Council Of Fire – Snippet 05
“That does not mean I listen to everything they say. And you know well, Monsieur Intendant, that they often do as they please regardless of what I say. But say on, Governor. What do they make of this omen?”
Vaudreuil seemed to be contemplating his response, and Montcalm remembered the question he had asked Lévis on the fortifications. Do you believe in omens?
“You know that their shamans perform what they call ‘medicine,’ in which they make an augury for the future. One of them–an Onondaga, I believe–made some dire predictions which were repeated to a courier de bois. The ones he particularly made note of were that the comet–the ‘broom star’–would ‘come to earth,’ leaving a path of death and destruction; and that something, or someone, would extinguish a council fire–whatever significance that might have.”
“Did the ranger say those precise words? The Council Fire?”
“Something to that effect, yes.”
“Is he still in Québec? I would like to ask him myself. If he heard those words, Governor, it is an ill omen indeed. I can imagine why the natives were so upset.”
“I fail to understand,” Bigot said.
“Obviously,” Montcalm said, which drew a sharp look from the intendant. “If the man spoke of the Onondaga Council Fire, then having it be extinguished is highly significant. You are native to New France, Governor: you must understand.”
Bigot arched an eyebrow; Montcalm glanced back at Lévis, who said nothing and kept his face impassive.
“Our native allies to the south–the Six Nations–are centered on the lands of the Onondaga, Monsieur Intendant. There a fire is kept continuously burning at the Onondaga Long House. It is the place that the various tribes and chiefs bring their burdens and their disputes. If the fire went out it would portend the end of their confederation.”
“We might deal more easily with them in detail,” Bigot said. “Their bargaining power would be reduced.”
“Some of them would defect to the English,” Montcalm snapped back, almost adding, you idiot. “And even those who were still our allies would be unreliable. It would be a disaster.”
“It is no more than a primitive omen, Monsieur,” Vaudreuil said. “It means nothing.”
“I am not so sure. And you are not sure either, Governor, or you would not be taking my time to discuss it. The English must have heard the same rumors and will act accordingly. Now is the courier de bois still in Québec?”
“I really have no idea.”
“Then I shall go and see. If this is the substance of his report, we should be very concerned indeed.”
The storm came in the pale, overcast morning, like a bank of fog that rolled westward up the St. Lawrence, first wrapping itself around the lower town and then drifting upward along the cliffs to Vieux Québec.
The Marquis de Montcalm was walking along the landward-facing wall that overlooked the plateau west of the old city, the so-called Heights of Abraham. They were apparently named for a riverboat pilot of the last century–for his good works, or some such thing, he was granted the valuable tract beyond. The name had become enshrined in local geography.
He stopped for a moment to imagine what a battle might look like there. Assuming an enemy army–a British army–could somehow make the ascent from the river, they would have to deploy out there, crouching behind the hillocks and the gradual rises. Infantry only, of course–there’d be no horsemen and certainly no cannon. It would be muskets and bayonets . . .
The fog drifted across where he was standing. Not the usual damp fog that was native to Québec, but a pale, almost luminescent one that carried the slightest odor of . . .
. . . Of gunpowder, Montcalm realized. It smells like a battle.
From across the plains, he thought he heard gunfire and shouting . . . and the rolling thunder of artillery.
They’re firing on us, Montcalm thought: the Austrians have us in their sights, and we’re in a bottleneck. This is not where we are supposed to be–and Maillebois must know it. We were to deploy to the north of Piacenza.
They found out. Somehow Count Browne must have found out what we were doing and moved against us . . . and now they have our range.
We will have to charge them. The only way out is through the Austrian lines. The only way . . .
The fog swept across the battlefield, and Montcalm led the Bourbon cavalry against the Austrians. There was no way but forward.
The sun peeked through the clouds of the setting sun, and a shadow crossed them. Montcalm looked up to see Lévis standing over him, bending down slightly, looking concerned.
Montcalm blinked. “Bin ich jetzt in Verhaftung?”
“I’m sorry . . . Monsieur, what did you say?”
He looked around him. He was reclining–quite comfortably, actually–against the bole of a large tree. In the near distance, across uneven, rolling hillocks, he could see the landward wall of the old city of Québec. Not Piacenza . . . Québec . . . and it was not 1746, but rather 1759.
No, he thought to himself. I am not a prisoner. That was long ago.
“Why am I here, François?”
“I would ask you that question myself, Monsieur,” Lévis said. “No one has seen you in hours. I have looked all around the Old Town, and down in the lower town . . . and no one has seen or heard from you since mid-morning. I was a bit worried.”
“Monsieur Chévalier,” Montcalm said, getting slowly to his feet and brushing off his clothing, “I have been a soldier for His Christian Majesty for most of forty years. I fought in the Polish war, against the Austrians–”
“I remember, Monsieur; I have been in service about as long. They took you prisoner at Piacenza. Verhaftung.”
Montcalm looked at him curiously. “I hadn’t realized you had much command of German, François.”
“You asked me a question in German just now, Monsieur.”
“I did no such thing.”
Lévis looked away, the sunset light etching his profile.
“Did I ask you something in German? Why would I . . .”
Piacenza, Montcalm thought to himself. I was back at Piacenza–I was leading the charge against the Austrian cavalry . . . and at the end of the day I was a prisoner of the Austrians.
“Can you tell me what happened today?”
“It is . . . hard to say. But one thing is certain: if you look at the sky–” he pointed upward. “The comet is gone.”