The Uncollected Short Stories of Duncan Campbell Scott

By Duncan Campbell Scott, edited by Tracy Ware

The Stratagem of Terrance O’

    To the north of the city of Hull, in the Province of Quebec, streaches a rugged and picturesque country drained by the Gatineau River. There is good land between the hills and good farms also. Not fifty miles from the mouth of the river, Stag Creek mingles its waters with the larger stream, and here begins what is known as the Stag Creek District, famous for the turbulent nature of its inhabitants and the size of its speckled trout. The former are Irish and have a long score “agin the Gov’ment,” the chief item of which is an unjust demand for taxes upon land which they were told was free from all such unholy burdens. Year after year had the county authorities tried to collect the taxes, but without success. After these repeated failures the settlers felt secure. Their good money was in their breeches pockets where they meant it to stay. In the autumn of 1895 a detachment of the local Canadian militia had to be sent to enforce the law; but this story is of an earlier year.
In the fall of 1892 Jacques Plamondon was in need of employment. He had commenced life as a tally-keeper in a lumber camp and now he was a half-fledged notary who conceived he knew a thing or two more than the Attorney-General at Quebec. So when he heard of the annual trouble at Stag Creek he offered himself.
“I will collect your taxes,” he said melo-dramatically, “give me your roll book.”
    “You will do what no one else has been able to do.”
    “Good, but I will do it.”
    So the roll book and the instructions were shortly handed over to him. Soon he was boasting in all the bar-rooms of Hull that he would return triumphant after spoiling the wild Irishmen on Stag Creek. He expounded his theories most publicly, and before long rumors of his plans reached the ears of Stag Creek, and Terrance O’Halloran, happening to be in Hull for a day, overheard Mons. Plamondon in the bar-room of the Imperial Hotel and confirmed the reports himself. [Page 125]
    Terrance was a Stag Creek squatter, a small man of nimble wit, whose shock of red hair lay well over his small twinkling eyes. His nose was spread wide upon his face, his expression was one of childlike simplicity. He carried his shoulders hunched up to his ears, and he “wore” his pipe upside down as if he were in a continual shower of rain. When he heard Mons. Plamondon bragging of his plan for collecting the Stag Creek taxes he looked more simple and red-headed and “hunched up” than ever. Mons. Plamondon’s theory was that he should succeed by politeness. He explained this to his friends in voluble French.
    “You see I will approach these poor people with deference, not like a cut-purse. I will explain to them why they should pay their taxes, and as I show them this plainly, they will be glad that the Bureau has sent me and there will be no more difficulty.” Sometimes he will drop into English, and he was very proud of his English.
    “Dis Irish I will na’ tak her by the t’roat an’ curse it; when I go onto de ’ouse I will be urban, I will say ‘you ’av been badly tret my frent, when I tink ’bout dat it mak my tear burn; but you shod pay de tax. And I will kees de babie,—manifique babie,—I will tol de mudder. My Heaven! de wole of Hull know ’bout dat manifique babie! And when de people see hes not goin’ ’a be choke by de t’roat he say Mr. Plamondon, you are one vera good genelman, not anoder juss same as you. Then she’s bring her money hout of where she hide it, and she’s pay me all de back tax, and me go over the wole Stag Creek parish dat way wit no trouble ’tall. What? Guess so? Eh?" At this the eyes of Terrance O’Halloran twinkled more than ever.
    A few days later he was warning his neighbours in his slow drawl, without a smile:
    “There’s a gintleman from below goin’ to call upon ye, and yese’ll have to pay yer taxes fur shure.”
    “Will we that, now Terence? And why fur shure?”
    “He’s a Frinch gintleman by the name Plamondon, and it’s the shtile af him as ’ill be the ruinetion af yese. The tongue in his head will call a burd af the bush. The manners af him is iligant. I heard him down at Goyette’s, and if I hadn’t left me pocketbook on the piana and hadn’t nothin’ in me mit but a dirty quarter I’d ha’ payed him me taxes on the spot.”
    “Well Terry, me brave boy, he’ll come to ye furst, and if he gits by ye, the whole Township ’ill pay him and pray fur him.”
    “Sorry I am the day I iver squatted where I did,” said Terry, “and many a salty tear I’ll shed, fur he’s sure to come it over poor Terence O’Halloran, and that’ll be a cold day fur Stag Creek wid all the dirty taxes paid up. Sure [Page 126] me house is the furst in the Township, and it’s meself must be first to meet the Plamondon wid his ways and his smiles of politeness.”
    Meantime Mons. Plamondon had talked so much about his mission that when he found himself ready to start from Hull, he was the centre of a circle of admiring adherents. He wore his best, as the expedition had to his mind a diplomatic character. His tall silk hat, black clothes and bright red necktie gave him a festive appearance. It was a beautiful September morning. The leaves had just begun to turn and the moderate air was full of sunshine and life. As Mons. Plamondon had a good horse it was not many hours before he found himself in the Township of Low, through which Stag Creek runs, and soon after he drew up before Terrance O’Halloran’s. He observed a scurry of children into the house and he saw a woman come to the door and look out. Mons. Plamondon was gratified; he felt that already he had created a sensation. He drove into the barnyard and tied his horse to a ring in the log wall of the stable. A few hens scuttled away from his feet. A small, lean, solitary-looking pig which was rooting about in the straw paused as Mons. Plamondon went by. It had a tousle of hair between its ears, a roguish eye twinkling in a pink eye-socket and a pucker of wrinkles around its jaw. It seemed to smile as the tax collector went up to the door.
    When Mons. Plamondon looked into the house he saw Mrs. O’ Halloran preparing the noon-day meal, a sizzle of bacon was in the pan and its aroma on the air. Her back was turned toward him. She was in her bare feet and wore a short drugget skirt and a loose print blouse. She turned about promptly when he asked if Mr. O’Halloran was at home.
    “He is that, Sor.”
    “Me, I’m Plamondon of Hull.”
    “You don’t mean to tell me,” cried Nora, turning fully toward him. “Shure I thot it was yerself, Sor, when the childer rushed in and sid the Prince of Wales was comin’ up the road. Sez I to myself, shure as the pork’s in the pan it’s Mr. Plamondon himself. Take the weight aff your legs;” indicating a chair with the point of a two-pronged fork with which she had been turning the pork. Mons. Plamondon took the chair. The children had disappeared, but he could hear them snickering in their hiding-place. Only the infant remained. She was rolling on the floor, clothed in a single garment, her face covered with treacle. When Mons. Plamondon sat down she began to crawl toward his boots on all fours. Mrs. O’Halloran turned again to her work of minding the dinner.
    “It’s jest this mornin’ we was spaking af ye, Sor; sez I, Terry, de ye think the Hon. Mr. Plamondon will be comin’ the day? Niver a bit, sez he; we’d [Page 127] ha’ seed it on the paper and the Leftenant Guvnor we’d hav’ writ to Father Burke about the same. De ye think now, sez he, that a man like Mr. Plamondon is goin’ about wid a bushel basket over his head?”
    Turning her head she saw the progress of the small child toward the shiny boots. “Come out o’ that now, Honora,” she cried, “come out o’ that or I’ll go there and warm ye, ye boul lump ye.” Whereupon Honora rested.
    “Ye mayn’t mind me, sez I to O’Halloran, but there is a fine lookin’ man in me taycup, and Mr. Plamondon may turn up the day unexpected like, like a tief in the night, as Father Burke would say—God bless him!” Plamondon wondered at the cordiality of his reception; he was prepared to use civility, but overwhelmed by this ready flattery he could not command his English.
    “I did not tink it necessare to make an announcement.”
    “Necessare—Niver a bit; we’re as glad to see ye as if ye came wid a brass bugle and a barrel drum. And when I caught ye wid me eye, sez I, Terry me boy, be ready for the Guvment man, whip down below and sphade up the mustherd tin where we hid the tax money; and down he went like one ’a them duck-divers at Mud Lake, and he hasn’t come up agin. Terry,” she called, approaching an open trap door in the floor, “is it all night yer goin’ to be?” The voice of Terry was heard in imprecation from below.
    “Maybe, Mr. Plamondon, ye wudn’t mind condischending to sthep below and see the ould man himself, and then ye’ll both be comin’ up to have a bite o’ vittles.”
    Jacques rose gallantly and descended the steep stairs, little better than a ladder, into the gloom, carefully guarding his tall hat. Just as his foot touched the earth there was a flash of light and the noise of a door opened and shut. He heard the bang of the trap-door, the light was cut off from above, and at the shock his hat bounded into the thick darkness.
    “Sapriste?” he cried. “Mr. O’Halloran, I canna see mesel’.” No one answered him. There was a sound of a scuffle of feet overhead, then silence. Mons. Plamondon felt about him in the dark, and as he became accustomed to it he discovered light breaking in through the cracks in a door which evidently communicated with the barnyard. But this door was securely fastened, so was the trap-door in the floor. He was a prisoner. He shuffled cautiously over the uneven earth-floor seeking his precious hat, but without success. He could find nothing in the cellar but a bunch of straw in one corner. He climbed the ladder and beat upon the floor with his fist and shouted till his throat felt as if it was raw, but no one paid any attention. [Page 128]
    He heard the chairs drawn up to the table, the clatter and yammer of the children, the bland voice of Nora, and a short grunt or two from Terry himself. He began to feel the pangs of hunger, for he had had a long drive in the fresh air; but he heard in despair the sound of the dishes being washed and put away. The afternoon wore on, and from sheer weariness he fell asleep on the heap of pea-straw.
    He was awakened by a violent stamping and shuffling overhead, cries and the grind of a fiddle. All Stag Creek had been invited to a dance at Terrance O’Halloran’s; all Stag Creek had accepted and was dancing above the head of the defeated Plamondon. Hour after hour the rout went on. The fiddle never stopped and Jacques could hear the talk of the boys when they came out into the night to take a pull at the bottle.
    It must have been nearing morning when the unfortunate tax collector felt that he could stand it no longer. He had found under the pea-straw an elm stake, sharpened at one end, such as is commonly used on a wood-sleigh. Seizing this he thrust its point with all his force up against the floor. The stake struck between two boards; it went through; six inches of it appeared in the room above. The noise and the dancing ceased together. There was a pause as if for an explanation. Then he heard Terry’s voice, “Ladies, it’s the card of Monshure Plamondon, of Hull, callin’ upon yese.”
    “Hurroo!” There was a shout of laughter and the dance went on, madder than ever. But another day was breaking, and by and by the company began to disperse. Before long the only sound which Mons. Plamondon heard from the room above was the snoring of some one who was unable to carry his load of the good potheen, which was made up in the hills, not a day’s journey from Terry’s door.
    As he listened he passed into forgetfulness of his sorrows and dozed on his straw; when he awoke the door was open and the broad daylight was struggling into the cellar. Without waiting to look for his hat Mons. Plamondon rushed out. His horse was standing harnessed and impatient, for he had been well fed and groomed. Mons. Plamondon had been twenty-four hours without food and he yearned for the flesh-pots of “Moore’s,” the nearest hostelry. He leaped into his cart and, as he was, hatless, his clothing covered with mould and wisps of pea-straw, he never drew rein until he reached “Moore’s.” Then he asked for “three fingers of gin,” and got it.
    For a week there was a pilgrimage to Terrance O’Halloran’s to see Mons. Plamondon’s card; even Father Burke came to see it. Then it had to be removed for the convenience of the family. But Terry still shows the headgear of Plamondon. It hangs amid his household gods, under the picture of the holy St. Patrick who drove the snakes out of Ireland. [Page 129]