LOVE BEARING CHAINS
No one asked Maria any questions that evening, or on the following evenings; but some member of the family must have told Eutrope Gagnon of Lorenzo Surprenant's visit and his evident intentions, for the next Sunday after dinner came Eutrope in turn, and Maria heard another suitor declare his love.
Francois had come in the full tide of summer, from the land of mystery at the headwaters of the rivers; the memory of his artless words brought back the dazzling sunshine, the ripened blueberries and the last blossoms of the laurel fading in the undergrowth; after him appeared Lorenzo Surprenant offering other gifts,—visions of beautiful distant cities, of a life abounding in unknown wonders. When Eutrope spoke, it was in a shamefaced halting way, as though he foresaw defeat, knowing full well that he bore little in his hands wherewith to tempt her.
Boldly enough he asked Maria to walk with him, but when they were dressed and outside the door, they saw that snow was falling. Maria stood dubiously on the step, a hand on the latch as though she would return; and Eutrope, unwilling to lose his chance, began forthwith to speak—hastening as though doubtful that he would be able to say all that was in his mind.
"You know very well, Maria, how I feel toward you. I said nothing before as my farm was not so forward that we could live there comfortably, and moreover I guessed that you liked Francois Paradis better than me. But as Francois is no longer here, and this young fellow from the States is courting you, I said to myself that I, too, might try my fortune ..."
The snow was coming now in serried flakes, fluttering whitely for an instant against the darkly-encircling forest, on the way to join that other snow with which five months of winter had burdened the earth.
"It is true enough that I am not rich; but I have two lots of my own, paid for out and out, and you know the soil is good. I shall work on it all spring, take the stumps out of the large field below the ridge of rock, put up some fences, and by May there will be a fine big field ready for seeding. I shall sow a hundred and thirty bushels, Maria,—a hundred and thirty bushels of wheat, barley and oats, without reckoning an acre of mixed grain for the cattle. All the seed, the best seed-grain, I am going to buy at Roberval, settling for it on the spot ... I have the money put aside; I shall pay cash, without running into debt to a soul, and if only we have an average season there will be a fine crop to harvest. Just think of it, Maria, a hundred and thirty bushels of good seed in first-rate land! And in the summer before the hay-making, and then again before the harvest, will be the best chance for building a nice tight warm little house, all of tamarack. I have the wood ready, cut and piled behind my barn; my brother will help me, perhaps Esdras and Da'Be as well, when they get home. Next winter I shall go to the shanties, taking a horse with me, and in the spring I shall bring back not less than two hundred dollars in my pocket. Then, should you be willing to wait so long for me, would be the time ..."
Maria was leaning against the door, a hand still upon the latch, her eyes turned away. Eutrope Gagnon had just this and no more to offer her: after a year of waiting that she should become his wife, and live as now she was doing in another wooden house on another half-cleared farm ... Should do the household work and the cooking, milk the cows, clean the stable when her man was away—labour in the fields perhaps, since she was strong and there would be but two of them ... Should spend her evenings at the spinning-wheel or in patching old clothes ... Now arid then in summer resting for half an hour, seated on the door-step, looking across their scant fields girt by the measureless frowning woods; or in winter thawing a little patch with her breath on the windowpane, dulled with frost, to watch the snow falling on the wintry earth and the forest ... The forest ... Always the inscrutable, inimical forest, with a host of dark things hiding there—closed round them with a savage grip that must be loosened little by little, year by year; a few acres won each spring and autumn as the years pass, throughout all the long days of a dull harsh life ... No, that she could not face ...
"I know well enough that we shall have to work hard at first," Eutrope went on, "but you have courage, Maria, and are well used to labour, as I am. I have always worked hard; no one can say that I was ever lazy, and if only you will marry me it will be my joy to toil like an ox all the day long to make a thriving place of it, so that we shall be in comfort before old age comes upon us. I do not touch drink, Maria, and truly I love you ..."
His voice quivered, and he put out his hand toward the latch to take hers, or perhaps to hinder her from opening the door and leaving him without his answer.
"My affection for you ... of that I am not able to speak ..."
Never a word did she utter in reply. Once more a young man was telling his love, was placing in her hands all he had to give; and once more she could but hearken in mute embarrassment, only saved from awkwardness by her immobility and silence. Town-bred girls had thought her stupid, when she was but honest and truthful; very close to nature which takes no account of words. In other days when life was simpler than now it is, when young men paid their court—masterfully and yet half bashfully—to some deep-bosomed girl in the ripe fullness of womanhood who had not heard nature's imperious command, she must have listened thus, in silence; less attentive to their pleading than to the inner voice, guarding herself by distance against too ardent a wooing, whilst she awaited ... Chapdelaine were not drawn to her by any charm of gracious speech, but by her sheer comeliness, and the transparent honest heart dwelling in her bosom; when they spoke to her of love she was true to herself, steadfast and serene, saying no word where none was needful to be said, and for this they loved her only the more.
"This young fellow from the States was ready with fine speeches, but you must not be carried away by them ..." He caught a hint of dissent and changed his tone.
"Of course you are quite free to choose, and I have not a word to say against him. But you would be happier here, Maria, amongst people like yourself."
Through the falling snow Maria gazed at the rude structure of planks, between stable and barn, which her father and brother had thrown together five years before; unsightly and squalid enough it appeared, now that her fancy had begun to conjure up the stately buildings of the town. Close and ill-smelling, the floor littered with manure and foul straw, the pump in one comer that was so hard to work and set the teeth on edge with its grinding; the weather-beaten outside, buffeted by wind and never-ending snow—sign and symbol of what awaited her were she to marry one like Eutrope Gagnon, and accept as her lot a lifetime of rude toil in this sad and desolate land ... She shook her head.
"I cannot answer, Eutrope, either yes or no; not just now. I have given no promise. You must wait."
It was more than she had said to Lorenzo Surprenant, and yet Lorenzo had gone away with hope in his heart, while Eutrope felt that he had made his throw and lost. Departing alone, the snow soon hid him. She entered the house.
March dragged through its melancholy days; cold winds drove the gray clouds back and forth across the sky, and swept the snow hither and thither; one must needs consult the calendar of the Roberval grain merchant to get an inkling that spring was drawing near.
Succeeding days were to Maria like those that had gone before, each one bringing its familiar duties and the same routine; but the evenings were different, and were filled with pathetic strivings to think. Beyond doubt her parents had guessed the truth; but they were unwilling to force her reserve with their advice, nor did she seek it. She knew that it rested with her alone to make a choice, to settle the future course of her life, and she, felt like a child at school, standing on a platform before watchful eyes, bidden to find by herself the answer to some knotty question.
And this was her problem: when a girl is grown to womanhood, when she is good-looking, healthy and strong, clever in all that pertains to the household and the farm, young men come and ask her to marry, and she must say "Yes" to this one and "No" to another.
If only Francois Paradis had not vanished forever in the great lonely woods, all were then so plain. No need to ask herself what she ought to do; she would have gone straight to him, guided by a wise instinct that she might not gainsay, sure of doing what was right as a child that obeys a command. But Francois was gone; neither in the promised springtime nor ever again to return, and the cure of St. Henri forbade regrets that would prolong the awaiting.
Ah, dear God! How happy had been the early days of this awaiting! As week followed week something quickened in her heart and shot upward, like a rich and beauteous sheaf whose opening ears bend low under their weight. Happiness beyond any dream came dancing to her ... No, it was stronger and keener yet, this joy of hers. It had been a great light shining in the twilight of a lonely land, a beacon toward which one journeys, forgetful of the tears that were about to flow, saying with glad defiance: "I knew it well—knew that somewhere on the earth was such a thing as this ..." It was over. Yes, the gleam was gone. Henceforth must she forget that once it had shone upon her path, and grope through the dark with faltering steps.
Chapdelaine and Tit'Be were smoking in silence by the stove; the mother knitted stockings; Chien, stretched out with his head between his paws, blinked sleepily in enjoyment of the good warmth. Telesphore had dozed off with the catechism open on his knees, and the little Alma Rose, not yet in bed, was hovering in doubt between the wish to draw attention to her brother's indolence, and a sense of shame at thus betraying him.
Maria looked down again, took her work in hand, and her simple mind pursued a little further its puzzling train of thought. When a girl does not feel, or feels no longer, that deep mysterious impulse toward a man singled out from all the rest of the world, what is left to guide her? For what things should she seek in her marriage? For a satisfying life, surely; to make a happy home for herself ...
Her parents would like her to marry Eutrope Gagnon—that she felt—because she would live near them, and again because this life upon the land was the only one they knew, and they naturally thought it better than any other. Eutrope was a fine fellow, hard-working and of kindly disposition, and he loved her; but Lorenzo Surprenant also loved her; he, likewise, was steady and a good worker; he was a Canadian at heart, not less than those amongst whom she lived; he went to church ... And he offered as his splendid gift a world dazzling to the eye, all the wonders of the city. He would rescue her from this oppression of frozen earth and gloomy forest.
She could not as yet resolve to say to herself: "I will marry Lorenzo Surprenant," but her heart had made its choice. The cruel north-west wind that heaped the snow above Francois Paradis at the foot of some desolate cypress bore also to her on its wings the frown and the harshness of the country wherein she dwelt, and filled her with hate of the northern winter, the cold, the whitened ground and the loneliness, of that boundless forest unheedful of the destinies of men where every melancholy tree is fit to stand in a home of the dead. Love—all-compelling love—for a brief space had dwelt within her heart ... Mighty flame, scorching and bright, quenched now, and never to revive. It left her spirit empty and yearning; she was fain to seek forgetfulness and cure in that life afar, among the myriad paler lights of the city.