Maria Chapdelaine

CHAPTER IV

WILD LAND

AFTER a few chilly days, June suddenly brought veritable spring weather. A blazing sun warmed field and forest, the lingering patches of snow vanished even in the deep shade of the woods; the Peribonka rose and rose between its rocky banks until the alders and the roots of the nearer spruces were drowned; in the roads the mud was incredibly deep. The Canadian soil rid itself of the last traces of winter with a semblance of mad haste, as though in dread of another winter already on the way.

Esdras and Da'Be returned from the shanties where they had worked all the winter. Esdras was the eldest of the family, a tall fellow with a huge frame, his face bronzed, his hair black; the low forehead and prominent chin gave him a Neronian profile, domineering, not without a suggestion of brutality; but he spoke softly, measuring his words, and was endlessly patient. In face alone had he anything of the tyrant; it was as though the long rigours of the climate and the fine sense and good humour of the race had refined his heart to a simplicity and kindliness that his formidable aspect seemed to deny.

Da'Be, also tall, was less heavily built and more lively and merry. He was like his father.

The married couple had given their first children, Esdras and Maria, fine, high-sounding, sonorous names; but they had apparently wearied of these solemnities, for the next two children never beard their real names pronounced; always had they been called by the affectionate diminutives of childhood, Da'Be and Tit'Be. With the last pair, however, there had been a return to the earlier ceremonious manner-Telesphore ... Alma Rose. "When the boys get back we are going to make land," the father had promised. And, with the help of Edwige Legare, their hired man, they set about the task.

In the Province of Quebec there is much uncertainty in the spelling and the use of names. A scattered people in a huge half-wild country, unlettered for the most part and with no one to turn to for counsel but the priests, is apt to pay attention only to the sound of names, caring nothing about their appearance when written or the sex to which they pertain. Pronunciation has naturally varied in one mouth or another, in this family or that, and when a formal occasion calls for writing, each takes leave to spell his baptismal name in his own way, without a passing thought that there may be a canonical form. Borrowings from other languages have added to the uncertainties of orthography and gender. Individuals sign indifferently, Denise, Denije or Deneije; Conrad or Courade; men bear such names as Hermenegilde, Aglae, Edwige.

Edwige Legare had worked for the Chapdelaines these eleven summers. That is to say, for wages of twenty dollars a month he was in harness each day from four in the morning till nine at night at any and every job that called for doing, bringing to it a sort of frenzied and inexhaustible enthusiasm; for he was one of those men incapable by his nature of working save at the full pitch of strength and energy, in a series of berserk rages. Short and broad, his eyes were the brightest blue—a thing rare in Quebec-at once piercing and guileless, set in a visage the colour of clay that always showed cruel traces of the razor, topped by hair of nearly the same shade. With a pride in his appearance that was hard to justify he shaved himself two or three times a week, always in the evening, before the bit of looking-glass that hung over the pump and by the feeble light of the little lamp-driving the steel through his stiff beard with groans that showed what it cost him in labour and anguish. Clad in shirt and trousers of brownish homespun, wearing huge dusty boots, he was from head to heel of a piece with the soil, nor was there aught in his face to redeem the impression of rustic uncouthness.

Chapdelaine, his three sons and man, proceeded then to "make land." The forest still pressed hard upon the buildings they had put up a few years earlier: the little square house, the barn of planks that gaped apart, the stable built of blackened logs and chinked with rags and earth. Between the scanty fields of their clearing and the darkly encircling woods lay a broad stretch which the ax had but half-heartedly attacked. A few living trees had been cut for timber, and the dead ones, sawn and split, fed the great stove for a whole winter; but the place was a rough tangle of stumps and interlacing roots, of fallen trees too far rotted to burn, of others dead but still erect amid the alder scrub.

Thither the five men made their way one morning and set to work at once, without a word, for every man's task had been settled beforehand.

The father and Da'Be took their stand face to face on either side of a tree, and their axes, helved with birch, began to swing in rhythm. At first each hewed a deep notch, chopping steadily at the same spot for some seconds, then the ax rose swiftly and fell obliquely on the trunk a foot higher up; at every stroke a great chip flew, thick as the hand, splitting away with the grain. When the cuts were nearly meeting, one stopped and the other slowed down, leaving his ax in the wood for a moment at every blow; the mere strip, by some miracle still holding the tree erect, yielded at last, the trunk began to lean and the two axmen stepped back a pace and watched it fall, shouting at the same instant a warning of the danger.

It was then the turn of Edwige Legare and Esdras; when the tree was not too heavy each took an end, clasping their strong hands beneath the trunk, and then raised themselves-backs straining, arms cracking under the stress-and carried it to the nearest heap with short unsteady steps, getting over the fallen timber with stumbling effort. When the burden seemed too heavy, TAW came forward leading Charles Eugene dragging a tug-bar with a strong chain; this was passed round the trunk and fastened, the horse bent his back, and with the muscles of his hindquarters standing out, hauled away the tree which scraped along the stumps and crushed the young alders to the ground.

At noon Maria came out to the door-step and gave a long call to tell them that dinner was ready. Slowly they straightened up among the stumps, wiping away with the backs of their hands the drops of sweat that ran into their eyes, and made their way to the house.

Already the pea-soup smoked in the plates. The five men set themselves at table without haste, as if sensation were somewhat dulled by the heavy work; but as they caught their breath a great hunger awoke, and soon they began to eat with keen appetite. The two women waited upon them, filling the empty plates, carrying about the great dish of pork and boiled potatoes, pouring out the hot tea. When the meat had vanished the diners filled their saucers with molasses in which they soaked large pieces of bread; hunger was quickly appeased, because they had eaten fast and without a word, and then plates were pushed back and chairs tilted with sighs of satisfaction, while hands were thrust into pockets for their pipes, and the pigs' bladders bulging with tobacco.

Edwige Legare, seating himself on the door-step, proclaimed two or three times:—"I have dined well ... I have dined well ... with the air of a judge who renders an impartial decision; after which he leaned against the post and let the smoke of his pipe and the gaze of his small fight-coloured eyes pursue the same purposeless wanderings. The elder Chapdelaine sank deeper and deeper into his chair, and ended by falling asleep; the others smoked and chatted about their work.

"If there is anything," said the mother, "which could reconcile me to living so far away in the woods, it is seeing my men-folk make a nice bit of land-a nice bit of land that was all trees and stumps and roots, which one beholds in a fortnight as bare as the back of your hand, ready for the plough; surely nothing in the world can be more pleasing or better worth doing." The rest gave assent with nods, and were silent for a while, admiring the picture. Soon however Chapdelaine awoke, refreshed by his sleep and ready for work; then all arose and went out together.

The place where they had worked in the morning was yet full of stumps and overgrown with alders. They set themselves to cutting and uprooting the alders, gathering a sheaf of branches in the hand and severing them with the ax, or sometimes digging the earth away about the roots and tearing up the whole bush together. The alders disposed of, there remained the stumps.

Legare and Esdras attacked the smaller ones with no weapons but their axes and stout wooden Prizes. They first cut the roots spreading on the surface, then drove a lever well home, and, chests against the bar, threw all their weight upon it. When their efforts could not break the hundred ties binding the tree to the soil Legare continued to bear heavily that he might raise the stump a little, and while he groaned and grunted under the strain Esdras hewed away furiously level with the ground, severing one by one the remaining roots.

A little distance away the other three men handled the stumping-machine with the aid of Charles Eugene. The pyramidal scaffolding was put in place above a large stump and lowered, the chains which were then attached to the root passed over a pulley, and the horse at the other end started away quickly, flinging himself against the traces and showering earth with his hoofs. A short and desperate charge, a mad leap often arrested after a few feet as by the stroke of fist; then the heavy steel blades a giant would swing up anew, gleaming in the sun, and fall with a dull sound upon the stubborn wood, while the horse took breath for a moment, awaiting with excited eye the word that would launch him forward again. And afterwards there was still the labour of hauling or rolling the big stumps to the pile-at fresh effort of back, of soil-stained hands with swollen veins, and stiffened arms that seemed grotesquely striving with the heavy trunk and the huge twisted roots.

The sun dipped toward the horizon, disappeared; the sky took on softer hues above the forest's dark edge, and the hour of supper brought to the house five men the of the colour of the soil.

While waiting Upon them Madame Chapdelaine asked a hundred questions about the day's work, and when the vision arose before her of this patch of land they had cleared, superbly bare, lying ready for the Plough, her spirit was possessed with something of a mystic's rapture.

With hands upon her hips, refusing to seat herself at table, she extolled the beauty Of the world as it existed for her: not the beauty wherein human beings have no hand, which the townsman makes such an ado about with his unreal ecstasies.-mountains, lofty and bare, wild seas-but the quiet unaffected loveliness of the level champaign, finding its charm in the regularity of the long furrow and the sweetly-flowing stream—the naked champaign courting with willing abandon the fervent embraces of the sun.

She sang the great deeds of the four Chapdelaines and Edwige Legare, their struggle against the savagery of nature, their triumph of the day. She awarded praises and displayed her own proper pride, albeit the five men smoked their wooden or clay pipes in silence, motionless as images after their long task; images of earthy hue, hollow-eyed with fatigue.

"The stumps are hard to get out." at length said the elder Chapdelaine, "the roots have not rotted in the earth so much as I should have imagined. I calculate that we shall not be through for three weeks." He glanced questioningly at Legare who gravely confirmed him.

"Three weeks ... Yes, confound it! That is what I think too."

They fell silent again, patient and determined, like men who face a long war.

The Canadian spring had but known a few weeks of life when, by calendar, the summer was already come; it seemed as if the local weather god had incontinently pushed the season forward with august finger to bring it again into accord with more favoured lands to the south. For torrid heat fell suddenly upon them, heat well-nigh as unmeasured as was the winter's cold. The tops of the spruces and cypresses, forgotten by the wind, were utterly still, and above the frowning outline stretched a sky bare of cloud which likewise seemed fixed and motionless. From dawn till nightfall a merciless sun calcined the ground.

The five men worked on unceasingly, while from day to day the clearing extended its borders by a little; deep wounds in the uncovered soil showed the richness of it.

Maria went forth one morning to carry them water. The father and Tit'Be were cutting alders, Da'Be and Esdras piled the cut trees. Edwige Legare was attacking a stump by himself; a hand against the trunk, he had grasped a root with the other as one seizes the leg of some gigantic adversary in a struggle, and he was fighting the combined forces of wood and earth like a man furious at the resistance of an enemy. Suddenly the stump yielded and lay upon the ground; he passed a hand over his forehead and sat down upon a root, running with sweat, overcome by the exertion. When Maria came near him with her pail half full of water, the others having drunk, he was still seated, breathing deeply and saying in a bewildered way:—"I am done for ... Ah! I am done for." But he pulled himself together on seeing her, and roared out—"Cold water! Perdition! Give me cold water."

Seizing the bucket he drank half its contents and poured the rest over his head and neck; still dripping, he threw himself afresh upon the vanquished stump and began to roll it toward a pile as one carries off a prize.

Maria stayed for a few moments looking at the work of the men and the progress they had made, each day more evident, then hied her back to the house swinging the empty bucket, happy to feel herself alive and well under the bright sun, dreaming of all the joys that were to be hers, nor could be long delayed if only she were earnest and patient enough in her prayers. Even at a distance the voices of the men came to her across the surface of the ground baked by the heat; Esdras, his hands beneath a young jack pine, was saying in his quiet tones:—"Gently ... together now!"

Legare was wrestling with some new inert foe, and swearing in his half-stifled way:—"Perdition! I'll make you stir, so I will." His gasps were nearly as audible as the words. Taking breath for a second he rushed once more into the fray, arms straining, wrenching with his great back. And yet again his voice was raised in oaths and lamentations:-"I tell you that I'll have you ... Oh you rascal! Isn't it hot? . . I'm pretty nearly finished ..." His complaints ripened into one mighty cry:—"Boss! We are going to kill ourselves making land."

Old Chapdelaine's voice was husky but still cheerful as he answered: "Tough! Edwige, tough! The pea-soup will soon be ready."

And in truth it was not long before Maria, once more on the door-step, shaping her hands to carry the sound, sent forth the ringing call to dinner.

Toward evening a breeze arose and a delicious coolness fell upon the earth like a pardon. But the sky remained cloudless.

"If the fine weather lasts," said mother Chapdelaine, "the blueberries will be ripe for the feast of Ste. Anne."



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