Authors: Claire Mulligan
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary, #Historical
The Reckoning of Boston Jim
a novel by Claire Mulligan
To refuse to give, to fail to invite, just as to refuse to accept,
is tantamount to declaring war; it is to reject the bond of
alliance and commonality.
When he offered recompense the Dora woman said: “Not to worry. Think on it as a gift, for your birthday, like.”
From the bench outside her cabin he could see the sun near touching the waters of the bay, near touching and yet the air remained warm, and the sky remained the blue of full day. “Have none,” he replied.
“None? Ah, well and so, it's just an ordinary gift, then. But if you like, you can bring me something when you're back this way again. Not that it matters.”
But it did, of course it did.
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Victoria, 1863, and this afternoon in May is nearly done. On Bay Street Bridge a water cart holds up and allows a buggy to pass. The buggy rocks precariously, the driver cursing. There is the smell of offal and rotting fish, of wood smoke and sea brine. There is the caw of gulls and a strip of cloud and a moist, lingering wind.
A man, that man, makes his way through the alleys of the shack town where the Chinamen live, past wafts of joss stick and opium, of brimstone, also, if one is fool enough to believe what others say. His rucksack is laden with furs, and the head of a marten, still attached to its pelt, lolls out and seems at a glance like the head of some grotesque, sleeping child. He wears patched trousers tucked into battered boots and a buckskin coat over a shirt of flannel red. At his belt are a bowie knife and a revolver. His face is best fit for scowling, the nose broad and crooked, the lips a splice in a mat of reddish beard. His hair is a slightly darker shade and is long to his collar. He is not particularly tall and not at all clean and no doubt years younger than he appears. He looks, all in all, like many of the disreputable men about, Americans mostly, who came seeking gold in the Fraser in '58 but who stayed on because there is always more gold in some more distant place. And so what distinguish this man, though few have seen them, are the scars that start just below his collarbone. Though thin-lined and old they form a readable pattern still: james milroy of boston. He was perhaps five or six when the People brought him to Fort Connelly. The scars were new then. The Chief Trader, one Hiram Illdare, called him Jim to distinguish him from the two Jameses who were there already. The engagÃ©s, however, called him Boston Jim and soon enough he thought of himself that way as well. Having never had a name, it seemed as good as any.
And so this man, this Boston Jim, stops at the plank that crosses the Johnston Street ravine where the shacks list on stilts over the muck and refuse of the creek. Now makes his way down Government Street, past the Colonial Hotel and the Star and Garter and the HÃ´tel de France. Pianos clank out discordant tunes and a man in a sky-blue waistcoat jigs drunkenly on a stair. He walks past men playing cards on upturned barrels, past sailors and miners and company men. Most can be described by what they lackâan eye, a leg, a finger or two, any number of teeth.
He turns at Fort Street, by the last bastion of the old fort itself. In the square he passes the barracks, the scaffolds, the proprietors of beer wagons calling out their prices, a greybeard preaching to an audience of none. This is where the Indian women sit, selling shellfish and potatoes and camas. He slows as he passes them, studying their faces as he always does and though he recognizes most of them, the one he always seeks is not among them.
On the docks at Wharf Street a steamer is being unloaded amid much shouting and swinging of ropes. On the far side of the harbour a half-rigged ship tacks past the village the whites call the Songhees. Early in '
hundreds of people of all the tribes had plied their way back and forth, working for the whites and trading with them. Now, because of the pox, the canoes sit idle at the shore and smoke furls from only three of their square houses. He doesn't fear the pox. In August of
a physician came to Fort Connelly on the supply ship and inoculated them all at Illdare's insistence. The physician pierced Boston's arm with a lancet. “Ground scab,” Illdare said. “Better than any, prayer, eh, young Jim?”
The slate roof of the Hudson's Bay Company store gleams dully in a wash of sun. Nearby a brick warehouse is half completed. A workman ceases hammering and saunters across a high beam. Another workman calls out in a language that Boston has never heard. Both workmen laugh and it seems to Boston they turn toward him as they do so. He speaks English and French, dialects of Kwagu't, Nu-chah-nulth, and Lekwungaynung. Speaks some Kanaka, some Gaelic. Knows smatterings of Russian and Spanish. Speaks, of course, half a dozen variations of Chinook, the trade jargon of the tribes that even the whites have taken on. Still, many in this place are beyond his comprehension. At Fort Connelly the engagÃ© Lavolier had spoken of the tower of Babel, the curse of languages. He held up a canvas marked with the image of a ladder. After the Fall. Before the Deluge. Babel must have been much like this town then, the people from so many countries and tribes, suspicious of each other, and unintelligible to each other, as when God's vengeance was still fresh.
In the trade room are barrels of molasses, sacks of sugar and flour, boxes of iron tools, titled towers of buckets, stacks of rifles, and stacks upon stacks of blanketsâfour point and six point even, white, indigo, and red. Wares, Provisions, Dry Goods & Armaments reads one sign. Pro pelle cutem reads the company crest. Boston takes a certain pride in his ability to read. But no, he has no birthday. “Likely at night,” was all Illdare had said when Boston, years ago, had asked when he arrived in the world. He only asked because of Lavolier's calendar. In January angels hovered over the bed of a dying child, the snow piled high at the window beyond. In April lambs cavorted while a shepherd slept and a devil leered. In August the Christ gazed mournfully upward, chest splayed open, heart afire. Boston found some comfort in seeing the months separated so, in seeing the days boxed and counted and named. The days should give an account of their existence. It seemed only fair.
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“Good day to ye, sir. A fine day. I am Mr. Gifford. Furs to trade? I am at your service.”
He is a youngish man with an ear half-gone. Though Boston has not seen him before he recognizes the cadence of the man's speech as that of yet another Orkneyman. He drops his furs on the counter, says nothing. They encourage pointless conversation, these company men, thinking it creates some kind of bond, thinking they can use this bond to their advantage.
“Needing flour and coal oil, plug tobacco, shot. Needing needles. Thread, strongest you got.”
Mr. Gifford clears his throat. “Ah, but it was a devil of a winter, wasn't it?”
“Won't take less then eight pound for the marten. Two for the beavers. Three for the mink.”
“That is a goodly price.”
“Thick. You've never seen a marten so thick.”
Gifford smiles. “Haven't I?”
“No,” Boston says, and in such a way that Gifford drops his gaze. Boston prides himself on his trader's eye. He can remember the exact appearance, size, weight, even odour of an object. He can remember the exact profit he made on trades ten or twenty years ago. He can remember, as well, exact words of conversations, the lineaments of faces, the precise turn of events long gone. He doesn't struggle to recall as others do. If he cares to, all he need do is think of how he stood on this day or that. The rest comes in layers: first the words and the manner in which they were spoken, next the odours, then how the clouds were shaped, the leaves patterned, how the birds called each to the other. The memories of the far past are as clear to him as what is happening now, all except the ones from his earliest years, before he woke at Fort Connelly. Those are in jumbled fragments. A wharf on a night of dense heat. The outlines of furled masts and rigging lines. And then he is nestled among sacks and barrels that rock gently beneath him, recalling a thing earlier even, a thing ever out of his reach. Much later and there is a great cracking as a ship breaks apart. A campfire. A canvas overhead. A man who howls and weeps. The gleam of a long, thin knife.
“Let me cipher. I can give ye, give yeÂ .Â .Â .” Gifford stares upward, his face rapt, his fingers moving. In all like a damned priest at his rosary.
Now comes the to-ing and fro-ing, the smiling protestations of Gifford, the blunt remarks of Boston. In the end Gifford agrees to a price only slightly lower than Boston wanted. It is enough to buy all the goods Boston requires with three pounds and twelve shillings left to spare.
Gifford hands Boston the notes and coins and a bill of sale in a legible script that notes when Mr. Boston Jim will come and take his goods.
Boston counts the money, his lips moving silently.
“The pox has been a terror, or so I've been hearing. I'm newly arrived, ye see.”
Boston scrutinizes a chipped shilling.
“Well, for ye it would be a blessing, mind. For it left ye with few competitors among the Indians.”
At this moment no one else is in the trade shop and it is perfectly quiet but for the buzzing of a fly, the ticking of a clock. Boston looks directly at Gifford. It is something he rarely does; for how many faces need clutter his recollections? He takes in the shadows under Gifford's watery eyes, the protruding teeth, the peculiar width of his skull.
Gifford steps back. Puts a hand to his cheek.
Boston pushes the shilling across the counter.
“I'll, I'll change that for ye, sir. Bad money about these days. My apologies.”
Boston pockets the shilling and hoists on his near-empty rucksack. He thrusts the needles and thread in his pocket. “Come back for the other goods. Keep them safe, hear,” he says and then leaves without looking at Gifford again. He walks back up Government Street, and then to Cormorant, intent on the London Coffee house where the food is good and plentiful, the liquor well priced and unwatered. He notes a lone pig snorting in an alleyway, notes the general decrease of soap lees, ash, and night soil. Last autumn all manner of goats and pigs and cows wandered freely, feeding on just such refuse that was tossed into the streets. This new cleanliness is not the only difference. Now many of the buildings have been painted in blood reds and ocherous yellows. In the blue of watered ink, the green of precious jade. Now several of the saloons have changed their names and one offers a dining room for ladies. Now a spirits store with a false front and canvas walls stands where a heron had walked through clover and salal. Now there is a gunsmith, a carpet merchant, a photographers' studio, an auctioneer or two.
Boston spits out a stream of tobacco and silently curses. He does not like the way the town grows in size and changes in character each time he comes to trade. It makes him uneasy, as if more time has passed than he has realizedâten or twenty years perhaps, and not just six or seven months.