An embassy came to Quebec and demanded the release of the hostages, but were met with a sharp reproof and a flat refusal. At the mission on Lake Onondaga the crisis was drawing near. The unbridled young warriors, whose capricious lawlessness often set at naught the monitions of their crafty elders, killed wantonly at various times thirteen Christian Hurons, captives at Onondaga. Ominous reports reached the ears of the colonists. They heard of a secret council at which their death was decreed. Again, they heard that they were to be surprised and captured, that the Iroquois in force were then to descend upon Canada, lay waste the outlying settlements, and torture them, the colonists, in sight of their countrymen, by which they hoped to extort what terms they pleased.
At length, a dying Onondaga, recently converted and baptized, confirmed the rumors, and revealed the whole plot.
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It was to take effect before the spring opened; but the hostages in the hands of Aillebout embarrassed the conspirators and caused delay. Messengers were sent in haste to call in the priests from the detached missions, and all the colonists, fifty-three in number, were soon gathered at their fortified house on the lake. Their situation was frightful. Fate hung over them by a hair, and escape seemed hopeless. A throng of Onondaga warriors were day and night on the watch, bivouacked around the house.
Some of them had built their huts of bark before the gate, and here, with calm, impassive faces, they lounged and smoked their pipes; or, wrapped in their blankets, strolled about the yards and outhouses, attentive to all that passed. Their behavior was very friendly. The Jesuits, themselves adepts in dissimulation, were amazed at the depth of their duplicity; for the conviction had been forced upon them that some of the chiefs had nursed their treachery from the first. In this extremity Du Puys and the Jesuits showed an admirable coolness, and among them devised a plan of escape, critical and full of doubt, but not devoid of hope.
First, they must provide means of transportation; next, they must contrive to use them undis covered. They had eight canoes, all of which combined would not hold half their company. Over the mission-house was a large loft or garret, and here the carpenters were secretly set at work to construct two large and light flat-boats, each capable of carrying fifteen men. The task was soon finished. The most difficult part of their plan remained.
There was a beastly superstition prevalent among the Hurons, the Iroquois, and other tribes. So grave was the obligation, and so strenuously did the guests fulfil it, that even their ostrich digestion was sometimes ruined past redemption by the excess of this benevolent gluttony. Among the French was a young man who had been adopted by an Iroquois chief, and who spoke the language fluently. He now told his Indian father that it had been revealed to him in a dream that he would soon die unless the spirits were appeased by one of these magic feasts.
Dreams were the oracles of the Iroquois, and woe to those who slighted them. A day was named for the sacred festivity. The fathers killed their hogs to meet, the occasion, and, that nothing might be wanting, they ransacked their stores for all that might give piquancy to the entertainment. It took place in the evening of the 20th of March, apparently in a large enclosure outside the palisade surrounding the mission-house. Here, while blazing fires or glaring pine-knots shed their glow on the wild assemblage, Frenchmen and Iroquois joined in the dance, or vied with each other in games of agility and skill.
The politic fathers offered prizes to the winners, and the Indians entered with zest into the sport, the better, perhaps, to hide their treachery and hoodwink their intended victims; for they little suspected that a subtlety, deeper this time than their own, was at work to countermine them. Here, too, were the French musicians; and drum, trumpet, and cymbal lent their clangor to the din of shouts and laughter. Thus the evening wore on, till at length the serious labors of the feast began. The kettles were brought in, and their steaming contents ladled into the wooden bowls which each provident guest had brought with him.
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Seated gravely in a ring, they fell to their work. It was a point of high conscience not to flinch from duty on these solemn occasions; and though they might burn the young man to-morrow, they would gorge themselves like vultures in his behoof to-day. Meantime, while the musicians strained their lungs and their arms to drown all other sounds, a band of anxious Frenchmen, in the darkness of the cloudy night, with cautious tread and bated breath, carried the boats from the rear of the mission-house down to the border of the lake.
The miserable guests were choking with repletion. They prayed the young Frenchman to dispense them from further surfeit. They bent to their task again, but Nature soon reached her utmost limit; and they sat helpless as a conventicle of gorged turkey-buzzards, without the power possessed by those unseemly birds to rid themselves of the burden. Now you can sleep till we come in the morning to waken you for prayers. Soon all were asleep, or in a lethargy akin to sleep.
The few remaining Frenchmen now silently withdrew and cautiously descended to the shore, where their comrades, already embarked, lay on their oars anxiously awaiting them. Snow was falling fast as they pushed out upon the murky waters. The ice of the winter had broken up, but recent frosts had glazed the surface with a thin crust. The two boats led the way, and the canoes followed in their wake, while men in the bows of the foremost boat broke the ice with clubs as they advanced. They reached. When day broke, Lake Onondaga was far behind, and around them was the leafless, lifeless forest.
When the Indians woke in the morning, dull and stupefied from their nightmare slumbers, they were astonished at the silence that reigned in the mission-house.
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They looked through the palisade. Nothing was stirring but a bevy of hens clucking and scratching in the snow, and one or two dogs imprisoned in the house and barking to be set free The Indians waited for some time, then climbed the palisade, burst in the doors, and found the house empty. Their amazement was unbounded. How, without canoes, could the French have escaped by water? The snow which had fallen during the night completely hid their footsteps. A superstitious awe seized the Iroquois. Meanwhile the fugitives pushed their flight with the energy of terror, passed in safety the rapids of the Oswego, crossed Lake Ontario, and descended the St.
Lawrence with the loss of three men drowned in the rapids. On the 3d of April they reached Montreal, and on the 23d arrived at Quebec. They had saved their lives; but the mission of Onondaga was a miserable failure. She had served two years as a hospital for marines, and was infected with a contagious fever.
Including the crew, some two hundred persons were on board, more than half of whom were bound for Montreal. But the most conspicuous among these passengers for Montreal were two groups of women in the habit of nuns, under the direction of Marguerite Bourgeoys and Jeanne Mance.
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Marguerite Bourgeoys, whose kind, womanly face bespoke her fitness for the task, was foundress of the school for female children at Montreal; her companion, a tall, austere figure, worn with suffering and care, was directress of the hospital. Both had returned to France for aid, and were now on their way back, each with three recruits, three being the mystic number, as a type of the Holy Family, to whose worship they were especially devoted.
Amid the bustle of departure, the shouts of sailors, the rattling of cordage, the flapping of sails, the tears and the embracings, an elderly man, with heavy plebeian features, sallow with disease, and in a sober, half-clerical dress, approached Mademoiselle Mance and her three nuns, and, turning his eyes to heaven, spread his hands over them in benediction.
Joseph, to which the three nuns belonged. Sister Maillet, who had charge of the meagre treasury of the community, thought that something more than a blessing was due from him; and asked where she should apply for payment of the interest of the twenty thousand livres which Mademoiselle Mance had placed in his hands for investment. Place your trust in. The essentials of the proposed establishment were to be a seminary of priests dedicated to the Virgin, a hospital to Saint Joseph, and a school to the Infant Jesus; while a settlement was to be formed around them simply for their defence and maintenance.
This pious purpose had in part been accomplished. It was seventeen years since Mademoiselle Mance had begun her labors in honor of Saint Joseph. Marguerite Bourgeoys had entered upon hers more recently; yet even then the attempt was premature, for she found no white children to teach. In time, however, this want was supplied, and she opened her school in a stable, which answered to the stable of Bethlehem, lodging with her pupils in the loft, and instructing them in Roman Catholic Christianity, with such rudiments of mundane knowledge as she and her advisers thought fit to impart.
Mademoiselle Mance found no lack of hospital work, for blood and blows were rife at Montreal, where the woods were full of Iroquois, and not a moment was without its peril. Though years. Lawrence, broke her right arm, and dislocated the wrist. Bouchard, the surgeon of Montreal, set the broken bones, but did not discover the dislocation.
The arm in consequence became totally useless, and her health wasted away under incessant and violent pain. Maisonneuve, the civil and military chief of the settlement, advised her to go to France for assistance in the work to which she was no longer equal; and Marguerite Bourgeoys, whose pupils, white and red, had greatly multiplied, resolved to go with her for a similar object.
They set out in September, , landed at Rochelle, and went thence to Paris. Here they repaired to the seminary of St. Sulpice; for the priests of this community were joined with them in the work at Montreal, of which they were afterwards to become the feudal proprietors.
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Now ensued a wonderful event, if we may trust the evidence of sundry devout persons. Olier, the founder of St. Sulpice, had lately died, and the two pilgrims would fain pay their homage to his heart, which the priests of his community kept as a precious relic, enclosed in a leaden box.
The box was brought, when the thought inspired Mademoiselle Mance to try its miraculous efficacy and invoke the intercession of the departed founder. She did so, touching her disabled arm gently with the leaden casket. Instantly a grateful warmth pervaded the shrivelled limb, and from that hour its use was restored. It is true that the Jesuits ventured to doubt the Sulpitian miracle, and even to ridicule it; but the Sulpitians will show to this day the attestation of Mademoiselle Mance herself, written with the fingers once paralyzed and powerless. Overflowing with zeal for the pious enterprise, she received her visitor with enthusiasm, lent an open ear to her recital, responded graciously to her appeal for aid, and paid over to her the sum, munificent at that day, of twenty-two thousand francs.
It was this wretched fanatic who, through visions and revelations, had first conceived the plan of a hospital in honor of Saint Joseph at Montreal. The time at length was come. It was noised through the town that he had kidnapped and sold them; and now the report spread abroad that he was about to crown his iniquity by luring away three young nuns.
A mob gathered at the convent gate, and the escort were forced to draw their swords to open a way for the terrified sisters. Racked by the gout and tormented by remorse, he betook himself to his bed in a state of body and mind truly pitiable. One of the miracles, so frequent in the early annals of Montreal, was vouchsafed in answer to his prayer, and he was enabled to journey to Rochelle and bid farewell to his nuns.
It was but a brief respite; he returned home to become the prey of a host of maladies, and to die at last a lingering and painful death. Meanwhile, the Sulpitians and others interested in the pious enterprise, had spared no effort to gather men to strengthen the colony, and young women to serve as their wives; and all were now mustered at Rochelle, waiting for embarkation.