Read CHAPTER XIII - ON SECRET SERVICE of 54-40 / Fight, free online book, by Emerson Hough, on ReadCentral.com.

     If the world was lost through woman, she alone can save it. ­Louis
     de Beaufort.

In the days of which I write, our civilization was, as I may say, so embryonic, that it is difficult for us now to realize the conditions which then obtained.  We had great men in those days, and great deeds were done; but to-day, as one reflects upon life as it then was, it seems almost impossible that they and their deeds could have existed in a time so crude and immature.

The means of travel in its best form was at that time at least curious.  We had several broken railway systems north and south, but there were not then more than five thousand miles of railway built in America.  All things considered, I felt lucky when we reached New York less than twenty-four hours out from Washington.

From New York northward to Montreal one’s journey involved a choice of routes.  One might go up the Hudson River by steamer to Albany, and thence work up the Champlain Lake system, above which one might employ a short stretch of rails between St. John and La Prairie, on the banks of the St. Lawrence opposite Montreal.  Or, one might go from Albany west by rail as far as Syracuse, up the Mohawk Valley, and so to Oswego, where on Lake Ontario one might find steam or sailing craft.

Up the Hudson I took the crack steamer Swallow, the same which just one year later was sunk while trying to beat her own record of nine hours and two minutes from New York to Albany.  She required eleven hours on our trip.  Under conditions then obtaining, it took me a day and a half more to reach Lake Ontario.  Here, happily, I picked up a frail steam craft, owned by an adventurous soul who was not unwilling to risk his life and that of others on the uncertain and ice-filled waters of Ontario.  With him I negotiated to carry me with others down the St. Lawrence.  At that time, of course, the Lachine Canal was not completed, and the Victoria Bridge was not even conceived as a possibility.  One delay after another with broken machinery, lack of fuel, running ice and what not, required five days more of my time ere I reached Montreal.

I could not be called either officer or spy, yet none the less I did not care to be recognized here in the capacity of one over-curious.  I made up my costume as that of an innocent free trader from the Western fur country of the states, and was able, from my earlier experiences, to answer any questions as to beaver at Fort Hall or buffalo on the Yellowstone or the Red.  Thus I passed freely in and about all the public places of the town, and inspected with a certain personal interest all its points of interest, from the Gray Nunneries to the new cathedrals, the Place d’Armes, the Champ de Mars, the barracks, the vaunted brewery, the historic mountain, and the village lying between the arms of the two rivers ­a point where history for a great country had been made, and where history for our own now was planning.

As I moved about from day to day, making such acquaintance as I could, I found in the air a feeling of excitement and expectation.  The hotels, bad as they were, were packed.  The public places were noisy, the private houses crowded.  Gradually the town became half-military and half-savage.  Persons of importance arrived by steamers up the river, on whose expanse lay boats which might be bound for England ­or for some of England’s colonies.  The Government ­not yet removed to Ottawa, later capital of Ontario ­was then housed in the old Chateau Ramezay, built so long before for the French governor, Vaudreuil.

Here, I had reason to believe, was now established no less a personage than Sir George Simpson, Governor of the Hudson Bay Company.  Rumor had it at the time that Lord Aberdeen of England himself was at Montreal.  That was not true, but I established without doubt that his brother really was there, as well as Lieutenant William Peel of the Navy, son of Sir Robert Peel, England’s prime minister.  The latter, with his companion, Captain Parke, was one time pointed out to me proudly by my inn-keeper ­two young gentlemen, clad in the ultra fashion of their country, with very wide and tall bell beavers, narrow trousers, and strange long sack-coats unknown to us in the States ­of little shape or elegance, it seemed to me.

There was expectancy in the air, that was sure.  It was open secret enough in England, as well as in Montreal and in Washington, that a small army of American settlers had set out the foregoing summer for the valley of the Columbia, some said under leadership of the missionary Whitman.  Britain was this year awakening to the truth that these men had gone thither for a purpose.  Here now was a congress of Great Britain’s statesmen, leaders of Great Britain’s greatest monopoly, the Hudson Bay Company, to weigh this act of the audacious American Republic.  I was not a week in Montreal before I learned that my master’s guess, or his information, had been correct.  The race was on for Oregon!

All these things, I say, I saw go on about me.  Yet in truth as to the inner workings of this I could gain but little actual information.  I saw England’s ships, but it was not for me to know whether they were to turn Cape Hope or the Horn.  I saw Canada’s voyageurs, but they might be only on their annual journey, and might go no farther than their accustomed posts in the West.  In French town and English town, among common soldiers, voyageurs, inn-keepers and merchants, I wandered for more than one day and felt myself still helpless.

That is to say, such was the case until there came to my aid that greatest of all allies, Chance.