Council Of Fire – Snippet 04

Chapter 2

Do you believe in omens?


New France

The Upper Town was at the top of a steep hill that overlooked the St. Lawrence. It was like a great ship, with the waters parting and then rejoining around it. When the marquis stood on the platform behind the Battery of St. Louis and looked downstream, he felt as if he was at the aft end of that ship, watching the water pass into the distance as he moved upstream.

But it was an illusion, just as the robust defenses around the city of Québec were an illusion. True, it would take a mighty assault to wrest it away; but the British were coming. They had taken Louisbourg, and they were assembling a force to traverse the Hudson River toward Lac du Champlain, and there would be another thrust toward Oswego . . . they were determined now, and they controlled the seas, and New France–whatever its natural defenses–was no match for the enemy that would soon invade.

The intendant and the governor remained supremely confident, at least in public; at least in the hearing of any habitant who might question the ability to defend against the coming storm.

But to Louis-Joseph de Montcalm-Gozon, Marquis de Saint-Veran, commander of the military forces of His Most Christian Majesty Louis XV, it was a fiction that was not at all comforting. Vaudreuil and Bigot: the detested governor and the corrupt, diseased worm of an intendant–they would be playing at this game until the enemy’s standard waved over Cap-Diamant Redoubt; and maybe even after that.

He heard someone clearing his throat behind, and turned to see Lévis standing there, looking a trifle uncomfortable to have interrupted him.

“François,” he said, smiling. “How long have you been waiting?”

“Only a minute or so.” Lévis looked up at the royal banner snapping in the stiff March wind. “You seemed deep in thought.”

“I could drown in it. But it would not get me away from here.”

“The battle will be here, Monsieur,” Lévis said, coming up to stand beside him. “Probably not until the summer. But it will be here.”

“I know my duty.”

“Of course,” Lévis said. The man was seven years his junior, but they were close friends. They had served together on the continent, and the younger man had agreed at once to accompany him as his aide when he had come to New France in 1756. In the two and a half years since they had gone from success to success, most recently at Fort Carillon–when the English general Abercromby had thrown away the lives of his Scottish Highlanders in a frontal assault against the fort’s abatis.

But Lévis, like Montcalm, understood what was on the way this spring and summer.

“I dreamed of Candiac last night, François. My beloved home . . . but it was empty and lifeless. I went from room to room, calling the names of my children and my dear Angélique; but all I heard was echoes. From my bedchamber I could see the gardens, but they too were neglected and vacant. What do you suppose it means?”

“It means you digested your dinner poorly, Monsieur,” Lévis said, smiling. “Or there was a bad lump in your mattress, or a draught from a window.”

“Or it is an omen.”

“My dear Marquis,” the Chévalier de Lévis said. “We are soldiers. Whenever we go to battle there is the possibility that it could be our last day on this earth. If we let ourselves be chased by omens and haunts, we will be consumed by them.”

“So you don’t . . .”

“Really. Do you believe in omens? I wonder what His Eminence the bishop would say about that.”

“What he says about everything, François. Which is not very much.”

“If you want to take something as an omen, tell me what you make of this much-heralded comet. If we had a clear sky–which we never seem to do–we could gaze upon it. The common folk fear it, but it’s just a . . . well, it’s just something in the sky, whatever it is. Once in a lifetime, and then it’s gone.”

“Strange that it should come now, in this critical time.”

“It was predicted, non? Every, what, seventy-six years it comes into the sky once and twice, and then disappears into the dark, not to be seen again by the same eyes. At least I don’t expect to see it again.”

“Assuredly not.” Montcalm looked out at the St. Lawrence again as it rushed below. “And I don’t expect to see Candiac again either.”

“Melancholy ill becomes you, Monsieur. Especially when you are to meet with the governor.”

“I suspect he does not hold with omens either.”

“I do not think I would mention it, Monsieur.”

“No. I do not think the subject will come up.”


The governor was waiting for Montcalm and Lévis at the Intendant’s Palace, a rambling old structure in the Lower Town. Regrettably, it meant that the meeting would also include the presence of François Bigot, the intendant of New France. If there was one man in North America whom Montcalm detested more than Vaudreuil, it was Bigot–not just for his scarcely-disguised venality, but for his physical presence.

Montcalm sometimes thought that he might rather face a concerted cavalry charge than to stand close to Bigot. He suffered from a disfiguring affliction: what was called ozène, a sort of infection of the nose; he was constantly dabbing at it with a lavender-scented handkerchief, but the odor penetrated the cloying perfume. It was unpleasant enough that the Marquis avoided the odious little man as much as possible.

The Intendant’s Palace was damp and chilly as the two men walked through the entrance. A servant was there to take their hats and walking-sticks and beckon them toward the stairs. Montcalm found Vaudreuil at a large table, with Bigot hovering close by. He could smell the man’s perfume at a distance and did his best not to wrinkle his nose.

“So good of you to come on short notice, Monsieur,” Vaudreuil said, offering the slightest of bows. “I require your advice.”

Montcalm looked from the governor to the intendant and back. “On what subject?”

“There appears to be some sort of panic among the savages. They view the transit of the comet as a particularly evil omen.”

“It was viewed as an evil omen in London and Paris in 1682, and I am sure each other time it has passed near to the Earth. What of it?”

“You seem to take the matter lightly, Marquis,” Bigot said, dabbing his nose. “Surely the participation of the natives is critical to our strategy.”