FRANCOIS PASSES BY
One morning three days later, on opening the door, Maria's ear caught a sound that made her stand motionless and listening. The distant and continuous thunder was the voice of wild waters, silenced all winter by the frost.
"The ice is going out," she announced to those within. "You can hear the falls."
This set them all talking once again of the opening season, and of the work soon to be commenced. The month of May came in with alternate warm rains and fine sunny days which gradually conquered the accumulated ice and snow of the long winter. Low stumps and roots were beginning to appear, although the shade of close-set cypress and fir prolonged the death-struggle of the perishing snowdrifts; the roads became quagmires; wherever the brown mosses were uncovered they were full of water as a sponge. In other lands it was already spring; vigorously the sap was running, buds were bursting and presently leaves would unfold; but the soil of far northern Canada must be rid of one chill and heavy mantle before clothing itself afresh in green.
A dozen times in the course of the day Maria and her mother opened the window to feel the softness of the air, listen to the tinkle of water running from the last drifts on higher slopes, or hearken to the mighty roar telling that the exulting Peribonka was free, and hurrying to the lake a freight of ice-floes from the remote north.
Chapdelaine seated himself that evening on the door-step for his smoke; a stirring of memory brought the remark—"Franc will soon be passing. He said that perhaps he would come to see us." Maria replied with a scarce audible "Yes," and blessed the shadow hiding her face.
Ten days later he came, long after nightfall. The women were alone in the house with Tit'Be and the children, the father having gone for seed-grain to Honfleur whence he would only return on the morrow. Telesphore and Alma Rose were asleep, Tit'Be was having a last pipe before the family prayer, when Chien barked several times and got up to sniff at the closed door. Then two light taps were heard. The visitor waited for the invitation before he entered and stood before them.
His excuses for so late a call were made without touch of awkwardness. "We are camped at the end of the portage above the rapids. The tent had to be pitched and things put in order to make the Belgians comfortable for the night. When I set out I knew it was hardly the hour for a call and that the paths through the woods must be pretty bad. But I started all the same, and when I saw your light..."
His high Indian boots were caked with mud to the knee; he breathed a little deeply between words, like a man who has been running; but his keen eyes were quietly confident.
"Only Tit'Be has changed," said he. "When you left Mistassini he was but so high..." With a hand he indicated the stature of a child. Mother Chapdelaine's face was bright with interest; doubly pleased to receive a visitor and at the chance of talking about old times.
"Nor have you altered in these seven years; not a bit; as for Maria ... surely you find a difference!"
He gazed at Maria with something of wonder in his eyes. "You see that ... that I saw her the other day at Peribonka." Tone and manner showed that the meeting of a fortnight ago had been allowed to blot the remoter days from his recollection. But since the talk was of her he ventured an appraising glance.
Her young vigour and health, the beautiful heavy hair and sunburnt neck of a country girl, the frank honesty of eye and gesture, all these things, thought he, were possessions of the child of seven years ago; and twice or thrice he shook his head as though to say that, in truth, she had not changed. But the consciousness too was there that he, if not she, had changed, for the sight of her before him took strange hold upon his heart.
Maria's smile was a little timid, but soon she dared to raise her eyes and look at him in turn. Assuredly a handsome fellow; comely of body, revealing so much of supple strength; comely of face in well-cut feature and fearless eye ... To herself she said with some surprise that she had not thought him thus—more forward perhaps, talking freely and rather positively-but now he scarcely spoke at all and everything about him bad an air of perfect simplicity. Doubtless it was his expression that had given her this idea, and his bold straightforward manner.
Mother Chapdelaine took up her questioning:—"And so you sold the farm when your father died?"
"Yes, I sold everything. I was never a very good hand at farming, you know. Working in the shanties, trapping, making a little money from time to time as a guide or in trade with the Indians, that is the life for me; but to scratch away at the same fields from one year's end to another, and stay there forever, I would not have been able to stick to that all my life; I would have felt like a cow tethered to a stake."
"That is so, some men are made that way. Samuel, for example, and you, and many another. It seem as if the woods had some magic for you ..." She shook her head and looked at him in wonderment. "Frozen in winter, devoured by flies in summer; living in a tent on the snow, or in a log cabin full of chinks that the wind blows through, you like that better than spending your life on a good farm, near shops and houses. Just think of it; a nice bit of level land without a stump or a hollow, a good warm house all papered inside, fat cattle pasturing or in the stable; for people well stocked with implements and who keep their health, could there be anything better or happier?"
Paradis, looked at the floor without making answer, perhaps a trifle ashamed of these wrong-headed tastes of his. "A fine life for those who are fond of the land," he said at last, "but I should never have been content."
It was the everlasting conflict between the types: pioneer and farmer, the peasant from France who brought to new lands his ideals of ordered life and contented immobility, and that other in whom the vast wilderness awakened distant atavistic instincts for wandering and adventure.
Accustomed for fifteen years to hear her mother vaunting the idyllic happiness of the farmer in the older settlements, Maria had very naturally come to believe that she was of the same mind; now she was no longer certain about it. But whoever was right she well knew that not one of the well-to-do young fellows at St. Prime, with his Sunday coat of fine cloth and his fur collar, was the equal of Paradis in muddy boots and faded woollen jersey.
Replying to further questions he spoke of his journeys on the North Shore and to the head-waters of the rivers—of it all very naturally and with a shade of hesitation, scarcely knowing what to tell and what to leave out, for the people he was speaking to lived in much the same kind of country and their manner of life was little different.
"Up there the winters are harder yet than here, and still longer. We have only dogs to draw our sleds, fine strong dogs, but bad-tempered and often half wild, and we feed them but once a day, in the evening, on frozen fish.... Yes, there are settlements, but almost no farming; the men live by trapping and fishing ... No, I never had any difficulty with the Indians; I always got on very well with them. I know nearly all those on the Mistassini and this river, for they used to come to our place before my father died. You see he often went trapping in winter when he was not in the shanties, and one season when he was at the head of the Riviere aux Foins, quite alone, a tree that he was cutting for firewood slipped in falling, and it was the Indians who found him by chance next day, crushed and half-frozen though the weather was mild. He was in their game preserve, and they might very well have pretended not to see him and have left him to die there; but they put him on their toboggan, brought him to their camp, and looked after him. You knew my father: a rough man who often took a glass, but just in his dealings, and with a good name for doing that sort of thing himself. So when he parted with these Indians he told them to stop and see him in the spring when they would be coming down to Pointe Bleue with their furs-Francois Paradis of Mistassini,' said he to them, will not forget what you have done ... Francois Paradis.' And when they came in spring while running the river he looked after them well and every one carried away a new ax, a fine woollen blanket and tobacco for six months. Always after that they used to pay us a visit in the spring, and father had the pick of their best skins for less than the companies' buyers had to pay. When he died they treated me in the same way be cause I was his son and bore the same name, Francois Paradis. With more capital I could have made a good bit of money in this trade-a good bit of money."
He seemed a little uncomfortable at having talked so much, and arose to go. "We shall be coming down in a few weeks and I will try to stay a little longer," he said as he departed. "It is good to see you again."
On the door-step his keen eyes sought in Maria's for something that he might carry into the depth of the green woods whither he was bent; but they found no message. In her maidenly simplicity she feared to show herself too bold, and very resolutely she kept her glance lowered, like the young girls with richer parents who return from the convents in Chicoutimi trained to look on the world with a superhuman demureness.
Scarcely was gone when the two women and Tit'Be knelt for the evening prayer. The mother led in a high voice, speaking very rapidly, the others answering in a low murmur. Five Paters, five Ayes, the Acts, and then a long responsive Litany.
"Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us now and at the hour of our death..."
"Immaculate heart of Jesus, have pity on us..."
The window was open and through it came the distant roaring of the falls. The first mosquitos, of the spring, attracted by the light, entered likewise and the slender music of their whip filled the house. Tit'Be went and closed the window, then fell on his knees again beside the others.
"Great St. Joseph, pray for us..."
"St. Isidore, pray for us..."
The prayers over, mother Chapdelaine sighed out contentedly:—"How pleasant it is to have a caller, when we see hardly anyone but Eutrope Gagnon from year's end to year's end. But that is what comes of living so far away in the woods ... Now, when I was a girl at St. Gedeon, the house was full of visitors nearly every Saturday evening and all Sunday: Adelard Saint-Onge who courted me for such a long time; Wilfrid Tremblay, the merchant, who had nice manners and was always trying to speak as the French do; many others as well—not counting your father who came to see us almost every night for three years, while I was making up my mind..."
Three years! Maria thought to herself that she had only seen Francois Paradis twice since she was a child, and she felt ashamed at the beating of her heart.