Read CHAPTER VII of Canadian Crusoes A Tale of The Rice Lake Plains, free online book, by Catherine Parr Traill, on

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IT was now the middle of September: the weather, which had continued serene and beautiful for some time, with dewy nights and misty mornings, began to show symptoms of the change of season usual at the approach of the equinox. Sudden squalls of wind, with hasty showers, would come sweeping over the lake; the nights and mornings were damp and chilly. Already the tints of autumn were beginning to crimson the foliage of the oaks, and where the islands were visible, the splendid colours of the maple shone out in gorgeous contrast with the deep verdure of the evergreens and light golden-yellow of the poplar; but lovely as they now looked, they had not yet reached the meridian of their beauty, which a few frosty nights at the close of the month was destined to bring to perfection a glow of splendour to gladden the eye for a brief space, before the rushing winds and rains of the following month were to sweep them away, and scatter them abroad upon the earth.

One morning, just after a night of heavy rain and wind, the two boys went down to see if the lake was calm enough for trying the raft, which Louis had finished before the coming on of the bad weather. The water was rough and crested with mimic waves, and they felt not disposed to launch the raft on so stormy a surface, but they stood looking out over the lake and admiring the changing foliage, when Hector pointed out to his cousin a dark speck dancing on the waters, between the two nearest islands. The wind, which blew very strong still from the north-east, brought the object nearer every minute. At first they thought it might be a pine-branch that was floating on the surface, when as it came bounding over the waves, they perceived that it was a birch-canoe, but impelled by no visible arm. It was a strange sight upon that lonely lake to see a vessel of any kind afloat, and, on first deciding that it was a canoe, the boys were inclined to hide themselves among the bushes, for fear of the Indians, but curiosity got the better of their fears.

“The owner of yonder little craft is either asleep or absent from her; for I see no paddle, and it is evidently drifting without any one to guide it,” said Hector, after intently watching the progress of the tempest-driven vessel; assured as it approached nearer that such was the case, they hurried to the beach just as a fresh gust had lodged the canoe among the branches of a fallen cedar which projected out some way into the water.

By creeping along the trunk of the tree, and trusting at times to the projecting boughs, Louis, who was the most active and the lightest of weight, succeeded in getting within reach of the canoe, and with some trouble and the help of a stout branch that Hector handed to him, he contrived to moor her in safety on the shore, taking the precaution of hauling her well up on the shingle, lest the wind and water should set her afloat again. “Hec, there is something in this canoe, the sight of which will gladden your heart,” cried Louis with a joyful look. “Come quickly, and see my treasures.”

“Treasures! You may well call them treasures,” exclaimed Hector, as he helped Louis to examine the contents of the canoe, and place them on the shore, side by side.

The boys could hardly find words to express their joy and surprise at the discovery of a large jar of parched rice, a tomahawk, an Indian blanket almost as good as new, a large mat rolled up with a bass bark rope several yards in length wound round it, and what was more precious than all, an iron three-legged pot in which was a quantity of Indian corn. These articles had evidently constituted the stores of some Indian hunter or trapper; possibly the canoe had been imperfectly secured and had drifted from its moorings during the gale of the previous night, unless by some accident the owner had fallen into the lake and been drowned; this was of course only a matter of conjecture on which it was useless to speculate, and the boys joyfully took possession of the good fortune that had so providentially been wafted, as it were, to their very feet.

“It was a capital chance for us, that old cedar having been blown down last night just where it was,” said Louis; “for if the canoe had not been drawn into the eddy, and stopped by the branches, we might have lost it. I trembled when I saw the wind driving it on so rapidly that it would founder in the deep water, or go off to Long Island.”

“I think we should have got it at Pine-tree Point,” said Hector, “but I am glad it was lodged so cleverly among the cedar boughs. I was half afraid you would have fallen in once or twice, when you were trying to draw it nearer to the shore.” “Never fear for me, my friend; I can cling like a wild cat when I climb. But what a grand pot! What delightful soups, and stews, and boils, Catharine will make! Hurrah!” and Louis tossed up his new fur cap, that he had made with great skill from an entire fox skin, in the air, and cut sundry fantastic capers which Hector gravely condemned as unbecoming his mature age; (Louis was turned of fifteen;) but with the joyous spirit of a little child he sung, and danced, and laughed, and shouted, till the lonely echoes of the islands and far-off hills returned the unusual sound, and even his more steady cousin caught the infection, and laughed to see Louis so elated.

Leaving Hector to guard the prize, Louis ran gaily off to fetch Catharine to share his joy, and come and admire the canoe, and the blanket, and the tripod, and the corn, and the tomahawk. Indiana accompanied them to the lake shore, and long and carefully she examined the canoe and its contents, and many were the plaintive exclamations she uttered as she surveyed the things piece by piece, till she took notice of the broken handle of an Indian paddle which lay at the bottom of the vessel; this seemed to afford some solution to her of the mystery, and by broken words and signs she intimated that the paddle had possibly broken in the hand of the Indian, and that in endeavouring to regain the other part, he had lost his balance and been drowned. She showed Hector a rude figure of a bird engraved with some sharp instrument, and rubbed in with a blue colour. This, she said, was the totem or crest of the chief of the tribe, and was meant to represent a crow. The canoe had belonged to a chief of that name. While they were dividing the contents of the canoe among them to be carried to the shanty, Indiana, taking up the bass-rope and the blanket, bundled up the most of the things, and adjusting the broad thick part of the rope to the front of her head, she bore off the burden with great apparent ease, as a London or Edinburgh porter would his trunks and packages, turning round with a merry glance and repeating some Indian words with a lively air as she climbed with apparent ease the steep bank, and soon distanced her companions, to her great enjoyment. That night, Indiana cooked some of the parched rice, Indian fashion, with venison, and they enjoyed the novelty very much it made an excellent substitute for bread, of which they had been so long deprived.

Indiana gave them to understand that the rice harvest would soon be ready on the lake, and that now they had got a canoe, they would go out and gather it, and so lay by a store to last them for many months.

This little incident furnished the inhabitants of the shanty with frequent themes for discussion. Hector declared that the Indian corn was the most valuable of their acquisitions. “It will insure us a crop, and bread and seed-corn for many years,” he said; he also highly valued the tomahawk, as his axe was worn and blunt.

Louis was divided between the iron pot and the canoe. Hector seemed to think the raft, after all, might have formed a substitute for the latter; besides, Indiana had signified her intention of helping him to make a canoe. Catharine declared in favour of the blanket, as it would make, after thorough ablutions, warm petticoats with tight bodices for herself and Indiana. With deer-skin leggings, and a fur jacket, they should be comfortably clad. Indiana thought the canoe the most precious, and was charmed with the good jar and the store of rice: nor did she despise the packing rope, which she soon showed was of use in carrying burdens from place to place, Indian fashion: by placing a pad of soft fur in front of the head, she could carry heavy loads with great ease. The mat, she said, was useful for drying the rice she meant to store. The very next day after this adventure, the two girls set to work, and with the help of Louis’s large knife, which was called into requisition as a substitute for scissors, they cut out the blanket dresses, and in a short time made two comfortable and not very unsightly garments: the full, short, plaited skirts reached a little below the knee; light vests bordered with fur completed the upper part, and leggings, terminated at the ankles by knotted fringes of the doe-skin, with mocassins turned over with a band of squirrel fur, completed the novel but not very unbecoming costume; and many a glance of innocent satisfaction did our young damsels cast upon each other, when they walked forth in the pride of girlish vanity to display their dresses to Hector and Louis, who, for their parts, regarded them as most skilful dress-makers, and were never tired of admiring and commending their ingenuity in the cutting, making and fitting, considering what rude implements they were obliged to use in the cutting out and sewing of the garments.

The extensive rice beds on the lake had now begun to assume a golden tinge which contrasted very delightfully with the deep blue waters looking, when lighted up by the sunbeams, like islands of golden-coloured sand. The ears, heavy laden with the ripe grain, drooped towards the water. The time of the rice-harvest was at hand, and with light and joyous hearts our young adventurers launched the canoe, and, guided in their movements by the little squaw, paddled to the extensive aquatic fields to gather it in, leaving Catharine and Wolfe to watch their proceedings from the raft, which Louis had fastened to a young tree that projected out over the lake, and which made a good landing-place, likewise a wharf where they could stand and fish very comfortably. As the canoe could not be overloaded on account of the rice-gathering, Catharine very readily consented to employ herself with fishing from the raft till their return.

The manner of procuring the rice was very simple. One person steered the canoe with the aid of the paddle along the edge of the rice beds, and another with a stick in one hand, and a curved sharp-edged paddle in the other, struck the heads off as they bent them over the edge of the stick; the chief art was in letting the heads fall into the canoe, which a little practice soon enabled them to do as expertly as the mower lets the grass fall in ridges beneath his scythe.

Many bushels of wild rice were thus collected. Nothing could he more delightful than this sort of work to our young people, and merrily they worked, and laughed, and sung, as they came home each day with their light bark, laden with a store of grain that they knew would preserve them from starving through the long, dreary winter that was coming on.

The canoe was a source of great comfort and pleasure to them; they were now able to paddle out into the deep water, and fish for masquinonje and black bass, which they caught in great numbers.

Indiana seemed quite another creature when, armed with a paddle of her own carving, she knelt at the head of the canoe and sent it flying over the water; then her dark eyes, often so vacant and glassy, sparkled with delight, and her teeth gleamed with ivory whiteness as her face broke into smiles and dimples.

It was delightful then to watch this child of nature, and see how innocently happy she could be when rejoicing in the excitement of healthy exercise, and elated by a consciousness of the power she possessed of excelling her companions in feats of strength and skill which they had yet to acquire by imitating her.

Even Louis was obliged to confess that the young savage knew more of the management of a canoe, and the use of the bows and arrows, and the fishing-line, than either himself or his cousin. Hector was lost in admiration of her skill in all these things; and Indiana rose highly in his estimation, the more he saw of her usefulness.

“Every one to his craft,” said Louis, laughing; “the little squaw has been brought up in the knowledge and practice of such matters from her babyhood; perhaps if we were to set her to knitting, and spinning, and milking of cows, and house-work, and learning to read, I doubt if she would prove half as quick as Catharine or Mathilde.”

“I wonder if she knows anything of God or our Saviour,” said Hector, thoughtfully.

“Who should have taught her? for the Indians are all heathens;” replied Louis.

“I have heard my dear mother say, the Missionaries have taken great pains to teach the Indian children down about Quebec and Montreal, and that so far from being stupid, they learn very readily,” said Catharine.

“We must try and make Indiana learn to say her prayers; she sits quite still, and seems to take no notice of what we are doing when we kneel down, before we go to bed,” observed Hector.

“She cannot understand what we say,” said Catharine; for she knows so little of our language yet, that of course she cannot comprehend the prayers, which are in other sort of words than what we use in speaking of hunting, and fishing, and cooking, and such matters.”

“Well, when she knows more of our way of speaking, then we must teach her; it is a sad thing for Christian children to live with an untaught pagan,” said Louis, who, being rather bigoted in his creed, felt a sort of uneasiness in his own mind at the poor girl’s total want of the rites of his church; but Hector and Catharine regarded her ignorance with feelings of compassionate interest, and lost no opportunity that offered, of trying to enlighten her darkened mind on the subject of belief in the God who made, and the Lord who saved them. Simply and earnestly they entered into the task as a labour of love, and though for a long time Indiana seemed to pay little attention to what they said, by slow degrees the good seed took root and brought forth fruit worthy of Him whose Spirit poured the beams of spiritual light into her heart: but my young readers must not imagine these things were the work of a day the process was slow, and so were the results, but they were good in the end.

And Catharine was glad when, after many go months of patient teaching, the Indian girl asked permission to kneel down with her white friend, and pray to the Great Spirit and His Son in the same words that Christ Jesus gave to his disciples; and if the full meaning of that holy prayer, so full of humility and love, and moral justice, was not fully understood by her whose lips repeated it, yet even the act of worship and the desire to do that which she had been told was right, was, doubtless, a sacrifice better than the pagan rites which that young girl had witnessed among her father’s people, who, blindly following the natural impulse of man in his depraved nature, regarded deeds of blood and cruelty as among the highest of human virtues, and gloried in those deeds of vengeance at which the Christian mind revolts with horror.

Indiana took upon herself the management of the rice, drying, husking and storing it, the two lads working under her direction. She caused several forked stakes to be cut and sharpened and driven into the ground; on these were laid four poles, so as to form a frame, over which she then stretched the bass-mat, which she secured by means of forked pegs to the frame on the mat; she then spread out the rice thinly, and lighted a fire beneath, taking good care not to let the flame set fire to the mat, the object being rather to keep up a strong, slow heat, by means of the red embers. She next directed the boys to supply her with pine or cedar boughs, which she stuck in close together, so as to enclose the fire within the area of the stakes. This was done to concentrate the heat and cause it to bear upwards with more power; the rice being frequently stirred with a sort of long-handled, flat shovel. After the rice was sufficiently dried, the next thing to be done was separating it from the husk, and this was effected by putting it by small quantities into the iron pot, and with a sort of wooden pestle or beetle, rubbing it round and round against the sides. If they had not had the iron pot, a wooden trough must have been substituted in its stead.

When the rice was husked, the loose chaff was winnowed from it in a flat basket like a sieve, and it was then put by in coarse birch baskets, roughly sewed with leather-wood bark, or bags made of matting, woven by the little squaw from the cedar-bark. A portion was also parched, which was simply done by putting the rice dry into the iron pot, and setting it on hot embers, stirring the grain till it burst: it was then stored by for use. Rice thus prepared is eaten dry, as a substitute for bread, by the Indians. The lake was now swarming with wild fowl of various kinds; crowds of ducks were winging their way across it from morning till night, floating in vast flocks upon its surface, or rising in noisy groups if an eagle or fish-hawk appeared sailing with slow, majestic circles above them, then settling down with noisy splash upon the calm water. The shores, too, were covered with these birds, feeding on the fallen acorns which fell ripe and brown with every passing breeze; the berries of the dogwood also furnished them with food; but the wild rice seemed the great attraction, and small shell-fish and the larvae of many insects that had been dropped into the waters, there to come to perfection in due season, or to form a provision for myriads of wild fowl that had come from the far north-west to feed upon them, guided by that instinct which has so beautifully been termed by one of our modern poétesses, “God’s gift to the weak”