1636 The Atlantic Encounter – Snippet 25

Chapter 16

Land of the Five Nations

Samuel de Champlain had been an artist and cartographer during his earliest travels, and he amazed Stephane with his skill. Even with somewhat diminished eyesight, and a slight palsy that made his drawing hand shake, he was able to render an accurate depiction of Challenger, as well as the features in Thomasville and Nye-Alborg that Stephane was able to describe. He also did a quick sketch of Stephane himself, which he scarcely recognized. The last few months had aged him…or perhaps more accurately weathered him. After looking at the picture for a few minutes he tried to find words to describe it and thus describe himself, but found himself wanting.

Il ist muet.

* * *

The great captain made arrangements for his letter, with the drawings of Challenger and the Danish settlements, to be conveyed overseas by a courier, traveling aboard an ocean-going vessel departing from Tadoussac. (Though, thanks be to God and the blessed saints, not the ship that had brought him to Québec.) Stephane repented of his earlier manner: the lessons of the cardinal and his subordinate suggested that it was fear, not trust, that compelled loyalty and cooperation…but he still felt himself bound by the duty of service that had brought him so far into this new world. Perhaps there would be a role for both Champlain and himself to play — the old and respected captain who had known Henri IV, and the spy from Alsace with his life still before him.

* * *

Champlain also made arrangements for Stephane’s departure from New France. He had close and friendly relations with the savages on the other side of the Saint-Laurent. It took time to arrange a meeting with them, but four days after his arrival in Québec they departed by bateau — a version of the kano that had brought him partway upriver, with somewhat more refinement and stability — and made their way to a settlement of Mohawks a few miles inland from their coastal landing point. The chief spoke no French, but there was a young warrior who did, and Champlain conducted an interview with him partially in his language and partially in theirs. The young man, adorned with European attire as well as his native clothing, seemed to be eager to offer assistance. From the glances of the various natives in the village, though, Stephane felt that he was being measured up for the next night’s dinner.

“Do not fear them,” Champlain had told him at the end of the interview. “They are eager to frighten you — they have asked me what species of hare you might be.”

“I hesitate to ask your answer.”

“I told them that you are from the fiercest part of my kingdom — that you are a man of the mountains, but you are equally comfortable in the places of stone, by which I take them to mean the cities. Almost none of them have ever truly seen a city, but they have heard wondrous tales of Paris.”

“All of which are true.”

“Substantially,” Champlain agreed. “The important ones. I told them that they should fear a French hare more than an English wolf, and that you possess depths of which they are unaware.”

“How do I know that I will not be turning on a spit by nightfall, being basted like a roast fowl?”

“I have received assurance that they will not harm or molest you in any way due to their personal loyalty to me and to our monarch.”

“Our king has little to do with it, I suspect.”

“You may believe what you wish, Monsieur Hoff. But they have made this promise, and they will keep it.”

“I wish that your man Savignon could accompany me, at least while traveling with these people.”

“He has…other duties elsewhere. You may speak with the voice of the cardinal, young sir, but my resources are sparing. You shall have to be brave all on your own.”

The captain of New France left him in the company of the Mohawks, who showed his person the utmost respect. Still, particularly once Champlain had departed, Stephane found himself the subject of scrutiny that made him extremely uncomfortable.

I am a French hare, he kept telling himself. Fear me, you savages.

* * *

Stephane and a group of a dozen Mohawks left from the village and traveled overland, making a steady pace along forest tracks that Stephane could not even discern. They carried their boats with them: they called them by the French word canoe, similar to the Danish kano. They were wooden, covered with birch bark and pitched to make them watertight. By late afternoon they reached the shore of a lake which they called Caniaderi Guarunte, meaning “the lake in between”; and which, his French-speaking guide told him, had been named by the French after the great captain himself: Lake Champlain. Three canoes pushed off into the lake, and they were soon moving southward across it — an idyllic scene, except that the savages were armed.

It was a fair statement to say that he was nervous.

In the boat in which he rode, a Mohawk sat ahead of him, paddling almost languidly. Another sat beside him and yet another, also paddling, sat behind. They were all nearly expressionless, like wooden statues, looking straight ahead as they moved across the lake.

It was unnerving; Stephane assumed that was their intention. He concentrated on the beautiful scenery — the deep blue of the sky, the trees in their thousands on the banks of the lake and up the steep hills — and on the mission, and on the assurance that Champlain had given him about these particular savages.

They will convey you to the Dutch trading post at Fort Orange in safety.

Like most primitive people, they responded to authority when it was backed by power — the ability to affect, and in some cases end, their lives. Champlain had told him of the rumor, based on up-time books, that he had suffered an attack of apoplexy: it had put the entire Five Nations, a confederation of savage tribes, on the road to war the previous autumn. Only an armed response led by Champlain himself had stopped the attack, much to the surprise of the attackers.

Champlain was amused, or Stephane might think bemused, by the fact that he had not had that attack of apoplexy. But for the moment, it kept natives like these Mohawks loyal, or at least biddable.

As Stephane sat in the canoe contemplating this, the Mohawk beside him turned and let his face relax into a fierce grin.

“The great captain made us promise that we would get you safely to your destination,” he said in competent French. “A pity.”

“Why a pity?”

“It is a measure of a man to see how bravely he dies,” the Indian said.

Stephane did not reply for a moment, wondering what lay behind the grin.

“You would not go back upon your word.”

“Do you fear that I would, pale one?” the Indian asked. “We are far from the great captain now.”

“Is your word worth so little that you would break it on a whim?”

“You are brave enough to ask that question. Are you brave enough to hear the answer?”

The question hung in the air; the Mohawk sitting behind let his paddle drift in the water, as if awaiting Stephane’s response.

“If your word has any value, warrior,” Stephane said carefully, “it is meaningful whether you are in the presence of the great captain or not. Those you swear by watch everything you do, just as the God to which I bow can see all of my actions. You break your word at peril from heaven. I trust that you believe that as well.”

The savage looked at the sky, then along the lakeshore, as if he might be imploring his barbarian gods in some way. Then he returned his glance to Stephane.

“We do not break our word,” he said. “But we would still want to see what you are truly made of.”

Yes, Stephane thought. I am certain that you do.

* * *

It was a fine land, this huge wilderness that now belonged to His Majesty of France. Stephane supposed that the continent of Europe must have looked this way, long and long ago — verdant forests filled with broad, tall trees, wildlife of all sorts unaccustomed enough to man to not run away at his approach, scarcely any evidence of civilization. How long ago did France, or the Germanies, or Alsace look like this?

Before the Romans, certainly.

The Mohawks knew all of the lakes and rivers and all of the paths through the wilderness. They followed marks and signs that were indiscernible to his eyes. But for his guides he would never have made his way south — in fact, he might well have had to demonstrate his bravery as they made him die.

There was only one more tense moment as they traveled south. After they disembarked from the canoes at the south end of the great lake, they followed yet another unrecognizable trail, and they came upon another set of savages. There was a brief exchange of conversation, all in the native tongue; both groups, his own guides and the others, gestured toward him during the intercourse; but apparently there was no change of loyalties and they were allowed to pass.

He did his best to conceal his relief.