CHAPTER I WHEREIN A LAD SEES MAKERS OF HISTORY
"Has any one seen Eric Hamilton?" I asked.
For an hour, or more, I had been lounging about the sitting-room of a club in Quebec City, waiting for my friend, who had promised to join me at dinner that night. I threw aside a news-sheet, which I had exhausted down to minutest advertisements, stretched myself and strolled across to a group of old fur-traders, retired partners of the North-West Company, who were engaged in heated discussion with some officers from the Citadel.
"Has any one seen Eric Hamilton?" I repeated, indifferent to the merits of their dispute.
"That's the tenth time you've asked that question," said my Uncle Jack MacKenzie, looking up sharply, "the tenth time, Sir, by actual count," and he puckered his brows at the interruption, just as he used to when I was a little lad on his knee and chanced to break into one of his hunting stories with a question at the wrong place.
"Hang it," drawled Colonel Adderly, a squatty man with an over-fed look on his bulging, red cheeks, "hang it, you don't expect Hamilton? The baby must be teething," and he added more chaff at the expense of my friend, who had been the subject of good-natured banter among club members for devotion to his first-born.
I saw Adderly's object was more to get away from the traders' arguments than to answer me; and I returned the insolent challenge of his unconcealed yawn in the faces of the elder men by drawing a chair up to the company of McTavishes and Frobishers and McGillivrays and MacKenzies and other retired veterans of the north country.
"I beg your pardon, gentlemen," said I, "what were you saying to Colonel Adderly?"
"Talk of your military conquests, Sir," my uncle continued, "Why, Sir, our men have transformed a wilderness into an empire. They have blazed a path from Labrador on the Atlantic to that rock on the Pacific, where my esteemed kinsman, Sir Alexander MacKenzie, left his inscription of discovery. Mark my words, Sir, the day will come when the names of David Thompson and Simon Fraser and Sir Alexander MacKenzie will rank higher in English annals than Braddock's and——"
"Egad!" laughed the officer, amused at my uncle, who had been a leading spirit in the North-West Company and whose enthusiasm knew no bounds, "Egad! You gentlemen adventurers wouldn't need to have accomplished much to eclipse Braddock." And he paused with a questioning supercilious smile. "Sir Alexander was a first cousin of yours, was he not?"
My uncle flushed hotly. That slighting reference to gentlemen adventurers, with just a perceptible emphasis of the adventurers, was not to his taste.
"Pardon me, Sir," said he stiffly, "you forget that by the terms of their charter, the Ancient and Honorable Hudson's Bay Company have the privilege of being known as gentlemen adventurers. And by the Lord, Sir, 'tis a gentleman adventurer and nothing else, that stock-jobbing scoundrel of a Selkirk has proved himself! And he, sir, was neither Nor'-Wester, nor Canadian, but an Englishman, like the commander of the Citadel." My uncle puffed out these last words in the nature of a defiance to the English officer, whose cheeks took on a deeper purplish shade; but he returned the charge good-humoredly enough.
"Nonsense, MacKenzie, my good friend," laughed he patronizingly, "if the Right Honorable, the Earl of Selkirk, were such an adventurer, why the deuce did the Beaver Club down at Montreal receive him with open mouths and open arms and——"
"And open hearts, Sir, you may say," interrupted my Uncle MacKenzie. "And I'd thank you not to 'good-friend' me," he added tartly.
Now, the Beaver Club was an organization at Nor'-Westers renowned for its hospitality. Founded in 1785, originally composed of but nineteen members and afterwards extended only to men who had served in the Pays d'En Haut, it soon acquired a reputation for entertaining in regal style. Why the vertebrae of colonial gentlemen should sometimes lose the independent, upright rigidity of self-respect on contact with old world nobility, I know not....