This page contains affiliate links. As Amazon Associates we earn from qualifying purchases.
Language:
Form:
Genre:
Published:
  • 1856
Collection:
Tags:
Buy it on Amazon FREE Audible 30 days

branches, their refreshing contents sending up little clouds of steam, while the ptarmigan, now split up, skewered, and roasted, were being heartily devoured by our three hungry friends.

The pleasures that fall to the lot of man are transient. Doubtless they are numerous and oft recurring; still they are transient, and so–supper came to an end.

“Now for a pipe,” said the accountant, disposing his limbs at full length on a green blanket. “O thou precious weed, what should we do without thee!”

“Smoke _tea_, to be sure,” answered Harry.

“Ah! true, it _is_ possible to exist on a pipe of tea-leaves for a time, but _only_ for a time. I tried it myself once, in desperation, when I ran short of tobacco on a journey, and found it execrable, but better than nothing.”

“Pity we can’t join you in that.” remarked Harry.

“True; but perhaps since you cannot pipe, it might prove an agreeable diversification to dance.”

“Thank you, I’d rather not,” said Harry; “and as for Hamilton, I’m convinced that _his_ mind is made up on the subject.–How go the heels now?”

“Thank you, pretty well,” he replied, reclining his head on the pine branches, and extending his smitten members towards the fire. “I think they will be quite well in the morning.”

“It is a curious thing,” remarked the accountant, in a soliloquising tone, “that _soft_ fellows _never_ smoke!”

“I beg your pardon,” said Harry, “I’ve often seen hot loaves smoke, and they’re soft enough fellows, in all conscience!”

“Ah!” sighed the accountant, “that reminds me of poor Peterkin, who was _so_ soft that he went by the name of ‘Butter.’ Did you ever hear of what he did the summer before last with an Indian’s head?”

“No, never; what was it!”

“I’ll tell you the story,” replied the accountant, drawing a few vigorous whiffs of smoke, to prevent his pipe going out while he spoke.

As the story in question, however, depicts a new phase of society in the woods, it deserves a chapter to itself.

CHAPTER XX.

The accountant’s story.

“Spring had passed away, and York Fort was filled with all the bustle and activity of summer. Brigades came pouring in upon us with furs from the interior, and as every boat brought a C. T. or a clerk, our mess-table began to overflow.

“You’ve not seen the summer mess-room filled yet, Hamilton. That’s a treat in store for you.”

“It was pretty full last autumn, I think,” suggested Hamilton, “at the time I arrived from England.”

“Full! why, man, it was getting to feel quite lonely at that time. I’ve seen more than fifty sit down to table there, and it was worth going fifty miles to hear the row they kicked up–telling stories without end (and sometimes without foundation) about their wild doings in the interior, where every man-jack of them having spent at least eight months almost in perfect solitude, they hadn’t had a chance of letting their tongues go till they came down here. But to proceed. When the ship came out in the fall, she brought a batch of new clerks, and among them was this miserable chap Peterkin, whom we soon nicknamed _Butter_. He was the softest fellow I ever knew (far worse than you, Hamilton), and he hadn’t been here a week before the wild blades from the interior, who were bursting with fun and mischief, began to play off all kinds of practical jokes upon him. The very first day he sat down at the mess-table, our worthy governor (who, you are aware, detests practical jokes) played him a trick, quite unintentionally, which raised a laugh against him for many a day. You know that old Mr. Rogan is rather absent at times; well, the first day that Peterkin came to mess (it was breakfast), the old governor asked him, in a patronizing sort of way, to sit at his right hand. Accordingly down he sat, and having never, I fancy, been away from his mother’s apron-string before, he seemed to feel very uncomfortable, especially as he was regarded as a sort of novelty. The first thing he did was to capsize his plate into his lap, which set the youngsters at the lower end of the table into suppressed fits of laughter. However, he was eating the leg of a dry grouse at the time, so it didn’t make much of a mess.

“‘Try some fish, Peterkin,’ said Mr. Rogan kindly, seeing that the youth was ill at ease. ‘That old grouse is tough enough to break your knife.’

“‘A very rough passage,’ replied the youngster, whose mind was quite confused by hearing the captain of the ship, who sat next to him, giving to his next neighbour a graphic account of the voyage in a very loud key–‘I mean, if you please, no, thank you,’ he stammered, endeavouring to correct himself.

“‘Ah! a cup of tea perhaps.–Here, Anderson’ (turning to the butler), ‘a cup of tea to Mr. Peterkin.’

“The butler obeyed the order.

“‘And here, fill my cup,’ said old Rogan, interrupting himself in an earnest conversation, into which he had plunged with the gentleman on his left hand. As he said this he lifted his cup to empty the slops, but without paying attention to what he was doing. As luck would have it, the slop-basin was not at hand, and Peterkin’s cup _was_, so he emptied it innocently into that. Peterkin hadn’t courage to arrest his hand, and when the deed was done he looked timidly round to see if the action had been observed. Nearly half the table had seen it, but they pretended ignorance of the thing so well that he thought no one had observed, and so went quietly on with his breakfast, and drank the tea! But I am wandering from my story. Well, about this time there was a young Indian who shot himself accidentally in the woods, and was brought to the fort to see if anything could be done for him. The doctor examined his wound, and found that the ball had passed through the upper part of his right arm and the middle of his right thigh, breaking the bone of the latter in its passage. It was an extraordinary shot for a man to put into himself, for it would have been next to impossible even for _another_ man to have done it, unless the Indian had been creeping on all fours. When he was able to speak, however, he explained the mystery. While running through a rough part of the wood after a wounded bird, he stumbled and fell on all fours. The gun, which he was carrying over his shoulder, holding it, as the Indians usually do, by the muzzle, flew forward, and turned right round as he fell, so that the mouth of it was presented towards him. Striking against the stem of a tree, it exploded and shot him through the arm and leg as described ere he had time to rise. A comrade carried him to his lodge, and his wife brought him in a canoe to the fort. For three or four days the doctor had hopes of him, but at last he began to sink, and died on the sixth day after his arrival. His wife and one or two friends buried him in our graveyard, which lies, as you know, on that lonely-looking point just below the powder-magazine. For several months previous to this our worthy doctor had been making strenuous efforts to get an Indian skull to send home to one of his medical friends, but without success. The Indians could not be prevailed upon to cut off the head of one of their dead countrymen for love or money, and the doctor had a dislike to the idea, I suppose, of killing one for himself; but now here was a golden opportunity. The Indian was buried near to the fort, and his relatives had gone away to their tents again. What was to prevent his being dug up? The doctor brooded over the thing for one hour and a half (being exactly the length of time required to smoke out his large Turkey pipe), and then sauntered into Wilson’s room. Wilson was busy, as usual, at some of his mechanical contrivances.

“Thrusting his hands deep into his breeches pockets, and seating himself on an old sea-chest, he began,–

“‘I say, Wilson, will you do me a favour?’

“‘That depends entirely on what the favour is,’ he replied, without raising his head from his work.

“‘I want you to help me to cut off an Indian’s head!’

“‘ Then I _won’t_ do you the favour. But pray, don’t humbug me just now; I’m busy.’

“‘No; but I’m serious, and I can’t get it done without help, and I know you’re an obliging fellow. Besides, the savage is dead, and has no manner of use for his head now.’

“Wilson turned round with a look of intelligence on hearing this.

“‘Ha!’ he exclaimed, ‘I see what you’re up to; but I don’t half like it. In the first place, his friends would be terribly cut up if they heard of it; and then I’ve no sort of aptitude for the work of a resurrectionist; and then, if it got wind, we should never hear the last of it; and then–‘

“‘And then,’ interrupted the doctor, ‘it would be adding to the light of medical science, you unaspiring monster.’

“‘A light,’ retorted Wilson, ‘which, in passing through _some_ members of the medical profession, is totally absorbed, and reproduced in the shape of impenetrable darkness.’

“‘Now, don’t object, my dear fellow; you _know_ you’re going to do it, so don’t coquette with me, but agree at once.’

“‘Well, I consent, upon one condition.’

“‘And what is that?’

“‘That you do not play any practical jokes on _me_ with the head when you have got it.’

“‘Agreed!’ cried the doctor, laughing; ‘I give you my word of honour. Now he has been buried three days already, so we must set about it at once. Fortunately the graveyard is composed of a sandy soil, so he’ll keep for some time yet.

“The two worthies then entered into a deep consultation as to how they were to set about this deed of darkness. It was arranged that Wilson should take his gun and sally forth a little before dark, as if he were bent on an hour’s sport, and, not forgetting his game-bag, proceed to the graveyard, where the doctor engaged to meet him with a couple of spades and a dark lantern. Accordingly, next evening, Mr. Wilson, true to his promise, shouldered his gun and sallied forth.

“It soon became an intensely dark night. Not a single star shone forth to illumine the track along which he stumbled. Everything around was silent and dark, and congenial with the work on which he was bent. But Wilson’s heart beat a little more rapidly than usual. He is a bold enough man, as you know, but boldness goes for nothing when superstition comes into play. However, he trudged along fearlessly enough till he came to the thick woods just below the fort, into which he entered with something of a qualm. Scarcely had he set foot on the narrow track that leads to the graveyard, when he ran slap against the post that stands there, but which, in his trepidation, he had entirely forgotten. This quite upset the small amount of courage that remained, and he has since confessed that if he had not had the hope of meeting with the doctor in a few minutes, he would have turned round and fled at that moment.

“Recovering a little from this accident, he hurried forward, but with more caution, for although the night seemed as dark as could possibly be while he was crossing the open country, it became speedily evident that there were several shades of darkness which he had not yet conceived. In a few minutes he came to the creek that runs past the graveyard, and here again his nerves got another shake; for slipping his foot while in the act of commencing the descent, he fell and rolled heavily to the bottom, making noise enough in his fall to scare away all the ghosts in the country. With a palpitating heart poor Wilson gathered himself up, and searched for his gun, which fortunately had not been injured, and then commenced to climb the opposite bank, starting at every twig that snapped under his feet. On reaching the level ground again he breathed a little more freely, and hurried forward with more speed than caution. Suddenly he came into violent contact with a figure, which uttered a loud growl as Wilson reeled backwards.

“‘Back, you monster,’ he cried, with a hysterical yell, ‘or I’ll blow your brains out!’

“‘It’s little good _that_ would do ye,’ cried the doctor as he came forward. ‘Why, you stupid, what did you take me for? You’ve nearly knocked out my brains as it is,’ and the doctor rubbed his forehead ruefully.

“‘Oh, it’s _you,_ doctor!’ said Wilson, feeling as if a ton weight had been lifted off his heart; ‘I verily thought it was the ghost of the poor fellow we’re going to disturb. I do think you had better give it up. Mischief will come of it, you’ll see.’

“‘Nonsense,’ cried the doctor; ‘don’t be a goose, but let’s to work at once. Why, I’ve got half the thing dug up already.’ So saying, he led the way to the grave, in which there was a large opening. Setting the lantern down by the side of it, the two seized their spades and began to dig as if in earnest.

“The fact is that the doctor was nearly as frightened as Wilson, and he afterwards confessed to me that it was an immense relief to him when he heard him fall down the bank of the creek, and knew by the growl he gave that it was he.

“In about half-an-hour the doctor’s spade struck upon the coffin lid, which gave forth a hollow sound.

“‘Now then, we’re about done with it,’ said he, standing up to wipe away the perspiration that trickled down his face. ‘Take the axe and force up the lid, it’s only fixed with common nails, while I–‘ He did not finish the sentence, but drew a large scalping-knife from a sheath which hung at his belt.

“Wilson shuddered and obeyed. A good wrench caused the lid to start, and while he held it partially open the doctor inserted the knife. For five minutes he continued to twist and work with his arms, muttering between his teeth, every now and then, that he was a ‘tough subject,’ while the crackling of bones and other disagreeable sounds struck upon the horrified ears of his companion.

“‘All right,’ he exclaimed at last, as he dragged a round object from the coffin and let down the lid with a bang, at the same time placing the savage’s head with its ghastly features full in the blaze of the lantern.

“‘Now, then, close up,’ said he, jumping out of the hole and shovelling in the earth.

“In a few minutes they had filled the grave up and smoothed it down on the surface, and then, throwing the head into the game-bag, retraced their steps to the fort. Their nerves were by this time worked up to such a pitch of excitement, and their minds filled with such a degree of supernatural horror, that they tripped and stumbled over stumps and branches innumerable in their double-quick march. Neither would confess to the other, however, that he was afraid. They even attempted to pass a few facetious remarks as they hurried along, but it would not do, so they relapsed into silence till they came to the hollow beside the powder-magazine. Here the doctor’s foot happening to slip, he suddenly grasped Wilson by the shoulder to support himself–a movement which, being unexpected, made his friend leap, as he afterwards expressed it, nearly out of his skin. This was almost too much for them. For a moment they looked at each other as well as the darkness would permit, when all at once a large stone, which the doctor’s slip had overbalanced, fell down the bank and through the bushes with a loud crash. Nothing more was wanting. All further effort to disguise their feelings was dropped. Leaping the rail of the open field in a twinkling, they gave a simultaneous yell of consternation and fled to the fort like autumn leaves before the wind, never drawing breath till they were safe within the pickets.”

“But what has all this to do with Peterkin?” asked Harry, as the accountant paused to relight his pipe and toss a fresh log on the fire.

“Have patience, lad; you shall hear.”

The accountant stirred the logs with his toe, drew a few whiffs to see that the pipe was properly ignited, and proceeded.

“For a day or two after this, the doctor was observed to be often mysteriously engaged in an outhouse, of which he kept the key. By some means or other, the skipper, who is always up to mischief, managed to discover the secret. Watching where the doctor hid the key, he possessed himself of it one day, and sallied forth, bent on a lark of some kind or other, but without very well knowing what. Passing the kitchen, he observed Anderson, the butler, raking the fire out of the large oven which stands in the backyard.

“‘Baking again, Anderson?’ said he in passing. ‘You get soon through with a heavy cargo of bread just now.’

“‘Yes, sir; many mouths to feed, sir,’ replied the butler, proceeding with his work.

“The skipper sauntered on, and took the track which led to the boathouse, where he stood for some time in meditation. Casting up his eyes, he saw Peterkin in the distance, looking as if he didn’t very well know what to do.

“A sudden thought struck him. Pulling off his coat, he seized a mallet and a calking-chisel, and began to belabour the side of a boat as if his life depended on it. All at once he stopped and stood up, blowing with the exertion.

“‘Hollo, Peterkin!’ he shouted, and waved his hand.

“Peterkin hastened towards him.

“‘Well, sir’ said he, ‘do you wish to speak to me?’

“‘Yes,’ replied the skipper, scratching his head, as if in great perplexity. ‘I wish you to do me a favour, Peterkin, but I don’t know very well how to ask you.’

“‘Oh, I shall be most happy,’ said poor Butter eagerly, ‘if I can be of any use to you.’

“‘I don’t doubt your willingness,’ replied the other; ‘but then–the doctor, you see–the fact is, Peterkin, the doctor being called away to see a sick Indian, has intrusted me with a delicate piece of business–rather a nasty piece of business, I may say–which I promised to do for him. You must know that the Surgical Society of London has written to him, begging, as a great favour, that he would, if possible, procure them the skull of a native. After much trouble, he has succeeded in getting one, but is obliged to keep it a great secret, even from his fellow-clerks, lest it should get wind: for if the Indians heard of it they would be sure to kill him, and perhaps burn the fort too. Now I suppose you are aware that it is necessary to boil an Indian’s head in order to get the flesh clean off the skull?’

“‘Yes; I have heard something of that sort from the students at college, who say that boiling brings flesh more easily away from the bone. But I don’t know much about it,’ replied Peterkin.

“‘Well,’ continued the skipper, ‘the doctor, who is fond of experiments, wishes to try whether _baking_ won’t do better than _boiling_, and ordered the oven to be heated for that purpose this morning; but being called suddenly away, as I have said, he begged me to put the head into it as soon as it was ready. I agreed, quite forgetting at the time that I had to get this precious boat ready for sea this very afternoon. Now the oven is prepared, and I dare not leave my work; indeed, I doubt whether I shall have it quite ready and taut after all, and there’s the oven cooling; so, if you don’t help me, I’m a lost man.’

“Having said this, the skipper looked as miserable as his jolly visage would permit, and rubbed his nose.

“‘Oh, I’ll be happy to do it for you, although it is not an agreeable job,’ replied Butter.

“‘That’s right–that’s friendly now!’ exclaimed the skipper, as if greatly relieved. ‘Give us your flipper, my lad;’ and seizing Peterkin’s hand, he wrung it affectionately. ‘Now, here is the key of the outhouse; do it as quickly as you can, and don’t let anyone see you. It’s in a good cause, you know, but the results might be terrible if discovered.’

“So saying, the skipper fell to hammering the boat again with surprising vigour till Butter was out of sight, and then resuming his coat, returned to the house.

“An hour after this, Anderson went to take his loaves out of the oven; but he had no sooner taken down the door than a rich odour of cooked meat greeted his nostrils. Uttering a deep growl, the butler shouted out ‘Sprat!’

“Upon this, a very thin boy, with arms and legs like pipe stems, issued from the kitchen, and came timidly towards his master.

“‘Didn’t I tell you, you young blackguard, that the grouse-pie was to be kept for Sunday? and there you’ve gone and put it to fire to-day.’

“‘The grouse-pie!’ said the boy, in amazement.

“‘Yes, the grouse-pie,’ retorted the indignant butler; and seizing the urchin by the neck, he held his head down to the mouth of the oven.

“‘Smell _that_, you villain! What did you mean by it, eh?’

“‘Oh, murder!’ shouted the boy, as with a violent effort he freed himself, and ran shrieking into the house. “‘Murder!’ repeated Anderson in astonishment, while he stooped to look into the oven, where the first thing that met his gaze was a human head, whose ghastly visage and staring eyeballs worked and moved about under the influence of the heat as if it were alive.

“With a yell that rung through the whole fort, the horrified butler rushed through the kitchen and out at the front door, where, as ill- luck would have it, Mr. Rogan happened to be standing at the moment. Pitching head first into the small of the old gentleman’s back, he threw him off the platform and fell into his arms. Starting up in a moment, the governor dealt Anderson a cuff that sent him reeling towards the kitchen door again, on the steps of which he sat down, and began to sing out, ‘Oh, murder, murder! the oven, the oven!’ and not another word, bad, good, or indifferent, could be got out of him for the next half-hour, as he swayed himself to and fro and wrung his hands.

“To make a long story short, Mr. Rogan went himself to the oven, and fished out the head, along with the loaves, which were, of course, all spoiled.”

“And what was the result?” enquired Harry.

“Oh, there was a long investigation, and the skipper got a blowing- up, and the doctor a warning to let Indians’ skulls lie at peace in their graves for the future, and poor Butter was sent to M’Kenzie’s River as a punishment, for old Rogan could never be brought to believe that he hadn’t been a willing tool in the skipper’s hands; and Anderson lost his batch of bread and his oven, for it had to be pulled down and a new one built.”

“Humph! and I’ve no doubt the governor read you a pretty stiff lecture on practical joking.”

“He did,” replied the accountant, laying aside his pipe and drawing the green blanket over him, while Harry piled several large logs on the fire.

“Good-night,” said the accountant.

“Good-night,” replied his companions; and in a few minutes more they were sound asleep in their snowy camp, while the huge fire continued, during the greater part of the night, to cast its light on their slumbering forms.

CHAPTER XXI.

Ptarmigan-hunting–Hamilton’s shooting powers severely tested–A snowstorm.

At about four o’clock on the following morning, the sleepers were awakened by the cold, which had become very intense. The fire had burned down to a few embers, which merely emitted enough light to make darkness visible. Harry being the most active of the party, was the first to bestir himself. Raising himself on his elbow, while his teeth chattered and his limbs trembled with cold, he cast a woebegone and excessively sleepy glance towards the place where the fire had been; then he scratched his head slowly; then he stared at the fire again; then he languidly glanced at Hamilton’s sleeping visage, and then he yawned. The accountant observed all this; for although he appeared to be buried in the depths of slumber, he was wide awake in reality, and moreover, intensely cold. The accountant, however, was sly–deep, as he would have said himself–and knew that Harry’s active habits would induce him to rise, on awaking, and rekindle the fire,–an event which the accountant earnestly desired to see accomplished, but which he as earnestly resolved should not be performed by _him_. Indeed, it was with this end in view that he had given vent to the terrific snore which had aroused his young companion a little sooner than would have otherwise been the case.

“My eye,” exclaimed Harry, in an undertone, “how precious cold it is!”

His eye making no reply to this remark, he arose, and going down on his hands and knees, began to coax the charcoal into a flame. By dint of severe blowing, he soon succeeded, and heaping on a quantity of small twigs, the fitful flame sprang up into a steady blaze. He then threw several heavy logs on the fire, and in a very short space of time restored it almost to its original vigour.

“What an abominable row you are kicking up!” growled the accountant; “why, you would waken the seven sleepers. Oh! mending the fire,” he added, in an altered tone: “ah! I’ll excuse you, my boy, since that’s what you’re at.”

The accountant hereupon got up, along with Hamilton, who was now also awake, and the three spread their hands over the bright fire, and revolved their bodies before it, until they imbibed a satisfactory amount of heat. They were much too sleepy to converse, however, and contented themselves with a very brief enquiry as to the state of Hamilton’s heels, which elicited the sleepy reply, “They feel quite well, thank you.” In a short time, having become agreeably warm, they gave a simultaneous yawn, and lying down again, they fell into a sleep from which they did not awaken until the red winter sun shot its early rays over the arctic scenery.

Once more Harry sprang up, and let his hand fall heavily on Hamilton’s shoulder. Thus rudely assailed, that youth also sprang up, giving a shout, at the same time, that brought the accountant to his feet in an instant; and so, as if by an electric spark, the sleepers were simultaneously roused into a state of wide-awake activity.

“How excessively hungry I feel! isn’t it strange?” said Hamilton, as he assisted in rekindling the fire, while the accountant filled his pipe, and Harry stuffed the tea-kettle full of snow.

“Strange!” cried Harry, as he placed the kettle on the fire–“strange to be hungry after a five miles’ walk and a night in the snow? I would rather say it was strange if you were _not_ hungry. Throw on that billet, like a good fellow, and spit those grouse, while I cut some pemmican and prepare the tea.”

“How are the heels now, Hamilton?” asked the accountant, who divided his attention between his pipe and his snow-shoes, the lines of which required to be readjusted.

“They appear to be as well as if nothing had happened to them,” replied Hamilton: “I’ve been looking at them, and there is no mark whatever. They do not even feel tender.”

“Lucky for you, old boy, that they were taken in time, else you’d had another story to tell.”

“Do you mean to say that people’s heels really freeze and fall off?” inquired the other, with a look of incredulity.

“Soft, very soft and green,” murmured Harry, in a low voice, while he continued his work of adding fresh snow to the kettle as the process of melting reduced its bulk.

“I mean to say,” replied the accountant, tapping the ashes out of his pipe, “that not only heels, but hands, feet, noses, and ears, frequently freeze, and often fall off in this country, as you will find by sad experience if you don’t look after yourself a little better than you have done hitherto.”

One of the evil effects of the perpetual jesting that prevailed at York Fort was, that “soft” (in other words, straightforward, unsuspecting) youths had to undergo a long process of learning-by- experience: first, _believing_ everything, and then _doubting_ everything, ere they arrived at that degree of sophistication which enabled them to distinguish between truth and falsehood.

Having reached the _doubting_ period in his training, Hamilton looked down and said nothing, at least with his mouth, though his eyes evidently remarked, “I don’t believe you.” In future years, however, the evidence of these same eyes convinced him that what the accountant said upon this occasion was but too true.

Breakfast was a repetition of the supper of the previous evening. During its discussion they planned proceedings for the day.

“My notion is,” said the accountant, interrupting the flow of words ever and anon to chew the morsel with which his mouth was filled–“my notion is, that as it’s a fine clear day we should travel five miles through the country parallel with North River. I know the ground, and can guide you easily to the spots where there are lots of willows, and therefore plenty of ptarmigan, seeing that they feed on willow tops; and the snow that fell last night will help us a little.”

“How will the snow help us?” inquired Hamilton.

“By covering up all the old tracks, to be sure, and showing only the new ones.”

“Well, captain,” said Harry, as he raised a can of tea to his lips, and nodded to Hamilton as if drinking his health, “go on with your proposals for the day. Five miles up the river to begin with, then–“

“Then we’ll pull up,” continued the accountant; “make a fire, rest a bit, and eat a mouthful of pemmican; after which we’ll strike across country for the southern woodcutters’ track, and so home.”

“And how much will that be?”

“About fifteen miles.”

“Ha!” exclaimed Harry; “pass the kettle, please. Thanks.–Do you think you’re up to that, Hammy?”

“I will try what I can do,” replied Hamilton. “If the snow-shoes don’t cause me to fall often, I think I shall stand the fatigue very well.”

“That’s right,” said the accountant; “‘faint heart,’ etc., you know. If you go on as you’ve begun, you’ll be chosen to head the next expedition to the north pole.”

“Well,” replied Hamilton, good-humouredly, “pray head the present expedition, and let us be gone.”

“Right!” ejaculated the accountant, rising. “I’ll just put my odds and ends out of the reach of the foxes, and then we shall be off.”

In a few minutes everything was placed in security, guns loaded, snow-shoes put on, and the winter camp deserted. At first the walking was fatiguing, and poor Hamilton more than once took a sudden and eccentric plunge; but after getting beyond the wooded country, they found the snow much more compact, and their march, therefore, much more agreeable. On coming to the place where it was probable that they might fall in with ptarmigan, Hamilton became rather excited, and apt to imagine that little lumps of snow which hung upon the bushes here and there were birds.

“There now,” he cried, in an energetic and slightly positive tone, as another of these masses of snow suddenly met his eager eye–“that’s one, I’m _quite_ sure.”

The accountant and Harry both stopped short on hearing this, and looked in the direction indicated.

“Fire away, then, Hammy,” said the former, endeavouring to suppress a smile.

“But do you think it _really_ is one?” asked Hamilton, anxiously.

“Well, I don’t _see_ it exactly, but then, you know, I’m near- sighted.”

“Don’t give him a chance of escape,” cried Harry, seeing that his friend was undecided. “If you really do see a bird, you’d better shoot it, for they’ve got a strong propensity to take wing when disturbed.”

Thus admonished Hamilton raised his gun and took aim. Suddenly he lowered his piece again, and looking round at Harry, said in a low whisper,–

“Oh, I should like _so_ much to shoot it while flying! Would it not be better to set it up first?”

“By no means,” answered the accountant. “‘A bird in the hand,’ etc. Take him as you find him–look sharp; he’ll be off in a second.”

Again the gun was pointed, and, after some difficulty in taking aim, fired.

“Ah, what a pity you’ve missed him!” shouted Harry,

“But see, he’s not off yet; how tame he is, to be sure! Give him the other barrel, Hammy.”

This piece of advice proved to be unnecessary. In his anxiety to get the bird, Hamilton had cocked both barrels, and while gazing, half in disappointment, half in surprise, at the supposed bird, his finger unintentionally pressed the second trigger. In a moment the piece exploded. Being accidentally aimed in the right direction, it blew the lump of snow to atoms, and at the same time hitting its owner on the chest with the butt, knocked him over flat upon his back.

“What a gun it is, to be sure!” said Harry, with a roguish laugh, as he assisted the discomforted sportsman to rise; “it knocks over game with butt and muzzle at once.”

“Quite a rare instance of one butt knocking another down,” added the accountant.

At this moment a large flock of ptarmigan, startled by the double report, rose with a loud whirring noise about a hundred yards in advance, and after flying a short distance alighted.

“There’s real game at last, though,” cried the accountant, as he hurried after the birds, followed closely by his young friends.

They soon reached the spot where the flock had alighted, and after following up the tracks for a few yards further, set them up again. As the birds rose, the accountant fired and brought down two; Harry shot one and missed another; Hamilton being so nervously interested in the success of his comrades that he forgot to fire at all.

“How stupid of me!” he exclaimed, while the others loaded their guns.

“Never mind; better luck next time,” said Harry, as they resumed their walk. “I saw the flock settle down about half-a-mile in advance of us; so step out.”

Another short walk brought the sportsmen again within range.

“Go to the front, Hammy,” said the accountant, “and take the first shot this time.”

Hamilton obeyed. He had scarcely made ten steps in advance, when a single bird, that seemed to have been separated from the others, ran suddenly out from under a bush, and stood stock-still, at a distance of a few yards, with its neck stretched out and its black eyes wide open, as if in astonishment.

“Now then, you can’t miss _that_.”

Hamilton was quite taken aback by the suddenness of this necessity for instantaneous action. Instead, therefore, of taking aim leisurely (seeing that he had abundant time to do so), he flew entirely to the opposite extreme, took no aim at all, and fired off both barrels at once, without putting the gun to his shoulder. The result of this was that the affrighted bird flew away unharmed, while Harry and the accountant burst spontaneously into fits of laughter.

“How very provoking!” said the poor youth, with a dejected look.

“Never mind–never say die–try again,” said the accountant, on recovering his gravity. Having reloaded, they continued the pursuit.

“Dear me!” exclaimed Harry, suddenly, “here are three dead birds.–I verily believe, Hamilton, that you have killed them all at one shot by accident.”

“Can it be possible?” exclaimed his friend, as with a look of amazement he regarded the birds.

There was no doubt about the fact. There they lay, plump and still warm, with one or two drops of bright red blood upon their white plumage. Ptarmigan are almost pure white, so that it requires a practised eye to detect them, even at a distance of a few yards; and it would be almost impossible to hunt them without dogs, but for the tell-tale snow, in which their tracks are distinctly marked, enabling the sportsman to follow them up with unerring certainty. When Hamilton made his bad shot, neither he nor his companions observed a group of ptarmigan not more than fifty yards before them, their attention being riveted at the time on the solitary bird; and the gun happening to be directed towards them when it was fired, three were instantly and unwittingly placed _hors de combat_, while the others ran away. This the survivors frequently do when very tame, instead of taking wing. Thus it was that Hamilton, to his immense delight, made such a successful shot without being aware of it.

Having bagged their game, the party proceeded on their way. Several large flocks of birds were raised, and the game-bags nearly filled, before reaching the spot where they intended to turn and bend their steps homewards. This induced them to give up the idea of going further; and it was fortunate they came to this resolution, for a storm was brewing, which in the eagerness of pursuit after game they had not noticed. Dark masses of leaden-coloured clouds were gathering in the sky overhead, and faint sighs of wind came, ever and anon, in fitful gusts from the north-west.

Hurrying forward as quickly as possible, they now pursued their course in a direction which would enable them to cross the woodcutters’ track. This they soon reached, and finding it pretty well beaten, were enabled to make more rapid progress. Fortunately the wind was blowing on their backs, otherwise they would have had to contend not only with its violence, but also with the snow-drift, which now whirled in bitter fury among the trees, or scoured like driving clouds over the plain. Under this aspect, the flat country over which they travelled seemed the perfection of bleak desolation. Their way, however, did not lie in a direct line. The track was somewhat tortuous, and gradually edged towards the north, until the wind blew nearly in their teeth. At this point, too, they came to a stretch of open ground which they had crossed at a point some miles further to the northward in their night march. Here the storm raged in all its fury, and as they looked out upon the plain, before quitting the shelter of the wood, they paused to tighten their belts and readjust their snow-shoe lines. The gale was so violent that the whole plain seemed tossed about like billows of the sea, as the drift rose and fell, curled, eddied, and dashed along, so that it was impossible to see more than half-a-dozen yards in advance.

“Heaven preserve us from ever being caught in an exposed place on such a night as this!” said the accountant, as he surveyed the prospect before him. “Luckily the open country here is not more than a quarter of a mile broad, and even that little bit will try our wind somewhat.”

Hamilton and Harry seemed by their looks to say, “We could easily face even a stiffer breeze than that, if need be.”

“What should we do,” inquired the former, “if the plain were five or six miles broad?”

“Do? why, we should have to camp in the woods till it blew over, that’s all,” replied the accountant; “but seeing that we are not reduced to such a necessity just now, and that the day is drawing to a close, let us face it at once. I’ll lead the way, and see that you follow close at my heels. Don’t lose sight of me for a moment, and if you do by chance, give a shout; d’ye hear?”

The two lads replied in the affirmative, and then bracing themselves up as if for a great effort, stepped vigorously out upon the plain, and were instantly swallowed up in clouds of snow. For half-an-hour or more they battled slowly against the howling storm, pressing forward for some minutes with heads down, as if _boring_ through it, then turning their backs to the blast for a few seconds’ relief, but always keeping as close to each other as possible. At length the woods were gained; on entering which it was discovered that Hamilton was missing.

“Hollo! where’s Hamilton?” exclaimed Harry; “I saw him beside me not five minutes ago.” The accountant gave a loud shout, but there was no reply. Indeed, nothing short of his own stentorian voice could have been heard at all amid the storm.

“There’s nothing for it,” said Harry, “but to search at once, else he’ll wander about and get lost.” Saying this, he began to retrace his steps, just as a brief lull in the gale took place.

“Hollo! don’t you hear a cry, Harry?”

At this moment there was another lull; the drift fell, and for an instant cleared away, revealing the bewildered Hamilton, not twenty yards off, standing, like a pillar of snow, in mute despair.

Profiting by the glimpse, Harry rushed forward, caught him by the arm, and led him into the partial shelter of the forest.

Nothing further befell them after this. Their route lay in shelter all the way to the fort. Poor Hamilton, it is true, took one or two of his occasional plunges by the way, but without any serious result– not even to the extent of stuffing his nose, ears, neck, mittens, pockets, gun-barrels, and everything else with snow, because, these being quite full and hard packed already, there was no room left for the addition of another particle.

CHAPTER XXII.

The winter packet–Harry hears from old friends, and wishes that he was with them.

Letters from home! What a burst of sudden emotion–what a riot of conflicting feelings of dread and joy, expectation and anxiety–what a flood of old memories–what stirring up of almost forgotten associations these three words create in the hearts of those who dwell in distant regions of this earth, far, far away from kith and kin, from friends and acquaintances, from the much-loved scenes of childhood, and from _home_! Letters from home! How gratefully the sound falls upon ears that have been long unaccustomed to sounds and things connected with home, and so long accustomed to wild, savage sounds, that these have at length lost their novelty, and become everyday and commonplace, while the first have gradually grown strange and unwonted. For many long months home and all connected with it have become a dream of other days, and savage-land a present reality. The mind has by degrees become absorbed by surrounding objects–objects so utterly unassociated with or unsuggestive of any other land, that it involuntarily ceases to think of the scenes of childhood with the same feelings that it once did. As time rolls on, home assumes a misty, undefined character, as if it were not only distant in reality, but were also slowly retreating further and further away–growing gradually faint and dream-like, though not less dear, to the mental view.

“Letters from home!” shouted Mr. Wilson, and the doctor, and the skipper, simultaneously, as the sportsmen, after dashing through the wild storm, at last reached the fort, and stumbled tumultuously into Bachelors’ Hall.

“What!–Where!–How!–You don’t mean it!” they exclaimed, coming to a sudden stand, like three pillars of snow-clad astonishment.

“Ay,” replied the doctor, who affected to be quite cool upon all occasions, and rather cooler than usual if the occasion was more than ordinarily exciting–“ay, we _do_ mean it. Old Rogan has got the packet, and is even now disembowelling it.”

“More than that,” interrupted the skipper, who sat smoking as usual by the stove, with his hands in his breeches pockets–“more than that, I saw him dissecting into the very marrow of the thing; so if we don’t storm the old admiral in his cabin, he’ll go to sleep over these prosy yarns that the governor-in-chief writes to him, and we’ll have to whistle for our letters till midnight.”

The skipper’s remark was interrupted by the opening of the outer door and the entrance of the butler. “Mr. Rogan wishes to see you, sir,” said that worthy to the accountant.

“I’ll be with him in a minute,” he replied, as he threw off his capote and proceeded to unwind himself as quickly as his multitudinous haps would permit.

By this time Harry Somerville and Hamilton were busily occupied in a similar manner, while a running fire of question and answer, jesting remark and bantering reply, was kept up between the young men, from their various apartments and the hall. The doctor was cool, as usual, and impudent. He had a habit of walking up and down while he smoked, and was thus enabled to look in upon the inmates of the several sleeping-rooms, and make his remarks in a quiet, sarcastic manner, the galling effect of which was heightened by his habit of pausing at the end of every two or three words, to emit a few puffs of smoke. Having exhausted a good deal of small talk in this way, and having, moreover, finished his pipe, the doctor went to the stove to refill and relight.

“What a deal of trouble you do take to make yourself comfortable!” said he to the skipper, who sat with his chair tilted on its hind legs, and a pillow at his back.

“No harm in that, doctor,” replied the skipper, with a smile.

“No harm, certainly, but it looks uncommonly lazy-like.”

“What does?”

“Why, putting a pillow at your back, to be sure.”

The doctor was a full-fleshed, muscular man, and owing to this fact it mattered little to him whether his chair happened to be an easy one or not. As the skipper sometimes remarked, he carried padding always about with him; he was, therefore, a little apt to sneer at the attempts of his brethren to render the ill-shaped, wooden- bottomed chairs, with which the hall was ornamented, bearable.

“Well, doctor,” said the skipper, “I cannot see how you make me out lazy. Surely it is not an evidence of laziness, my endeavouring to render these instruments of torture less tormenting? Seeking to be comfortable, if it does not inconvenience anyone else, is not laziness. Why, what _is_ comfort?” The skipper began to wax philosophical at this point, and took the pipe from his mouth as he gravely propounded the momentous question. “What _is_ comfort? If I go out to camp in the woods, and after turning in find a sharp stump sticking into my ribs on one side, and a pine root driving in the small of my back on the other side, is _that_ comfort? Certainly not. And if I get up, seize a hatchet, level the stump, cut away the root, and spread pine brush over the place, am I to be called lazy for doing so? Or if I sit down on a chair, and on trying to lean back to rest myself find that the stupid lubber who made it has so constructed it that four small hard points alone touch my person–two being at the hip-joints and two at the shoulder-blades; and if to relieve such physical agony I jump up and clap a pillow at my back, am I to be called lazy for doing _that_?”

“What a glorious entry that would make in the log!” said the doctor, in a low tone, soliloquizingly, as if he made the remark merely for his own satisfaction, while he tapped the ashes out of his pipe.

The skipper looked as if he meditated a sharp reply; but his intentions, whatever they might have been, were interrupted by the opening of the door, and the entrance of the accountant, bearing under his arm a packet of letters.

A general rush was made upon him, and in a few minutes a dead silence reigned in the hall, broken only at intervals by an exclamation of surprise or pathos, as the inmates, in the retirement of their separate apartments, perused letters from friends in the interior of the country and friends at home: letters that were old–some of them bearing dates many months back–and travel-stained, but new and fresh and cheering, nevertheless, to their owners, as the clear bright sun in winter or the verdant leaves in spring.

Harry Somerville’s letters were numerous and long. He had several from friends in Red River, besides one or two from other parts of the Indian country, and one–it was very thick and heavy–that bore the post-marks of Britain. It was late that night ere the last candle was extinguished in the hall, and it was late too before Harry Somerville ceased to peruse and re-peruse the long letter from home, and found time or inclination to devote to his other correspondents. Among the rest was a letter from his old friend and companion, Charley Kennedy, which ran as follows:–

MY DEAR HARRY,–It really seems more than an age since I saw you. Your last epistle, written in the perturbation of mind consequent upon being doomed to spend another winter at York Fort, reached me only a few days ago, and filled me with pleasant recollections of other days. Oh! man, how much I wish that you were with me in this beautiful country! You are aware that I have been what they call “roughing it” since you and I parted on the shores of Lake Winnipeg; but, my dear fellow, the idea that most people have of what that phrase means is a very erroneous one indeed. “Roughing it,” I certainly have been, inasmuch as I have been living on rough fare, associating with rough men, and sleeping on rough beds under the starry sky; but I assure you that all this is not half so rough upon the constitution as what they call leading an _easy life_, which is simply a life that makes a poor fellow stagnate, body and spirit, till the one comes to be unable to digest its food, and the other incompetent to jump at so much as half an idea. Anything but an easy life, to my mind. Ah! there’s nothing like roughing it, Harry, my boy. Why, I am thriving on it–growing like a young walrus, eating like a Canadian voyageur, and sleeping like a top! This is a splendid country for sport, and as our _bourgeois_ [Footnote: The gentleman in charge of an establishment is always designated the bourgeois.] has taken it into his head that I am a good hand at making friends with the Indians, he has sent me out on several expeditions, and afforded me some famous opportunities of seeing life among the red-skins. There is a talk just now of establishing a new outpost in this district, so if I succeed in persuading the governor to let me accompany the party, I shall have something interesting to write about in my next letter. By the way, I wrote to you a month ago, by two Indians who said they were going to the missionary station at Norway House. Did you ever get it? There is a hunter here just now who goes by the name of Jacques Caradoc. He is a first-rater–can do anything, in a wild way, that lies within the power of mortal man, and is an inexhaustible anecdote-teller, in a quiet way. He and I have been out buffalo-hunting two or three times, and it would have done your heart good, Harry, my dear boy, to have seen us scouring over the prairie together on two big-boned Indian horses–regular trained buffalo-runners, that didn’t need the spur to urge, nor the rein to guide them, when once they caught sight of the black cattle, and kept a sharp look-out for badger-holes, just as if they had been reasonable creatures. The first time I went out I had several rather ugly falls, owing to my inexperience. The fact is, that if a man has never run buffaloes before, he’s sure to get one or two upsets, no matter how good a horseman he may be. And that monster Jacques, although he’s the best fellow I ever met with for a hunting companion, always took occasion to grin at my mishaps, and gravely to read me a lecture to the effect that they were all owing to my own clumsiness or stupidity; which, you will acknowledge, was not calculated to restore my equanimity.

The very first run we had cost me the entire skin of my nose, and converted that feature into a superb Roman for the next three weeks. It happened thus. Jacques and I were riding over the prairies in search of buffaloes. The place was interspersed with sundry knolls covered with trees, slips and belts of woodland, with ponds scattered among them, and open sweeps of the plain here and there; altogether a delightful country to ride through. It was a clear early morning, so that our horses were fresh and full of spirit. They knew, as well as we ourselves did, what we were out for, and it was no easy matter to restrain them. The one I rode was a great long-legged beast, as like as possible to that abominable kangaroo that nearly killed me at Red River; as for Jacques, he was mounted on a first-rate charger. I don’t know how it is, but somehow or other everything about Jacques, or belonging to him, or in the remotest degree connected with him, is always first-rate! He generally owns a first-rate horse, and if he happens by any unlucky chance to be compelled to mount a bad one, it immediately becomes another animal. He seems to infuse some of his own wonderful spirit into it! Well, as Jacques and I curvetted along, skirting the low bushes at the edge of a wood, out burst a whole herd of buffaloes. Bang went Jacques’s gun, almost before I had winked to make sure that I saw rightly, and down fell the fattest of them all, while the rest tossed up their tails, heels, and heads in one grand whirl of indignant amazement, and scoured away like the wind. In a moment our horses were at full stretch after them, on their _own_ account entirely, and without any reference to _us_. When I recovered my self-possession a little, I threw forward my gun and fired; but owing to my endeavouring to hold the reins at the same time, I nearly blew off one of my horse’s ears, and only knocked up the dust about six yards ahead of us! Of course Jacques could not let this pass unnoticed. He was sitting quietly loading his gun, as cool as a cucumber, while his horse was dashing forward at full stretch, with the reins hanging loosely on his neck.

“Ah, Mister Charles,” said he, with the least possible grin on his leathern visage, “that was not well done. You should never hold the reins when you fire, nor try to put the gun to your shoulder. It a’n’t needful. The beast’ll look arter itself, if it’s a riglar buffalo-runner; any ways holdin’ the reins is of no manner of use. I once know’d a gentleman that came out here to see the buffalo- huntin’. He was a good enough shot in his way, an’ a first-rate rider. But he was full o’ queer notions: he _would_ load his gun with the ramrod in the riglar way, instead o’ doin’ as we do, tumblin’ in a drop powder, spittin’ a ball out your mouth down the muzzle, and hittin’ the stock on the pommel of the saddle to send it home. And he had them miserable things–the _somethin’_ ‘cussion-caps, and used to fiddle away with them while we were knockin’ over the cattle in all directions. Moreover, he had a notion that it was altogether wrong to let go his reins even for a moment, and so, what between the ramrod and the ‘cussion-caps and the reins, he was worse than the greenest clerk that ever came to the country. He gave it up in despair at last, after lamin’ two horses, and finished off by runnin’ after a big bull, that turned on him all of a suddent, crammed its head and horns into the side of his horse, and sent the poor fellow head over heels on the green grass. He wasn’t much the worse for it, but his fine double-barrelled gun was twisted into a shape that would almost have puzzled an Injin to tell what it was.” Well, Harry, all the time that Jacques was telling me this we were gaining on the buffaloes, and at last we got quite close to them, and as luck would have it, the very thing that happened to the amateur sportsman happened to me. I went madly after a big bull in spite of Jacques’s remonstrances, and just as I got alongside of him up went his tail (a sure sign that his anger was roused), and round he came, head to the front, stiff as a rock; my poor charger’s chest went right between his horns, and, as a matter of course, I continued the race upon _nothing_, head first, for a distance of about thirty yards, and brought up on the bridge of my nose. My poor dear father used to say I was a bull-headed rascal, and, upon my word, I believe he was more literally correct than he imagined; for although I fell with a fearful crash, head first, on the hard plain, I rose up immediately, and in a few minutes was able to resume the chase again. My horse was equally fortunate, for although thus brought to a sudden stand while at full gallop, he wheeled about, gave a contemptuous flourish with his heels, and cantered after Jacques, who soon caught him again. My head bothered me a good deal for some time after this accident, and swelled up till my eyes became almost undistinguishable; but a few weeks put me all right again. And who do you think this man Jacques is? You’d never guess. He’s the trapper whom Redfeather told us of long ago, and whose wife was killed by the Indians. He and Redfeather have met, and are very fond of each other. How often in the midst of these wild excursions have my thoughts wandered to you, Harry! The fellows I meet with here are all kind-hearted, merry companions, but none like yourself. I sometimes say to Jacques, when we become communicative to each other beside the camp-fire, that my earthly felicity would be perfect if I had Harry Somerville here; and then I think of Kate, my sweet, loving sister Kate, and feel that, even although I had you with me, there would still be something wanting to make things perfect. Talking of Kate, by the way, I have received a letter from her, the first sheet of which, as it speaks of mutual Red River friends, I herewith enclose. Pray keep it safe, and return per first opportunity. We’ve loads of furs here and plenty of deerstalking, not to mention galloping on horseback on the plains in summer and dog- sledging in the winter. Alas! my poor friend, I fear that it is rather selfish in me to write so feelingly about my agreeable circumstances, when I know you are slowly dragging out your existence at that melancholy place York Fort; but believe me, I sympathize with you, and I hope earnestly that you will soon be appointed to more genial scenes. I have much, very much, to tell you yet, but am compelled to reserve it for a future epistle, as the packet which is to convey this is on the point of being closed.

Adieu, my dear Harry, and wherever you may happen to pitch your tent, always bear in kindly remembrance your old friend, CHARLES KENNEDY.

The letter was finished, but Harry did not cease to hold intercourse with his friend. With his head resting on his two hands, and his elbows on the table, he sat long, silently gazing on the signature, while his mind revelled in the past, the present, and the future. He bounded over the wilderness that lay between him and the beautiful plains of the Saskatchewan. He seized Charley round the neck, and hugged and wrestled with him as in days of yore. He mounted an imaginary charger, and swept across the plains along with him; listened to anecdotes innumerable from Jacques, attacked thousands of buffaloes, singled out scores of wild bulls, pitched over horses’ heads and alighted precisely on the bridge of his nose, always in close proximity to his old friend. Gradually his mind returned to its prison-house, and his eye fell on Kate’s letter, which he picked up and began to read. It ran thus:–

MY DEAR, DEAR, DARLING CHARLEY,–I cannot tell you how much my heart has yearned to see you, or hear from you, for many long, long months past. Your last delightful letter, which I treasure up as the most precious object I possess, has indeed explained to me how utterly impossible it was to have written a day sooner than you did; but that does not comfort me a bit, or make those weary packets more rapid and frequent in their movements, or the time that passes between the periods of hearing from you less dreary and anxious. God bless and protect you, my darling, in the midst of all the dangers that surround you. But I did not intend to begin this letter by murmuring, so pray forgive me, and I shall try to atone for it by giving you a minute account of everybody here about whom you are interested. Our beloved father and mother, I am thankful to say, are quite well. Papa has taken more than ever to smoking since you went away. He is seldom out of the summer-house in the garden now, where I very frequently go, and spend hours together in reading to and talking with him. He very often speaks of you, and I am certain that he misses you far more than we expected, although I think he cannot miss you nearly so much as I do. For some weeks past, indeed ever since we got your last letter, papa was engaged all the forenoon in some mysterious work, for he used to lock himself up in the summer-house–a thing he never did before. One day I went there at my usual time and instead of having to wait till he should unlock the door, I found it already open, and entered the room, which was so full of smoke that I could hardly see. I found papa writing at a small table, and the moment he heard my footstep he jumped up with a fierce frown, and shouted, “Who’s there?” in that terrible voice that he used to speak in long ago when angry with his men, but which he has almost quite given up for some time past. He never speaks to me, as you know very well, but in the kindest tones, so you may imagine what a dreadful fright I got for a moment; but it was only for a moment, because the instant he saw that it was me his dear face changed, and he folded me in his arms, saying, “Ah, Kate, forgive me, my darling! I did not know it was you, and I thought I had locked the door, and was angry at being so unceremoniously interrupted.” He then told me he was just finishing a letter of advice to you, and going up to the table, pushed the papers hurriedly into a drawer. As he did so, I guessed what had been his mysterious occupation, for he seemed to have covered _quires_ of paper with the closest writing. Ah, Charley, you’re a lucky fellow to be able to extort such long letters from our dear father. You know how difficult he finds it to write even the shortest note, and you remember his old favourite expression, “I would rather skin a wild buffalo bull alive than write a long letter.” He deserves long ones in return, Charley; but I need not urge you on that score–you are an excellent correspondent. Mamma is able to go out every day now for a drive in the prairie. She was confined to the house for nearly three weeks last month, with some sort of illness that the doctor did not seem to understand, and at one time I was much frightened, and very, very anxious about her, she became so weak. It would have made your heart glad to have seen the tender way in which papa nursed her through the illness. I had fancied that he was the very last man in the world to make a sick- nurse, so bold and quick in his movements, and with such a loud, gruff voice–for it _is_ gruff, although very sweet at the same time. But the moment he began to tend mamma he spoke more softly even than dear Mr. Addison does, and he began to walk about the house on tiptoe, and persevered so long in this latter that all his moccasins began to be worn out at the toes, while the heels remained quite strong. I begged of him often not to take so much trouble, as _I_ was naturally the proper nurse for mamma; but he wouldn’t hear of it, and insisted on carrying breakfast, dinner, and tea to her, besides giving her all her medicine. He was for ever making mistakes, however, much to his own sorrow, the darling man; and I had to watch him pretty closely, for more than once he has been on the point of giving mamma a glass of laudanum in mistake for a glass of port wine. I was a good deal frightened for him at first, as, before he became accustomed to the work, he tumbled over the chairs and tripped on the carpets while carrying trays with dinners and breakfasts, till I thought he would really injure himself at last, and then he was so terribly angry with himself at making such a noise and breaking the dishes–I think he has broken nearly an entire dinner and tea set of crockery. Poor George, the cook, has suffered most from these mishaps–for you know that dear papa cannot get angry without letting a _little_ of it out upon somebody; and whenever he broke a dish or let a tray fall, he used to rush into the kitchen, shake his fist in George’s face, and ask him, in a fierce voice, what he meant by it. But he always got better in a few seconds, and finished off by telling him never to mind, that he was a good servant on the whole, and he wouldn’t say any more about it just now, but he had better look sharp out and not do it again. I must say, in praise of George, that on such occasions he looked very sorry indeed, and said he hoped that he would always do his best to give him satisfaction. This was only proper in him, for he ought to be very thankful that our father restrains his anger so much; for you know he was rather violent _once_, and you’ve no idea, Charley, how great a restraint he now lays on himself. He seems to me quite like a lamb, and I am beginning to feel somehow as if we had been mistaken, and that he never was a passionate man at all. I think it is partly owing to dear Mr. Addison, who visits us very frequently now, and papa and he are often shut up together for many hours in the smoking-house. I was sure that papa would soon come to like him, for his religion is so free from everything like severity or affected solemnity. The cook, and Rosa, and my dog that you named Twist, are all quite well. The last has grown into a very large and beautiful animal, something like the stag-hound in the picture-book we used to study together long ago. He is exceedingly fond of me, and I feel him to be quite a protector. The cocks and hens, the cow and the old mare, are also in perfect health; so now, having told you a good deal about ourselves, i will give you a short account of the doings in the colony.

First of all, your old friend Mr. Kipples is still alive and well, and so are all our old companions in the school. One or two of the latter have left, and young Naysmith has joined the Company’s service. Betty Peters comes very often to see us, and she always asks for you with great earnestness. I think you have stolen the old woman’s heart, Charley, for she speaks of you with great affection. Old Mr. Seaforth is still as vigorous as ever, dashing about the settlement on a high-mettled steed, just as if he were one of the youngest men in the colony. He nearly poisoned himself, poor man, a month ago, by taking a dose of some kind of medicine by mistake. I did not hear what it was, but I am told that the treatment was rather severe. Fortunately the doctor happened to be at home when he was sent for, else our old friend would, I fear, have died. As it was, the doctor cured him with great difficulty. He first gave him an emetic, then put mustard blisters to the soles of his feet, and afterwards lifted him into one of his own carts, without springs, in which he drove him for a long time over all the ploughed fields in the neighbourhood. If this is not an exaggerated account, Mr. Seaforth is certainly made of sterner stuff than most men. I was told a funny anecdote of him a few days ago, which I am sure you have never heard, otherwise you would have told it to me, for there used to be no secrets between us, Charley–alas! I have no one to confide in or advise with now that you are gone. You have often heard of the great flood; not Noah’s one, but the flood that nearly swept away our settlement and did so much damage before you and I were born. Well, you recollect that people used to tell of the way in which the river rose after the breaking up of the ice, and how it soon overflowed all the low points, sweeping off everything in its course. Old Mr. Seaforth’s house stood at that time on the little point, just beyond the curve of the river, at the foot of which our own house stands, and as the river continued to rise, Mr. Seaforth went about actively securing his property. At first he only thought of his boat and canoes, which, with the help of his son Peter and a Canadian, who happened at the time to be employed about the place, he dragged up and secured to an iron staple in the side of his house. Soon, however, he found that the danger was greater than at first he imagined. The point became completely covered with water, which brought down great numbers of _half_-drowned and _quite_-drowned cattle, pigs, and poultry, and stranded them at the garden fence, so that in a short time poor Mr. Seaforth could scarcely move about his overcrowded domains. On seeing this, he drove his own cattle to the highest land in his neighbourhood and hastened back to the house, intending to carry as much of the furniture as possible to the same place. But during his short absence the river had risen so rapidly that he was obliged to give up all thoughts of this, and think only of securing a few of his valuables. The bit of land round his dwelling was so thickly covered with the poor cows, sheep, and other animals, that he could scarcely make his way to the house, and you may fancy his consternation on reaching it to find that the water was more than knee-deep round the walls, while a few of the cows and a whole herd of pigs had burst open the door (no doubt accidentally) and coolly entered the dining-room, where they stood with drooping heads, very wet, and apparently very miserable. The Canadian was busy at the back of the house, loading the boat and canoe with everything he could lay hands on, and was not aware of the foreign invasion in front. Mr. Seaforth cared little for this, however, and began to collect all the things he held most valuable, and threw them to the man, who stowed them away in the boat. Peter had been left in charge of the cattle, so they had to work hard. While thus employed the water continued to rise with fearful rapidity, and rushed against the house like a mill-race, so that it soon became evident that the whole would ere long be swept away. Just as they finished loading the boat and canoes, the staple which held them gave way; in a moment they were swept into the middle of the river, and carried out of sight. The Canadian was in the boat at the time the staple broke, so that Mr. Seaforth was now left in a dwelling that bid fair to emulate Noah’s ark in an hour or two, without a chance of escape, and with no better company than five black oxen, in the dining-room, besides three sheep that were now scarcely able to keep their heads above water, and three little pigs that were already drowned. The poor old man did his best to push out the intruders, but only succeeded in ejecting two sheep and an ox. All the others positively refused to go, so he was fain to let them stay. By shutting the outer door he succeeded in keeping out a great deal of water. Then he waded into the parlour, where he found some more little pigs, floating about and quite dead. Two, however, more adventurous than their comrades, had saved their lives by mounting first on a chair and then upon the table, where they were comfortably seated, gazing languidly at their mother, a very heavy fat sow, which sat, with what seemed an expression of settled despair, on the sofa. In a fit of wrath, Mr. Seaforth seized the young pigs and tossed them out of the window; whereupon the old one jumped down, and half-walking, half-swimming, made her way to her companions in the dining-room. The old gentleman now ascended to the garret, where from a small window he looked out upon the scene of devastation. His chief anxiety was about the foundation of the house, which, being made of a wooden framework, like almost all the others in the colony, would certainly float if the water rose much higher. His fears were better founded than the house. As he looked up the river, which had by this time overflowed all its banks, and was spreading over the plains, he saw a fresh burst of water coming down, which, when it dashed against his dwelling, forced it about two yards from its foundation. Suddenly he remembered that there were a large anchor and chain in the kitchen, both of which he had brought there one day, to serve as a sort of anvil when he wanted to do some blacksmith work. Hastening down, he fastened one end of the chain to the sofa, and cast the anchor out of the window. A few minutes afterwards another rush of water struck the building, which yielded to pressure, and swung slowly down until the anchor arrested its further progress. This was only for a few seconds, however. The chain was a slight one. It snapped, and the house swept majestically down the stream, while its terrified owner scrambled to the roof, which he found already in possession of his favourite cat. Here he had a clear view of his situation. The plains were converted into a lake, above whose surface rose trees and houses, several of which, like his own, were floating on the stream or stranded among shallows. Settlers were rowing about in boats and canoes in all directions, but although some of them noticed the poor man sitting beside his cat on the housetop, they were either too far off or had no time to render him assistance.

For two days nothing was heard of old Mr. Seaforth. Indeed, the settlers had too much to do in saving themselves and their families to think of others; and it was not until the third day that people began to inquire about him. His son Peter had taken a canoe and made diligent search in all directions, but although he found the house sticking on a shallow point, neither his father nor the cat was on or in it. At last he was brought to the island, on which nearly half the colony had collected, by an Indian who had passed the house, and brought him away in his canoe, along with the old cat. Is he not a wonderful man, to have come through so much in his old age? and he is still so active and hearty! Mr. Swan of the mill is dead. He died of fever last week. Poor old Mr. Cordon is also gone. His end was very sad. About a month ago he ordered his horse and rode off, intending to visit Fort Garry. At the turn of the road, just above Grant’s house, the horse suddenly swerved, and its rider was thrown to the ground. He did not live more than half-an-hour after it. Alas! how very sad to see a man, after escaping all the countless dangers of a long life in the woods (and his, you know, was a very adventurous one), thus cut violently down in his old age. O Charley, how little we know what is before us! How needful to have our peace made with God through Jesus Christ, so that we may be ready at any moment when our Father calls us away. There are many events of great interest that have occurred here since you left. You will be glad to hear the Jane Patterson is married to our excellent friend Mr. Cameron, who has taken up a store near to us, and intends to run a boat to York Fort next summer. There has been another marriage here which will cause you astonishment at least, if not pleasure. Old Mr. Peters has married Marie Peltier! What _could_ have possessed her to take such a husband? I cannot understand it. Just think of her, Charley, a girl of eighteen, with a husband of seventy-five!–

* * * * * * *

At this point the writing, which was very close and very small, terminated. Harry laid it down with a deep sigh, wishing much that Charley had thought it advisable to send him the second sheet also. As wishes and regrets on this point were equally unavailing, he endeavoured to continue it in imagination, and was soon as deeply absorbed in following Kate through the well-remembered scenes of Red River as he had been, a short time before, in roaming with her brother over the wide prairies of Saskatchewan. The increasing cold, however soon warned him that the night was far spent. He rose and went to the stove; but the fire had gone out, and the almost irresistible frost of these regions was already cooling everything in Bachelors’ Hall down to the freezing-point. All his companions had put out their candles, and were busy, doubtless, dreaming of the friends whose letters had struck and reawakened the long-dormant chords that used to echo to the tones and scenes of other days. With a slight shiver, Harry returned to his apartment, and kneeled to thank God for protecting and preserving his absent friends, and especially for sending him “good news from a far land.” The letter with the British post-marks on it was placed under his pillow. It occupied his waking and sleeping thoughts that night, and it was the first thing he thought of and reread on the following morning, and for many mornings afterwards. Only those can fully estimate the value of such letters who live in distant lands, where letters are few– very, very few–and far between.

CHAPTER XXIII.

Changes–Harry and Hamilton find that variety is indeed charming–The latter astonishes the former considerably.

Three months passed away, but the snow still lay deep and white and undiminished around York Fort. Winter–cold, silent, unyielding winter–still drew its white mantle closely round the lonely dwelling of the fur-traders of the Far North.

Icicles hung, as they had done for months before, from the eaves of every house, from the tall black scaffold on which the great bell hung, and from the still taller erection that had been put up as an outlook for “_the ship_” in summer. At the present time it commanded a bleak view of the frozen sea. Snow covered every housetop, and hung in ponderous masses from their edges, as if it were about to fall; but it never fell–it hung there in the same position day after day, unmelted, unchanged. Snow covered the whole land, and the frozen river, the swamps, the sea-beach, and the sea itself, as far as the eye could reach, seemed like a pure white carpet. Snow lined the upper edge of every paling, filled up the key-hole of every door, embanked about half of every window, stuck in little knobs on the top of every picket, and clung in masses on every drooping branch of the pine trees in the forest. Frost–sharp, biting frost–solidified, surrounded, and pervaded everything. Mercury was congealed by it; vapour was condensed by it; iron was cooled by it until it could scarcely be touched without (as the men expressed it) “burning” the fingers. The water-jugs in Bachelors’ Hall and the water-buckets were frozen by it, nearly to the bottom; though there was a good stove there, and the Hall was not _usually_ a cold place by any means. The breath of the inhabitants was congealed by it on the window-panes, until they had become coated with ice an inch thick. The breath of the men was rendered white and opaque by it, as they panted and hurried to and fro about their ordinary avocations; beating their gloved hands together, and stamping their well-wrapped-up feet on the hard-beaten snow to keep them warm. Old Bobin’s nose seemed to be entirely shrivelled up into his face by it, as he drove his ox-cart to the river to fetch his daily supply of water. The only things that were not affected by it were the fires, which crackled and roared as if in laughter, and twisted and leaped as if in uncontrollable glee at the bare idea of John Frost acquiring, by any artifice whatever, the smallest possible influence over _them_! Three months had elapsed, but frost and snow, instead of abating, had gone on increasing and intensifying, deepening and extending its work, and riveting its chains. Winter–cold, silent, unyielding winter–still reigned at York Fort, as though it had made it a _sine qua non_ of its existence at all that it should reign there for ever!

But although everything was thus wintry and cold, it was by no means cheerless or dreary. A bright sun shone in the blue heavens with an intenseness of brilliancy that was quite dazzling to the eyes, that elated the spirits, and caused man and beast to tread with a more elastic step than usual. Although the sun looked down upon the scene with an unclouded face, and found a mirror in every icicle and in every gem of hoar-frost with which the objects of nature were loaded, there was, however, no perceptible heat in his rays. They fell on the white earth with all the brightness of midsummer, but they fell powerless as moonbeams in the dead of winter.

On the frozen river, just in front of the gate of the fort, a group of men and dogs were assembled. The dogs were four in number, harnessed to a small flat sledge of the slender kind used by Indians to drag their furs and provisions over the snow. The group of men was composed of Mr. Rogan and the inmates of Bachelors’ Hall, one or two men who happened to be engaged there at the time in cutting a new water-hole in the ice, and an Indian, who, to judge from his carefully-adjusted costume, the snow-shoes on his feet, and the short whip in his hand, was the driver of the sledge, and was about to start on a journey. Harry Somerville and young Hamilton were also wrapped up more carefully than usual.

“Good-bye, then, good-bye,” said Mr. Rogan, advancing towards the Indian, who stood beside the leading dog, ready to start. “Take care of our young friends; they’ve not had much experience in travelling yet; and don’t over drive your dogs. Treat them well, and they’ll do more work. They’re like men in that respect.” Mr. Rogan shook the Indian by the hand, and the latter immediately flourished the whip and gave a shout, which the dogs no sooner heard than they uttered a simultaneous yell, sprang forward with a jerk, and scampered up the river, closely followed by their dark-skinned driver.

“Now, lads, farewell,” said the old gentleman, turning with a kindly smile to our two friends, who were shaking hands for the last time with their comrades. “I’m sorry you’re going to leave us, my boys. You’ve done your duty well while here, and I would willingly have kept you a little longer with me, but our governor wills it otherwise. However, I trust that you’ll be happy wherever you may be sent. Don’t forget to write to me. God bless you. Farewell.”

Mr. Rogan shook them heartily by the hand, turned short round, and walked slowly up to his house, with an expression of sadness on his mild face; while Harry and Hamilton, having once more waved farewell to their friends, marched up the river side by side in silence. They followed the track left by the dog-sledge, which guided them with unerring certainty, although their Indian leader and his team were out of sight in advance.

A week previous to this time an Indian arrived from the interior, bearing a letter from headquarters, which directed that Messrs. Somerville and Hamilton should be forthwith despatched on snow-shoes to Norway House. As this establishment is about three hundred miles from the sea-coast, the order involved a journey of nearly two weeks’ duration through a country that was utterly destitute of inhabitants. On receiving a command from Mr. Rogan to prepare for an early start, Harry retired precipitately to his own room, and there, after cutting unheard of capers, and giving vent to sudden, incomprehensible shouts, all indicative of the highest state of delight, he condescended to tell his companions of his good fortune, and set about preparations without delay. Hamilton, on the contrary, gave his usual quiet smile on being informed of his destination, and returning somewhat pensively to Bachelors’ Hall, proceeded leisurely to make the necessary arrangements for departure. As the time drew on, however, a perpetual flush on his countenance, and an unusual brilliancy about his eye, showed that he was not quite insensible to the pleasures of a change, and relished the idea more than he got credit for. The Indian who had brought the letter was ordered to hold himself in readiness to retrace his steps, and conduct the young men through the woods to Norway House, where they were to await further orders. A few days later the three travellers, as already related, set out on their journey.

After walking a mile up the river, they passed a point of land which shut out the fort from view. Here they paused to take a last look, and then pressed forward in silence, the thoughts of each being busy with mingled recollections of their late home and anticipations of the future. After an hour’s sharp walking they came in sight of the guide, and slackened their pace.

“Well, Hamilton,” said Harry, throwing off his reverie with a deep sigh, “are you glad to leave York Fort, or sorry?”

“Glad, undoubtedly,” replied Hamilton, “but sorry to part from our old companions there. I had no idea, Harry, that I loved them all so much. I feel as if I should be glad were the order for us to leave them countermanded even now.”

“That’s the very thought,” said Harry, “that was passing through my own brain when I spoke to you. Yet somehow I think I should feel uncommonly sorry after all if we were really sent back. There’s a queer contradiction, Hammy: we’re sorry and happy at the same time! If I were the skipper now, I would found a philosophical argument upon it.”

“Which the skipper would carry on with untiring vigour,” said Hamilton, smiling, “and afterwards make an entry of in his log. But I think, Harry, that to feel the emotion of sorrow and joy at the same time is not such a contradiction as it at first appears.”

“Perhaps not,” replied Harry; “but it seems very contradictory to _me_, and yet it’s an evident fact, for I’m _very_ sorry to leave _them_, and I’m _very_ happy to have you for my companion here.”

“So am I, so am I,” said the other heartily. “I would rather travel with you, Harry, than with any of our late companions, although I like them all very much.”

The two friends had grown, almost imperceptibly, in each other’s esteem during their residence under the same roof, more than either of them would have believed possible. The gay, reckless hilarity of the one did not at first accord with the quiet gravity and, as his comrades styled it, _softness_ of the other. But character is frequently misjudged at first sight, and sometimes men who on a first acquaintance have felt repelled from each other have, on coming to know each other better, discovered traits and good qualities that ere long formed enduring bonds of sympathy, and have learned to love those whom at first they felt disposed to dislike or despise. Thus Harry soon came to know that what he at first thought and, along with his companions, called softness in Hamilton in reality gentleness of disposition and thorough good-nature, united in one who happened to be utterly unacquainted with the _knowing_ ways of this peculiarly sharp and clever world, while in the course of time new qualities showed themselves in a quiet, unobtrusive way that won upon his affections and raised his esteem. On the other hand, Hamilton found that although Harry was volatile, and possessed of an irresistible tendency to fun and mischief, he never by any chance gave way to anger, or allowed malice to enter into his practical jokes. Indeed, he often observed him to restrain his natural tendencies when they were at all likely to give pain, though Harry never dreamed that such efforts were known to any one but himself. Besides this, Harry was peculiarly _unselfish_, and when a man is possessed of this inestimable disposition, he is, not _quite_ but _very nearly_, perfect!

After another pause, during which the party had left the open river and directed their course through the woods, where the depth of the snow obliged them to tread in each other’s footsteps, Harry resumed the conversation.

“You have not yet told me, by-the-by, what old Mr. Rogan said to you just before we started. Did he give you any hint as to where you might be sent to after reaching Norway House?”

“No; he merely said he knew that clerks were wanted both for Mackenzie River and the Saskatchewan districts, but he did not know which I was destined for.”

“Hum! exactly what he said to me, with the slight addition that he strongly suspected that Mackenzie River would be my doom. Are you aware, Hammy my boy, that the Saskatchewan district is a sort of terrestrial paradise, and Mackenzie River equivalent to Botany Bay?”

“I have heard as much during our conversations in Bachelors’ Hall, but–Stop a bit, Harry; these snow-shoe lines of mine have got loosened with tearing through this deep snow and these shockingly thick bushes. There–they are right now; go on. I was going to say that I don’t–oh!”

This last exclamation was elicited from Hamilton by a sharp blow caused by a branch which, catching on part of Harry’s dress as he plodded on in front, suddenly rebounded and struck him across the face. This is of common occurrence in travelling through the woods, especially to those who from inexperience walk too closely on the heels of their companions.

“What’s wrong now, Hammy?” inquired his friend, looking over his shoulder.

“Oh, nothing worth mentioning–rather a sharp blow from a branch, that’s all.”

“Well, proceed; you’ve interrupted yourself twice in what you were going to say. Perhaps it’ll come out if you try it a third time.”

“I was merely going to say that I don’t much care where I am sent to, so long as it is not to an outpost where I shall be all alone.”

“All very well, my friend; but seeing that outposts are, in comparison with principal forts, about a hundred to one, your chance of avoiding them is rather slight. However, our youth and want of experience is in our favour, as they like to send men who have seen some service to outposts. But I fear that, with such brilliant characters as you and I, Hammy, youth will only be an additional recommendation, and inexperience won’t last long.–Hollo! what’s going on yonder?”

Harry pointed as he spoke to an open spot in the woods about a quarter of a mile in advance, where a dark object was seen lying on the snow, writhing about, now coiling into a lump, and anon extending itself like a huge snake in agony.

As the two friends looked, a prolonged howl floated towards them.

“Something wrong with the dogs, I declare!” cried Harry.

“No doubt of it,” replied his friend, hurrying forward, as they saw their Indian guide rise from the ground and flourish his whip energetically, while the howls rapidly increased.

A few minutes brought them to the scene of action, where they found the dogs engaged in a fight among themselves, and the driver, in a state of vehement passion, alternately belabouring and trying to separate them. Dogs in these regions, like the dogs of all other regions, we suppose, are very much addicted to fighting–a propensity which becomes extremely unpleasant if indulged while the animals are in harness, as they then become peculiarly savage, probably from their being unable, like an ill-assorted pair in wedlock, to cut or break the ties that bind them. Moreover, they twist the traces into such an ingeniously complicated mass that it renders disentanglement almost impossible, even after exhaustion has reduced them to obedience. Besides this, they are so absorbed in worrying each other that for the time they are utterly regardless of their driver’s lash or voice. This naturally makes the driver angry, and sometimes irascible men practise shameful cruelties on the poor dogs. When the two friends came up they found the Indian glaring at the animals, as they fought and writhed in the snow, with every lineament of his swarthy face distorted with passion, and panting from his late exertions. Suddenly he threw himself on the dogs again, and lashed them furiously with the whip. Finding that this had no effect, he twined the lash round his hand, and struck them violently over their heads and snouts with the handle; then falling down on his knees, he caught the most savage of the animals by the throat, and seizing its nose between his teeth almost bit it off. The appalling yell that followed this cruel act seemed to subdue the dogs, for they ceased to fight, and crouched, whining, in the snow.

With a bound like a tiger young Hamilton sprang upon the guide, and seizing him by the throat, hurled him violently to the ground. “Scoundrel!” he cried, standing over the crestfallen Indian with flushed face and flashing eyes, “how dare you thus treat the creatures of God?”

The young man would have spoken more, but his indignation was so fierce that it could not find vent in words. For a moment he raised his fist, as if he meditated dashing the Indian again to the ground as he slowly arose; then, as if changing his mind, he seized him by the back of the neck, thrust him towards the panting dogs, and stood in silence over him with the whip grasped firmly in his hand, while he disentangled the traces.

This accomplished, Hamilton ordered him in a voice of suppressed anger to “go forward”–an order which the cowed guide promptly obeyed, and in a few minutes more the two friends were again alone.

“Hamilton, my boy,” exclaimed Harry, who up to this moment seemed to have been petrified, “you have perfectly amazed me! I’m utterly bewildered.”

“Indeed, I fear that I have been very violent,” said Hamilton, blushing deeply.

“Violent!” exclaimed his friend. “Why, man, I’ve completely mistaken your character. I–I–“

“I hope not, Harry,” said Hamilton, in a subdued tone; “I hope not. Believe me, I am not naturally violent. I should be very sorry were you to think so. Indeed, I never felt thus before, and now that it is over I am amazed at myself; but surely you’ll admit that there was great provocation. Such terrible cruelty to–“

“My dear fellow, you quite misunderstand me. I’m amazed at your pluck, your energy. _Soft_ indeed! we have been most egregiously mistaken. Provocation! I just think you had; my only sorrow is that you didn’t give him a little more.”

“Come, come, Harry; I see you would be as cruel to him as he was to the poor dog. But let us press forward; it is already growing dark, and we must not let the fellow out of sight ahead of us.”

“_Allons donc_,” cried Harry; and hastening their steps, they travelled silently and rapidly among the stems of the trees, while the shades of night gathered slowly round them.

That night the three travellers encamped in the snow under the shelter of a spreading pine. The encampment was formed almost exactly in a similar manner to that in which they had slept on the night of their exploits at North River. They talked less, however, than on that occasion, and slept more soundly. Before retiring to rest, and while Harry was extended, half asleep and half awake, on his green blanket, enjoying the delightful repose that follows a hard day’s march and a good supper, Hamilton drew near to the Indian, who sat sullenly smoking a little apart from the young men. Sitting down beside him, he administered a long rebuke in a low, grave tone of voice. Like rebukes generally, it had the effect of making the visage of the Indian still more sullen. But the young man did not appear to notice this; he still continued to talk. As he went on, the look grew less and less sullen, until it faded entirely away, and was succeeded by that grave, quiet, respectful expression peculiar to the face of the North American Indian.

Day succeeded day, night followed night, and still found them plodding laboriously through the weary waste of snow, or encamping under the trees of the forest. The two friends went through all the varied stages of experience which are included in what is called “becoming used to the work,” which is sometimes a modified meaning of the expression “used up.” They started with a degree of vigour that one would have thought no amount of hard work could possibly abate. They became aware of the melancholy fact that fatigue unstrings the youngest and toughest sinews. They pressed on, however, from stern necessity, and found, to their delight, that young muscles recover their elasticity even in the midst of severe exertion. They still pressed on, and discovered, to their dismay, that this recovery was only temporary, and that the second state of exhaustion was infinitely worse than the first. Still they pressed on, and raised blisters on their feet and toes that caused them to limp wofully; then they learned that blisters break and take a long time to heal, and are much worse to walk upon during the healing process than they are at the commencement–at which time they innocently fancied that nothing could be more dreadful. Still they pressed on day after day, and found to their satisfaction that such things can be endured and overcome; that feet and toes can become hard like leather, that muscles can grow tough as india-rubber, and that spirits and energy can attain to a pitch of endurance which nothing within the compass of a day’s march can by any possibility overcome. They found also, from experience, that their conversation changed, both in manner and subject, as they progressed on their journey. At first they conversed frequently and on various topics, chiefly on the probability of their being sent to pleasant places or the reverse. Then they spoke less frequently, and growled occasionally, as they advanced in the painful process of training. After that, as they began to get hardy, they talked of the trees, the snow, the ice, the tracks of wild animals they happened to cross, and the objects of nature generally that came under their observation. Then as their muscles hardened and their sinews grew tough, and the day’s march at length became first a matter of indifference, and ultimately an absolute pleasure, they chatted cheerfully on any and every subject, or sang occasionally, when the sun shone out and cast an _appearance_ of warmth across their path. Thus onward they pressed, without halt or stay, day after day, through wood and brake, over river and lake, on ice and on snow, for miles and miles together, through the great, uninhabited, frozen wilderness.

CHAPTER XXIV.

Hopes and fears–An unexpected meeting–Philosophical talk between the hunter and the parson.

On arriving at Norway House, Harry Somerville and his friend Hamilton found that they were to remain at that establishment during an indefinite period of time, until it should please those in whose hands their ultimate destination lay to direct them how and where to proceed. This was an unlooked-for trial of their patience; but after the first exclamation of disappointment, they made up their minds, like wise men, to think no more about it, but bide their time, and make the most of present circumstances.

“You see,” remarked Hamilton, as the two friends, after having had an audience of the gentleman in charge of the establishment, sauntered towards the rocks that overhang the margin of Playgreen Lake–“you see, it is of no use to fret about what we cannot possibly help. Nobody within three hundred miles of us knows where we are destined to spend next winter. Perhaps orders may come in a couple of weeks, perhaps in a couple of months, but they will certainly come at last. Anyhow, it is of no use thinking about it, so we had better forget it, and make the best of things as we find them.”

“Ah!” exclaimed Harry, “your advice is, that we should by all means be happy, and if we can’t be happy, be as happy as we can. Is that it?”

“Just so. That’s it exactly.”

“Ho! But then you see, Hammy, you’re a philosopher and I’m not, and that makes all the difference. I’m not given to anticipating evil, but I cannot help dreading that they will send me to some lonely, swampy, out-of-the-way hole, where there will be no society, no shooting, no riding, no work even to speak of–nothing, in fact, but the miserable satisfaction of being styled ‘bourgeois’ by five or six men, wretched outcasts like myself,”

“Come, Harry,” cried Hamilton; “you are taking the very worst view of it. There certainly are plenty of such outposts in the country, but you know very well that young fellows like you are seldom sent to such places.”

“I don’t know that,” interrupted Harry. “There’s young M’Andrew: he was sent to an outpost up the Mackenzie his second year in the service, where he was all but starved, and had to live for about two weeks on boiled parchment. Then there’s poor Forrester: he was shipped off to a place–the name of which I never could remember– somewhere between the head-waters of the Athabasca Lake and the North Pole. To be sure, he had good shooting, I’m told, but he had only four labouring men to enjoy it with; and he has been there _ten_ years now, and he has more than once had to scrape the rocks of that detestable stuff called _tripe de roche_ to keep himself alive. And then there’s—-“

“Very true,” interrupted Hamilton. “Then there’s your friend Charles Kennedy, whom you so often talk about, and many other young fellows we know, who have been sent to the Saskatchewan, and to the Columbia, and to Athabasca, and to a host of other capital places, where they have enough of society–male society, at least–and good sport.”

The young men had climbed a rocky eminence which commanded a view of the lake on the one side, and the fort, with its background of woods, on the other. Here they sat down on a stone, and continued for some time to admire the scene in silence.

“Yes,” said Harry, resuming the thread of discourse, “you are right: we have a good chance of seeing some pleasant parts of the country. But suspense is not pleasant. O man, if they would only send me up the Saskatchewan River! I’ve set my heart upon going there. I’m quite sure it’s the very best place in the whole country.”

“You’ve told the truth that time, master,” said a deep voice behind them.

The young men turned quickly round. Close beside them, and leaning composedly on a long Indian fowling-piece, stood a tall, broad- shouldered, sun-burned man, apparently about forty years of age. He was dressed in the usual leathern hunting-coat, cloth leggings, fur cap, mittens, and moccasins that constitute the winter garb of a hunter; and had a grave, firm, but good-humoured expression of countenance.

“You’ve told the truth that time, master,” he repeated, without moving from his place. “The Saskatchewan _is_, to my mind, the best place in the whole country; and havin’ seen a considerable deal o’ places in my time, I can speak from experience.”

“Indeed, friend,” said Harry, “I’m glad to hear you say so. Come, sit down beside us, and let’s hear something about it.”

Thus invited, the hunter seated himself on a stone and laid his gun on the hollow of his left arm.

“First of all, friend,” continued Harry, “do you belong to the fort here?”

“No,” replied the man, “I’m staying here just now, but I don’t belong to the place.”

“Where do you come from then, and what’s your name?”

“Why, I’ve comed d’rect from the Saskatchewan with a packet o’ letters. I’m payin’ a visit to the missionary village yonder”–the hunter pointed as he spoke across the lake–“and when the ice breaks up I shall get a canoe and return again.”

“And your name?”

“Why, I’ve got four or five names. Somehow or other people have given me a nickname wherever I ha’ chanced to go. But my true name, and the one I hail by just now, is Jacques Caradoc.”

“Jacques Caradoc!” exclaimed Harry, starting with surprise. “You knew a Charley Kennedy in the Saskatchewan, did you?”

“That did I. As fine a lad as ever pulled a trigger.”

“Give us your hand, friend,” exclaimed Harry, springing forward, and seizing the hunter’s large, hard fist in both hands. “Why, man, Charley is my dearest friend, and I had a letter from him some time ago in which he speaks of you, and says you’re one of the best fellows he ever met.”

“You don’t say so,” replied the hunter, returning Harry’s grasp warmly, while his eyes sparkled with pleasure, and a quiet smile played at the corner of his mouth.

“Yes I do,” said Harry; “and I’m very nearly as glad to meet with you, friend Jacques, as I would be to meet with him. But come; it’s cold work talking here. Let’s go to my room; there’s a fire in the stove.–Come along, Hammy;” and taking his new friend by the arm, he hurried him along to his quarters in the fort.

Just as they were passing under the fort gate, a large mass of snow became detached from a housetop and fell heavily at their feet, passing within an inch of Hamilton’s nose. The young man started back with an exclamation, and became very red in the face.

“Hollo!” cried Harry, laughing, “got a fright, Hammy! That went so close to your chin that it almost saved you the trouble of shaving.”

“Yes; I got a little fright from the suddenness of it,” said Hamilton quietly.

“What do you think of my friend there?” said Harry to Jacques, in a low voice, pointing to Hamilton, who walked on in advance.

“I’ve not seen much of him, master,” replied the hunter. “Had I been asked the same question about the same lad twenty years agone, I should ha’ said he was soft, and perhaps chicken-hearted. But I’ve learned from experience to judge better than I used to do. I niver thinks o’ forming an opinion o’ anyone till I geen them called to sudden action. It’s astonishin’ how some faint-hearted men will come to face a danger and put on an awful look o’ courage if they only get warnin’, but take them by surprise–that’s the way to try them.”

“Well, Jacques, that is the very reason why I ask your opinion of Hamilton. He was pretty well taken by surprise that time, I think.”

“True, master; but _that_ kind of start don’t prove much. Hows’ever, I don’t think he’s easy upset. He does _look_ uncommon soft, and his face grew red when the snow fell, but his eyebrow and his under lip showed that it wasn’t from fear.”

During that afternoon and the greater part of that night the three friends continued in close conversation–Harry sitting in front of the stove, with his hands in his pockets, on a chair tilted as usual on its hind legs, and pouring out volleys of questions, which were pithily answered by the good-humoured, loquacious hunter, who sat behind the stove, resting his elbows on his knees, and smoking his much-loved pipe; while Hamilton reclined on Harry’s bed, and listened with eager avidity to anecdotes and stories, which seemed, like the narrator’s pipe, to be inexhaustible.

“Good-night, Jacques, good-night,” said Harry, as the latter rose at last to depart; “I’m delighted to have had a talk with you. You must come back to-morrow. I want to hear more about your friend Redfeather. Where did you say you left him?”

“In the Saskatchewan, master. He said that he would wait there, as he’d heerd the missionary was comin’ up to pay the Injins a visit.”

“By-the-by, you’re going over to the missionary’s place to-morrow, are you not?”

“Yes, I am.”

“Ah, then, that’ll do. I’ll go over with you. How far off is it?”

“Three miles or thereabouts.”

“Very good. Call in here as you pass, and my friend Hamilton and I will accompany you. Good-night.”