The Tale of Ralph Gunhouse

The following story came to me in the form of a photocopied typescript passed to my father from one of his brothers. The typescript appears to copy parts of a book or manuscript. The title at the head of my copy is Reminiscences of a Seigniorial [sic] Manor, by an Octogenarian, while the individual parts of the story are entitled "Wedding Bells," "A Midnight Celebration on New Year's Eve," and "The Tragedy of a Summer's Day," respectively. Since posting this document, I've learned that Ralph Gunhouse has at least one living descendant (Karin Corbeil). Both of us would like to more about Ralph Gunhouse. If you can provide any more information about him, or about anything else alluded to in this story, please send a note to me (glenn.gunhouse@excite.com) or Karin (corbeil@adelphia.net). The original typescript contained numerous typographical errors, which I have corrected. I have also made some minor adjustments to the spelling, capitalization and punctuation, and have edited a few problem sentences to improve their comprehensibility.


Reminiscences of a Seigneurial Manor

by an Octogenarian

Wedding Bells

Close beside, but slightly in the rear of the Manor house at River David in the Province of Quebec in the early decades of the last century [i.e. the early 1800s] stood an old farm house that had evidently been erected years before the Manor and with which it was subsequently connected by a covered corridor. It was used as an outside kitchen and was also set apart as quarters for the use of the many field laborers and farm hands who were employed upon the home, farm or Domaine.

Chief amongst these men was an Englishman called Ralph Gunhouse, whom my father had engaged as overseer and head gardener. He was an old soldier who had served his time in the British Army and had received his discharge papers, which he often exhibited with pride. He was a good looking, ruddy, fair-haired, big fellow, and made one think of King Henry VIII.

The outside kitchen was in charge of a French Canadian serving maid called Constance -- not too young and not at all good looking -- who cooked for the men, baked the household bread, and helped with the laundry work and other duties of the establishment. She kept the large kitchen floor well scrubbed and sprinkled with sand, and cooked appetizing pots of pea soup on the big iron stove that supplemented the open fireplace where great logs of wood burned when occasion required.

Gunhouse could not speak one word of French, nor could Constance speak one word of English, but little god Cupid found that this was no obstacle to lovemaking and presently they decided to get married, while still retaining their positions in the household. Constance, of course, was a Catholic, and her folks at first raised some objections to her marrying a Protestant, but these were overcome by the consideration that Gunhouse was "un bon parti" and also "un bon garçon" and Constance might remain "une vielle fille." So consent was given by her parents [and] in due time they came to conduct the couple to the church where the marriage was to take place. I remember seeing, with childish wonder, the bride dressed in her best, sitting weeping in the big kitchen before leaving the house with her gay bridegroom to ride in a caleche, leading a cavalcade of others, through the village of Pierreville, eleven miles away to a little Protestant church in the Abenaki, [to] Indian Pastor (Chief of the Tribe), who was called indiscriminately "Mastas" or "O-Sunker-Hone [=Osunkhirhine]." He had been educated in some American College [Dartmouth] and was celebrated for having translated the Bible into the Abenaki tongue.

The usual festivities at a French Canadian "noce" took place on the return of the wedding party, and in the evening the big kitchen was thronged with a gay crowd of dancers. It was quite a grand affair, there being no less than two fiddlers to discourse sweet music to the company and the fun ran fast and furious. I was terribly grieved at not being allowed to participate in it, but was told that it was not proper for "une petite demoiselle" and I was sent to bed at the usual hour very sad, with the joyous strains of the two fiddlers ringing in my ears. I always loved the strains of violin music from my earliest years, and I was just eight at the time.

Constance was a typical French Canadian of the period in look and dress. She always wore the usual garb of the "creatures," as the French Canadian women were called, which consisted of a "jupe" or shirt of dark indigo-blue homespun étoffe du pays and a "mantelet," or waist, of Indienne (this may still be the name of Calico, the derivation of both names for the materials [being] quite plain[ly] from "Calcutta" and India). She much preferred to go about barefoot, but after her marriage, as soon as Gunhouse appeared on the scene, he would call out "Custinse! Go and put on your shoes," and Custinse would fly and obey her lord and master. She called him "Gunausse" and he called her "Custinse."

Custinse and Gunausse lived on with us happily for some time and then went to a little house of their own in the village, and later to a farm they had acquired about ten miles away on the St. François River, but every fine Sunday, Gunhouse would tramp the ten miles to spend the Sunday at our house and to join the religious Sunday service my father used to conduct for his family, and after a good dinner in the old kitchen, he would tramp back to his Custinse and little daughter Mary, their only child, who, meanwhile, had probably betaken themselves to the nearest Catholic Church.

A Midnight Celebration on New Year's Eve

The scene of my reminiscences must now change from the early days of Gunhouse and Constance to winter entertainment at midnight in moonlight in a snow-clad countryside, at which Gunhouse invariably took place [?].

Not far from the house, on a slight elevation, was placed a tall flag-pole, from the top of which a flag fluttered in the breeze every Sunday morning, on birthdays, and other occasions of rejoicing.

Nearby stood an old cannon, mounted on its carriage, which was fired to assist at various celebrations when required under the manipulation of old Gunhouse.

There was nothing the old soldier liked better than to fire off that ancient cannon, and set the wild echoes flying day or night (preferably at New Year's Eve), to welcome in the New Year. I do not known when or where that cannon came from, it had always been there since I could remember.

On New Year's Eve all the lads of the village who could get or borrow a gun were invited to assist in the celebrations by firing a "feu de joie" after the cannon had uttered its salutation to the New Year.

They came joyfully, regardless of the bitter blasts of old Boreas and took refuge where in the interval they danced to the strains of the accordion or gay tunes performed on a mouth organ. They sang choruses and exhibited feats [of?] prowess till the witching hour drew near and Gunhouse summoned them forth, to take their places, in a row, beside the cannon. All was silence and expectation, till the sound of a bell from the house announced that the midnight hour had arrived. Then, after a great wave of a torch in Gunhouse's hand, the cannon gave out its loud report, the flash monetarily lighting the scenery, and Gunhouse loudly shouting to the waiting gunmen, "Make Ready! Present! Fire!" and an erratic popping of guns ensued.

Next he raised the shout "Three Cheers for the New Year. Three Cheers for the Queen" -- all lustily given with vim and emphasis.

Then came a chorus of "Happy New Year" and "Bonne année," after which there was a hasty retreat to the warm precincts of the kitchen, from which they were presently marshalled through the covered corridor into the dining room of the Manor, where they were received by the Seigneur and Seigneuresse.

Congratulations and good wishes were exchanged, refreshments consisting of gingerbread, doughnuts, raspberry vinegar, coffee and buns were served. Finally the young people bade good night to their hosts and... they all made their way to their respective homes in the village, in the cold gray morning of January day [?].

The Tragedy of a Summer's Day

Several winters and summers must have passed away, with their joys and sorrows, since the last events, of which I wrote, took place on the bitter cold New Year's Eve, for in this world Comedy and Tragedy succeed each other rapidly. My reminiscences at this time are [of] a beautiful day, in early summer, when the sun shone in a cloudless sky, over a green earth, the time being the 24th of May, Queen Victoria's Birthday. It is said that "A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men," and I cannot refrain from quoting a couplet the school children used to shout lustily to the effect that, "The 24th of May is the Queen's Birthday and if we don't get a holiday, we'll all run away" and it was always an ideal holiday for old and young.

On this particular occasion, there was to be a Royal Salute fired exactly at midday, from the old cannon, and the usual number of people from the village were assembled to participate in the celebration, and show their loyalty by many hurrahs and shouts of "Vive la reine," and Gunhouse, now past middle age, was as usual to be master of ceremonies.

A number of onlookers were seated on the galleries of the Manor House to watch the proceedings. As soon as the bell from the village church had ceased ringing the midday Angelus, the cannon began its reports, and we counted up to five, when a sixth report followed too suddenly, then we realised that something untoward had happened. A great cry of horror and distress came from the crowd beside the cannon, for poor Gunhouse had made a frightful mistake. In the excitement of the moment, he had rammed in a charge of powder without first swabbing out the interior of the cannon, in consequences of which, the explosion took place immediately, and the ramrod with which Gunhouse was pushing in the charge was driven into his breast, inflicting a mortal wound.

The poor mangled form was carried to the nearest cottage, and the doctor who was summoned did all he could to help the poor old man, but the end was not long in coming. Instinctively, the grief of the onlookers turned in anger to the unconscious cannon. The young seigneur of the Manor said that "Never again should it utter its voice, for weal or woe." It was dismounted from its carriage, carried to a woodshed nearby, and thrown into a corner, where some years afterwards I saw it still lying, half covered with sawdust, chips, and other debris of the place. Perhaps after many years it was brought out to give voice to rejoicings, over some political victory, or something of that sort.

In the course of a day or two, a funeral party bore poor old Gunhouse to a beautiful cemetery of the family, where he was laid to rest, in the shade of the cedars that gave their name to the place.

PEACE BE TO HIS ASHES

By Louisa M. Rankin


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