1636 The Atlantic Encounter – Snippet 22

Chapter 14

On the St. Lawrence River

Stephane had no idea what woke him. The rain had stopped, but the gentle lapping of the river against the side of the kano — which had helped put him to sleep in the first place — remained constant. The animal noises were just the same; there was a heavy cloud cover, giving no sign of either moon or stars…but something was just different, some change in the quiet.

He was unarmed, but for a small hatchet that had also been stowed aboard the boat, and the long oar — hardly a useful weapon for someone his size. He slid his hand along the bottom of the boat and grasped the hilt of the hatchet, and then scanned the shore for some sign of enemies.

It should have been completely still; but he heard the faintest sound — perhaps a footfall in the underbrush; it could have been an animal, but Stephane was suspicious.

Get out on the river, he thought. Or does that make me an easier target?

Not at night, without a moon, he decided.

He reached for the anchor rope —

And suddenly his hand was seized by a pair of strong hands that lifted him almost upright.

“What fish has the river served us, then?” said a voice in clear-accented French.

He struggled but to no avail — the man who had hold of him suddenly grabbed his other hand which held the hatchet, causing it to fall. He heard a small splash, and his heart sank.

In dim light he could scarcely make out the figure of the man holding him. He appeared to be a native.

His French was perfect, though. “Il est muet. Does he speak? Who are you, little man?”

“I should ask the same of you,” Stephane said as calmly as he could manage. “Am I in New France?”

The man laughed, and lifted Stephane bodily from the canoe and set him on the riverbank.

“Now, now, this is all New France, non? Are you a Frenchman?”

“I demand to know who seizes me in this way,” Stephane answered. “I am on the king’s business.”

“The king — a drowned rat on the river is on the king’s business, is he indeed. Does the king’s servant come with a fine reward for his capture?”

“I am sure.”

The man laughed again and let go of Stephane’s arms. “Well then, Monsieur, we should get to know each other better. Tell me who you are.”

“As I said before, I am a servant of the king, on my way to QuĂ©bec. If you will assist me I shall see that you are rewarded.”

“QuĂ©bec is your destination, hm? In a flat-bottom dugout canoe? You are days away from the habitation, Monsieur. You would surely be drowned or flooded long before you reached QuĂ©bec.”

“Days — how far away is it?”

“A hundred leagues from here. Perhaps more. You would say…three hundred, or three hundred and fifty miles.”

Huge, Stephane thought. The enormity of it struck him like a blow; he tried to think of what to say, and couldn’t come up with anything.

Il est muet.

“The woods are full of…predators,” the man said. “Come and sit, little man. We will have a smoke and decide what to do.”

In the small amount of illumination afforded by the lighting of the pipe, Stephane could see that he was in the presence of a native. The man was dressed for the outdoors, but in European-style breeches and a heavy coat, though he was obviously darker skinned and wore his hair in a greased queue.

As he passed the pipe to Stephane, he said, “I am called Savignon. I was upon a time a friend to BrĂ»lĂ©, but we parted ways when he chose the English king over the French one. Now I am in the service of the Sieur de Champlain.”

Other than Champlain, Stephane didn’t recognize any of the names. “The Captain of New France?”

“The same, and a friend to my people — what is left of them, in any case. Now then: who are you?”

“My name is Stephane Hoff,” Stephane said. “I am on a particular mission for the king of France. I am sure that the Sieur de Champlain will welcome me.”

“You are a long way from your king, Monsieur Hoff,” Savignon said. “And Champlain makes his own decisions about who he welcomes. From what I understand, he has been treated with indifference by that king, and by the minister who serves him.”

Stephane inhaled deeply from the pipe, and was able to let the smoke out with only a small amount of coughing. It was strong tobacco; he wondered how Savignon had come by it.

“You speak of the cardinal,” he managed at last.

“Yes. The red-robed cardinal. Are you perhaps his agent? Then the captain is unlikely to welcome you at all.”

“Not exactly.”

“If there were enough light to look into your eyes,” Savignon said, “I might see the truth of it. But, no matter: I will leave it to the captain to decide what to do.”

“Then you will take me to him?”

“Why not? It will be an interesting diversion. You can tell me all about your mission.”

Stephane did not answer that remark, since he was not particularly interested in doing anything of the sort. Instead, he replied, “Tell me, Savignon. How do you come to have such excellent command of French?”

“Ah, I can thank Étienne BrĂ»lĂ© for that. Did you know him? He was a coureur de bois, as I am — a woodsman, you might say, who was employed by the captain to learn the ways and language of the native tribes. When I was young, he brought me to QuĂ©bec to live, so that I might learn French ways; I have been a…”

“Go-between?”

“Just so. A go-between. BrĂ»lé…he made a poor choice a few years ago, when the English privateers took QuĂ©bec away from France with his help. The captain turned his back on him, and some of my fellow Hurons felt themselves betrayed. They caught him and did what honor demanded.”

“Did they kill him?”

“In the end, yes,” Savignon said, taking a long pull on his pipe. “But only after their sport. And then, when he was dead, they ate him.”

“Ate…”

“You seem shocked, Monsieur Hoff. I can only say…welcome to the New World.”

* * *

In the daylight Stephane got a better look at the native coureur de bois. Savignon was tall and stocky, handsome in a foreign way with a prominent nose and a square jaw, covered with a close-cut beard. His eyes were piercing and gray, and he seemed to notice everything.

He was also tireless, as Stephane learned.

When they rose in the morning fog, the rain had cleared. Savignon took his own hatchet — Stephane’s was apparently lost for good — and fashioned a functional oar and handed it to Stephane, while he took the primary one for himself. They pushed the canoe out into the river and began to make their way upstream. From the time they began to row, Savignon scarcely paused.

“How long will it take us to reach QuĂ©bec?” Stephane asked in the midmorning.

“QuĂ©bec?” Savignon laughed. “We would be rowing for days. I do not intend to escort you to QuĂ©bec, Monsieur.”

“But that is where I must go.”