The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER LII

Intentique Ora tenebant

“We continued for months our weary life at the fort, and the commandant and I had our quarrels and reconciliations, our greasy games at cards, our dismal duets with his asthmatic flute and my cracked guitar. The poor Fawn took her beatings and her cans of liquor as her lord and master chose to administer them; and she nursed her papoose, or her master in the gout, or her prisoner in the ague; and so matters went on until the beginning of the fall of last year, when we were visited by a hunter who had important news to deliver to the commandant, and such as set the little garrison in no little excitement. The Marquis de Montcalm had sent a considerable detachment to garrison the forts already in the French hands, and to take up further positions in the enemy’s — that is, in the British — possessions. The troops had left Quebec and Montreal, and were coming up the St. Lawrence and the lakes in bateaux, with artillery and large provisions of warlike and other stores. Museau would be superseded in his command by an officer of superior rank, who might exchange me, or who might give me up to the Indians in reprisal for cruelties practised by our own people on many and many an officer and soldier of the enemy. The men of the fort were eager for the reinforcements; they would advance into Pennsylvania and New York; they would seize upon Albany and Philadelphia; they would drive the Rosbifs into the sea, and all America should be theirs from the Mississippi to Newfoundland.

“This was all very triumphant: but yet, somehow, the prospect of the French conquest did not add to Mr. Museau’s satisfaction.

“‘Eh, commandant!’ says I, ‘’tis fort bien, but meanwhile your farm in Normandy, the pot of cider, and the trippes a la mode de Caen, where are they?’

“‘Yes; ’tis all very well, my garcon,’ says he. ‘But where will you be when poor old Museau is superseded? Other officers are not good companions like me. Very few men in the world have my humanity. When there is a great garrison here, will my successors give thee the indulgences which honest Museau has granted thee? Thou wilt be kept in a sty like a pig ready for killing. As sure as one of our officers falls into the hands of your brigands of frontier-men, and evil comes to him, so surely wilt thou have to pay with thy skin for his. Thou wilt be given up to our red allies — to the brethren of La Biche yonder. Didst thou see, last year, what they did to thy countrymen whom we took in the action with Braddock? Roasting was the very smallest punishment, ma foi — was it not, La Biche?’

“And he entered into a variety of jocular descriptions of tortures inflicted, eyes burned out of their sockets, teeth and nails wrenched out, limbs and bodies gashed — You turn pale, dear Miss Theo! Well, I will have pity, and will spare you the tortures which honest Museau recounted in his pleasant way as likely to befall me.

“La Biche was by no means so affected as you seem to be, ladies, by the recital of these horrors. She had witnessed them in her time. She came from the Senecas, whose villages lie near the great cataract between Ontario and Erie; her people made war for the English, and against them: they had fought with other tribes; and, in the battles between us and them, it is difficult to say whether whiteskin or redskin is most savage.

“‘They may chop me into cutlets and broil me, ’tis true, commandant,’ says I, coolly. ‘But again, I say, you will never have the farm in Normandy.’

“‘Go get the whisky-bottle, La Biche,’ says Museau.

“‘And it is not too late, even now. I will give the guide who takes me home a large reward. And again I say, I promise, as a man of honour, ten thousand livres to — whom shall I say? to one who shall bring me any token — who shall bring me, say, my watch and seal with my grandfather’s arms — which I have seen in a chest somewhere in this fort.’

“‘Ah, scelerat!’ roars out the commandant, with a hoarse yell of laughter. ‘Thou hast eyes, thou! All is good prize in war.’

“‘Think of a house in your village, of a fine field hard by with a half-dozen of cows — of a fine orchard all covered with fruit.’

“‘And Javotte at the door with her wheel, and a rascal of a child, or two, with cheeks as red as the apples! O my country! O my mother!” whimpers out the commandant. ‘Quick, La Biche, the whisky!’

“All that night the commandant was deep in thought, and La Biche, too, silent and melancholy. She sate away from us, nursing her child, and whenever my eyes turned towards her I saw hers were fixed on me. The poor little infant began to cry, and was ordered away by Museau, with his usual foul language, to the building which the luckless Biche occupied with her child. When she was gone, we both of us spoke our minds freely; and I put such reasons before monsieur as his cupidity could not resist.

“‘How do you know,’ he asked, ‘that this hunter will serve you?’

“‘That is my secret,’ says I. But here, if you like, as we are not on honour, I may tell it. When they come into the settlements for their bargains, the hunters often stop a day or two for rest and drink and company, and our new friend loved all these. He played at cards with the men: he set his furs against their liquor: he enjoyed himself at the fort, singing, dancing, and gambling with them. I think I said they liked to listen to my songs, and for want of better things to do, I was often singing and guitar-scraping: and we would have many a concert, the men joining in chorus, or dancing to my homely music, until it was interrupted by the drums and the retraite.

“Our guest the hunter was present at one or two of these concerts, and I thought I would try if possibly he understood English. After we had had our little stock of French songs, I said, ‘My lads, I will give you an English song,’ and to the tune of ‘Over the hills and far away,’ which my good old grandfather used to hum as a favourite air in Marlborough’s camp, I made some doggerel words:—‘This long, long year, a prisoner drear; Ah, me! I’m tired of lingering here: I’ll give a hundred guineas gay, To be over the hills and far away.’

“‘What is it?’ says the hunter. ‘I don’t understand.’

“’’Tis a girl to her lover,’ I answered; but I saw by the twinkle in the man’s eye that he understood me.

“The next day, when there were no men within hearing, the trapper showed that I was right in my conjecture, for as he passed me he hummed in a low tone, but in perfectly good English, ‘Over the hills and far away,’ the burden of my yesterday’s doggerel.

“‘If you are ready,’ says he, ‘I am ready. I know who your people are, and the way to them. Talk to the Fawn, and she will tell you what to do. What! You will not play with me?’ Here he pulled out some cards, and spoke in French as two soldiers came up. ‘Milor est trop grand seigneur? Bonjour, my lord!’

“And the man made me a mock bow, and walked away, shrugging up his shoulders, to offer to play and drink elsewhere.

“I knew now that the Biche was to be the agent in the affair, and that my offer to Museau was accepted. The poor Fawn performed her part very faithfully and dexterously. I had not need of a word more with Museau; the matter was understood between us. The Fawn had long been allowed free communication with me. She had tended me during my wound and in my illnesses, helped to do the work of my little chamber, my cooking, and so forth. She was free to go out of the fort, as I have said, and to the river and the fields whence the corn and garden-stuff of the little garrison were brought in.

“Having gambled away most of the money which he received for his peltries, the trapper now got together his store of flints, powder, and blankets, and took his leave. And, three days after his departure, the Fawn gave me the signal that the time was come for me to make my little trial for freedom.

“When first wounded, I had been taken by my kind Florac and placed on his bed in the officers’ room. When the fort was emptied of all officers except the old lieutenant left in command, I had been allowed to remain in my quarters, sometimes being left pretty free, sometimes being locked up and fed on prisoners’ rations, sometimes invited to share his mess by my tipsy gaoler.

“This officers’ house, or room, was of logs like the half-dozen others within the fort, which mounted only four guns of small calibre, of which one was on the bastion behind my cabin. Looking westward over this gun, you could see a small island at the confluence of the two rivers Ohio and Monongahela whereon Duquesne is situated. On the shore opposite this island were some trees.

“‘You see those trees?’ my poor Biche said to me the day before, in her French jargon. ‘He wait for you behind those trees.’

“In the daytime the door of my quarters was open, and the Biche free to come and go. On the day before she came in from the fields with a pick in her hand and a basketful of vegetables and potherbs for soup. She sat down on a bench at my door, the pick resting against it, and the basket at her side. I stood talking to her for a while: but I believe I was so idiotic that I never should have thought of putting the pick to any use had she actually pushed it into my open door, so that it fell into my room. ‘Hide it’ she said; ‘want it soon.’ And that afternoon it was, she pointed out the trees to me.

“On the next day, she comes, pretending to be very angry, and calls out, ‘My lord! my lord! why you not come to commandant’s dinner? He very bad! Entendez-vows?’ And she peeps into the room as she speaks, and flings a coil of rope at me.

“‘I am coming, La Biche,’ says I, and hobbled after her on my crutch. As I went in to the commandant’s quarters she says, ‘Pour ce soir.’ And then I knew the time was come.

“As for Museau, he knew nothing about the matter. Not he! He growled at me, and said the soup was cold. He looked me steadily in the face, and talked of this and that; not only whilst his servant was present, but afterwards as we smoked our pipes and played our game at piquet; whilst according to her wont, the poor Biche sate cowering in a corner.

“My friend’s whisky-bottle was empty; and he said, with rather a knowing look, he must have another glass — we must both have a glass that night. And rising from the table he stumped to the inner room where he kept his fire-water under lock and key, and away from the poor Biche, who could not resist that temptation.

“As he turned his back the Biche raised herself; and he was no sooner gone but she was at my feet, kissing my hand, pressing it to her heart, and bursting into tears over my knees. I confess I was so troubled by this testimony of the poor creature’s silent attachment and fondness, the extent of which I scarce had suspected before, that when Museau returned, I had not recovered my equanimity, though the poor Fawn was back in her corner again and shrouded in her blanket.

“He did not appear to remark anything strange in the behaviour of either. We sate down to our game, though my thoughts were so preoccupied that I scarcely knew what cards were before me.

“‘I gain everything from you to-night, milor,’ says he, grimly. ‘We play upon parole.’

“‘And you may count upon mine,’ I replied.

“‘Eh! ’tis all that you have!’ says he.

“‘Monsieur,’ says I, ‘my word is good for ten thousand livres;’ and we continued our game.

“At last he said he had a headache, and would go to bed, and I understood the orders too, that I was to retire. ‘I wish you a good night, mon petit milor,’ says he — ‘stay, you will fall without your crutch,’— and his eyes twinkled at me, and his face wore a sarcastic grin. In the agitation of the moment I had quite forgotten that I was lame, and was walking away at a pace as good as a grenadier’s.

“‘What a vilain night!’ says he, looking out. In fact there was a tempest abroad, and a great roaring, and wind. ‘Bring a lanthorn, La Tulipe, and lock my lord comfortably into his quarters!’ He stood a moment looking at me from his own door, and I saw a glimpse of the poor Biche behind him.

“The night was so rainy that the sentries preferred their boxes, and did not disturb me in my work. The log-house was built with upright posts, deeply fixed in the ground, and horizontal logs laid upon it. I had to dig under these, and work a hole sufficient to admit my body to pass. I began in the dark, soon after tattoo. It was some while after midnight before my work was done, when I lifted my hand up under the log and felt the rain from without falling upon it. I had to work very cautiously for two hours after that, and then crept through to the parapet and silently flung my rope over the gun; not without a little tremor of heart, lest the sentry should see me and send a charge of lead into my body.

“The wall was but twelve feet, and my fall into the ditch easy enough. I waited a while there, looking steadily under the gun, and trying to see the river and the island. I heard the sentry pacing up above and humming a tune. The darkness became more clear to me ere long, and the moon rose, and I saw the river shining before me, and the dark rocks and trees of the island rising in the waters.

“I made for this mark as swiftly as I could, and for the clump of trees to which I had been directed. Oh, what a relief I had when I heard a low voice humming there, ‘Over the hills and far away’!”

When Mr. George came to this part of his narrative, Miss Theo, who was seated by a harpsichord, turned round and dashed off the tune on the instrument, whilst all the little company broke out into the merry chorus.

“Our way,” the speaker went on, “lay through a level tract of forest with which my guide was familiar, upon the right bank of the Monongahela. By daylight we came to a clearer country, and my trapper asked me — Silverheels was the name by which he went — had I ever seen the spot before? It was the fatal field where Braddock had fallen, and whence I had been wonderfully rescued in the summer of the previous year. Now, the leaves were beginning to be tinted with the magnificent hues of our autumn.”

“Ah, brother!” cries Harry, seizing his brother’s hand. “I was gambling and making a fool of myself at the Wells and in London, when my George was flying for his life in the wilderness! Oh, what a miserable spendthrift I have been!”

“But I think thou art not unworthy to be called thy mother’s son,” said Mrs. Lambert, very softly, and with moistened eyes. Indeed, if Harry had erred, to mark his repentance, his love, his unselfish joy and generosity, was to feel that there was hope for the humbled and kind young sinner.

“We presently crossed the river” George resumed, “taking our course along the base of the western slopes of the Alleghanies; and through a grand forest region of oaks and maple, and enormous poplars that grow a hundred feet high without a branch. It was the Indians whom we had to avoid, besides the outlying parties of French. Always of doubtful loyalty, the savages have been specially against us, since our ill-treatment of them, and the French triumph over us two years ago.

“I was but weak still, and our journey through the wilderness lasted a fortnight or more. As we advanced, the woods became redder and redder. The frost nipped sharply of nights. We lighted fires at our feet, and slept in our blankets as best we might. At this time of year the hunters who live in the mountains get their sugar from the maples. We came upon more than one such family, camping near their trees by the mountain streams; and they welcomed us at their fires, and gave us of their venison. So we passed over the two ranges of the Laurel Hills and the Alleghanies. The last day’s march of my trusty guide and myself took us down that wild, magnificent pass of Will’s Creek, a valley lying between cliffs near a thousand feet high — bald, white, and broken into towers like huge fortifications, with eagles wheeling round the summits of the rocks, and watching their nests among the crags.

“And hence we descended to Cumberland, whence we had marched in the year before, and where there was now a considerable garrison of our people. Oh! you may think it was a welcome day when I saw English colours again on the banks of our native Potomac!”

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 19:07