Black Robe, an account of the 17th-century encounter between the Huron and Iroquois the French called "Les Sauvages" and the French Jesuit missionaries the native people called "Blackrobes," is Brian Moore's most striking book. No other novel has so well captured both the intense--and disastrous--strangeness of each culture to one another, and their equal strangeness to our own much later understanding.
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BRIAN MOORE, whom Graham Greene called his "favourite living novelist," was born in Belfast in 1921. He emigrated to Canada in 1948, where he became a journalist and adopted Canadian citizenship. He wrote his first three novels while living in Canada. His many honours include two Governor General's Awards for Fiction.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Laforgue felt his body tremble. What can be keeping them? Has the Commandant refused? Why has he not sent for me? Is this God’s punishment for my lie about my hearing? But it wasn’t a lie; my intention was honorable. Or is that a sophistry? Am I now so mired in my ambition that I can no longer tell truth from falsehood? For what seemed the hundredth time, the sentry on duty outside the Commandant’s quarters turned and marched along the ramparts of the fort. Laforgue heard voices. He looked down the steep path which led to the wooden buildings of the settlement. Two men were coming up. One was an officer, his slouch hat tilted over his forehead, his uniform whitened by dust. When Laforgue saw the face of the second man, he felt a sudden disquiet. A month ago, this man, a fur trader named Massé, had run from the stinking wineshop where the traders drank to yell obscene insults at Laforgue. The insults concerned a Savage girl Massé had been sleeping with, a girl Laforgue had lately tried to instruct in the faith.
Now, seeking to avoid further taunts, he moved closer to the shadow of the ramparts. And as he did, he looked up at the Commandant’s quarters. Framed in a window was the face of Champlain.
The Commandant, sitting at his window, saw a wide- brimmed clerical hat tilt up to reveal the pale, bearded visage of Father Laforgue. He looked past the lonely figure of the priest to the settlement of Québec, a jumble of wooden buildings, three hundred feet below. As in a painting, his eye was led toward the curve of the great river where four French ships lay at anchor. In a week they would be gone.
Behind him, he heard the Jesuit Superior cough, a small reminder, deferential yet impatient. “You were saying, Commandant?”
“I said it is late in the year. Tell them that.”
The Jesuit, Father Bourque, translated for the Savages. Chomina, the elder Savage, had shaved his head bald except for a ridge of hair, which bristled across the crown like the spine of a hedgehog. His face was a mask of white clay. The younger, a leader called Neehatin, had ornamented himself for this occasion by drawing rings of yellow ochre around his eyes and painting his nose a bright blue. Both watched Champlain as they might a large and unpredictable animal.
When the Jesuit had finished, the younger Savage spoke. Champlain turned to him as a deaf man toward moving lips. In all these years, he, the founder of this land, had not mastered the Savage tongue.
“He asks if Agnonha no longer wishes them to carry the French,” Father Bourque said.
“Why would he ask that?”
“I think they are worried that you will not give them the six muskets they have requested,” the Jesuit said. “As you know, your Excellency, this is the real reason they have offered to help us.” Champlain smiled at the Savage. “Tell him Agnonha is grateful for his offer of help. Tell him that for once Agnonha may be willing to offer muskets as presents. But tell him my concern is this. To succeed, the journey should have started three weeks ago.”
“With respect,” Father Bourque said, “I think there is still time to reach the Ihonatiria mission. As you know, I have twice made this journey myself.”
Champlain looked at the priest’s black cassock and thought, irreverently, that it reminded him of a schoolboy’s smock. When you were still a boy in school, Father, I made and mapped the journey of which you speak. What do you know of that time? Why do you think these Savages want muskets? It is not to hunt but to kill their enemies.
“It is not just the onset of winter,” he told the Jesuit. “There is the other, the greater danger. We have not spoken of that.”
The Jesuit bowed his head. “The journey, like our lives, is in God’s hands.”
“But what if there is no mission? What if Laforgue arrives to find the two Fathers dead?”
“We will cross that bridge when we come to it.”
Champlain fingered his graying beard in a gesture which semaphored his irritation. “Not we,” he said. “It is Father Laforgue who must cross it. I do not know him well, but certainly he has no experience of these hardships.”
“Would you wish to question him, your Excellency? I have brought him with me. He waits outside.”
“What can I learn from that? I have said he has no experience of the great river.”
“In my opinion,” the Jesuit said, “he is adequate to the task. He is an ordained member of the Society of Jesus and, as such, his capabilities have been carefully assessed by the Order.”
“You are talking of assessments which were made in France. I am talking of dangers and sufferings the Society of Jesus has not dreamed of.”
“With respect,” Father Bourque said. “There are few hardships not envisaged or experienced by our members in different lands.”
Champlain looked at the Savages, who squatted on the floor, their knees as high as their heads. The Savages considered it ill- mannered to parley while standing. While he had been careful to remain seated, the Jesuit carelessly paced the room. “The young man you are sending with him is a boy, not yet twenty,” Champlain said.
“True. But he is an exceptional young man.”
“In what way is he exceptional, Father?”
“He was sent out as a workman, but with the highest recommendations. He is devout and diligent. His uncle, a priest, instructed him in Latin, and he studied with the Récollet Fathers in Rouen.”
“Latin will not help him on the great river.”
“No. But he is highly intelligent and adaptable. When I discovered his talent for languages, I sent him off to spend time with the Algonkin at their eel fishery. In a year he has mastered Algonkian and Huron speech.”
Champlain heard a sudden noise. It was the noise of a wooden bowl striking against the floor. The Savages had begun to gamble, shaking the bowl and examining the plum stones in it. The stones were painted white on one side, black on the other. The gamble was to guess which color predominated.
“Father,” he said. “We have talked too long in our tongue. They are weary of us.”
“True. My apologies.”
Again, the bowl banged on the floor. Champlain felt a familiar numbness move up his arm. Will this be my last winter? Will I never again see the red flame of Richelieu’s robe come toward me in the long gallery of the Palais de Justice, passing all those who seek his ear? I bend to kiss his ring; he smiles at me, a smile that tells nothing of the smiler’s thought. Who will he send here to replace me? And what would he say to this request? The journey to almost certain death of a priest and a boy, against the chance to save a small outpost for France and for the Faith. In the conquest of a nation, lives are currency.
He had his answer. He smiled at the painted faces.
“Tell them six muskets. No more.”
Laforgue, watching, at last saw the Superior and the Savages emerge from the Commandant’s quarters.
Is it yes or no? Why did he not send for me? Quickly, he walked along beneath the ramparts, controlling his desire to break into a run. The Superior, passing the guard, turned to the Savages, but the Savages, whose custom it was not to utter formal farewells, simply walked away. They did not use the path which led down to the settlement, but went across the rougher terrain which led to their encampment.
Father Bourque looked back when he heard Laforgue’s footstep. “Ah, there you are,” he said. “Come. We must hurry.” He moved past Laforgue, going down the path. Laforgue, trained in the rule of obedience, did not ask the question which consumed his thoughts, but fell in a pace behind him.
They passed by the officer and Massé, who, coming up, bowed respectfully to the Superior. Massé did not look at Laforgue. In silence, the two priests continued down to the jetty, where their canoe was moored. Father Bourque waited while Laforgue untied the rope and, draping his wooden clogs around his neck so as not to damage the thin bark bottom, stepped neatly into the birch- bark craft, and held it steady against the mooring place. Father Bourque, also removing his clogs, got into the front of the canoe as Laforgue, kneeling precisely as the Savages had taught him, carefully moved the craft out onto the river.
He heeled it toward a tributary which led downstream to the Jesuit residence. Father Bourque took up his paddle. Steadily they stroked toward the far bank of the tributary, where a rectangle of wooden palisades enclosed two buildings which formed the residence. Laforgue, aware that the Superior was judging his skills, rose up at the precise moment the swift canoe glided to shore and leaped onto the landing place, neatly catching the prow and guiding it in.
“Where is Daniel?” Father Bourque asked, as he disembarked.
“I believe they are all working up at the storehouse.”
“All of them?” The Superior did not wait for a reply but set off along the narrow track which led to the residence. As they entered the long- grassed meadows surrounding the palisades, a miasma of mosquitoes clouded about them, causing them to slap their faces, duck and proceed, half running, toward the gate.
“Find Daniel and bring him to me,” the Superior said.
Inside the gate they separated, Father Bourque entering the principal building, a one- story construction of wooden planks, plastered with mud and thatched with grasses. Laforgue hurried on to the second building, half burned some years back by the English, a building the Jesuits’ workmen were now repairing. As he approached, he heard the sound of hammering and laughter; someone shouted something in the Breton tongue. Escaping the mosquito cloud, he ducked under the hanging which served for a door. As he did, the laughter and hammering ceased and from their perches and workbenches the men looked down at him in silence.
The head carpenter had asked the question, but Laforgue looked at Daniel Davost, who stood, holding a plank, his mouth full of nails.
“No news yet,” Laforgue said. “But Father Bourque wants to see Daniel at once.”
“Then you’re going,” the carpenter said. The other workmen exchanged glances. All of them disapproved of the priests’ sending a young boy on this dangerous journey. And now, as Daniel left with Laforgue, angry voices were raised, speaking Breton, which Laforgue did not understand.
“What did they say, Daniel?”
“Nothing, Father. Some joke.”
Outside, in the choking swarm of insects, they ran toward the main residence. As they entered they passed through the chapel, a small bare room with a wooden altar on which were two cloth hangings; one represented the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, the other an image of the Virgin. The chapel opened into the refectory, which the priests used also as their workroom. In this room twelve Savage men and women squatted on the ground in a semicircle, just inside the doorway.
They did not move when Daniel and Laforgue entered but kept their eyes on a clock which sat on the refectory table. The smell of their unwashed bodies and greasy hair filled the room with a pungent sickly odor. Two other priests, Fathers Bonnet and Meynard, were in the adjoining kitchen together with a lay brother.
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