Book excerpt: Orphans of Empire by Grant Buday

Excerpt from: Orphans of Empire by Grant Buday (TouchWood Editions)

Mayne Island author Grant Buday first began researching the history of New Brighton, a site on the south bank of Burrard Inlet that predates both Gastown and Vancouver, for a possible non-fiction account of the infancy of Vancouver. After months of research, he found frustratingly little about the site, but was introduced to many­ intriguing ­personalities of the time, including the famed Sir Richard Clement Moody — the man who was appointed the gargantuan task of establishing British Columbia. Moody is one of three historical characters brought back to life in Buday’s new novel Orphans of Empire. He, with his family, arrived in Victoria just after dawn on Christmas Day, 1858, and was promptly invited to share Christmas dinner with ­Governor James and Lady Amelia Douglas.

Richard Clement Moody held Lady Douglas’s chair; Governor Douglas held Amelia’s chair; then the gentlemen took their seats. The adults were at one end and the children at the other. John, hungry, gripped his fork in one fist and his knife in the other like some famished trencherman of yore. They dined on goose, venison, mutton, oysters, fish tarts and jellied eels, a welcome feast after two months of salt beef, stony biscuits and sauerkraut. Ingemar served, and when he did not serve he stood by the door as still as a post but for his eyes, which darted about following the progress of the meal. Afterward, Moody and Douglas left the women and children and returned to the parlour. Douglas stood with one fist pressed into his lower spine, back arched, frowning at the cherubs on the ceiling as though at an infestation.

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He said, “They will look back upon you and me someday.”

Moody understood this as a reference not to the cherubs, but to the men of the future. He found himself trembling with pride and terror.

“They will read our reports and dispatches and letters and journals and reach all manner of inevitably erroneous conclusions,” said Douglas. “The poets will perhaps come closest. Tennyson has a suitable gravitas. Let us hope there are more Tennysons yet to be born.” He inhaled long and exhaled longer and pursed his lips and glared in disapproval at the painted ceiling. “Lady Douglas’s whim,” he said. “I don’t generally indulge whims, but she has earned a few.”

Moody found a suitable expression for his face, a pained agreement at the simultaneous trial and salvation that was a good wife. The thought of life without Mary was unbearable.

Douglas poured them each a glass of port. The governor was not a great drinker, had scarcely touched his punch, had taken but a half glass of wine at supper, and the glass he now handed Moody was hardly bigger than a thimble. Before the Falklands, Moody had not been a great drinker either, but soon enough a glass of stout at breakfast, a half bottle of Argentine Rio Tinto at lunch, followed by a medicinal tonic with gin in the afternoon, whiskey before supper, a bottle of claret with supper, brandy to follow, and mulled wine at bedtime were standard fare.

“To Derby,” said Douglas.

“Derby,” echoed Moody.

They clinked and sipped, Douglas merely wetting his lips but seeming to take a disproportionate satisfaction.

“You will lay the groundwork for the capital of what may well become Britain’s richest colony. More lucrative even than India.”

Moody felt his chest inflate. Glorious was his endeavour. He could not wait to write his father. “It is an honour.”

“It is a monumental undertaking.”

“Indeed, sir.”

They sipped again.

“I will cross the strait and make a preliminary survey immediately,” Moody assured him.

“You will not see it at its best,” said Douglas, meaning the winter season. “But that is an advantage. You will be under no illusions as to the work before you.”

“Worst first, best last.”

“Just so.”

All evening Moody had been aware of Douglas guiding the conversation to gauge Moody’s views. They agreed that the Second Opium War was a regrettable necessity; they agreed that it behoved them to monitor China closely; agreed that the Spanish Empire was teetering though its collapse could take another half century. The French were, as ever, troublingly proud, tenacious, inconstant, and altogether too Mediterranean. The Dutch were playing far beyond their game, and the Germans, as fatally flawed as the French, were anxious and aggressive and insecure, lodged as they were between Russia and Austria-Hungary.

Moody now ventured an opinion. “I have been struck by the small countries that have exercised such enormous influence. The Portuguese, the Dutch, and of course none more so than the English. An inverse ratio, as it were, bespeaking undeniable genius.”

Douglas considered this in his frowning fashion, a horseshoe shape visible in the set of his brow, and Moody chastised himself for such a banality. He’d been trying to impress the governor and come off like a junior cadet.

“Perhaps a worthy topic for a monograph,” allowed Douglas. “In the meantime you will prepare a site well served by roads. This will facilitate settlement and commerce, which will encourage wealth to stay here where it belongs. Too much is being carried off south over the border. We are being stripped. This must cease. There are twenty thousand Yankees here in British territory, a dangerous disproportion. If spurred they could take the colony for themselves just like that.” He snapped his fingers as if in demonstration.

“The border is now set,” said Moody.

“The border.” Douglas smiled thinly. “The border is symbolic and means nothing if they decide to ignore it. We are too far away and your sappers a token force at best. Here is a hard truth: the Crown is at odds with itself over British North America. They are still smarting over the American War of Independence. They lost thousands of men and millions of pounds. Hence they will be reluctant to commit men and money to defend this territory should the Americans decide to take it for themselves. Therefore it is up to the likes of you and me, sir. Are you capable?” Before Moody could respond, Douglas continued. “I have had letters from Premier Macdonald. He has a vision of Canada spanning from the Atlantic to the Pacific. It is a vision I endorse.” Douglas downed his port, though the weight of the gesture was undermined by the lightness of the glass. “A capital will be a bastion of defence. It will be a tangible fact. A place for settlers to congregate. Loyalist settlers.”

When Moody assured him again that he was eager to start, Douglas became even more grave. He tucked his chin and exhaled long and once more pressed his fist into his lower spine as though suffering spasms. He said, “Derby and his government actuaries expect the colonies to be financially independent as soon as possible. Indeed they desire revenues to cease flowing east to west and begin flowing west to east. And in very short order. The question is: Are you up to the task, sir?”

Moody could well believe that he’d been transported back to age twelve on the morning of his departure for England and school. On that day he’d been terrified and morose and had battled to control the tremor in his voice and twitching of his face. He’d not wanted to leave Barbados and yet he dared not disappoint his father by a show of emotion. His mother had moaned in the next room, though whether due to his imminent departure or one of her headaches he’d never know. He’d assured his father then, as he assured Douglas now, that he was indeed up to the task.

“Come.”

Moody followed Douglas out of the parlour and onto the porch. The starlit sky was an explosion of glass arrested mid-blast. Scattered conversation and heartfelt hymns were audible through the trees and along the shore from various camps.

“I have given my life to the Company and to the Crown and to this place.” There was pride and defiance and perhaps even wonder in Douglas’s tone.

Moody was moved and uncomfortable and sought some suitable remark. “We are at the beginning.”

“Apart from the Natives who have been here ten thousand years,” said Douglas.

Moody felt chastised.

“But peoples rise and fall and are lost to time and dust,” added Douglas. “Another terrible truth, but a truth nonetheless.”

Moody observed a suitable sobriety and parsed the statement: people plus time equals dust. And yet from dust and sweat and initiative rise empires. Unless, he thought, empires were follies.

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