Read CHAPTER THREE - DOMESTIC AND PERSONAL MATTERS of Fort Desolation Red Indians and Fur Traders of Rupert's Land , free online book, by R.M. Ballantyne, on

Jack Robinson’s first proceeding on entering the new fort and assuming the command, was to summon the man, (supposed to be a maniac), named Teddy O’Donel, to his presence in the “Hall.”

“Your name is Teddy O’Donel?” said Jack.

“The same, sir, at your sarvice,” said Teddy, with a respectful pull at his forelock.  “They was used to call me Mister O’Donel when I was in the army, but I’ve guv that up long ago an’ dropped the title wid the commission.”

“Indeed:  then you were a commissioned officer?” inquired Jack, with a smile.

“Be no manes.  It was a slight longer title than that I had.  They called me a non-commissioned officer.  I niver could find in me heart to consociate wid them consaited commissioners ­though there was wan or two of ’em as was desarvin’ o’ the three stripes.  But I niver took kindly to sodgerin’.  It was in the Howth militia I was.  Good enough boys they was in their way, but I couldn’t pull wid them no how.  They made me a corp’ral for good conduct, but, faix, the great review finished me; for I got into that state of warlike feeling that I loaded me muskit five times widout firin’, an’ there was such a row round about that I didn’t know the dirty thing had niver wint off till the fifth time, when she bursted into smithereens an’ wint off intirely.  No wan iver seed a scrag of her after that.  An’ the worst was, she carried away the small finger of Bob Riley’s left hand.  Bob threw down his muskit an’ ran off the ground howlin’, so I picked the wipon up an’ blazed away at the inimy; but, bad luck to him, Bob had left his ramrod in, and I sint it right through the flank of an owld donkey as was pullin’ an apple and orange cart.  Oh! how that baste did kick up its heels, to be sure! and the apples and oranges they was flyin’ like ­Well, well ­the long and the short was, that I wint an’ towld the colonel I couldn’t stop no longer in such a regiment.  So I guv it up an’ comed out here.”

“And became a fur-trader,” said Jack Robinson, with a smile.

“Just so, sur, an’ fort-builder to boot; for, being a jiner to trade and handy wid the tools, Mr Murray sent me down here to build the place and take command, but I s’pose I’m suppersheeded now!”

“Well, I believe you are, Teddy; but I hope that you will yet do good service as my lieutenant.”

The beaming smile on Teddy’s face showed that he was well pleased to be relieved from the responsibilities of office.

“Sure,” said he, “the throuble I have had wid the min an’ the salvages for the last six weeks ­it’s past belavin’!  An’ thin, whin I sint the men down to the river to fush ­more nor twinty miles off ­an’ whin the salvages wint away and left me alone wid only wan old salvage woman! ­ och!  I’d not wish my worst inimy in me sitivation.”

“Then the savages have been giving you trouble, have they?”

“They have, sur, but not so much as the min.”

“Well, Teddy,” said Jack, “go and fetch me something to eat, and then you shall sit down and give me an account of things in general.  But first give my men food.”

“Sure they’ve got it,” replied Teddy, with a broad grin.  “That spalpeen they calls Rollo axed for meat the first thing, in a voice that made me think he’d ait me up alive av he didn’t git it.  So I guv ’em the run o’ the pantry.  What’ll yer plaze to dhrink, sur?”

“What have you got?”

“Tay and coffee, sur, not to mintion wather.  There’s only flour an’ salt pork to ait, for this is a bad place for game.  I’ve not seed a bird or a bear for three weeks, an’ the seals is too cute for me.  But I’ll bring ye the best that we’ve got.”

Teddy O’Donel hastened to the kitchen, a small log-hut in rear of the dwelling-house, and left Jack Robinson alone in the “Hall.”

Jack rose, thrust his hands deep into his pockets, and walked to the window.  It was glazed with parchment, with the exception of the centre square, which was of glass.

“Pleasant, uncommonly pleasant,” he muttered, as he surveyed the landscape.

In front lay a flat beach of sand with the gulf beyond, the horizon being veiled in mist.  Up the river there was a flat beach with a hill beyond.  It was a black iron-looking hill, devoid of all visible verdure, and it plunged abruptly down into the sea as if it were trying fiercely to drown itself.  Down the river there was a continuation of flat beach, with, apparently, nothing whatever beyond.  The only objects that enlivened the dreary expanse were, the sloop at the end of the wooden jetty and a small flagstaff in front of the house, from which a flag was flying in honour of the arrival of the new governor.  At the foot of this flagstaff there stood an old iron cannon, which looked pugnacious and cross, as if it longed to burst itself and blow down all visible creation.

Jack Robinson’s countenance became a simple blank as he took the first survey of his new dominions.  Suddenly a gleam of hope flitted across the blank.

“Perhaps the back is better,” he muttered, opening the door that led to the rear of the premises.  In order to get out he had to pass through the kitchen, where he found his men busy with fried pork and flour cakes, and his lieutenant, Teddy, preparing coffee.

“What is that?” inquired Jack, pointing to a small heap of brown substance which Teddy was roasting in a frying-pan.

“Sure it’s coffee,” said the man.

“Eh?” inquired Jack.

“Coffee, sur,” repeated Teddy with emphasis.

“What is it made of?” inquired Jack.

“Bread-crumbs, sur.  I’m used to make it of pais, but it takes longer, d’ye see, for I’ve got to pound ’em in a cloth after they’re roasted.  The crumbs is a’most as good as the pais, an’ quicker made whin yer in a hurry.”

Jack’s first impulse was to countermand the crumbs and order tea, but he refrained, and went out to survey the back regions of his new home.

He found that the point selected for the establishment of the fort was a plain of sand, on which little herbage of any kind grew.  In rear of the house there was a belt of stunted bushes, which, as he went onward into the interior, became a wood of stunted firs.  This seemed to grow a little more dense farther inland, and finally terminated at the base of the distant and rugged mountains of the interior.  In fact, he found that he was established on a sandbank which had either been thrown up by the sea, or at no very remote period had formed part of its bed.  Returning home so as to enter by the front door, he observed an enclosed space a few hundred yards distant from the fort.  Curious to know what it was, he walked up to it, and, looking over the stockade, beheld numerous little mounds of sand with wooden crosses at the head of them.  It was the burial-ground of the establishment.  Trade had been carried on here by a few adventurous white men before the fort was built.  Some of their number having died, a space had been enclosed as a burying-ground.  The Roman Catholic Indians afterwards used it, and it was eventually consecrated with much ceremony by a priest.

With a face from which every vestige of intelligence was removed, Jack Robinson returned to the fort and sat down in solitary state in the hall.  In the act of sitting down he discovered that the only arm-chair in the room was unsteady on its legs, these being of unequal length.  There were two other chairs without arms, and equally unsteady on their legs.  These, as well as everything in the room, were made of fir-wood ­ as yet unpainted.  In the empty fire-place Jack observed a piece of charcoal, which he took up and began, in an absent way, to sketch on the white wall.  He portrayed a raving maniac as large as life, and then, sitting down, began insensibly to hum ­

  “I dreamt that I dwelt in marble halls.”

In the midst of which he was interrupted by the entrance of his lieutenant with a tray of viands.

“Ah, yer a purty creatur,” exclaimed Teddy, pausing with a look of admiration before the maniac.

“Come, Teddy, sit down and let’s have the news.  What have we here?” said Jack, looking at three covered plates which were placed before him.

“Salt pork fried,” said Teddy removing the cover.

“And here?”

“Salt pork biled,” said the man, removing the second cover; “an’ salt pork cold,” he added, removing the third.  “You see, sur, I wasn’t sure which way ye’d like it, an’ ye was out whin I come to ax; so I just did it up in three fashions.  Here’s loaf bread, an’ it’s not bad, though I say it that made it.”

As Jack cut down into the loaf, he naturally remembered those lines of a well-known writer: 

  “Who has not tasted home-made bread,
  A heavy compound of putty and

“Are these cakes?” he said, as Teddy presented another plate with something hot in it.

“Ay, pancakes they is, made of flour an’ wather fried in grease, an’ the best of aitin’, as ye’ll find; ­but, musha! they’ve all stuck together from some raison I han’t yet diskivered:  but they’ll be none the worse for that, and there’s plenty of good thick molasses to wash ’em down wid.”

“And this,” said Jack, pointing to a battered tin kettle, “is the ­ the ­”

“That’s the coffee, sur.”

“Ah! well, sit down, Teddy, I have seen worse fare than this.  Let’s be thankful for it.  Now, then, let me hear about the fishery.”

Nothing pleased Teddy O’Donel so much as being allowed to talk.  He sat down accordingly and entertained his master for the next hour with a full, true, and particular account of every thing connected with Fort Desolation.  We will not, however, inflict this on the reader.  Reduced to its narrowest limits, his information was to the following effect: ­

That the Indians, generally, were well disposed towards the traders, though difficult to please.  That a good many furs had been already obtained, and there was a report of more coming in.  That the salmon fishery was situated on a river twenty miles below the fort, and was progressing favourably; but that the five men engaged there were a quarrelsome set and difficult to keep in order.  Teddy thought, however, that it was all owing to one of the men, named Ladoc, a bully, who kept the other four in bad humour.

But the point on which poor Teddy dilated most was his solitude.  For some time he had been living with no other companions than an old Indian woman and her half-caste daughter, and they having left him, during the last three days he had been living entirely alone “among the ghosts,” many of which he described minutely.

This intelligence was brought to an abrupt close by a row among the men in the kitchen.  Rollo had been boasting of his walking powers to such an extent, that Pierre had become disgusted and spoke contemptuously of Rollo; whereupon the bully, as usual, began to storm, and his wrath culminated when Pierre asserted that, “Mr Robinson would bring him to his marrow-bones ere long.”

“Jack Robinson!” exclaimed Rollo with contempt; “I’d walk him blind in two hours.”

Just at that moment the door opened, and Jack stood before them.

“You are too noisy, men,” said he, in a quiet voice, (Jack almost always spoke in a soft voice); “remember that this kitchen is within hearing of the hall.  Rollo, go down to the beach and haul up the sloop’s boat, I see the tide is making on her.”

Rollo hesitated.

“You hear?” said Jack, still in a quiet tone, but with a look ­not a fierce look, or a threatening look, but ­a peculiar look, which instantly took effect.

One has often observed a cat when about to spring.  It makes many pauses in its prowling towards its prey, and occasional motions that lead one to expect a spring.  But the motion which precedes the actual spring is always emphatic.  It may not be violent; it may be as slight as all the previous motions, but there is that in it which tells irresistibly, somehow, of a fixed purpose.  So is it, doubtless, with tigers; so was it with Jack Robinson.  His first remark to the men was a prowl; his order to Rollo was a pause, with an intention; his “you hear?” softly said, had a something in it which induced Rollo to accord instant obedience!

On returning to the hall, Jack paced up and down indignantly.  “So there are two bullies in the camp,” he soliloquised; “I must cure them both; ­but softly, Jack.  It won’t do to fight if you can secure peace by other means.  Let blows be the last resource.  That’s my motto.  He’ll walk me blind!  Well, we shall see, to-morrow!”