One afternoon late in October of the year 1697, Euclide Auclair, the philosopher apothecary of Quebec, stood on the top of Cap Diamant gazing down the broad, empty river far beneath him. Empty, because an hour ago the flash of retreating sails had disappeared behind the green island that splits the St. Lawrence below Quebec, and the last of the summer ships from France had started on her long voyage home.
As long as La Bonne Espérance was still in sight, many of Auclair’s friends and neighbours had kept him company on the hill-top; but when the last tip of white slid behind the curving shore, they went back to their shops and their kitchens to face the stern realities of life. Now for eight months the French colony on this rock in the North would be entirely cut off from Europe, from the world. This was October; not a sail would come up that wide waterway before next July. No supplies; not a cask of wine or a sack of flour, no gunpowder, or leather, or cloth, or iron tools. Not a letter, even — no news of what went on at home. There might be new wars, floods, conflagrations, epidemics, but the colonists would never know of them until next summer. People sometimes said that if King Louis died, the Minister would send word by the English ships that came to New York all winter, and the Dutch traders at Fort Orange would dispatch couriers to Montreal.
The apothecary lingered on the hill-top long after his fellow townsmen had gone back to their affairs; for him this severance from the world grew every year harder to bear. It was a strange thing, indeed, that a man of his mild and thoughtful disposition, city-bred and most conventional in his habits, should be found on a grey rock in the Canadian wilderness. Cap Diamant, where he stood, was merely the highest ledge of that fortified cliff which was “Kebec,” — a triangular headland wedged in by the joining of two rivers, and girdled about by the greater river as by an encircling arm. Directly under his feet was the French stronghold, — scattered spires and slated roofs flashing in the rich, autumnal sunlight; the little capital which was just then the subject of so much discussion in Europe, and the goal of so many fantastic dreams.
Auclair thought this rock-set town like nothing so much as one of those little artificial mountains which were made in the churches at home to present a theatric scene of the Nativity; cardboard mountains, broken up into cliffs and ledges and hollows to accommodate groups of figures on their way to the manger; angels and shepherds and horsemen and camels, set on peaks, sheltered in grottoes, clustered about the base.
Divest your mind of Oriental colour, and you saw here very much such a mountain rock, cunningly built over with churches, convents, fortifications, gardens, following the natural irregularities of the headland on which they stood; some high, some low, some thrust up on a spur, some nestling in a hollow, some sprawling unevenly along a declivity. The Château Saint–Louis, grey stone with steep dormer roofs, on the very edge of the cliff overlooking the river, sat level; but just beside it the convent and church of the Récollet friars ran downhill, as if it were sliding backwards. To landward, in a low, well-sheltered spot, lay the Convent of the Ursulines . . . lower still stood the massive foundation of the Jesuits, facing the Cathedral. Immediately behind the Cathedral the cliff ran up sheer again, shot out into a jutting spur, and there, high in the blue air, between heaven and earth, rose old Bishop Laval’s Seminary. Beneath it the rock fell away in a succession of terraces like a circular staircase; on one of these was the new Bishop’s new Palace, its gardens on the terrace below.
Not one building on the rock was on the same level with any other, — and two hundred feet below them all was the Lower Town, crowded along the narrow strip of beach between the river’s edge and the perpendicular face of the cliff. The Lower Town was so directly underneath the Upper Town that one could stand on the terrace of the Château Saint–Louis and throw a stone down into the narrow streets below.
These heavy grey buildings, monasteries and churches, steep-pitched and dormered, with spires and slated roofs, were roughly Norman Gothic in effect. They were made by people from the north of France who knew no other way of building. The settlement looked like something cut off from one of the ruder towns of Normandy or Brittany, and brought over. It was indeed a rude beginning of a “new France,” of a Saint–Malo or Rouen or Dieppe, anchored here in the ever-changing northern light and weather. At its feet, curving about its base, flowed the mighty St. Lawrence, rolling north toward the purple line of the Laurentian mountains, toward frowning Cap Tourmente which rose dark against the soft blue of the October sky. The Île d’Orléans, out in the middle of the river, was like a hilly map, with downs and fields and pastures lying in folds above the naked tree-tops.
On the opposite shore of the river, just across from the proud rock of Quebec, the black pine forest came down to the water’s edge; and on the west, behind the town, the forest stretched no living man knew how far. That was the dead, sealed world of the vegetable kingdom, an uncharted continent choked with interlocking trees, living, dead, half-dead, their roots in bogs and swamps, strangling each other in a slow agony that had lasted for centuries. The forest was suffocation, annihilation; there European man was quickly swallowed up in silence, distance, mould, black mud, and the stinging swarms of insect life that bred in it. The only avenue of escape was along the river. The river was the one thing that lived, moved, glittered, changed, — a highway along which men could travel, taste the sun and open air, feel freedom, join their fellows, reach the open sea . . . reach the world, even!
After all, the world still existed, Auclair was thinking, as he stood looking up the way by which La Bonne Espérance had gone out only an hour ago. He was not of the proper stuff for a colonist, and he knew it. He was a slender, rather frail man of about fifty, a little stooped, a little grey, with a short beard cut in a point, and a fair complexion delicately flushed with pink about his cheeks and ears. His blue eyes were warm and interested, even in reflection, — they often had a kindling gleam as if his thoughts were pictures. Except for this lively and inquiring spirit in his glance, everything about him was modest and retiring. He was clearly not a man of action, no Indian-fighter or explorer. The only remarkable thing about his life was that he had not lived it to the end exactly where his father and grandfather had lived theirs, — in a little apothecary shop on the Quai des Célestins, in Paris.
The apothecary at last turned his back to the river. He was glancing up at the sun to reckon the time of day, when he saw a soldier coming up the grassy slope of Cap Diamant by the irregular earth path that led to the redoubt. The soldier touched his hat and called to him.
“I thought I recognized your figure up here, Monsieur Euclide. The Governor requires your presence and has sent a man down to your shop to fetch you.”
Auclair thanked him for his trouble and went down the hill with him to the Château. The Governor was his patron, the Count de Frontenac, in whose service he had come out to Canada.
It was late in the afternoon when Auclair left the Château and made his way through the garden of the Recollet friars, past the new Bishop’s Palace, and down to his own house. He lived on the steep, winding street called Mountain Hill, which was the one and only thoroughfare connecting the Upper Town with the Lower. The Lower Town clustered on the strip of beach at the foot of the cliff, the Upper Town crowned its summit. Down the face of the cliff there was but this one path, which had probably been a mere watercourse when Champlain and his men first climbed up it to plant the French lilies on the crest of the naked rock. The watercourse was now a steep, stony street, with shops on one side and the retaining walls of the Bishop’s Palace on the other. Auclair lived there for two reasons: to be close at hand where Count Frontenac could summon him quickly to the Château, and because, thus situated on the winding stairway connecting the two halves of Quebec, his services were equally accessible to the citizens of both.
On entering his door the apothecary found the front shop empty, lit by a single candle. In the living-room behind, which was partly shut off from the shop by a partition made of shelves and cabinets, a fire burned in the fireplace, and the round dining-table was already set with a white cloth, silver candlesticks, glasses, and two clear decanters, one of red wine and one of white.
Behind the living-room there was a small, low-roofed kitchen, built of stone, though the house itself was built of wood in the earliest Quebec manner, — double walls, with sawdust and ashes filling in the space between the two frames, making a protection nearly four feet thick against the winter cold. From this stone kitchen at the back two pleasant emanations greeted the chemist: the rich odour of roasting fowl, and a child’s voice, singing. When he closed the heavy wooden door behind him, the voice called: “Is it you, Papa?”
His daughter ran in from the kitchen, — a little girl of twelve, beginning to grow tall, wearing a short skirt and a sailor’s jersey, with her brown hair shingled like a boy’s.
Auclair stooped to kiss her flushed cheek. “Pas de clients?” he asked.
“Mais, oui! Beaucoup de clients. But they all wanted very simple things. I found them quite easily and made notes of them. But why were you gone so long? Is Monsieur le Comte ill?”
“Not ill, exactly, but there is troublesome news from Montreal.”
“Please change your coat now, Papa, and light the candles. I am so anxious about the poulet. Mère Laflamme tried hard to sell me a cock, but I told her my father always complained of a cock.” The daughter’s eyes were shaped like her father’s, but were much darker, a very dark blue, almost black when she was excited, as she was now about the roast. Her mother had died two years ago, and she made the ménage for her father.
Contrary to the custom of his neighbours, Auclair dined at six o’clock in winter and seven in summer, after the day’s work was over, as he was used to do in Paris, — though even there almost everyone dined at midday. He now dropped the curtains over his two shop windows, a sign to his neighbours that he was not to be disturbed unless for serious reasons. Having put on his indoor coat, he lit the candles and carried in the heavy soup tureen for his daughter.
They ate their soup in appreciative silence, both were a little tired. While his daughter was bringing in the roast, Auclair poured a glass of red wine for her and one of white for himself.
“Papa,” she said as he began to carve, “what is the earliest possible time that Aunt Clothilde and Aunt Blanche can get our letters?”
Auclair deliberated. Every fall the colonists asked the same question of one another and reckoned it all anew. “Well, if La Bonne Espérance has good luck, she can make La Rochelle in six weeks. Of course, it has been done in five. But let us say six; then, if the roads are bad, and they are likely to be in December, we must count on a week to Paris.”
“And if she does not have good luck?”
“Ah, then who can say? But unless she meets with very heavy storms, she can do it in two months. With this west wind, which we can always count on, she will get out of the river and through the Gulf very speedily, and that is sometimes the most tedious part of the voyage. When we came over with the Count, we were a month coming from Percé to Quebec. That was because we were sailing against this same autumn wind which will be carrying La Bonne Espérance out to sea.”
“But surely the aunts will have our letters by New Year’s, and then they will know how glad I was of my béret and my jerseys, and how we can hardly wait to open the box upstairs. I can remember my Aunt Blanche a little, because she was young and pretty, and used to play with me. I suppose she is not young now, any more; it is eight years.”
“Not young, exactly, but she will always have high spirits. And she is well married, and has three children who are a great joy to her.”
“Three little cousins whom I have never seen, and one of them is named for me! Cécile, André, Rachel.” She spoke their names softly. These little cousins were almost like playfellows. Their mother wrote such long letters about them that Cécile felt she knew them and all their ways, their individual faults and merits. Cousin Cécile was seven, very studious, bien sérieuse, already prepared for confirmation; but she would eat only sweets and highly spiced food. André was five, truthful and courageous, but he bit his nails. Rachel was a baby, in the midst of teething when they last heard of her.
Cécile would have preferred to live with Aunt Blanche and her children when she should go back to France; but by her mother’s wish she was destined for Aunt Clothilde, who had long been a widow of handsome means and was much interested in the education of young girls. The face of this aunt Cécile could never remember, though she could see her figure clearly, — standing against the light, she always seemed to be, a massive woman, short and heavy though not exactly fat, — square, rather, like a great piece of oak furniture; always in black, widow’s black that smelled of dye, with gold rings on her fingers and a very white handkerchief in her hand. Cécile could see her head, too, carried well back on a short neck, like a general or a statesman sitting for his portrait; but the face was a blank, just as if the aunt were standing in a doorway with blinding sunlight behind her. Cécile was once more trying to recall that face when her father interrupted her.
“What are we having for dessert tonight, my dear?”
“We have the cream cheese you brought from market yesterday, and whichever conserve you prefer; the plums, the wild strawberries, or the gooseberries.”
“Oh, the gooseberries, by all means, after chicken.”
“But, Papa, you prefer the gooseberries after almost everything! It is lucky for us we can get all the sugar we want from the Count. Our neighbours cannot afford to make conserves, with sugar so dear. And gooseberries take more than anything else.”
“There is something very palatable about the flavour of these gooseberries, a bitter tang that is good for one. At home the gooseberries are much larger and finer, but I have come to like this bitter taste.”
“En France nous avons tous les légumes, jusqu’aux dattes,” murmured Cécile. She had never seen a date, but she had learned that phrase from a book, when she went to day-school at the Ursulines.
Immediately after dinner the apothecary went into the front shop to post his ledger, while his daughter washed the dishes with the hot water left in an iron kettle on the stove, where the birch-wood fire was now smouldering coals. She had scarcely begun when she heard a soft scratching at the single window of her kitchen. Through the small panes of glass a face was looking in, — a terrifying face, but one that she expected. She nodded and beckoned with her finger. A short, heavy man shuffled into the kitchen. He seemed loath to enter, yet drawn by some desire stronger than his reluctance. Cécile went to the stove and filled a bowl.
“There is your soup for you, Blinker.”
“Merci, Ma’m’selle.” The man spoke out of the side of his mouth, as he looked out of the side of his face. He was so terribly cross-eyed that Cécile had never really looked into his eyes at all, — this was why he was called Blinker. He took a half-loaf from his coat-pocket and began to eat the soup eagerly, trying not to make a noise. Eating was difficult for him, — he had once had an abscess in his lower jaw, it had suppurated, and pieces of the bone had come out. His face was badly shrunken on that side, under the old scars. He knew it distressed Cécile if he gurgled his soup; so he struggled between greed and caution, dipping his bread to make it easy chewing.
This poor mis-shapen fellow worked next door, tended the oven fires for Nicholas Pigeon, the baker, so that the baker could get his night’s sleep. His wages were the baker’s old clothes, two pairs of boots a year, a pint of red wine daily, and all the bread he could eat. But he got no soup there, Madame Pigeon had too many children to feed.
When he had finished his bowl and loaf, he rose and without saying anything took up two large wooden pails. One was full of refuse from the day’s cooking, the other full of dish-water. These he carried down Mountain Hill, through the market square to the edge of the shore, and there emptied them into the river. When he came back, he found a very small glass of brandy waiting for him on the table.
“Merci, Ma’m’selle, merci beaucoup,” he muttered. He sat down and sipped it slowly, watching Cécile arrange the kitchen for the night. He lingered while the floor was swept, the last dish put in place on the shelves, the dish-towels hung to dry on a wire above the stove, following all these operations intently with his crooked eyes. When she took up her candle, he must go. He put down his glass, got up, and opened the back door, but his feet seemed nailed to the sill. He stood blinking with that incredibly stupid air, blinking out of the side of his face, and Cécile could not be sure that he saw her or anything else. He made a fumbling as if to button his coat, though there were no buttons on it.
“Bon soir, Ma’m’selle,” he muttered.
Since this happened every night, Cécile thought nothing of it. Her mother had begun to look out for Blinker a little before she became so ill, and he was one of the cares the daughter had inherited. He had come out to the colony four years ago, and like many others who came he had no trade. He was strong, but so ill-favoured that nobody wanted him about. Neighbour Pigeon found he was faithful and dependable, and taught him to stoke the wood fire and tend the oven between midnight and morning. Madame Auclair felt sorry for the poor fellow and got into the way of giving him his soup at night and letting him do the heavy work, such as carrying in wood and water and taking away the garbage. She had always called Blinker by his real name, Jules. He had a cave up in the rocky cliff behind the bakery, where he kept his chest, — he slept there in mild weather. In winter he slept anywhere about the ovens that he could find room to lie down, and his clothes and woolly red hair were usually white with ashes. Many people were afraid of him, felt that he must have crooked thoughts behind such crooked eyes. But the Pigeons and Auclairs had got used to him and saw no harm in him. The baker said he could never discover how the fellow made a living at home, or why he had come out to Canada. Many unserviceable men had come, to be sure, but they were usually adventurers who disliked honest work, — wanted to fight the Iroquois or traffic in beaver-skins, or live a free life hunting game in the woods. This Blinker had never had a gun in his hands. He had such a horror of the forest that he would not even go into the near-by woods to help fell trees for firewood, and his fear of Indians was one of the bywords of Mountain Hill. Pigeon used to tell his customers that if the Count went to chastise the Iroquois beyond Cataraqui, Blinker would hide in his cave in Quebec. Blinker protested he had been warned in a dream that he would be taken prisoner and tortured by the Indians.
Dinner was the important event of the day in the apothecary’s household. The luncheon was a mere goûter. Breakfast was a pot of chocolate, which he prepared very carefully himself, and a fresh loaf which Pigeon’s oldest boy brought to the door. But his dinner Auclair regarded as the thing that kept him a civilized man and a Frenchman. It put him in a mellow mood, and he and his daughter usually spent the long evening very happily without visitors. She read aloud to him, the fables of La Fontaine or his favourite Plutarch, and he corrected her accent so that she would not be ashamed when she returned home to the guardianship of that intelligent and exacting Aunt Clothilde. It was only in the evening that her father had time to talk to her. All day he was compounding remedies, or visiting the sick, or making notes for a work on the medicinal properties of Canadian plants which he meant to publish after his return to Paris. But in the evening he was free, and while he enjoyed his Spanish snuff their talk would sometimes lead far away and bring out long stories of the past. Her father would try to recall to her their old shop on the Quai des Célestins, where he had grown up and where she herself was born. She thought she could remember it a little, though she was only four years old when they sailed with the Count for the New World. It was a narrow wedge, that shop, built in next to the carriage court of the town house of the Frontenacs. Auclair’s little chamber, where he slept from his sixth year until his marriage, was on the third floor, under the roof. Its one window looked out upon the carriage court and across it to the front of the mansion, which had only a blind wall on the street and faced upon its own court.
When he was a little boy, he used to tell Cécile, nothing ever changed next door, except that after a rain the cobbles in the yard were whiter, and the ivy on the walls was greener. Every morning he looked out from his window on the same stillness; the shuttered windows behind their iron grilles, the steps under the porte-cochère green with moss, pale grass growing up between the stones in the court, the empty stables at the back, the great wooden carriage gates that never opened, — though in one of them a small door was cut, through which the old caretaker came and went.
“Naturally,” Auclair would tell his daughter, “having seen the establishment next door always the same, I supposed it was meant to be like that, and was there, perhaps, to give a little boy the pleasure of watching the swallows build nests in the ivy. The Count had been at home when I was an infant in arms, and once, I believe, when I was three, but I could not remember. Imagine my astonishment when, one evening about sunset, a dusty coach with four horses rattled down the Quai and stopped at the carriage entrance. Two footmen sprang down from the box, rang the outer bell, and, as soon as the bar was drawn, began pulling and prying at the gates, which I had never seen opened in my life. It seemed to me that some outrage was being committed and the police should be called. At last the gates were dragged inward, and the coach clattered into the court. If anything more happened that night I do not recall it.
“The next morning I was awakened by shouting under my window, and the sound of shutters being taken down. I ran across my room and peeped out. The windows over there were not only unshuttered, but open wide. Three young men were leaning out over the grilles beating rugs, shaking carpets and wall-hangings into the air. In a moment a blacksmith came in his leather apron, with a kit of tools, and began to repair the hinges of the gates. Boys were running in and out, bringing bread, milk, poultry, sacks of grain and hay for the horses. When I went down to breakfast, I found my father and mother and grandparents all very much excited and pleased, talking a great deal. They already knew in which chamber the Count had slept last night, the names of his equerries, what he had brought with him for supper in a basket from Fontainebleau, and which wines old Joseph had got up from the cellar for him. I had scarcely ever heard my family talk so much.
“Not long after breakfast the Count himself came into our shop. He greeted my father familiarly and began asking about the people of the Quarter as if he had been away only a few weeks. He inquired for my mother and grandmother, and they came to pay their respects. I was pulled out from under the counter where I had hidden, and presented to him. I was frightened because he was wearing his uniform and such big boots. Yes, he was a fine figure of a man forty years ago, but even more restless and hasty than he is now. I remember he asked me if I wanted to be a soldier, and when I told him that I meant to be an apothecary like my father, he laughed and gave me a silver piece.”
Though Auclair so often talked to his daughter of the past, it was not because there was nothing happening in the present. At that time the town of Quebec had fewer than two thousand inhabitants, but it was always full of jealousies and quarrels. Ever since Cécile could remember, there had been a feud between Count Frontenac and old Bishop Laval. And now that the new Bishop, Monseigneur de Saint–Vallier, had just come back from France after a three years’ absence, the Count was quarrelling with him! Then there was always the old quarrel between the two Bishops themselves, which had broken out with fresh vigour upon de Saint–Vallier’s return. Everyone in the diocese took sides with one prelate or the other. Since he landed in September, scarcely a week went by that Monseigneur de Saint–Vallier did not wreck some cherished plan of the old Bishop.
Before they went to bed, Auclair and his daughter usually took a walk. The apothecary believed this habit conducive to sound slumber. Tonight, as they stepped out into the frosty air and looked up, high over their heads, on the edge of the sheer cliff, the Château stood out against the glittering night sky, the second storey of the south wing brilliantly lighted.
“I suppose the Count’s candles will burn till long past midnight,” Cécile remarked.
“Ah, the Count has many things to trouble him. The King has not been very generous in rewarding his services in the last campaign. Besides, he is old, and the old do not sleep much.”
As they climbed Mountain Hill, they passed in front of Monseigneur de Saint–Vallier’s new episcopal Palace, and that, too, was ablaze with lights. Cécile longed to see inside that building, toward which the King himself had given fifteen thousand francs. It was said that Monseigneur had brought back with him a great many fine pieces of furniture and tapestry to furnish it. But he was not fond of children, as the old Bishop was, and his servants were very strict, and there seemed to be no way in which one could get a peep behind those heavy curtains at the windows.
Their walk was nearly always the same. On a precipitous rock, scored over with dark, uneven streets, there were not many ways where one could stroll with a careless foot after nightfall. When the wind was not too biting, they usually took the path up to the redoubt on Cap Diamant and looked down over the sleeping town and the great pale avenue of river, with black forest stretching beyond it to the sky. From there the Lower Town was a mere sprinkle of lights along the water’s edge. The rock-top, blocked off in dark masses that were convents and churches and gardens, was now sunk in sleep. The only lighted windows to be seen were in the Château, in the Bishop’s Palace, and on the top floor of old Bishop Laval’s Seminary, out there on its spur overhanging the river. That top floor, the apothecary told his daughter, was the library, and likely enough some young Canadian-born Seminarians to whom Latin came hard were struggling with the Church Fathers up there.
Auclair did a good trade in drugs and herbs and remedies of his own compounding, but his pay was small, and very little of it was in money. Besides, people wasted a great deal of his time in conversation and thus interfered with his study of Canadian plants. Like most philosophers, he was not averse to discourse, but here much of the talk was gossip and very trivial. The colonists liked to drop in at his house upon the slightest pretext; the interior was like home to the French-born. On a heavy morning, when clouds of thick grey fog rolled up from the St. Lawrence, it cheered one to go into a place that was like an apothecary’s shop at home; to glimpse the comfortable sitting-room through the tall cabinets and chests of drawers that separated without entirely shutting it off from the shop.
Euclide Auclair had come over with the Count de Frontenac eight years ago, as his apothecary and physician, and had therefore been able to bring whatever he liked of his personal possessions. He came with a full supply of drugs and specifics, his distilling apparatus, mortars, balances, retorts, and carboys, all the paraphernalia of his trade, even the stuffed baby alligator, brought long ago to Paris by some sailor from the West Indies and purchased by Auclair’s grandfather to ornament the shop on the Quai des Célestins.
Madame Auclair had brought her household goods, without which she could not imagine life at all, and the salon behind the shop was very much like their old salon in Paris. There was the same well-worn carpet, made at Lyon, the walnut dining-table, the two large arm-chairs and high-backed sofa upholstered in copper-red cotton-velvet, the long window-curtains of a similar velvet lined with brown. The same candelabra and china shepherd boy sat on the mantel, the same colour prints of pastoral scenes hung on the walls. Madame had brought out to Canada the fine store of linen that had been her marriage portion, her feather beds and coverlids and down pillows. As long as she lived, she tried to make the new life as much as possible like the old. After she began to feel sure that she would never be well enough to return to France, her chief care was to train her little daughter so that she would be able to carry on this life and this order after she was gone.
Madame Auclair had kept upon her feet until within a few weeks of her death. When a spasm of coughing came on (she died of her lungs) and she was forced to lie down on the red sofa there under the window, she would beckon Cécile to the footstool beside her. After she got her breath again and was resting, she would softly explain many things about the ménage.
“Your father has a delicate appetite,” she would murmur, “and the food here is coarse. If it is not very carefully prepared, he will not eat and will fall ill. And he cannot sleep between woollen coverlids, as many people do here; his skin is sensitive. The sheets must be changed every two weeks, but do not try to have them washed in the winter. I have brought linen enough to last the winter through. Keep folding the soiled ones away in the cold upstairs, and in April, when the spring rains come and all the water-barrels are full of soft rain-water, have big Jeanette come in and do a great washing; give the house up to her, and let her take several days to do her work. Beg her to iron the sheets carefully. They are the best of linen and will last your lifetime if they are well treated.”
Madame Auclair never spoke of her approaching death, but would say something like this:
“After a while, when I am too ill to help you, you will perhaps find it fatiguing to do all these things alone, over and over. But in time you will come to love your duties, as I do. You will see that your father’s whole happiness depends on order and regularity, and you will come to feel a pride in it. Without order our lives would be disgusting, like those of the poor savages. At home, in France, we have learned to do all these things in the best way, and we are conscientious, and that is why we are called the most civilized people in Europe and other nations envy us.”
After such admonition Madame Auclair would look intently into the child’s eyes that grew so dark when her heart was touched, like the blue of Canadian blueberries, indeed, and would say to herself: “Oui, elle a beaucoup de loyauté.”
During the last winter of her illness she lay much of the time on her red sofa, that had come so far out to this rock in the wilderness. The snow outside, piled up against the window-panes, made a grey light in the room, and she could hear Cécile moving softly about in the kitchen, putting more wood into the iron stove, washing the casseroles. Then she would think fearfully of how much she was entrusting to that little shingled head; something so precious, so intangible; a feeling about life that had come down to her through so many centuries and that she had brought with her across the wastes of obliterating, brutal ocean. The sense of “our way,” — that was what she longed to leave with her daughter. She wanted to believe that when she herself was lying in this rude Canadian earth, life would go on almost unchanged in this room with its dear (and, to her, beautiful) objects; that the proprieties would be observed, all the little shades of feeling which make the common fine. The individuality, the character, of M. Auclair’s house, though it appeared to be made up of wood and cloth and glass and a little silver, was really made of very fine moral qualities in two women: the mother’s unswerving fidelity to certain traditions, and the daughter’s loyalty to her mother’s wish.
It was because of these things that had gone before, and the kind of life lived there, that the townspeople were glad of any excuse to stop at the apothecary’s shop. Even the strange, bitter, mysterious Bishop Laval (more accusing and grim than ever, now that the new Bishop had returned and so disregarded him) used to tramp heavily into the shop for calomel pills or bandages for his varicose legs, and peer, not unkindly, back into the living-room. Once he had asked for a sprig from the box of parsley that was kept growing there even in winter, and carried it away in his hand, — though, as everyone knew, he denied himself all the comforts of the table and ate only the most wretched and unappetizing food.
In a corner, concealed from the shop by tall cabinets, and well away from the window draughts, stood M. Auclair’s four-post bed, with heavy hangings. Underneath it was a child’s bed, pulled out at night, where Cécile still slept in cold weather. Sometimes on a very bitter night, when the grip of still, intense cold tightened on the rock as if it would extinguish the last spark of life, the pharmacist would hear his daughter softly stirring about, moving something, covering something. He would thrust his night-cap out between the curtains and call:
“Qu’est-ce que tu fais, petite?”
An anxious, sleepy voice would reply;
“Papa, j’ai peur pour le persil.”
It had never frozen in her mother’s time, and it should not freeze in hers.
The accident of being born next the Count de Frontenac’s house in Paris had determined Euclide Auclair’s destiny. He had grown up a studious, thoughtful boy, assisting his father in the shop. Every afternoon he read Latin with a priest at the Jesuits on the rue Saint–Antoine. Count Frontenac’s irregular and unexpected returns to town made the chief variety in his life.
It was usually after some chagrin or disappointment that the Count came back to the Quai des Célestins. Between campaigns he lived at Île Savary, his estate on the Indre, near Blois. But after some slight at Court, or some difficulty with his creditors, he would suddenly arrive at his father’s old town house and shut himself up for days, even weeks, seeing no one but the little people of the parish of Saint–Paul. He had few friends of his own station in Paris, — few anywhere. He was a man who got on admirably with his inferiors, — seemed to find among them the only human ties that were of any comfort to him. He was poor, which made him boastful and extravagant, and he had always lived far beyond his means. At Île Savary he tried to make as great a show as people who were much better off than he, — to equal them in hospitality, in dress, gardens, horses and carriages. But when he was in Paris, living among the quiet, faithful people of the quarter, he was a different man. With his humble neighbours his manners were irreproachable. He often dropped in at the pharmacy to see his tenants, the Auclairs, and would sometimes talk to the old grandfather about his campaigns in Italy and the Low Countries.
The Count had begun his military life at fifteen, and wherever there was fighting in Europe, he always managed to be there. In each campaign he added to his renown, but never to his fortune. When his military talents were unemployed, he usually got into trouble of some sort. It was after his Italian campaign, when he was recuperating from his wounds in his father’s old house on the Quai, that he made his unfortunate marriage. Euclide’s father could remember that affair very well. Madame de la Grange–Frontenac and her husband lived together but a short while, — and now they had been separated for almost a lifetime. She still lived in Paris, with a brilliant circle about her, — had an apartment in the old Arsenal building, not far from the Count’s house, and when she received, he sometimes paid his respects with the rest of the world, but he never went to see her privately.
When Euclide was twenty-two, Count Frontenac was employed by the Venetians to defend the island of Crete against the Turks. From that command he returned with great honour, but poorer than ever. For the next three years he was idle. Then, suddenly, the King appointed him Governor General of Canada, and he quitted Europe for ten years.
During that decade Euclide’s father and mother died. He married, and devoted himself seriously to his profession. Too seriously for his own good, indeed. Although he was so content with familiar scenes and faces as to be almost afraid of new ones, he was not afraid of new ideas, — or of old ideas that had gone out of fashion because surgeons and doctors were too stupid to see their value. The brilliant reign of Louis XIV was a low period in medicine; dressmakers and tailors were more considered than physicians. Euclide had gone deep into the history of medicine in such old Latin books as were stuffed away in the libraries of Paris. He looked back to the time of Ambroise Paré, and still further back to the thirteenth century, as golden ages in medicine, — and he considered Fagon, the King’s physician, a bigoted and heartless quack.
When sick people in his own neighbourhood came to Euclide for help, he kept them away from doctors, — gave them tisanes and herb-teas and poultices, which at least could do no harm. He advised them about their diet; reduced the surfeit of the rich, and prescribed goat’s milk for the poorly nourished. He was strongly opposed to indiscriminate blood-letting, particularly to bleeding from the feet. This eccentricity made him very unpopular, not only with the barber-surgeons of the parish, but with their patients, and even estranged his own friends. Bleeding from the feet was very much in vogue just then; it made a sick man feel that the utmost was being done for him. At Versailles it was regularly practised on members of the King’s household. Euclide’s opposition to this practice lost him many of his patrons. His neighbours used to laugh and say that whether bleeding from the feet harmed other people or not, it had certainly been very bad for the son of their reliable old pharmacien, Alphonse Auclair.
Euclide’s business contracted steadily, so that, with all his wife’s good management and his own devotion to his profession, he scarcely knew where to turn; until one day the Count de Frontenac walked into the shop and put out his hand as if to rescue a drowning man. Auclair had never heard of the Count’s difficulties with the Jesuits in Canada, and knew nothing about his recall by the King, until he appeared at the shop door that morning, ten years older, but no richer or better satisfied with the world than when he went away.
The Count was out of favour at Versailles, his estate on the Indre had run down during his absence in Canada, and he had not the means to repair it, so he now spent a good deal of time in the house next door. His presence there, and his patronage, eased the strain of the Auclairs’ position. Moreover, he restored to Euclide the ten years’ rent for the shop, which had been scrupulously paid to the Count’s agent while he was away.
The Count was lonely in his town house. Many of his old acquaintances had accomplished their earthly period and been carried to the Innocents or the churchyard of Saint–Paul while he was far away in Quebec. His wife was still entertaining her friends at her apartment in the old Arsenal, and the Count occasionally went there on her afternoons at home. Time hung heavy on his hands, and he often sent for Euclide to come to him in a professional capacity, — a flimsy pretext, for, though past sixty, the Count was in robust health. Of an evening they would sometimes sit in the Count’s library, talking of New France. Frontenac’s thoughts were there, and he liked to tell an eager listener about its great lakes and rivers, the climate, the Indians, the forests and wild animals. Often he would dwell upon the explorations and discoveries of his ill-fated young friend Robert Cavelier de La Salle, one of the few men for whom, in his long life, he ever felt a warm affection.
Gradually there grew up in Auclair’s mind the picture of a country vast and free. He fell into a habit of looking to Canada as a possible refuge, an escape from the evils one suffered at home, and of wishing he could go there.
This seemed a safe desire to cherish, since it was impossible of fulfilment. Euclide was a natural city-dweller; one of those who can bear poverty and oppression, so long as they have their old surroundings, their native sky, the streets and buildings that have become part of their lives. But though he was a creature of habit and derived an actual pleasure from doing things exactly as he had always done them, his mind was free. He could not shut his eyes to the wrongs that went on about him, or keep from brooding upon them. In his own time he had seen taxes grow more and more ruinous, poverty and hunger always increasing. People died of starvation in the streets of Paris, in his own parish of Saint–Paul, where there was so much wealth. All the while the fantastic extravagances of the Court grew more outrageous. The wealth of the nation, of the grain lands and vineyards and forests of France, was sunk in creating the pleasure palace at Versailles. The richest peers of the realm were ruining themselves on magnificent Court dresses and jewels. And, with so many new abuses, the old ones never grew less; torture and cruel punishments increased as the people became poorer and more desperate. The horrible mill at the Châtelet ground on day after day. Auclair lived too near the prisons of Paris to be able to forget them. In his boyhood a harmless old man who lodged in their own cellar was tortured and put to death at the Châtelet for a petty theft.
One morning, in the summer when Cécile was four years old, Count Frontenac made one of his sudden reappearances in Paris and sent for Euclide. The King had again appointed him Governor General of Canada, and he would sail in a few weeks. He wished to take Auclair with him as his personal physician. The Count was then seventy years old, and he was as eager to be gone as a young man setting off on his first campaign.
Auclair was terrified. Indeed, he fell ill of fright, and neither ate nor slept. He could not imagine facing any kind of life but the one he had always lived. His wife was much the braver of the two. She pointed out that their business barely made them a livelihood, and that after the Count went away it would certainly decline. Moreover, the Count was their landlord, and he had now decided to sell his town property. Who knew but that the purchaser might prove a hard master, — or that he might not pull down the apothecary shop altogether to enlarge the stables?
It was the day after La Bonne Espérance had set sail for France. Auclair and his daughter were on their way to the Hôtel Dieu to attend the Reverend Mother, who had sprained her ankle. Quebec is never lovelier than on an afternoon of late October; ledges of brown and lavender clouds lay above the river and the Île d’Orléans, and the red-gold autumn sunlight poured over the rock like a heavy southern wine. Beyond the Cathedral square the two lingered under the allée of naked trees beside the Jesuits’ college. These trees were cut flat to form an arbour, the branches interweaving and interlacing like basket-work, and beneath them ran a promenade paved with flat flagstones along which the dry yellow leaves were blowing, giving off a bitter perfume when one trampled them. Cécile loved that allée, because when she was little the Fathers used to let her play there with her skipping-rope, — few spots in Kebec were level enough to jump rope on. Behind the avenue of trees the long stone walls of the monastery — seven feet thick, those walls — made a shelter from the wind; they held the sun’s heat so well that it was possible to grow wall grapes there, and purple clusters were cut in September.
Behind the Jesuits’ a narrow, twisted, cobbled street dropped down abruptly to the Hôtel Dieu, on the banks of the little river St. Charles. Auclair and his daughter went through the garden into the refectory, where Mother Juschereau de Saint–Ignace was seated, her sprained foot on a stool, directing the work of her novices. She was a little over forty, a woman of strong frame, tall, upright, with a presence that bespoke force rather than reserve; a handsome face, — the large, open features mobile and alert, perhaps a trifle masculine. She was the first Reverend Mother of the foundation who was Canadian-born, and she had been elected to that office when she was but thirty-four years of age. She was a religious of the practical type, sunny and very outright by nature, — enthusiastic, without being given to visions or ecstasies.
As the visitors entered, the Superior made as if to rise, but Auclair put out a detaining hand.
“I am two days late, Reverend Mother. In your mind you have been chiding me for neglect. But it is a busy time for us when the last ships sail. We have many family letters to write; and I examine my stock and make out my order for the drugs I shall need by the first boats next summer.”
“If you had not come today, Monsieur Euclide, you would surely have found me on my feet tomorrow. When the Indians have a sprain, in the woods, they bind their leg tightly with deer thongs and keep on the march with their party. And they recover.”
“Dear Mother Juschereau, the idea of such treatment is repugnant to me. We are not barbarians, after all.”
“But they are flesh and blood; how is it they recover?”
As he pushed back her snow-white skirt a little and began gently to unwind the bandage from her foot, Auclair explained his reasons for believing that the savages were much less sensitive to pain than Europeans. Cécile fell to admiring the work Mother Juschereau had in hand. Her lap and the table beside her were full of scraps of bright silk and velvet and sheets of coloured paper. While she overlooked the young Sisters at their tasks, her fingers were moving rapidly and cleverly, making artificial flowers. She had great skill at this and delighted in it, — it was her one recreation.
“Yes, my dear,” she said, “I am making these for the poor country parishes, where they have so little for the altar. These are wild roses, such as I used to gather when I was a child at Beauport. Oh, the wild flowers we have in the fields and prairies about Beauport!”
When he had applied his ointment and bandaged her foot in fresh linen, the apothecary went off to the hospital medicine room, in charge of Sister Marie Domenica, whom he was instructing in the elements of pharmacy, and Cécile settled herself on the floor at Mother Juschereau’s knee. Theirs was an old friendship.
The Reverend Mother (Jeanne Franc Juschereau de la Ferté was her proud name) held rather advanced views on caring for the sick. She did not believe in leaving everything to God, and had availed her hospital of Auclair’s skill ever since he first came to Quebec. Quick to detect a trace of the charlatan in anyone, she felt confidence in Auclair because his pretensions were so modest. She addressed him familiarly as “Monsieur Euclide,” scolded him for teaching his daughter Latin, and was keenly interested in his study of Canadian plants. Cécile had been coming to the Hôtel Dieu with her father almost every week since she was five years old, and Mother Juschereau always found time to talk to her a little; but today was a very unusual opportunity. The Mother was seldom to be found seated in a chair; when she was not on her knees at her devotions, she was on her feet, hurrying from one duty to another.
“It has been a long while since you told me a story, Reverend Mother,” Cécile reminded her.
Mother Juschereau laughed. She had a deep warmhearted laugh, something left over from her country girlhood. “Perhaps I have no more to tell you. You must know them all by this time.”
“But there is no end to the stories about Mother Catherine de Saint–Augustin. I can never hear them all.”
“True enough, when you speak her name, the stories come. Since I have had to sit here with my sprain, I have been recalling some of the things she used to tell me herself, when I was not much older than you.”
While her hands flew among the scraps of colour, Mother Juschereau began somewhat formally:
“Before she had left her fair Normandy (avant quelle ait quitté sa belle Normandie), while Sister Catherine was a novice at Bayeux, there lived in the neighbourhood a pécheresse named Marie. She had been a sinner from her early youth and was so proof against all counsel that she continued her disorders even until an advanced age. Driven out by the good people of the town, shunned by men and women alike, she fell lower and lower, and at last hid herself in a solitary cave. There she dragged out her shameful life, destitute and consumed by a loathsome disease. And there she died; without human aid and without the sacraments of the Church. After such a death her body was thrown into a ditch and buried like that of some unclean animal.
“Now, Sister Catherine, though she was so young and had all the duties of her novitiate to perform, always found time to pray for the souls of the departed, for all who died in that vicinity, whether she had known them in the flesh or not. But for this abandoned sinner she did not pray, believing, as did everyone else, that she was for ever lost.
“Twelve years went by, and Sister Catherine had come to Canada and was doing her great work here. One day, while she was at prayer in this house, a soul from purgatory appeared to her, all pale and suffering, and said:
“‘Sister Catherine, what misery is mine! You commend to God the souls of all those who die. I am the only one on whom you have no compassion.’
“‘And who are you?’ asked our astonished Mother Catherine.
“‘I am that poor Marie, the sinner, who died in the cave.’
“‘What,’ exclaimed Mother Catherine, ‘were you then not lost?’
“‘No, I was saved, thanks to the infinite mercy of the Blessed Virgin.’
“‘But how could this be?’
“‘When I saw that I was about to die in the cave, and knew that I was abandoned and cast out by the world, unclean within and without, I felt the burden of all my sins. I turned to the Mother of God and cried to her: Queen of Heaven, you are the last refuge of the ruined and the outcast; I am abandoned by all the world; I have no hope but you; you alone have power to reach where I am fallen; Mary, Mother of Jesus, have pity upon me! The tender Mother of all made it possible for me to repent in that last hour. I died and I was saved. The Holy Mother procured for me the favour of having my punishment abridged, and now only a few masses are required to deliver me from purgatory. I beseech you to have them said for me, and I will never cease my prayers to God and the Blessed Virgin for you.’
“Mother Catherine at once set about having masses said for that poor Marie. Some days later there appeared to her a happy soul, more brilliant than the sun, which smiled and said: ‘I thank you, my dear Catherine, I go now to paradise to sing the mercies of God for ever, and I shall not forget to pray for you.’”
Here Mother Juschereau glanced down at the young listener, who had been following her intently. “And now, from this we see — ” she went on, but Cécile caught her hand and cried coaxingly,
“N’expliquez pas, chère Mère, je vous en supplie!”
Mother Juschereau laughed and shook her finger.
“You always say that, little naughty! N’expliquez pas! But it is the explanation of these stories that applies them to our needs.”
“Yes, dear Mother. But there comes my father. Tell me the explanation some other day.”
Mother Juschereau still looked down into her face, frowning and smiling. It was the kind of face she liked, because there was no self-consciousness in it, and no vanity; but she told herself for the hundredth time: “No, she has certainly no vocation.” Yet for an orphan girl, and one so intelligent, there would certainly have been a career among the Hospitalières. She would have loved to train that child for the Soeur Apothicaire of her hospital. Her good sense told her it was not to be. When she talked to Cécile of the missionaries and martyrs, she knew that her words fell into an eager mind; admiration and rapture she found in the girl’s face, but it was not the rapture of self-abnegation. It was something very different, — almost like the glow of worldly pleasure. She was convinced that Cécile read altogether too much with her father, and had told him so; asking him whether he had perhaps forgotten that he had a girl to bring up, and not a son whom he was educating for the priesthood.
While her father and Mother Juschereau were going over an inventory of hospital supplies, Cécile went into the chapel to say a prayer for the repose of Mother de Saint–Augustin. There, in the quiet, she soon fell to musing upon the story of that remarkable girl who had braved the terrors of the ocean and the wilderness and come out to Canada when she was barely sixteen years old, and this Kebec was but a naked rock rising out of the dark forest.
Catherine de Saint–Augustin had begun her novitiate with the Hospitalières at Bayeux when she was eleven and a half years of age, and by the time she was fourteen she was already, in her heart, vowed to Canada. The letters and Relations of the Jesuit missionaries, eagerly read in all the religious houses of France, had fired her bold imagination, and she begged to be sent to save the souls of the savages. Her superiors discouraged her and forbade her to cherish this desire; Catherine’s youth and bodily frailness were against her. But while she went about her tasks in the monastery, this wish, this hope, was always with her. One day when she was peeling vegetables in the novices’ refectory, she cut her hand, and, seeing the blood flow, she dipped her finger in it and wrote upon the table:
Je mourrai au Canada
That table, with its inscription, was still shown at Bayeux as an historic relic.
Though Catherine’s desire seemed so far from fulfilment, she had not long to wait. In the winter of 1648, Père Vimont, from the Jesuit mission in Canada, came knocking at the door of the monastère at Bayeux, recruiting sisters for the little foundation of Hospitalières already working in Kebec. Catherine was told that she was too young to go, and her father firmly refused to give his permission. But in her eagerness the girl wrote petition after petition to her Bishop and superiors, and at last her request was brought to the attention of the Queen Mother, Anne of Austria. The Queen’s intercession won her father’s consent.
When, after a voyage of many months, unparalleled for storms and hardships, Catherine and her companions anchored under the rock of Kebec and were rowed ashore, she fell upon her knees and kissed the earth where she first stepped upon it.
Made Superior of the Hôtel Dieu at an early age, she died before she was forty. At thirty-seven she had burned her life out in vigils, mortifications, visions, raptures, all the while carrying on a steady routine of manual labour and administrative work, observing the full discipline of her order. For long before her death she was sustained by visions in which the spirit of Father Brébeuf, the martyr, appeared to her, told her of the glories of heaven, and gave her counsel and advice for all her perplexities in this world. It was at the direction of Father Brébeuf, communicated to her in these visions, that she chose Jeanne Franc Juschereau de la Ferté to succeed her as Superior, and trained her to that end. To many people the choice seemed such a strange one that Père Brébeuf must certainly have instigated it. Mother Catherine de Saint–Augustin was slight, nervous, sickly from childhood, yet from childhood precocious and prodigious in everything; always dedicating herself to the impossible and always achieving it; now getting a Queen of France to speak for her, now winning the spirit of the hero priest from paradise to direct and sustain her. And the woman she chose to succeed her was hardy, sagacious, practical, — a Canadienne, and the woman for Canada.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:07