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And other Sketches,
The Story of Monsieur, Madame, and the Pea-Green Parrot. The Bishop of Saskabasquia. "As it was in the Beginning." A Christmas Sketch. The Idyl of the Island. The Story of Delle Josephine Boulanger. The Story of Etienne Chezy d'Alencourt. "Descendez a l'ombre, ma jolie blonde." The Prisoner Dubois. How the Mr. Foxleys Came, Stayed, and Never Went Away. The Gilded Hammock.
I present these "Sketches" in all proper fear and humility, to my Canadian public, hoping that the phases of colonial life they endeavor to portray will be recognized as not altogether unfamiliar. Some of them are true, others have been written through the medium of Fancy, which can find and inhabit as large a field in Canada as elsewhere; for, to my mind, there is no country, no town, no village, as there is no nation, no class of society, nor individual existence, that has not its own deep and peculiar significance, its own unique and personal characteristics that distinguish it from the rest of the world.
I am nobody. I am living in a London lodging-house. My room is up three pair of stairs. I have come to London to sell or to part with in some manner an opera, a comedy, a volume of verse, songs, sketches, stories. I compose as well as write. I am ambitious. For the sake of another, one other, I am ambitious. For myself it does not matter. If nobody will discover me I must discover myself. I must demand recognition, I must wrest attention, they are my due. I look from my window over the smoky roofs of London. What will it do for me, this great cold city? It shall hear me, it shall pause for a moment, for a day, for a year. I will make it to listen to me, to look at me. I have left a continent behind, I have crossed a great water; I have incurred dangers, trials of all kinds; I have grown pale and thin with labor and the midnight oil; I have starved, and watched the dawn break starving; I have prayed on my stubborn knees for death and I have prayed on my stubborn knees for life—all that I might reach London, London that has killed so many of my brothers, London the cold, London the blind, London the cruel! I am here at last. I am here to be tested, to be proved, to be worn proudly, as a favorite and costly jewel is worn, or to be flung aside scornfully or dropped stealthily to—the devil! And I love it so this great London! I am ready to swear no one ever loved it so before! The smokier it is, the dirtier, the dingier, the better. The oftener it rains the better. The more whimsical it is, the more fickle, the more credulous, the more self-sufficient, the more self-existent, the better. Nothing that it can do, nothing that it can be, can change my love for it, great cruel London!
But to be cruel to me, to be fickle to me, to be deaf to me, to be blind to me! Would I change then? I might. As yet it does not know me. I pass through its streets, touching here a bit of old black wall, picking there an ivy leaf, and it knows me not. It is holy ground to me. It is the mistress whose hand alone I as yet dare to kiss. Some day I shall possess the whole, and I shall walk with the firm and buoyant tread of the accepted, delighted lover. Only to-day I am nobody. I am crowded out. Yet there are moments when the mere joy of being in England, of being in London, satisfies me. I have seen the sunbeam strike the glory along the green. I know it is an English sky above me, all change, all mutability. No steady cloudless sphere of blue but ever-varying glories of white piled cloud against the gray. Listen to this. I saw a primrose—the first I had ever seen—in the hedge. They said "Pick it." But I did not. I, who had written there years ago,—
I never pulled a primrose, I, But could I know that there may lie E'en now some small or hidden seed, Within, below, an English mead, Waiting for sun and rain to make A flower of it for my poor sake, I then could wait till winds should tell, For me there swayed or swung a bell, Or reared a banner, peered a star, Or curved a cup in woods afar.
I who had written that, I had found my first primrose and I could not pluck it. I found it fair be sure. I find all England fair. The shimmering mist and the tender rain, the red wallflower and the ivy green, the singing birds and the shallow streams—all the country; the blackened churches, the grass-grown churchyards, the hum of streets the crowded omnibus, the gorgeous shops,—all the town. God! do I not love it, my England? Yet not my England yet. Till she proclaim it herself, I am not hers. I will make her mine. I will write as no man has ever written about her, for very love of her. I look out to-night from my narrow window and think how the moonlight falls on Tintern, on Glastonbury, on Furness. How it falls on the primrose I would not pluck. How it would like to fall on the tall blue-bells in the wood. I see the lights of Oxford St. The omnibuses rattle by, the people are going to see Irving, Wilson Barrett, Ellen Terry. What line, of mine, what bar, what thought or phrase will turn the silence into song, the copper into gold?—I come back from the window and sit at the square centre table. It is rickety and uncomfortable, useless to write on. I kick it. I would kick anything that came in my way to-night. I am savage. Outside, a French piano is playing that infernal waltz. A fair subject for kicking if you will. But, though I would I cannot. What a room! The fire-place is filled with orange peel and brown paper, cigar stumps and matches. One blind I pulled down this morning, the other is crooked. The lamp glass is cracked, my work too. I dare not look at the wall paper nor the pictures. The carpet I have kicked into holes. I can see it though I can't feel it, it is so thin. My clothes are lying all about. The soot of London begrimes every object in the room. I would buy a pot of musk or a silken scarf if I dared, but how can I?
I must get my bread first and live for beauty after. Everything is refused though, everything sent back or else dropped as it were into some bottomless pit or gulf.
Here is my opera. This is my magnum opus, very dear, very clear, very well preserved. For it is three years old. I scored it nearly altogether, by her side, Hortense, my dear love, my northern bird! You could flush under my gaze, you could kindle at my touch, but you were not for me, you were not for me!—My head droops down, I could go to sleep. But I must not waste the time in sleep. I will write another story. No; I had four returned to-day. Ah! Cruel London! To love you so, only that I may be spurned and thrust aside, ignored, forgotten. But to-morrow I will try again. I will take the opera to the theatres, I will see the managers, I will even tell them about myself and about Hortense—but it will be hard. They do not know me, they do not know Hortense. They will laugh, they will say "You fool." And I shall be helpless, I shall let them say it. They will never listen to me, though I play my most beautiful phrase, for I am nobody. And Hortense, the child with the royal air, Hortense, with her imperial brow and her hair rolled over its cushion, Hortense, the Chatelaine of Beau Sejour, the delicate, haughty, pale and impassioned daughter of a noble house, that Hortense, my Hortense, is nobody!
Who in this great London will believe in me, who will care to know about Hortense or about Beau Sejour? If they ask me, I shall say— oh! proudly—not in Normandy nor in Alsace, but far away across a great water dwells such a maiden in such a chateau. There by the side of a northern river, ever rippling, ever sparkling in Summer, hard, hard frozen in winter, stretches a vast estate. I remember its impenetrable pinewood, its deep ravine; I see the chateau, long and white and straggling, with the red tiled towers and the tall French windows; I see the terrace where the hound must still sleep; I see the square side tower with the black iron shutters; I see the very window where Hortense has set her light; I see the floating cribs on the river, I hear the boatmen singing—
Descendez a l'ombre, Ma Jolie blonde.
And now I am dreaming surely! This is London, not Beau Sejour, and Hortense is far away, and it is that cursed fellow in the street I hear! The morrow comes on quickly. If I were to draw up that crooked blind now I should see the first streaks of daylight. Who pinned those other curtains together? That was well done, for I don't want to see the daylight; and it comes in, you know, Hortense, when you think it is shut out. Somebody calls it fingers, and that is just what it is, long fingers of dawn, always pale, always gray and white, stealing in and around my pillow for me. Never pink, never rosy, mind that; always faint and shadowy and gray.
It was all caste. Caste in London, caste in Le Bos Canada, all the same. Because she was a St. Hilaire. Her full name—Hortense Angelique De Repentigny de St. Hilaire—how it grates on me afresh with its aristocratic plentitude. She is well-born, certainly; better born than most of these girls I have seen here in London, driving, walking, riding in the Parks. They wear their hair over cushions too. Freckled skins, high cheek-bones, square foreheads, spreading eyebrows—they shouldn't wear it so. It suits Hortense— with her pale patrician outline and her dark pencilled eyebrows, and her little black ribbon and amulet around her neck. O, Marie, priey pour nous qui avous recours a vous! Once I walked out to Beau Sejour. She did not expect me and I crept through the leafy ravine to the pinewood, then on to the steps, and so up to the terrace. Through the French window I could see her seated at the long table opposite Father Couture. She lives alone with the good Pere. She is the last one of the noble line, and he guards her well and guards her money too.
"I do remember that it vill be all for ze Church," she has said to me. And the priest has taught her all she knows, how to sew and embroider, and cook and read, though he never lets her read anything but works on religion. Religion, always religion! He has brought her up like a nun, crushed the life out of her. Until I found her out, found my jewel out. It is Tennyson who says that. But his "Maud" was freer to woo than Hortense, freer to love and kiss and hold—my God! that night while I watched them studying and bending over those cursed works on the Martyrs and the Saints and the Mission houses—I saw him— him—that old priest—take her in his arms and caress her, drink her breath, feast on her eyes, her hair, her delicate skin, and I burst in like a young madman and told Father Conture what I thought. Oh! I was mad! I should have won her first. I should have worked quietly, cautiously, waiting, waiting, biding my time. But I could never bide my time. And now she hates me, Hortense hates me, though she so nearly learned to love me. There where we used to listen to the magical river songs, we nearly loved, did we not Hortense? But she was a St. Hilaire, and I—I was nobody, and I had insulted le bon Pere. Yet if I can go back to her rich, prosperous, independent— What if that happen? But I begin to fancy it will never happen. My resolutions, where are they, what comes of them? Nothing. I have tried everything except the opera. Everything else has been rejected. For a week I have not gone to bed at all. I wait and see those ghastly gray fingers smoothing my pillow. I am not wanted. I am crowded out. My hands tremble and I cannot write. My eyes fail and I cannot see. To the window!
* * * * *
The lights of Oxford St. once more; the glare and the rattle without, the fever and the ruin, the nerves and the heart within. Poor nerves, poor heart; it is food you want and wine and rest, and I cannot give them to you.
* * * * *
Sing, Hortense, will you? Sit by my side, by our dear river St. Maurice, the clear, the sparkling. See how the floating cribs sail by, each with its gleaming lights! It is like Venice I suppose. Shall we see Venice ever, Hortense, you and I? Sing now for me,
Descendez a l'ombre, Ma Jolie blonde.
Only you are petite brune, there is nothing blonde about you, mignonne, my dear mademoiselle, I should say if I were with you of course as I used to do. But surely I am with you and those lights are the floating cribs I see, and your voice it is that sings, and presently the boatmen hear and they turn and move their hands and join in—Now all together,
Descendez a l'ombre,
* * * * *
It was like you, Hortense, to come all this way. How did you manage it, manage to cross that great water all alone? My poor girl did you grow tired of Le bon Pere at last and of the Martyrs and the Saints and the Jesuit Fathers? But you have got your amulet on still I hope. That is right, for there is a chance—there is a chance of these things proving blessings after all to good girls, and you were a good girl Hortense. You will not mind my calling you Hortense, will you? When we are in Le Bas Canada again, in your own seignieury, it will be "Madamoiselle," I promise you. You say it is a strange pillow, Hortense? Books, my girl, and manuscripts; hard but not so hard as London stones and London hearts. Do you know I think I am dying, or else going mad? And no one will listen even if I cry out. There is too much to listen to already in England. Think of all the growing green, Hortense, if you can, where you are, so far away from it all. Where you are it is cold and the snow is still on the ground and only the little bloodroot is up in the woods. Here where I am Hortense, where I am going to die, it is warm and green full of color—oh! Such color! Before I came here, to London you know London that is going to do so much for me, for us both, I had one day—one day in the country. There I saw—No! They will not let me tell you, I knew they would try to prevent me, those long gray fingers stealing in, stealing in! But I will tell you. Listen, Hortense, please. I saw the hawthorne, pink and white, the laburnum— yellow—not fire-color, I shall correct the Laureate there, Hortense, when I am better, when I—publish!—It is dreadful to be alone in London. Don't come, Hortense. Stay where you are, even if it is cold and gray and there is no color. Keep your amulet round your neck, dear!—I count my pulse beats. It is a bad thing to do. It is broad daylight now and the fingers have gone. I can write again perhaps.—The pen—The paper—The ink—God. Hortense! There is no ink left! And my heart—My heart—Hortense!!!
Descendez a l'ombre, Ma Jolie blonde.
Monsieur, Madame and the Pea-Green Parrot
I am an Englishman by birth. Having however lived for fourteen years out in America or rather in Canada, I am only half an Englishman. All the love for the dear old land which I am now revisiting is still there, deep in my heart, but from so long a residence in another country certain differences arise of character, habit and thought, not to be easily shaken off. I was in the Civil Service in Canada and did very well until I meddled with literature. Discovering that I had a faculty for verse and story-telling, I was ambitious and at the same time foolish enough to work so hard at my new pursuit that I was compelled to "cut" the service, in other words to resign. Some other Englishman got my post and I found myself, rather unexpectedly, it is true, free to write to my heart's content.
I got off a number of things, poems, sketches, etc., but my great work turned out to be a comedy. I slaved at this all day and amused myself by rehearsing it in my lodgings all night. I incurred the odium of the landlady by coaxing the maid of all work to learn a part and act it with me. Finally I resolved to take a great step. I would go down to New York and get my comedy produced. That was exactly five years ago and though the comedy was not produced, I am still sanguine that it yet may be, and perhaps not in New York after all, but in a much more important creative centre.
I was at the time of my visit to New York perfectly unacquainted with the ways of a metropolis, and it was fortunate for me that I possessed one friend there who if not exactly a friend at court as we say, was in truth a much more useful person to me, as, having once been young and inexperienced himself, he knew the ropes well and handled them thoroughly to his own satisfaction and with an eye to my comfort and safety.
In the matter of cheap dives, for instance, he was invaluable. Left to myself I either drifted to the most expensive place, for a meal short perhaps of Delmonicos, or else to a shabby and altogether-to-be-repudiated den, where the meat would be rags as well as the pudding. But under his guidance we invariably turned up in some clean, bright, cheap and wholesome "oysterbar" or coffee room round the corner or up a lane, and were as happy as kings over our lager beer.
One day De Kock came to me (he is a grand-nephew or something, I believe, of the great Frenchman) and said, with his knowing air,
"You will please put on your best coat, your tall hat and a pair of gloves, for we are going to dine to-night."
"Have we not dined once to-day!"
"Pish! Pshaw! You have had a soup, a mutton-chop, a triangle of pie, a lager beer, but you have not dined. You are not starving, and yet you have, from my present point of view, eaten nothing the whole of this day. Mon cher, it is necessary that you should dine for once in your life. Allons! We go to Giuseppe, Giuseppe Martinetti with the pale wife and the pea-green parrot—allons, allons!" To Martinetti's accordingly we went. I don't know what the dinner cost. It was dearer, certainly, than it would have been in London, but it was quite as good. We sat at a table formed for holding four at an open window, which, filled with exotics, overlooked Union Square, lighted by hundreds of incandescent lamps. The room contained about twenty of these small tables, and was, I suppose, very much like other rooms of its kind to habitues of such places, but it was all new to me, and I stared and wondered accordingly. The waiters seemed to be all foreigners, De Kock addressing them in a mythical but magical language of his own. The tables were all full, and the people at them were mostly foreigners as well.
"The Leicester Square of New York," remarked De Kock, as he helped me to the delicious Chiante wine out of a basket-covered bottle into a dainty glass. The soup was excellent, I remember. So was the macaroni, served in the best Italian method. I wondered to see De Kock manipulate it in finished style, winding yards of it around his fork, and swallowing it duly without any apparent effort. I cut mine at that time, although I have learned better now. I recollect the asparagus, too: served by itself on a great flat dish, and shining pale and green through the clear golden sauce that was poured over it. I was just finishing my first luscious, liquid stalk, and indulging in anticipations of my second, when the highest, the shrillest, the most piercing, and most unearthly voice I ever heard, shouted out—
"And for goodness sake don't say I told you!"
It was electrifying, at least to me. I dropped my half eaten asparagus stalk and fork at the same time, and looked up to see my companion quietly going on as before. One or two others had stopped eating too, but the majority appeared quite unruffled. I concluded that it was the parrot to which my friend had referred.
"The last comic song," said the imperturbable De Kock.
"But where is the beast!" I inquired. "It seemed to be over my head."
"Oh! Not so near as that. But take my advice and don't call it a beast, although it is a nuisance undoubtedly. Besides, its master is not very far away from your elbow."
"What of that?" said I, still injured, though in a lower tone.
"What of that? Ah! You shall see. Look now! This short, stout person with the diamond pin and the expansive shirt front is Giuseppe. Ah, he sees me! Good evening, Giuseppe!"
"Good evening, Monsieur, good evening, good evening! De friend not like de parrot, eh?"
The man was smiling at me with his hands crossed behind him. An Italian Jew I dubbed him immediately.
"On the contrary, he admires it very much," said De Kock.
Following their eyes presently I saw the cage hanging from the centre of the room, and in it a parrot as nearly pea-green in hue as it is possible for a parrot to be.
"Tell my friend her name, Giuseppe," said De Kock, beginning on some more asparagus.
Giuseppe stood in his patronizing way—quite the grand seigneur— with the light falling on his solitaire, making it so brilliant that it fascinated and at the same time fatigued my eyes.
"The name of my parrot? Monsieur De Kock, he know that well. It is Felicite—you catch—Fe-li-ci-te. It was the name of my wife."
Then his wife was dead. De Kock must have made a mistake.
"It is an unusual name for a bird, is not it?" said I.
"Monsieur is right. Not often—not often—you meet with a bird that name. My first wife—my first wife, gentlemen, she was English. You are English—ah. Yes. So was she. The English are like this." Giuseppe took a bottle out of the cruet-stand and set it on the table in front of him. He went on, "When an Englishman an Englishwoman argue, they say"—here he took the bottle up very slowly and gingerly and altered his voice to a mincing and conventional tone—"Is it oil or is it vinegare? Did you not say that it was vinegare? I thought that it was oil Oh! Now I see that it is vinegare."
"Bravo!" exclaimed De Kock. "And so you did not get on with the Englishwoman then I suppose, Giuseppe, and took Madame the next time?" We were both laughing heartily at the man's mimicry when once again the parrot shrieked. "But for goodness sake don't say I told you!" Giuseppe walked off to speak to it and my friend and I were left alone.
"Was Felcite the name of his first or second wife!" I asked.
"Of his second, of course. Didn't you hear him say the first was an Englishwoman? The second is a tall, rather good-looking pale Frenchwoman. You may see her to-night, and on the other hand you may not, she doesn't often appear in here. I wish she did, I am rather fond of her myself, which is more than her husband is. It's pretty well known that Mr. and Mrs. Joseph do not get on comfortably. In fact, he hates her, or rather ignores her, while she doats upon him and is tremendously jealous of the parrot"
"What, that green thing?"
"Well, its a lovely parrot, you must know, and the moment it came into his possession—he has had it about three years—he seemed to transfer whatever affection he had for his wife to that creature, with a great deal beside. Why, he hugs it, and kisses it, and mows over it—look at him now!"
Sure, enough, there was Martinetti with the bird on his finger, kissing it, and otherwise making a fool of himself. He finished by actually putting it away inside his coat in a kind of breast pocket, I should imagine.
"All this is good for business, perhaps," I said.
"What, the parrot and so on? Oh, yes I daresay, that has something to do with it. Still they are a queer couple. I come here mostly on account of this Chiante wine; you can't get it so good in many places in New York, and besides I confess Monsieur and his wife interest me somewhat. And the people one see here are immensely funny. That is your English expression, isn't it? There are three actresses over there at that table with amis intimes; they are 'restin' now, and can cut about and dine out as much as they please. There is a French dressmaker who lives on the floor above and is to be found here every day. She is superbly built and is hopelessly ugly, isn't she? There is young Lord Gurgoyle, an Englishman like yourself, you see—what the devil is he staring at like that?"
From behind a portiere which fell across the end of the room came a woman, tall, pale, and with a peculiar air of distinction about her. Perhaps it was her very unusual pallor which so distinguished her for there was nothing absolutely fine or handsome about the countenance. It was a weak face I thought, with an ugly red mark over the upper lip, and had she not been so very pale and so exceptionally well-dressed I should not have looked at her twice. She wore a gown of black silk, dead-black, lustrous, and fitting her slender figure to perfection. It was cut square and low in the front and fell away in long folds upon the floor at the back. What an apparition she made in the midst of this noisy crowd, smoking, chatting, swearing, laughing! Especially so when I noticed that as she walked very slowly down between the tables, her lips were moving nervously and her hands clutching at her beautiful dress. As for her eyes, they were everywhere in an instant.
"'Tis Felicite. You are fortunate," murmured De Kock. "And she is a little worse than usual."
"What is it?" I demanded. "Drink?" "Hush-sh-sh! Mon cher, you are stupid. It is jealousy, jealousy, my friend, with perhaps an occasional over-dose of chloral. Chloral is the favorite prescription now-a-days, you must remember that. But jealousy will do, jealousy will do. It will accomplish a great deal, will jealousy; will destroy more, mark that! I hope she will be quiet to-night for your sake."
"Is she violent?" I asked.
"Poor thing, yes. When she finds him now with that creature inside his coat; she will wring her hands and denounce him and threaten to kill it—I wonder she doesn't—then her husband will march her off behind the curtain and he will make love to the parrot again." Precisely what happened. The lady soon found her husband, raised her hands tragically and broke out into excited French that was liberally sprinkled with oaths both English and French. The mania was asserting itself, the propensity overcoming her. It was a sad and at the same time an amusing scene, for one could not help smiling at Giuseppe's fat unconcern as he kept his wife off at arms' length, while all the time the parrot inside his coat was shrieking in muffled tones "And for goodness sake don't say I told you!"
Finally Madame succumbed and was taken behind the curtain in a dishevelled and hysterical condition which increased De Kock's pity for her. We paid the waiter—or rather De Kock did—and left, not seeing Giuseppe again to speak to, though he came in and removed the parrot, cage and all.
It was a lovely night outside, and I suggested sitting for a time in Union Square. Finding an unoccupied bench, we each made ourselves happy with a good cigar and watched the exquisite shadows of the trees above as thrown by the electric light on the pavement.
"Wonderful effect!" remarked my friends. "How did you enjoy your dinner? That was a dinner, eh, and no mistake; rather have had it without the 'episode'? Oh! I don't know; you literary fellows must come in for that sort of thing as well as the rest of the world; I should think it would just suit you. Put them—the three of them— Monsieur, Madame and the Pea-Green Parrot—into a book, or better still, on the stage. There's your title ready for you too."
I was just thinking of the same thing.
"They are undoubtedly originals, both of them—all three," said I, "but as far as I have seen them, there is hardly enough to go upon."
"What do you mean by 'enough'?"
"I mean, for one thing, we do not understand the woman's mental and moral condition sufficiently to make a study of her. You say it is jealousy, and at the same time the use of chloral. That would have to be understood more clearly. Then, one would like something to—"
"Go on," said my friend. "To—"
"Happen," said I, lighting a second cigar.
Just then a couple of boys ran across the square. One of them stumbled over my feet, picked himself up quickly and ran on again. Two or three people now came, all running. De Kock jumped up.
"Something is happening," he said, "and with a vengeance too I fancy. Hark!"
The people now came fast and furious through the square, increasing in numbers every moment, but through the bustle and hurry and clatter of tongues, we could hear a woman's voice screaming in evident distress. Mingled with it was another sound which may have mystified the general crowd, but which De Kock and I could easily place.
"It is the parrot!" I exclaimed, as we started to run.
"You have your wish, mon cher, is it not so? But take it not so fast; we will be there in time. Ciel! What a row!"
The steps leading up to the restaurant were thronged with people, including two or three policemen. The dining-room was ablaze with light, and still full of visitors, most of whom, however, were moving about in a state of agitation. The upper windows were also lighted and wide open. The screaming suddenly ceased, but not the parrot.
"For goodness sake don't say I told you!" It went on, louder than ever, over and over again.
"Damn the bird!" exclaimed De Kock. "Policeman excuse me, but I am rather at home here. Let me go up, will you?"
"It looks bad, sir. I'd better keep behind."
"Oh. It isn't murder or anything of that sort. I know them, pretty couple, they are!"
The next moment we were in a kind of sitting room over the restaurant proper. Madame Martinetti lay as if exhausted on a sofa while the highly excited parrot sang and screamed and tore at its cage as if for life. Giuseppe was nowhere visible. "Now then where's the other?" demanded the policeman who had just entered behind us, "There's always two at this business. Show him up, now." But Madame at first would deign no explanation. Presently on the entry of policeman No. 2 she admitted there had been a quarrel. Yes, she had quarrelled with her dear Giuseppe, (the officers grinned) and had driven him away. Yes, he had gone—gone forever, he had said so, never to come back, never, never!
"And leave this fine business to you, eh? No fear of that. I guess Mr. Martinetti'll turn up all right in the morning, however, let us make a search, Joe." But Giuseppe was not found; there were no traces of a struggle, and the policemen having done all they could retired. My friend and I, by what right I know not were the last to leave the room. De Kock stood for some moments looking out of the window. I approached the parrot who was still screaming.
"If throwing a cloth over your head would stop you, I'd do it, my dear," said I. To my surprise, it ceased its noise directly, and became perfectly quiet. Madame Martinetti looked around with a contemptuous smile.
"You have the secret as well," said she. The bird turned to her and then returned to me. I became quite interested in it. "Pretty Poll, pretty bird; would you like a cracker?"
De Kock laughed softly at the window. "A cracker to such a bird as that! Ask it another." I actually, though with a timid air, opened the door of the cage and invited Polly to perch on my finger. She came, looking at me intensely all the while. I petted her little, which she took resignedly and with a faint show of wonder, then in answer to De Kock's summons put her back in the cage.
"I have the honour to wish madame a bonsoir," said he, but the lady was still sulky and vouchsafed no answer.
We were soon out in the street.
"Do you know," said De Kock slowly, lighting a cigar and looking up at the house, "Do you know, I thought something had happened."
"And don't you now."
"I am not sure," answered my friend.
We were pardonably curious to see the papers next morning. The affair was dismissed in three lines, and although as De Kock swore, the case was one for Gaboriau, it certainly was not our business to look into it and in fact in a week's time I was back in Canada, and he up to his eyes in commercial pursuits. The main point remained clear, however, that Martinetti did not come back, nor was he found, or traced or ever heard of again. Somebody took the business out of hand, as they say, and De Kock would occasionally write a P. S. to his letters like this—"Dined at poor Martinetti's, Chiante as usual. Ever yours." Or it would be—"Drank to the production of your last new comedy at Martinetti's." Once he stated that shortly after that memorable night Madame disappeared also, taking the parrot along. "I begin to think they are a pair of deep ones and up to some big game" he wrote. For myself, I never entirely forgot the circumstance, although it was but once vividly recalled to my mind and that was in a theatre in Montreal. An American company from one of the New York theatres was performing some farcical comedy or other in which occurred the comic song, admirably sung and acted by Miss Kate Castleton, "For goodness sake don't say I told you!" The reminiscences forced upon me quite spoiled my enjoyment; I could see that pale, nervous woman, hear her screams, and hear too the fearful voice of the poor parrot. Where is it now, thought I? That same winter I was much occupied in making studies of the different classes of people among the French-Canadians. The latter turn up everywhere in Montreal, and have a distinct "local color" about them which I was curious to get and hope to preserve for use some future day. I went everywhere and talked to everybody who might be of use to me; cabmen, porters, fruit dealers and tobacconists. I found much to interest me in the various Catholic institutions, and I was above all very fond of visiting the large, ugly gray building with the air of a penitentiary about it called the Grey Nunnery. Going through its corridors one day I took a wrong turning and found I was among some at least quasi-private rooms. The doors being open I saw that there were flowers, books, a warm rug on the floor of one and a mirror on the wall of another. The third I ventured to step inside of, for a really beautiful Madonna and child confronted me at the door. The next moment I saw what I had not expected to see—a parrot in a cage suspended from the window! I made quite sure that it was not the parrot before I went up to it. It was asleep and appeared to be all over of a dull grey color, to match the Nuns, one might have said. I stood for quite a little while regarding it. Suddenly it stirred, shook itself, awoke and seeing me, immediately broke out into frantic shrieks to the old refrain "And for goodness sake don't say I told you."
So it was the parrot after all! Of that I felt sure, despite the changed color, not only because of the same words being repeated—two birds might easily learn the same song, but because of the bird's manner. For I felt certain that the thing knew me, recognized me, as we say of human beings or of dogs and horses. I felt an extraordinary sensation coming over me and sat down for a moment. I seemed literally to be in the presence of something incomprehensible as I watched the poor excited bird beating about and singing in that way. The words of the song became painfully and awfully significant— "for goodness sake don't say I told you!" They were an appeal to my pity, to my sense of honor, to my power of secrecy, for I felt convinced that the bird had seen something—in fact that, to use De Kock's convenient if ambiguous phrase, something had happened! Then to think of its recognizing me too, after so long an interval! What an extraordinary thing to do! But I remembered, and hope I shall never forget, how exceeding small do the mills of the gods grind for poor humanity. I would have examined the creature at once more closely had not two of the nuns appeared with pious hands lifted in horror at the noise. They knew me slightly but affected displeasure at the present moment.
"Who owns this bird?" said I. It was still screaming.
"The good Sister Felicite. It is her room."
"Can I see her?"
"Ah! non. She is ill, so very ill. She will not live long, cette pauvre soeur!"
I reflected. "Will you give her this paper without fail when I have written upon it what I wish?"
"Mais oui, Monsieur!"
In the presence of the two holy women standing with their hands devoutly crossed, and of the parrot whom I silenced as well as I could, and in truth I appeared to have some influence over the creature, I wrote the following upon a leaf torn out of my scratch-book: "To the Soeur Felicite. A gentleman who, if he has not made a great mistake, saw you once when you were Mdme. Martinetti, asks you now if in what may be your last moments, you have anything to tell, anything to declare, or anybody to pardon. He would also ask— what was done to the parrot? He, with his friend M. De Kock, were at your house in New York the night your husband disappeared."
"Give her that," said I to the waiting sister, "and I will come to see how she is to-morrow."
That night, however, she died, and when I reached the nunnery next day it was only to be told that she had read my note and with infinite difficulty written an answer to it.
"I am sorry I should have perhaps hastened her end," said I. "Before you give it to me, will you permit me to see her?"
"Mais oui, Monsieur, if monsieur will come this way."
Until I gazed upon the dead I did not feel quite sure of the identity of this pious Sister of Charity. But I only needed to look once upon the ghastly pallor, the ugly lip mark and the long slender figure on the bed before me to recognize her who had once been Mdme. Martinetti.
"And now for the paper," I said.
"It will be in the room that was hers, if monsieur will accompany." We walked along several corridors till we reached the room in which hung the parrot, I quite expected it to fly at me again and try to get rid of its miserable secret But no! It sat on its stick, perfectly quiet and rational.
"I cannot find dat paper, it is very strange!" muttered the good sister, turning everything over and over. A light wind playing about the room had perhaps blown it into some corner. I assisted her in the search.
"It surely was in an envelope?" I said to the innocent woman.
"Yes monsieur, yes, and with a seal, for I got the cire—you call it wax—myself and held it for her, la bonne soeur."
"It is not always wise to leave such letters about," I put in as meekly as I could "Where was it you saw it last?"
"On dees little table, monsieur."
Now, "dees little table" was between the two windows, and not far, consequently from the parrot's cage. My eye travelled from the table to the cage as a matter of necessity, and I saw that the bottom of it was strewn with something white—like very, very tiny scraps of paper. "I think you need not look any further," said I. "Polly, you either are very clever, or else you are a lunatic and a fool. Which is it?"
But I never found out The parrot had got the letter by some means or other and so effectually torn, bitten and made away with it that nothing remained of it for identification except the wax, which it did not touch and left absolutely whole. The secret which had been the parrot's all along belonged to the parrot still, and after having devoured it in that fashion it became satisfied, and never— at least, as far as I am aware—reverted morbidly to the comic refrain which has but one significance for me.
I took the bird and kept it. I have it now with me. It has been examined hundreds of times; for a long time I was anxious to know the secret of its changed color, but I have never deciphered it. It is healthy, in good condition, sweet-tempered and very fond of me. It does not talk much, but its talk is innocent and rational. No morbid symptoms have ever appeared in it since I took it from the nunnery in Montreal. Its plumage is soft and thick, and perfectly, entirely gray. My own impression is that it was naturally a gray parrot and had at that time of my sojourn in New York, either been dyed or painted that peculiar pea-green which so distinguished it then. I wrote to De Kock before leaving for England and told him something of the story. I have seen the last of Madame; in all probability I shall see the last of the Pea-Green Parrot, and I cannot help wondering when I enter a cafe or ride on an omnibus whether I shall ever run across Giuseppe Martinetti in the flesh, or whether the last of him was seen in truth, five years ago.
The Bishop of Saskabasquia.
I have not a story, properly speaking, to tell about him. He, my Bishop, is quite unconscious that I am writing about him, and would, I daresay, be quite astonished if he knew that I could find anything that relates to him to write about. But I will tell you just how I came to do so. I went to see the "Private Secretary" some months ago. I had never been a great admirer of clergymen as a sex (vide Frenchman's classification), and I thoroughly enjoyed the capital performance of so clever a play. Here, thought I, is a genuine and perfectly fair, though doubtless exaggerated, portrait of the young and helpless curate. I quite lived on that play. I used to go about, like many another delighted playgoer, I expect, quoting the better bits in it, and they are many, and often laughing to himself at its admirable caricature. However, to go on with what I am going to tell you, about two months after I had seen the "Private Secretary," I had occasion to undertake a sea voyage. I had to go out on business to Canada, and embarked one fine Thursday at Liverpool. One of the first things you do on board an ocean steamer is to find your allotted place at table, and the names, etc, of your companions. I soon found mine, and discovered with a pang that I was six seats from the Captain at the side, between a lady and her daughter I had already met at the North-Western Hotel and did not like, and opposite to the Bishop of Saskabasquia, his wife and sister and three children. There was no help for it, I must endure the placid small talk, the clerical platitudes, the intolerable intolerance born of a deathless bigotry that would emanate from my vis-a-vis. What a fuss they made over him, too! Only a Colonial Bishop after all, but when we were all at the wharf, ready to get into the tender, we were kept waiting—we the more insignificant portion of the passengers, mercantile and so on—till "my lord" and his family, nine in number, were safely handed up, with boys and bundles and baggage of every description.
The Bishop himself was a tall thin man, rather priestly in aspect and careworn. Mrs. Saskabasquia as I called her all through the voyage and the seven children—seven little Saskabasquians—and Miss Saskabasquia, the aunt, were all merry enough it seemed though dressed in the most unearthly costumes I had ever seen. Where they had been procured I could not imagine, but they appeared to be made of different kinds of canvas, flannel shirting, corduroy, knitted wool and blankets. Of course we all mustered at the lunch table that first day, people always do, and affect great brightness and hysterical intellectuality and large appetites. I took my seat with a resigned air. There was not a single pretty girl on board. There were plenty of children, but I did not care much for the society of children. The lady and her daughter between whom I sat, presumably to hand them the dishes, did not like me any better than I liked them. They were Canadians, that was easy to discover by their peculiarly flat pronunciation, a detestable accent I hold, the American is preferable. They were connected with the Civil Service in some way through "papa" who figured much in their conversation and I fancy the mother rather disliked the idea of such close contact with a member of the commercial world. So much for colonial snobbery. The lunch was good however, excellent, and we did justice to it. The Bishop did not appear nor any of his family until we had almost finished. Then he entered with his wife and the two eldest boys. The only vacant seats were those opposite me which they took. I wondered they had not placed him next the Capt., but divined that the handsome brunette and the horsey broker, Wyatt and his wife of Montreal, fabulously rich and popular, had arranged some time before to sit next the Capt. My Bishop was perhaps annoyed. But if so, he did not show it. He and his wife ate abundantly, it was good to see them. I involuntarily smiled once when the Bishop sent his plate back the second time for soup, and he caught me. To my surprise, he laughed very heartily and said to me:
"I hope you do not think I am forgetting all the other good things to come! I assure you we are very hungry, are we not, Mary?"
Mrs. Saskabasquia laughed in her turn, and I began to perceive what a very pretty girl she must have been once, and her accent was the purest, most beautiful English. We seemed to warm up generally around the table as we watched the Bishop eat. The boys behaved beautifully and enjoyed their meal as well. Presently we heard a baby crying. It was evidently the youngest of the seven young Saskabasquians. The Bishop stopped directly.
"Go on, go on with your dinner, my dear; I'll see to him, its only James. Dropped his rattle and put his finger in his eye, I expect."
He jumped up and went, I suppose, to the stateroom. Mrs. Saskabasquia laughed softly, and when she spoke she rather addressed herself to me.
"My husband is very good, you know. And James is such a little monkey, and so much better with him than with anyone else, so I just let him go, but it does certainly look very selfish, doesn't it?"
"Not at all," I responded gallantly. "I am sure you need the rest quite as much as he does, particularly if the ba—if the little boy is very young and you—that is—" I was not very clear as to what I was going to say, but she took it up for me.
"Oh, James is the baby. He is just six months' old, you know."
"That is very young to travel," said I. I began to enjoy the charming confidences of Mrs. Saskabasquia, in spite of myself.
"Oh, he was only three months old when we left for England, quite a young traveller as you say. But he is very good, and I have so many to help me."
Here the Bishop returned and sat down once more to his lunch. We had some further conversation, in which I learned that he and his wife had gone out to the North-West just twelve years ago for the first time. All their children had been born there, and they were returning to work again after a brief summer holiday in England. They told me all this with the most delightful frankness, and I began to be grateful for my place at table, as without free and congenial society at meal-time, life on board an ocean steamer narrows down to something vastly uncomfortable. It was a bright and beautiful afternoon on deck, and I soon found myself walking energetically up and down with the Bishop. I commenced by asking him some questions as to his work, place of residence and so on, and once started he talked for a long time about his northern home in the wilds of Canada.
"My wife and I had been only married two months when we went out," said he, with a smile at the remembrance. "We did not know what we were going to."
"Would you have gone had you known?" I enquired as we paused in our walk to take in a view of the Mersey we were leaving behind.
"Yes, I think so. Yes, I am quite sure we would. I was an Oxford man, country-bred; my father is still alive, and has a small living in Essex. I was imbued with the idea of doing something in the colonies long after I was comfortably settled in an English living myself, but I had always fancied it would be Africa. However, just at the time of our marriage I was offered this bishopric in Canada, and my wife was so anxious to go that I easily fell in with the plan."
"Anxious to go out there?" I said in much surprise.
"Ah! You don't know what a missionary in herself my wife is! Then, of course, young people never think of the coming events—children and all that you know. We found ourselves one morning at three o'clock, having gone as far as there was any train to take us, waiting in a barn that served as a station for the buckboard to take us on further to our destination. Have you been in Canada yourself? No? Then you have not seen a buckboard. It consists of two planks laid side by side, lengthwise, over four antiquated wheels—usually the remains of a once useful wagon. Upon this you sit as well as you can, and get driven and jolted and bumped about to the appointed goal. I remember that morning so well," continued the Bishop. "It was very cold, being late in November, and at that hour one feels it so much more—3 a.m., you know. There was one man in charge of the barn; we called him the station-master, though the title sat awkwardly enough upon him. He was a surly fellow. I never met such another. Usually the people out there are agreeable, if slow and stupid."
"Slow, are they?" said I in surprise.
"Oh, frightfully slow. A Canadian laborer is the slowest person in existence, I really believe. However, this man would not give us any information, except to barely tell us that this buckboard was coming for us shortly. It was pitch dark of course and the barn was lighted by one oil lamp and warmed by a coal stove. The lamp would not burn well, so my wife unstrapped her travelling bag and with a pair of tiny curved nail scissors did her best, with the wick, the man remaining perfectly unmoveable and taciturn all the while. At four o'clock our conveyance arrived, and would you believe it—both the driver and the station master allowed me to lift my own luggage into it as well as I could? What it would not take I told the man in charge I would send for as soon as possible. There was no sleighing yet, and that drive was the most excruciating thing I ever endured over corduroy roads through wild and dark forests, along interminable country roads of yellow clay mixed with mud till finally we reached the house of the chief member of society in my district where we were to stay until our own house was ready."
"How long did that take you?" I was quite interested. This was unlike the other clergymen's conversation I remembered.
"O, a matter of eight hours or so. We had the eggs and bacon—the piece de resistance in every Canadian farmhouse—at about half-past 12, for which we were thankful and—hungry. But now you must excuse me for here come two of the boys. Now, then, Alick, where's your mother? Isn't she coming on deck with James? Run and fetch her and you, George, get one of the chairs ready for her. And get the rugs at the same time Alick, do you hear?"
I excused myself in turn and watched the family preparations with much amusement. Mrs. Saskabasquia came up from her state room with a baby in her arms, and a big fellow he was, followed by the other six and their aunt. The Bishop placed chairs for the two ladies and walked up and down the deck I should think the entire afternoon, first with two children and then with two more and finally with the baby in his arms. This was a funny sight but still not one to be ridiculed, far from it. Well, every day showed my new friend in an improved light. Who was it took all the children, not only his own but actually the entire troop on board up to the bow and down to the stern in a laughing crowd to see this or that or the other? Now a shoal of porpoises, now a distant sail or an iceberg, now the beautiful phosphorescence or the red light of a passing ship—the Bishop. Who divined the innate cliquism of life on board ship and cunningly got together in intercourse the very people who wanted to know each other, and even brought into good temper those unfortunate souls who thought only of their own dignity and station in life? The Bishop. Who organized the Grand Concert and Readings in the saloon, writing the programmes himself, pinning them on the doors, discovering the clever and encouraging the timid and reading from the "Cricket on the Hearth," and the "Wreck of the Grosvenor," as I had never imagined a divine could read? The Bishop again. Who might be seen in the mid-day hours when the cabin passengers were asleep, quietly and without ostentation reading or talking to the steerage, ay, and Mrs. Saskabosquia too with her baby on her arm, going about amongst those poor tired folk, many of them with their own babies, not too well fed and not too well washed nor clothed? Still the Bishop, always the Bishop. They appeared as if they could not rest without helping on somebody or something, and yet there was in Mrs. Saskabasquia at least, a delightful sense of calm which affected all who came near her. I used often to sit down by her, she with the inevitable baby on her lap and two or three of the others at her feet on rugs, and she would talk most frankly and unaffectedly of their strange life in Canada. I learnt that she was the daughter of a clergyman in Essex, and had, of course, been brought up in a refined and charming country home like an English gentlewoman. What she had had to do in the new world seemed like a dream.
"What servants do I keep?" she said one day in answer to a question of mine "Why, sometimes I am without any. Then Kathleen and I do the best we can and the children they do the same and my husband takes what we give him! Indeed, my house is a sort of dispensary you know. The most extraordinary people come to me for the most extraordinary things. Now for a bottle of medicine, now for some cast off clothing, now for writing paper and old newspapers or a few tacks. So we have many wants to relieve besides our own and really, that is good for us you know. One Xmas dinner was an amusing one. Roast beef was out of the question, we couldn't get any, and the old woman who usually brought us a turkey came eight miles in the snow to bitterly lament the failure of her turkey crop. The one she had intended for me had been killed and trussed and then the rats which abound out there, got at it in the night and left not a bone of it! So I got the poor old thing a warm cup of tea and gave her some thick socks and sent her away relieved, resolved to spread myself on the pudding. Do you remember Kathleen!"
And Miss Saskabasquia did and smiled at the remembrance.
"What was it like?"
"The pudding? Oh! It was the funniest pudding! George—no—Ethel, was the baby then and very troublesome. Yes, you were my dear and cutting teeth. I was far from strong and in the act of stirring the pudding was taken quite ill and had to give it up. Kathleen was naturally forced to attend to me and the three children, and only for Henry, we should have had no Xmas dinner at all! He went to work with a will, stirred it well, put it into the cloth and was just I believe dropping it into the water when the string broke and the poor pudding tumbled into the water! Of course it was useless, and my husband scarcely knew what to do with himself. Fancy what he did do, though! He went to work and made another out of what he could find without telling us. He'll tell you about it if you ask him, how puzzled he was at first. There was some suet over, only not minced, you know. So he took that just as it was in a lump and buried it in bread-crumbs, luckily we had plenty of bread. Then he broke in the eggs, but when he came to look for the fruit, that was all in the pot of hot water, not a raisin left. He just ladled them out and put them in the second time. I think that was delicious of him don't you? But he forgot the flour and there was so little sugar seemingly in the bag (he didn't know where my Xmas stores were kept) that he took fright and wouldn't use it but broke up some maple sugar instead, then tied it up and got it safely launched the second time. And it was not at all bad, though very shapeless and unlike a trim plum pudding, with the holly at the top."
And many another tale did she tell me of "Henry's" ceaseless activity, and courage and patience. He had learnt three Indian dialects, the patois of the habitant, and the Gaelic of two Scotch settlements, in order to converse freely with his people and understand their wants properly. He could doctor the body as well as the soul, set a fractured limb, bind a wound, apply ice for sunstroke and snow for chilblains. He could harness a horse and milk a cow; paddle a canoe and shoot and fish like an Indian, cook and garden and hew and build—indeed there seemed nothing he could not do and had not done, and all this along with the care of his office, as much a missionary one as any could be. Peril of shipwreck and peril of fire, peril of frost and peril of heat, peril of sickness, pain and death, peril of men, ignorant and wicked, of wild beasts and wilder storms—all these he had braved with his wife and little ones for the sake of his convictions added to a genuine love of his fellow-man. I began to consider, and rightly I think, the unknown, obscure Bishop of Saskabasquia one of the most interesting men of the day.
Our journey, however, could not always last. Our pleasant chats, our lively table-talk, Mrs. Saskabasquia's pretty womanly confidences and her husband's deep-voiced readings from Dickens which he told me were of the utmost moral value to his people, all came to an end. We all felt sorry to part, yet greatly relieved at seeing the mighty cliff of Quebec draw nearer and nearer with each succeeding hour. I had been quite ill for the last two days like nearly all the other passengers. Coming up the Gulf of St. Lawrence that is sometimes the case, and we were a miserable party that Friday, hardly anyone on deck except the irrepressible Bishop and his family and myself. I was wretched, sick and cold and trembling in every limb, undoubted mal de mer had fastened upon me. We were standing close by the railing of the promenade deck when a something swept by on the water. "Child overboard!" I sang out as loudly as I could. Instantly the steerage was in a state of commotion—the child was missed. There didn't appear to be a sailor on the spot. The Bishop looked at me, and I looked at the Bishop. Like lightning he tore off his coat. I put my hand on his arm.
"Dear sir, you will not do such a thing!"
"What is it, Henry?" cried his wife. "Somebody must."
"I wish to God I could, sir!" In another moment he was over.
How he ever recovered from that awful plunge I don't know, but a boat was immediately lowered for him and the child—he had it safe, miraculously enough. How I cursed my weakness which prevented my going in his place. But when I saw the two lives saved I was glad I had not gone, for in my weak state I could not even have saved the child.
I am invited to a Christmas dinner, whenever I like, with the Bishop of Saskabasquia, whom I count as perhaps the finest specimen of healthy Christian manhood I have ever met, and although I can still laugh at the fun of "The Private Secretary" I can say that even among her clergy England can boast of heroes in these latter days as noble and disinterested as in years gone by.
"As it was in the Beginning."
A CHRISTMAS SKETCH.
It is Christmas day in the morning. There is no doubt about it. The shine of the sun, the frost on the trees, the voice of the birds, and the unusual crow, and cackle and clatter and confusion outside the house can leave no doubts upon the subject, to say nothing of the inside of the house. Here it is Christmas day and no mistake. On what other day is the larder so full?—Full is not expressive enough; crammed, rammed, jammed full is more like the actual condition of things, so tightly wedged are pheasants and partridges, grouse and quail, great roasts of beef and haunches of venison, pork and pasty, mutton and fowl. On what other day is the still-room so alluring, where cordials are at their liveliest of brown and amber, and the white fingers of the lady of the house gleam in and out of the piling of herbs and the stirring of compounds—both innocent and inebriating? On what other day is the kitchen so important? Why, the cook is actually thinner than she was the yesterday! Christmas day in the morning is taking it out of her. "No men cooks about me", growls Sir Humphrey Desart, "we'll keep Sarah." So Sarah is kept, and though she be fat, aye, and getting on to three score, yet her strength faileth not, as you may observe. Somewhat of a martinet, yet kindly withal and leading the hubbub in the kitchen with all the gusto of twenty years ago. My lady will descend presently to see if all goes on properly, and Sarah must lose no time. Heavens, how many eggs is she going to break? What are they all for? Will not the resources of the farmyard fail her? This, then, explains all the crow and cackle outside. Now what is she at? Lemons this time, and anon giving a fine stimulus with her master-hand to the lumpy yellow contents of a smooth yellow bowl. Ah! No lumps now; one turn and all resolved into a perfect cadence. Anyone is an artist and a great one who can so resolve a discordant measure. And now she is busy with the brandy! Ah! Sarah, will no temptation accrue from the pouring of the warming draught? "Out upon thee!" says Sarah. "Am I not already as warm over my work as I want to be, and shall I not have my good glass of beer at my dinner? Leave the quality upstairs their brandy," says Sarah, "and let me get to my work."
Well, and the upshot of all this is, that, despite all one may affirm to the contrary, the one grand essential, the peculiar and individualizing attribute of Christmas is—the dinner. The parson may think of his preaching (and if he ever does so, surely most of all on this day) and the virtuous may think of the poor; the old may remember the young, and the young be pardoned for only remembering each other, but the chief thought, the most blissful remembrance is still—The Dinner.
If the parson preach a little better sermon than usual, it is because his nine children have not been forgotten by Lady Bountiful, and are actually going to have—A Dinner.
My Lady Bountiful in her turn may go to church, and appear devoutly removed from the mundus edibilis, yet if you could look into her reflections, you would perceive that she has but one thought—The Dinner. Do you suppose, much as the youths from Oxford and their friend the captain, from London, are devoted to mamma and her daughters, they are not at the same time being eaten up, as it were, devoured, by the intense wish for the hour to come when they may partake of—That Dinner!
Sir Humphrey has asked a particularly large party down this Christmas, and seems to have forgotten nobody he ever knew. Not a poor relation but has been remembered, and things are on a grander scale than usual. The candles build famously, set in the chimney candelabra; the logs are all of the biggest, and as for the Yule himself, he is a veritable Brobdignag; the staircases drop flowers, and holly and mistletoe hang all about. Everything shines, and gleams, and glows. There is to be a boar's head, with, no lack of mustard and minstrelsy, and nothing eatable or drinkable that pertains to Christmas will be wanting. Carols, and waits, and contended tenants; merry chimes and clinking glasses; twanging fiddles and the rush down the middle— nothing is spared and nobody is forgotten. So the hour draws on, the guests pull through the dreary day (for as I have said before, everything on Christmas day gives place to the dinner), and at last the dinner becomes an absolute fact, something to be apprehended, sat down to, and finally eaten. It is eaten, and everyone has come into the long hall, at one end of which the Yule burns. There is merry talk, and it is easier now for the captain to devote himself to the girls, having left the dinner behind; there is talk, too, of a little wonder at the gorgeousness of the dinner, for Sir Humphrey has not been so gay for years, yes, just twenty years, when it is evident that Sir Humphrey is going to make a speech. He stands alone in front of the fire, and this is what he says. If you want to know what he looks like, you may think of an old man who is a gentleman, white-haired, noble and resolute, but with a sense of broken fortunes and deferred hopes upon him.
"I have been young and now am old," says Sir Humphrey, "and I have never yet seen the house, known the family, or penetrated the life where there did not exist some trouble or some secret. Therefore, if I refer to-night to the skeleton in my own house," he continues, with a slight shudder, "I only do what perhaps each individual before me might also do were there the like necessity. The necessity of such reference, in my own case, does not make it less hard for me." Here, Sir Humphrey pauses. When he speaks again he is something straighter and firmer than before. "But as at this season the Church and our good friend the parson would teach us all to remember each other and to help those we can help, I am about to speak. You have heard, all of you, how twenty years ago I sent my two eldest sons out of the house. You have heard, all of you, that they were foolish, and that I was hard, something about a girl and cut off with a shilling, I suppose. Well, to-night you shall hear the true story. I do not think even Lady Desart knows it. She was not their mother, but, as you know, my adored and adoring second wife. I do not know if many of you remember my boys. I can see Humphrey now—a man does not easily forget his first-born, and Hugh was no less dear. My dear friends, if I drove the lads from my house twenty years ago to-night, I did it in obedience to the rules of my own conscience and with regard to the laws of nature, which I should have put before my conscience, as I have far greater respect for them. I did it, as we so often futilely say, for the best. But how often, oh, my dear friends, how often since I have thought that I may have made a terrible mistake."
"They were, Hugh and Humphrey, both madly in love with the same girl. She was no pauper, as you may have been led to believe, but the Lady Barbara Hastings. Her name is familiar to you. She was beautiful and talented, never married, and you may remember that about a month ago she died at the house of friends in London. I knew her, fortunately or unfortunately, however, moving in society as the adopted daughter of a refined gentlewoman, to be the child of a lunatic mother and a father who drank his life away in a Continental retreat. Knowing this I would not for a moment consent even to the thought of either of my sons marrying her, although I knew her to be all that was gracious in womankind. I could not tell them the reason: the secret was hers, poor girl, and I did not betray it. I said 'No,' and each knew what that meant. So we separated, but the worst of it was, my friends, that each lad thought I had refused my consent to save the other the pain of seeing his brother happy; so that greater than their anger with me was their jealousy of one another. With murder in their hearts they fled to America, I believe, pursuing in self-torture that phantom of revenge which we have all seen sometime or another, and whose hot breath we must have felt."
Sir Humphrey pauses oftener now.
"I tell you all this because I want you to see how possible it may be for a man to think he is doing the very best, the only right thing, and then for perhaps an infinitely worse one to crop up. I read not long ago in a wild Western paper a story of two Englishmen who fought a lonely duel on some slope of those great mountains out there, and I think I have not slept since I read it. To have exiled my boys only that they might kill one another in foreign lands and sleep so far away from our English ground!"
Sir Humphrey's voice is failing now and his eyes grow moist A man, you see, does not easily forget his first-born.
"I tell you all this," he continues, "that it may help you to be kind and to think twice. I only thought once, and perhaps the worst may have come of it. Then I tell it to you, too, because I am an old man now, and my voice is not as strong as it was, and I can't get out to church as regularly as I used to do, and I want you all to help me to remember these absent ones and with them any of your own. There is virtue in the holding up of many hands and the lifting up of many hearts. Whether I see them again or not, that does not matter; but for the assurance that they have not harmed each other, let us pray Almighty God this night."
Ah! Sir Humphrey, there are those who would give their life for yours, but they cannot bring you that assurance to-night. Can you wait?
"I can wait," says Sir Humphrey.
It is Christmas day in the morning. At least, so Almanack says, and Almanack ought to know, though he is given in those days to such ornate and emblazoned titivation of himself outwardly, putting himself in the hands of fair Mistress Kate Greenaway at the head of a mischievous throng, that he causes one to seriously consider whether his old head be turned or no. A scholar and statistician buried in heaps of flowers, with a rope of daisies round his neck, and a belt of primroses round his waist; a sunflower in his buttonhole, and a singing bird upon his shoulder; and, worst of all, the picture of a pink-frocked, pink-faced girl next his heart—can he be relied upon? But he persists in his claim to be listened to, and we must take his word for it that this is Christmas day in the morning, although it just looks like any other day. On any other day the sun is just as bright, and the air just as keen. On other days the snow is just as white, just as deep—two feet where the constant tramping has levelled its crystalline beauty, ten, twelve, fifteen there where a great soft cloud of drift reaches halfway up the side of a small wooden house. On other days there is just as much blue in the sky, in the smoke, in the shadows of the pines, and the shadows of the icicles. On other days the house looks just as neat, just as silent, just as poor. The clearing is small, the house is small, a small terrier suns himself on a pile of wood, and the only large object apparently in existence is the tall, broad-shouldered, well-proportioned man who presently emerges from the wooden house. His ear has just caught the sound of a bell. It is not a bad bell for Muskoka, and it has a most curious effect on this white, cold silent world of snow and blue shadows. The owner of the house, who is also the builder of it, stands a few moments listening. There is only the twitter of the snowbirds to listen to, then the bell; more snowbirds, and then the bell again.
"It has quite a churchy sound," he remarks; "I never noticed how churchy before, but it reminds me of some other bell. Ten years I have read for them here, and I never noticed it before." More twitter from the snowbirds and the bell again. Time for church, although the functions of the lay-reader will be this day laid aside, giving place to the more exacting ones of the rector chori. This being Christmas day in the morning, it devolves upon one clergyman to preach in four different places, if not literally at once, at least on the same day.
"It isn't possible," thinks the tall man swinging along at a tremendous pace, "that this bell—there it is again, confound it; yet no, not confound it—can resemble that other bell I used to know. No, quite impossible. Is it likely that anything here," and the thinker spreads both long arms out to take in the entire landscape, "can resemble or remotely suggest the Old Country, or, as people call it, home? Home? Why this is home. That four-roomed and convenient, if not commodious, mansion I have just quitted is my home. Talking of commodiousness, it's quite large enough, too. I have no wife, no children, no partner, not even a sleeping one, no one ever comes to see me. So I do not need a drawing-room, a nursery, a guest chamber, or a smoking-room. I have no books, therefore I need no library; I indulge in no chemical pursuits, therefore I need no laboratory; my music-room is the forest in summer and the chimney in winter, while my studio, according to the latest aesthetic fad—I think that is the word—opens off the music-room.
"Now, if you take away art, science, literature, and society from the daily life of a man, what do you leave? Simply the three radical necessities of sleeping, eating, working. My work I do mostly in the open air, so that, practically, I need but two rooms, one to cook in and the other to sleep in. I have always felt convinced that to be happy I only require two rooms, except on extra cold nights, when I find that one suffices. That is when Tim and I lie near the kitchen fire to keep warm. Home! Why of course it is home. Didn't I build the house myself? What association is dearer than that? To come into a pile of half-ruined towers, all gables and gargoyles, built somewhere about the fourteenth century, and added to by every fool who liked, without the slightest pretence to knowledge of architecture and civilization may be very gratifying, but, strange as it may seem, I prefer the work of my own hands. I am quite a Canadian, of course, though I once was an Englishman. I array myself in strange raiment, thick and woollen, of many colours; my linen is coarse and sometimes superseded by flannel; I wear a cast-off fur cap on my head and moccasins on my feet. I have grown a beard and a fierce moustache. I have made no money and won no friends except the simple settlers around me here. And I shall grow old and grey in your service, my Muskoka. I shall be forty-one on my next birthday. Then will come fifty-one, another ten years and sixty-one. All to be lived here? Yes, I have sworn it. Not Arcady, not Utopia, only Muskoka, but very dear to me. There is the forest primeval! I know everything in it from the Indian pipe—clammy white thing, but how pretty!—to that great birch there with the bark peeling off in pieces a yard wide. There is the lovely Shadow river. Masses of cardinal flowers grow there in the summer, and when I take my boat up its dark waters I feel that no human being has felt its beauty so before. I think, for a small river it is the loveliest in the world. And as to my larder now, why I am going to make my Christmas dinner off a piece or pork and ask for nothing better! I shall have a glorious appetite, which is the main point. The bell again!"
Yes, and the snow birds, too, flying round the porch of the little church. It is a very small and plain edifice and not over warm, and the officiating clergyman, who has just driven eighteen miles with the prospect of eighteen back after service, hurries the proceedings somewhat. There is a harmonium played by the tall man, and there is a choir consisting of himself and a small boy. In place of the usual Anglican hymns two carols are sung by the choir, which have the quaintest effect in such a place, and which appear to interest and even excite one of the congregation. This is a man of middle age, most richly dressed with a certain foreign air about him and evidently in a very delicate state of health. He is accompanied by a lady whose dress is also a marvel of beauty and costliness though hardly of fitness. The broad bands of gold which adorn her wrists and neck would alone procure for her the entire attention of the congregation were she seated in a more conspicuous place. As it is they are seated near the stove for increased comfort. "Good King Wenceslas" sings the choir, the small boy finding the long word very trying, and coming utterly to grief in the last two verses, for his companion appears to have lost his place. With the last verse of the carol comes the close of the service, the straggling congregation disperse and the jolly clergyman drives off again. Then an important thing happens, and happens very quietly. So quietly that the richly dressed lady who is a bright, shallow and unsentimental Californian does not mind it at all. "Humphrey!" says the tall man, "Hugh!" says the other, and all is said. There is not much sentiment in the meeting, how can there be? Their ways have gone too far apart. The years—nearly twenty, since they parted in Los Angeles—have brought gold and kith and kin to the one, with an enfeebled constitution and an uncertain temper. To the other, they have brought the glory of health for his manhood's crown, content and peace unutterable. To learn to subdue the ground is to learn one great lesson. So the strange meeting is soon over. The Christmas spell may not always last and the brothers separate once more.
* * * * *
The bright little lady who is taking her husband for a winter's Canadian tour gets restive in this silent snowy world. But before they part a letter is written to a white-haired old gentleman' in England, who has only a month to wait.
"Whether I see them again or not does not matter," says Sir Humphrey, "but for the assurance that they have not harmed each other, I thank Almighty God this night!"
THE IDYL OF THE ISLAND.
* * * * *
Here lies mid-way between parallels 48 and 49 of latitude, and degrees 89 and 90 of longitude, in the northern hemisphere of the New World, serenely anchored on an ever-rippling and excited surface, an exquisitely lovely island. No tropical wonder of palm-treed stateliness, or hot tangle of gaudy bird and glowing creeper, can compare with it; no other northern isle, cool and green and refreshing to the eye like itself, can surpass it. It is not a large island. It is about half-a-mile long and quarter of a mile broad It is an irregular oval in shape, and has two distinct and different sides. On the west side its grey limestone rises to the height of twenty feet straight out of the water. On the east side there occurs a gradual shelving of a sumac-fringed shore, that mingles finally with the ever-rippling water. For the waters in this northern country are never still. They are perpetually bubbling up and boiling over; seething and fuming and frothing and foaming and yet remaining so cool and clear that a quick fancy would discover thousands of banished fountains under that agitated and impatient surface. Both ends of the island are as much alike as its sides are dissimilar. They taper off almost to a distinct bladepoint of rock, in which a mere doll's flagstaff of a pine-tree grows; then comes a small detached rock, with a small evergreen on it, then a still smaller rock, with a tuft of grass, then a line of partially submerged stones, and so out to the deep yet ever-bubbling water. This island might seem, just the size for two, and there were two on it on a certain July morning at five o'clock. One of these was a lady who lay at full length and fast asleep upon a most unique couch. These northern islands are in many places completely covered with a variety of yellowish-green moss, varying from a couple of inches to a foot and a half in thickness; and yielding to the pressure of the foot or the body as comfortably as a feather bed, if not more so, being elastic in nature. A large square of this had been cut up from some other part of the island and placed on the already moss-grown and cushioned ground, serving as a mattress, while two smaller pieces served as pillows. A sumac tree at the head of the improvised couch gave the necessary shade to the face of the sleeper, while a wild grapevine, after having run over and encircled with its moist green every stone and stem on the island, fulfilled its longing at length in a tumultuous possession of the sumac, making a massive yet aerial patched green curtain or canopy to the fantastic bed, and ending seemingly in two tiny transparent spirals curling up to the sky.
If there were a fault in the structure it was that it was too clever, too well thought out, too rectangular, too much in fact like a bed. But it told certainly of a skillful pair of hands and of a beautiful mind and the union of art with nature perfectly suited the charms— contradictory yet consistent—of the occupant. For being anything but a beautiful woman she was still far from a plain one, which though no original mode of putting it does convey the actual impression she made upon a gentleman in a small boat who rowing past this island at the hour of five o'clock in the morning was so much struck with this curious sight, quite visible from the water below, that he was rude enough to stand up that he might see better. The lady was dressed in some dark blue stuff that evidently covered her all over and fitted tightly where it could be seen. A small linen collar, worn all night and therefore shorn of its usual freshness was round her neck, and she was tucked up from the waist under a Scotch woollen rug. Her hair, of a peculiar red-brown, was allowed to hang about her and was lovely; her mouth sad; her nose, rather too prominent; her complexion natural and healthy, but marred by freckles and moles, not many of either but undeniably scattered over the countenance. All told but her eyes which, if they proved to match with her hair, would atone for these other shortcomings. The gentleman sat down again and reflected.
"How still it is!" he said under his breath. "Absolutely not a thing stirring. This is the time when the fish bite. I ought to be fishing I suppose. Going to be warm by-and-bye."
It was indeed almost absolutely silent. The sun climbed higher but the lady slept on, and the gentleman gazed as if fascinated. The only sound that broke the beautiful early morning silence was the occasional weird laugh of the loon. It came twice and then a third time. The sleeper stirred.
"If that thing out there cries again she will wake," said the gentleman to himself. "I must be off before that happens. But I should like to see her eyes. What a pretty picture it is!" Once more the loon gave its maniacal laugh and the lady started, sat bolt upright and wide awake. Her admirer had not time to retreat but he took his oars up and confronted her manfully. It was an awkward moment. He apologized. The lady listened very politely. Then she smiled.
"Most of the islands in this lake are owned by private people," she said, "who use them during the summer months for the purpose of camping out upon them. I should advise you, if you row about much here, to keep to the open water, unless you wish to be seriously handled by the fathers and mothers of families."
"Thank you very much," returned the gentleman, standing up in his boat, "I assure you I intended no rudeness, but I have never seen so charming a summer couch before, and I was really fascinated by the— ah,—the picture you made. May I ask what you mean by 'camping out'? Is it always done in this fashion?"
The lady stared "Have you never camped out?"
"Never in my life," said the gentleman. "I am an Englishman, staying at the hotel near the point for a day or two. I came out to see something of the country."
"Then you should at least have camped out for a week or so. That is a genuine Canadian experience," said the lady with a frankness which completely restored the equanimity of the Englishman.
"But how do you live?" he went on in a puzzled manner that caused the lady with the red-brown hair, still all hanging about her, much amusement.
"O, capitally! Upon fish and eggs, and gooseberry tarts, and home-made bread and French coffee. Just what you would get in town, and much better than you get at the hotel."
"O, that would be easy!" the gentleman groaned. "I eat my meals in a pitch-dark room, in deadly fear and horror of the regiments of flies that swarm in and settle on everything the minute one raises the green paper blinds."
The lady nodded. "I know. We tried it for two or three seasons, but we could not endure it; the whole thing, whitewash and all, is so trying, isn't it? So we bought this lovely island and bring our tent here and live so comfortably." The gentleman did not reply at once. He was thinking that it was his place to say "Good morning," and go, although he would much have liked to remain a little longer. He hazarded the remark:
"Now, for instance, what are you going to breakfast on presently?"
The lady laughed lightly and shook her red brown hair.
"First of all I have to make a fire."
"But that is not so very difficult"
"How do you do it?"
"Would you like to know?"
"Very much indeed. I should like to see, if I may."
The lady reflected a moment. "I suppose you may, but if you do, you ought to help me, don't you think?" The gentleman much amused and greatly interested.
"Ah but you see, it is you I want to see make it. I am very useless you know at that sort of thing, still, if you will allow me, I will try my best. Am I to come ashore?"
"Certainly, if you are to be of any use."
The lady jumped lightly off the pretty couch of moss and wound her plentiful hair round her head with one turn of her arm. Her dress was creased but well-fitting, her figure not plump enough for beauty but decidedly youthful. She watched her new friend moor his boat and ascend with one or two strides of his long legs up the side of the cliff that was not so steep. He took off his hat.
"I am at your service," he said with a profound bow. The lady made him another, during which all her long hair fell about her again, at which they both laughed.
"What do we do first?" said he.
"O we find a lot of sticks and pieces of bark, mostly birch bark, and anything else that will burn—you may have to fell a tree while you are about it—and I'll show you how to place them properly between two walls of stones, put a match to them and there is our fire. Will you come with me?"
He assented of course, and they were soon busy in the interior of the little wood that grew up towards the centre of the island. I must digress here to say that the gentleman's name was Amherst. He was known to the world in latter life as Admiral Amherst, and he was a great friend of mine. When he related this story to me, he was very particular in describing the island as I have done—indeed he carried a little chart about with him of it which he had made from memory, and he told me besides that he never forgot the peculiar beauty of that same little tract of wood. The early hour, the delicious morning air, the great moss-grown and brown decaying tree trunks, the white, clammy, ghostly, flower or fungus of the Indian Pipe at his feet, the masses of ferns, the elastic ground he trod upon, and the singular circumstance that he was alone in this exquisite spot with a woman he had never seen until five minutes previously, all combined to make an ineffaceable impression upon his mind. The lady showed herself proficient in the art of building a fire and attended by Amherst soon had a fine flame rising up from between the fortifications evidently piled by stronger hands than her own.
"What do we do now?" asked Amherst "I should suggest—a kettle."
"Of course, that is the next step. If I give it to you, you might run and fill it, eh?'
"Delighted!" and away went Amherst. When he returned the lady was not to be seen. The place was shorn of its beauty, but he waited discreetly and patiently, putting the kettle on to boil in the meanwhile.
"It's very singular," said he, "how I come to be here. I wonder who are with her in her party; no one else appears to be up or about. That striped red and white thing is the tent, I see, over there. Ah! That's where she has gone, and now she beckons me! Oh! I'll go, but I don't want to meet the rest of them!"
But when he reached the tent, it was quite empty, save for rugs and wraps, boxes, etc., and the lady was laughingly holding out a loaf of bread in one hand and a paper package in the other.
"You will stay and breakfast with me?"
"What will you give me?" said Amherst, smiling.
"I can only give you eggs, boiled in the kettle, coffee and bread and butter. The fish haven't come in yet."
"What can be nicer than eggs—especially when boiled in the kettle, that is, if you make the coffee first"
"Certainly I do."
"And it is really French coffee?"
"Really. Cafe des Gourmets, you know; we—I always use it—do not like any other."
Amherst was fast falling in love. He told me that at this point his mind was quite made up that if it were possible he would remain in the neighborhood a few days at least, in order to see more of this charming girl. She seemed to him to be about twenty-six or seven, and so frank, simple and graceful, one could not have resisted liking her. Her hair and eyes were identical in colour and both were beautiful; her expression was arch and some of her gestures almost childish, but a certain dignity appeared at times and sat well upon her. Her hands were destitute of any rings as Amherst soon discovered, and were fine and small though brown. While she made the coffee, Amherst threw himself down on the wonderful moss, the like of which he had never seen before and looked out over the water. An unmistakeable constraint had taken the place of the unaffected hilarity of the first ten minutes. A reaction had set in. Amherst could of course only answer to me in telling this for himself, but he divined at the time a change in his companion's manner as well.