The Black Wolf's Breed/Chapter 2
MUSING on this strange story, and the old man's unwonted fear, I walked on down to the water's edge where my Indian friends, already in the pirogue, awaited me. Another half hour and we were in Biloxi.
When we reached the barracks I found orders to attend the governor at once.
Bienville stood before his fire alone, quiet, but in a very different mood from any in which I had theretofore seen him.
"Captain de Mouret," the rough old warrior began, without any prelude or indirection, "I desire to send you at once to Paris on an errand of the utmost importance to myself and to this colony. I select you for this task, though I can ill spare you here, because it is a delicate matter. I believe you to be honest, I know you are courageous."
I bowed, and he went on. Something had evidently occurred to vex and irritate him.
"You know the people who surround me here, the weak, the vicious, the licentious of all the earth. A band of unprincipled adventurers, vile Canadians and half-breeds, all too lazy to work, or even to feed themselves out of the bountiful earth which would give everything we need almost for the asking. The air is full now of rumors of a Spanish war, and a Natchez-Chickasaw alliance. If these things are true we would find ourselves entirely cut off from French supplies, and this colony would literally starve to death. Yes, starve to death with untold millions of fruitful acres all about us. Had we strength to fight I would not care so much. With but two companies of undisciplined troops, a mere straggling handful, officered by drunkards, we could not defend this post a day against any organized attack."
All this I knew to be true, so I made no comment. He pursued the conversation and evidently relieved his mind of much that had troubled him for months.
"Then this beggarly commissary of mine, and the trafficking priest, de la Vente, they are constantly stirring up strife against me here, and putting lies in the hands of my enemies at court. The king, too, is wearied out with this endless drain upon his treasury for money and supplies, and is now, so I am informed, almost ready to accede to Crozat's proposition, and turn over to him the revenues and government of the colonies."
The old man grew earnest and eloquent.
"What! turn over an empire such as this to a miserable trading huckster, the son of a peasant—permit him to name the governors and officers! Why, under his rule, such cattle as la Salle and de la Vente would feed fat upon the miseries of the people! Great God, Placide, do you appreciate what that means? To create this peddler of silks and laces lord of a boundless domain, more magnificent than Louis in his wildest schemes of conquest ever dreamed? Why, boy, the day will come when for a thousand leagues the silver lilies will signal each other from every hill top; marts of commerce will thrive and flourish; the land will smile with farms and cities, with proud palaces and with granite castles. The white sails of our boats will fleck every lake and sea and river with their rich burdens of trade, pouring a fabulous and a willing wealth into the coffers of the king. Gold and silver mines will yield their precious stores, while from these niggard natives we will wrest with mighty arm the tribute they so contemptuously deny the weakling curs who snap and snarl at my heels. Grey tower and fortress will guard every inlet, and watch this sheltered coast. In every vale the low chant of holy nuns will breathe their benediction upon a happy people. And hordes of nations yet unknown and races yet unborn, in future legends, in song, in story and in rhyme, will laud the name of Bourbon and the glory of the French. Oh lad! lad! 'tis an ambition worthy a god."
The governor had risen, and waving his long arms this way and that, pointed out the confines of his mighty dreamland empire with as much assurance as if cities and towns would spring up at his bidding.
His whole frame spoke the most intense emotion. The face, glorified and transfigured by the allurement of his brilliant mirage, seemed that of another man.
"Ah, Placide! Placide! it stings me that this chivalrous king of ours, this degenerate grandson of Henry the Great, should think of selling for a few paltry livres such an heritage as this. Shame to you Louis, shame!"
His tone had grown so loud, so peremptory, I interrupted.
"Caution, sire; who knows what tattler's ears are listening, or where your thoughtless words may be repeated."
He stood moodily with hands behind him gazing into the fire. For years I had known Bienville the soldier, the stern and unyielding governor, with the hand of iron and the tongue of suasion.
Now I saw for the first time Bienville the man, Bienville the visionary, Bienville the enthusiast, the dreamer of dreams and the builder of castles. I watched him in amazement.
"Then these miserable women whom our good father, the Bishop of Quebec, was so kind as to send us, bringing from their House of Correction all the airs and graces of a court. Bringing hither their silly romances of a land of plenty; they vow they came not here to work, and by the grace of God, work they will not. They declare they are not horses to eat of the corn of the fields, and clamor for their dear Parisian dainties. Against such a petticoat insurrection the governor is helpless. Bah! it sickens me. I wonder not that our men prefer the Indian maidens, for they at least have common sense. But by my soul, Captain, here I stand and rant like some schoolboy mouthing his speech. Tush, it is forgotten."
"Tell me, Captain de Mouret, what have you learned of the Chickasaws, for our time grows short."
Glad to change the current of his thought I went on in detail to give the results of my reconnaissance. Everywhere we found preparations among the allied tribes, and felt sure we saw signs of a secret understanding between them and the Spaniard.
The governor made many notes, and carefully examined the charts I had drawn of the Chickasaw towns, systematically marking down the strength and fortifications of each. When I had finished my report we sat for quite a while, he silent and thoughtful, watching the thin blue smoke eddy round and round then dart up the capacious chimney.
"And they charge me at the court of France," he soliloquized, giving half unconscious expression to the matter uppermost in his mind, "they charge me at the court of France, what no man save my king dare say to me—that I divert the public funds to my own use. I, a Le Moyne, who spend my own private fortune in protecting and feeding these ungrateful people. But we waste time in words, like two chattering old women. We need ships and money and men—men who fight like gentlemen for glory, not deserters and convicts who fight unwillingly under the lash for gold.
"What can I do with troops who would as gladly spoil Biloxi as Havana?
"Captain de Mouret, you will sail on le Dauphin to-morrow at daylight. Place these dispatches in my brother Serigny's hands immediately upon your arrival. From that time forward act under his instructions. Remember, sir, your mission is a secret one."
I knew well the name he gave me, for next to Iberville, Serigny was reputed the most accomplished of all the Le Moyne's. To his fame as a soldier, his attainments as a scholar, he added the easy grace of the courtier. His position at the court of Louis gave him great prestige throughout the colonies; he being a sort of adviser to the King on colonial affairs, or so we all then thought him. Little did I then know how scant was the heed paid by power and ambition to real merit and soldierly virtues.
This while we sat without passing a word. Truth to tell I was loath to leave the Governor, for I knew even better than he how much of treachery there was in those about him. Besides that I had no confidence in my lieutenant, and yet hated to acquaint Bienville with the fact for fear he might mistrust my motives. I was heavy at heart and dreaded the future.
When, somewhat after midnight, I arose to go, he came around the table and taking me by both shoulders gazed steadily into my face. I met his glance frankly and quailed not.
"Forgive me, Placide, these are such days of distrust I doubt every one about me. Forgive me, lad, but your old commander's reputation, aye, his honor even, depends now so much upon your fidelity."
I could say nothing. I felt a stealthy tear tremble in my eye, yet was not ashamed, for its mate glistened in his own, and he was a man not given to over-weeping.