Read CHAPTER EIGHT - HORRORS of Fort Desolation Red Indians and Fur Traders of Rupert's Land , free online book, by R.M. Ballantyne, on ReadCentral.com.

One morning the sun rose with unwonted splendour on the broad bosom of the Saint Lawrence.  The gulf was like a mirror, in which the images of the seagulls were as perfect as the birds themselves, and the warm hazy atmosphere was lighted up so brightly by the sun, that it seemed as though the world were enveloped in delicate golden gauze.

Jack Robinson stood on the shore, with the exile of Erin beside him.  Strange to say, the effect of this lovely scene on both was the reverse of gladdening.

“It’s very sad,” said Jack, slowly.

“True for ye,” observed the sympathising Teddy, supposing that his master had finished his remark.

“It’s very sad,” repeated Jack, “to look abroad upon this lovely world, and know that thousands of our fellow-men are enjoying it in each other’s society, while we are self-exiled here.”

“An’ so it is,” said Teddy, “not to mintion our fellow-women an’ our fellow-childers to boot.”

“To be sure we have got each other’s society, O’Donel,” continued Jack, “and the society of the gulls ­”

“An’ the fush,” interposed Teddy.

“And the fish,” assented Jack; “for all of which blessings we have cause to be thankful; but it’s my opinion that you and I are a couple of egregious asses for having forsaken our kind and come to vegetate here in the wilderness.”

“That’s just how it is, sur.  We’re both on us big asses, an’ it’s a pint for investigation which on us is the biggest ­you, who ought to have know’d better, or me, as niver kno’w’d anything, a’most, to spake of.”

Jack smiled.  He was much too deeply depressed to laugh.  For some minutes they stood gazing in silent despondency at the sea.

“What’s that?” exclaimed Jack, with sudden animation, pointing to an object which appeared at the moment near the extremity of a point of rocks not far from the spot where they stood ­“a canoe?”

“Two of ’em!” cried O’Donel, as another object came into view.

The change which came over the countenances of the two men, as they stood watching the approach of the two canoes, would have been incomprehensible to any one not acquainted with the effect of solitude on the human mind.  They did not exactly caper on the beach, but they felt inclined to do so, and their heaving bosoms and sparkling eyes told of the depth of emotion within.

In about a quarter of an hour the canoes were within a short distance of the landing-place, but no shout or sign of recognition came from the Indians who paddled them.  There was an Indian in the bow and stern of each canoe, and a woman in the middle of one of them.

“Well, boys, what cheer?” said Jack, using a well-known backwood’s salutation, as the men landed.

The Indians silently took the proffered hand of the trader and shook it, replying in a low voice, “Wachee,” as the nearest point they could attain to the pronunciation of “What cheer?”

There was something so unusually solemn in the air and manner of the savages, that Jack glanced at the canoe in which the woman sat.  There he saw what explained the mystery.  In the bottom lay an object wrapped up in pieces of old cloth and birchbark, which, from its form, was evidently a human body.  A few words with the Indians soon drew from them the information that this was one of their wives who had been ailing for a long time, and at length had died.  They were Roman Catholic converts, and had come to bury the body in the graveyard of the fort which had been “consecrated” by a priest.

To whatever pitch of excitement Jack and his man had risen at the unexpected appearance of the Indians, their spirits fell to an immeasurably profounder depth than before when their errand was made known.

Everything connected with this burial was sad and repulsive, yet Jack and his man felt constrained, out of mere sympathy, to witness it all.

The Indians were shabby and squalid in the extreme, and, being destitute of the means of making a coffin, had rolled the corpse up in such wretched materials as they happened to possess.  One consequence of this was, that it was quite supple.  On being lifted out of the canoe, the joints bent, and a sort of noise was emitted from the mouth, which was exceedingly horrible.  Had the dead face been visible, the effect would not have been so powerful, but its being covered tended to set the imagination free to conceive things still more dreadful.

The grave was soon dug in the sand inside the graveyard, which was not more than a hundred yards on one side of the fort.  Here, without ceremony of any kind, the poor form was laid and covered over.  While being lowered into the grave, the same doubling-up of the frame and the same noise were observed.  After all was over, the Indians returned to their canoe and paddled away, silently, as they had come; not before Jack, however, had gone to the store for a large piece of tobacco, which he threw to them as they were pushing off.

During the remainder of that day, Jack Robinson and his man went about their vocations with hearts heavy as lead.  But it was not till night that this depression of spirits culminated.  For the first time in his life Jack Robinson became superstitiously nervous.  As for Teddy O’Donel, he had seldom been entirely free from this condition during any night of his existence; but he was much worse than usual on the present occasion!

After sunset, Jack had his tea alone in the hall, while O’Donel took his ­also, of course, alone ­in the kitchen.  Tea over, Jack sat down and wrote part of a journal which he was in the habit of posting up irregularly.  Then he went into the kitchen to give Teddy his orders for the following day, and stayed longer than usual.  Thereafter, he read parts of one or two books which he had brought with him from the civilised world.  But, do what he would, the image of the dead woman lying so near him invariably came between him and the page, and obtruded itself on his mind obstinately.  Once he was so exasperated while reading, that he jumped violently off his chair, exclaiming, “This is childish nonsense!” In doing so he tilted the chair over, so that it balanced for an instant on its hind legs, and then fell with an awful crash, which caused him to leap at least three feet forward, clench his fists, and wheel round with a look of fury that would certainly have put to flight any real ghost in creation.

Jack gasped, then he sighed, after which he smiled and began to pace the hall slowly.  At last he said, half aloud, “I think I’ll smoke my pipe to-night with that poor fellow, O’Donel.  He must be lonely enough, and I don’t often condescend to be social.”

Taking up his pipe and tobacco-pouch, he went towards the kitchen.

Now, while his master was enduring those uncomfortable feelings in the hall, Teddy was undergoing torments in the kitchen that are past description.  He had had a grandmother ­with no nose to speak of, a mouth large enough for two, four teeth, and one eye ­who had stuffed him in his youth with horrible stories as full as a doll is of sawdust.  That old lady’s influence was now strong upon him.  Every gust of wind that rumbled in the chimney sent a qualm to his heart.  Every creak in the beams of his wooden kitchen startled his soul.  Every accidental noise that occurred filled him with unutterable horror.  The door, being clumsily made, fitted badly in all its parts, so that it shook and rattled in a perfectly heartrending manner.

Teddy resolved to cure this.  He stuck bits of wood in the opening between it and the floor, besides jamming several nails in at the sides and top.  Still, the latch would rattle, being complicated in construction, and not easily checked in all its parts.  But Teddy was an ingenious fellow.  He settled the latch by stuffing it and covering it with a mass of dough!  In order further to secure things, he placed a small table against the door, and then sat down on a bench to smoke his pipe beside the door.

It was at this point in the evening that Jack resolved, as we have said, to be condescending.

As he had hitherto very seldom smoked his pipe in the kitchen, his footstep in the passage caused O’Donel’s very marrow to quake.  He turned as pale as death and became rigid with terror, so that he resembled nothing but an Irish statue of very dirty and discoloured marble.

When Jack put his hand on the latch, Teddy gasped once ­he was incapable of more!  The vision of the poor Indian woman rose before his mental eye, and he ­well, it’s of no use to attempt saying what he thought or felt!

The obstruction in the latch puzzled Jack not a little.  He was surprised at its stiffness.  The passage between the hall and kitchen was rather dark, so that he was somewhat nervous and impatient to open the door.  It happened that he had left the door by which he had quitted the hall partially open.  A gust of wind shut this with a bang that sent every drop of blood into his heart, whence it rebounded into his extremities.  The impulse thus communicated to his hand was irresistible.  The door was burst in; as a matter of course the table was hurled into the middle of the kitchen, where it was violently arrested by the stove.  Poor Teddy O’Donel, unable to stand it any longer, toppled backwards over the bench with a hideous yell, and fell headlong into a mass of pans, kettles, and firewood, where he lay sprawling and roaring at the full power of his lungs, and keeping up an irregular discharge of such things as came to hand at the supposed ghost, who sheltered himself as he best might behind the stove.

“Hold hard, you frightened ass!” shouted Jack as a billet of wood whizzed over his head.

“Eh! what?  It’s you, sur?  O, musha, av I didn’t belave it was the ghost at last!”

“I tell you what, my man,” said Jack, who was a good deal nettled at his reception, “I would advise you to make sure that it is a ghost next time before you shie pots and kettles about in that way.  See what a smash you have made.  Why, what on earth have you been doing to the door?”

“Sure I only stuffed up the kayhole to keep out the wind.”

“Humph! and the ghosts, I suppose.  Well, see that you are up betimes to-morrow and have these salmon nets looked over and repaired.”

So saying, Jack turned on his heel and left the room, feeling too much annoyed to carry out his original intention of smoking a pipe with his man.  He spent the evening, therefore, in reading a pocket copy of Shakespeare, and retired to rest at the usual hour in a more composed frame of mind, and rather inclined to laugh at his superstitious fears.

It happened, unfortunately, that from his window, as he lay on his bed, Jack could see the graveyard.  This fact had never been noticed by him before, although he had lain there nightly since his arrival, and looked over the yard to the beach and the sea beyond.  Now, the night being bright moonlight, he could see it with appalling distinctness.  Sleep was banished from his eyes, and although he frequently turned with resolution to the wall and shut them, he was invariably brought back to his old position as if by a species of fascination.

Meanwhile Teddy O’Donel lay absolutely quaking in the kitchen.  Unable to endure it, he at last rose, opened the door softly, and creeping up as near us he dared venture to his master’s door, sat down there, as he said, “for company.”  In course of time he fell asleep.

Jack, being more imaginative, remained awake.  Presently he saw a figure moving near the churchyard.  It was white ­at least the upper half of it was.

“Pshaw! this is positive folly; my digestion must be out of order,” muttered Jack, rubbing his eyes; but the rubbing did not dissipate the figure which moved past the yard and approached the fort.  At that moment Teddy O’Donel gave vent to a prolonged snore.  Delivered as it was against the wooden step on which his nose was flattened, it sounded dreadfully like a groan.  Almost mad with indignation and alarm, Jack Robinson leaped from his bed and pulled on his trousers, resolved to bring things to an issue of some sort.

He threw open his chamber door with violence and descended the staircase noisily, intending to arouse his man.  He did arouse him, effectually, by placing his foot on the back of his head and crushing his face against the steps with such force as to produce a roar that would have put to shame the war-whoop of the wildest savage in America.

In endeavouring to recover himself, Jack fell upon Teddy and they rolled head-over-heels down the steps together towards the door of the house, which was opened at that instant by Ladoc, who had walked up to the fort, clad only in his shirt and trousers, (the night being warm), to give a report of the condition of things at the fishery, where he and Rollo had quarrelled, and the men generally were in a state of mutiny.