Maria Chapdelaine

CHAPTER VIII

ENTRENCHED AGAINST WINTER

ONE October morning Maria's first vision on arising was of countless snow-flakes sifting lazily from the skies. The ground was covered, the trees white; verily it seemed that autumn was over, when in other lands it had scarce begun.

But Edwige Legare thus pronounced sentence: "After the first snowfall there is yet a month before winter sets in. The old folks always so declared, and I believe it myself." He was right; for in two days a rain carried off the snow and the dark soil again lay bare. Still the warning was heeded, and they set about preparations; the yearly defences against the snow that may not be trifled with, and the piercing cold.

Esdras and Da'Be protected the foundation of their dwelling with earth and sand, making an embankment at the foot of the walls; the other men, armed with hammer and nails, went round the outside of the house, nailing up, closing chinks, remedying as best they could the year's wear and tear. Within, the women forced rags into the crevices, pasted upon the wainscotting at the north-west side old newspapers brought from the village and carefully preserved, tested with their hands in every corner for draughts.

These things accomplished, the next task was to lay in the winter's store of wood. Beyond the fields, at the border of the forest plenty of dead trees yet were standing. Esdras and Legare took ax in hand and felled for three days; the trunks were piled, awaiting another fall of snow when they could be loaded on the big wood-sleigh.

All through October, frosty and rainy days came alternately, and meanwhile the woods were putting on a dress of unearthly loveliness. Five hundred paces from the Chapdelaine house the bank of the Peribonka fell steeply to the rapid water and the huge blocks of stone above the fall, and across the river the opposite bank rose in the fashion of a rocky amphitheatre, mounting to loftier heights-an amphitheatre trending in a vast curve to the northward. Of the birches, aspens, alders and wild cherries scattered upon the slope, October made splashes of many-tinted red and gold. Throughout these weeks the ruddy brown of mosses, the changeless green of fir and cypress, were no more than a background, a setting only for the ravishing colours of those leaves born with the spring, that perish with the autumn. The wonder of their dying spread over the hills and unrolled itself, an endless riband following the river, ever as beautiful, as rich in shades brilliant and soft, as enrapturing, when they pawed into the remoteness of far northern regions and were unseen by human eye.

But ere long there sweeps from out the cold north a mighty wind like a final sentence of death, the cruel ending to a reprieve, and soon the poor leaves, brown, red and golden, shaken too unkindly, strow the ground; the snow covers them, and the white expanse has only for adornment the sombre green of trees that alter not their garb-triumphing now, as do those women inspired with bitter wisdom who barter their right to beauty for life everlasting.

In November Esdras, Da'Be and Edwige Legare went off again to the shanties. The father and Tit'Be harnessed Charles Eugene to the wood-sleigh, and laboured at hauling in the trees that had been cut, and piling them near the house; that done, the two men took the double-handed saw and sawed, sawed, sawed from morning till night; it was then the turn of the axes, and the logs were split as their size required. Nothing remained but to cord the split wood in the shed beside the house, where it was sheltered from the snow; the huge piles mingling the resinous cypress which gives a quick hot flame, spruce and red birch, burning steadily and longer, close-grained white birch with its marble-like surface, slower yet to be consumed and leaving red embers in the morning after a long winter's night.

The moment for laying in wood is also that of the slaughtering. After entrenching against cold comes the defence against hunger. The quarters of pork went into the brine-tub; from a beam in the shed there hung the side of a fat heifer-the other half sold to people in Honfleur-which the cold would keep fresh till spring; sacks of flour were piled in a corner of the house, and Tit'Be, provided with a spool of brass wire, set himself to making nooses for hares.

After the bustle of summer they relapsed into easy-going ways, for the summer is painfully short and one must:-not lose a single hour of those precious weeks when it is possible to work on the land, whereas the winter drags slowly and gives all too much time for the tasks it brings.

The house became the centre of the universe; in truth the only spot where life could be sustained, and more than ever the great cast-iron stove was the soul of it. Every little while some member of the family fetched a couple of logs from under the staircase; cypress in the morning, spruce throughout the day, in the evening birch, pushing them in upon the live coals. Whenever the heat failed, mother Chapdelaine might be heard saying anxiously."Don't let the fire out, children." Whereupon Maria, Tit'Be or Telesphore would open the little door, glance in and hasten to the pile of wood.

In the mornings Tit'Be jumped out of bed long before daylight to see if the great sticks of birch had done their duty and burned all night; should, unluckily, the fire be out he lost no time in rekindling it with birch-bark and cypress branches, placed heavier pieces on the mounting flame, and ran back to snuggle under the brown woollen blankets and patchwork quilt till the comforting warmth once more filled the house.

Outside, the neighbouring forest, and even the fields won from it, were an alien unfriendly world, upon which they looked wonderingly through the little square windows. And sometimes this world was strangely beautiful in its frozen immobility, with a sky of flawless blue and a brilliant sun that sparkled on the snow; but the immaculateness of the blue and the white alike was pitiless and gave hint of the murderous cold.

Days there were when the weather was tempered and the snow fell straight from the clouds, concealing all; the ground and the low growth was covered little by little, the dark line of the woods was hidden behind the curtain of serried flakes. Then in the morning the sky was clear again, but the fierce northwest wind swayed the heavens. Powdery snow, whipped from the ground, drove across the burnt lands and the clearings in blinding squalls, and heaped itself behind whatever broke the force of the gale. To the south-east of the house it built an enormous cone, and between house and stable raised a drift five feet high through which the shovel had to carve a path; but to windward the ground was bare, scoured by the persistent blast.

On such days as these the men scarcely left the house except to care for the beasts, and came back on the run, their faces rasped with the cold and shining-wet with snow-crystals melted by the heat of the house. Chapdelaine would pluck the icicles from his moustache, slowly draw off his sheepskin-lined coat and settle himself by the stove with a satisfied sigh. "The pump is not frozen?" he asks. "Is there plenty of wood in the house?"

Assured that the frail wooden fortress is provided with water, wood and food, he gives himself up to the indolences of winter quarters, smoking pipes innumerable while the women-folk are busy with the evening meal. The cold snaps the nails in the plank walls with reports like pistol-shots; the stove crammed with birch roars lustily; the howling of the wind without is like the cries of a besieging host.

"It must be a bad day in the woods!" thinks Maria to herself; and then perceives that she has spoken aloud.

"In the woods they are better off than we are here," answers her father. "Up there where the trees stand close together one does not feel the wind. You can be sure that Esdras and Da'Be are all right."

"Yes?"

But it was not of Esdras and Da'Be that she had just been thinking.



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