Chapter 15 The feast—Charley makes his first speech in public, and meet_ith an old friend—An evening in the grass.
Savages, not less than civilised men, are fond of a good dinner. In sayin_his, we do not expect our reader to be overwhelmed with astonishment. H_ight have guessed as much; but when we state that savages, upon particula_ccasions, eat six dinners in one, and make it a point of honour to do so, w_pprehend that we have thrown a slightly new light on an old subject.
Doubtless there are men in civilised society who would do likewise if the_ould; but they cannot, fortunately, as great gastronomic powers are dependen_n severe, healthful, and prolonged physical exertion. Therefore it is that i_ngland we find men capable only of eating about two dinners at once, an_uffering a good deal for it afterward; while in the backwood we see me_onsume a week’s dinner in one, without any evil consequences following th_ct.
The feast which was given by the Knisteneux in honour of the visit of our tw_riends was provided on a more moderate scale than usual, in order t_ccommodate the capacities of the “white men;” three days’ allowance bein_ooked for each man. (Women are never admitted to the public feasts.) On th_ay preceding the ceremony, Charley and Jacques had received cards o_nvitation from the principal chief, in the shape of two quills; simila_nvites being issued at the same time to all the braves. Jacques bein_ccustomed to the doings of Indians, and aware of the fact that whatever wa_rovided for each man _must_ be eaten before he quitted the scene o_perations, advised Charley to eat no breakfast, and to take a good walk as _reparative. Charley had strong faith, however, in his digestive powers, an_elt much inclined, when morning came, to satisfy the cravings of his appetit_s usual; but Jacques drew such a vivid picture of the work that lay befor_im, that he forbore to urge the matter, and went off to walk with a ligh_tep, and an uncomfortable feeling of vacuity about the region of the stomach.
About noon the chiefs and braves assembled in an open enclosure situated in a_xposed place on the banks of the river, where the proceedings were watched b_he women, children, and dogs. The oldest chief sat himself down on the tur_t one end of the enclosure, with Jacques Caradoc on his right hand, and nex_o him Charley Kennedy, who had ornamented himself with a blue stripe painte_own the middle of his nose, and a red bar across his chin. Charley’_ropensity for fun had led him thus to decorate his face, in spite of hi_ompanion’s remonstrances,—urging, by way of excuse, that worthy’s forme_rgument, “that it was well to fall in with the ways o’ the people a ma_appened to be among, so long as these ways and customs were not contrary t_hat was right.” Now Charley was sure there was nothing wrong in his paintin_is nose sky-blue, if he thought fit.
Jacques thought it was absurd, and entertained the opinion that it would b_ore dignified to leave his face “its nat’ral colour.”
Charley didn’t agree with him at all. He thought it would be paying th_ndians a high compliment to follow their customs as far as possible, and sai_hat, after all, his blue nose would not be very conspicuous, as he (Jacques) had told him that he would “look blue” at any rate when he saw the quantity o_eer’s meat he should have to devour.
Jacques laughed at this, but suggested that the bar across his chin was _red_.
Whereupon Charley said that he could easily neutralise that by putting a gree_tar under each eye; and then uttered a fervent wish that his friend Harr_omerville could only see him in that guise. Finding him incorrigible, Jacques, who, notwithstanding his remonstrances, was more than half imbue_ith Charley’s spirit, gave in, and accompanied him to the feast, himsel_ecorated with the additional ornament of a red night-cap, to whose crown wa_ttached a tuft of white feathers.
A fire burned in the centre of the enclosure, round which the Indians seate_hemselves according to seniority, and with deep solemnity; for it is a trai_n the Indian’s character that all his ceremonies are performed with extrem_ravity. Each man brought a dish or platter, and a wooden spoon.
The old chief, whose hair was very grey, and his face covered with old wound_nd scars, received either in war or in hunting, having seated himself, allowed a few minutes to elapse in silence, during which the company sa_otionless, gazing at their plates as if they half expected them to becom_onverted into beef-steaks. While they were seated thus, another party o_ndians, who had been absent on a hunting expedition, strode rapidly bu_oiselessly into the enclosure, and seated themselves in the circle. One o_hese passed close to Charley, and in doing so stooped, took his hand, an_ressed it. Charley looked up in surprise, and beheld the face of his ol_riend Redfeather, gazing at him with an expression in which were mingle_ffection, surprise, and amusement at the peculiar alteration in his visage.
“Redfeather!” exclaimed Charley in delight, half rising; but the India_ressed him down.
“You must not rise,” he whispered, and giving his hand another squeeze, passe_ound the circle, and took his place directly opposite.
Having continued motionless for five minutes with becoming gravity, th_ompany began operations by proceeding to smoke out of the sacred stem—_eremony which precedes all occasions of importance, and is conducted a_ollows:— The sacred stem is placed on two forked sticks to prevent it_ouching the ground, as that would be considered a great evil. A stone pipe i_hen filled with tobacco, by an attendant appointed specially to that office, and affixed to the stem, which is presented to the principal chief. Tha_ndividual, with a gravity and _hauteur_ that is unsurpassed in the annals o_omposity, receives the pipe in both hands, blows a puff to the east (probabl_n consequence of its being the quarter whence the sun rises), and thereafte_ays a similar mark of attention to the other three points. He then raises th_ipe above his head, points and balances it in various directions (for wha_eason and with what end in view is best known to himself), and replaces i_gain on the forks. The company meanwhile observe his proceedings with sedat_nterest, evidently imbued with the idea that they are deriving from th_eremony a vast amount of edification—an idea which is helped out, doubtless, by the appearance of the women and children, who surround the enclosure, an_aze at the proceedings with looks of awe-struck seriousness that are quit_olemnising to behold.
The chief then makes a speech relative to the circumstance which has calle_hem together; and which is always more or less interlarded with boastfu_eference to his own deeds, past, present, and prospective, eulogistic remark_n those of his forefathers, and a general condemnation of all other India_ribes whatever. These speeches are usually delivered with great animation, and contain much poetic allusion to the objects of nature that surround th_omes of the savage. The speech being finished, the chief sits down amid _niversal “Ho!” uttered by the company with an emphatic prolongation of th_ast letter—this syllable being the Indian substitute, we presume, for “rapturous applause.”
The chief who officiated on the present occasion, having accomplished th_pening ceremonies thus far, sat down; while the pipe-bearer presented th_acred stem to the members of the company in succession, each of whom drew _ew whiffs and mumbled a few words.
“Do as you see the redskins do, Mr Charles,” whispered Jacques, while the pip_as going round.
“That’s impossible,” replied Charley, in a tone that could not be heard excep_y his friend. “I couldn’t make a face of hideous solemnity like that blac_hief opposite if I was to try ever so hard.”
“Don’t let them think you are laughing at them,” returned the hunter; “the_ould be ill pleased if they thought so.”
“I’ll try,” said Charley, “but it is hard work, Jacques, to keep fro_aughing; I feel like a high-pressure steam-engine already. There’s a woma_tanding out there with a little brown baby on her back; she has quit_ascinated me; I can’t keep my eyes off her, and if she goes on contorting he_isage much longer, I feel that I shall give way.”
At this moment the pipe was presented to Charley, who put it to his lips, dre_hree whiffs, and returned it with a bland smile to the bearer.
The smile was a very sweet one, for that was a peculiar trait in the nativ_rbanity of Charley’s disposition, and it would have gone far in civilise_ociety to prepossess strangers in his favour: but it lowered him considerabl_n the estimation of his red friends, who entertained a whole some feeling o_ontempt for any appearance of levity on high occasions. But Charley’s fac_as of that agreeable stamp that, though gentle and bland when lighted up wit_ smile, is particularly masculine and manly in expression when in repose, an_he frown that knit his brows when he observed the bad impression he had give_lmost reinstated him in their esteem. But his popularity became great, an_he admiration of his swarthy friends greater, when he rose and made a_loquent speech in English, which Jacques translated into the Indian language.
He told them, in reply to the chief’s oration (wherein that warrior ha_omplimented his pale-faced brothers on their numerous good qualities), tha_e was delighted and proud to meet with his Indian friends; that the object o_is mission was to acquaint them with the fact that a new trading-fort wa_stablished not far off, by himself and his comrades, for their specia_enefit and behoof; that the stores were full of goods which he hoped the_ould soon obtain possession of, in exchange for furs; that he had travelled _reat distance on purpose to see their land and ascertain its capabilities i_he way of fur-bearing animals and game; that he had not been disappointed i_is expectations, as he had found the animals to be as numerous as bees, th_ish plentiful in the rivers and lakes, and the country at large a perfec_aradise. He proceeded to tell them further that he expected they woul_ustify the report he had heard of them, that they were a brave nation an_ood hunters, by bringing in large quantities of furs.
Being strongly urged by Jacques to compliment them on their various goo_ualities, Charley launched out into an extravagantly poetic vein, said tha_e had _heard_ (but he hoped to have many opportunities of seeing it proved) that there was no nation under the sun equal to them in bravery, activity, an_erseverance; that he had heard of men in olden times who made it thei_rofession to fight with wild bulls for the amusement of their friends, but h_ad no doubt whatever their courage would be made conspicuous in the way o_ighting wild bears and buffaloes, not for the amusement but the benefit o_heir wives and children (he might have added, of the Hudson’s Bay Company, but he didn’t, supposing that that was self-evident, probably). H_omplimented them on the way in which they had conducted themselves in war i_imes past, comparing their stealthy approach to enemies camps to th_nsidious snake that glides among the bushes and darts unexpectedly on it_rey; said that their eyes were sharp to follow the war-trail through th_orest or over the dry sward of the prairie; their aim with gun or bow tru_nd sure as the flight of the goose when it leaves the lands of the sun, an_oints its beak to the icy regions of the north; their war-whoops loud as th_hunders of the cataract; and their sudden onset like the lightning flash tha_arts from the sky and scatters the stout oak in splinters on the plain.
At this point Jacques expressed his satisfaction at the style in which hi_oung friend was progressing.
“That’s your sort, Mr Charles. Don’t spare the butter; lay it on thick. You’v_ot said too much yet, for they _are_ a brave race, that’s a fact, as I’v_ood reason to know.”
Jacques, however, did not feel quite so well satisfied when Charley went on t_ell them that, although bravery in war was an admirable thing, war itself wa_ thing not at all to be desired, and should only be undertaken in case o_ecessity. He especially pointed out that there was not much glory to b_arned in fighting against the Chipewyans, who, everybody knew, were a poor, timid set of people, whom they ought rather to pity than to destroy; an_ecommended them to devote themselves more to the chase than they had done i_imes past, and less to the prosecution of war in time to come.
All this, and a great deal more, did Charley say, in a manner, and with _apidity of utterance, that surprised himself, when he considered the fac_hat he had never adventured into the field of public speaking before. Al_his, and a great deal more—a very great deal more—did Jacques Carado_nterpret to the admiring Indians, who listened with the utmost gravity an_rofound attention, greeting the close with a very emphatic “Ho!”
Jacques’s translation was by no means perfect. Many of the flights into whic_harley ventured, especially in regard to the manners and customs of th_savages_ of ancient Greece and Rome, were quite incomprehensible to th_orthy backwoodsman; but he invariably proceeded when Charley halted, giving _light of his own when at a loss, varying and modifying when he thought i_dvisable, and altering, adding, or cutting off as he pleased.
Several other chiefs addressed the assembly, and then dinner, if we may s_all it, was served. In Charley’s case it was breakfast; to the Indians it wa_reakfast, dinner, and supper in one. It consisted of a large platter of drie_eat, reindeer tongues (considered a great delicacy), and marrowbones.
Notwithstanding the graphic power with which Jacques had prepared his youn_ompanion for this meal, Charley’s heart sank when he beheld the mountain o_oiled meat that was placed before him. He was ravenously hungry, it is true, but it was patent to his perception at a glance that no powers of gormandisin_f which he was capable could enable him to consume the mass in the course o_ne day.
Jacques observed his consternation, and was not a little entertained by it, although his face wore an expression of profound gravity while he proceeded t_ttack his own dish, which was equal to that of his friend.
Before commencing, a small portion of meat was thrown into the fire, as _acrifice to the Great Master of Life.
“How they do eat, to be sure!” whispered Charley to Jacques, after he ha_lanced in wonder at the circle of men who were devouring their food with th_ost extraordinary rapidity.
“Why, you must know,” replied Jacques, “that it’s considered a point of honou_o get it over soon, and the man that is done first gets most credit. But it’_ard work,” (he sighed, and paused a little to breathe), “and I’ve not go_alf through yet.”
“It’s quite plain that I must lose credit with them, then, if it depends on m_ating that. Tell me, Jacques, is there no way of escape? Must I sit here til_t is all consumed?”
“No doubt of it. Every bit that has been cooked must be crammed down ou_hroats somehow or other.”
Charley heaved a deep sigh, and made another desperate attack on a larg_teak, while the Indians around him made considerable progress in reducin_heir respective mountains.
Several times Charley and Redfeather exchanged glances as they paused in thei_abours.
“I say, Jacques,” said Charley, pulling up once more, “how do you get on?
Pretty well stuffed by this time, I should imagine?”
“Oh no! I’ve a good deal o’ room yet.”
“I give in. Credit or disgrace, it’s all one. I’ll not make a pig of mysel_or any redskin in the land.”
“See,” continued Charley, “there’s a fellow opposite who has devoured as muc_s would have served me for three days. I don’t know whether it’s imaginatio_r not, but I do verily believe that he’s _blacker_ in the face than when h_at down!”
“Very likely,” replied Jacques, wiping his lips. “Now I’ve done.”
“Done? you have left at least a third of your supply.”
“True, and I may as well tell you for your comfort that there is one way o_scape open to you. It is a custom among these fellows, that when any on_annot gulp his share o’ the prog, he may get help from any of his friends wh_an cram it down their throats; and as there are always such fellows amon_hese Injins, they seldom have any difficulty.”
“A most convenient practice,” replied Charley; “I’ll adopt it at once.”
Charley turned to his next neighbour with the intent to beg of him to eat hi_emnant of the feast.
“Bless my heart, Jacques, I’ve no chance with the fellow on my left hand; he’_tuffed quite full already, and is not quite done with his own share.”
“Never fear,” replied his friend, looking at the individual in question, wh_as languidly lifting a marrow-bone to his lips; “he’ll do it easy. I know_he gauge o’ them chaps, and for all his sleepy look just now he’s game for _ot more.”
“Impossible,” replied Charley, looking in despair at his unfinished viands an_hen at the Indian. A glance round the circle seemed further to convince hi_hat if he did not eat it himself there were none of the party likely to d_o.
“You’ll have to give him a good lump o’ tobacco to do it, though; he won’_ndertake so much for a trifle, I can tell you.” Jacques chuckled as he sai_his, and handed his own portion over to another Indian, who readily undertoo_o finish it for him.
“He’ll burst; I feel certain of that,” said Charley, with a deep sigh, as h_urveyed his friend on the left.
At last he took courage to propose the thing to him, and just as the ma_inished the last morsel of his own repast, Charley placed his own plat_efore him, with a look that seemed to say, “Eat it, my friend, _if you can_.”
The Indian, much to his surprise, immediately commenced to it, and in les_han half an hour the whole was disposed of.
During this scene of gluttony, one of the chiefs entertained the assembly wit_ wild and most unmusical chant, to which he beat time on a sort o_ambourine, while the women outside of the enclosure beat a simila_ccompaniment.
“I say, master,” whispered Jacques, “it seems to my observation that th_ellow you called Redfeather eats less than any Injin I ever saw. He has got _omrade to eat more than half of his share; now that’s strange.”
“It won’t appear strange, Jacques, when I tell you that Redfeather has live_uch more among white men than Indians during the last ten years; and althoug_oyageurs eat an enormous quantity of food, they don’t make it a point o_onour, as these fellows seem to do, to eat much more than enough. Besides, Redfeather is a very different man from those around him: he has bee_artially educated by the missionaries on Playgreen Lake, and I think has _trong leaning towards them.”
While they were thus conversing in whispers, Redfeather rose, and holdin_orth his hand, delivered himself of the following oration:—
“The time has come for Redfeather to speak. He has kept silence for many moon_ow, but his heart has been full of words. It is too full; he must speak now.
Redfeather has fought with his tribe, and has been accounted a brave, and on_ho loves his people. This is true. He _does_ love, even more than they ca_nderstand. His friends know that he has never feared to face danger or deat_n their defence, and that, if it were necessary, he would do so still. Bu_edfeather is going to leave his people now. His heart is heavy at th_hought. Perhaps many moons will come and go, many snows may fall and mel_way, before he sees his people again; and it is this that makes him full o_orrow, it is this that makes his head to droop like the branches of th_eeping willow.”
Redfeather paused at this point, but not a sound escaped from the listenin_ircle: the Indians were evidently taken by surprise at this abrup_nnouncement. He proceeded:—
“When Redfeather travelled not long since with the white men, he met with _aleface who came from the other side of the Great Salt Lake towards th_ising sun. This man was called by some of the people a missionary. He spok_onderful words in the ears of Redfeather. He told him of things about th_reat Spirit which he did not know before, and he asked Redfeather to go an_elp him to speak to the Indians about these strange things. Redfeather woul_ot go. He loved his people too much, and he thought that the words of th_issionary seemed foolishness. But he has thought much about it since. He doe_ot understand the strange things that were told to him, and he has tried t_orget them, but he cannot. He can get no rest. He hears strange sounds in th_reeze that shakes the pine. He thinks that there are voices in the waterfall; the rivers seem to speak. Redfeather’s spirit is vexed. The Great Spirit, perhaps, is talking to him. He has resolved to go to the dwelling of th_issionary and stay with him.”
The Indian paused again, but still no sound escaped from his comrades.
Dropping his voice to a soft, plaintive tone, he continued:—
“But Redfeather loves his kindred. He desires very much that they should hea_he things that the missionary said. He spoke of the happy hunting-grounds t_hich the spirits of our fathers have gone, and said that we required _guide_ to lead us there; that there was but one guide, whose name, he said, was Jesus. Redfeather would stay and hunt with his people, but his spirit i_roubled; he cannot rest; he must go!”
Redfeather sat down, and a long silence ensued. His words had evidently take_he whole party by surprise, although not a countenance there showed th_mallest symptom of astonishment, except that of Charley Kennedy, whos_ntercourse with Indians had not yet been so great as to have taught him t_onceal his feelings.
At length the old chief rose, and after complimenting Redfeather on hi_ravery in general, and admitting that he had shown much love to his people o_ll occasions, went into the subject of his quitting them at some length. H_eminded him that there were evil spirits as well as good; that it was not fo_im to say which kind had been troubling him, but that he ought to conside_ell before he went to live altogether with palefaces. Several other speeche_ere made, some to the same effect, and others applauding his resolve. Thes_atter had, perhaps, some idea that his bringing the pale-faced missionar_mong them would gratify their taste for the marvellous—a taste that is prett_trong in all uneducated minds.
One man, however, was particularly urgent in endeavouring to dissuade him fro_is purpose. He was a tall, low-browed man; muscular and well built, bu_ossessed of a most villainous expression of countenance. From a remark tha_ell from one of the company, Charley discovered that his name was Misconna, and so learned, to his surprise, that he was the very Indian mentioned b_edfeather as the man who had been his rival for the hand of Wabisca, and wh_ad so cruelly killed the wife of the poor trapper the night on which th_hipewyan camp was attacked, and the people slaughtered.
What reason Misconna had for objecting so strongly to Redfeather’s leaving th_ommunity no one could tell, although some of those who knew his unforgivin_ature suspected that he still entertained the hope of being able, some day o_ther, to wreak his vengeance on his old rival. But whatever was his object, he failed in moving Redfeather’s resolution; and it was at last admitted b_he whole party that Redfeather was a “wise chief,” that he knew best wha_ught to be done under the circumstances, and it was hoped that his promise_isit, in company with the missionary, would not be delayed many moons.
That night, in the deep shadow of the trees, by the brook that murmured nea_he Indian camp, while the stars twinkled through the branches overhead, Charley introduced Redfeather to his friend Jacques Caradoc, and a friendshi_as struck up between the bold hunter and the red man that grew an_trengthened as each successive day made them acquainted with their respectiv_ood qualities. In the same place, and with the same stars looking down upo_hem, it was further agreed that Redfeather should accompany his new friends, taking his wife along with him in another canoe, as far as their severa_outes led them in the same direction, which was about four or five days’ journey; and that while the one party diverged towards the fort at Stone_reek, the other should pursue its course to the missionary station on th_hores of Lake Winnipeg.
But there was a snake in the grass there that they little suspected. Misconn_ad crept through the bushes after them, with a degree of caution that migh_ave baffled their vigilance, even had they suspected treason in a friendl_amp. He lay listening intently to all their plans, and when they returned t_heir camp, he rose out from among the bushes, like a dark spirit of evil, clutched the handle of his scalping-knife, and gave utterance to a maliciou_rowl; then walking hastily after them, his dusky figure was soon conceale_mong the trees.