"I will be generous," said De Roberval. "Free the dog's hands, and let him wave a last adieu to his paramour."
The rusty lock turned, the manacles fell upon the deck, and Claude stood free. But free on an ocean prison, with enemies on all sides! He gave one glance round, met the cruel eyes of Gaillon close behind him, and like a flash plunged headlong into the ocean.
"Shoot the villain down!" shouted De Roberval.
One of the men seized an arquebuse, and levelled it at the struggling form in the water. He pulled the trigger, but no sooner did the powder splutter in the pan than the gun burst in his hands, and a piece of the metal, entering his brain, laid him dead on the deck.
"The demons, the demons!" exclaimed the panic-stricken crew. "The demons claim the swimmer for their own!"
"Let him go!" said De Roberval. "He is too weak to reach the shore. He has saved me the trouble of ending his life, as I should sooner or later have had to do. Now for Charlesbourg Royal. No man will venture to resist my will in future."
The anchor was already raised, and in a few moments L'Heureux began to forge ahead, and to widen the space between her and the accursed island.
As Claude had stood on the poop he was plainly visible to the watchers on the shore. They saw him leap into the sea, and heard the report of the arquebuse. Their hearts stood still with fear: but they strained their eyes eagerly across the dazzling surface of the water. Could he have escaped? Yes, there on the summit of a wave, in the wake of the rapidly retreating vessel, they saw him struggling. He was swimming. He was making for the shore. God help him! Holy Mother help him! Blessed Jesu, guide him and give him strength!
Old Bastienne's sobs had given place to fervent ejaculations of prayer; and as she prayed she held before her the cross which King Francis had bestowed upon De Roberval—the precious relic said to have been fashioned from a fragment of the true cross of our Lord.
Bastienne was a pious soul, and, moreover, a quick-witted one. She had heard the legends of the island, which had passed among the sailors, and when she grasped the fact that they were to be put ashore, she made some excuse to return below, crept into De Roberval's cabin, and stole the precious relic from its case, concealing it carefully in her bodice. No evil spirit could come near the place where this blessed piece of wood might be; with this in their possession they were safe from all the powers of darkness. She now held the cross aloft, believing that it would give the swimmer power to reach the shore.
Weakened by his long imprisonment, his arms almost useless through lack of employment, his strength sapped for want of proper nourishment, De Pontbriand was manfully struggling with the salt, green waves. His head was sinking lower and lower, a deadly numbness was seizing his limbs, and his heart was almost failing him when his half-closed eyes caught the gleam of the golden cross, as the setting sun fell upon it, held high in the air by Bastienne. He made no further effort to swim. A good hundred yards intervened between him and the shore. He must husband his strength. The waves, he knew, would carry him ashore; and with just enough motion in his limbs to keep him afloat, he allowed himself to be borne along. But the northern water was chilling him to the marrow; and although he could plainly see the women on the beach, and could hear their prayers and cries of encouragement, he felt himself sinking, and De Roberval's prophecy seemed about to be realised. When within forty feet of the shore his chilled limbs relaxed, his eyes closed, and he disappeared beneath the surface of the water.
But Bastienne had all her wits about her. In her young days she had plunged into the Somme as joyously as the bravest Picard lads, and old as she was her limbs were still strong and sturdy. Without a moment's hesitation, when she saw Claude's strength leave him, she plunged into the water, struck out boldly in his direction, and, just as he sank from sight, her strong arm grasped him. With all her remaining strength she dragged him after her to the shore, and Marguerite and Marie rushed into the water to their waists to help her with her burden.
Far off in the retreating ship the watchers believed that he had been given a prey to the demons. Passing a headland they came upon a full-grown seal, which slid from the rocks into the sea, presenting to them its half-human face. Believing it to be a demon, they crossed themselves in terror, and as Claude disappeared from their sight they were convinced that it had gone in search of him, and dragged him down into the infernal world.
Meanwhile, Marguerite sat on the shore, with Claude's pale face in her hands, kissing his lips and eyes, and praying the Holy Virgin to restore him, and not to take her last hope from her.
For a time it seemed as if Claude were indeed dead. The women chafed his cold hands, and did all that Bastienne's skill could suggest; but their efforts seemed unavailing, and they had almost abandoned hope, when Marie, searching among the stores, found a case of brandy, and hastened to moisten his lips with the liquor. Soon, to their great joy, the blood began to come back to his cheek, and they could feel his heart beat. At last he opened his eyes like one in a dream, and met those of Marguerite bending over him. The nightmare he had just passed through came back to him—the fearful struggle to reach the shore, the sound of the water in his ears, like the ringing of innumerable bells, the feeling of despair that had come over him as he felt himself sinking. Full consciousness returned to him at the sound of Marguerite's voice exclaiming:
"He lives! O Mary be praised, we are saved!"
Saved indeed, but for what? An island prison in an unfrequented ocean, where years might pass before a ship hove in sight. Night was fast drawing in, and they were shelterless, in a dreary, unknown waste, exposed to they knew not what dangers. They were three helpless women, two of them tenderly nurtured and wholly unused to want or privation; and De Pontbriand was in no condition to be of any assistance. Their position seemed indeed desperate, and Claude cursed the bitter fate which had made him the cause of bringing such misfortune on his beloved.
But old Bastienne came once more to the rescue. Her stolid, peasant endurance and ready Picard wit stood the whole party in good stead. She found a flint and steel—for De Roberval had provided for all necessities—and with the aid of the two girls she collected brushwood and dry branches enough to make a huge fire, the smoke of which, rising high into the air, was visible on the horizon from the departing ship. The sailors fell on their knees in terror at the sight, believing it another proof that the demons were consuming their victims with unquenchable flames.
Bastienne soon had Claude's wet clothes dried, and his strength revived by hot stimulants. Provisions they had in plenty—of the rude fare which was provided on ship-board in those days—and the old woman prepared a hasty meal, of which she forced the two girls to partake. But by this time the darkness had gathered round them, and it was impossible to do anything further that night.
Fortunately, the time of year was a favourable one. The weather was warm, even for June; and the storm which Roberval had predicted seemed to have passed over, for the present at all events. The balmy air and clear sky of a Canadian summer night made the prospect of spending it in the open air a much less terrible one than it would otherwise have been. They kept their fire up all night, as a protection, but they met with no alarms, and were unmolested, save by the insects which swarmed in the air around them, attracted by the light. Claude, worn out by fatigue, slept the deep sleep of exhaustion, and Marguerite spent most of the night watching by his side, while the other two women attended to the fire.
The short June night soon gave place to the ghostly, grey twilight before the dawn; and at last the welcome streaks of colour in the east proclaimed to the weary watchers that daylight was again at hand. Their first night in their island home was over.
The morning broke fair and cloudless, and the little colony of four set about surveying their situation, and exploring their new domain. They found it a wilderness indeed—barren, rocky, almost devoid of vegetation, save for the coarse bracken and juniper bushes which grew in patches, and for an occasional clump of birches, stunted pines, or firs. No sign that any human foot save their own had ever visited it could be discovered: and the only animals they met with were hares in abundance, and foxes, both red and black, which scampered away in terror at their approach, and surveyed them from a distance with bright, timid eyes. Sea-birds in great numbers hovered about the cliffs on the shore, and what most aroused their astonishment and interest, were the solemn, ungainly auks, which had their abodes along the beach. These uncouth and helpless-looking birds, disturbed in their occupation of fishing among the rocky shallows, waddled off in alarm at the approach of the intruders, who were irresistibly moved to laughter at their clumsy movements. No doubt these strange creatures had in part given rise to many a weird tale of the demon inhabitants of the island.
De Pontbriand, whose strength was wonderfully recruited by the long rest and Bastienne's skilful treatment, set about preparing some kind of shelter for the women before another night should descend upon them. His soldiering experiences, and still more his adventures in the wilds of Canada, came to his aid, and he was not long in constructing a sort of rude wigwam, such as he had seen the Indians build wherever they pitched their camps. Fragrant pine boughs made a luxurious couch, and the exhausted girls were glad to throw themselves down and sleep, while Claude kept watch by the fire outside. On the next day, and the two following ones, he employed himself in thatching the primitive dwelling with birch bark and whatever materials he could find which would shed the rain from its sloping sides. For himself, he found a sheltered hollow among the rocks, where neither wind nor rain could affect him greatly, and their stores he disposed among the many similar rocky caverns with which the island abounded.
His preparations were finished none too soon. The clouds which had been hovering about for several days, finally gathered together one afternoon, and rolled in heavy, thunderous masses up out of the southern sky. The air grew dark and sultry, lightning flashed from the depths of the purple cloud-bank; soon the thunder crashed overhead, and the waves lashed themselves in fury against the shore. The storm was upon them in all its might. It was not of long duration, but was followed by a good deal of rain during the night, and the next morning there was a furious gale blowing. The waves rose to such a height that the spray from their crests was dashed over the frail shelter Claude had erected; and he saw that something more permanent and durable must be contrived. Summer would pass, and winter might swoop down upon them out of the desolate north before there was any chance of their being rescued. A dwelling which would be a protection from cold and snow and the biting blasts of a Canadian winter, must be erected. But how? And with what materials? Tools he had in plenty, but how to construct a dwelling out of the stunted and wind-twisted trees, which were all the timber the island afforded, was a conundrum he saw no prospect of solving.
As it happened, however, fortune favoured him. The very next day, as he wandered along a high, rocky part of the shore, he saw in the shallow water at his feet what seemed to be the hull of a vessel. Making his way down the cliff, he found to his delight that such was indeed the case. No doubt these were the remains of that same ill-fated craft which Laurent, the fisherman, had seen disappear beneath the waves. The timbers had been of good oak, and the waves, breaking them asunder as they rolled in from the mighty expanse outside, had washed many of them high and dry on the shore. There was abundance for a hut, and with these, and the help of what trees he could avail himself of, he had hopes of being able to build a more substantial habitation before the cold weather set in.
In the meantime, his strength came rapidly back to him, and in the long, bright summer days and glorious nights, life still seemed to hold possibilities of joy and hope for the little party. They were supplied with the necessaries of life—though they were careful to husband their stores as much as possible; and Claude was able to vary their plain fare by the addition of excellent fish, and an occasional bird—for they were well supplied with fire-arms and ammunition. The hardy, open-air life seemed to agree with the two girls; and all four vied with each other in keeping up a resolute and cheerful courage, avoiding all reference to the terrors the future might hold in store.
In the cove where the sunken brig lay, Claude had made a rude raft, and with the assistance of Marie, whose strong young arms and bright, courageous spirit were invaluable to him, he soon had enough planks and timber transported to the place where they had landed. To get them ashore, and carried to the spot he had selected as being the most sheltered and suitable for his purpose, was no easy matter; but with time, and the united efforts of the whole party, every obstacle was gradually overcome. The building, although a small one, was slow in attaining completion, and for weeks the sound of Claude's hammer and saw disturbed the primeval quiet of the little northern island. The women lent their help in every possible way; and watched with admiration the skilful manner in which Claude provided against every emergency which might befall the little dwelling; none gave a sign of the secret and cherished hope of all their hearts, that they might never need to complete it, or to occupy it when completed.
Thus July and August passed; and towards the end of the latter month the "castle," as Marie had gaily designated it, was at last finished. They transferred themselves and their belongings to its shelter, and, as it happened, only just in time. The weather, as usual about that time of year, suddenly changed, and a fierce gale swept across the island. For three days the rain fell in torrents, and the mad waves rolled higher and higher up the beach, till the spot where their summer shelter had stood was completely covered. The nights, too, became cold and dreary; and the dismal shrieking of the wind through the trees, and the hoarse bellowing of the sea among the crags and caves, had a terrifying effect that made it hard for even the brave spirits of these high-born Frenchwomen to preserve their calm and hopeful bearing.
With the shortening days and autumn winds a sadness crept over the little colony, and would not be shaken off. Its influence was, perhaps, most felt by Marie, though her bright vivaciousness never failed her when the others were present. The lovers could not be wholly unhappy while they had each other. Their future was full of uncertainty, and the present of difficulties and dangers, but at least they were together, and separation had been the bitterest of their trials. With Marie it was necessarily otherwise. She could not but feel herself alone, in a sense which was unknown to the other two; and it became her habit, in the mellow September days, to wander by herself along the shore, often sitting for hours, her hands clasped on her knees, gazing in vain at the distant, empty horizon. She had one companion—a young fox which Claude had caught and tamed for her. The little animal had grown devotedly attached to her, and as it grew older it became her constant attendant in all her rambles. Marguerite could not fail to notice the long absences of her friend, and often went in search of her, and brought her back to join Claude and herself in whatever they might be doing; but Marie was always gay and cheerful with her, and no suspicion of the melancholy that was gradually creeping over her was awakened in Marguerite's heart.
It was upon old Bastienne that the change in the climate began to tell most plainly. The faithful old woman had borne uncomplainingly the hardships which her young mistresses could endure without a murmur; but her old bones had suffered from the exposure to the night dews and damp sea air; with the chill winds of the Autumn she was attacked with rheumatism, and lost the activity and energy which had been of such good service to them all. She suffered much; her moans often kept the two girls awake at night; and even Claude, who had built himself a tiny lean-to on the sheltered side of the "castle," could hear her complainings.
With the first frost of October the leaves took on their short-lived autumn gorgeousness, only to wither and fall, leaving the little island destitute of even its scanty appearance of vegetation. Winter, with its desolating breath, was settling down upon them; and when the first early snows came floating through the air, they realised that long dreary months of suffering lay before them.
But one of them, at least, was to be spared the terrible ordeal.
On a calm, mild day, when the soft, blue haze of October filled the air with its deceptive beauty, Marie had gone to one of her favourite haunts along the cliffs—a lofty point of rock, which they had laughingly christened her "look-out." As she sat there, gazing down at the misty, sleeping sea below, her eye caught the gleam of a cluster of late-blooming wild flowers, the last of the season, on a point of the rock beneath her. A fancy seized her to get it for Marguerite. She reached over, and had it almost in her hand, when a slight movement behind her caused her to start a little, lose her balance, and fall headlong over the beetling cliff. She fell upon the stones below, and lay motionless, while the little fox, whose rustling approach among the dry leaves had caused her hurried movement, stood on the edge above, peering down with astonished curiosity at the silent figure of his merry playmate. The auks and puffins, scared from their rocky perches, plunged into the ocean, and rose at a little distance to look for the reason of the disturbance. Seeing no further cause for alarm they gained courage and gradually returned, and their quaint, ungainly forms stood in wondering groups about the motionless girl, who lay with one arm stretched in the cold water of the bay.
In the meantime her friends were awaiting Marie's return for the mid-day meal. But she came not; and they finally went in search of her, calling her name along the shore, but receiving no answer save the wild cry of the gull as it circled above them, and the weird laugh of the great diver calling to his answering mate. They knew her favourite point of rock, and on reaching it found the little fox still standing on the edge, and looking down. As they approached, it bounded suddenly off, and disappeared among the bushes.
His heart sinking with a vague dread of fresh misfortune, Claude went to the edge of the cliff, and looked over. He saw at once what had happened. The stones at the top were loose and freshly disturbed, and the low shrubs which fringed the rock were crushed and broken. Hastily drawing Marguerite back, and bidding her return at once to the hut and warn Bastienne to get restoratives and blankets in readiness, he hurried round to the base of the cliff. The tide was rapidly rising, and the distance was considerable. With all his haste he was only just in time. As he rounded the projecting spur that formed one side of the bay, the water, which had at first covered only one of Marie's arms, reached her hair, and in a few minutes more must have risen over her face. De Pontbriand drew the bruised and senseless form higher up the rocks, and eagerly felt her heart. There was a faint, slow beating that told him a feeble life still fluttered there. Raising her in his arms he bore her with all possible speed to the hut, where every means that their resources and skill could suggest to restore her to consciousness was tried, and, as it seemed, in vain. At last, as the short October afternoon faded out in a purple haze, and the sad, grey evening closed about them, Marie opened her eyes. She was quite conscious, and seemed to suffer no pain. But the end was evidently close at hand. She spoke but little, and lay very quietly, with Marguerite's hand in hers. Just before it grew too dark for them to see her, she beckoned to Claude to approach, and as he stood beside her couch, she laid Marguerite's hand in his, smiled peacefully as she felt the strong grasp close above it, and, closing her eyes, with head turned a little aside, she passed away so tranquilly that they could not have told when her last breath was drawn.
When they realised that she was indeed dead, their grief had no words. Old Bastienne, at the foot of the couch, recited the prayers for the dead in a voice choked with sobs, and with the tears streaming down her wrinkled cheeks; but Marguerite knelt in silence, dry-eyed, beside the body of her friend, gazing into the quiet, calm face. At last Claude raised her, and, tenderly wrapping a cloak round her, led her from the hut, and down to the beach. They stood in silence, trembling in each other's arms, their hearts too full for speech or tears, while the chill October wind whistled in from the sea, and the gulls and curlews flew screaming about their heads.
That same night, about the hour that Marie breathed her last, Charles de la Pommeraye was riding furiously along the road leading eastward to Paris, where the King was holding a temporary court. He rode all night, and just as the first faint streaks of morning revealed in the distance the grey outline of the towers of Notre Dame, his horse thundered into the sleeping city.
He had had a weary voyage home; what winds there were had been adverse; for nearly a month Cartier's vessels had lain becalmed in mid-ocean; and it was not till the end of August that St Malo, with its towering walls and rugged battlements, was reached.
The three vessels had been joyously welcomed by the Malouins. The merchants who had made large advances to the daring adventurers, in the hope of being recouped from the treasures of the New World, felt a momentary pang at their losses: but private disappointment was forgotten in the public rejoicing at the safe return of their daring and world-famous fellow-townsman, Jacques Cartier.
La Pommeraye found but little pleasure in these festivities. He was possessed by the one idea of seeing Marguerite as soon as possible. Absence had in no way dimmed her image in his mind; fickle and impressionable as he usually was, the best and noblest part of his nature had been awakened by his love for the beautiful girl whom he had met under such unusual circumstances, and of whom he had as yet seen so little. Now that fortune seemed to be favouring him, he cursed every obstacle that kept him an instant longer from her side. At the earliest opportunity he made his escape from the enthusiastic and admiring Malouins; and having disposed of a quantity of rich furs which he had purchased at Tadousac before leaving the St Lawrence, he bought a horse, and set out for Picardy—as the most likely place to hear news of Mdlle. de Roberval, even if he did not find her at the castle.
In order to get away as soon as possible he was obliged to give Cartier the slip. The latter was anxious to proceed at once to court, to report the failure of his attempt to found a colony, and to request permission to return and bring back De Roberval. It would be out of the question, however, to start before the spring, as the season was now so far advanced; and La Pommeraye decided to let Cartier go to court without him, as the winter would give them plenty of time to consider their plans.
He incidentally learned that Roberval had sailed from La Rochelle instead of St Malo, as he had supposed; but the idea that he might have taken his niece with him naturally never entered his head, and no one in St Malo was able to give him any information.
Accordingly, one morning early in September, he mounted his horse and set out on his long ride to the banks of the Somme. It was a long journey; but love let him rest nor day nor night till he had arrived at the end. Nor did he accomplish it without adventure. One morning, about a day's ride from his destination, he met two gay cavaliers, with finely caparisoned horses, speeding on their way to Paris. They saw the dust-stained horse, and dustier rider, and, thinking it would be fine sport to whet their blades on his clumsy sword, bore down upon him.
But they had miscalculated their man; and as the first gallant checked his horse within a few feet of La Pommeraye, his heart grew weak within him as he saw the determined eye and smiling lips of the man he had expected to see turn and flee before him.
"Have at thee, my dainty cock-robin!" said La Pommeraye. "Methinks the smoke from yonder hostel bespeaks a ready breakfast, and I shall do greater justice to the meal after a little exercise. Have at thee!"
The young nobleman grew pale to the lips, but manfully faced the trial he had himself invited. Their horses danced about each other for a few moments, sparks flew from their flashing blades, but the contest was an unequal one. The youth tried hard to reach the breast of his opponent, but his every thrust was met by a determined guard; and when La Pommeraye thought the breathing-time before breakfast had been of sufficient length, he made a few quick passes that the young man's eye could not follow, struck up his antagonist's sword, made a lightning thrust at a broad silver ornament that adorned the gay rider's breast, pushed him from his horse, and laughed a merry laugh as the lad sat up in the dusty road, wondering at his escape. His companion, who had stood by enjoying the contest, heartily joined in the laugh.
"Nobly done!" he exclaimed in admiration, "you handle your sword as if you had been wont to play before King Francis. Henri, thou art not an apt pupil; thou should'st have used thy horse more, and trusted less to thy arms. If Monsieur is not tired with the contest, would he be pleased to measure swords with me? He will find me no mere lad."
"With all the pleasure in life," said Charles, smiling, "But I fear me the bacon at yonder inn will be burnt to a crisp unless I hurry on my way; so draw at once; I have not time to bandy words."
"Have a care, Jules," cried Henri; "he is the Devil."
La Pommeraye caught the name.
"Have I the honour to cross swords with Jules Marchand?" said he. "Your fame is not unknown to me; and were it not for the fact that I am in haste to be at my journey's end, I would fain prolong the fight; as it is, it must be short and sharp."
Like a flash his weapon shot out; like a flash the other met it. But though the swordsman was La Pommeraye's equal in skill, he lacked brawn; and, they had scarce played for a minute's space when Jules Marchand's sword was wrenched from his hand, and he was left sitting, black with wrath, upon his charger, which whinnied as if in recognition of his master's mishap.
"Pardon, gentlemen," said Charles, smiling, "I must not dally longer by the way. Were you not going in the opposite direction, I would invite you to breakfast with me. But beware, hereafter, how you attack lone travellers; were it not that France, now that Spain is once more in arms against her, needs every man who is able to bear a sword, I should have left one of you, at least, by the roadside."
So saying, he waved the two gallants a laughing adieu, and rode away.
"The Devil, or La Pommeraye," said Jules.
"Neither! Too merry for the Devil," answered Henri, "and La Pommeraye, we heard, was killed in Paris."
"Nay," replied Jules, "that report was false. But it is true that he is no longer in France. Guillaume Leblanc saw him on board one of Cartier's ships, making for the New World. I was glad of the tidings, I have to confess. His skill and strength made me dread meeting him; and his departure left me the first swordsman in France; for despite De Roberval's reputation, he was of an old school, and easy to defeat. But now it seems I am but a poor second. But let us to Paris, and find out who this dashing cavalier may be."
La Pommeraye continued his journey, and loitered but little on the way till Picardy was reached. A few of Roberval's retainers were about his castle; and from them he learned that the nobleman had not only gone to the New World himself, but had taken his niece with him.
The news fell on him like a thunderbolt. Thousands of miles of stormy sea lay between him and the face that haunted his dreams. As he thought how near he had been to her in the harbour of St John, his heart bounded madly within him, and his eyeballs beat upon his brain.
But he was not long in planning a course of action. He would hasten to court, and find means of returning to the New World at once. Destruction only could await the colonists, and he shuddered as he thought of the tenderly-nurtured girls exposed to the fierce storms and bitter cold of a Canadian winter.
So his good horse was saddled once more, and the measured beat of its hoofs became swifter and yet swifter as Paris was neared.
Once in the city, he lost no time in presenting a request for an audience with the King, and the announcement of his name, and the nature of his errand, readily gained him admission to Francis' presence.
He found that Cartier had been before him by a few days, and had urged the necessity of recalling Roberval, and the hopelessness of any attempts to colonise the New World. The King had been greatly disappointed by the downfall of all the hopes and brilliant prophecies with which the expedition had started. He had rewarded Cartier's bravery and enterprise with the promise of a patent of nobility, but seemed reluctant to encourage the idea of withdrawing the second detachment of colonists. He was inclined to suspect that jealousy of De Roberval, and disappointment at his own failure, had something to do with Cartier's anxiety to break up a scheme on which his heart had been set a year before. La Pommeraye saw his hopes receding into the distance; his heart sank within him.
"But what thinks the Duke of Guise?" said the King, suddenly, turning to that veteran nobleman, who was now his chief adviser, occupying the place that Anne de Montmorenci had so long filled.
The Duke had been standing silently by during the interview, regarding La Pommeraye with a meditative air.
"Methinks, sire," he answered, "that there is much wisdom in what the young man urges. Already we have cast too much good treasure away in these vain enterprises; and now that Spain needs our utmost attention, we can spare neither men nor money for schemes of foreign colonisation."
"You hear, M. La Pommeraye," said Francis, "what the Duke says; but we had hoped to fill our coffers with the riches of Canada."
"May it please your Majesty," said Charles, "there are no riches there, save a few furs and fish. These might serve to give a St Malo or Rochelle merchant enough wealth to retire on, and provide for his daughters, but would not go very far towards fitting out a battalion. I had had great hopes of the enterprise, but the experiences of last winter have taught me that nothing is to be gained by our struggles to colonise the barren North. The noble fellows who are wasting their lives in that sterile land, with only murderers and robbers as companions, would be far better in France, protecting her shores from foreign invasion."
"There is truth in what you say," answered the King, after a moment's pause. "We are much in need of De Roberval. The Picards worship the 'Little King of Vimeu,' and if he does not return, we fear we shall get but scant funds and few troops from the sturdy men of his province. But what is it that you would have?"
"A ship, Sire," promptly replied La Pommeraye, "manned and provisioned for a voyage to Canada, and permission to Cartier to return in it, and recall Roberval to France."
"Parbleu!" said the King, "a modest request! Well, we will consider the matter, and see what course it will be best to take."
"But, Sire," said Charles, his distress and anxiety getting the better of his diplomacy, "the winter draws near, and unless we start at once we shall not be able to reach Charlesbourg Royal till spring."
As he finished speaking, the Duke of Guise, who had been conversing aside with some one near him during the last few sentences, turned to the King.
"May it please you, Sire," said he, "this mad nephew of mine is desirous of a favour at your hands. It seems he owes his life to this gallant gentleman, and he prays me to entreat you to grant him whatever he requests."
As he spoke, Charles recognised in the gay young cavalier, who now came forward, his discomfited antagonist of the adventure on the road to Picardy.
"We have met before," said he, bowing to La Pommeraye. "Sire, this is none other than the redoubtable swordsman whose deeds have been buzzed through the court for a week—to the lasting chagrin of Jules Marchand. Uncle, if you love me, you owe him a debt of gratitude. That I am not at this moment in heaven, praying for your soul, is due solely to his generosity."
"Nay," interrupted La Pommeraye, "my generosity saved you not; it was the silver star you wore on your breast. I had intended to run you through; but that sparkling bauble caught my eye, and I could not resist the novel experience of tilting at you with my rapier."
A hearty laugh, in which the King joined, rang out from those who stood near, for all knew of the adventure which the mirth-loving Henri of Guise had related with due embellishment.
"We have not had so good a joke since we came to Paris," said Francis, "as that encounter has furnished us. Your doughty deeds deserve a reward. The ship is yours, and Cartier has our permission to go; but we shall not compel him to leave France unless he wishes. And as for manning the vessel, you will have to find some other means, for every son is needed to protect France from our Spanish foes."
So it came about, that at the end of September La Pommeraye found himself once more crossing the Sillon, with power to purchase a ship and start at once to bid Roberval return to France. His first proceeding was to seek out Cartier, and inform him of his successful mission.
He found, however, that the experienced and wary seaman was not to be persuaded into undertaking the voyage before the spring. He displayed small warmth over the concessions of the King; and declared that, owing to the unforeseen delays which had retarded them on the voyage home, it was now so late that it would be madness to attempt to cross the ocean before the winter set in.
"In any case," he said, "De Roberval cannot do otherwise than we have done. This winter will prove to them that their efforts are in vain; they will be forced to return in the spring."
"But," said La Pommeraye, "think of the noble women with them! The winter will kill them!"
"I did not know they were with Roberval," said Cartier. "I supposed he would have had the good sense to leave them behind."
"I have been in Picardy and in Paris," returned Charles, "and I have learned beyond a doubt that they went with him. We must reach them at once, or the scurvy, cold, or Indians will surely destroy them."
"We shall have to trust to Providence till spring, at all events," replied Cartier. "We could not reach the Gulf of St Lawrence before the ice makes. It would be October before we should get under way, and you remember the Hochelaga was bridged just one month later last year. No vessel need hope to make the arduous journey across the Atlantic in less than six weeks."
La Pommeraye, in his impulsiveness, had not thought of this; and as the truth of the sailor's words flashed upon him, he felt that his friends were doomed.
He accepted the inevitable with what stoicism he could, and unable to stay in St Malo, he returned to Paris to fill up his time as best he might until spring arrived. But the gay life about the court had no fascination for him. Dice and the wine-cup failed to attract him, and women marvelled at the handsome young Hercules who displayed such indifference to all their charms. Excitement of a manlier sort he must have; and although there were no battles of any great importance to be fought, the frontier engagements gave abundant opportunity for such swords as his. His old renown soon returned to him; and tales of his wondrous daring found their way to Fontainebleau, to be marvellously enlarged on by his staunch friend and admirer, Henri of Guise.
But he never swerved from his purpose, and as soon as the March sun began to warm the soil, he turned his horse's head towards St Malo.
On his arrival there, he found to his surprise that Cartier was no more enthusiastic over the expedition than he had been in the autumn. That insatiable wanderer seemed at last to have had enough of adventures by sea and land. He had received his patent of nobility from the King, and since the sufferings and discouragements of his last voyage, the prospect of comfort and honours in France seemed to hold more inducements for him than the idea of once more facing the dangers of the deep. His limbs were not so sturdy as of old, his eye had lost something of its keenness, and the hardships and anxieties of the last winter had left their mark upon him. He had money enough to support him to the end of his days, and he had purchased the seignorial mansion of Limoilou—that ancient stone house which is still pointed out with pride by the Malouins as the residence of their great sailor. When Charles arrived, he was just about to instal himself and his family in his new abode.
He was willing to sell him his good ship, L'Emerillon, and to do all in his power to further the success of his efforts, but he was so evidently reluctant to tear himself away once more from the peaceful home, whose comfort he was only beginning to appreciate, that Charles resolved not to keep him to the letter of his promise, but to undertake the voyage alone. A capable sailing-master, Gaspard Girouard, was found, L'Emerillon was soon fitted out; and as she was ostensibly merely going to Canada to bring back a load of furs, more hardy seamen than were necessary flocked to join her on her voyage.
The April breezes wafted them across the Atlantic without mishap. They intended to take the southern passage, but a savage spring gale blew them far out of their course, and they steered away for the Straits of Belle Isle. The sailors saw, as they skirted the Newfoundland coast, a distant rocky island on the horizon. As Charles gazed upon it he noticed smoke curling upwards.
"What strange places," he said, turning to Girouard, "these naked savages select to abide in! I have wandered much in the wilds of Canada, but never came on a place that seemed too desolate for them."
"No savages make those fires," said an old sailor who was standing by. "Yonder is the smoke of hell. That is the Isle of Demons."
La Pommeraye laughed at the absurd superstition, and kept his eye fixed on the distant point of land with the column of smoke, which seemed to grow larger with each moment. But darkness soon fell upon the ocean, and the dim outline of the island at last faded from his view.
Had he but known! That smoke was a signal from the weary watchers on the island, who, on one of the unhappiest and saddest days of their desolate lives, saw in that distant sail hopes of release from their cruel prison. Eagerly they heaped up a huge fire to attract the passing craft, little thinking that it was in search of them that she was speeding on her white-winged way.
In a few days L'Emerillon had passed from the Bay of St Lawrence into the river of Hochelaga. A favouring wind bore her on past the deep, black mouth of the Saguenay, and soon the Isle of Bacchus was spread before the sailors' weary eyes, green, beautiful, and fresh, with the high Falls of Montmorenci leaping wildly down on the opposite shore. On to Charlesbourg Royal they sailed; and a horrible dread seized La Pommeraye as he approached the place. A dead silence reigned on the steep banks of the broad river. A substantial structure now stood where Cartier had had his rude fort, and its two towers loomed up before the eyes of the Frenchmen. Other buildings could be seen here and there, but no living soul appeared in sight; and in the anchorage, where he had looked for the ships of the colonists, not even a canoe could be seen. Could they have grown tired of the life here, and started further up the stream—to Hochelaga, perhaps? But no time was to be lost. When the silent shore was within a stone's throw the anchor was run out, and the vessel rested from her long journey. A boat was lowered, and La Pommeraye went on shore and explored the castle-like structure that crowned the heights, the empty halls and chambers, the gaping shelves and bins in the storehouses, the deep and vacant cellars, the great ovens, and the two silent watermills, all told him of the hopes which had filled the heart of De Roberval. Everything had been carefully removed from the place, and there were evident traces of Indians; but as there were no marks of a struggle, and no dead to be seen, Charles concluded that they had merely visited the place to pick up whatever the whites had chanced to leave behind.
A rude plot of ground, with several new-made graves, told him that King Death had visited the young colony, and the high gallows in the square hinted that the stern-willed nobleman had helped the cold and scurvy to lessen the population.
Charles would not return without making sure that his friends had left the New World, and so, after a fruitless search for natives, who seemed to have betaken themselves to better hunting-grounds, he boarded his ship, weighed anchor, and rested not till he was within the shadow of Mont Royal. Here he met a chieftain, Agona by name, whom he had formerly known, and who had taken the place of old Donnacona. From him he learned of De Roberval's sufferings and failure. He could learn nothing definite about Claude or Marguerite, but as there had been other noblemen in the colony, he did not so much wonder at that. But there was no doubt that they had all departed. His journey had been in vain; and with a heavy heart he set about retracing once more all those weary miles which lay between him and the woman he loved.
Having left his niece and her companions on the Isle of Demons, Roberval had steered his course for the Hochelaga, and about the middle of June the rocky heights of Stadacona loomed up before him. His tyrannical severity on the voyage had made all his men stand in awe of him, and his lightest word of reproof would make the most dogged villain on his vessel tremble for his neck. All were indeed glad when the anchors were dropped off Cap Rouge, and none more so than Roberval himself.
The narrow limits of his vessel's deck had preyed upon his ambitious spirit; and the horrors of the voyage, caused by his own self-will and stubbornness, stood before him like a nightmare. Scarcely had the Isle of Demons sunk from sight on the horizon, when his conscience began to prick him; and he would have returned for the women whom he had set on shore, but he feared lest his followers should think that there was in him the milk of human kindness.
Most of all he dreaded Gaillon. He knew that he had placed himself to a certain extent at the man's mercy, and that fact alone was enough to awaken in him a deadly hatred of the cringing scoundrel, who dogged his footsteps like a shadow. He resolved to get rid of him at the earliest possible moment; and yet he dreaded to take any steps towards removing him. He remembered the sudden and mysterious death of the young Picard sailor; he remembered also Gaillon's offer to rid him silently and surely of all his enemies. The man was a poisoner, a demon who worked in the dark, without soul, without honour. On board ship Roberval felt more or less assured of safety; but as his destination drew nigh he made up his mind that, once on land, Gaillon must be put out of the way, or he would not be free one moment from the terror of assassination.
Gaillon himself was quick to divine all that passed in Roberval's mind. His vigilant eye took notice of the slightest signs which revealed the nobleman's attitude towards him; but no change in his own manner and bearing could have been observed, except that he was, if possible, more servile and obsequious than ever.
Matters were in this state when the vessels passed up the Hochelaga, and the towering heights of Stadacona loomed up, majestic and strong, before them. De Roberval's quick eye noted at once what a magnificent place this would be for headquarters for his colony; but as he skirted the high cliffs, a shower of flint-headed arrows fell on his deck, and warned him that the red men welcomed him as an enemy. To terrify them, he sent a broadside from his guns against the huge natural fortress, which re-echoed with the unwonted sound, and the frightened Indians fled far inland to escape the unusual thunder.
At Charlesbourg Royal the French landed without opposition. Busy hands soon made habitable the rude dwellings which Cartier had left; from the first streaks of dawn till the sun sank behind the hills of the St Lawrence, the shouts of men, the singing of saws, and the clanging of hammers resounded over the broad river. A somewhat pretentious village rose on the heights; and in the centre of it, in place of the flimsy structure designed by Cartier as a gallows, stood a strong, black erection, ominously awaiting a victim.
It had not to wait long. The more devoted and cringing Gaillon became, the more did Roberval's uneasiness and distrust of him increase. Anxiety and remorse had actually disturbed the balance of the nobleman's mind. He realised that he was not himself, but felt convinced that he could never regain his self-control, or know a moment's peace of mind, till he had got rid of the vile wretch whom he had in a manner taken into his confidence, and who haunted his sleeping and waking hours. Chance placed an opportunity in his way.
Although the colonists had brought plenty of powder and ball with them, they were ill provided with food for a protracted season. They had expected that Cartier would have an abundant crop growing round his establishment, but they found that he had not even broken the soil that year. They found, too, that the Indians held aloof, and would do naught to help them. The few stragglers whom they could attract by "firewater," had no stores of food, as they were too inert to till the soil, and depended merely on game and fish; feasting while it was abundant, and starving when it was scarce.
Roberval was a man of shrewd foresight. He carefully gauged his supplies, and saw just how much could be allowed each man to carry him through the long autumn and winter months; then he sent forth an order that any man taking more than his allowance would meet with severe punishment. Shortly after the order had been issued, it was discovered that some one had entered the stores by night, and taken a quantity of provisions. A watch was secretly set, and a few nights afterwards the thief was caught, and proved to be no other than Gaillon.
Seeing the direction Roberval's thoughts were taking, and that his schemes for advancement were hopeless, the man had resolved to desert the colony; and to that end had begun to secrete a supply of food sufficient to support him till he could join one of the wandering bands of Indians further up the country. He was brought before Roberval, who immediately ordered him to the gallows. The wretch fell on his knees, but Roberval was deaf to entreaties and curses alike.
"To the gallows with him!" he repeated. "We are well rid of such a villain."
Gaillon's character was well known, and no one pitied his fate. Scarcely a man in the colony did not breathe more freely when he knew that it was beyond his power to work any further mischief; but they shuddered as they looked upon his dangling form, and wondered who next among them would meet a similar fate.
In the meantime, De Roberval had not forgotten his promise to return for his niece. But he had greatly miscalculated the distance and the time it would take a ship to go and return. In the present condition of the colony it would be utterly out of the question for him to be absent in person for so long a period. He had no difficulty, however, in finding one or two of the young noblemen who were willing to undertake the expedition; but an obstacle presented itself on which he had not counted. Not a man among the sailors could be found who was willing to return to the dreaded spot. Threats, commands, persuasions were alike in vain; no power on earth could have induced the crews to venture near the place where they had seen with their own eyes the flames of hell, and the demons hastening to claim their victims.
Roberval dared not attempt force. Able-bodied seamen were too few and too precious to risk the loss of even one. He was obliged to give up the attempt, and to resign himself to all the horrors of remorse. Whatever he may have felt he kept it to himself, and no man dared open his lips on the subject.
Winter set in, and proved a terrible one for the inhabitants of Charlesbourg Royal. They suffered keenly from the cold; and their miseries were greatly increased by the scarcity of food. Few dared go beyond the walls to seek supplies, as the prowling savages were ever ready to cut them off. They lived, too, in constant dread of De Roberval's iron rule; and for the slightest offences they were brought to the whipping-post, cast into the guardhouse, chained hand and foot, or led shivering to the gallows. Scurvy, too, broke out, and no Indian could be found to direct them to the tree whose virtues had once saved the remnants of Cartier's crew. They fell like the brown leaves before the frosts of autumn; and the feeble arms of their suffering and half-starved comrades made the walls resound with the dull thud of the pick, as they almost daily cut into the hard, frozen ground, to make ready graves. Those of gentler blood had nearly all succumbed, and no priest was left to give the last rites to the dead. When spring came, almost half the colony had disappeared, and those who survived were naught but living skeletons.
When the ice had left the river, and the snows the land, Roberval determined to make an effort to explore the great inland seas which had been depicted on Cartier's map, and if possible to find the spot where the nugget of gold had been discovered. But he had no idea of the distances in this vast continent; and after a month's struggling up turbulent rivers, and over rugged stretches where the foot of white man had never before trod, he returned disheartened to his settlement. Here he found that the men he had left in charge had been taking advantage of his absence to hold high revels, and the wildest confusion reigned in the fort. Disgusted and hopeless, he resolved to break up his colony and return to France, his ambition thwarted, his hopes rudely shattered, and his dreams of glory and renown in the New World faded into nothing but bitter memories and unvailing regrets.
As he sailed down the Gulf of St Lawrence with the handful of men who were left to him, he resolved to make one more effort to return to the Isle of Demons, and learn, at any rate, what he could of the fate of the three women—though he had no thought of the possibility that they might have survived. But when the crew learned whither they were bound, they rose in a body and mutinied. A few of those on board stood by Roberval in his resolve, but they were overborne, some of them struck down; and De Roberval, seeing his own life in danger, ordered Jehan Alfonse, who had returned to his allegiance, a sadder and a wiser man—like his commander—to steer away for France.
And thus, while Charles skirted the north of Newfoundland, De Roberval was leaving the mouth of the Hochelaga; and, sailing westward past the island of Cape Breton, kept on his steady way across the ocean.
On his arrival at La Rochelle, he let the mutineers go unmolested, fearing lest the story of his niece might be noised abroad. When he returned to court he reported that both girls had died in the New World. Rumours of the truth went up and down the land; but the court and the Church were silent, for the King stood in need of De Roberval. The high esteem in which he was held led all who learned the tale to believe that if he had been cruel, his cruelty must have been but the just punishment of guilt; and for the sake of the ancient and honourable name of his house, no one dared ask him any questions.
De Roberval threw himself and all his energies into the new war which was in progress, and in the clash of arms and the excitement of battle tried to drown the nightmare conscience that gave him no rest by night or day.
In the meantime La Pommeraye had arrived at Charlesbourg Royal with the results already narrated. His buoyant nature sank in despair when he became convinced that he and the nobleman had passed each other on the broad Atlantic. He had come three thousand miles over dangerous seas to look upon Marguerite, and now he must re-travel the same weary distance alone. He bade adieu to Agona, who would have had the fair giant stay with him, and accompany him and his tribe far past the "leaping waters," as they called the rapids at Lachine, for he had planned a great hunting expedition to the inland seas. La Pommeraye would fain have gone with him, but even though he thought Marguerite safe in France, he could not bring himself to stay away from where she was an hour longer than he could help.
So he sailed down the Hochelaga; and as he wished to bring some return for his voyage back to France with him, he turned his vessel's head towards the Saguenay, intending to get a supply of furs from the Indians of that deep, dark river. The rocky heights, based with rolling stretches of barren sand, soon rose before him. Far up, he saw the granite bluffs rising step above step, and he had a strong desire to follow where they might lead; but Marguerite drew him away. Fortunately a cluster of wigwams studded the shores about Tadousac, and La Pommeraye, who had spent a month in that region, with these very tribes, had little trouble in loading his vessel, at small cost, with a valuable cargo of furs. From these Indians, too, he heard tales of Roberval's colony; and as they related in their grave, stoical way the sufferings the French had endured, and the number of men who had fallen beneath the iron hand of De Roberval, his heart was moved with pity for his fellow-countrymen. Of Claude and Marguerite he could learn nothing. According to the Indians' accounts no women at all answering to Charles' descriptions had been with De Roberval; and several Montagnais warriors, who had known Claude when he crossed with Cartier in 1535, and who well remembered the reserved, dark-eyed young Frenchman, declared that he, too, had not been at the colony.
This news greatly troubled Charles, and as soon as his vessel was well loaded, clapping on all sail, he once more sped on his way across the great northern ocean, which had now lost all its terrors for him.
It was September before his ship reached St Malo, and, after leaving her in the hands of the merchants who had put money into the enterprise, he hurried to Cartier, who was in Paris on business, and laid before him all he had seen and heard.
Cartier had more than a suspicion of the reasons which had induced Charles first to come back to France, and then to be in such mad haste to return to Canada. He was a shrewd observer, and had drawn his own conclusions, but discreetly kept them to himself. He now stood looking at his stalwart, handsome young friend and fellow-voyager with a great pity at his heart, and wondered how he could break to him the news of the rumours he had heard.
"La Pommeraye," he said at last, "my arm is not as strong as it once was, or I should be more than tempted to strike a blow at a man whom we once called friend."
"Whom do you mean?" cried Charles, a vague anxiety roused within him at the sight of Cartier's face.
"I mean De Roberval."
"Why, what has he done? Is there bad news? Tell me at once, I beg of you! What have you heard?"
"I do not know what he has done. I have seen no one since his return who was with him at Charlesbourg Royal; but it is rumoured in Paris that neither Mdlle. de Roberval nor Claude de Pontbriand ever reached Canada."
For the first time, as he heard those two names coupled together, a dawning suspicion of the truth rose in La Pommeraye's mind, only to be swallowed up in the undefined and horrible fear suggested by Cartier's final words. He rose, with a face like death, and laid his hand on Cartier's arm.
"Tell me at once what you mean!" he said.
"I know nothing accurately. The only thing certain is, that they did not return with him. I have heard wild tales, with I know not how much truth in them, that he put his niece and her companion ashore at Cape Breton or Newfoundland, and that De Pontbriand, who could not prevent his dastardly act, threw himself into the sea, and tried to swim to the shore, but sank ere he reached it."
Charles swore a great and fearful oath. Then he walked over to the window, and stood with his back to Cartier, looking out into the street. When he turned round, his face was twenty years older.
"Where is he?" was all he said.
"Act not rashly," said Cartier gently. "It may be mere rumour. I have tried to verify the tale, but each time I have heard it, it has been from some one who was never out of France, and it has been told with so many variations that I have begun to hope that, after all, it has but a very small foundation in fact."
"I have known that all was not right," replied Charles, "ever since I left the Indians at Tadousac. Tell me at once where De Roberval is! I leave no stone unturned till I have found out the truth. Would to God I had killed him that night on the Sillon!"
"The last I heard of him was that he was in Picardy," returned Cartier. "But if there is any truth in the story, you are not likely to hear it from his lips. He landed in Rochelle. Some of his crew are likely to be found in that town; and, at all events, you will be able to trace some of them, and learn the facts before you do anything further."
The advice was undoubtedly wise; nothing could be gained by confronting Roberval with vague accusations. Without a moment's loss of time La Pommeraye hastened to La Rochelle; but he could find no trace of any one who had been with Roberval. The sailors had all gone to sea again; and those of the colonists who were not already in prison once more were on their way to the seat of war. To the front also had gone the one or two gentlemen who were known to have returned from the ill-fated expedition. Strange as it may seem, Charles could obtain absolutely no more definite information than the vague reports which he had already heard.
He learned that Roberval had taken a number of his men back to Picardy with him, and was there doing yeoman service for King Francis. La Pommeraye had done enough travelling in the past few weeks to exhaust a man of ordinary strength; but he seemed incapable of fatigue. Once more his horse was saddled, and once more he set off on the familiar road to Picardy. The long journey was at last accomplished, and he arrived at the castle as the bleak November winds were sweeping across the land from the English Channel. Roberval was with a small army five miles away; but La Pommeraye recognised in one of the servants, Etienne Brule by name, the man who had escaped uninjured from the famous encounter with Pamphilo de Narvaez, and who had ever afterwards regarded La Pommeraye as a being of a supernatural order. This man had been with De Roberval on his voyage, and from him, after an hour's cross-questioning, La Pommeraye at last elicited the truth. The remembrance of the horrors through which he had passed, and his terror of De Roberval's wrath if it were discovered that he had related the story of the desertion of Marguerite, seemed to have muddled the poor fellow's wits, and his tale was wild and incoherent. But he stuck manfully to his assertion that he had seen Claude reach the shore.
"The others laughed me to scorn," he said, "and some went so far as to say that they saw the demons drag him down, but I know better. My eyesight is stronger than theirs, and I saw him rescued and dragged ashore by the women. But Monsieur will not speak to the Sieur de Roberval of these things? He foams at the mouth if his niece's name is so much as mentioned; and he would kill me if he found that I had told you about her."
Charles heeded not the man's words. Before his eyes he saw a great pillar of smoke rising up and spreading far over the ocean; he saw his pilot seize the helm and steer away from the dreaded spot. As the vision rose before him he cried aloud in the bitterness of his heart, "O God! Thou art too cruel, too cruel!"
It was a sad duty that Bastienne and Marguerite had to perform when they made Marie's poor broken body ready for burial. And while they toiled with loving hands within the hut, Claude worked as best he could to prepare a rude coffin from some of the planks which had remained after the building of their dwelling. Each blow of his hammer went to the hearts of the women, from whom this sad calamity seemed to have taken the last ray of hope.
By the evening of the day which followed her death all was ready, and Claude, with an aching heart, dug a grave in the level, grassy sod, just back of the cliff from which she had fallen. All completed, he returned to the hut, and the three watched silently by their dead till morning broke upon them. Shivering in body and mind, they made ready to carry her remains to their island grave, while the wild sea-birds, which flew screaming in the face of the coming storm, seemed, to their saddened hearts, to wail of human impotence.
Bastienne and Marguerite took the head of the coffin between them, while Claude carried the foot, and the mournful little procession left the hut, and climbed the hill on which the grave had been dug. Slowly their burden was lowered into the shallow earth; and, holding the crucifix above it, they offered up prayers for the rest of the soul which had been so suddenly snatched from among them. It was hard to cast the first spadeful of earth upon the coffin. As each pebble struck the lid, it seemed to them as if Marie must feel the blows. But the bitter duty was at last at an end, the last stone was placed on the rude monument which marked Marie's resting-place, and sadly they turned to leave the spot.
The storm had been steadily increasing, and now the mad waves lashed and rolled like mighty, moving mountains upon the shore. The far-thrown spray fell in torrents about their hut. They were chilled to the bone, and sat shivering all day about the great log fire which burned in their huge, out-of-door fireplace. At last the fury of the gale drove them indoors, and all three sat huddled in their blankets, unable to keep warm.
This was but the prelude to winter. But before that dread season settled down in all its northern fierceness, they were to know a few days of happy respite. Next morning the storm had abated, and a bright sun gleamed across the long, smooth rollers that still swept in upon the shore. There was a strange feeling of summer in the air, and Claude, who remembered his experiences at Quebec, when with Cartier on his second voyage, knew that the "Indian Summer," the time set apart by the red men to make their final preparations for winter, was upon them. For a week the warm sun shone through the mellow haze, and for a week, from morning till night, all three toiled to lay an abundant store of firewood about their hut. It was well that they had this work to occupy their time, for the heap of stones, marking the spot where their dead companion lay, weighed upon their spirits. By the end of the week their little hut was almost hidden from view by the great piles of wood they had gathered, and the ringing blows of Claude's axe ceased.
He had not been wrong; it was but a short respite. Scarcely had they finished their preparations when a raw, penetrating wind, that seemed to separate the flesh from the bone, blew down from the north. The birds had now all gone, except the hardier northern ones. Their songs had ceased; naught was heard but the sound of the restless waves, which kept up an eternal moaning, the soughing of the pines, and the wild shrieks of the sea-birds, whose cries seemed to grow drearier with the approach of winter—modulated, as it were, to the weird north wind.
The three were now forced to remain inside their hut, but the great fire which burned at the door gave them no warmth. There was but one course to follow; a fire must be made within the hut. Claude had long dreaded this inevitable thing, and had put off the evil day while he could. He had been in the huts of the Montagnais, at Tadousac, during the depth of winter, and had seen those shivering savages, half blind with the smoke, crouching about a fire in the centre of their hut, while the smoke, after circling their abode, found its way out through an opening cut in the roof. But as winter drew nearer, he could only imitate the red men; and, with great reluctance, he began to build a fireplace inside their dwelling. The task completed, with saw and axe he cut an aperture above it, and, piling a heap of branches on the stones, set fire to them. The lurid flames for a moment brightened the interior; but soon, half blinded, the women rushed choking into the open air, while the smoke curled upwards, and the warm fire glowed within. There was nothing else to do; they must become accustomed to the discomfort; and, driven in by the cold, they crowded about the blaze. Claude could not but feel how soon such a life must make them even as the red men. Their eyes grew weak and bloodshot; poor old Bastienne became almost blind, and soon could only grope her way about the hut.
Winter in Canada is now a delightful season for those who have the means to resist its fiercer aspects, and can battle with and conquer it. The keen, bracing air, that makes the blood tingle in the veins, and the roses come to the cheek, calls out the latent energy of the Canadian; but even now, for the poor, winter is a source of dread; the savage still sees its approach with terror, and the sick, shut off from the clear air of heaven, pray for its flight. In those early times it was a season to be dreaded by all alike, even along the banks of the broad Hochelaga; but none can conceive, save those who have experienced them, the awful horrors of a winter spent far north on a lonely island in the Atlantic. The cold ceased not, day or night; the wind kept up a continual moaning; the mighty sea swept in with long green rollers, smashed the ice that made about the shores, and heaped it in great, glittering grinding piles upon the beach. The hungry animals prowled about the hut, and fought over the bones which were cast out to them. The hares had changed their coats, and now bounded snow-white across the snow-covered ground. They were dainty eating, and Claude's arquebuse cracked through the woods on the short winter days, as he kept the larder stocked with food—a welcome change after the salt beef which had been set ashore with the women.
Bastienne and Marguerite found some relief from the terrible loneliness which brooded over the island by working, when the light permitted, over their wardrobe and Claude's. They had abundance of clothing for themselves, but Claude had nothing but the garb in which he had swum ashore. The two women contrived, by taking to pieces some of the stoutest of their own outdoor garments, to patch him up a homely suit. Rough, indeed, it was, and Claude felt like the King's jester when he put it on; but no gay gallants of France were there to see him, and he was even able to smile at the sorry figure he cut.
If ever man prayed for winter to end, it was he. He saw that it was killing the two women, and the sharp pains in his own breast warned him that the bitter, piercing winds had done their work, and that unless relief came soon, he must succumb.
Old Bastienne was the greatest sufferer. Age was beginning to tell upon her; and she, who had been as strong as a horse, now became weak as a child. She went stumbling about her daily tasks. To save "her children," as she called the other two, she exposed herself to the cold and storm; and although Claude begged her not to do work beyond her strength, she would, when he was absent, take his axe and break the logs for the fire, or wade through great drifts of snow to the spring which bubbled, sweet, and fresh, and living, in this land of gloom and death.
The fire in the hut was never allowed to burn out; and towards spring the three were hardly recognisable, so black had they become with the smoke and the fierce blaze of the fire, about which they sat during the long, cold evenings, and often through entire days, when five minutes in the open air would have frozen any exposed parts of their bodies.
But the dull monotony of this ice, and snow, and frost could not last for ever. In early March a faint feeling of spring was perceptible in the air; the sea sounded less dread; the birds' cries lost some of their harshness; and before the end of the month they were aroused by a cheery "Pip, pip, pop!" oft and vigorously repeated from the top of their hut. They knew the cry. It was the first robin. Spring was come at last. They went to the door, almost expecting to see the bare ground, and to hear the rustling leaves. But a full foot of snow buried the whole island beneath it; and a winter chill was still in the air, despite the robin's whistle and the warm sun.
The robin was an old friend. He had been the last bird to leave in the autumn, and, when he saw them, he saucily flew to his accustomed feeding-place, expecting his morning meal. Nor was he disappointed. Day by day they delighted his heart with finely-crushed crumbs of the hard biscuit De Roberval had put on shore with them. Though he came early, spring seemed still far away. No other birds returned for several weeks, not even the mate of this red-breasted fore-runner of summer. Possibly she had been lost on the stormy trip from the mainland; or possibly he had merely been sent ahead as a sentinel to spy out the land, and see if it were fit for its summer residents.
April crept slowly by, and towards the end a few plaintive-voiced sparrows added their songs to the vigorous, self-confident notes of the robin. Soon the whole island one morning burst into song, and spring was indeed with them. The snow had vanished, save in the hollows and in the shaded spots, and the grass here and there began to take on the fresh, living green which rejoiced their hearts.
But spring was to bring small joy to them. Faithful old Bastienne grew weaker day by day. Claude and Marguerite were filled with pity as they saw her sitting, helpless and dejected, on the rude seat near the outdoor fireplace. She could scarcely walk, and the hollow, choking cough, which sounded like a death-knell in their ears, told them she had not long to live. They dreaded seeing her pine and die before their eyes, while they were powerless to help her.
But the gods were kinder to them all than they had anticipated. Coming back one day early in May from a long ramble through the woods, where they had gathered a profusion of wild flowers, Claude and Marguerite found the old servant stretched lifeless on the slope before the door of the hut. She had fallen forward on her face from her accustomed seat near the fire, and was quite dead. There were no marks of suffering upon her features; her end had seemingly been as peaceful as it was sudden, and her spirit had, doubtless, wandered back to the sunny slopes of the Somme, and the broad fields and blooming orchards of her beloved Picardy.
They laid her body to rest beside Marie's, and the faithful old peasant and the daughter of a noble slept side by side—equal in death.
The task completed, the two who were left wandered hand in hand in silence about their lonely island, while on every side the birds fluted joyously, and all Nature rejoiced in the beauty of the spring—unheeding the presence of death.
As Claude gazed longingly over the wide, green waters, far off he noticed a tiny speck, which, at first, seemed like the top of an iceberg. Nearer it came, till it grew definite, and he saw, clearly outlined against the sky, a vessel under full sail, steering towards the straits of Belle Isle. It was the first ship they had seen, and they rushed to their fire, and heaped it high with loads of dry boughs until the flames shot into the air, and the smoke curled upwards in a mighty column, and then spread over the ocean. They hoped to see the vessel change her course and bear down upon their island. But their hopes were in vain. She kept steadily on her way, and before night fell she had vanished from their sight on the horizon.
On the high poop of the ship La Pommeraye paced with rapid, nervous step. Land was in sight at last; he would soon be in the St Lawrence, and with Marguerite. So he thought; while they prayed that the unknown vessel might come a little nearer so that they might hail it.
As the ship passed away, Claude, in his despair, called on God to curse the tyrant who had brought this suffering upon them; and, while he prayed far away in Charlesbourg Royal, Roberval, on the eve of departure, had six of his men stripped to the waist, lined up in the square, and flogged till the blood streamed down their backs. The next morning his ships were bearing away for the Old World, his hopes broken, and his heart within him more savage than ever.
After the awful disappointment Claude and Marguerite experienced when they saw the vessel of their hopes sink out of sight, they could only turn to each other for silent comfort. Unconscious of whither they went, their feet led them to the top of the high cliff from which Marie had fallen. Trembling on the dizzy verge, each seemed to read what was in the other's mind. A leap, sudden darkness, and all would end. The next world—what of that? Could there be another world as cruel as this?
"Come away!" they exclaimed together, clutching each other's hands. "Come away! Not yet!" And in these words each knew that the other realised that death—the death which for a moment they had courted—was all they could hope for. The ship which had passed was but a chance vessel; the fishermen never came so far north. Their provisions were beginning to run low; and the rigorous climate which had killed poor old Bastienne must in time sap their young strength. Claude was feeling its influence the more keenly. His wounds had left him less robust than of old, and the harsh treatment he had received at De Roberval's hands had helped to shatter his iron constitution. His cheek, once ruddy with health, had grown thin and pale; his limbs were shrunken, and his hands, once so strong and sinewy, had become cold and nerveless. When Marguerite rested hers in them, she could not but feel that for him death was not very far off; but she dared not speak. She saw he did not realise it, and his eye was ever filled with pity for her suffering.
With her it was otherwise. Her will bore her nobly up. Instead of losing strength, she grew more robust. Her step became as light and wiry as that of the fleet-footed fox which stole silently about the island. Her arms, which had never exerted themselves beyond bending a bow in sport, could now wield the axe as skilfully as Claude's. She had lost none of her beauty, but in her rough garb, browned by the sun and wind and sea, she seemed, in Claude's eyes, queenlier than ever. On this night, as she leaned upon Claude's arm, each felt that the strength to endure must come from her, though neither allowed the thought to form itself into words.
When they reached their hut, the terrible loneliness, the blank left by the death of their devoted old companion, so weighed upon them that they once more sought the beach, where the long waves rolled in and broke at their feet, keeping time, in their melancholy rush and retreat, with the ever-recurring wave of sorrow in their young hearts.
"Marguerite," Claude said, pressing her tenderly to him, "this is more than I can bear. You do not blame me, but I know that I am to blame. I knew your uncle, and I should never have allowed myself to bring you to this."
"Hush, dear, you are mad to speak so! Neither of us is to blame. No one could have foretold the lengths to which my uncle's stubborn will would carry him. But, my own, even at this time, each of us can say that we have known happiness. I would have had it otherwise; but had I to live my life over again, I could not have acted but as I did."
"Dear, I know it. But I cannot forget that Bastienne and Marie owe their deaths to me."
"You are gloomy to-night, love! Neither died with a complaining word on her lips. It was not you, nor my uncle, who cut them off, but fate. Dearest, the night wind cuts you keenly," she added, as Claude gave way to a sudden fit of coughing. "Let us return to the house."
"I dread the loneliness," said Claude. "Ah, Marguerite, I am weak to-night, unmanly to-night! I felt at every step I took to the beach that the spirits of those two murdered women were walking beside me, and yet I welcomed them not. I trembled."
"You are indeed weak, my love. But be strong. We have yet a hard fight to fight. We must not give in till we see France."
"See France! I shall never see it! It is hard, when life promised so fair, to have to lay it down away from the camp and the court. I had hoped yet to win myself a name; not for my own sake, but that you, my queen, might be the proudest woman in France."
"I am the proudest woman in the world," she said. "This year of trial has proved my love a king. I have watched you toil and suffer for us in uncomplaining silence, and the hopeful words which were ever on your lips told how nobly you were fighting. O Claude, I need you! I need you now more than ever! We each must help the other!" She clung trembling to her lover's arm.
Claude braced himself.
"I must not let my gloomy spirit make my love's as heavy as its own. It has passed, sweetheart I feel strong again; and to-morrow I shall be ready to fight the battle anew."
As they walked back in the darkness Claude stumbled, and would have fallen, but that Marguerite's arm held him up.
"How strong you are become, my darling!" he said tenderly. "Had I a sword on shore I would teach you to wield it; and truly, I think, when we get home again another Joan of Arc would be ready to lead the hosts of France."
"'Tis good to see the old spirit return. We shall indeed get home; and it will be sufficient for me to know that my hero is the first in the field, with my glove borne honourably into the thick of the fight."
But though she spoke thus cheerfully her heart was heavy within her; and when, in the night, she woke to hear Claude coughing as he had done on the beach, she knew that the end must be near. In the morning, a greater sorrow awaited her. She found him weak, worn, and feverish, having spent a sleepless night. When he attempted to build the fire, which had gone out during the night, as he was placing a heavy log upon the dry branches, he fell forward on his face, and would have been burnt by the fire he had just kindled but that Marguerite, springing to his side, bore him bodily to the hut. As she laid him down, she saw that her arm was dyed with blood.
Could the end have come already? He was bleeding at the mouth, and she knew that his lungs were affected. She had little experience or knowledge about sickness of any kind, and at first she thought he was dead. But she bravely did what she could to restore him, and was soon rewarded by seeing the languid eyes open with a half-dreamy stare. The minutes seemed like hours before he showed any further signs of regaining consciousness, and it was to her as the voice of God when his lips parted, and he murmured her name. His hand pressed hers tenderly, lovingly, despairingly. He had had a glimpse of death, and, as he awoke from his swoon, his first thought was of the horrors she would endure till she should follow him. His strength slowly returned, and by noon he was able to sit propped up in the door of the hut, through which the warm sunshine streamed brightly.
"How cold it has become," he said suddenly, with a shiver.
"Let me wrap this blanket about you, dearest. You are weak still, but a little rest will make you strong."
"Your words would drive away any chill breath," he said tenderly, as she arranged the covering about him. "But surely it is strange, with that warm sun streaming down, that the gentle wind should so soon have cooled the air. A moment ago it was as warm as the summer breezes of France. But what means that shouting?"
"I can hear naught," said Marguerite, her heart sinking within her as she became convinced that Claude's attack had left him delirious.
But suddenly she, too, held up her warm hand in the wind. It had indeed grown colder, although the restless ocean seemed to wear a calmer smile than it had done in the early morning. Her ear, too, caught an unwonted sound; it was the screaming of innumerable sea-birds; and as they drew nearer, the loud flapping of their wings resounded through the island. What could their strange appearance mean? While she thus questioned, a sudden coughing told her that the keen blast which had swept across them had left Claude weakened. She went to him, drew him within doors, and wrapped him warmly in the thickest coverings they had; then she sat anxiously by his side. The wind grew colder, and the screaming of birds louder. Both feared some dire calamity—they knew not what. At last a dull rumbling was heard, and then a roaring, a bellowing, a grinding, a crashing, and the sudden falling of a mighty burden, as if a mountain peak had toppled over on their island, which shook and vibrated as with an earthquake.
The two held each other's hands and waited.
"Could it be a ship?" exclaimed Marguerite, suddenly.
"God help the ship that struck with such a fearful crash! But listen!"
The grinding, crashing sound continued to re-echo through the island, while the warm sun gleamed brightly down on the two terrified inhabitants of the hut; the cowering animals slunk trembling to their holes; and the timorous birds plunged into the sea, or circled far out over the peaceful waters.
Marguerite, seeing that sudden destruction had not come to them, nerved herself, and went out to discover the cause of the unearthly din. As she turned her eyes to the northern side of the island, she was almost blinded by the resplendent glare. A huge iceberg, stretching far out to sea, lay hard against the high cliffs, whose base was a hundred fathoms beneath. A myriad birds circled above it, and flew over the island, wondering at the green stretches and the spreading trees, and the strange being who stood alone amidst it all.
The berg was like a series of mountain peaks, which scintillated in the sunshine. Its green base, eaten and worn by the seas, sparkled like emerald, and its innumerable caves and grottos, giving a variety of light and shade, made it seem a veritable fairy realm. The base, worn with many hollows, kept up a continuous roaring as the sea swept about it, and the crashing fragments, which fell ever and anon with loud resounding splash, added to the din. On the cliff lay piled a huge mass which had fallen thundering down when the berg struck the shore.
"All is well, Claude," cried Marguerite. "It is but a berg which has come to visit us in our loneliness. And what a troop of companions it has brought us! The air is thick with feathered friends! Make haste and get strong, dear," she added, as she re-entered the hut, "and to-morrow you will be able to come out and look upon it. A fairer sight I never beheld. Odin and Thor could not have had a grander palace."
"Sweet, that is like you to turn our terror into a jest," said Claude smiling tenderly at her. "But hark!" and as he spoke a low, savage growl reached their ears.
"Give me the arquebuse, quick!" cried Claude, and stretched out his hand for the weapon.
But Marguerite had already seized it. She had learned to take aim and fire as well as any man, and she stood with the gun firmly held in her strong young arms, and pointed towards the door. For one breathless moment—which seemed a year—they waited. The growl sounded nearer, and a swift shuffling of clumsy feet told them that some ponderous animal was approaching. The next instant the object of their dread appeared.
It was an animal such as they had never seen before, or heard of. A she-bear, full six feet in length—gaunt and fierce. It had doubtless been prowling about in its Greenland home in search of food, when it found itself, and the cub which followed it, adrift on this vast berg. The birds, the only other occupants of its habitation, were able to elude it, and so it spent hungry weeks on its slow, southern journey. Scarcely had the berg come in sight of the island when the starving brute, followed by its cub, sprang into the ocean and swam for the shore. As it prowled about in search of seals or fish, it had caught sight of Marguerite. It scented food, and with a fierce growl came shuffling with the speed of a galloping horse towards her.
As she now looked upon it her heart never flinched. She waited calmly till it should be within sure range.
It was a beautiful creature, with a mantle of silvery white, tinged with yellow. As it drew nearer, its long, strong neck, its flattened, elongated head, and small ears and mouth gave it a cruel appearance, while its tongue, lolling out, seemed to be lapping in anticipation the blood of its victims. When it was but twenty yards away Marguerite's arquebuse was raised, and with unflinching nerve she fired at the advancing brute. The bullet struck it, and with a growl it seized its breast with its teeth, as if trying to pull out the thing that had smitten it. The next instant it was at the very door, and its huge form shut out the light, as it was about to pounce upon its prey. But Claude had seized a second arquebuse, and, when the bear was within two yards, fired point-blank into its hairy breast. The bullet entered its heart, and it fell dead at their feet. The cub, which had followed close at its heels, with a pitiful cry threw itself upon its mother's body, and seeing the warm blood flowing in a great stream, began lapping it up with greedy tongue.
"Bravely done, my queen!" said Claude, as the bear fell dead in the hut. "I would La Pommeraye could have seen your nerve! What a buzz this adventure would cause in Paris!"
"O Claude, it is horrible! See that unhappy little creature drink its mother's life! Dear God, why is life created only to be destroyed?"
As she uttered the prayer, which has gone up a myriad times from a myriad hearts, she turned with a pitying hand to the motherless cub, but at her touch the terrified little creature rushed with ungainly shuffle away, and skulked among the rocks on the beach.
The dead bear was lying almost at the feet of Claude, a ghastly spectacle, and Marguerite felt that she must get it outside the hut. She seized its huge hairy paws, with their black, curved claws, and attempted to drag it to the door. But, gaunt and starved as it was, it was too heavy for her strength, and resisted all her efforts. Claude was in no condition to assist her, and she was compelled all day to move about, caring for him, with the shadow of death in her presence.
Night came, and still the bear lay stretched, cold and stiff, in the doorway. Again she struggled with it, but again her efforts were futile, and there was nothing for it but to let it remain there all night. But in its ghastly presence she could not sleep; and she lay awake listening to the crashing and roaring of the berg, as the waves rose about it, and hearing beside her the quiet breathing of Claude. Worn out by illness and the excitement of the day, he was sleeping like a tired child. Several times, as she looked out on the darkness, she saw a white form moving stealthily back and forth. She knew it was the little cub, and her heart was moved with pity for its loneliness. She heard its step draw nearer and nearer to where she lay, and at last she saw it standing in the door. She moved not a muscle for fear of alarming it, or disturbing Claude; but when she heard it with an almost human wail throw itself against its mother, she could have risen and fondled it. All night it lay there, wondering, no doubt, why that once warm breast was now as cold as the icy home it had left.
When morning broke, Marguerite made a movement to rise, and the cub, in terror, sprang up, lumbered down to the beach, and plunged into the water.
"Poor beast!" she said, "we must try to win its confidence. It will dispel something of our own loneliness."
She left the hut to stir up the embers of the fire, and pondered how she might lure the little bear to her. But it would not come near her, and at her approach dived into the ocean, or skulked behind rocks.
The gentle sleep of the night had worked wonders for Claude. In the morning, when the crackle of the fire told him that Marguerite was up before him, he rose, and to his surprise found his limbs strong and his brain clear. He looked upon the dead bear, and all that had passed came back to him. He stepped over its gaunt form, and stood before Marguerite.
"Oh, you wicked boy!" she exclaimed, when she saw him. "To get up without my permission! You will kill yourself."
"My darling, I am strong again! I never felt better in my life."
"You must obey me, dear," she said firmly. "You are indeed weak, and if you overtax your strength—think what will become of me! To please me, go back and rest till I have prepared your breakfast, and then, if you still feel strong, we will think about letting you stay up."
As she spoke, she laid her hand lovingly in his, and led him back as a mother would her child. He would not disobey; and when he was once more wrapped in his blankets, she kissed him on the lips and eyes, laughingly bade him be good, and went about her work with a lighter heart, feeling that he was indeed stronger, and hoping that the warm summer weather would restore him to perfect health.
By noon he was almost his old self, and even Marguerite's persuasion could not keep him within doors. His strength had not fully returned, but he was able, by resting frequently, and leaning on her arm, to go to the central part of the island, and get a good view of the wonderful berg.
As they looked upon it, the grinding ceased. A warm south wind had come up, and the great mass, catching its breath, slid from the shore, and almost imperceptibly began to move away. They watched it with a feeling akin to sorrow, as the blue water widened between it and their island. It had been something to break the monotony of their existence; and even its loud roaring was a relief from the dreary sameness of their days. For hours they sat there, watching it make its slow way northward; nor did they take their eyes from it till it was but a dim, misty fog-bank on the blue horizon.
They had not been alone. Beneath them, on the shore, squatted the cub, watching its northern home drift slowly away; once it made as if it would have plunged into the waves and followed it, but, seeming to change its mind, paused at the water's edge.
When Claude and Marguerite went back to their hut, they put forth their united strength, and succeeded in dragging the ponderous form of the bear out into the open air. Claude had watched the Indians skin wild beasts with no better implements than their rude flint knives, and had learned the process by which they cured the skins. On the following day he set to work to remove the strong white hide. It took him the whole day, but at night he and Marguerite had the satisfaction of seeing it spread to dry on the roof of their hut. All through that night they heard the piteous cries of the young bear, as it prowled helplessly about. Their own suffering made them sympathetic, and next day both made every effort to coax it to them.