Maria Chapdelaine



IN July the hay was maturing, and by the middle of August it was only a question of awaiting a few dry days to cut and-store it. But after many weeks of fine weather the frequent shifts of wind which are usual in Quebec once more ruled the skies.

Every morning the men scanned the heavens and took counsel together. "The wind is backing to the sou'east. Bad luck! Beyond question it will rain again," said Edwige Legare with a gloomy face. Or it was old Chapdelaine who followed the movement of the white clouds that rose above the tree-tops, sailed in glad procession across the clearing, and disappeared behind the dark spires on the other side.

"If the nor'west holds till to-morrow we shall begin," he announces. But next day the wind had backed afresh, and the cheerful clouds of yesterday, now torn and shapeless, straggling in disorderly rout, seemed to be fleeing like the wreckage of a broken army.

Madame Chapdelaine foretold inevitable misfortune. "Mark my words, we shall not have good hay-making weather. They say that down by the end of the lake some people of the same parish have gone to law with one another. Of a certainty the good God does not like that sort of thing!"

Yet the Power at length was pleased to show indulgence, and the north-west wind blew for three days on end, steady and strong, promising a rainless week. The scythes were long since sharpened and ready, and the five men set to work on the morning of the third day. Legare, Esdras and the father cut; Da'Be and Tit'Be followed close on their heels, raking the hay together. Toward evening all five took their forks in hand and made it into cocks, high and carefully built, lest a change of wind should bring rain. But the sunshine lasted. For five days they carried on, swinging the scythe steadily from right to left with that broad free movement that seems so easy to the practised hand, and is in truth the hardest to learn and the most fatiguing of all the labours known to husbandry.

Flies and mosquitos rose in swarms from the cut hay, stinging and tormenting the workers; a blazing sun scorched their necks, and smarting sweat ran into their eyes; when evening came, such was the ache of backs continually bent, they could not straighten themselves without making wry faces. Yet they toiled from dawn to nightfall without loss of a second, hurrying their meals, feeling nothing but gratitude and happiness that the weather stood fair.

Three or four times a day Maria or Telesphore brought them a bucket of water which they stood in a shady spot to keep it cool; and when throats became unbearably dry with heat, exertion and the dust of the hay, they went by turns to swallow great-draughts and deluge wrists or head.

In five days all the hay was cut, and, the drought persisting, on the morning of the sixth day they began to break and scatter the cocks they intended lodging in the barn before night. The scythes had done their work and the forks came into play. They threw down the cocks, spread the bay in the sun, and toward the end of the afternoon, when dry, heaped it anew in piles of such a size that a man could just lift one with a single motion to the level of a well-filled hay-cart.

Charles Eugene pulled gallantly between the shafts; the cart was swallowed up in the barn, stopped beside the mow, and once again the forks were plunged into the hard-packed hay, raised a thick mat of it with strain of wrist and back, and unloaded it to one side. By the end of the week the hay, well-dried and of excellent colour, was all under cover; the men stretched themselves and took long breaths, knowing the fight was over and won.

"It may rain now if it likes," said Chapdelaine. "It will be all the same to us." But it appeared that the sunshine had not been timed with exact relation to their peculiar needs, for the wind held in the north-west and fine days followed one upon the other in unbroken succession.

The women of the Chapdelaine household had no part in the work of the fields. The father and his three tall sons, all strong and skilled in farm labour, could have managed everything by themselves; if they continued to employ Legare and to pay him wages it was because he had entered their service eleven years before, when the children were young, and they kept him now, partly through habit, partly because they were loth to lose the help of so tremendous a worker. During the hay-making then, Maria and her mother had only their usual tasks: housework, cooking, washing and mending, the milking of three cows and the care of the hens, and once a week the baking which often lasted well into the night.

On the eve of a baking Telesphore was sent to hunt up the bread-pans which habitually found their way into all comers of the house and shed-being in daily use to measure oats for the horse or Indian corn for the fowls, not to mention twenty other casual purposes they were continually serving. By the time all were routed out and scrubbed the dough was rising, and the women hastened to finish other work that their evening watch might be shortened.

Telesphore made a blazing fire below the Oven with branches of gummy cypress that smelled of resin, then fed it with tamarack logs, giving a steady and continuous heat. When the oven was hot enough, Maria slipped in the pans of dough; after which nothing remained but to tend the fire and change the position of the pans as the baking required.

Too small an oven had been built five years before, and ever since then the family did not escape a weekly discussion about the new oven it was imperative to construct, which unquestionably should have been put in hand without delay; but on each trip to the-village, by one piece of bad luck and another, someone forgot the necessary cement; and so it happened that the oven bad to be filled two or even three times to make weekly provision for the nine mouths of the household.

Maria invariably took charge of the first baking; invariably too, when the oven was ready for the second batch of bread and the evening well advanced, her mother would say considerately:—"You can go to bed, Maria, I will look after the second baking." And Maria would reply never a word, knowing full well that the mother would presently stretch herself on the bed for a little nap and not awake till morning. She then would revive the smudge that smouldered every evening in the damaged tin pail, install the second batch of bread, and seat herself upon the door-step, her chin resting in her hands, upheld through the long hours of the night by her inexhaustible patience.

Twenty paces from the house the clay oven with its sheltering roof of boards loomed dark, but the door of the fireplace fitted badly and one red gleam escaped through the chink; the dusky border of the forest stole a little closer in the night. Maria sat very still, delighting in the quiet and the coolness, while a thousand vague dreams circled about her like a flock of wheeling birds.

There was a time when this night-watch passed in drowsiness, as she resignedly awaited the moment when the finished task would bring her sleep; but since the coming of Francois Paradis the long weekly vigil was very sweet to her, for she could think of him and of herself with nothing to distract her dear imaginings. Simple they were, these thoughts of hers, and never did they travel far afield. In the springtime he will come back; this return of his, the joy of seeing him again, the words he will say when they find themselves once more alone, the first touch of hands and lips. Not easy was it for Maria to make a picture for herself of how these things were to come about.

Yet she essayed. First she repeated his full name two or three times, formally, as others spoke it: Paradis, from St. Michel de Mistassini ... Francois Paradis ... Then suddenly, with sweet intimacy,—Francois!

The evocation fails not. He stands before her tall and strong, bold of eye, his face bronzed with sun and snow-glare. He is by her side, rejoicing at the sight of her, rejoicing that he has kept his faith, has lived the whole year discreetly, without drinking or swearing. There are no blueberries yet to gather-it is only springtime-yet some good reason they find for rambling off to the woods; he walks beside her without word or joining of hands, through the massed laurel flaming into blossom, and naught beyond does either need to flush the cheek, to quicken the beating of the heart.

Now they are seated upon a fallen tree, and thus he speaks: "Were you lonely without me, Maria?" Most surely it is the first question he will put to her; but she is able to carry the dream no further for the sudden pain stabbing her heart. Ah! dear God! how long will she have been lonely for him before that moment comes! A summer to be lived through, an autumn, and all the endless winter! She sighs, but the steadfast patience of the race sustains her, and her thoughts turn upon herself and what the future may be holding.

When she was at St. Prime, one of her cousins who was about to be wedded spoke often to her of marriage. A young man from the village and another from Normandin had both courted her; for long months spending the Sunday evenings together at the house.

"I was fond of them both,"—thus she declared to Maria. "And I really think I liked Zotique best; but he went off to the drive on the St. Maurice, and he wasn't to be back till summer; then Romeo asked me and I said, 'Yes.' I like him very well, too."

Maria made no answer, but even then her heart told her that all marriages are not like that; now she is very sure. The love of Francois Paradis for her, her love for him, is a thing apart-a thing holy and inevitable—for she was unable to imagine that between them it should have befallen otherwise; so must this love give warmth and unfading colour to every day of the dullest life. Always had she dim consciousness of such a presence-moving the spirit like the solemn joy of chanted masses, the intoxication of a sunny windy day, the happiness that some unlooked-for good fortune brings, the certain promise of abundant harvest ...

In the stillness of the night the roar of the fall sounds loud and near; the north-west wind sways the tops of spruce and fir with a sweet cool sighing; again and again, farther away and yet farther, an owl is hooting; the chill that ushers in the dawn is still remote. And Maria, in perfect contentment, rests upon the step, watching the ruddy beam from her fire-flickering, disappearing, quickened again to birth.

She seems to remember someone long since whispering in her ear that the world and life were cheerless and gray. The daily round, brightened only by a few unsatisfying, fleeting pleasures; the slow passage of unchanging years; the encounter with some young man, like other young men, whose patient and hopeful courting ends by whining affection; a marriage then, and afterwards a vista of days under another roof, but scarce different from those that went before. So does one live, the voice had told her. Naught very dreadful in the prospect, and, even were it so, what possible but submission; yet all level, dreary and chill as an autumn field.

It is not true! Alone there in the darkness Maria shakes her head, a smile upon her lips, and knows how far from true it is. When she thinks of Paradis, his look, his bearing, of what they are and will be to one another, he and she, something within her bosom has strange power to burn with the touch of fire, and yet to make her shiver. All the strong youth of her, the long-suffering of her sooth-fast heart find place in it; in the upspringing of hope and of longing, this vision of her approaching miracle of happiness.

Below the oven the red gleam quivers and fails.

"The bread must be ready!" she murmurs to herself. But she cannot bring herself at once to rise, loth as she is to end the fair dream that seems only beginning.

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