By Shannon Selin
Father Signay had heard it three times. Not from the men, of course. Boastful as crickets on the street, they became clams in the confessional. Instead he heard it from the women, who were not happy until they let out their secrets. At first he put it down to mobility of imagination–unschooled minds mistaking bold talk for action. But now he heard it from Veronique Laplante, who claimed to have seen the document firsthand, when her father put his name to it.
“He is old,” she pleaded. “He knows not what he does. It is a sin to go against the King.”
Father Signay wrapped himself in a buffalo robe, and drove his horse and cariole down the frozen Saint Lawrence River to Longueuil.
“What should I do?” he asked Bishop Denaut as he rubbed his icy fingers over the fire. Curé at Saint-Constant for only four months, Father Signay was still feeling his way in parish matters. He knew he could not break the seal of the confessional, so he stated the dilemma in general terms. If one knew of a danger, well, more a disgruntlement, some parishioners less securely attached to the sovereign than one might wish; if one saw signs, a portrait of Napoleon, for example, hanging among the saints, which might mean nothing–Napoleon had, after all, signed the Concordat with the Holy Pontiff, renouncing the atheism of the Revolution–but could perhaps mean something more, what were the bounds within which one might act to prevent a foolhardy enterprise?
Denaut looked sharply at the priest. Raised by a devout mother, the only one of her eleven children to live to adulthood, Signay had been a bright pupil at seminary. Unlike Denaut, who had taken refuge in Montreal when British cannon fire was torching Quebec almost fifty years ago, Signay had never known French rule. Had he read too deeply of the philosophes?
“The devil’s hand has many fingers,” intoned the bishop, his own plump nails scraping grains off a slab of maple sugar for his tea. “We are subjects of the British Crown. If there is an individual who ignores the intimate link between the observation of God’s commandments and the prosperity of this country, who tries to alienate His Majesty’s subjects from the King’s affection, and in so doing turns his regards to France, where men have abandoned all principle in the name of the new philosophy and have overthrown a monarchy known for its antiquity and devotion, he must be restrained.”
Signay had hoped for more precision, or more latitude. He knew that all praise was due to Divine Providence, which, through the blessing of the Conquest, had saved the colony from the tragedies playing out in France. He also knew that the British Crown, having employed its arms to extend its charity, had an incontestable right to fidelity. What he wondered was how far he should go to ensure this. “My parishioners are good Catholics.”
Denaut offered Signay a slice of cold pork. “Conviction and loyalty are the same thing.” The priest’s duty was not for examination. “One can only wish for the French as happy a lot as we have in Canada, where we enjoy liberty for our holy religion, without dissension.”
Back in the smarting air, Signay had to jump into a snowbank to avoid being hit by a jingling sleigh. As he brushed himself off, Signay wondered what Jean-Baptiste Norau, the cooper from Saint-Constant, was doing in Longueuil. It was a distance to come, and well after market hours. With the beneficence of a man of God, he fancied that Norau had come to see the bishop. He cheered at the thought of divine intervention. It was in the cooper’s house that he had seen Napoleon’s face.
“Bloody hell,” cursed Jean-Baptiste, out of the priest’s earshot. In swerving to avoid Signay, he had taken the corner too quickly, caught a runner on a high drift, and spilled his barrels across the road. He rubbed the frost from his eyes and pulled his toque over his forehead. Damn clergy. Vile bits of excrement, all of them. They should stick to their business in the chapel and not be out on the street.
Jean-Baptiste was panting when he reached his brother’s door, but that did not stop him from immediately unrolling the petition.
André shook his head. “Not again.”
“Eleven names.” Jean-Baptiste rattled the parchment. “Eleven. How does it look if I cannot convince my own brother to sign?”
“Convince your sons.” André shuffled back to his warm chair.
“They would sign in an instant if I would let them. They detest the English and ardently wish to be reunited with the mother country. But their families are still young. They risk too much. I will let no one under fifty sign.”
“They do not sign because they have more sense than you do.”
“At least they know their heritage. To hear you talk, anyone would think you’ve forgotten how the English burned our houses, how they left our villages with only the churches standing. Remember how they made us starve, hoping that famine would reduce us?”
André remembered the French putting forward the Canadian militia to fight and then abandoning them. “The French stayed hidden in their trenches. They sent not one frigate. Not a single reinforcement.”
“That was the fault of the Pompadour, not of the French.”
André’s wife, Élisabeth, emerged from the kitchen with a pot of tea. “How can you listen to this nonsense?” she asked her husband.
André puffed on his pipe. He had listened many times before. He knew how the conversation went. They all knew.
Élisabeth set a cup before Jean-Baptiste. “You will be hung for treason.” Born on the seigneurie of Beaumont, she was the granddaughter of Sieur Charles de Beaumont, who had been granted the land by Louis XIV’s representative in New France. Though Élisabeth had not once stepped outside the St. Lawrence Valley, she carried herself as if she had been presented at Versailles.
Jean-Baptiste glared. “The spying of milords and ladies will be nothing against our efforts under a good French general.”
“King George has been good to us. How can you want to replace him with men who sent King Louis to the scaffold and killed their priests at the altar?”
“Those are lies, invented by the English. The French are not capable of that. Certainly not Napoleon.”
“The Corsican?” Élisabeth sniffed. “He is a usurper, proclaimed Emperor of the French as legitimately as Harlequin is Emperor of the Moon.”
“And you would rather groan in the fetters of English officers who flog a peasant for not giving way when they take their whores for a drive?”
Élisabeth turned to her husband. “Do you hear this? Are you listening?”
André grunted behind his shield of smoke.
“The Corsican removed the Pope from Rome. He has restarted the war with England.” Élisabeth crossed herself. “God save us from him and his Martinique wife.”
“It is a man’s duty to free his country.”
“It is a man’s duty to obey his sovereign.”
“I was born French. My sovereign is Napoleon.”
“You were born in L’Ancienne Lorette, in the shadow of the walls of Quebec.” With her teaspoon, Élisabeth pushed the petition towards Jean-Baptiste. “Take your seditious document and go. You will get us all killed.”
Jean-Baptiste muffled himself in woollens and furs until nothing appeared but his rumpled face. “I am going to Paris. You will see when Napoleon sends his general. You will see how easily the English are chased from Canada. Only the priests will resist. Even the savages have never turned their hearts to the imbecile George.”
Élisabeth waved her hands at the low beams of the ceiling. “God forgive you for the atrocities you want to visit on us.”
Jean-Baptiste grasped André’s frail shoulders and kissed him on each cheek. “Do not forget our father just because you have a bit of silver on the shelf.”
“He is living on illusions,” said Élisabeth as she cleared the table.
André munched on his pipe and tried to assemble recollections of his father. Mathurin Norau had been a Frenchman, born in a village in the Saintonge, who came to New France as a young man. Like Jean-Baptiste, he was a talker, and he loved to sing. André tried to summon “Sur les bords de la Seine” from his throat. Nothing but a rasp emerged. He stood up and began to rummage in the sideboard.
Élisabeth heard him. “What are you looking for? Don’t break anything.”
André found it, deep in the back: the mottled green shards of a plate brought from France, the tradition of hundreds of years, knocked to the floor in a scuffle between him and Jean-Baptiste. They had meant to put it back together, but Mathurin died before they could. André was eleven, Jean-Baptiste nine.
That Sunday, buttressed by carved and painted saints, Father Signay instructed his flock to honor the King, avoid debauching allurements, and cherish the union that brought them happiness and good fortune. “What religion obliges, by virtue of the oath of fidelity, interest commands.” This had no effect beyond the production of two confessions of adultery. Signay could not help but suspect that the Lord had endowed him with very ordinary abilities when something more was required. He considered that, in a small parish, where everyone generously interested himself in his neighbors’ concerns, it should be easy to determine who the petitioners were. There were not more than half-a-dozen men in Saint-Constant who could read and write. Signay undertook to visit all of them.
In the cooper’s shed he was met by the smell and dust of freshly sliced wood. Jean-Baptiste was jointing staves, shaping each so that, placed together, they would make a watertight whole. His youngest son Ti-Jean was heating finished staves over the fire, so they would bend without cracking and the birch hoops could be driven on.
Jean-Baptiste looked up. “What do you want?”
“Just a word,” said the priest. He watched as Jean-Baptiste guided the thin, sharp iron of the jointer plane over the strip of oak. “You do fine work. We owe thanks to Heaven that we live under a government that allows us to practice our trade.”
“And what trade is that? The trade of hypocrites and eunuchs?”
Ti-Jean slipped out to fetch his mother. Anne came bustling in time to see her husband shake his fist and thunder, “Crimes cannot be expiated by money and prayers.”
Gently Anne guided Father Signay into the kitchen. She set him on a pine chair, ladled some pea soup from the simmering pot, and furnished the table with a bowl of milk. The house swelled with people: sons and daughters, their wives, husbands and children, the braver of whom who tried to climb on the priest’s lap. Anne asked about plans for the Feast of St. Joseph. She wondered how Signay’s mother was. She inquired after the health of the Bishop.
This recalled the priest to his purpose. Was the Norau family content? Did they not live in peace and prosperity?
“Oh, yes. We could not be better.”
And did they not have obligations to Heaven for putting them under the protection of His British Majesty? They had, for a sovereign, a father and friend of the people, who conserved their language, their religion and their ancient laws of property.
“Indeed,” said Anne.
And after Heaven granted England the peace for which they had prayed for so many years, France under Bonaparte had again taken up the sword. Again British blood ran to protect the tranquility of Canadians. “The cause of England is our cause,” said Signay, “our enemies, her enemies.”
The faces around the priest nodded. Anne sent him to the door with a loaf of black bread.
“You will tell your husband what I said.”
“Of course,” she soothed.
Anne went to the cooper’s shed. “You are hard on the priest. He is not much older than Ti-Jean.”
“They are a herd of hogs,” said Jean-Baptiste. “The girls say they only tell the priests a part, and conceal the rest.”
Anne laughed. He could always make her laugh. That had kept her going over the years: when the British released him from prison and sent him to Saint-Malo; through the voyage to Guiana, the birth and death of their son, a tiny burial in the hot soil of Sinnamary; and after the return to France, when they had been refused passage on the King’s fare to Saint Pierre and Miquelon, and had to scrape the money to make the trip to Canada. Even here it had not been easy, the winters bitter, two more children dead. But many children lived, and they had much laughter.
“We are not so young now, Papa.”
“I am of a perfect mind and memory.”
“I feel the years, though I would not want to begin our life over.”
He kissed her forehead. “We will end our years as we began, under the reign of France.”
When she left, Jean-Baptiste pulled from his pocket the piece of paper he had been given at the French consulate in New York five years earlier. How often he had read it and heeded its injunction that the moment of justice had not yet come, that submission and prudence must be his order. His wife was right. He was an old man. He had already lived sixty-four years. God knew how many he had left. There were those who accused him of not making the case strongly enough in New York. Others said it was Napoleon’s fault: he was too busy; he would not care.
“He only needs to hear of our plight,” said Jean-Baptiste.
Ti-Jean recognized the fraying document. “Napoleon will not let us down.”
The day before departure the Norau home filled with family and friends. Anne thawed four turkeys and her daughters baked enormous pies.
André arrived from Longueuil. “So you go.”
“Did you doubt it?” Jean-Baptiste held out the petition. André took up the quill.
In the morning Jean-Baptiste wrapped his fowling piece for the journey. Anne put her eyes on him as if she were seeing him for the first time. She ran her fingers along the bones of his hands. She rubbed her nose against his neck and breathed deeply, capturing the smell. She hugged him and Ti-Jean together. “I shall ask God to keep you safe.”
“Do not worry,” said Jean-Baptiste. “The next time you see us, we will be on the St. Lawrence, in the Emperor’s ship, with a French general by our side.”
They drove with André to La Prairie, where they caught a cariole to Saint-Jean, then a sleigh down the Richelieu River and Lake Champlain to Skenesborough. An American stage took them to Hudson, where they embarked on a sloop to New York. The ride was jolting, the wind biting, and Ti-Jean began to sniffle. “I will be fine,” he said. But when the day came to sail he was too weak to stand.
“We will take another boat,” said Jean-Baptiste.
“It will be too late. You must go now, to be back before the river freezes.”
“I cannot leave. Your mother would never forgive me.”
“I will not forgive you if you leave our country in chains.”
And so Jean-Baptiste left Ti-Jean shivering in blankets by the fire.
The crossing was not kind to an old man. By the time the ship reached Bordeaux, Jean-Baptiste was in worse shape than Ti-Jean. He secured a bed at an inn, where he rested until his money ran out and the landlady consigned him to the Hospice des Vieillards in the Benedictine abbey. Amid aged stares and moans, he prevailed upon one of the stiff sisters to provide him with an inkstand, quill and paper. In the tidy script he had learned from the priest at L’Ancienne Lorette when the world was still well, he put the date–1805, 19 September–and wrote slowly:
To His Majesty, the Emperor of the French, Napoleon the First,
At the start of last March, I left Montreal with my son to bring Your Royal and Imperial Majesty the good wishes of the inhabitants of Quebec for the French Empire. Arriving in New York, my son remained there because of illness. I embarked on the ship Thomas of New York, Captain Garduer. I arrived at Bordeaux the 27 messidor last, where I am detained because of illness. I send Your Majesty by mail the packet with which I have been charged. If you desire information on the state of Quebec, I will go to Paris when it pleases you to call me.
I am, Your Majesty, Sire, the very humble, very obedient and submissive servant.
Wrapping the letter with the petition and the frayed note from the French consulate, he pressed the package to his lips, then held it out, waving from his bed, until he caught the sister’s attention.
“It is for the Emperor.”
She was unimpressed, but gave it to a boy to take to the post-house. Jean-Baptiste fancied he could hear the flapping pigeons and rattling wheels as the mail coach drove by. He fell back on his pillow, satisfied.
In Paris, the package joined a basket of hundreds. After passing through secretaries’ hands, it was stuck in a sack and given to Talleyrand, Grand Chamberlain of the Empire, who had been summoned to join Napoleon in a midnight ride to Strasbourg. The Emperor, abandoning his plans to invade England, was off to lead the Grande Armée against the Austrians.
Talleyrand skimmed the documents. “Some Canadians want Your Majesty’s help in returning Quebec to the French Empire.”
Napoleon took the petition without reading it. “I have sold Louisiana. What would I do with Quebec? I cannot amuse myself with bagatelles.” He tossed it to the carriage floor and moved on to the next one.
Shannon Selin lives in Vancouver, Canada. Her first novel, Napoleon in America, which explores what might have happened if Napoleon had escaped from exile on St. Helena and made his way to the United States, will be published in 2014. You can read more about Shannon’s historical research and writing on her website: www.shannonselin.com.