Epoch the First
Chapter I. An Envoy Extraordinary
 

One summer afternoon a tall, good-looking stripling stopped in the midst of the town of New York, and asked his way to the governor's house. He attracted not a little attention, and he created as much astonishment when he came into the presence of the governor. He had been announced as an envoy from Quebec. "Some new insolence of the County Frontenac!" cried old Richard Nicholls, bringing his fist down on the table. For a few minutes he talked with his chamberfellow; then, "Show the gentleman in," he added. In the room without, the envoy from Quebec had stood flicking the dust from his leggings with a scarf. He was not more than eighteen, his face had scarcely an inkling of moustache, but he had an easy upright carriage, with an air of self-possession, the keenest of grey eyes, a strong pair of shoulders, a look of daring about his rather large mouth, which lent him a manliness well warranting his present service. He had been left alone, and the first thing he had done was to turn on his heel and examine the place swiftly. This he seemed to do mechanically, not as one forecasting danger, not as a spy. In the curve of his lips, in an occasional droop of his eyelids, there was a suggestion of humour: less often a quality of the young than of the old. For even in the late seventeenth century, youth took itself seriously at times.

Presently, as he stood looking at the sunshine through the open door, a young girl came into the lane of light, waved her hand, with a little laugh, to some one in the distance, and stepped inside. At first she did not see him. Her glances were still cast back the way she had come. The young man could not follow her glance, nor was he anything curious. Young as he was, he could enjoy a fine picture. There was a pretty demureness in the girl's manner, a warm piquancy in the turn of the neck, and a delicacy in her gestures, which to him, fresh from hard hours in the woods, was part of some delightful Arcady--though Arcady was more in his veins than of his knowledge. For the young seigneur of New France spent far more hours with his gun than with his Latin, and knew his bush- ranging vassal better than his tutor; and this one was too complete a type of his order to reverse its record. He did not look to his scanty lace, or set himself seemingly; he did but stop flicking the scarf held loose in his fingers, his foot still on the bench. A smile played at his lips, and his eyes had a gleam of raillery. He heard the girl say in a soft, quaint voice, just as she turned towards him, "Foolish boy!" By this he knew that the pretty picture had for its inspiration one of his own sex.

She faced him, and gave a little cry of surprise. Then their eyes met. Immediately he made the most elaborate bow of all his life, and she swept a graceful courtesy. Her face was slightly flushed that this stranger should have seen, but he carried such an open, cordial look that she paused, instead of hurrying into the governor's room, as she had seemed inclined to do.

In the act the string of her hat, slung over her arm, came loose, and the hat fell to the floor. Instantly he picked it up and returned it. Neither had spoken a word. It seemed another act of the light pantomime at the door. As if they had both thought on the instant how droll it was, they laughed, and she said to him naively: "You have come to visit the governor? You are a Frenchman, are you not?"

To this in slow and careful English, "Yes," he replied; "I have come from Canada to see his excellency. Will you speak French?"

"If you please, no," she answered, smiling; "your English is better than my French. But I must go." And she turned towards the door of the governor's room.

"Do not go yet," he said. "Tell me, are you the governor's daughter?"

She paused, her hand at the door. "Oh no," she answered; then, in a sprightly way--"are you a governor's son?"

"I wish I were," he said, "for then there'd be a new intendant, and we'd put Nick Perrot in the council."

"What is an intendant?" she asked, "and who is Nick Perrot?"

"Bien! an intendant is a man whom King Louis appoints to worry the governor and the gentlemen of Canada, and to interrupt the trade. Nicolas Perrot is a fine fellow, and a great coureur du bois, and helps to get the governor out of troubles to-day, the intendant to-morrow. He is a splendid fighter. Perrot is my friend."

He said this, not with an air of boasting, but with a youthful and enthusiastic pride, which was relieved, by the twinkle in his eyes and his frank manner.

"Who brought you here?" she asked demurely. "Are they inside with the governor?"

He saw the raillery; though, indeed, it was natural to suppose that he had no business with the governor, but had merely come with some one. The question was not flattering. His hand went up to his chin a little awkwardly. She noted how large yet how well-shaped it was, or, rather, she remembered afterwards. Then it dropped upon the hilt of the rapier he wore, and he answered with good self-possession, though a little hot spot showed on his cheek: "The governor must have other guests who are no men of mine; for he keeps an envoy from Count Frontenac long in his anteroom."

The girl became very youthful indeed, and a merry light danced in her eyes and warmed her cheek. She came a step nearer. "It is not so? You do not come from Count Frontenac--all alone, do you?"

"I'll tell you after I have told the governor," he answered, pleased and amused.

"Oh, I shall hear when the governor hears," she answered, with a soft quaintness, and then vanished into the governor's chamber. She had scarce entered when the door opened again, and the servant, a Scotsman, came out to say that his excellency would receive him. He went briskly forward, but presently paused. A sudden sense of shyness possessed him. It was not the first time he had been ushered into vice-regal presence, but his was an odd position. He was in a strange land, charged with an embassy which accident had thrust upon him. Then, too, the presence of the girl had withdrawn him for an instant from the imminence of his duty. His youth came out of him, and in the pause one could fairly see him turn into man.

He had not the dark complexion of so many of his race, but was rather Saxon in face, with rich curling brown hair. Even in that brave time one might safely have bespoken for him a large career. And even while the Scotsman in the doorway eyed him with distant deprecation, as he eyed all Frenchmen, good and bad, ugly or handsome, he put off his hesitation and entered the governor's chamber. Colonel Nicholls came forward to greet him, and then suddenly stopped, astonished. Then he wheeled upon the girl. "Jessica, you madcap!" he said in a low voice.

She was leaning against a tall chair, both hands grasping the back of it, her chin just level with the top. She had told the governor that Count Frontenac had sent him a lame old man, and that, enemy or none, he ought not to be kept waiting, with arm in sling and bandaged head. Seated at the table near her was a grave member of the governor's council, William Drayton by name. He lifted a reproving finger at her now, but with a smile on his kindly face, and "Fie, fie, young lady!" he said, in a whisper.

Presently the governor mastered his surprise, and seeing that the young man was of birth and quality, extended his hand cordially enough, and said: "I am glad to greet you, sir;" and motioned him to a seat. "But, pray, sit down," he added, "and let us hear the message Count Frontenac has sent. Meanwhile we would be favoured with your name and rank."

The young man thrust a hand into his doublet and drew forth a packet of papers. As he handed it over, he said in English--for till then the governor had spoken French, having once served with the army of France, and lived at the French Court: "Your excellency, my name is Pierre le Moyne of Iberville, son of Charles le Moyne, a seigneur of Canada, of whom you may have heard." (The governor nodded.) "I was not sent by Count Frontenac to you. My father was his envoy: to debate with you our trade in the far West and our dealings with the Iroquois."

"Exactly," said old William Drayton, tapping the table with his forefinger; "and a very sound move, upon my soul."

"Ay, ay," said the governor, "I know of your father well enough. A good fighter and an honest gentleman, as they say. But proceed, Monsieur le Moyne of Iberville."

"I am called Iberville," said the young man simply. Then: "My father and myself started from Quebec with good Nick Perrot, the coureur du bois--"

"I know him too," the governor interjected--"a scoundrel worth his weight in gold to your Count Frontenac."

"For whose head Count Frontenac has offered gold in his time," answered Iberville, with a smile.

"A very pretty wit," said old William Drayton, nodding softly towards the girl, who was casting bright, quizzical glances at the youth over the back of the chair.

Iberville went on: "Six days ago we were set upon by a score of your Indians, and might easily have left our scalps with them; but, as it chanced, my father was wounded, I came off scot-free, and we had the joy of ridding your excellency of half a dozen rogues."

The governor lifted his eyebrows and said nothing. The face of the girl over against the back of the chair had become grave.

"It was in question whether Perrot or I should bear Count Frontenac's message. Perrot knew the way, I did not; Perrot also knew the Indians."

"But Perrot," said the governor blufily, "would have been the letter- carrier; you are a kind of ambassador. Upon my soul, yes, a sort of ambassador!" he added, enjoying the idea; for, look at it how you would, Iberville was but a boy.

"That was my father's thought and my own," answered Iberville coolly. "There was my father to care for till his wound was healed and he could travel back to Quebec, so we thought it better Perrot should stay with him. A Le Moyne was to present himself, and a Le Moyne has done so."

The governor was impressed more deeply than he showed. It was a time of peace, but the young man's journey among Indian braves and English outlaws, to whom a French scalp was a thing of price, was hard and hazardous. His reply was cordial, then his fingers came to the seal of the packet; but the girl's hand touched his arm.

"I know his name," she said in the governor's ear, "but he does not know mine."

The governor patted her hand, and then rejoined: "Now, now, I forgot the lady; but I cannot always remember that you are full fifteen years old."

Standing up, with all due gravity and courtesy, "Monsieur Iberville," he said, "let me present you to Mistress Jessica Leveret, the daughter of my good and honoured and absent friend, the Honourable Hogarth Leveret."

So the governor and his councillor stood shoulder to shoulder at one window, debating Count Frontenac's message; and shoulder to shoulder at another stood Iberville and Jessica Leveret. And what was between these at that moment--though none could have guessed it--signified as much to the colonies of France and England, at strife in the New World, as the deliberations of their elders.