A Curious Interview
by Frances Fuller Victor
Vancouver's Island furnishes some of the finest scenery on the Pacific Coast; not grandest, perhaps, but quietly charming. Its shores are indented every here and there with the loveliest of bays and sounds, forming the most exquisite little harbors to be found anywhere in the world. The climate of the Island, especially its summer climate, is delightful. Such bright, bracing airs as come from the sea on one side, and from the snow-capped mountains of the mainland on the other, are seldom met with on either hemisphere. Given a July day, a pleasant companion or two in a crank little boat, whose oars we use to make silvery interludes in our talk, and I should not envy your sailor on the Bosphorus.
On such a July day as I am hinting at, our party had idled away the morning, splashing our way indolently through the blue waters of Nittinat Sound, the mountains towering behind us, the open sea not far off; but all around us a shore so emerald green and touched with bits of color, so gracefully, picturesquely wild, that not, in all its unrestraint, was there an atom of savagery to be subdued in the interest of pure beauty. It was a wilderness not wild, a solitude not solitary; but rather populous with happy fancies, born of all harmonious influences of earth, air and water; of sunlight, shadow, color and fragrance.
"My soul to-day is far away,
Sailing a sunny tropic bay,"
sang Charlie, bursting with poetry. The next moment "Hallo! boat ahoy!" and into the scene in which just now we had been the only life, slipped from some hidden inlet, an Indian canoe.
"Isn't she a beauty, though?" said Charlie, laying on his oar. "Fourteen paddles; slim, crank, and what a curious figure-head! By George, that's a pretty sight!"
And a pretty sight it was, as the canoe, with its red and blue-blanketed oarsmen, was propelled swiftly through the water, and quickly brought alongside; when we had opportunity to observe that the crew were all stalwart young fellows, with rather fine, grand features, that looked as if they might have been cut in bronze, so immobile and fixed were they. Their dress was the modern dress of the Northern Indians, supplied by the Hudson's Bay Company, of bright colors and fine texture. But what most engaged our attention was the figure of the fifteenth occupant of the canoe, who acted as steersman. He was evidently a very old man, and instead of being dressed in blankets, had on a mantle of woven rushes, and leggins of wolf-skin. A quiver full of arrows hung at his back; his bow rested on his knees. On his grizzled head was a tall, pointed and gaily painted hat, made of braided grasses, which completely resembled a mammoth extinguisher. As the canoe shot past us, I imagined that I detected an expression of contempt upon the old man's face, though he never moved nor spoke, nor in any way evinced any interest in us.
"Eheu! what a funny-looking old cove," said Charlie, gazing after the canoe, "I should like to cultivate his acquaintance."
"Well, you have the opportunity," rejoined Fanny, the third member of our party. "They are going to land on that point just ahead of us."
We were all watching them, fascinated by the noiseless dexterity of their movements, when suddenly there was nothing to be seen of either boat or crew.
"Where the deuce have they gone to?" asked Charlie, staring at the vacant spot where the canoe had disappeared.
"Great heavens!" cried Fanny, who, like her brother, used a very exclamatory style of speech; "why, they have all vanished into thin air!"
As I could not contradict this assertion, I proposed that we should follow, and examine into the mystery; but Fanny cried out, "O, for goodness' sake, don't! I'm afraid. If they have the power to make themselves invisible, they may be hiding to do us harm."
"It is only visible harm that I'm afraid of," answered Charlie, with his eyes still fixed wonderingly on the point of space where they had so lately been; "pull fast, Pierre, let us find out what the rascals are up to."
Thus urged, I threw what force I could into my oar-stroke (for I was but a convalescent), and very soon we came to the long sloping point of mossy rocks where we had expected to see the canoe's passengers land. I own that I approached it with some caution, thinking it possible that a whirlpool might have sucked the boat and its freight of fifteen lives out of sight, in some point of time when our eyes were for an instant averted. But the water was perfectly quiet, and the whole place, both on water and on land, silent, sunny, and not in the least uncanny or alarming. We dropped our oars and gazed at each other in amazement.
"Well, if that don't beat the Dutch!" was Charlie's comment; and I fancied that his brown cheek grew a shade less ruddy than usual. As for Fanny, she was in a fright, paling and shrinking as if from some terrible real and visible danger; and when I proposed to land and investigate the mystery, fairly mustered quite a copious shower of tears with which to melt my resolve.
"O, Pierre—Mr. Blanchett, I mean—oh, please don't go ashore. I am sure either that these dreadful savages are lurking here to destroy us, or that we have been deceived by some wicked conjuror. Oh, I am so frightened!"
"My dear Miss Lane," I answered, "I give you my word no harm shall come to you. Shall we let a lot of blanketed savages perform a conjurer's trick right before our faces that we do not attempt to have explained? By no means. If you are too nervous to come ashore with us, Charlie may stay with you in the boat, and I will go by myself to look into this matter." Whereupon Fanny gave me so reproachful a look out of her great brown eyes that I quailed beneath it.
"Do you think Charlie and I would leave you to go into danger alone? No, indeed; if you
be so rash, we will accompany you; and if
we must, we will all die together." That last appeal being made with a very touching quaver of a very melodious voice.
For answer, I assisted her out of the boat, which Charlie was already fastening by the chain to some bushes near the bit of beach; and tucking the little gloved hand under my arm, seized an opportunity to whisper something not particularly relevant to this story.
The boat being secured, we climbed a short distance up the rocky bank, stopping to gather wild roses and mock-orange blossoms, which, in spite of her alarm, engaged Miss Lane's attention to such an extent that Charlie had gotten fairly out of sight before we missed him. But as we turned to follow, he confronted us with a face expressive of a droll kind of perplexity.
"Not a red rascal in sight," said he, glancing back over his shoulder, "except that queer old cove that was sitting in the stern.
just over there," jerking his head in the direction meant, "sitting on his haunches like an Egyptian idol, and about as motionless, and about as ancient."
"But their canoe," I said, "what could they have done with their canoe? It is not in the water, and there is no sign here of their having dragged it ashore."
"They didn't land, not in the regular way, I mean, for I was watching for them every instant; and how that old chap got there, and how that canoe got out of sight so quick, is too hard a nut for me to crack, I confess."
"Let us not go near the dreadful old thing," pleaded Fanny once more, her alarm returning.
Again I proposed to her to stay in the boat with Charlie, which had the effect, as before, to determine her upon going with us; which determination I strengthened by an encouraging pressure of the little gloved hand in my possession; and without waiting for further alarms pressed on at once, with Charlie for guide, to the spot where the "dreadful old thing" was understood to be.
And there, sure enough, he was, squatting on the ground beside a spring, where grew a thicket of willows and wild roses; alone and silent, evidently watching, if not waiting, for our approach.
"What will you say to him?" asked Fanny, as we came quite near, eyeing the singular object with evident dread.
"We'll ask him if he is hungry," said Charlie lightly. "If he is a live Indian he is sure to say 'yes' to that proposition;" and Charlie actually produced from his pockets some sandwiches, in a slightly damaged condition. Holding these before him, very much as one holds an ear of corn to a frisky colt he wishes to catch, he approached near enough to offer them, Fanny still holding me back just enough to let this advance be made before we came up. To her great relief the mummy put out a skinny hand, and snatched the offered provisions under its robe.
"You see he is only a poor starving old Indian," I said.
"Me no poor—no starve; me big chief," retorted the old man, glancing disdainfully at us, with eyes that now appeared bright.
I exchanged telegraphic communication with Charlie and Fanny, seated her comfortably upon a mossy boulder, and threw myself at her feet, while Charlie disposed of himself also, within conversational distance.
"May I ask what is your name?" I inquired, insinuatingly.
"My name is Nittinat—this is my country; this water is mine; this earth, these stones—all mine that you see."
"Such a great chief must have many warriors—many people. I do not see any. Were those your people that I saw in the canoe?"
"Nittinat's people all gone," answered the old man sadly, dropping his chin upon his rush-clad breast.
"But we saw a canoe with fourteen warriors in it, besides yourself," Charlie eagerly asserted. "Where are those young men?"
"Me great medicine man; make see canoe—make see young men," responded the owner of the place, with a wan yet superior sort of smile.
Charlie glanced at us, then asked quite deferentially, "Can you make us see what is not here?"
"You have seen," was the brief reply.
"Ask him why we are thus favored," whispered Fanny.
"This young cloochman (you see I must talk to him in his own tongue, Fanny), wishes to know why you opened our eyes to your great medicine."
"White man come to Nittinat's land, white man see Nittinat's power. White man ask questions!"—this last contemptuously, at which Fanny laughed, as asking questions was one of her reserved rights.
"You must be an old man, since these waters are named after you," suggested I. "Who was the first white man you remember seeing?"
"Hyas tyee, Cappen Cook. Big ship—big guns!" answered Nittinat, warming with the recollection.
"This is a good lead," remarked Charlie,
sotto voce; "follow it up, Pierre."
"You were a child then? very little?" making a movement with my hand to indicate a child's stature.
"Me a chief—many warriors—big chief. Ugh!" said the mummy, with kindling eyes.
At this barefaced story, Charlie made a grimace, while he commented in an undertone: "But it is ninety-six years since Captain Cook visited this coast. How the old humbug lies."
At this whispered imputation upon his honor, the old chief regarded us scornfully; though how such a parchment countenance could be made to express anything excited my wonder.
"Me no lie. Nittinat's heart big. Nittinat's heart good.
Close tum-tum, ugh!"
"White man's eyes are closed—his heart is darkened," said I, adopting what I considered to be a conciliatory style of speech. "My friend cannot understand how you could have known Captain Cook so long ago. All the white men who knew the great white chief have gone to their fathers."
"Ugh, all same as Cappen Cook. He no believe my cousin Wiccanish see big Spanish ship 'fore he came."
"How did he make him see it at last?" asked Charlie, stretching himself out on the grass, and covering his eyes with his hat, from under the brim of which he shot quizzical glances at Fanny and I.
"Wiccanish showed Cook these," replied Nittinat, drawing from beneath his robe a necklace of shells, to which two silver spoons were attached, of a peculiar pattern, and much battered and worn.
"Oh, do let me see them," cried Fanny, whose passion for relics was quickly aroused. Charlie, too, was constrained to abandon his lazy attitude for a moment to examine such a curiosity as these quaint old spoons.
"Only to think that they are more than a hundred years old! But I cannot make out the lettering upon them; perhaps he is deceiving us after all," said Fanny, passing them to me for inspection.
I took out of my pocket a small magnifying-glass, which, although it could not restore what was worn away, brought to light all that was left of an inscription, probably the manufacturer's trade-mark, the only legible part of which was 17-0.
"Did the Spanish captain give these to your cousin?" I asked.
"Ugh!" responded Nittinat, nodding his tall extinguisher. "Wiccanish go on board big ship, see cappen."
"And stole the spoons," murmured Charlie from under his hat.
Fanny touched his foot with the stick of her parasol, for she stood in awe of this ancient historian, not wishing to be made a subject of his powerful "medicine."
"And so you knew Captain Cook?" I repeated, when the spoons were hidden once more under the mantle of rushes, "and other white men too, I suppose. Did your people and the white people always keep on friendly terms?"
"Me have good heart," answered Nittinat rather sadly. "Me and my cousins Wiccanish, Clyoquot, Maquinna, and Tatoocheatticus, we like heap sell our furs, and get knives, beads, and brass buttons. Heap like nails, chisels, and such things. If my young men sometimes stole very little things, Nittinat's heart was not little. He made the white chiefs welcome to wood and water; he gave them his women; and sometime make a big feast—kill two, three, six slaves. White chief heap mean to make trouble about a few chains or hammers after all that!"
"Oh, the horrid wretch!" whispered Fanny: "Does he say he killed half a dozen slaves for amusement?"
"If he did, Miss Lane," I answered; "was it worse than the elegant Romans used to do? The times and the manners have to be considered, you know."
Fanny shuddered, but said nothing, and I went on addressing myself to Nittinat:
"How many ships did you ever see in these waters at one time?—I mean long ago, in Captain Cook's time?"
The old chief held up five fingers, for answer.
"And you and your cousins were friendly to all of them?"
"Maquinna's heart good, too,—close tum-tum. Sell land to one Cappen; he go 'way. Sell land to other Cappen; he go 'way, too. Bime-by two Cappens come back, quarrel 'bout the land. Maquinna no say anything. When one Cappen ask: 'Is the land mine?' Maquinna tell him 'yes.' When other Cappen ask: 'Is the land mine?' Maquinna tell him 'yes,' too, all same. O yes; Indian have good heart; no want to fight great white chief with big guns. He stay in his lodge, and laugh softly to himself, and let the white chiefs fight 'bout the land. Ugh!"
"The mercenary old diplomat!" muttered Charlie, under his hat. "Here's your 'noble savage,' Fanny. Burn a little incense, can't you?" But Fanny preferred remaining silent to answering her brother's bantering remarks; and if she was burning incense at all, I had reason to think it was to one who shall be nameless.
"Did you always have skins to sell to so many vessels?" I asked, returning to the subject of the trading vessels.
"Long ago had plenty; bime-by not many. White chief he heap mean. Skin not good, throw 'em back to Indian. My young men take 'em ashore, stretch tail long like sea-otter, fix 'em up nice; give 'em to other Indian, tell him go sell 'em. All right. Cappen buy 'em next time; pay good price; like 'em heap;" at which recollection the mummy actually laughed.
"How is that for Yankee shrewdness?" asked a muffled voice under a hat; to which, however, I paid no attention.
"You speak of the white chiefs fighting about land. Did they ever use their big guns on each other? Tell me what you remember about the white men who came here in ships, long ago."
"After Cappen Cook go 'way, long time, come Spanish ship, King George ship, Boston ship. Spanish Cappen no like King George Cappen. One day fight with long knives; (swords) and Spanish Cappen put King George man in big ship; send him 'way off. Many ships came and went; sold many skins. One time all go 'way but the Boston ships. Bime-by King George's ships came back and fight the Boston's."
"And you kept your good heart all the time? Never killed the Bostons or King George men?"
At this interrogation, Nittinat shuffled his withered limbs uneasily beneath his rush mantle, and averted his parchment countenance. Upon my pressing the question, as delicately as I knew how, he at length recovered his immobility, and answered in a plausible tone enough:
"Boston Cappen Gray, he build a fort at Clyoquot. My cousin Wiccanish sell him the ground, and Cappen Gray bring all his goods from the ship, and put them in the fort for winter. Our young men were lazy, and had not many skins to sell; but they wanted Cappen Gray's goods; they liked the firewater a heap. So the young men they say, 'kill Cappen Gray, and take his goods.' My cousin say, 'no; that a heap bad.' Nittinat say that bad too. But we tell our young men if they
do this bad thing, we will not leave them without a chief to direct them. So my young men came to Clyoquot to help their cousins take the big guns of the fort. But Cappen Gray find all out in time to save our young men from doing wrong. We tell him our hearts all good. He give us presents, make
close tum-tum. No use kill Boston
when he give us what we want."
Charlie tilted up his sombrero, and shot an approving glance at the venerable philosopher that caused a smile to ripple Fanny's face at the instant she was saying, "The horrid wretch!" with feminine vehemence. To cover this by-play, I asked if Nittinat remembered the
"Oh, come!" ejaculated Charlie, starting up, "I say we have had enough of this artless historian's prattle; don't you?"
"Consider," I urged, "how rare the opportunity of verifying tradition. Compose yourself, my friend, while I continue my interviewing." Turning to Nittinat I asked: "Why did the Indians destroy Captain Thorn's vessel?"
"Cappen Thorn big chief; no like Indian; big voice; no give presents; no let Indian come on board without leave; Indian no like Cappen Thorn. He get mad at my cousin Kasiascall for hiding on his ship; keep him all night prisoner, cause he no punish his young men for cutting the boarding-netting. Kasiascall get mad. Next day no Indian go to trade with the ship; then Cappen Thorn he send McKay ashore to say he is sorry, and talk to Indian 'bout trade.
"Indian very good to McKay; say not mad; say come next day to trade plenty. Kasiascall, too, tell McKay all right; come trade all same. But McKay he look dark; he no believe my cousin; think Indian lie. All same he tell come to-morrow; and he shake hands, and go back to ship. He tell Cappen Thorn, 'Indian say he trade to-morrow.' Big Cappen walk the deck very proud. He say he 'teach the damned Indians to behave themselves.'
"Next day six white men come ashore to visit our lodges. My cousin treat white men well. Kasiascall and his young men go to the ship to trade. Pretty soon Kasiascall come back: say McKay look dark and sad; say Indian buy plenty of knives and hide under their blankets; say I will see the ship taken by the Indians in one hour. My heart was sad for McKay. He good man. Indian like McKay heap. But my cousin and his people want plenty goods; no like Cappen Thorn; so Nittinat say nothing.
"Bimeby there was big noise like a hundred guns, and the ship was all in pieces, flying through the air like leaves on the wind. My cousin's people were all in pieces too; one arm, one leg, one piece head. Ugh!"
"Served them right, too!" ejaculated Charlie. "Is that the whole story, old mortality?"
But Nittinat was silent—overcome, as it seemed by these sad reminiscences. He bowed his head upon his breast until the extinguisher pointed directly at Fanny's nose, as her brother mischievously made her aware. When I thought that Nittinat had taken time to sufficiently regret his cousin's misfortune in losing so many young men, I gently reminded him of Charlie's question.
"Kasiascall's heart was very little when he saw the destruction of his warriors, and heard the wailing of the women and children. To comfort him the six white men were taken and bound for slaves. When the days of mourning were past, my cousin laid the six white slaves in a row, their throats resting on the sharp edge of a rock, and set his Indian slaves to saw off their heads with a cedar plank. It was a very fine sight; our hearts were good; we were comforted."
As no one uttered an opposing sentiment, Nittinat, after a pause, continued:
"For many moons we feared the Bostons down on the Columbia would come to make war on us; and we went no more to trade with any ships. But after a time Kasiascall's heart grew big within him. He asked my advice. I said 'you are my brother. Go kill all the whites on the Columbia.' Then we danced the medicine dance; and Kasiascall went alone to the country of the Chinooks, to the fort of the Boston men. He told the chief of the Bostons how the
was destroyed, with all on board; but he kept a dark place in his heart, and his tongue was crooked. He said Kasiascall knew not of the treachery of his relations, and people, and he said nothing of the six white slaves. Then the Boston chief gave him presents, and he staid many days at the fort, until he heard that some Indians from Sooke were coming there. Fearing the Sooke Indians might have straight tongues, Kasiascall left the fort that day, and went among the Klatskenines, and stirred them up to take the fort and kill all the Bostons. But the chief discovered the plot, and my cousin fled back to Neweeta. Ugh?"
"These events occurred a long time ago," I suggested. "Your hearts were dark then, but surely you have a better heart now. You would not kill the whites to-day if you could?"
A very expressive "Ugh!" was the only rejoinder.
"But the Indians I see about here look very comfortable and happy. They have good warm blankets, and enough to eat."
"Indian hunt furs to pay for blanket; Indian catch fish for eat. Bime-by furs grow scarce; white man catch fish, too. Bime-by Hudson Bay men go way; Indian go naked. Then come black-gowns (priests, or preachers). He say, 'Indian pray for what he want.' But that all d——d lie; pray one moon—two, three moons, nothing comes. White man say to Indian, 'work.' What can Indian do? Indian big fool—know nothing."
"He is making out a case," said Charlie; "but he don't look as if
need concern himself about the future."
"Ask him if he ever saw any white ladies, in that long ago time he has been telling us of," whispered Fanny, who could not muster courage to address the manikin directly. I considered how best to put the desired question, but Nittinat was beforehand with me.
"I have seen many things with my eyes. First came the big ships, with wings; and only men came in them. By and by came a long, black ship, without sails, or oars, but with a great black and white smoke. I went on board this vessel with one of my wives, the youngest and prettiest; and here I saw the first white woman that came to my country. I liked the white woman, and asked her to be my wife. She laughed, and said, 'go ask the Cappen.' I asked the Cappen, but he would not hear. I offered him many skins, and my new wife. He swore at me. I am sworn at and laughed at for wanting wife with a white skin. White man take Indian wife when he please. Nittinat has many wrongs; yet Nittinat has good heart, all same. Bime-by big medicine-man come and make all right. White man all melt away like snow on the mountain-side. Indian have plenty house, plenty blankets, plenty eat—all, everything, all the time. Good!"
"White wives included, I presume. Well," said Charlie, "I think this interview might be brought to a close. Hold fast to Pierre and I, Fanny, or the wizard may spirit you off to his wigwam, to inaugurate the good time coming that he speaks of."
So saying, Charlie rose to his feet, stretched his limbs lazily, and turned to disengage his sister's veil from a vicious thorn-bush in our way. Not succeeding immediately, I lent my assistance, and the delicate tissue being at last rescued with some care, turned to say farewell to the chief of all the Nittinats, when lo! I addressed myself to space.
"The old cove has taken himself off as mysteriously as he came. That is a confounded good trick; couldn't do it better myself. Does anybody miss anything?" was Charlie's running comment on the transaction.
"Can't say that I do, unless it is my luncheon. I'm ravenously hungry, and every sandwich gone. Could that dreadful old ghoul have eaten those you gave him, Charlie? Do you know, I couldn't help thinking he must be a ghost?"
"Well, the ghost of an Indian could eat, steal, and beg, I should think. I felt like rattling his dry bones, when he so coolly confessed to the most atrocious murders of white men."
"That is because you are not an Indian, I presume," said I, with a heavy sense of conviction about what I gave expression to. "Indian virtue is not white men's virtue. If it won you rank, and riches, and power, to become a mighty slayer, a slayer you would undoubtedly become. A man, even an Indian, is what his circumstances make him. The only way I can conceive to make a first-class man, is to place him under first-class influences. I am generalizing now, of course; the exceptions are rare enough to prove the rule."
"I wish I had those spoons," said Fanny, "they would be such a curiosity at home."
"The spoon I wish for is one of the vessel's forks, with a bit of roast beef on it. Here, Sis, jump in; we shall be late for dinner, and the Captain will call us to account."
In a few moments we were out of the little cove, and in open water of the sound, pulling back toward the harbor, where the steamer was lying that had brought us this summer excursion. As we came abreast of a certain inlet, Fanny cried out, "Look there!" and turning our eyes in the direction of her glance, we saw the canoe with its bronzed crew just disappearing up the narrow entrance, half-hidden in shrubbery.
Our adventure was related at dinner in the steamer's cabin, and various were the conjectures regarding the identity of Chief Nittinat. The captain declared his ignorance of any such personage. Most of the party were inclined to regard the whole affair as a practical joke, though who could have been the authors of it no one ventured to say. It was proposed that another party should repeat the excursion on the following day, in order that another opportunity might be given the mysterious medicine man to put in an appearance. And this, I believe, really was carried into effect, but without result, so far as solving the mystery was concerned. A canoe, similar to the one we had seen, had been discovered up one of the numerous arms of the Sound, but on attempting to overtake it, the pursuing party had been easily distanced, and the clue lost, so that all hope of clearing up the mystery was relinquished.
One evening, shortly after, Fanny and I sat together in the soft, clear moonlight, listening to the dance-music in the cabin, and the gentle splash of the waters about the vessel's keel. All at once, a canoe-load of Nootkans shot across the moon's wake, not fifty yards from our anchorage, and as suddenly was lost again in shadow. "Fanny," I said, "being the only invalid of this party, I feel a good deal nervous about these apparitions. They are usually regarded, I believe, as portentious. Without designing to take advantage of your too sympathizing disposition, I am tempted to remind you that if I am ever to have the happiness of calling your precious self truly my own, it ought to be before the third appearance of the ghostly presence; will you condescend to name the day?"
"I should prefer, Pierre, not to have any ghostly influences brought to bear on this occasion. Suppose we try a valse, which I think will tend to dissipate your melancholy forebodings."
I may as well own it here: the little witch could not be brought to make any final arrangements, although I did entreat her seriously.
"You must talk about these things when I am at home with my papa and mamma," she insisted; and I was compelled to respect her decision.
But we have been married almost a year, and we often refer to the strange interview we had with Chief Nittinat. Perhaps the Smoke-eller doctrine now popular among the northern Indians, and which corresponds to our spiritualism, may have some foundation in similar occurrences themselves. Who knows but Nittinat was talking to us through a medium?