Isle of Demons by Charles M. Skinner
Note: This story is the basis of the new book Elle by Douglas Glover, which won Canada’s premier literary award, the Governor General’s Literary Award, in 2003.
Many are the legends associated with the sea. Newfoundland has its share. Some are very local and are known within the bay or on the peninsula. Others have been told abroad and are known nationally and internationally. The following legend is well known beyond the borders of the island and it gives an insight into the kind of setting to which our early ancestors had to acclimatize themselves. The legend of Marguerite and the hideous creatures of Quirpon has its source in the earliest attempts of settlement along the French Shore. The story, incredible as it is, is based on historical fact. The “Isle of Demons” is thought to be Quirpon Island, off the northernmost tip of Newfoundland. “Belle Isle and Quirpon, in the icy strait between Newfoundland and Labrador,” says Skinner, “were peopled by so many devils that the French sailors would not go ashore unless they had crucifixes in their hands.”
Strength and courage were often exhibited by the women who were among the early immigrants to this country – delicate creatures reared at the court of France, some of them, and knowing little but luxury and ease until they came to these shores. A typical “new woman” of that kind was Marguerite de Roberval, niece of the harsh old Sieur de Roberval, “the little king of Vimeu,” who came here to possess the land and flog the natives of it into the religion of love and charity. The girl had plighted her troth to a young cavalier who had enlisted among the adventurers on this expedition. It was of course impossible that their love-making should escape notice, and old Roberval was so incensed about it that when his ship arrived at the Isle of Demons [Quirpon, near Newfoundland] he set Marguerite ashore there with her nurse, and only four guns with their ammunition to support life, while he held on his way; but the lover sprang from the deck with gun in hand and armour on his back and swam to shore, where the three exiles ruefully or vengefully watched the departing ship. By their united efforts a hut was built, and here a babe was born to Marguerite.
For a little time their state was not so ill. Then came the cold, the game grew scarce, privation and anxiety told upon them. The cavalier was first to go; next the infant; lastly, the nurse. Marguerite buried them. She was alone. Some women would have resigned themselves to despair, and truly this woman had little to live for. Not only was she without human company, but imps and spirits walked over the island, peered out of the mist, whispered in the night, called and whistled in the gale. These evil ones had horned heads and wings and “howled like a crowd in the marketplace.” At last a sail appeared.
She heaped her little fire with brush and made a smoke, which struck terror to the crew, for this was the Isle of Demons, and the smoke was of the eternal burning. And so they sailed away. Hoping, despite her grief and misery, Marguerite fished and hunted, skinning the animals that she shot for clothes, and keeping her hut stanch against the gales, praying when the fiends shook the door and muttered strange words at the window. In the third winter another sail appeared, and again she heaped up brush and sent a column of smoke aloft. This time the crew were scared especially when they saw the woman’s figure gesticulating frantically on a rock, but the officers forced them to anchor and make a landing. They were honest fishermen, and never imagined at the first that this brown and lonely creature had been an ornament of the gayest society in Europe, but they took her back to France with them, strong, sedate, resourceful now, and she regained her kin. If she felt any bitterness toward her uncle she was able to take a satisfaction in hearing shortly of his failure.
He went swelling to the New World as “Lord of Norembega, Viceroy and Lieutenant-General in Canada, Hochelaga, Saguenay, Newfoundland, Belle Isle, Carpunt, Labrador, the Great Bay, and Baccalas,” with five shiploads of convicts in his train, this precious company having been assembled to develop the country and convert the red men. Roberval was a hard master; perhaps he needed to be, and he so ill-treated his rag-tag following, giving them scanty food and plenty of hard work at forts, mills, and shops, shooting, hanging, and beating women as well as men for the least offences, that they mutinied, and his life often hung in the balance. Eventually, the food gave out, and the proud Sieur was fain to eat fish and roots boiled in oil – he who had dined with kings. Scurvy set in, and according to one report he was struck down at night by an unknown hand before the Church of the Innocents, in Paris; but others believe that he recovered and made a second venture for wealth and power, his cruel, haughty spirit again defeating its own aim, so that he died, leaving none to mourn him. As he went to his death among the black and lonely reaches of the Saguenay, did he shrink aghast at the memory of his misdeeds? Mingled with the sounds of wreck and storm that faded on his ear, did he hear the moans and calls of the strange creatures on the Isle of Demons to whose keeping he had committed the girl he should have loved and sheltered?