The Trail of The Sword by Gilbert Parker
Epoch the Second
Chapter XII. Out of the Net
The last two hundred miles of their journey had been made under trying conditions. Accidents had befallen the canoes which carried the food, and the country through which they passed was almost devoid of game. During the last three days they had little or nothing to eat. When, therefore, at night they came suddenly upon the shores of Hudson's Bay, and Fort Hayes lay silent before them, they were ready for desperate enterprises. The high stockade walls with stout bastions and small cannon looked formidable, yet there was no man of them but was better pleased that the odds were against him than with him. Though it was late spring, the night was cold, and all were wet, hungry, and chilled.
Iberville's first glance at the bay and the fort brought disappointment. No vessel lay in the harbour, therefore it was probable Gering was not there. But there were other forts, and this one must be taken meanwhile. The plans were quickly made. Iberville advised a double attack: an improvised battering-ram at the great gate, and a party to climb the stockade wall at another quarter. This climbing-party he would himself lead, accompanied by his brother Sainte-Helene,
Perrot, and a handful of agile woodsmen. He had his choice, and his men were soon gathered round him. A tree was cut down in the woods some distance from the shore, shortened, and brought down, ready for its duty of battering-ram.
The night was beautiful. There was a bright moon, and the sky by some strange trick of atmosphere had taken on a green hue, against which everything stood out with singular distinctness. The air was placid, and through the stillness came the low humming wash of the water to the hard shore. The fort stood on an upland, looking in its solitariness like some lonely prison-house where men went, more to have done with the world than for punishment. Iberville was in that mood wherein men do stubborn deeds--when justice is more with them than mercy, and selfishness than either.
"If you meet the man, Pierre?" De Casson said before the party started.
Iberville laughed softly. "If we meet, may my mind be his, abbe! But he is not here--there is no vessel, you see! Still, there are more forts on the bay." The band knelt down before they started. It was strange to hear in that lonely waste, a handful of men, bent on a deadly task, singing a low chant of penitence--a Kyrie eleison. Afterwards came the benediction upon this buccaneering expedition, behind which was one man's personal enmity, a merchant company's cupidity, and a great nation's lust of conquest! Iberville stole across the shore and up the hill with his handful of men. There was no sound from the fort; all were asleep. No musket-shot welcomed them, no cannon roared on the night; there was no sentry. What should people on the outposts of the world need of sentries, so long as there were walls to keep out wild animals! In a few moments Iberville and his companions were over the wall. Already the attack on the gate had begun, a passage was quickly made, and by the time Iberville had forced open the doors of the blockhouse, his followers making a wild hubbub as of a thousand men, De Troyes and his party were at his heels. Before the weak garrison could make resistance they were in the hands of their enemies, and soon were gathered in the yard--men, women, and children.
Gering was not there. Iberville was told that he was at one of the other forts along the shore: either Fort Rupert on the east, a hundred and twenty miles away, or at Fort Albany, ninety miles to the north and west. Iberville determined to go to Fort Rupert, and with a few followers, embarking in canoes, assembled before it two nights after. A vessel was in the harbour, and his delight was keen. He divided his men, sending Perrot to take the fort, while himself with a small party moved to the attack of the vessel. Gering had delayed a day too long. He had intended leaving the day before, but the arrival of the governor of the company had induced him to remain another day; entertaining his guest at supper, and toasting him in some excellent wine got in Hispaniola. So palatable was it that all drank deeply, and other liquors found their way to the fo'castle. Thus in the dead of night there was no open eye on the Valiant.
The Frenchmen pushed out gently from the shore, paddled noiselessly over to the ship's side, and clambered up. Iberville was the first to step on deck, and he was followed by Perrot and De Casson, who had, against Iberville's will, insisted on coming. Five others came after. Already they could hear the other party at the gate of the fort, and the cries of the besiegers, now in the fortyard, came clearly to them.
The watch of the Valiant, waking suddenly, sprang up and ran forward, making no outcry, dazed but bent on fighting. He came, however, on the point of Perrot's sabre and was cut down. Meanwhile Iberville, hot for mischief, stamped upon the deck. Immediately a number of armed men came bundling up the hatch way. Among these appeared Gering and the governor, who thrust themselves forward with drawn swords and pistols. The first two men who appeared above the hatchway were promptly despatched, and Iberville's sword was falling upon Gering, whom he did not recognise, when De Casson's hand diverted the blow. It caught the shoulder of a man at Gering's side.
"'Tis Monsieur Gering!" said the priest.
"Stop! stop!" cried a voice behind these. "I am the governor. We surrender."
There was nothing else to do: in spite of Gering's show of defiance, though death was above him if he resisted. He was but half-way up.
"It is no use, Mr. Gering," urged the governor; "they have us like sheep in a pen."
"Very well," said Gering suddenly, handing up his, sword and stepping up himself. "To whom do I surrender?"
"To an old acquaintance, monsieur," said Iberville, coming near, "who will cherish you for the king of France."
"Damnation!" cried Gering, and his eyes hungered for his sword again.
"You would not visit me, so I came to look for you; though why, monsieur, you should hide up here in the porch of the world passeth knowledge."
"Monsieur is witty," answered Gering stoutly; "but if he will grant me my sword again and an hour alone with him, I shall ask no greater joy in life."
By this time the governor was on deck, and he interposed.
"I beg, sir," he said to Iberville, "you will see there is no useless slaughter at yon fort; for I guess that your men have their way with it."
"Shall my messenger, in your name, tell your people to give in?"
"By Heaven, no: I hope that they will fight while remains a chance. And be sure, sir, I should not have yielded here, but that I foresaw hopeless slaughter. Nor would I ask your favour there, but that I know you are like to have bloody barbarians with you--and we have women and children!"
"We have no Indians, we are all French," answered Iberville quietly, and sent the messenger away.
At that moment Perrot touched his arm, and pointed to a man whose shoulder was being bandaged. It was Radisson, who had caught Iberville's sword when the abbe diverted it.
"By the mass," said Iberville; "the gift of the saints!" He pricked Radisson with the point of his sword. "Well, Monsieur Renegade, who holds the spring of the trap now? You have some prayers, I hope. And if there is no priest among your English, we'll find you one before you swing next sundown."
Radisson threw up a malignant look, but said nothing; and went on caring for his wound.
"At sunset, remember. You will see to it, Perrot," he added.
"Pardon me, monsieur," said the governor. "This is an officer of our company, duly surrendered."
"Monsieur will know this man is a traitor, and that I have long-standing orders to kill him wherever found. What has monsieur to say for him?" Iberville added, turning to Gering.
"As an officer of the company," was the reply, "he has the rights of a prisoner of war."
"Monsieur, we have met at the same table, and I cannot think you should plead for a traitor. If you will say that the man--"
But here Radisson broke in. "I want no one to speak for me. I hate you all"--he spat at Iberville--"and I will hang when I must, no sooner."
"Not so badly said," Iberville responded. "'Tis a pity, Radisson, you let the devil buy you."
"T'sh! The devil pays good coin, and I'm not hung yet," he sullenly returned.
By this time all the prisoners save Gering, the governor, and Radisson, were secured. Iberville ordered their disposition, and then, having set a guard, went down to deal with the governor for all the forts on the bay. Because the firing had ceased, he knew that the fort had been captured; and, indeed, word soon came to this effect. Iberville then gave orders that the prisoners from the fort should be brought on board next morning, to be carried on to Fort Albany, which was yet for attack. He was ill-content that a hand-to-hand fight with Gering had been prevented.
He was now all courtesy to the governor and Gering, and, offering them their own wine, entertained them with the hardships of their travel up. He gave the governor assurance that the prisoners should be treated well, and no property destroyed. Afterwards, with apologies, he saw them bestowed in a cabin, the door fastened, and a guard set. Presently he went on deck, and giving orders that Radisson should be kept safe on the after-deck, had rations served out. Then, after eating, he drew his cloak over him in the cabin and fell asleep.
Near daybreak a man came swimming along the side of the ship to the small port-hole of a cabin. He paused before it, took from his pocket a nail, and threw it within. There was no response, and he threw another, and again there was no response. Hearing the step of some one on the deck above he drew in close to the side of the ship, diving under the water and lying still. A moment after he reappeared and moved-almost floated- on to another port-hole. He had only one nail left; he threw it in, and Gering's face appeared.
"Hush, monsieur!" Radisson called up. "I have a key which may fit, and a bar of iron. If you get clear, make for this side."
He spoke in a whisper. At that moment he again heard steps above, and dived as before. The watch looked over, having heard a slight noise; but not knowing that Gering's cabin was beneath, thought no harm. Presently Radisson came up again. Gering understood, having heard the footsteps.
"I will make the trial," he said. "Can you give me no other weapon?"
"I have only the one," responded Radisson, not unselfish enough to give it up. His chief idea, after all, was to put Gering under obligation to him.
"I will do my best," said Gering.
Then he turned to the governor, who did not care to risk his life in the way of escape.
Gering tried the key, but it would not turn easily and he took it out again. Rubbing away the rust, he used tallow from the candle, and tried the lock again; still it would not turn. He looked to the fastenings, but they were solid, and he feared noise; he made one more attempt with the lock, and suddenly it turned. He tried the handle, and the door opened. Then he bade goodbye to the governor and stepped out, almost upon the guard, who was sound asleep. Looking round he saw Iberville's cloak, which its owner had thrown off in his sleep. He stealthily picked it up, and then put Iberville's cap on his head. Of nearly the same height, with these disguises he might be able to pass for his captor.
He threw the cloak over his shoulders, stole silently to the hatchway, and cautiously climbed up. Thrusting out his head he looked about him, and he saw two or three figures bundled together at the mainmast-- woodsmen who had celebrated victory too sincerely. He looked for the watch, but could not see him. Then he drew himself carefully up, and on his hands and knees passed to the starboard side and moved aft. Doing so he saw the watch start up from the capstan where he had been resting, and walk towards him. He did not quicken his pace. He trusted to his ruse-- he would impersonate Iberville, possessed as he was of the hat and cloak. He moved to the bulwarks and leaned against them, looking into the water. The sentry was deceived; he knew the hat and cloak, and he was only too glad to have, as he thought, escaped the challenge of having slept at his post; so he began resolutely to pace the deck. Gering watched him closely, and moved deliberately to the stern. In doing so he suddenly came upon a body. He stopped and turned round, leaning against the bulwarks as before. This time the watch came within twenty feet of him, saluted and retired.
Immediately Gering looked again at the body near him, and started back, for his feet were in a little pool. He understood: Radisson had escaped by killing his guard. It was not possible that the crime and the escape could go long undetected; the watch might at any moment come the full length of the ship. Gering flashed a glance at him again, his back was to him still,--suddenly doffed the hat and cloak, vaulted lightly upon the bulwarks, caught the anchor-chain, slid down it into the water, and struck out softly along the side. Immediately Radisson was beside him.
"Can you dive?" the Frenchman whispered. "Can you swim under water?"
"Then with me, quick!"
The Frenchman dived and Gering followed him. The water was bitter cold, but when a man is saving his life endurance multiplies.
The Fates were with them: no alarm came from the ship, and they reached the bank in safety. Here they were upon a now hostile shore without food, fire, shelter, and weapons; their situation was desperate even yet. Radisson's ingenuity was not quite enough, so Gering solved the problem: there were the Frenchmen's canoes; they must be somewhere on the shore. Because Radisson was a Frenchman, he might be able to impose upon the watch guarding the canoes. If not, they still had weapons of a kind- Radisson a knife, and Gering the bar of iron. They moved swiftly along the shore, fearing an alarm meanwhile. If they could but get weapons and a canoe they would make their way either to Fort Albany, so warning it, or attempt the desperate journey to New York. Again fortune was with them. As it chanced, the watch, suffering from the cold night air, had gone into the bush to bring wood for firing. The two refugees stole near, and in the very first canoe found three muskets, and there were also bags filled with food. They hastily pushed out a canoe, got in, and were miles away before their escape was discovered.
Radisson was for going south at once to New York, but Gering would not hear of it, and at the mouth of a musket Radisson obeyed. They reached Fort Albany and warned it. Having thus done his duty towards the Hudson's Bay Company, and knowing that surrender must come, and that in this case his last state would be worse than his first, Gering proceeded with Radisson--hourly more hateful to him, yet to be endured for what had happened--southward upon the trail the Frenchmen had taken northward.
A couple of hours after Gering had thrown his hat and cloak into the blood of the coureur du bois, and slid down the anchor-chain, Iberville knew that his quarry was flown. The watch had thought that Iberville had gone below, and he had again relaxed, but presently a little maggot of wonder got into his brain. He then went aft. Dawn was just breaking; the grey moist light shone with a naked coldness on land and water; wild- fowl came fluttering, voiceless, past; night was still drenched in sleep. Suddenly he saw the dead body, and his boots dabbled in wet!
In all that concerned the honour of the arms of France and the conquest of the three forts, Hayes, Rupert, and Albany, Iberville might be content, but he chafed at, the escape of his enemies.
"I will not say it is better so, Pierre," urged De Casson; "but you have done enough for the king. Let your own cause come later."
"And it will come, abbe," he answered, with anger. "His account grows; we must settle all one day. And Radisson shall swing or I am no soldier --so!"