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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I threw a stick forward. It struck hard stone. At the same instant
was a sibilant, human - distinctly human - "Hss-h," and the sound had
ceased.

That was no laving of inland pond against pebbles. Make of it what you
will - there were voices, smothered but talking. "No-no-no" . . . then
the warning . . . "Hush!" . . . then the wind and the river and . . .
"No - no!" with words like oaths. . . . "No - I say, no! Having come so
far, no! - not if it were my own brother!" . . . then the low
"Hush!" . . . and pleadings . . . then - "Send Le Borgne!"

And an Indian had rushed past me in the dark with a pine fagot in his
hand.

Rising, I stole after him. 'Twas the fellow who had been at the fire
with that unknown assailant. He paused over the smouldering embers,
searching the ground, found the hilt of the broken sword, lifted the
severed blade, kicked leaves over all traces of conflict, and
extinguishing the fire, carried off the broken weapon. An Indian can
pick his way over known ground without a torch. What was this fellow
doing with a torch? Had he been sent for me? I drew back in shadow to
let him pass. Then I ran with all speed to the river.

Gray dawn came over the trees as I reached the swollen waters, and the
sun was high in mid-heaven when I came to the gravel patch where M. de
Radisson had camped. Round a sharp bend in the river a strange sight
unfolded.

A score of crested savages with painted bodies sat on the ground. In
the centre, clad like a king, with purple doublet and plumed hat and
velvet waistcoat ablaze with medals of honour - was M. Radisson. One
hand deftly held his scabbard forward so that the jewelled hilt shone
against the velvet, and the other was raised impressively above the
savages. How had he made the savages come to him? How are some men
born to draw all others as the sea draws the streams?

The poor creatures had piled their robes at his feet as offerings to a
god.

"What did he give for the pelts, Godefroy?" I asked.

"Words!" says Godefroy, with a grin, "gab and a drop o' rum diluted in
a pot o' water!"

"What is he saying to them now?"

Godefroy shrugged his shoulders. "That the gods have sent him a
messenger to them; that the fire he brings " - he was handing a musket
to the chief - "will smite the Indians' enemy from the earth; that the
bullet is magic to outrace the fleetest runner" - this as M. Radisson
fired a shot into mid-air that sent the Indians into ecstasies of
childish wonder - "that the bottle in his hands contains death, and if
the Indians bring their hunt to the white-man, the white-man will never
take the cork out except to let death fly at the Indians' enemy" - he
lifted a little phial of poison as he spoke - "that the Indian need
never feel cold nor thirst, now that the white-man has brought
fire-water!"

At this came a harsh laugh from a taciturn Indian standing on the outer
rim of the crowd. It was the fellow who had run through the forest
with the torch.

"Who is that, Godefroy?"

"Le Borgne."

"Le Borgne need not laugh," retorted M. de Radisson sharply. "Le
Borgne knows the taste of fire-water! Le Borgne has been with the
white-man at the south, and knows what the white-man says is true."

But Le Borgne only laughed the harder, deep, guttural, contemptuous
"huh-huh's!" - a fitting rebuke, methought, for the ignoble deception
implied in M. Radisson's words.

Indeed, I would fain suppress this part of M. Radisson's record, for he
juggled with truth so oft, when he thought the end justified the means,
he finally got a knack of juggling so much with truth that the means
would never justify any end. I would fain repress the ignoble faults
of a noble leader, but I must even set down the facts as they are, so
you may see why a man who was the greatest leader and trader and
explorer of his times reaped only an aftermath of universal distrust.
He lied his way through thick and thin - as we traders used to say - till
that lying habit of his sewed him up in a net of his own weaving like a
grub in a cocoon.

Godefroy was giving a hand to bind up my gashed palm when something
grunted a "huff-huff" beside us. Le Borgne was there with a queer look
on his inscrutable face.

"Le Borgne, you rascal, you know who gave me this," I began, taking
careful scrutiny of the Indian.

One eye was glazed and sightless, the other yellow like a fox's; but
the fellow was straight, supple, and clean-timbered as a fresh-hewn
mast. With a "huh-huh," he gabbled back some answer.

"What does he say, Godefroy?"

"He says he doesn't understand the white-man's tongue - which is a lie,"
added Godefroy of his own account. "Le Borgne was interpreter for the
Fur Company at the south of the bay the year that M. Radisson left the
English."

Were my assailants, then, Hudson's Bay Company men come up from the
south end of James Bay? Certainly, the voice had spoken English. I
would have drawn Godefroy aside to inform him of my adventure, but Le
Borgne stuck to us like a burr. Jean was busy helping M. de Radisson
at the trade, or what was called "trade," when white men gave an awl
for forty beaver-skins.

"Godefroy," I said, "keep an eye on this Indian till I speak to M. de
Radisson." And I turned to the group. 'Twas as pretty a bit of colour
as I have ever seen. The sea, like silver, on one side; the
autumn-tinted woods, brown and yellow and gold, on the other; M. de
Radisson in his gay dress surrounded by a score of savages with their
faces and naked chests painted a gaudy red, headgear of swans' down,
eagle quills depending from their backs, and buckskin trousers fringed
with the scalp-locks of the slain.

Drawing M. de Radisson aside, I gave him hurried account of the night's
adventures.

"Ha!" says he. "Not Hudson's Bay Company men, or you would be in
irons, lad! Not French, for they spoke English. Pardieu! Poachers
and thieves - we shall see! Where is that vagabond Cree? These people
are southern Indians and know nothing of him. - Godefroy," he called.

Godefroy came running up. "Le Borgne's gone," said Godefroy
breathlessly.

"Gone?" repeated Radisson.

"He left word for Master Stanhope from one who wishes him well - "

"One who wishes him well," repeated M. Radisson, looking askance at me.

"For Master Stanhope not to be bitten twice by the same dog!"

Our amazement you may guess: M. de Radisson, suspicious of treachery
and private trade and piracy on my part; I as surprised to learn that I
had a well-wisher as I had been to discover an unknown foe; and
Godefroy, all cock-a-whoop with his news, as is the way of the vulgar.

"Ramsay," said M. Radisson, speaking very low and tense, "As you hope
to live and without a lie, what - does - this - mean?"

"Sir, as I hope to live - I - do - not - know!"

He continued to search me with doubting looks. I raised my wounded
hand.

"Will you do me the honour to satisfy yourself that wound is genuine?"

"Pish!" says he.

He studied the ground. "There's nothing impossible on this earth.
Facts are hard dogs to down. - Jean," he called, "gather up the pelts!
It takes a man to trade well, but any fool can make fools drink!
Godefroy - give the knaves the rum - but mind yourselves," he warned,
"three parts rain-water!" Then facing me, "Take me to that bank!"

He followed without comment.

At the place of the camp-fire were marks of the struggle.

"The same boot-prints as on the sand! A small man," observed Radisson.

But when we came to the sloping bank, where the land fell sheer away to
a dry, pebbly reach, M. Radisson pulled a puzzled brow.

"They must have taken shelter from the rain. They must have been under
your feet."

"But where are their foot-marks?" I asked.

"Washed out by the rain," said he; but that was one of the untruths
with which a man who is ever telling untruths sometimes deceives
himself; for if the bank sheltered the intruders from the rain, it also
sheltered their foot-marks, and there was not a trace.

"All the same," said M. de Radisson, "we shall make these Indians our
friends by taking them back to the fort with us."

"Ramsay," he remarked on the way, "there's a game to play."

"So it seems."

"Hold yourself in," said he sententiously.

I walked on listening.

"One plays as your friend, the other as your foe! Show neither friend
nor foe your hand! Let the game tell! 'Twas the reined-in horse won
King Charles's stakes at Newmarket last year! Hold yourself in, I say!"

"In," I repeated, wondering at this homily.

"And hold yourself up," he continued. "That coxcomb of a marquis
always trailing his dignity in the dust of mid-road to worry with a
common dog like La Chesnaye - pish! Hold your self-respect in the chest
of your jacket, man! 'Tis the slouching nag that loses the race! Hold
yourself up!"

His words seemed hard sense plain spoken.

"And let your feet travel on," he added.

"In and up and on!" I repeated.

"In and up and on - there's mettle for you, lad!"

And with that terse text - which, I think, comprehended the whole of M.
Radisson's philosophy - we were back at the beach.

The Indians were not in such a state as I have seen after many a
trading bout. They were able to accompany us. In embarking, M.
Radisson must needs observe all the ceremony of two races. Such a
whiffing of pipes among the stately, half-drunk Indian chiefs you never
saw, with a pompous proffering of the stem to the four corners of the
compass, which they thought would propitiate the spirits. Jean blew a
blast on the trumpet. I waved the French flag. Godefroy beat a
rattling fusillade on the drum, grabbed up his bobbing tipstaff, led
the way; and down we filed to the canoes.

At all this ostentation I could not but smile; but no man ever had
greater need of pomp to hold his own against uneven odds than Radisson.

As we were leaving came a noise that set us all by the ears - the dull
booming reverberations of heavy cannonading.

The Indians shook as with palsy. Jean Groseillers cried out that his
father's ships were in peril. Godefroy implored the saints; but with
that lying facility which was his doom, M. de Radisson blandly informed
the savages that more of his vessels had arrived from France.

Bidding Jean go on to the Habitation with the Indians, he took the rest
of us ashore with one redskin as guide, to spy out the cause of the
firing.

"'Twill be a pretty to-do if the English Fur Company's ships arrive
before we have a French fort ready to welcome them," said he.




CHAPTER X

THE CAUSE OF THE FIRING

The landing was but a part of the labyrinthine trickery in which our
leader delighted to play; for while Jean delayed the natives we ran
overland through the woods, launched our canoe far ahead of the Indian
flotilla, and went racing forward to the throbs of the leaping river.

"If a man would win, he must run fast as the hour-glass," observed M.
Radisson, poising his steering-pole. "And now, my brave lads," he began,
counting in quick, sharp words that rang with command, "keep
time - one - two - three! One - two - three!" And to each word the paddles
dipped with the speed of a fly-wheel's spokes.

"One - two - three! In and up and on! An you keep yourselves in hand,
men, you can win against the devil's own artillery! Speed to your
strokes, Godefroy," he urged.

And the canoe answered as a fine-strung racer to the spur. Shore-lines
blurred to a green streak. The frosty air met our faces in wind.
Gurgling waters curled from the prow in corrugated runnels. And we were
running a swift race with a tumult of waves, mounting the swell, dipping,
rising buoyant, forward in bounds, with a roar of the nearing rapids, and
spray dashing athwart in drifts. M. Radisson braced back. The prow
lifted, shot into mid-air, touched water again, and went whirling through
the mill-race that boiled below a waterfall. Once the canoe aimed
straight as an arrow for rocks in mid-current. M. Radisson's steel-shod
pole flashed in the sun. There was a quick thrust, answered by
Godefroy's counter-stroke at the stern; and the canoe grazed past the
rocks not a hair's-breadth off.

"Sainte Anne ha' mercy!" mumbled Godefroy, baling water from the canoe as
we breasted a turn in the river to calmer currents, "Sainte Anne ha'
mercy! But the master'd run us over Niagara, if he had a mind."

"Or the River Styx, if 'twould gain his end," sharply added Radisson.

But he ordered our paddles athwart for snatched rest, while he himself
kept alert at the bow. With the rash presumption of youth, I offered to
take the bow that he might rest; but he threw his head back with a loud
laugh, more of scorn than mirth, and bade me nurse a wounded hand. On
the evening of the third day we came to the Habitation. Without
disembarking, M. de Radisson sent the soldiers on sentinel duty at the
river front up to the fort with warning to prepare for instant siege.

"'Twill put speed in the lazy rascals to finish the fort," he remarked;
and the canoe glided out to mid-current again for the far expanse of the
bay.

By this we were all so used to M. Radisson's doings, 'twould not have
surprised us when the craft shot out from river-mouth to open sea if he
had ordered us to circumnavigate the ocean on a chip.

He did what was nigh as venturesome.

A quick, unwarned swerve of his pole, which bare gave Godefroy time to
take the cue, and our prow went scouring across the scud of whipping
currents where two rivers and an ocean-tide met. The seething waves
lashed to foam with the long, low moan of the world-devouring serpent
which, legend says, is ever an-hungering to devour voyageurs on life's
sea. And for all the world that reef of combing breakers was not unlike
a serpent type of malignant elements bent on man's destruction!

Then, to the amaze of us all, we had left the lower river. The canoe was
cutting up-stream against a new current; and the moan of the pounding
surf receded to the rear. Clouds blew inland, muffling the moon; and M.
Radisson ordered us ashore for the night. Feet at a smouldering fire too
dull for an enemy to see and heads pillowed on logs, we bivouacked with
the frosty ground for bed.

"Bad beds make good risers," was all M. Radisson's comfort, when Godefroy
grumbled out some complaint.

A _hard_ master, you say? A wise one, say I, for the forces he fought in
that desolate land were as adamant. Only the man dauntless as adamant
could conquer. And you must remember, while the diamond and the charcoal
are of the same family, 'tis the diamond has lustre, because it is
_hard_. Faults, M. Radisson had, which were almost crimes; but look you
who judge him - his faults were not the faults of nearly all other men,
the faults which _are_ a crime - _the crime of being weak_!

The first thing our eyes lighted on when the sun rose in flaming darts
through the gray haze of dawn was a half-built fort on an island in
mid-river. At the water side lay a queer-rigged brigantine, rocking to
the swell of the tide. Here, then, was cause of that firing heard across
the marsh on the lower river.

"'Tis the pirate ship we saw on the high sea," muttered Godefroy, rubbing
his eyes.

"She flies no flag! She has no license to trade! She's a poacher! She
will make a prize worth the taking," added M. Radisson sharply. Then, as
if to justify that intent - "As _we_ have no license, we must either take
or be taken!"

The river mist gradually lifted, and there emerged from the fog a
stockaded fort with two bastions facing the river and guns protruding
from loopholes.

"Not so easy to take that fort," growled Godefroy, who was ever a
hanger-back.

"All the better," retorted M. de Radisson. "Easy taking makes soft men!
'Twill test your mettle!"

"Test our mettle!" sulked the trader, a key higher in his obstinacy.
"All very well to talk, sir, but how can we take a fort mounted with
twenty cannon - - "

"I'll tell you _the how_ when it's done," interrupted M. de Radisson.

But Godefroy was one of those obstinates who would be silent only when
stunned.

"I'd like to know, sir, what we're to do," he began.

"Godefroy, 'twould be waste time to knock sense in your pate! There is
only one thing to do always - only one, _the right thing_! Do it, fool!
An I hear more clack from you till it's done, I'll have your tongue out
with the nippers!"

Godefroy cowered sulkily back, and M. de Radisson laughed.

"That will quell him," said he. "When Godefroy's tongue is out he can't
grumble, and grumbling is his bread of life!"

Stripping off his bright doublet, M. Radisson hung it from a tree to
attract the fort's notice. Then he posted us in ambuscade with orders to
capture whatever came.

But nothing came.

And when the fort guns boomed out the noon hour M. Radisson sprang up all
impatience.

"I'll wait no man's time," he vowed. "Losing time is losing the game!
Launch out!"

Chittering something about our throats being cut, Godefroy shrank back.
With a quick stride M. Radisson was towering above him. Catching
Godefroy by the scruff of the neck, he threw him face down into the
canoe, muttering out it would be small loss if all the cowards in the
world had their throats cut.

"The pirates come to trade," he explained. "They will not fire at
Indians. Bind your hair back like that Indian there!"

No sooner were we in the range of the fort than M. Radisson uttered the
shrill call of a native, bade our Indian stand up, and himself enacted
the pantomime of a savage, waving his arms, whistling, and hallooing.
With cries of welcome, the fort people ran to the shore and left their
guns unmanned. Reading from a syllable book, they shouted out Indian
words. It was safe to approach. Before they could arm we could escape.
But we were two men, one lad, and a neutral Indian against an armed
garrison in a land where killing was no murder.

M. de Radisson stood up and called in the Indian tongue. They did not
understand.

"New to it," commented Radisson, "not the Hudson's Bay Company!"

All the while he was imperceptibly approaching nearer. He shouted in
French. They shook their heads.

"English highwaymen, blundered in here by chance," said he.

Tearing off the Indian head-band of disguise, he demanded in mighty
peremptory tones who they were.

"English," they called back doubtfully.

"What have you come for?" insisted Radisson, with a great swelling of his
chest.

"The beaver trade," came a faint voice.

Where had I heard it before? Did it rise from the ground in the woods,
or from a far memory of children throwing a bully into the sea?

"I demand to see your license," boldly challenged Radisson.

At that the fellows ashore put their heads together.

"In the name of the king, I demand to see your license instantly,"
repeated Sieur de Radisson, with louder authority.

"We have no license," explained one of the men, who was dressed with
slashed boots, red doublet, and cocked hat.

M. Radisson smiled and poled a length closer.

"A ship without a license! A prize-for the taking! If the rascals
complain - the galleys for life!" and he laughed softly.

"This coast is possessed by the King of France," he shouted. "We have a
strong garrison! We mistook your firing for more French ships!" Shaping
his hands trumpet fashion to his mouth, he called this out again, adding
that our Indian was of a nation in league with the French.

The pirates were dumb as if he had tossed a hand grenade among them.

"The ship is ours now, lads," said Radisson softly, poling nearer. "See,
lads, the bottom has tumbled from their courage! We'll not waste a pound
o' powder in capturing that prize!" He turned suddenly to me - "As I live
by bread, 'tis that bragging young dandy-prat - hop-o'-my-thumb - Ben
Gillam of Boston Town!"

"Ben Gillam!"

I was thinking of my assailant in the woods. "Ben was tall. The pirate,
who came carving at me, was small."

But Ben Gillam it was, turned pirate or privateer - as you choose to call
it - grown to a well-timbered rapscallion with head high in air,
jack-boots half-way to his waist, a clanking sword at heel, and a nose
too red from rum.

As we landed, he sent his men scattering to the fort, and stood twirling
his mustaches till the recognition struck him.

"By Jericho - Radisson!" he gasped.

Then he tossed his chin defiantly in air like an unbroken colt disposed
to try odds with a master.

"Don't be afraid to land," he called down out of sheer impudence.

"Don't be afraid to have us land," Radisson shouted up to him. "We'll
not harm you!"

Ben swore a big oath, fleered a laugh, and kicked the sand with his
heels. Raising a hand, he signalled the watchers on the ship.

"Sorry to welcome you in this warlike fashion," said he.

"Glad to welcome you to the domain of His Most Christian Majesty, the
King of France," retorted Radisson, leaping ashore.

Ben blinked to catch the drift of that.

"Devil take their majesties!" he ejaculated. "He's king who conquers!"

"No need to talk of conquering when one is master already," corrected M.
de Radisson.

"Shiver my soul," blurts out Ben, "I haven't a tongue like an eel, but
that's what I mean; and I'm king here, and welcome to you, Radisson!"

"And that's what I mean," laughed M. Radisson, with a bow, quietly
motioning us to follow ashore. "No need to conquer where one is master,
and welcome to you, Captain Gillam!"

And they embraced each other like spider and fly, each with a free hand
to his sword-hilt, and a questioning look on the other's face.

Says M. Radisson: "I've seen that ship before!"

Ben laughs awkwardly. "We captured her from a Dutchman," he begins.

"Oh!" says Sieur Radisson. "I meant outside the straits after the storm!"

Gillam's eyes widen. "Were those your ships?" he asks. Then both men
laugh.

"Not much to boast in the way of a fleet," taunts Ben.

"Those are the two smallest we have," quickly explains Radisson.

Gillam's face went blank, and M. Radisson's eyes closed to the watchful
slit of a cat mouse-hunting.

"Come! Come!" exclaims Ben, with a sudden flare of friendliness, "I am
no baby-eater! Put a peg in that! Shiver my soul if this is a way to
welcome friends! Come aboard all of you and test the Canary we got in
the hold of a fine Spanish galleon last week! Such a top-heavy ship,
with sails like a tinker's tatters, you never saw! And her hold running
over with Canary and Madeira - oh! Come aboard! Come aboard!" he urged.

It was Pierre Radisson's turn to blink.

"And drink to the success of the beaver trade," importunes Ben.

'Twas as pretty a piece of play as you could see: Ben, scheming to get
the Frenchman captive; M. Radisson, with the lightnings under his brows
and that dare-devil rashness of his blood tempting him to spy out the
lad's strength.

"Ben was the body of the venture! Where was the brain? It was that took
me aboard his ship," M. Radisson afterward confessed to us.

"Come! Come!" pressed Gillam. "I know young Stanhope there" - his mighty
air brought the laugh to my face - "young Stanhope there has a taste for
fine Canary - - "

"But, lad," protested Radisson, with a condescension that was vinegar to
Ben's vanity, "we cannot be debtors altogether. Let two of your men stay
here and whiff pipes with my fellows, while I go aboard!"

Ben's teeth ground out an assent that sounded precious like an oath; for
he knew that he was being asked for hostages of safe-conduct while M.
Radisson spied out the ship. He signalled, as we thought, for two
hostages to come down from the fort; but scarce had he dropped his hand
when fort and ship let out such a roar of cannonading as would have
lifted the hair from any other head than Pierre Radisson's.

Godefroy cut a caper. The Indian's eyes bulged with terror, and my own
pulse went a-hop; but M. Radisson never changed countenance.

"Pardieu," says he softly, with a pleased smile as the last shot went
skipping over the water, "you're devilish fond o' fireworks, to waste
good powder so far from home!"

Ben mumbled out that he had plenty of powder, and that some fools didn't
know fireworks from war.

M. Radisson said he was glad there was plenty of powder, there would
doubtless be use found for it, and he knew fools oft mistook fireworks
for war.

With that a cannon-shot sent the sand spattering to our boots and filled
the air with powder-dust; but when the smoke cleared, M. Radisson had
quietly put himself between Ben and the fort.

Drawing out his sword, the Frenchman ran his finger up the edge.

"Sharp as the next," said he.


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