THE INTERPRETER OF GOD
ONE evening in February Samuel Chapdelaine said to his daughter: "The roads are passable; if you wish it, Maria, we shall go to La Pipe on Sunday for the mass."
"Very well, father;" but she replied in a voice so dejected, almost indifferent, that her parents exchanged glances behind her back.
Country folk do not die for love, nor spend the rest of their days nursing a wound. They are too near to nature, and know too well the stern laws that rule their lives. Thus it is perhaps, that they are sparing of high-sounding words; choosing to say "liking" rather than "loving" ... "ennui" rather than "grief," that so the joys and sorrows of the heart may bear a fit proportion to those more anxious concerns of life which have to do with their daily toil, the yield of their lands, provision for the future.
Maria did not for a moment dream that life for her was over, or that the world must henceforward be a sad wilderness, because Francis Paradis would not return in the spring nor ever again. But her heart was aching, and while sorrow possessed it the future held no promise for her.
When Sunday arrived, father and daughter early began to make ready for the two hours' journey which would bring them to St. Henri de Taillon, and the church. Before half-past seven Charles Eugene was harnessed, and Maria, still wearing a heavy winter cloak, had carefully deposited in her purse the list of her mother's commissions. A few minutes later the sleigh-bells were tinkling, and the rest of the family grouped themselves at the little square window to watch the departure.
For the first hour the horse could not go beyond a walk, sinking knee-deep in snow; for only the Chapdelaines used this road, laid out and cleared by themselves, and not enough travelled to become smooth and hard. But when they reached the beaten highway Charles Eugene trotted along briskly.
They passed through Honfleur, a hamlet of eight scattered houses, and then re-entered the woods. After a time they came upon clearings, then houses appeared dotted along the road; little by little the dusky ranks of the forest retreated, and soon they were in the village with other sleighs before and following them, all going toward the church.
Since the beginning of the year Maria had gone three times to hear mass at St. Henri de Taillon, which the people of the country persist in calling La Pipe, as in the gallant days of the first settlers. For her, besides being an exercise of piety, this was almost the only distraction possible and her father sought to furnish it whenever he could do so, believing that the impressive rites of the church and a meeting with acquaintances in the village would help to banish her grief.
On this occasion when the mass was ended, instead of paying visits they went to the curees house. It was already thronged with members of the congregation from remote farms, for the Canadian priest not only has the consciences of his flock in charge, but is their counsellor in all affairs, and the composer of their disputes; the solitary individual of different station to whom they can resort for the solving of their difficulties.
The cure of St. Henri sent none away empty who asked his advice; some he dealt with in a few swift words amidst a general conversation where he bore his cheerful part; others at greater length in the privacy of an adjoining room. When the turn of the Chapdelaines came he looked at his watch.
"We shall have dinner first. What say you, my good friends? You must have found an appetite on the road. As for myself, singing mass makes me hungry beyond anything you could believe."
He laughed heartily, more tickled than anyone at his own joke, and led his guests into the dining-room. Another priest was there from a neighbouring parish, and two or three farmers. The meal was one long discussion about husbandry, with a few amusing stories and bits of harmless gossip thrown in; now and then one of the farmers, suddenly remembering where he was, would labour some pious remark which the priests acknowledged with a nod or an absent-minded "Yes! Yes!"
The dinner over at last, some of the guests departed after lighting their pipes. The cure, catching a glance from Chapdelaine, seemed to recall something; arising, he motioned to Maria, and went before her into the next room which served him both for visitors and as his office.
A small harmonium stood against the wall; on the other side was a table with agricultural journals, a Civil Code and a few books bound in black leather; on the walls hung a portrait of Pius X., an engraving of the Holy Family, the coloured broadside of a Quebec merchant with sleighs and threshing-machines side by side, and a number of official notices as to precautions against forest fires and epidemics amongst cattle.
Turning to Maria, the cure said kindly enough;—"So it appears that you are distressing yourself beyond what is reasonable and right?"
She looked at him humbly, not far from believing that the priest's supernatural power had divined her trouble without need of telling. He inclined his tall figure, and bent toward her his thin peasant face; for beneath the robe was still the tiller of the soil: the gaunt and yellow visage, the cautious eyes, the huge bony shoulders. Even his hands—hands wont to dispense the favours of Heaven-were those of the husbandman, with swollen veins beneath the dark skin. But Maria saw in him only the priest, the cure of the parish, appointed of God to interpret life to her and show her the path of duty.
"Be seated there," he said, pointing to a chair. She sat down somewhat like a schoolgirl who is to have a scolding, somewhat like a woman in a sorcerer's den who awaits in mingled hope and dread the working of his unearthly spells... ... ...
An hour later the sleigh was speeding over the hard snow. Chapdelaine drowsed, and the reins were slipping from his open hands. Rousing himself and lifting his head, he sang again in full-voiced fervour the hymn he was singing as they left the village:—
... Adorons-le dans le ciel.
Then he fell silent, his chin dropping slowly toward his breast, and the only sound upon the road was the tinkle of sleigh-bells.
Maria was thinking of the priest's words: "If there was affection between you it is very proper that you should know regret. But you were not pledged to one another, because neither you nor he had spoken to your parents; therefore it is not befitting or right that you should sorrow thus, nor feel so deep a grief for a young man who, after all is said, was nothing to you..."
And again: "That masses should be sung, that you should pray for him, such things are useful and good, you could do no better. Three high masses with music, and three more when the boys return from the woods, as your father has asked me, most assuredly these will help him, and also you may be certain they will delight him more than your lamentations, since they will shorten by so much his time of expiation. But to grieve like this, and to go about casting gloom over the household is not well, nor is it pleasing in the sight of God."
He did not appear in the guise of a comforter, nor of one who gives counsel in the secret affairs of the heart, but rather as a man of the law or a chemist who enunciates his bald formulas, invariable and unfailing.
"The duty of a girl like you—good-looking, healthy, active withal and a clever housewife—is in the first place to help her old parents, and in good time to marry and bring up a Christian family of her own. You have no call to the religious life? No. Then you must give up torturing yourself in this fashion, because it is a sacrilegious thing and unseemly, seeing that the young man was nothing whatever to you. The good God knows what is best for us; we should neither rebel nor complain ..."
In all this, but one phrase left Maria a little doubting, it was the priest's assurance that Francois Paradis, in the place where now he was, cared only for masses to repose his soul, and never at all for the deep and tender regrets lingering behind him. This she could not constrain herself to believe. Unable to think of him otherwise in death than in life, she felt it must bring him something of happiness and consolation that her sorrow was keeping alive their ineffectual love for a little space beyond death. Yet, since the priest had said it ...
The road wound its way among the trees rising sombrely from the snow. Here and there a squirrel, alarmed by the swiftly passing sleigh and the tinkling bells, sprang upon a trunk and scrambled upward, clinging to the bark. From the gray sky a biting cold was falling and the wind stung the cheek, for this was February, with two long months of winter yet to come.
As Charles Eugene trotted along the beaten road, bearing the travellers to their lonely house, Maria, in obedience to the words of the cure at St. Henri, strove to drive away gloom and put mourning from her; as simple-mindedly as she would have fought the temptation of a dance, of a doubtful amusement or anything that was plainly wrong and hence forbidden.
They reached home as night was falling. The coming of evening was only a slow fading of the light, for, since morning, the heavens had been overcast, the sun obscured. A sadness rested upon the pallid earth; the firs and cypresses did not wear the aspect of living trees and the naked birches seemed to doubt of the springtime. Maria shivered as she left the sleigh, and hardly noticed Chien, barking and gambolling a welcome, or the children who called to her from the door-step. The world seemed strangely empty, for this evening at least. Love was snatched away, and they forbade remembrance. She went swiftly into the house without looking about her, conscious of a new dread and hatred for the bleak land, the forest's eternal shade, the snow and the cold,—for all those things she had lived her life amongst, which now had wounded her.