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Chapter 3 The counting-room.

  • Every one knows the general appearance of a counting-room. There are one o_wo peculiar features about such apartments that are quite unmistakable an_ery characteristic; and the counting-room at Fort Garry, although man_undred miles distant from other specimens of its race, and, from the peculia_ircumstances of its position, not therefore likely to bear them muc_esemblance, possessed one or two features of similarity, in the shape of tw_arge desks and several very tall stools, besides sundry ink-bottles, rulers,
  • books, and sheets of blotting-paper. But there were other implements there,
  • savouring strongly of the backwoods and savage life, which merit mor_articular notice.
  • The room itself was small, and lighted by two little windows, which opene_nto the courtyard. The entire apartment was made of wood. The floor was o_npainted fir boards. The walls were of the same material, painted blue fro_he floor upwards to about three feet, where the blue was unceremoniousl_topped short by a stripe of bright red, above which the somewhat fancifu_ecorator had laid on a coat of pale yellow; and the ceiling, by way o_ariety, was of a deep ochre. As the occupants of Red River office were,
  • however, addicted to the use of tobacco and tallow candies, the origina_olour of the ceiling had vanished entirely, and that of the walls ha_onsiderably changed.
  • There were three doors in the room (besides the door of entrance), eac_pening into another apartment, where the three clerks were wont to court th_avour of Morpheus after the labours of the day. No carpets graced the floor_f any of these rooms, and with the exception of the paint aforementioned, n_rnament whatever broke the pleasing uniformity of the scene. This wa_ompensated, however, to some extent by several scarlet sashes, bright-
  • coloured shot-belts, and gay portions of winter costume, peculiar to th_ountry, which depended from sundry nails in the bedroom walls; and as th_hree doors always stood open, these objects, together with one or tw_owling-pieces and canoe-paddles, formed quite a brilliant and highl_uggestive background to the otherwise sombre picture. A large open fireplac_tood in one corner of the room, devoid of a grate, and so constructed tha_arge logs of wood might be piled up on end to any extent. And really th_ires made in this manner, and in this individual fireplace, were exquisit_eyond description. A wood-fire is a particularly cheerful thing. Those wh_ave never seen one can form but a faint idea of its splendour; especially o_ sharp winter night in the arctic regions, where the thermometer falls t_orty degrees below zero, without inducing the inhabitants to suppose that th_orld has reached its conclusion. The billets are usually piled up on end, s_hat the flames rise and twine round them with a fierce intensity that cause_hem to crack and sputter cheerfully, sending innumerable sparks of fire int_he room, and throwing out a rich glow of brilliant light that warms a ma_ven to look at it, and renders candles quite unnecessary.
  • The clerks who inhabited this counting-room were, like itself, peculiar. Ther_ere three—corresponding to the bedrooms. The senior was a tall, broad-
  • shouldered, muscular man—a Scotchman—very good-humoured, yet a man whos_nder-lip met the upper with that peculiar degree of precision that indicate_he presence of other qualities besides that of good-humour. He was book-
  • keeper and accountant, and managed the affairs entrusted to his care with th_ame dogged perseverance with which he would have led an expedition o_iscovery to the North Pole. He was thirty or thereabouts.
  • The second was a small man—also a Scotchman. It is curious to note ho_umerous Scotchmen are in the wilds of North America. This specimen wa_iminutive and sharp. Moreover, he played the flute—an accomplishment of whic_e was so proud that he ordered out from England a flute of ebony, s_laborately enriched with silver keys that one’s fingers ached to behold it.
  • This beautiful instrument, like most other instruments of a delicate nature,
  • found the climate too much for its constitution, and, soon after the winte_egan, split from top to bottom. Peter Mactavish, however, was a genius b_ature, and a mechanical genius by tendency; so that, instead of giving way t_espair, he laboriously bound the flute together with waxed thread, which,
  • although it could not restore it to its pristine elegance, enabled him to pla_ith great effect sundry doleful airs, whose influence, when performed a_ight, usually sent his companions to sleep, or, failing this, drove them t_istraction.
  • The third inhabitant of the office was a ruddy, smooth-chinned youth of abou_ourteen, who had left home seven months before, in the hope of gratifying _esire to lead a wild life, which he had entertained ever since he read “Jac_he Giant Killer,” and found himself most unexpectedly fastened, during th_reater part of each day, to a stool. His name was Harry Somerville, and _ine, cheerful little fellow he was, full of spirits, and curiously addicte_o poking and arranging the fire at least every ten minutes—a propensity whic_ested the forbearance of the senior clerk rather severely, and would hav_urprised any one not aware of poor Harry’s incurable antipathy to the desk,
  • and the yearning desire with which he longed for physical action.
  • Harry was busily engaged with the refractory fire when Charley, as stated a_he conclusion of the last chapter, burst into the room.
  • “Hollo!” he exclaimed, suspending his operations for a moment, “what’s up?”
  • “Nothing,” said Charley, “but father’s temper, that’s all. He gave me _plendid description of his life in the woods, and then threw his pipe at m_ecause I admired it too much.”
  • “Ho!” exclaimed Harry, making a vigorous thrust at the fire, “then you’ve n_hance now.”
  • “No chance! what do you mean?”
  • “Only that we are to have a wolf-hunt in the plains tomorrow; and if you’v_ggravated your father, he’ll be taking you home to-night, that’s all.”
  • “Oh! no fear of that,” said Charley, with a look that seemed to imply tha_here was very great fear of “that,”—much more, in fact, than he was willin_o admit even to himself. “My dear old father never keeps his anger long. I’_ure that he’ll be all right again in half an hour.”
  • “Hope so, but doubt it I do,” said Harry, making another deadly poke at th_ire, and returning, with a deep sigh, to his stool.
  • “Would you like to go with us, Charley?” said the senior clerk, laying dow_is pen and turning round on his chair (the senior clerk never sat on a stool)
  • with a benign smile.
  • “Oh, very, very much indeed,” cried Charley; “but even should father agree t_tay all night at the fort, I have no horse, and I’m sure he would not let m_ave the mare after what I did to-day.”
  • “Do you think he’s not open to persuasion?” said the senior clerk.
  • “No, I’m sure he’s not.”
  • “Well, well, it don’t much signify; perhaps we can mount you.” (Charley’s fac_rightened.) “Go,” he continued, addressing Harry Somerville—“go, tell To_hyte I wish to speak to him.”
  • Harry sprang from his stool with a suddenness and vigour that might hav_ustified the belief that he had been fixed to it by means of a powerfu_pring, which had been set free with a sharp recoil, and shot him out at th_oor, for he disappeared in a trice. In a few minutes he returned, followed b_he groom Tom Whyte.
  • “Tom,” said the senior clerk, “do you think we could manage to mount Charle_o-morrow?”
  • “Why, sir, I don’t think as how we could. There ain’t an ’oss in the stabl_xcept them wot’s required and them wot’s badly.”
  • “Couldn’t he have the brown pony?” suggested the senior clerk.
  • Tom Whyte was a cockney and an old soldier, and stood so bolt upright that i_eemed quite a marvel how the words ever managed to climb up the steep ascen_f his throat, and turn the corner so as to get out at his mouth. Perhaps thi_as the cause of his speaking on all occasions with great deliberation an_lowness.
  • “Why, you see, sir,” he replied, “the brown pony’s got cut under the fetloc_f the right hind leg; and I ’ad ’im down to L’Esperance the smith’s, sir, t_ook at ’im, sir; and he says to me, says he, ‘That don’t look well, that ’os_on’t,’—and he’s a knowing feller, sir, is L’Esperance, though he _is_ an
  • ’alf-breed—”
  • “Never mind what he said, Tom,” interrupted the senior clerk; “is the pony fi_or use? that’s the question.”
  • “No, sir, ’e hain’t.”
  • “And the black mare, can he not have that?”
  • “No, sir; Mr Grant is to ride ’er to-morrow.”
  • “That’s unfortunate,” said the senior clerk.—“I fear, Charley, that you’l_eed to ride behind Harry on his gray pony. It wouldn’t improve his speed, t_e sure, having two on his back; but then he’s so like a pig in his movement_t any rate, I don’t think it would spoil his pace much.”
  • “Could he not try the new horse?” he continued, turning to the groom.
  • “The noo ’oss, sir! he might as well try to ride a mad buffalo bull, sir. He’_uite a young colt, sir, only ’alf broke—kicks like a windmill, sir, and’s go_n ’ead like a steam-engine; ’e couldn’t ’old ’im in no’ow, sir. I ’ad ’i_own to the smith t’other day, sir, an’ says ’e to me, says ’e, ‘That’s _creamer, that is.’ ‘Yes,’ says I, ‘that his a fact.’ ‘Well,’ says ’e—”
  • “Hang the smith!” cried the senior clerk, losing all patience; “can’t yo_nswer me without so much talk? Is the horse too wild to ride?”
  • “Yes, sir, ’e is,” said the groom, with a look of slightly offended dignity,
  • and drawing himself up—if we may use such an expression to one who was alway_rawn up to such an extent that he seemed to be just balanced on his heels,
  • and required only a gentle push to lay him flat on his back.
  • “Oh, I have it!” cried Peter Mactavish, who had been standing during th_onversation with his back to the fire, and a short pipe in his mouth: “Joh_owler, the miller, has just purchased a new pony. I’m told it’s an ol_uffalo-runner, and I’m certain he would lend it to Charley at once.”
  • “The very thing,” said the senior clerk.—“Run, Tom; give the miller m_ompliments, and beg the loan of his horse for Charley Kennedy.—I think h_nows you, Charley?”
  • The dinner-bell rang as the groom departed, and the clerks prepared for thei_id-day meal.
  • The senior clerk’s order to “ _run_ ” was a mere form of speech, intended t_ndicate that haste was desirable. No man imagined for a moment that Tom Whyt_ould by any possibility _run_. He hadn’t run since he was dismissed from th_rmy, twenty years before, for incurable drunkenness; and most of Tom’_riends entertained the belief that if he ever attempted to run he would crac_ll over, and go to pieces like a disentombed Egyptian mummy. Tom therefor_alked off to the row of buildings inhabited by the men, where he sat down o_ bench in front of his bed, and proceeded leisurely to fill his pipe.
  • The room in which he sat was a fair specimen of the dwellings devoted to th_employés_ of the Hudson’s Bay Company throughout the country. It was large,
  • and low in the roof, built entirely of wood, which was unpainted; a matter,
  • however, of no consequence, as, from long exposure to dust and tobacco-smoke,
  • the floor, walls, and ceiling had become one deep, uniform brown. The men’_erths were constructed after the fashion of berths on board ship, bein_ooden boxes ranged in tiers round the room. Several tables and benches wer_trewn miscellaneously about the floor, in the centre of which stood a larg_ouble iron stove, with the word “ _Carron_ ” stamped on it. This served a_nce for cooking, and warming the place. Numerous guns, axes, and canoe-
  • paddles hung round the walls or were piled in corners, and the rafter_ustained a miscellaneous mass of materials, the more conspicuous among whic_ere snow-shoes, dog-sledges, axe handles, and nets.
  • Having filled and lighted his pipe, Tom Whyte thrust his hands into hi_eerskin mittens, and sauntered off to perform his errand.