A TALE OF THE LAKE ST. JOHN COUNTRY
TRANSLATED BY W. H. BLAKE
Author of "Brown Waters," etc.
I PERIBONKA II HOME IN THE CLEARING III FRANCOIS PASSES BY IV WILD LAND V THE VOWS VI THE STUFF OF DREAMS VII A MEAGER REAPING VIII ENTRENCHED AGAINST WINTER IX ONE THOUSAND AVES X STRAYING TRACKS XI THE INTERPRETER OF GOD XII LOVE BEARING GIFTS XIII LOVE BEARING CHAINS XIV INTO THE DEEP SILENCE XV THAT WE PERISH NOT XVI PLEDGED TO THE RACE
Ite, missa est
The door opened, and the men of the congregation began to come out of the church at Peribonka.
A moment earlier it had seemed quite deserted, this church set by the roadside on the high bank of the Peribonka, whose icy snow-covered surface was like a winding strip of plain. The snow lay deep upon road and fields, for the April sun was powerless to send warmth through the gray clouds, and the heavy spring rains were yet to come. This chill and universal white, the humbleness of the wooden church and the wooden houses scattered along the road, the gloomy forest edging so close that it seemed to threaten, these all spoke of a harsh existence in a stern land. But as the men and boys passed through the doorway and gathered in knots on the broad steps, their cheery salutations, the chaff flung from group to group, the continual interchange of talk, merry or sober, at once disclosed the unquenchable joyousness of a people ever filled with laughter and good humour.
Cleophas Pesant, son of Thadee Pesant the blacksmith, was already in light-coloured summer garments, and sported an American coat with broad padded shoulders; though on this cold Sunday he had not ventured to discard his winter cap of black cloth with harelined ear-laps for the hard felt hat he would have preferred to wear. Beside him Egide Simard, and others who had come a long road by sleigh, fastened their long fur coats as they left the church, drawing them in at the waist with scarlet sashes. The young folk of the village, very smart in coats with otter collars, gave deferential greeting to old Nazaire Larouche; a tall man with gray hair and huge bony shoulders who had in no wise altered for the mass his everyday garb: short jacket of brown cloth lined with sheepskin, patched trousers, and thick woollen socks under moose-hide moccasins.
"Well, Mr. Larouche, do things go pretty well across the water?"
"Not badly, my lads, not so badly."
Everyone drew his pipe from his pocket, and the pig's bladder filled with tobacco leaves cut by hand, and, after the hour and a half of restraint, began to smoke with evident satisfaction. The first puffs brought talk of the weather, the coming spring, the state of the ice on Lake St. John and the rivers, of their several doings and the parish gossip; after the manner of men who, living far apart on the worst of roads, see one another but once a week.
"The lake is solid yet," said Cleophas Pesant, "but the rivers are no longer safe. The ice went this week beside the sand-bank opposite the island, where there have been warm spring-holes all winter." Others began to discuss the chances of the crops, before the ground was even showing.
"I tell you that we shall have a lean year," asserted one old fellow, "the frost got in before the last snows fell."
At length the talk slackened and all faced the top step, where Napoleon Laliberte was making ready, in accord with his weekly custom, to announce the parish news. He stood there motionless for a little while, awaiting quiet,—hands deep in the pockets of the heavy lynx coat, knitting his forehead and half closing his keen eyes under the fur cap pulled well over his ears; and when silence fell he began to give the news at the full pitch of his voice, in the manner of a carter who encourages his horses on a hill.
"The work on the wharf will go forward at once ... I have been sent money by the Government, and those looking for a job should see me before vespers. If you want this money to stay in the parish instead of being sent back to Quebec you had better lose no time in speaking to me."
Some moved over in his direction; others, indifferent, met his announcement with a laugh. The remark was heard in an envious undertone:—"And who will be foreman at three dollars a day? Perhaps good old Laliberte ..."
But it was said jestingly rather than in malice, and the speaker ended by adding his own laugh.
Hands still in the pockets of his big coat, straightening himself and squaring his shoulders as he stood there upon the highest step, Napoleon Laliberte proceeded in loudest tones:—"A surveyor from Roberval will be in the parish next week. If anyone wishes his land surveyed before mending his fences for the summer, this is to let him know."
The item was received without interest. Peribonka farmers are not particular about correcting their boundaries to gain or lose a few square feet, since the most enterprising among them have still two-thirds of their grants to clear,—endless acres of woodland and swamp to reclaim.
He continued:—"Two men are up here with money to buy furs. If you have any bear, mink, muskrat or fox you will find these men at the store until Wednesday, or you can apply to Francois Paradis of Mistassini who is with them. They have plenty of money and will pay cash for first-class pelts." His news finished, he descended the steps. A sharp-faced little fellow took his place.
"Who wants to buy a fine young pig of my breeding?" he asked, indicating with his finger something shapeless that struggled in a bag at his feet. A great burst of laughter greeted him. They knew them well, these pigs of Hormidas' raising. No bigger than rats, and quick as squirrels to jump the fences.
"Twenty-five cents!" one young man bid chaffingly.
"Don't play the fool, Jean. Your wife will never let you pay a dollar for such a pig as that."
Jean stood his ground:—"A dollar, I won't go back on it."
Hormidas Berube with a disgusted look on his face awaited another bid, but only got jokes and laughter.
Meantime the women in their turn had begun to leave the church. Young or old, pretty or ugly, nearly all were well clad in fur cloaks, or in coats of heavy cloth; for, honouring the Sunday mass, sole festival of their lives, they had doffed coarse blouses and homespun petticoats, and a stranger might well have stood amazed to find them habited almost with elegance in this remote spot; still French to their finger-tips in the midst of the vast lonely forest and the snow, and as tastefully dressed, these peasant women, as most of the middle-class folk in provincial France.
Cleophas Pesant waited for Louisa Tremblay who was alone, and they went off together along the wooden sidewalk in the direction of the house. Others were satisfied to exchange jocular remarks with the young girls as they passed, in the easy and familiar fashion of the country,-natural enough too where the children have grown up together from infancy.
Pite Gaudreau, looking toward the door of the church, remarked:—"Maria Chapdelaine is back from her visit to St. Prime, and there is her father come to fetch her." Many in the village scarcely knew the Chapdelaines.
"Is it Samuel Chapdelaine who has a farm in the woods on the other side of the river, above Honfleur?"
"That's the man."
"And the girl with him is his daughter? Maria ..."
"Yes, she has been spending a month at St. Prime with her mother's people. They are Bouchards, related to Wilfrid Bouchard of St. Gedeon ..."
Interested glances were directed toward the top of the steps. One of the young people paid Maria the countryman's tribute of admiration—"A fine hearty girl!" said he.
"Right you are! A fine hearty girl, and one with plenty of spirit too. A pity that she lives so far off in the woods. How are the young fellows of the village to manage an evening at their place, on the other side of the river and above the falls, more than a dozen miles away and the last of them with next to no road?"
The smiles were bold enough as they spoke of her, this inaccessible beauty; but as she came down the wooden steps with her father and passed near by, they were taken with bashfulness and awkwardly drew back, as though something more lay between her and them than the crossing of a river and twelve miles of indifferent woodland road.
Little by little the groups before the church dissolved. Some returned to their houses, after picking up all the news that was going; others, before departing, were for spending an hour in one of the two gathering places of the village; the cur's house or the general store. Those who came from the back concessions, stretching along the very border of the forest, one by one untied their horses from the row and brought their sleighs to the foot of the steps for their women and children.
Samuel Chapdelaine and Maria had gone but a little way when a young man halted them.
"Good day to you, Mr. Chapdelaine. Good day, Miss Maria. I am in great luck at meeting you, since your farm is so high up the river and I don't often come this way myself."
His bold eyes travelled from one to the other. When he averted them it seemed by a conscious effort of politeness; swiftly they returned, and their glance, bright, keen, full of honest eagerness, was questioning and disconcerting.
"Francois Paradis!" exclaimed Chapdelaine.
"This is indeed a bit of luck, for I haven't seen you this long while, Francois. And your father dead too. Have you held on to the farm?" The young man did not answer; he was looking expectantly at Maria with a frank smile, awaiting a word from her.
"You remember Francois Paradis of Mistassini, Maria? He has changed very little."
"Nor have you, Mr. Chapdelaine. But your daughter, that is a different story; she is not the same, yet I should have known her at once."
They had spent the last evening at St. Michel de Mistassini-viewing everything in the full light of the afternoon: the great wooden bridge, covered in and painted red, not unlike an amazingly long Noah's ark; the high hills rising almost from the very banks of the river, the old monastery crouched between the river and the heights, the water that seethed and whitened, flinging itself in wild descent down the staircase of a giant. But to see this young man after seven years, and to hear his name spoken, aroused in Maria memories clearer and more lively than she was able to evoke of the events and sights of yesterday.
"Francois Paradis! ... Why surely, father, I remember Francois Paradis." And Francois, content, gave answer to the questions of a moment ago.
"No, Mr. Chapdelaine, I have not kept the farm. When the good man died I sold everything, and since then I have been nearly all the time in the woods, trapping or bartering with the Indians of Lake Mistassini and the Riviere aux Foins. I also spent a couple of years in the Labrador." His look passed once more from Samuel Chapdelaine to Maria, and her eyes fell.
"Are you going home to-day?" he asked.
"Yes; right after dinner."
"I am glad that I saw you, for I shall be passing up the river near your place in two or three weeks, when the ice goes out. I am here with some Belgians who are going to buy furs from the Indians; we shall push up so soon as the river is clear, and if we pitch a tent above the falls close to your farm I will spend the evening with you."
"That is good, Francois, we will expect you."
The alders formed a thick and unbroken hedge along the river Peribonka; but the leafless stems did not shut away the steeply sloping bank, the levels of the frozen river, the dark hem of the woods crowding to the farther edge-leaving between the solitude of the great trees, thick-set and erect, and the bare desolateness of the ice only room for a few narrow fields, still for the most part uncouth with stumps, so narrow indeed that they seemed to be constrained in the grasp of an unkindly land.
To Maria Chapdelaine, glancing inattentively here and there, there was nothing in all this to make one feel lonely or afraid. Never had she known other prospect from October to May, save those still more depressing and sad, farther yet from the dwellings of man and the marks of his labour; and moreover all about her that morning had taken on a softer outline, was brighter with a new promise, by virtue of something sweet and gracious that the future had in its keeping. Perhaps the coming springtime ... perhaps another happiness that was stealing toward her, nameless and unrecognized.
Samuel Chapdelaine and Maria were to dine with their relative Azalma Larouche, at whose house they had spent the night. No one was there but the hostess, for many years a widow, and old Nazaire Larouche, her brother-in-law. Azalma was a tall, flat-chested woman with the undeveloped features of a child, who talked very quickly and almost without taking breath while she made ready the meal in the kitchen. From time to time she halted her preparations and sat down opposite her visitors, less for the moments repose than to give some special emphasis to what she was about to say; but the washing of a dish or the setting of the table speedily claimed her attention again, and the monologue went on amid the clatter of dishes and frying-pans.
The pea-soup was soon ready and on the table. While eating, the two men talked about the condition of their farms and the state of the spring ice.
"You should be safe enough for crossing this evening," said Nazaire Larouche, "but it will be touch-and-go, and I think you will be about the last. The current is strong below the fall and already we have had three days of rain.'"
"Everybody says that the ice will hold for a long time yet," replied his sister-in-law. "Better sleep here again to-night, and after supper the young folks from the village will drop in and spend the evening. It is only fair that Maria should have a little more amusement before you drag her off into your woods up there."
"She has had plenty of gaiety at St. Prime; singing and games almost every night. We are greatly obliged to you, but I am going to put the horse in immediately after dinner so as to get home in good time."
Old Nazaire Larouche spoke of the morning's sermon which had struck him as well reasoned and fine; then after a spell of silence he exclaimed abruptly—"Have you baked?"
His amazed sister-in-law gaped at him for a moment before it stole upon her that this was his way of asking for bread. A little later he attacked her with another question:—"Is your pump working well?"
Which signified that there was no water on the table. Azalma rose to get it, and behind her back the old fellow sent a sly wink in the direction of Maria. "I assault her with parables," chuckled he. "It's politer."
On the plank walls of the house were pasted old newspapers, and calendars hung there such as the manufacturers of farm implements or grain merchants scatter abroad, and also prints of a religious character; a representation in crudest colour and almost innocent of perspective of the basilica at Ste. Anne de Beaupre—, a likeness of Pope Pius X.; a chromo where the palely-smiling Virgin Mary disclosed her bleeding heart encircled with a golden nimbus.
"This is nicer than our house," thought Maria to herself. Nazaire Larouche kept directing attention to his wants with dark sayings:—"Was your pig very lean?" he demanded; or perhaps:—"Fond of maple sugar, are you? I never get enough of it ..."
And then Azalma would help him to a second slice of pork or fetch the cake of maple sugar from the cupboard. When she wearied of these strange table-manners and bade him help himself in the usual fashion, he smoothed her ruffled temper with good-humoured excuses, "Quite right. Quite right. I won't do it again; but you always loved a joke, Azalma. When you have youngsters like me at dinner you must look for a little nonsense."
Maria smiled to think how like he was to her father; both tall and broad, with grizzled hair, their faces tanned to the colour of leather, and, shining from their eyes, the quenchless spirit of youth which keeps alive in the countryman of Quebec his imperishable simple-heartedness.
They took the road almost as soon as the meal was over. The snow, thawed on top by the early rains, and frozen anew during the cold nights, gave an icy surface that slipped away easily beneath the runners. The high blue hills on the other side of Lake St. John which closed the horizon behind them were gradually lost to view as they returned up the long bend of the river.
Passing the church, Samuel Chapdelaine said thoughtfully—"The mass is beautiful. I am often very sorry that we live so far from churches. Perhaps not being able to attend to our religion every Sunday hinders us from being just so fortunate as other people."
"It is not our fault," sighed Maria, "we are too far away."
Her father shook his head regretfully. The imposing ceremonial, the Latin chants, the lighted tapers, the solemnity of the Sunday mass never failed to fill Urn with exaltation. In a little he began to sing:—
J'irai la voir un jour, M'asseoir pres de son trone, Recevoir ma couronne Et regner a mon tour ...
His voice was strong and true, and he used the full volume of it, singing with deep fervour; but ere long his eyes began to close and his chin to drop toward his breast. Driving always made him sleepy, and the horse, aware that the usual drowsiness had possession of his master, slackened his pace and at length fell to a walk.
"Get up there, Charles Eugene!"
He had suddenly waked and put his hand out for the whip. Charles Eugene resigned himself and began to trot again. Many generations ago a Chapdelaine cherished a long feud with a neighbour who bore these names, and had forthwith bestowed them upon an old, tired, lame horse of his, that he might give himself the pleasure every day when passing the enemy's house of calling out very loudly:—"Charles Eugene, ill-favoured beast that you are! Wretched, badly brought up creature! Get along, Charles Eugene!" For a whole century the quarrel was dead and buried; but the Chapdelaines ever since had named their successive horses Charles Eugene.
Once again the hymn rose in clear ringing tones, intense with feeling:—
Au ciel, au ciel, au ciel, J'irai la voir un jour . .
And again sleep was master, the voice died away, and Maria gathered up the reins dropped from her father's hand.
The icy road held alongside the frozen river. The houses on the other shore, each surrounded with its patch of cleared land, were sadly distant from one another. Behind the clearings, and on either side of them to the river's bank, it was always forest: a dark green background of cypress against which a lonely birch tree stood out here and there, its bole naked and white as the column of a ruined temple.
On the other side of the road the strip of cleared land was continuous and broader; the houses, set closer together, seemed an outpost of the village; but ever behind the bare fields marched the forest, following like a shadow, a gloomy frieze without end between white ground and gray sky.
"Charles Eugene, get on there!"
Chapdelaine woke and made his usual good-humoured feint toward the whip; but by the time the horse slowed down, after a few livelier paces, he had dropped off again, his hands lying open upon his knees showing the worn palms of the horse-hide mittens, his chin resting upon the coat's thick fur.
After a couple of miles the road climbed a steep hill and entered the unbroken woods. The houses standing at intervals in the flat country all the way from the village came abruptly to an end, and there was no longer anything for the eye to rest upon but a wilderness of bare trunks rising out of the universal whiteness. Even the incessant dark green of balsam, spruce and gray pine was rare; the few young and living trees were lost among the endless dead, either lying on the ground and buried in snow, or still erect but stripped and blackened. Twenty years before great forest fires had swept through, and the new growth was only pushing its way amid the standing skeletons and the charred down-timber. Little hills followed one upon the other, and the road was a succession of ups and downs scarcely more considerable than the slopes of an ocean swell, from trough to crest, from crest to trough.
Maria Chapdelaine drew the cloak about her, slipped her hands under the warm robe of gray goat-skin and half closed her eyes. There was nothing to look at; in the settlements new houses and barns might go up from year to year, or be deserted and tumble into ruin; but the life of the woods is so unhurried that one must needs have more than the patience of a human being to await and mark its advance.
Alone of the three travellers the horse remained fully awake. The sleigh glided over the hard snow, grazing the stumps on either hand level with the track. Charles Eugene accurately followed every turn of the road, took the short pitches at a full trot and climbed the opposite hills with a leisurely pace, like the capable animal he was, who might be trusted to conduct his masters safely to the door-step of their dwelling without being annoyed by guiding word or touch of rein.
Some miles farther, and the woods fell away again, disclosing the river. The road descended the last hill from the higher land and sank almost to the level of the ice. Three houses were dotted along the mile of bank above; but they were humbler buildings than those of the village, and behind them scarcely any land was cleared and there was little sign of cultivation:-built there, they seemed to be, only in witness of the presence of man.
Charles Eugene swung sharply to the right, stiffened his forelegs to hold back on the slope and pulled up on the edge of the ice. Chapdelaine opened his eyes.
"Here, father," said Maria, "take the reins!" He seized them, but before giving his horse the word, took some moments for a careful scrutiny of the frozen surface.
"There is a little water on the ice," said he, "and the snow has melted; but we ought to be able to cross all the same. Get up, Charles Eugene." The horse lowered his head and sniffed at the white expanse in front of him, then adventured upon it without more ado. The ruts of the winter road were gone, the little firs which had marked it at intervals were nearly all fallen and lying in the half-thawed snow; as they passed the island the ice cracked twice without breaking. Charles Eugene trotted smartly toward the house of Charles Lindsay on the other bank. But when the sleigh reached midstream, below the great fall, the horse had perforce to slacken pace by reason of the water which had overflowed the ice and wetted the snow. Very slowly they approached the shore; there remained only some thirty feet to be crossed when the ice began to go up and down under the horse's hoofs.
Old Chapdelaine, fully awake now, was on his feet; his eyes beneath the fur cap shone with courage and quick resolve.
"Go on, Charles Eugene! Go on there!" he roared in his big voice. The wise beast dug his calked shoes through the deep slush and sprang for the bank, throwing himself into the collar at every leap. Just as they reached land a cake of ice tilted beneath their weight and sank, leaving a space of open water.
Samuel Chapdelaine turned about. "We are the last to cross this year," said he. And he halted the horse to breathe before putting him at the hill.
After following the main road a little way they left it for another which plunged into the woods. It was scarcely more than a rough trail, still beset with roots, turning and twisting in all directions to avoid boulders and stumps. Rising to a plateau where it wound back and forth through burnt lands it gave an occasional glimpse of steep hillside, of the rocks piled in the channel of the frozen rapid, the higher and precipitous opposing slope above the fall, and at the last resumed a desolate way amid fallen trees and blackened rampikes.
The little stony hillocks they passed through seemed to close in behind them; the burnt lands gave place to darkly-crowding spruces and firs; now and then they caught momentary sight of the distant mountains on the Riviere Alec; and soon the travellers discerned a clearing in tile forest, a mounting column of smoke, the bark of a dog.
"They will be glad to see you again, Maria," said her father. "They have been lonesome for you, every one of them."
HOME IN THE CLEARING
It was supper-time before Maria had answered all the questions, told of her journey down to the last and littlest item, and given not only the news of St. Prime and Peribonka but everything else she had been able to gather up upon the road.
Tit'Be, seated facing his sister, smoked pipe after pipe without taking his eyes off her for a single moment, fearful of missing some highly important disclosure that she had hitherto held back. Little Alma Rose stood with an arm about her neck; Telesphore was listening too, as he mended his dog's harness with bits of string. Madame Chapdelaine stirred the fire in the big cast-iron stove, came and went, brought from the cupboard plates and dishes, the loaf of bread and pitcher of milk, tilted the great molasses jar over a glass jug. Not seldom she stopped to ask Maria something, or to catch what she was saying, and stood for a few moments dreaming, hands on her hips, as the villages spoken of rose before her in memory—
"... And so the church is finished-a beautiful stone church, with pictures on the walls and coloured glass in the windows ... How splendid that must be! Johnny Bouchard built a new barn last year, and it is a little Perron, daughter of Abelard Perron of St. Jerome, who teaches school ... Eight years since I was at St. Prime, just to think of it! A fine parish indeed, that would have suited me nicely; good level land as far as you can see, no rock cropping up and no bush, everywhere square-cornered fields with handsome straight fences and heavy soil. Only two hours' drive to the railway ... Perhaps it is wicked of me to say so; but all my married life I have felt sorry that your father's taste was for moving, and pushing on and on into the woods, and not for living on a farm in one of the old parishes."
Through the little square window she threw a melancholy glance over the scanty cleared fields behind the house, the barn built of ill-joined planks that showed marks of fire, and the land beyond still covered with stumps and encompassed by the forest, whence any return of hay or grain could only be looked for at the end of long and patient waiting.
"O look," said Alma Rose, "here is Chien come for his share of petting." The dog laid his long head with the sad eyes upon her knee; uttering little friendly words, Maria bent and caressed him.
"He has been lonely without you like the rest of us," came from Alma Rose. "Every morning he used to look at your bed to see if you were not back." She called him to her. "Come, Chien; come and let me pet you too."
Chien went obediently from one to the other, half closing his eyes at each pat. Maria looked about her to see if some change, unlikely though that might be, had taken place while she was away.
The great three-decked stove stood in the centre of the house; the sheet-iron stove-pipe, after mounting for some feet, turned at a right angle and was carried through the house to the outside, so that none of the precious warmth should be lost. In a comer was the large wooden cupboard; close by, the table; a bench against the wall; on the other side of the door the sink and the pump. A partition beginning at the opposite wall seemed designed to divide the house in two, but it stopped before reaching the stove and did not begin again beyond it, in such fashion that these divisions of the only room were each enclosed on three sides and looked like a stage setting-that conventional type of scene where the audience are invited to imagine that two distinct apartments exist although they look into both at once.
In one of these compartments the father and mother had their bed; Maria and Alma Rose in the other. A steep stairway ascended from a comer to the loft where the boys slept in the summer-time; with the coming of winter they moved their bed down and enjoyed the warmth of the stove with the rest of the family.
Hanging upon the wall were the illustrated calendars of shopkeepers in Roberval and Chicoutimi; a picture of the infant Jesus in his mother's arms-a rosy-faced Jesus with great blue eyes, holding out his chubby hands; a representation of some unidentified saint looking rapturously heavenward; the first page of the Christmas number of a Quebec newspaper, filled with stars big as moons and angels flying with folded wings.
"Were you a good girl while I was away, Alma Rose?"
It was the mother who replied:—"Alma Rose was not too naughty; but Telesphore has been a perfect torment to me. It is not so much that he does what is wrong; but the things he says! One might suppose that the boy had not all his wits."
Telesphore busied himself with the dog-harness and made believe not to hear. Young Telesphore's depravities supplied this household with its only domestic tragedy. To satisfy her own mind and give him a proper conviction of besetting sin his mother had fashioned for herself a most involved kind of polytheism, had peopled the world with evil spirits and good who influenced him alternately to err or to repent. The bay had come to regard himself as a mere battleground where devils who were very sly, and angels of excellent purpose but little experience, waged endless unequal warfare.
Gloomily would he mutter before the empty preserve jar:—"It was the Demon of gluttony who tempted me."
Returning from some escapade with torn and muddy clothes he would anticipate reproach with his explanation:—"The Demon of disobedience lured me into that. Beyond doubt it was he." With the same breath asserting indignation at being so misled, and protesting the blamelessness of his intentions.
"But he must not be allowed to come back, eh, mother! He must not be allowed to come back, this bad spirit. I will take father's gun and I will shoot him ..."
"You cannot shoot devils with a gun," objected his mother. "But when you feel the temptation coming, seize your rosary and say your prayers."
Telesphore did not dare to gainsay this; but he shook his head doubtfully. The gun seemed to him both the surer and the more amusing way, and he was accustomed to picture to himself a tremendous duel, a lingering slaughter from which he would emerge without spot or blemish, forever set free from the wiles of the Evil One.
Samuel Chapdelaine came into the house and supper was served. The sign of the cross around the table; lips moving in a silent Benedicite, which Telesphore and Alma Rose repeated aloud; again the sign of the cross; the noise of chairs and bench drawn in; spoons clattering on plates. To Maria it was as though since her absence she was giving attention for the first time in her life to these sounds and movements; that they possessed a different significance from movements and sounds elsewhere, and invested with some peculiar quality of sweetness and peace all that happened in that house far off in the woods.
Supper was nearly at an end when a footstep sounded without; Chien pricked up his ears but gave no growl.
"A visitor," announced mother Chapdelaine, "Eutrope Gagnon has come over to see us."
It was an easy guess, as Eutrope Gagnon was their only neighbour. The year before he had taken up land two miles away, with his brother; the brother had gone to the shanties for the winter, and he was left alone in the cabin they had built of charred logs. He appeared on the threshold, lantern in hand.
"Greeting to each and all," was the salutation as he pulled off his woollen cap. "A fine night, and there is still a crust on the snow-, as the walking was good I thought that I would drop in this evening to find out if you were back."
Although he came to see Maria, as all knew, it was to the father of the house that he directed his remarks, partly through shyness, partly out of deference to the manners of the country. He took the chair that was offered him.
"The weather is mild; if it misses turning wet it will be by very little. One can feel that the spring rains are not far off ..."
It was the orthodox beginning to one of those talks among country folk which are like an interminable song, full of repetitions, each speaker agreeing with the words last uttered and adding more to the same effect. And naturally the theme was the Canadian's never-ending plaint; his protest, falling short of actual revolt, against the heavy burden of the long winter. "The beasts have been in the stable since the end of October and the barn is just about empty," said mother Chapdelaine. "Unless spring comes soon I don't know what we are going to do."
"Three weeks at least before they can be turned out to pasture."
"A horse, three cows, a pig and the sheep, without speaking of the fowls; it takes something to feed them!" this from Tit'Be with an air of grown-up wisdom.
He smoked and talked with the men now by virtue of his fourteen years, his broad shoulders and his knowledge of husbandry. Eight years ago he had begun to care for the stock, and to replenish the store of wood for the house with the aid of his little sled. Somewhat later he had learned to call Heulle! Heulle! very loudly behind the thin-flanked cows, and Hue! Dia! Harrie! when the horses were ploughing; to manage a hay-fork and to build a rail-fence. These two years he had taken turn beside his father with ax and scythe, driven the big wood-sleigh over the hard snow, sown and reaped on his own responsibility; and thus it was that no one disputed his right freely to express an opinion and to smoke incessantly the strong leaf-tobacco. His face was still smooth as a child's, with immature features and guileless eyes, and one not knowing him would probably have been surprised to hear him speak with all the deliberation of an older and experienced man, and to see him everlastingly charging his wooden pipe; but in the Province of Quebec the boys are looked upon as men when they undertake men's work, and as to their precocity in smoking there is always the excellent excuse that it afford some protection in summer against the attacking swarms of black-flies, mosquitos and sand-flies.
"How nice it would be to live in a country where there is hardly any winter, and where the earth makes provision for man and beast. Up here man himself, by dint of work, must care for his animals and his land. If we did not have Esdras and Da'Be earning good wages in the woods how could we get along?"
"But the soil is rich in these parts," said Eutrope Gagnon.
"The soil is good but one must battle for it with the forest; and to live at all you must watch every copper, labour from morning to night, and do everything yourself because there is no one near to lend a hand."
Mother Chapdelaine ended with a sigh. Her thoughts were ever fondly revisiting the older parishes where the land has long been cleared and cultivated, and where the houses are neighbourly-her lost paradise.
Her husband clenched his fists and shook his head with an obstinate gesture. "Only you wait a few months ... When the boys are back from the woods we shall set to work, they two, Tit'Be, and I, and presently we shall have our land cleared. With four good men ax in hand and not afraid of work things will go quickly, even in the hard timber. Two years from now there will be grain harvested, and pasturage that will support a good herd of cattle. I tell you that we are going to make land."
"Make land!" Rude phrase of the country, summing up in two words all the heartbreaking labour that transforms the incult woods, barren of sustenance, to smiling fields, ploughed and sown. Samuel Chapdelaine's eyes flamed with enthusiasm and determination as he spoke.
For this was the passion of his life; the passion of a man whose soul was in the clearing, not the tilling of the earth. Five times since boyhood had he taken up wild land, built a house, a stable and a barn, wrested from the unbroken forest a comfortable farm; and five times he had sold out to begin it all again farther north, suddenly losing interest; energy and ambition vanishing once the first rough work was done, when neighbours appeared and the countryside began to be opened up and inhabited. Some there were who entered into his feelings; others praised the courage but thought little of the wisdom, and such were fond of saying that if good sense had led him to stay in one place he and his would now be at their ease.
"At their ease ..." O dread God of the Scriptures, worshipped by these countryfolk of Quebec without a quibble or a doubt, who hast condemned man to earn his bread in the sweat of his face, canst Thou for a moment smooth the awful frown from Thy forehead when Thou art told that certain of these Thy creatures have escaped the doom, and live at their ease?
"At their ease..." Truly to know what it means one must have toiled bitterly from dawn to dark with back and hands and feet, and the children of the soil are those who have best attained the knowledge. It means the burden lifted; the heavy burden of labour and of care. It means leave to rest, the which, even if it be unused, is a new mercy every moment. To the old it means so much of the pride of life as no one would deny them, the late revelation of unknown delights, an hour of idleness, a distant journey, a dainty or a purchase indulged in without anxious thought, the hundred and one things desirable that a competence assures.
So constituted is the heart of man that most of those who have paid the ransom and won liberty-ease-have in the winning of it created their own incapacity for enjoying the conquest, and toil on till death; it is the others, the ill-endowed or the unlucky, who have been unable to overcome fortune and escape their slavery, to whom the state of ease has all those charms of the inaccessible.
It may be that the Chapdelaines so were thinking, and each in his own fashion; the father with the unconquerable optimism of a man who knows himself strong and believes himself wise; the mother with a gentle resignation; the others, the younger ones, in a less definite way and without bitterness, seeing before them a long life in which they could not miss attaining happiness.
Maria stole an occasional glance at Eutrope Gagnon, but she quickly turned away, for she always surprised his humbly worshipping eyes. For a year she had become used to his frequent visits, nor felt displeasure when every Sunday evening added to the family circle this brown face that was continually so patient and good-humoured; but the short absence of a month had not left things the same, for she had brought home to the fireside an undefined feeling that a page of her life was turned, in which he would have no share.
The ordinary subjects of conversation exhausted, they played cards: quatre-sept and boeuf; then Eutrope looked at his big silver watch and said that it was time to be going. His lantern lit, the good-byes said, he halted on the threshold for a moment to observe the night.
"It is raining!" he exclaimed. His hosts made toward the door to see for themselves; the rain had in truth begun, a spring rain with great drops that fell heavily, under which the snow was already softening and melting. "The sou'east has taken hold," announced the elder Chapdelaine. "Now we can say that the winter is practically over."
Everyone had his own way of expressing relief and delight; but it was Maria who stood longest by the door, hearkening to the sweet patter of the rain, watching the indistinct movement of cloud in the dark sky above the darker mass of the forest, breathing the mild air that came from the south.
"Spring is not far ... Spring is not far ..."
In her heart she felt that never since the earth began was there a springtime like this springtime to-be.
FRANCOIS PASSES BY
One morning three days later, on opening the door, Maria's ear caught a sound that made her stand motionless and listening. The distant and continuous thunder was the voice of wild waters, silenced all winter by the frost.
"The ice is going out," she announced to those within. "You can hear the falls."
This set them all talking once again of the opening season, and of the work soon to be commenced. The month of May came in with alternate warm rains and fine sunny days which gradually conquered the accumulated ice and snow of the long winter. Low stumps and roots were beginning to appear, although the shade of close-set cypress and fir prolonged the death-struggle of the perishing snowdrifts; the roads became quagmires; wherever the brown mosses were uncovered they were full of water as a sponge. In other lands it was already spring; vigorously the sap was running, buds were bursting and presently leaves would unfold; but the soil of far northern Canada must be rid of one chill and heavy mantle before clothing itself afresh in green.
A dozen times in the course of the day Maria and her mother opened the window to feel the softness of the air, listen to the tinkle of water running from the last drifts on higher slopes, or hearken to the mighty roar telling that the exulting Peribonka was free, and hurrying to the lake a freight of ice-floes from the remote north.
Chapdelaine seated himself that evening on the door-step for his smoke; a stirring of memory brought the remark—"Franc will soon be passing. He said that perhaps he would come to see us." Maria replied with a scarce audible "Yes," and blessed the shadow hiding her face.
Ten days later he came, long after nightfall. The women were alone in the house with Tit'Be and the children, the father having gone for seed-grain to Honfleur whence he would only return on the morrow. Telesphore and Alma Rose were asleep, Tit'Be was having a last pipe before the family prayer, when Chien barked several times and got up to sniff at the closed door. Then two light taps were heard. The visitor waited for the invitation before he entered and stood before them.
His excuses for so late a call were made without touch of awkwardness. "We are camped at the end of the portage above the rapids. The tent had to be pitched and things put in order to make the Belgians comfortable for the night. When I set out I knew it was hardly the hour for a call and that the paths through the woods must be pretty bad. But I started all the same, and when I saw your light..."
His high Indian boots were caked with mud to the knee; he breathed a little deeply between words, like a man who has been running; but his keen eyes were quietly confident.
"Only Tit'Be has changed," said he. "When you left Mistassini he was but so high..." With a hand he indicated the stature of a child. Mother Chapdelaine's face was bright with interest; doubly pleased to receive a visitor and at the chance of talking about old times.
"Nor have you altered in these seven years; not a bit; as for Maria ... surely you find a difference!"
He gazed at Maria with something of wonder in his eyes. "You see that ... that I saw her the other day at Peribonka." Tone and manner showed that the meeting of a fortnight ago had been allowed to blot the remoter days from his recollection. But since the talk was of her he ventured an appraising glance.
Her young vigour and health, the beautiful heavy hair and sunburnt neck of a country girl, the frank honesty of eye and gesture, all these things, thought he, were possessions of the child of seven years ago; and twice or thrice he shook his head as though to say that, in truth, she had not changed. But the consciousness too was there that he, if not she, had changed, for the sight of her before him took strange hold upon his heart.
Maria's smile was a little timid, but soon she dared to raise her eyes and look at him in turn. Assuredly a handsome fellow; comely of body, revealing so much of supple strength; comely of face in well-cut feature and fearless eye ... To herself she said with some surprise that she had not thought him thus—more forward perhaps, talking freely and rather positively-but now he scarcely spoke at all and everything about him bad an air of perfect simplicity. Doubtless it was his expression that had given her this idea, and his bold straightforward manner.
Mother Chapdelaine took up her questioning:—"And so you sold the farm when your father died?"
"Yes, I sold everything. I was never a very good hand at farming, you know. Working in the shanties, trapping, making a little money from time to time as a guide or in trade with the Indians, that is the life for me; but to scratch away at the same fields from one year's end to another, and stay there forever, I would not have been able to stick to that all my life; I would have felt like a cow tethered to a stake."
"That is so, some men are made that way. Samuel, for example, and you, and many another. It seem as if the woods had some magic for you ..." She shook her head and looked at him in wonderment. "Frozen in winter, devoured by flies in summer; living in a tent on the snow, or in a log cabin full of chinks that the wind blows through, you like that better than spending your life on a good farm, near shops and houses. Just think of it; a nice bit of level land without a stump or a hollow, a good warm house all papered inside, fat cattle pasturing or in the stable; for people well stocked with implements and who keep their health, could there be anything better or happier?"
Paradis, looked at the floor without making answer, perhaps a trifle ashamed of these wrong-headed tastes of his. "A fine life for those who are fond of the land," he said at last, "but I should never have been content."
It was the everlasting conflict between the types: pioneer and farmer, the peasant from France who brought to new lands his ideals of ordered life and contented immobility, and that other in whom the vast wilderness awakened distant atavistic instincts for wandering and adventure.
Accustomed for fifteen years to hear her mother vaunting the idyllic happiness of the farmer in the older settlements, Maria had very naturally come to believe that she was of the same mind; now she was no longer certain about it. But whoever was right she well knew that not one of the well-to-do young fellows at St. Prime, with his Sunday coat of fine cloth and his fur collar, was the equal of Paradis in muddy boots and faded woollen jersey.
Replying to further questions he spoke of his journeys on the North Shore and to the head-waters of the rivers—of it all very naturally and with a shade of hesitation, scarcely knowing what to tell and what to leave out, for the people he was speaking to lived in much the same kind of country and their manner of life was little different.
"Up there the winters are harder yet than here, and still longer. We have only dogs to draw our sleds, fine strong dogs, but bad-tempered and often half wild, and we feed them but once a day, in the evening, on frozen fish.... Yes, there are settlements, but almost no farming; the men live by trapping and fishing ... No, I never had any difficulty with the Indians; I always got on very well with them. I know nearly all those on the Mistassini and this river, for they used to come to our place before my father died. You see he often went trapping in winter when he was not in the shanties, and one season when he was at the head of the Riviere aux Foins, quite alone, a tree that he was cutting for firewood slipped in falling, and it was the Indians who found him by chance next day, crushed and half-frozen though the weather was mild. He was in their game preserve, and they might very well have pretended not to see him and have left him to die there; but they put him on their toboggan, brought him to their camp, and looked after him. You knew my father: a rough man who often took a glass, but just in his dealings, and with a good name for doing that sort of thing himself. So when he parted with these Indians he told them to stop and see him in the spring when they would be coming down to Pointe Bleue with their furs-Francois Paradis of Mistassini,' said he to them, will not forget what you have done ... Francois Paradis.' And when they came in spring while running the river he looked after them well and every one carried away a new ax, a fine woollen blanket and tobacco for six months. Always after that they used to pay us a visit in the spring, and father had the pick of their best skins for less than the companies' buyers had to pay. When he died they treated me in the same way be cause I was his son and bore the same name, Francois Paradis. With more capital I could have made a good bit of money in this trade-a good bit of money."
He seemed a little uncomfortable at having talked so much, and arose to go. "We shall be coming down in a few weeks and I will try to stay a little longer," he said as he departed. "It is good to see you again."
On the door-step his keen eyes sought in Maria's for something that he might carry into the depth of the green woods whither he was bent; but they found no message. In her maidenly simplicity she feared to show herself too bold, and very resolutely she kept her glance lowered, like the young girls with richer parents who return from the convents in Chicoutimi trained to look on the world with a superhuman demureness.
Scarcely was gone when the two women and Tit'Be knelt for the evening prayer. The mother led in a high voice, speaking very rapidly, the others answering in a low murmur. Five Paters, five Ayes, the Acts, and then a long responsive Litany.
"Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us now and at the hour of our death..."
"Immaculate heart of Jesus, have pity on us..."
The window was open and through it came the distant roaring of the falls. The first mosquitos, of the spring, attracted by the light, entered likewise and the slender music of their whip filled the house. Tit'Be went and closed the window, then fell on his knees again beside the others.
"Great St. Joseph, pray for us..."
"St. Isidore, pray for us..."
The prayers over, mother Chapdelaine sighed out contentedly:—"How pleasant it is to have a caller, when we see hardly anyone but Eutrope Gagnon from year's end to year's end. But that is what comes of living so far away in the woods ... Now, when I was a girl at St. Gedeon, the house was full of visitors nearly every Saturday evening and all Sunday: Adelard Saint-Onge who courted me for such a long time; Wilfrid Tremblay, the merchant, who had nice manners and was always trying to speak as the French do; many others as well—not counting your father who came to see us almost every night for three years, while I was making up my mind..."
Three years! Maria thought to herself that she had only seen Francois Paradis twice since she was a child, and she felt ashamed at the beating of her heart.
AFTER a few chilly days, June suddenly brought veritable spring weather. A blazing sun warmed field and forest, the lingering patches of snow vanished even in the deep shade of the woods; the Peribonka rose and rose between its rocky banks until the alders and the roots of the nearer spruces were drowned; in the roads the mud was incredibly deep. The Canadian soil rid itself of the last traces of winter with a semblance of mad haste, as though in dread of another winter already on the way.
Esdras and Da'Be returned from the shanties where they had worked all the winter. Esdras was the eldest of the family, a tall fellow with a huge frame, his face bronzed, his hair black; the low forehead and prominent chin gave him a Neronian profile, domineering, not without a suggestion of brutality; but he spoke softly, measuring his words, and was endlessly patient. In face alone had he anything of the tyrant; it was as though the long rigours of the climate and the fine sense and good humour of the race had refined his heart to a simplicity and kindliness that his formidable aspect seemed to deny.
Da'Be, also tall, was less heavily built and more lively and merry. He was like his father.
The married couple had given their first children, Esdras and Maria, fine, high-sounding, sonorous names; but they had apparently wearied of these solemnities, for the next two children never beard their real names pronounced; always had they been called by the affectionate diminutives of childhood, Da'Be and Tit'Be. With the last pair, however, there had been a return to the earlier ceremonious manner-Telesphore ... Alma Rose. "When the boys get back we are going to make land," the father had promised. And, with the help of Edwige Legare, their hired man, they set about the task.
In the Province of Quebec there is much uncertainty in the spelling and the use of names. A scattered people in a huge half-wild country, unlettered for the most part and with no one to turn to for counsel but the priests, is apt to pay attention only to the sound of names, caring nothing about their appearance when written or the sex to which they pertain. Pronunciation has naturally varied in one mouth or another, in this family or that, and when a formal occasion calls for writing, each takes leave to spell his baptismal name in his own way, without a passing thought that there may be a canonical form. Borrowings from other languages have added to the uncertainties of orthography and gender. Individuals sign indifferently, Denise, Denije or Deneije; Conrad or Courade; men bear such names as Hermenegilde, Aglae, Edwige.
Edwige Legare had worked for the Chapdelaines these eleven summers. That is to say, for wages of twenty dollars a month he was in harness each day from four in the morning till nine at night at any and every job that called for doing, bringing to it a sort of frenzied and inexhaustible enthusiasm; for he was one of those men incapable by his nature of working save at the full pitch of strength and energy, in a series of berserk rages. Short and broad, his eyes were the brightest blue—a thing rare in Quebec-at once piercing and guileless, set in a visage the colour of clay that always showed cruel traces of the razor, topped by hair of nearly the same shade. With a pride in his appearance that was hard to justify he shaved himself two or three times a week, always in the evening, before the bit of looking-glass that hung over the pump and by the feeble light of the little lamp-driving the steel through his stiff beard with groans that showed what it cost him in labour and anguish. Clad in shirt and trousers of brownish homespun, wearing huge dusty boots, he was from head to heel of a piece with the soil, nor was there aught in his face to redeem the impression of rustic uncouthness.
Chapdelaine, his three sons and man, proceeded then to "make land." The forest still pressed hard upon the buildings they had put up a few years earlier: the little square house, the barn of planks that gaped apart, the stable built of blackened logs and chinked with rags and earth. Between the scanty fields of their clearing and the darkly encircling woods lay a broad stretch which the ax had but half-heartedly attacked. A few living trees had been cut for timber, and the dead ones, sawn and split, fed the great stove for a whole winter; but the place was a rough tangle of stumps and interlacing roots, of fallen trees too far rotted to burn, of others dead but still erect amid the alder scrub.
Thither the five men made their way one morning and set to work at once, without a word, for every man's task had been settled beforehand.
The father and Da'Be took their stand face to face on either side of a tree, and their axes, helved with birch, began to swing in rhythm. At first each hewed a deep notch, chopping steadily at the same spot for some seconds, then the ax rose swiftly and fell obliquely on the trunk a foot higher up; at every stroke a great chip flew, thick as the hand, splitting away with the grain. When the cuts were nearly meeting, one stopped and the other slowed down, leaving his ax in the wood for a moment at every blow; the mere strip, by some miracle still holding the tree erect, yielded at last, the trunk began to lean and the two axmen stepped back a pace and watched it fall, shouting at the same instant a warning of the danger.
It was then the turn of Edwige Legare and Esdras; when the tree was not too heavy each took an end, clasping their strong hands beneath the trunk, and then raised themselves-backs straining, arms cracking under the stress-and carried it to the nearest heap with short unsteady steps, getting over the fallen timber with stumbling effort. When the burden seemed too heavy, TAW came forward leading Charles Eugene dragging a tug-bar with a strong chain; this was passed round the trunk and fastened, the horse bent his back, and with the muscles of his hindquarters standing out, hauled away the tree which scraped along the stumps and crushed the young alders to the ground.
At noon Maria came out to the door-step and gave a long call to tell them that dinner was ready. Slowly they straightened up among the stumps, wiping away with the backs of their hands the drops of sweat that ran into their eyes, and made their way to the house.
Already the pea-soup smoked in the plates. The five men set themselves at table without haste, as if sensation were somewhat dulled by the heavy work; but as they caught their breath a great hunger awoke, and soon they began to eat with keen appetite. The two women waited upon them, filling the empty plates, carrying about the great dish of pork and boiled potatoes, pouring out the hot tea. When the meat had vanished the diners filled their saucers with molasses in which they soaked large pieces of bread; hunger was quickly appeased, because they had eaten fast and without a word, and then plates were pushed back and chairs tilted with sighs of satisfaction, while hands were thrust into pockets for their pipes, and the pigs' bladders bulging with tobacco.
Edwige Legare, seating himself on the door-step, proclaimed two or three times:—"I have dined well ... I have dined well ... with the air of a judge who renders an impartial decision; after which he leaned against the post and let the smoke of his pipe and the gaze of his small fight-coloured eyes pursue the same purposeless wanderings. The elder Chapdelaine sank deeper and deeper into his chair, and ended by falling asleep; the others smoked and chatted about their work.
"If there is anything," said the mother, "which could reconcile me to living so far away in the woods, it is seeing my men-folk make a nice bit of land-a nice bit of land that was all trees and stumps and roots, which one beholds in a fortnight as bare as the back of your hand, ready for the plough; surely nothing in the world can be more pleasing or better worth doing." The rest gave assent with nods, and were silent for a while, admiring the picture. Soon however Chapdelaine awoke, refreshed by his sleep and ready for work; then all arose and went out together.
The place where they had worked in the morning was yet full of stumps and overgrown with alders. They set themselves to cutting and uprooting the alders, gathering a sheaf of branches in the hand and severing them with the ax, or sometimes digging the earth away about the roots and tearing up the whole bush together. The alders disposed of, there remained the stumps.
Legare and Esdras attacked the smaller ones with no weapons but their axes and stout wooden Prizes. They first cut the roots spreading on the surface, then drove a lever well home, and, chests against the bar, threw all their weight upon it. When their efforts could not break the hundred ties binding the tree to the soil Legare continued to bear heavily that he might raise the stump a little, and while he groaned and grunted under the strain Esdras hewed away furiously level with the ground, severing one by one the remaining roots.
A little distance away the other three men handled the stumping-machine with the aid of Charles Eugene. The pyramidal scaffolding was put in place above a large stump and lowered, the chains which were then attached to the root passed over a pulley, and the horse at the other end started away quickly, flinging himself against the traces and showering earth with his hoofs. A short and desperate charge, a mad leap often arrested after a few feet as by the stroke of fist; then the heavy steel blades a giant would swing up anew, gleaming in the sun, and fall with a dull sound upon the stubborn wood, while the horse took breath for a moment, awaiting with excited eye the word that would launch him forward again. And afterwards there was still the labour of hauling or rolling the big stumps to the pile-at fresh effort of back, of soil-stained hands with swollen veins, and stiffened arms that seemed grotesquely striving with the heavy trunk and the huge twisted roots.
The sun dipped toward the horizon, disappeared; the sky took on softer hues above the forest's dark edge, and the hour of supper brought to the house five men the of the colour of the soil.
While waiting Upon them Madame Chapdelaine asked a hundred questions about the day's work, and when the vision arose before her of this patch of land they had cleared, superbly bare, lying ready for the Plough, her spirit was possessed with something of a mystic's rapture.
With hands upon her hips, refusing to seat herself at table, she extolled the beauty Of the world as it existed for her: not the beauty wherein human beings have no hand, which the townsman makes such an ado about with his unreal ecstasies.-mountains, lofty and bare, wild seas-but the quiet unaffected loveliness of the level champaign, finding its charm in the regularity of the long furrow and the sweetly-flowing stream—the naked champaign courting with willing abandon the fervent embraces of the sun.
She sang the great deeds of the four Chapdelaines and Edwige Legare, their struggle against the savagery of nature, their triumph of the day. She awarded praises and displayed her own proper pride, albeit the five men smoked their wooden or clay pipes in silence, motionless as images after their long task; images of earthy hue, hollow-eyed with fatigue.
"The stumps are hard to get out." at length said the elder Chapdelaine, "the roots have not rotted in the earth so much as I should have imagined. I calculate that we shall not be through for three weeks." He glanced questioningly at Legare who gravely confirmed him.
"Three weeks ... Yes, confound it! That is what I think too."
They fell silent again, patient and determined, like men who face a long war.
The Canadian spring had but known a few weeks of life when, by calendar, the summer was already come; it seemed as if the local weather god had incontinently pushed the season forward with august finger to bring it again into accord with more favoured lands to the south. For torrid heat fell suddenly upon them, heat well-nigh as unmeasured as was the winter's cold. The tops of the spruces and cypresses, forgotten by the wind, were utterly still, and above the frowning outline stretched a sky bare of cloud which likewise seemed fixed and motionless. From dawn till nightfall a merciless sun calcined the ground.
The five men worked on unceasingly, while from day to day the clearing extended its borders by a little; deep wounds in the uncovered soil showed the richness of it.
Maria went forth one morning to carry them water. The father and Tit'Be were cutting alders, Da'Be and Esdras piled the cut trees. Edwige Legare was attacking a stump by himself; a hand against the trunk, he had grasped a root with the other as one seizes the leg of some gigantic adversary in a struggle, and he was fighting the combined forces of wood and earth like a man furious at the resistance of an enemy. Suddenly the stump yielded and lay upon the ground; he passed a hand over his forehead and sat down upon a root, running with sweat, overcome by the exertion. When Maria came near him with her pail half full of water, the others having drunk, he was still seated, breathing deeply and saying in a bewildered way:—"I am done for ... Ah! I am done for." But he pulled himself together on seeing her, and roared out—"Cold water! Perdition! Give me cold water."
Seizing the bucket he drank half its contents and poured the rest over his head and neck; still dripping, he threw himself afresh upon the vanquished stump and began to roll it toward a pile as one carries off a prize.
Maria stayed for a few moments looking at the work of the men and the progress they had made, each day more evident, then hied her back to the house swinging the empty bucket, happy to feel herself alive and well under the bright sun, dreaming of all the joys that were to be hers, nor could be long delayed if only she were earnest and patient enough in her prayers. Even at a distance the voices of the men came to her across the surface of the ground baked by the heat; Esdras, his hands beneath a young jack pine, was saying in his quiet tones:—"Gently ... together now!"
Legare was wrestling with some new inert foe, and swearing in his half-stifled way:—"Perdition! I'll make you stir, so I will." His gasps were nearly as audible as the words. Taking breath for a second he rushed once more into the fray, arms straining, wrenching with his great back. And yet again his voice was raised in oaths and lamentations:-"I tell you that I'll have you ... Oh you rascal! Isn't it hot? . . I'm pretty nearly finished ..." His complaints ripened into one mighty cry:—"Boss! We are going to kill ourselves making land."
Old Chapdelaine's voice was husky but still cheerful as he answered: "Tough! Edwige, tough! The pea-soup will soon be ready."
And in truth it was not long before Maria, once more on the door-step, shaping her hands to carry the sound, sent forth the ringing call to dinner.
Toward evening a breeze arose and a delicious coolness fell upon the earth like a pardon. But the sky remained cloudless.
"If the fine weather lasts," said mother Chapdelaine, "the blueberries will be ripe for the feast of Ste. Anne."
THE fine weather continued, and early in July the blueberries were ripe.
Where the fire had passed, on rocky slopes, wherever the woods were thin and the sun could penetrate, the ground had been clad in almost unbroken pink by the laurel's myriad tufts of bloom; at first the reddening blueberries contended with them in glowing colour, but under the constant sun these slowly turned to pale blue, to royal blue, to deepest purple, and when July brought the feast of Ste. Anne the bushes laden with fruit were broad patches of violet amid the rosy masses now beginning to fade.
The forests of Quebec are rich in wild berries; cranberries, Indian pears, black currants, sarsaparilla spring up freely in the wake of the great fires, but the blueberry, the bilberry or whortleberry of France, is of all the most abundant and delicious. The gathering of them, from July to September, is an industry for many families who spend the whole day in the woods; strings of children down to the tiniest go swinging their tin pails, empty in the morning, full and heavy by evening. Others only gather the blueberries for their own use, either to make jam or the famous pies national to French Canada.
Two or three times in the very beginning of July Maria, with Telesphore and Alma Rose, went to pick blueberries; but their day had not come, and the gleanings barely sufficed for a few tarts of proportions to excite a smile.
"On the feast of Ste. Anne," said their mother by way of consolation, "we shall all go a-gathering; the men as well, and whoever fails to bring back a full pail is not to have any."
But Saturday, the eve of Ste. Anne's day, was memorable to the Chapdelaines; an evening of company such as their house in the forest had never seen.
When the men returned from work Eutrope Gagnon was already there. He had supped, he said, and while the others were at their meal he sat by the door in the cooler air that entered, balancing his chair on two legs. The pipes going, talk naturally turned toward the labours of the soil, and the care of stock.
"With five men," said Eutrope, "you have a good bit of land to show in a short while. But working alone, as I do, without a horse to draw the heavy logs, one makes poor headway and has a hard time of it. However you are always getting on, getting on."
Madame Chapdelaine, liking him, and feeling a great sympathy for his solitary labour in this worthy cause, gave him a few words of encouragement. "You don't make very quick progress by yourself, that is true enough, but a man lives on very little when he is alone, and then your brother Egide will be coming back from the drive with two or three hundred dollars at least, in time for the hay-making and the harvest, and, if you both stay here next winter, in less than two years you will have a good farm."
Assenting with a nod, his glance found Maria, as though drawn thither by the thought that in two years, fortune favouring, he might hope.
"How does the drive go?" asked Esdras. "Is there any news from that quarter?"
"I had word through Ferdina Larouche, a son of Thadee Larouche of Honfleur, who got back from La Tuque last month. He said that things were going well; the men were not having too bad a time."
The shanties, the drive, these are the two chief heads of the great lumbering industry, even of greater importance for the Province of Quebec than is farming. From October till April the axes never cease falling, while sturdy horses draw the logs over the snow to the banks of the frozen rivers; and, when spring comes, the piles melt one after another into the rising waters and begin their long adventurous journey through the rapids. At every abrupt turn, at every fall, where logs jam and pile, must be found the strong and nimble river-drivers, practised at the dangerous work, at making their way across the floating timber, breaking the jams, aiding with ax and pike-pole the free descent of this moving forest.
"A hard time!" exclaimed Legare with scorn. "The young fellows of to-day don't know the meaning of the words. After three months in the woods they are in a hurry to get home and buy yellow boots, stiff hats and cigarettes, and to go and see their girls. Even in the shanties, as things are now, they are as well fed as in a hotel, with meat and potatoes all winter long. Now, thirty years ago ..."
He broke off for a moment, expressing with a shake of his head those prodigious changes that the years had wrought.
"Thirty years ago, when the railway from Quebec was built, I was there; that was something like hardship, I can tell you! I was only sixteen years of age but I chopped with the rest of them to clear the right of way, always twenty-five miles ahead of the steel, and for fourteen months I never clapped eye on a house. We had no tents, summer or winter, only shelters of boughs that we made for ourselves. And from morning till night it was chop, chop, chop,—eaten by the flies, and in the course of the same day soaked with rain and roasted by the sun."
"Every Monday morning they opened a sack of flour and we made ourselves a bucketful of pancakes, and all the rest of the week, three times a day, one dug into that pail for something to eat. By Wednesday, no longer any pancakes, because they were all stuck together; nothing there but a mass of dough. One cut off a big chunk of dough with one's knife, put that in his belly, and then chopped and chopped again!"
"When we got to Chicoutimi where provisions could reach us by water we were worse off than Indians, pretty nearly naked, all scratched and torn, and I well remember some who began to cry when told they could go home, because they thought they would find all their people dead, so long bad the time seemed to them. Hardship! That was hardship if you like."
"That is so," said Chapdelaine, "I can recall those days. Not a single house on the north side of the lake: no one but Indians and a few trappers who made their way up here in summer by canoe and in winter with dog-sleds, much as it is now in the Labrador."
The young folk were listening keenly to these tales of former times. "And now," said Esdras, "here we are fifteen miles beyond the lake, and when the Roberval boat is running we can get to the railway in twelve hours."
They meditated upon this for a while without a word, contrasting past and present; the cruel harshness of life as once it was, the easy day's journey now separating them from the marvels of the iron way, and the thought of it filled them with naive wonder.
All at once Chien set up a low growl; the sound was heard of approaching footsteps. "Another visitor!" Madame Chapdelaine announced in a tone mingling pleasure and astonishment.
Maria also arose, agitated, smoothing her hair with unconscious hand; but it was Ephrem Surprenant of Honfleur who opened the door.
"We have come to pay you a visit!" He shouted this with the air of one who announces a great piece of news. Behind him was someone unknown to them, who bowed and smiled in a very mannerly way.
"My nephew Lorenzo," was Ephrem Surprenant's introduction, "a son of my brother Elzear who died last autumn. You never met him, it is a long time since he left this country for the States."
They were quick to find a chair for the young man from the States, and the uncle undertook the duty of establishing the nephew's genealogy on both sides of the house, and of setting forth his age, trade and the particulars of his life, in obedience to the Canadian custom. "Yes, a son of my brother Elzear who married a young Bourglouis of Kiskisink. You should be able to recall that, Madame Chapdelaine?"
From the depths of her memory mother Chapdelaine unearthed a number of Surprenants and as many Bourglouis, and gave the list with their baptismal names, successive places of residence and a full record of their alliances.
"Right. Precisely right. Well, this one here is Lorenzo. He has been in the States for many years, working in a factory."
Frankly interested, everyone took another good look at Lorenzo Surprenant. His face was rounded, with well-cut features, eyes gentle and unwavering, hands white; with his head a little on one side he smiled amiably, neither superior nor embarrassed under this concentrated gaze.
"He came here," continued his uncle, "to settle affairs after the death of Elzear, and to try to sell the farm."
"He has no wish to hold on to the land and cultivate it?" questioned the elder Chapdelaine.
Lorenzo Surprenant's smile broadened and he shook his head. "No, the idea of settling down on the farm does not tempt me, not in theleast. I earn good wages where I am and like the place very well; I am used to the work."
He checked himself, but it was plain that after the kind of life he had been living and what he had seen of the world, existence on a farm between a humble little village and the forest seemed a thing insupportable.
"When I was a girl," said mother Chapdelaine, "pretty nearly everyone went off to the States. Farming did not pay as well as it does now, prices were low, we were always hearing of the big wages earned over there in the factories, and every year one family after another sold out for next to nothing and left Canada. Some made a lot of money, no doubt of that, especially those families with plenty of daughters; but now it is different and they are not going as once they did ... So you are selling the farm?"
"Yes, there has been some talk with three Frenchmen who came to Mistook last month. I expect we shall make a bargain."
"And are there many Canadians where you are living? Do the people speak French?"
"At the place I went to first, in the State of Maine, there were more Canadians than Americans or Irish; everyone spoke French; but where I live now, in the State of Massachusetts, there are not so many families however; we call on one another in the evenings."
"Samuel once thought of going West," said Madame Chapdelaine, "but I was never willing. Among people speaking nothing but English I should have been unhappy all the rest of my days. I used to say to him-'Samuel, we Canadians are always better off among Canadians.'"
When the French Canadian speaks of himself it is invariably and simply as a "Canadian"; whereas for all the other races that followed in his footsteps, and peopled the country across to the Pacific, he keeps the name of origin: English, Irish, Polish, Russian; never admitting for a moment that the children of these, albeit born in the country, have an equal title to be called "Canadians." Quite naturally, and without thought of offending, he appropriates the name won in the heroic days of his forefathers.
"And is it a large town where you are?"
"Ninety thousand," said Lorenzo with a little affectation of modesty.
"Ninety thousand! Bigger than Quebec!"
"Yes, and we are only an hour by train from Boston. A really big place, that."
And he set himself to telling of the great American cities and their magnificence, of the life filled with case and plenty, abounding in refinements beyond imagination, which is the portion of the well paid artisan.
In silence they listened to his words. Framed in the open door-way the last crimson of the sky, fading to Paler tints, rose above the vague masses of the forest,-a column resting upon its base. The Mosquitos began to arrive in their legions, and the humming of innumerable wings filled the low clearing with continuous sound.
"Telesphore," directed the father, "make us a smudge. Take the old tin pail." Telesphore covered the bottom of the leaky vessel with earth, filling it then with dry chips and twigs which he set ablaze. When the flame was leaping up brightly he returned with an armful of herbs and leaves and smothered it; the volume of stinging smoke which ascended was carried by the wind into the house and drove out the countless horde. At length they were at peace, and with sighs of relief could desist from the warfare. The very last mosquito settled on the face of little Alma Rose. With great seriousness she pronounced the ritual words-"Fly, fly, get off my face, my nose is not a public place!" Then she made a swift end of the creature with a slap. The smoke drifted obliquely through the door-way; within the house, no longer stirred by the breeze, it spread in a thin cloud; the walls became indistinct and far-off; the group seated between door and stove resolved into a circle of dim faces hanging in a white haze.
"Greetings to everyone!" The tones rang clear, and Francois Paradis, emerging from the smoke, stood upon the threshold. For weeks Maria had been expecting him. Half an hour earlier the sound of a step without had sent the blood to her cheek, and yet the arrival of him she awaited moved her with joyous surprise.
"Offer your chair, Da'Be!" cried mother Chapdelaine. Four callers from three different quarters converging upon her, truly nothing more was needed to fill her with delightful excitement. An evening indeed to be remembered!
"There! You are forever saying that we are buried in the woods and see no company," triumphed her husband. "Count them over: eleven grown-up people!" Every chair in the house was filled; Esdras, Tit'Be and Eutrope Gagnon occupied the bench, Chapdelaine, a box turned upside down; from the step Telesphore and Alma Rose watched the mounting smoke.
"And look," said Ephrem Surprenant, "how many young fellows and only one girl!" The young men were duly counted: three Chapdelaines, Eutrope Gagnon, Lorenzo Surprenant, Francois Paradis. As for the one girl ... Every eye was turned upon Maria, who smiled feebly and looked down, confused.
"Had you a good trip, Francois?-He went up the river with strangers to buy furs from the Indians," explained Chapdelaine; who presented to the others with formality-"Francois Paradis, son of Francois Paradis from St. Michel de Mistassini." Eutrope Gagnon knew him by name, Ephrem Surprenant had met his father:—"A tall mall, taller still than he, of a strength not to be matched." it only remained to account for Lorenzo Surprenant,-"who has come, home from the States"-and all the conventions had been honoured.
"A good trip," answered Francois. "No, not very good. One of the Belgians took a fever and nearly died. After that it was rather late in the season; many Indian families had already gone down to Ste. Anne de Chicoutimi and could not be found; and on top of it all a canoe was wrecked when running a rapid on the way back, and it was hard work fishing the pelts out of the river, without mentioning the fact that one of the bosses was nearly drowned,-the same one that had the fever. No, we were unlucky all through. But here we are none the less, and it is always another job over and done with." A gesture signified to the listeners that the task was completed, the wages paid and the ultimate profits or losses not his affair.
"Always another job over and done with,"-he slowly repeated the words. "The Belgians were in a hurry to reach Peribonka on Sunday, tomorrow; but, as they had another man, I left them to finish the journey without me so that I might spend the evening with you. It does one's heart good to see a house again."
His glance strayed contentedly over the meager smoke-filled interior and those who peopled it. In the circle of faces tanned by wind and sun, his was the brownest and most weather-beaten; his garments showed many rents, one side of the torn woollen jersey flapped upon his shoulder, moccasins replaced the long boots he had worn in the spring. He seemed to have brought back something of natures wildness from the head-waters Of the rivers where the Indians and the great creatures of the woods find sanctuary. And Maria, whose life would not allow her to discern the beauty of that wilderness because it lay too near her, yet felt that some strange charm was at work and was throwing its influence about her.
Esdras had gone for the cards; cards with faded red backs and dog-eared corners, where the lost queen of hearts was replaced by a square of pink cardboard bearing the plainly-written legend dame de cour. They played at quatre-sept. The two Surprenants, uncle and nephew, had Madame Chapdelaine and Maria for partners; after each table and game the beaten couple left the table and gave place to two other players. Night had fallen; some mosquitos made their way through the open window and went hither and thither with their stings and irritating music.
"Telesphore!" called out Esdras, "see to the smudge, the flies are coming in." In a few minutes smoke pervaded the house again, thick, almost stifling, but greeted with delight. The party ran its quiet course. An hour of cards, some talk with a visitor who bears news from the great world, these are still accounted happiness in the Province of Quebec.
Between the games, Lorenzo Surprenant entertained Maria with a description of his life and his journeyings; in turn asking questions about her. He was far from putting on airs, yet she felt disconcerted at finding so little to say, and her replies were halting and timid.
The others talked among themselves or watched the play. Madame recalled the many gatherings at St. Gedeon in the days of her girlhood, and looked from one to the other, with unconcealed pleasure at the fact that three young men should thus assemble beneath her roof. But Maria sat at the table devoting herself to the cards, and left it for some vacant seat near the door with scarcely a glance about her. Lorenzo Surprenant was always by her side and talking; she felt the continual regard of Eutrope Gagnon with that familiar look of patient waiting; she was conscious of the handsome bronzed face and fearless eyes of Francois Paradis who sat very silent beyond the door, elbows on his knees.
"Maria is not at her best this evening," said Madame Chapdelaine by way of excusing her, "she is really not used to having visitors you see..." Had she but known! ...
Four hundred miles away, at the far headwaters of the rivers, those Indians who have held aloof from missionaries and traders are squatting round a fire of dry cypress before their lodges, and the world they see about them, as in the earliest days, is filled with dark mysterious powers: the giant Wendigo pursuing the trespassing hunter; strange potions, carrying death or healing, which wise old men know how to distil from roots and leaves; incantations and every magic art. And here on the fringe of another world, but a day's journey from the railway, in this wooden house filled with acrid smoke, another all-conquering spell, charming and bewildering the eyes of three young men, is being woven into the shifting cloud by a sweet and guileless maid with downcast eyes.