Nicolas saw from behind his defences the onward wave of Englishmen stutter, before regaining its forward momentum up the grassy glacis…
Paris, October 1754
Flexing his rapier against the gloved thumb of his left hand, twenty-two-year old Nicolas de Kérallain faced his accuser. The blade arced in response, glinting in the early morning sunlight. With the slippery dew like scattered diamonds on the grass and with only the calls of the earliest blackbirds to distract him, he held his sword forward in front of him at a slight upward angle. In a similar pose, his taller adversary Monsieur de Forgon glared three yards away in a white shirt which billowed at the cuffs.
Too late now for anything other than first blood,‘En garde,’ challenged the proud and headstrong Nicolas without a tremor or any hint of the turmoil in his mind. He advanced and thrust his steel blade towards the body of the older man who nimbly stepped back and to the side. Nicolas’ blade pierced thin air. In reply, de Forgon thrust his thin shaft of steel at Nicolas who fell back unbalanced, but despite almost falling over, he managed to parry the attack.
This was real, no longer a card table disagreement. Fear alerted every nerve and sinew of Nicolas’ body. Blood would flow. De Forgon, he realised, was a much more dangerous opponent than he had thought when he was sitting in the sleazy surroundings of rue Quincampaix with traders and bankers and other good-for-nothings.
As if holding an ace and a seven, Nicolas had rashly calculated the chances of beating his adversary and now wondered why he had been so foolish to challenge him over something which, at the card table, had seemed so important, but now in the cool dawn air, irrelevant. Both stood back and sized up the other after the first exchange. Shaken after his slight stumble, but resolute in his resolve, he feinted to go low and right and at the last moment swung his sword upwards towards the face of de Forgon. It was one of his favourite attacks he had learnt during his lessons as a young man.
‘Ah ha,’ de Forgon cried, ‘You have not been sleeping during your lessons at school.’ He batted away the blade of Nicolas, but his opponent’s eyes widened and blade trembled a fraction.
‘My lessons at school, sieur, may prove to be more valuable than your evenings in a tavern.’ Once again, Nicolas thrust and once again, the metallic clash of the blades rang out among the trees of the Bois de Boulogne.
De Forgon danced around Nicolas. His steps were not light or nimble but heavy with age.
Nicolas swirled around to face his opponent and out of the corner of his eye he caught de Forgon’s second, dressed in a black frock coat anxiously looking from his man to him.
Nicolas advanced thrusting his rapier forwards. De Forgon backed away and as he did so, tripped on a branch lying on the ground. He fell. Nicolas pounced cat-like and held his sword at the throat of his defenceless opponent.
‘Sieur, I beg you no!’ screamed de Forgon’s second whose hot breath Nicolas could feel on the back of his neck and whose hand attempted to hold his arm from making a final deadly thrust.
Nicolas pulled back. ‘I am no cheat,’ he stormed and slashed airily at de Forgon’s upper arm. Immediately, the white shirt was rent and tinged with blood. He relented from any further movement and de Forgon’s second pulled him back while shouting, ‘Touché! Retire, sieur, the satisfaction is yours.’
Nicolas stared at them both as he regained his previous impassive manner, thankful that he had prevailed and wondering now what he would have done if the second’s hand had not impeded his sword arm.
De Forgon got to his feet clutching his right arm and bowed. ‘Sieur, you are more a man than I took you for, adieu.’ His second produced a white sheet and ripped a strip to bind the wound.
‘Enough. It is at an end, gentlemen,’ said de Forgon’s second, echoing his master’s sentiments.
Nicolas bowed to his combatant and replaced his sword in its scabbard. ‘Never call me a cheat again.’ Without a further word, he walked to his friend Cahours who had been watching everything from a short distance away.
‘Well done, Nicolas,’ he said, ‘I never doubted you for a moment.’
‘But not a word to anyone, most of all my family. Do you understand?’
‘Of course. I understand, but it’s not every day I get to see one of the finest swordsman in Paris use his skills.’
The next day, Nicolas and his father, Jean-Pierre de Kérallain, sat facing each other in the dim morning light of the drawing room of their comfortable home in rue Royale. The October weather had dampened spirits and the prospect of another wet winter gave little cheer to either man.
His father, a prosperous lawyer, was well connected to the good and great of Parisian society. However, through age, and as a result of his time bending over his legal papers, he stooped and squinted. He looked like a man who would be early in his grave. Nicolas knew that unlike his father he would not finish his days in such elegant decrepitude. His father’s face beamed with blessedness and calm. ‘Son,’ he said, ‘I believe it is time to set aside your studies and make your fortune.’
As a member of the bourgeoisie, Nicolas was of good social standing. He had recently completed his advanced mathematical studies, including a period in London, but his father, once again, urged him to follow in his footsteps, yet his head filled with fleeting ideas of vaulting ambition, of fame and fortune.
‘Mathematics is all very well, but how will you make a living?’ said his father, ‘Now is the time to start alongside me and become a lawyer. Think of your future security.’
If there was one thing in the world Nicolas did not want to think about, it was security. He wanted adventure. He did not want to hover over a desk, examining pages of vellum and speaking with false politesse to powdered old ladies on questions involving inheritance planning or listen to frustrated successful men drone on about divorce proceedings. Like much of the Parisian high society, he had been fascinated and energised by the accounts of exploits of heroic men in France’s new territories across the globe. It was a time for adventure and encouraged by his lithe athletic frame, despite the occasional shortness of breath, he felt the urge to explore. ‘Father,’ he announced with the determination of a young man who will not be thwarted, ‘I want to travel. Have you not read of our victories?’
His father grunted dismissively as if he had been ten again, asking for a ride in the family coach instead of using his young legs.
‘At last France can hold her head with pride,’ he continued. ‘Imagine the anger of Louis Jumonville when he learnt of his brother Pierre’s death in the custody of the English. Praise to God that Louis and his forces won the day at Fort Necessity and righted his assassination.’ In his mind, he harboured an image of a small group, walking among the pines tracking from the French base at Fort Duquesne to seek satisfaction. The trek had seized a section of the French public. ‘Never again shall the English oversee French captives being scalped and tomahawked to death by Washington’s Iroquois.’
‘Of course, they shall regret their barbarous actions,’ said his father whose eyes blazed with a fervour rare in a lawyer remote from the iniquity of the gutter. ‘But, it is a different world out there, lawless and dangerous. Do you really want to go?’
‘Father, our forces prevailed at Fort Necessity. The English signed a surrender and confessed to the assassination of your old friend Pierre Jumonville. Your old friend, Pierre,’ he emphasised.
‘Yes, my son, I have lost a dear friend, but the law has now been upheld, let’s hope that is an end to it.’
Impetuous Nicolas, angry at his father’s laissez-faire attitude, raised his voice, something he had never done before. ‘But the law can only be upheld if men are there to enforce its application. I want to go.’
‘Think on the reality of life, my son. Mark my words, you will be better off here in Paris following in my footsteps.’ He stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind him.
Yet Nicolas stood unmoved while his desire for adventure grew and grew like the October mushrooms on the dark and damp forest floors of the Bois de Vincennes. Inevitably, he turned his thoughts to the army and life in Nouvelle-France.
One year later, after some manoeuvring, Nicolas was appointed as a lieutenant of dragoons. His profile rose among the French military elite. Several months after that, and to his delight, the Marquis de Montcalm selected him, on account of his fluency in English, among his other qualities, to be a member of the special brigade. The marquis promoted him to the rank of captain and ordered him to be sent immediately to Québec.
Nicolas embarked at Brest in wide-eyed optimism on the fifty-gun, French naval ship, Vigilant, but soon his eyes were opened to the hardships faced by the seamen and his fellow passengers when crossing the Atlantic.
Fourteen days out from Brest, he struggled along the deck as the boat pitched and tossed in the jagged white-topped waves, buffeted by strong headwinds. The boat lurched in the stormy ocean and he bumped into a civilian passenger dressed in a dark blue woollen coat buttoned up against the cold, accidentally knocking him to the deck.
‘Excuse me, sieur,’ cried Nicolas into the angry wind. He extended a hand to help the man back to his feet.
‘’Twas nothing, sieur,’ the man replied. ‘I would never have believed our crossing would be an uncomfortable as this.’
‘Our crossing?’ Nicolas knitted his eyebrows.
‘Indeed, my wife is with me, but below deck in our miserable accommodation. We had to sell ourselves to make the trip and I now find we are in with a few other emigrant families cooped up in the forecastle. Conditions there are atrocious. I have to come up on deck for fresh air and exercise, but my pregnant wife feels a little unwell today.’
‘Nicolas de Kérallain at your service, sieur. When is she due?’ His face widened into a smile exaggerated by the stiff wind.
‘Claude Dufour,’ said the young man whose long fair hair blew like the ropes in a maypole dance around his head. ‘She is due a few days after our anticipated landfall, but she suffers with this constant rollicking and the poor food. We go for a new and better life. One that is hopefully free from the hardships and persecution we endured in the Garonne.’
‘But the colony is struggling against the English.’.
‘I have heard Québec is a prosperous city and its prospects are good. We have sold ourselves into indentured servitude for two years to a wealthy resident Jean Levesque in return for the price of this passage. He is the principal of Jesuit college Saint Charles-Garnier.’
‘What will you do?’
‘Teach and play the organ at mass, I suppose, cook and clean. We don’t know, but we trust in God to take care of us.’ A violent wave washed across the deck soaking both men. ‘Argh! This is terrible. I will go below. Will I see you tomorrow?’
‘I’ll be here.’
Nicolas climbed the stairs to the forbidden quarter deck. He returned to the comparative comfort of his quarters, where he could change and immerse himself in the advance copy of the adventures of Voltaire’s ‘Candide’ which along with the earlier ‘Zadig’ had inspired his thirst for adventure. Yet even while reading the handwritten sheets, he couldn’t forget that crammed into the overcrowded rolling and rocking ship at the mercy of the sea, Claude and his wife, the few immigrants and the nearly four hundred soldiers endured hardships barely imaginable below decks. Nicolas, by contrast, would sup and dine at the table of the quietly spoken, yet commanding, Captain Toussaint de Robaud and his fellow petty officers.
Over dinner, Nicolas said, ‘Sieur, we have a pregnant woman aboard.’
The captain said, ‘Alas, I can do little. Misery is the bedfellow of most of the passengers during this seven-week journey. We are a fighting ship and have no room for comfort, sieur.’
Nicolas, not completely satisfied by the captain’s comments, nevertheless let the matter drop.
However, such was his fascination with Claude that on mornings during his brisk walk along the deck, he sought him out without success until a week later on Good Friday, when, he saw Claude clinging to the rigging with one hand and hanging over the side of the ship staring out to the north holding his hat with the other in the stiff breeze. He hastened his step to Claude’s side and tapped him on the shoulder. ‘How are you, Claude?’
Claude spoke the Paschal Greeting. ‘Nicolas, Christ is risen!’
Nicolas replied likewise, ‘Truly, He is risen.’ Both men crossed themselves. ‘How is your wife today?’
‘Oh, she is suffering with our unborn child. The constant rolling of the ship and the vile smells below deck do not make her life comfortable.’
‘When is she due?’
‘In five weeks or so, if God be pleased.’
‘Does she need for anything?’
‘Only fresh water and good food and they are both sadly lacking, sieur.’
‘The men caught some fish today, I’ll make sure she gets some.’
Nicolas, who had been protected from the harshness of French life in his father’s house and more recently as an officer in the Kings dragoons, listened to Claude’s descriptions of life below decks, third-class. Claude listed the grievances that crowded in upon him and his fellow passengers below decks. ‘’Tis the stench of vomit occasioned by many kinds of seasickness below decks which turns our stomachs.’
Nicolas nodded, unable to help in any but the slightest way.
‘There’s some who lay in the hammocks with fever,’ said Claude, ‘or dysentery, or scurvy. Some will not survive the voyage, I’m sure.’ His tales of sharply-salted food and meat, and foul water upset Nicolas, yet he felt powerless to do anything. Claude added, ‘Yesterday a man from Lyon died. They tipped his body over the side without ceremony. ’Twas a terrible end.’
Three weeks passed and Nicolas noted in his diary on the seventh of May 1756: ‘It is with some relief that the suffering of the hundreds of soldiers and twenty immigrants have to some degree relented from the want of provisions, hunger, thirst, anxiety, and lamentations, together with other troubles, because the sun is at last warm upon a calmer sea. We are making good headway. The captain said at dinner last night to me and his fellow officers that landfall is probably only seven days away. My spirits have risen.’
On his walk along the deck the next morning, he met Claude as usual, but lines of worry were clearly etched on his forehead. ‘How is your wife, sieur?’
‘Anne Marie was in confinement. She had a painful delivery,’ said Claude ‘and gave birth to our son prematurely hours ago this morning.’
‘A son, the Lord be praised. How is she?’
‘She is well, but my son being three weeks premature is likely to die in the poor conditions. Please help.’ He pleaded with Nicolas, fell to one knee with a cloud of desperation on his face and begged.
‘I’ll see the captain,’ said Nicolas spurred on by the thought of new life and anxious to help a fellow traveller for whom he had grown a strong bond of affection.
The next day, after speaking of the matter over dinner at the captain’s table, he returned with the unfavourable report that there was little the captain could or would do. There was no doctor aboard the fighting ship. The captain had explained that every moment upon the sea they were at the mercy of the elements and any English warship.
‘I am sorry,’ Nicolas said, ‘here, I have brought some food from our table.’ He passed Claude a chunk of cheese and some meat which he had taken from his own plate.
It was Nicolas’ first lesson that life in the New World may not be as desirable as he had imagined in the comfort of his barracks in Paris or the drawing room of his rue Royale home.
Two days later the wind freshened and the captain commanded the men to haul up the sails in the stiffening breeze. Men scrambled up the rigging urged on by the lieutenant de vaisseau, dressed in his heavy blue uniform. He barked his commands in the most basic of terms and was well-protected against the elements in comparison to some of the men who climbed the rigging barefoot, as they had until that moment been in the hammocks below decks. The darkening clouds foretold a gale would blow up from the west. The ship shuddered under the force of the winds and the temperature fell. The sailors edged along the footropes attached to the yard arm until each was in his allotted position and with cold fingers. They commenced to grab the sails and pull them in. Six men lined the longest yard arm of the mainsail and working in harmony they furled the sail into a bunches high above Nicolas’ head. He watched as the men swayed in the increasingly strong wind battling to gather in the sail. They clung on defiantly, their feet edging along the footrope. Each man leant over the yard arm and pulled at the billowing sail arm over arm until he could tie in.
Nicolas froze in horror as one failed to gather his bunch of sail and, as the wind billowed it out, it knocked him off his perch high above. His screams pierced the air as he fell straight into the sea. His body hit the turbulent water with barely any splash. Nicolas stared at the troubled sea but saw no sign of the sailor. He continued to look at the spot hoping that at last a head would bob up from under the waves as the ship heaved and rolled in the roiling sea, but he saw nothing.
The masts cried out in anguish under the force of the winds as if in mourning for the lost soul and the lieutenant de vaisseau yelled again at the men to furl in the sail which had torn itself and flapped madly. Now, Nicolas prayed not only for the deliverance of the sailor but for the whole ship as it floundered in the tempest. He clung to the side rail as the ship was mercilessly abused by the winds. Above him, the sailors continued to gather in the sail and thankfully they bound it and its tattered ends before descending the rigging.
Rain fell like arrows and the boat heaved and pitched. Nicolas threw up over the side feeling weak and worse than death. Hour after hour, the gale battered the ship. Captain Toussaint de Robaud staggered uneasily up to him shouting against the force of the wind, ‘Get below decks, sieur. You’ll be safer there.’
The next morning was calm, but Claude had sad news. His child had died in the turmoil below decks. Claude had tipped him through a gun port and dropped him into the sea because he was far in the bow of the ship and did not want to bother the captain in the stern during the storm. He wanted the matter settled as quickly as possible. It was a lesson that Nicolas would never forget.
On the forty-seventh day, the lieutenant de vaisseau yelled out from the quarter deck to the unflappable and imperious Captain Toussaint de Robaud standing on the poop deck, ‘Land ahoy!’
The captain seized a telescope and eyed the horizon. ‘Hoist the flag,’ he commanded, shouting with glee, ‘Louisbourg is on the port bow.’
From below soldiers and immigrants like ants from a disturbed anthill surged up onto the deck. They hugged each other as the misery of their journey neared its end. Nicolas stood with his hand to his brow and with grateful eyes looked out at the welcome sight. Land! The low and wooded distant shore gleamed verdant in the sunshine, and prominently upon a bluff stood the low palisades of the fort commanding the channel to the St Lawrence river.
Nicolas’ heart leapt with joy as he listened to the happy calls from the other passengers who had suffered so much. The voyage through hell would soon be at an end. Two days later, he stared at the joyous sight of Québec. Three spires in the walled town which crowded the waterfront and climbed gently up the green hillside called upon the people to admire the heavens. Red roofs glowed in the sunshine. With the air of a man who knew something momentous in his life was about to start, he surveyed the scene.
His fellow passengers started to disembark in small boats which had rowed out to meet them. The sounds of trumpets and drums and the smell of burning wood fires floated in the air. The drums beat quick, light and gay and the people’s quayside agitation looked like they were dancing to the rhythm of the drums.
In the melee on the quay crowded with at least a thousand Québécois and the hundreds of disembarked passengers, Nicolas sought out Claude and his wife Anne-Marie. Someone shouted, ‘Four hundred troops.’ After much shoving and pushing, he found them by a cart with two well-groomed bay horses. She looked hollow and gaunt, her dark hair awry around her face, yet she managed a wan smile. ‘Farewell,’ he said, knowing nothing could compensate for the tragedy which had befallen them and unable to say anything more meaningful.
They smiled and left in the cart presumably provided by their new employer. Claude called out, ‘May God be with you in your duties, sieur.’
Behind Nicolas, the drums continued their relentless beat. Canada, this wide, wild and wonderful new nation, would define him, but little did he or anyone on that quayside know that on that very day in the far-off capitals of Europe, an official state of war was declared between England and France over Nouvelle-France’s incursion into the Ohio country.