. I looked to the
crosstrees. The mutineer was gone.

It was the first and last time that I have ever seen a smoking sea.
The ocean boiled white. Far out in the wake of the tide that had
caught us foam smoked on the track of the ploughing waters.
Waters - did I say? You could not see waters for the spray.

Then Jean bade me look how the stays'l had been torn to flutters, and
we both set about righting decks.

For all I could see, M. Radisson was simply holding the wheel; but the
holding of a wheel in stress is mighty fine seamanship. To keep that
old gallipot from shipping seas in the tempest of billows was a more
ticklish task than rope-walking a whirlpool or sacking a city.

Presently came two sounds - a swish of seas at our stern and the booming
of surf against coast rocks. Then M. de Radisson did the maddest thing
that ever I have seen. Both sounds told of the coming tempest. The
veering wind settled to a driving nor'easter, and M. de Radisson was
steering straight as a bullet to the mark for that rock wall.

But I did not know that coast. When our ship was but three lengths
from destruction the St. Pierre answered to the helm. Her prow rounded
a sharp rock. Then the wind caught her, whirling her right about; but
in she went, stern foremost, like a fish, between the narrow walls of a
fiord to the quiet shelter of a land-locked lagoon. Pierre Radisson
had taken refuge in what the sailors call "a hole in the wall."

There we lay close reefed, both anchors out, while the hurricane held
high carnival on the outer sea.

After we had put the St. Pierre ship-shape, M. Radisson stationed Jean
and me fore and aft with muskets levelled, and bade us shoot any man
but himself who appeared above the hatch. Arming himself with his
short, curved hanger - oh, I warrant there would have been a carving
below decks had any one resisted him that day! - down he went to the
mutineers of the dim-lighted forehold.

Perhaps the storm had quelled the spirit of rebellion; but up came M.
de Radisson, followed by the entire crew - one fellow's head in white
cotton where it had struck the floor, and every man jumping keen to
answer his captain's word.

I must not forget a curious thing that happened as we lay at anchor.
The storm had scarce abated when a strange ship poked her jib-boom
across the entrance to the lagoon, followed by queer-rigged black sails.

"A pirate!" said Jean.

But Sieur de Radisson only puckered his brows, shifted position so that
the St. Pierre could give a broadside, and said nothing.

Then came the strangest part of it. Another ship poked her nose across
the other side of the entrance. This was white-rigged.

"Two ships, and they have us cooped!" exclaimed Jean.

"One sporting different sails," said M. de Radisson contemptuously.

"What do you think we should do, sir?" asked Jean.

"Think?" demanded Radisson. "I have stopped thinking! I act! My
thoughts are acts."

But all the same his thought at that moment was to let go a broadside
that sent the stranger scudding. Judging it unwise to keep a
half-mutinous crew too near pirate ships, M. Radisson ordered anchor
up. With a deck-mop fastened in defiance to our prow, the St. Pierre
slipped out of the harbour through the half-dark of those northern
summer nights, and gave the heel to any highwayman waiting to attack as
she passed.

The rest of the voyage was a ploughing through brash ice in the
straits, with an occasional disembarking at the edge of some great
ice-field; but one morning we were all awakened from the heavy sleep of
hard-worked seamen by the screaming of a multitude of birds. The air
was odorous with the crisp smell of woods. When we came on deck, 'twas
to see the St. Pierre anchored in the cove of a river that raced to
meet the bay.

The screaming gulls knew not what to make of these strange visitors;
for we were at Port Nelson - Fort Bourbon, as the French called it.

And you must not forget that we were French on _that_ trip!


[1] These expressions are M. de Radisson's and not words coined by Mr.
Stanhope, as may be seen by reference to the French explorer's account
of his own travels, written partly in English, where he repeatedly
refers to a "pretty pickle." As for the ships, they seem to have been
something between a modern whaler and old-time brigantine. - _Author_.




CHAPTER VIII

M. DE RADISSON COMES TO HIS OWN

The sea was touched to silver by the rising sun - not the warm, red sun
of southern climes, nor yet the gold light of the temperate zones, but
the cold, clear steel of that great cold land where all the warring
elements challenge man to combat. Browned by the early frosts, with a
glint of hoar rime on the cobwebs among the grasses, north, south, and
west, as far as eye could see, were boundless reaches of hill and
valley. And over all lay the rich-toned shadows of early dawn.

The broad river raced not to meet the sea more swiftly than our pulses
leaped at sight of that unclaimed world. 'Twas a kingdom waiting for
its king. And its king had come! Flush with triumph, sniffing the
nutty, autumn air like a war-horse keen for battle, stood M. Radisson
all impatience for the conquest of new realms. His jewelled sword-hilt
glistened in the sun. The fire that always slumbered in the deep-set
eyes flashed to life; and, fetching a deep breath, he said a queer
thing to Jean and me.

"'Tis good air, lads," says he; "'tis free!"

And I, who minded that bloody war in which my father lost his all, knew
what the words meant, and drank deep.

But for the screaming of the birds there was silence of death. And,
indeed, it was death we had come to disenthrone. M. Radisson issued
orders quick on top of one another, and the sailors swarmed from the
hold like bees from a hive. The drum beat a roundelay that set our
blood hopping. There were trumpet-calls back and forth from our ship
to the Ste. Anne. Then, to a whacking of cables through blocks, the
gig-boats touched water, and all hands were racing for the shore.
Godefroy waved a monster flag - lilies of France, gold-wrought on cloth
of silk - and Allemand kept beating - and beating - and beating the drum,
rumbling out a "Vive le Roi!" to every stroke. Before the keel
gravelled on the beach, M. Radisson's foot was on the gunwale, and he
leaped ashore. Godefroy followed, flourishing the French flag and
yelling at the top of his voice for the King of France. Behind, wading
and floundering through the water, came the rest. Godefroy planted the
flag-staff. The two crews sent up a shout that startled those strange,
primeval silences. Then, M. Radisson stepped forward, hat in hand,
whipped out his sword, and held it aloft.

"In the name of Louis the Great, King of France," he shouted, "in the
name of His Most Christian Majesty, the King of France, I take
possession of all these regions!"

At that, Chouart Groseillers shivered a bottle of wine against the
flag-pole. Drums beat, fifes shrieked as for battle, and lusty cheers
for the king and Sieur Radisson rang and echoed and re-echoed from our
crews. Three times did Allemand beat his drum and three times did we
cheer. Then Pierre Radisson raised his sword. Every man dropped to
knee. Catholics and Protestants, Calvinists and infidels, and
riff-raff adventurers who had no religion but what they swore by, bowed
their heads to the solemn thanks which Pierre Radisson uttered for safe
deliverance from perilous voyage. [1]

That was my first experience of the fusion which the New World makes of
Old World divisions. We thought we had taken possession of the land.
No, no, 'twas the land had taken possession of us, as the New World
ever does, fusing ancient hates and rearing a new race, of which - I
wot - no prophet may dare too much!

"He who twiddles his thumbs may gnaw his gums," M. Radisson was wont to
say; and I assure you there was no twiddling of thumbs that morning.
Bare had M. Radisson finished prayers, when he gave sharp command for
Groseillers, his brother-in-law, to look to the building of the
Habitation - as the French called their forts - while he himself would go
up-stream to seek the Indians for trade. Jean and Godefroy and I were
sent to the ship for a birch canoe, which M. Radisson had brought from
Quebec.

Our leader took the bow; Godefroy, the stern; Jean and I, the middle.
A poise of the steel-shod steering pole, we grasped our paddles, a
downward dip, quick followed by Godefroy at the stern, and out shot the
canoe, swift, light, lithe, alert, like a racer to the bit, with a
gurgling of waters below the gunwales, the keel athrob to the swirl of
a turbulent current and a trail of eddies dimpling away on each side.
A sharp breeze sprang up abeam, and M. Radisson ordered a blanket sail
hoisted on the steersman's fishing-pole. But if you think that he
permitted idle paddles because a wind would do the work, you know not
the ways of the great explorer. He bade us ply the faster, till the
canoe sped between earth and sky like an arrow shot on the level. The
shore-line became a blur. Clumps of juniper and pine marched abreast,
halted the length of time an eye could rest, and wheeled away. The
swift current raced to meet us. The canoe jumped to mount the glossy
waves raised by the beam wind. An upward tilt of her prow, and we had
skimmed the swell like a winged thing. And all the while M. Radisson's
eyes were everywhere. Chips whirled past. There were beaver, he said.
Was the water suddenly muddied? Deer had flitted at our approach. Did
a fish rise? M. Radisson predicted otter; and where there were otter
and beaver and deer, there should be Indians.

As for the rest of us, it had gone to our heads.

We were intoxicated with the wine of the rugged, new, free life. Sky
above; wild woods where never foot had trod; air that drew through the
nostrils in thirst-quenching draughts; blood atingle to the laughing
rhythm of the river - what wonder that youth leaped to a fresh life from
the mummified existence of little, old peoples in little, old lands?

We laughed aloud from fulness of life.

Jean laid his paddle athwart, ripped off his buckskin, and smiled back.

"Ramsay feels as if he had room to stretch himself," said he.

"Feel! I feel as if I could run a thousand miles and jump off the ends
of the earth - "

"And dive to the bottom of the sea and harness whales and play
bowling-balls with the spheres, you young rantipoles," added M.
Radisson ironically.

"The fever of the adventurer," said Jean quietly. "My uncle knows it."

I laughed again. "I was wondering if Eli Kirke ever felt this way," I
explained.

"Pardieu," retorted M. de Radisson, loosening his coat, "if people
moved more and moped less, they'd brew small bile! Come, lads! Come,
lads! We waste time!"

And we were paddling again, in quick, light strokes, silent from zest,
careless of toil, strenuous from love of it.

Once we came to a bend in the river where the current was so strong
that we had dipped our paddles full five minutes against the mill race
without gaining an inch. The canoe squirmed like a hunter balking a
hedge, and Jean's blade splintered off to the handle. But M. de
Radisson braced back to lighten the bow; the prow rose, a sweep of the
paddles, and on we sped!

"Hard luck to pull and not gain a boat length," observed Jean.

"Harder luck not to pull, and to be swept back," corrected M. de
Radisson.

We left the main river to thread a labyrinthine chain of waterways,
where were portages over brambly shores and slippery rocks, with the
pace set at a run by M. de Radisson. Jean and I followed with the pack
straps across our foreheads and the provisions on our backs. Godefroy
brought up the rear with the bark canoe above his head.

At one place, where we disembarked, M. de Radisson traced the sand with
the muzzle of his musket.

"A boot-mark," said he, drawing the faint outlines of a footprint, "and
egad, it's not a man's foot either!"

"Impossible!" cried Jean. "We are a thousand miles from any white-man."

"There's nothing impossible on this earth," retorted Radisson
impatiently. "But pardieu, there are neither white women in this
wilderness, nor ghosts wearing women's boots! I'd give my right hand
to know what left that mark!"

After that his haste grew feverish. We snatched our meals by turns
between paddles. He seemed to grudge the waste of each night, camping
late and launching early; and it was Godefroy's complaint that each
portage was made so swiftly there was no time for that solace of the
common voyageur - the boatman's pipe. For eight days we travelled
without seeing a sign of human presence but that one vague footmark in
the sand.

"If there are no Indians, how much farther do we go, sir?" asked
Godefroy sulkily on the eighth day.

"Till we find them," answered M. Radisson.

And we found them that night.

A deer broke from the woods edging the sand where we camped and had
almost bounded across our fire when an Indian darted out a hundred
yards behind. Mistaking us for his own people, he whistled the
hunter's signal to head the game back. Then he saw that we were
strangers. Pulling up of a sudden, he threw back his arms, uttered a
cry of surprise, and ran to the hiding of the bush.

M. Radisson was the first to pursue; but where the sand joined the
thicket he paused and began tracing the point of his rapier round the
outlines of a mark.

"What do you make of it, Godefroy?" he demanded of the trader.

The trader looked quizzically at Sieur de Radisson.

"The toes of that man's moccasin turn out," says Godefroy significantly.

"Then that man is no Indian," retorted M. Radisson, "and hang me, if
the size is not that of a woman or a boy!"

And he led back to the beach.

"Yon ship was a pirate," began Godefroy, "and if buccaneers be
about - - "

"Hold your clack, fool," interrupted M. Radisson, as if the fellow's
prattle had cut into his mental plannings; and he bade us heap such a
fire as could be seen by Indians for a hundred miles. "If once I can
find the Indians," meditated he moodily, "I'll drive out a whole
regiment of scoundrels with one snap o' my thumb!"

Black clouds rolled in from the distant bay, boding a stormy night; and
Godefroy began to complain that black deeds were done in the dark, and
we were forty leagues away from the protection of our ships.

"A pretty target that fire will make of us in the dark," whined the
fellow.

M. Radisson's eyes glistened sparks.

"I'd as lief be a pirate myself, as be shot down by pirates," grumbled
the trader, giving a hand to hoist the shed of sheet canvas that was to
shield us from the rains now aslant against the seaward horizon.

At the words M. Radisson turned sharply; but the heedless fellow
gabbled on.

"Where is a man to take cover, an the buccaneers began shooting from
the bush behind?" demanded Godefroy belligerently.

M. Radisson reached one arm across the fire. "I'll show you," said he.
Taking Godefroy by the ear, with a prick of the sword he led the lazy
knave quick march to the beach, where lay our canoe bottom up.

"Crawl under!" M. Radisson lifted the prow.

From very shame - I think it was - Godefroy balked; but M. Radisson
brought a cutting rap across the rascal's heels that made him hop. The
canoe clapped down, and Godefroy was safe. "Pardieu," mutters
Radisson, "such cowards would turn the marrow o' men's bones to butter!"

Sitting on a log, with his feet to the fire, he motioned Jean and me to
come into the shelter of the slant canvas; for the clouds were rolling
overhead black as ink and the wind roared up the river-bed with a wall
of pelting rain. M. Radisson gazed absently into the flame. The steel
lights were at play in his eyes, and his lips parted.

"Storm and cold - man and beast - powers of darkness and devil - knaves
and fools and his own sins - he must fight them all, lads," says M.
Radisson slowly.

"Who must fight them all?" asks Jean.

"The victor," answers Radisson, and warm red flashed to the surface of
the cold steel in his eyes.

"Jean," he began, looking up quickly towards the gathering darkness of
the woods.

"Sir?"

"'Tis cold enough for hunters to want a fire."

"Is the fire not big enough?"

"Now, where are your wits, lad? If hunters were hiding in that bush,
one could see this fire a long way off. The wind is loud. One could
go close without being heard. Pardieu, I'll wager a good scout could
creep up to a log like this" - touching the pine on which we sat - -"and
hear every word we are saying without a soul being the wiser!"

Jean turned with a start, half-suspecting a spy. Radisson laughed.

"Must I spell it out? Eh, lad, afraid to go?"

The taunt bit home. Without a word Jean and I rose.

"Keep far enough apart so that one of you will escape back with the
news," called Radisson, as we plunged into the woods.

Of the one who might not escape Pierre Radisson gave small heed, and so
did we. Jean took the river side and I the inland thicket, feeling our
way blindly through the blackness of forest and storm and night. Then
the rain broke - broke in lashing whip-cords with the crackle of fire.
Jean whistled and I signalled back; but there was soon such a pounding
of rains it drowned every sound. For all the help one could give the
other we might have been a thousand miles apart. I looked back. M.
Radisson's fire threw a dull glare into the cavernous upper darkness.
That was guide enough. Jean could keep his course by the river.

It was plunging into a black nowhere. The trees thinned. I seemed to
be running across the open, the rain driving me forward like a wet
sail, a roar of wind in my ears and the words of M. Radisson ringing
their battle-cry - "Storm and cold - man and beast - powers of darkness
and devil - knaves and fools and his own sins - he must fight them
all!" - "Who?" - "The victor!"

Of a sudden the dripping thicket gave back a glint. Had I run in a
circle and come again on M. Radisson's fire? Behind, a dim glare still
shone against the sky.

Another glint from the rain drip, and I dropped like a deer hit on the
run. Not a gunshot away was a hunter's fire. Against the fire were
three figures. One stood with his face towards me, an Indian dressed
in buckskin, the man who had pursued the deer. The second was hid by
an intervening tree; and as I watched, the third faded into the
phaseless dark. Who were these night-watchers? I liked not that
business of spying - though you may call it scouting, if you will, but I
must either report nothing to M. Radisson, or find out more.

I turned to skirt the group. A pistol-shot rang through the wood. A
sword flashed to light. Before I had time to think, but not - thanks to
M. Picot's lessons long ago - not before I had my own rapier out, an
assassin blade would have taken me unawares.

I was on guard. Steel struck fire in red spots as it clashed against
steel. One thrust, I know, touched home; for the pistol went whirling
out of my adversary's hand, and his sword came through the dark with
the hiss of a serpent. Again I seemed to be in Boston Town; but the
hunting room had become a northland forest, M. Picot, a bearded man
with his back to the fire and his face in the dark, and our slim foils,
naked swords that pressed and parried and thrust in many a foul such as
the French doctor had taught me was a trick of the infamous Blood!
Indeed, I could have sworn that a woman's voice cried out through the
dark; but the rain was in my face and a sword striking red against my
own. Thanks, yes, thanks a thousand times to M. Picot's lessons; for
again and yet again I foiled that lunge of the unscrupulous swordsman
till I heard my adversary swearing, between clinched teeth. He
retreated. I followed. By a dexterous spring he put himself under
cover of the woods, leaving me in the open. My only practice in
swordsmanship had been with M. Picot, and it was not till long years
after that I minded how those lessons seemed to forestall and counter
the moves of that ambushed assassin. But the baffling thing was that
my enemy's moves countered mine in the very same way.

He had not seen my face, for my back was turned when he came up, and my
face in the shade when I whirled. But I stood between the dark and the
fire. Every motion of mine he could forecast, while I could but parry
and retreat, striving in vain to lure him out, to get into the dark, to
strike what I could not see, pushed back and back till I felt the rush
that aims not to disarm but to slay.

Our weapons rang with a glint of green lightnings. A piece of steel
flew up. My rapier had snapped short at the hilt. A cold point was at
my throat pressing me down and back as the foil had caught me that
night in M. Picot's house. To right, to left, I swerved, the last
blind rushes of the fugitive man. . . .

"Storm and cold - man and beast - powers of darkness and devil - he must
fight them all - - "

The memory of those words spurred like a battle-cry. Beaten? Not yet!
"Leap to meet it! Leap to meet it!"

I caught the blade at my throat with a naked hand. Hot floods drenched
my face. The earth swam. We were both in the light now, a bearded man
pushing his sword through my hand, and I falling down. Then my
antagonist leaped back with a shivering cry of horror, flung the weapon
to the ground and fled into the dark.

And when I sat up my right hand held the hilt of a broken rapier, the
left was gashed across the palm, and a sword as like my own as two peas
lay at my feet.

The fire was there. But I was alone.


[1] Reference to M. Radisson's journal corroborates Mr. Stanhope in
this observance, which was never neglected by M. Radisson after season
of peril. It is to be noted that he made his prayers after not at the
season of peril.




CHAPTER IX

VISITORS

The fire had every appearance of a night bivouac, but there was remnant
of neither camp nor hunt. Somewhere on my left lay the river. By that
the way led back to M. Radisson's rendezvous. It was risky
enough - that threading of the pathless woods through the pitchy dark;
but he who pauses to measure the risk at each tread is ill fitted to
pioneer wild lands.

Who the assassin was and why he had so suddenly desisted, I knew no
more than you do! That he had attacked was natural enough; for whoever
took first possession of no-man's-land in those days either murdered
his rivals or sold them to slavery. But why had he flung his sword
down at the moment of victory?

The pelting of the rain softened to a leafy patter, the patter to a
drip, and a watery moon came glimmering through the clouds. With my
enemy's rapier in hand I began cutting a course through the thicket.
Radisson's fire no longer shone. Indeed, I became mighty uncertain
which direction to take, for the rush of the river merged with the
beating of the wind. The ground sloped precipitously; and I was
holding back by the underbrush lest the bank led to water when an
indistinct sound, a smothery murmur like the gurgle of a subterranean
pool, came from below.

The wind fell. The swirl of the flowing river sounded far from the
rear. I had become confused and was travelling away from the true
course. But what was that sound?


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