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From the moment there came to the post-office the letter addressed to "The Sick Man at the House of Jo Portugais at Vadrome Mountain," Rosalie Evanturel dreamed dreams. Mystery, so fascinating a thing in all the experiences of life, took hold of her. The strange man in the lonely hut on the hill, the bandaged head, the keen, piercing blue eyes, the monocle, like a masked battery of the mind, levelled at her--all appealed to that life she lived apart from the people with whom she had daily commerce. Her world was a world of books and dreams, and simple, practical duties of life. Most books were romance to her, for most were of a life to which she had not been educated. Even one or two purely Protestant books of missionary enterprise, found in a box in her dead mother's room, had had all the charms of poetry and adventure. It was all new, therefore all delightful, even when the Protestant sentiments shocked her as being not merely untrue, but hurting that aesthetic sense never remote from the mind of the devout Catholic.
She had blushed when monsieur had first looked at her, in the hut on Vadrome Mountain, not because there was any soft sentiment about him in her heart--how could there be for a man she had but just seen!--but because her feelings, her imagination, were all at high temperature; because the man compelled attention. The feeling sprang from a deep sensibility, a natural sense, not yet made incredulous by the ironies of life. These had never presented themselves to her in a country, in a parish, where people said of fortune and misfortune, happiness and sorrow, "C'est le bon Dieu!"--always "C'est le bon Dieu!"
In some sense it was a pity that she had brains above the ordinary, that she had had a good education and nice tastes. It was the cultivation of the primitive and idealistic mind, which could not rationalise a sense of romance, of the altruistic, by knowledge of life. As she sat behind the post-office counter she read all sorts of books that came her way. When she learned English so as to read it almost as easily as she read French, her greatest joy was to pore over Shakespeare, with a heart full of wonder, and, very often, eyes full of tears--so near to the eyes of her race. Her imagination inhabited Chaudiere with a different folk, living in homes very unlike these wide, sweeping-roofed structures, with double windows and clean-scrubbed steps, tall doors, and wide, uncovered stoops. Her people--people of bright dreaming--were not quarrelsome, or childish, or merely traditional, like the habitants. They were picturesque and able and simple, doing good things in disguise, succouring distress, yielding their lives without thought for a cause, or a woman, and loving with an undying love.
Charley was of these people--from the first instant she saw him. The Cure, the Avocat, and the Seigneur were also of them, but placidly, unimportantly. "The Sick Man at Jo Portugais' House" came out of a mysterious distance. Something in his eyes said, "I have seen, I have known," told her that when he spoke she would answer freely, that they were kinsfolk in some hidden way. Her nature was open and frank; she lived upon the house-tops, as it were, going in and out of the lives of the people of Chaudiere with neighbourly sympathy and understanding. Yet she knew that she was not of them, and they knew that, poor as she was, in her veins flowed the blood of the old nobility of France. For this the Cure could vouch. Her official position made her the servant of the public, and she did her duty with naturalness.
She had been a figure in the parish ever since the day she returned from the convent at Quebec, and took her dead mother's place in the home and the parish. She had a quick temper, but there was not a cheerless note in her nature, and there was scarce a dog or a horse in the parish but knew her touch, and responded to it. Squirrels ate out of her hand, she had even tamed two partridges, and she kept in her little garden a bear she had brought up from a cub. Her devotion to her crippled father was in keeping with her quick response to every incident of sorrow or joy in the parish--only modified by wilful prejudices scarcely in keeping with her unselfishness.
As Mrs. Flynn, the Seigneur's Irish cook, said of her: "Shure, she's not made all av wan piece, the darlin'! She'll wear like silk, but she's not linen for everybody's washin'." And Mrs. Flynn knew a thing or two, as was conceded by all in Chaudiere. No gossip was Mrs. Flynn, but she knew well what was going on in the parish, and she had strong views upon all subjects, and a special interest in the welfare of two people in Chaudiere. One of these was the Seigneur, who, when her husband died, leaving behind him a name for wit and neighbourliness, and nothing else, proposed that she should come to be his cook. In spite of her protest that what was "fit for Teddy was not fit for a gintleman of quality," the Seigneur had had his way, never repenting of his choice. Mrs. Flynn's cooking was not her only good point. She had the rarest sense and an unfailing spring of good-nature--life bubbled round her. It was she that had suggested the crippled M. Evanturel to the Seigneur when the office of postmaster became vacant, and the Seigneur had acted on her suggestion, henceforth taking greater interest in Rosalie.
It was Mrs. Flynn who gave Rosalie information concerning Charley's arrival at the shop of Louis Trudel the tailor. The morning after Charley came, Mrs. Flynn had called for a waistcoat of the Seigneur, who was expected home from a visit to Quebec. She found Charley standing at a table pressing seams, and her quick eye took him in with knowledge and instinct. She was the one person, save Rosalie, who could always divert old Louis, and this morning she puckered his sour face with amusement by the story of the courtship of the widow Plomondon and Germain Boily the horse-trainer, whose greatest gift was animal-training, and greatest weakness a fondness for widows, temporary and otherwise. Before she left the shop, with the stranger's smile answering to her nod, she had made up her mind that Charley was a tailor by courtesy only. So she told Rosalie a few moments afterwards.
"'Tis a man, darlin', that's seen the wide wurruld. 'Tis himisperes he knows, not parrishes. Fwhat's he doin' here, I dun'no'. Fwhere's he come from, I dun'no'. French or English, I dun'no'. But a gintleman born, I know. 'Tis no tailor, darlin', but tailorin' he'll do as aisy as he'll do a hunderd other things anny day. But how he shlipped in here, an' when he shlipped in here, an' what's he come for, an' how long he's stayin', an' meanin' well, or doin' ill, I dun'no', darlin', I dun' no'."
"I don't think he'll do ill, Mrs. Flynn," said Rosalie, in English.
"An' if ye haven't seen him, how d'ye know?" asked Mrs. Flynn, taking a pinch of snuff.
"I have seen him--but not in the tailor-shop. I saw him at Jo Portugais' a fortnight ago."
"Aisy, aisy, darlin'. At Jo Portugais'--that's a quare place for a stranger. 'Tis not wid Jo's introducshun I'd be comin' to Chaudiere."
"He comes with the Cure's introduction."
"An' how d'ye know that, darlin'?"
"The Curb was at Jo Portugais' with monsieur when I went there."
"You wint there!"
"To take him a letter--the stranger." "What's his name, darlin'?"
"The letter I took him was addressed, 'To the Sick Man at Jo Portugais' House at Vadrome Mountain.'"
"Ah, thin, the Cure knows. 'Tis some rich man come to get well, and plays at bein' tailor. But why didn't the letther come to his name, I wander now? That's what I wander."
Rosalie shook her head, and looked reflectively through the window towards the tailor-shop.
"How manny times have ye seen him?"
"Only once;" answered Rosalie truthfully. She did not, however, tell Mrs. Flynn that she had thrice walked nearly to Vadrome Mountain in the hope of seeing him again; and that she had gone to her favourite resort, the Rest of the Flax-Beaters, lying in the way of the riverpath from Vadrome Mountain, on the chance of his passing. She did not tell Mrs. Flynn that there had scarcely been a waking hour when she had not thought of him.
"What Portugais knows, he'll not be tellin'," said Mrs. Flynn, after a moment. "An' 'tis no business of ours, is it, darlin'? Shure, there's Jo comin' out of the tailor-shop now!"
They both looked out of the window, and saw Jo encounter Filion Lacasse the saddler, and Maximilian Cour the baker. The three stood in the middle of the street for a minute, Jo talking freely. He was usually morose and taciturn, but now he spoke as though eager to unburden his mind--Charley and he had agreed upon what should be said to the people of Chaudiere.
The sight of the confidences among the three was too much for Mrs. Flynn. She opened the door of the post office and called to Jo. "Like three crows shtandin' there!" she said. "Come in--ma'm'selle says come in, and tell your tales here, if they're fit to hear, Jo Portugais. Who are you to say no when ma'm'selle bids!" she added.
Very soon afterwards Jo was inside the post-office, telling his tale with the deliberation of a lesson learned by heart.
"It's all right, as ma'm'selle knows," he said. "The Cure was there when ma'm'selle brought a letter to M'sieu' Mallard. The Cure knows all. M'sieu' come to my house sick-and he stayed there. There is nothing like the pine-trees and the junipers to cure some things. He was with me very quiet some time. The Cure come and come. He knows. When m'sieu' got well, he say, 'I will not go from Chaudiere; I will stay. I am poor, and I will earn my bread here.' At first, when he is getting well, he is carpent'ring. He makes cupboards and picture-frames. The Cure has one of the cupboards in the sacristy; the frames he puts on the Stations of the Cross in the church."
"That's good enough for me!" said Maximilian Cour. "Did he make them for nothing?" asked Filion Lacasse solemnly.
"Not one cent did he ask. What's more, he's working for Louis Trudel for nothing. He come through the village yesterday; he see Louis old and sick on his bench, and he set down and go to work."
"That's good enough for me," said the saddler. "If a man work for the Church for nothing, he is a Christian. If he work for Louis Trudel for nothing, he is a fool--first-class--or a saint. I wouldn't work for Louis Trudel if he give me five dollars a day."
"Tiens! the man that work for Louis Trudel work for the Church, for all old Louis makes goes to the Church in the end--that is his will. The Notary knows," said Maximilian Cour.
"See there, now," interposed Mrs. Flynn, pointing across the street to the tailor-shop. "Look at that grocer-man stickin' in his head; and there's Magloire Cadoret and that pig of a barber, Moise Moisan, starin' through the dure, an'--"
As she spoke, the barber and his companion suddenly turned their faces to the street, and started forward with startled exclamations, the grocer following. They all ran out from the post-office. Not far up the street a crowd was gathering. Rosalie locked the office-door and followed the others quickly.
In front of the Hotel Trois Couronnes a painful thing was happening. Germain Boily, the horse-trainer, fresh from his disappointment with the widow Plomondon, had driven his tamed moose up to the Trois Couronnes, and had drunk enough whiskey to make him ill-tempered. He had then begun to "show off" the animal, but the savage instincts of the moose being roused, he had attacked his master, charging with wide-branching horns, and striking with his feet. Boily was too drunk to fight intelligently. He went down under the hoofs of the enraged animal, as his huge boar- hound, always with him, fastened on the moose's throat, dragged him to the ground, and tore gaping wounds in his neck.
It was all the work of a moment. People ran from the doorways and sidewalks, but stayed at a comfortable distance until the moose was dragged down; then they made to approach the insensible man. Before any one could reach him, however, the great hound, with dripping fangs, rushed to his master's body, and, standing over it, showed his teeth savagely. The hotel-keeper approached, but the bristles of the hound stood up, he prepared to attack, and the landlord drew back in haste. Then M. Dauphin, the Notary, who had joined the crowd, held out a hand coaxingly, and with insinuating rhetoric drew a little nearer than the landlord had done; but he retreated precipitously as the hound crouched back for a spring. Some one called for a gun, and Filion Lacasse ran into his shop. The animal had now settled down on his master's body, his bloodshot eyes watching in menace. The one chance seemed to be to shoot him, and there must be no bungling, lest his prostrate master suffer at the same time. The crowd had melted away into the houses, and were now standing at doorways and windows, ready for instant retreat.
Filion Lacasse's gun was now at disposal, but who would fire it? Jo Portugais was an expert shot, and he reached out a hand for the weapon.
As he did so, Rosalie Evanturel cried: "Wait, oh, wait!" Before any one could interfere she moved along the open space to the mad beast, speaking soothingly, and calling his name.
The crowd held their breath. A woman fainted. Some wrung their hands, and Jo Portugais, with blanched face, stood with gun half raised. With assured kindness of voice and manner, Rosalie walked deliberately over to the hound. At first the animal's bristles came up, and he prepared to spring, but murmuring to him, she held out her hand, and presently laid it on his huge head. With a growl of subjection, the dog drew from the body of his master, and licked Rosalie's fingers as she knelt beside Boily and felt his heart. She put her arm round the dog's neck, and said to the crowd, "Some one come--only one--ah, yes, you, Monsieur!" she added, as Charley, who had just arrived on the scene, came forward. "Only you, if you can lift him. Take him to my house."
Her arm still round the dog, she talked to him, as Charley came forward, and, lifting up the body of the little horse-trainer, drew him across his shoulder. The hound at first resented the act, but under Rosalie's touch became quiet, and followed at their heels towards the post-office, licking the wounded man's hands as they hung down. Inside M. Evanturel's house the injured man was laid upon a couch. Charley examined his wounds, and, finding them severe, advised that the Cure be sent for, while he and Jo Portugais set about restoring him to consciousness. Jo had skill of a sort, and his crude medicaments were efficacious.
When the Cure came, the injured man was handed over to his care, and he arranged that in the evening Boily should be removed to his house, to await the arrival of the doctor from the next parish.
This was Charley's public introduction to the people of Chaudiere, and it was his second meeting with Rosalie Evanturel.
The incident brought him into immediate prominence. Before he left the post-office, Filion Lacasse, Maximilian Cour, and Mrs. Flynn had given forth his history, as related by Jo Portugais. The village was agog with excitement.
But attention was not centred on himself, for Rosalie's courage had set the parish talking. When the Notary stood on the steps of the saddler's shop, and with fine rhetoric proposed a vote of admiration for the girl, the cheering could be heard inside the post-office, and it brought Mrs. Flynn outside.
"'Tis for her, the darlin'--for Ma'm'selle Rosalie--they're splittin' their throats!" she said to Charley as he was making his way from the sick man's room to the street door. "Did ye iver see such an eye an' hand? That avil baste that's killed two Injins already--an' all the men o' the place sneakin' behind dures, an' she walkin' up cool as leaf in mornin' dew, an' quietin' the divil's own! Did ye iver see annything like it, sir--you that's seen so much?"
"Madame, it is not touch of hand alone, or voice alone," answered Charley.
"Shure, 'tis somethin' kin in baste an' maid, you're manin' thin?"
"Quite so, Madame."
"Simple like, an' understandin' what Noah understood in that ark av his --for talk to the bastes he must have, explainin' what was for thim to do."
"Like that, Madame."
"Thrue for you, sir, 'tis as you say. There's language more than tongue of man can shpake. But listen, thin, to me"--her voice got lower-- "for 'tis not the furst time, a thing like that, the lady she is-- granddaughter of a Seigneur, and descinded from nobility in France! 'Tis not the furst time to be doin' brave things. Just a shlip of a girl she was, three years ago, afther her mother died, an' she was back from convint. A woman come to the parish an' was took sick in the house of her brother--from France she was. Small-pox they said at furst. 'Twas no small-pox, but plague, got upon the seas. Alone she was in the house --her brother left her alone, the black-hearted coward. The people wouldn't go near the place. The Cure was away. Alone the woman was-- poor soul! Who wint--who wint and cared for her? Who do ye think, sir?"
"None other. 'Go tell Mrs. Flynn,' says she, 'to care for my father till I come back,' an' away she wint to the house of plague. A week she stayed, an' no one wint near her. Alone she was with the woman and the plague. 'Lave her be,' said the Cure when he come back; "tis for the love of God. God is with her--lave her be, and pray for her,' says he. An' he wint himself, but she would not let him in. ''Tis my work,' says she. ''Tis God's work for me to do,' says she. 'An' the woman will live if 'tis God's will,' says she. 'There's an agnus dei on her breast,' says she. 'Go an' pray,' says she. Pray the Cure did, an' pray did we all, but the woman died of the plague. All alone did Rosalie draw her to the grave on a stone-boat down the lane, an' over the hill, an' into the churchyard. An' buried her with her own hands at night, no one knowin' till the mornin', she did. So it was. An' the burial over, she wint back an' burned the house to the ground--sarve the villain right that lave the sick woman alone! An' her own clothes she burned, an' put on the clothes I brought her wid me own hand. An' for that thing she did, the love o' God in her heart, is it for Widdy Flynn or Cure or anny other to forgit? Shure the Cure was for iver broken-hearted, for that he was sick abed for days an' could not go to the house when the woman died, an' say to Rosalie, 'Let me in for her last hour.' But the word of Rosalie --shure 'twas as good as the words of a praste, savin' the Cure prisince wheriver he may be!"
This was the story of Rosalie which Mrs. Flynn told Charley, as he stood at the street door of the post-office. When she had finished, Charley went back into the room where Rosalie sat beside the sick man's couch, the hound at her feet. She came forward, surprised, for he had bade her good-bye but a few minutes before.
"May I sit and watch for an hour longer, Mademoiselle?" he said. "You will have your duties in the post-office."
"Monsieur--it is good of you," she answered.
For two hours Charley watched her going in and out, whispering directions to Mrs. Flynn, doing household duty, bringing warmth in with her, and leaving light behind her.
It was afternoon when he returned to his bench in the tailor-shop, and was received by old Louis Trudel in peevish silence. For an hour they worked in silence, and then the tailor said:
"A brave girl--that. We will work till nine to-night!"
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