1636 The Atlantic Encounter – Snippet 19

Chapter 11

In the morning Stephane found a sunny place on the dock to idle, waiting for an opportunity to present itself. Thomasville was an active port — there was a lot going on, between fishing and mining…it was just a matter of finding a way off the island.

Learning to wait was a part of one’s nature as a spy. There was always something to wait for: means, motive, opportunity…it was something else Père Montségur had taught him: it was not merely what you did, but also when you did it that mattered. It made him wonder at the time when the good Père had been in the business, and made him smile now to think of it. No doubt before the war — it was never discussed. Paris had been a hotbed of intrigue long before le Cardinal had become the master chef of that particular dish.

Late in the morning, the opportunity presented itself. Two fairly grimy men were walking along the dock near where he stood, speaking a combination of English and Danish. They were not happy.

“…That skiderik Jens promised us twice what he paid. You know that, Ole. I’m not going back to Cape Breton to shovel coal for him — not now, not ever.”

“A man has to eat, Karol.”

“Eat?” The first man stopped and poked the other in the chest. “Eat? This is a boom town, you lackwit. There’s more chance to earn your daily meal here than anywhere in the New World. It’s all here, if you’re willing to work.”

“And the wages — “

“They have to be better than what Jens is paying.”

“I don’t know…”

“That’s the problem with you, Ole,” he said, as they continued to walk past where Stephane was standing. “You don’t know. You don’t know anything. How to earn a day’s wage, how to make love to a woman, how to…” his voice trailed off as they continued down the dock.

Cape Breton, Stephane thought. Off this island.

They had been talking about shoveling coal in Cape Breton, which he knew was also on an island, but one that was closer to the mainland. It might be possible to make one’s way across from there to Québec. How far could it be?

After Ole and Karol were well out of sight, Stephane walked briskly down the dock, looking for wherever they had come from. He had his answer quickly: a large, deep-draft vessel was offloading a cargo of coal into a series of wagons; a number of dirty, burly men were working at the pile with shovels. He couldn’t tell, but could guess, that the two men passing him had been here a few minutes earlier with the rest.

He stood there long enough to be noticed.

“What are you looking at, then?” the foreman asked him, shouting from the dockside, where he was attending to one of the carts.

“Just admiring the work,” Stephane said. “You look to be a few men short.”

“They come and go,” the man said. “What’s it to you?”

“I might be looking for work,” Stephane answered.

“You?” The foreman, who was a substantial man with arms and legs thick as tree trunks, gave out a laugh. “This is no work for a scrawny mama’s boy. You don’t look strong enough to lift a shovel.”

“You just want to keep all the pretty girls for yourself and your men.”

“Pretty girls? There aren’t but a few, and they’re all native girls. If that’s what’s drawing you here, ung mand, you should look elsewhere…you sound French. Are you from that settlement up the river?”

Stephane shrugged. He didn’t care what conclusion the foreman reached.

The man gestured at the tender; there were a pair of shovels stuck into the pile of coal, as if they’d been left behind.

* * *

A quality that Monsieur Servien had always admired in Stephane was the tendency for people to underestimate him. Stephane was slight of build but had a strong back and arms — and was used to working; unlike many of his companions in Paris, he was no layabout, and he knew that the only way to get off this island was to convince the laborers that he was one of them.

He worked steadily through the morning and afternoon, shoveling coal into the sluice, a long trough that extended from the coal pile on the tender down to the cart on the dock. It was strenuous, but steady; he tried to make his movements efficient, not picking up too much with each shovelful, while the burlier Danes bragged and tried to show their strength by taking larger quantities and throwing them harder and further down the trough. By early afternoon they were stopping frequently when they were winded.

Stephane took his share of ribbing from the bigger men; but he simply ignored them and focused on the work: bend, lift, toss; bend, lift, toss. He thought about Marcel, about Servien, and about the hills of Alsace…with an occasional thought about Ingrid Skoglund, the angel who might well have saved his life in the storm.

* * *

By the time the men trooped off the tender at sundown, tired and dirty, they had stopped making fun of the little Frenchman. Jens, the foreman, paid each of them their wage. Each of the Danes complained about the amount; Jens smiled through the whole transaction — they could take his money or they could turn their backs, and they decided — for today at least — to take his money.

Stephane received his money last. It was less than the others had been paid for a long, hard day’s work, and Jens seemed to smirk even more when he handed over the pittance.

“Is there a problem?” the foreman asked.

He could see that the other men were watching for his reaction. “Did you find fault with my work?”

“You did well — for a beginner,” he answered. “It’s an acquired skill. You would not want me to pay you the same as I pay those who have worked at this task for a long time?”

“No, of course not.”

“Well, then — “

“I would expect you to pay them more,” Stephane said. “Not just more than you pay me — more than you are paying them.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean what I say,” Stephane said. He took the few coins and pocketed them, laid his shovel on the coal pile, and walked away from the foreman.

* * *

The evening was spent in a dockside bar. The other men welcomed him — his little display had earned their respect.

“We’re shipping out tomorrow,” Gustav said as he set down his mug. “You work hard, Französ.” He gave Stephane a hard slap on the back. “I like that.”

“Honest day’s work,” Stephane said when he recovered from the slap. “Back to Cape Breton?”

“Ja, that’s right. Takes two days to get there, then two days loading up the tender, then back here. Round and round.” He swirled a finger in the air. “Boring work, but it buys the beer.”

“It doesn’t seem so bad.”

“It’s crap,” one of the others said: Lukas, Stephane remembered. “But it’s better than marching in formation, eh, Gustav?”

“A lot better,” the big man agreed. “I was with the Saxon infantry at Breitenfeld. We all ran away, away, rather than be run over by the cavalry. Rather be shoveling coal, eh, Französ?” That was what they all called him: ‘Frenchy,’ in German. It was good enough — someone had asked again, during the afternoon, if he was from the French settlement, and he’d answered with another shrug.

“Getting killed on the battlefield isn’t what it used to be,” Stephane said, and sipped on his beer. It wasn’t particularly tasty, but it helped drive out the coal dust.

“I’d rather be working the coal tender than going down in the mines,” Lukas said. “But that doesn’t make it good.”

“You ask too much of life,” Gustav said. “You should take it as it comes, like Französ here. I don’t know why I drink with you at all.”

“Because you don’t like drinking alone,” Lukas answered, and they all laughed.

* * *

Two mornings later, the tender was empty of coal. Crates of supplies had been loaded on board, wrapped in canvas to keep coal dust from settling on them; and it put back out to sea. Stephane wondered to himself what Père Montségur — or, indeed, Monsieur Servien — might have to say about what he’d seen.