1636 The Atlantic Encounter – Snippet 21
Stephane found it easy to tell where the Danes had settled along the shore of the Saint-Lawrence: instead of the thick covering of tall pines, there was scarcely a tree to be seen inland to where the hills began. It was like that on both sides of the river that emptied into the gulf, but the crew of the coal-hauler paid it no mind, nor did they seem to notice the murky water of the river or the acrid smell of coal dust that pervaded the settlement of Nye- Alborg.
If Thomasville was not Paris, Nye-Alborg was even less so. It was a new settlement, a town that had clearly grown from nothing. The buildings along the wharf had scarcely been able to take on the grim soiling that coal smoke left behind. The dock fittings were bright and new and there was more building going on up the hill.
The coal tender tied up at the dock while Jens stood on the foredeck shouting to shore in Danish. The crew lounged about, showing no particular interest in unloading the cargo that had been transported back to the mainland settlement.
“What’s he doing?” he asked Gustav. The big man had taken a liking to him during the transit — they’d swapped obscene jokes in French and German, and told stories of their lives before coming to Newfoundland. Gustav bragged about his time as a soldier; Stephane told whatever lies came to hand.
“There’ll be a crew to unload the boat.”
“We don’t do it?”
“You’re damned right we don’t, Französ. We’re in charge of putting the coal on the boat, and taking it off the boat. I’m not a stevedore.”
“I would have thought that Jens wouldn’t want to pay someone else.”
Gustav grunted. “Eh, you’re right that he pinches every coin until it screams. But no matter how little he pays us, he pays the idlers on the dock even less.”
* * *
Jens had accurately figured out the mentality of his employees. By not forcing them to do extra work, by paying them more than the tiny wage given to men even further down the chain, and by letting them run free — as long as they returned to the coal tender to take care of the next shipment — they stayed with him. Regardless of their complaints, Gustav and the others knew that they were in a good spot. There were plenty of others waiting to take their jobs, just as Stephane himself had done when Karol had walked off the job in Thomasville. There would be other things for Karol to do, but from what Stephane had heard, the pay scale wasn’t that good. After hearing the description, he’d rather shovel coal than work in a smelter, which sounded like some intermediate circle of Hell.
There was a rooming house not far from the wharf, at which Gustav, Lukas and the others were regular guests. As they walked up the steps from the cobbled street, the smell of fresh bread overlaid that of fish and filth and coal smoke, and Stephane and the others found themselves in a brightly painted common room.
A heavyset woman in an apron and cap, wiping her hands on a towel, looked up and smiled, then gave some sort of greeting in Danish. The other men replied, then Gustav elbowed Stephane and said, “This is the Goodwife Lykke, our hostess.” He added, in a whisper, “That’s not her real name, but that’s of no matter.”
“A pleasure to make your acquaintance,” Stephane said in French, bowing. Mistress Lykke might or might not have understood, but she seemed charmed. She beckoned them through the common room and to a narrow hallway, where there were several rooms whose doors were slightly ajar. Gustav steered Stephane to the far one, pushed the door open, and beckoned to a pair of narrow beds, stacked one on top of the other. The room was scarcely wider, with just enough room for a small table with a ewer and bowl, and a corner to stash their duffel bags.
“Up top for you, little Französ,” he said, and sat down on the bottom. Stephane shrugged and pulled himself up to the top. The mattresses were thin, but comfortable; all in all, this would be as snug a place as he’d slept in since before he was sent to Hamburg.
He lay back on the bed. “Why does it matter that her name isn’t Lykke?”
“It means ‘happy.’ She’s a happy woman — here in the New World. The story I hear is that it wasn’t so back in Denmark: too many children, some brute of a husband…someone paid her way. I don’t know who, or how, but she made it work — and someone set her up here.”
“And now we pay her most of our money for — “
“A clean room and a few good meals, and some left over to keep us occupied until it’s time to go back.” He stood up and rattled the edge of Stephane’s bed. “Come on, Französ,” he said, chuckling. “Let’s go get occupied.”
* * *
Stephane had no intention of staying in Nye-Alborg: he wasn’t going to make the return trip — it was just a waypoint to New France upriver. But while he was there, he took advantage of the opportunity to look around — when he wasn’t otherwise…occupied.
The town was really a wonder. Nye-Alborg lay at the mouth of a river; along with the coal tenders, there were a dozen or more fishing boats that left the dock early in the morning and came back each evening weighed down with the biggest and heaviest catches of fish that Stephane had ever seen: the stalls at Les Halles never had such a variety and quantity as what they brought ashore. Even the smaller boats, called by the Danish word kano — a solid log that had been hollowed out, Indian-style — brought back impressive hauls.
And that seemed as nothing when compared to the wild game that the hunters brought down from the forests. The Danish Hudson’s Bay Company had attracted men from a variety of professions, both from Europe and from the Americas; in the three years since the company had been operating in the New World, the rapidly growing colony had gathered up English, French, Germans, Poles, Dutch and practically every other nationality, employing them to feed the growing settlements.
* * *
In the morning after they arrived, while most of his comrades were still sleeping off the effects of their late-night carousing, Stephane walked the dock and heard a dozen languages and what could not be communicated in words was accomplished in gestures. There were no idle hands in sight — everywhere there was buying and selling, sawing and hammering, lifting and shoving and sweeping and dragging…it was a company town, with inflated prices but lots of things for sale.
As for the coal, it came from inland and was brought to the wharf directly on a track, modeled on what the Danish colonists had seen in the up-timer-occupied parts of Germany. Stephane walked along the rail line, built from hardwood slats with hammered metal bracings: it ran, flat and straight, up into the hills. Beside the rails were two dirt tracks, wide enough for a man to walk a horse or a donkey.
“That’s right,” Jens told him when they met on the dock that afternoon. “When they first started taking the coal out they had these heavy carts — but they were always breaking down or turning over, and it takes a bloody great monster of a horse to haul a full load. So last year they built this, and now we move three tenders full of coal a week to Thomasville. Keeps the miners busy — keeps us busy — and it keeps the smelters running back on the island.”
“How far does it go?”
“Why do you want to know?”
“Just curious,” he said. “I’m interested.”
“There’s more to you than shows, little man,” the overseer said.
You have no idea, Stephane thought. “Does that mean you pay me more?”
“I don’t pay for curiosity,” he answered. “I pay for steady work. I didn’t think you’d earn your pay” — which, Stephane considered, was less than he was paying the rest of them — “but you’ve done well. Stay with me, and I’ll take good care of you.”
“I can just imagine.”
* * *
There were two idle days at Goodwife Lykke’s boarding house. There were two free-spending nights at Nye-Alborg’s alehouses; the town had several, each catering to a set of professions. The coal shovelers shared with the coopers and wheelwrights and blacksmiths, and stayed away from the fishermen and the game hunters. The professional classes kept to themselves, an arrangement that satisfied both groups.
On the morning of the third day, the carts began to arrive on the rail track. With the sun only just above the horizon, the attention of the people of the town was taken by the screeching of flanged wheels on the rails. The hungover coal shovelers pulled themselves out of their bunks and began the backbreaking work of moving the coal from the carts into the now-empty tender. It was the same as what they’d done at Thomasville, but in reverse — the rail track ended on an elevated platform, and the designer of the carts had constructed an ingenious system whereby a wooden panel on the side could be unbolted, allowing the cart to be emptied down a sluice into the waiting tender. The shovelers had to keep up with what poured in, filling the boat with what was provided.
They worked all day. Moving coal from the carts into the tender was easier in some ways because of the sluice, but they had to keep up with the flow of carts to keep them from backing up. They took short breaks in shifts — and the coal kept coming and coming.
By evening, when the tender was full and the carts stopped coming, the crew made its way back to Goodwife Lykke’s. Some of the crew, including Stephane’s roommate Gustav, went out for a last turn through the ordinaries of Nye-Alborg. Stephane made sure he ate his fill but retired early, which made him the butt of some jokes from his crewmates. With no snoring man sleeping on the lower bunk, he was able to get himself to sleep.
* * *
With the moon up in the sky, though, and his fellows still not returned, Stephane took his bag and crept out of the rooming house. Before leaving, he set a small portion of his wage on the corner of the common-room table — an offering to Goodwife Lykke for her comfortable beds and fresh-baked bread.
Making his way down the dock without being seen was child’s play for one of Marcel’s protégés, and finding an empty kano and taking it out into the river without being caught was just as easy. He had one tense moment when one of the nearby taverns rang its closing bell, but within a few minutes he was away and free, making his way up the great river. It was a simple matter, he thought, to make his way a few miles upriver to Québec, where the French governor would give him every assistance.
* * *
In a drenching rain two nights later, the simple matter looked a lot less simple.
“If you survive this,” he told himself and the night and the rain and anyone else who might have been listening, “consider yourself blessed by the Virgin and all the saints.”
He had settled under the cover of a tarpaulin that he’d found in the kano, and he had been rowing his way upstream against a surprisingly strong current, waiting for Québec to come into view. It had not providentially done so — not on the night he had stolen it, nor the next day, nor this day; and night was coming on fast enough that he knew he would have to find a place to tether the boat so he could get some rest.
New France — which was all of the land hereabout, by arrangement of le Cardinal — was huge; it was desolate; and even this late in spring it was cold. Desolate and cold he could handle: he had no need for anyone else, and living on the streets in Paris (and elsewhere, in his new profession) had taught him to be indifferent to the cold.
It was the huge that was daunting. He knew that Québec was upriver from the mouth of the Saint Lawrence; there was a French settlement there…but where in hell was it?
He had been following the river and staying close to the north bank. The kano had quickly carried him out of sight of Nye-Alborg; west of the settlement the land was rough and untenanted, and there was nothing like a road near the shore, so he had no real fear of being followed.
Now, as night fell early, he maneuvered into shallow water, where he could tie up the boat to some sturdy tree roots. The tree canopy near the shore afforded him some shelter from the rain.
Someone had stored a packet of dried meat and a waterskin aboard the kano. But there was little left two days into his extended voyage; he made a meal of what he had, offering a prayer to the Virgin as he did so, and then settled back, wrapped in the tarpaulin, and fell quickly asleep.