It was the first day of June. Before dawn a wild calling and twittering of birds in the bushes on the cliff-side above the apothecary’s back door announced clear weather. When the sun came up over the Île d’Orléans, the rock of Kebec stood gleaming above the river like an altar with many candles, or like a holy city in an old legend, shriven, sinless, washed in gold. The quickening of all life and hope which had come to France in May had reached the far North at last. That morning the Auclairs drank their chocolate with all the doors and windows open.
Euclide was at his desk, making up little packets of saffron flowers to flavour fish soups, when a slender man in buckskins, with a quick swinging step, crossed the threshold and embraced him before he had time to rise. He was not a big fellow, this Pierre Charron, hero of the fur trade and the coureurs de bois, not above medium height, but quick as an otter and always sure of himself. When Auclair, after returning his embrace with delight, drew back to look at him and asked him how he was, he threw up his chin and answered:
“Je me porte bien, comme toujours.”
“And have you had a good winter, Pierre?”
“But yes. I always have a good winter, monsieur. I see to it.”
“And how do you happen to be down so early?”
Charron’s face changed. He frowned. “That is not so good. My mother was ailing. They brought me word, out to Michilimackinac, so I returned to Montreal in March. She was better; the Sisters of the Congregation had been taking care of her. But I did not leave her again. No one can nurse her so well as I. I stayed at home and let the other fellows have my spring trade this year. I can afford it.”
“But I must hear about your mother’s ailment, my son; and first let me call Cécile. She will not want to lose even a minute of your visit.”
Auclair went back to the kitchen, and Cécile ran in without stopping to take off her tablier. It flashed across Pierre that she was perhaps growing too tall to be kissed. But she was quicker than his thought, threw her arms about his neck, and gave him the glad kiss of welcome.
“Oh, Pierre Charron, I am delighted at you, Pierre Charron!”
He stood laughing, holding both her hands and swinging them back and forth in a rhythm of some sort, so that though they were standing still, they seemed to be dancing. Cécile was laughing, too, as children do where they never have been afraid or uncertain. “Oh, Pierre, have you been to the great falls again, and Michilimackinac?”
“Everywhere, everywhere!” He swung her hands faster and faster.
“And you will tell me about the big beaver towns?”
“Gently, Cécile,” her father interposed. “Pierre’s mother has been ill, and he will tell us first about her. What was it like this time, my boy, a return of her old complaint?” The one long journey Auclair had ever made away from Quebec since he landed here was to go up to Montreal in Pierre’s shallop to examine and prescribe for Madame Charron.
From his first meeting with him, Auclair had loved this restless boy (he was a boy then) who shot up and down the swift rivers of Canada in his canoe; who was now at Niagara, now at the head of Lake Ontario, now at the Sault Sainte Marie on his way into the fathomless forbidding waters of Lake Superior. To both Auclair and Madame Auclair, Pierre Charron had seemed the type they had come so far to find; more than anyone else he realized the romantic picture of the free Frenchman of the great forests which they had formed at home on the bank of the Seine. He had the good manners of the Old World, the dash and daring of the New. He was proud, he was vain, he was relentless when he hated, and quickly prejudiced; but he had the old ideals of clan-loyalty, and in friendship he never counted the cost. His goods and his life were at the disposal of the man he loved or the leader he admired. Though his figure was still boyish, his face was full of experience and sagacity; a fine bold nose, a restless, rather mischievous mouth, white teeth, very strong and even, sparkling hazel eyes with a kind of living flash in them, like the sunbeams on the bright rapids upon which he was so skilful.
Pierre’s father, a soldier of fortune from Languedoc, had done well in the fur trade and built himself a comfortable dwelling in Montreal, on Saint Paul street, next the house of Jacques Le Ber. Pierre was almost exactly the same age as Le Ber’s daughter, Jeanne; the two children had been playmates and had learned their catechism together. After Pierre’s father was drowned in a storm on Lake Ontario, Jacques Le Ber took the son into his employ to train him for the fur business. Of all the suitors for Mademoiselle Le Ber’s hand Pierre was thought to have the best chance of success, and the merchant would have liked him for a son-inlaw. At the time when Mademoiselle Le Ber, then fifteen, came home from her schooling in Quebec, Pierre was her father’s clerk and was often at the house. She had seemed favourably disposed toward him. It was an old story in Montreal that after Jeanne took her first vow and immured herself in her father’s house, disappointment had driven young Charron into the woods. He had learned the Indian languages as a child, and the Indians liked and trusted him, as they had liked his father. All along the Great Lakes, as far as Michilimackinac, he had a name among them for courage and fair dealing, for a loyal friend and a relentless enemy. Every year he gave half the profits of his ventures to his mother; the rest he squandered on drink and women and new guns, as his comrades did. But in Montreal his behaviour was always exemplary, out of respect to his mother.
After accepting Auclair’s invitation to come to supper that evening, Charron said he must go to Noël Pommier to order a pair of hard boots, — he was wearing moccasins. “And will you come along, little monkey?” he asked, making a face. When Cécile was little, he had always called her his petit singe.
She glanced eagerly at her father. He nodded. “Run along, and give my respects to Madame Pommier.”
Cécile slipped her hand into Charron’s, and they went out into the street. Across the way, they saw Monseigneur de Saint–Vallier in his garden, directing some workmen who were apparently building an arbour for him.
“I see your grand neighbour has come home,” Pierre observed.
“Oh yes, last September. But you must have heard? People say he brought such beautiful things for his house; furniture and paintings and tapestry and silver dishes. Wouldn’t you love to see the inside of his Palace?”
“Not a bit! He is too French for me.” Charron threw up his chin.
Cécile laughed. “But my father is French, and so is Father Hector; you like them.”
“Oh, that is different. But the man over there goes against me. He smells of Versailles. The old man is my Bishop. But I could do without any of them.”
“Hush, Pierre Charron! You are foolish to quarrel with the priests. I love Father Hector. You can’t say he isn’t a brave man.”
Pierre shrugged. “Oh, he is brave enough. All the same, he’s a little too Frenchified for me. You and I are Canadians, monkey. We were born here.”
“Why, I wasn’t at all! You know that.”
“Well, if you weren’t, you couldn’t help it. You got here early. You were very little when I first saw you with your mother. Cécile, every autumn, before I start for the woods, I have a mass said at the paroisse in Ville–Marie for madame your mother.”
Cécile pressed his hand softly and drew closer to him. Whenever Charron spoke of her mother, or of his own, his voice lost its tone of banter; he became respectful, serious, simple. It was clear enough that for him the family was the first and final thing in the human lot; and it was so engrafted with religion that he could only say: “Very well; religion for the fireside, freedom for the woods.”
As they passed the end of the long Seminary building, the door of the garden stood open, and within they saw Bishop Laval, walking up and down the sanded paths, his breviary open in his hand. It was a very small garden; a grass plot in the centre, a row of Lombardy poplars along the wall, some lilac bushes, now in bloom, a wooden seat with no back under a crooked quince-tree. The old man caught sight of Pierre, though he walked so noiselessly, — beckoned to him and called out his name. The Bishop knew everyone along the river so well that it was said he could recognize a lost child by the family look in its face.
Pierre snatched off his cap and they went inside the garden door. Monseigneur inquired after the health of Madame Charron, and of the aged nun Marguerite Bourgeoys. And had Pierre heard whether Mademoiselle Le Ber was in health?
Not directly. He supposed she was as usual; he had heard nothing to the contrary.
The Bishop breathed heavily, like a tired horse. “All the sinners of Ville–Marie may yet be saved by the prayers of that devoted girl,” he said with a certain meaning in his tone. “And you, my son, have you been to your confessor since your return from the woods?”
Pierre said respectfully that he had. The Bishop then turned to Cécile and placed his hand upon her head, with the rare smile which always seemed a little sad on his grim features.
“And here we have a child who borrows money, — and of a poor priest, too! Why did you never come to pay me back my twenty sous?”
“But Monseigneur l’Ancien, I gave them to Houssart, the very day after!”
“I know you did, my child, but I should have liked it better if you had come to me when you paid your debt. You are not afraid of me?”
“Oh, no, Monseigneur! But you are always occupied, and I did not know whether you liked to have children come.”
“I do. I like it very much. Make me a visit here in my garden some morning at this hour, and I will share my lilacs with you; they are coming on now. Bring the little boy, if you like. I hear from the Pommiers that you and your father are making a good boy of him, and that is very commendable in you.”
During the rest of the short walk to the cobbler’s, Pierre asked what the Bishop meant by the twenty sous, but he seemed to pay little attention to the story; he was rather overcast, indeed. It was not until he greeted Madame Pommier that he recovered his high spirits.
For Charron, that evening, the apothecary brought up from his cellar some fiery Bordeaux, proper for a son of Languedoc, and the hours flew by. After Cécile had said good-night and gone upstairs to her summer bed-room, the two men talked on until after midnight; of the woods, of the state of the fur trade, of the results of the Count’s last Indian campaign, and the ingratitude of the King, who had rewarded his services so inadequately.
Pierre lost his reserve after a bottle or two of fine Gaillac, and the conversation presently took a very personal turn. Auclair, in speaking of Madame Charron’s illness, remarked that it was fortunate she had such nurses at hand as the Sisters of the Congregation.
“Oh, yes, they took good care of her, to be sure,” Pierre admitted. “And why not? By Heaven, they owe me something, those women! Fifty thousand gold écus, perhaps!”
“Charron,” said his host reprovingly, “you do yourself wrong to pretend that you are chagrined at having lost that dowry. You are not a mean-spirited man. You have never cared much about money.”
“Perhaps not, but I care about defeat. If the venerable Bourgeoys had not got hold of that girl in her childhood and overstrained her with fasts and penances, she would be a happy mother today, not sleeping in a stone cell like a prisoner. There are plenty of girls, ugly, poor, stupid, awkward, who are made for such a life. It was bad enough when she was shut up in her father’s house; but now she is no better than dead. Worse.”
“Still, if it is the life she desires, and if her father can bear it — ”
“Oh, her father, poor man! I do not like to meet him on the street, — and he does not like to meet me. I recall to him the days when she first came home from Quebec and used to be at her mother’s side, at the head of a long table full of good company, always looking out for everyone, saying the right thing to everyone. It did his eyes good to look at her. He was never the same man after she shut herself away. I was in his employ then, and I know. He used to talk to me and say: ‘It is like a fever; it will burn itself out in time. We shall all be happy again.’ This went on three years, and he was always hoping. But not I. I saw her before I broke away to the woods, though. I made sure.”
Pierre took out a pouch of strong Indian tobacco, pulverized it in his brown palm, and put it into his pipe. He drew the smoke in deep, like a man overwrought. Auclair had meant to bring out some old brandy to flavour their talk, but he thought: “No, better not.” Aloud he said:
“You mean that you had an interview with Mademoiselle Le Ber after she went into retreat?”
“Call it an interview. I made sure.” Charron took the pipe out of his mouth and spoke rapidly. “It was in the fourth year of her retreat. I had lost hope, but I wanted to know. She always went out of the house to early mass. One morning in the spring, when it gets light early, I went to the narrow allée between her garden and the church and waited there under an apple-tree that hung over the wall. When she came along with her old servant, I stepped out in front of her and spoke. Ah, that was a beautiful moment for me! She had not changed. She did not shrink away from me or reproach me. She was gracious and gentle, as always, and at her ease. She put back her grey veil as we talked, and looked me in the eyes. There was still colour in her cheeks, — not rosy as she used to be, but her face was fresh and soft, like the apple blossoms on that tree where we stood. She had no hard word for me. She said she was glad of a chance to see me again and to bid me farewell; she meant to renew her vows when the five years were over, and we should never meet again. When I began to cry, — I was young then, — and knelt down before her, she put her hand on my head; she did not fear me or the few people who hurried past us into the church, — they seemed frightened enough at such a sight, but she was calm. She told me it would be better if I left her father, and that I must marry. I will always pray for you, she said, and when you have children, I will pray for them. As long as we are both in this world, you may know I pray for you every day; that God may preserve you from sudden death without repentance, and that we may meet in heaven.”
Charron sat silent for a moment, then bent over the candle and lit his pipe, which had gone out. “You know, monsieur, three times in the woods my comrades have thought it was all over with me; a powder explosion, my canoe going down under me in the rapids, and then the gunshot wound I had in the Count’s last campaign. I have remembered that promise; for I have certainly been delivered from sudden death. I remember, too, her voice when she said those words, — it was still her own voice, which made people love to go to her father’s house, and one felt gay if she but spoke one’s name. And now it is harsh and hollow like an old crow’s — terrible to hear!”
Auclair began to wonder whether Pierre might have had anything to drink before he came to dinner. “Now you are talking wildly, my boy. We cannot know what her voice is like now.”
“I know,” said Charron sullenly. He crossed the room to the door of the enclosed staircase, and examined it to see that it was shut. “The little one cannot hear, up there? No?” He sat down and leaned forward, his elbows on the table. “I know. I have heard her. I have seen her.”
“Pierre, you have not done anything irreverent, that the nuns will never forgive?” Auclair was alarmed by the very thought that the sad solitaire, who asked for nothing on this earth but solitude, had perhaps been startled.
Charron was too much excited and too sorry for himself at that moment to notice his friend’s apprehensions.
“It was like this,” he went on presently. “You know, because of my mother, this year I got back to Montreal early, months before my time. There is not much to do there, God knows, except to be a pig, and I never behave like dirt in my mother’s town. We live so near the chapel of the Congregation that I can never get the recluse out of my mind. You remember there were two weeks of terrible cold in March, and it made me wretched to think of her walled up there. No, don’t misunderstand me!” Charron’s eyes came back from their far-away point of vision and fixed intently, distrustfully, on his friend’s face. “All that is over; one does not love a woman who has been dead for nearly twenty years. But there is such a thing as kindness; one wouldn’t like to think of a dog that had been one’s playfellow, much less a little girl, suffering from cold those bitter nights. You see, there are all those early memories; one cannot get another set; one has but those.” Pierre’s voice choked, because something had come out by chance, thus, that he had never said to himself before. The candles blurred before Auclair a little, too. God was a witness, he murmured, that he knew the truth of Pierre’s remark only too well.
After he had relit his pipe and smoked a little, Charron continued. “You know she goes into the church to pray before the altar at midnight. Well, I hid myself in the church and saw her. It is not difficult for a man who has lived among the Indians; you slide into the chapel when an old sacristan is locking up after vespers, and stay there behind a pillar as long as you choose. It was a long wait. I had my fur jacket on and a flask of brandy in my pocket, and I needed both. God’s Name, is there any place so cold as churches? I had to move about to keep from aching all over, — but, of course, I made no noise. There was only the sanctuary lamp burning, until the moon came round and threw some light in at the windows. I knew when it must be near midnight, you get to have a sense of time in the woods. I hid myself behind a pillar at the back of the church. I felt a little nervous, sorry I had come, perhaps. — At last I heard a latch lift, — you could have heard a rabbit breathe in that place. The iron grille beside the altar began to move outward. She came in, carrying a candle. She wore a grey gown, and a black scarf on her head, but no veil. The candle shone up into her face. It was like a stone face; it had been through every sorrow.” Charron stopped and crossed himself. He shut his eyes and dropped his head in his hands. “My friend, I could remember a face! — I could remember Jeanne in her little white furs, when I used to pull her on my sled. Jacques Le Ber would have burned Montreal down to keep her warm. He meant to give her every joy in the world, and she has thrown the world away. . . . She put down her candle and went toward the high altar. She walked very slowly, with great dignity. At first she prayed aloud, but I scarcely understood her. My mind was confused; her voice was so changed, — hoarse, hollow, with the sound of despair in it. Why is she unhappy, I ask you? She is, I know it! When she prayed in silence, such sighs broke from her. And once a groan, such as I have never heard; such despair — such resignation and despair! It froze everything in me. I felt that I would never be the same man again. I only wanted to die and forget that I had ever hoped for anything in this world.
“After she had bowed herself for the last time, she took up her candle and walked toward that door, standing open. I lost my head and betrayed myself. I was well hidden, but she heard me sob.
“She was not startled. She stood still, with her hand on the latch of the grille, and turned her head, half-facing me. After a moment she spoke.
“Poor sinner, she said, poor sinner, whoever you are, may God have mercy upon you! I will pray for you. And do you pray for me also.
“She walked on and shut the grille behind her. I turned the key in the church door and let myself out. No man was ever more miserable than I was that night.”
Ever since Cécile could remember, she had longed to go over to the Île d’Orléans. It was only about four miles down the river, and from the slopes of Cap Diamant she could watch its fields and pastures come alive in the spring, and the bare trees change from purple-grey to green. Down the middle of the island ran a wooded ridge, like a backbone, and here and there along its flanks were cleared spaces, cultivated ground where the islanders raised wheat and rye. Seen from the high points of Quebec, the island landscape looked as if it had been arranged to please the eye, — full of folds and wrinkles like a crumpled table-cloth, with little fields twinkling above the dark tree-tops. The climate was said to be more salubrious than that of Quebec, and the soil richer. All the best vegetables and garden fruits in the market came from the Île, and the wild strawberries of which Cécile’s father was so fond. Giorgio, the drummer boy, had often told her how well the farmers lived over there; and about the great eel-fishings in the autumn, when the islanders went out at night with torches and seined eels by the thousand.
Pierre Charron had a friend on the island, Jean Baptiste Harnois, the smith of Saint–Laurent, and he meant to go over and pay him a visit this summer, before he went back to Montreal. He had promised to take Cécile along, — every time he came to the shop, he reminded her that they were to make this excursion. One fine morning in the last week of June he dropped in to say that the wind was right, and he would start for the island in about an hour, to be gone for three days.
Very well, Auclair told him, Cécile would be ready.
“But three days, father!” she exclaimed; “can you manage for yourself so long? You bought so many things at the market for me to cook.”
“I can manage. You must go by all means. You may not have such a chance again.”
“Good,” said Pierre. “I will be back in an hour. And she must bring a warm coat; it will be cold out on the water.”
Cécile had never gone on a voyage before, — had never slept a night away from home, except during the Phips bombardment, when she and her mother had taken refuge at the Ursuline convent, along with the other women and children from the Lower Town.
“What shall I take with me, Father? I am so distracted I cannot think!”
“The little valise that was your mother’s will hold your things. You will need a night-gown, and a pair of stockings, and a clean cotton blouse, and some handkerchiefs; I should think that would be all. And I will give you a package of raisins as a present for Madame Harnois.”
She ran upstairs and began to pack her mother’s bag, finding it hard to assemble her few things in her excitement.
“Are you ready, Cécile?” her father presently called from the foot of the stairs.
“I am not sure, Father — I think so. I wish I had known yesterday.”
“Then you would not have slept all night. Come along, and I will put the raisins in your valise.”
Pierre was waiting, seated on the long table that served as a counter. Her father looked into her bag to see that she had the proper things, then handed it to him. Cécile put on her cap and coat. Auclair kissed her and wished them bon voyage. “Take good care of her, Pierre.”
Pierre touched his hand to his black forelock. “As you would yourself, monsieur.” He pushed Cécile out of the door before him.
“Papa,” she called back, “you will not forget to keep the fire under the soup? It has been on only an hour.”
Pierre’s boat was a light shallop with one sail. He rowed out far enough to catch the breeze and then sat in the stern, letting the wind and current carry them. He had made a change in his clothes during the hour he was absent from the shop, Cécile noticed (later in the day she wondered why!), had put on a white linen shirt and knotted a new red silk neckerchief about his throat. He soon took off his knitted cap, lit his pipe, and lounged at his ease. On one shore stretched the dark forest, on the other the smiling, sunny fields that ran toward Beaupré. Behind them the Lower Town grew smaller and smaller; the rock of Kebec lost its detail until they could see only Cap Diamant, and the Château, and the spires of the churches. The sunlight on the river made a silver glare all about the boat, and from the water itself came a deep rhythmic sound, like something breathing.
“Think of it, Pierre, in all these years I have never been on the river before!” Such a stretch of lost opportunity as life seemed just then!
Pierre smiled. “Not so many years, at that! Your father is over-cautious, maybe, but squalls come up suddenly on this river, and most of these young fellows had as lief drown as not. I’d rather you never went with anyone but me. If you like it, you can go with me any time.”
“But I’d like to go the other way, — to Montreal, and up those rivers that are full of rapids. I want to go as far as Michilimackinac.”
“Some time, perhaps. We’ll see how you like roughing it.”
Cécile asked what he had in the stone jug she saw in the bow, along with his blanket and buckskin coat.
“That is brandy, for the smith. But it will come back full of good country wine. He makes it from wild grapes. The wild grapes on the island are the best in Canada; Jacques Cartier named it the Île de Bacchus because he found such fine grapes growing in the woods. That ought to please you, with all your Latin!”
“Are you like Mother Juschereau, do you think it wrong for a girl to know Latin?”
“Not if she can cook a hare or a partridge as well as Mademoiselle Auclair! She may read all the Latin she pleases. But I expect you won’t like the food at the Harnois’, à la campagnarde, you know, — they cook everything in grease. As for me, it doesn’t matter. When you can go to an Indian feast and eat dogs boiled with blueberries, you can eat anything.”
Cécile shuddered. “I don’t see how you can do it, Pierre. I should think it would be easier to starve.”
“Oh, do you, my dear? Try starving once; it’s a long business. I’ve known the time when dog meat cooked in a dirty pot seemed delicious! But the worst food I ever swallowed was what they call tripe de roche. I went out to Lac la Mort with some Frenchmen early in the spring once. They were a green lot, and they let most of our provisions get stolen on the way. As soon as we reached the lake, we were caught in a second winter; a heavy snow, and everything frozen. No game, no fish. We had to fall back on tripe de roche. It’s a kind of moss that grows on the rocks along the lake, something like a sponge; the cold doesn’t kill it, when everything else is frozen hard as iron. You gather it and boil it, and it’s not so bad as it goes down, — tastes like any boiled weed. But afterwards — oh, what a stomach-ache! The men sat round tied up in a knot. We had about a week of that stuff. We scraped the hair off our bear skins and roasted them, that time. But it’s a truth, monkey, I wouldn’t like a country where things were too soft. I like a cold winter, and a hot summer. My father used to boast that in Languedoc you were never out of sight of a field or a vineyard. That would mean people everywhere around you, always watching you! No hunting, — they put you in jail if you shoot a partridge. Even the fish in the streams belong to somebody. I’d be in prison in a week there.”
The settlement at Saint–Laurent was Pierre’s destination. After he had passed the point at Saint-Pétronille and turned into the south channel, a sweet, warm odour blew out from the shore, very like the smell of ripe strawberries. Each time the boat passed a little cove, this fragrance grew stronger, the air seemed saturated with it. All the early explorers wrote with much feeling about these balmy odours that blew out from the Canadian shores, — nothing else seemed to stir their imagination so much. That fragrance is really the aromatic breath of spruce and pine, given out under the hot sun of noonday, but the early navigators believed it was the smell of luscious unknown fruits, wafted out to sea.
When Pierre had made a landing and tied his boat, they went up the path to the smith’s house, to find the family at dinner. They were warmly received and seated at the dinner-table. The smith had no son, but four little girls. After dinner Cécile went off into the fields with them to pick wild strawberries. She had never seen so many wild flowers before. The daisies were drifted like snow in the tall meadow grass, and all the marshy hollows were thatched over with buttercups, so clean and shining, their yellow so fresh and unvarying, that it seemed as if they must all have been born that morning at the same hour. The clumps of blue and purple iris growing in these islands of buttercups made a sight almost too wonderful. All the afternoon Cécile thought she was in paradise.
The little girls did not bother her much. They were timid with a guest from town and talked very little. Two of them had been to Quebec, and even to her father’s shop, and they asked her about the stuffed baby alligator, where it came from. They wanted to know, too, why her father bought so many pigs’ bladders in the market. Did he eat them, or did he fill them with sausage meat? Cécile explained that he washed and dried them, and when people were sick, he filled the bladders with hot water and put them on the sore place, to ease the pain.
The little girls wore moccasins, but no stockings, and their brown legs were badly marked by brier scratches and mosquito bites. When they showed her the pigs and geese and tame rabbits, they kept telling her about peculiarities of animal behaviour which she thought it better taste to ignore. They called things by very unattractive names, too. Cécile was not at all sure that she liked these children with pale eyes and hay-coloured hair and furtive ways.
At supper she was glad to see Pierre and the genial blacksmith again, but the kitchen where they ate was very hot and close, for Madame Harnois shut all the doors and windows to keep out the mosquitos. There were mosquitos at home, on Mountain Hill, too, but her father drove them away by making a smudge of eucalyptus balls, which were sent to him from France every year.
The family went to bed early, and after darkness had shut off the country about them, and bedtime was approaching, Cécile felt uneasy and afraid of something. Pierre had brought his own blanket, and said he would sleep in the hayloft. She wished she could follow him, and with a sinking heart heard him go whistling across the wagon-yard.
There were only three rooms in this house, the kitchen and two bedrooms. In one of these slept the smith and his wife. In the other was a wide, low bed made of split poles, and there slept all the four daughters. There, Cécile soon gathered, she too must sleep! The mother told them to give Cécile the outside place in the bed, for manners. Slowly she undressed and put on her nightgown. The little Harnois girls took off their frocks and tumbled into bed in their chemises, — they told her they only wore night-gowns in winter. When they kicked off their moccasins, they did not stop to wash their legs, which were splashed with the mud of the marsh and bloody from mosquito bites. One candle did not give much light, but Cécile saw that they must have gone to bed unwashed for many nights in these same sheets. The case on the bolster, too, was rumpled and dirty. She felt that she could not possibly lie down in that bed. She made one pretext after another to delay the terrible moment; the children asked whether she said so many prayers every night. At last the mother called that it was time to put out the candle. She blew it out and crept into the bed, spreading a handkerchief from her valise down on the bolster-cover where she must put her head.
She lay still and stiff on the very edge of the feather bed, until the children were asleep and she could hear the smith and his wife snoring in the next room. His snore was only occasional, deep and guttural; but his wife’s was high and nasal, and constant. Cécile got up very softly and dressed carefully in the dark. There was only one window in the room, and that was shut tight to keep out mosquitos. She sat down beside it and watched the moon come up, — the same moon that was shining down on the rock of Kebec. Perhaps her father was taking his walk on Cap Diamant, and was looking up the river at the Île d’Orléans and thinking of her. She began to cry quietly. She thought a great deal about her mother, too, that night; how her mother had always made everything at home beautiful, just as here everything about cooking, eating, sleeping, living, seemed repulsive. The longest voyage on the ocean could scarcely take one to conditions more different. Her mother used to reckon Madame Pigeon a careless housekeeper; but Madame Pigeon’s easy-going ways had not prepared one for anything like this. She tried to think about the buttercups in the marsh, as clean as the sun itself, and the long hay-grass with the star-white daisies.
Cécile sat there until morning, through the endless hours until daylight came, careful never to look back at the rumpled bed behind her. When Madame Harnois stuck her head in at the door to waken her children, she complimented Cécile upon being up so early. All the family washed in a wooden basin which stood on a bench in the kitchen, and they all wiped their faces on the same towel. The mother got breakfast in her night-cap because she had not taken time to arrange her hair. Cécile did not want much breakfast; the bread had so much lard in it that she could not eat it. She had sagamite and milk.
When they got up from the table, Pierre announced that he was going fishing, and he did not even suggest taking her along. The little girls were expected to help their mother in the morning, so Cécile got away unobserved into the nearest wood. She went through it, and climbed toward the ridge in the middle of the island. At last she came out on a waving green hayfield with a beautiful harp-shaped elm growing in the middle of it. The grass there was much taller than the daisies, so that they looked like white flowers seen through a driving grey-green rain. Cécile ran across the field to that symmetrical tree and lay down in the dark, cloud-shaped shadow it threw on the waving grass. The tight feeling in her chest relaxed. She felt she had escaped for ever from the Harnois and their way of living. She went to sleep and slept a long while. When she wakened up in the sweet-smelling grass, with the grasshoppers jumping over her white blouse, she felt rested and happy, — though unreal, indeed, as if she were someone else. She was thinking she need not go back to the smith’s house at all that day, but could lunch on wild strawberries, when she heard the little girls’ voices calling her, “Cé-cile, Cé — cile!” rather mournfully, and she remembered that she ought not to cause the family anxiety. She looked for a last time at the elm-tree and the sunny field, and then started back through the wood. She didn’t want the children to come to that place in their search for her. She hoped they had never been there!
After dinner she escaped into the fields again, but this time the girls went with her. They had a grape-vine swing in the wood; as she had never had a swing when she was little, she found it delightful. These children were nicer when they played at games and did not stand staring at one.
But as the sunlight began to grow intensely gold on the tree-tops and the slanting fields, dread and emptiness awoke in Cécile’s breast again, a chilling fear of the night. The mother had found her handkerchief spread out on the bolster and had put on a clean bolster-slip. But that made little difference. She couldn’t possibly lie in that bed all night, not even if the children had taken a bath before they got into it. As soon as they were asleep, she got up and sat by the window as on the first night.
At breakfast Pierre Charron noticed that Cécile did not look at all like herself. When they left the table, he asked her to go down to the spring with him, and as soon as they were alone, inquired if she were not feeling well.
“No, I don’t feel well, and truly I can’t stay here any longer. Please, please, Pierre, take me home today!”
Pierre had never seen her cry before, and he was greatly surprised. “Very good. There is not much wind, and perhaps we had better go today, anyhow. Get your things, and I’ll tell the smith I’ve changed my mind.”
Cécile ran swiftly back to the house. She knew she had not been a very satisfactory visitor, and she felt remorseful. She gave the little girls all the handkerchiefs she had brought with her, — they hadn’t any, but wiped their sweaty faces on their sleeves or their skirts. Several of her handkerchiefs had come from her aunts, and she was very fond of them, but she parted with them gladly and only wished she had more things to give the children.
She could scarcely believe in her good fortune when Pierre’s boat actually left the shore and he began pulling out into the river, while the Harnois children stood waving to them from the cove.
“We needn’t hurry, eh?” Pierre asked.
“Oh, no! I love being on the river,” she replied unsteadily. He asked no further questions, but handled his oars, singing softly to himself. Of course, she thought sadly, he would never want to take her anywhere again. She used to dream that one day he might take her to Montreal in his boat, perhaps even to see the great falls at Niagara.
As soon as they were out of the south channel and had cleared the point of the island, they could see the rock of Kebec and the glare of the sun on the slate roofs. Cécile began to struggle with her tears again. It was as if she were home already. For a long while it did not grow much plainer; then it rose higher and higher against the sky.
“Now I can see the Château, and the Récollet spire,” she cried. “And, oh, Pierre, there is the Seminary!”
“Yes? It’s a fine building, but I never had any particular affection for it.” He saw that she was much too happy to notice his banter.
Soon they could see the spire of Notre Dame de la Victoire — and then they were in the shadow of the rock itself. When she stepped upon the shore, Cécile remembered how Sister Catherine de Saint–Augustin, when she landed with her companions, had knelt down and kissed the earth. Had she been alone, she would have loved to do just that. They went hand in hand up La Place street, across the market square, down Notre Dame street beside the church, and into Mountain Hill. It was wonderful that everything should be just the same, when she had been away so long! Pierre did not bother her with questions, but she knew he was watching her closely. She was ashamed, but it couldn’t be helped; some things are stronger than shame.
When they burst in upon her father, he was seated at his desk, rolling pills on a sheet of glass.
“What, back already?” He did not seem so overjoyed as Cécile had thought he would be.
“Yes, monsieur,” Pierre replied carelessly, “we were a little bored in the country, both of us.”
How grateful she was for that “tous les deux!” She might have known Pierre would not betray her.
“Father,” she said as she kissed him again, “please ask Pierre Charron to come to dinner tonight. I want to make something very nice for him. I’ve given him a lot of trouble.”
After Pierre was gone, and she had peeped into the salon and the kitchen to see that everything was as she had left it, Cécile came back into the shop.
“Father, Pierre took it on himself, but it was my fault we came home. I didn’t like country life very well. I was not happy.”
“But aren’t they kind people, the Harnois? Haven’t they kind ways?”
“Yes, they have.” She sighed and put her hand to her forehead, trying to think. They had kind ways, those poor Harnois, but that was not enough; one had to have kind things about one, too . . . .
But if she was to make a good dinner for Pierre, she had no time to think about the Harnois. She put on her apron and made a survey of the supplies in the cellar and kitchen. As she began handling her own things again, it all seemed a little different, — as if she had grown at least two years older in the two nights she had been away. She did not feel like a little girl, doing what she had been taught to do. She was accustomed to think that she did all these things so carefully to please her father, and to carry out her mother’s wishes. Now she realized that she did them for herself, quite as much. Dogs cooked with blueberries — poor Madame Harnois’ dishes were not much better! These coppers, big and little, these brooms and clouts and brushes, were tools; and with them one made, not shoes or cabinet-work, but life itself. One made a climate within a climate; one made the days, — the complexion, the special flavour, the special happiness of each day as it passed; one made life.
Suddenly her father came into the kitchen. “Cécile, why did you not call me to make the fire? And do you need a fire so early?”
“I must have hot water, Papa. It is no trouble to make a fire.” She wiped her hands and threw her arms about him. “Oh, Father, I think our house is so beautiful!”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52