Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 10

MR. ARBUTON SPEAKS.

Mrs. Ellison was almost well; she had already been shopping twice in the Rue Fabrique, and her recovery was now chiefly retarded by the dress-maker's delays in making up a silk too precious to be risked in the piece with the customs officers, at the frontier. Moreover, although the colonel was beginning to chafe, she was not loath to linger yet a few days for the sake of an affair to which her suffering had been a willing sacrifice. In return for her indefatigable self-devotion, Kitty had lately done very little. She ungratefully shrunk more and more from those confidences to which her cousin's speeches covertly invited; she openly resisted open attempts upon her knowledge of facts. If she was not prepared to confess everything to Fanny, it was perhaps because it was all so very little, or because a young girl has not, or ought not to have, a mind in certain matters, or else knows it not, till it is asked her by the one first authorized to learn it. The dream in which she lived was flattering and fair; and it wholly contented her imagination while it lulled her consciousness. It moved from phase to phase without the harshness of reality, and was apparently allied neither to the future nor to the past. She herself seemed to have no more fixity or responsibility in it than the heroine of a romance.

As their last week in Quebec drew to its close, only two or three things remained for them to do, as tourists; and chief among the few unvisited shrines of sentiment was the site of the old Jesuit mission at Sillery.

"It won't do not to see that, Kitty," said Mrs. Ellison, who, as usual, had arranged the details of the excursion, and now announced them. "It's one of the principal things here, and your Uncle Jack would never be satisfied if you missed it. In fact, it's a shame to have left it so long. I can't go with you, for I'm saving up my strength for our picnic at Château-Bigot to-morrow; and I want you, Kitty, to see that the colonel sees everything. I've had trouble enough, goodness knows, getting the facts together for him." This was as Kitty and Mr. Arbuton sat waiting in Mrs. Ellison's parlor for the delinquent colonel, who had just stepped round to the Hôtel St. Louis and was to be back presently. But the moment of his return passed; a quarter-hour of grace; a half-hour of grim magnanimity,—and still no colonel. Mrs. Ellison began by saying that it was perfectly abominable, and left herself, in a greater extremity, with nothing more forcible to add than that it was too provoking. "It's getting so late now," she said at last, "that it's no use waiting any longer, if you mean to go at all, to-day; and to-day's the only day you can go. There, you'd better drive on without him. I can't bear to have you miss it." And, thus adjured, the younger people rose and went.

When the high-born Noël Brulart de Sillery, Knight of Malta and courtier of Marie de Medicis, turned from the vanities of this world and became a priest, Canada was the fashionable mission of the day, and the noble neophyte signalized his self-renunciation by giving of his great wealth for the conversion of the Indian heathen. He supplied the Jesuits with money to maintain a religious establishment near Quebec; and the settlement of red Christians took his musical name, which the region still keeps. It became famous at once as the first residence of the Jesuits and the nuns of the Hôtel Dieu, who wrought and suffered for religion there amidst the terrors of pestilence, Iroquois, and winter. It was the scene of miracles and martyrdoms, and marvels of many kinds, and the centre of the missionary efforts among the Indians. Indeed, few events of the picturesque early history of Quebec left it untouched; and it is worthy to be seen, no less for the wild beauty of the spot than for its heroical memories. About a league from the city, where the irregular wall of rock on which Quebec is built recedes from the river, and a grassy space stretches between the tide and the foot of the woody steep, the old mission and the Indian village once stood; and to this day there yet stands the stalwart frame of the first Jesuit Residence, modernized, of course, and turned to secular uses, but firm as of old, and good for a century to come. All round is a world of lumber, and rafts of vast extent cover the face of the waters in the ample cove,—one of many that indent the shore of the St. Lawrence. A careless village straggles along the roadside and the river's margin; huge lumber-ships are loading for Europe in the stream; a town shines out of the woods on the opposite shore; nothing but a friendly climate is needed to make this one of the most charming scenes the heart could imagine.

Kitty and Mr. Arbuton drove out towards Sillery by the St. Louis Road, and already the jealous foliage that hides the pretty villas and stately places of that aristocratic suburb was tinged in here and there a bough with autumnal crimson or yellow; in the meadows here and there a vine ran red along the grass; the loath choke-cherries were ripening in the fence corners; the air was full of the pensive jargoning of the crickets and grasshoppers, and all the subtle sentiment of the fading summer. Their hearts were open to every dreamy influence of the time; their driver understood hardly any English, and their talk might safely be made up of those harmless egotisms which young people exchange,—those strains of psychological autobiography which mark advancing intimacy and in which they appear to each other the most uncommon persons that ever lived, and their experiences and emotions and ideas are the more surprisingly unique because exactly alike.

It seemed a very short league to Sillery when they left the St. Louis Road, and the driver turned his horses' heads towards the river, down the winding sylvan way that descended to the shore; and they had not so much desire, after all, to explore the site of the old mission. Nevertheless, they got out and visited the little space once occupied by the Jesuit chapel, where its foundations may yet be traced in the grass, and they read the inscription on the monument lately raised by the parish to the memory of the first Jesuit missionary to Canada, who died at Sillery. Then there seemed nothing more to do but admire the mighty rafts and piles of lumber; but their show of interest in the local celebrity had stirred the pride of Sillery, and a little French boy entered the chapel-yard, and gave Kitty a pamphlet history of the place, for which he would not suffer himself to be paid; and a sweet-faced young Englishwoman came out of the house across the way, and hesitatingly asked if they would not like to see the Jesuit Residence. She led them indoors, and showed them how the ancient edifice had been encased by the modern house, and bade them note, from the deep shelving window-seats, that the stone walls were three feet thick. The rooms were low-ceiled and quaintly shaped, but they borrowed a certain grandeur from this massiveness; and it was easy to figure the priests in black and the nuns in gray in those dim chambers, which now a life so different inhabited. Behind the house was a plot of grass, and thence the wooded hill rose steep.

"But come up stairs," said the ardent little hostess to Kitty, when her husband came in, and had civilly welcomed the strangers, "and I'll show you my own room, that's as old as any."

They left the two men below, and mounted to a large room carpeted and furnished in modern taste. "We had to take down the old staircase," she continued, "to get our bedstead up,"—a magnificent structure which she plainly thought well worth the sacrifice; and then she pointed out divers remnants of the ancient building. "It's a queer place to live in; but we're only here for the summer"; and she went on to explain, with a pretty naïveté, how her husband's business brought him to Sillery from Quebec in that season. They were descending the stairs, Kitty foremost, as she added, "This is my first housekeeping, you know, and of course it would be strange anywhere; but you can't think how funny it is here. I suppose," she said, shyly, but as if her confidences merited some return, while Kitty stepped from the stairway face to face with Mr. Arbuton, who was about to follow them, with the lady's husband,—"I suppose this is your wedding-journey."

A quick alarm flamed through the young girl, and burned out of her glowing cheeks. This pleasant masquerade of hers must look to others like the most intentional love-making between her and Mr. Arbuton,—no dreams either of them, nor figures in a play, nor characters in a romance; nay, on one spectator, at least, it had shed the soft lustre of a honeymoon. How could it be otherwise? Here on this fatal line of wedding-travel,—so common that she remembered Mrs. March half apologized for making it her first tour after marriage,—how could it happen but that two young people together as they were should be taken for bride and bridegroom? Moreover, and worst of all, he must have heard that fatal speech!

He was pale, if she was flushed, and looked grave, as she fancied; but he passed on up the stairs, and she sat down to wait for his return.

"I used to notice so many couples from the States when we lived in the city," continued the hospitable mistress of the house, "but I don't think they often came out to Sillery. In fact, you're the only pair that's come this summer; and so, when you seemed interested about the mission, I thought you wouldn't mind if I spoke to you, and asked you in to see the house. Most of the Americans stay long enough to visit the citadel, and the Plains of Abraham, and the Falls at Montmorenci, and then they go away. I should think they'd be tired always doing the same things. To be sure, they're always different people."

It was unfair to let her entertainer go on talking for quantity in this way; and Kitty said how glad she was to see the old Residence, and that she should always be grateful to her for asking them in. She did not disabuse her of her error; it cost less to leave it alone; and when Mr. Arbuton reappeared, she took leave of those kind people with a sort of remote enjoyment of the wife's mistakenness concerning herself. Yet, as the young matron and her husband stood beside the carriage repeating their adieux, she would fain have prolonged the parting forever, so much she dreaded to be left alone with Mr. Arbuton. But, left alone with him, her spirits violently rose; and as they drove along under the shadow of the cliff, she descanted in her liveliest strain upon the various interests of the way; she dwelt on the beauty of the wide, still river, with the ships at anchor in it; she praised the lovely sunset-light on the other shore; she commented lightly on the village, through which they passed, with the open doors and the suppers frying on the great stoves set into the partition-walls of each cleanly home; she made him look at the two great stairways that climb the cliff from the lumber-yards to the Plains of Abraham, and the army of laborers, each with his empty dinner-pail in hand, scaling the once difficult heights on their way home to the suburb of St. Roch; she did whatever she could to keep the talk to herself and yet away from herself. Part of the way the village was French and neat and pleasant, then it grovelled with Irish people, and ceased to be a tolerable theme for discourse; and so at last the silence against which she had battled fell upon them and deepened like a spell that she could not break.

It would have been better for Mr. Arbuton's success just then if he had not broken it. But failure was not within his reckoning; for he had so long regarded this young girl de haut en bas, to say it brutally, that he could not imagine she should feel any doubt in accepting him. Moreover, a magnanimous sense of obligation mingled with his confident love, for she must have known that he had overheard that speech at the Residence. Perhaps he let this feeling color his manner, however faintly. He lacked the last fine instinct; he could not forbear; and he spoke while all her nerves and fluttering pulses cried him mercy.

William Dean Howells

Sorry, no summary available yet.