Seats Of The Mighty by Gilbert Parker
XXII. The Lord of Kamarska
We were five altogether--Mr. Stevens, Clark, the two Boston soldiers, and myself; and presently we came down the steep passage in the cliff to where our craft lay, secured by my dear wife--a birch canoe, well laden with necessaries. Our craft was none too large for our party, but she must do; and safely in, we pushed out upon the current, which was in our favour, for the tide was going out. My object was to cross the river softly, skirt the Levis shore, pass the Isle of Orleans, and so steal down the river. There was excitement in the town, as we could tell from the lights flashing along the shore, and boats soon began to patrol the banks, going swiftly up and down, and extending a line round to the St. Charles River towards Beauport.
It was well for us the night was dark, else we had run that gantlet. But we were lucky enough, by hard paddling, to get past the town on the Levis side. Never were better boatmen. The paddles dropped with agreeable precision, and no boatswain's rattan was needed to keep my fellows to their task. I, whose sight was long trained to darkness, could see a great distance round us, and so could prevent a trap, though once or twice we let our canoe drift with the tide, lest our paddles should be heard. I could not paddle long, I had so little strength. After the Isle of Orleans was passed, I drew a breath of relief, and played the part of captain and boatswain merely.
Yet when I looked back at the town on those strong heights, and saw the bonfires burn to warn the settlers of our escape, saw the lights sparkling in many homes, and even fancied I could make out the light shining in my dear wife's window, I had a strange feeling of loneliness. There in the shadow of my prison walls, was the dearest thing on earth to me. Ought she not to be with me? She had begged to come, to share with me these dangers and hardships; but that I could not, would not grant. She would be safer with her people. As for us desperate men bent on escape, we must face hourly peril.
Thank God, there was work to do. Hour after hour the swing and dip of the paddles went on. No one showed weariness, and when the dawn broke slow and soft over the eastern hills, I motioned my good boatmen towards the shore, and landed safely. We lifted our frigate up, and carried her into a thicket, there to rest with us till night, when we would sally forth again into the friendly darkness. We were in no distress all that day, for the weather was fine, and we had enough to eat; and in such case were we for ten days and nights, though indeed some of the nights were dreary and very cold, for it was yet but the beginning of May.
It might thus seem that we were leaving danger well behind, after having travelled so many heavy leagues, but it was yet several hundred miles to Louisburg, our destination; and we had escaped only immediate danger. We passed Isle aux Coudres and the Isles of Kamaraska, and now we ventured by day to ramble the woods in search of game, which was most plentiful. In this good outdoor life my health came slowly back, and I should soon be able to bear equal tasks with any of my faithful comrades. Never man led better friends, though I have seen adventurous service near and far since that time. Even the genial ruffian Clark was amenable, and took sharp reprimand without revolt.
On the eleventh night after our escape, our first real trial came. We were keeping the middle of the great river, as safest from detection, and when the tide was with us we could thus move more rapidly. We had had a constant favouring wind, but now suddenly, though we were running with the tide, the wind turned easterly, and blew up the river against the ebb. Soon it became a gale, to which was added snow and sleet, and a rough, choppy sea followed.
I saw it would be no easy task to fetch our craft to the land. The waves broke in upon us, and presently, while half of us were paddling with laboured and desperate stroke, the other half were bailing. Lifted on a crest, our canoe, heavily laden, dropped at both ends; and again, sinking into the hollows between the short, brutal waves, her gunwales yielded outward, and her waist gaped in a dismal way. We looked to see her with a broken back at any moment. To add to our ill fortune, a violent current set in from the shore, and it was vain to attempt a landing. Spirits and bodies flagged, and it needed all my cheerfulness to keep my good fellows to their tasks.
At last, the ebb of tide being almost spent, the waves began to fall, the wind shifted a little to the northward, and a piercing cold instantly froze our drenched clothes on our backs. But with the current changed there was a good chance of reaching the shore. As daylight came we passed into a little sheltered cove, and sank with exhaustion on the shore. Our frozen clothes rattled like tin, and we could scarce lift a leg. But we gathered a fine heap of wood, flint and steel were ready, and the tinder was sought; which, when found, was soaking. Not a dry stitch or stick could we find anywhere, till at last, within a leather belt, Mr. Stevens found a handkerchief, which was, indeed, as he told me afterwards, the gift and pledge of a lady to him; and his returning to her with out it nearly lost him another and better gift and pledge, for this went to light our fire. We had had enough danger and work in one night to give us relish for some days of rest, and we piously took them.
The evening of the second day we set off again, and had a good night's run, and in the dawn, spying a snug little bay, we stood in, and went ashore. I sent my two Provincials foraging with their guns, and we who remained set about to fix our camp for the day and prepare breakfast. A few minutes only passed, and the two hunters came running back with rueful faces to say they had seen two Indians near, armed with muskets and knives. My plans were made at once. We needed their muskets, and the Indians must pay the price of their presence here, for our safety should be had at any cost.
I urged my men to utter no word at all, for none but Clark could speak French, and he but poorly. For myself, my accent would pass after these six years of practice. We came to a little river, beyond which we could observe the Indians standing on guard. We could only cross by wading, which we did; but one of my Provincials came down, wetting his musket and himself thoroughly. Reaching the shore, we marched together, I singing the refrain of an old French song as we went,
En roulant, ma boule roulant, En roulant, ma boule
so attracting the attention of the Indians. The better to deceive, we all were now dressed in the costume of the French peasant--I had taken pains to have Mr. Stevens secure these for us before starting; a pair of homespun trousers, a coarse brown jacket, with thrums like waving tassels, a silk handkerchief about the neck, and a strong thick worsted wig on the head; no smart toupet, nor buckle; nor combed, nor powdered; and all crowned by a dull black cap. I myself was, as became my purpose, most like a small captain of militia, doing wood service, and in the braver costume of the coureur de bois.
I signalled to the Indians, and, coming near, addressed them in French. They were deceived, and presently, abreast of them, in the midst of apparent ceremony, their firelocks were seized, and Mr. Stevens and Clark had them safe. I said we must be satisfied as to who they were, for English prisoners escaped from Quebec were abroad, and no man could go unchallenged. They must at once lead me to their camp. So they did, and at their bark wigwam they said they had seen no Englishman. They were guardians of the fire; that is, it was their duty to light a fire on the shore when a hostile fleet should appear; and from another point farther up, other guardians, seeing, would do the same, until beacons would be shining even to Quebec, three hundred leagues away.
While I was questioning them, Clark rifled the wigwam; and presently, the excitable fellow, finding some excellent stores of skins, tea, maple sugar, coffee, and other things, broke out into English expletives. Instantly the Indians saw they had been trapped, and he whom Mr. Stevens held made a great spring from him, caught up a gun, and gave a wild yell which echoed far and near. Mr. Stevens, with great rapidity, leveled his pistol and shot him in the heart, while I, in a close struggle with my captive, was glad--for I was not yet strong--that Clark finished my assailant: and so both lay there dead, two foes less of our good King.
Not far from where we stood was a pool of water, black and deep, and we sank the bodies there; but I did not know till long afterwards that Clark, with a barbarous and disgusting spirit, carried away their scalps to sell them in New York, where they would bring, as he confided to one of the Provincials, twelve pounds each. Before we left, we shot a poor howling dog that mourned for his masters, and sank him also in the dark pool.
We had but got back to our camp, when, looking out, we saw a well-manned four-oared boat making for the shore. My men were in dismay until I told them that, having begun the game of war, I would carry it on to the ripe end. This boat and all therein should be mine. Safely hidden, we watched the rowers draw in to shore, with brisk strokes, singing a quaint farewell song of the voyageurs, called La Pauvre Mere, of which the refrain is:
"And his mother says, 'My dear, For your absence I shall grieve; Come you home within the year.'"
They had evidently been upon a long voyage, and by their toiling we could see their boat was deep loaded; but they drove on, like a horse that, at the close of day, sees ahead the inn where he is to bait and refresh, and, rousing to the spur, comes cheerily home. The figure of a reverend old man was in the stern, and he sent them in to shore with brisk words. Bump came the big shallop on the beach, and at that moment I ordered my men to fire, but to aim wide, for I had another end in view than killing.
We were exactly matched as to numbers, so that a fight would be fair enough, but I hoped for peaceful conquest. As we fired I stepped out of the thicket, and behind me could be seen the shining barrels of our threatening muskets. The old gentleman stood up while his men cried for quarter. He waved them down with an impatient gesture, and stepped out on the beach. Then I recognized him. It was the Chevalier de la Darante. I stepped towards him, my sword drawn.
"Monsieur the Chevalier de la Darante, you are my prisoner," said I.
He started, then recognized me. "Now, by the blood of man! now, by the blood of man!" he said, and paused, dumfounded.
"You forget me, monsieur?" asked I.
"Forget you, monsieur?" said he. "As soon forget the devil at mass! But I thought you dead by now, and--"
"If you are disappointed," said I, "there is a way"; and I waved towards his men, then to Mr. Stevens and my own ambushed fellows.
He smiled an acid smile, and took a pinch of snuff. "It is not so fiery-edged as that," he answered; "I can endure it."
"You shall have time too for reverie," answered I.
He looked puzzled. "What is't you wish?" he asked.
"Your surrender first," said I, "and then your company at breakfast."
"The latter has meaning and compliment," he responded, "the former is beyond me. What would you do with me?"
"Detain you and your shallop for the services of my master, the King of England, soon to be the master of your master, if the signs are right."
"All signs fail with the blind, monsieur."
"I will give you good reading of those signs in due course," retorted I.
"Monsieur," he added, with great, almost too great dignity, "I am of the family of the Duc de Mirepoix. The whole Kamaraska Isles are mine, and the best gentlemen in this province do me vassalage. I make war on none, I have stepped aside from all affairs of state, I am a simple gentleman. I have been a great way down this river, at large expense and toil, to purchase wheat, for all the corn of these counties goes to Quebec to store the King's magazine, the adored La Friponne. I know not your purposes, but I trust you will not push your advantage"--he waved towards our muskets--"against a private gentleman."
"You forget, Chevalier," said I, "that you gave verdict for my death."
"Upon the evidence," he replied. "And I have no doubt you deserve hanging a thousand times."
I almost loved him for his boldness. I remembered also that he had no wish to be one of my judges, and that he spoke for me in the presence of the Governor. But he was not the man to make a point of that.
"Chevalier," said I, "I have been foully used in yonder town; by the fortune of war you shall help me to compensation. We have come a long, hard journey; we are all much overworked; we need rest, a better boat, and good sailors. You and your men, Chevalier, shall row us to Louisburg. When we are attacked, you shall be in the van; when we are at peace, you shall industriously serve under King George's flag. Now will you give up your men, and join me at breakfast?"
For a moment the excellent gentleman was mute, and my heart almost fell before his venerable white hair and his proud bearing; but something a little overdone in his pride, a little ludicrous in the situation, set me smiling; there came back on me the remembrance of all I had suffered, and I let no sentiment stand between me and my purposes.
"I am the Chevalier de la--" he began.
"If you were King Louis himself, and every man there in your boat a peer of his realm, you should row a British subject now," said I; "or, if you choose, you shall have fighting instead." I meant there should be nothing uncertain in my words.
"I surrender," said he; "and if you are bent on shaming me, let us have it over soon."
"You shall have better treatment than I had in Quebec," answered I.
A moment afterwards, his men were duly surrendered, disarmed, and guarded, and the Chevalier breakfasted with me, now and again asking me news of Quebec. He was much amazed to hear that Bigot had been shot, and distressed that I could not say whether fatally or not.
I fixed on a new plan. We would now proceed by day as well as by night, for the shallop could not leave the river, and, besides, I did not care to trust my prisoners on shore. I threw from the shallop into the stream enough wheat to lighten her, and now, well stored and trimmed, we pushed away upon our course, the Chevalier and his men rowing, while my men rested and tended the sail, which was now set. I was much loath to cut our good canoe adrift, but she stopped the shallop's way, and she was left behind.
After a time, our prisoners were in part relieved, and I made the Chevalier rest also, for he had taken his task in good part, and had ordered his men to submit cheerfully. In the late afternoon, after an excellent journey, we saw a high and shaggy point of land, far ahead, which shut off our view. I was anxious to see beyond it, for ships of war might appear at any moment. A good breeze brought up this land, and when we were abreast of it a lofty frigate was disclosed to view--a convoy (so the Chevalier said) to a fleet of transports which that morning had gone up the river. I resolved instantly, since fight was useless, to make a run for it. Seating myself at the tiller, I declared solemnly that I would shoot the first man who dared to stop the shallop's way, to make sign, or speak a word. So, as the frigate stood across the river, I had all sail set, roused the men at the oars, and we came running by her stern. Our prisoners were keen enough to get by in safety, for they were between two fires, and the excellent Chevalier was as alert and laborious as the rest. They signalled us from the frigate by a shot to bring to, but we came on gallantly. Another shot whizzed by at a distance, but we did not change our course, and then balls came flying over our heads, dropping round us, cooling their hot protests in the river. But none struck us, and presently all fell short.
We durst not slacken pace that night, and by morning, much exhausted, we deemed ourselves safe, and rested for a while, making a hearty breakfast, though a sombre shadow had settled on the face of the good Chevalier. Once more he ventured to protest, but I told him my resolution was fixed, and that I would at all costs secure escape from my six years' misery. He must abide the fortune of this war.
For several days we fared on, without more mishap. At last, one morning, we hugged the shore, I saw a large boat lying on the beach. On landing we found the boat of excellent size, and made for swift going, and presently Clark discovered the oars. Then I turned to the Chevalier, who was watching me curiously, yet hiding anxiety, for he had upheld his dignity with some accent since he had come into my service:
"Chevalier," said I, "you shall find me more humane than my persecutors at Quebec. I will not hinder your going, if you will engage on your honour--as would, for instance, the Duc de Mirepoix!"--he bowed to my veiled irony--"that you will not divulge what brought you back thus far, till you shall reach your Kamaraska Isles; and you must undertake the same for your fellows here."
He consented, and I admired the fine, vain old man, and lamented that I had had to use him so.
"Then," said I, "you may depart with your shallop. Your mast and sail, however, must be ours; and for these I will pay. I will also pay for the wheat which was thrown into the river, and you shall have a share of our provisions, got from the Indians."
"Monsieur," said he, "I shall remember with pride that I have dealt with so fair a foe. I can not regret the pleasure of your acquaintance, even at the price. And see, monsieur, I do not think you the criminal they have made you out, and so I will tell a lady--"
I raised my hand at him, for I saw that he knew something, and Mr. Stevens was near us at the time.
"Chevalier," said I, drawing him aside, "if, as you say, you think I have used you honourably, then, if trouble falls upon my wife before I see her again, I beg you to stand her friend. In the sad fortunes of war and hate of me, she may need a friend--even against her own people, on her own hearthstone."
I never saw a man so amazed; and to his rapid questionings I gave the one reply, that Alixe was my wife. His lip trembled.
"Poor child! poor child!" he said; "they will put her in a nunnery. You did wrong, monsieur."
"Chevalier," said I, "did you ever love a woman?"
He made a motion of the hand, as if I had touched upon a tender point, and said, "So young, so young!"
"But you will stand by her," I urged, "by the memory of some good woman you have known!"
He put out his hand again with a chafing sort of motion. "There, there," said he, "the poor child shall never want a friend. If I can help it, she shall not be made a victim of the Church or of the State, nor yet of family pride--good God, no!"
Presently we parted, and soon we lost our grateful foes in the distance. All night we jogged along with easy sail, but just at dawn, in a sudden opening of the land, we saw a sloop at anchor near a wooded point, her pennant flying. We pushed along, unheeding its fiery signal to bring to; and declining, she let fly a swivel loaded with grape, and again another, riddling our sail; but we were travelling with wind and tide, and we soon left the indignant patrol behind. Towards evening came a freshening wind and a cobbling sea, and I thought it best to make for shore. So, easing the sail, we brought our shallop before the wind. It was very dark, and there was a heavy surf running; but we had to take our fortune as it came, and we let drive for the unknown shore, for it was all alike to us. Presently, as we ran close in, our boat came hard upon a rock, which bulged her bows open. Taking what provisions we could, we left our poor craft upon the rocks, and fought our way to safety.
We had little joy that night in thinking of our shallop breaking on the reefs, and we discussed the chances of crossing overland to Louisburg; but we soon gave up that wild dream: this river was the only way. When daylight came, we found our boat, though badly wrecked, still held together. Now Clark rose to the great necessity, and said that he would patch her up to carry us on, or never lift a hammer more. With labour past reckoning we dragged her to shore, and got her on the stocks, and then set about to find materials to mend her. Tools were all too few--a hammer, a saw, and an adze were all we had. A piece of board or a nail were treasures then, and when the timbers of the craft were covered, for oakum we had resort to tree-gum. For caulking, one spared a handkerchief, another a stocking, and another a piece of shirt, till she was stuffed in all her fissures. In this labour we passed eight days, and then were ready for the launch again.
On the very afternoon fixed for starting, we saw two sails standing down the river, and edging towards our shore. One of them let anchor go right off the place where our patched boat lay. We had prudently carried on our work behind rocks and trees, so that we could not be seen, unless our foes came ashore. Our case seemed desperate enough, but all at once I determined on a daring enterprise.
The two vessels--convoys, I felt sure--had anchored some distance from each other, and from their mean appearance I did not think that they would have a large freight of men and arms; for they seemed not ships from France, but vessels of the country. If I could divide the force of either vessel, and quietly, under cover of night, steal on her by surprise, then I would trust our desperate courage, and open the war which soon General Wolfe and Admiral Saunders were to wage up and down this river.
I had brave fellows with me, and if we got our will it would be a thing worth remembrance. So I disclosed my plan to Mr. Stevens and the others, and, as I looked for, they had a fine relish for the enterprise. I agreed upon a signal with them, bade them to lie close along the ground, picked out the nearer (which was the smaller) ship for my purpose, and at sunset, tying a white handkerchief to a stick, came marching out of the woods, upon the shore, firing a gun at the same time. Presently a boat was put out from the sloop, and two men and a boy came rowing towards me. Standing off a little distance from the shore, they asked what was wanted.
"The King's errand," was my reply in French, and I must be carried down the river by them, for which I would pay generously. Then, with idle gesture, I said that if they wished some drink, there was a bottle of rum near my fire, above me, to which they were welcome; also some game, which they might take as a gift to their captain and his crew.
This drew them like a magnet, and, as I lit my pipe, their boat scraped the sand, and, getting out, they hauled her up and came towards me. I met them, and, pointing towards my fire, as it might appear, led them up behind the rocks, when, at a sign, my men sprang up, the fellows were seized, and were forbidden to cry out on peril of their lives. I compelled them to tell what hands and what arms were left on board. The sloop from which they came, and the schooner, its consort, were bound for Gaspe, to bring provisions for several hundred Indians assembled at Miramichi and Aristiguish, who were to go by these same vessels to re-enforce the garrison of Quebec.
The sloop, they said, had six guns and a crew of twenty men; but the schooner, which was much larger, had no arms save muskets, and a crew and guard of thirty men.
In this country there is no twilight, and with sunset came instantly the dusk. Already silence and dark inclosed the sloop. I had the men bound to a tree, and gagged also, engaging to return and bring them away safe and unhurt when our task was over. I chose for pilot the boy, and presently, with great care, launching our patched shallop from the stocks--for the ship-boat was too small to carry six safely--we got quietly away. Rowing with silent stroke, we came alongside the sloop. No light burned save that in the binnacle, and all hands, except the watch, were below at supper and at cards.
I could see the watch forward as we dropped silently alongside the stern. My object was to catch this fellow as he came by. This I would trust to no one but myself; for now, grown stronger, I had the old spring in my blood, and I had also a good wish that my plans should not go wrong through the bungling of others. I motioned my men to sit silent, and then, when the fellow's back was toward me, coming softly up the side, I slid over quietly, and drew into the shadow of a boat that hung near.
He came on lazily, and when just past me I suddenly threw my arms about him, clapping my hand upon his mouth. He was stoutly built, and he began at once to struggle. He was no coward, and feeling for his knife, he drew it, and would have had it in me but that I was quicker, and, with a desperate wrench, my hand still over his mouth, half swung him round, and drove my dagger home.
He sank in my arms with a heaving sigh, and I laid him down, still and dead, upon the deck. Then I whispered up my comrades, the boy leading. As the last man came over, his pistol, stuck in his belt, caught the ratlings of the shrouds, and it dropped upon the deck. This gave the alarm, but I was at the companion-door on the instant, as the first master came bounding up, sword showing, and calling to his men, who swarmed after him. I fired; the bullet travelled his spine, and he fell back stunned.
A dozen others came on. Some reached the deck and grappled with my men. I never shall forget with what fiendish joy Clark fought that night--those five terrible minutes. He was like some mad devil, and by his imprecations I knew that he was avenging the brutal death of his infant daughter some years before. He was armed with a long knife, and I saw four men fall beneath it, while he himself got but one bad cut. Of the Provincials, one fell wounded, and the other brought down his man. Mr. Stevens and myself held the companion-way, driving the crew back, not without hurt, for my wrist was slashed by a cutlass, and Mr. Stevens had a bullet in his thigh. But presently we had the joy of having those below cry quarter.
We were masters of the sloop. Quickly battening down the prisoners, I had the sails spread, the windlass going, and the anchor apeak quickly, and we soon were moving down upon the schooner, which was now all confusion, commands ringing out on the quiet air. But when, laying alongside, we gave her a dose, and then another, from all our swivels at once, sweeping her decks, the timid fellows cried quarter, and we boarded her. With my men's muskets cocked, I ordered her crew and soldiers below, till they were all, save two lusty youths, stowed away. Then I had everything of value brought from the sloop, together with the swivels, which we fastened to the schooner's side; and when all was done, we set fire to the sloop, and I stood and watched her burn with a proud--too proud--spirit.
Having brought our prisoners from the shore, we placed them with the rest below. At dawn I called a council with Mr. Stevens and the others--our one wounded Provincial was not omitted--and we all agreed that some of the prisoners should be sent off in the long boat, and a portion of the rest be used to work the ship. So we had half the fellows up, and giving them fishing-lines, rum, and provisions, with a couple of muskets and ammunition, we sent them off to shift for themselves, and, raising anchor, got on our way down the broad river, in perfect weather.
The days that followed are like a good dream to me, for we came on all the way without challenge and with no adventure, even round Gaspe, to Louisburg, thirty-eight days after my escape from the fortress.