It was the night after Encænia at the University
of New Brunswick, and the students were having
it all their own way.
On such a night tradition made it proper
that the eyes and ears of authority should be
sealed on College Hill; and on such a night the
citizens of Fredericton fell asleep in an expectant
mood, ready to be surprised at nothing which might
take place before the dawn.
The ancient French cannon—a relic of D’Therville’s
raid on St. Anne’s Point, and the rich reward
of a series of excavations which we had conducted
upon the sight of the battle-field—had been dragged
stealthily from its hiding-place, and now, with
its rusty muzzle aimed at the hillside, stood
ready to be discharged.
It was so loaded that it might outroar
all previous broadsides, or burst. As the latter contingency seemed the more probable one, we
had laid a very long train, in order that the
discharge might be effected from a safe distance.
It was a clear but moonless
night, and under the thick-leaved maples of College Grove the gloom was
deep. The scanty beam of a
tiny bull’s-eye lantern had been flashed along the train to see that
all was in readiness; and we gathered breathlessly about our captain as
he prepared to strike the momentous match.
Ere he did so he glanced out from under the branches to see that
no one was approaching. A
cry of wonder broke from his lips, and brought us crowding on the
instant to his side. What we saw was the whole eastern heavens flushed to an angry
red, though it wanted some hours yet of dawn.
There was an awestruck silence.
Then someone whispered, “St. John’s on fire!” and
straightway the excitement boiled over.
Some half dozen of our party belonged to St. John, and these
broke wildly for town and the telegraph.
All thought of our revels was at an end, but the captain of the
gun declared we must have our broadside, if only for a fire-alarm.
He made a terse speech to the Freshmen, reminding them that the
gun must be buried as usual, without regard to conflagrations, or the
President would capture it, and the memory of this Encænia-night become
contemptible. The Freshmen responded dutifully, and the train was touched
off. There was a swift,
nerve-thrilling hiss, and then the roar.
Townsfolk thought it an earthquake; and the lurid sky that met
their gaze as they sprang to the windows was scarcely re-assuring.
As for the staunch old gun, it had stood the strain, but it was
almost buried by the force of its own recoil.
As the Freshmen set themselves hastily to complete its sepulture,
the rest of us dispersed in search of news.
It had been arranged by
three of us—S., D., and myself—that early the coming morning we
should set out on a canoe cruise. Hence
on the previous day our canoe had been overhauled, and our blankets and
supplies put in readiness. We
resolved to start at once for the scene of the disaster.
Rushing home, we snatched a midnight breakfast, seized our traps,
warned our households, and half an hour later saw us embarking under the
chilling shadow of Sherman’s wharf.
The river was like glass,
and as we shot noiselessly out into the tide, and down the red path
spread out for us by the reflection of that fiery glow, the scene
impressed us with a weird unreality.
We paddled on with great energy for a while, in a sort of
suppressed but delicious excitement, determined to make what distance we
could in the next six hours, then to breakfast, and sleep out the heat
of the day in some well-shaded island.
At first we could see clearly enough; but, as the hour of dawn
approached, light clouds gathered in the sky, and mists stole in thin
streamers over the water; and the red glare, diffused by many
reflections, became most deceptive to the sight.
We just escaped colliding with an old broken pier which we had,
nevertheless, been watching intently for some minutes, and which we had
judged to be nearly a quarter of a mile away.
For a time we were compelled to paddle more circumspectly.
Then seeing a fine stretch of clear water ahead, we let ourselves
out. In the bow was D., watching for snags and shoals, the river
being low at the season. At
last he cried,
Look out for it!”
“Alright!” we answered,
confidently; and at that very moment, so illusive was the light, we were
upon it. The canoe struck
on her quarter, sheered, rose, and rolled gracefully over; while, with
an involuntary gasp and shudder, we plunged to our unexpected bath.
But, lo! we sank to our elbows in soft mud, drenching ourselves
to the shoulders, while our legs remained in the canoe. With much spluttering and grumbling, and rather rueful
laughter, we righted ourselves, none the worse save for some wet
blankets. After washing,
and the wringing out of coats and shirts, we shoved off from that
miserable shoal, and pushed forward.
As the grey of dawn crept
up, silvering the mists and turning the river to ink by contrast, the
fiery glow in the east was gradually dimmed, and the pink and saffron of
sunrise took its place. For
the last hour we had been growing heavy with sleep, but the crisp air
and cool, tender colors brightened us wonderfully, and the shores
slipped by with steadily increasing speed.
By seven o’clock we had made Grimross Island, having covered
about 35 miles; and here we disembarked for breakfast.
First, a delicious plunge in a little cove of yellow sand
overhung by a grove of dogberries, then the boiling of the porridge, the
boiling of the smoked salmon, the brewing of the coffee; and, by the
time these were disposed of, the dew was pretty well dried from off the
grass, and we went to sleep in the shadow of the dogberries.
All the morning long, it is to be presumed, the big bees circled
booming about us, the green and purple dragon-flies hurtled over us, the
bobolink tinkled on the topmost branches of our shelter, and the smell
of the clover-blossoms, wild peas and bull’s-eye daisies kept
streaming across our couch, but we were blissfully heedless of it all.
Noon passed—one o’clock—two!
Then S. awoke and began to clamor for beans.
Of course, on this trip there was no time for elaborate cookery;
but S. had come armed with a can of “Boston Baked” for just such an
emergency as this, so his clamor was soon appeased, and by three we were
again under way. The banks
of smoke which were piling up along the eastern horizon kept our
excitement at high pitch, and, as there was a stiff breeze following us,
we hoisted our spirit-sail, and made about nine miles an hour, till the
wind fell at sundown. In
the mixture of sunset and firelight that followed, we again found it
hard to steer our way, and being reluctant to slacken speed, we kept D.,
who was still on the look-out, rather painfully on the alert.
He had his revenge, for he would ever and anon send us
frantically dodging to avoid imaginary snags and logs which his fancy
manufactured out of the multiplied shadows.
Once, in the middle of what seemed a clear expanse of flushed
waters, we dashed into a bed of reeds, and were somewhat startled by a
flock of wild ducks which rose flapping and squawking about our ears.
By half-past nine we were on the shores of Grand Bay, not five
miles from the burning city, and here we halted for a cold bite.
A range of bleak heights
cut off the city from our view. Their
crests were outlined sharply against the fiery sky, across which swept
continuously a rolling stream of red smoke drifts.
A deep notch in the hills, glowing like a furnace-mouth,
indicated the entrance to “The Narrows;” and the roughened waters of
the bay, over which lay our course, made an awful and desolate picture
as they seethed up, crimson on their crests but black in their shadowed
hollows. Our plan was to pitch tent and hide our canoe, about two miles
from the city, in a secret nook which I knew of, far up in the rocky
walls of “The Narrows,” and thence to conduct our explorations in
light array. It was a spot
hard to get at, where we confidently believed we might leave our things
without fear of visitation by tramps.
Ere reaching our
prospective landing-place we passed a little plateau, on the summit of
which, half-hidden by bushes, a white tent showed itself.
“Some of the burnt-out
folks,” remarked D.; and scarcely had he spoken when we were startled
by a woman’s scream, and a boy’s voice crying for help.
“I guess we’re wanted
there,” said S.; and we dashed for the shore.
Leaving S. to make fast the canoe and follow us, D. and I sprang
up the bank and rushed into the tent, which was a large “lean-to,”
half open in front, and with a camp-fire smouldering before it.
In the light of the burning city the scene was as clear as by
day. In a corner lay a
woman struggling under the hands of a ruffian, who was holding her down,
while with brutal laughter he stifled her cries by stuffing a cloth into
her mouth. Close by crouched a boy of perhaps twelve years, sobbing with
terror and pain, and bleeding from a blow in the face.
Three tramps, while their comrade held the woman, were hastily
getting together the provisions and household stuff that were heaped in
confusion on the floor. A
glance showed us all this, and without a word, we hurled ourselves upon
the robbers. In D’s hands
was no weapon but his paddle, with which, shortening it in his grip, and
using it as a two-handed lance, he struck the nearest scoundrel on the
back of the shoulder, shattering the shoulder-blade and putting the
fellow quite out of the fight. Instantly
the paddle was gripped by a strapping ruffian and snatched from D’s
hands, who thereupon seized his adversary by the throat and waist, and
the two went down together. I
feared that D., who was short and slight, would find himself
overmatched, but, knowing his pluck and his wiry strength, I depended on
him to hold out till S.’s coming.
Meanwhile I was kept too painfully busy to pay further attention
to his fate. I had snatched
our little axe from the canoe, and was brandishing that dangerous weapon
in my left hand as I ran in on my nearest opponent.
I attacked him, however with my paddle, dreading to inflict a
fatal wound. Warned just in
time by the noise of our rush, the fellow threw up his arm and parried
my thrust, but the next moment he got a tap on the head from the back of
the little axe, and lost for a time his interest in the proceedings.
With prompt presence of mind the fourth scoundrel threw a heavy
quilt, which entangled my weapons, and before I could free myself he was
on me. In the
rough-and-tumble which followed, however, I secured a good hold.
Fairly matched, we swayed out of the tent, straining every nerve
for the advantage. I saw
the woman sit up and renew her screams.
I saw D. on the ground, his deadly grip still fixed on his big
antagonist’s throat, while his left hand grasped the hilt of a knife
with which his adversary sought to stab him.
I saw the sobbing boy wake from his terror and run to D’s aid.
Then came S., on the run, and plunged into the fray with a
fearful yell. He seized the
ruffian by the neck and proceeded to shake him out of his shirt.
Just at this moment, while my heart leaped joyously within me, my
opponent set his foot on some kitchen-ware, and down he went with a huge
clatter of pots and pans. As
I planted my knee on his chest, with a little significant pressure, he
gave up struggling, and composed himself peacefully to rest.
Meanwhile, the fellow whose
head had I had knocked with the axe came to himself.
Half opening his eyes, he looked about him, and quickly took in
the situation. In another
moment he was on his feet, and away.
D., just relieved by S. from the too heavy responsibilities of
his position, sprang at once in pursuit; but S. called him back,
declaring we had enough of such rabble on our hands, and that their
company was none too good for us.
We now proceeded to bind
our captures, into which task we impressed the services of the woman and
the boy. The latter,
according to his mother’s account, had acted before our arrival with a
good deal of pluck. The
family, it appeared, was one which had been burnt out at the very
beginning of the fire and the father had selected this out-of-the-way
spot as the safest one for the temporary establishment of his household.
Leaving his wife and son to take care of their rescued household
goods, he had returned to the scene of disaster to render the assistance
of which so many stood in need. The
miserable scoundrels whom we had just discomfited were of a party who
were reaping splendid profits out of the general calamity.
When they broke upon the defenceless camp they had at first not
offered any violence to the inmates, merely replying with oaths and
coarse mockery to the woman’s expostulations.
But at length the fellow who was now my captive had kicked the
woman for interfering to save her property, whence the screams that had
attracted our attention. Upon
this the boy had flown furiously upon his mother’s assailant, and
struck him with a stick, receiving in return from the ruffian’s fist a
brutal blow which now disfigured his face.
The other thieves had ordered their comrade not to hurt the
woman; whereupon the boy’s heroism had melted into sobs.
While we were examining the
somewhat serious wound of the fellow who had fallen beneath D’s
paddle, we were interrupted by the return of the husband with a couple
of companions. Rejoiced at
the opportunity, we handed over our captives, and made haste away to get
our own camp established. The
place I had in mind proved so difficult of access, and the tent, when at
last we got it pitched, was so perfectly hidden, that, in spite of our
late experience, we were in no anxiety about leaving it unguarded.
But when all was ready, provisions and baggage stowed away, and
the canoe attending empty for a swift run into the vortex of terror and
confusion roaring so near us, D. murmured tentatively.
“Don’t you suppose,
boys, it’ll all be there in the morning?”
S. joined in with “I
guess it isn’t much of a fire anyway.
Some brush burning.”
For my own part, I suddenly
begin to feel that, even though the whole world were ablaze,
nevertheless was it necessary to sleep.
The excitement of the last hour, coming after the day’s toil
and the uproarious fun of the previous night, had utterly exhausted us.
Without another word on the subject we rolled into our blankets
and fell asleep; while the burning city clamored near by, and the fiery
clouds were vomited across the heavens.
Our sleep, however, was
burdened with a consciousness of vast events.
About dawn we awoke suddenly, snatched a breakfast of canned
stuff, and started for the city. The
flames were subsiding, and the destruction had nearly reached its
limits, but there was still a wild excitement, with much to be done.
All the morning, we worked about the smoking streets, amid the
toppling of walls, the lamentations of the homeless, the rushings to and
fro of engines and hose-carts; and early in the afternoon, hungry and
exhausted, we started back for camp.
As S. climbed the steep path ahead of us, his lips on a sudden
gave forth a sound more forcible than polite.
Nimbly we clambered to his side.
There was our pretty tent in tatters; our tinware was beaten into
fragments; our blankets and provisions all had vanished.
In lugubrious silence we stood about the ruins. Then S. sighed.
“The beans are gone, and
with the beans go I. We may
as well take tonight’s boat for home, boys!”
And D. consoled himself
with the reflection:
“Oh my prophetic soul!
Didn’t we pummel them for this last night, though!”
To get another tent, and to replenish
our larder, were equally out of the question at
this time of mortal trial for St. John.
That very night we put our craft aboard
the up-river boat, and were back in Fredericton