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A short story by Kate Dickinson Sweetser
Madeleine De Vercheres: The Heroine Of Castle Dangerous
Title: Madeleine De Vercheres: The Heroine Of Castle Dangerous
Author: Kate Dickinson Sweetser [More Titles by Sweetser]
IT was the twenty-second of October. Hills until recently tapestried, and valleys which had been flaming with the glory of autumn were now putting on the more sombre garb of early winter, though still the soft haze of fall hung over fields and forests in the small Canadian colony, on the bank of the St. Lawrence River, twenty miles below Montreal, a settlement commanded by the French officer Seignieur de Vercheres.
Peace and quiet reigned throughout the small community on that October morning, while all its inhabitants except the very young or the infirm were busy harvesting.
Because of its location in a direct route between the hunting ground of the Iroquois Indians and Montreal, the fort protecting the settlement was known as the "Castle Dangerous" of Canada. At night all the farmers and other settlers of the community left their log cabins and gathered in the fort for protection, then went out in the morning, with hoe in one hand and gun in the other, to till the fields, leaving the women and children safe inside the fort, which stood in an exposed position beyond the homes of the settlers. Outside the fort stood a strong block house connected with it by a covered passage, and both were surrounded by a palisaded wall. Fort and blockhouse and wall were necessary protections in those days when English, French and Indians were at war in the Canadian provinces in the name of Church or King, or for personal betterment, and when the Indians were resisting with powerful determination the religion and customs which the white men were trying to thrust upon them, and attempting to prevent the aliens from securing the rich supplies of skins which were annually brought down the Ottawa river by fur-traders from the frozen North.
It was indeed a time of warfare in Canada--that latter part of the seventeenth century, when Frontenac was governor of the French possessions, and two nations were striving so bitterly for supremacy. At that time the river Ottawa, as Parkman, the historian, tells us, "was the main artery of Canada, and to stop it was--to stop the flow of her life blood."
The Iroquois, a powerful and cunning tribe of Indians who were a menace to all foreigners, knew this, and their constant effort was to close it so completely that the annual supply of beaver skins would be prevented from passing, and the French colony thus be obliged to live on credit. It was the habit of the Iroquois to spend the latter part of the winter, hunting in the forests between the Ottawa and the upper St. Lawrence, and when the ice broke up to move in large bands to the banks of the Ottawa and lie in ambush to waylay the canoes of the fur-traders with their cargoes of skins. On the other hand, it was the constant effort of Frontenac and his men to keep the river open, an almost impossible task. Many conflicts great and small took place, with various results, but in spite of every effort on the part of the French, the Iroquois blockade was maintained for more than two years.
The brunt of the war was felt in the country above Montreal, which was easily accessible to the Indians, but it was a time of grave menace also to all the colonists, and the children of the Seignieur de Vercheres had been taught from their earliest childhood to handle firearms easily and skilfully, and had been told so many blood-curdling tales of the treachery and cruelty of the Iroquois, and of the heroic deeds done by their countrymen in defending forts and homes, that each young heart thrilled with the hope that they too might some day perform a deed of valour. And their chance was nearer than they dreamed on that October morning when the little settlement lay serene in its quiet security, giving no heed to invasion or to foe, when everyone in the settlement was at work in the fields except two soldiers, the two young sons of the Seignieur, an old man of eighty, and a number of women and children.
The Seignieur was at that time on duty at Quebec, his wife was also away on a visit to Montreal, and their daughter, Madeleine, a girl of fourteen, was in command of both fort and home--not very difficult offices to fill, so thought her parents in leaving, as there had been no attacks for some time, and we can picture Madeleine, tall and slender, with a wealth of golden-brown hair falling over her low brow, her eyes dancing with merriment as she received her list of household duties from her mother, and her commands concerning the fort from her father, sure that the hours and days of the golden autumn would bring her no graver responsibilities than she had carried before.
Her morning duties in the home despatched, she sauntered down to the river boat-landing, taking with her a hired man named Laviolette. She was expecting some friends from Montreal and for a long time she stood on the bank of the sparkling river, shading her eyes from the glare of the sun, watching eagerly in hopes of seeing the boatload coming. It was not in sight, and she chatted with Laviolette and watched the movements of some near-by fishing craft for a moment. Suddenly she turned, stood still, and held up a silencing finger to the garrulous Laviolette, who was spinning a sea yarn of his boyhood. She had heard an ominous sound in the direction of the field where the settlers were at work.
"Run, Laviolette, to the top of the hill and see what it is," she said, without serious apprehension. The man, quick to do her bidding, ran to a point of vantage, stood beside her again, and what was it he said?
"Shots! Run, Mademoiselle, run!" he cried, "here come the Iroquois!"
The warning was too late. As Madeleine turned she found herself within gun range of forty or fifty of the dreaded Indians! Like a bit of thistle-down blown by the wind, she ran toward the fort, her brown hair flying in the breeze, commending herself as she ran, so she herself afterwards told, to the Holy Virgin, the Iroquois in hot pursuit, but not one of them fleet-footed enough to catch the fleeing maiden. Disconcerted, they stood still, seeing that pursuit was fruitless, and, standing, fired at her, the bullets whistling about her ears, while her heart beat so fast with fright that it seemed she could not take another step. But still she was fleeing, fleeing. She was at the gate at last, she cried loudly, "To arms! To arms!" praying that someone within would hear her and come to the rescue, but she prayed in vain. The two soldiers who were in the fort were so terror stricken that they ran to the blockhouse and hid, and only one answered Madeleine's call. To add to her horror, outside the gate were two women huddled, moaning for their husbands who had just been killed before their eyes. There was no time for quiet thought, but in Madeleine's veins flowed the blood of warriors. In a brave voice she called, "Go in, and cease your crying!" and pushing the women inside the gate, closed it, as she did so, trying to think how she was to save the other defenceless ones of whom in her father's absence she was the guardian. With flying feet she inspected the fort and wall, and to her dismay found that in several places the defences were so insecure that the enemy could easily push through. The weak spots must be barricaded at once. With peremptory orders Madeleine set her few helpers to work, and herself fetched wood for her purpose, helping place it with her quick strong hands. That done, she went into the blockhouse where all the ammunition was kept, and there crouching in a corner she found the two soldiers, one with a lighted match in his hand.
"What are you going to do with that?" she asked.
Too frightened to lie, he answered, "Light the powder and blow us all up."
Madeleine flashed a glance of contempt at him. "You are a miserable coward!" she said. "Go out of this place. I am commander of the fort," and there was that in her voice which made the men obey. Then throwing off her bonnet, putting on a more masculine hat, and taking up a gun, in the use of which she was unusually skilful, she gave a command to her two brothers, who were awaiting her orders. "Let us fight to the death," she said. "We are fighting for our country and our religion. Remember our father has taught you that gentlemen are born to shed their blood for the service of God and the King."
The boys were only ten and twelve years old, but they had received the same early training as Madeleine, and in their veins too ran the blood of those who conquer. The stirring words roused their courage, and like old seasoned warriors they took up arms, and with what ability they possessed began at once to fire through the loopholes of the blockhouse on the Iroquois, who, having no idea how many soldiers were inside defending the garrison, were overcome with fear, and giving up their attack on the fort, began to chase the people in a neighbouring field, and killed all whom they could catch. Madeleine was now so thoroughly filled with the spirit of war that she at once ordered a cannon to be fired, partly to keep the enemy from a further assault, and also as a signal to some of the soldiers who were at a distance, hunting. And all this time within the fort there was the shrill sound of the women and children wailing and screaming. Madeleine, on guard at a loophole, gave a stern order, "Be quiet, or your screams will encourage the enemy!" Then with far sighted eyes she saw a canoe gliding up to the landing-place, the one that she had been looking for in that care-free hour which now seemed years ago; the canoe in which was her friend who was trying to reach the fort with his family. Knowing how near the Indians were, Madeleine was terrified lest the visitors should be killed before her eyes, and she begged the soldiers to go to their aid, but they were not brave enough to do it. She must go herself. With a hasty command to Laviolette to keep watch at the gate while she was gone, she ran out alone down to the landing-place. She afterwards said, "I thought that the savages would suppose it to be a ruse to draw them towards the fort, in order to make a rush upon them. They did suppose so, and thus I was able to save my friends, the Fontaine family. When they were landed I made them all march up to the fort before me in full sight of the enemy. We put so bold a face on that they thought they had more to fear than we had." Thus the settlers and their plucky young escort gained the shelter of the fort, and Madeleine, quite encouraged by this addition to the number of her forces, at once ordered that whenever an Indian came in sight, he should at once be fired on, which order was faithfully obeyed, and in watching and firing, the hours of the long day wore away.
After sunset a fierce northeast wind came up, accompanied with a flurry of snow and hail, and as the little band in the fort heard the howling of the wind they looked at one another with pale and terrified faces, fearing that the Iroquois, who were still lurking near, would be able, under cover of the noise and darkness of the storm, to climb into the fort, and all would be lost. Whitest of all was Madeleine, the young commander, but she gathered her troop of six persons around her, and said stoutly, "God has saved us to-day from the hands of our enemies, but we must take care not to fall into their snares to-night. As for me, I want you to see that I am not afraid. I will take care of the fort with an old man of eighty and another who never fired a gun, and you, Pierre Fontaine, with the two soldiers, will go to the blockhouse with the women and children because that is the strongest place, and if I am taken, don't surrender, even if I am cut to pieces and burned before your eyes. The enemy cannot hurt you in the blockhouse if you make the least show of fight."
Then placing her two brothers on two of the bastions or look-outs of the fort, and the old man of eighty on the third, she herself took the fourth watch, and all through the endless hours of that night while the wind howled and the storm beat against the wall, the cries of "ALL'S WELL!" were repeated from the blockhouse to the fort, and from the fort to the blockhouse. One would have thought the place was filled with soldiers, and the Indians were completely deceived, as they confessed afterwards to a Frenchman to whom they then told their plan of capturing the fort in the night, a plan which had failed because the place had been so well guarded!--and two young boys, a very old man and a young girl had accomplished this!
About one o'clock in the morning the soldier who had been put on watch at the gate called out, "Mademoiselle, I hear something," and hurrying to him Madeleine, by the aid of the snow light, was able to see a small number of cattle huddled close to the fort. Telling this to her companions they instantly cried, "Let them in," but Madeleine shook her head, answering emphatically, "God forbid! You don't know all the tricks of the savages. They are no doubt following the cattle, covered with skins of beasts so as to get into the fort, if we are simple enough to open the gate for them."
But later, after having taken every precaution for safety, besides placing the boys ready with their guns cocked in case of surprise, Madeleine allowed the gate to be opened and the cattle filed in safely and alone.
At last the weary night of suspense was over, and as daylight dawned, the situation began to look brighter. Everyone took fresh courage except Madame Fontaine, who begged her husband to carry her to another and safer fort. He replied, "I will never abandon this fort while Mademoiselle Madeleine is here."
At this loyal answer Madeleine gave him a swift glance of appreciation, and cried, "I will never abandon it. I would die rather than give it up to the enemy. It is of the greatest importance that they should not get hold of any French fort, because they would think they could get others and grow more bold and presumptuous than ever!"
Then with another quick nod of thanks and of understanding off went the young commander again to her post on the look-out, and then back to the blockhouse, where she said words of ringing encouragement to the weary band huddled there together, and it was twenty-four hours later before she went into her father's house either for refreshment or rest, although sadly in need of both, but was always on guard to cheer her discouraged flock.
When forty-eight hours had passed in this way, rest became imperative even for Madeleine's strong, young frame, and she allowed herself to doze at a table, folding her arms on it, so that with her gun lying across her arms and her head on her gun she was ready at a word of alarm to spring up, weapon in hand, and face the enemy. It was a terrible situation, that of the little band within the fort, for they knew of no way to send word to friends of their plight, and if the outer world had no news of the situation, from whence could help come? This thought was constantly in the minds of the exhausted band, waiting, watching and hoping against hope for some one to come to their rescue. Had they but known that even while they were waiting, some of the farmers who when at work in the field had escaped the Indians, were now making their way to Montreal, their anxiety would have been greatly lessened, but they did not know, and the fort was constantly attacked by the enemy, who when not besieging it were crouching near, waiting for a chance to make a successful attack. Very early on the dawn of the seventh day of their vigil, Madeleine's younger brother, who was on watch on the side of the fort which faced the river, heard the sound of distant voices and the splashing of oars in the water.
"Who goes there?" he called out bravely, but with a shivering fear that it might be additional forces of the enemy. At the sound of his cry Madeleine, dozing by the table, roused and ran to his side with a question on her lips which did not need to be framed.
"A voice from the river," he whispered, but as he spoke came the louder sound of near-by footsteps and voices, and fleet-footed Madeleine ran to the bastion to see whether it was friend or foe arriving.
"Who are you?" the clear voice of the intrepid young commander rang out, and instantly came the answer:
"We are Frenchmen. It is La Monnerie, who comes to bring you help, and with him are forty men."
Relief was at hand! Turning, Madeleine gave a command to a soldier to stand on guard, then, "Quick, open the gate," she said, and her command was obeyed. The gate, closely guarded, was opened, and out went Madeleine to meet those who had come to the rescue.
As Monsieur Monnerie caught sight of the slight girlish figure his eyes were full of wonder. Then she stood before him, drew herself up to her full height, and solemnly saluted, saying, "Monsieur, I surrender my arms to you."
The gallant Frenchman retorted chivalrously, "Mademoiselle, they are in good hands," and then the pride of the brave girl broke bounds, and with shining eyes she exclaimed, "Better than you know. Come and see for yourself!" and fairly pulled him into the fort, where he made a thorough inspection, and his admiration increased momentarily as he saw what this slip of a girl had been able to accomplish. Everything was in order, a sentinel was on each bastion, the enemy had been held at bay--what man could have done better work? Nay, who could have more nobly defended the garrison?
With the light of intense admiration in his eyes La Monnerie paid tribute to Madeleine's good judgment, bold tactics and ready wit which had saved the situation, and for very embarrassment at his praise, a deep flush crimsoned the girl's cheeks, as with a shy glance of appreciation, she thanked him, adding quietly, "It is time to relieve the guard, Monsieur. We have not been off our bastions for a week!"
Among all the incidents handed down concerning that troublous time in the Canadian provinces, none is so worthy of lingering over as this noble defence of Castle Dangerous, by the daughter of its commander, and sweet and strong, the influence of Madeleine de Vercheres comes down to inspire and thrill the hearts of girls of all countries and ages by the deed she did in the name of her country and her King.
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