One morning between Christmas and New Year’s Day a man still young, of a handsome but unstable countenance, clad in a black cassock with violet piping, and a rich fur mantle, entered the apothecary shop, greeted the proprietor politely, and asked for four boxes of sugared lemon peel.
It was not the young Bishop’s custom to do his shopping himself; he sent his valet. This was the first time he had ever come inside the pharmacy. Auclair took off his apron as a mark of respect to a distinguished visitor, but replied firmly that, much to his regret, he had only three boxes left, and one of them he meant to send as a New Year’s greeting to Mother Juschereau, at the Hôtel Dieu. He would be happy to supply Monseigneur de Saint–Vallier with the other two; and he had several boxes of apricots put down in sugar, if they would be of any use to him. Monseigneur declared they would do very well, paid for them, and said he would carry them away himself. Auclair protested that he or his little daughter could leave them at the Palace. But no, the Bishop insisted upon carrying his parcel. As he did not leave the shop at once, Auclair begged him to be seated.
Saint–Vallier sat down and threw back his fur mantle. “Have you by any chance seen Monseigneur de Laval of late?” he inquired. “I am deeply concerned about his health.”
“No, Monseigneur, I have not seen him since the mass on Christmas Eve. But the bell has been ringing every morning as usual.”
Saint–Vallier’s arched eyebrows rose still higher, and he made a graceful, conciliatory gesture with his hand. “Ah, his habits, you know; one cannot interfere with them! But his valet told mine that the ulcer on his master’s leg had broken out again, and that seems to me dangerous.”
“I am sorry to hear it,” said Auclair. “It is hardly dangerous, but painful and distressing.”
“Especially so, since he will not remain in bed, and conceals the extent of his suffering even from his own Seminarians.” The Bishop paused a moment, then continued in a tone so confidential as to be flattering. “I have been wondering, Monsieur Auclair, whether, provided we could obtain his consent, you would be willing to try a cauterization of the arm, to draw the inflammation away from the affected part. This was done with great success for Père La Chaise, the King’s confessor, who had an ulcer between the toes while I was in office at Versailles.”
“That was probably a form of gout,” Auclair observed. “Monseigneur de Laval’s affliction is quite different. He suffers from enlarged and congested veins in the leg. Such ulcers are hard to heal, but they are seldom fatal.”
“But why not at least try the simple remedy which was so beneficial in the case of Père La Chaise?” urged the Bishop. There was a shallow brilliance in his large fine eyes which made Auclair antagonistic.
“Because, Monseigneur,” he said firmly, “I do not believe in it; and because it has been tried already. Two years ago, when you were in France, Doctor Beaudoin made a cauterization upon Monseigneur de Laval, and he has since told me that he believes it was useless.”
The Bishop looked thoughtfully about at the white jars on the shelves. “You are very advanced in your theories of medicine, are you not, Monsieur Auclair?”
“On the contrary, I am very old-fashioned. I think the methods of the last century better than those of the present time.”
“Then you do not believe in progress?”
“Change is not always progress, Monseigneur.” Auclair spoke quietly, but there was meaning in his tone. Saint–Vallier made some polite inquiry about the condition of old Doctor Beaudoin, and took his leave. His call, Auclair suspected, was one of the overtures he occasionally made to people who were known partisans of old Bishop Laval.
During the stay in France from which he had lately returned, Monseigneur de Saint–Vallier had induced the King to reverse entirely Laval’s system for the training and government of the Canadian clergy, thus defeating the dearest wishes of the old man’s heart and undoing the devoted labour of twenty years. Everything that made Laval’s Seminary unique and specially fitted to the needs of the colony had been wiped out. His system of a movable clergy, sent hither and thither out among the parishes at the Bishop’s discretion and always returning to the Seminary as their head and centre, had been changed by royal edict to the plan of appointing curés to permanent livings, as in France, — a method ill fitted to a new, wild country where within a year the population of any parish might be reduced by half. The Seminary, which Laval had made a thing of power and the centre of ecclesiastical authority, a chapter, almost an independent order, was now reduced to the state of a small school for training young men for the priesthood.
These were some of the griefs that made the old Bishop bear so mournful a countenance. The wilfulness of his successor (chosen by himself, he must always bitterly remember!) went even further; Saint–Vallier had taken away books and vases and furniture from the Seminary to enrich his new Palace. It was whispered that he had made his Palace so large because he intended to take away the old Bishop’s Seminarians and transfer them to the episcopal residence, to have them under his own eye. If this were done, Bishop Laval would be left living in the Priests’ House, guarding a lofty building of long, echoing corridors and empty dormitories, round a deserted courtyard where the grass would soon be growing between the stones. Monseigneur Laval’s friends could but hope that de Saint–Vallier would be off for France again before he carried out this threat.
Saint–Vallier was a man of contradictions, and they were stamped upon his face. One saw there something slightly hysterical, and something uncertain, — though his manner was imperious, and his administration had been arrogant and despotic. Auclair had once remarked to the Count that the new Bishop looked less like a churchman than like a courtier. “Or an actor,” the Count replied with a shrug. Large almond-shaped eyes under low-growing brown hair and delicate eyebrows, a long, sharp nose — and then the lower part of his face diminished, like the neck of a pear. His mouth was large and well shaped, but seldom in repose; his chin narrow, receding, with a dimple at the end. He had a dark skin and flashing white teeth like an Italian, — indeed, his face recalled the portraits of eccentric Florentine nobles. He was still only forty-four; he had been Bishop of Quebec now twelve years, — and seven of them had been spent in France!
Auclair had never liked de Saint–Vallier. He did not doubt the young Bishop’s piety, but he very much doubted his judgment. He was rash and precipitate, he was volatile. He acted too often without counting the cost, from some dazzling conception, — one could not say from impulse, for impulses are from the heart. He liked to reorganize and change things for the sake of change, to make a fine gesture. He destroyed the old before he had clearly thought out the new. When he first came to Canada, he won all hearts by his splendid charities; but he went back to France leaving the Seminary many thousand francs in debt as the result of his generous disbursements, and the old Bishop had to pay this debt out of the Seminary revenues. For years now, he had seemed feverishly determined to undo whatever he could of the old Bishop’s work. This was the more galling to the old man because he himself had gone to France and chosen de Saint–Vallier and recommended him to Rome. Saint–Vallier had at first exhibited the most delicate consideration for his aged predecessor, but this attitude lasted only a short while. He was as changeable and fickle as a woman. Indeed, he had received a large part of his training under a woman, though by no means a fickle or capricious one.
When Jean Baptiste de la Croix de Chevrières de Saint–Vallier came to Court in the capacity of the King’s almoner, Madame de Maintenon was past the age of youthful folly, — if indeed she had ever known such an age. (A poor girl from the West Indies, landing penniless in France with all her possessions in a band-box, she had had little time for follies, except such as helped her to get on in the world.) The young priest who was one day to be the second Bishop of Quebec knew her only after she had become the grave and far-seeing woman who so greatly influenced the King for the last thirty years of his reign.
Saint–Vallier was the seventh child of a noble family of Dauphiné. His eldest brother, Comte de Saint–Vallier, was Captain of the King’s Guard, and secured for the young priest the appointment of Aumônier ordinaire to the King when he was but twenty-three years of age. He retained that office for nearly ten years, and was constantly in accord with Madame de Maintenon in emptying the King’s purse for worthy charities. Saint–Vallier was by no means without enemies at Court. The clergy and even the Archbishop of Paris disliked him. They considered that he made his piety too conspicuous and was lacking in good taste. His oval face, with the bloom of youth upon it, his beautiful eyes, full of humility and scorn at the same time, were seen too much and too often. He had a hundred ways of making himself stand out from the throng, and his exceptional piety was like a reproach to those of the clergy who were more conventional and perhaps more worldly. He obtained from the King special permission to wear at Court the long black gown, which at that time was not worn by the priests at Versailles. So attired, he was more conspicuous than courtiers the most richly apparelled. His fellow abbés found de Saint–Vallier’s acts of humility undignified, and his brother, the Captain of the Guard, found them ridiculous. One day the Captain met the Abbé following the Sacrament through the street, ringing a little hand-bell. The Captain awaited his brother’s return to the Palace and told him angrily that his conduct was unworthy of his family, and that he had better retire to La Trappe, where his piety would be without an audience. But to be without an audience was the last thing the young Abbé desired.
Nevertheless, in his own way he was a sincere man. He refused the rich and honourable bishopric of Tours, repeatedly offered him by the King, and accepted the bishopric of Quebec, — the poorest and most comfortless honour the Crown had to offer.
By the time de Saint–Vallier made his third trip back to France, the King knew very well that he was not much wanted in Canada; every boat brought complaints of his arrogance and his rash impracticality. The King could not unmake a bishop, once he was consecrated, but he could detain him in France, — and that he did, for three years. During de Saint–Vallier’s long absences in Europe his duties devolved upon Monseigneur de Laval. There was no one else in Canada who could ordain priests, administer the sacrament of confirmation, consecrate the holy oils. Though in the performance of these duties the old Bishop had to make long journeys in canoes and sledges, very fatiguing at his age, he undertook them without a murmur. He was glad to take up again the burdens he had once so gladly laid down.
After Epiphany, Auclair was away from home a great deal. The old chirurgien Gervaise Beaudoin was ill, and the apothecary went to see him every afternoon, leaving Cécile to tend the shop. When he was at home, he was much occupied in making cough-syrups from pine tops, and from horehound and honey with a little laudanum; or he was compounding tonics, and liniments for rheumatism. The months that were dull for the merchants were the busiest for him. He and his daughter seldom went abroad together now, but their weekly visit to the Hôtel Dieu they still managed to make. One evening at dinner, after one of these visits, Cécile spoke of an incident that Mother Juschereau had related to her in the morning.
“Father, did you ever hear that once long ago, when an English sailor lay sick at the Hôtel Dieu, Mother Catherine de Saint–Augustin ground up a tiny morsel of bone from Father Brébeuf’s skull and mixed it in his gruel, and it made him a Christian?”
Her father looked at her across the table and gave a perplexing chuckle.
“But it is true, certainly? Mother Juschereau told me only today.”
“Mother Juschereau and I do not always agree in the matter of remedies, you know. I consider human bones a very poor medicine for any purpose.”
“But he was converted, the sailor. He became a Christian.”
“Probably Mother de Saint–Augustin’s own saintly character, and her kindness to him, had more to do with the Englishman’s conversion than anything she gave him in his food.”
“Why, Father, Mother Juschereau would be horrified to hear you! There are so many sacred relics, and they are always working cures.”
“The sacred relics are all very well, my dear, and I do not deny that they work miracles, — but not through the digestive tract. Mother de Saint–Augustin meant well, but she made a mistake. If she had given her heretic a little more ground bone, she might have killed him.”
“Are you sure?”
“I think it probable. It is true that in England, in every apothecary shop, there is a jar full of pulverized human skulls, and that terrible powder is sometimes dispensed in small doses for certain diseases. Even in France it is still to be found in many pharmacies; but it was never sold in our shop, not even in my grandfather’s time. He had seen a proof made of that remedy. A long while ago, when Henry of Navarre was besieging Paris, the people held out against him until they starved by hundreds. I have heard my grandfather tell of things too horrible to repeat to you. The famine grew until there was no food at all; people killed each other for a morsel. The bakers shut their shops; there was not a handful of flour left, they had used all the forage meant for beasts; they had made bread of hay and straw, and now that was all gone. Then some of the starving went to the cemetery of the Innocents, where there was a great wall of dry bones, and they ground those bones to powder and made a paste of it and baked it in ovens; and as many as ate of that bread died in agony, as if they had swallowed poison. Indeed, they had swallowed poison.”
“But those were ordinary bones, maybe bones of wicked people. That would be different.”
“No bones are good to be taken into the stomach, Cécile. God did not intend it. The relics of the saints may work cures at the touch, they may be a protection worn about the neck; those things are outside of my knowledge. But I am the guardian of the stomach, and I would not permit a patient to swallow a morsel of any human remains, not those of Saint Peter himself. There are enough beautiful stories about Mother de Saint–Augustin, but this one is not to my liking.”
Cécile could only hope it would never happen that her father and Mother Juschereau would enter into any discussion of miraculous cures. Her father must be right; but she felt in her heart that what Mother Juschereau told her had certainly occurred, and the English sailor had been converted by Father Brebeuf’s bone.
“Ma’m’selle, have you heard the news from Montreal?”
Blinker had just come in for his soup, and Cécile saw that he was greatly excited.
No, she had heard nothing; what did he mean?
“Ma’m’selle, there has been a miracle at Montreal. The recluse has had a visit from the angels, — the night after Epiphany, when there was the big snow-storm. That day she broke her spinning-wheel, and in the night two angels came to her cell and mended it for her. She saw them.”
“How did you hear this, Blinker?”
“Some men got in from Montreal this morning, in dog-sledges, and they brought the word. They brought letters, too, for the Reverend Mother at the Ursulines’. If you go there, you will likely hear all about it.”
“You are sure she saw the angels?”
He nodded. “Yes, when she got up to pray, at midnight. They say her wheel was mended better than a carpenter could do it.”
“The men didn’t say which angels, Blinker?”
He shook his head. He was just beginning his soup. Cécile dropped into one of the chairs by the table. “Why, one of them might have been Saint Joseph himself; he was a carpenter. But how was it she saw them? You know she keeps her spinning-wheel up in her work-room, over the cell where she sleeps.”
“Just so, ma’m’selle, it is just so the men said. She goes into the church to pray every night at midnight, and when she got up on Epiphany night, she saw a light shining from the room overhead, and she went up her little stair to see what was the matter, and there she found the angels.”
“Did they speak to her?”
“The men did not say. Maybe the Reverend Mother will know.”
“I will go there tomorrow, and I will tell you everything I hear. It’s a wonderful thing to happen, so near us — and in that great snow-storm! Don’t you like to know that the angels are just as near to us here as they are in France?”
Blinker turned his head, glancing all about the kitchen as if someone might be hiding there, leaned across the table, and said to her in such a mournful way:
“Ma’m’selle, I think they are nearer.”
When he had drunk his little glass and gone away for the last time, Cécile went in and told her father the good news from Montreal. He listened with polite interest, but she had of late begun to feel that his appreciation of miracles was not at all what it should be. They were reading Plutarch this winter, and tonight they were in the middle of the life of Alexander the Great, but her thoughts strayed from the text. She made so many mistakes that her father said she must be tired, and, gently taking the book from her, continued the reading himself.
Later, while she was undressing, her father filled the kitchen stove with birch logs to hold the heat well through the night. He blew out the candles, and himself got ready for bed. After he had put on his night-cap and disappeared behind his curtains, Cécile, who had feigned to be asleep, turned over softly to watch the dying fire, and with a sigh abandoned herself to her thoughts. In her mind she went over the whole story of the recluse of Montreal.
Jeanne Le Ber, the recluse, was the only daughter of Jacques Le Ber, the richest merchant of Montreal. When she was twelve years old, her parents had brought her to Quebec and placed her in the Ursuline convent to receive her education. She remained here three years, and that was how she belonged to Quebec as well as to Ville–Marie de Montréal. Sister Anne de Sainte–Rose saw at once that this pupil had a very unusual nature, though her outward demeanour was merely that of a charming young girl. The Sister had told Cécile that in those days Jeanne was never melancholy, but warm and ardent, like her complexion; gracious in her manner, and not at all shy. She was at her ease with strangers, — all distinguished visitors to Montreal were entertained at her father’s house. But underneath this exterior of pleasing girlhood, Sister Anne felt something reserved and guarded. While she was at the convent, Jeanne often received gifts and attentions from her father’s friends in Quebec; and from home, boxes of sweets and dainties. But everything that was sent her she gave away to her schoolmates, so tactfully that they did not realize she kept nothing for herself.
Jeanne completed her studies at the convent, returned home to Montreal, and was in a manner formally introduced to the world there. Her father was fond of society and lavish in hospitality; proud of his five sons, but especially devoted to his only daughter. He loved to see her in rich apparel, and selected the finest stuffs brought over from France for her. Jeanne wore these clothes to please him, but whenever she put on one of her gay dresses, she wore underneath it a little haircloth shirt next her tender skin.
Soon after Jeanne’s return from school her father and uncle gave to the newly-completed parish church of Montreal a rich lamp of silver, made in France, to burn perpetually before the Blessed Sacrament. The Le Bers’ house on Saint Paul street was very near the church, and from the window of her upstairs bedroom Jeanne could see at night the red spark of the sanctuary lamp showing in the dark church. When everyone was asleep and the house was still, it was her custom to kneel beside her casement and pray, the while watching that spot of light. “I will be that lamp” she used to whisper. “I will be that lamp; that shall be my life.”
Jacques Le Ber announced that his daughter’s dowry would be fifty thousand gold écus, and there were many pretendants for her hand. Cécile had often heard it said that the most ardent and most favoured of these was Auclair’s friend Pierre Charron, who still lived next door to the Le Bers in Montreal. He had been Jeanne’s playfellow in childhood.
Jeanne’s shining in the beau monde of Ville–Marie de Montréal was brief. For her the only real world lay within convent walls. She begged to be allowed to take the vows, but her father’s despair overcame her wish. Even her spiritual directors, and that noble soldier-priest Dollier de Casson, Superior of the Sulpician Seminary, advised her against taking a step so irrevocable. She at last obtained her parents’ consent to imitate the domestic retreat of Sainte Catherine of Siena, and at seventeen took the vow of chastity for five years and immured herself within her own chamber in her father’s house. In her vigils she could always look out at the dark church, with the one constant lamp which generous Jacques Le Ber had placed there, little guessing how it might affect his life and wound his heart.
Upon her retirement Jeanne had explained to her family that during the five years of her vow she must on no account speak to or hold communication with them. Her desire was for the absolute solitariness of the hermit’s life, the solitude which Sainte Marie l’Égyptienne had gone into the desert of the Thebais to find. Her parents did not believe that a young girl, affectionate and gentle from her infancy, could keep so harsh a rule. But as time went on, their hearts grew heavier. From the day she took her vow, they never had speech with her or saw her face, — never saw her bodily form, except veiled and stealing down the stairway like a shadow on her way to mass. Jacques Le Ber no longer gave suppers on feast-days. He stayed more and more in his counting-room, drove about in his sledge in winter, and cruised in his sloop in summer; avoided the house that had become the tomb of his hopes.
Before her withdrawal Jeanne had chosen an old serving-woman, exceptional for piety, to give her henceforth such service as was necessary. Every morning at a quarter to five this old dame went to Jeanne’s door and attended her to church to hear early mass. Many a time Madame Le Ber concealed herself in the dark hallway to see her daughter’s muffled figure go by. After the return from mass, the same servant brought Jeanne her food for the day. If any dish of a rich or delicate nature was brought her, she did not eat it, but fasted.
She went always to vespers, and to the high mass on Sundays and feast-days. On such occasions people used to come in from the neighbouring parishes for a glimpse of that slender figure, the richest heiress in Canada, clad in grey serge, kneeling on the floor near the altar, while her family, in furs and velvet, sat in chairs in another part of the church.
At the end of five years Jeanne renewed her vow of seclusion for another five years. During this time her mother died. On her death-bed she sent one of the household to her daughter’s door, begging her to come and give her the kiss of farewell.
“Tell her I am praying for her, night and day,” was the answer.
When she had been immured within her father’s house for almost ten years, Jeanne was able to accomplish a cherished hope; she devoted that dot, which no mortal man would ever claim, to build a chapel for the Sisters of the Congregation of the Blessed Virgin. Behind the high altar of this chapel she had a cell constructed for herself. At a solemn ceremony she took the final vows and entered that cell from which she would never come forth alive. Since that time she had been known as la recluse de Ville–Marie.
Jeanne’s entombment and her cell were the talk of the province, and in the country parishes where not much happened, still, after two years, furnished matter for conversation and wonder. The cell, indeed, was not one room, but three, one above another, and within them the solitaire carried on an unvarying routine of life. In the basement cubicle was the grille through which she spoke to her confessor, and by means of which she was actually present at mass and vespers, though unseen. There, through a little window, her meagre food was handed to her. The room above was her sleeping-chamber, constructed by the most careful measurements for one purpose; her narrow bed against the wall was directly behind the high altar, and her pillow, when she slept, was only a few inches from the Blessed Sacrament on the other side of the partition.
The upper cell was her atelier, and there she made and embroidered those beautiful altar-cloths and vestments which went out from her stone chamber to churches all over the province: to the Cathedral at Quebec, and to the poor country parishes where the altar and its ministrant were alike needy. She had begun this work years before, in her father’s house, and had grown very skilful at it. Old Bishop Laval, so sumptuous in adorning his Cathedral, had more than once expressed admiration for her beautiful handiwork. When her eyes were tired, or when the day was too dark for embroidering, she spun yarn and knitted stockings for the poor.
In her work-room there was a small iron stove with a heap of faggots, and in the most severe cold of winter the recluse lit a little fire, not for bodily comfort, but because her fingers became stiff with the cold and lost their cunning, — indeed, there were sometimes days on which they would actually have frozen at their task. Every night at midnight, winter and summer, Jeanne rose from her cot, dressed herself, descended into her basement room, opened the grille, and went into the church to pray for an hour before the high altar. On bitter nights many a kind soul in Montreal (and on the lonely farms, too) lay awake for a little, listening to the roar of the storm, and wondered how it was with the recluse, under her single coverlid.
She bore the summer’s heat as patiently as the winter’s cold. Only last July, when the heat lay so heavy in her chamber with its one small window, her confessor urged her to quit her cell for an hour each day after sunset and take the air in the cloister garden, which her window looked out upon.
She replied: Ah, mon père, ma chambre est mon paradis terrestre; c’est mon centre; c’est mon élément. Il n’y a pas de lieu plus délicieux, ni plus salutaire pour moi; point de Louvre, point de palais, qui me soit plus agréable. Je préfère ma cellule à tout le reste de l’univers.
For long after the night when Cécile first heard of the angels’ visit to Mademoiselle Le Ber, the story was a joy to her. She told it over and over to little Jacques on his rare visits. Throughout February the weather was so bad that Jacques could come only when Blinker (who was always a match for ‘Toinette) went down and brought him up Mountain Hill on his back. The snows fell one upon another until the houses were muffled, the streets like tunnels. Between the storms the weather was grey, with armies of dark clouds moving across the wide sky, and the bitter wind always blowing. Quebec seemed shrunk to a mere group of shivering spires; the whole rock looked like one great white church, above the frozen river.
By many a fireside the story of Jeanne Le Ber’s spinning-wheel was told and retold with loving exaggeration during that severe winter. The word of her visit from the angels went abroad over snow-burdened Canada to the remote parishes. Wherever it went, it brought pleasure, as if the recluse herself had sent to all those families whom she did not know some living beauty, — a blooming rose-tree, or a shapely fruit-tree in fruit. Indeed, she sent them an incomparable gift. In the long evenings, when the family had told over their tales of Indian massacres and lost hunters and the almost human intelligence of the beaver, someone would speak the name of Jeanne Le Ber, and it again gave out fragrance.
The people have loved miracles for so many hundred years, not as proof or evidence, but because they are the actual flowering of desire. In them the vague worship and devotion of the simple-hearted assumes a form. From being a shapeless longing, it becomes a beautiful image; a dumb rapture becomes a melody that can be remembered and repeated; and the experience of a moment, which might have been a lost ecstasy, is made an actual possession and can be bequeathed to another.
One night in March there was a knock at the apothecary’s door, just as he was finishing his dinner. Only sick people, or strangers who were ignorant of his habits, disturbed him at that hour. Peeping out between the cabinets, Cécile saw that the visitor was a thick-set man in moccasins, with a bearskin coat and cap. His long hair and his face covered with beard told that he had come in from the woods.
“Don’t you remember me, Monsieur Auclair?” he asked in a low, sad voice. “I am Antoine Frichette; you used to know me.”
“It is your beard that changes you, Antoine. Sit down.”
“Ah, it is more than that,” the man sighed.
“Besides, I thought you were in the Montreal country, — out from the Sault Saint–Louis, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, monsieur, I went out there, but I had no luck. My brother-inlaw died in the woods, and I got a strain that made me no good, so I came back to live with my sister until I am cured.”
“Your brother-inlaw? Not Michel Proulx, surely? I am grieved to hear that, Antoine. He cannot well be spared here. We have few such good workmen.”
“But you see, monsieur, no building goes on in Kebec in the winter, and there was the chance to make something in the woods. But he is dead, and I am not much better. I got down from Montreal only today, — we had a hard fight coming in this snow. I came to you because I am a sick man. I tore something loose inside me. Look, monsieur, can you do anything for that?” He stood up and unbuttoned his bearskin jacket. A rupture, Auclair saw at once, — and for a woodsman that was almost like a death-sentence.
Yes, he told Frichette, he could certainly do something for him. But first they would be seated more comfortably, and have a talk. He took the poor fellow back into the sitting-room and gave him his own arm-chair by the fire.
“This is my daughter, Cécile, Antoine; you remember her. Now I will give you something to make you feel better at once. This is a very powerful cordial, there are many healing herbs in it, and it will reach the sorest spot in a sick man. Drink it slowly, and then you must tell me about your bad winter.”
The woodsman took the little glass between his thick fingers and held it up to the fire-light. “C’est jolie, la couleur,” he observed childishly. Presently he slid off his fur jacket and sat in his buckskin shirt and breeches. When he had finished the cordial, his host filled his glass again, and Antoine sighed and looked about him. “C’est tranquille, chez vous, comme toujours,” he said with a faint smile. “I bring you a message, monsieur, from Father Hector Saint–Cyr.”
“From Father Hector? You have seen him? Come, Cécile, Antoine is going to tell us news of our friend.” Auclair rose and poured a little cordial for himself.
“He said he will be here very soon, God willing, while the river is still hard. He had a letter from the new Bishop telling him to come down to Kebec. He asked me to say that he invited himself to dinner with you. He is a man in a thousand, that priest. We have been through something together. But that is a long story.”
“Begin at the beginning, Frichette, my daughter and I have all evening to listen. So you and Proulx went into the woods, out from the Sault?”
“Yes, we went early in the fall, when the hunting was good, and we took Joseph Choret from Three Rivers. We put by plenty of fish, as soon as it was cold enough to freeze them. We meant to go up into the Nipissing country in the spring, and trade for skins. The Nipissings don’t come to the settlements much, and I know a little of their language. We made a good log house in the fall, good enough, but you know what a man my brother-inlaw was for hewing; he wasn’t satisfied. When the weather kept open, before Christmas, he wanted to put in a board floor. I cannot say how it happened. You know yourself, monsieur, what a man he was with the ax, — he hewed the beams for Notre Dame de la Victoire when he was but a lad, and how many houses in Kebec didn’t he hew the beams and flooring for? He could cut better boards with his ax than most men can with a saw. He was not a drinking man, either; never took a glass too much. Very well; one day out there he was hewing boards to floor our shack, and something happens, — the ax slips and lays his leg open from the ankle to the knee. There is a big vein spouting blood, and I catch it and tie it with a deer-gut string I had in my pocket. Maybe that gut was poisoned some way, for the wound went bad very soon. We had no linen, so I dressed it with punk wood, as the Indians do. I boiled pine chips and made turpentine, but it did no good. He got black to the thigh and began to suffer agony. The only thing that eased him was fresh snow heaped on his leg. I don’t know if it was right, but he begged for it. After Christmas I saw it was time to get a priest.
“It was three days’ journey in to the Sault mission, and the going was bad. There wasn’t snow enough for snow-shoes, — just enough to cover the roots and trip you. I took my snowshoes and grub-sack on my back, and made good time. The second day I came to a place where the trees were thin because there was no soil, only flint rock, in ledges. And there one big tree, a white pine, had blown over. It hadn’t room to fall flat, the top had caught in the branches of another tree, so it lay slanting and made a nice shelter underneath, like a shanty, high enough to stand in. The top was still fresh and green and made thick walls to keep out the wind. I cleared away some of the inside branches and had a good sleep in there. Next morning when I left that place, I notched a few trees as I went, so I could find it when I brought the priest back with me. Ordinarily I don’t notch trees to find my way back. When there is no sun, I can tell directions like the Indians.”
Here Auclair interrupted him. “And how is that, Antoine?”
Frichette smiled and shrugged. “It is hard to explain, — by many things. The limbs of the trees are generally bigger on the south side, for example. The moss on the trunks is clean and dry on the north side, — on the south side it is softer and maybe a little rotten. There are many little signs; put them all together and they point you right.
“I got to the mission late the third night and slept in a bed. Early the next morning Father Hector was ready to start back with me. He had two young priests there but he would go himself. He carried his snowshoes and a blanket and the Blessed Sacrament on his back, and I carried the provisions — smoked eels and cold grease — enough for three days. We slept the first night in that shelter under the fallen pine, and made a good start the next day. That was Epiphany, the day of the big snow all over Canada. When we had been out maybe two hours, the snow began to fall so thick we could hardly see each other, and I told Father Hector we better make for that shelter again. It took us nearly all day to get back over the ground we had covered in two hours before the storm began. By God, I was glad to see that thin place in the woods again! I was afraid I’d lost it. There was our tree, heaped over with snow, with the opening to the south still clear. We crept in and got our breath and unrolled our blankets. A little snow had sifted in, but not much. It had packed between the needles of that pine top until it was like a solid wall and roof. It was warm in there; no wind got through. Father Hector said some prayers, and we rolled up in our blankets and slept most of the day and let the storm come.
“Next day it was still snowing hard, and I was afraid to start out. We ate some lard, and an eel apiece, but I could see the end of our provisions pretty soon. We were thirsty and ate the snow, which doesn’t satisfy you much. Father Hector said prayers and read his breviary. When I went to sleep, I heard him praying to himself, very low, — and when I wakened he was still praying, just the same. I lay still and listened for a long while, but I didn’t once hear an Ave Maria, and not the name of a saint could I make out. At last I turned over and told Father Hector that was certainly a long prayer he was saying. He laughed. ‘That’s not a prayer, Antoine,’ he says; ‘that’s a Latin poem, a very long one, that I learned at school. If I am uncomfortable, it diverts my mind, and I remember my old school and my comrades.’
“‘So much the better for you, Father,’ I told him. ‘But a long prayer would do no harm. I don’t like the look of things.’
“The next day the snow had stopped, but a terrible bitter wind was blowing. We couldn’t have gone against it, but since it was behind us, I thought we’d better get ahead. We hadn’t food enough to see us through, as it was. That was a cruel day’s march on an empty belly. Father Hector is a good man on snowshoes, and brave, too. My pack had grown lighter, and I wanted to carry his, but he would not have it. When it began to get dark, we made camp and ate some cold grease and the last of our eels. I built a fire, and we took turns, one of us feeding the fire while the other slept. I was so tired I could have slept on into eternity. Father Hector had to throw snow in my face to waken me.
“Before daylight the wind died, but the cold was so bitter we had to move or freeze. It was good snowshoeing that day, but with empty bellies and thirst and eating snow, we both had colic. That night we ate the last of our lard. I wasn’t sure we were going right, — the snow had changed the look of everything. When Father Hector took off the little box he carried that held the Blessed Sacrament, I said: ‘Maybe that will do for us two, Father. I don’t see much ahead of us.’
“‘Never fear, Antoine,’ says he, ‘while we carry that, Someone is watching over us. Tomorrow will bring better luck.’
“It did, too, just as he said. We were both so weak we made poor headway. But by the mercy of God we met an Indian. He had a gun, and he had shot two hares. When he saw what a bad way we were in, he made a fire very quick and cooked the hares, — and he ate very little of that meat himself. He said Indians could bear hunger better than the French. He was a kind Indian and was glad to give us what he had. Father Hector could speak his language, and questioned him. Though I had never seen him before, he knew where our shack was, and said we were pointed right. But I told him I was tired out and wanted a guide, and I would pay him well in shot and powder if he took us in.
“We got back to our shack six days after we left the mission, and they were the six worst days of the winter. My brother-inlaw was very bad. He died while Father Hector was there, and had a Christian burial. The Indian took Father Hector back to the mission. Soon after that I got this strain in my side, and I lost heart. I left our stores for Joseph Choret to trade with, and I went down to the Sault and then to Montreal. I found a sledge party about to come down the river, and they brought me to Kebec. Now I am here, what can you do for me, Monsieur Auclair?”
The apothecary’s kindly tone did not reassure Frichette. He looked searchingly into his face and asked:
“Will it grow back, my inside, like it was?”
Auclair felt very sorry for him. “No, it will not grow back, Antoine. But tomorrow I will make you a support, and you will be more comfortable.”
“But not to carry canoes over portages, I guess? No? Nor to go into the woods at all, maybe?” He sank back in the chair. “Then I don’t know how I’ll make a living, monsieur. I am not clever with tools, like my brother-inlaw.”
“We’ll find a way out of that, Antoine.”
Frichette did not heed him. “It’s a funny thing,” he went on. “A man sits here by the warm fire, where he can hear the bell ring for mass every morning and smell bread baked fresh every day, and all that happened out there in the woods seems like a dream. Yet here I am, no good any more.”
“Courage, mon bourgeois, I am going to give you a good medicine.”
Frichette shook his head and spread his thick fingers apart on his knees. “There is no future for me if I cannot paddle a canoe up the big rivers any more.”
“Perhaps you can paddle, Antoine, but not carry.”
Antoine rose. “In this world, who paddles must carry, monsieur. Good night, Mademoiselle Cécile. Father Hector will be surprised to see how you have grown. He thinks a great deal about that good dinner you are going to give him, I expect. You ask him if it tastes as good as those hares the Indian cooked for him when he was out with Frichette.”
Father Hector Saint–Cyr was not long in following his messenger. On the day of his arrival in Kebec he stopped at the apothecary shop, but, Auclair being out, he saw only Cécile, and they arranged that he should come to dinner the following evening.
He came after hearing vespers at the Cathedral, attended to the door of the pharmacy by a group of Seminarians, who always followed him about when he was in town. This was his first meeting with Auclair, and there was a cordial moisture in the priest’s eyes as he embraced his old friend and kissed him on both cheeks.
“How many times on my way from Ville–Marie I have enjoyed this moment in anticipation, Euclide,” he declared. “Only solitary men know the full joys of friendship. Others have their family; but to a solitary and an exile his friends are everything.”
Father Hector was the son of a noted family of Aix-enProvence; his good breeding and fine presence were by no means lost upon his Indian parishioners at the Sault. The savages, always scornful of meekness and timidity, believed that a man was exactly what he looked. They used Father Hector better than any of his predecessors because he was strong and fearless and handsome. If he was humble before Heaven, he was never so with his converts. He took a high hand with them. If one were drunk or impertinent, he knocked him down. More than once he had given a drunken Indian a good beating, and the Indian had come and thanked him afterwards, telling him he did quite right.
Cécile thought it a great honour to entertain a man like Father Hector at their table, and she was much gratified by his frank enjoyment of everything; of the fish soup with which she had taken such pains, and the wood doves, cooked in a casserole with mushrooms and served with wild rice. Her father had brought up from the cellar a bottle of fine old Burgundy which the Count had sent them for New Year’s. She scarcely ate at all herself, for watching their guest.
When Auclair said that this dinner was to make up to Father Hector for the one he missed on Epiphany, he laughed and protested that on Epiphany he had dined very well.
“Smoked eels and cold lard — what more does a man want in the woods? It was on the day following that we began to feel the pinch, — and the next day, and the next. Frichette made a great fuss about it, but certainly it was not the first time either he or I had gone hungry. If one had not been through little experiences of that kind, one would not know how to enjoy a dinner like this.” He reached out and put his hand lightly on Cécile’s head. “How I wish you could keep her from growing up, Euclide!”
She blushed with joy at the touch of that large, handsome hand which the Indians feared.
“Yes,” he went on, looking about him, “these are great occasions in a missionary’s life. The next time I am overtaken by a storm in the woods, the recollection of this evening will be food and warmth to me. I shall see it in memory as plainly as I see it now; this room, so like at home, this table with everything as it should be; and, most of all, the feeling of being with one’s own kind. How many times, out there, I shall live over this evening again, with you and Cécile.” Father Hector tasted his wine, inhaling it with a deep breath. “Very clearly, Euclide, it was arranged in Heaven that I should be a missionary in a foreign land. I am peculiarly susceptible to the comforts of the fireside and to the charm of children. If I were a teacher in the college at home, where I have many young nieces and nephews, I should be always planning for them. I should sink into nepotism, the most disastrous of the failings of the popes.”
Auclair had to remind Cécile when it was time to bring in the dessert. She had quite forgot where they were in the dinner, so intent was she upon Father Hector’s talk, upon watching his brown face and white forehead, with a sweep of black hair standing out above it.
“And now, Cécile,” said her father, “shall we tell Father Hector our secret? Next autumn the Count expects to return to France, and we go with him. We think you have been a missionary long enough; that it is time for you to become a professor of rhetoric again. We expect you to go back with us, — or very soon afterwards.”
Father Hector smiled, but shook his head. “Ah, no. Thank you, but no. I have taken a vow that will spoil your plans for me. I shall not return to France.”
Auclair had put his glass to his lips, but set it down untasted. “Not return?” he echoed.
“Not at all, Euclide; never.”
“But when my wife was here, you both used to plan — ”
“Ah, yes. That was my temptation. Now it is vanquished.” He sat for a moment smiling. Then he began resolutely:
“Listen, my friend. No man can give himself heart and soul to one thing while in the back of his mind he cherishes a desire, a secret hope, for something very different. You, as a student, must know that even in worldly affairs nothing worth while is accomplished except by that last sacrifice, the giving of oneself altogether and finally. Since I made that final sacrifice, I have been twice the man I was before.”
Auclair felt disturbed, a little frightened. “You have made a vow, you say? Is it irrevocable?”
“Irrevocable. And what do you suppose gave me the strength to make that decision? Why, merely a good example!” At this point Father Hector glanced at Cécile and saw that she had almost ceased to breathe in her excitement; that her eyes, in the candlelight, were no longer blue, but black. Again he put out his hand and touched her head. “See, she understands me! From the beginning women understand devotion, it is a natural grace with them; they have only to learn where to direct it. Men have to learn everything.
“There was among the early missionaries, among the martyrs, one whom I have selected for my especial reverence. I mean Noël Chabanel, Euclide. He was not so great a figure as Brébeuf or Jogues or Lalemant, but I feel a peculiar sympathy for him. He perished, you remember, in the great Iroquois raid of ‘49. But his martyrdom was his life, not his death.
“He was a little different from all the others, — equal to them in desire, but not in fitness. He was only thirty years of age when he came, and was from Toulouse, that gracious city.
“Chabanel had been a professor of rhetoric like me, and like me he was fond of the decencies, the elegancies of life. From the beginning his life in Canada was one long humiliation and disappointment. Strange to say, he was utterly unable to learn the Huron language, though he was a master of Greek and Hebrew and spoke both Italian and Spanish. After five years of devoted study he was still unable to converse or to preach in any Indian tongue. He was sent out to the mission of Saint Jean in the Tobacco nation, as helper to Father Charles Gamier. Father Gamier, though not at all Chabanel’s equal in scholarship, had learned the Huron language so thoroughly that the Indians said there was nothing more to teach him, — he spoke like one of themselves.
“His humiliating inability to learn the language was only one of poor Chabanel’s mortifications. He had no love for his converts. Everything about the savages and their mode of life was utterly repulsive and horrible to him; their filth, their indecency, their cruelty. The very smell of their bodies revolted him to nausea. He could never feel toward them that long-suffering love which has been the consolation of our missionaries. He never became hardened to any of the privations of his life, not even to the vermin and mosquitos that preyed upon his body, nor to the smoke and smells in the savage wigwams. In his struggle to learn the language he went and lived with the Indians, sleeping in their bark shelters, crowded with dogs and dirty savages. Often Father Chabanel would lie out in the snow until he was in danger of a death self-inflicted, and only then creep inside the wigwam. The food was so hateful to him that one might say he lived upon fasting. The flesh of dogs he could never eat without becoming ill, and even corn-meal boiled in dirty water and dirty kettles brought on vomiting; so that he used to beg the women to give him a little uncooked meal in his hand, and upon that he subsisted.
“The Huron converts were more brutal to him than to Father Gamier. They were contemptuous of his backwardness in their language, and they must have divined his excessive sensibility, for they took every occasion to outrage it. In the wigwam they tirelessly perpetrated indecencies to wound him. Once when a hunting party returned after a long famine, they invited him to a feast of flesh. After he had swallowed the portion in his bowl, they pulled a human hand out of the kettle to show him that he had eaten of an Iroquois prisoner. He became ill at once, and they followed him into the forest to make merry over his retchings.
“But through all these physical sufferings, which remained as sharp as on the first day, the greatest of his sufferings was an almost continual sense of the withdrawal of God. All missionaries have that anguish at times, but with Chabanel it was continual. For long months, for a whole winter, he would exist in the forest, every human sense outraged, and with no assurance of the nearness of God. In those seasons of despair he was constantly beset by temptation in the form of homesickness. He longed to leave the mission to priests who were better suited to its hardships, to return to France and teach the young, and to find again that peace of soul, that cleanliness and order, which made him the master of his mind and its powers. Everything that he had lost was awaiting him in France, and the Director of Missions in Quebec had suggested his return.
“On Corpus Christi Day, in the fifth year of his labours in Canada and the thirty-fifth of his age, he cut short this struggle and overcame his temptation. At the mission of Saint Matthias, in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament exposed, he made a vow of perpetual stability (perpetuam stabilitatem) in the Huron missions. This vow he recorded in writing, and he sent copies of it to his brethren in Kebec.
“Having made up his mind to die in the wilderness, he had not long to wait. Two years later he perished when the mission of Saint Jean was destroyed by the Iroquois, — though whether he died of cold in his flight through the forest, or was murdered by a faithless convert for the sake of the poor belongings he carried on his back, was not surely known. No man ever gave up more for Christ than Noël Chabanel; many gave all, but few had so much to give.
“It was perhaps in memory of his sufferings that I, in my turn, made a vow of perpetual stability. For those of us who are unsteadfast by nature, who have other lawful loves than our devotion to our converts, it is perhaps the safest way. My sacrifice is poor compared with his. I was able to learn the Indian languages; I have a house where I can, at least, pray in solitude; I can keep clean, and am seldom hungry, except by accident in the journeys I have to make. But Noël Chabanel — ah, when your faith is cold, think of him! How can there be men in France this day who doubt the existence of God, when for the love of Him weak human beings have been able to endure so much?”
Cécile looked up at him in bewilderment. “Are there such men, Father?” she whispered.
“There are, my child, — but it is the better for you if you have never heard of them.”
Presently it was time that Father Hector should get back to Monseigneur de Saint–Vallier’s Palace, where he was lodged during his stay in Quebec.
“And your books, Father Hector? Will you not take them back to the Sault with you? If I leave Canada before you visit Quebec again, what shall I do with them?” Auclair opened a cabinet and pointed to a row of volumes bound in vellum. Father Hector’s eyes brightened as he looked at them, but he shook his head.
“No, I shall not take them this time. If you go away, give them to Monseigneur l’Ancien to keep for me. If they could be eaten, or worn on the back, he would give them to the poor, certainly. But Greek and Latin texts will be safe with him. I will not say good-bye, for I shall come tomorrow to lay in a supply of medicines for my mission.”
After Auclair had disappeared behind his bed-curtains that night, he lay awake a long while, regretting that a man with Father Hector’s gifts should decide to live and die in the wilderness, and wondering whether there had not been a good deal of misplaced heroism in the Canadian missions, — a waste of rare qualities which did nobody any good.
“Ah, well,” he sighed at last, “perhaps that is the box of precious ointment which was acceptable to the Saviour, and I am like the disciples who thought it might have been used better in another way.”
This solution allowed him to go to sleep.
About the middle of March, soon after Father Hector’s visit, the weather went sick, as it were. The air suddenly grew warm and springlike, and for three days there was a continuous downpour of rain. The deep snow drank it up like a thirsty sponge, but never melted. Not a patch of ground showed through, even on the hill-sides. But the snow darkened; everything grew grey like faintly smoked glass. The ice in the river broke up before Quebec, and olive-green water carried grey islands of ice and snow slowly northward. The great pine forests, across the river and on the western sky-line, were no longer bronze, but black. The only colours in the world were black and white and grey, — bewildering variations of clouded white and grey. The Laurentian mountains, to the north, sometimes showed a little blue in their valleys, when the fogs thinned enough to let them be seen. After the interval of rain everything froze hard again and stayed frozen, — but no fresh snow fell. The white winter was gone. Only the smirched ruins of winter remained, mournful and bleak and impoverished, frozen into enduring solidity.
Behind the Auclairs’ little back yard and the baker’s, the cliff ran up to the Château in a perpendicular wall, and the face of it was overgrown with wild cherry bushes and knotty little Canadian willows. It was up there that one looked, from the back door, for the first sign of spring. But all through April those stumps and twigs were so forbidding, so black and ugly, that Cécile often wondered whether anything short of a miracle of the old-fashioned kind could ever make the sap rise in them again.
A great many people in the town were sick at this time, and Cécile herself caught a cold and was feverish. Her father wrapped her in blankets and made her sit with her feet in a hot mustard bath while she drank a great quantity of sassafras tea. Then he put her to bed and entertained her with an account of the cures his father and grandfather had effected with sassafras. It was one of the medicinal plants of the New World in which he had great faith. It had been first brought to Europe by Sir Walter Raleigh, he said, and had been for a time a very popular remedy in France. Even when it went out of fashion, the pharmacy on the Quai des Célestins had remained loyal to it, and continued to use sassafras after it became expensive because of infrequent supply. His father got it from London, where it still came in occasional shipments from the Virginia colony.
Cécile was kept in bed for three days, — in her father’s big bed, with the curtains drawn back, while her father himself attended to all the household duties. He was an accomplished cook, and continual practice in making medicines kept his hand expert in handling glass and earthenware and in regulating heat. He debated the advisability of sending for Jeanette, the laundress, or of asking Madame Pigeon to come in and help him. “Mais non, nous sommes plus tranquilles comme ça,” he decided. That was the important thing — tranquillity. In the evenings he read aloud to his daughter; and even when he was in the shop, she could hear everything his clients had to say, so she was not dull. If her father was disengaged for a moment, he came in to chat with her. They talked about Father Hector, and of how soon they could hope for green salads in the market, and of whether it could be true that Pierre Charron was home from the Great Lakes already, since there was a rumour that he had been seen in Montreal.
It was a pleasant and a novel experience to lie warm in bed while her father was getting dinner in the kitchen, and to feel no responsibility at all; to listen to the drip of the rain, to watch the grey daylight fade away in the salon, and the firelight grow redder and redder on the old chairs and the sofa, on the gilt picture-frames and the brass candlesticks. But her mind roamed about the town and was dreamily conscious of its activities and of the lives of her friends; of the dripping grey roofs and spires, the lighted windows along the crooked streets, the great grey river choked with ice and frozen snow, the never-ending, merciless forest beyond. All these things seemed to her like layers and layers of shelter, with this one flickering, shadowy room at the core.
They dined on the little table beside the bed (as they so often breakfasted even when she was well), and after dinner her father closed the door so that she would not be disturbed by the noise he made in washing the dishes, or even by Blinker’s visit. It was while he was thus alone in the kitchen that he had, one evening, a strange interview with Blinker.
When Blinker had finished his tasks, he asked timidly if monsieur would please give him a little of that medicine again, to make him sleep.
Auclair looked at him doubtfully.
“How long is it you have not been sleeping?”
“Oh, a long time! Please, monsieur, give me something.”
“Sit down, Jules. What is the matter? You are strong and healthy. You do not overeat. I cannot understand why you have this trouble. Perhaps you have something on your mind.”
“That will often keep one awake. I am not a man to meddle, but if you told me what worries you, I should know better what to do for you.”
Blinker’s head drooped. He looked very miserable.
“Monsieur, I am an unfortunate man. If I told you, you might put me out.”
“You have told your confessor?”
“It was not a sin. Not what they call a sin. It was a misfortune.”
“Well, we will never put you out, Jules, be sure of that.”
Blinker, with his hands knotted on his knees, seemed to be trying to bring something up out of himself. “Monsieur,” he said at last, “I am unfortunate. I was brought up to a horrible trade. I was a torturer in the King’s prison at Rouen.”
Auclair started, but he caught himself quickly.
“Well, Jules,” he said quietly, “that, too, is the King’s service.”
“Sale service, monsieur,” the poor wretch exclaimed bitterly, “sale métier! It was my father who did those things, — he was under the chief, he had to do it. I was afraid of him, for he was a hard man. I had no chance to learn another trade. Nobody wanted the prison folks about. In the street people would curse us. My father gave me brandy when he made me help him, all I could hold. He said it was right to punish the wicked, but I could never get used to it. Then something dreadful happened.” Blinker was shivering all over.
Auclair poured him a glass of spirits and put some more wood into the stove. “You had better get it out, my boy. That will help you,” he told him.
Hard as it was for Blinker to talk, he managed to tell his story. In Rouen there was a rough sort of woman who lived down near the river and did washing. She was honest, but quarrelsome; her neighbours didn’t like her. She had a little son who was a bad boy, and she often thrashed him. When he grew older, he struck back, and they used to fight, to the great annoyance of the neighbours. One summer this boy disappeared. A search was made for him. His mother was examined, and contradicted herself. The neighbours remembered hearing angry shouts and a smashing of bottles one night; they began to say she had done away with him. Someone made an accusation. The laundress was taken before the examiners again, but was sullen and refused to talk. She was put to the torture. After half an hour she broke down and confessed that she had killed her son, had put his body into a sack with stones and dragged it to the river. A few weeks later she was hanged.
Not long afterwards Blinker began to have trouble with his lower jaw, some decomposition of the bone; pieces of bone came out through his cheek. For weeks he never lay down, but walked the floor all night. Sometimes when he was full of brandy, he could doze in a chair for half an hour.
But he had another misery, harder to bear than his jaw. This was the first time he had ever suffered great pain, and ghosts began to haunt him. The faces of people he had put to torture rose before him, faces he had long forgotten. When everybody else was asleep, he could think of nothing but those faces. He told himself it was the law of the land and must be right; someone had to do it. But they never gave him any peace.
The suppuration in his jaw stopped at last. The scars on his face had begun to heal, when that murdered boy came back, — walked insolently in the streets of Rouen. The truth came out. After his quarrel with his mother he had hidden himself away on a boat tied up to the wharf, had got to Le Havre undiscovered, and there shipped as mousse on a bark bound for the West Indies. He made the voyage and came home.
Blinker began to walk the floor at night again, just as when his jaw was at its worst. How many of the others had been innocent? He could never get the big washerwoman’s screams out of his ears. He would have made away with himself then, but he was afraid of being punished after death. If he dropped asleep from exhaustion, he would dream of her. He had only one hope; that miserable boy’s adventure had put a thought into his head. If he could get away to a new country, where nobody knew him for the executioner’s son, perhaps he would leave all that behind and forget it. That was why he had come to Kebec. But sometimes, he never knew when or why, these things would rise up out of the past . . . faces . . . voices . . . even words, things they had said.
“They are inside me, monsieur, I carry them with me.” Blinker closed his eyes and slowly dropped his head forward on his hands.
“Your sickness was a good chance for you, my poor fellow. Suffering teaches us compassion. There are some in Kebec, in high places, who have not learned that yet. If Monseigneur de Saint–Vallier had ever known chagrin and disappointment, he would not cross the old Bishop as he does. I will give you something to make you sleep tomorrow, but afterwards you will not need anything. When God sent you that affliction in your face, he showed his mercy to you. And, by the way, who is your confessor?”
“Father Sébastien, at the Récollets’. But I have wanted to tell you, monsieur, ever since All Souls’ Eve. I came back late with my buckets, and the door there was a little open, — you were telling Ma’m’selle about the old man who stole the brass pots. I wanted to make away with myself — but you said something. You said the law was wrong, not us poor creatures. Monsieur, I never hurt an animal to amuse myself, as some do. I was brought up to that trade.” Blinker stopped and wiped the sweat out of his eyes with his sleeve.
The poor fellow had begun to give off a foul odour, as creatures do under fear or anguish. Auclair watched with amazement the twisted face he saw every day above an armful of wood, — grown as familiar to him as an ugly piece of furniture, — now become altogether strange; it brought to his mind terrible weather-worn stone faces on the churches at home, — figures of the tormented in scenes of the Last Judgment. He hastened to measure out a dose of laudanum. After Blinker had gone out of the kitchen door, he made the sign of the cross over his own heart before he blew out the candle and went in to his daughter.
Cécile was flushed and excited; she had been crying, he saw.
“Oh father, why were you so long with Blinker, and what was he telling you? He sounded so miserable!”
Her father put her head back on the pillow and smoothed her hair. “He was telling me all his old troubles, my dear, and when you are well again, I will tell them to you. We must be very kind to him. Your mother was right when she said there was no harm in him. Tomorrow I will go to Father Sébastien, and between us we will cure his distress.”
“Then it was not a crime? You know some people say he was in the galleys in France.”
“No, he was never in the galleys. He was one of the unfortunate of this world. You remember, when Queen Dido offers Æneas hospitality, she says: Having known misery, I have learned to pity the miserable. Our poor wood-carrier is like Queen Dido.”
The next morning Cécile’s recovery began. As soon as she had drunk her chocolate, her father brought a pair of woollen stockings and told her to put them on. When she looked up at him wonderingly, he said:
“I have something to show you.”
He wrapped her in a blanket, took her up in his arms, and carried her into the kitchen, where the back door stood open.
“Look out yonder,” he said, “and presently you will see something.”
She looked out at the dreary cliff-side with its black, frozen bushes and dirty snow, and long, grey icicles hanging from the jagged rocks. She wondered if there could be yellow buds on the willows, perhaps; but they were still naked, like stiff black briars.
Suddenly there was a movement up there, a flicker of something swift and slender in the grey light, against the grey, granulated snow, — then a twitter, a scolding anxious protest. Now she knew why her father had smiled so confidently when he lifted her out of bed.
“Oh, Papa, it is our swallow! Then the spring is coming! Nothing can keep it back now.” She put her head down on his shoulder and cried a little. He pretended not to notice it, but stood holding her fast, patting her back, so muffled in folds of blanket.
“She is hunting her old nest, up among the crags. I cannot see whether it is still there. But if it has been blown away, she can easily build herself another. She can get mud, because there is a thaw every day now about noon, and the dead leaves are sticking up wherever the snow melts.”
“Is she the only one? Is she all alone?”
“She is the only one here this morning, but her friends will be close behind. Listen, how she scolds!”
“Father,” said Cécile suddenly, “where has she been, our swallow? Where, do you think?”
“Oh, far away in the South! Somewhere down there where Robert de La Salle was murdered. By the Gulf of Mexico, perhaps.”
“And in France where do the swallows go in winter?”
“Very far. Across the Mediterranean to Algérie, where the oranges grow.”
“Has our swallow been where there are oranges? Do they grow by the Gulf of Mexico? Oh, Papa, I wish I could see an orange, on its little tree!”
“You will see them when we go home. There are fine old orange-trees growing under glass in our own parish, and they are brought out into the courtyards in summer.”
“But couldn’t we possibly grow one here in Quebec? The Jesuits have such great warm cellars; I am sure they could, if they tried.”
Her father laughed as he carried her back to bed. “I am afraid not even the Jesuits could do that! Now I am going to leave you for a little while. I will put a card on the door announcing that we are closed until noon. You are so much better, that I can make my visit to the Hôtel Dieu this morning.”
“And on your way, Papa, will you stop and tell Monseigneur l’Ancien that our swallow has come? For his book, you know.”
Ever since he first came out to Canada, old Bishop Laval had kept a brief weather record, noting down the date of the first snowfall, when the river froze over, the nights of excessive cold, the storms and the great thaws. And for nearly forty years now he had faithfully recorded the return of the swallow.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:49