The Island of Demons by Thomas Wentworth

Those American travellers who linger with delight among the narrow lanes and picturesque, overhanging roofs of Honfleur, do not know what a strange tragedy took place on a voyage which began in that quaint old port three centuries and a half ago. When, in 1536, the Breton sailor Jacques Cartier returned from his early explorations of the St. Lawrence, which he had ascended as high as Hochelaga, King Francis I. sent for him at the lofty old house known as the House of the Salamander, in a narrow street of the quaint town of Lisieux. It now seems incredible that the most powerful king in Europe should have dwelt in such a meagre lane, yet the house still stands there as a witness; although a visitor must now brush away the rough, ready-made garments and fishermen's overalls which overhang its door. Over that stairway, nevertheless, the troubadours, Pierre Ronsard and Clement Marot, used to go up and down, humming their lays or touching their viols; and through that door De Lorge returned in glory, after leaping down into the lions' den to rescue his lady's glove. The house still derives its name from the great carved image of a reptile which stretches down its outer wall, from garret to cellar, beside the doorway.

In that house the great king deigned to meet the Breton sailor, who had set up along the St. Lawrence a cross bearing the arms of France with the inscription Franciscus Primus, Dei gratia Francorum Rex regnat; and had followed up the pious act by kidnapping the king Donnacona, and carrying him back to France. This savage potentate was himself brought to Lisieux to see his French fellow-sovereign; and the jovial king, eagerly convinced, decided to send Cartier forth again, to explore for other wonders, and perhaps bring back other kingly brethren. Meanwhile, however, as it was getting to be an affair of royalty, he decided to send also a gentleman of higher grade than a pilot, and so selected Jean François de la Roche, Sieur de Roberval, whom he commissioned as lieutenant and governor of Canada and Hochelaga. Roberval was a gentleman of credit and renown in Picardy, and was sometimes jocosely called by Francis "the little king of Vimeu." He was commissioned at Fontainebleau, and proceeded to superintend the building of ships at St. Malo.

Marguerite Roberval, his fair-haired and black-eyed niece, was to go with him on the voyage, with other ladies of high birth, and also with the widowed Madame de Noailles, her gouvernante. Roberval himself remained at St. Malo to superintend the building of the ships, and Marguerite and her gouvernante would sit for hours in a beautiful nook by the shipyards, where they could overlook the vessels in rapid construction, or else watch the wondrous swirl of the tide as it swept in and out, leaving the harbor bare at low tide, but with eight fathoms of water when the tide was full. The designer of the ships often came, cap in hand, to ask or answer questions—one of those frank and manly French fishermen and pilots, whom the French novelists describe as "un solide gaillard," or such as Victor Hugo paints in his "Les Travailleurs de la Mer." The son of a notary, Etienne Gosselin was better educated than most of the young noblemen whom Marguerite knew, and only his passion for the sea and for nautical construction had kept him a shipbuilder. No wonder that the young Marguerite, who had led the sheltered life of the French maiden, was attracted by his manly look, his open face, his merry blue eyes, and curly hair. There was about her a tinge of romance, which made her heart an easier thing to reach for such a lover than for one within her own grade; and as the voyage itself was a world of romance, a little more or less of the romantic was an easy thing to add. Meanwhile Madame de Noailles read her breviary and told her beads and took little naps, wholly ignorant of the drama that was beginning its perilous unfolding before her. When the Sieur de Roberval returned, the shipbuilder became a mere shipbuilder again.

Three tall ships sailed from Honfleur on August 22, 1541, and on one of them, La Grande Hermine,—so called to distinguish it from a smaller boat of that name, which had previously sailed with Cartier,—were the Sieur de Roberval, his niece, and her gouvernante. She also had with her a Huguenot nurse, who had been with her from a child, and cared for her devotedly. Roberval naturally took with him, for future needs, the best shipbuilder of St. Malo, Etienne Gosselin. The voyage was long, and there is reason to think that the Sieur de Roberval was not a good sailor, while as to the gouvernante, she may have been as helpless as the seasick chaperon of yachting excursions. Like them, she suffered the most important events to pass unobserved, and it was not till too late that she discovered, what more censorious old ladies on board had already seen, that her young charge lingered too often and too long on the quarter-deck when Etienne Gosselin was planning ships for the uncle. When she found it out, she was roused to just indignation; but being, after all, but a kindly dowager, with a heart softened by much reading of the interminable tales of Madame de Scudéry, she only remonstrated with Marguerite, wept over her little romance, and threatened to break the sad news to the Sieur de Roberval, yet never did so. Other ladies were less considerate; it all broke suddenly upon the angry uncle; the youth was put in irons, and threatened with flogging, and forbidden to approach the quarter-deck again. But love laughs at locksmiths; Gosselin was relieved of his irons in a day or two because he could not be spared from his work in designing the forthcoming ship, and as both he and Marguerite were of a tolerably determined nature, they invoked, through the old nurse, the aid of a Huguenot minister on board, who had before sailed with Cartier to take charge of the souls of some Protestant vagabonds on the ship, and who was now making a second trip for the same reason. That night, after dark, he joined the lovers in marriage; within twenty-four hours Roberval had heard of it, and had vowed a vengeance quick and sure.

The next morning, under his orders, the vessel lay to under the lee of a rocky island, then known to the sailors as l'Isle des Demons from the fierce winds that raged round it. There was no house there, no living person, no tradition of any; only rocks, sands, and deep forests. With dismay, the ship's company heard that it was the firm purpose of Roberval to put the offending bride on shore, giving her only the old nurse for company, and there to leave her with provisions for three months, trusting to some other vessel to take the exiled women away within that time. The very ladies whose love of scandal had first revealed to him the alleged familiarities, now besought him with many tears to abandon the thought of a doom so terrible. Vainly Madame de Noailles implored mercy for the young girl from a penalty such as was never imposed in any of Madame de Scudéry's romances; vainly the Huguenot minister and the Catholic chaplain, who had fought steadily on questions of doctrine during the whole voyage, now united in appeals for pardon. At least they implored him to let the offenders have a man-servant or two with them to protect them against wild beasts or buccaneers. He utterly refused until, at last wearied out, his wild nature yielded to one of those sudden impulses which were wont to sweep over it; and he exclaimed, "Is it that they need a man-servant, then? Let this insolent caitiff, Gosselin, be relieved of his irons and sent on shore. Let him be my niece's servant or, since a Huguenot marriage is as good as any in the presence of bears and buccaneers, let her call the hound her husband, if she likes. I have done with her; and the race from which she came disowns her forever."

Thus it was done. Etienne was released from his chains and sent on shore. An arquebus and ammunition were given him; and resisting the impulse to send his first shot through the heart of his tyrant, he landed, and the last glimpse seen of the group as the Grande Hermine sailed away, was the figure of Marguerite sobbing on his shoulder, and of the unhappy nurse, now somewhat plethoric, and certainly not the person to be selected as a pioneer, sitting upon a rock, weeping profusely. The ship's sails filled, the angry Roberval never looked back on his deserted niece, and the night closed down upon the lonely Isle of Demons, now newly occupied by three unexpected settlers, two of whom at least were happy in each other.

A few boxes of biscuits, a few bottles of wine, had been put on shore with them, enough to feed them for a few weeks. They had brought flint and steel to strike fire, and some ammunition. The chief penalty of the crime did not lie, after all, in the cold and the starvation and the wild beasts and the possible visits of pirates; it lay in the fact that it was the Island of Demons where they were to be left; and in that superstitious age this meant everything that was terrible. For the first few nights of their stay, they fancied that they heard superhuman voices in every wind that blew, every branch that creaked against another branch; and they heard, at any rate, more substantial sounds from the nightly wolves or from the bears which ice-floes had floated to that northern isle. They watched Roberval sail away, he rejoicing, as the old legend of Thevet says, at having punished them without soiling his hands with their blood (ioueux de les auior puniz sans se souiller les mains en leurs sang). They built as best they could a hut of boughs and strewed beds of leaves, until they had killed wild beasts enough to prepare their skins. Their store of hard bread lasted them but a little while, but there were fruits around them, and there was fresh water near by. "Yet it was terrible," says Thevet's old narrative, "to hear the frightful sounds which the evil spirits made around them, and how they tried to break down their abode, and showed themselves in various forms of frightful animals; yet at last, conquered by the constancy and perseverance of these repentant Christians, the tormentors afflicted or disquieted them no more, save that often in the night they heard cries so loud that it seemed as if more than five thousand men were assembled together" (plus de cent mil homes qui fussent ensemble).

So passed many months of desolation, and alas! the husband was the first to yield. Daily he climbed the rocks to look for vessels; each night he descended sadder and sadder; he waked while the others slept. Feeling that it was he who had brought distress upon the rest, he concealed his depression, but it soon was past concealing; he only redoubled his care and watching as his wife grew the stronger of the two; and he faded slowly away and died. His wife had nothing to sustain her spirits except the approach of maternity—she would live for her child. When the child was born and baptized in the name of the Holy Church, though without the Church's full ceremonies, Marguerite felt the strength of motherhood; became a better huntress, a better provider. A new sorrow came; in the sixteenth or seventeenth month of her stay, the old nurse died also, and not long after the baby followed. Marguerite now seemed to herself deserted, even by Heaven itself; she was alone in that northern island without comradeship; her husband, child, and nurse gone; dependent for very food on the rapidly diminishing supply of ammunition. Her head swam; for months she saw visions almost constantly, which only strenuous prayer banished, and only the acquired habit of the chase enabled her, almost mechanically, to secure meat to support life. Fortunately, those especial sights and sounds of demons which had haunted her imagination during the first days and nights on the island, did not recur; but the wild beasts gathered round her the more when there was only one gun to alarm them; and she once shot three bears in a day,—one a white bear, of which she secured the skin.

What imagination can depict the terrors of those lonely days and still lonelier nights? Most persons left as solitary tenants of an island have dwelt, like Alexander Selkirk, in regions nearer the tropics, where there was at least a softened air, a fertile soil, and the Southern Cross above their heads; but to be solitary in a prolonged winter, to be alone with the Northern Lights,—this offered peculiar terrors. To be ice-bound, to hear the wolves in their long and dreary howl, to protect the very graves of her beloved from being dug up, to watch the floating icebergs, not knowing what new and savage visitor might be borne by them to the island, what a complication of terror was this for Marguerite!

For two years and five months in all she dwelt upon the Isle of Demons, the last year wholly alone. Then, as she stood upon the shore, some Breton fishing-smacks, seeking codfish, came in sight. Making signals with fire and calling for aid, she drew them nearer; but she was now dressed in furs only, and seemed to them but one of the fancied demons of the island. Beating up slowly and watchfully toward the shore, they came within hearing of her voice and she told her dreary tale. At last they took her in charge, and bore her back to France with the bearskins she had prepared; and taking refuge in the village of Nautron, in a remote province (Perigord), where she could escape the wrath of Roberval, she told her story to Thevet, the explorer, to the Princess Marguerite of Navarre (sister of Francis I.), and to others. Thevet tells it in his "Cosmographie," and Marguerite of Navarre in her "Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles."

She told Thevet that after the first two months, the demons came to her no more, until she was left wholly alone; then they renewed their visits, but not continuously, and she felt less fear. Thevet also records of her this touching confession, that when the time came for her to embark, in the Breton ship, for home, there came over her a strong impulse to refuse the embarkation, but rather to die in that solitary place, as her husband, her child, and her servant had already died. This profound touch of human nature does more than anything else to confirm the tale as substantially true. Certain it is that the lonely island which appeared so long on the old maps as the Isle of Demons (l'Isola de Demoni) appears differently in later ones as the Lady's Island (l'Isle de la Demoiselle).

The Princess Marguerite of Navarre, who died in 1549, seems also to have known her namesake at her retreat in Perigord, gives some variations from Thevet's story, and describes her as having been put on shore with her husband, because of frauds which he had practised on Roberval; nor does she speak of the nurse or of the child. But she gives a similar description of Marguerite's stay on the island, after his death, and says, that although she lived what might seem a bestial life as to her body, it was a life wholly angelic as regarded her soul (aînsî vivant, quant au corps, de vie bestiale, et quant à l'esprit, de vie angelîcque). She had, the princess also says, a mind cheerful and content, in a body emaciated and half dead. She was afterwards received with great honor in France, according to the princess, and was encouraged to establish a school for little children, where she taught reading and writing to the daughters of high-born families. "And by this honest industry," says the princess, "she supported herself during the remainder of her life, having no other wish than to exhort every one to love and confidence towards God, offering them as an example, the great pity which he had shown for her."


The tale of the Isle of Demons is founded on a story told first by Marguerite of Navarre in her "Heptameron" (LXVII. Nouvelle), and then with much variation and amplification by the very untrustworthy traveller Thevet in his "Cosmographie" (1571), Livre XXIII. c. vi. The only copy of the latter work known to me is in the Carter-Brown Library at Providence, R.I., and the passage has been transcribed for me through the kindness of A. E. Winship, Esq., librarian, who has also sent me a photograph of a woodcut representing the lonely woman shooting at a bear. A briefer abstract of the story is in Winsor's "Narrative and Critical History" (IV. p. 66, note), but it states, perhaps erroneously, that Thevet knew Marguerite only through the Princess of Navarre, whereas that author claims—though his claim is never worth much—that he had the story from the poor woman herself, "La pauvre femme estant arriuvee en France … et venue en la ville de Nautron, pays de Perigort lors que i'y estois, me feit le discours de toutes ses fortunes passées."

The Island of Demons appears on many old maps which may be found engraved in Winsor, IV. pp. 91, 92, 93, 100, 373, etc.; also as "Isla de demonios" in Sebastian Cabot's map (1544) reprinted in Dr. S. E. Dawson's valuable "Voyages of the Cabots," in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada for 1897. He also gives Ruysch's map (1508), in which a cluster of islands appears in the same place, marked "Insulae daemonum." Harrisse, in his "Notes sur la Nouvelle France" (p. 278), describes the three sufferers as having been abandoned by Roberval à trente six lieues des côtes de Canada, dans une isle deserte qui fut depuis désignée sous le nom de l'Isle de la Demoiselle, pres de l'embouchure de la Rivière St. Paul ou des Saumons. I have not, however, been able to identify this island. Parkman also says ("Pioneers of France," p. 205) that Roberval's pilot, in his routier, or logbook, speaks often of "Les Isles de la Demoiselle," evidently referring to Marguerite. The brief account by the Princess of Navarre follows:—


Une pauvre femme, pour sauver la vie de son mary, hasarda la sienne, et ne l'abandonna jusqu'à la mort.

C'est que faisant le diet Robertval un voiage sur la mer, duquel il estoit chef par le commandement du Roy son maistre, en l'isle de Canadas; auquel lieu avoit délibéré, si l'air du païs euste esté commode, de demourer et faire villes et chasteaulx; en quoy il fit tel commencement, que chacun peut sçavoir. Et, pour habituer le pays de Chrestiens, mena avecq luy de toutes sortes d'artisans, entre lesquelz y avoit un homme, qui fut si malheureux, qu'il trahit son maistre et le mist en dangier d'estre prins des gens du pays. Mais Dieu voulut que son entreprinse fut si tost congneue, qu'elle ne peut nuyre au cappitaine Robertval, lequel feit prendre ce meschant traistre, le voulant pugnir comme il l'avoit mérité; ce qui eust esté faict, sans sa femme qui avoit suivy son mary par les périlz de la mer; et ne le voulut abandonner à la mort, mais avecq force larmes feit tant, avecq le cappitaine et toute la compaignye, que, tant pour la pitié d'icelle que pour le service qu'elle leur avoit faict, luy accorda sa requeste qui fut telle, que le mary et la femme furent laissez en une petite isle, sur la mer, où il n'habitoit que bestes saulvaiges; et leur fut permis de porter avecq eulx ce dont ilz avoient nécessité. Les pauvres gens, se trouvans tous seulz en la compaignye des bestes saulvaiges et cruelles, n'eurent recours que à Dieu seul, qui avoit esté toujours le ferme espoir de ceste pauvre femme. Et, comme celle qui avoit toute consolation en Dieu, porta pour sa saulve garde, nourriture et consolation le Nouveau Testament, lequel elle lisoit incessamment. Et, au demourant, avecq son mary, mettoit peine d'accoustrer un petit logis le mieulx qui'l leur estoit possible; et, quand les lyons et aultres bestes en aprochoient pour les dévorer, le mary avecq sa harquebuze, et elle, avecq les pierres, se défendoient si bien, que, non suellement les bestes ne les osoient approcher, mais bien souvent en tuèrent de très-bonnes à manger; ainsy, avecq telles chairs et les herbes du païs, vesquirent quelque temps, quand le pain leur fut failly. A la longue, le mary ne peut porter telle nourriture; et, à cause des eaues qu'ilz buvoient, devint si enflé, que en peu de temps il mourut, n'aiant service ne consolation que sa femme, laquelle le servoit de médecin et de confesseur; en sorte qu'il passa joieusement de ce désert en la céleste patrie. Et la pauvre femme, demourée seulle, l'enterra le plus profond en terre qu'il fut possible; si est-ce que les bestes en eurent incontinent le sentyment, qui vindrent pour manger la charogne. Mais la pauvre femme, en sa petite maisonnette, de coups de harquebuze défendoit que la chair de son mary n'eust tel sépulchre. Ainsy vivant, quant au corps, de vie bestiale, et quant à l'esperit, de vie angélicque, passoit son temps en lectures, contemplations, prières et oraisons ayant un esperit joieux et content, dedans un corps emmaigry et demy mort. Mais Celluy qui n'abandonne jamais les siens, et qui, au désespoir des autres, monstre sa puissance, ne permist que la vertu qu'il avoit myse en ceste femme fust ignorée des hommes, mais voulut qu'elle fust congneue à sa gloire; et fiet que, au bout de quelque temps, un des navires de ceste armée passant devant ceste isle, les gens qui estoient dedans advisèrent, quelque fumée qui leur feit souvenir de ceulx qui y avoient esté laissez, et délibérèrent d'aller veoir ce que Dieu en avoit faict. La pauvre femme, voiant approcher el navire, se tira au bort de la mer, auquel lieu la trouvèrent à leur arrivée. Et, après en avoir rendu louange à Dieu, les mena en sa pauvre maisonnette, et leur monstra de quoy elle vivoit durant sa demeure; ce que leur eust esté incroiable, sans la congnoissance qu'ilz avoient que Dieu est puissant de nourrir en un désert ses serviteurs, comme au plus grandz festins du monde. Et, ne pouvant demeurer en tel lieu, emmenèrent la pauvre femme avecq eulx droict à la Rochelle, où, après un navigage, ilz arrivèrent. Et quand ilz eurent faict entendre aux habitans la fidélité et persévérance de ceste femme, elle fut receue à grand honneur de toutes les Dames, qui voluntiers luy baillèrent leurs filles pour aprendre à lire et à escripre. Et, à cest honneste mestier-là, gaigna le surplus de sa vie, n'aiant autre désîr que d'exhorter un chaucun à l'amour et confiance de Nostre Seigneur, se proposant pour exemple la grande miséricorde dont il avoit usé envers elle.