1636 The Atlantic Encounter – Snippet 23
“No doubt,” Savignon answered. “But the river is a strong rival, the further upstream we go. No, we will travel to Tadoussac, and you can find a sailing vessel to take you the rest of the way.”
“This is a busy place?”
“Oh, oui, for many years. When the French first came here it was a place where the Montagnais and other natives could trade furs with Europeans. The Sieur de Champlain conducted there a tabagie, a great meeting, when he came to New France.” He let his oar trail in the water. “It was one of the ways that the native peoples learned that he would listen to them — and listen to the land.”
“I’m not sure I understand what that means.”
Savignon looked out across the wide river. “I have walked many paths in this country, Monsieur,” he said. “I have stood on the shore of the Great Sea, and I have seen the headwaters of the lakes in Huronia. I have met men who listen to the land…and many others who simply will not.
“Consider the men who settle in the east — the English. They believe they can coerce the land to listen to them, by cutting all of the forests and killing all of the game. As for their attitude toward those who already lived on the land they now occupy…but for the help of those natives they would have perished in the starving winter. Still they have contempt for the native peoples.”
“The Sieur de Champlain does not? I thought he was at war with them.”
Savignon took up his oar and began to paddle once more. “Some warriors’ blood ran hot. They heard a story that the Sieur de Champlain had laid down with sickness in his bones and would not rise again.”
“I had not heard that the Sieur de Champlain was sick.”
“He was not. But they thought he was. They learned otherwise.”
Stephane did not respond, wondering where all of this was leading. “So we are making for Tadoussac,” he said.
“Oui,” Savignon said. “It is very busy. Your king has encouraged merchants and settlers to make their way to America, and many of them have come here. Perhaps they will go to other places when New France spreads across all of the land. In the meanwhile…you should have no trouble making your way to Québec from there.”
Three decades earlier, Savignon told Stephane, Champlain had drawn a map of Tadoussac harbor in meticulous detail. He’d taken the soundings himself from the lead aboard his ship, Bonne-Renommée, and found that at the mouth of the Saguenay River, there were places nearly two hundred fifty fathoms deep — une profondeur incroyable, as he’d later written. Icy-cold water from the north flowed at Tadoussac from the Saguenay into the Saint Lawrence — Stephane knew that had he somehow wound up overboard, he would have died within minutes. His Alsatian hardiness would not have helped him a whit.
It was Tadoussac where the deep-water ships came to anchor, and where native tribes came with fur pelts to trade. Savignon knew many people, white and native, and was soon able to put him in contact with the captain of a small shallop bound for Québec. No appeal to patriotism could obtain him a berth: it took, instead, the payment of some of his carefully hoarded louis d’argent that had come with him from France and had survived his many adventures since.
* * *
It took three days to travel upriver, the boat anchoring at some settlement or other each night. The captain was in no hurry to reach Québec. He did not seem in any hurry to do much of anything. Stephane could barely conceal his irritation at this indolence — and insolence; so that by the time they finally reached the Île d’Orléans, both men were eager to be rid of the other.
Québec was located on the brow of a hill overlooking the river. It was not an imposing settlement; it looked less finished than the Danish one on the coast. Savignon had told Stephane the story of how the French had actually been ejected from the place only a few years ago, just before the Ring of Fire, by a privateering expedition led by Englishmen; it was certain that would not be repeated, at least at the behest of their current king.
Upon his entry into the town — unremarked and unchallenged — he inquired after Champlain, and learned that he resided in his own habitation, but that he was unlikely to be found at home in the daytime.
He found the place easily enough; indeed, it would have been hard to miss it. At his knock, a native servant answered, but refused Stephane entry, indicating that he should return later in the day when the master was to be at home.
“Your hospitality leaves something to be desired,” Stephane told the man.
“I do as I am bid, Monsieur,” the Indian said. “The captain does not permit any stranger within his house when he is not home.”
“I am sent by the king of France, and by his minister.”
“I am the servant of the Sieur de Champlain,” the man answered.
Stephane could not immediately frame a reply — surely the man must see the difference between a king and a captain!
“I demand that you accommodate me. I am sent by the Sieur’s sovereign — and therefore your sovereign. You will admit me, for he commands that the Sieur aid me in my mission. I demand it in the name of King Louis and the Cardinal-Duke de Richelieu.”
The name of the cardinal seemed to ring out into silence, almost as if everyone in earshot had stopped to hear it. The servant did not reply, but glanced over Stephane’s shoulder, as if there was someone standing behind.
Stephane turned, and found someone there: an older man with a military bearing standing, arms crossed.
“The cardinal demands, does he?” he said. “Well, then, come inside my house and we shall see what you have to say.”
* * *
Long before Stephane departed for Hamburg, Monsieur Servien had taken particular care to inform him about Samuel de Champlain, the captain-general of New France. It had allowed Stephane to form a mental picture of the man.
It had never crossed his mind that he might come face to face with him until he chose to abandon Challenger in Thomasville harbor a few weeks earlier. It had also never occurred to Stephane that the description, such as it was, would be so completely at odds with the man himself.
“He is a curious case,” Monsieur Servien had told him. “Champlain was one of the first of our countrymen ever to venture into the interior of New France for His Majesty. He was well known, and well beloved, of our King Henri the Fourth of glorious memory.”
“Henri the Fourth?” Stephane had said, incredulous. To imagine someone alive who had served a king now twenty-five years dead, murdered before Stephane was even born, was beyond conception, a fact which had made Servien laugh.
“Young men cannot imagine a world in which they have not lived,” Servien had said. “Don’t fear, young Stephane. The world got on quite well without you.