From the pen of Gilbert Parker comes one of the most popular Canadian novels of the late nineteenth century. First published simultaneously in Canada and the United States in 1896, The Seats of the Mighty is set in Quebec City in 1759, against the backdrop of the conflict between the English and the French over the future of New France. Written and published after Parker's move to England, the novel attempts to romanticize French Canada without alienating his English and American readership. The novel's enduring popularity led to a stage version in 1897 and a silent film in 1914.
Gilbert Parker (1862-1932) was born in Camden East, Canada West (Ontario). After his move to England in 1890, he began the two careers for which he is best known today: the British director of American propaganda during the Great War and the author of thirty popular novels, most of them historical romances, including The Seats of the Mighty (1896).
The Master of the King's Magazine
What fools," said Doltaire presently, "to burn the bread and oven too! If only they were less honest in a world of rogues, poor moles!"
Coming nearer, we saw that La Friponne itself was safe, but one warehouse was doomed and another threatened. The streets were full of people, and thousands of excited peasants, labourers, and sailors were shouting, "Down with the palace! Down with Bigot!"
We came upon the scene at the most critical moment. None of the Governor's soldiers were in sight, but up the Heights we could hear the steady tramp of General Montcalm's infantry as they came on. Where were Bigot's men? There was a handful-one company-drawn up before La Friponne, idly leaning on their muskets, seeing the great granary burn, and watching La Friponne threatened by the mad crowd and the fire. There was not a soldier before the Intendant's palace, not a light in any window.
"What is this weird trick of Bigot's?" said Doltaire, musing.
The Governor, we knew, had been out of the city that day. But where was Bigot? At a word from Doltaire we pushed forward towards the palace, the soldiers keeping me in their midst. We were not a hundred feet from the great steps when two gates at the right suddenly swung open, and a carriage rolled out swiftly and dashed down into the crowd. I recognised the coachman first-Bigot's, an old one-eyed soldier of surpassing nerve, and devoted to his master. The crowd parted right and left. Suddenly the carriage stopped, and Bigot stood up, folding his arms, and glancing round with a disdainful smile without speaking a word. He carried a paper in one hand.
Here were at least two thousand armed and unarmed peasants, sick with misery and oppression, in the presence of their undefended tyrant. One shot, one blow of a stone, one stroke of a knife-to the end of a shameless pillage. But no hand was raised to do the deed. The roar of voices subsided-he waited for it-and silence was broken only by the crackle of the burning building, the tramp of Montcalm's soldiers on Palace Hill, and the tolling of the cathedral bell. I thought it strange that almost as Bigot issued forth the wild clanging gave place to a cheerful peal.
After standing for a moment, looking round him, his eye resting on Doltaire and myself (we were but a little distance from him), Bigot said in a loud voice: "What do you want with me? Do you think I may be moved by threats? Do you punish me by burning your own food, which, when the English are at our doors, is your only hope? Fools! How easily could I turn my cannon and my men upon you! You think to frighten me. Who do you think I am-a Bostonnais or an Englishman? You-revolutionists! T'sh! You are wild dogs without a leader. You want one that you can trust; you want no coward, but one who fears you not at your wildest. Well, I will be your leader. I do not fear you, and I do not love you, for how might you deserve love? By ingratitude and aspersion? Who has the King's favour? François Bigot. Who has the ear of the Grande Marquise? François Bigot. Who stands firm while others tremble lest their power pass to-morrow? François Bigot. Who else dare invite revolution, this danger"-his hand sweeping to the flames-"who but François Bigot?" He paused for a moment, and looking up to the leader of Montcalm's soldiers on the Heights, waved him back; then continued:
"And to-day, when I am ready to give you great news, you play the mad dog's game; you destroy what I had meant to give you in our hour of danger, when those English came. I made you suffer a little, that you might live then. Only to-day, because of our great and glorious victory-"
He paused again. The peal of bells became louder. Far up on the Heights we heard the calling of bugles and the beating of drums; and now I saw the whole large plan, the deep dramatic scheme. He had withheld the news of the victory that he might announce it when it would most turn to his own glory. Perhaps he had not counted on the burning of the warehouse, but this would tell now in his favour. He was not a large man, but he drew himself up with dignity, and continued in a contemptuous tone:
"Because of our splendid victory, I designed to tell you all my plans, and, pitying your trouble, divide among you at the smallest price, that all might pay, the corn which now goes to feed the stars."
At that moment some one from the Heights above called out shrilly, "What lie is in that paper, François Bigot?"
I looked up, as did the crowd. A woman stood upon a point of the great rock, a red robe hanging on her, her hair free over her shoulders, her finger pointing at the Intendant. Bigot only glanced up, then smoothed out the paper.
He said to the people in a clear but less steady voice, for I could see that the woman had disturbed him, "Go pray to be forgiven for your insolence and folly. His most Christian Majesty is triumphant upon the Ohio. The English have been killed in thousands, and their General with them. Do you not hear the joy-bells in the Church of Our Lady of the Victories? and more-listen!"
There burst from the Heights on the other side a cannon shot, and then another and another. There was a great commotion, and many ran to Bigot's carriage, reached in to touch his hand, and called down blessings on him.
"See that you save the other granaries," he urged, adding, with a sneer, "and forget not to bless La Friponne in your prayers!"
It was a clever piece of acting. Presently from the Heights above came the woman's voice again, so piercing that the crowd turned to her.
"François Bigot is a liar and a traitor!" she cried. "Beware of François Bigot! God has cast him out."
A dark look came upon Bigot's face; but presently he turned, and gave a sign to some one near the palace. The doors of the courtyard flew open, and out came squad after squad of soldiers. In a moment, they, with the people, were busy carrying water to pour upon the side of the endangered warehouse. Fortunately the wind was with them, else it and the palace also would have been burned that night.
At last Bigot beckoned to Doltaire and to me and we both came over.
"Doltaire, we looked for you at dinner," he said. "Was Captain Moray"-nodding towards me-"lost among the petticoats? He knows the trick of cup and saucer. Between the sip and click he sucked in secrets from our garrison-a spy where had been a soldier, as we thought. You once wore a sword, Captain Moray-eh?"
"If the Governor would grant me leave, I would not only wear, but use one, your excellency knows well where," said I.
"Large speaking, Captain Moray. They do that in Virginia, I am told."
"In Gascony there's quiet, your excellency."
Doltaire laughed outright, for it was said that Bigot, in his coltish days, had a shrewish Gascon wife, whom he took leave to send to heaven before her time. I saw the Intendant's mouth twitch angrily.
"Come," he said, "you have a tongue; we'll see if you have a stomach. You've languished with the girls; you shall have your chance to drink with François Bigot. Now, if you dare, when we have drunk to the first cockcrow, should you be still on your feet, you'll fight some one among us, first giving ample cause."
"I hope, your excellency," I replied, with a touch of vanity, "I have still some stomach and a wrist. I will drink to cockcrow, if you will. And if my sword prove the stronger, what?"
"There's the point," he said. "Your Englishman loves not fighting for fighting's sake, Doltaire; he must have bonbons for it. Well, see: if your sword and stomach prove the stronger, you shall go your ways to where you will. Voilà!"
If I could but have seen a bare portion of the craftiness of this pair of devil's artisans! They both had ends to serve in working ill to me, and neither was content that I should be shut away in the citadel, and no more. There was a deeper game playing. I give them their due: the trap was skilful, and in those times, with great things at stake, strategy took the place of open fighting here and there. For Bigot I was to be a weapon against another; for Doltaire, against myself.
What a gull they must have thought me! I might have known that, with my lost papers on the way to France, they must hold me tight here till I had been tried, nor permit me to escape. But I was sick of doing nothing, thinking with horror on a long winter in the citadel, and I caught at the least straw of freedom.
"Captain Moray will like to spend a couple of hours at his lodgings before he joins us at the palace," the Intendant said, and with a nod to me he turned to his coachman. The horses wheeled, and in a moment the great doors opened, and he had passed inside to applause, though here and there among the crowd was heard a hiss, for the Scarlet Woman had made an impression. The Intendant's men essayed to trace these noises, but found no one. Looking again to the Heights, I saw that the woman had gone. Doltaire noted my glance and the inquiry in my face, and he said:
"Some bad fighting hours with the Intendant at Château Bigot, and then a fever, bringing a kind...