The Trail of The Sword by Gilbert Parker
Epoch the First
Chapter II. The Threat of a Renegade
Iberville was used to the society of women. Even as a young lad, his father's notable place in the colony, and the freedom and gaiety of life in Quebec and Montreal, had drawn upon him a notice which was as much a promise of the future as an accent of the present. And yet, through all of it, he was ever better inspired by the grasp of a common soldier, who had served with Carignan-Salieres, or by the greeting and gossip of such woodsmen as Du Lhut, Mantet, La Durantaye, and, most of all, his staunch friend Perrot, chief of the coureurs du bois. Truth is, in his veins was the strain of war and adventure first and before all. Under his tutor, the good Pere Dollier de Casson, he had never endured his classics, save for the sake of Hector and Achilles and their kind; and his knowledge of English, which his father had pressed him to learn,--for he himself had felt the lack of it in dealings with Dutch and English traders,--only grew in proportion as he was given Shakespeare and Raleigh to explore.
Soon the girl laughed up at him. "I have been a great traveller," she said, "and I have ears. I have been as far west as Albany and south to Virginia, with my father, who, perhaps you do not know, is in England now. And they told me everywhere that Frenchmen are bold, dark men, with great black eyes and very fine laces and wigs, and a trick of bowing and making foolish compliments; and they are not to be trusted, and they will not fight except in the woods, where there are trees to climb. But I see that it is not all true, for you are not dark, your eyes are not big or black, your laces are not much to see, you do not make compliments--"
"I shall begin now," he interrupted.
"--you must be trusted a little, or Count Frontenac would not send you, and--and--tell me, would you fight if you had a chance?"
No one of her sex had ever talked so to Iberville. Her demure raillery, her fresh, frank impertinence, through which there ran a pretty air of breeding, her innocent disregard of formality, all joined to impress him, to interest him. He was not so much surprised at the elegance and cleverness of her speech, for in Quebec girls of her age were skilled in languages and arts, thanks to the great bishop, Laval, and to Marie of the Incarnation. In response to her a smile flickered upon his lips. He had a quick fierce temper, but it had never been severely tried; and so well used was he to looking cheerfully upon things, so keen had been his zest in living, that, where himself was concerned, his vanity was not easily touched. So, looking with genial dryness, "You will hardly believe it, of course," he said, "but wings I have not yet grown, and the walking is bad 'twixt here and the Chateau St. Louis."
"Iroquois traps," she suggested, with a smile. "With a trick or two of English footpads," was his reply.
Meanwhile his eye had loitered between the two men in council at the farther window and the garden, into which he and the girl were looking. Presently he gave a little start and a low whistle, and his eyelids slightly drooped, giving him a handsome sulkiness. "Is it so?" he said between his teeth: "Radisson--Radisson, as I live!"
He had seen a man cross a corner of the yard. This man was short, dark- bearded, with black, lanky hair, brass earrings, and buckskin leggings, all the typical equipment of the French coureur du bois. Iberville had only got one glance at his face, but the sinister profile could never be forgotten. At once the man passed out of view. The girl had not seen him, she had been watching her companion. Presently she said, her fingers just brushing his sleeve, for he stood eyeing the point where the man had disappeared: "Wonderful! You look now as if you would fight. Oh, fierce, fierce as the governor when he catches a French spy!"
He turned to her and, with a touch of irony, "Pardon!" he retorted. "Now I shall look as blithe as the governor when a traitor deserts to him."
Of purpose he spoke loud enough to be heard by the governor and his friend. The governor turned sharply on him. He had caught the ring in the voice, that rash enthusiasm of eager youth, and, taking a step towards Iberville, Count Frontenac's letter still poised in his hand: "Were your words meant for my hearing, monsieur?" he said. "Were you speaking of me or of your governor?"
"I was thinking of one Radisson a traitor, and I was speaking of yourself, your excellency."
The governor had asked his question in French, in French the reply was given. Both the girl and Councillor Drayton followed with difficulty. Jessica looked a message to her comrade in ignorance. The old man touched the governor's arm. "Let it be in English if monsieur is willing. He speaks it well."
The governor was at work to hide his anger: he wished good greeting to Count Frontenac's envoy, and it seemed not fitting to be touched by the charges of a boy. "I must tell you frankly, Monsieur Iberville," he said, "that I do not choose to find a sort of challenge in your words; and I doubt that your father, had he been here, would have spoke quite so roundly. But I am for peace and happy temper when I can. I may not help it if your people, tired of the governance of Louis of France, come into the good ruling of King Charles. As for this man Radisson: what is it you would have?"
Iberville was now well settled back upon his native courage. He swallowed the rebuke with grace, and replied with frankness: "Radisson is an outlaw. Once he attempted Count Frontenac's life. He sold a band of our traders to the Iroquois. He led your Hollanders stealthily to cut off the Indians of the west, who were coming with their year's furs to our merchants. There is peace between your colony and ours--is it fair to harbour such a wretch in your court-yard? It was said up in Quebec, your excellency, that such men have eaten at your table."
During this speech the governor seemed choleric, but a change passed over him, and he fell to admiring the lad's boldness. "Upon my soul, monsieur," he said, "you are council, judge, and jury all in one; but I think I need not weigh the thing with you, for his excellency, from whom you come, has set forth this same charge,"--he tapped the paper,--"and we will not spoil good-fellowship by threshing it now." He laughed a little ironically. "And I promise you," he added, "that your Radisson shall neither drink wine nor eat bread with you at my table. And now, come, let us talk awhile together; for, lest any accident befall the packet you shall bear, I wish you to carry in your memory, with great distinctness, the terms of my writing to your governor. I would that it were not to be written, for I hate the quill, and I've seen the time I would rather point my sword red than my quill black."
By this the shadows were falling. In the west the sun was slipping down behind the hills, leaving the strong day with a rosy and radiant glamour, that faded away in eloquent tones to the grey, tinsel softness of the zenith. Out in the yard a sumach bush was aflame. Rich tiger-lilies thrust in at the sill, and lazy flies and king bees boomed in and out of the window. Something out of the sunset, out of the glorious freshness and primal majesty of the new land, diffused through the room where those four people stood, and made them silent. Presently the governor drew his chair to the table, and motioned Councillor Drayton and Iberville to be seated.
The girl touched his arm. "And where am I to sit?" she asked demurely. Colonel Nicholls pursed his lips and seemed to frown severely on her. "To sit? Why, in your room, mistress. Tut, tut, you are too bold. If I did not know your father was coming soon to bear you off, new orders should be issued. Yes, yes, e'en as I say," he added, as he saw the laughter in her eyes.
She knew that she could wind the big-mannered soldier about her finger. She had mastered his household; she was the idol of the settlement, her flexible intelligence, the flush of the first delicate bounty of womanhood had made him her slave. In a matter of vexing weight he would not have let her stay, but such deliberatings as he would have with Iberville could well bear her scrutiny. He reached out to pinch her cheek, but she deftly tipped her head and caught his outstretched fingers. "But where am I to sit?" she persisted. "Anywhere, then, but at the council-table," was his response, as he wagged a finger at her and sat down. Going over she perched herself on a high stool in the window behind Iberville. He could not see her, and, if he thought at all about it, he must have supposed that she could not see him. Yet she could; for against the window-frame was a mirror, and it reflected his face and the doings at the board. She did not listen to the rumble of voices. She fell to studying Iberville. Once or twice she laughed softly to herself.
As she turned to the window a man passed by and looked in at her. His look was singular, and she started. Something about his face was familiar. She found her mind feeling among far memories, for even the past of the young stretches out interminably. She shuddered, and a troubled look came into her eyes. Yet she could not remember. She leaned slightly forward, as if she were peering into that by-gone world which, maybe, is wider than the future for all of us--the past. Her eyes grew deep and melancholy. The sunset seemed to brighten around her all at once, and enmesh her in a golden web, burnishing her hair, and it fell across her brow with a peculiar radiance, leaving the temples in shadow, softening and yet lighting the carmine of her cheeks and lips, giving a feeling of life to her dress, which itself was like dusty gold. Her hands were caught and clasped at her knees. There was something spiritual and exalted in the picture. It had, too, a touch of tragedy, for something out of her nebulous past had been reflected in faint shadows in her eyes, and this again, by strange, delicate processes, was expressed in every line of her form, in all the aspect of her face. It was as if some knowledge were being filtered to her through myriad atmospheres of premonition; as though the gods in pity foreshadowed a great trouble, that the first rudeness of misery might be spared.
She did not note that Iberville had risen, and had come round the table to look over Councillor Drayton's shoulder at a map spread out. After standing a moment watching, the councillor's finger his pilot, he started back to his seat. As he did so he caught sight of her still in that poise of wonderment and sadness. He stopped short, then glanced at Colonel Nicholls and the councillor. Both were bent over the map, talking in eager tones. He came softly round the table, and was about to speak over her shoulder, when she drew herself up with a little shiver and seemed to come back from afar. Her hands went up to her eyes. Then she heard him. She turned quickly, with the pageant of her dreams still wavering in her face; smiled at him distantly, looked towards the window again in a troubled way, then stepped softly and swiftly to the door, and passed out. Iberville watched the door close and turned to the window. Again he saw, and this time nearer to the window, Radisson, and with him the man who had so suddenly mastered Jessica.
He turned to Colonel Nicholls. "Your excellency," he said, "will you not let me tell Count Frontenac that you forbid Radisson your purlieus? For, believe me, sir, there is no greater rogue unhanged, as you shall find some day to the hurt of your colony, if you shelter him."
The governor rose and paced the room thoughtfully. "He is proclaimed by Frontenac?" he asked.
"A price is on his head. As a Frenchman I should shoot him like a wolf where'er I saw him; and so I would now were I not Count Frontenac's ambassador and in your excellency's presence."
"You speak manfully, monsieur," said the governor, not ill-pleased; "but how might you shoot him now? Is he without there?" At this he came to where Iberville stood, and looked out. "Who is the fellow with him?" he asked.
"A cut-throat scoundrel, I'll swear, though his face is so smug," said Iberville. "What think you sir?" turning to the councillor, who was peering between their shoulders.
"As artless yet as strange a face as I have ever seen," answered the merchant. "What's his business here, and why comes he with the other rogue? He would speak with your excellency, I doubt not," he added.
Colonel Nicholls turned to Iberville. "You shall have your way," he said. "Yon renegade was useful when we did not know what sudden game was playing from Chateau St. Louis; for, as you can guess, he has friends as faithless as himself. But to please your governor, I will proclaim him."
He took his stick and tapped the floor. Waiting a moment, he tapped again. There was no sign. He opened the door; but his Scots body-guard was not in sight. "That's unusual," he said. Then, looking round: "Where is our other councillor? Gone?" he laughed. "Faith, I did not see her go. And now we can swear that where the dear witch is will Morris, my Scotsman, be found. Well, well! They have their way with us whether we will or no. But, here, I'll have your Radisson in at once."
He was in act to call when Morris entered. With a little hasty rebuke he gave his order to the man. "And look you, my good Morris," he added, "tell Sherlock and Weir to stand ready. I may need the show of firearms."
Turning to Iberville, he said: "I trust you will rest with us some days, monsieur. We shall have sports and junketings anon. We are not yet so grim as our friends in Massachusetts."
"I think I might venture two days with you, sir, if for nothing else, to see Radisson proclaimed. Count Frontenac would gladly cut months from his calendar to know you ceased to harbour one who can prove no friend," was the reply.
The governor smiled. "You have a rare taste for challenge, monsieur. To be frank, I will say your gift is more that of the soldier than the envoy. But upon my soul, if you will permit me, I think no less of you for that."
Then the door opened, and Morris brought in Radisson. The keen, sinister eyes of the woodsman travelled from face to face, and then rested savagely on Iberville. He scented trouble, and traced it to its source. Iberville drew back to the window and, resting his arm on the high stool where Jessica had sat, waited the event. Presently the governor came over to him.
"You can understand," he said quietly, "that this man has been used by my people, and that things may be said which--"
Iberville waved his hand respectfully. "I understand, your excellency," he said. "I will go." He went to the door.
The woodsman as he passed broke out: "There is the old saying of the woods, 'It is mad for the young wolf to trail the old bear.'"
"That is so," rejoined Iberville, with excellent coolness, "if the wolf holds not the spring of the trap."
In the outer room were two soldiers and the Scot. He nodded, passed into the yard, and there he paced up and down. Once he saw Jessica's face at a window, he was astonished to see how changed. It wore a grave, an apprehensive look. He fell to wondering, but, even as he wondered, his habit of observation made him take in every feature of the governor's house and garden, so that he could have reproduced all as it was mirrored in his eye. Presently he found himself again associating Radisson's comrade with the vague terror in Jessica's face. At last he saw the fellow come forth between two soldiers, and the woodsman turned his head from side to side, showing his teeth like a wild beast at sight of Iberville. His black brows twitched over his vicious eyes. "There are many ways to hell, Monsieur Iberville," he said. "I will show you one. Some day when you think you tread on a wisp of straw, it will be a snake with the deadly tooth. You have made an outlaw--take care! When the outlaw tires of the game, he winds it up quick. And some one pays for the candles and the cards."
Iberville walked up to him. "Radisson," he said in a voice well controlled, "you have always been an outlaw. In our native country you were a traitor; in this, you are the traitor still. I am not sorry for you, for you deserve not mercy. Prove me wrong. Go back to Quebec; offer to pay with your neck, then--"
"I will have my hour," said the woodsman, and started on.
"It's a pity," said Iberville to himself--"as fine a woodsman as Perrot, too!"