1636 The Atlantic Encounter – Snippet 32
The outer voice of sky and cloud
Wallace Stevens, “The Idea of Order at Key West”
On the Hudson River
Dutch civilization in the New World looked very little more advanced than French civilization. Stephane Hoff arrived alone at Fort Orange; he had no intention of arriving in the company of a band of savages — particularly those known to be in the service of, or at least in alliance with, the French. He inferred that in this anonymous state he made no more impression on the settlement than it impressed him — which was to say, not very much.
Fort Orange squatted on one bank of the great inland river. Its gates were wide open on the morning he walked in from the wilderness; no one took notice of him as he entered the town.
* * *
“What’s your pleasure?” the publican asked, in heavily accented Dutch.
Stephane gestured to the keg mounted behind the bar. He placed a copper coin in front of the man, and at a scowl added a second one; the other picked up the coins and rapped them on the surface, grunted, and pocketed them. Shortly he was given a stoneware mug, which he carried to a bench seat near a window.
Everybody drinks, as his father had said. It had been part of Monsieur Servien’s training as well; one of the best places to pick up gossip was where it was freely given.
A few minutes after he took his seat, another man not much older than Stephane — dressed much as he was, with slightly more worn clothes and gear — came into the ordinary. The tavern keeper met him with an even deeper scowl, but accepted his payment and provided him with a drink.
The man looked around the room, but no one seemed eager to provide him with a place to sit. There was something about him, something grotesque that Stephane could not quite identify — but at the same time it was unusual enough to make Stephane curious.
He gestured to a seat on an adjoining bench; the man eagerly crossed the room and took the offered place. He took a long drink from his mug, and nodded appreciatively.
“You’re new,” the man said.
“Just arrived,” Stephane said. “I was…up north.”
The other looked at him curiously. “Truly.”
Stephane wasn’t sure what might have aroused suspicion, so he didn’t answer, merely taking a drink from his mug.
“I’m Bogaert,” the man said. “Harmen van den Bogaert.” He extended a hand which Stephane took; he noticed that he had become the focus of attention from everyone in the room.
“Stephane,” he said. “Stephane…Burg.” Close enough, he thought.
The handshake went on a little longer than Stephane might have liked, and he let go of the man’s hand.
“You are a trader, I presume,” Bogaert said, gesturing toward Stephane’s clothing. “Unless I am mistaken.”
“I gather that you are as well.”
“I am a surgeon by profession, Mynheer…Burg,” Bogaert said. “But a few years ago I had the opportunity to travel into the wilderness. His Excellency the governor granted me the honor of serving as an ambassador to the Iroquois, and I journeyed among the natives for some time.” He smiled, showing remarkably white teeth.
“How did you find them?”
“Fierce,” Bogaert said. “And mercenary. There was a considerable amount of wealth being diverted from Dutch and into French purses — beaver pelts and the proceeds — and those in authority in New Amsterdam, as well as here, were eager to know why.”
“Did you learn anything from your embassy, Doctor?”
“A great deal.” He smiled again. “It’s a very wild land, Mynheer Burg. Full of wild people. But impressionable, I daresay. All you need to do is…suggest something and they’ll pick right up on it. No subtlety: no subtlety at all.”
Stephane wasn’t sure what to make of that comment. Always listen, Servien had taught him: you never know whether someone might drop a gold sovereign.
“They are…quick to anger,” Stephane said. “I understand that they recently went to war against France with little if any provocation — surely they would not hesitate to do so against the Dutch as well, either here or in New Amsterdam?”
“If you have any experience in the wilderness, Mynheer Burg,” Bogaert said, “you know very well that there is not one tribe but half a dozen, and each has many chiefs, and there are clan loyalties and ancient disputes and alliances. They argue out their differences — sometimes — in one of their great castles, where they have a fire they keep burning.”
“The Council Fire,” Stephane said. Champlain had described the structure of the Five Nations alliance to him while he was in Québec; there were indeed a wide range of agendas and motivations — what the Mohawks wanted was not always what the Senecas wanted, and the tribes in between might want some third thing.
“Correct. That is where the cool heads of the old chiefs prevail. Or not. It was at the Council Fire that the Iroquois chose war last autumn.”
After Bogaert said these words, Stephane heard a murmur in the room. It stopped just short of openly hostile, but it was clear to Stephane that Bogaert was getting all sorts of dirty looks from others in the room.
“You seem to have some detractors in this ordinary, friend Bogaert,” Stephane said.
“Jealousy is a powerful emotion,” Bogaert said, smiling again.
* * *
Bogaert gave him some advice on making his way down the river before they parted company, and soon he was out in the town again alone with his thoughts.
It did not last long. As he walked, he noticed that there was an Indian following him; the man did not seem threatening, and was making no attempt to conceal himself, but was definitely shadowing Stephane.
He stopped walking at the corner of a warehouse building and turned to face the native, who met his glance readily.
“Can I help you, friend?” Stephane asked in Dutch.
The native approached, hands held out, palms up, until he was standing in front of Stephane. “I can help you,” he answered.
“How might that be?”
“You were talking with Bogaert in the ordinary,” the man said. “I saw you through the window.”
“You know him? Why did you not join us?”
“That is a place for whites,” the native answered, and turned his head and spat into the dirt. “I would not sit with that snake in any case, and I offer you friendly advice not to do so either.”
“And why would that be?”
“He is unclean,” the Indian said. “And as I said, he is a snake — and a liar.”
“I found him neither unclean nor untruthful, friend,” Stephane said. “But I only just made his acquaintance. As I have just made yours, though you have not given me your name.”
“I am called…” he lowered his voice conspiratorially, for no reason Stephane could determine. “Walks-In-Deep-Woods. Bogaert cruelly wronged me. He told me something that I took to be truth, and it was a most cruel falsehood. Now I am exiled from my people.”
“What did he tell you?”
“That the great Captain of the Onontio had lain down with sickness in his bones and would not rise up.”
“The great Captain…you mean Champlain?”
Walks-In-Deep-Woods looked around suddenly, to see if anyone had heard him say the name; then he placed a finger on his lips and grasped Stephane’s elbow, drawing him out of the street. “Do not speak that name, friend! That is bad medicine. That snake Bogaert told me that he had suffered a terrible attack and lay dying.”
“How could he know such a thing?”
“You would not believe the tale if I told it to you.”
“Let me judge for myself.”
Walks-In-Deep-Woods looked at him for several moments, not letting go of Stephane’s elbow; Stephane wondered to himself if he was going to have to do something about that.
“It is said that a great city from a faraway place suddenly appeared, bringing wonders, including great books of prophecy about the times to come. Bogaert told me that he had seen one of the books, and it told of the great captain’s death. It was to have happened in deep winter, in the year just past.
“Either the prophecy was wrong, or Bogaert was a liar. I know which one I believe.” He bared his teeth in a disturbing manner.
Stephane shifted slightly and removed his elbow from the Indian’s grasp. “And your own misfortune…”
“Is because I spoke of this to my chief, who walked to war with the French. When he found the tale to be untrue, he blamed me for the misfortune.”
“Why would he do such a thing?” Stephane asked.
“Chiefs do things for their own reasons,” Walks-In-Deep-Woods answered. He spat again. “As for Bogaert — I do not know his reasons. I only warn you that he is not to be trusted.”
“And what do you want of me?”
“I am a poor exile from my native soil,” he answered. “I can barely clothe my nakedness or fill my empty belly.”
A beggar, Stephane thought. Who wants to be paid. He reached into his wallet and drew out two copper coins, stamped with the form of King Christian — part of his pay from Thomasville. “Here is what I can spare.”
“Thank you,” the native said, taking the coins from Stephane’s hand and bowing. “May the gods of earth and sky smile upon you.” His mission accomplished, the man bowed again and backed away, leaving Stephane alone again.