War still went on—war between French and British, between French and Iroquois. The houses in the country were deserted, the fields lay untilled, the people crowded to the towns for safety. Here and there the people of a village would gather and work all together. But while they worked, sentinels were on the watch to give warning at the first sign of danger. Everywhere the red terror lurked. No man was safe, no life was sure. The trader paddling downstream with his store of furs, the trapper returning from the woods, each knew that he held his life in his hands. "The enemy is upon us by land and sea," wrote Frontenac; "send us more men if you want the colony to be saved."
Many stories are told of brave deeds done at this time. But one of the most famous is that of Madeleine de Vèrcheres, a girl of fourteen, who held her father's fort against the Indians for a whole week.
It was autumn, and all the settlers at Vèrcheres had gone to work in the fields some miles from the fort. Two soldiers only had been left on guard. Besides them there was an old man of eighty, some women and children, and Madeleine with her two little brothers of ten and twelve.
All seemed peaceful and quiet. But through the thick forest, which already glowed gold and red beneath the autumn sun, Indians were stealing. Thinking that all was safe, Madeleine had gone down to the river which flowed not far from the fort. Suddenly, through the still air, was heard the sound of gun-shots. Hardly had the sound died away when there came a cry from the fort. "Run, miss, run!" shouted the old man; "the Indians are upon us!"
Madeleine turned. There, not a pistol-shot behind her, was a band of forty-five or fifty Indians.
How Madeleine ran! Fear seemed to give her wings. But oh, the way was long! As she ran, she prayed in her heart, "Holy Virgin, Mother of God, save me!" The bullets of forty-five muskets sang and whistled round her as she fled. Would she never reach the fort? Oh, how far off it seemed! "To arms, to arms!" she shouted, hoping that some one would come out and help her. No one came. At last she reached the gate and fled within. With trembling hands she closed and barred it.
For the moment she was saved. But it was only for the moment. Wasting no time, Madeleine ran round the fort to see that all was safe. Here and there logs had fallen out on the palisades, leaving holes through which the enemy might get in. These she ordered to be replaced, herself helping to carry the logs. As soon as that was done she went to the guardroom where the gunpowder and shot were kept. Here she found the two so-called soldiers hiding in abject terror. One had a lighted match in his hand. "What are you going to do with that?" she asked quickly.
"I am going to set the powder on fire and blow us all up," he answered.
"You coward!" cried Madeleine, "go!"
She was only a girl of fourteen, but she spoke so sternly that the soldier was ashamed. He blew out his match and left the room.
Madeleine now threw off the white muslin bonnet which women used to wear in those days. Putting on a steel cap, and taking a gun in her hand, she turned to her two brothers. "Boys," she said, "let us fight to the death. Remember what father has taught you, that gentlemen must be ready to die for their God and their king."
The boys were as brave as their sister, and, taking their guns, they went to the loopholes and began to fire upon the Indians who were now close round the house.
Although Madeleine was so calm and brave, the women of the fort were much frightened. They cried pitifully, and so did the little children. Madeleine comforted them as well as she could, and told them that they must not cry, for if the Indians without heard, they would learn how hopeless the state of the fort was, and would attack more fiercely.
All day long the fight lasted, and with the darkness of night came a terrible storm. The wind howled round the walls, snow and hail beat against the windows. It was a fearful night, and Madeleine anxiously watching the movements of the Indians, became sure that they were making ready to attack the fort under cover of the darkness and the storm.
So Madeleine gathered her little garrison and made a speech to them. "God has saved us to-day from the hands of our enemies," she said. "But we must watch to-night lest we fall into their snares." Then to each she gave his orders, posting her few men as well as she could round the walls. So all night long the Indians heard the steady tread of sentinels on duty. Every hour from fort and block-house came the cry, "All's well." The wily Indians were completely deceived, and thinking that the fort was strongly garrisoned they dared not attack.
Towards morning there was an alarm. The sentry nearest the gate suddenly called out, "Lady, I hear something."
Hurrying towards him, Madeleine peered anxiously through the loophole. Yes, there, against the whiteness of the new-fallen snow, black moving figures could be seen coming close round the house. For a few moments Madeleine watched anxiously. Then soft lowing and snuffling was heard. Madeleine gave a sigh of relief. These were no Indians, but some cattle belonging to the fort which had found their way through the snow to the gate. There were only a few, for the Indians had captured nearly all the herd.
"We must open the gate and let them in," said some one.
"God forbid," replied Madeleine, "you do not know the wiles of these Indians. Very likely they are behind the cattle, wrapped in skins and ready to rush in the moment we are silly enough to open the gate."
But after some talk it was decided to risk it. For if they were long besieged they might be glad of the cattle to keep them from starving.
Calling her two brothers, Madeleine placed them one on each side of the gate, with their fingers on the triggers of their guns ready to fire. Then the gate was carefully opened. One by one the cattle came in, and the gate was again closed in safety.
At last the long night ended. And as the sun rose and the darkness fled, the fears and terrors of the night fled too.
The day passed, and another, and another. The Indians still prowled without, the brave little garrison still kept watch within. Hour by hour Madeleine marched round the posts, always smiling, always speaking cheering words, however heavy her heart might be. For the first two days and nights she hardly slept, never laying down her gun or taking off her clothes.
And so a week went by.
Upon the seventh night Madeleine sat in the guard-room. She was very weary. With her gun lying across her arms, and her head resting upon the table, she fell asleep. Suddenly she started wide awake to hear the tramp of men around the house. Springing up, she seized her gun. "Who goes there?" she called out into the darkness.
"French," came the reply; "it is La Monnerie come to help you."
Ah, that was good news! Running to the gate Madeleine threw it open. But even now she did not forget to be careful. Posting a sentinel, she marched out to meet the Frenchmen.
"Sir, you are welcome," she said, giving La Monnerie the leader, a military salute. "I render you my arms."
"Lady," replied the captain, bowing low before her "they are in good hands."
"Better than you know, perhaps," replied Madeleine proudly.
La Monnerie and his soldiers marched into the fort. Wonderingly he made a tour of the posts and found all in good order, each "man" at his post. It was perhaps the strangest, bravest garrison he had ever seen. Among them were an old man of eighty, and a boy of ten, and their leader was a girl of fourteen.
"Sir," said Madeleine, a little wearily but with a joyful pride, "relieve my men. We have not been off duty for eight days."
"And this is my little garrison, my brothers Louis and Paul;
With soldiers two, and a cripple. May the Virgin pray for us all.
But we've powder and guns in plenty, and we'll fight to the latest breath,
And if need be, for God and country, die a brave soldier's death.
"Load all the carabines quickly, and whenever you sight the foe,
Fire from the upper turret and loopholes down below,
Keep up the fire, brave soldiers, though the fight may be fierce and long,
And they'll think our little garrison is more than a hundred strong."
So spake the maiden Madeleine, and she roused the Norman blood
That seemed for a moment sleeping, and sent it like a flood
Through every heart around her, and they fought the red Iroquois
As fought in the old-time battles the soldiers of Carignan.
And six days followed each other, and feeble her limbs became,
Yet the maid never sought her pillow, and the flash of the carabine's flame
Illumined the powder-smoked faces, ay, even when hope seemed gone,
And she only smiled at her comrades and told them to fight, fight on.
And she blew a blast on her bugle, and lo, from the forest black
Merrily, merrily ringing, an answer came pealing back.
Oh, pleasant and sweet it sounded, borne on the morning air,
For it heralded fifty soldiers, with gallant be la Monniere.
And when he beheld the maiden, the soldier of Carignan,
And looked on the little garrison that fought the red Iroquois
And held their own in the battle, for six long weary days,
He stood for a moment speechless, and marvelled at woman's ways.
Then he beckoned the men behind him, and steadily they advance,
And with carabines uplifted the veterans of France
Saluted the brave young captain so timidly standing there,
And they fired a volley in honour of Madeleine Vèrcheres.