NEW YEAR'S DAY, and not a single caller! Toward evening the mother of the family, a trifle cast down, hid her depression behind a mask of extra cheeriness. "Even if no one comes," said she, "that is no reason for allowing ourselves to be unhappy. We are going to make la tire."
The children exclaimed with delight, and followed the preparations with impatient eyes. Molasses and brown sugar were set on the stove to boil, and when this had proceeded far enough Telesphore brought in a large dish of lovely white snow. They all gathered about the table as a few drops of the boiling syrup were allowed to fall upon the snow where they instantly became crackly bubbles, deliciously cold.
Each was helped in turn, the big people making a merry pretence of the children's unfeigned greed; but soon, and very wisely, the tasting was checked, that appetite might not be in peril for the real la fire, the confection of which had only begun. After further cooking, and just at the proper moment, the cooling toffee must be pulled for a long time. The mother's strong hands plied unceasingly for five minutes, folding and drawing out the sugary skein; the movement became slower and slower, until, stretched for the last time to the thickness of a finger, it was cut into lengths with scissors-not too easily, for it was already hard. The la tire was made.
The children were busy with their first portions, when a knocking was heard on the door. "Eutrope Gagnon," at once declared Chapdelaine. "I was just saying to myself that it would be an odd thing if he did not come and spend the evening with us."
Eutrope Gagnon it was in truth. Entering, he bade them all good evening, and laid his woollen cap upon the table. Maria looked at him, a blush upon her cheek. Custom ordains that on the first day of the year the young men shall kiss the women-folk, and Maria knew well enough that Eutrope, shy as he was, would exercise his privilege; she stood motionless by the table, unprotesting, yet thinking of another kiss she would have dearly welcomed. But the young man took the chair offered him and sat down, his eyes upon the floor.
"You are the only visitor who has come our way to-day," said Chapdelaine, "and I suppose you have seen no one either. I felt pretty certain you would be here this evening."
"Naturally ... I would not let New Year's Day go by without paying you a visit. But, besides that, I have news to tell."
Under the questioning eyes of the household he did not raise his eyes.
"By your face I am afraid you have bad news."
With a start of fear the mother half rose. "Not about the boys?"
"No, Madame Chapdelaine. Esdras and Da'Be are well, if that be God's pleasure. The word I bring is not of them-not of your own kin. It concerns a young man you know." Pausing a moment he spoke a name under his breath:—"Francois Paradis."
His glance was lifted to Maria and as quickly fell, but she did not so much as see his look of honest distress. Deep stillness weighed upon the house-upon the whole universe. Everything alive and dead was breathlessly awaiting news of such dreadful moment-touching him that was for her the one man in all the world ...
"This is what happened. You knew perhaps that he was foreman in a shanty above La Tuque, on the Vermilion River. About the middle of December he suddenly told the boss that he was going off to spend Christmas and New Year at Lake St. John-up here. The boss objected, naturally enough; for if the men take ten or fifteen days' leave right in the middle of the winter you might as well stop the work altogether. The boss did not wish him to go and said so plainly; but you know Francois-a man not be thwarted when a notion entered his head. He answered that he was set on going to the lake for the holidays, and that go he would. Then the boss let him have his way, afraid to lose a man useful beyond the common, and of such experience in the bush."
Eutrope Gagnon was speaking with unusual ease, slowly, but without seeking words, as though his story had been shaped beforehand. Amid her overwhelming grief the thought flitted through Maria's heart:—"Francois wished to come here ... to me," and a fugitive joy touched it as a swallow in flight ruffles the water with his wing.
"The shanty was not very far in the woods, only two days' journey from the Transcontinental which passes La Tuque. But as the luck was, something had happened to the line and the trains were not running. I heard all this through Johnny Niquette of St. Henri, who arrived from La Tuque two days ago."
"When Francois found that he could not take the train he burst into a laugh, and in that sort of a humour said that as it was a case of walking he would walk all the way-reaching the lake by following the rivers, first the Croche and then the Ouatchouan which falls in near Roberval."
"That is so," said Chapdelaine. "It can be done. I have gone that way."
"Not at this time of year, Mr. Chapdelaine, certainly not just at this time. Everyone there told Francois that it would be foolhardy to attempt such a trip in midwinter, about Christmas, with the cold as great as it was, some four feet of snow lying in the woods, and alone. But he only laughed and told them that he was used to the woods and that a little difficulty was not going to frighten him, because he was bound to get to the upper side of the lake for the holidays, and that where the Indians were able to cross he could make the crossing too. Only—you know it very well, Mr. Chapdelaine—when the Indians take that journey it is in company, and with their dogs. Francois set of alone, on snow-shoes, pulling his blankets and provisions on a toboggan." No one had uttered a word to hasten or check the speaker. They listened as to him whose story's end stalks into view, before the eyes but darkly veiled, like a figure drawing near who hides his face.
"You will remember the weather a week before Christmas-the heavy snow that fell, and after it the nor'west gale. It happened that was then in the great burnt lands, where the fine snow drives and drifts so terribly. In such a place the best of men have little chance when it is very cold and the storm lasts. And, if you recall it, the nor'wester was blowing for three days on end, stiff enough-to flay you."
"Yes, and then?"
The narrative he had framed did not carry him further, or perhaps he could not bring himself to speak the final words, for it was some time before the low-voiced answer came—"He went astray ..."
Those who have passed their lives within the shadow of the Canadian forests know the meaning but too well. The daring youths to whom this evil fortune happens in the woods, who go astray-are lost-but seldom return. Sometimes a search-party finds their bodies in the spring, after the melting of the snows. In Quebec, and above all in the far regions of the north, the very word, ecarte, has taken on a new and sinister import, from the peril overhanging him who loses his way, for a short day only, in that limitless forest.
"He went astray ... The storm caught him in the burnt country and he halted for a day. So much we know, for the Indians found a shelter of fir branches he had made for himself, and they saw his tracks. He set out again because his provisions were low and he was in haste to reach the end of his journey, as I suppose; but the weather did not mend, snow was falling, the nor'west wind never eased, and it is likely he caught no glimpse of the sun to guide him, for the Indians said that his tracks turned off from the river Croche which he had been following and wandered away, straight to the north."
There was no further speech; neither from the two men who had listened with assenting motions of their heads while they followed every turn of Eutrope's grim story; nor from the mother whose hands were clasped upon her knees,—as in a belated supplication; nor from Maria . .
"When they heard this, men from Ouatchouan set forth after the weather was a little better. But all his footsteps were covered, and they returned saying that they had found no trace; that was three days ago is lost ..."
The listeners stirred, and broke the stillness with a sigh; the tale was told, nor was there a word that, anyone might speak. The fate of Francois Paradis was as mournfully sure as though he were buried in the cemetery at St. Michel de Mistassini to the sound of chants, with the blessing of a priest.
Silence fell upon the house and all within it. Chapdelaine was leaning forward, elbows on his knees, his face working,—mechanically striking one fist upon the other. At length he spoke:—"It shows we are but little children in the hand of the good God. Francois was one of the best men of these parts in the woods, and at finding his way; people who came here used to take him as guide, and always did he bring them back without mishap. And now he himself is lost. We are but little children. Some there be who think themselves pretty strong-able to get on without God's help in their houses and on their lands...but in the bush..." With solemn voice and slowly-moving head he repeated: "We are but little children."
"A good man he was," said Eutrope Gagnon, "in very truth a good man, strong and brave, with ill-will to none.'
"Indeed that is true. I am not saying that the good God had cause to send him to his death-him more than another. He was a fine fellow, hard-working, and I loved him well. But it shows you ..."
"No one ever had a thing against him." Eutrope's generous insistence carried him on. "A man hard to match for work, afraid of nothing and obliging withal. Everyone who knew him was fond of him. You will not find his like."
Raising his eyes to Maria he repeated with emphasis:—"He was a good man, you will not find his like."
"When we were at Mistassini," began Madame Chapdelaine, "seven years ago, he was only a lad, but very strong and quick and as tall as he is now—I mean as he was when he came here last summer. Always good-natured too. No one could help liking him."
They all looked straight before them in speaking, and yet what they said seemed to be for Maria alone, as if the dear secret of her heart were open to them. But she spoke not, nor moved, her eyes fixed upon the frosted panes of the little window, impenetrable as the wall.
Eutrope Gagnon did not linger. The Chapdelaines, left to themselves, were long without speech. At last the father said in a halting voice:—"Francois Paradis was almost alone in the world; now, as we all had an affection for him, we perhaps might have a mass or two said. What do you think, Laura?"
"Yes indeed. Three high masses with music, and when the boys return from the woods—in health, if such be the will of the good God-three more for the repose of his soul, poor lad! And every Sunday we shall, say I a prayer for him."
"He was like the rest of us," Chapdelaine continued, "not without fault, of course, but kindly and well-living. God and the Holy Virgin will have pity on him."
Again silence. Maria well knew it was for her they said these things-aware of her grief and seeking to assuage it; but she was not able to speak, either to praise the dead or utter.-her sorrow. A hand had fastened upon her throat, stifling her, as the narrative unfolded and the end loomed inevitable; and now this hand found its way into her breast and was crushing her heart. Presently she would know a yet more intolerable pain, but now she only felt the deadly grasp of those five fingers closed about her heart.
Other words were said, but they scarce reached her ear; then came the familiar evening stir of preparation for the night, the father's departure on a last visit to the stable and his swift return, face red with the cold, slamming the door hastily in a swirl of frosty vapour.
"Come, Maria." The mother called her very gently, and laid a hand upon her shoulder. She rose and went to kneel and pray with the others. Voice answered to voice for ten minutes, murmuring the sacred words in low monotone.
The usual prayer at an end, the mother whispered:—"Yet five Paters and five Aves for the souls of those who have suffered misfortune in the forest." And the voices again rose, this time more subdued, breaking sometimes to a sob.
When they were silent, and all had risen after the last sign of the cross, Maria went back to the window. The frost upon the panes made of them so many fretted squares through which the eye could not penetrate, shutting away the outside world; but Maria saw them not, for the tears welled to her eyes and blinded her. She stood there motionless, with arms hanging piteously by her side, a stricken figure of grief; then a sudden anguish yet keener and more unbearable seized upon her; blindly she opened the door and went out upon the step.
The world that lay beyond the threshold, sunk in moveless white repose, was of an immense serenity; but when Maria passed from the sheltering walls the cold smote her like the hungry blade of a sword and the forest leaped toward her in menace, its inscrutable face concealing a hundred dreadful secrets which called aloud to her in lamentable voices. With a little moan she drew back, and closing the door sat shivering beside the stove. Numbness was yielding, sorrow taking on an edge, and the hand that clutched her heart set itself to devising new agonies, each one subtler and more cruel than the last.
How he must have suffered, far off there amid the snows! So thought she, as still her own face remembered the sting of the bitter air. Men threatened by this fate had told her that death coming in such a guise smote with gentle and painless hand-a hand that merely lulled to sleep; but she could not make herself believe it, and all the sufferings that Francois, might have endured before giving up and falling to the white ground passed before her eyes.
No need for her to see the spot, too well she knew the winter terrors of the great forest, the snow heaped to the firs' lower branches, alders almost buried beneath it, birches and aspens naked as skeletons and shuddering in the icy wind, a sunless sky above the massed and gloomy spires of green. She sees Francois making his way through the close-set trees, limbs stiffened with the cold, his skin raw with that pitiless nor'wester, gnawed by hunger, stumbling with fatigue, his feet so weary that with no longer strength to lift them his snowshoes often catch the snow and throw him to his knees.
Doubtless when the storm abated he saw his error, knew that he was walking toward the barren northland, turned at once and took the right course—he so experienced, the woods his home from boyhood. But his food is nearly gone, the cold tortures him; with lowered head and clenched teeth he fights the implacable winter, calling to aid his every reserve of strength and high courage. He thinks of the road he must follow, the miles to be overcome, measures his chances of life; and fitful memories arise of a house, so warm and snug, where all will greet him gladly; of Maria who, knowing what he has dared for her sake, will at length raise to him her truthful eyes shining with love.
Perhaps he fell for the last time when succour was near, a few yards only from house or shanty. Often so it happens. Cold and his ministers of death flung themselves upon him as their prey; they have stilled the strong limbs forever, covered his open handsome face with snow, closed the fearless eyes without gentleness or pity, changed his living body into a thing of ice ... Maria has no more tears that she may shed, but she shivers and trembles as he must have trembled and shivered before he sank into merciful unconsciousness; horror and pity in her face, Maria draws nearer the stove as though she might thus bring him warmth and shield his dear life against the assassin.
"O Christ Jesus, who didst stretch forth Thine arm to those in need, why didst Thou not disperse the snows with those pale hands of Thine? Holy Virgin, why didst Thou not sustain him by Thy power when, for the last time, his feet were stumbling? In all the legions of heaven why was there found no angel to show him the way?"
But it is her grief that utters these reproaches, and the steadfast heart of Maria is fearful of having sinned in yielding to it. Another dread is soon to assail her. Perhaps Francois Paradis was not able quite faithfully to keep the promises he made to her. In the shanty, among rough and careless men, may he not have had moments of weakness; blasphemed or taken the names of the saints in vain, and thus have gone to his death with sin upon his conscience, under the weight of divine wrath.
Her parents had promised but a little ago that masses should be said. How good they were! Having guessed her secret how kindly had they been silent! But she herself might help with prayers the poor soul in torment. Her beads still lay upon the table; she takes them in her hands, and forthwith the words of the Ave mount to her lips,—"Hail Mary, full of grace..."
Did you doubt of her, O mother of the Galilean? Since that only eight days before she strove to reach your ear with her thousand prayers, and you but clothed yourself in divine impassivity while fate accomplished its purpose, think you that she questions your goodness or your power? It would indeed have been to misjudge her. As once she sought your aid for a man, so now she asks your pardon for a soul, in the same words, with the same humility and boundless faith.
"Blessed art Thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of Thy womb, Jesus."
But still she cowers by the great stove, and though the fire's heat strikes through her, she ceases not to shudder as she thinks of the frozen world about her, of Paradis, who cannot be insentient, who must be so bitter cold in his bed of snow.