Council Of Fire – Snippet 27
It is no place to go
To most residents of the colony of New York, “Albany” meant “the rest of the colony”–everything upriver from Manhattan, the great wilderness where trappers caught beavers and savage Indians lurked with their scalping-knives. The troopers of the 40th were on edge during the entire journey upcountry, but Prince Edward was welcomed by gentleman farmers–patroons, in the half-Dutch half-English parlance that prevailed out in the country–and met no trappers (or knife-wielding Indians) during the entire journey.
Still, it was clear that rumor of his travels ran ahead of him at unheard-of speed, so that by the time they came upon Albany town–a compact settlement on the left bank of the Hudson River–his arrival was expected. On the south boundary of the town, near the gates of a spacious plantation that spanned a wide, well-maintained bridge, there was a banner bearing the royal coat-of-arms. A delegation of city fathers led by a substantial man of middle years was waiting for the dignitary and his entourage when they approached.
Wolfe was strongly in favor of nodding and riding on, but Prince Edward was having none of that; he raised his hand and the troop halted. The portly man stepped forward an offered what to Wolfe seemed to be an insufficient bow, and then spoke before the prince did–both of which made Wolfe want to swat him with the flat of his sword.
“Your Highness,” the man said in accented English, “permit me to present myself. I am Jacob Van Schaick, the sheriff of this county. We are honored and pleased to welcome you to Albany city.”
The young prince did not respond in a way that suggested that the provincial insulted him; instead, he was extremely cordial.
“You honor me with your welcome, Mynheer Von Schaick.” The Dutch title made the portly man smile, making Wolfe want to swat him a second time. “I am not sure what role the sheriff fills here in America, but I am sure that you must be a person of some stature to be chosen to lead those sent out to meet me. Is the entire–city–in your charge?”
“Oh, no, no indeed,” the man answered. “Within Albany itself I am an alderman–a subordinate in charge of one of the city’s wards–”
“I know what an alderman is, Mynheer. Pray continue.”
“Ah. Yes. Of course, your Highness does.” He gathered himself and continued. “But I assure you that, while a subordinate, I am fully qualified to serve as an emissary of the proper station to receive Your Highness and his . . . servants.”
As Wolfe bristled but remained silent, Prince Edward turned slightly toward him and said, “This is General James Wolfe, Mynheer Von Schaick. His heroic action at Louisbourg last summer helped secure that fortress for our King. He will be inspecting the troops here; I am sure that you will show him all of the courtesies–and respect“–his voice acquired a serious, hard edge that the alderman clearly noticed–“that his rank and station deserves.”
“Of course, Your Highness.” Without another word, Von Schaick bowed as he retreated, then mounted his own horse. He and the others who had accompanied him–and who remained unintroduced–led Prince Edward and General Wolfe into Albany.
Though bigger than Halifax, Albany did not impress Wolfe as anything more than a frontier settlement. It was a trifle less grimy than he would have expected, as a place where fur traders and trappers met to do business; perhaps that was due to the nominally Dutch nature of the place. The streets were clean, and the houses were neat. Troops were deployed on the bluffs to the west of the town, along one of the creeks that flowed into it. After paying their respects to Von Schaick’s household–his wife Catharina and his four young children, as well as his older brother Sybrant (another alderman), Sybrant’s wife, and six other young ones–and a handful of cousins and “family members” who clearly wanted a glance at a royal prince–they were able to make their way to the encampment.
Prince Edward and General Wolfe were escorted at once to the tent of the commanding officer, Brigadier-General John Prideaux. He welcomed them politely but cordially, showing little of the awe that the alderman of Albany had possessed. He was a tall, plain man, about the same age as Amherst, who seemed comfortable in his uniform–a true veteran soldier.
Edward noted that, like Amherst, Prideaux was acquainted with Wolfe.
“Dettingen,” Prideaux explained, when the three men were seated, and the prince remarked upon it. “Young Wolfe here and I were both on the battlefield with His Royal Highness that day. And, I think, we both acquitted ourselves with honor.”
“I agree,” Wolfe said. “Though General Prideaux was of a somewhat higher rank and, therefore, with greater responsibility.”
“I was an adjutant, nothing more. But we’ll have greater things ahead of us, I hope,” Prideaux noted. “Though . . . I am somewhat disturbed by reports I have had from our rangers.”
“What sort of reports?”
“I think it would be better that you have that directly,” Prideaux answered. “I’ve taken the liberty of sending for–” he stopped and looked up at a figure who had appeared in the doorway of his field tent. “Ah, and here he is. Tell me, Major Rogers, did the sentry admit you, or did you just sneak past him?”
“I am responding to your orders, General,” the man answered. His broad drawl made him out to be an American, though Wolfe could not place him. Rogers was a tall, spare figure, dressed in something that only approximated a uniform; it was clothing better suited to wilderness travel than a parade ground, and it showed signs of frequent, and hard, use. He gave a salute to Prideaux and then to Wolfe and sketched a bow to the prince.
“I have chosen to forbear discussion of your report, Major Rogers,” Prideaux said. “I thought it would be more informative coming directly from you.”
Rogers smiled slightly; the expression furrowed his forehead, making obvious a scar that creased it. At a gesture from Prideaux he took a seat on an upright crate.
“Your Highness will accept my apology for the mode of presentation,” Rogers began. “I am unaccustomed to . . . a royal audience.”
“I am sure it will be informative, Major. Please do proceed.”
“As your Highness may be aware,” he began, “my command has been given the responsibility for scouting and investigating for His Majesty’s forces here in the country. We undertake such missions as might be needed–intelligence and sabotage, whatever the situation requires. We are the army’s eyes and ears–and, occasionally, hands.
“Three weeks ago, at the orders of General Prideaux, I took a company of rangers north along Lake George to scout the situation at Fort Carillon, the French fortress that General Abercromby tried, and failed, to take last summer. He informed me that he was particularly interested in the disposition of French troops, and the status of the artillery.
“I would not trouble Your Highness with the particulars of our journey, or of the precautions and procedures we employ in the wilderness. Suffice it to say that, as in the past, we were able to approach very closely.”
“A few winters ago,” Prideaux said, “I hear that rangers tossed grenades by hand over the walls of Carillon and set their storehouses afire.”
“Aye, we managed that,” Rogers said, and the grin came back for a moment. “These days we have somewhat more dangerous opponents in the field. But that is neither here nor there; we still have, as we say in New Hampshire, a few tricks up our sleeve. With a small troop we were able to cross Lake George, hide our boats and make our way through the woods to a favorable vantage that overlooked the French fortress–and we beheld a remarkable sight.”
“Don’t keep us waiting, man,” Wolfe said. “What did you see?”
“The fort was completely abandoned, General. Even the flag had been taken down.”
“The French have retreated?”
“It seems so. But there’s more, sir. Among the abandoned works–and below on the shore–figures were moving about. Not Frenchmen . . . but rather Scotsmen. I spied their distinctive costume and I heard the occasional skirl of their bagpipes.”
“Scotsmen? What were they doing there?”
“It was hard to tell. You see, General, they were not living beings, but rather shades–phantasms. They were transparent, and either ignorant of, or indifferent to, our presence.”
Prideaux looked from Prince Edward to General Wolfe. “I realize, gentlemen, that this report is somewhat hard to believe or accept–”
“You might be surprised what we might believe,” the prince said. “We have seen some extraordinary things in the last several weeks. The idea that ghosts might have gathered around Fort Carillon certainly ranks with them. But I am moved to ask–if there are ghosts, why Scotsmen?”
Prideaux’ face darkened. “That is due to the results of the battle fought over the fortress a year ago. Our forces were led by General James Abercromby, since recalled by our king to England. He chose to send infantry in a direct frontal assault against the abatis, where more than five hundred died and nearly three times that number were wounded.
“Our Indian allies suggest that the Highlanders, unlike English soldiers, have some attachment to the ground where they were slain; that their . . . souls are unquiet, and will not rest until they revenge themselves for the loss of life.”
The men sat quietly for some time, until at last Wolfe said, “Rubbish.”
“I beg your pardon?” Prideaux said. “What do you mean, sir?”
“It seems to me that if this is true–and I only give it the most nominal credence–that these Scottish ghosts, if such they be, have done a signal service to their king. They have scared off the French. I think it only remains to us to march up and occupy the fort.”
“I am loath to disagree with you, General,” Rogers said. “But that is no place to be. I am not certain that anyone should go there.”
“Nonsense. It is a military strongpoint, and a key place to secure in our movement north. We can’t leave it to the French.”
“According to native scouts,” Rogers said, “the French sent an expedition there some days ago and did not reoccupy the place. I don’t think it belongs to them anymore.”
“Then to whom does it belong?”
“It belongs to the ghosts of the Highlanders,” Rogers said. “And only to them.”
* * *
When Rogers had departed, Prince Edward was silent for a time and then said, “I think our course is clear.”
“Obviously General Amherst will have to be informed,” Wolfe said.
“Yes, of course. But first I have to speak with these Highlanders.”
Prideaux and Wolfe reacted almost at once, both objecting vehemently. Prideaux yielded to Wolfe, who finally said, “Highness, that’s out of the question. There is no question that it is far too dangerous.”
“I agree,” Prideaux said. “Rogers stated it succinctly: that is no place to go.”
“I will not be gainsaid,” Edward said. “I am not subject to your orders, General Wolfe, nor to yours, General Prideaux.”
“But you are the only person of royal blood on this continent,” Wolfe answered. “Your safety is my concern, General Amherst made that abundantly clear. He did not wish to have you journey as far as Albany, and I am sure would forbid any interaction with–”
“With ghosts,” Edward said. “Ghosts of loyal men who died serving crown and country. Tell me, General Wolfe; why are they there at all?”
“The comet, I suppose.”
“The comet. Of course. But why are they there? Because they are unquiet. They feel that their lives were given needlessly, and they are unsatisfied.”
“As opposed to merely being dead,” Prideaux said. “This is beyond my ken, Highness, and I would think it is beyond yours as well. I understand the desire, perhaps even the need, to address these . . . ghosts . . . but I think General Wolfe is correct. If it must be done, then go when the army is with you, when General Amherst advances up the valley. There is no reason to do it now.”
“I would think time is of the essence,” Edward replied.
“I must disagree with Your Highness there,” Prideaux said. “If they are indeed unquiet spirits, they are the shades of men who died–tragically–a year ago. A few months along, they will still be there, and still unquiet. In the meanwhile, they appear to have frightened the French away. This is intelligence best suited for General Amherst’s ears.
“Until then, it is my advice that you simply let them be.”