Non-Fictional Prose

by Charles G.D. Roberts

Edited by D.M.R. Bentley and Laurel Boone



A River Voyage Lightened by the Glare of the Great St. John Fire.

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,

“Log ahead!  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 by daylight.

Saint John


"Canoe and Conflagration," Progress (Saint John, N.B.), Aug. 18, 1888 [back]