HOME IN THE CLEARING
It was supper-time before Maria had answered all the questions, told of her journey down to the last and littlest item, and given not only the news of St. Prime and Peribonka but everything else she had been able to gather up upon the road.
Tit'Be, seated facing his sister, smoked pipe after pipe without taking his eyes off her for a single moment, fearful of missing some highly important disclosure that she had hitherto held back. Little Alma Rose stood with an arm about her neck; Telesphore was listening too, as he mended his dog's harness with bits of string. Madame Chapdelaine stirred the fire in the big cast-iron stove, came and went, brought from the cupboard plates and dishes, the loaf of bread and pitcher of milk, tilted the great molasses jar over a glass jug. Not seldom she stopped to ask Maria something, or to catch what she was saying, and stood for a few moments dreaming, hands on her hips, as the villages spoken of rose before her in memory—
"... And so the church is finished-a beautiful stone church, with pictures on the walls and coloured glass in the windows ... How splendid that must be! Johnny Bouchard built a new barn last year, and it is a little Perron, daughter of Abelard Perron of St. Jerome, who teaches school ... Eight years since I was at St. Prime, just to think of it! A fine parish indeed, that would have suited me nicely; good level land as far as you can see, no rock cropping up and no bush, everywhere square-cornered fields with handsome straight fences and heavy soil. Only two hours' drive to the railway ... Perhaps it is wicked of me to say so; but all my married life I have felt sorry that your father's taste was for moving, and pushing on and on into the woods, and not for living on a farm in one of the old parishes."
Through the little square window she threw a melancholy glance over the scanty cleared fields behind the house, the barn built of ill-joined planks that showed marks of fire, and the land beyond still covered with stumps and encompassed by the forest, whence any return of hay or grain could only be looked for at the end of long and patient waiting.
"O look," said Alma Rose, "here is Chien come for his share of petting." The dog laid his long head with the sad eyes upon her knee; uttering little friendly words, Maria bent and caressed him.
"He has been lonely without you like the rest of us," came from Alma Rose. "Every morning he used to look at your bed to see if you were not back." She called him to her. "Come, Chien; come and let me pet you too."
Chien went obediently from one to the other, half closing his eyes at each pat. Maria looked about her to see if some change, unlikely though that might be, had taken place while she was away.
The great three-decked stove stood in the centre of the house; the sheet-iron stove-pipe, after mounting for some feet, turned at a right angle and was carried through the house to the outside, so that none of the precious warmth should be lost. In a comer was the large wooden cupboard; close by, the table; a bench against the wall; on the other side of the door the sink and the pump. A partition beginning at the opposite wall seemed designed to divide the house in two, but it stopped before reaching the stove and did not begin again beyond it, in such fashion that these divisions of the only room were each enclosed on three sides and looked like a stage setting-that conventional type of scene where the audience are invited to imagine that two distinct apartments exist although they look into both at once.
In one of these compartments the father and mother had their bed; Maria and Alma Rose in the other. A steep stairway ascended from a comer to the loft where the boys slept in the summer-time; with the coming of winter they moved their bed down and enjoyed the warmth of the stove with the rest of the family.
Hanging upon the wall were the illustrated calendars of shopkeepers in Roberval and Chicoutimi; a picture of the infant Jesus in his mother's arms-a rosy-faced Jesus with great blue eyes, holding out his chubby hands; a representation of some unidentified saint looking rapturously heavenward; the first page of the Christmas number of a Quebec newspaper, filled with stars big as moons and angels flying with folded wings.
"Were you a good girl while I was away, Alma Rose?"
It was the mother who replied:—"Alma Rose was not too naughty; but Telesphore has been a perfect torment to me. It is not so much that he does what is wrong; but the things he says! One might suppose that the boy had not all his wits."
Telesphore busied himself with the dog-harness and made believe not to hear. Young Telesphore's depravities supplied this household with its only domestic tragedy. To satisfy her own mind and give him a proper conviction of besetting sin his mother had fashioned for herself a most involved kind of polytheism, had peopled the world with evil spirits and good who influenced him alternately to err or to repent. The bay had come to regard himself as a mere battleground where devils who were very sly, and angels of excellent purpose but little experience, waged endless unequal warfare.
Gloomily would he mutter before the empty preserve jar:—"It was the Demon of gluttony who tempted me."
Returning from some escapade with torn and muddy clothes he would anticipate reproach with his explanation:—"The Demon of disobedience lured me into that. Beyond doubt it was he." With the same breath asserting indignation at being so misled, and protesting the blamelessness of his intentions.
"But he must not be allowed to come back, eh, mother! He must not be allowed to come back, this bad spirit. I will take father's gun and I will shoot him ..."
"You cannot shoot devils with a gun," objected his mother. "But when you feel the temptation coming, seize your rosary and say your prayers."
Telesphore did not dare to gainsay this; but he shook his head doubtfully. The gun seemed to him both the surer and the more amusing way, and he was accustomed to picture to himself a tremendous duel, a lingering slaughter from which he would emerge without spot or blemish, forever set free from the wiles of the Evil One.
Samuel Chapdelaine came into the house and supper was served. The sign of the cross around the table; lips moving in a silent Benedicite, which Telesphore and Alma Rose repeated aloud; again the sign of the cross; the noise of chairs and bench drawn in; spoons clattering on plates. To Maria it was as though since her absence she was giving attention for the first time in her life to these sounds and movements; that they possessed a different significance from movements and sounds elsewhere, and invested with some peculiar quality of sweetness and peace all that happened in that house far off in the woods.
Supper was nearly at an end when a footstep sounded without; Chien pricked up his ears but gave no growl.
"A visitor," announced mother Chapdelaine, "Eutrope Gagnon has come over to see us."
It was an easy guess, as Eutrope Gagnon was their only neighbour. The year before he had taken up land two miles away, with his brother; the brother had gone to the shanties for the winter, and he was left alone in the cabin they had built of charred logs. He appeared on the threshold, lantern in hand.
"Greeting to each and all," was the salutation as he pulled off his woollen cap. "A fine night, and there is still a crust on the snow-, as the walking was good I thought that I would drop in this evening to find out if you were back."
Although he came to see Maria, as all knew, it was to the father of the house that he directed his remarks, partly through shyness, partly out of deference to the manners of the country. He took the chair that was offered him.
"The weather is mild; if it misses turning wet it will be by very little. One can feel that the spring rains are not far off ..."
It was the orthodox beginning to one of those talks among country folk which are like an interminable song, full of repetitions, each speaker agreeing with the words last uttered and adding more to the same effect. And naturally the theme was the Canadian's never-ending plaint; his protest, falling short of actual revolt, against the heavy burden of the long winter. "The beasts have been in the stable since the end of October and the barn is just about empty," said mother Chapdelaine. "Unless spring comes soon I don't know what we are going to do."
"Three weeks at least before they can be turned out to pasture."
"A horse, three cows, a pig and the sheep, without speaking of the fowls; it takes something to feed them!" this from Tit'Be with an air of grown-up wisdom.
He smoked and talked with the men now by virtue of his fourteen years, his broad shoulders and his knowledge of husbandry. Eight years ago he had begun to care for the stock, and to replenish the store of wood for the house with the aid of his little sled. Somewhat later he had learned to call Heulle! Heulle! very loudly behind the thin-flanked cows, and Hue! Dia! Harrie! when the horses were ploughing; to manage a hay-fork and to build a rail-fence. These two years he had taken turn beside his father with ax and scythe, driven the big wood-sleigh over the hard snow, sown and reaped on his own responsibility; and thus it was that no one disputed his right freely to express an opinion and to smoke incessantly the strong leaf-tobacco. His face was still smooth as a child's, with immature features and guileless eyes, and one not knowing him would probably have been surprised to hear him speak with all the deliberation of an older and experienced man, and to see him everlastingly charging his wooden pipe; but in the Province of Quebec the boys are looked upon as men when they undertake men's work, and as to their precocity in smoking there is always the excellent excuse that it afford some protection in summer against the attacking swarms of black-flies, mosquitos and sand-flies.
"How nice it would be to live in a country where there is hardly any winter, and where the earth makes provision for man and beast. Up here man himself, by dint of work, must care for his animals and his land. If we did not have Esdras and Da'Be earning good wages in the woods how could we get along?"
"But the soil is rich in these parts," said Eutrope Gagnon.
"The soil is good but one must battle for it with the forest; and to live at all you must watch every copper, labour from morning to night, and do everything yourself because there is no one near to lend a hand."
Mother Chapdelaine ended with a sigh. Her thoughts were ever fondly revisiting the older parishes where the land has long been cleared and cultivated, and where the houses are neighbourly-her lost paradise.
Her husband clenched his fists and shook his head with an obstinate gesture. "Only you wait a few months ... When the boys are back from the woods we shall set to work, they two, Tit'Be, and I, and presently we shall have our land cleared. With four good men ax in hand and not afraid of work things will go quickly, even in the hard timber. Two years from now there will be grain harvested, and pasturage that will support a good herd of cattle. I tell you that we are going to make land."
"Make land!" Rude phrase of the country, summing up in two words all the heartbreaking labour that transforms the incult woods, barren of sustenance, to smiling fields, ploughed and sown. Samuel Chapdelaine's eyes flamed with enthusiasm and determination as he spoke.
For this was the passion of his life; the passion of a man whose soul was in the clearing, not the tilling of the earth. Five times since boyhood had he taken up wild land, built a house, a stable and a barn, wrested from the unbroken forest a comfortable farm; and five times he had sold out to begin it all again farther north, suddenly losing interest; energy and ambition vanishing once the first rough work was done, when neighbours appeared and the countryside began to be opened up and inhabited. Some there were who entered into his feelings; others praised the courage but thought little of the wisdom, and such were fond of saying that if good sense had led him to stay in one place he and his would now be at their ease.
"At their ease ..." O dread God of the Scriptures, worshipped by these countryfolk of Quebec without a quibble or a doubt, who hast condemned man to earn his bread in the sweat of his face, canst Thou for a moment smooth the awful frown from Thy forehead when Thou art told that certain of these Thy creatures have escaped the doom, and live at their ease?
"At their ease..." Truly to know what it means one must have toiled bitterly from dawn to dark with back and hands and feet, and the children of the soil are those who have best attained the knowledge. It means the burden lifted; the heavy burden of labour and of care. It means leave to rest, the which, even if it be unused, is a new mercy every moment. To the old it means so much of the pride of life as no one would deny them, the late revelation of unknown delights, an hour of idleness, a distant journey, a dainty or a purchase indulged in without anxious thought, the hundred and one things desirable that a competence assures.
So constituted is the heart of man that most of those who have paid the ransom and won liberty-ease-have in the winning of it created their own incapacity for enjoying the conquest, and toil on till death; it is the others, the ill-endowed or the unlucky, who have been unable to overcome fortune and escape their slavery, to whom the state of ease has all those charms of the inaccessible.
It may be that the Chapdelaines so were thinking, and each in his own fashion; the father with the unconquerable optimism of a man who knows himself strong and believes himself wise; the mother with a gentle resignation; the others, the younger ones, in a less definite way and without bitterness, seeing before them a long life in which they could not miss attaining happiness.
Maria stole an occasional glance at Eutrope Gagnon, but she quickly turned away, for she always surprised his humbly worshipping eyes. For a year she had become used to his frequent visits, nor felt displeasure when every Sunday evening added to the family circle this brown face that was continually so patient and good-humoured; but the short absence of a month had not left things the same, for she had brought home to the fireside an undefined feeling that a page of her life was turned, in which he would have no share.
The ordinary subjects of conversation exhausted, they played cards: quatre-sept and boeuf; then Eutrope looked at his big silver watch and said that it was time to be going. His lantern lit, the good-byes said, he halted on the threshold for a moment to observe the night.
"It is raining!" he exclaimed. His hosts made toward the door to see for themselves; the rain had in truth begun, a spring rain with great drops that fell heavily, under which the snow was already softening and melting. "The sou'east has taken hold," announced the elder Chapdelaine. "Now we can say that the winter is practically over."
Everyone had his own way of expressing relief and delight; but it was Maria who stood longest by the door, hearkening to the sweet patter of the rain, watching the indistinct movement of cloud in the dark sky above the darker mass of the forest, breathing the mild air that came from the south.
"Spring is not far ... Spring is not far ..."
In her heart she felt that never since the earth began was there a springtime like this springtime to-be.