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- The French in the Heart of America - 2/57 -

light is cast around on lord and vassal and black-robed priest, mingled with wild forms of savage warriors, knit in close fellowship on the same stern errand. A boundless vision grows upon us; an untamed continent; vast wastes of forest verdure; mountains silent in primeval sleep; river, lake, and glimmering pool; wilderness oceans mingling with the sky. Such was the domain which France conquered for Civilization. Plumed helmets gleamed in the shade of its forests, priestly vestments in its dens and fastnesses of ancient barbarism. Men steeped in antique learning, pale with the close breath of the cloister, here spent the noon and evening of their lives, ruled savage hordes with a mild, parental sway, and stood serene before the direst shapes of death. Men of courtly nurture, heirs to the polish of a far-reaching ancestry, here, with their dauntless hardihood, put to shame the boldest sons of toil." [Footnote: Parkman: "Pioneers of France in the New World." New library edition. Introduction, xii-xiii.]

These are the regions we are to explore, and these are the men with whom we are to begin the journey.



We shall not be able to enter the valley of the Mississippi in this chapter. There is a long stretch of the nearer valley of the St. Lawrence that must first be traversed. Just before I left America in 1910 two men flew in a balloon from St. Louis, the very centre of the Mississippi Valley, to the Labrador gate of the St. Lawrence, the vestibule valley, in a few hours, but it took the French pioneers a whole century and more to make their way out to where those aviators began their flight. We have but a few pages for a journey over a thousand miles of stream and portage and a hundred years of time. I must therefore leave most of the details of suffering from the rigors of the north, starvation, and the Iroquois along the way to your memories, or to your fresh reading of Parkman, Winsor, Fiske, and Thwaites in English, or to Le Clercq, Lescarbot, Champlain, Charlevoix, Sagard, and others in French.

The story of the exploration and settlement of those valleys beyond the cod-banks of Newfoundland begins not in the ports of Spain or Portugal, nor in England, but in a little town on the coast of France, standing on a rocky promontory thrust out into the sea, only a few hours' ride from Paris, in the ancient town of St. Malo, the "nursery of hardy mariners," the cradle of the spirit of the West. [Footnote: After reaching Paris on my first journey, the first place to which I made a pilgrimage, even before the tombs of kings and emperors and the galleries of art, was this gray-bastioned town of St. Malo.]

For a son of France was the first of Europeans, so far as we certainly know, to penetrate beyond the tidewater of those confronting coasts, the first to step over the threshold of the unguessed continent, north, at any rate, of Mexico. Columbus claimed at most but an Asiatic peninsula, though he knew that he had found only islands. The Cabots, in the service of England, sailing along its mysterious shores, had touched but the fringe of the wondrous garment. Ponce de Leon, a Spaniard, had floundered a few leagues from the sea in Florida searching for the fountain of youth. Narvaez had found the wretched village of Appalache but had been refused admission by the turbid Mississippi and was carried out to an ocean grave by its fierce current; Verrazano, an Italian in the employ of France, living at Rouen, had entered the harbor of New York, had enjoyed the primitive hospitality of what is now a most fashionable seaside resort (Newport), had seen the peaks of the White Mountains from his deck, and, as he supposed, had looked upon the Indian Ocean, or the Sea of Verrazano, which has shrunk to the Chesapeake Bay on our modern maps and now reaches not a fiftieth part of the way to the other shore.

It was a true son of France who first had the persistence of courage and the endurance of imagination to enter the continent and see the gates close behind him--Jacques Cartier, a master pilot of St. Malo, commissioned of his own intrepid desire and of the jealous ambition of King Francis I to bring fresh tidings of the mysterious "square gulf," which other Frenchmen, Denys and Aubert, may have entered a quarter of a century earlier, and which it was hoped might disclose a passage to the Indies.

It was from St. Malo that Carrier set sail on the highroad to Cathay, as he imagined, one April day in 1534 in two ships of sixty tons each. [Footnote: I crossed back over the same ocean, nearly four hundred years later, to a French port in a steamship of a tonnage equal to that of a fleet of four hundred of Carrier's boats; so has the sea bred giant children of such hardy parentage.] There is preserved in St. Malo what is thought to be a list of those who signed the ship's papers subscribed under Carrier's own hand. It is no such instrument as the "Compact" which the men of the _Mayflower_ signed as they approached the continent nearly a century later, but it is none the less fateful.

The autumn leaves had not yet fallen from the trees of Brittany when the two ships that started out in April appeared again in the harbor of St. Malo, carrying two dusky passengers from the New World as proofs of Carrier's ventures. He had made reconnoissance of the gulf behind Newfoundland and returned for fresh means of farther quest toward Cathay.

The leaves were but come again on the trees of Brittany when, with a larger crew in three small vessels (one of only forty tons), he again went out with the ebb-tide from St. Malo; his men, some of whom had been gathered from the jails, having all made their confession and attended mass, and received the benediction of the bishop. In August he entered the great river St. Lawrence, whose volume of water was so great as to brighten Carrier's hopes of having found the northern way to India. On he sailed, with his two dusky captives for pilots, seeing with regret the banks of the river gradually draw together and hearing unwelcome word of the freshening of its waters--on past the "gorge of the gloomy Saguenay with its towering cliffs and sullen depths, depths which no sounding-line can fathom, and heights at whose dizzy verge the wheeling eagle seems a speck"; on past frowning promontory and wild vineyards, to the foot of the scarped cliff of Quebec, now "rich with heroic memories, then but the site of a nameless barbarism"; thence, after parley with the Indian chief Donnacona and his people, on through walls of autumn foliage and frost- touched meadows to where the Lachine Rapids mocked with unceasing laughter those who dreamed of an easy way to China. There, entertained at the Indian capital, he was led to the top of a hill, such as Montmartre, from whose height he saw his Cathay fade into a stretch of leafy desert bounded only by the horizon and threaded by two narrow but hopeful ribbons of water. There, hundreds of miles from the sea, he stood, probably the only European, save for his companions, inside the continent, between Mexico and the Pole; for De Soto had not yet started for his burial in the Mississippi; the fathers of the Pilgrim Fathers were still in their cradles; Narvaez's men had come a little way in shore and vanished; Cabeça de Vaca was making his almost incredible journey from the Texas coast to the Pacific; Captain John Smith was not yet born; and Henry Hudson's name was to remain obscure for three quarters of a century. Francis I had sneeringly inquired of Charles V if he and the King of Portugal had parcelled out the world between them, and asked to see the last will and testament of the patriarch Adam. If King Francis had been permitted to see it, he would have found a codicil for France written that day against the bull of Pope Alexander VI and against the hazy English claim of the Cabots. For the river, "the greatest without comparison," as Cartier reported later to his king, "that is known to have ever been seen," carried drainage title to a realm larger many times than all the lands of the Seine and the Rhone and the Loire, and richer many times than the land of spices to which the falls of Lachine, "the greatest and swiftest fall of water that any where hath beene scene," seemed now to guard the way.

"Hochelaga" the Indians called their city--the capital of the river into which the sea had narrowed, a thousand miles inland from the coasts of Labrador which but a few years before were the dim verge of the world and were believed even then to be infested with griffins and fiends--a city which vanished within the next three quarters of a century. For when Champlain came in 1611 to this site to build his outpost, not a trace was left of the palisades which Cartier describes and one of his men pictures, not an Indian was left of the population that gave such cordial welcome to Cartier. And for all Champlain's planning it was still a meadow and a forest--the spring flowers "blooming in the young grass" and birds of varied plumage flitting "among the boughs"--when the mystic and soldier Maisonneuve and his associates of Montreal, forty men and four women, in an enterprise conceived in the ancient Church of St. Germain-des-Prés and consecrated to the Holy Family by a solemn ceremonial at Notre-Dame, knelt upon this same ground in 1642 before the hastily reared and decorated altar while Father Vimont, standing in rich vestments, addressed them. "You are," he said, "a grain of mustard-seed that shall rise and grow till its branches overshadow the earth. You are few, but your work is the work of God. His smile is on you and your children shall fill the land." [Footnote: François Dollier de Casson, "Histoire du Montreal," quoted in Parkman's "Jesuits in North America," p. 209, a free rendering of the original. "Voyez-vous, messieurs, dit-il, ce que vous voyez n'est qu'un grain de moutarde, mais il est jeté par des mains si pieuses et animées de l'esprit de la foi et de la religion que sans doute il faut que le ciele est de grands desseins puisqu'il se sert de tels ouvriers, et je ne fais aucun doute que ce petit grain ne produise un grand arbre, ne fasse un jour des merveilles, ne soit multiplié et ne s'étende de toutes parts."] Parkman (from the same French authority) finishes the picture of the memorable day: "The afternoon waned; the sun sank behind the western forest, and twilight came on. Fireflies were twinkling over the darkened meadow. They caught them, tied them with threads into shining festoons and hung them before the altar, where the Host remained exposed. Then they pitched their tents, lighted their bivouac fires, stationed their guards and lay down to rest. Such was the birth-night of Montreal." [Footnote: François Dollier de Casson, "Histoire du Montreal," quoted in Parkman's "Jesuits in North America," p. 209, a free rendering of the original. "On avait point de lampes ardentes devant le St. Sacrement, mais on avait certaines mouches brillantes qui y luisaient fort agréablement jour et nuit étant suspendues par des filets d'une façon admirable et belle, et toute propre à honorer selon la rusticité de ce pays barbare, le plus adorable de nos mystères."]

On the both of September in 1910 two hundred thousand people knelt in that same place before an out-of-door altar, and the incandescent lights were the fireflies of a less romantic and a more practical age. Maisonneuve and Mademoiselle Mance would have been enraptured by such a scene, but it would have given even greater satisfaction to the pilot of St. Malo if he could have seen that commercial capital of the north lying beneath the mountain which still bears the name he gave it, and stretching far beyond the bounds of the palisaded Hochelaga. It should please France to know that nearly two hundred thousand French keep the place of the footprint of the first pioneer, Jacques Cartier. When a few weeks before my coming to France I was making my way by a trail down the side of Mount Royal through the trees--some of which may have been there in Cartier's day--two lads, one of as beautiful face as I have ever seen, though tear-stained, emerged from the bushes and begged me, in a language which Jacques Cartier would have understood better than I, to show them the way back to "rue St. Maurice," which I did, finding that street to be only a few paces from the place where Champlain had made a clearing for his "Place Royale" in the midst of the forest three hundred years ago. That beautiful boy, Jacques Jardin, brown-eyed, bare-kneed, in French soldier's cap, is to me the living incarnation of the adventure which has made even that chill wilderness blossom as a garden in Brittany.

But to come back to Cartier. It was too late in the season to make further

The French in the Heart of America - 2/57

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