Shadows on the Rock, by Willa Cather

Book Five

The Ships from France


At four o’clock in the morning Cécile was sitting by her upstairs window, dressed and wide awake. Across the river there was already a red and purple glow above the black pines; but overhead spread the dark night sky, like a tent with its flap up, letting in a new day, — the most important day of the year.

Word had come down by land that five ships from France had passed Tadousac and were beating up the river against head winds. During the night the wind had changed; Cécile had only to hold her handkerchief outside her window and watch it flutter, to reassure herself that a strong breeze was blowing in from the east, and the ships would be in today. She wondered how her father could go on sleeping. Nicholas Pigeon and Blinker had been up all night, making a great deal of noise as they turned out one baking after another to feed the hungry sailors. The smell of fresh bread was everywhere, very tempting to one who had been awake so long.

At last she heard a door below open softly, and she ran down the stairs to the salon and out into the kitchen, where her father was just beginning to make his fire.

“Oh, Father, the wind is right! I knew it would come! Yesterday all the nuns at the Ursulines’ were praying for the wind to change. How soon do you suppose they will get in? You remember last year it rained all day when the first ships came. But today will be beautiful. I expect Kebec will look very fine to them.”

“No better than they will to us, certainly. But there is no hurry. They will not be along for hours yet.”

Cécile told him she had been awake nearly all night and was very hungry, so would he please hurry the chocolate. She herself ran out through the board fence that divided their back yard from the Pigeons’, to get a loaf from Blinker, as it was not nearly time for the baker’s boy to come on his rounds.

They had just sat down to their breakfast when they heard the front door open, and heavy, rapid little steps crossed the bare floor of the shop. Jacques came in, his pale eyes so round that he looked almost frightened.

“Hurry, Cécile, they’re coming!” he called. Then, remembering where he was, he snatched off his cap and murmured: “Pardon, monsieur. Bonjour, monsieur. Bonjour, Cécile.”

Cécile sprang up. “You mean they are in sight, Jacques?”

“People say they are, nearly,” he answered vaguely.

“What nonsense, Cécile! You are as foolish as the little boy. You know the cannon would be sounding and the whole town shouting if the ships were in sight. Sit down and calm yourselves, both of you. Jacques, here is some chocolate for you.”

“Thank you, monsieur.” He sat down on the edge of the chair and took the cup carefully in both hands, at the same time glancing at the clock. “But we must not be late,” he added fearfully.

“We shall not be. The ships cannot possibly pass this end of the island before noon.”

“Which ones do you think they will be, monsieur?”

“They will probably be old friends, that have come to us often before.”

“Jacques means he hopes one of them will be La Garonne, with the nice sailor who made our beaver,” Cécile explained.

Jacques blushed and looked up at her trustfully. But his anxiety was too strong for him. In a few moments he stole another glance at the clock and resolutely put down his cup.

“If you please, monsieur, I think I will go now.”

Auclair laughed. “You may both go! You are as restless as kittens. I can do nothing with either of you about. I will follow you in an hour or two. You will have a long wait.”

The children agreed they wouldn’t mind that, and they ran out into the early sunshine and down the hill hand in hand.

“Oh, look at the market square, Jacques, look! I have never seen so many carts before.”

Since long before daybreak the country people had been coming into town, bringing all they could carry in their carts and on their backs; fresh pork, dressed rabbits and poultry, butter and eggs, salad, green beans, leeks, peas, cucumbers, wild strawberries, maple sugar, spruce beer. The sailors, after two or three months on salt meat and ship’s bread, would sell their very ear-rings for poultry and green vegetables. All the market-women, and the men, too, were dressed in their best, in whatever was left of the holiday costume they used to wear at home, in their native town. A sailor would always make straight for the head-dress or bonnet or jacket of his own pays.

The children found there was already a crowd at the waterside, and while they ran about, hunting for an advantageous post of observation, people kept streaming down Mountain Hill. The whole of the Upper Town was emptying itself into the Lower. The old people, who almost never left the house, came with the rest, and babies at the breast were carried along because there was no one at home to leave them with. Not even on great feast-days did one see so many people come together. Bishop Laval and his donné came down the hill and took their places in the crowd. Giorgio, the drummer boy, and Picard, the Count’s valet, were sitting on one of the cannon that guarded the landing-place. Noël Pommier and his friend the wagon-maker came carrying old Madame Pommier between them, and a boy followed bringing her chair. There were even new faces: a company of Montreal merchants, who had been staying at the Château for several days, awaiting the ships.

All the poor and miserable were on the water front, as well as the great. ‘Toinette was moving about in the crowd, looking fresh and handsome in a clean dress and a new kerchief. Her partner, the snail, with her hair curled very tight and her hands hidden under her apron, was standing among the poor folk over by the King’s warehouse. Jacques was careful to keep out of his mother’s way; but she had no wish to be bothered with him and was blind to his presence in the crowd. The Count did not come down the hill, but he was in plain view on the terrace in front of the Château, and with him were the Intendant and Madame de Champigny, and a group of officers with their wives. Everyone in Kebec, Cécile believed, except the cloistered nuns, was out today. Even Monseigneur de Saint–Vallier, though he was so proud, had a chair placed in the highest part of his garden and sat there looking down over the roofs, watching for the ships.

The hours dragged on. Babies began to cry and old people to murmur, but nobody went away. Giorgio and Picard made a place for Jacques between them on the cannon. By the time her father arrived, Cécile was beginning to wonder whether she could possibly stand any longer. But very soon a shout went up — something flashed in the south channel against the green fields of the Île d’Orléans. Cécile held her breath and gripped her father’s hand. It dipped, it rose again, a gleam of white. There could be no doubt now; larger and larger, the canvas of sails set full, with the wind well behind them. Soon the whole rigging rose above the rapidly dropping shore, then the full figure of a square-rigged ship emerged, passed the point of the island, and glided into the broad, undivided river. The cannon on the redoubt boomed the Governor’s salute, and all the watchers on the waterside shouted a great welcoming cry, waving their caps, kerchiefs, aprons, anything at hand. Women, and men, too, cried for joy. Cécile hid her face on her father’s shoulder, and Jacques stood up on the cannon, waving his little cap.

“Les Deux Frères, Les Deux Frères!” people began to shout, while others laughed at them. She was not near enough for anyone to be sure, but the townspeople knew those carrying boats by heart, held their lines and shape in mind all year. Sure enough, as the vessel bore up the river toward the rock, everyone agreed that it was Les Deux Frères, from Le Havre. Her anchor-chains had scarcely begun to rattle when the sound was drowned by new shouts; a second set of sails was sighted between the green fields and the pine-clad shore.

“Le Profond, Le Profond!” the people cried, and again the ordnance thundered from the redoubt.

Within half an hour the Captain of Les Deux Frères came ashore in a little boat, bringing dispatches for the Governor. But before he could make his way up to the Château, he had to stop to greet old friends and to answer the questions of the crowd that pressed about him.

The King was well, and Monsieur le Dauphin was in good health. The young Duc de Bourgogne — the King’s grandson — was married to a little Princess of Savoie, only twelve years old, mais bien sage. The war was at a standstill; but of that they would hear later, — he tapped his dispatch-case. The wheat-harvest had been good last year, the vintage one of the best within memory. Of the voyage he had no time to speak; they had got here, hadn’t they? That was the important thing.

The Captain made his way up the hill, and Bishop Laval went into the church of Notre Dame de la Victoire to thank God for preserving the King’s health.

Sometimes, owing to bad weather and high winds, the ships of the first fleet came in four or five days apart; but this year they came in close succession. By sunset five vessels were anchored in the roadstead before Quebec: Les Deux Frères, Le Profond, La Reine du Nord, La Licorne, Le Faucon. They stood almost in a row, out in the river. Worn, battered old travellers they looked. It brought tears to the eyes to think how faithful they were, and how much they had endured and overcome in the years they had been beating back and forth between Canada and the Old World. What adverse winds those sails had been trimmed to, what mountains of waves had beaten the sides of those old hulls, what a wilderness of hostile, never-resting water those bows had driven through! Beaten southward, beaten backward, out of their course for days and even weeks together; rolling helpless, with sails furled, water over them and under them, — but somehow wearing through. On bad voyages they retraced their distance three and five times over, out-tiring the elements by their patience, and then drove forward again — toward Kebec. Sometimes they went south of Newfoundland to enter the Gulf, sometimes they came south of Labrador and through the straits of Belle Île; always making for this rock in the St. Lawrence. Cécile wondered how they could ever find it, — a goal so tiny, out of an approach so vast.

Many a time a boat came in wracked and broken, and it took all summer to make repairs, before the captain dared face the sea again. And all summer the hardships and mischances of the fleet were told over and over in Quebec. The greater part of the citizens had made that voyage at least once, and they knew what a North Atlantic crossing meant: little wooden boats matched against the immensity and brutality of the sea; the strength that came out of flesh and blood and goodwill, doing its uttermost against cold, unspending eternity. The colonists loved the very shapes of those old ships. Here they were again, in the roadstead, sending off the post-bags. And tomorrow they would give out of their insides food, wine, cloth, medicines, tools, fire-arms, prayer-books, vestments, altars for the missions, everything to comfort the body and the soul.


The next few days were like a continual festival, with sailors overrunning the town, and drinking and singing in the Place half the night. Every day was market day, and both Blinker and his master worked double shifts, trying to bake bread enough for five crews. The waterside was heaped with merchandise and casks of wine. The merchants employed every idle man and boy to help them store their goods, and all the soldiers were detailed to receive the supplies for the Château and the forts. Even the churches and the priests were busier than usual. The sailors, though they might indulge in godless behaviour, were pious in their own way; went to confession soon after they got into port, and attended mass. They lived too near the next world not to wish to stand well with it. Nobody begrudged them their rough pleasures; they never stole, and they seldom quarrelled. Even the strictest people, like Bishop Laval, recognized that men who were wet and cold and poorly fed for months together, who had to climb the rigging in the teeth of the freezing gales that blew down from Labrador, must be allowed a certain licence during the few weeks they were on shore. The colony owed its life to these fellows; whatever else they did, they got the ships to Quebec every year.

Cécile was allowed to take Jacques for an escort and go down to the waterside in the morning to watch the unloading, — until the third day, when Auclair’s own goods, from the old drug house in the parish of Saint–Paul, were brought ashore from Le Profond. In a few hours the orderly shop, and the salon behind it, were full of bales and boxes. M. Auclair said they must begin unpacking at once, as with this confusion there was no room for customers to come and go. Jacques had followed the carriers up the hill, and he decided that he would rather stay and see these boxes opened than share in the general excitement on the waterside.

The apothecary took off his coat and set to work with his hammer and chisel. Blinker, very curious to see everything that came out of the boxes, ran in between bakings to carry the lumber and straw down into the cellar. One by one the white jars on the shelves, and the drawers of the cabinets, were filled up again; with powders, salts, gums, blue crystals, strong-smelling spices, bay-leaves, lime flowers, camomile flowers, senna, hyssop, mustard, dried plants and roots in great variety. There was the usual crate of small wooden boxes containing fruits conserved in sugar, very costly and much prized in Quebec. These boxes could not be opened, of course, as they were the most expensive articles in Auclair’s stock, but it delighted the children to read the names on the covers: figs, apricots, cherries, candied lemon rind, and crystallized ginger.

While Cécile and Jacques were counting over these boxes of sweetmeats and wondering who would buy such luxuries, Auclair told them he was much more interested in a jar labelled “Bitumen — oleum terræ” than in the conserves. It contained a dark, ill-smelling paste which looked like wagon grease; a kind of petroleum jelly that seeped out of the rocks in a certain cairn on the island of Barbados and was carried from thence to France. He had great need for it here in Canada; he purified it, added a small amount of alcohol and borax, and prepared a remedy for snow-blindness, with which hunters and trappers and missionaries were so cruelly afflicted in winter. So far, no cure had been discovered that gave such relief. A physician in Montreal had tried a similar treatment, using goose grease and lard instead of the oleum terræ, with very bad results. This, Auclair explained to the children, was because all animal fat contained impurities, and this “Barbados tar,” as it was vulgarly called, might be regarded as a mineral fat. He went on to say that in general he distrusted remedies made of the blood or organs of animals, though he must admit that some were of exceptional value. For a hundred years and more the Breton fishermen, who went as far as Newfoundland and Labrador for their catch, had been making a medicinal oil from the fat livers of the codfish, and had an almost fanatical faith in its benefits. He himself had used it in Quebec for cases of general decline, and found it strengthening.

“But I detest all medicines made from lizards and serpents,” he concluded his lecture, “even viper broth.”

“Viper broth, Father? I have never heard of that. Is it an Indian medicine?”

“My dear, at the time when we came out to Canada, it was very much the fashion at home. Half the great ladies of France were drinking a broth made from freshly killed vipers every morning, instead of their milk or chocolate, and believed themselves much the better for it. Medicine is a dark science, as I have told you more than once.”

“Yes, but everything here in our shop is good for people. We know that, don’t we, Jacques? You shouldn’t speak against medicines, Father, when our new ones have just come and we are feeling so happy to have them. You always worry, you know, when any of the jars are nearly empty.”

“Oh, we do what we can, my dear! We can but try.” Her father took up his chisel again and began to pry the lid from another box. “The perplexing thing is that honest pharmaciens get such different results from the same remedy. Your grandfather, all his life, believed that he had helped many cases of epilepsy with powdered unicorn’s horn, which he got from Africa at great expense; while I have so low an opinion of it that I never keep it in my shop.”

“But your cough-sirops, Papa, both kinds, help everyone. And Madame Renaude says she could never milk her cows in the morning if she did not put your rheumatism ointment on her hands at night.”

Auclair laughed. “You are your mother over again. No matter on whom I tried a new remedy, she was always the first to feel its good effects. But what is this, Cécile? A package addressed to you, and in Aunt Blanche’s handwriting, here among my Arabian spices! Why, she must have taken it to the pharmacie and persuaded Monsieur Neuillant to pack it with his drugs, to ensure quick delivery. Now we shall have something of whose goodness there can be no doubt. No, you must open it yourself. Jacques and I will look on.”

Night-gowns, with yokes beautifully embroidered by Aunt Blanche herself; a pair of stockings knit by the little cousin Cécile; a woollen dressing-gown; two jerseys, one red and one blue; a blue silk dress, all trimmed with velvet bands, to wear to mass; a gold brooch and a string of coral beads from Aunt Clothilde. Cécile unfolded them one after another and held them up to view. Never had a box from home brought such fine things before. What did it mean?

“It means that you are growing up now and must soon dress like a young lady. The aunts bear that fact in mind, — more than I, perhaps.” Auclair sighed and became thoughtful.

Jacques clasped his two hands together and looked up at Cécile with his slow, utterly trustful and self-forgetful smile.

“Oh, Cécile,” he breathed, “you will look so beautiful!”


Pierre Charron had come down from Montreal and was giving a supper party for his friend Maître Pondaven, captain of Le Faucon. Cécile and her father were the only guests invited, though Pierre had said they might bring Jacques along to see the Captain’s parrot. It was to be a party in the open air, down by the waterside, under the full moon.

Cécile had no looking-glass upstairs — the only one in the house was in the salon — so she always dressed by feeling rather than by sight. This afternoon she put on the blue silk dress with black velvet bands, walked about in it, then took it off and spread it out on her bed, where she smoothed it and admired it. It was too different from anything she had ever worn before, too long and too grand — quite right to wear to mass or to a wedding, perhaps, but not for tonight. She slipped on one of her new jerseys and felt like herself again. The coral beads she would wear; they seemed appropriate for a sailor’s party. She left the beautiful dress lying on her bed and went down to see that her father had brushed his Sunday coat, and to give Jacques’s hands a scrubbing. She and the little boy sat down on the sofa to wait for Pierre, while Auclair was arranging his shop for the night. To Cécile the time dragged very slowly. She was thinking, not about the novelty of having supper by moonlight, or of the tête de veau they were promised, or of the celebrated Captain Pondaven, but of his parrot.

All her life she had longed to possess a parrot. The idea of a talking bird was fascinating to her — seemed to belong with especially rare and wonderful things, like orange-trees and peacocks and gold crowns and the Count’s glass fruit. Her mother, she whispered to Jacques, had often told her about a parrot kept in one of the great houses at home, which saw a servant steal silver spoons and told the master. Then there was the imprisoned princess who taught her parrot to say her lover’s name, and her cruel brothers cut out the bird’s tongue. Magpies were also taught to speak, but they could say only a word or two.

At last she heard Pierre’s voice at the front door.

“All ready, Monsieur Euclide?”

Cécile jumped up from the sofa and ran into the shop.

“We have been ready a long while, Pierre. I thought you had forgotten us.”

“Little stupid!” Pierre pinched her ear.

Auclair now looked at his daughter for the first time.

“But I supposed you would wear the new dress from Aunt Blanche?”

Cécile coloured a little. “I feel better like this. You don’t mind, Pierre Charron?”

“Not a bit! This is a picnic, not a dinner of ceremony. Monsieur Auclair, will you be kind enough to bring some of those little nuts you burn to keep off mosquitoes?”

“Ah yes, the eucalyptus balls! Certainly, that is a good idea. I will fill my pockets.” The apothecary put on the large beaver hat which he wore only to weddings and funerals, and they set off down the hill, the two men before, Cécile and Jacques following.

Down on the water-front, at some distance behind the church of Notre Dame de la Victoire, a row of temporary cabins were put up each summer, where hot food was served to the sailors on shore leave. In one of these Renaude-le-lièvre, the butter-woman, and an old dame from Dinan sold fresh milk and butter and Breton pancakes to the seamen from that part of the world. Tonight they had prepared a special supper for the Captain, of whom all the Bretons were proud; he had come up from a mousse and had made his own way in the world. Pierre had ordered things he knew the Captain liked; a dish made of three kinds of shell-fish, a tête de veau, which la Renaude did very well, a roast capon with a salad, and for dessert Breton pancakes with honey and preserves.

When the party arrived, their table was waiting for them, with a white cloth, and a lantern hung from a pole — already lit, though it was not yet dark and a pale moon was shining in a clear evening sky. While Pierre was giving instructions to the cooks, Captain Pondaven was being rowed ashore by two of his crew. He came up from the landing, his parrot on his shoulder, dressed as no one there had ever seen him before, in his Breton holiday suit, which he carried about the world with him in his sailor’s chest; a black jacket heavily embroidered in yellow, white knee-breeches, very full and pleated at the belt, black cloth leggings, and a broad-brimmed black hat with a shallow crown. He was a plain, simple man, direct in his dealings as in his glance, and he came from Saint–Malo, where the grey sea breaks against the town walls.

At first Cécile thought him a little sombre and solemn, but after a mug of Jamaica rum he was more at his ease, and as the supper went on he grew very companionable. She had hoped he would begin to tell at once about his voyages and the strange countries he had seen, but he seemed to wish to talk of nothing but his own town and his family. He had four boys, he said, and one little girl.

“And she is the only one who was born when I was at home. I am always a little anxious about her. The boys are strong like me and can take care of themselves, but she is more delicate, — not so sturdy as Mademoiselle here, though perhaps Mademoiselle is older.”

“I was thirteen last month,” Cécile told him.

“And she will be eleven in December. I am nearly always at home for her birthday.”

Auclair asked him whether by home he meant Le Havre or Saint–Malo. The seaman looked surprised.

“Saint–Malo, naturally. I was born a Malouin.”

“I know that. But since you take on your cargo at Le Havre, I thought you perhaps lived there now.”

“Oh, no! One is best in one’s own country. I run back to Saint–Malo after my last trip, and tie up there for the winter.”

“But that must add to your difficulties, Monsieur Pondaven.”

“It is nothing to me. I know the Channel like my own town. All my equipage are glad to get home. They are all Malouins. I should not know how to manage with men from another part.”

“You Malouins stick together like Jesuits,” Pierre declared. “Yet by your own account you were not so well treated there that you need love the place.”

Captain Pondaven smiled an artless smile. “Perhaps that is the very reason! He means, Monsieur Auclair, that the town brought me up like a stepmother. My father was drowned, fishing off Newfoundland, and my mother died soon afterwards. With us, when an orphan boy is twelve years old, he is given a suit of clothes and a chest and is sent to sea as a mousse. They sent me out with a hard master my first voyage. But when I came back from Madagascar and showed how my ears were torn and my back was scarred, the townspeople took up my case and got my papers changed. My townspeople did not do so badly by me. When I was ready for a command, they saw that I had my chance. They put their money behind me, and I have been half-owner in my boat for five years now.”

Though she liked the Captain very much and gave polite attention to his talk, Cécile’s mind was on the parrot. He sat forgotten on the back of the chair, attached to his master’s belt by a long cord. He seemed of a sullen disposition — there was nothing gay and bird-like about him. Neither was he so brilliant as she had expected. He was all grey, except for rose-coloured tail-feathers, and his plumage was ruffled and untidy, for he was moulting. He gave no sign of his peculiar talent, but sat as silent as the stuffed alligator at home, never moving except to cock his head on one side. When the leek soup put a temporary stop to conversation, she ventured a question.

“And what is your parrot’s name, if you please, Monsieur Pondaven?”

The Captain looked up from his plate and smiled at her. “His name is Coco, mademoiselle, and he will make noise enough presently. He is a little shy with strangers, not seeing many on board.”

Then the shell-fish came on, and Auclair asked the Captain what people at home thought of the King’s peace with the English.

He said he did not know what the inland people thought. “But with us on the coast it will make little difference. The King cannot make peace on the sea. Our people will take an English ship whenever they have a chance. They are looking for good plunder this summer. We must have our revenge for the ships they took from us last year.”

“They are fine seamen, the English,” Pierre Charron declared. Cécile had noticed that he was in one of his perverse moods, when he liked to tease and antagonize everyone a little.

The Captain answered him mildly. “Yes, they are good sailors, but we usually get the better of them. They are a blasphemous lot and have no respect for good manners or religion. That never pays.”

Auclair reminded him that last summer the English had captured one of the boats bound for Canada.

“I remember well, Le Saint–Antoine, and the Captain is a friend of mine. They took the boat into Plymouth and sold her at auction. Many of our merchants lost heavily. Your Bishop, Monseigneur de Saint–Vallier, had sent some things for the missions over here by Le Saint–Antoine. Some bones of the saints and other holy relics were packed in an oak chest, and the Captain, out of respect, put it in his own cabin. The English, when they plundered the ship, came upon this chest and supposed it was treasure. When they opened it, they were furious. After committing every possible sacrilege they took the relics to the cook’s galley and threw them into the stove where their dinner was cooking.”

Cécile asked whether no punishment had come upon those sailors.

“Not at the time, mademoiselle, but I shouldn’t like to put to sea with such actions on my soul, — and I am no coward, either.”

“Sales cochons anglais, sales cochons!” said another voice, and she realized that at last the parrot had spoken. Jacques put his hand over his mouth to stifle a cry. Pierre and her father laughed, and applauded the parrot, but Cécile was much too startled to laugh. She had supposed that the speech of parrots called for a good deal of imagination on the part of the listener, like the first efforts of babies. But nobody could possibly mistake what this bird said. Had he been out of sight, in the shed kitchen with Mère Renaude, she would have thought some queer old person was in there, talking in a vindictive tone.

“Oh, monsieur, isn’t he wonderful!” she gasped.

The Captain was pleased. “You find him amusing? Yes, he is a clever bird; you will see. Now let us all clink our cups together, — you, too, little man, — and perhaps he will say something else.”

They rattled their pewter mugs several times, and the bird came out with: “Vive le Roi, vive le Roi!” Jacques began jumping up and down with excitement.

“He is a loyal subject of the King,” said Pondaven. “He has been taught to say that when the cups clink. But for the most part, I don’t teach him; he picks up what he likes.”

“And do you always take him to sea with you, monsieur?”

“Nearly always, mademoiselle. My men believe he brings us good luck; they like to have him on board. I have his cage swung in my cabin, and when the ship pitches badly, I tie it down.”

“But how does he endure the cold?” Auclair asked. “These are tropical birds, after all.”

“Yes, his brother died of a chill on his first voyage — I had two of them. But this one seems to stand it. When he begins to shiver, I give him a little brandy in warm water — he is very fond of it — and I put a blanket over him. He will live to be a hundred if I can keep him from taking cold.”

Conscious that he was the centre of attention, the parrot began to croon softly: “Bon petit Coco, bon petit Coco. Ici, ici!”

Jacques and Cécile left their places and stood behind the Captain’s chair to watch the bird’s throat. Pondaven explained that he was an African parrot, and that was why he had so many tones of voice, harsh and gentle, for the African birds have a much more sensitive ear than the West Indian.

“Should you like to hear him whistle a tune, mademoiselle? He can, if he will. We will try to have a little concert.” He put the parrot on his knee, took a piece of maple sugar from the table, and held it before the unblinking yellow eyes. Then the Captain began to whistle a song of his own country:

A Saint–Malo, beau port de mer,
Trois gros navires sont arrivés.

After a few moments the bird repeated the air perfectly — his whistle was very musical, sounded somewhat like a flute. He was given the sugar, and stood on one foot while he fed himself with the other. The company now became interested in the tête de veau, but Jacques and Cécile scarcely tasted the dish for watching Coco. They were both wishing they could carry him off and keep him in the apothecary shop for ever.

“Has Coco a soul, Cécile?” Jacques whispered.

“I wonder! I will ask the Captain after a while, but we must listen now.”

Captain Pondaven was relating some of the wonderful happenings in his own town. Presently he told them the story of how a great she-ape, brought to Saint–Malo as a curiosity by the Indian fleet, had one day broken her chain and run about the town. She dashed into a house, snatched a baby from its cradle, and ran up to the house-tops with it, — and in Saint–Malo, he reminded them, the houses are four and even five storeys high. While all the terrified neighbours gathered in the street, the mother fell on her knees, shut her eyes, and appealed to the Blessed Virgin. The ape clambered along the roofs until she came to a house where an image of Our Lady stood in a little alcove up under the eaves. Into this recess the beast thrust the baby, and left it there, as safe as if it were with its own mother.

The children and the apothecary thought this a charming story, but Pierre sniffed. “Oh, you have nothing over us in the way of miracles!” he told the Captain. “Here we have them all the time. Every Friday the beaver is changed into a fish, so that good Catholics may eat him without sin. And why do you look at me like that, Mademoiselle Cécile?”

“Everyone knows he is not changed, Pierre. He is only considered as a fish by the Church, so that hunters off in the woods can have something to eat on Fridays.”

“And suppose in Montreal some Friday I were to consider a roast capon as a fish? I should be put into the stocks, likely enough!”

Captain Pondaven smiled and shook his head. “Mademoiselle has the better of you, Charron. A man can make fun of the angels, if he sets out to. But I was going to tell the little boy here that in our town, when a child is naughty, we still tell him the she-ape will get him; and the children are as much afraid of that beast as if she were alive.”

The time had come for story-telling; Pondaven and Pierre Charron began to entertain each other with tales of the sea and forest, as they always did when they got together.

At about ten o’clock Father Hector Saint–Cyr came out from the Château, where he had been to lay before Count Frontenac a petition from the Christianized Indians of his mission at the Sault. He lingered on the terrace to enjoy the prospect, — he got to Quebec but seldom. The moon was high in the heavens, shining down upon the rock, with its orchards and gardens and silvery steeples. The dark forest and the distant mountains were palely visible. This was not the warm white moonlight of his own Provence, certainly, which made the roads between the mulberry-trees look like rivers of new milk. This was the moonlight of the north, cold, blue, and melancholy. It threw a shimmer over the land, but never lay in velvet folds on any wall or tower or wheat-field. Out in the river the five ships from France rode at anchor. Some sailors down in the Place were singing, and when they finished, their mates on board answered them with another song.

Why, the priest wondered, were these fellows always glad to get back to Kebec? Why did they come at all? Why should this particular cliff in the wilderness be echoing tonight with French songs, answering to the French tongue? He recalled certain naked islands in the Gulf of the St. Lawrence; mere ledges of rock standing up a little out of the sea, where the sea birds came every year to lay their eggs and rear their young in the caves and hollows; where they screamed and flocked together and made a clamour, while the winds howled around them, and the spray beat over them. This headland was scarcely more than that; a crag where for some reason human beings built themselves nests in the rock, and held fast.

Down yonder by the waterside, before one of the rustic booths, he could see a little party seated about a table with lanterns. He could not see who they were, but he felt a friendliness for that company. A little group of Frenchmen, three thousand miles from home, making the best of things, — having a good dinner. He decided to go down and join them.


The apothecary, in his shirt-sleeves, was standing on a wooden bench, taking down from the shelves of a high cabinet large sheets of paper, to which dried plants were attached by narrow strips of muslin gummed down with gum Arabic. This was his herbarium, his collection of medicinal Canadian plants which he meant to take back to France. Cécile, busily knitting, had been watching him for a long while. When at last he got down and began assorting the piles of paper, she spoke to him.

“Papa, what will become of Jacques when we go back to France?”

Her father was engaged with a plant of the milkweed kind, which the French colonists called le cotonnier. He did not look up.

“Ah, my dear, I have the Count’s perplexities and my own, — I cannot arrange a future for your little protégé.”

“But, Father, how can we leave him, with no one to look after him? I shall always be thinking of him, and it will make me very unhappy.”

“You will soon have your little cousins for companions; Cécile, and André, and Rachel. Cousin André will fill Jacques’s place in your heart.”

“No, Papa. My heart is not like that.”

She spoke quickly, almost defiantly, in a tone she had never used to her father before. He did not notice it; he was trying to decide which of two gentians was the better preserved. For a month now he had been distracted and absent-minded. Cécile went quietly into the salon. She almost hated that little André who was so fortunate, who had a wise and charming mother to watch over him, a father to provide for him, and a rich aunt to give him presents. Laying aside her knitting, she put on her cap and went out to walk about the town.

This was the first week of October. The autumn had been warm and sunny, — but rather sad, as always. After the gay summer, came the departures. First Pierre Charron had gone back to Montreal. Then Captain Pondaven, who had been coming to the apothecary shop so often that he seemed like a familiar friend, had suddenly set sail for his old town where the grey sea beat under the castellated walls. Three new ships had come in during September: La Garonne, Le Duc de Bretagne, Le Soleil d’Afrique. But La Garonne did not bring the Breton sailor Jacques waited for, and his mates reported that he had shipped on a boat in the West India trade.

None of the ships brought the word Cecile’s father and the Governor were so impatiently expecting. A dark spirit of discontent and restlessness seemed to be sitting in the little salon behind the shop. All peace and security had departed. The very furniture looked ill at ease, as if it did not believe in its own usefulness any more. Perhaps the sofa and the table and the curtains had overheard her father say that he could not take them home with him, but must leave them to be scattered among the neighbours. Cécile wished that she could be left and scattered, too. She stayed out of doors and away from the house as much as possible. Her father cared little about his dinner now — sometimes forgot to go to market. So why should she spend the golden afternoons indoors?

The glorious transmutation of autumn had come on: all the vast Canadian shores were clothed with a splendour never seen in France; to which all the pageants of all the kings were as a taper to the sun. Even the ragged cliff-side behind her kitchen door was beautiful; the wild cherry and sumach and the blackberry vines had turned crimson, and the birch and poplar saplings were yellow. Up by Blinker’s cave there was a mountain ash, loaded with orange berries.

In the Upper Town the grey slate roofs and steeples were framed and encrusted with gold. A slope of roof or a dormer window looked out from the twisted russet branches of an elm, just as old mirrors were framed in gilt garlands. A sharp gable rose out of a soft drift of tarnished foliage like a piece of agate set in fine goldsmith’s work. So many kinds of gold, all gleaming in the soft, hyacinth-coloured haze of autumn: wan, sickly gold of the willows, already dropping; bright gold of the birches, copper gold of the beeches. Most beautiful of all was the tarnished gold of the elms, with a little brown in it, a little bronze, a little blue, even — a blue like amethyst, which made them melt into the azure haze with a kind of happiness, a harmony of mood that filled the air with content. The spirit of peace, that acceptance of fate, which used to dwell in the pharmacy on Mountain Hill, had left it and come abroad to dwell in the orchards and gardens, in the little stony streets where the leaves blew about. Day after day Cécile had walked about those streets trying to capture that lost content and take it home again. She felt almost as if she no longer had a home; often wished she could follow the squirrels into their holes and hide away with them for the winter.

This afternoon she saw that her father scarcely cared at all for those they would leave behind, — the only friends she had ever known. She was miserable, too, because she had spoken angrily to him. All the way up the hill her heart grew heavier, and the neat garden of the Récollets, where she was always welcome, seemed so full of sadness that she could not stay. She went into the Cathedral, found a dark corner behind the image of Saint Anthony, and knelt to pray. But she could only hide her face and cry. Once giving way to tears, she wept bitterly for all that she had lost, and all that she must lose so soon. Her mother had had the courage to leave everything she loved and to come out here with her father; she in turn ought to show just that same courage about going back, but she could not find it in her heart. “O ma mère, je suis faible! Je n’ai pas l’esprit fort comme toi!” she whispered under her sobs.

Bishop Laval, who was kneeling in the recess of a chapel, heard a sound of smothered weeping. He rose, turned about, and regarded her for some moments. Without saying a word he took her hand and led her out through the sacristy door into the garden of the Priests’ House, where his poplar-trees were all yellow and the ground was covered with fallen leaves. He made her sit down beside him on a bench and waited until she had dried her tears.

“We are old friends, little daughter,” he said kindly. “Your mother was a woman of exemplary piety. Have you been to your spiritual director with your troubles?”

“Oh, excuse me, Monseigneur l’Ancien! I am sorry to give way like this. I did not know it was coming on me.”

“Can I help you in any way, my child?”

Cécile thought perhaps he could. At any rate, she felt a longing to confide in him. She had never been intimidated by his deep-set, burning eyes or his big nose. She always felt a kind of majesty in his grimness and poverty. Seventy-four years of age and much crippled by his infirmities, going about in a rusty old cassock, he yet commanded one’s admiration in a way that the new Bishop, with all his personal elegance, did not. One believed in his consecration, in some special authority won from fasting and penances and prayer; it was in his face, in his shoulders, it was he.

Cécile turned to him and told him in a low voice how she and her father expected to leave Quebec very soon and go back to France, and how hard it would be for her to part from her friends. “And what troubles me most is the little boy, Jacques Gaux. You have been so kind as to ask about him sometimes, mon père, and perhaps after we are gone you will not forget him. I wish someone would bear him in mind and look after him a little.”

“You must pray for him, my child. It is to such as he that our Blessed Mother comes nearest. You must unceasingly recommend him to her, and I will not forget to do so.”

“I shall always pray for him,” Cécile declared fervently, “but if only there were someone in this world, here in Quebec — Oh, Monseigneur l’Ancien,” she turned to him pleadingly, “everyone says you are a father to your people, and no one needs a father so much as poor Jacques! If you would bid Houssart keep an eye on him, and when he sees the little boy dirty and neglected, to bring him here, where everything is good and clean, and wash his face! It would help him only to sit here with you — he is like that. Madame Pommier would look after him for me, but she cannot get about, and Jacques will not go to her, I am afraid. He is shy. When he is very dirty and ragged, he hides away.”

“Compose yourself, my child. We can do something. Suppose I were to send him to the Brothers’ school in Montreal, and prepare him for the Seminary?”

She shook her head despondently. “He could never learn Latin. He is not a clever child; but he is good. I don’t think he would be happy in a school.”

“Schools are not meant to make boys happy, Cécile, but to teach them to do without happiness.”

“When he is older, perhaps, Monseigneur, but he is only seven.”

“I was only nine when I was sent to La Flèche, and that is a severe school,” said the Bishop. Perhaps some feeling of pity for his own hard boyhood, the long hours of study, the iron discipline, the fasts and vigils that kept youth pale, rose in his heart. He sighed heavily and murmured something under his breath, of which Cécile caught only the words: “ . . . domus . . . Domine.”

She thanked him for his kindness and curtsied to take her leave. He walked with her to the garden door. “I will not forget what you have confided to my care, and I will seek out this child from time to time and see what can be done for him. But our Blessed Mother can do more for him than you or I. Never omit to present him to her compassion, my daughter.”

Cécile went away comforted. Merely sitting beside the Bishop had given her an escape from her own thoughts. His nature was so strong of its kind, and different from that of anyone else she knew. She was hurrying home with fresh courage when she met Jacques himself, coming up the hill to look for her.

“I went to your house,” he said, “but monsieur your father was occupied, so I came away.”

“That was right. Have you had a bite of anything?”

He shook his head.

“Neither have I. If my father is busy with his plants we should only bother him. Let us get a loaf from Monsieur Pigeon and take it up by the redoubt, and watch the sun go down.”

By the time they had called at the baker’s and climbed to the top of Cap Diamant, the sun, dropping with incredible quickness, had already disappeared. They sat down in the blue twilight to eat their bread and await the turbid afterglow which is peculiar to Quebec in autumn; the slow, rich, prolonged flowing-back of crimson across the sky, after the sun has sunk behind the dark ridges of the west. Because of the haze in the air the colour seems thick, like a heavy liquid, welling up wave after wave, a substance that throbs, rather than a light.

That crimson flow, that effulgence at the solemn twilight hour, often made Cécile think about the early times and the martyrs — coming up, as it did, out of those dark forests that had been the scene of their labours and their fate. The rainbow, she knew, was set in the heavens to remind us of a promise that all storms shall have an ending. Perhaps this afterglow, too, was ordained in the heavens for a reminder.

“Jacques,” she said presently, “do you ever think about the martyrs? You ought to, because they were so brave.”

“I don’t like to think about them. It makes me feel bad,” he murmured. He was sitting with his hands on his knees, looking vaguely into the west.

Cécile squeezed his arm. “Oh, it doesn’t me! It makes me feel happy, as if I could never be afraid of anything again. I wish you and I could go very far up the river in Pierre Charron’s canoe, and then off into the forests to the Huron country, and find the very places where the martyrs died. I would rather go out there than — anywhere.” Rather than go home to France, she was thinking.

But perhaps, after she grew up, she could come back to Canada again, and do all those things she longed to do. Perhaps some day, after weeks at sea, she would find herself gliding along the shore of the Île d’Orléans and would see before her Kebec, just as she had left it; the grey roofs and spires smothered in autumn gold, with the Récollet flèche rising slender and pure against the evening, and the crimson afterglow welling up out of the forest like a glorious memory.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52