Quebec - The Maid of the Mountain
( Originally Published 1907 )
IT HAD been a long day on the Jacques Cartier River. We had run it in my canoe from far up among the mountains down into the valley where it ceases to fret and foam, and an occasional clearing on the bank indicated the pioneers' struggle for foothold on the land. I had fished the twenty miles of water and a goodly pile of trout lay in the bottom of the canoe. It was time to camp while there was yet light enough to make snug for the night. At a likely looking point I directed Charlo, my half-breed guide, to beach the canoe. The little tent was soon set and the fragrant bed of balsams laid. Charlo had crossed the river to gather some birch bark, and I had thrown myself down for that sweet half hour of rest that follows the fatigue of a day of cramped position in a canoe. I must have dozed off, for I heard no approaching footsteps, but a voice that was evidently that of a woman awakened me, and I sprang to a sitting position. Standing beside the camp fire was the most extraordinary looking creature I had ever seen,—a woman, but of masculine features and coarse, beady-eyed, with closely cropped gray hair. She wore an old cowboy's slouch pulled well down on her head, a man's long homespun overcoat of many hues and patches, a skirt of potato bagging that dropped an inch or two below the overcoat but barely covering the long sheepskin tops of the moccasins that served as footwear. Slung under her left arm was a single-barrelled gun of formidable but antique appearance.
I stared at her in speechless surprise.
" I say, mister, you needn't look so scared, it's only me," said the woman.
"And who the deuce may 'only me' be?" I asked, recovering my speech.
"What me? Why, mister, I'm the Maid of the Mountain back beyant. Me cow, bad luck to her, strayed down to the river, and it was luking for her I wus when I saw ye's two comin' down the river. You'll say to that black haythen that's with you that the Maid of the Mountain wants that sthumpin' done at onct. At onct, mind ye, or I'll have Angus McTavish to do it.
"But my good woman, Charlo's engaged,with me for another week," I answered.
"Is he indade," she replied; "and who the divil may you be to set yourself above the rest of the wurruld? You give him the wurrd as I tell you!"
She looked so fierce that I hastily promised to deliver her message, and, to further propitiate her, I produced my flask with a cordially expressed hope that she would take a nip.
"Be gobs, thin, I don't mind if I do," she replied; shure, it's chilly and I must be futtin' it. Here's to your fishin' and better luck to you, and don't you forget the wurrd."
"And how are you going to find your way home through the bush in the dark?" I ventured to ask.
"Find me way home in the dark Glory be to God, man!—for tin years I've tramped the trail and it's every stump and stone I know. I wish you good night."
I had come out of the tent by this time, and I watched her as she strode off into the fast gathering gloom. She looked a veritable Amazon.
Charlo soon after came in with his roll of birch bark, and silently, as was his custom, made up the fire and prepared the supper. Later, when we had finished the first pipe, I said:
"I have a message for you Charlo, and from a lady.
"Ah! you 'av' de veesite from the Maid of the Montagne. Sacre! I 'ave her de promeese made for long tam for work h'on de stump."
"Oh! you have, have you? Well she left word that you were to come at once or she would get Angus McTavish to do it."
"She giv' dat word? She go got dat tam Angoose for work. No, nevare. I go for do dat work tout de suite. You see dat gal, well, she verra fine h'ole gal. I go for marry her when she 'av' de Ian' h'all clear. To-morrow I h'ax you for to leave me go."
"But Charlo, you were to stay with me for another week?"
"Wal you h'ax anuder man h'on de settlemen' for go wid you."
As any further argument seemed useless, I let it go at that. In the morning we paddled down the river to the three or four log houses that constituted the settlement, and Charlo departed after consigning me to M'sieu MacDonald. To my enquiry of the latter as to a man who knew the river and could paddle a canoe, MacDonald replied :
"Angus McTavish is the mon. He kens the reever fine. If he's no at the Maid's you'll find him at his ain hoose down the river,"
"May I ask Mr. MacDonald, who the Maid is?"
"Ah! mon dear, but it's no a question I can answer. I ken weel the necht she came. It was a great rain storm and as black as yon tom.
There was a great clap of thunder, and the gude wife said, `I'm thankfu', Thammas, you're no on the road the necht." Just then the door was opened and in walked a woman clean drippit from head to foot. She carried a great pack on her back, which she unslung, and shaking herself like a dog, she said in an Irish brogue :
`Shure I've done some hard trampin' in me toime, but that's a divil's road from Quebec here, and the night's bad. I'd be thankful to you, mum, for a cup of tay', turning to the wife. `Your name's Macdonald,' said she, addressing me, `and you'll be after showing me lot 10 in the mornin'. I've bought it.'
"Woman,' said I, `Do you no ken that lot I0 is away on the mountain, and no an acre cleared nor as much as a cabin on it?'
" 'I'll attend to all that in good time,' said she.
" `But, woman, have you no a mon to helpit you?' put in the wife.
" `A man, is it,' said she, in a fierce way, `I'd have you understand, mum, that I'm as good as any man,'
"She may be a bit off in her reasoning but she's come and gone this ten years, and it's a great faim she's got with a tidy house on it."
"And this is all you know of her?" I further inquired, eager for information respecting my strange visitor of the night before.
"Weel," replied Macdonald, "only that she's a great hunter. It's not lang syne she killed a muckle big bear that was rinnin' after her sheep, and in the winter she gangs awa' intil the bush for caribou. And it's fearsome to see her standing in her canoe wi' a lang fishing pole, casting recht and left, and a-tearin' down the rapids. But she minds her ain business, and she no likes veesitors."
"Not unless they are handy at stumping," I laughingly replied.
"Man, you're recht, but she's great at that hersel' as weel," and MacDonald chuckled at the thought.
"And now," said I, "for McTavish." I found him sitting before the door of his cabin modelling a paddle. His appearance was quite as striking as the Maid's. He was tall and raw-boned, with a red beard, and hair to match. The latter was long and curled hanging over the collar of his blue flannel shirt like a great mane. He was. perhaps, fifty or more. I explained to him that Charlo had deserted me for the maid, and that I wanted his services for a week as canoe-man.
"So the black felly has gone to the Maid," said McTavish. "Man, man, but she plays him like she does a trout she's well hooked. But, no matter, I'll send him to the right about as soon as the land is cleared, so let the Injun work away." McTavish grinned at the picture he had evoked.
So did I, but I saw two trout on her cast, and I wondered which one she would land. McTavish's preparations to accompany me were simple. He merely closed the cabin door, picked up a long lithe spruce pole shod with iron on one end, and announced that he was ready. He proved so skilful in poling a canoe that I decided to return . up river to the pool of the big rock. There, again, I set my tent, and for several days I fished for the great trout that lurk in its depths. Of all the rivers that take their rise in the table-land that forms the divide between Lake St. John and the River St. Lawrence in the Province of Quebec, there is no one that is so justly celebrated for its trout as the Jacques Cartier. Its island-studded waters, the irregular shaped mountains that guard it, and clad to their summits with spruce, and balsam, its rough rapids that subside into long reaches of placid water also lend to it a charm possessed by no other river in the whole Dominion.
But to return to my story, though I love to take the angler's privilege of an occasional cast to one side on the chance of an unexpected rise.
One evening McTavish, after lighting his pipe from a coal deftly extracted from the camp fire, turned to me and said :
"You know the Maid of the Mountain?" "Yes," I replied, "slightly."
"A grand woman, sir."
"A very remarkable one, I should say," I dryly replied. This however, was quite lost on McTavish who continued :
"I have known that woman, sir, for ten years, and she hasn't her like in our parish. She can do anything that a man can. It's a treat to see her swing an axe. I've asked her to marry me," Here McTavish paused.
"Well," said I, "What was her answer?"
"That she wouldn't marry the King of England until every acre of land on her farm was cleared, and then she'd decide. It's all right though, and I give her a hand whenever I've spare time. Faith, a man without a wife in these parts has a hard time, and I'm tired of it."
I wshed him all success, and thereupon we made up the fire and turned in for the night. As our subsequent adventures on the river have nothing in relation to my story, I must resist the temptation of another side-cast, lest I forget what I started out to tell. At the end of my week's engagement with McTavish, I dismissed him and took my way back to Quebec.