Maria Chapdelaine

CHAPTER XV

THAT WE PERISH NOT

EPHREM SURPRENANT pushed open the door and stood upon the threshold.

"I have come." He found no other words, and waited there motionless for a few seconds, tongue-tied, while his eyes travelled from Chapdelaine to Maria, from Maria to the children who sat very still and quiet by the table; then he plucked off his cap hastily, as if in amends for his forgetfulness, shut the door behind him and moved across to the bed where the dead woman lay.

They had altered its place, turning the head to the wall and the foot toward the centre of the house, so that it might be approached on both sides. Close to the wall two lighted candles stood on chairs; one of them set in a large candlestick of white metal which the visitors to the Chapdelaine home had never seen before, while for holding the other Maria had found nothing better than a glass bowl used in the summer time for blueberries and wild raspberries, on days of ceremony.

The candlestick shone, the bowl sparkled in the flames which lighted but feebly the face of the dead. The days of suffering through which she had passed, or death's final chill had given the features a strange pallor and delicacy, the refinement of a woman bred in the city. Father and children were at first amazed, and then perceived in this the tremendous consequence of her translation beyond and far above them.

Ephrem. Surprenant bent his eyes upon the face for a little, and then kneeled. The prayers he began to murmur were inaudible, but when Maria and Tit'Be came and knelt beside him he drew from a pocket his string of large heads and began to tell them in a low voice. The chaplet ended, he sat himself in silence by the table, shaking his head sadly from time to time as is seemly in the house of mourning, and because his own grief was deep and sincere.

At last he discovered speech. "It is a heavy loss. You were fortunate in your wife, Samuel; no one may question that. Truly you were fortunate in your wife."

This said, he could go no further; he sought in vain for some words of sympathy, and at the end stumbled into other talk. "The weather is quite mild this evening; we soon shall have rain. Everyone is saying that it is to be an early spring."

To the countryman, all things touching the soil which gives him bread, and the alternate seasons which lull the earth to sleep and awaken it to life, are of such moment that one may speak of them even in the presence of death with no disrespect. Their eyes turned quite naturally to the square of the little window, but the night was black and they could discern nothing.

Ephrem Surprenant began anew to praise her who was departed. "In all the parish there was not a braver-spirited woman than she, nor a cleverer housewife. How friendly too, and what a kind welcome she always gave a visitor! In the old parishes—yes! and even in the towns on the railway, not many would be found to match her. It is only the truth to say that you were rarely suited in your wife ... Soon afterwards he rose, and, leaving the house, his face was dark with sorrow.

A long silence followed, in which Samuel Chapdelaine's head nodded slowly towards his breast and it seemed as though he were falling asleep. Maria spoke quickly to him, in fear of his offending:—"Father! Do not sleep!"

"No! No!" He sat up straight on his chair and squared his shoulders but since his eyes were closing in spite of him, he stood up hastily, saying:—"Let us recite another chaplet."

Kneeling together beside the bed, they told the chaplet bead by bead. Rising from their knees they heard the rain patter against the window and on the shingles. It was the first spring rain and proclaimed their freedom: the winter ended, the soil soon to reappear, rivers once more running their joyous course, the earth again transformed like some lovely girl released at last from an evil spell by touch of magic wand. But they did not allow themselves to be glad in this house of death, nor indeed did they feel the happiness of it in the midst of their hearts' deep affliction.

Opening the window they moved back to it and hearkened to the tapping of the great drops upon the roof. Maria saw that her father's head had fallen, and that he was very still; she thought his evening drowsiness was mastering him again, but when about to waken him with a word, he it was who sighed and began to speak.

"Ephrem. Surprenant said no more than the truth. Your mother was a good woman, Maria; you will not find her like."

Maria's head answered him "Yes," but her lips were pressed close.

"Full of courage and good counsel, that she has been throughout her life; but it was chiefly in the early days after we were married, and then again when Esdras and yourself were little, that she showed herself the woman she was. The wife of a small farmer looks for no easy life, but women who take to their work as well and as cheerfully as she did in those days, Maria, are hard to find."

Maria faltered:—"I know, father; I know it well;" and she dried her eyes for her heart was melting into tears.

"When we took up our first land at Normandin we had two cows and very little pasture for them, as nearly all our lot was in standing timber and hard to win for the plough. As for me, I picked up my ax and I said to her:—'Laura, I am going to clear land for you.' And from morning till night it was chop, chop, chop, without ever coming back to the house except for dinner; and all that time she did the work of the house and the cooking, she looked after the cattle, mended the fences, cleaned the cow-shed, never rested from her toiling; and then half-a-dozen times a day she would come outside the door and stand for a minute looking at me, over there by the fringe of the woods, where I was putting my back into felling the birches and the spruce to make a patch of soil for her.

"Then in the month of July our well must needs dry up; the cows had not a drop of water to slake their thirst and they almost stopped giving milk. So when I was hard at it in the woods the mother went off to the river with a pail in either hand, and climbed the steep bluff eight or ten times together with these brimming, and her feet that slipped back in the running sand, till she had filled a barrel; and when the barrel was full she got it on a wheelbarrow, and wheeled it off herself to empty it into the big tub in the cow-pasture more than three hundred yards from the house, just below the rocks. It was not a woman's work, and I told her often enough to leave it to me, but she always spoke up briskly:—'Don't you think about that—don't think about anything—clear a farm for me.' And she would laugh to cheer me up, but I saw well enough this was too much for her, and that she was all dark under the eyes with the labour of it.

"Well, I caught up my ax and was off to the woods; and I laid into the birches so lustily that chips flew as thick as your wrist, all the time saying to myself that the wife I had was like no other, and that if the good God only kept me in health I would make her the best farm in the countryside."

The rain was ever sounding on the roof now and then a gust drove against the window great drops which ran down the panes like slow-falling tears. Yet a few hours of rain and the soil would be bare, streams would dance down every slope; a few more days and they would hear the thundering of the falls.

"When we took up other land above Mistassini," Samuel Chapdelaine continued, "it was the same thing over again; heavy work and hardship for both of us alike; but she was always full of courage and in good heart ... We were in the midst of the forest, but as there were some open spaces of rich grass among the rocks we took to raising sheep. One evening He was silent for a little, and when he began speaking again his eyes were fixed intently upon Maria, as though he wished to make very clear to her what he was about to say.

"It was in September; the time when all the great creatures of the woods become dangerous. A man from Mistassini who was coming down the river in a canoe landed near our place and spoke to us thiswise:—'Look after your sheep; the bears came and killed a heifer last week quite close to the houses.' So your mother and I went off that evening to the pasture to drive the sheep into the pen for the night so that the bears would not devour them.

"I took one side and she the other, as the sheep used to scatter among the alders. It was growing dark, and suddenly I heard Laura cry out: 'Oh, the scoundrels!' Some animals were moving in the bushes, and it was plain to see they were not sheep, because in the woods toward evening sheep are white patches. So, ax in hand, I started off running as hard as I could. Later on, when we were on the way back to the house, your mother told me all about it. She had come across a sheep lying dead, and two bears that were just going to eat it. Now it takes a pretty good man, one not easily frightened and with a gun in his hand, to face a bear in September; as for a woman empty-handed, the best thing she can do is to run for it and not a soul will blame her. But your mother snatched a stick from the ground and made straight for the bears, screaming at them:—'Our beautiful fat sheep! Be off with you, you ugly thieves, or I will do for you!' I got there at my best speed, leaping over the stumps; but by that time the bears had cleared off into the woods without showing fight, scared as could be, because she had put the fear of death into them."

Maria listened breathlessly; asking herself if it was really her mother who had done this thing-the mother whom she had always known so gentle and tender-hearted; who had never given Telesphore a little rap on the head without afterwards taking him on her knees to comfort him, adding her own tears to his, and declaring that to slap a child was something to break one's heart.

The brief spring shower was already spent; through the clouds the moon was showing her face—eager to discover what was left of the winter's snow after this earliest rain. As yet the ground was everywhere white; the night's deep silence told them that many days must pass before they would hear again the dull roaring of the cataract; but the tempered breeze whispered of consolation and promise.

Samuel Chapdelaine lapsed into silence for a while, his head bowed, his hands resting upon his knees, dreaming of the past with its toilsome years that were yet so full of brave hopes. When he took up his tale it was in a voice that halted, melancholy with self-reproach.

"At Normandin, at Mistassini and the other places we have lived I always worked hard; no one can say nay to that. Many an acre of forest have I cleared and I have built houses and barns, always saying to myself that one day we should have a comfortable farm where your mother would live as do the women in the old parishes, with fine smooth fields all about the house as far as the eye could see, a kitchen garden, handsome well-fed cattle in the farm-yard ... And, after it all, here is she dead in this half-savage spot, leagues from other houses and churches, and so near the bush that some nights one can hear the foxes bark. And it is my fault that she has died so ... My fault ... My fault." Remorse seized him; he shook his head at the pity of it, his eyes upon the floor.

"Many times it happened, after we had spent five or six years in one place and all had gone well, that we were beginning to get together a nice property—good pasturage, broad fields ready for sowing, a house lined inside with pictures from the papers ... Then people came and settled about us; we bad but to wait a little, working on quietly, and soon we should have been in the midst of a well-to-do settlement where Laura could have passed the rest of her days in happiness ... And then all of a sudden I lost heart; I grew sick and tired of my work and of the countryside; I began to hate the very faces of those who had taken up land near-by and used to come to see us, thinking that we should be pleased to have a visitor after being so long out of the way of them. I heard people saying that farther off toward the head of the Lake there was good land in the forest; that some folk from St. Gedeon spoke of settling over on that side; and forthwith I began to hunger and thirst for this spot they were talking about, that I had never seen in my life and where not a soul lived, as for the place of my birth ...

"Well, in those days, when the work was done, instead of smoking beside the stove I would go out to the door-step and sit there without moving, like a man homesick and lonely; and everything I saw in front of me—the place I had made with these two hands after so much of labour and sweat—the fields, the fences, over to the rocky knoll that shut us in—I detested them all till I seemed ready to go out of my mind at the very sight of them.

"And then your mother would come quietly up behind me. She also would look out across our place, and I knew that she was pleased with it to the bottom of her heart because it was beginning to look like the old parish where she had grown up, and where she would so gladly have spent her days. But instead of telling me that I was no better than a silly old fool for wishing to leave—as most women would have done-and finding hard things to say about my folly, she only sighed a little as she thought of the drudgery that was to begin all over again somewhere back in the woods, and kindly and softly she would say to me:—'Well, Samuel! Are we soon to be on the move once more?' When she said that I could not answer, for I was speechless with very shame at thinking of the wretched life I had given her; but I knew well enough that it would end in our moving again and pushing on to the north, deeper into the woods, and that she would be with me and take her share in this hard business of beginning anew—as cheerful and capable and good-humoured as ever, without one single word of reproach or spitefulness."

He was silent after that, and seemed to ponder long his sorrow and the things which might have been. Maria, sighing, passed a hand across her face as though she would brush away a disquieting vision; but in very truth there was nothing she wished to forget. What she heard had moved her profoundly, and she felt in a dim and troubled way that this story of a hard life so bravely lived had for her a deep and timely significance and held some lesson if only she might understand it.

"How little do we know people!" was the thought that filled her mind. Since her mother had crossed the threshold of death she seemed to wear a new aspect, not of this world; and now all the homely and familiar traits endearing her to them were being overshadowed by other virtues well-nigh heroic in their quality.

To pass her days in these lonely places when she would have dearly loved the society of other human beings and the unbroken peace of village life; to strive from dawn till nightfall, spending all her strength in a thousand heavy tasks, and yet from dawn till nightfall never losing patience nor her happy tranquillity; continually to see about her only the wilderness, the great pitiless forest, and to hold in the midst of it all an ordered way of life, the gentleness and the joyousness which are the fruits of many a century sheltered from such rudeness—was it not surely a hard thing and a worthy? And the recompense? After death, a little word of praise.

Was it worth the cost? The question scarcely framed itself with such clearness in her mind, but so her thoughts were tending. Thus to live, as hardly, as courageously, and to be so sorely missed when she departed, few women were fit for this. As for herself ...

The sky, flooded with moonlight, was of a wonderful lambency and depth; across the whole arch of heaven a band of cloud, fashioned strangely into carven shapes, defiled in solemn march. The white ground no longer spoke of chill and desolateness, for the air was soft; and by some magic of the approaching spring the snow appeared to be only a mask covering the earth's face, in nowise terrifying—a mask one knew must soon be lifted.

Maria seated by the little window fixed her unconscious eyes upon the sky and the fields stretching away whitely to the environing woods, and of a sudden it was borne to her that the question she was asking herself had just received its answer. To dwell in this land as her mother had dwelt, and, dying thus, to leave behind her a sorrowing husband and a record of the virtues of her race, she knew in her heart she was fit for that. In reckoning with herself there was no trace of vanity; rather did the response seem from without. Yes, she was able; and she was filled with wonderment as though at the shining of some unlooked-for light.

Thus she too could live; but ... it was not as yet in her heart so to do ... In a little while, this season of mourning at an end, Lorenzo Surprenant would come back from the States for the third time and would bear her away to the unknown delights of the city—away from the great forest she hated—away from that cruel land where men who go astray perish helplessly, where women endure endless torment the while ineffectual aid is sought for them over the long roads buried in snow. Why should she stay here to toil and suffer when she might escape to the lands of the south and a happier life.

The soft breeze telling of spring came against the window, bringing a confusion of gentle sounds; the swish and sigh of branches swaying and touching one another, the distant hooting of an owl. Then the great silence reigned once more. Samuel Chapdelaine was sleeping; but in this repose beside the dead was nothing unseemly or wanting in respect; chin fallen on his breast, bands lying open on his knees, he seemed to be plunged into the very depths of sorrow or striving to relinquish life that he might follow the departed a little way into the shades.

Again Maria asked herself:—"Why stay here, to toil and suffer thus? Why? ..." And when she found no answer, it befell at length that out of the silence and the night voices arose.

No miraculous voices were these; each of us bears them when he goes apart and withdraws himself far enough to escape from the petty turmoil of his daily life. But they speak more loudly and with plainer accents to the simple-hearted, to those who dwell among the great northern woods and in the empty places of the earth. While yet Maria was dreaming of the city's distant wonders the first voice brought murmuringly to her memory a hundred forgotten charms of the land she wished to flee.

The marvel of the reappearing earth in the springtime after the long months of winter ... The dreaded snow stealing away in prankish rivulets down every slope; the tree-roots first resurgent, then the mosses drenched with wet, soon the ground freed from its burden whereon one treads with delighted glances and sighs of happiness like the sick man who feels glad life returning to his veins ... Later yet, the birches, alders, aspens swelling into bud; the laurel clothing itself in rosy bloom ... The rough battle with the soil a seeming holiday to men no longer condemned to idleness; to draw the hard breath of toil from morn till eve a gracious favour ...

—The cattle, at last set free from their shed, gallop to the pasture and glut themselves with the fresh grass. All the new-born creatures—the calves, the fowls, the lambs, gambol in the sun and add daily to their stature like the hay and the barley. The poorest farmer sometimes halts in yard or field, hands in pockets, and tastes the great happiness of knowing that the sun's heat, the warm rain, the earth's unstinted alchemy—every mighty force of nature—is working as a humble slave for him ... for him.

—And then, the surnmertide; the glory of sunny noons, the heated quivering air that blurs the horizon and the outline of the forest, the flies swarming and circling in the sun's rays, and but three hundred paces from the house the rapids and the fall—white foam against dark water—the mere sight of it filling one with a delicious coolness. In its due time the harvest; the grain that gives life heaped into the barns; then autumn and soon the returning winter ... But here was the marvel of it, that the winter seemed no longer abhorrent or terrifying; it brought in its train the sweet intimacies of a house shut fast, and beyond the door, with the sameness and the soundlessness of deep-drifted snow, peace, a great peace . .

In the cities were the strange and wonderful things whereof Lorenzo Surprenant had told, with others that she pictured to herself confusedly: wide streets suffused with light, gorgeous shops, an easy fife of little toil with a round of small pleasures and distractions. Perhaps, though, one would come to tire of this restlessness, and, yearning some evening only for repose and quiet, where would one discover the tranquillity of field and wood, the soft touch of that cooler air that draws from the north-west after set of sun, the wide-spreading peacefulness that settles on the earth sinking to untroubled sleep.

"And yet they must be beautiful!" thought she, still dreaming of those vast American cities ... As though in answer, a second voice was raised.

—Over there was it not a stranger land where people of an alien race spoke of unfamiliar things in another tongue, sang other songs? Here ...

—The very names of this her country, those she listened to every day, those heard but once, came crowding to memory: a thousand names piously best owed by peasants from France on lakes, on rivers, on the settlements of the new country they were discovering and peopling as they went—lac a l'Eau-Claire—la Famine—Saint-Coeur—de-Marie—Trois-Pistoles—Sainte Rose-du-Degel—Pointe-aux-Outardes—Saint-Andre-de-l' Epouvante ... An uncle of Eutrope Gagnon's lived at Saint-Andre-de-l'Epouvante; Racicot of Honfleur spoke often of his son who was a stoker on a Gulf coaster, and every time new names were added to the old; names of fishing villages and little harbours on the St. Lawrence, scattered here and there along those shores between which the ships of the old days had boldly sailed toward an unknown land—Pointe-Mille-Vaches—les Escoumins—Notre-Dame-du-Portage—les Grandes-Bergeronnes—Gaspe.

—How sweet to hear these names where one was talking of distant acquaintance and kinsfolk, or telling of far journeys! How dear and neighbourly was the sound of them, with a heart-warming friendly ring that made one feel as he spoke them:—"Throughout all this land we are at home ... at home ..."

—Westward, beyond the borders of the Province; southward, across the line were everywhere none but English names. In time one might learn to speak them, even might they at last come familiarly to the ear; but where should one find again the happy music of the French names?

—Words of a foreign speech from every lip, on every street, in every shop ... Little girls taking hands to dance a round and singing a song one could not understand ... Here ...

Maria turned toward her father who still slept with his chin sunk on his breast, looking like a man stricken down by grief whose meditation is of death; and the look brought her swift memory of the hymns and country songs he was wont to teach his children in the evenings.

A la claire fontaine
M'en allant promener ...

In those cities of the States, even if one taught the children how to sing them would they not straightway forget!

The clouds a little while ago drifting singly across a moonlit sky were now spread over the heavens in a vast filmy curtain, and the dim light passing through it was caught by the earth's pale coverlet of melting snow; between the two wan expanses the ranks of the forest darkly stretched their long battle-front.

Maria shuddered; the emotion which had glowed in her heart was dying; once again she said to herself: "And yet it is a harsh land, this land of ours ... Why should I linger here?"

Then it was that a third voice, mightier than the others, lifted itself up in the silence: the voice of Quebec—now the song of a woman, now the exhortation of a priest. It came to her with the sound of a church bell, with the majesty of an organ's tones, like a plaintive love-song, like the long high call of woodsmen in the forest. For verily there was in it all that makes the soul of the Province: the loved solemnities of the ancestral faith; the lilt of that old speech guarded with jealous care; the grandeur and the barbaric strength of this new land where an ancient race has again found its youth.

Thus spake the voice.—"Three hundred years ago we came, and we have remained ... They who led us hither might return among us without knowing shame or sorrow, for if it be true that we have little learned, most surely nothing is forgot.

"We bore oversea our prayers and our songs; they are ever the same. We carried in our bosoms the hearts of the men of our fatherland, brave and merry, easily moved to pity as to laughter, of all human hearts the most human; nor have they changed. We traced the boundaries of a new continent, from Gaspe to Montreal, from St. Jean d'Iberville to Ungava, saying as we did it.—Within these limits all we brought with us, our faith, our tongue, our virtues, our very weaknesses are henceforth hallowed things which no hand may touch, which shall endure to the end.

"Strangers have surrounded us whom it is our pleasure to call foreigners; they have taken into their hands most of the rule, they have gathered to themselves much of the wealth; but in this land of Quebec nothing has changed. Nor shall anything change, for we are the pledge of it. Concerning ourselves and our destiny but one duty have we clearly understood: that we should hold fast—should endure. And we have held fast, so that, it may be, many centuries hence the world will look upon us and say:—These people are of a race that knows not how to perish ... We are a testimony.

"For this is it that we must abide in that Province where our fathers dwelt, living as they have lived, so to obey the unwritten command that once shaped itself in their hearts, that passed to ours, which we in turn must hand on to descendants innumerable:—In this land of Quebec naught shall die and naught shall suffer change ..."

The veil of gray cloud which hid-the whole heavens had become heavier and more louring, and suddenly the rain began afresh, bringing yet a little nearer that joyous hour when the earth would lie bare and the rivers be freed. Samuel Chapdelaine slept profoundly, his head sunk upon his breast, an old man yielding at last to the long fatigues of his lifetime of toil. Above the candlestick of metal and the glass bowl the candle flames wavered under gentle breaths from the window, and shadows flitting across the face of the dead woman made her lips seem to be moving in prayer or softly telling secrets.

Maria Chapdelaine awaked from her dream to the thought:—"So I shall stay—shall. stay here after all!" For the voices had spoken commandingly and she knew she could not choose but obey. It was only then that the recollection of other duties came, after she had submitted, and a sigh had passed her lips. Alma Rose was still a child; her mother dead, there must be a woman in the house. But in truth it was the voices which had told her the way.

The rain was pattering on the roof, and nature, rejoicing that winter was past, sent soft little wandering airs through the casement as though she were sighing in content. Throughout the hours of the night Maria moved not; with hands folded in her lap, patient of spirit and without bitterness, yet dreaming a little wistfully of the far-off wonders her eyes would never behold and of the land wherein she was bidden to live with its store of sorrowful memories; of the living flame which her heart had known awhile and lost forever, and the deep snowy woods whence too daring youths shall no more return.



Back | Next | Contents