Council Of Fire – Snippet 21

Chapter 15

People become frightened, Monsieur

New France

A twelve-gun sloop was hardly a man-o’-war, but it was significantly more impressive than a bateau. Loaded with two dozen soldiers and a few Indian guides, Soleil looked solid and safe. Montcalm expressed his confidence that he was equipped for a Maneto–or anything else that might come his way.

In his private thoughts, with the shore slipping away and Québec’s promontory shrinking in the distance, he was far less assured.

Above Québec, the Saint-Laurent meandered west toward the settlement of Trois-Rivières, beyond which it widened into Lac Saint-Pierre. According to Red Vest–who, after some convincing, agreed to board the ship and act as a guide–there had been no sightings of Manetos along the river, just in the larger, more placid bodies of water; if there was to be a sighting of the creature that had frightened so many, he expected it to be there. If there were no monsters to be found, Soleil would continue another ninety or so miles upstream to Montréal, where the falls would block their further passage.

“It will be spring soon, Monsieur.”

Père Récher, you are a stubborn optimist,” Montcalm answered, turning away from the view upstream to face the younger man. Jean-Félix Récher, parish priest of Notre-Dame in Québec, had been a last-minute addition to the expedition, pressed on Montcalm by Bishop Dubreil de Pontbriand. He wasn’t sure what Récher had been instructed to do, but it would have been impolitic to refuse Pontbriand–and besides, he considered the elderly bishop a friend, who shared his disgust for the corrupt intendant.

“God provides.”

“Yes, He does. But sometimes Man must make his own provision.”

“I’m sure Monsieur l’Êveque would take issue with that statement, but I shall let it pass.” Récher folded his hands in front of him and smiled. “He is a Jesuit, of course, and I am not–they feel it is their duty to argue about everything.”

“What has His Grace said about the lake monsters?”

“He doesn’t believe in them, obviously,” Récher said. “Do you, Monsieur?”

“I saw what they did to the bateau on the dock.”

“You saw a bateau on the dock, and you heard tales of monsters. A savage drew a line between the evidence and the stated cause, but you did not witness the latter.”

“But I gather that a fair number of habitants did. Am I to disbelieve all of their stories?”

“People become frightened, Monsieur. Especially simple people, especially when they face the perils of winter, of war, and of savages living right nearby. My lord bishop asked me . . . well, told me–” he smiled again. “. . . to accompany your expedition to lay the rumor of monsters to rest, and to assure the habitants that they do not exist.”

“Because, I assume, they would sooner take your word for it than mine.”

Récher fingered his clerical collar. “It helps to speak with the voice of spiritual authority, Monsieur le Marquis. But please do not take it as an insult. I believe that the bishop wants this business laid to rest as much as you do–perhaps more. It is better for the habitants–”

“The ‘simple people.'”

“Yes. It is better for them to live in their own settlements, to enhance the glory of God throughout New France, than to huddle as refugees in the low town of Québec.”

“But you must admit that they were truly frightened by something.”

“Of course. But what is to say that it was not something other than this–mythical beast?” Récher turned at a sound, and saw Red Vest emerging from the lower deck. He inclined his head at the native; the other scowled at him and turned his head, spitting.

He says,” Montcalm said. “And while I appreciate your rationality, Père, I cannot simply dismiss what he has said. Honestly, while I hesitate to admit it loudly and publicly, I think there are creatures of some sort lurking in Lac Saint-Pierre. My hope is that they will find that canister shot is not to their liking.”

With a slight bow, Montcalm excused himself and walked across the deck to where Red Vest was looking at the riverbank.

“So,” the native said, spitting over the side. “What does the scarecrow have to say?”

“You mean Père Récher? He doesn’t believe in the Maneto, or that the people should be afraid of it.”

“His cross-God doesn’t seem to have done much to protect them,” Red Vest said. “The spirits of the earth are very angry since the broom-star fell. The servants of the Onontio offend them less than those of the English; but all the whites will have to learn new ways.”

“We’ll see.”

“You seem very sure of yourself, Marquis. Are you sure that your people’s power is great enough?”

“I’m obliged to believe it, Red Vest. It has served us adequately so far.”

“That is arrogance, Marquis.”

“Really. Now tell me, Red Vest: you are a Seneca, is that not correct?”

“Yes. Guyasuta, the great chief of the Onondowaga, the Keepers of the Western Door, is my mother’s uncle. What of it?”

“There was a rumor that something had happened to the Council Fire of the Iroquois. Is that true?” It was only a rumor of a prophecy, but it would be an interesting reconnaissance in force.

Red Vest did not reply immediately, but Montcalm could see that the question had struck home–the native was visibly upset. He frowned at Montcalm and began to answer, then clenched his jaw and looked away at the riverbank again. He gripped the taffrail with white knuckles.

“So it is true.”

“Almost no one knows of this, Marquis. Some red man’s tongue wagged.”

“Something like that. What does that mean? Are the spirits of the earth unhappy with the people of the longhouse as well? Are we all in this changed world together?”

Red Vest did not answer.

“The Onontio counts the Seneca people as friends, Red Vest, and would count all of the people of the longhouse as friends if they wished it. If these earth spirits are angry, but more so at the English, isn’t it time for our people–the people of New France–and your people to make common cause against the English? I know that it has become quite an artful thing for you to remain balanced between the two European nations to maintain your power, but I think that whatever change has come over the world may force you to choose.”

“I do not make decisions for the Onondowaga, Marquis.”

“But you are a respected man among them.” Or you are no more than a provocateur and a poser, Montcalm thought. We shall see. “After we are done with this expedition, perhaps you can take a letter back to your chiefs, so that I may learn on what terms we can . . .”

“Make ‘common cause.'”

“Just so. That is, if the Iroquois are still a confederation after the difficulty with the Council Fire.”

“Whether the Council Fire still burns or has gone out is of no consequence to the Onondowaga, Marquis.” Red Vest still gripped the rail, and still did not look directly at Montcalm. “The league may have lived too long as it is.”

“And your chiefs . . .”

Our chiefs might say the same, Marquis.” He let go of the rail and turned to face Montcalm, his face returned to its hostile expression. “But it will be up to them to say.”

“I will be interested to hear their answer.”

“I am sure,” Red Vest said. “If any of us survive the Maneto.” Without another word or courtesy, Red Vest walked away from Montcalm, leaving him alone with his thoughts.