Maria Chapdelaine

CHAPTER V

THE VOWS

THE fine weather continued, and early in July the blueberries were ripe.

Where the fire had passed, on rocky slopes, wherever the woods were thin and the sun could penetrate, the ground had been clad in almost unbroken pink by the laurel's myriad tufts of bloom; at first the reddening blueberries contended with them in glowing colour, but under the constant sun these slowly turned to pale blue, to royal blue, to deepest purple, and when July brought the feast of Ste. Anne the bushes laden with fruit were broad patches of violet amid the rosy masses now beginning to fade.

The forests of Quebec are rich in wild berries; cranberries, Indian pears, black currants, sarsaparilla spring up freely in the wake of the great fires, but the blueberry, the bilberry or whortleberry of France, is of all the most abundant and delicious. The gathering of them, from July to September, is an industry for many families who spend the whole day in the woods; strings of children down to the tiniest go swinging their tin pails, empty in the morning, full and heavy by evening. Others only gather the blueberries for their own use, either to make jam or the famous pies national to French Canada.

Two or three times in the very beginning of July Maria, with Telesphore and Alma Rose, went to pick blueberries; but their day had not come, and the gleanings barely sufficed for a few tarts of proportions to excite a smile.

"On the feast of Ste. Anne," said their mother by way of consolation, "we shall all go a-gathering; the men as well, and whoever fails to bring back a full pail is not to have any."

But Saturday, the eve of Ste. Anne's day, was memorable to the Chapdelaines; an evening of company such as their house in the forest had never seen.

When the men returned from work Eutrope Gagnon was already there. He had supped, he said, and while the others were at their meal he sat by the door in the cooler air that entered, balancing his chair on two legs. The pipes going, talk naturally turned toward the labours of the soil, and the care of stock.

"With five men," said Eutrope, "you have a good bit of land to show in a short while. But working alone, as I do, without a horse to draw the heavy logs, one makes poor headway and has a hard time of it. However you are always getting on, getting on."

Madame Chapdelaine, liking him, and feeling a great sympathy for his solitary labour in this worthy cause, gave him a few words of encouragement. "You don't make very quick progress by yourself, that is true enough, but a man lives on very little when he is alone, and then your brother Egide will be coming back from the drive with two or three hundred dollars at least, in time for the hay-making and the harvest, and, if you both stay here next winter, in less than two years you will have a good farm."

Assenting with a nod, his glance found Maria, as though drawn thither by the thought that in two years, fortune favouring, he might hope.

"How does the drive go?" asked Esdras. "Is there any news from that quarter?"

"I had word through Ferdina Larouche, a son of Thadee Larouche of Honfleur, who got back from La Tuque last month. He said that things were going well; the men were not having too bad a time."

The shanties, the drive, these are the two chief heads of the great lumbering industry, even of greater importance for the Province of Quebec than is farming. From October till April the axes never cease falling, while sturdy horses draw the logs over the snow to the banks of the frozen rivers; and, when spring comes, the piles melt one after another into the rising waters and begin their long adventurous journey through the rapids. At every abrupt turn, at every fall, where logs jam and pile, must be found the strong and nimble river-drivers, practised at the dangerous work, at making their way across the floating timber, breaking the jams, aiding with ax and pike-pole the free descent of this moving forest.

"A hard time!" exclaimed Legare with scorn. "The young fellows of to-day don't know the meaning of the words. After three months in the woods they are in a hurry to get home and buy yellow boots, stiff hats and cigarettes, and to go and see their girls. Even in the shanties, as things are now, they are as well fed as in a hotel, with meat and potatoes all winter long. Now, thirty years ago ..."

He broke off for a moment, expressing with a shake of his head those prodigious changes that the years had wrought.

"Thirty years ago, when the railway from Quebec was built, I was there; that was something like hardship, I can tell you! I was only sixteen years of age but I chopped with the rest of them to clear the right of way, always twenty-five miles ahead of the steel, and for fourteen months I never clapped eye on a house. We had no tents, summer or winter, only shelters of boughs that we made for ourselves. And from morning till night it was chop, chop, chop,—eaten by the flies, and in the course of the same day soaked with rain and roasted by the sun."

"Every Monday morning they opened a sack of flour and we made ourselves a bucketful of pancakes, and all the rest of the week, three times a day, one dug into that pail for something to eat. By Wednesday, no longer any pancakes, because they were all stuck together; nothing there but a mass of dough. One cut off a big chunk of dough with one's knife, put that in his belly, and then chopped and chopped again!"

"When we got to Chicoutimi where provisions could reach us by water we were worse off than Indians, pretty nearly naked, all scratched and torn, and I well remember some who began to cry when told they could go home, because they thought they would find all their people dead, so long bad the time seemed to them. Hardship! That was hardship if you like."

"That is so," said Chapdelaine, "I can recall those days. Not a single house on the north side of the lake: no one but Indians and a few trappers who made their way up here in summer by canoe and in winter with dog-sleds, much as it is now in the Labrador."

The young folk were listening keenly to these tales of former times. "And now," said Esdras, "here we are fifteen miles beyond the lake, and when the Roberval boat is running we can get to the railway in twelve hours."

They meditated upon this for a while without a word, contrasting past and present; the cruel harshness of life as once it was, the easy day's journey now separating them from the marvels of the iron way, and the thought of it filled them with naive wonder.

All at once Chien set up a low growl; the sound was heard of approaching footsteps. "Another visitor!" Madame Chapdelaine announced in a tone mingling pleasure and astonishment.

Maria also arose, agitated, smoothing her hair with unconscious hand; but it was Ephrem Surprenant of Honfleur who opened the door.

"We have come to pay you a visit!" He shouted this with the air of one who announces a great piece of news. Behind him was someone unknown to them, who bowed and smiled in a very mannerly way.

"My nephew Lorenzo," was Ephrem Surprenant's introduction, "a son of my brother Elzear who died last autumn. You never met him, it is a long time since he left this country for the States."

They were quick to find a chair for the young man from the States, and the uncle undertook the duty of establishing the nephew's genealogy on both sides of the house, and of setting forth his age, trade and the particulars of his life, in obedience to the Canadian custom. "Yes, a son of my brother Elzear who married a young Bourglouis of Kiskisink. You should be able to recall that, Madame Chapdelaine?"

From the depths of her memory mother Chapdelaine unearthed a number of Surprenants and as many Bourglouis, and gave the list with their baptismal names, successive places of residence and a full record of their alliances.

"Right. Precisely right. Well, this one here is Lorenzo. He has been in the States for many years, working in a factory."

Frankly interested, everyone took another good look at Lorenzo Surprenant. His face was rounded, with well-cut features, eyes gentle and unwavering, hands white; with his head a little on one side he smiled amiably, neither superior nor embarrassed under this concentrated gaze.

"He came here," continued his uncle, "to settle affairs after the death of Elzear, and to try to sell the farm."

"He has no wish to hold on to the land and cultivate it?" questioned the elder Chapdelaine.

Lorenzo Surprenant's smile broadened and he shook his head. "No, the idea of settling down on the farm does not tempt me, not in theleast. I earn good wages where I am and like the place very well; I am used to the work."

He checked himself, but it was plain that after the kind of life he had been living and what he had seen of the world, existence on a farm between a humble little village and the forest seemed a thing insupportable.

"When I was a girl," said mother Chapdelaine, "pretty nearly everyone went off to the States. Farming did not pay as well as it does now, prices were low, we were always hearing of the big wages earned over there in the factories, and every year one family after another sold out for next to nothing and left Canada. Some made a lot of money, no doubt of that, especially those families with plenty of daughters; but now it is different and they are not going as once they did ... So you are selling the farm?"

"Yes, there has been some talk with three Frenchmen who came to Mistook last month. I expect we shall make a bargain."

"And are there many Canadians where you are living? Do the people speak French?"

"At the place I went to first, in the State of Maine, there were more Canadians than Americans or Irish; everyone spoke French; but where I live now, in the State of Massachusetts, there are not so many families however; we call on one another in the evenings."

"Samuel once thought of going West," said Madame Chapdelaine, "but I was never willing. Among people speaking nothing but English I should have been unhappy all the rest of my days. I used to say to him-'Samuel, we Canadians are always better off among Canadians.'"

When the French Canadian speaks of himself it is invariably and simply as a "Canadian"; whereas for all the other races that followed in his footsteps, and peopled the country across to the Pacific, he keeps the name of origin: English, Irish, Polish, Russian; never admitting for a moment that the children of these, albeit born in the country, have an equal title to be called "Canadians." Quite naturally, and without thought of offending, he appropriates the name won in the heroic days of his forefathers.

"And is it a large town where you are?"

"Ninety thousand," said Lorenzo with a little affectation of modesty.

"Ninety thousand! Bigger than Quebec!"

"Yes, and we are only an hour by train from Boston. A really big place, that."

And he set himself to telling of the great American cities and their magnificence, of the life filled with case and plenty, abounding in refinements beyond imagination, which is the portion of the well paid artisan.

In silence they listened to his words. Framed in the open door-way the last crimson of the sky, fading to Paler tints, rose above the vague masses of the forest,-a column resting upon its base. The Mosquitos began to arrive in their legions, and the humming of innumerable wings filled the low clearing with continuous sound.

"Telesphore," directed the father, "make us a smudge. Take the old tin pail." Telesphore covered the bottom of the leaky vessel with earth, filling it then with dry chips and twigs which he set ablaze. When the flame was leaping up brightly he returned with an armful of herbs and leaves and smothered it; the volume of stinging smoke which ascended was carried by the wind into the house and drove out the countless horde. At length they were at peace, and with sighs of relief could desist from the warfare. The very last mosquito settled on the face of little Alma Rose. With great seriousness she pronounced the ritual words-"Fly, fly, get off my face, my nose is not a public place!" Then she made a swift end of the creature with a slap. The smoke drifted obliquely through the door-way; within the house, no longer stirred by the breeze, it spread in a thin cloud; the walls became indistinct and far-off; the group seated between door and stove resolved into a circle of dim faces hanging in a white haze.

"Greetings to everyone!" The tones rang clear, and Francois Paradis, emerging from the smoke, stood upon the threshold. For weeks Maria had been expecting him. Half an hour earlier the sound of a step without had sent the blood to her cheek, and yet the arrival of him she awaited moved her with joyous surprise.

"Offer your chair, Da'Be!" cried mother Chapdelaine. Four callers from three different quarters converging upon her, truly nothing more was needed to fill her with delightful excitement. An evening indeed to be remembered!

"There! You are forever saying that we are buried in the woods and see no company," triumphed her husband. "Count them over: eleven grown-up people!" Every chair in the house was filled; Esdras, Tit'Be and Eutrope Gagnon occupied the bench, Chapdelaine, a box turned upside down; from the step Telesphore and Alma Rose watched the mounting smoke.

"And look," said Ephrem Surprenant, "how many young fellows and only one girl!" The young men were duly counted: three Chapdelaines, Eutrope Gagnon, Lorenzo Surprenant, Francois Paradis. As for the one girl ... Every eye was turned upon Maria, who smiled feebly and looked down, confused.

"Had you a good trip, Francois?-He went up the river with strangers to buy furs from the Indians," explained Chapdelaine; who presented to the others with formality-"Francois Paradis, son of Francois Paradis from St. Michel de Mistassini." Eutrope Gagnon knew him by name, Ephrem Surprenant had met his father:—"A tall mall, taller still than he, of a strength not to be matched." it only remained to account for Lorenzo Surprenant,-"who has come, home from the States"-and all the conventions had been honoured.

"A good trip," answered Francois. "No, not very good. One of the Belgians took a fever and nearly died. After that it was rather late in the season; many Indian families had already gone down to Ste. Anne de Chicoutimi and could not be found; and on top of it all a canoe was wrecked when running a rapid on the way back, and it was hard work fishing the pelts out of the river, without mentioning the fact that one of the bosses was nearly drowned,-the same one that had the fever. No, we were unlucky all through. But here we are none the less, and it is always another job over and done with." A gesture signified to the listeners that the task was completed, the wages paid and the ultimate profits or losses not his affair.

"Always another job over and done with,"-he slowly repeated the words. "The Belgians were in a hurry to reach Peribonka on Sunday, tomorrow; but, as they had another man, I left them to finish the journey without me so that I might spend the evening with you. It does one's heart good to see a house again."

His glance strayed contentedly over the meager smoke-filled interior and those who peopled it. In the circle of faces tanned by wind and sun, his was the brownest and most weather-beaten; his garments showed many rents, one side of the torn woollen jersey flapped upon his shoulder, moccasins replaced the long boots he had worn in the spring. He seemed to have brought back something of natures wildness from the head-waters Of the rivers where the Indians and the great creatures of the woods find sanctuary. And Maria, whose life would not allow her to discern the beauty of that wilderness because it lay too near her, yet felt that some strange charm was at work and was throwing its influence about her.

Esdras had gone for the cards; cards with faded red backs and dog-eared corners, where the lost queen of hearts was replaced by a square of pink cardboard bearing the plainly-written legend dame de cour. They played at quatre-sept. The two Surprenants, uncle and nephew, had Madame Chapdelaine and Maria for partners; after each table and game the beaten couple left the table and gave place to two other players. Night had fallen; some mosquitos made their way through the open window and went hither and thither with their stings and irritating music.

"Telesphore!" called out Esdras, "see to the smudge, the flies are coming in." In a few minutes smoke pervaded the house again, thick, almost stifling, but greeted with delight. The party ran its quiet course. An hour of cards, some talk with a visitor who bears news from the great world, these are still accounted happiness in the Province of Quebec.

Between the games, Lorenzo Surprenant entertained Maria with a description of his life and his journeyings; in turn asking questions about her. He was far from putting on airs, yet she felt disconcerted at finding so little to say, and her replies were halting and timid.

The others talked among themselves or watched the play. Madame recalled the many gatherings at St. Gedeon in the days of her girlhood, and looked from one to the other, with unconcealed pleasure at the fact that three young men should thus assemble beneath her roof. But Maria sat at the table devoting herself to the cards, and left it for some vacant seat near the door with scarcely a glance about her. Lorenzo Surprenant was always by her side and talking; she felt the continual regard of Eutrope Gagnon with that familiar look of patient waiting; she was conscious of the handsome bronzed face and fearless eyes of Francois Paradis who sat very silent beyond the door, elbows on his knees.

"Maria is not at her best this evening," said Madame Chapdelaine by way of excusing her, "she is really not used to having visitors you see..." Had she but known! ...

Four hundred miles away, at the far headwaters of the rivers, those Indians who have held aloof from missionaries and traders are squatting round a fire of dry cypress before their lodges, and the world they see about them, as in the earliest days, is filled with dark mysterious powers: the giant Wendigo pursuing the trespassing hunter; strange potions, carrying death or healing, which wise old men know how to distil from roots and leaves; incantations and every magic art. And here on the fringe of another world, but a day's journey from the railway, in this wooden house filled with acrid smoke, another all-conquering spell, charming and bewildering the eyes of three young men, is being woven into the shifting cloud by a sweet and guileless maid with downcast eyes.

The hour was late; the visitors departed; first the two Surprenants, then Eutrope Gagnon, only Francois Paradis was left,—standing there and seeming to hesitate.

"You will sleep here to-night, Francois?" asked the father.

His wife heard no reply. "Of course!" said she. "And to-morrow we will all gather blueberries. It is the feast of Ste. Anne."

When a few moments later Francois mounted to the loft with the boys, Maria's heart was filled with happiness. This seemed to bring him a little nearer, to draw him within the family circle.

The morrow was a day of blue sky, a day when from the heavens some of the sparkle and brightness descends to earth. The green of tender grass and young wheat was of a ravishing delicacy, even the dun woods borrowed something from the azure of the sky.

Francois came down in the morning looking a different man, in clothes borrowed from Da'Be and Esdras, and after he had shaved and washed Madame Chapdelaine complimented him on his appearance.

When breakfast was over and the hour of the mass come, all told their chaplet together; and then the long delightful idle Sunday lay before them. But the day's programme was already settled. Eutrope Gagnon came in just as they were finishing dinner, which was early, and at once they all set forth, provided with pails, dishes and tin mugs of every shape and size.

The blueberries were fully ripe. In the burnt lands the purple of the clusters and the green of the leaves now overcame the paling rose of the laurels. The children began picking at once with cries of delight, but their elders scattered through the woods in search of the larger patches, where one might sit on one's heels and fill a pail in an hour. The noise of footsteps on dry twigs, of rustling in the alder bushes, the calls of Telesphore and Alma Rose to one another, all faded slowly into the distance, and about each gatherer was only the buzzing of flies drunk with sunshine, and the voice of the wind in the young birches and aspens.

"There is a fine clump over here," said a voice. Maria's heart beat faster as she arose and went toward Francois Paradis who was kneeling behind the alders. Side by side they picked industriously for a time, then plunged farther into the woods, stepping over fallen trees, looking about them for the deep blue masses of the ripe berries.

"There are very few this year," said Francois. "It was the spring frosts that killed the blossoms." He brought to the berry-seeking his woodsman's knowledge. "In the hollows and among the alders the snow was lying longer and kept them from freezing."

They sought again and made some happy finds: broad clumps of bushes laden with huge berries which they heaped into their pails. In the space of an hour these were filled; they rose and went to sit on a fallen tree to rest themselves.

Mosquitos swarmed and circled in the fervent afternoon heat. Every moment the hand must be raised to scatter them; after a panic-stricken flight they straightway returned, reckless and pitiless, bent only on finding one tiny spot to plant a sting; with their sharp note was blended that of the insatiate black-fly, filling the woods with unceasing sound. Living trees there were not many; a few young birches, some aspens, alder bushes were stirring in the wind among the rows of lifeless and blackened trunks.

Francois Paradis looked about him as though to take his bearings. "The others cannot be far away," he said.

"No," replied Maria in a low voice. But neither he nor she called to summon them.

A squirrel ran down the bole of a dead birch tree and watched the pair with his sharp eyes for some moments before venturing to earth. The strident flight of heavy grasshoppers rose above the intoxicated clamour of the flies; a wandering air brought the fall's dull thunder through the alders.

Francois Paradis stole a glance at Maria, then turned his eyes away and tightly clasped his hands. Ah, but she was good to look upon! Thus to sit beside her, to catch these shy glimpses of the strong bosom, the sweet face so modest and so patient, the utter simplicity of attitude and of her rare gestures; a great hunger for her awoke in him, and with it a new and marvellous tenderness, for he had lived his life with other men, in hard give-and-take, among the wild forests and on the snowy plains.

Well he knew she was one of those women who, giving themselves, give wholly, reckoning not the cost; love of body and of soul, strength of arm in the daily task, the unmeasured devotion of a spirit that does not waver. So precious the gift appeared to him that he dared not ask it.

"I am going down to Grand'Mere next week," he said, almost in a whisper, "to work on the lumber-dam. But I will never take a glass, not one, Maria!" Hesitating a moment he stammered out, eyes on the ground: "Perhaps ... they have said something against me?"

"No."

"It is true that I used to drink a bit, when I got back from the shanties and the drive; but that is all over now. You see when a young fellow has been working in the woods for six months, with every kind of hardship and no amusement, and gets out to La Tuque or Jonquieres with all the winter's wages in his pocket, pretty often he loses his head; he throws his money about and sometimes takes too much ... But that is all over."

"And it is also true that I used to swear. When one lives all the time with rough men in the woods or on the rivers one gets the habit. Once I swore a good deal, and the cure, Mr. Tremblay, took me to task because I said before him that I wasn't afraid of the devil. But there is an end of that too, Maria. All the summer I am to be working for two dollars and a half a day and you may be sure that I shall save money. And in the autumn there will be no trouble finding a job as foreman in a shanty, with big wages. Next spring I shall have more than five hundred dollars saved, clear, and I shall come back... ."

Again he hesitated, and the question he was about to put took another form upon his lips. "You will be here still...next spring?"

"Yes."

And after the simple question and simpler answer they fell silent and so long remained, wordless and grave, for they had exchanged their vows.



Back | Next | Contents