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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'Twas Le Borgne, the one-eyed, emerging from the gloom of the snow like
a ghost. By signs and Indian words the fellow offered to guide us back
to our Habitation.

We reached the fort that night, Le Borgne flitting away like a shadow,
as he had come. And the first thing we did was to hold a service of
thanks to God Almighty for our deliverance.


[1] See Radisson's account - Prince Society (1885), Boston - Bodleian
Library. - Canadian Archives, 1895-'96.




CHAPTER XIV

A CHALLENGE

Filling the air with ghost-shadows, silencing earth, muffling the sea,
day after day fell the snow. Shore-ice barred out the pounding surf.
The river had frozen to adamant. Brushwood sank in the deepening drifts
like a foundered ship, and all that remained visible of evergreens was an
occasional spar or snow mushroom on the crest of a branch.

No east, no west, no day, no night; nothing but a white darkness,
billowing snow, and a silence as of death. It was the cold, silent,
mystic, white world of northern winter.

At one moment the fort door flings wide with a rush of frost like smoke
clouds, and in stamps Godefroy, shaking snow off with boisterous noise
and vowing by the saints that the drifts are as high as the St. Pierre's
deck. M. Groseillers orders the rascal to shut the door; but bare has
the latch clicked when young Jean whisks in, tossing snow from cap and
gauntlets like a clipper shaking a reef to the spray, and declares that
the snow is already level with the fort walls.

"Eh, nephew," exclaims Radisson sharply, "how are the cannon?"

Ben Gillam, who has lugged himself from bed to the hearth for the first
time since his freezing, blurts out a taunting laugh. We had done better
to build on the sheltered side of an island, he informs us.

"Now, the shivers take me!" cries Ben, "but where a deuce are all your
land forces and marines and jack-tars and forty thousand officers?"

He cast a scornful look down our long, low-roofed barracks, counting the
men gathered round the hearth and laughing as he counted. M. Radisson
affected not to hear, telling Jean to hoist the cannon and puncture
embrasures high to the bastion-roofs like Italian towers.

"Monsieur Radisson," impudently mouths Ben, who had taken more rum for
his health than was good for his head, "I asked you to inform me where
your land forces are?"

"Outside the fort constructing a breastwork of snow."

"Good!" sneers Ben. "And the marines?"

"On the ships, where they ought to be."

"Good!" laughs Gillam again. "And the officers?"

"Superintending the raising of the cannon. And I would have you to know,
young man," adds Radisson, "that when a guest asks too many questions, a
host may not answer."

But Ben goes on unheeding.

"Now I'll wager that dog of a runaway slave o' mine, that Jack Battle
who's hiding hereabouts, I'll wager the hangdog slave and pawn my head
you haven't a corporal's guard o' marines and land forces all told!"

M. Radisson never allowed an enemy's taunt to hasten speech or act. He
looked at Ben with a measuring glance which sized that fellow very small
indeed.

"Then I must decline your wager, Ben," says he. "In the first place,
Jack Battle is mine already. In the second, you would lose ten times
over. In the third, you have few enough men already. And in the fourth,
your head isn't worth pawn for a wager; though I may take you, body and
boots, all the same," adds he.

With that he goes off, leaving Ben blowing curses into the fire like a
bellows. The young rake bawled out for more gin, and with head sunk on
his chest began muttering to himself.

"That black-eyed, false-hearted, slippery French eel!" he mumbles,
rapping out an oath. "Now the devil fly off with me, an I don't slit him
like a Dutch herring for a traitor and a knave and a thief and a cheat!
By Judas, if he doesn't turn up with the furs, I'll do to him as I did to
the supercargo last week, and bury him deep in the bastion! Very fine,
him that was to get the furs hiding inland! Him, that didn't add a cent
to what Kirke and Stocking paid; they to supply the money, my father to
keep the company from knowing, and me to sail the ship - him, that might
'a' hung in Boston but for my father towing him out o' port - him the
first to turn knave and steal all the pelts!"

"Who?" quietly puts in M. Groseillers, who had been listening with wide
eyes.

But Ben's head rolled drunkenly and he slid down in sodden sleep.

Again the fort door opened with the rush of frost clouds, and in the
midst of the white vapour hesitated three men. The door softly closed,
and Le Borgne stole forward.

"White-man - promise - no - hurt - good Indian?" he asked.

"The white-man is Le Borgne's friend," assured Groseillers, "but who are
these?"

He pointed to two figures, more dead than alive, chittering with cold.

Le Borgne's foxy eye took on a stolid look. "White - men - lost - in the
snow," said he, "white-man from the big white canoe - come
walkee - walkee - one - two - three sleep - watchee good Indian - friend - fort!"

M. Groseillers sprang to his feet muttering of treachery from Governor
Brigdar of the Hudson's Bay Company, and put himself in front of the
intruders so that Ben could not see. But the poor fellows were so frozen
that they could only mumble out something about the Prince Rupert having
foundered, carrying half the crew to the river bottom. Hurrying the two
Englishmen to another part of the fort, M. Groseillers bade me run for
Radisson.

I wish that you could have seen the triumphant glint laughing in Pierre
Radisson's eyes when I told him.

"Fate deals the cards! 'Tis we must play them! This time the jade hath
trumped her partner's ace! Ha, ha, Ramsay! We could 'a' captured both
father and son with a flip o' the finger! Now there's only need to hold
the son! Governor Brigdar must beg passage from us to leave the bay; but
who a deuce are those inlanders that Ben Gillam keeps raving against for
hiding the furs?"

And he flung the mess-room door open so forcibly that Ben Gillam waked
with a jump. At sight of Le Borgne the young New Englander sprang over
the benches with his teeth agleam and murder on his face. But the liquor
had gone to his knees. He keeled head over like a top-heavy brig, and
when we dragged him up Le Borgne had bolted.

All that night Ben swore deliriously that he would do worse to Le
Borgne's master than he had done to the supercargo; but he never by any
chance let slip who Le Borgne's master might be, though M. Radisson,
Chouart Groseillers, young Jean, and I kept watch by turns lest the
drunken knave should run amuck of our Frenchmen. I mind once, when M.
Radisson and I were sitting quiet by the bunk where Ben was berthed, the
young rake sat up with a fog-horn of a yell and swore he would slice that
pirate of a Radisson and all his cursed Frenchies into meat for the dogs.

M. Radisson looked through the candle-light and smiled. "If you want to
know your character, Ramsay," says he, "get your enemy talking in his
cups!"

"Shiver my soul, if I'd ever come to his fort but to find out how strong
the liar is!" cries Ben.

"Hm! I thought so," says M. de Radisson, pushing the young fellow back
to his pillow and fastening the fur robes close lest frost steamed
through the ill-chinked logs.

By Christmas Ben Gillam and Jack Battle of the New Englanders' fort and
the two spies of the Hudson's Bay Company had all recovered enough from
their freezing to go about. What with keeping the English and New
Englanders from knowing of each other's presence, we had as twisted a
piece of by-play as you could want. Ben Gillam and Jack we dressed as
bushrangers; the Hudson's Bay spies as French marines. Neither suspected
the others were English, nor ever crossed words while with us. And
whatever enemies say of Pierre Radisson, I would have you remember that
he treated his captives so well that chains would not have dragged them
back to their own masters.

"How can I handle all the English of both forts unless I win some of them
for friends?" he would ask, never laying unction to his soul for the
kindness that he practised.

By Christmas, too, the snow had ceased falling and the frost turned the
land to a silent, white, paleocrystic world. Sap-frozen timbers cracked
with the loud, sharp snapping of pistol-shots - then the white silence!
The river ice splintered to the tightening grip of winter with the
grinding of an earthquake, and again the white silence! Or the heavy
night air, lying thick with frost smoke like a pall over earth, would
reverberate to the deep bayings of the wolf-pack, and over all would
close the white silence!

As if to defy the powers of that deathly realm, M. de Radisson had the
more logs heaped on our hearth and doubled the men's rations. On
Christmas morning he had us all out to fire a salute, Ben Gillam and Jack
and the two Fur Company spies disguised as usual, and the rest of us
muffled to our eyes. Jackets and tompions were torn from the cannon.
Unfrosted priming was distributed. Flags were run up on boats and
bastions. Then the word was given to fire and cheer at the top of our
voices.

Ben Gillam was sober enough that morning but in the mood of a ruffian
stale from overnight brawls. Hardly had the rocking echoes of
cannonading died away when the rascal strode boldly forward in front of
us all, up with his musket, took quick aim at the main flagstaff and
fired. The pole splintered off at the top and the French flag fluttered
to the ground.

"There's for you - you Frenchies!" he shouted. "See the old rag tumble!"

'Twas the only time M. Radisson gave vent to wrath.

"Dog!" he ground out, wrenching the gun from Gillam's hands.

"Avast! Avast!" cries Ben. "He who lives in glass-houses needs not to
throw stones! Mind that, ye pirate!"

"Dog!" repeats M. Radisson, "dare to show disrespect to the Most
Christian of Kings!"

"Most Christian of Kings!" flouts Ben. "I'll return to my fort! Then
I'll show you what I'll give the Most Christian of Kings!"

La Chesnaye rushed up with rash threat; but M. de Radisson pushed the
merchant aside and stood very still, looking at Ben.

"Young man," he began, as quietly as if he were wishing Ben the season's
compliments, "I brought you to this fort for the purpose of keeping you
in this fort, and it is for me to say when you may leave this fort!"

Ben rumbled out a string of oaths, and M. Radisson motioned the soldiers
to encircle him. Then all Ben's pot-valiant bravery ebbed.

"Am I a prisoner?" he demanded savagely.

"Prisoner or guest, according to your conduct," answered Radisson
lightly. Then to the men - "Form line-march!"

At the word we filed into the guard-room, where the soldiers relieved
Gillam of pistol and sword.

"Am I to be shot? Am I to be shot?" cried Gillam, white with terror at
M. Radisson's order to load muskets. "Am I to be shot?" he whimpered.

"Not unless you do it yourself, and 'twould be the most graceful act of
your life, Ben! And now," said M. Radisson, dismissing all the men but
one sentinel for the door, "and now, Ben, a Merry Christmas to you, and
may it be your last in Hudson Bay!"

With that he left Ben Gillam prisoner; but he ordered special watch to be
kept on the fort bastions lest Ben's bravado portended attack. The next
morning he asked Ben to breakfast with our staff.

"The compliments of the morning to you. And I trust you rested well!" M.
Radisson called out.

Ben wished that he might be cursed if any man could rest well on bare
boards rimed with frost like curdled milk.

"Cheer up, man! Cheer up!" encourages Radisson. "There's to be a
capture to-day!"

"A capture!" reiterates Ben, glowering black across the table and doffing
his cap with bad grace.

"Aye, I said a capture! Egad, lad, one fort and one ship are prize
enough for one day!"

"Sink my soul," flouts Gillam, looking insolently down the table to the
rows of ragged sailors sitting beyond our officers, "if every man o' your
rough-scuff had the nine lives of a cat, their nine lives would be shot
down before they reached our palisades!"

"Is it a wager?" demands M. Radisson.

"A wager - ship and fort and myself to boot if you win!"

"Done!" cries La Chesnaye.

"Ah, well," calculates M. Radisson, "the ship and the fort are worth
something! When we've taken them, Ben can go. Nine lives for each man,
did you say?"

"A hundred, if you like," boasts the New Englander, letting fly a
broadside of oaths at the Frenchman's slur. "A hundred men with nine
lives, if you like! We've powder for all!"

"Ben!" M. Radisson rose. "Two men are in the fort now! Pick me out
seven more! That will make nine! With those nine I own your fort by
nightfall or I set you free!"

"Done!" shouts Ben. "Every man here a witness!"

"Choose!" insists M. Radisson.

Sailors and soldiers were all on their feet gesticulating and laughing;
for Godefroy was translating into French as fast as the leaders talked.

"Choose!" urges M. Radisson, leaning over to snuff out the great
breakfast candle with bare fingers as if his hand were iron.

"Shiver my soul, then," laughs Ben, in high feather, "let the first be
that little Jack Sprat of a half-frozen Battle! He's loyal to me!"

"Good!" smiles M. Radisson. "Come over here, Jack Battle."

Jack Battle jumped over the table and stood behind M. Radisson as second
lieutenant, Ben's eyes gaping to see Jack's disguise of bushranger like
himself.

"Go on," orders M. Radisson, "choose whom you will!"

The soldiers broke into ringing cheers.

"Devil take you, Radisson," ejaculates Ben familiarly, "such cool
impudence would chill the Nick!"

"That is as it may be," retorts Radisson. "Choose! We must be off!"

Again the soldiers cheered.

"Well, there's that turncoat of a Stanhope with his fine airs. I'd
rather see him shot next than any one else!"

"Thank you, Ben," said I.

"Come over here, Ramsay," orders Radisson. "That's two. Go on! Five
more!"

The soldiers fell to laughing and Ben to pulling at his mustache.

"That money-bag of a La Chesnaye next," mutters Ben. "He's lady enough
to faint at first shot."

"There'll be no first shot. Come, La Chesnaye! Three. Go on! Go on,
Ben! Your wits work slow!"

"Allemand, the pilot! He is drunk most of the time."

"Four," counts M. Radisson. "Come over here, Allemand! You're drunk
most of the time, like Ben. Go on!"

"Godefroy, the English trader - he sulks - he's English - he'll do!"

"Five," laughs M. Radisson.

And for the remaining two, Ben Gillam chose a scullion lad and a wretched
little stowaway, who had kept hidden under hatches till we were too far
out to send him back. At the last choice our men shouted and clapped and
stamped and broke into snatches of song about conquerors.




CHAPTER XV

THE BATTLE NOT TO THE STRONG

M. Radisson turned the sand-glass up to time our preparations. Before
the last grain fell we seven were out, led by M. Radisson, speeding
over the snow-drifted marsh through the thick frosty darkness that lies
like a blanket over that northland at dawn. The air hung heavy, gray,
gritty to the touch with ice-frost. The hard-packed drifts crisped to
our tread with little noises which I can call by no other name than
frost-shots. Frost pricked the taste to each breath. Endless reaches
of frost were all that met the sight. Frost-crackling the only sound.
Frost in one's throat like a drink of water, and the tingle of the
frost in the blood with a leap that was fulness of life.

Up drifts with the help of our muskets! Down hills with a rush of
snow-shoes that set the powdery snow flying! Skimming the levels with
the silent speed of wings! Past the snow mushrooms topping underbrush
and the snow cones of the evergreens and the snow billows of under
rocks and the snow-wreathed antlers of the naked forest in a world of
snow!

The morning stars paled to steel pin-pricks through a gray sky.
Shadows took form in the frost. The slant rays of a southern sun
struck through the frost clouds in spears. Then the frost smoke rose
like mist, and the white glare shone as a sea. In another hour it
would be high noon of the short shadow. Every coat - beaver and bear
and otter and raccoon - hung open, every capote flung back, every runner
hot as in midsummer, though frost-rime edged the hair like snow. When
the sun lay like a fiery shield half-way across the southern horizon,
M. Radisson called a halt for nooning.

"Now, remember, my brave lads," said he, after he had outlined his
plans, drawing figures of fort and ship and army of seven on the snow,
"now, remember, if you do what I've told you, not a shot will be fired,
not a drop of blood spilled, not a grain of powder used, and to every
man free tobacco for the winter - "

"If we succeed," interjects Godefroy sullenly.

"_If_," repeats M. Radisson; "an I hear that word again there will be a
carving!"

Long before we came to the north river near the Hudson's Bay Company's
fort, the sun had wheeled across the horizon and sunk in a sea of snow,
but now that the Prince Rupert had foundered, the capture of these
helpless Englishmen was no object to us. Unless a ship from the south
end of the bay came to rescue them they were at our mercy. Hastening
up the river course we met Governor Brigdar sledding the ice with a
dog-team of huskies.

"The compliments of the season to Your Excellency!" shouted Radisson
across the snow.

"The same to the representative of France," returned Governor Brigdar,
trying to get away before questions could be asked.

"I don't see your ship," called Radisson.

"Four leagues down the river," explained the governor.

"_Under_ the river," retorted Radisson, affecting not to hear.

"No - down the river," and the governor whisked round a bluff out of
call.

The gray night shadows gathered against the woods. Stars seeded the
sky overhead till the whole heavens were aglow. And the northern
lights shot their arrowy jets of fire above the pole, rippled in
billows of flame, scintillated with the faint rustling of a flag in a
gale, or swung midway between heaven and earth like censers to the
invisible God of that cold, far, northern world.

Then the bastions of Ben Gillam's fort loomed above the wastes like the
peak of a ship at sea, and M. Radisson issued his last commands.
Godefroy and I were to approach the main gate. M. Radisson and his
five men would make a detour to attack from the rear.

A black flag waved above the ship to signal those inland pirates whom
Ben Gillam was ever cursing, and the main gates stood wide ajar. Half
a mile away Godefroy hallooed aloud. A dozen New Englanders, led by
the lieutenant, ran to meet us.

"Where is Master Ben?" demanded the leader.

"Le capitaine," answered Godefroy, affecting broken English, "le
capitaine, he is fatigue. He is back - voilá - how you for speak
it? - avec, monsieur! Le capitaine, he has need, he has want for you to
go with food."

At that, with a deal of unguarded gabbling, they must hail us inside
for refreshments, while half a dozen men ran in the direction Godefroy
pointed with the food for their master. No sooner were their backs
turned than Godefroy whispers instructions to the marquis and his man,
who had been left as hostages. Forêt strolled casually across to the
guard-room, where the powder was stored. Here he posted himself in the
doorway with his sword jammed above the hinge. His man made a
precipitate rush to heap fires for our refreshment, dropping three logs
across the fort gates and two more athwart the door of the house.
Godefroy and I, on pretext of scanning out the returning travellers,
ran one to the nigh bastion, the other to the fore-deck of the ship,
where was a swivel cannon that might have done damage.

Then Godefroy whistled.

Like wolves out of the earth rose M. Radisson and his five men from the
shore near the gates. They were in possession before the lieutenant
and his men had returned. On the instant when the surprised New
Englanders ran up, Radisson bolted the gates.

"Where is my master?" thundered the lieutenant, beating for admission.

"Come in." M. Radisson cautiously opened the gate, admitting the
lieutenant alone. "It is not a question of where your master is, but
of mustering your men and calling the roll," said the Frenchman to the
astounded lieutenant. "You see that my people are in control of your
powder-house, your cannon, and your ship. Your master is a prisoner in
my fort. Now summon your men, and be glad Ben Gillam is not here to
kill more of you as he killed your super-cargo!"

Half an hour from the time we had entered the fort, keys, arms, and
ammunition were in M. de Radisson's hands without the firing of a shot,
and the unarmed New Englanders assigned to the main building, where we
could lock them if they mutinied. To sound of trumpet and drum, with
Godefroy bobbing his tipstaff, M. Radisson must needs run up the French
flag in place of the pirate ensign. Then, with the lieutenant and two
New Englanders to witness capitulation, he marched from the gates to do
the same with the ship. Allemand and Godefroy kept sentinel duty at
the gates. La Chesnaye, Forêt, and Jack Battle held the bastions, and
the rest stood guard in front of the main building.

From my place I saw how it happened.

The lieutenant stepped back to let M. de Radisson pass up the ship's
ladder first. The New Englanders followed, the lieutenant still
waiting at the bottom step; and when M. Radisson's back was turned the
lieutenant darted down the river bank in the direction of Governor
Brigdar's fort.

The flag went up and M. Radisson looked back to witness the salute.
Then he discovered the lieutenant's flight. The New Englanders'
purpose was easily guessed - to lock forces with Governor Brigdar, and
while our strength was divided attack us here or at the Habitation.

"One fight at a time," says Radisson, summoning to council in the
powder-house all hands but our guard at the gate. "You, Allemand and
Godefroy, will cross the marsh to-night, bidding Chouart be ready for
attack and send back re-enforcements here! You two lads" - pointing to
the stowaway and scullion - "will boil down bears' grease and porpoise
fat for a half a hundred cressets! Cut up all the brooms in the fort!
Use pine-boughs! Split the green wood and slip in oiled rags! Have a
hundred lights ready by ten of the clock! Go - make haste, or I throw
you both into the pot!

"You, Forêt and La Chesnaye, transfer all the New Englanders to the
hold of the ship and batten them under! If there's to be fighting, let
the enemies be outside the walls. And you, Ramsay, will keep guard at
the river bastion all night! And you, Jack Battle, will gather all the
hats and helmets and caps in the fort, and divide them equally between
the two front bastions - - "

"Hats and helmets?" interrupts La Chesnaye.

"La Chesnaye," says M. Radisson, whirling, "an any one would question
me this night he had best pull his tongue out with the tongs! Go, all
of you!"

But Godefroy, ever a dour-headed knave, must test the steel of M. de
Radisson's mood.

"D'ye mean me an' the pilot to risk crossing the marsh by night - - "

But he got no farther. M. de Radisson was upon him with a cudgel like
a flail on wheat.

"An you think it risk to go, I'll make it greater risk to stay! An you
fear to obey, I'll make you fear more to disobey! An you shirk the
pain of toeing the scratch, I'll make it a deal more painful to lag
behind!"

"But at night - at night," roared Godefroy between blows.

"The night - knave," hissed out Radisson, "the night is lighter than
morning with the north light. The night" - this with a last drive - "the
night is same as day to man of spirit! 'Tis the sort of encouragement
half the world needs to succeed," said M. Radisson, throwing down the
cudgel.

And Godefroy, the skulker, was glad to run for the marsh. The rest of
us waited no urgings, but were to our posts on the run.

I saw M. Radisson passing fife, piccolo, trumpet, and drum to the two
tatterdemalion lads of our army.

"Now blow like fiends when I give the word," said he.

Across the courtyard, single file, marched the New Englanders from
barracks to boat. La Chesnaye leading with drawn sword, the marquis
following with pointed musket.

Forêt and La Chesnaye then mounted guard at the gate. The sailor of
our company was heaping cannon-balls ready for use. Jack Battle
scoured the fort for odd headgear. M. de Radisson was everywhere,


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Online LibraryAgnes C. LautHeralds of Empire Being the Story of One Ramsay Stanhope, Lieutenant to Pierre Radisson in the Northern Fur Trade → online text (page 9 of 17)