H. M. (Henry Martin) Robinson.

The great fur land; or, Sketches of life in the Hudson's bay territory online

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of the wind, as we thought. The half-breed and myself
had for bedding four large buffalo-robes and four blankets ;
and our custom was to spread one robe and a blanket under
us, and use the remainder as covering. The amount under
was sufficient, owing to the snow preventing the cold reach-
ing us from the earth, and rather increasing the amount
of heat than otherwise. Mr. Wheeler had two robes and
two blankets. We lay with our feet toward the stream, Mr.
Wheeler placing himself immediately across the head of our
bed — if so I may call it — wrapped in his own bedding.

I am thus minute in the description of our positions and
bedding, in order to more thoroughly impress the reader with
the intensity of the storm which followed.

It was about six o'clock in the evening when, after taking
off our wet shoes, we retired, with overcoats and caps on,
as customary. The sky at that time exhibited no extraordi-


nary appearance, and the temperature, if any thing, indicated
snow. Being fatigued with the labors of the day, I was soon
asleep, and did not awaken until about half-past nine o'clock,
when I was aroused by the tossings of Mr. Wheeler in his
efforts to adjust his bedding more comfortably. I observed
that it had grown colder, and that a sharp wind had sprung
up, which seemed to come down the channel of the stream
instead of across it, as we had anticipated in the selection
of a camp. However, having the guide on the windward
side, I thought but little of it, and was soon asleep.

I awoke again, as near as I can judge, in about an hour
and a half ; this time from a general sensation of cold which
enveloped me. I found both my companions awake, on speak-
ing to them, and that Mr. Wheeler had been unable to sleep
at all, owing to the cold, as he lay with his head to the wind,
and could not prevent it from entering under the covering.
It was blowing a perfect gale, and the air was so filled with
Avhirling particles of snow that we could not distinguish our
animals at the distance of a few yards. From that time for-
ward it was impossible to sleep. We did every thing we could
devise to ward off the cold, and the half-breed seemed espe-
cially anxious that I should not suffer ; covered me with care,
and shielded me as much as possible with his own person. But
the chill seemed to have taken complete possession of me. I
could not restrain my desire to shake and shiver, although
knowing that it augmented the difficulty. For a time we
conversed on the severity of the storm, and our error in not
having built a fire, but gradually relapsed into silence ; each


one, evidently, engaged in endeavoring to protect himself, or
moodily brooding over his own sufferings.

Real physical suffering it had now become. The skin on
my arms and limbs felt quite cold to the touch, and my bones
grew heavy and chill as bars of iron. Yet, I had no fear,
or thought even, of freezing to death. On that point I simply
expected to shiver until morning would give us light sufficient
to build a fire. The mind, however, was unnaturally acute.
Thought on every subject was very vivid and distinct. I
remember to have received a better insight of several subjects
which occurred to me than at any previous time, and was
able to think more rapidly. This was, I suppose, owing to
the increased and enforced vitality necessary to sustain life,
and to the stimulated condition of the brain under the suffer-
ing arising from the cold. Every thing was clear and distinct.
I thought over the business I was upon, and studied the
minutest details of it, all with remarkable rapidity. Occa-
sionally my companion spoke to me, or touched me gently
with his arm, but neither served to break up the general cur-
rent of thought.

All through this outer surface of thought, however, there
ran an undertow of suffering. I was conscious of growing
colder ; my limbs, especially, felt more chill and heavy. I
began also to experience a peculiar sensation, as if the flesh,
for the depth of a quarter or half an inch, was frozen solid,
and the congealment gradually extending to the bone. The
bone itself at times felt like a red-hot bar. I noticed, further,
an increased labor in the beating of the heart, and could


distinguish the pulsations quite easily. At every throb I
could feel the blood seemingly strike the end of the veins
and arteries in the extremities. This after a time produced
a slight dizziness in the head and a laborious respiration. As
time went on, the sensation of surface-freezing extended to
the trunk of the body, and my thoughts grew less connected,
changing frequently from subject to subject, and narrowing
down to my own sufferings. I noticed, furthermore, that the
half-breed spoke more frequently than before, and shook me
occasionally. Still I had no thought of danger, and even
laughed at Mr. Wheeler exclaiming, " Men, men, I believe
I am freezing to death ! "

However, during this whole period of two hours or more I
could not prevent a continual shivering and shaking. I en-
deavored several times to control my nerves and remain
quietly in one position, but without avail. At the end of
that time I noticed that I was becoming quieter; but, while
physically so, my mind was suffering more. My whole idea
was to get warm. My body was cold all over — frozen in,
I felt, to an equal depth in every place. I clung closer to my
companion in the vain hope of producing more warmth. Oh,
if I could only get warm again ! I felt that I could willingly
barter every earthly possession to be warm. I thought bit-
terly of our culpable carelessness in not building a fire the
evening previous, and of the joy it would be to sit before
such blazing fires as we had on nights now gone. If I could
only get warm again ! Was there not some way in which we
could get to a fire ? Could not the half-breed build one ? If


he would only try, I would give him anything ; nothing was
too dear if I could only feel warm. There was a particular
room in my brother's house, with a large open fireplace in it.
If it were only evening, and we were gathered about a bright,
cheerful fire, how nice and warm I could get ! One some-
times goes into an hotel sitting-room in winter, and they have
a huge box-stove, made to take in cord-wood whole. What
a genial waimth and heat there is ! What a glow there is
over the entire room ! Oh, if I could only get warm like
that !

I would be aroused at times out of thoughts like these by
my companion, who now took to pushing me, and constantly
warning me against falling asleep. Mr. Wheeler, also, was
continually talking of his freezing, and assured us both that
his ears were already frozen.

For the first time I really became conscious of the danger
we were in. Strange to say, it had no effect upon me. I felt
no alarm at the possibility of being overtaken by death, I was
so cold — if I could only get warm again ! This was the bur-
den of my thought. Yet I was fully conscious of the danger.
I knew, if death overtook me, in exactly what shape it would
come. And I knew, furthermore, that I had already passed
through the first stage, and was nearly through the second.
Still, with this well-defined knowledge of what was before me,
I was totally indifferent to the pangs of death. I only wanted
to be warm ; I felt that in some way I must get warm. I
thought over the prospect of a speedy death indifferently.
There was no trouble about the future at all — I did not think


of it. The physical suffering and stupor were too great to
admit of it.

Twice before in my life I had been in momentary expec-
tation of death ; and one experience of the horrors of dissolu-
tion was the same as this. That was a case of daiigiic fever.
While perfectly conscious in the last moments — told they were
my last, and asked if I was prepared to undergo them — I felt
the same sensation as here ; if I were only comfortable, I
would willingly go. I knew a gentleman once who told me
that, when in a similar situation — on the point of death — his
only feeling was one of hunger ; no thought or fear for the
future at all, if only his appetite could be satisfied. But how
different that other experience, when called upon to face
death in full bodily vigor ! The terrors which encompassed
me are indescribable.

Continuing in the consciousness of danger, and yet think-
ing only of my suffering and desire to become warm, after the
lapse of an hour, probably, I began to get warm — that is, the
sensation was one of warmth and comfort, but was in reality,
a species of numbness. I felt my flesh in several places,
and it produced a prickly, numb feeling, similar to that
experienced when a limb is asleep. I was comfortable
and happy, because I was warm, and grew indignant with
my companion for his unwearied thumps on my body,
and the continual answers he required to his questions ; I
wanted to be let alone. Fully conscious that, if I went to
sleep I would never awaken again, I was perfectly willing
to go asleep. Even then I remember thinking of poor


travelers, lost in the snow, being brought in by St. Bernard

But I was warm, and laughed silently at Mr. Wheeler's
complaints of freezing. I paid no further attention to the
shakings of my companion or his questions, but gathered my-
self up, and lay thinking how comfortable I was. Pretty soon
I began to doze, then to awaken suddenly, when I received a
more severe blow than usual. Then I awoke to see the half-
breed sitting up and bending eagerly over my face, and hear
a few muttered words to Wheeler — and then a sense of com-
fort and oblivion.

Now I was dead. Sensibility had left me. It was evident
that I would suffer no more. In thirty or forty minutes, an
hour at farthest, my body would die. Then what ?

That I should awaken with a bright fire before me, and be
■wrapped in robes and blankets, seemed the most natural thing
in the world to me. For the matter of that, it appeared to
me that when I had fallen asleep I had anticipated just such
a consummation of things, and it was fully half an hour before
I began in the least to comprehend that any thing out of the
ordinary channel had occurred. True, I kneAV in a vague
and indistinct way that the half-breed was talking of Mr.
Wheeler being lost, but the matter seemed to be no affair of
min-'i and created no surprise. I looked at him chafing my
arm:; and legs, and simply felt that it was quite right and
natural that it should be so.

Gradually, however, I regained consciousness sufficiently
to understand that, finding me fast freezing, and impossible to


arouse, he had gone, at the imminent risk of his own Hfe,
some three hundred yards farther down the stream, and, find-
ing a dry and partially rotten log, had built a fire ; had then
returned to find me totally unconscious, and to carry me,
robes and all, to the fire. The few words he had addressed
to Mr. Wheeler before leaving me showed that he, too, was
fast lapsing into the same state, and, when I was carried in
safety to the fire, had returned to find Mr. Wheeler gone —
having, evidently, awakened from his stupor sufficiently to
realize that he was alone, and to wander off, half frenzied, in
search of us.

These facts being at last impressed upon my mind by the
excited and voluble half-breed, I urged him to renew the
seach for our lost companion ; but he positively refused. He
explained that, in doing what he had already done, he had
jeopardized his own life, and had frozen both hands and feet
considerably ; that, while paid to care for me, he had nothing
to do with Mr. Wheeler. He urged that, if he left the bank
of the stream, he was likely to be lost, the snow at once ob-
literating all trace of his tracks. I ordered him to go, begged
him to go, but without avail. An offer of five golden sove-
reigns met with a like refusal. At length, I told him that, if he
would find Mr. Wheeler, dead or alive, I would give him a
good horse. For this consideration he went. In twenty min-
utes he returned, leading the unfortunate man, badly frozen,
whom he had found running wildly about in a circle on the
prairie. He was kept from the fire with some difficulty, until
his hands, feet, and face, were thawed out with water, but


did not recover his mind until six hours after. From frequent
personal observation, I am led to believe that nearly every-
one who freezes to death upon the prairies, or elsewhere, be-
comes insane before death.*

Having been thoroughly warmed and recruited by a
steaming-hot breakfast, we followed the river to avoid losing
our way, and in the afternoon reached a Hudson's Bay Com-
pany's post. Here we were informed that the temperature
had fallen, during the previous night, to forty-five degrees
below zero ! We remained in that hospitable shelter for two
days, during which the terrific storm raged with unabated
fury. Some dozen Indians and half-breeds perished upon
the route over which we had just passed.

After this lapse of time, I recall my thoughts and feelings
with much more distinctness and accuracy than I could for
some time immediately subsequent to the events related. No
one who has passed through great danger realizes fully the
extent of it at once. It requires time to impress the memory
with all its circumstances. What my feelings were at this un-
expected preservation from the dreadful fate which threatened
me, it is impossible to express.

*»I have had five cases of freezing to death brought under my personal
observation. In every instance the subject gave indubitable indications of
insanity before death, and in every case exhibited it in the same way — by
casting off his clothing and wandering away from it. One subject was
entirely nude, and distant fully a mile from the last article of clothing he
had discarded.



T3EING invited to attend a ball at the residence of M.
-*-^ Pierrette Pirouette, in the parish of St. Franyois
Xavier, given in honor of the betrothal of his daughter Pau-
line, I am anxiously ex])ectant of its delights for the inter-
venient three days.

I draw a mental picture of the daughter Pauline, by sur-
mounting the customary attire of the country with a softened
shade of her progenitors' features, and inserting an additional
intensity into the blackness of her eye. I conceive, further-
more, thej^^/^r^ of the now matrimonially moribund maiden,
in black corduroys, moccasins, and sky-blue capote. His
features are clearly cut in the aboriginal mould, and he
smokes perennial harougc in a pipe with a china bowl. I
also portray, in my mental picture-gallery, the manner of their
courtship, in which the fond maiden, whose brothers are
given to the chase, succumbs to deeds of desperate daring
performed on the hunting-field by the youth of her choice,
who is likewise nomadic in his habits.

In anticipation, I depict the contents of my friend Pier-
rette's larder ; and, reveling upon the marrow-fat of the
bison, and the nose of the moose, perform gastronomic feats
upon the basted ribs of the antelope, worthy of a Patagonian.


I even mentally congratulate the blushing Pauline upon the
discrimination displayed in her choice, and am repaid by
thanks expressed in a composition of four languages. I also
express my sense of approval to the bridegroom expectant,
and am at once invited to imbibe. In effect, I am afflicted
with a species of mental phantasmagoria until the eventful
day arrives, and brings reality in the shape of the dog-sledge
with its attendant driver, which is to convey me over the
twenty-four miles of prairie intervening between my resi-
dence and the scene of festivities.

I place the archives of the consulate, committed to my
care by a confiding Government, under the guardianship
of an intelligent half-breed ; who, not knowing the difference
between a certiSed invoice and a passport, is more than likely
to describe the first comer in want of a copy of the latter as
a carcajou.

As affairs of this description, in this northern climate,
are likely to continue for the space of three or more days,
it behooves to make preparations commensurate with the
duration of my stay ; and I accordingly place a small quantity
of " renewed woolen " in a receptacle borrowed for that pur-
pose. I dress in the habiliments of rejoicing usually worn
upon occasions of this nature, and find myself encased in a
fine-cloth capote of cerulean hue, and ornamented with brass
buttons ; black-cloth trousers, supported by a variegated sash,
the fringed ends of which hang about the knees in a bewil-
dering manner.

Being unable to control the canine specimens attached to


my sledge with any degree of satisfaction to myself, I surren-
der all authority in that matter to the copper-visaged driver
of dogs running at my side. I find, at the outset, considera-
ble difficulty in retaining an equilibrium, owing to the peculiar
structure of the sledge, and the constant lurching from side
to side which it affects ; and am, on one or two occasions,
precipitated into snow-banks from which, such is the internal
arrangement of the sledge, I am unable to extricate myself,
and am, in consequence, dragged along face downward, until
the driver restores me to a perpendicular position.

During the progress of the drive I observe that my attend-
ant appears intimately acquainted with every passer-by, and
invariably addresses each as his brother. I am at a loss to
discover the necessity of so general a recognition of relation-
ship, until I ascertain it to be the current coin of courtesy in
his grade of society. My attendant has, furthermore, a play-
ful manner of addressing his dogs in relays of profanity, dis-
creetly veiled by being delivered in the heathen tongues ;
and, entertaining a special hatred of his wheel-dog, he flicks
him constantly with the sharp thongs of his whip. There is,
also, an implicit faith on his part in my ability to understand
the dialects of the Six Nations, and he addresses me, from
time to time, in any one which his fancy may dictate.

I become gradually more accustomed to the motion of the
sledge, but am still possessed with a vague sense of insecurity,
until the half-breed seizes the rope at the end of the convey-
ance, which he uses as a rudder. I am next seized with the
idea that my attendant — who is running at the rate of six


miles an hour, in his efforts to keep up with the dogs — not
being endowed with the constitution of a government mule,
may by some possibility become short of wind, and leave me
to accomplish the remainder of the distance alone ; but am
soon reassured by the sublimated state which his profanity

On reaching the house, I am discharged from the sledge
by some occult process known to the driver, and experience
the sensation of having been packed away in a case, and
taken suddenly out to be aired.

The yard surrounding the house, and the reception-room,
are already crowded by my host's relatives and invited frjends,
who are walking promiscuously about, and talking in an hila-
rious manner. When my benumbed limbs have become suf-
ficiently supple to effect an entrance, I am at once surrounded
by the guests, who give expression to their delight in a variety
of ways, and conduct me to an adjoining chamber, beseech-
ing me to enter and disrobe, and be refreshed. Encompassed
as I am, it is no easy matter to reach the apartment, where I
find my host, surrounded by discarded raiment and bottles,
standing in state.

After the first greetings are over, and I have swallowed
the fiery compound provided for the inner man, I pause to
take a mental note of the surroundings. I observe that my
host appears already in some measure overcome by the labors
of reception, and is arrayed in garments of a bewildering
variety of color, his hair ornamented by one solitary feather.
My host's relatives are making themselves useful as far as lies


in their power, and are endeavoring to renew their exhausted
energies by frequently bearing away the empty bottles into an
adjoining room to be refilled. I remark that all the apart-
ments are thick with smoke. There is a continuous series of
applications to a box, placed upon a chair, containing a mix-
ture of cut tobacco and the bark of the grey willow, and the
odor arising therefrom is of an extremely pungent and aro-
matic nature. Of furniture in the house there is none worth
mentioning ; furniture in this latitude being represented by a
few stools, deal tables, and wooden trunks. I note that the
female portion of the assembly are distributed about in posi-
tions of charming freedom ; some sitting on the laps of the
male guests, others surrounding the male necks with their
arms, and yet others laughing and chatting with a sweet, in-
constant air among themselves.

I remark that the guests, of both sexes, are of varied
shades of color, from the clear, deep copper, to the delicate
blond, but that all possess the same unvarying black hair and
eyes. Furthermore, the language spoken is polyglot, being
an admixture of French, English, and several Indian dialects.
Well as I am acquainted with myself, I am amazed at the con-
summate hypocrisy I display in assuming an intimate acquaint-
ance with them all, when my rascally driver has given it out
as an indisputable fact.

At this point I become conscious that the bewitching
Pauline, fairest of maidens, is regarding me with a fixed stare.
At my request, her venerated progenitor presents me, when
she kisses me upon the cheek. Being reminded of biblical as


well as French custom on this pohit, I at once turn the other
cheek, which she salutes in a like manner. As I do not ob-
serve that she blushes, or that her father objects, I conclude
it to be one of the customs of the country, and am inwardly
rejoiced at the bliss which is yet in store.

Mademoiselle Pauline introduces me to her betrothed, a
dark youth, with the straight features of the aboriginal, who
seems rather overcome with his felicity, and talks feelingly to
me of sa petite Pauline, and, on my congratulations, over-
whelms me with proffers of service.

I note that the conviviality of the guests is only inter-
rupted by the accession of a new arrival ; that the females
smile sweetly upon him, and the men play about him in a
boisterous manner. The new arrival is surrounded as I have
been, and conducted into the chamber of robes and refresh-
ments, where his conductors join him in festive libations to
his health. This exci^s a spirit of emulation among the
guests, and each arrival is accompanied by an increased num-
ber of ushers, who strive to do him honor. It is further pro-
ductive of an excited and affectionate state of feeling ; the
females are hugged more frequently and thoroughly, and cer-
tain exuberant spirits betray an inclination to cut pigeon-wings
without a musical accompaniment.

The betrothed of Pauline comes to me, and talks earnestly
and incoherently of son ange de son cceur, and clings to my
buttons with charming familiarity.

I am inducted by the gushing Pauline into the depths of
the back-kitchen, to pay my respects to her mother, with


whom I have a previous acquaintance. She receives me with
cordiality, and embraces me with a knife and fork in her
hands, which endanger the safety of my visual organs to an
alarming extent. I am, however, appeased by an osculatory
performance on both cheeks, which would have been infinitely
more agreeable coming from her daughter. I am assured of
the excellence of the repast to be served, by the delicious
odor arising from the kettles, and from the numerous spits
turning slowly before the huge fireplace, and of its prospec-
tive extent, by the joints of bison, and the multiplicity of
smaller game displayed upon the dresser.

I am reminded of there being " a time to dance," by the
gathering of the guests in the apartments devoted to that
exercise, and by the tuning up of a mangy and enervated
violin, which produces a sensation on the tympanum not un-
like the filing of a saw. The musician, too, seems to suffer
from a chronic attack of St. Vitus's dance, confined to the
head, and thumps monotonously upon the floor, with mocca-
sined feet, keeping time to his music.

A festively-attired youth, with intensely Indian features,

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Online LibraryH. M. (Henry Martin) RobinsonThe great fur land; or, Sketches of life in the Hudson's bay territory → online text (page 21 of 24)