LOVE BEARING GIFTS
MARCH came, and one day Tit'Be brought the news from Honfleur that there would be a large gathering in the evening at Ephrem Surprenant's to which everyone was invited.
But someone must stay to look after the house, and as Madame Chapdelaine had set her heart on this little diversion after being cooped up for all these months, it was Tit'Be himself who was left at home. Honfleur, the nearest village to their house, was eight miles away; but what were eight miles over the snow and through the woods compared with the delight of hearing songs and stories, and of talk with people from afar?
A numerous company was assembled under the Surprenant roof: several of the villagers, the three Frenchmen who had bought his nephew Lorenzo's farm, and also, to the Chapdelaines' great surprise, Lorenzo himself, back once more from the States upon business that related to the sale and the settling of his father's affairs. He greeted Maria very warmly, and seated himself beside her.
The men lit their pipes; they chatted about the weather, the condition of the roads, the country news; but the conversation lagged, as though all were looking for it to take some unusual turn. Their glances sought Lorenzo and the three Frenchmen, expecting strange and marvellous tales of distant lands and unfamiliar manners from an assembly so far out of the common. The Frenchmen, only a few months in the country, apparently felt a like curiosity, for they listened, and spoke but little.
Samuel Chapdelaine, who was meeting them for the first time, deemed himself called upon to put them through a catechism in the ingenuous Canadian fashion.
"So you have come here to till the land. How do you like Canada?"
"It is a beautiful country, new and so vast ... In the summer-time there are many flies, and the winters are trying; but I suppose that one gets used to these things in time."
The father it was who made reply, his sons only nodding their heads in assent with eyes glued to the floor. Their appearance alone would have served to distinguish them from the other dwellers in the village, but as they spoke the gap widened, and the words that fell from their lips had a foreign ring. There was none of the slowness of the Canadian speech, nor of that indefinable accent found in no comer of France, which is only a peasant blend of the different pronunciations of former emigrants. They used words and turns of phrase one never hears in Quebec, even in the towns, and which to these simple men seemed fastidious and wonderfully refined.
"Before coming to these parts were you farmers in your own country?"
"What trade then did you follow?"
The Frenchman hesitated a moment before replying; possibly thinking that what he was about to say would be novel, and hard for them to understand. "I was a tuner myself, a piano-tuner; my two sons here were clerks, Edmond in an office, Pierre in a shop."
Clerks—that was plain enough for anyone; but their minds were a little hazy as to the father's business.
However Ephrem Surprenant chimed in with.—"Piano-tuner; that was it, just so!" And his glance at Conrad Neron his neighbour was a trifle superior and challenging, as though intimating.—"You would not believe me, and maybe you don't know what it means, but now you see ..."
"Piano-tuner," Samuel Chapdelaine echoed in turn, slowly grasping the meaning of the words. "And is that a good trade? Do you earn handsome wages? Not too handsome, eh! ... At any rate you are well educated, you and your sons; you can read and write and cipher? And here am I, not able even to read!"
"Nor I!" struck in Ephrem Surprenant, and Conrad Neron and Egide Racicot added: "Nor I!" "Nor I!" in chorus, whereupon the whole of them broke out laughing.
A motion of the Frenchman's hand told them indulgently that they could very well dispense with these accomplishments; to himself of little enough use at the moment.
"You were not able to make a decent living out of your trades over there. That is so, is it not? And therefore you came here?"
The question was put simply, without thought of offence, for he was amazed that anyone should abandon callings that seemed so easy and so pleasant for this arduous life on the land.
Why indeed had they come? ... A few months earlier they would have discovered a thousand reasons and clothed them in words straight from the heart: weariness of the footway and the pavement, of the town's sullied air; revolt against the prospect of lifelong slavery; some chance stirring word of an irresponsible speaker preaching the gospel of vigour and enterprise, of a free and healthy life upon a fruitful soil. But a few months ago they could have found glowing sentences to tell it all ... Now their best was a sorry effort to evade the question, as they groped for any of the illusions that remained to them.
"People are not always happy in the cities," said the father. "Everything is dear, and one is confined."
In their narrow Parisian lodging it had seemed so wonderful a thing to them, the notion that in Canada they would spend their days out of doors, breathing the taintless air of a new country, close beside the mighty forest. The black-flies they had not foreseen, nor comprehended the depth of the winter's cold; the countless ill turns of a land that has no pity were undivined.
"Did you picture it to yourselves as you have found it," Chapdelaine persisted, "the country here, the life?"
"Not exactly," replied the Frenchman in a low voice. "No, not exactly ..." And a shadow crossed his face which brought from Ephrem. Surprenant:—"It is rough here, rough and hard!"
Their heads assented, and their eyes fell: three narrow-shouldered men, their faces with the pallor of the town still upon them after six months on the land; three men whom a fancy had torn from counter, office, piano-stool-from the only lives for which they were bred. For it is not the peasant alone who suffers by uprooting from his native soil. They were seeing their mistake, and knew they were too unlike in grain to copy those about them; lacking the strength, the rude health, the toughened fibre, that training for every task which fits the Canadian to be farmer, woodsman or carpenter, according to season and need.
The father was dreamily shaking his head, lost in thought; one of the sons, elbows on knees, gazed wonderingly at the palms of his delicate hands, calloused by the rough work of the fields. All three seemed to be turning over and over in their minds the melancholy balance-sheet of a failure. Those about them were thinking—"Lorenzo sold his place for more than it was worth; they have but little money left and are in hard case; men like these are not built for living on the land."
Madame Chapdelaine, partly in pity and partly for the honour of farming, let fall a few encouraging words:—"It is something of a struggle at the beginning-if you are not used to it; but when your land is in better order you will see that life becomes easier."
"It is a queer thing," said Conrad Neron, "how every man finds it equally hard to rest content. Here are three who left their homes and came this long way to settle and farm, and here am I always saying to myself that nothing would be so pleasant as to sit quietly in an office all the day, a pen behind my ear, sheltered from cold wind and hot sun."
"Everyone to his own notion," declared Lorenzo Surprenant, with unbiassed mind.
"And your notion is not to stick in Hon-fleur sweating over the stumps," added Racicot with a loud laugh.
"You are quite right there, and I make no bones about it; that sort of thing would never have suited me. These men here bought my land-a good farm, and no one can gainsay it. They wanted to buy a farm and I sold them mine. But as for myself, I am well enough where I am, and have no wish to return."
Madame Chapdelaine shook her head. "There is no better life than the life of a farmer who has good health and owes no debts. He is a free man, has no boss, owns his beasts, works for his own profit ... The finest life there is!"
"I hear them all say that," Lorenzo retorted, "one is free, his own master. And you seem to pity those who work in factories because they have a boss, and must do as they are told. Free-on the land-come now!" He spoke defiantly, with more and more animation.
"There is no man in the world less free than a farmer ... When you tell of those who have succeeded, who are well provided with everything needful on a farm, who have had better luck than others, you say.—'Ah, what a fine life they lead! They are comfortably off, own good cattle.' That is not how to put it. The truth is that their cattle own them. In all the world there is no 'boss' who behaves as stupidly as the beasts you favour. Pretty nearly every day they give you trouble or do you some mischief. Now it is a skittish horse that runs away or lashes out with his heels; then it is a cow, however good-tempered, that won't keep still to be milked and tramples on your toes when the flies annoy her. And even if by good fortune they don't harm you, they are forever finding a way to destroy your comfort and to vex you..."
"I know how it is; I was brought up on a farm. And you, most of you farmers, know how it is too. All the morning you have worked hard, and go to your house for dinner and a little rest. Then, before you are well seated at table, a child is yelling:—'The cows are over the fence;' or 'The sheep are in the crop,' and everyone jumps up and runs, thinking of the oats or the barley it has been such a trouble to raise, that these miserable fools are ruining. The men dash about brandishing sticks till they are out of breath; the women stand screaming in the farm-yard. And when you have managed to drive the cows or the sheep into their paddock and put up the rails, you get back to the house nicely 'rested' to find the pea-soup cold and full of flies, the pork under the table gnawed by dogs and cats, and you eat what you can lay your hands on, watching for the next trick the wretched animals are getting ready to play on you."
"You are their slaves; that's what you are. You tend them, you clean them, you gather up their dung as the poor do the rich man's crumbs. It is you who must keep them alive by hard work, because the earth is miserly and the summer so short. That is the way of it, and there is no help, as you cannot get on without them; but for cattle there would be no living on the land. But even if you could ... even if you could ... still would you have other masters: the summer, beginning too late and ending too soon; the winter, eating up seven long months of the year and bringing in nothing; drought and rain which always come just at the wrong moment..."
"In the towns these things do not matter; but here you have no defence against them and they do you hurt; and I have not taken into account the extreme cold, the badness of the roads, the loneliness of being far away from everything, with no amusements. Life is one kind of hardship on top of another from beginning to end. It is often said that only those make a real success who are born and brought up on the land, and of course that is true; as for the people in the cities, small danger that they would ever be foolish enough to put up with such a way of living."
He spoke with heat and volubly—a man of the town who talks every day with his equals, reads the papers, hears public speakers. The listeners, of a race easily moved by words, were carried away by his plaints and criticisms; the very real harshness of their lives was presented in such a new and startling light as to surprise even themselves.
However Madame Chapdelaine again shook her head. "Do not say such things as that; there is no happier life in the world than the life of a farmer who owns good land."
"Not in these parts, Madame Chapdelaine. You are too far north; the summer is too short; the grain is hardly up before the frosts come. Each time that I return from the States, and see the tiny wooden houses lost in this wilderness-so far from one another that they seem frightened at being alone-and the woods hemming you in on every side ... By Heaven! I lose heart for you, I who live here no longer, and I ask myself how it comes about that all you folk did not long ago seek a kinder climate where you would find everything that makes for comfort, where you could go out for a walk in the winter-time without being in fear of death ..."
Without being in fear of death! Maria shuddered as the thought swiftly awoke of those dark secrets hidden beneath the ever-lasting green and white of the forest. Lorenzo Surprenant was right in what he had been saying; it was a pitiless ungentle land. The menace lurking just outside the door-the cold-the shrouding snows-the blank solitude-forced a sudden entrance and crowded about the stove, an evil swarm sneering presages of ill or hovering in a yet more dreadful silence:—"Do you remember, my sister, the men, brave and well-beloved, whom we have stain and hidden in the woods? Their souls have known how to escape us; but their bodies, their-bodies, their bodies, none shall ever snatch them from our hands ..."
The voice of the wind at the comers of the house was loud with hollow laughter, and to Maria it seemed that all gathered within the wooden walls huddled and spoke low, like men whose lives are under a threat and who go in dread.
A burden of sadness was upon the rest of the evening, at least for her. Racicot told stories of the chase: of trapped bears struggling and growling so fiercely at the sight of the trapper that he loses courage and falls a-trembling; and then, giving up suddenly when the hunters come in force and the deadly guns are aimed—giving up, covering their heads with their paws and whimpering with groans and outcries almost human, very heart-rending and pitiful.
After these tales came others of ghosts and apparitions; of blood-curdling visitations or solemn warnings to men who had blasphemed or spoken ill of the priests. Then, as no one could be persuaded to sing, they played at cards and the conversation dropped to more commonplace themes. The only memory that Maria carried away of the later talk, as the sleigh bore them homeward through the midnight woods, was of Lorenzo Surprenant extolling the United States and the magnificence of its great cities, the easy and pleasant life, the never-ending spectacle of the fine straight streets flooded with light at evening.
Before she departed Lorenzo said in quiet tones, almost in her ear.—"To-morrow is Sunday; I shall be over to see you in the afternoon."
A few short hours of night, a morning of sunlight on the snow, and again he is by her side renewing his tale of wonders, his interrupted plea. For it was to her he had been speaking the evening before; Maria knew it well. The scorn he showed for a country life, his praises of the town, these were but a preface to the allurements he was about to offer in all their varied forms, as one shows the pictures in a book, turning page by page.
"Maria," he began, "you have not the faintest idea! As yet, the most wonderful things you ever saw were the shops in Roberval, a high mass, an evening entertainment at the convent with acting. City people would laugh to think of it! You simply cannot imagine ... Just to stroll through the big streets in the evening—not on little plank-walks like those of Roberval, but on fine broad asphalt pavements as level as a table—just that and no more, what with the lights, the electric cars coming and going continually, the shops and the crowds, you would find enough there to amaze you for weeks together. And then all the amusements one has: theatres, circusses, illustrated papers, and places everywhere that you can go into for a nickel—five cents—and pass two hours laughing and crying. To think, Maria, you do not even know what the moving pictures are!"
He stopped for a little, reviewing in his mind the marvels of the cinematograph, asking himself whether he could hope to describe convincingly the fare it provided:—those thrilling stories of young girls, deserted or astray, which crowd the screen with twelve minutes of heart-rending misery and three of amends and heavenly reward in surroundings of incredible luxury;—the frenzied galloping of cowboys in pursuit of Indian ravishers; the tremendous fusillade; the rescue at the last conceivable second by soldiers arriving in a whirlwind, waving triumphantly the star-spangled banner ... after pausing in doubt he shook his head, conscious that he had no words to paint such glories.
They walked on snow-shoes side by side over the snow, through the burnt lands that lie on the Peribonka's high bank above the fall. Lorenzo had used no wile to secure Maria's company, he simply invited her before them all, and now he told of his love, in the same straightforward practical way.
"The first day I saw you, Maria, the very first day ... that is only the truth! For a long time I had not been back in this country, and I was thinking what a miserable place it was to live in, that the men were a lot of simpletons who had never seen anything and the girls not nearly so quick and clever as they are in the States ... And then, the moment I set eyes on you, there was I saying to myself that I was the simpleton, for neither at Lowell nor Boston had I ever met a girl like yourself. When I returned I used to be thinking a dozen times a day that some wretched farmer would make love to you and carry you off, and every time my heart sank. It was on your account that I came back, Maria, came up here from near Boston, three days' journey! The business I had, I could have done it all by letter; it was you I wished to see, to tell you what was in my heart to say and to hear the answer you would give me."
Wherever the snow was clear for a few yards, free of dead trees and stumps, and he could lift his eyes without fear of stun-Ning, they were fixed upon Maria; between the woollen cap and the long woollen jersey curving to her vigorous form he saw the outline of her face, downward turned, expressing only gentleness and patience. Every glance gave fresh reason for his love but brought him no hint of a response.
"This ... this is no place for you, Maria. The country is too rough, the work too hard; barely earning one's bread is killing toil. In a factory over there, clever and strong as you are, soon you would be in the way of making nearly as much as I do; but no need of that if you were my wife. I earn enough for both of us, and we should have every comfort: good clothes to wear, a pretty flat in a brick house with gas and hot water, and all sorts of contrivances you never heard of to save you labour and worry every moment of the day. And don't let the idea enter your head that all the people are English. I know many Canadian families who work as I do or even keep shops. And there is a splendid church with a Canadian priest as cure—Mr. Tremblay from St. Hyacinthe. You would never be lonesome ..."
Pausing again he surveyed the white plain with its ragged crop of brown stumps, the bleak plateau dropping a little farther in a long slope to the levels of the frozen river; meanwhile ransacking his mind for some final persuasive word.
"I hardly know what to say ... You have always lived here and it is not possible for you to guess what life is elsewhere, nor would I be able to make you understand were I to talk forever. But I love you, Maria, I earn a good wage and I never touch a drop. If you will marry me as I ask I will take you off to a country that will open your eyes with astonishment—a fine country, not a bit like this, where we can live in a decent way and be happy for the rest of our days."
Maria still was silent, and yet the sentences of Lorenzo Surprenant beat upon her heart as succeeding waves roll against the shore. It was not his avowals of love, honest and sincere though they were, but the lures he used which tempted her. Only of cheap pleasures had he spoken, of trivial things ministering to comfort or vanity, but of these alone was she able to conjure up a definite idea. All else—the distant glamour of the city, of a life new and incomprehensible to her, full in the centre of the bustling world and no longer at its very confines—enticed her but the more in its shimmering remoteness with the mystery of a great light that shines from afar.
Whatsoever there may be of wonder and exhilaration in the sight and touch of the crowd; the rich harvests of mind and sense for which the city dweller has bartered his rough heritage of pride in the soil, Maria was dimly conscious of as part of this other life in a new world, this glorious re-birth for which she was already yearning. But above all else the desire was strong upon her now to flee away, to escape.
The wind from the cast was driving before it a host of melancholy snow-laden clouds. Threateningly they swept over white ground and sullen wood, and the earth seemed awaiting another fold of its winding-sheet; cypress, spruce and fir, close side by side and motionless, were passive in their attitude of uncomplaining endurance. The stumps above the snow were like floating wreckage on a dreary sea. In all the landscape there was naught that spoke of a spring to come—of warmth and growth; rather did it seem a shard of some disinherited planet under the eternal rule of deadly cold.
All of her life had Maria known this cold, this snow, the land's death-like sleep, these austere and frowning woods; now was she coming to view them with fear and hate. A paradise surely must it be, this country to the south where March is no longer winter and in April the leaves are green! At midwinter one takes to the road without snowshoes, unclad in furs, beyond sight of the cruel forest. And the cities ... the pavements ...
Questions framed themselves upon her lips. She would know if lofty houses and shops stood unbrokenly on both sides of the streets, as she had been told; if the electric cars ran all the year round; if the living was very dear ... And the answers to her questions would have satisfied but a little of this eager curiosity, would scarcely have disturbed the enchanting vagueness of her illusion.
She was silent, however, dreading to speak any word that might seem like the foreshadowing of a promise. Though Lorenzo gazed at her long as they walked together across the snow, he was able to guess nothing of what was passing in her heart.
"You will not have me, Maria? You have no liking for me, or is it, perhaps, that you cannot make up your mind?" As still she gave no reply he clung to this idea, fearing that she might hastily refuse him.
"No need whatever that you should say 'Yes' at once. You have not known me very long ... But think of what I have said to you. I will come back, Maria. It is a long journey and costly, but I will come. And if only you give thought to it, you will see there is no young fellow here who could give you such a future as I can; because if you marry me we shall live like human beings, and not have to kill ourselves tending cattle and grubbing in the earth in this out-of-the-way comer of the world."
They returned to the house. Lorenzo gossiped a little about his journey to the States, where the springtime would have arrived before him, of the plentiful and well-paid work to which his good clothes and prosperous air bore witness. Then he bade them adieu, and Maria, whose eyes had carefully been avoiding his, seated herself by the window, and watched the night and the snow falling together as she pondered in the deep unrest of her spirit.