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Wacousta: A Tale of the Pontiac Conspiracy--Volume 1 By John Richardson Characters: 30169

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

The sun was high in the meridian, as the second detachment, commanded by Colonel de Haldimar in person, issued from the fort of Detroit. It was that soft and hazy season, peculiar to the bland and beautiful autumns of Canada, when the golden light of Heaven seems as if transmitted through a veil of tissue, and all of animate and inanimate nature, expanding and fructifying beneath its fostering influence, breathes the most delicious languor and voluptuous repose. It was one of those still, calm, warm, and genial days, which in those regions come under the vulgar designation of the Indian summer; a season that is ever hailed by the Canadian with a satisfaction proportioned to the extreme sultriness of the summer, and the equally oppressive rigour of the winter, by which it is immediately preceded and followed. It is then that Nature, who seems from the creation to have bestowed all of grandeur and sublimity on the stupendous Americas, looks gladly and complacently on her work; and, staying the course of parching suns and desolating frosts, loves to luxuriate for a period in the broad and teeming bosom of her gigantic offspring. It is then that the forest-leaves, alike free from the influence of the howling hurricane of summer, and the paralysing and unfathomable snows of winter, cleave, tame and stirless in their varying tints, to the parent branch; while the broad rivers and majestic lakes exhibit a surface resembling rather the incrustation of the polished mirror than the resistless, viewless particles of which the golden element is composed. It is then that, casting its satisfied glance across those magnificent rivers, the eye beholds, as if reflected from a mirror (so similar in production and appearance are the contiguous shores), both the fertility of cultivated and the rudeness of uncultivated nature, that every where surround and diversify the view. The tall and sloping banks, covered with verdure to the very sands, that unite with the waters lying motionless at their base; the continuous chain of neat farm-houses (we speak principally of Detroit and its opposite shores); the luxuriant and bending orchards, teeming with fruits of every kind and of every colour; the ripe and yellow corn vying in hue with the soft atmosphere, which reflects and gives full effect to its abundance and its richness,-these, with the intervening waters unruffled, save by the lazy skiff, or the light bark canoe urged with the rapidity of thought along its surface by the slight and elegantly ornamented paddle of the Indian; or by the sudden leaping of the large salmon, the unwieldy sturgeon, the bearded cat-fish, or the delicately flavoured maskinonge, and fifty other tenants of their bosom;-all these contribute to form the foreground of a picture bounded in perspective by no less interesting, though perhaps ruder marks of the magnificence of that great architect-Nature, on which the eye never lingers without calm; while feelings, at once voluptuous and tender, creep insensibly over the heart, and raise the mind in adoration to the one great and sole Cause by which the stupendous whole has been produced.

Such a day as that we have just described was the -- of September, 1763, when the chief portion of the English garrison of Detroit issued forth from the fortifications in which they had so long been cooped up, and in the presumed execution of a duty undeniably the most trying and painful that ever fell to the lot of soldier to perform. The heavy dull movement of the guns, as they traversed the drawbridge resembled in that confined atmosphere the rumbling of low and distant thunder; and as they shook the rude and hollow sounding planks, over which they were slowly dragged, called up to every heart the sad recollection of the service for which they had been required. Even the tramp of the men, as they moved heavily and measuredly across the yielding bridge, seemed to wear the character of the reluctance with which they proceeded on so hateful a duty; and more than one individual, as he momentarily turned his eye upon the ramparts, where many of his comrades were grouped together watching the departure of the detachment, testified by the significant and mournful movement of his head how much he envied their exemption from the task.

The direct military road runs in a straight line from the fort to the banks of the Detroit, and the eastern extremity of the town. Here it is intersected by the highway running parallel with the river, and branching off at right angles on either hand; the right, leading in the direction of the more populous states; the left, through the town, and thence towards the more remote and western parts, where European influence has yet been but partially extended. The only difference between its present and former character is, that what is now a flourishing commercial town was then a mere village; while the adjacent country, at present teeming with every mark of vegetation, bore no other evidence of fertility than what was afforded by a few scattered farm-houses, many of which skirted various parts of the forest. Along this road the detachment now wended its slow and solemn course, and with a mournful pageantry of preparation that gave fearful earnest of the tragedy expected to be enacted.

In front, and dragged by the hands of the gunners, moved two of the three three-pounders, that had been ordered for the duty. Behind these came Captain Blessington's company, and in their rear, the prisoner Halloway, divested of his uniform, and clad in a white cotton jacket, and cap of the same material. Six rank and file of the grenadiers followed, under the command of a corporal, and behind these again, came eight men of the same company; four of whom bore on their shoulders a coffin, covered with a coarse black pall that had perhaps already assisted at fifty interments; while the other four carried, in addition to their own, the muskets of their burdened comrades. After these, marched a solitary drummer-boy; whose tall bear-skin cap attested him to be of the grenadiers also, while his muffled instrument marked the duty for which he had been selected. Like his comrades, none of whom exhibited their scarlet uniforms, he wore the collar of his great coat closely buttoned beneath his chin, which was only partially visible above the stiff leathern stock that encircled his neck. Although his features were half buried in his huge cap and the high collar of his coat, there was an air of delicacy about his person that seemed to render him unsuited to such an office; and more than once was Captain Erskine, who followed immediately behind him at the head of his company, compelled to call sharply to the urchin, threatening him with a week's drill unless he mended his feeble and unequal pace, and kept from under the feet of his men. The remaining gun brought up the rear of the detachment, who marched with fixed bayonets and two balls in each musket; the whole presenting a front of sections, that completely filled up the road along which they passed. Colonel de Haldimar, Captain Wentworth, and the Adjutant Lawson followed in the extreme rear.

An event so singular as that of the appearance of the English without their fort, beset as they were by a host of fierce and dangerous enemies, was not likely to pass unnoticed by a single individual in the little village of Detroit. We have already observed, that most of the colonist settlers had been cruelly massacred at the very onset of hostilities. Not so, however, with the Canadians, who, from their anterior relations with the natives, and the mutual and tacit good understanding that subsisted between both parties, were suffered to continue in quiet and unmolested possession of their homes, where they preserved an avowed neutrality, never otherwise infringed than by the assistance secretly and occasionally rendered to the English troops, whose gold they were glad to receive in exchange for the necessaries of life.

Every dwelling of the infant town had commenced giving up its tenants, from the moment when the head of the detachment was seen traversing the drawbridge; so that, by the time it reached the highway, and took its direction to the left, the whole population of Detroit were already assembled in groups, and giving expression to their several conjectures, with a vivacity of language and energy of gesticulation that would not have disgraced the parent land itself. As the troops drew nearer, however, they all sank at once into a silence, as much the result of certain unacknowledged and undefined fears, as of the respect the English had ever been accustomed to exact. The men removed their short dingy clay pipes from their mouths with one hand, and uncovered themselves with the other, while the women made their hasty reverence with the air of people who seek to propitiate by an act of civility; even the very children scraped and bowed, as if they feared the omission might be fatal to them, and, clinging to the hands and dress of their parents, looked up occasionally to their countenances to discover whether the apprehensions of their own fluttering and timid hearts were likely to be realised. Still there was sufficient of curiosity with all to render them attentive spectators of the passing troop. Hitherto, it had been imagined, the object of the English was an attack on the encampments of their enemies; but when the gaze of each adult inhabitant fell on the unaccoutred form of the lone soldier, who, calm though pale, now moved among his comrades in the ignominious garb of death, they could no longer doubt its true destination.

The aged made the sign of the cross, and mumbled over a short prayer for the repose of his soul, while the more youthful indulged in half-breathed ejaculations of pity and concern that so fine and interesting a man should be doomed to so dreadful a fate.

At the farther extremity of the town, and at a bend in the road, which branched off more immediately towards the river, stood a small public house, whose creaking sign bore three ill executed fleurs-de-lis, apologetic emblems of the arms of France. The building itself was little more than a rude log hut, along the front of which ran a plank, supported by two stumps of trees, and serving as a temporary accommodation both for the traveller and the inmate. On this bench three persons, apparently attracted by the beauty of the day and the mildness of the autumnal sun, were now seated, two of whom were leisurely puffing their pipes, while the third, a female, was employed in carding wool, a quantity of which lay in a basket at her feet, while she warbled, in a low tone, one of the simple airs of her native land. The elder of the two men, whose age might be about fifty, offered nothing particularly remarkable in his appearance: he was dressed in one of those thick coats made of the common white blanket, which, even to this day, are so generally worn by the Canadians, while his hair, cut square upon the forehead, and tied into a club of nearly a foot long, fell into the cape, or hood, attached to it: his face was ruddy and shining as that of any rival Boniface among the race of the hereditary enemies of his forefathers; and his thick short neck, and round fat person, attested he was no more an enemy to the good things of this world than themselves, while he was as little oppressed by its cares: his nether garments were of a coarse blue homespun, and his feet were protected by that rudest of all rude coverings, the Canadian shoe-pack. This was composed of a single piece of stiff brown leather, curved and puckered round the sides and front, where it was met by a tongue of softer material, which helped to confine it in that position, and to form the shoe. A bandana handkerchief fell from his neck upon his chest; the covering of which was so imperfectly drawn, as to disclose a quantity of long, coarse, black, and grisly hair.

His companion was habited in a still more extraordinary manner. His lower limbs were cased, up to the mid-thigh, in leathern leggings, the seam of which was on the outside, leaving a margin, or border, of about an inch wide, which had been slit into innumerable small fringes, giving them an air of elegance and lightness: a garter of leather, curiously wrought, with the stained quills of the porcupine, encircled each leg, immediately under the knee, where it was tied in a bow, and then suffered to hang pendant half way down the limb; to the fringes of the leggings, moreover, were attached numerous dark-coloured horny substances, emitting, as they rattled against each other, at the slightest movement of the wearer, a tinkling sound, resembling that produced by a number of small thin delicate brass bells; these were the tender hoofs of the wild deer, dried, scraped, and otherwise prepared for this ornamental purpose. Upon his large feet he wore mocassins, made of the same pliant material with his leggings, and differing in shape from the foot-gear of his companion in this particular only, that they had no tongue introduced into the front: they were puckered together by a strong sinew of the deer, until they met along the instep in a seam concealed by the same ornamental quill-work that decorated the garters: a sort of flap, fringed like the leggings, was folded back from the ankle, upon the sides of the foot, and the whole was confined by a strong though neat leathern thong, made of smoked deer-skin also, which, after passing once or twice under the foot, was then tightly drawn several times round the ankle, where it was finally secured. Two strips of leather, about an inch and a half in width, attached to the outer side of each legging, were made fast at their opposite extremities to a strong girdle, encircling the loins, and supporting a piece of coarse blue cloth, which, after passing completely under the body, fell in short flaps both before and behind. The remainder of the dress consisted of a cotton shirt, figured and sprigged on a dark ground, that fell unconfined over the person; a close deer-skin hunting-coat, fringed also at its edges; and a coarse common felt hat, in the string of which (for there was no band) were twisted a number of variegated feathers, furnished by the most beautiful and rare of the American autumnal birds. Outside this hunting-coat, and across the right shoulder, was flung an ornamented belt, to which were appended, on the left side, and in a line with the elbow, a shot-pouch, made of the untanned hide of some wild animal, and a flask for powder, formed of the horn of the buffalo; on which, highly polished for this purpose, were inscribed, with singular accuracy of proportion, a variety of figures, both of men, and birds, and beasts, and fishes; two or three small horn measures for powder, and a long thin wire, intended to serve as a pricker for the rifle that reclined against the outside of the hut, were also attached to this belt by strips of deer-skin of about six inches in length. Into another broad leathern belt, that confined the h

unting coat, was thrust a tomahawk, the glittering head of which was uppermost, and unsheathed: while at the opposite side, and half supporting the powder-horn, the huge handle of a knife, whose blade was buried in a strong leathern sheath, was distinctly visible.

The form and face of this individual were in perfect keeping with the style of his costume, and the formidable character of his equipment. His stature was considerably beyond that of the ordinary race of men, and his athletic and muscular limbs united the extremes of strength and activity in a singular degree. His features, marked and prominent, wore a cast of habitual thought, strangely tinctured with ferocity; and the general expression of his otherwise not unhandsome countenance was repellent and disdainful. At the first glance he might have been taken for one of the swarthy natives of the soil; but though time and constant exposure to scorching suns had given to his complexion a dusky hue, still there were wanting the quick, black, penetrating eye; the high cheek-bone; the straight, coarse, shining, black hair; the small bony hand and foot; and the placidly proud and serious air, by which the former is distinguished. His own eye was of a deep bluish grey; his hair short, dark, and wavy; his hands large and muscular; and so far from exhibiting any of the self-command of the Indian, the constant play of his features betrayed each passing thought with the same rapidity with which it was conceived. But if any doubt could have existed in the mind of him who beheld this strangely accoutred figure, it would have been instantly dispelled by a glance at his lower limbs. We have already stated the upper part of his leggings terminated about mid-thigh; from this to the hip, that portion of the limb was completely bare, and disclosed, at each movement of the garment that was suffered to fall loosely over it, not the swarthy and copper-coloured flesh of the Indian, but the pale though sun-burnt skin of one of a more temperate clime. His age might be about forty-five.

At the moment when the English detachment approached the bend in the road, these two individuals were conversing earnestly together, pausing only to puff at intervals thick and wreathing volumes of smoke from their pipes, which were filled with a mixture of tobacco and odoriferous herbs. Presently, however, sounds that appeared familiar to his ear arrested the attention of the wildly accoutred being we have last described. It was the heavy roll of the artillery carriages already advancing along the road, and somewhat in the rear of the hut. To dash his pipe to the ground, seize and cock and raise his rifle to his shoulder, and throw himself forward in the eager attitude of one waiting until the object of his aim should appear in sight, was but the work of a moment. Startled by the suddenness of the action, his male companion moved a few paces also from his seat, to discover the cause of this singular movement. The female, on the contrary, stirred not, but ceasing for a moment the occupation in which she had been engaged, fixed her dark and brilliant eyes upon the tall and picturesque form of the rifleman, whose active and athletic limbs, thrown into powerful relief by the distention of each nerve and muscle, appeared to engross her whole admiration and interest, without any reference to the cause that had produced this abrupt and hostile change in his movements. It was evident that, unlike the other inhabitants of the town, this group had been taken by surprise, and were utterly unprepared to expect any thing in the shape of interruption.

For upwards of a minute, during which the march of the men became audible even to the ears of the female, the formidable warrior, for such his garb denoted him to be, continued motionless in the attitude he had at first assumed-his right cheek reposing on the ornamented stock of his rifle, and his quick and steady eye fixed in one undeviating line with the sight near the breech, and that which surmounted the extreme end of the deadly weapon. No sooner, however, had the head of the advancing column come within sight, than the trigger was pulled, and the small and ragged bullet sped hissing from the grooved and delicate barrel. A triumphant cry was next pealed from the lips of the warrior,-a cry produced by the quickly repeated application and removal of one hand to and from the mouth, while the other suffered the butt end of the now harmless weapon to fall loosely upon the earth. He then slowly and deliberately withdrew within the cover of the hut.

This daring action, which had been viewed by the leading troops with astonishment not unmingled with alarm, occasioned a temporary confusion in the ranks, for all believed they had fallen into an ambuscade of the Indians. A halt was instantly commanded by Captain Blessington, in order to give time to the governor to come up from the rear, while he proceeded with one of the leading sections to reconnoitre the front of the hut. To his infinite surprise, however, he found neither enemy, nor evidence that an enemy had been there. The only individuals visible were the Canadian already alluded to, and the dark-eyed female. Both were seated on the bench;-the one smoking his pipe with a well assumed appearance of unconcern-the other carding her wool, but with a hand that by a close observer might be seen to tremble in its office, and a cheek that was paler considerably than at the moment when we first placed her before the imagination of the reader. Both, however, started with unaffected surprise on seeing Captain Blessington and his little force turn the corner of the house from the main road; and certain looks of recognition passed between all parties, that proved them to be no strangers to each other.

"Ah, monsieur," said the Canadian, in a mingled dialect, neither French nor English, but partaking in some degree of the idiom of both, while he attempted an ease and freedom of manner that was too miserably affected to pass current with the mild but observant officer whom he addressed, "how much surprise I am, and glad to see you. It is a long times since you came out of de fort. I hope de governeur and de officir be all very well. I was tinking to go to-day to see if you want any ting. I have got some nice rum of the Jamaique for Capitaine Erskine. Will you please to try some?" While speaking, the voluble host of the Fleur de lis had risen from his seat, laid aside his pipe, and now stood with his hands thrust into the pockets of his blanket coat.

"It is, indeed, a long time since we have been here, master Francois," somewhat sarcastically and drily replied Captain Blessington; "and you have not visited us quite so often latterly yourself, though well aware we were in want of fresh provisions. I give you all due credit, however, for your intention of coming to-day, but you see we have anticipated you. Still this is not the point. Where is the Indian who fired at us just now? and how is it we find you leagued with our enemies?"

"What, sir, is it you say?" asked the Canadian, holding up his hands with feigned astonishment "Me league myself with de savage. Upon my honour I did not see nobody fire, or I should tell you. I love de English too well to do dem harms."

"Come, come, Francois, no nonsense. If I cannot make you confess, there is one not far from me who will. You know Colonel de Haldimar too well to imagine he will be trifled with in this manner: if he detects you in a falsehood, he will certainly cause you to be hanged up at the first tree. Take my advice, therefore, and say where you have secreted this Indian; and recollect, if we fall into an ambuscade, your life will be forfeited at the first shot we hear fired."

At this moment the governor, followed by his adjutant, came rapidly up to the spot. Captain Blessington communicated the ill success of his queries, when the former cast on the terrified Canadian one of those severe and searching looks which he so well knew how to assume.

"Where is the rascal who fired at us, sirrah? tell me instantly, or you have not five minutes to live."

The heart of mine host of the Fleur de lis quailed within him at this formidable threat; and the usually ruddy hue of his countenance had now given place to an ashy paleness. Still, as he had positively denied all knowledge of the matter on which he was questioned, he appeared to feel his safety lay in adhering to his original statement. Again, therefore, he assured the governor, on his honour (laying his hand upon his heart as he spoke), that what he had already stated was the fact.

"Your honour-you pitiful trading scoundrel-how dare you talk to me of your honour? Come, sir, confess at once where you have secreted this fellow, or prepare to die."

"If I may be so bold, your Honour," said one of Captain Blessington's men, "the Frenchman lies. When the Ingian fired among us, this fellow was peeping under his shoulder and watching us also. If I had not seen him too often at the fort to be mistaken in his person, I should have known him, at all events, by his blanket coat and red handkerchief."

This blunt statement of the soldier, confirmed as it was the instant afterwards by one of his comrades, was damning proof against the Canadian, even if the fact of the rifle being discharged from the front of the hut had not already satisfied all parties of the falsehood of his assertion.

"Come forward, a couple of files, and seize this villain," resumed the governor with his wonted sternness of manner. "Mr. Lawson, see if his hut does not afford a rope strong enough to hang the traitor from one of his own apple trees."

Both parties proceeded at the same moment to execute the two distinct orders of their chief. The Canadian was now firmly secured in the grasp of the two men who had given evidence against him, when, seeing all the horror of the summary and dreadful fate that awaited him, he confessed the individual who had fired had been sitting with him the instant previously, but that he knew no more of him than of any other savage occasionally calling at the Fleur de lis. He added, that on discharging the rifle he had bounded across the palings of the orchard, and fled in the direction of the forest. He denied, on interrogation, all knowledge or belief of an enemy waiting in ambush; stating, moreover, even the individual in question had not been aware of the sortie of the detachment until apprised of their near approach by the heavy sound of the gun-carriages.

"Here are undeniable proofs of the man's villany, sir," said the adjutant, returning from the hut and exhibiting objects of new and fearful interest to the governor. "This hat and rope I found secreted in one of the bed-rooms of the auberge. The first is evidently Donellan's; and from the hook attached to the latter, I apprehend it to be the same stated to have been used by Captain de Haldimar in crossing the ditch."

The governor took the hat and rope from the hands of his subordinate, examined them attentively, and after a few moments of deep musing, during which his countenance underwent several rapid though scarcely perceptible changes, turned suddenly and eagerly to the soldier who had first convicted the Canadian in his falsehood, and demanded if he had seen enough of the man who had fired to be able to give even a general description of his person.

"Why yes, your Honour, I think I can; for the fellow stood long enough after firing his piece, for a painter to have taken him off from head to foot. He was a taller and larger man by far than our biggest grenadier, and that is poor Harry Donellan, as your Honour knows. But as for his dress, though I could see it all, I scarcely can tell how to describe it. All I know is, he was covered with smoked deer-skin, in some such fashion as the great chief Ponteac, only, instead of having his head bare and shaved, he wore a strange outlandish sort of a hat, covered over with wild birds' feathers in front."

"Enough," interrupted the governor, motioning the man to silence; then, in an undertone to himself,-"By Heaven, the very same." A shade of disappointment, not unmingled with suppressed alarm, passed rapidly across his brow; it was but momentary. "Captain Blessington," he ordered quickly and impatiently, "search the hut and grounds for this lurking Indian, who is, no doubt, secreted in the neighbourhood. Quick, quick, sir; there is no time to be lost." Then in an angry and intimidating tone to the Canadian, who had already dropped on his knees, supplicating mercy, and vociferating his innocence in the same breath,-"So, you infernal scoundrel, this is the manner in which you have repaid our confidence. Where is my son, sir? or have you already murdered him, as you did his servant? Tell me, you villain, what have you to say to these proofs of your treachery? But stay, I shall take another and fitter opportunity to question you. Mr. Lawson, secure this traitor properly, and let him be conveyed to the centre of the detachment."

The mandate was promptly obeyed; and, in despite of his own unceasing prayers and protestations of innocence, and the tears and entreaties of his dark-eyed daughter Babette, who had thrown herself on her knees at his side, the stout arms of mine host of the Fleur de lis were soon firmly secured behind his back with the strong rope that had been found under such suspicious circumstances in his possession. Before he was marched off, however, two of the men who had been sent in pursuit, returned from the orchard, stating that further search was now fruitless. They had penetrated through a small thicket at the extremity of the grounds, and had distinctly seen a man answering the description given by their comrades, in full flight towards the forest skirting the heights in front.

The governor was evidently far from being satisfied with the result of a search too late instituted to leave even a prospect of success. "Where are the Indians principally encamped, sirrah?" he sternly demanded of his captive; "answer me truly, or I will carry off this wench as well, and if a single hair of a man of mine be even singed by a shot from a skulking enemy, you may expect to see her bayoneted before your eyes."

"Ah, my God! Monsieur le Gouverneur," exclaimed the affrighted aubergiste, "as I am an honest man, I shall tell de truth, but spare my child. They are all in de forest, and half a mile from de little river dat runs between dis and de Pork Island."

"Hog Island, I suppose you mean."

"Yes sir, de Hog Island is de one I means."

"Conduct him to the centre, and let him be confronted with the prisoner," directed the governor, addressing his adjutant; "Captain Blessington, your men may resume their stations in the ranks."

The order was obeyed; and notwithstanding the tears and supplications of the now highly excited Babette, who flung herself upon his neck, and was only removed by force, the terrified Canadian was borne off from his premises by the troops.

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