Council Of Fire – Snippet 23
This is all the world there is now
“I would prefer to wait until the marquis returns from upriver, Governor,” LÃ©vis had said; but Vaudreuil had not seemed interested in that line of argument. Indeed, the chevalier was reasonably certain that the governor of New France was giving him the order precisely because Montcalm was not in QuÃ©bec to countermand it.
Instead, Vaudreuil had insisted: “There is no time for delay, Chevalier. You and a company of soldiers–of your choice” he said, as if he was according LÃ©vis some great honor by giving him discretion–“will embark at once, and determine just what sort of foolishness caused His Majesty’s men to flee their duty at Fort Carillon.”
“Shall I take some of those who did so?”
“I daresay they would be the most unreliable. Of course, I am not a military man, so perhaps your judgment in this matter is better than my own.”
Perhaps your judgment . . . LÃ©vis had felt like striking the governor with his fist but had thought better of it.
Instead he had given a salute and departed the Intendant’s Palace, to assemble his company and to locate couriers de bois who could transport them across Lac St. Sacrement to the fortress that had been abandoned a few weeks earlier.
He took a dozen of the hardiest, most stalwart-looking soldiers who had come back to QuÃ©bec to tell of the apparitions at Carillon. Only a portion of the garrison had even come to QuÃ©bec–at least half of the men had scattered elsewhere–and LÃ©vis’ choices weren’t from the best; but he wanted to have some people who had experienced what they were about to see.
Spring in New France is a tug of war. Nature wants to display her riches and beauties everywhere, while the cold hand of winter wants to strike them down. In the best of circumstances it becomes an uneasy truce; cool, crisp sunny days and chilling, frost-filled nights taking their turn until well past the solstice time. LÃ©vis’ company dressed for the cold: there was no particular need for crisp parade uniforms or ceremonial attire. Instead they dressed like their guides–homespun and buckskin, fur vests and stout boots. Anyone observing the group would likely not take them for soldiers in service to the king of France.
It took ten days overland to reach the head of the lake, carrying their bateaux with them as they moved through the forest. LÃ©vis was amazed at how the trackless wilderness yielded to the knowledge and experience of the couriers de bois, following trails and paths that he never would have been able to find. Still, when they emerged from the woods and put their boats in the water at the north end of Lac-Champlain, all of them breathed a sigh of relief.
On the first night ashore, LÃ©vis sat with his adjutant, a young officer named Olivier d’Egremont who had come to New France the previous year. His was a typical story–third son of a minor nobleman, with no land or title waiting for him in the home country, obtaining a commission and service in North America as a way to make his own fortune.
“This is a beautiful country, Monsieur,” d’Egremont said, leaning back against the bole of a great old tree at the corner of their camp.
“Isn’t it? A shame that we may have to give it over to the English.”
“I didn’t think I needed to explain why. There are ten Englishmen for each Frenchman, d’Egremont. They have control of the seas, and are finally–finally!–ready to make the commitment to fight us here on land. The loss of Louisbourg was just the beginning–there is more ahead.”
“Then what is this about?”
LÃ©vis smiled. “Which ‘this’?”
“This expedition, Monsieur. If we are bound to lose, why bother to reoccupy Carillon? Especially given the stories . . .”
“What have you heard?”
“I . . .” D’Egremont smiled. “I have been listening to the men who left Carillon and came to QuÃ©bec. They have some interesting stories.”
“They haven’t spoken a word to me. They–they scarcely meet my eyes, to be honest.”
“They are ashamed, Monsieur, and it is hard to blame them, since they abandoned their post. But it is also hard to blame them for having done so in the first place.”
“There was talk of ghosts. What do you make of that?”
“I am not a father, Monsieur, but I am an uncle, and I have watched my older brothers and their wives in dealing with their children. When there is a dispute among them, they ask each to tell their story in private–and then the adults compare what is said. I would believe that much of what our men say is a fabrication, except that each of them tells the same story: what they heard, what they saw.
“What I don’t understand is how this could possibly be happening. There are folk tales of ghosts–but this seems more than that, and more frightening than that. What do you make of this?”
“Something has happened, d’Egremont. The marquis thinks that it might have to do with the comet, which has now disappeared from the sky; but that does not truly explain how there could be ghosts in the woods and monsters in the lakes. I confess that I am at a loss. I will be interested in hearing what the marquis has learned when he returns.”
“And when we return.”
“That depends on what we find.”
“Do you have any idea what it might be?”
“I hesitate to speculate. But I know that the governor would like us to find nothing, and that seems unlikely.”
Approaching Fort Carillon and the town below it brought back memories for LÃ©vis. The previous summer had been a great French victory in which he had taken part, commanding one flank against the British army that had come up to besiege the fort–but it was more a result of the needless slaughter of the enemy’s troops, hurled against the bastion without even the benefit of artillery. As a Frenchman, he could rightfully thank God for a stroke of fortune that halted the enemy’s threatened advance toward the heart of New France. But as a soldier, he decried the loss of life among the brave soldiers ordered to their deaths by an incompetent general.
The fort was still there; the banner of His Most Christian Majesty still flew over it. But from his vantage, at the front of one of the lead bateaux, LÃ©vis could see that the lower town was lifeless–indeed, it was shrouded in a low-hanging mist that was a stark contrast to the sunny vista and crisp air out on the surface of the lake.
And in the mist, there were human figures moving to and fro, and even at a distance they could hear the occasional skirl of the Highland bagpipes, providing an additional eerie aspect to the scene.
He had two of the Carillon veterans in his boat, and though they sat upright and rigid he could see the terror in their eyes. The scene troubled him as well, but LÃ©vis knew that he could show none of it; he was the commander and, as such, could show no fear.