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Council of Fire: Chapter Two

       Last updated: Monday, September 2, 2019 14:44 EDT



Do you believe in omens?


    New France

    The Upper Town was at the top of a steep hill that overlooked the St. Lawrence. It was like a great ship, with the waters parting and then rejoining around it. When the marquis stood on the platform behind the Battery of St. Louis and looked downstream, he felt as if he was at the aft end of that ship, watching the water pass into the distance as he moved upstream.

    But it was an illusion, just as the robust defenses around the city of Québec were an illusion. True, it would take a mighty assault to wrest it away; but the British were coming. They had taken Louisbourg, and they were assembling a force to traverse the Hudson River toward Lac du Champlain, and there would be another thrust toward Oswego . . . they were determined now, and they controlled the seas, and New France–whatever its natural defenses–was no match for the enemy that would soon invade.

    The intendant and the governor remained supremely confident, at least in public; at least in the hearing of any habitant who might question the ability to defend against the coming storm.

    But to Louis-Joseph de Montcalm-Gozon, Marquis de Saint-Veran, commander of the military forces of His Most Christian Majesty Louis XV, it was a fiction that was not at all comforting. Vaudreuil and Bigot: the detested governor and the corrupt, diseased worm of an intendant–they would be playing at this game until the enemy’s standard waved over Cap-Diamant Redoubt; and maybe even after that.

    He heard someone clearing his throat behind, and turned to see Lévis standing there, looking a trifle uncomfortable to have interrupted him.

    “François,” he said, smiling. “How long have you been waiting?”

    “Only a minute or so.” Lévis looked up at the royal banner snapping in the stiff March wind. “You seemed deep in thought.”

    “I could drown in it. But it would not get me away from here.”

    “The battle will be here, Monsieur,” Lévis said, coming up to stand beside him. “Probably not until the summer. But it will be here.”

    “I know my duty.”

    “Of course,” Lévis said. The man was seven years his junior, but they were close friends. They had served together on the continent, and the younger man had agreed at once to accompany him as his aide when he had come to New France in 1756. In the two and a half years since they had gone from success to success, most recently at Fort Carillon–when the English general Abercromby had thrown away the lives of his Scottish Highlanders in a frontal assault against the fort’s abatis.

    But Lévis, like Montcalm, understood what was on the way this spring and summer.

    “I dreamed of Candiac last night, François. My beloved home . . . but it was empty and lifeless. I went from room to room, calling the names of my children and my dear Angélique; but all I heard was echoes. From my bedchamber I could see the gardens, but they too were neglected and vacant. What do you suppose it means?”

    “It means you digested your dinner poorly, Monsieur,” Lévis said, smiling. “Or there was a bad lump in your mattress, or a draught from a window.”

    “Or it is an omen.”

    “My dear Marquis,” the Chévalier de Lévis said. “We are soldiers. Whenever we go to battle there is the possibility that it could be our last day on this earth. If we let ourselves be chased by omens and haunts, we will be consumed by them.”

    “So you don’t . . .”

    “Really. Do you believe in omens? I wonder what His Eminence the bishop would say about that.”

    “What he says about everything, François. Which is not very much.”

    “If you want to take something as an omen, tell me what you make of this much-heralded comet. If we had a clear sky–which we never seem to do–we could gaze upon it. The common folk fear it, but it’s just a . . . well, it’s just something in the sky, whatever it is. Once in a lifetime, and then it’s gone.”

    “Strange that it should come now, in this critical time.”

    “It was predicted, non? Every, what, seventy-six years it comes into the sky once and twice, and then disappears into the dark, not to be seen again by the same eyes. At least I don’t expect to see it again.”

    “Assuredly not.” Montcalm looked out at the St. Lawrence again as it rushed below. “And I don’t expect to see Candiac again either.”

    “Melancholy ill becomes you, Monsieur. Especially when you are to meet with the governor.”

    “I suspect he does not hold with omens either.”

    “I do not think I would mention it, Monsieur.”

    “No. I do not think the subject will come up.”



    The governor was waiting for Montcalm and Lévis at the Intendant’s Palace, a rambling old structure in the Lower Town. Regrettably, it meant that the meeting would also include the presence of François Bigot, the intendant of New France. If there was one man in North America whom Montcalm detested more than Vaudreuil, it was Bigot–not just for his scarcely-disguised venality, but for his physical presence.

    Montcalm sometimes thought that he might rather face a concerted cavalry charge than to stand close to Bigot. He suffered from a disfiguring affliction: what was called ozène, a sort of infection of the nose; he was constantly dabbing at it with a lavender-scented handkerchief, but the odor penetrated the cloying perfume. It was unpleasant enough that the Marquis avoided the odious little man as much as possible.

    The Intendant’s Palace was damp and chilly as the two men walked through the entrance. A servant was there to take their hats and walking-sticks and beckon them toward the stairs. Montcalm found Vaudreuil at a large table, with Bigot hovering close by. He could smell the man’s perfume at a distance and did his best not to wrinkle his nose.

    “So good of you to come on short notice, Monsieur,” Vaudreuil said, offering the slightest of bows. “I require your advice.”

    Montcalm looked from the governor to the intendant and back. “On what subject?”

    “There appears to be some sort of panic among the savages. They view the transit of the comet as a particularly evil omen.”

    “It was viewed as an evil omen in London and Paris in 1682, and I am sure each other time it has passed near to the Earth. What of it?”

    “You seem to take the matter lightly, Marquis,” Bigot said, dabbing his nose. “Surely the participation of the natives is critical to our strategy.”



    “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.”

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