Our Empire Story - H. E. Marshall
After Champlain came many rulers. Some of them were strong and brave, others were weak and foolish. All of them had to fight against their deadly enemies the Iroquois; and for many years the story of New France was one of suffering and terror. The hate of the Red Man never rested, and time after time he fell upon the French with savage strength. He swept through the land, leaving behind him a memory of blood and torture.
When the whites first came to Canada, the Indians were as wild and ignorant as our forefathers had been when the Romans first landed upon the shores of Britain. In some ways, indeed, the Red Man was more savage, for the Britons in that far-off time had swords of iron and copper. The Red Man knew nothing of metals. His tomahawk was of stone, the head being fastened to a wooden handle by thongs of leather. His arrow heads were of flint. His greatest treasure was "wampum," that is, beads made of shells. These beads were used for making belts, and a belt of wampum was the grandest present which an Indian could give to any one.
The Indian soon found out that for a few skins he could buy shining steel axes and long, keen knives from the Pale faces. For many skins he could buy the magic sticks which spoke death at great distance. And the Red Man was clever. He learned quickly. Soon he was as good a shot as the white man. Then the rattle and bang of firearms was added to the war-cry of the Indians, and the wonder is that the few white men were not swept from the face of Canada. Indeed, it seemed at times as if it was not the courage of soldiers and settlers, but of the priests, which kept them from being utterly blotted out. Champlain was a very religious man, and many priests had come with him, until Canada had seemed more of a mission than a settlement. The early story of Canada is full of the brave deeds of the "black robes," as the Indians called the priests.
In 1642 Montreal was founded at the place which, A hundred years before, Cartier had called Mount Royal. It was founded, not by traders, but by men with the zeal of saints and the spirit of martyrs. It was founded by men eager to carry the news of the story of Christ to the wild heathen, and both ready and eager to die for the Cross. Some of these brave priests went far into the country, among the tribe called the Hurons, teaching them to be Christian. For many years they lived and worked among them. But the Iroquois, who were the deadly enemies of French and Hurons alike, waged war against these missions. They ravaged and slew, burned and tortured, until the Hurons as a nation were utterly destroyed. The few who remained fled, seeking shelter now with one tribe now with another. But wherever they fled the Iroquois followed, and at last by famine and war, the race was blotted out.
Many of the brave priests found the death of martyrs. Those who were left returned sadly to Quebec, taking with them a few remaining Huron converts. They had worked hard and endured much; and at the end of fifteen years they had nothing to show for all their suffering and struggle.
The Iroquois were fierce, and strong, and treacherous. They cared not what means they used, so long as their enemies were tortured and killed. Now one of the Five Nations pretended that they would be pleased if some of the "black robes" would come to live among them, and teach them as they had taught the Hurons. The French could hardly believe that these fierce enemies really wanted to be taught. But they were glad at the thought of peace, and about fifty brave men, ten only of whom were soldiers, resolved to go and live among the Iroquois.
They were received with much joy. The savages danced and feasted, smoked the pipe of peace, sang songs, and made speeches, and pretended to be so glad that one of the priests said, "If after this they murder us, it will be from changeableness and not from treachery." But he little knew the blackness of the Iroquois heart.
Soon the forest rang with the sound of axe and hammer as the Frenchmen, priest and soldier alike, worked side by side to build their new homes. Meanwhile another of the Five Nations heard what the French priests had done, and they were angry and jealous. In their anger they took to their war-canoes, and paddling down the St. Lawrence to the Isle of Orleans they attacked, killed, and took prisoner, the helpless Hurons who were now living there. Before the town of Quebec the whole river was black with canoes filled with naked savages, howling, dancing, and singing. And as they howled and yelled they taunted the governor, making a great show of their prisoners, who were the white men's friends. And the governor, who was weak and fearful, dared do nothing. He dared not fire a shot to protect his red-skinned friends, lest their savage foes should revenge themselves by attacking the brave priests who had gone to live among the Iroquois. At last, tired of insulting the helpless Frenchmen, and full of scorn and contempt for the white man, the Indians paddled away up the river with their prisoners.
Days and weeks went past; the priests who had gone to live among the Iroquois taught, and worked, and prayed. In the great forest this handful of white men lived alone among the prowling savages, "who came like foxes, fought like lions, and disappeared like birds"—but in their faith they had no fear.
At length, however, dark whispers of treachery came to them. Friendly Indians warned them that the chiefs had met in council, and had vowed to kill them all. The black robes found it hard to believe that the men who treated them with such smiling kindness meant to kill them. But they were not left long in doubt, for a dying Indian, repenting of his treachery, told them all the plot. Every man was to be killed before the spring.
The Frenchmen now knew that they must escape, and that quickly. But how? All day long the Indians strolled about, following their every step, watching their every movement, in make-believe friendliness. At night they slept around the gate of the mission, ready to spring awake at the slightest sound. To try to escape through the forest was impossible. There was but one hope, and that was to cross the lake near which the mission was built and sail down the river to Montreal. But to do this they needed boats, and they had only eight canoes, which were not nearly enough to carry them all.
The Frenchmen were desperate but not hopeless. Over the mission-house there was a large loft. There the Indians seldom came, and there the priests began in secret to build two large boats. They were soon ready. The next thing was to find, or make, a chance to use them.
Among the Frenchmen was a young man of whom the Indian chief had become very fond. One morning he went to the chief pretending to be in great trouble. "I have had a dream, my father," he said. "It has been shown to me by the Great Spirit that I shall certainly die. Nothing can save me but a magic feast."
The Indians believed very much in dreams. They thought that those who did not do as they told them would be sorely punished. So the chief at once replied: "Thou art my son. Thou shalt not die. We shall have a feast, and we shall eat every morsel."
These magic feasts were called Feasts-of-eat-everything. At them each guest was bound to eat all that was set before him. No matter how much he had eaten, no matter how ill he felt, he was bound to go on until the person whose feast it was said he might stop.
As soon as the day was fixed the priests set to work with right good will to make a great feast. They killed their pigs, they brought the nicest things out of their stores, they concocted the most tempting dishes. But the chief thing they thought of was to have a great quantity.
The evening came. Great fires were lit around the mission-house. About them the Indians gathered. First there were games, dances, and songs. One game was to see who should make the most noise by screaming and yelling. The Frenchmen gave a prize to whoever could yell loudest, so that the savages exhausted themselves trying to win the prize. At last, wearied with their efforts, they all sat down in a circle. Great steaming pots were brought from the fires, and each man's wooden basin was filled. As soon as they were empty they were filled again and yet again. The Indians were hungry, and they ate greedily. While they gorged the Frenchmen beat drums, blew trumpets, and sang songs, making as much noise as they could. This they did to cover any strange sound that might come from the shade of the forest to the sharp ears of the savages. For in the darkness, beyond the glare of the firelight, a few white men were straining every muscle to carry the heavy boats unseen and unheard to the lake. With beating hearts and held breath, now stopping fearfully, now hurrying onward, they reached the lake. The boats safely launched.
The hours went on, and still the feast did not end. The gorged savages could eat no more. "Is it not enough?" they cried. "Have pity on us and let us rest."
"Nay," replied the young Frenchman, "you must eat everything. Would you see me die?"
And although the Indians meant to kill him, perhaps the very next day, they still ate on, for this was a magic feast. It had been ordered in a dream by the Great Spirit whom they must obey. Making strange faces, rolling their eyes wildly, choking, gulping, they ate till they could not move.
"That will do," said the young man at last. "You have saved my life. Now you may sleep. And do not rise early to-morrow. Rest till we come to waken you for prayers. Now we will play sweet music to send you to sleep."
Stupid with over-eating, dazed with drink, the savages slept. For a little time one of the Frenchmen played softly on a guitar. Soon loud snores told him that there was no more need of his music, and he crept silently to the boats. Meantime the priests had fastened the doors and windows of the mission-house, and locked the gate in the high fence which surrounded it. Then one by one they glided stealthily to the boats, until the last man was safe aboard.
It was March and still very cold, and now snow began to fall so that their footprints were covered over.
The lake was still lightly frozen over, and as the first boat pushed off men leaned from the bow and broke the ice with hatchets. The rowers pulled with all their strength, forcing the boat through the shattered ice. The second boat followed in its track. Last of all came the canoes. Thus they crossed the lake, and reaching the river were soon carried swiftly down stream. On and on they went through the dark night, fleeing from death, and torture worse than death. When the sun rose, shedding pale wintry gleams on dark forest and swift-flowing stream, they were far away.
All through the night the Indians slept their sleep of gluttony. When late in the morning they awoke they still felt dull and stupid. But at last arousing themselves they found that all around was still and silent. No sound came from the mission-house, no smoke rose from its chimney. What could it mean?
Full of curiosity the Indians pressed their faces against the fence, trying to see through the cracks in the wood. There was nothing to see. A dog barked in the house, a cock crew in the yard. All else was still.
At last, impatient to know what was happening within, the Indians climbed the fence, burst open the door, and entered the house. It was empty.
Great was the anger of the savages, greater still their astonishment. How could the Black Robes have escaped? they asked themselves. They had no boats, so they could not escape by water. There was no trace of them on land so they had not escaped by the forest. There was only one explanation. This was the work of the Great Spirit. The Black Robes and their followers had flown away through the air during the night. And with this thought, fear fell upon the heart of the Red Man.
Meanwhile the Black Robes were speeding on their way down the river. On and on they went, hardly pausing for rest, until a month later they reached Quebec. They were saved, but the mission had been an utter failure.