The Story of Louis Riel The Rebel Chief
by Joseph Edmond Collins
Along the banks of the Red River, over those fruitful plains brightened with wild flowers in summer, and swept with fierce storms in the winter-time, is written the life story of Louis Riel. Chance was not blind when she gave as a field to this man's ambition the plains whereon vengeful Chippewas and ferocious Sioux had waged their battles for so many centuries; a country dyed so often with blood that at last Red River came to be its name. But while our task is to present the career of this apostle of insurrection and unrest; stirred as we may be to feelings of horror for the misery, the tumult, the terror and the blood of which he has been the author, we must not neglect to do him, even him, the justice which is his right.
He is not, as so many suppose, a half-breed, moved by the vengeful, irresponsible, savage blood in his veins. Mr. Edward Jack, [Footnote: I cannot make out what Mr. Jack's views are respecting Riel. When I asked him, he simply turned his face toward the sky and made some remark about the weather, I know that he has strong French proclivities, though the blood of a Scottish bailie is in his veins.] of New Brunswick, who is well informed on all Canadian matters, hands me some passages which he has translated from M. Tasse's book on Canadians in the North West; and from these I learn that Riel's father, whose name also was Louis, was born at the island of La Crosse, in the North-West Territories. This parent was the son of Jean Baptiste Riel, who was a French Canadian and a native of Berthier (en haut). His mother, that is the rebel's grandmother, was a Franco-Montagnaise Metis. From this it will be seen that instead of being a "half breed," Louis Riel is only one-eighth Indian, or is, if we might use the phrase employed in describing a mixture of Ethiopian and Caucasian blood, an Octoroon.
Nay, more than this, we have it shown that our rebel can lay claim to no small share of respectability, as that word goes. During the summer of 1822, Riel's father, then in his fifth year, was brought to Canada by his parents, who caused the ceremony of baptism to be performed with much show at Berthier. In 1838 M. Riel pere entered the service of the Hudson Bay Company, and left Lower Canada, where he had been attending school, for the North-West. He was stationed at Rainy Lake, but did not care for his occupation. He returned, therefore, to civilization and entered as a novice in the community of the Oblat Fathers, where he remained for two years. There was a strong yearning for the free, wild life of the boundless prairies in this man, and Red River, with its herds of roaming buffalo, its myriads of duck, and geese and prairie hens, began to beckon him home again. He followed his impulse and departed; joining the Metis hunters in their great biennial campaigns against the herds, over the rolling prairie. Many a buffalo fell upon the plain with Louis Riel's arrow quivering in his flank; many a feast was held around the giant pot at which no hunter received honours so marked as stolid male, and olive-skinned, bright-eyed, supple female, accorded him. Surfeited for the time of the luxury of the limitless plain, Riel took rest; and then a girl with the lustrous eyes of Normandy began to smile upon him, and to besiege his heart with all her mysterious force of coquetry. He was not proof; and the hunter soon lay entangled in the meshes of the brown girl of the plains. In the autumn of 1843 he married her. Her name was Julie de Lagimodiere, a daughter of Jean Baptiste de Lagimodiere.
Louis pere was now engaged as a carder of wool; and having much ability in contrivance he constructed a little model of a carding mill which, with much enthusiasm, he exhibited to some officers of the Hudson Bay Company. But the Company, though having a great body, possessed no soul, and the disappointed inventor returned to his waiting wife with sorrow in his eyes. He next betook himself to the cultivation of a farm upon the banks of the little Seine; and his good, patient wife, when the autumn came, toiled with him all day, with her sickle among the sheaves.
Tilling the soil proved too laborious, and he determined to erect a grist mill; but the stream that ran through the clayey channel of the Seine petite was too feeble to turn the ponderous wheels. So he was obliged to move twelve miles to the east, where flowed another small stream bearing the aesthetic name "Grease River." This was not large enough either for his purposes, so with stupendous enterprise he cut a canal nine miles long, and through it decoyed the waters of the little Seine into the arms of the "Greasy" paramour. At this mill was ground the grain that grew for many a mile around; and in a little while Louis Riel became known as the most enterprising and important settler in Red River. But he was not through all his career a man of peace. The most deadly feud had grown up through many long years between the Hudson Bay Company and the Metis settled upon their territory; and it is only bald justice to say that the, reprisals of the half-breeds, the revolts, the hatred of everything in official shape, were not altogether undeserved. Louis Riel was at the head of many a jarring discord. How such an unfortunate condition grew we shall see later on, and we may also be able to determine if there are any shoulders upon which we can lay blame for the murder and misery that since have blighted one of the fairest portions of Canada.
Louis Riel the elder was in due time blessed with a son, the same about whom it is our painful duty to write this little book. Estimating at its fullest the value of education, the father was keenly anxious for an opportunity to send Louis fils to a school; but fortune had not been liberal with him in later years, though the sweat was constantly upon his brow, and his good wife's fingers were never still. This son had unusual precocity, and strangers who looked upon him used to say that a great fire slumbered in his eye. He was bright, quick and piquant; and it is said that it was impossible to know the lad and not be pleased with his person and manners. One important eye had observed him many a time; and this was the great ecclesiastical dignitary of Red River, Monseigneur Tache. He conceived a strong affection for the lad and resolved to secure for him a sound education. His own purse was limited, but there was a lady whom he knew upon whose bounty he could count. I give the following extract, which I translate from M. Tasse's book, and I write it in italics that it may be the more clearly impressed upon the reader's mind when he comes to peruse the first story of blood which shall be related: The father's resources did not permit him to undertake the expense of this education, but His Grace Archbishop Tache having been struck with the intellectual precocity of Louis, found a generous protector of proverbial munificence for him in the person of Madame Masson, of Terrebonne. In later years it was reserved to the same bishop to go out as a mediator between Government and a band of rebels which had at its head a man whose hands were reddened with the blood of a settler. This rebel and murderer was the same lad upon whom the bishop had lavished his affection and his interest.
Louis, the elder, was travelling upon the plain, when he met his son, bound for the civilized East, to enter upon his studies. He had pride in the lad, and said to his companions that one day he knew he would have occasion to glory in him. They said good-bye, the father seasoning the parting with wholesome words of advice, the son with filial submission receiving them, and storing them away in his heart. This was their last parting, and their last speaking. Before the son had been long at his studies he learned that his father was dead. His nature was deeply affectionate, and the painful intelligence overwhelmed him for many days. At school he was not distinguished for brilliancy, but his tutors observed that he had solid parts, and much intellectual subtlety. He was not a great favourite among his class-mates generally, because his manners were shy and reserved, and he shrank from, rather than courted, the popularity and leadership which are the darling aims of so many lads in their school-days. Yet he had many friends who were warmly attached to him; and to these he returned an equal affection. One of his comrades was stricken down with a loathsome and fatal malady, and all his comrades fled in fear away from his presence. But Louis Riel, the "half-breed," as the boys knew him, bravely went to the couch of his stricken friend, nursing, and bestowing all his attention and affection upon him, and offering consoling words. It is related that when the last moments came, the sufferer arose, and flinging his arms around Louis' neck, poured out his thanks and besought heaven to reward him. Then he fell backwards and died.
Frequently young Riel's school-mates would ask him, "What do you intend doing when you leave school? Will you stay here, or do you go out again into the wilderness among the savages?"
His eye would lighten with indignation at hearing the word "savages" applied to his people. "I will go out to the Red River," he would reply, to follow in the footsteps of my father. He has been a benefactor of our people, and I shall seek to be their benefactor too. When I tire of work, I can take my gun and go out for herds upon the plains with our people, whom you call "savages." I know not what you mean when you say "savages." We speak French as you do; our hearts are as kind, as noble, and as true as yours. When one of our people is in affliction the others give him sympathy and help. We are bound together by strong ties of fraternity; there is no jealousy among us, no tyranny of caste, but we all live in peace and love as the sisters and brothers in one great household. My eye deceives me if like this live you. You are divided into envious, brawling factions, each one of which tries to injure, and blight the reputation of the other. If one of you fall upon evil times he is left without the sympathy and succour of the others. In politics and in social grades you are divided, and in every respect you are such that I should mourn the day when our peaceable, simple, contented people on the banks of the Red River should in any respect choose your civilization for their model.
He often spoke of a burning desire which he had to be a political as well as a social leader in the Colony of Red River. He frequently, likewise, muttered dark threats against the overbearing policy and dark injustice of "The Great Monopoly," as he used to characterize the Hudson Bay Company. Occasionally he would burst out into passionate words like these:
"They treat us as they would blood thirsty savages upon the plains. They spurn us with their feet as dogs, and then they spit upon us. They mock at our customs, they regard with contempt that which to us is sacred and above price. They are not even deterred by the virtue of our women. Now witness, you God who made all men, the white man and the savage, I will, if the propitious day ever come, strike in vengeance, and my blow will be with an iron hand, whose one smiting shall wipe out all the injustice and the dishonour."
Filled with these sentiments, when his school days came to an end, he packed his portmanteaus and took his way by stage and boat for the region that not many years hence was to ring and shudder with his name.
Long before the vision of a confederation of the British Provinces entered into the brain of any man, Lord Selkirk, coming to the wilds of North America, found a tract of country fertile in soil, and fair to look upon. He arrived in this unknown wilderness when it was summer, and all the prairie extending over illimitable stretches till it was lost in the tranquil horizon, was burning with the blooms of a hundred varieties of flowers. Here the "tiger rose," like some savage queen of beauty, rose to his knees and breathed her sultry balm in his face. Aloof stood the shy wild rose, shedding its scent with delicate reserve; but the wild pea, and the convolvulus, and the augur flower, and the insipid daisy, ran riot through all the grass land, and surfeited his nostrils with their sweets. Here and there upon the mellow level stood a clump of poplars or white oaks, prim, like virgins without suitors, with their robes drawn close about them; but when over the unmeasured plain the wind blew, they bowed their heads: as if saluting the stranger who came to found a colony in the wilderness of which they were sentinels. Here too, in the hush, for the first time, the planter's ear heard a far-off, nigh indistinct, sound of galloping thunder. He knew not what it meant, and his followers surmised that it might be the tumult of some distant waterfall, borne hither now because a storm was at hand, and the denser air was a better carrier of the sound. And while they remained wondering what it could be, for the thunder was ever becoming louder, and,
"Nearer clearer, deadlier than before"
Lo! out of the west came what seemed as a dim shadow moving across the plain. With bated breath they watched the dark mass moving along like some destroying tempest with ten thousand devils at its core. Chained to the ground with a terrible awe they stood fast for many minutes till at last in the dim light, for the gloaming had come upon the plains, they see eye-balls that blaze like fire, heads crested with rugged, uncouth horns and shaggy manes; and then snouts thrust down, flaring nostrils, and rearing tails.
My God, a buffalo herd, and we'll be trampled to death," almost shrieked one of the Earl's followers.
"Peace! keep cool! Up, up instantly into these trees!" and the word was obeyed as if each man was an instrument of the leader's will. Beyond, in the south-east, a full moon, luscious seeming as some ripened, mellow fruit, was rising, and the yellow light was all over the plain. Then the tremendous mass, headed by maddened bulls, with blazing eyes and foaming nostrils, drove onward toward the south, like an unchained hurricane. Some of the terrified beasts ran against the trees, crushing horns and skull, and fell prone upon the plain, to be trampled into jelly by the hundreds of thousands in the rear. The tree upon which the earl had taken refuge received many a shock from a crazed bull; and it seemed to the party from the tree-branches as if all the face of the plains was being hurled toward the south in a condition of the wildest turmoil. Hell itself let loose could present no such spectacle as this myriad mass of brute life sweeping over the lonely plain under the wan, elfin light of the new-risen moon. Clouds of steam, wreathing itself into spectral shapes of sullen aspect, rose from the dusky, writhing mass, and the flaming of more than ten thousand eyeballs in the gloom presented a picture more terrible than ever came into the imagination of the writer of the Inferno. The spectacle, as observed by those some twenty feet from the ground, might be likened somewhat to a turbulent sea when a sturdy tide sets against the storm, and the mad waves tumble hither and thither, foiled, and impelled, yet for all the confusion and obstruction moving in one direction with a sweep and a force that no power could chain. Circling among and around the strange, dusk clouds of steam that went up from the herd were scores of turkey buzzards, their obscene heads bent downward, their sodden eyes gleaming with expectancy. Well they knew that many a gorgeous feast awaited them wherever boulder, tree, or swamp lay in the path of the mighty herd. At last the face of the prairie had ceased its surging; no lurid eyeball-light gleamed out of the dusk; and the tempest of cattle had passed the voyageurs and went rolling out into the unbounded stretches of the dim, yellow plain.
The morrow's sun revealed a strange spectacle. The great amplitude of rich, green grasses, warmed and beautified by the petals of flowers was as a ploughed field. The herbage had been literally crushed into mire, and this the innumerable hoofs had churned up with the soft, rich, dark soil of the prairie. The leguminous odours from decaying clover, and rank, matted masses of wild pease, the feverish exhalations of the tiger-lily, and of the rich blooded "buffalo lilac," together with the dank, earthy smell from the broken sod, were disagreeable and oppressive. Lord Selkirk's heart sank within him at seeing the ruin.
"I fear me," he said, "to plant a colony here. A herd of these beasts coming upon a settlement would be worse than ten thousand spears." But some of his guides had before seen the impetuous rushing of the herds, and they assured him that this might not occur again in this portion of the prairie for a quarter of a century to come.
"At any rate," they persisted, "the buffalo keeps away from regions that send up chimney-smoke. The chief regret by-and-by will be that the herds will not come near enough to us." And the Earl was reassured and proceeded with the steps preliminary to founding the colony. It need not be said that the place we have been describing was the prairie on the banks of the Red River.
In a little while ships bearing numbers of sturdy Scotchmen began to cross the sea bound for this famous colony, where the land was ready for the plough, and mighty herds of wild cattle grazed knee-deep among gorgeous flowers and sweet grasses. They brought few white women with them, the larger number being young men who had bade their "Heeland" lassies good-bye with warm kisses, promising to come back for them when they had built homesteads for themselves in the far away wilds of the West.
But when Lord Selkirk planted here his sturdy Scotchmen, wild beasts and game were not the only inhabitants of the plains. The Crees, a well-built, active, war-loving race, had from ages long forgotten roamed over these interminable meadows, fishing in the streams, and hunting buffalo. Here and there was to be found one of their "towns," a straggling congregation of tents made of the skins of the buffalo. Beautiful, dark-skinned girls, in bare brown, little feet, sat through the cool of evening in the summer days sewing beads upon the moccasins of their lovers, while the wrinkled dame limped about, forever quarrelling with the dogs, performing the household duties.
But the Crees liked not the encroachment upon their territories by these foreign men with pale faces; and they held loud pow-wows, and brandished spears, and swept their knives about their heads till their sheen gleamed many miles over the prairie. Then preparing their paint they set out to learn from the pale-faced chief what was his justification for the invasion.
"You cannot take lands without war and conquest," were the words of a young chief with a nose like a hawk's beak, and an eye like the eagle's, to Lord Selkirk. "You did not fight us; therefore you did not conquer us. How comes it then that you have our lands?"
"Are you the owners of this territory?" calmly enquired the nobleman.
"We are; no one else is the owner."
"But I shall shew you that from two standpoints, first from my own, and afterwards from yours, it belongs not to you. Firstly, it belongs to our common Sovereign, the King of England. You belong to him; so likewise do the buffalo that graze upon the plains, and the fishes that swim in the rivers. Therefore our great and good Sovereign sayeth unto me, his devoted subject, 'Go you forth into my territories in the North of America, and select there a colony whereon to plant any of my faithful children who choose to go thither.' I have done so. Then, since you hold possession of these plains only by the bounty and sufferance of our good father the King, how can you object to your white brethren coming when they were permitted so to do?"
Ugh; that was only the oily-tongued talk of the pale-faces. While seeming to speak fair, and smooth, and wise, their tongues were as crooked as the horn of the mountain-goat. Yet no chief could answer the Earl's contention, and they looked from one to another with some traces of confusion and defeat upon their faces.
"But," continued Lord Selkirk, in the same grave and firm voice, "from your own standpoint you are not the proprietors of this territory. The Saulteux, with whom you wage your constant wars, have been upon these plains as long as you. In times of peace you have intermarried with them, and I now find in your wigwams many a squaw obtained from among the villages of your rivals."
Ugh! They could not deny this. It was evident from their silence and the abject way in which they glanced from one to another that the case had gone against them.
"But there is no reason for your jealousy or your hostility," Lord Selkirk continued; "our people come among you, not as conquerors, but as brothers. They shall not molest you but quietly till the fields and raise their crops. Instead of showing unfriendliness, I think you should take them by the hand and welcome them as brothers." These words at last prevailed, and the Crees put by their war paint, and came among the whites and offered them fish and buffalo steak.
Thus was the colony founded. The grain grew well, and there was abundance in the new settlement, save that at intervals an army of locusts would come out of the west and destroy every green leaf. Then the settlers' needs were sore, and they were obliged to subsist upon roots and what fell to them from the chase.
Many years rolled on, and the sturdy Scotch settlers had driven their roots fast into the ground. One alone of all the number who had kissed good-bye to his Scottish sweetheart returned to redeem his pledge. For the rest they soon forgot the rosy cheeks and bright blue eyes that they had left behind them, in the pleasures of the chase upon the plain, and the interest in their wide acres. But these perhaps were not the only reasons why they had forgotten their vows to the Scottish girls. Among the Crees were many beautiful maidens, with large, velvety eyes, black as the night when no moon is over the prairie, and shy as a fawn's. When first the white man came amongst them the girls were bashful; and when he went into the Crees' tent they would shrink away hiding their faces. But it soon became apparent that the shyness was not indifference; indeed many a time when the Scotch hunter passed a red man's tent he saw a pair of eyes looking languishingly after him. Little by little the timidity began to disappear, and sometimes the brown-skinned girls came in numbers to the white man's dwelling, and submitted themselves to be taught how to dance the cotillion and the eight-hand reel. Then followed the wooing among the flowery prairies; and the white men began to pledge their troths to the dusky girls. Many a brave hunter who had a score of scalps to dangle from his belt, sought, but sought in vain, a kind glance from some beautiful maiden of his tribe, who before the pale faces came would have deemed great indeed the honour of becoming the spouse of a warrior so distinguished. Jealousy began to fill the hearts of the Crees, but the mothers and wives, and the daughters too, were constant mediators, and never ceased to exert themselves for peace.
"When," said they, "the white-faces first came among us, our chiefs and our young men all cried out, 'O they deem themselves to be a better race than we; they think their white blood is better than our red blood. They will not mingle with us although they will join with us in hunting our wild meat, or eating it after it has fallen to our arrow or spear. They will not consider one of our daughters fit for marriage with one of them; because it would blend their blood with our blood.' Now, O you chiefs and young men, that which you at the first considered a hardship if it did not come to pass, has come to pass, and yet you complain. 'The whites are above marrying our daughters,' you first cry; now you plan revenge because they want to marry, and do marry them." The arguments used by the women were too strong, and the brawny, eagle-eyed hunters were compelled to mate themselves with the ugly girls of the tents. It is asserted by some writers on the North-West that the beauty observed in the Metis women in after years was in great part to be attributed to the fact that the English settlers took to wife only the most beautiful of the Indian girls. Now and again too, the canny Scotch lad, with his gun on his shoulder and his retriever at his heel, would walk through a Saulteux settlement. The girls here were still shyer than their Cree cousins, but they were not a whit less lovely. They were not dumpy like so many Indian girls, but were slight of build, and willowy of motion. Their hair was long and black, but it was as fine as silk, and shone like the plumage of a blackbird. There was not that oily swarthiness in the complexion, which makes so many Indian women hideous in the eyes of a connoisseur of beauty; but the cheeks of these girls were a pale olive, and sometimes, when they were excited, a faint tinge of rose came out like the delicate pink flush that appears in the olive-grey of the morning. And these maidens, too, began to cast languishing eyes upon the pale-faced stranger; and sighed all the day while they sewed fringe upon their skirts and beads upon their moccasins. Their affections now were not for him who showed the largest number of wolves' tongues or enemies' scalps, but for the gracious stranger with his gentle manners and winning ways. They soon began to put themselves in his way when he came to shoot chicken or quail among the grasses; would point out to him passes leading around the swamps, and inform him where he might find elk or wild turkey. Then with half shy, yet half coquettish airs, and a lurking tenderness in their great dusk hazel eyes, they would twist a sprig off a crown of golden rod, and with their dainty little brown fingers pin it upon the hunter's coat. With shy curiosity they would smoothe the cloth woven in Paisley, forming in their minds a contrast between its elegance and that of the coats of their own red gallants made of the rough skin of the wolf or the bison. So it came to pass that in due season most of the pretty girls among the Jumping Indians had gone with triumph and great love in their hearts from the wigwam of their tribe to be the wives of the whites in their stately dwellings.
In this way up-grew the settlement of Red River; by such intermarriages were the affections of the red men all over the plains, from the cold, gloomy regions of the North to the mellow plains of the South, won by their pale-faced neighbours. The savages had not shut their ears to what their women had so eloquently urged, and they would say:
"The cause of these pale people is our cause; their interests are our interests; they have mingled their flesh and blood with ours; we shall be their faithful brothers to the death." It was this fact, not the wisdom of government Indian agents, nor the heaven-born insight of government itself into the management of tribes that so long preserved peace and good will throughout our North-West Territories. It was for this reason that enemies of government in the Republic could say after they had revealed the corruption of Red Cloud and Black Rock agents:
"Observe the Canadian tribes, mighty in number, and warlike in their nature. They fight not, because they have been managed with wisdom and humanity. There is no corruption among the accredited officials; there is no sinister dealing towards them by the government." We do not charge our officials with corruption, neither do we believe that their administration has been feeble;—on the whole our attitude towards the Indian people has been fair; our policy has revealed ordinary sense,—and not much brilliancy. Probably half a dozen level-headed wood-choppers, endowed with authority to deal with the tribes, could have acquitted themselves as well; perhaps they might not have done so well, and it is probable that they might have exhibited a better showing.
It was in this settlement that in after years appeared Louis Riel pere. For some generations the Hudson Bay Company had carried on an extensive trade in peltry, and numbers of their employes were French peasants or coureurs de bois. Thousands of these people were scattered here and there over the territories; and they began to turn loving eyes toward the rich meadows along the banks of the Red River. Some of these had for wives squaws whom they had wooed and won during their engagement in the peltry trade. These finding that other whites had taken Indian girls for brides, felt drawn towards the new settlement by sentiments stronger than those of mere interest. Numbers of unmarried French took up farms in the new colony, and soon fell captive to the charms of the Cree girls. Now and again the history of the simple-hearted Scots was repeated; and a coureur was presently seen to bring a shy, witching Saulteux maiden from the tents of the Jumping Indians. But the French, it must be said, were not so dilettante in their taste for beauty as were their Scottish brethren; yet, as a rule, their wives were the prettiest girls in the tribes —after, of course, "braw John" had been satisfied—for an ugly maiden was content to have an Indian for her lord; and she tried no arts, plucked no bouquets from the prairie flowers, beaded no moccasins, and performed no tender little offices to catch the heart of the white man.
"Pale face gets all the pretty squaws; suppose we must take 'em ugly ones. Ugh!" This was the speech, and the true speech of many a chief, or lion-hearted young man of the tribes under the new order at Red River.
This may seem hard to the poor Indian, but perhaps it was just as well. It would have, indeed, been worse had the handsome maiden given her hand to the dusky Red, and afterwards, wooed by blue eyes, given her heart where her hand could never go. And the Indian woman is no better and no worse than her kind, no matter what the colour be. Happier, then, is the lot of the Indian with his homely affectionate wife, than with a bride with roses in her cheek, and sunlight in her eye, who cannot resist the pleading eye and the outstretched arms of one whose wooing is unlawful, and the result of which can be nought but wrong and misery.
The population grew and comforts increased till eighteen or twenty thousand souls could be reckoned in the colony. The original whites had disappeared, and no face was to be seen but that of a Metis in any of the cosy dwellings in the settlement. These people had not yet learnt that amongst the whites, whose blood knew no alloy, they were regarded as a debased sort, and unfit socially to mix with those who had kept their race free from taint. The female fruitage of the mixture lost nothing by acquiring some of the Caucasian stock, but the men, in numerous cases, seemed to be inferior for the blending. In appearance they were inane, in speech laconic; they were shy in manners, and reserved, to boorishness, while in intellectual alertness they were inferior to the boisterous savage, or the shrewd, dignified white. But the woman perpetuated the shy, winning coyness of her red mother, and the arts, and somewhat of the refinements of her white father. The eye was not so dusk; it gleamed more: as if the ray from a star had been shot through it. There was the same olive cheek; but it was not so tawny, for the dawn of the white blood had appeared in it. She gained in symmetry too, being taller than her red mother, while she preserved the soft, willowy motion of the prairie-elk.
But the women were not good housekeepers; and many a traveller has gone into the house of a Metis and seen there a bride witchingly beautiful, with her hair unkempt and disordered about her shoulders, her boots unlaced, and her stocking down revealing her bare, exquisitely-turned ankle.
"A Cinderella!" he would exclaim, "but, by heaven, I swear, a thousand times more lovely!" If she had a child it would likely be found sprawling among the coals, and helping itself to handfuls of ashes. The little creature would be sure to escape the suspicion of ever having been washed. Ask the luminous-eyed mother for anything, for a knife to cut your tobacco, for a cup to get a drink of water, and the sweet sloven would be obliged to ransack two-thirds of the articles of the house to find what you sought.
The dresses worn by herself, as well as by her husband or her brother, would not be less astonishing to the unaccustomed eye. The men wear a common blue capote a red belt and corduroy trousers. This, however, soon became the costume of every male in Red River, whether Metis or new-come Canadian. There, is however, a distinction in the manner of wearing. Lest the Canadian should be taken for a Metis he wears the red belt over the capote, while the half-breed wears it beneath. The women are fond of show, and like to attire themselves in dark skirts, and crimson bodices. Frequently, if the entire dress be dark, they tie a crimson or a magenta sash around their handsomely shapen waists; and they put a cap of some denomination of red upon their heads. Such colours, it need not be said, add to their beauty, and it is by no means uncertain that this is the reason why they adopt these colours. Some writers say that their love of glaring colours is derived from the savage side of their natures; but the Metis women have an artistic instinct of their own, and being for the greater part coquettes, it may very safely be said that according to the fitness of things is it that they attire themselves. But they are not able to shake off the superstitions of their race. If the young woman soon to be a mother, sees a hawk while crossing the fields in the morning, she comes home and tells among her female friends that her offspring is to be a son; and they all know that he is to be fleet and enduring in the chase, and that he will have the eyes of a hunter chief. But if a shy pigeon circle up from the croft, and cross her path, she sighs and returns not back to relate the omen; and it is only in undertones that her nearest friend learns a week afterwards that the promised addition to the household is to be a girl. The appearance of other birds and beasts, under similar circumstances, are likewise tokens; and though boys would be born, and girls too, if all the hawks and pigeons, and foxes and wild geese, and every other presaging bird and beast of the plains had fallen to the gun of huntsman and "sport," they cling to the belief; and the superstition will only die with the civilization that begat it. Many of the customs of their red mothers they still reverently perpetuate; but they are for all this deeply overlaid with Canadianism. Of all the women on the face of the earth, they are the greatest gossips.
Not in their whole nature is there any impulse so strong as the love to talk. Therefore, when the morning's meal is ended, the pretty mother laces the boots around her shapely little ankles, puts her blanket about her, and sallies out to one of her friend's houses for the morning's gossip. In speaking of her dress, I neglected to state that although the Metis woman had for gown the costliest fabric ever woven in Cashmere, she would not be content, on the hottest summer day, in walking twenty paces to her neighbour's door, unless she had this blanket upon her. The hateful looking garment is the chief relic of her barbaric origin, and despite the desire which she always manifests to exhibit her personal charms at their best, she has no qualms in converting herself into a hideous, repulsive squaw, with this covering. If she be of a shy nature, she will cover her head with this garment when a stranger enters her abode; and many a curious visitor who has heard of the bright eyes and olive cheeks of the half-breed woman is sorely disappointed when drawing near to her on the prairie path, or in the village street, to see her pull the hideous blanket over her face while he passes her by. Not always will she do this, for the wild women of the plains, and the half breed beauties, find a strong charm in strange faces; and after she has received some little attentions, and a few trinkets or trifles, she will be ready enough to appoint a tryst upon the flowery prairie, under the mellow moon.
We might forgive her for all this, if she could but restrain her tongue. From morn to noon, from noon to dewy eve, this unruly member goes on prattling about every conceivable thing, especially the affairs of her neighbours. We have seen that she goes out after she has eaten her breakfast; and she returns not till her appetite begins to be oppressive. She will then kiss her dusky little offspring, who, during her absence, has likely enough tried to stuff himself with coals, and then played with the pigs. In the evening one is pretty certain to find at some house a fiddler and a dancing party, which ends with a bountiful supper; though frequently, if the refreshments include whiskey, the party terminates with a regulation "Irish row." At nearly every such dance there is a white lad or two, and they are certain to monopolize the attention and the kisses of the prettiest girls. As the Indian had to sit by and see the white man come and take away the most beautiful of the wild girls, so too must the half-breed bear with meekness the preference of the Metis belle for the Caucasian stranger.
The morals of the women are not over good, nor can they be said to be very bad. Amongst each other their virtue reaches a standard as high as that which prevails in our Canadian community. It is when the women are brought into contact with the white men that this standard lowers. Then comes the temptation, the sin, the domestic heartburnings, and the hatred towards those who tempted to the fall.
The half-breed young men are fatally fond of show. The highest aim of their social existence seems to be to possess a dashing horse or two, and to drive a cariole. It is stated, on excellent authority, that a young man who wishes to figure as a beau, and to get the smiles of the pretty girls, will sometimes sell all his useful possessions to purchase a horse and cariole.
But it must not be supposed that this sort of spirit pervades the entire community. A large portion of the people are thrifty and frugal, and maintain themselves by continuous, well-directed toil.
The French half breeds profess the Roman Catholic religion, and they have a number of churches. At the head of the Roman communion is Archbishop Tache, of St. Boniface. This is the gentleman who provided the munificence for Louis Riel's education. He is the same bishop whose name so many hundreds of thousands of our people cannot recall without bitterness and indignation.
Such, then, was the condition of Red River before the person who is the subject of this book appeared upon the scenes. But perhaps it is as well that I should relate one occurrence which fanned into bright flame the smouldering embers of discord between the half-breeds and their white neighbours. An officer of the Hudson Bay Company, living at an isolated post, had two daughters. As they began to arrive toward young-womanhood he was anxious that they should have an education, in order that they might, in proper season, be able to take their position in society. There were good schools at Red River, and thither the officer sent his daughters, placing them under the care of a guardian whom he knew would exercise an authority as judicious as his own. The two girls were remarkably handsome, and whenever they walked through the settlement, or drove abroad with their guardian, they attracted all the attention. Many a half-dusky heart was smitten of their white skin, which he would compare in colour to the pure snow that covers the plains. Now had the faces of the Red River beauties been Parian white, instead of dusky olive, the young beaux of the settlement would not have found their hearts beating half so wildly about the two pale daughters of the Hudson Bay Company's officer. They would indeed have languished for chestnut eyes, and complexions of Spain and the southern vineyards of France. But here amongst their sturdy "tiger blossoms," and passionate prairie roses blew two fair cold lilies; and their hearts bounded beyond measure at the thought of winning a look or a kindly smile. But the guardian watched the two pale girls closely, and permitted them to do little beyond his surveillance. There were not many whites in the circle of their acquaintance, but of this few, nearly every one was a suitor for one or other of the girls, yet for all the advances their hearts were still whole and they moved,
"In maiden meditation fancy free."
Now in Red River was a young half-breed, almost effeminate in manners, handsome in face and form, and agreeable and gentle in his address. He was indeed a sort of Bunthorne of the plains, just such a person as a romantic, shallow girl is most apt for a rose's period to sigh out her soul about. You find his type in fashionable civilised circles, in the languid dude who displays his dreams in his eyes to captivate the hearts of the silly girls, and—discreetly —keeps his mouth shut, to conceal his lack of brains. The two white daughters of the Company's officer were girls of ordinary understanding, but one of them had gotten too much poetry into her sweet head, and stood on the verge of a dizzy steep that overlooked a gulf, the name of which was Love. At a party given by one of the foremost of the half-breed families, this girl met Alexander, the Scottish half-breed, whose person and manners have been just described. There was something in the dreamy, far-away expression of the young Metis' eyes, which stirred the blood in the veins of the romantic girl. When they rested upon her, the soul of their owner seemed to yearn out to her. The voiceless, tender, passionate appealing in the look she was unable to forget when she walked along the grassy lanes, or trod the flower-rimmed path of the prairie.
Coming along in the hush of the summer evening, when only the lovemaking of the grasshoppers could be heard among the flowers, Alexander met her, He spoke no word, but there was the same tender, eloquent appealing in his eyes. He thought the young lady would not take it amiss of him, if he were to join her on her way over the fields; so he had taken the liberty.
There was a flutter at her heart, and a great passion-rose bloomed in each cheek.
No, she would not take it amiss. The walk was so pleasant! Indeed it was kind of him to join her.
The dusky lover spake few words; but he indolently left the path and gathered some sprays of wild flowers, and offered them to the girl. His eyes had the same, wistful look, and his brown fingers trembled as he offered the bouquet. Receiving them, and pinning them under her throat, she said in a low tone, while her voice trembled a little,
"When these fade, I shall press the petals in my book, and keep them always."
"Do you consider the flowers I gave you worth preserving?" he asked, his low voice likewise trembling.
"I would give more than that," he said, tenderly, "to your keeping."
"Why," she enquired, with an unsuccessful attempt at displaying wonder, "what is it that you would give to my keeping?"
"My heart," the young man answered, his indolent eyes lighting up in the gloaming. She said nothing, but hung her head. The swarthy lover saw that she took no offence at his declaration. Indeed he gathered from the quivering of her red, moist lips, and from the tenderness in her eye, that the avowal had more than pleased her. She continued for a few seconds to look bashfully down at the path; and then she raised her eyes and looked at him. No more encouragement was needed.
"My beloved," he said, softly, and her head nestled upon his shoulder. There in the shadow of a small colony of poplars, on the verge of the boundless plain, shining under the full, ripe moon, each plighted troth to the other, and gave and received burning kisses. During the sweet, fast-fleeting hours on the calm plain, in her lover's arms, with no witness but the yellow moon, she took no heed of the barriers that lay between a union with her beloved; nor had he any foreboding of obstacles, but heard and declared vows of love, supremely happy.
Woman is a sort of Pandora's Box, the lid whereof is being forever raised, revealing the secrets within. The plighted maiden was flushed of cheek and unusually bright of eye when she returned to her home that evening. She could give her guardian no satisfactory account of her long absence, and told a very confused story about two paths, "you know," that were "very much alike"; but that "one led away around a poplar wood and out upon a portion of the prairie" which she did "not know." Here the sweet pet had got astray, and wandered around, although "it was so silly," till the sound of the bells of St. Boniface tolling ten had apprised her of the hour and also let her know where she was. Her guardian took the explanation, and contented himself with observing that he hoped it would be her last evening upon the prairie, straying around like an elk that had lost her mate.
"Jennie," said her sister, when they were alone, "you have not been telling the truth. You did not get astray on the prairie. Somebody has been courting you, and you are in love with him."
"I am in love; and it is true that some one has been courting me. I had intended to tell you all about it, my heart is so full. Now can you tell me who may my lover be?"
"I hope, Jennie," and the sister's eyes showed a blending of severity and sorrow, "that it is not Alexander."
"It is Alexander. Why should it not be? Is he not handsome, and gentle, and good? Wherefore then not he?"
"My God, do you know what such an alliance would cost you, would cost us all? Marriage with a half-breed would be a degradation; and a stain upon the whole family that never could be wiped out. O my poor unfortunate sister, ruin is what such a marriage would mean. Just that, my darling sister, and no less."
"I care not for that. I love him with all my heart and soul, and pledged myself to-night a hundred times to be his. I never can love another man; and he only shall possess me. What care I for the degradation of which you speak, as measured against the crowning misery, or the supreme happiness of my life? No; when Alexander is ready to say to me, Come, I shall go to him, and no threat nor persuasion shall dissuade me."
She spoke like all the heroic girls who afterwards meekly untie their bonnets just as they were ready to go to the church to wed against their keeper's will; and then sit down awaiting orders as to whom they must marry. Jennie was not the only girl who, in the first flush of passion, is prepared to go through fire, or die at the stake for the man she loves. Withal,—but that the proprieties forbid it—whenever young women make these dramatic declarations, the most appropriate course would be to give them a sound spanking, and put an end to the tragic business.
Nellie thought it her duty, and I suppose it was, to tell her bear-like guardian what had befallen to her sister. He was less disturbed on hearing the intelligence than Nellie supposed, and merely expressed some cold-blooded surprise at the presumption of the half-breed. He sat at his desk, and taking a sheet of paper, wrote this letter:
"To Alexander Saunders:
"DEAR SIR,—Would you be good enough to call at my house this evening at eight o'clock?
Having sealed and dispatched this note he resumed his work, without showing or feeling any further concern about the matter. When it was growing dark over the prairie that evening, the love-lorn Jennie saw her pleading-eyed lover pass along in the shadow of the poplars toward her guardian's house. She heard his ring at the door, and his step in the hall. Her heart was in a great flutter; but her sister was at her side giving her comfort. The doors were wide open, but everything was so husht, that the girls could plainly hear the following words spoken in the guardian's library:
"I understand, Mr. Saunders, that you have been taking the astonishingly presumptuous course of soliciting the hand of one of my wards. I am not given to severity, or I do not exactly know how I ought to resent an act which exhibits such a forgetfulness of what your attitude should be towards a person in the station of my ward. You are merely a half-breed; you are half-Indian, and for that matter might as well be Indian altogether. My ward's position is such that the bare idea of such a union is revolting. She is a lady by birth and by education, and is destined for a social sphere into which you could never, and ought never, enter. You may now go, sir, but you must remember that your ignorance is the only palliation of your presumption. Laurie, show this young man the way out."
"O, my God, what will become of me?" sobbed poor Jennie. "I cannot live! O, I will go after him! I will fly with him! I cannot endure this separation! O, sister, will you not intercede for my beloved? Tell uncle how noble and manly, and honourable he is! Can you not do anything for me? My God, what shall I do?"
In this fashion did poor Jennie's grief find words, and we leave her alone with her sore heart, while we follow the rejected suitor. He walked swiftly down the lawn, turning not his eye, or he might have seen in the window his lover, stretching imploring arms toward him. All his blood was running madly in his veins, and it burned like fire. His heart was hot, and his temples throbbed.
"So I am only a half-breed, and might as well be all Indian for that matter! O, God! A despised half-breed! They have shown the fangs at last. We now see how they regard us." And he went forth among his friends, and told the story of the insult and humiliation. A thousand half-breed hearts that night in Red River burned with vengeance against the white man; French Metis and English Metis alike had felt the sting of the indignity; and these two bodies, sundered before through petty cause, now united in a brotherhood of hate against the white population. It needs no further words to shew how ready these dusky people would be to rise and follow a crafty leader, who cried out:
"We are despised by these white people. We want no social or political alliance with them. We shall live apart, rather than in ignominy and union with them." Louis Riel was not ready the next morning to rise and lead the people to revolt, for this occurred some years before his bloody star reached the zenith; but the same hatred was there years later, when he turned the governor sent to the colony by the Dominion out of the territories, and set up an authority of his own. Well might the French historian, cognisant of the fate of the luckless suitor, and the consequences of the rejection, cry out with the poet:
"Amour tu perdis Troie." [Footnote: Love thou hast conquered even Troy.]
As for poor Jennie, heroic Jennie, who would follow her lover to death itself, she submitted, after a few sleepless nights, and days that for her were without a breakfast, to the mandate of the guardian, and to the philosophy of her sister. A little later, a tall, ungainly young Highlander came, offered himself, and took to his home the poetic and tragic daughter of the Company's officer.
Despite the blizards that sometimes come sweeping across the prairie, smothering belated travellers, and un-roofing dwellings, notwithstanding the frequent incursions from regions in the far west of myriad-hosts of locusts and grasshoppers, Red River settlement throve in wealth and population, till, when the period with which I shall now deal arrived, it numbered no fewer than 15,000 souls. Upon the completion of the great Act of the Confederation of the British North American Provinces in 1867, the attention of Canadian statesmen was turned to this distant colony, and negotiations were opened for the transfer of the Territory to the Dominion. The back of great monopolies had now been broken. In 1858, England had resumed its great Indian empire and extinguished John Company; and this act had paved the way for a similar resumption of the vast prairie domain granted by King Charles to "the Governor and Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson Bay." The transfer was to be effected, as one writer puts it, by a triangular sort of arrangement. All territorial rights claimed by the Hudson Bay Company —and Red River lay within the Company's dominions—were to be annulled on payment of 300,000 pounds by Canada, and the country would then be handed over by Royal proclamation to the Dominion Government, the Company being allowed to retain only certain parcels of land in the vicinity of its trading posts. I may as well go upon the authority of the same writer. [Footnote: Captain G. L. Huyshe.] The transfer was dated for the 1st of December, 1869; but the Dominion Cabinet, eager to secure the rich prize, appointed its Minister of Public Works, the Honourable William McDougall, C.B., to be Lieutenant-Governor of the North-West Territories, and sent him off in the month of September, with instructions to proceed to Fort Garry "with all convenient speed" there to assist in the formal transfer of the Territories, and to "be ready to assume the Government" as soon as the transfer was completed. So far so well, but let us pause just here.
There is something to be said even on the side of revolt and murder, and let us see what it is. Since the foundation of the colony the people had lived under the government according to the laws propounded by the Hudson Bay Company. The people had established a civilization of their own, and had customs and rules which were always observed with great reverence. When tidings reached them that they were to be transferred to the Dominion of Canada, they began to have some misgivings as to how they should fare under the new order. Of late years, too, there had come into prominence among them a man whom early in these pages we saw bid good-bye to his father upon the plains on his way to school in the East. The fire seen in young Riel at the school, and when he turned his face again for the prairies that he loved, had now reached full flame. He had never ceased to impress upon the people that the Hudson Bay Company was a heartless, soulless corporation, and that the treatment accorded to the Metis was no better than might have been given to the dogs upon the plains. There never was public peace after the tongue of this man had begun to make noise in the settlement.
When, therefore, it became known that the Canadian Government had determined upon taking the colony to itself, an ambitious scheme of the highest daring entered into the brain of Louis Riel. He lost no time in beginning to sow seeds of discontent.
"Canada," he said, "will absorb your colony, and as a people you will virtually be blotted out of existence. White officials will come here and lord it over you; the tax-gatherer will plunder the land for funds to build mighty docks, and canals, and bridges, and costly buildings, and numerous railroads in the East. The poor half-breed will be looked upon with contempt and curiosity: no custom that he regards as sacred will be respected; no right which is inherently his, will be acknowledged. They will send their own henchmen, who have no sympathy in common with the half-breeds, to rule over us; no complaint that the people make to the Central Government will be regarded; yea, this new rule will fasten itself upon us as some inexorable tyrant monster, driving deep its fangs into a soil that has been yours so long. Yes; you will be of some interest to them. You have some handsome wives and pretty daughters, and those virtuous pale-faces from the East have a strong admiration for lovely women. In this respect, you shall receive their attention."
The effect of such arguments among these credulous people, who saw not the wily traitor behind the rich, eloquent voice, quivering with indignation, was similar to that which would follow were you to fling a flaming torch upon the prairie in midsummer after a month of drought. Then the cunning deceiver went secretly to several of the leading half-breeds in Red River, and whispered certain proposals in their ear.
Meanwhile, events were transpiring which furnished just the very fuel that Riel wanted for his fire. During the summer of 1869, a surveying party, under Colonel Dennis, had been engaged surveying the country, and dividing it into townships, etc., for future allotment by government. According to good authority, the proceedings of this party had given great offence to the Metis. The unsettled state of the half-breeds' land tenure not unnaturally excited apprehension in the minds of these poor ignorant people that their lands would be taken from them, and given to Canadian immigrants. Then they had the burning words of Louis Riel ringing in their ears saying that the thing would be done. To lend colour to the mistrust, some members of the surveying party put up claims here and there to tracts of land to which they happened to take a fancy. But this was not all. Some of these gentlemen had the habit of giving the Indians drink till they became intoxicated, and then inducing them to make choice lands over to them. One could not pass through any superior tract of land without observing the stakes of some person or other of Colonel Dennis's party.
"I foretold it," cried Riel. "Go out for yourselves and see the marks they have set up bounding their plunder." Nor was this the only grievance presented to the half-breeds. The very survey then being carried on they looked upon as an act of contempt towards themselves; for Riel had put it in this light.
"The territory has not yet passed into the hands of the Canadian government"—and in saying this the Disturber was accurate—; "what right have they, therefore, to come here and lay down lines? It is as I have already told you: You are of as much importance in the eyes of the Canadian authorities, as would be so many dogs."
Nor were these the only grievances either. A "big man," a white, living at the settlement, had made himself obnoxious to the whole of Red River. He well knew how the people hated him, and he retorted by saying:
"Your scurvy race is almost run. Presently you will get into civilized hands, and be put through your facings. You disrespect me, but my counsels prevail at Ottawa. Only what I recommend, will the Government do; so that you see the settlement is very completely in my hands." This man was a valuable ally to Riel; for almost literally did he, while portending to speak for the Dominion authorities, corroborate the allegation of the arch agitator. Then two officials, Messrs Snow and Mair, sent out by Mr. McDougall, while he was yet Minister of Public Works, had established an intimacy with the obnoxious white man, received his hospitality, and given acquiescent ear to his advice. These two gentlemen looked upon the half-breeds as savages. They sent letters to the newspapers, describing Red River and its people in terms grossly unjust, and inaccurate. M. Riel got the communications and read them to the people.
"This," he said, "is the manner in which they describe our customs, our social life, and the virtue of our women." The women tossed their heads haughtily.
"We do what is right," they said, "and they can slander us if they will. We shall not prove, perhaps, so easy a prey to those white gallants as they seem to suppose." One high-spirited girl, and very beautiful, vowed that during the run of her life, she never would speak to a white man for this insult, or let him see her face. Yet, if the gossip is to be trusted, before the flowers bloomed thrice, after that, upon the prairie, she was sighing her sweet soul away, through her great gazelle eyes, for love of a sturdy young Englishman, who had taken up his abode upon the plains. And better than all the young fellow married her, and she is now one of the happiest, not to say one of the prettiest, women in Manitoba. Strong words of determination by a young woman are the most conclusive evidence that I know of the weakening of her resolve.
But Messrs Snow and Mair went on with their creditable work, and to their other good deeds it was alleged they added that of grabbing choice plots of land.
These two men were, of course, known to be the accredited agents of the Minister of Public Works; and Riel succeeded in convincing the credulous people that the Minister, indeed the whole government, were cognizant of their acts and approved of the same. "While public indignation was at its height, it was announced that a Lieutenant-Governor had been appointed for Red River, and that the man chosen was the very person through whom the chief indignity had been put upon the settlement. It was also shown with burning force by Riel that in a matter so important as the transfer of fifteen thousand people from one particular jurisdiction to another, they, the people transferred, had not been consulted. They had not, he also pointed out, been even formally apprised of the transfer.
"This Canadian Government take Red River and its half-breeds over, just as they would take over Red River and fifteen thousand sheep." And some of the men swore terrible oaths that this change should not be without resistance, and resistance to the death.
Riel said that the determination was good.
Having worked the unreasoning settlers to this pitch, Riel was satisfied. Public feeling needed but the fuse of some bold step of his to burst into instant flame. As the Lieutenant-Governor drew near the territory the agitator was almost beside himself with excitement. He neither ate nor slept but on foot or sleigh, was for ever moving from one to another perfecting plans, or inciting to tumult. At the house of a prominent half-breed, while the women sat about stitching, Riel met a number of the leading agitators, and thus addressed them:
"There are two courses open to us now. One is to continue as an unorganized band of noisy disturbers; the other, to league ourselves into an organized body for the defence and government of our country." This proposal thrilled the veins of his listeners, and pouting, coral-coloured female lips, said softly,
A sort of fitful reflection followed the first wild burst of enthusiasm, and one bois brule arose and said:
"Far be it from me to utter one word that might dampen your ardor, but let us try to take some account of the cost. Would not such a step be an act of Rebellion? and is not Rebellion a treasonable offence?" At this point Riel, foaming with rage, arose and stopped him.
"We want no poltroonery, no alarmist sentiments here," he shouted. "Even though such an act were as you describe it, our duty as men, determined to guard their sacred rights, is to take the risk. But it would not be treason. The transfer of a people from one government to another is not constitutional without the people's consent. The Hudson's Bay Company have certain rights in the unsold lands of these regions; but no man, no corporation, no power, can sell, cede, or transfer that which is not his or its own property. Therefore the Hudson Bay Company has not the right to transfer our lands to the Dominion of Canada. And since we, the people of Red River, are not the chattels of the Company, they cannot transfer us. They have sold us to the Canadian government, but upon the ground between the two authorities will we stand, and create a province of our own. It may be that the Dominion Government will have justice enough to agree to this; if they oppose our rights, then I trust that there are men on Red River, who are not afraid to stand up for, yea to die for, their country." This speech was received with deafening acclamation.
At once a Provisional Government was formed, and at the instigation of Riel, John Bruce, who was a mere cat's-paw, was declared President. Riel himself took the Secretaryship; and very promptly the Secretary raised his voice.
"McDougall who sent his scourges here to plunder our land, and to ridicule our people, nears our border. There is no time to lose. He must not enter. I, therefore, move that the following letter be dispatched to him by a regularly constituted member of our Government:
"St. Nobert, Red River, October 21st, 1869.
"Sir,—The National Parliament of the Metis of Red River, hereby forbids you to enter the North-West Territories without a special permit from the National Government."
This motion was carried with enthusiasm. The letter was signed by the President and Secretary, and dispatched to Pembina, which was situate on the border, to await the arrival at that point of the Governor Designate. The pomp and daring of these proceedings had such an effect upon the colonists, that little by little they began to grow blind to the fact that their action was in the face of Canadian authority, and an invitation to a collision of arms. If anyone expressed any fear he was either savagely silenced by Riel, or informed that there were men enough in Red River to hold the country in the face of any force that could be sent against them. And the military enthusiasm of the Metis gave some colour to this latter assertion. An armed force, sufficient for present necessities, was established on Scratching River, a place about fifteen miles from Fort Garry. Here a barrier was put across the road by which McDougall must travel to reach Fort Garry, and beyond this the half-breeds swore the pale face Governor should never pass.
On the 30th day of October, Mr. McDougall arrived at Pembina. He was already aware that the country was seething with tumult; that Colonel Dennis had been turned out of the Territory; that Messrs. Snow & Mair had become hateful in the eyes of the half-breeds: yet he felt disposed to do little more than laugh at the whole affair. He had the assurance of his mischievous envoys that the matter was a mere temporary ebullition of feeling, and that his presence in the country would very soon calm the turbulent waters. So he said:
"I shall take no notice of this impertinent letter. In fact it is impossible for me to recognise such a piece of presumption, and deal with a communication which would be the rankest insolence, but that it is so extremely ludicrous." So the gallant Lieutenant-Governor, with his officials, boldly crossed the line and proceeded towards Fort Garry. But they were met on their triumphant march by a detachment of fourteen armed half-breeds whose spokesman said:
"You received an order from the Provisional Government not to enter these territories. When that order was passed it was the Government's intention to take care that it should be carried out. Yet you have forced yourself in here I give you till to-morrow morning to be clear of these territories." Mr. McDougall's lip began to hang a little low. The calm, even polite, tone of the spokesman of the party had impressed him more than bluster or rage. With the next morning came the same party. They made no noise, but quietly taking the horses of the Governor's party by the head, turned them around, and packed the whole of them back. In this way, and without so much as a loud word, was the Governor Designate turned out of the territories.
Every success, however trivial, was fuel to the courage and enthusiasm of Riel's party.
"I have begun this matter," the leader said to one of his followers, "and I do not mean to deal in half measures. Without stores we can do nothing. Fort Garry is worth our having just now, but we must move circumspectly in getting possession of it." So it was ordered that his followers should proceed in twos and threes, as if on no special mission, to the desired point. Presently, Governor McTavish saw in the shadow of the fort the rebel leader and a number of followers.
"We are desirous of entering," Riel said.
"Wherefore?" enquired the Governor.
"We cannot tell you now," was the reply; "it is enough for me to say that a great danger threatens the fort." Without further explanation, the feeble-willed Hudson Bay officer permitted the rebel and his followers to enter.
"Huzza!" they all shouted, when they found themselves inside the stockades, and glanced at tier upon tier of barrels of flour, and pork, and beef, and molasses; and upon the sacks of corn, and the warm clothing, and better than all, upon the arms and ammunition.
"I am at last master in Red River," Riel said to one of his followers. "My men can fight now, for here we have at once a fortification and a base of supplies."
Just a few words with reference to Mr. McDougall, and I shall dismiss him from these pages. He lived quietly at Pembina between the date of his expulsion from Red River and the first day of December. The latter date was fixed for the transfer of the new territory to the Dominion of Canada. So, towards midnight, on the 30th of November, the Governor-Designate and his party sallied, forth from the "line" and took formal possession of the territory in the name of the Government of Canada. There was no one stirring about the prairie on the night in question, for the glass shewed the thermometer to be 20 degrees below zero: so the gallant Governor was enabled to take possession without obstruction.
Riel was now fairly intoxicated with success. Some of his followers would sometimes ask him if he had no fear that the Canadian Government would send out a large force of soldiers against him. His invariable reply was:
"They never will do this. The way is too long, and the march too difficult. They will eventually make up their mind to let us rule this Province ourselves."
"And do you propose to stand aloof as an independent colony?"
"Perhaps! And, perhaps, we may, by and by, discuss the subject of annexation." For all the man's cunning and courage, he was almost as short-sighted as any savage upon the plain. And the small measure of Indian blood in him would assert itself in many ways. The people began to look upon him as another Napoleon triumphant, and to give him honour in every way that suggested itself. He made a great display of his importance, and would boast among his friends that he was as diplomatic and as able as any statesman in Canada, and that even his enemies admitted this. In his earlier days he sought, persistently, the smiles of the fair girls of the plains, but somehow or another he was never a very great favourite with the olive-skinned beauties. Now, however, the case was different with him. The Red River belles saw in him a hero and a statesman of the highest order, the ruler of a colony, and the defiant and triumphant enemy of the whole Dominion of Canada. So the poor, shallow pets began to ply their needles, and make for him presents of delicate things. One sewed gorgeous beads upon his hunting coat, and another set his jacket spangling with quills of the porcupine. The good priests of Red River, and their pious vicar, pere Lestanc, whom Monseigneur had left in charge of the Diocese while he was attending the Ecumenical Council in Rome, came forward with their homage. These worthy gentlemen had been in the habit of reading from the Catechism ever since the time they were first able to tell their beads, or to make mud pies, these words: "He that resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God; and they that (so) resist shall purchase to themselves damnation." Here was a madly ambitious adventurer "resisting the power," and, therefore, "resisting the ordinances of God;" but these precious divines saw no harm whatever in the act. Indeed, they were the most persistent abettors in the uprising, counselling their flock to be zealous and firm, and to follow the advice of their patriotic and able leader, M. Riel. The great swaggering, windy pere Richot, took his coarse person from house to house denouncing the Canadian Government and inciting the people.
"No harm can come to you," he would say; "you have in the Canadian Government a good friend in Mr. George E. Cartier. He will see that no hair of one of your heads is touched." And Riel went abroad giving the same assurance. Moreover, it was known to every thinking one of the fifteen thousand Metis that Riel was a protege of Monseigneur Tache; that through this pious bishop it was he had received his education, and that His Lordship would not alone seek to minimize what his favourite had done, but would say that the uprising was a justifiable one. This was how the Catholic Church in Red River stimulated the diseased vanity and the lawless spirit of this thrice-dangerous Guiteau of the plains.
I have already said that Bruce was put up by Riel as a mere figure-head. When the end of the pretence had been accomplished, this poor scare-crow was thrown down and Louis Riel assumed the presidency of the Provisional Government. Now he began to draw to himself all those men whom he knew would be faithful tools in carrying out any scheme of villainy, or even of blood that he proposed to them. The coarse and loud-mouthed O'Donoghue was duly installed as a confidential attendant with wide powers, and Lepine was made head of the military part of the insurrectionary body. It certainly was strange if the treasonable undertaking should not be successful with the acquisition of all the fearless and lawless personages that the half-breed community could produce, and the vicar-general and the swaggering father Richot offering up masses that it should prevail.
It must not be supposed that there were no white people in this Red River region. There were very many indeed, and some of them held prominent places in the community through high character or through affluence. Most of these persons were loyal to the heart's core, and were of opinion that the rising had nothing justifiable in it, and regarded it as a criminal and treasonable rebellion. At meetings, held in the town of Winnipeg, some of these gentlemen were at no pains to give expression to their sentiments. But Riel's murderous eye was upon them; and he was revolving over divers plans of vengeance. There was no reason why he should hesitate in taking any step that promised help to the cause, for Holy Church was praying for its success, and working for it, too. The shedding of the blood of a few heretics was a matter of small consequence: indeed, the act would only hallow a cause that had patriotism under, and religion behind it. We shall leave Riel glaring with wolfish eyes upon the good men who raised their voices against lawlessness, and relate a story which will shed a new light upon the darkest deed of the dark career of the miscreant Rebel.
Some time before the outbreak, Riel, in company with a half-breed, had gone in the autumn shooting chicken along the prairies. The hunting-ground was many miles distant from Riel's home, so that the intention of the sportsmen was to trust themselves to the hospitality of some farm-house in the neighbourhood. The settlers were all, with two or three exceptions, Metis; and the door of the half-breed is never shut against traveller or stranger. One late afternoon, as the two men were passing along the prairie footpath towards a little settlement, they heard at some distance over the plain, a girl singing. The song was exquisitely worded and touching, and the singer's voice was sweet and limpid as the notes of a bobolink. M. Riel, like Mohammed, El Mahdi, and other great patrons of race and religion, is strong of will; but he is weaker than a shorn Samson when a lovely woman chooses to essay a conquest. So he marvelled much to his companion as to who the singer might be, and proposed that both should leave the path and join the unknown fair one. A few minutes walk brought the two beyond a small poplar grove, and there, upon a fallen tree-bole, in the delicious cool of the autumn evening, they saw the songstress sitting. She was a maiden of about eighteen years, and her soft, silky-fine, dark hair was over her shoulders. In girlish fancy she had woven for herself a crown of flowers out of marigolds and daisies, and put it upon her head. She did not hear the footsteps of the men upon the soft prairie, and they did not at once reveal themselves, but stood a little way back listening to her. She had ceased her song, and was gazing beyond intently. On the naked limb of a desolate, thunder-riven tree that stood apart from its lush, green-boughed neighbours, sat a lonely thrush in seeming melancholy. Every few seconds he would utter a note of song. Sometimes it was low and sorrowful, then it was louder, with the same sad quality in it, as if the lonely bird were calling for some responsive voice from far away over the prairie.
"Dear bird, you have lost your mate, and are crying out for her," the girl said, stretching out her little brown hand compassionately toward the low-crouching songster. "Your companions have gone to the South, and you wait here trusting that your mate will come back, and not journey to summer lands without you. Is not that so, my poor bird? Ah, would that I could go with you where there are always flowers, and ever can be heard the ripple of little brooks. Here the leaves will soon fall, ah, me! and the daisies wither, and instead of the delight of summer we shall have only the cry of hungry wolves, and the bellowing of bitter winds above the ghastly plains. But could I go to the South, there is no one who would sing over my absence one lamenting note, as you sing, my bird, for the mate with whom you had so many hours of sweet lovemaking in these prairie thickets. Nobody loves me woos me, cares for me, or sings about me. I am not even as the wild rose here, though it seems to be alone and is forbidden to take its walk: for it holds up its bright face and can see its lover; and he breathes back upon the kind, willing, breeze-puffs, through all the summer, sweet-scented love messages, tidings of a matrimony as delicious as that of the angels." She stood up, and raised her arms above her head yearningly. The autumn wind was cooing in her hair, and softly swaying its silken meshes.
"Fare well, my desolate one: may your poor little heart be gladder soon. Could I but be a bird, arid you would have me for a companion, your lamenting should not be for long. We should journey loitering and love-making all the long sweet way, from here to the South, and have no repining."
Turning around, she perceived two men standing close beside her. She became very confused, and clutched for the blanket to cover her face, but she had strayed away among the flowers without it. Very deeply she blushed that the strangers should have heard her; and she spake not.
"Bon jour, ma belle fille." It was M. Riel who had addressed her. He drew closer, and she, in a very low voice, her olive face stained with a faint flush of crimson, answered,
"Bon jour, Monsieur."
"Be not abashed. We heard what you were saying to the bird, and I think the sentiments were very pretty."
This but confused the little prairie beauty all the more. But the gallant stranger took no heed of her embarrassment.
"With part of your declaration I cannot agree. A maiden with such charms as yours is not left long to sigh for a lover. Believe me, I should like to be that bird to whom you said you would, if you could, offer love and companionship." M. Riel made no disguise of his admiration for the beautiful girl of the plains. He stepped up by her side and was about to take her hand after delivering himself of this gallant speech, but she quickly drew it away. Passing through a covert as they neared the little settlement, Riel's sportsman companion walked ahead, leaving the other two some distance in the rear. The ravishing beauty of the girl was more than the amorously-disposed stranger could resist, and suddenly throwing his arms around her he sought to kiss her. But the soft-eyed fawn of the desert soon showed herself in the guise of a petit bete sauvage. With a startling scream she bounded away from his grasp.
"How do you dare take this liberty with me, Monsieur," she said, her eyes kindled with anger and wounded pride. "You first meanly come and intrude upon my privacy; next you must turn what knowledge you gain by acting spy and eavesdropper, into a means of offering me insult. You have heard me say that I had no lover to sigh for me. I spoke the truth: I have no such lover. But you I will not accept as one; your very sight is already hateful to me." And turning, with flushed cheek and gleaming eyes, she entered the cosy, cleanly-kept little cottage of her father. But she soon reflected that she had been guilty of an unpardonably inhospitable act in not asking the strangers to enter. Suddenly turning, she walked rapidly back, and overtook the crest-fallen wooer and his companion, and said in a voice from which every trace of her late anger had disappeared.
M. Riel's countenance speedily lost its gloom, and, respectfully touching his hat, he said:
"Oui, Mademoiselle, avec le plus grand plaisir." Tripping lightly ahead she announced the two strangers, and then returned, going to the bars where the cows were lowing, waiting to be milked. The persistent sportsman had not by any means made up his mind to desist in the wooing.
"The colt shies," he murmured, "when she first sees the halter. Presently she becomes tractable enough." Then, while he sat waiting for the evening meal, blithely through the hush of the exquisite evening came the voice of the girl. She was singing from La Claire Fontaine: