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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Proves False - -


There the crushed missive was torn, but the purport was plain. Ben
Gillam and his father were in collusion with the inland pirates to get
peltries from the Indians before Governor Brigdar came; and the
inlanders, whoever they were, had concealed both themselves and the
furs. I handed the paper back to M. Radisson.

"We must stir, lad - we must stir," he repeated.

"But the marsh is soft yet. It is unsafe to cross."

"The river is not frozen in mid-current," retorted M. Radisson
impatiently. "Get ready! I am taking different men to impress the
young spark with our numbers - you and La Chesnaye and the marquis and
Allemand. But where a' devil is that Indian?"

Le Borgne had slipped away.

"Is he a spy?" I asked.

"Get ready! Why do you ask questions? The thing is - to
do! - do!! - do - !!!"

But Allemand, who had been hauling out the big canoe, came up sullenly.

"Sir," he complained, "the river's running ice the size of a raft, and
the wind's a-blowing a gale."

"Man," retorted M. de Radisson with the quiet precision of steel, "if
the river were running live fire and the gale blew from the inferno,
I - would - go! Stay home and go to bed, Allemand." And he chose one of
the common sailors instead.

And when we walked out to the thick edge of the shore-ice and launched
the canoe among a whirling drift of ice-pans, we had small hope of ever
seeing Fort Bourbon again. The ice had not the thickness of the spring
jam, but it was sharp enough to cut our canoe, and we poled our way far
oftener than we paddled. Where the currents of the two rivers joined,
the wind had whipped the waters to a maelstrom. The night was
moonless. It was well we did not see the white turmoil, else M.
Radisson had had a mutiny on his hands. When the canoe leaped to the
throb of the sucking currents like a cataract to the plunge, La
Chesnaye clapped his pole athwart and called out a curse on such
rashness. M. Radisson did not hear or did not heed. An ice-pan
pitched against La Chesnaye's place, and the merchant must needs thrust
out to save himself.

The only light was the white glare of ice. The only guide across that
heaving traverse, the unerring instinct of that tall figure at the bow,
now plunging forward, now bracing back, now shouting out a "Steady!"
that the wind carried to our ears, thrusting his pole to right, to left
in lightning strokes, till the canoe suddenly darted up the roaring
current of the north river.

Here we could no longer stem both wind and tide. M. Radisson ordered
us ashore for rest. Fourteen days were we paddling, portaging,
struggling up the north river before we came in range of the Hudson's
Bay fort built by Governor Brigdar.

Our proximity was heralded by a low laugh from M. de Radisson. "Look,"
said he, "their ship aground in mud a mile from the fort. In case of
attack, their forces will be divided. It is well," said M. Radisson.

The Prince Rupert lay high on the shallows, fast bound in the freezing
sands. Hiding our canoe in the woods, we came within hail and called.
There was no answer.

"Drunk or scurvy," commented M. Radisson. "An faith, Ramsay, 'twould
be an easy capture if we had big enough fort to hold them all!"

Shaping his hands to a trumpet, he shouted, "How are you, there?"

As we were turning away a fellow came scrambling up the fo'castle and
called back: "A little better, but all asleep."

"A good time for us to examine the fort," said M. de Radisson.

Aloud, he answered that he would not disturb the crew, and he wheeled
us off through the woods.

"See!" he observed, as we emerged in full view of the stockaded fur
post, "palisades nailed on from the inside - easily pushed loose from
the outside. Pish! - low enough for a dog to jump."

Posting us in ambush, he advanced to the main edifice behind the
wide-open gate. I saw him shaking hands with the Governor of the
Hudson's Bay Company, who seemed on the point of sallying out to hunt.

Then he signalled for us to come. I had almost concluded he meant to
capture Governor Brigdar on the spot; but Pierre Radisson ever took
friends and foes unawares.

"Your Excellency," says he, with the bow of a courtier, "this is
Captain Gingras of our new ship."

Before I had gathered my wits, Governor Brigdar was shaking hands.

"And this," continued Radisson, motioning forward the common sailor too
quick for surprise to betray us, "this, Your Excellency, is Colonel
Bienville of our marines."

Colonel Bienville, being but a lubberly fellow, nigh choked with
amazement at the English governor's warmth; but before we knew our
leader's drift, the marquis and La Chesnaye were each in turn presented
as commanders of our different land forces.

"'Tis the misfortune of my staff not to speak English," explains Pierre
Radisson suavely with another bow, which effectually shut any of our
mouths that might have betrayed him.

"Doubtless your officers know Canary better than English," returns
Governor Brigdar; and he would have us all in to drink healths.

"Keep your foot in the open door," Pierre Radisson whispered as we
passed into the house.

Then we drank the health of the King of England, firing our muskets
into the roof; and drank to His Most Christian Majesty of France with
another volley; and drank to the confusion of our common enemies, with
a clanking of gun-butts that might have alarmed the dead. Upon which
Pierre Radisson protested that he would not keep Governor Brigdar from
the hunt; and we took our departure.

"And now," said he, hastening through the bush, "as no one took fright
at all that firing, what's to hinder examining the ship?"

"Pardieu, Ramsay," he remarked, placing us in ambush again, "an we had
a big enough fort, with food to keep them alive, we might have bagged
them all."

From which I hold that M. Radisson was not so black a man as he has
been painted; for he could have captured the English as they lay weak
of the scurvy and done to them, for the saving of fort rations, what
rivals did to all foes - shot them in a land which tells no secrets.

From our place on the shore we saw him scramble to the deck. A man in
red nightcap rushed forward with an oath.

"And what might you want, stealing up like a thief in the night?"
roared the man.

"To offer my services, Captain Gillam," retorted Radisson with a hand
to his sword-hilt and both feet planted firm on the deck.

"Services?" bawled Gillam.

"Services for your crew, captain," interrupted Radisson softly.

"Hm!" retorted Captain Gillam, pulling fiercely at his grizzled beard.
"Then you might send a dozen brace o' partridges, some oil, and
candles."

With that they fell to talking in lower tones; and M. Radisson came
away with quiet, unspoken mirth in his eyes, leaving Captain Gillam in
better mood.

"Curse me if he doesn't make those partridges an excuse to go back
soon," exclaimed La Chesnaye. "The ship would be of some value; but
why take the men prisoners? Much better shoot them down as they would
us, an they had the chance!"

"La Chesnaye!" uttered a sharp voice. Radisson had heard. "There are
two things I don't excuse a fool for - not minding his own business and
not holding his tongue."

And though La Chesnaye's money paid for the enterprise, he held his
tongue mighty still. Indeed, I think if any tongue had wagged twice in
Radisson's hearing he would have torn the offending member out. Doing
as we were bid without question, we all filed down to the canoe. Less
ice cumbered the upper current, and by the next day we were opposite
Ben Gillam's New England fort.

"La Chesnaye and ForĂȘt will shoot partridges," commanded M. de
Radisson. Leaving them on the far side of the river, he bade the
sailor and me paddle him across to young Gillam's island.

What was our surprise to see every bastion mounted with heavy guns and
the walls full manned. We took the precaution of landing under shelter
of the ship and fired a musket to call out sentinels. Down ran Ben
Gillam and a second officer, armed cap-a-pie, with swaggering insolence
that they took no pains to conceal.

"Congratulate you on coming in the nick of time," cried Ben.

"Now what in the Old Nick does he mean by that?" said Radisson. "Does
the cub think to cower me with his threats?"

"I trust your welcome includes my four officers," he responded. "Two
are with me and two have gone for partridges."

Ben bellowed a jeering laugh, and his second man took the cue.

"Your four officers may be forty devils," yelled the lieutenant; "we've
finished our fort. Come in, Monsieur Radisson! Two can play at the
game of big talk! You're welcome in if you leave your forty officers
out!"

For the space of a second M. Radisson's eyes swept the cannon pointing
from the bastion embrasures. We were safe enough. The full hull of
their own ship was between the guns and us.

"Young man," said M. Radisson, addressing Ben, "you may speak less
haughtily, as I come in friendship."

"Friendship!" flouted Ben, twirling his mustache and showing both rows
of teeth. "Pooh, pooh, M. Radisson! You are not talking to a
stripling!"

"I had thought I was - and a very fool of a booby, too," answered M.
Radisson coolly.

"Sir!" roared young Gillam with a rumbling of oaths, and he fumbled his
sword.

But his sword had not left the scabbard before M. de Radisson sent it
spinning through mid-air into the sea.

"I must ask your forgiveness for that, boy," said the Frenchman to Ben,
"but a gentleman fights only his equals."

Ben Gillam went white and red by turns, his nose flushing and paling
like the wattle of an angry turkey; and he stammered out that he hoped
M. de Radisson did not take umbrage at the building of a fort.

"We must protect ourselves from the English," pleaded Ben.

"Pardieu, yes," agreed M. de Radisson, proffering his own sword with a
gesture in place of the one that had gone into the sea, "and I had come
to offer you twenty men _to hold_ the fort!"

Ben glanced questioningly to his second officer.

"Bid that fellow draw off!" ordered M. Radisson.

Dazed like a man struck between the eyes, Ben did as he was commanded.

"I told you that I came in friendship," began Radisson.

Gillam waited.

"Have you lost a man, Ben?"

"No," boldly lied Gillam.

"Has one run away from the island against orders?"

"No, devil take me, if I've lost a hand but the supercargo that I
killed."

"I had thought that was yours," said Radisson, with contempt for the
ruffian's boast; and he handed out the paper taken from Jack.

Ben staggered back with a great oath, vowing he would have the scalp of
the traitor who lost that letter. Both stood silent, each
contemplating the other. Then M. Radisson spoke.

"Ben," said he, never taking his glance from the young fellow's face,
"what will you give me if I guide you to your father this afternoon? I
have just come from Captain Gillam. He and his crew are ill of the
scurvy. Dress as a coureur and I pass you for a Frenchman."

"My father!" cried Ben with his jaws agape and his wits at sea.

"Pardieu - yes, I said your father!"

"What do you want in return?" stammered Ben.

Radisson uttered a laugh that had the sound of sword-play.

"Egad, 'tis a hot supper I'd like better than anything else just now!
If you feed us well and disguise yourself as a coureur, I'll take you
at sundown!"

And in spite of his second officer's signals, Ben Gillam hailed us
forthwith to the fort, where M. Radisson's keen eyes took in every
feature of door and gate and sally-port and gun. While the cook was
preparing our supper and Ben disguising as a French wood-runner, we
wandered at will, M. Radisson all the while uttering low laughs and
words as of thoughts.

It was - "Caught - neat as a mouse in a trap! Don't let him spill the
canoe when we're running the traverse, Ramsay! May the fiends blast La
Chesnaye if he opens his foolish mouth in Gillam's hearing! Where,
think you, may we best secure him? Are the timbers of your room sound?"

Or else - "Faith, a stout timber would hold those main gates open!
Egad, now, an a man were standing in this doorway, he might jam a
musket in the hinge so the thing would keep open! Those guns in the
bastions though - think you those cannon are not pushed too far through
the windows to be slued round quickly?"

And much more to the same purpose, which told why M. Radisson stooped
to beg supper from rivals.

At sundown all was ready for departure. La Chesnaye and the marquis
had come back with the partridges that were to make pretence for our
quick return to the Prince Rupert. Ben Gillam had disguised as a
bush-runner, and the canoe lay ready to launch. Fools and children
unconsciously do wise things by mistake, as you know; and 'twas such an
unwitting act sprung M. Radisson's plans and let the prize out of the
trap.

"Sink me an you didn't promise the loan of twenty men to hold the
fort!" exclaimed Ben, stepping down.

"Twenty - and more - and welcome," cried Radisson eagerly.

"Then send Ramsay and Monsieur La Chesnaye back," put in Ben quickly.
"I like not the fort without one head while I'm away."

"Willingly," and M. Radisson's eyes glinted triumph.

"Hold a minute!" cried Ben before sitting down. "The river is rough.
Let two of my men take their places in the canoe!"

M. Radisson's breath drew sharp through his teeth. But the trap was
sprung, and he yielded gracefully enough to hide design.

"A curse on the blundering cub!" he muttered, drawing apart to give me
instructions. "Pardieu - you must profit on this, Ramsay! Keep your
eyes open. Spoil a door-lock or two! Plug the cannon if you can! Mix
sand with their powder! Shift the sentinels! Get the devils
insubordinate - - "


"M. Radisson!" shouted Gillam.

"Coming!" says Radisson; and he went off with his teeth gritting sand.


[1] See Radisson's own account.




CHAPTER XIII

THE WHITE DARKNESS

How much of those instructions we carried out I leave untold.
Certainly we could not have been less grateful as guests than Ben
Gillam's men were inhospitable as hosts. A more sottish crew of rakes
you never saw. 'Twas gin in the morning and rum in the afternoon and
vile potions of mixed poisons half the night, with a cracking of the
cook's head for withholding fresh kegs and a continual scuffle of
fighters over cheating at cards. No marvel the second officer flogged
and carved at the knaves like an African slaver. The first night the
whole crew set on us with drawn swords because we refused to gamble the
doublets from our backs. La Chesnaye laid about with his sword and I
with my rapier, till the cook rushed to our rescue with a kettle of
lye. After that we escaped to the deck of the ship and locked
ourselves inside Ben Gillam's cabin. Here we heard the weather-vanes
of the fort bastions creaking for three days to the shift of fickle
winds. Shore-ice grew thicker and stretched farther to mid-current.
Mock suns, or sun-dogs, as we called them, oft hung on each side of the
sun. La Chesnaye said these boded ill weather.

Sea-birds caught the first breath of storm and wheeled landward with
shrill calls, and once La Chesnaye and I made out through the ship's
glass a vast herd of caribou running to sniff the gale from the crest
of an inland hill.

"If Radisson comes not back soon we are storm-bound here for the
winter. As you live, we are," grumbled the merchant.

But prompt as the ring of a bell to the clapper came Pierre Radisson on
the third day, well pleased with what he had done and alert to keep two
of us outside the fort in spite of Ben's urgings to bring the French in
for refreshments.

The wind was shifting in a way that portended a nor'easter, and the
weather would presently be too inclement for us to remain outside.
That hastened M. Radisson's departure, though sun-dogs and the long,
shrill whistling of contrary winds foretold what was brewing.

"Sink me, after such kindness, I'll see you part way home! By the Lord
Harry, I will!" swore Ben.

M. Radisson screwed his eyes nigh shut and protested he could not
permit young Captain Gillam to take such trouble.

"The young villain," mutters La Chesnaye, "he wants to spy which way we
go."

"Come! Come!" cries Ben. "If you say another word I go all the way
with you!"

"To spy on our fort," whispers La Chesnaye.

M. Radisson responds that nothing would give greater pleasure.

"I've half a mind to do it," hesitates Ben, looking doubtfully at us.

"To be sure," urges M. Radisson, "come along and have a Christmas with
our merry blades!"

"Why, then, by the Lord, I will!" decides Gillam. "That is," he added,
"if you'll send the marquis and his man, there, back to my fort as
hostages."

M. Radisson twirled his mustaches thoughtfully, gave the marquis the
same instructions in French as he had given us when we were left in the
New Englander's fort, and turning with a calm face to Ben, bade him get
into our canoe.

But when we launched out M. Radisson headed the craft up-stream in the
wrong direction, whither we paddled till nightfall. It was cold enough
in all conscience to afford Ben Gillam excuse for tipping a flask from
his jacket-pouch to his teeth every minute or two; but when we were
rested and ready to launch again, the young captain's brain was so
befuddled that he scarce knew whether he were in Boston or on Hudson
Bay.

This time we headed straight down-stream, Ben nodding and dozing from
his place in the middle, M. Radisson, La Chesnaye, and I poling hard to
keep the drift-ice off. We avoided the New Englander's fort by going
on the other side of the island, and when we shot past Governor
Brigdar's stockades with the lights of the Prince Rupert blinking
through the dark, Ben was fast asleep.

And all the while the winds were piping overhead with a roar as from
the wings of the great storm bird which broods over all that northland.
Then the blore of the trumpeting wind was answered by a counter fugue
from the sea, with a roll and pound of breakers across the sand of the
traverse. Carried by the swift current, we had shot into the bay. It
was morning, but the black of night had given place to the white
darkness of northern storm. Ben Gillam jerked up sober and grasped an
idle pole to lend a hand. Through the whirl of spray M. Radisson's
figure loomed black at the bow, and above the boom of tumbling waves
came the grinding as of an earthquake.

"We are lost! We are lost!" shrieked Gillam in panic, cowering back to
the stern. "The storm's drifted down polar ice from the north and
we're caught! We're caught!" he cried.

He sprang to his feet as if to leap into that white waste of seething
ice foam. 'Twas the frenzy of terror, which oft seizes men adrift on
ice. In another moment he would have swamped us under the pitching
crest of a mountain sea. But M. Radisson turned. One blow of his pole
and the foolish youth fell senseless to the bottom of the canoe.

"Look, sir, look!" screamed La Chesnaye, "the canoe's getting
ice-logged! She's sunk to the gun'ales!"

But at the moment when M. Radisson turned to save young Gillam, the
unguided canoe had darted between two rolling seas. Walls of ice rose
on either side. A white whirl - a mighty rush - a tumult of roaring
waters - the ice walls pitched down - the canoe was caught - tossed
up - nipped - crushed like a card-box - and we four flung on the drenching
ice-pans to a roll of the seas like to sweep us under, with a footing
slippery as glass.

"Keep hold of Gillam! Lock hands!" came a clarion voice through the
storm. "Don't fear, men! There is no danger! The gale will drive us
ashore! Don't fear! Hold tight! Hold tight! There's no danger if
you have no fear!"

The ice heaved and flung to the roll of the drift.

"Hold fast and your wet sleeves will freeze you to the ice! Steady!"
he called, as the thing fell and rose again.

Then, with the hiss of the world serpent that pursues man to his doom,
we were scudding before a mountain swell. There was the splintering
report of a cannon-shot. The ice split. We clung the closer. The
rush of waves swept under us, around us, above us. There came a crash.
The thing gave from below. The powers of darkness seemed to close over
us, the jaws of the world serpent shut upon their prey, the spirit of
evil shrieked its triumph.

Our feet touched bottom. The waves fell back, and we were ashore on
the sand-bar of the traverse.

"Run! Run for your lives!" shouted Radisson. Jerking up Gillam, whom
the shock had brought to his senses. "Lock hands and run!"

And run we did, like those spirits in the twilight of the lost, with
never a hope of rescue and never a respite from fear, hand gripping
hand, the tide and the gale and the driving sleet yelping wolfishly at
our heels! Twas the old, old story of Man leaping undaunted as a
warrior to conquer his foes - turned back! - beaten! - pursued by serpent
and wolf, spirit of darkness and power of destruction, with the light
of life flickering low and the endless frosts creeping close to a heart
beating faint!

Oh, those were giants that we set forth to conquer in that harsh
northland - the giants of the warring elements! And giants were needed
for the task.

Think you of that when you hear the slighting scorn of the rough
pioneer, because he minceth not his speech, nor weareth ruffs at his
wrists, nor bendeth so low at the knee as your Old-World hero!

The earth fell away from our feet. We all four tumbled forward. The
storm whistled past overhead. And we lay at the bottom of a cliff that
seemed to shelter a multitude of shadowy forms. We had fallen to a
ravine where the vast caribou herds had wandered from the storm.

Says M. Radisson, with a depth of reverence which words cannot tell,
"Men," says he, "thank God for this deliverance!"

* * * * * *

So unused to man's presence were the caribou, or perhaps so stupefied
by the storm, they let us wander to the centre of the herd, round which
the great bucks had formed a cordon with their backs to the wind to
protect the does and the young. The heat from the multitude of bodies
warmed us back to life, and I make no doubt the finding of that herd
was God Almighty's provision for our safety.

For three days we wandered with nothing to eat but wild birds done to
death by the gale. [1] On the third day the storm abated; but it was
still snowing too heavily for us to see a man's length away. Two or
three times the caribou tossed up their heads sniffing the air
suspiciously, and La Chesnaye fell to cursing lest the wolf-pack should
stampede the herd. At this Gillam, whose hulking body had wasted from
lack of bulky rations, began to whimper -

"If the wolf-pack come we are lost!"

"Man," says Radisson sternly, "say thy prayers and thank God we are
alive!"

The caribou began to rove aimlessly for a time, then they were off with
a rush that bare gave us chance to escape the army of clicking hoofs.
We were left unprotected in the falling snow.

The primal instincts come uppermost at such times, and like the wild
creatures of the woods facing a foe, instantaneously we wheeled back to
back, alert for the enemy that had frightened the caribou.

"Hist!" whispers Radisson. "Look!"

Ben Gillam leaped into the air as if he had been shot, shrieking out:
"It's him! It's him! Shoot him! The thief! The traitor! It's him!"

He dashed forward, followed by the rest of us, hardly sure whether Ben
were sane.

Three figures loomed through the snowy darkness, white and silent as
the snow itself - vague as phantoms in mist - pointing at us like wraiths
of death - spirit hunters incarnate of that vast wilderness riding the
riotous storm over land and sea. One swung a weapon aloft. There was
the scream as of a woman's cry - and the shrieking wind had swept the
snow-clouds about us in a blind fury that blotted all sight. And when
the combing billows of drift passed, the apparition had faded. We four
stood alone staring in space with strange questionings.

"Egad!" gasped Radisson, "I don't mind when the wind howls like a wolf,
but when it takes to the death-scream, with snow like the skirts of a
shroud - - "

"May the Lord have mercy on us!" muttered La Chesnaye, crossing
himself. "It is sign of death! That was a woman's figure. It is sign
of death!"

"Sign of death!" raged Ben, stamping his impotent fury, "'tis him - 'tis
him! The Judas Iscariot, and he's left us to die so that he may steal
the furs!"

"Hold quiet!" ordered M. Radisson. "Look, you rantipole - who is that?"


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