INTO THE DEEP SILENCE
There came an evening in April when Madame Chapdelaine would not take her place at the supper table with the others.
"There are pains through my body and I have no appetite," she said, "I must have strained myself to-day lifting a bag of flour when I was making bread. Now something catches me in the back, and I am not hungry."
No one answered her. Those living sheltered lives take quick alarm when the mechanism of one of their number goes wrong, but people who wrestle with the earth for a living feel little surprise if their labours are too much for them now and then, and the body gives way in some fibre.
While father and children supped, Madame Chapdelaine sat very still in her chair beside the stove. She drew her breath hard, and her broad face was working.
"I am going to bed," she said presently. "A good night's sleep, and to-morrow morning I shall be all right again; have no doubt of that. You will see to the baking, Maria."
And indeed in the morning she was up at her usual hour, but when she had made the batter for the pancakes pain overcame her, and she had to lie down again. She stood for a minute beside the bed, with both hands pressed against her back, and made certain that the daily tasks would be attended to.
"You will give the men their food, Maria, and your father will lend you a hand at milking the cows if you wish it. I am not good for anything this morning."
"It will be all right, mother; it will be all right. Take it quietly; we shall have no trouble."
For two days she kept her bed, with a watchful eye over everything, directing all the household affairs.
"Don't be in the least anxious," her husband urged again and again. "There is hardly anything to be done in the house beyond the cooking, and Maria is quite fit to look after that—everything else too, by thunder! She is not a little child any longer, and is as capable as yourself. Lie there quietly, without stirring; and be easy in your mind, instead of tossing about all the time under the blankets and making yourself worse...."
On the third day she gave up thinking about the cares of the house and began to bemoan herself.
"Oh my God!" she wailed. "I have pains all over my body, and my bead is burning. I think that I am going to die."
Her husband tried to cheer her with his Clumsy pleasantries. "You are going to die when the good God wills it, and according to my way of thinking that will not be for a while yet. What would He be doing with you? Heaven is all cluttered with old women, and down here we have only the one, and she is able to make herself a bit useful, every now and then ..." But he was beginning to feel anxious, and took counsel with his daughter.
"I could put the horse in and go as far as La Pipe," he suggested. "It may be that they have some medicine for this sickness at the store; or I might talk things over with the cure, and he would tell me what to do."
Before they had made up their minds night had fallen, and Tit'Be, who had been at Eutrope Gagnon's helping him to saw his firewood, came back bringing Eutrope along with him.
"Eutrope has a remedy," said he. They all gathered round Eutrope, who took a little tin box from his pocket and opened it deliberately.
"This is what I have," he announced rather dubiously. "They are little pills. When my brother was bad with his kidneys three years ago he saw an advertisement in a paper about these pills, and it said they were the proper thing, so he sent the money for a box, and he declares it is a good medicine. Of course his trouble did not leave him at once, but he says that this did him good. It comes from the States ..."
Without word said they looked at the little gray pills rolling about on the bottom of the box ... A remedy compounded by some man in a distant land famed for his wisdom ... And they felt the awe of the savage for his broth of herbs simmered on a night of the full moon beneath the medicineman's incantations.
Maria asked doubtfully: "Is it certain that her trouble has only to do with the kidneys?"
"I thought it was just that, from what Tit'Be told me."
A motion of Chapdelaine's hand eked out his words.—"She strained herself lifting a bag of flour, as she says; and now she has pains everywhere. How can we tell ..."
"The newspaper that spoke of this medicine," Eutrope Gagnon went on, "put it that whenever a person falls sick and is in pain it is always the kidneys; and for trouble in the kidneys these pills here are first-rate. That is what the paper said, and my brother as well."
"Even if they are not for this very sickness," said Tit'Be deferentially, "they are a remedy all the same."
"She suffers, that is one thing certain; we cannot let her go on like this."
They drew near the bed where the sick woman was moaning and breathing heavily, attempting from time to time to make slight movements which were followed by sharper outcries.
"Eutrope has brought you a cure, Laura."
"I have no faith in your cures," she groaned out. But yet she was ready to look at the little gray pills ever running round in the tin box as if they were alive.
"My brother took some of these three years ago when he had the kidney trouble so badly that he was hardly able to work at all, and he says that they cured him. It is a fine remedy, Madame Chapdelaine, there is not a question of it!" His former doubts had vanished in speech and he felt wholly confident. "This is going to cure you, Madame Chapdelaine, as surely as the good God is above us. It is a medicine of the very first class; my brother had it sent expressly from the States. You may be sure that you would never find a medicine like this in the store at La Pipe."
"It cannot make her worse?" Maria asked, some doubt lingering. "It is not a poison, or anything of that sort?"
With one voice, in an indignant tone, the three men protested: "Do harm? Tiny pills no bigger than that!"
"My brother took nearly a box of them, and according to his account it was only good they did him."
When Eutrope departed he left the box of pills; the sick woman had not yet agreed to try them, but her objections grew weaker with their urging. In the middle of the night she took a couple, and two more in the morning, and as the hours passed they all waited in confidence of the virtue of the medicine to declare itself. But toward midday they had to bow to the facts: she was no easier and did not cease her moaning. By evening the box was empty, and at the falling of the night her groans were filling the household with anguished distress, all the keener as they had no medicine now in which to place their trust.
Maria was up several times in the night, aroused by her mother's more piercing cries; she always found her lying motionless on her side, and this position seemed to increase the suffering and the stiffness, so that her groans were pitiful to hear.
"What ails you, mother? Are you not feeling any better?"
"Ah God, how I suffer! How I do suffer! I cannot stir myself, not the least bit, and even so the pain is as bad as ever. Give me some cold water, Maria; I have the most terrible thirst."
Several times Maria gave her mother water, but at last she became afraid. "Maybe it is not good for you to drink so much. Try to bear the thirst for a little."
"But I cannot bear it, I tell you-the thirst and the pain all through my body, and my head that bums like fire ... My God! It is certain that I am to die."
A little before daylight they both fen asleep; but soon Maria was awakened by her father who laid his hand upon her shoulder and whispered:—"I am going to harness the horse to go to Mistook for the doctor, and on the way through La Pipe I shall also speak to the cure. It is heart-breaking to hear her moan Eke this."
Her eyes open in the ghostly dawn, Maria gave ear to the sounds of his departure: the banging of the stable door against the wall; the horse's hoofs thudding on the wood of the alley; muffled commands to Charles Eugene: "Hold up, there! Back ... Back up! Whoa!" Then the tinkle of the sleigh-bells. In the silence that followed, the sick woman groaned two or three times in her sleep; Maria watched the wan light stealing into the house and thought of her father's journey, trying to reckon up the distances he must travel.
From their house to Honfleur, eight miles; from Honfleur to La Pipe, six. There her father would speak with the cure, and then pursue his way to Mistook. She corrected herself, and for the ancient Indian name that the people of the country use, gave it the official one bestowed in baptism by the church—St. Coeur de Marie. From La Pipe to St. Coeur de Marie, eight miles ... —Eight and six and then eight. Growing confused, she said to herself—"Anyway it is far, and the roads will be heavy."
Again she felt affrighted at their loneliness, which once hardly gave her a thought. All was well enough when people were in health and merry, and one had no need of help; but with trouble or sickness the woods around seemed to shut them cruelly away from all succour—the woods where horses sink to the chest in snow, where storms smother one in mid-April.
The mother strove to turn in her sleep, waked with a cry of anguish, and the continual moaning began anew. Maria rose and sat by the bed, thinking of the long day just beginning in which she would have neither help nor counsel.
All the dragging hours were burdened with lamentable sound; the groaning from the bed where the sick woman lay never ceased, and haunted the narrow wooden dwelling. Now and then some household noise broke in upon it: the clashing of plates, the clang of the opened stove door, the sound of feet on the planking, Tit'Be stealing into the house, clumsy and anxious, to ask for news.
"Is she no better?"
Maria answered by a movement of the head. They both stood gazing for a time at the motionless figure under the woollen blankets, giving ear to the sounds of distress; then Tit'Be departed to his small outdoor duties. When Maria had put the house in order she took up her patient watching, and the sick woman's agonizing wails seemed to reproach her.
From hour to hour she kept reckoning the times and the distances. "My father should not be far from St. Coeur de Marie ... If the doctor is there they will rest the horse for a couple of hours and come back together. But the roads must be very bad; at this time, in the spring, they are sometimes hardly passable."
And then a little later:—"They should have left; perhaps in going through La Pipe they will stop to speak to the cure; perhaps again he may have started as soon as he heard, without waiting for them. In that case he might be here at any moment."
But the fall of night brought no one, and it was only about seven o'clock that the sound of sleigh-bells was heard, and her father and the doctor arrived. The latter came into the house alone, put his bag on the table and began to pull off his overcoat, grumbling all the while.
"With the roads in this condition," said he, "it is no small affair to get about and visit the sick. And as for you folk, you seem to have hidden yourselves as far in the woods as you could. Great Heavens! You might very well all die without a soul coming to help you."
After warming himself for a little while at the stove he approached the bedside. "Well, good mother, so we have taken the notion to be sick, just like people who have money to spend on such things!"
But after a brief examination he ceased to jest, saying:—"She really is sick, I do believe."
It was with no affectation that he spoke in the fashion of the peasantry; his grandfather and his father were tillers of the soil, and he had gone straight from the farm to study medicine in Quebec, amongst other young fellows for the most part like himself—grandsons, if not sons of farmers—who had all clung to the plain country manner and the deliberate speech of their fathers. He was tall and heavily built, with a grizzled moustache, and his large face wore the slightly aggrieved expression of one whose native cheerfulness is being continually dashed through listening to the tale of others' ills for which he is bound to show a decent sympathy.
Chapdelaine came in when he had unharnessed and fed the horse. He and his children sat at a little distance while the doctor was going through his programme.
Every one of them was thinking:—"Presently we shall know what is the matter, and the doctor will give her the right medicines." But when the examination was ended, instead of turning to the bottles in his bag, he seemed uncertain and began to ask interminable questions. How had it happened, and where, particularly, did she feel pain ... Had she ever before suffered from the same trouble ... The answers did not seem to enlighten him very much; then he turned to the sick woman herself, only to receive confused statements and complaints.
"If it is just a wrench that she has given herself," at length he announced, "she will get well without any meddling; there is nothing for her to do but to stay quietly in bed. But if there is some injury within, to the kidneys or another organ, it may be a grave affair." He was conscious that his state of doubt was disappointing to the Chapdelaines, and was anxious to restore his medical reputation.
"Internal lesions are serious things, and often one cannot detect them. The wisest man in the world could tell you no more than I. We shall have to wait ... But perhaps it is not that we have to deal with." After some further investigation he shook his head. "Of course I can give something that will keep her from suffering like this."
The leather bag now disclosed its wonderworking phials; fifteen drops of a yellowish drug were diluted with two fingers of water, and the sick woman, lifted up in bed, managed to swallow this with sharp cries of pain. Then there was apparently nothing more to be done; the men fit their pipes, and the doctor, with his feet against the stove, held forth as to his professional labours and the cures he had wrought.
"Illnesses like these," said he, "where one cannot discover precisely what is the matter, are more baffling to a doctor than the gravest disorders—like pneumonia now, or even typhoid fever which carry off three-quarters of the people hereabouts who do not die of old age. Well, typhoid and pneumonia, I cure these every month in the year. You know Viateur Tremblay, the postmaster at St. Henri ..."
He seemed a little hurt that Madame Chapdelaine should be the victim of an obscure malady, hard to diagnose, and had not been taken down with one of the two complaints he was accustomed to treat with such success, and he gave an account by chapter and verse of the manner in which he had cured the postmaster of St. Henri. From that they passed on to the country news—news carried by word of mouth from house to house around Lake St. John, and greeted a thousandfold more eagerly than tidings of wars and famines, since the gossipers always manage to connect it with friend or relative in a country where all ties of kinship, near or far, are borne scrupulously in mind.
Madame Chapdelaine ceased moaning and seemed to be asleep. The doctor, considering that he had done all that was expected of him, for the evening at least, knocked the ashes out of his pipe and rose to go.
"I shall sleep at Honfleur," said he, "I suppose your horse is fit to take me so far? There is no need for you to come, I know the road. I shall stay with Ephrem, Surprenant, and come back in the morning."
Chapdelaine was a little slow to make reply, recalling the stiff day's work his old beast had already accomplished, but at the end he went out to harness Charles Eugene once more. In a few minutes the doctor was on the road, leaving the family to themselves as usual.
A great stillness reigned in the house. The comfortable thought was with them all:—"Anyway the medicine he has given her is a good one; she groans no longer." But scarce an hour had gone by before the sick woman ceased to feel the effect of the too feeble drug, became conscious again, tried to turn herself in bed and screamed out with pain. They were all up at once and crowding about her in their concern; she opened her eyes, and after groaning in an agonized way began to weep unrestrainedly.
"O Samuel, I am dying, there can be no doubt of it."
"No! No! You must not think that."
"Yes, I know that I am dying. I feel it. The doctor is only an old fool, and he cannot tell what to do. He is not even able to say what the trouble is, and the medicine he gave me is useless; it has done me no good. I tell you I am dying."
The failing words were hindered with her groaning, and tears coursed down the heavy cheeks. Husband and children looked at her, struck to the very earth with grief. The footstep of death was sounding in the house. They knew themselves cut off from all the world, helpless, remote, without even a horse to bring them succour. The cruel treachery of it all held them speechless and transfixed, with streaming eyes.
In their midst appeared Eutrope Gagnon.
"And I who was thinking to find her almost well. This doctor, now ..."
Chapdelaine broke out, quite beside himself:—"This doctor is not a bit of use, and I shall tell him so plainly, myself. He came here, he gave her a drop of some miserable stuff worth nothing at all in the bottom of a cup, and he is off to sleep in the village as if his pay was earned! Not a thing has he done but tire out my horse, but he shall not have a copper from me, not a single copper..."
Eutrope's face was very grave, and he shook his head as he declared:—"Neither have I any faith in doctors. Now if we had only thought of fetching a bone-setter—such a man as Tit'Sebe of St. Felicien ..." Every face was turned to him and the tears ceased flowing.
"Tit'Sebe!" exclaimed Maria. "And you think he could help in a case like this?" Both Eutrope and Chapdelaine hastened to avow their trust in him.
"There is no doubt whatever that Tit'Sebe can make people well. He was never through the schools, but he knows how to cure. You heard of Nazaire Gaudreau who fell from the top of a barn and broke his back. The doctors came to see him, and the best they could do was to give the Latin name for his hurt and say that he was going to die. Then they went and fetched Tit'Sebe, and Tit'Sebe cured him." Every one of them knew the healer's repute and hope sprang up again in their hearts.
"Tit'Sebe is a first-rate man, and a man who knows how to make sick people well. Moreover he is not greedy for money. You go and you fetch him, you pay him for his time, and he cures you. It was he who put little Romeo Boilly on his legs again after being run over by a wagon loaded with planks."
The sick woman had relapsed into stupor, and was moaning feebly with her eyes closed.
"I will go and get him if you like," suggested Eutrope.
"But what will you do for a horse?" asked Maria. "The doctor has Charles Eugene at Honfleur."
Chapdelaine clenched his fist in wrath and swore through his teeth:—"The old rascal!"
Eutrope thought a moment before speaking. "It makes no difference. I will go just the same. If I walk to Honfleur, I shall easily find someone there who will lend me a horse and sleigh—Racicot, or perhaps old Neron."
"It is thirty-five miles from here to St. Felicien and the roads are heavy."
"I will go just the same."
He, departed forthwith, thinking as he went at a jog-trot over the snow of the grateful look that Maria had given him. The family made ready for the night, computing meanwhile these new distances ... Seventy miles there and back ... Roads deep in snow. The lamp was left burning, and till morning the voice from the bed was never hushed. Sometimes it was sharp with pain; sometimes it weakly strove for breath. Two hours after daylight the doctor and the cure of St. Henri appeared together.
"It was impossible for me to come sooner," the cure explained, "but I am here at last, and I picked up the doctor in the village." They sat at the bedside and talked in low tones. The doctor made a fresh examination, but it was the cure who told the result of it. "There is little one can say. She does not seem any worse, but this is not an ordinary sickness. It is best that I should confess her and give her absolution; then we shall both go away and be back again the day after to-morrow."
He returned to the bed, and the others went over and sat by the window. For some, minutes the two voices were beard in question and response; the one feeble and broken by suffering; the other confident, grave, scarcely lowered for the solemn interrogation. After some inaudible words a hand was raised in a gesture which instantly bowed the heads of all those in the house. The priest rose.
Before departing the doctor gave Maria a little bottle with instructions. "Only if she should suffer greatly, so that she cries out, and never more than fifteen drops at a time. And do not let her have any cold water to drink."
She saw them to the door, the bottle in her hand. Before getting into the sleigh the cure took Maria aside and spoke a few words to her. "Doctors do what they can," said he in a simple unaffected way, "but only God Himself has knowledge of disease. Pray with all your heart, and I shall say a mass for her to-morrow—a high mass with music, you understand."
All day long Maria strove to stay the hidden advances of the disorder with her prayers, and every time that she returned to the bedside it was with a half hope that a miracle had been wrought, that the sick woman would cease from her groaning, sleep for a few hours and awake restored to health. It was not so to be; the moaning ceased not, but toward evening it died away to sighing, continual and profound—nature's protest against a burden too heavy to be borne, or the slow inroad of death-dealing poison.
About midnight came Eutrope Gagnon, bringing Tit'Sebe the bone-setter. He was a little, thin, sad-faced man with very kind eyes. As always when called to a sick-bed, he wore his clothes of ceremony, of dark wellworn cloth, which he bore with the awkwardness of the peasant in Sunday attire. But the strong brown hands beyond the thread-bare sleeves moved in a way to inspire confidence. They passed over the limbs and body of Madame Chapdelaine with the most delicate care, nor did they draw from her a single cry of pain; thereafter he sat for a long time motionless beside the couch, looking at her as though awaiting guidance from a source beyond himself. But when at last he broke the silence it was to say: "Have you sent for the cure? ... He has been here. And will he return? To-morrow; that is well."
After another pause he made his frank avowal.—"There is nothing I can do for her. Something has gone wrong within, about which I know nothing; were there broken bones I could have healed them. I should only have had to feel them with my hands, and then the good God would have told me what to do and I should have cured her. But in this sickness of hers I have no skill. I might indeed put a blister on her back, and perhaps that would draw away-the blood and relieve her for a time. Or I could give her a draught made from beaver kidneys; it is useful when the kidneys are affected, as is well known. But I think that neither the blister nor the draught would work a cure."
His speech was so honest and straightforward that he made them one and all feel what manner of thing was a disorder of the human frame—the strangeness and the terror of what is passing behind the closed door, which those without can only fight clumsily as they grope in dark uncertainty.
"She will die if that be God's pleasure."
Maria broke into quiet tears; her father, not yet understanding, sat with his mouth half-open, and neither moved nor spoke. The bone-setter, this sentence given, bowed his head and held his pitiful eyes for long upon the sick woman. The browned hands that now availed him not lay upon his knees; leaning forward a little, his back bent, the gentle sad spirit seemed in silent communion with its maker—"Thou hast bestowed upon me the gift of healing bones that are broken, and I have healed them; but Thou hast denied me power over such ills as these; so must I let this poor woman die."
For the first time now the deep marks of illness upon the mother's face appeared to husband and children as more than the passing traces of suffering, as imprints from the hand of death. The hard-drawn breath rattling in her throat no longer betokened conscious pain, but was the last blind remonstrance of the body rent by nearing dissolution.
"You do not think she will die before the cure comes back?" Maria asked.
Tit'Sebe's head and hand showed that he was helpless to answer. "I cannot tell ... If your horse is able you would do well to seek him with the daylight."
Their eyes searched the window, as yet only a square of darkness, and then returned to her who lay upon the bed ... But five days ago a hearty, high-spirited woman, in full health of mind and body ... It could not be that she was to die so soon as that. ... But knowing now the sad inevitableness, every glance found a subtle change, some fresh token that this bed-ridden woman groaning in her blindness was no more the wife and mother they had known so long.
Half an hour went by; after casting his eyes toward the window Chapdelaine arose hurriedly, saying.—"I am going to put the horse in."
Tit'Sebe nodded. "That is well; you had better harness; it is near day."
"Yes. I am going to put the horse in," Chapdelaine repeated. But at the moment of his departure it swept over him suddenly that in going to bring the Blessed Sacrament he would be upon a solemn and a final errand, significant of death. The thought held him still irresolute. "I am going to put the horse in." Shifting from foot to foot, he gave a last look at his wife and at length went out.
Not long after the coming of day the wind rose, and soon was sounding hoarsely about the house. "It is from the nor'west; there will be a blow," said Tit'Sebe.
Maria looked toward the window and sighed. "Only two days ago snow fell, and now it will be raised and drift. The roads were heavy enough before; father and the cure are going to have trouble getting through."
But the bone-setter shook his head. "They may have a little difficulty on the road, but they will get here all the same. A priest who brings the Blessed Sacrament has more than the strength of a man." His mild eyes shone with the faith that knows no bounds.
"Yes, power beyond the strength of a man has a priest bearing the Blessed Sacrament. It was three years ago that they summoned me to care for a sick man on the lower Mistassini; at once I saw that I could do nothing for him, and I bade them go fetch a priest. It was night-time and there was not a man in the house, the father himself being sick and his boys quite young. And so at the last it was I that went. On the way back we had to cross the river; the ice had just gone out—it was in the spring—and as yet not a boat had been put into the water. We found a great heavy tub that had been lying in the sand all winter, and when we tried to run her down to the water she was buried so deep in the sand and was so heavy that the four of us could not so much as make her budge. Simon Martel was there, big Lalancette of St. Methode, a third I cannot call to mind, and myself; and we four, hauling and shoving to break our hearts as we thought of this poor fellow on the other side of the river who was in the way of dying like a heathen, could not stir that boat a single inch. Well, the cure came forward; he laid his hand on the gunwale—just laid his hand on the gunwale, like that—'Give one more shove,' said he; and the boat seemed to start of herself and slipped down to the water as though she were alive. The sick man received the sacrament all right, and died like a Christian just as day was breaking. Yes, a priest has strength beyond the strength of men."
Maria was still sighing, but her heart discovered a melancholy peace in the certainty and nearness of death. This unknown disorder, the dread of what might be coming, these were dark and terrifying phantoms against which one strove blindly, uncomprehendingly. But when one was face to face with death itself all to be done was plain—ordained these many centuries by laws beyond dispute. By day or night, from far or near, the cure comes bearing the Holy Sacrament-across angry rivers in the spring, over the treacherous ice, along roads choked with snow, fighting the bitter north-west wind; aided by miracles, he never fails; he fulfils his sacred office, and thenceforward there is room for neither doubt nor fear. Death is but a glorious preferment, a door that opens to the joys unspeakable of the elect.
The wind had risen and was shaking the Partitions as window-panes rattle in a sudden gust. The nor'wester came howling over the dark tree-tops, fell upon the clearing about the little wooden buildings—house, stable, barn—in' squalls and-wicked whirlwinds that sought to lift the roof and smote the walls like a battering-ram, before sweeping onward to the forest in a baffled fury. The house trembled from base to chimneytop, and swayed on its foundation in such a fashion that the inmates, feeling the onslaught, hearing the roar and shriek of the foe, were almost as sensible of the terrors of the storm as though they were exposed to it; lacking the consciousness of safe retreat that belongs to those who are sheltered by strong walls of stone.
Tit'Sebe cast his eyes about. "A good house you have here; tightly made and warm. Your father and the boys built it, did they not? Moreover, you must have a good bit of land cleared by this time ..."
So loud was the wind that they did not hear the sound of sleigh-bells, and suddenly the door flew open against the wall and the cure of St. Henri entered, bearing the Host in his raised hands. Maria and Tit'Sebe fell upon their knees; Tit'Be ran to shut the door, then also knelt. The priest put off the heavy fur coat and the cap white with snow drawn down to his eyes, and instantly approached the sick-bed as heaven's envoy bringing pardon and peace.
Ah! the assurance, the comfort of the divine promise which dispels the awful mists of death! While the priest performed the sacred rites, and his low words mingled with the sighs of the dying woman, Samuel Chapdelaine and his children were praying with bended heads; in some sort consoled, released from anxiousness and doubt, confident that a sure pact was then concluding with the Almighty for the blue skies of Paradise spangled with stars of gold as a rightful heritage.
Afterwards the cure warmed himself by the stove; then they prayed together for a time, kneeling by the bed.
Toward four o'clock the wind leaped to the south-east, and the storm ended swiftly as a broken wave sinks backward from the shore; in the strange deep silence after the tumult the mother sighed, sighed once again, and died.