R. M. (Robert Michael) Ballantyne.

Hudson Bay; or, Every-day life in the wilds of North America during six years' residence in the territories of the Hon. Hudson Bay Company online

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Online LibraryR. M. (Robert Michael) BallantyneHudson Bay; or, Every-day life in the wilds of North America during six years' residence in the territories of the Hon. Hudson Bay Company → online text (page 2 of 22)
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one, I was thrown into a state of ecstatic joy by the
arrival of a letter appointing me to the enviable situa-
tion of apprentice clerk in the service of the Honourable
Hudson Bay Company. To describe the immense ex-
tent to which I expanded, both mentally and bodily,
upon the receipt of this letter, is impossible ; it is suf-
ficient to know, that from that moment I fancied myself
a complete man of business, and treated my old com-
panions with the condescending suavity of one who
knows that he is talking to his inferiors.

A few days after, however, my pride was brought
very low indeed, as 1 lay tossing about in my berth on
the tumbling waves of the German Ocean, eschewing
breakfast as a dangerous meal, and looking upon dinner
with a species of horror utterly incomprehensible by
those who have not experienced an attack of sea-sick-
ness. Miseries of this description, fortunately, do not
last long. In a couple of days we got into the compara-
tively still water of the Thames ; and I, with a host of
pale-faced young ladies and cadaverous-looking young
gentlemen, emerged for the first time from the interior of
the ship, to behold the beauties and wonders of the great
metropolis, as we glided slowly up the crowded river.

Leave-taking is a disagreeable subject either to reflect
upon or to write about, so we will skip that part of the
business and proceed at once to Gravesend, where I
stood (having parted from all my friends) on the deck


of the good ship Prince Rupert, contemplating the
boats and crowds of shipping that passed continually
before me, and thinking how soon I was to leave the
scenes to which I had been so long accustomed, for a
far-distant land. I was a boy, however; and this, I
think, is equivalent to saying that I did not sorrow
long. My future companion and fellow-clerk, Mr. Wise-
acre, was pacing the deck near me. This turned my
thoughts into another channel, and set me speculating
upon his probable temper, qualities, and age ; whether
or not he was strong enough to thrash me, and if we
were likely to be good friends. The captain, too, was
chatting and laughing with the doctor as carelessly as
if he had not the great responsibility of taking a huge
ship across a boundless waste of waters, and through
fields and islands of ice, to a distant country some three
thousand miles to the north-west of England. Thus
encouraged, my spirits began to rise, and when the cry
arose on deck that the steamer containing the committee
of the Honourable Hudson Bay Company was in sight,
I sprang up the companion-ladder in a state of mind, if
not happy, at least as nearly so as under the circum-
stances could be expected.

Upon gaining the deck, I beheld a small steamboat
passing close under our stern, filled with a number of
elderly-looking gentlemen, who eyed us with a very
critical expression of countenance. I had a pretty good
guess who these gentlemen were; but had I been
entirely ignorant, I should soon have been enlightened
by the remark of a sailor, who whispered to his com-
rade, " I say, Bill, them's the great guns ! "


I suppose the fact of their being so had a sympathetic
effect upon the guns of the Company's three ships, the
Prince Rupert, Prince Albert, and Prince of Wales,
for they all three fired a salute of blank cartridge at
the steamer as she passed them in succession. The
steamer then ranged alongside of us, and the elderly
gentlemen came on board and shook hands with the
captain and officers, smiling blandly as they observed
the neat, trim appearance of the three fine vessels,
which, with everything in readiness for setting sail on
the following morning, strained at their cables, as if
anxious to commence their struggle with the waves.

It is a custom of the directors of the Hudson Bay
Company to give a public dinner annually to the officers
of their ships upon the eve of their departure from
Gravesend. Accordingly, one of the gentlemen of the
committee, before leaving the vessel, invited the captain
and officers to attend; and, to my astonishment and
delight, also begged me to honour them with my com-
pany. I accepted the invitation with extreme polite-
ness; and, from inability to express my joy in any
other way, winked to my friend Wiseacre, with whom
I had become, by this time, pretty familiar. He, being
also invited, winked in return to me ; and having dis-
posed of this piece of juvenile freemasonry to our satis-
faction, we assisted the crew in giving three hearty
cheers, as the little steamer darted from the side and
proceeded to the shore.

The dinner, like all other public dinners, was as good
and substantial as a lavish expenditure of cash could
make it; but really my recollections of it are very


indistinct. The ceaseless din of plates, glasses, knives,
forks, and tongues was tremendous ; and this, together
with the novelty of the scene, the heat of the room, and
excellence of the viands, tended to render me oblivious
of much that took place. Almost all the faces present
were strange to me. Who were, and who were not, the
gentlemen of the committee, was to me matter of the
most perfect indifference; and as no one took the
trouble to address me in particular, I confined myself
to the interesting occupation of trying to make sense of
a conversation held by upwards of fifty pairs of lungs
at one and the same time. Nothing intelligible, how-
ever, was to be heard, except when a sudden lull in the
noise gave a bald-headed old gentleman near the head
of the table an opportunity of drinking the health of a
red-faced old gentleman near the foot, upon whom he
bestowed an amount of flattery perfectly bewildering;
and after making the unfortunate red-faced gentleman
writhe for half an hour in a fever of modesty, sat down
amid thunders of applause. Whether the applause, by
the way, was intended for the speaker or the speakee, I
do not know ; but being quite indifferent, I clapped my
hands with the rest. The red-faced gentleman, now
purple with excitement, then rose, and during a solemn
silence delivered himself of a speech, to the effect that
the day then passing was certainly the happiest in his
mortal career, that he could not find words adequately
to express the varied feelings which swelled his throb-
bing bosom, and that he felt quite faint with the mighty
load of honour just thrown upon his delighted shoulders
by his bald-headed friend. The red-faced gentleman

(510) 2


then sat down to the national air of rat-tat-tat, played
in full chorus with knives, forks, spoons, nut-crackers,
and knuckles on the polished surface of the mahogany

We left the dinner- table at a late hour, and after I,
in company with some other youngsters, had done as
much mischief as we conveniently could without risking
our detention by the strong arm of the law, we went
down to the beach and embarked in a boat with the
captain for the ship. How the sailors ever found her in
the impenetrable darkness which prevailed all around,
is a mystery to me to this day. Find her, however,
they did ; and in half an hour I was in the land of Nod.

The sun was blazing high in the heavens next morn-
ing when I awoke, and gazed around for a few moments
to discover where I was ; but the rattling of ropes and
blocks, the stamping of feet overhead, the shouts of
gruff voices, and, above all, a certain strange and dis-
agreeable motion in my dormitory, soon enlightened me
on that point. We were going rapidly down the Thames
with a fair breeze, and had actually set sail for the
distant shores of Hudson Bay.

What took place during the next five or six days I
know not. The demon of sea-sickness had completely
prostrated my faculties, bodily and mental. Some faint
recollections I have of stormy weather, horrible noises,
and hurried dinners ; but the greater part of that period
is a miserable blank in my memory. Towards the sixth
day, however, the savoury flavour of a splendid salmon-
trout floated past my dried-up nostrils like "Afric's
spicy gale," and caused my collapsed stomach to yearn



with strong emotion. The ship, too, was going more
quietly through the water; and a broad stream of sun-
shine shot through the small window of my berth,
penetrated my breast, and went down into the centre of
my heart, filling it with a calm, complacent pleasure,


quite indescribable. Sounds, however, of an attack
upon the trout roused me, and with a mighty effort I
tumbled out of bed, donned my clothes, and seated
myself for the first time at the cabin table.

Our party consisted of the captain ; Mr. Carles, a chief
factor in the Company's service ; the doctor ; young Mr.
Wiseacre, afore-mentioned ; the first and second mates ;


and myself. The captain was a thin, middle-sized, off-
hand man ; thoroughly acquainted with his profession ;
good-humoured and gruff by turns ; and he always
spoke with the air of an oracle. Mr. Carles was a mild,
good-natured man, of about fifty-five, with a smooth,
bald head, encircled by a growth of long, thin hair. He
was stoutly built, and possessed of that truly amiable
and captivating disposition which enters earnestly and
kindly into the affairs of others, and totally repudiates
self. From early manhood he had roughed life in the
very roughest and wildest scenes of the wilderness, and
was now returning to those scenes after a short visit to
his native land. The doctor was a nondescript ; a com-
pound of gravity, fun, seriousness, and humbug the
latter predominating. He had been everywhere (at
least, so he said), had seen everything, knew everybody,
and played the fiddle It cannot be said, I fear, that
he played it well ; but, amid the various vicissitudes of
his chequered life, the doctor had frequently found him-
self in company where his violin was almost idolized
and himself deified ; especially when the place chanced
to be the American backwoods, where violins are scarce,
the auditors semi-barbarous Highlanders, and the music
Scotch reels. Mr. Wiseacre was nothing ! He never
spoke except when compelled to do so ; never read, and
never cared for anything or anybody ; wore very long
hair, which almost hid his face, owing to a habit which
he had of holding his head always down ; and apparently
lived but to eat, drink, and sleep. Sometimes, though
very rarely, he became so far facetious as to indulge in
a wink and a low giggle ; but beyond this he seldom


soared. The two mates were simply mates. Those who
know the population of the sea will understand the
description sufficiently ; those who don't, will never, I
fear, be made to understand by description. They
worked the ship, hove the log, changed the watch,
turned out and tumbled in, with the callous indifference
and stern regularity of clock-work ; inhabited tarpaulin
dreadnoughts and sou'- westers; came down to meals with
modest diffidence, and walked the deck with bantam-
cock-like assurance. Nevertheless, they were warm-
hearted fellows, both of them, although the heat didn't
often come to the surface. The first mate was a broad
Scotchman, in every sense of the term; the second was
a burly little Englishman.

" How's the wind, Collins ?" said the captain, as the
second mate sat down at the dinner- table, and brushed
the spray from his face with the back of his brown hand.

" Changed a point to the s'uthard o' sou'- west, sir," he
answered, " and looks as if it would blow hard."

" Humph !" ejaculated the captain, while he proceeded
to help the fish. " I hope it '11 only keep quiet till we
get into blue water, and then it may blow like blazes
for all I care. Take some trout, doctor? It's the last
you'll put your teeth through for six weeks to come, /
know ; so make the most of it. I wish I were only
through the Pentland Firth, and scudding under full
sail for the ice I do." And the captain looked fiercely
at the compass which hung over his head, as if he had
said something worthy of being recorded in history, and
began to eat.

After a pause of five minutes or so during which


time the knives and forks had been clattering pretty
vigorously, and the trout had become a miserable skele-
ton the captain resumed his discourse.

" I tell you what it is now, gentlemen ; if there's not
going to be a change of some sort or other, I'm no

" It does look very threatening," said Mr. Carles, peer-
ing through the stern window. " I don't much like the
look of these clouds behind us. Look there, doctor !"
he continued, pointing towards the window. " What
do you think of that ?"

" Nothing !" replied the doctor, through a mouthful
of duff and potatoes. "A squall, I fancy; wish it'd
only wait till after dinner."

" It never does," said the captain. " I've been to sea
these fifteen years, and I always find that squalls come
on at breakfast or dinner, like an unwelcome visitor.
They've got a thorough contempt for tea seem to
know it's but swipes, and not worth pitching into one's
lap ; but dinner's sure to bring 'em on, if they're in the
neighbourhood, and make 'em bu'st their cheeks at you.
Remember once, when I was cruising, in the Mediter-
ranean, in Lord P 's yacht, we'd been stewing on

deck under an awning the whole forenoon, scarce able
to breathe, when the bell rang for dinner. Well, down
we all tumbled about ten ladies and fifteen gentlemen,
or thereabouts and seated ourselves round the table.

There was no end of grub of every kind. Lord P

was eccentric in that way, and was always at some new
dodge or other in the way of cookery. At this time he
had invented a new dumpling. Its jacket was much


the same as usual inch-thick duff; but its contents
were beyond anything I ever saw, except the inaw of
an old shark. Well, just as the steward took off the
cover, hiss-s went the wind overhead, and one of those
horrible squalls that come rattling down without a
moment's warning in those parts, struck the ship, and
gave her a heel over that sent the salt-cellars chasing
the tumblers like all-possessed ; and the great dumpling
gave a heavy lurch to leeward, rolled fairly over on its
beam-ends, and began to course straight down the table
quite sedate and quiet-like. Several dives were made
at it by the gentlemen as it passed, but they all missed ;
and finally, just as a youngster made a grab at it with
both hands that bid fair to be successful, another howl
of the squall changed its course, and sent it like a
cannon-shot straight into the face of the steward, where
it split its sides, and scattered its contents right and
left. I don't know how it ended, for I bolted up the
companion, and saw the squall splitting away to lee-
ward, shrieking as it went, just as if it were rejoicing at
the mischief it had done."

The laugh which greeted the captain's anecdote had
scarce subsided when the tough sides of the good Prince
Rupert gave a gentle creak, and the angle at which the
active steward perambulated the cabin became absurdly

Just then the doctor cast his eye up at the compass
suspended above the captain's head. " Hallo !" said he .
But before he could give utterance to the sentiments to
which "hallo" was the preface, the hoarse voice of the
first mate came rolling down the companion-hatch,



" A squalJ, sir ! scoorin' doon like mad ! Wund 's
veered richt roond to the nor'-east."

The captain and second mate sprang hastily to their
feet and rushed upon deck, where the rest of us joined
them as speedily as possible.


On gaining the quarter-deck, the scene that presented
itself was truly grand. Thick black clouds rolled heavily
overhead, and cast a gloom upon the sea which caused
it to look like ink. Not a breath of wind swelled the
sails, which the men were actively engaged in taking
in. Far away on our weather-quarter the clouds were


thicker and darker ; and just where they met the sea
there was seen a bright streak of white, which rapidly
grew broader and brighter, until we could perceive that
it was the sea lashed into a seething foam by the gale
which was sweeping over it.

" Mind your helm !" shouted the captain.

" Ay, ay, sir !" sang out the man at the wheel. And
in another moment the squall burst upon us with all its
fury, laying the huge vessel over on its side as if it had
been a feather on the wave, and causing her to fly
through the black water like a dolphin.

In a few minutes the first violence of the squall
passed away, and was succeeded by a steady breeze,
which bore us merrily along over the swelling billows.

" A stiff one, that," said the captain, turning to the
doctor, who, with imperturbable nonchalance, was stand-
ing near him, holding on to a stancheon with one hand,
while the other reposed in his breeches pocket.

" I hope it will last," replied the doctor. " If it does,
we'll not be long of reaching the blue water you long
so much for."

Young Wiseacre, who during the squall had been
clutching the weather-shrouds with the tenacity of a
drowning man, opened his eyes very wide on hearing
this, to him, insane wish, and said to me in an under-
tone, " I say, do you think the doctor is quite right in
his mind?"

" I have no doubt of it," replied I. " Why do you

" Because I heard him say to the captain, he wished
that this would last."


" Is that all ?" said I, while a very vile spirit of vanity
took possession of me, inducing me to speak in a tone
which indicated a tranquillity of mind that I certainly
did not enjoy. " Oh, this is nothing at all ! I see
you've never been on salt-water before. Just wait a
bit, old fellow !" And having given utterance to this
somewhat dark and mysterious expression, I staggered
across the deck, and amused myself in watching the
thick volumes of spray that flew at every plunge from
the sides of the bounding vessel.

The doctor's wish was granted. The breeze continued
steady and strong, sending us through the Pentland
Firth in grand style, and carrying us in a short time to
the island of Lewis, where we hove-to for a pilot. After
a little signalizing we obtained one, who steered our
good ship in safety through the narrow entrance to the
bay of Stornoway, into whose quiet waters we finally
dropped our anchor.





iJHE harbour of Stornoway is surrounded by high

hills, except at the entrance, where a passage
not more, I should think, than three hundred
3 r ards wide admits vessels of any tonnage into
its sheltering bosom. Stornoway, a pretty,
modest-looking town, apparently pleased with its lot,
and contented to be far away from the busy and bust-
ling world, lies snugly at the bottom of the bay. Here
we remained upwards of a week, engaging men for the
wild Nor'- West, and cultivating the acquaintance of the
people, who were extremely kind and very hospitable.
Occasionally Wiseacre and I amused ourselves with
fishing excursions to the middle of the bay in small
boats ; in which excursions we were usually accom-
panied by two or three very ragged little boys from the
town. Our sport was generally good, and rendered
extremely interesting by our uncertainty as to which
of the monsters of the deep would first attack our
hooks. Rock-codlings and flounders appeared the most


voracious, and occasionally a skate or long-legged crab
came struggling to the surface.

Just before leaving this peaceful little spot, our cap-
tain gave a grand ball on board, to which were invited
the tlite of Stornoway. Great preparations were made
for the occasion. The quarter-deck was well washed
and scrubbed; an awning was spread over it, which
formed a capital ceiling ; and representatives of almost
every flag that waves formed the walls of the large and
airy apartment. Oil lamps, placed upon the sky-lights,
companion, and capstan, shed a mellow light upon the
scene, the romantic effect of which was greatly height-
ened by a few flickering rays of the moon, which shot
through various openings in the drapery, and disported
playfully upon the deck. At an early and very un-
fashionable hour on the evening of the appointed night
the guests arrived in detachments; and while the gentle-
men scrambled up the side of the vessel, the ladies, amid
a good deal of blushing and hesitation, were hoisted on
board in a chair. Tea was served on deck ; and after
half an hour's laughing and chatting, during which time
our violin-player was endeavouring to coax his first
string to the proper pitch without breaking, the ball
opened with a Scotch reel. Every one knows what
Scotch reels are, but every one does not know how the
belles of the Western Isles can dance them.

" Just look at that slip of thread-paper," said the
doctor to the captain, pointing to a thin, flat young
lady, still in her teens. " I've watched her from the
first. She's been up at six successive rounds, flinging
her shanks about worse than a teething baby ; and she's


up again for another, just as cool and serene as a night
in the latter end of October. I wonder what she's
made of."

"Leather, p'r'aps, or gutta percha," suggested the cap-
tain, who had himself been "flinging his legs" about
pretty violently during the previous half-hour. " I wish
that she had been my partner instead of the heavy fair
one that you see over there leaning against the inizzen

" Which ?" inquired the doctor. " The old lady with
the stu'n-sails set on her shoulders ?"

"No, no," replied the captain "the young lady; fat
very fat fair, and twenty, with the big blue eyes like
signal-lamps on a locomotive. She twisted me round
just as if I'd been a fathom of pump- water, shouting
and laughing all the time in my face, like a sou'- west
gale, and never looking a bit where she was going till
she pitched head-foremost into the union-jack, carrying
it and me along with her off' the quarter-deck and half-
way down the companion. It's a blessing she fell under-
most, else I should have been spread all over the deck
like a capsized pail of slops."

" Hallo !" exclaimed the doctor; "what's wrong with
the old lady over there ? She's making very uncommon

" She's sea-sick, I do believe," cried the captain, rush-
ing across the deck towards her.

And, without doubt, the old lady in question was
showing symptoms of that terrible malady, although
the bay was as smooth as a mill-pond, and the Prince
Rupert reposed on its quiet bosom without the slightest


perceptible motion. With impressive nautical polite-
ness the captain handed her below, and in the sudden
sympathy of his heart proposed as a remedy a stiff
glass of brandy and water.

" Or a pipe of cavendish," suggested the second mate,
who met them on the ladder as they descended, and
could not refrain from a facetious remark, even although
he knew it would, as it did, call forth a thundering
command from his superior to go on deck and mind his
own business.

" Isn't it jolly," said a young Stornowite, coming up
to Wiseacre, with a face blazing with glee " isn't it
jolly, Mr. Wiseacre ?"

" Oh, very !" replied Wiseacre, in a voice of such
dismal melancholy that the young Stornowite 's counte-
nance instantly went out, and he wheeled suddenly
round to light it again at the visage of some more
sympathizing companion.

Just at this point of the revelry the fiddler's first
string, which had endured with a dogged tenacity that
was wonderful even for catgut, gave way with a loud
bang, causing an abrupt termination to the uproar, and
producing a dead silence. A few minutes, however,
soon rectified this mischance. The discordant tones of
the violin, as the new string was tortured into tune,
once more opened the safety-valve, and the ball began
de novo.

Great was the fun, and numerous were the ludicrous
incidents, that happened during that eventful night;
and loud were the noise and merriment of the dancers
as they went with vigorous energy through the bewilder-


ing evolutions of country-dance and reel. Immense was
the delight of the company when the funniest old gentle-
man there volunteered a song ; and ecstatic the joy
when he followed it up by a speech upon every subject

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Online LibraryR. M. (Robert Michael) BallantyneHudson Bay; or, Every-day life in the wilds of North America during six years' residence in the territories of the Hon. Hudson Bay Company → online text (page 2 of 22)