Fort William Henry on Lake George
The smell of death filled the air. Blood and sulfur hung suspended in the sultry haze over Fort William Henry, a sickening sweet orange shroud in the early August sunrise. The English forces had been decimated. The fortunate ones were dead. There was no food, more blood than water to drink. Smallpox raged through the fort.
Lieutenant Jonathan Carver was Officer of the Day. He surveyed the scene. The only early morning sounds were moans of the dying and bird songs, greeting the new day, oblivious to the conflict that had been raging about them for the past week.
How incongruous and absolutely bizarre, he thought. Am I to die amid these beautiful and placid surroundings? He was unhurt after a week of violent bombardment by the French. He had no fever. Would today mark the end of his military career, his service to the Crown? He gazed out over the waters of Lake George. The mist seemed covetous of its ward and reluctant to yield its protection as the sun sliced it into wisps and scattered them into the trees.
Only a week earlier, the day after Carver had arrived at the Fort, the lake had been alive with activity - enemy activity. It reminded him of a spring hatch of mayflies. Eleven thousand French and Canadian forces and two thousand Indians cluttered the head of the lake with canoes, bateaux and artillery-laden barges. He was one of only a force of eight hundred Massachusetts Volunteers and two hundred Regulars sent to boost the Fort's defenses to two thousand, two hundred. They were out numbered six to one.
General Louis de Montcalm had sent an offer of surrender under a flag of truce but Colonel Monro had held on, hoping for reinforcements from nearby Fort Edward. The reinforcements would never come.
A cannon salute resounded from the enemy encampment just north of the Fort on the west shore, protected by an abutment of land, a small peninsula jutting out into the lake. A French Officer emerged from the undergrowth closely followed by a soldier with a white flag held above them on a pole, and a drummer. Carver, who was commanding a company of men in the entrenchment along the edge of the lake, rose to greet the emissary. They exchanged salutes.
"Je suis Captain Fontbrune," said the Frenchman. Carver, who understood no French, motioned for the entourage to follow him. "Do you speak any English?” he asked as he escorted them through the entrenchments to the fort. Fontbrune shrugged his shoulders. He understood no English, Carver thought.
Officers and men crowded the parapets as they approached. Many had never seen a Frenchman before. They wanted a good look. Before the week was over they would be wishing that they had never seen one.
"Open the gates,” Carver commanded, "and advise Colonel Monro that I have with me an emissary from the French.” Carver was met inside the fort by Captain William Arbuthnot, who took them before the Colonel. Fontbrune saluted and offered Monro the document he carried. "Bon jour, Colonel,” he said. "I am Captain Fontbrune, aide to General Montcalm. The General wishes you good day." He spoke flawless English.
"I thought you didn't speak English," said Carver.
Fontbrune raised one eyebrow as he looked at Carver. "I speak excellent English,” he said, his lip curled in a contemptuous sneer, "when and with whom it is necessary, - Lieutenant.” Carver took a step towards the Frenchman, who turned away from him and casually stifled a feigned yawn. Colonel Monro looked up from the message he had been reading. Carver's face was as red as his breastcoat.
"Gentlemen,” the Colonel said, "the Captain is here under a flag of truce. Let us not forget he is our guest under the circumstances.” The Frenchman subdued a smirk as Carver's breathing returned to normal and the blood drained from his face.
"Well, Sir," said Fontbrune, "Do you have a response?"
"Apparently, the Captain here knows the contents of the message,” said Colonel Monro," so there will be no harm if I read it to you in his presence." Carver glared at Fontbrune as Monro read Montcalm's demand.
"I owe it to humanity to summon you to surrender,” he read. "At present I can restrain the savages and make them observe the terms of a capitulation, as I might not have power to do under other circumstances.” Monro put the letter on the table in his quarters and looked into the faces of his staff of Officers. "He demands an answer in an hour."
"Well, Colonel?" said Fontbrune again.
"We will not need an hour to answer, Captain,” said the Colonel. "While we still have the wherewithal, we will hold on.” His Officers voiced their support. "Tell your General Montcalm that we will defend ourselves to the last.” Fontbrune's face lost its sneer. "Lieutenant Carver, escort the Captain out of the fort.” Carver stepped nose to nose with the Frenchman. The sneer was coming back. "Blindfolded,” said the Colonel. Carver tore the white flag of truce from its pole and fashioned it into a blindfold.
"C'est dommage!” muttered the Frenchman, shrugging his shoulders as Carver fastened the blindfold and led him away.
Carver wished he were leading the blindfolded Frenchman before a firing squad. He had never been so insulted before and longed for the opportunity for satisfaction to the effrontery.
When they reached the entrenchments, Carver untied the truce flag from Fontbrune's eyes and handed it to him. "Here, take this back with you,” he said. "You may need it when you are ready to surrender to us.”
Fontbrune gave a hearty laugh at first, but it quickly turned into another sneer. "You amuse me, Englishman,” he said, slowly backing away. "But I really think you should keep it.” He stopped and held out the flag, letting it slip from his fingers and drop silently to the ground. "Au revoir, Lieutenant!” he said, bowing slightly. The drummer started his beat and they marched back to their lines. Carver wondered if he had overstated his case.
Go to Chapter Twelve.
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