Council Of Fire – Snippet 36
The trees themselves were not consulted
The Marquis de Montcalm had ordered more extensive patrols of the area, particularly between QuÃ©bec and MontrÃ©al. All of the staff officers were assigned turns at leading patrols, and Olivier D’Egremont was no exception.
It was always an invigorating experience to leave the safety and quiet of the habitations and travel out into the wilderness, like a courier de bois–but better armed, and with a limited and particular mission–to make sure there were no infiltrations. For most of the officers, infiltrations meant British soldiers, or irregular cadres like the infamous Rogers’ Rangers; but following his own experiences, he was aware of other possibilities that might be lurking in the woods.
The patrol–two bateaux, twelve men including himself–left the St. Lawrence at the ChaudiÃ¨re, the swift-flowing river replaced with a lazy, muddy stream. Out of the sight of the great river, the vegetation was thicker, the trees hung heavy and closer to the ground; sunlight was occluded and sound was muffled.
“Let’s put in over there.” D’Egremont gestured toward a small cove, where there was an obvious trail leading from the water’s edge into the woods. His second nodded from the other boat, and the men poled the flat-bottomed bateaux against the current until they bumped up against the shore. The men disembarked, shouldering their small field packs and weapons, and formed up along the trail, making room for D’Egremont to come to the head of the line.
“Allez,” he said. “And no chatter. I expect silence–and attention.” He glanced back at his second, a scarred veteran of the Austrian Succession whom the younger men admired, and the older ones feared; from the rear of the column he nodded and scowled at the men ahead of him.
They set off at a brisk pace. Though the French soldier of the line was no Indian scout, under the watchful gaze of authority and the presence of the dark, primeval forest, each man appeared to be on alert, tramping as quietly as possible along the path.
D’Egremont could see, though, that the men were nervous. He was, too: the path was narrow, the underbrush uneven, the vegetation thick and entangling. Five hundred feet along the trail, they had lost sight of the boats and the sun was almost completely invisible through the tree canopy.
Then, suddenly, the cloying quiet was interrupted by the sound of a voice–a man somewhere ahead, speaking aloud–in English. D’Egremont held up his hand; if there was room, he would have immediately deployed his troop in a skirmish line, but there was no space. He turned, gestured to the sergeant, then drew his saber and began to move forward.
There was a clearing fifty feet further along, a remarkable circle of trees in the midst of an overgrown dense forest. At the far edge, an older man was on one knee, plucking at a plant at the base of a tree.
“Perfect,” the man was saying. “I would say . . . Agastache nepetoides.” He took the plant and tucked it into a cloth bag hanging by a strap over his shoulder. He rose to his feet and turned, noticing D’Egremont for the first time.
“Hello. Or should I say bonjour?”
The man was tall and middle-aged, wearing a modestly-cut suit somewhat out of fashion. Over it he wore a sort of smock with a wealth of pockets, some of which appeared to have tools and other items stuffed into them. A pair of wire spectacles lay low upon his nose, and he peered through them at the Frenchman.
“Who are you, and what are you doing here?” D’Egremont asked in English. “And we can speak in your language if you prefer.”
“That would be my choice,” the man answered. “My French is somewhat rusty.”
“I asked you a question, Monsieur.”
“I did.” D’Egremont waved, and the others came forward, forming a line at the edge of the clearing. “I asked you who you are.”
“Bartram,” he said, removing his hat and offering a slight bow. “John Bartram, at your service.”
“John Bartram, you are an Englishman in the territory of New France and are therefore trespassing.”
“Yes, truly,” D’Egremont said, somewhat aggravated. “I am still waiting to hear what your business is here.”
“Well, here,” Bartram said, “Agastache nepetoides. The yellow hyssop. An extraordinary plant, and very important for the pollination of insects. I found a remarkable sample at the base of–” he turned around. “This tree. No, wait–I think rather it was this one,” he said, gesturing at where he had been kneeling. “Really a remarkable–”
“I do not care about the flower–”
“The hyssop. You don’t care? Regrettable,” Bartram said. “I’ve hardly found any, though I assume I will find more closer to the river.”
“Monsieur Bartram, you should not be here.”
“In this forest?”
“In New France.”
“Brother,” Bartram said, “I assure you that the trees make no distinction as to which country they happen to occupy. Indeed, there is no boundary line that I can see.”
“The boundary line,” D’Egremont answered, “is the one on which your king and my king agreed.”
“An arbitrary mark made on some map thousands of miles from here? I assure you, sir, that the trees themselves were not consulted at all in the matter. Therefore, I do not see how it matters to us.”
D’Egremont was not at all sure how to respond to the comment; instead he gestured at two of the troopers. “Take Monsieur Bartram in charge–”
He stopped and looked beyond his line of soldiers and noticed that the path they had taken from the river seemed to be obscured by trees and foliage.
“Ah,” Bartram said. “I suspect you have no idea just how angry these trees are with you.”
“I’m not sure I understand.”
“No, of course you do not, Lieutenant–is that the correct title? One must be punctilious in these matters. You see, the trees have not been consulted in all of this mapmaking and boundary-marking. And that is not to mention the clear cutting and lumbering, the slashing and burning . . . they are angry, Lieutenant. Very angry indeed.”
The two soldiers whom D’Egremont had ordered stopped in arm’s-reach of John Bartram and looked to their commander for direction.
“I am not sure I completely understand,” D’Egremont said.
“For the best part of three decades I have traveled through this wilderness,” Bartram said, seemingly unaffected by two heavily armed soldiers close by. “Between Peter Kalm and myself, we have constructed a catalog of nearly every species of plant in this part of the continent. This land is familiar to me, and of late I have begun to realize that I can feel it as well.”
“Of late . . .”
“Since the comet,” Bartram said. “The forest is beginning to awaken, Lieutenant. The beings that comprise it know their friends . . . and their foes as well.”
If D’Egremont had not traveled to Carillon with the Chevalier de LÃ©vis and seen the shades of Highlanders–if he had not heard the report of Soleil‘s voyage upriver–he might have scorned the curious Englishman’s assertion. But this was one more incomprehensible thing in a world that suddenly seemed full of them.
He turned, saber in hand, looking around the clearing. Somehow the trees looked closer, their boughs had dipped lower, and the canopy of foliage obscured the sun even more thoroughly.
“I take it that they call you friend, Monsieur.”
“I flatter myself to think that they do.”
“And what do they think of us? Or have they not imparted any intelligence regarding that subject?”
“They are not especially fond of white men, Lieutenant. Nationality is a matter on which they are utterly indifferent, though I daresay the French have been slightly more respectful of the wilderness than my own countrymen. They do not seem to be loyal to the red man either–but the natives understand that the natural world has its own jealous privilege.”
D’Egremont was once again left with no idea how to respond. Here was an Englishman who might or might not be a spy; the correct thing would be to take him into custody and convey him to QuÃ©bec . . . perhaps the Marquis would know what to do with him.
“Will you come with us voluntarily, Monsieur Bartram? I will personally guarantee your good treatment.”
“As a prisoner?”
“As our guest.”
“I have no interest in being anyone’s guest, Lieutenant. And I assure you I am much more comfortable in this environment than in some habitation in New France. So I regret to say the answer is no.” He held up a hand. “And before you order these stout young men in front of me to do violence to my person, I will remind you of what I said about friends and foes.”
D’Egremont looked around him, the open area now dim from the overhanging foliage. It was as if the bright spring day had been transformed into grim autumn. There was no path at all. The clearing was a very small island surrounded by impenetrable forest.
“You place me in a difficult situation,” he managed at last.
“It is not difficult at all. Go and report my presence if you must,” Bartram responded. “But I will be on my way, and you will permit it or face the consequences.”
“From them,” Bartram said, gesturing to the trees that surrounded the clearing. Then he looked away toward the tree he had been examining and held out his hand. As D’Egremont and the soldiers watched wide-eyed, a path opened up. Bartram offered a slight bow and began to walk away. The two men nearest him made to follow, but D’Egremont shook his head.
Behind the Frenchmen a similar path appeared, and D’Egremont gestured toward it.
Go and report my presence if you must, he thought.
He wondered what the marquis would make of it.