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Chapter 6

A LETTER OF KITTY'S.

Quebec, August —, 1870.

Dear Girls: Since the letter I wrote you a day or two after we got here, we have been going on very much as you might have expected. A whole week has passed, but we still bear our enforced leisure with fortitude; and, though Boston and New York are both fading into the improbable (as far as we are concerned), Quebec continues inexhaustible, and I don't begrudge a moment of the time we are giving it.

Fanny still keeps her sofa; the first enthusiasm of her affliction has worn away, and she has nothing to sustain her now but planning our expeditions about the city. She has got the map and the history of Quebec by heart, and she holds us to the literal fulfilment of her instructions. On this account, she often has to send Dick and me out together when she would like to keep him with her, for she won't trust either of us alone, and when we come back she examines us separately to see whether we have skipped anything. This makes us faithful in the smallest things. She says she is determined that Uncle Jack shall have a full and circumstantial report from me of all that he wants to know about the celebrated places here, and I really think he will, if I go on, or am goaded on, in this way. It's pure devotion to the cause in Fanny, for you know she doesn't care for such things herself, and has no pleasure in it but carrying a point. Her chief consolation under her trial of keeping still is to see how I look in her different dresses. She sighs over me as I appear in a new garment, and says, O, if she only had the dressing of me! Then she gets up and limps and hops across the room to where I stand before the glass, and puts a pin here and a ribbon there, and gives my hair (which she has dressed herself) a little dab, to make it lie differently, and then scrambles back to her sofa, and knocks her lame ankle against something, and lies there groaning and enjoying herself like a martyr. On days when she thinks she is never going to get well, she says she doesn't know why she doesn't give me her things at once and be done with it; and on days when she thinks she is going to get well right away, she says she will have me one made something like whatever dress I have got on, as soon as she's home. Then up she'll jump again for the exact measure, and tell me the history of every stitch, and how she'll have it altered just the least grain, and differently trimmed to suit my complexion better; and ends by having promised to get me something not in the least like it. You have some idea already of what Fanny is; and all you have got to do is to multiply it by about fifty thousand. Her sprained ankle simply intensifies her whole character.

Besides helping to compose Fanny's expeditionary corps, and really exerting himself in the cause of Uncle Jack, as he calls it, Dick is behaving beautifully. Every morning, after breakfast, he goes over to the hotel, and looks at the arrivals and reads the newspapers, and though we never get anything out of him afterwards, we somehow feel informed of all that is going on. He has taken to smoking a clay pipe in honor of the Canadian fashion, and he wears a gay, barbaric scarf of Indian muslin wound round his hat and flying out behind; because the Quebeckers protect themselves in that way against sunstroke when the thermometer gets up among the sixties. He has also bought a pair of snow-shoes to be prepared for the other extreme of weather, in case anything else should happen to Fanny, and detain us into the winter. When he has rested from his walk to the hotel, we usually go out together and explore, as we do also in the afternoon; and in the evening we walk on Durham Terrace,—a promenade overlooking the river, where the whole cramped and crooked city goes for exercise. It's a formal parade in the evening; but one morning I went there before breakfast, for a change, and found it the resort of careless ease; two or three idle boys were sunning themselves on the carriages of the big guns that stand on the Terrace, a little dog was barking at the chimneys of the Lower Town, and an old gentleman was walking up and down in his dressing-gown and slippers, just as if it were his own front porch. He looked something like Uncle Jack, and I wished it had been he,—to see the smoke curling softly up from the Lower Town, the bustle about the market-place, and the shipping in the river, and the haze hanging over the water a little way off, and the near hills all silver, and the distant ones blue.

But if we are coming to the grand and the beautiful, why, there is no direction in which you can look about Quebec without seeing it; and it is always mixed up with something so familiar and homelike, that my heart warms to it. The Jesuit Barracks are just across the street from us in the foreground of the most magnificent landscape; the building is—think, you Eriecreekers of an hour!—two hundred years old, and it looks five hundred. The English took it away from the Jesuits in 1760, and have used it as barracks ever since; but it isn't in the least changed, so that a Jesuit missionary who visited it the other day said that it was as if his brother priests had been driven out of it the week before. Well, you might think so old and so historical a place would be putting on airs, but it takes as kindly to domestic life as a new frame-house, and I am never tired of looking over into the yard at the frowsy soldiers' wives hanging out clothes, and the unkempt children playing among the burdocks, and chickens and cats, and the soldiers themselves carrying about the officers' boots, or sawing wood and picking up chips to boil the teakettle. They are off dignity as well as off duty, then; but when they are on both, and in full dress, they make our volunteers (as I remember them) seem very shabby and slovenly.

Over the belfry of the Barracks, our windows command a view of half Quebec, with its roofs and spires dropping down the slope to the Lower Town, where the masts of the ships in the river come tapering up among them, and then of the plain stretching from the river in the valley to a range of mountains against the horizon, with far-off white villages glimmering out of their purple folds. The whole plain is bright with houses and harvest-fields; and the distinctly divided farms—the owners cut them up every generation, and give each son a strip of the entire length—run back on either hand, from the straight roads bordered by poplars, while the highways near the city pass between lovely villas.

But this landscape and the Jesuit Barracks, with all their merits, are nothing to the Ursuline Convent, just under our back windows, which I told you something about in my other letter. We have been reading up its history since, and we know about Madame de la Peltrie, the noble Norman lady who founded it in 1640. She was very rich and very beautiful, and a saint from the beginning, so that when her husband died, and her poor old father wanted her to marry again and not go into a nunnery, she didn't mind cheating him by a sham marriage with a devout gentleman; and she came to Canada as soon as her father was dead, with another saint, Marie de l'Incarnation, and founded this convent. The first building is standing yet, as strong as ever, though everything but the stone walls was burnt two centuries ago. Only a few years since an old ash-tree, under which the Ursulines first taught the Indian children, blew down, and now a large black cross marks its place. The modern nuns are in the garden nearly the whole morning long, and by night the ghosts of the former nuns haunt it; and in very bright moonlight I myself do a bit of Madame de la Peltrie there, and teach little Indian boys, who dwindle like those in the song, as the moon goes down. It is an enchanted place, and I wish we had it in the back yard at Eriecreek, though I don't think the neighbors would approve of the architecture. I have adopted two nuns for my own: one is tall and slender and pallid, and you can see at a glance that she broke the heart of a mortal lover, and knew it, when she became the bride of heaven; and the other is short and plain and plump, and looks as comfortable and commonplace as life-after-dinner. When the world is bright I revel in the statue-like sadness of the beautiful nun, who never laughs or plays with the little girl pupils; but when the world is dark—as the best of worlds will be at times for a minute or two—I take to the fat nun, and go in for a clumsy romp with the children; and then I fancy that I am wiser if not better than the fair slim Ursuline. But whichever I am, for the time being, I am vexed with the other; yet they always are together, as if they were counterparts. I think a nice story might be written about them.

In Wolfe's siege of Quebec this Ursuline Garden of ours was everywhere torn up by the falling bombs, and the sisters were driven out into the world they had forsaken forever, as Fanny has been reading in a little French account of the events, written at the time, by a nun of the General Hospital. It was there the Ursulines took what refuge there was; going from their cloistered school-rooms and their innocent little ones to the wards of the hospital, filled with the wounded and dying of either side, and echoing with their dreadful groans. What a sad, evil, bewildering world they had a glimpse of! In the garden here, our poor Montcalm—I belong to the French side, please, in Quebec—was buried in a grave dug for him by a bursting shell. They have his skull now in the chaplain's room of the convent, where we saw it the other day. They have made it comfortable in a glass box, neatly bound with black, and covered with a white lace drapery, just as if it were a saint's. It was broken a little in taking it out of the grave; and a few years ago, some English officers borrowed it to look at, and were horrible enough to pull out some of the teeth. Tell Uncle Jack the head is very broad above the ears, but the forehead is small.

The chaplain also showed us a copy of an old painting of the first convent, Indian lodges, Madame de la Peltrie's house, and Madame herself, very splendidly dressed, with an Indian chief before her, and some French cavaliers riding down an avenue towards her. Then he showed us some of the nuns' work in albums, painted and lettered in a way to give me an idea of old missals. By and by he went into the chapel with us, and it gave such a queer notion of his indoors life to have him put on an overcoat and india-rubbers to go a few rods through the open air to the chapel door: he had not been very well, he said. When he got in, he took off his hat, and put on an octagonal priest's cap, and showed us everything in the kindest way—and his manners were exquisite. There were beautiful paintings sent out from France at the time of the Revolution; and wood-carvings round the high-altar, done by Quebec artists in the beginning of the last century; for he said they had a school of arts then at St. Anne's, twenty miles below the city. Then there was an ivory crucifix, so life-like that you could scarcely bear to look at it. But what I most cared for was the tiny twinkle of a votive lamp which he pointed out to us in one corner of the nuns' chapel: it was lit a hundred and fifty years ago by two of our French officers when their sister took the veil, and has never been extinguished since, except during the siege of 1759. Of course, I think a story might be written about this; and the truth is, the possibilities of fiction in Quebec are overpowering; I go about in a perfect haze of romances, and meet people at every turn who have nothing to do but invite the passing novelist into their houses, and have their likenesses done at once for heroes and heroines. They needn't change a thing about them, but sit just as they are; and if this is in the present, only think how the whole past of Quebec must be crying out to be put into historical romances!

I wish you could see the houses, and how substantial they are. I can only think of Eriecreek as an assemblage of huts and bark-lodges in contrast. Our boarding-house is comparatively slight, and has stone walls only a foot and a half thick, but the average is two feet and two and a half; and the other day Dick went through the Laval University,—he goes everywhere and gets acquainted with everybody,—and saw the foundation walls of the first building, which have stood all the sieges and conflagrations since the seventeenth century; and no wonder, for they are six feet thick, and form a series of low-vaulted corridors, as heavy, he says, as the casemates of a fortress. There is a beautiful old carved staircase there, of the same date; and he liked the president, a priest, ever so much; and we like the looks of all the priests we see; they are so handsome and polite, and they all speak English, with some funny little defect. The other day, we asked such a nice young priest about the way to Hare Point, where it is said the Recollet friars had their first mission on the marshy meadows: he didn't know of this bit of history, and we showed him our book. "Ah! you see, the book say 'pro-bab-ly the site.' If it had said certainly, I should have known. But pro-bab-ly, pro-bab-ly, you see!" However, he showed us the way, and down we went through the Lower Town, and out past the General Hospital to this Pointe aux Lièvres, which is famous also because somewhere near it, on the St. Charles, Jacques Cartier wintered in 1536, and kidnapped the Indian king Donnacona, whom he carried to France. And it was here Montcalm's forces tried to rally after their defeat by Wolfe. (Please read this several times to Uncle Jack, so that he can have it impressed upon him how faithful I am in my historical researches.)

It makes me dreadfully angry and sad to think the French should have been robbed of Quebec, after what they did to build it. But it is still quite a French city in everything, even to sympathy with France in this Prussian war, which you would hardly think they would care about. Our landlady says the very boys in the street know about the battles, and explain, every time the French are beaten, how they were outnumbered and betrayed,—something the way we used to do in the first of our war.

I suppose you will think I am crazy; but I do wish Uncle Jack would wind up his practice at Eriecreek, and sell the house, and come to live at Quebec. I have been asking prices of things, and I find that everything is very cheap, even according to the Eriecreek standard; we could get a beautiful house on the St. Louis Road for two hundred a year; beef is ten or twelve cents a pound, and everything else in proportion. Then besides that, the washing is sent out into the country to be done by the peasant-women, and there isn't a crumb of bread baked in the house, but it all comes from the bakers; and only think, girls, what a relief that would be! Do get Uncle Jack to consider it seriously.

Since I began this letter the afternoon has worn away—the light from the sunset on the mountains would glorify our supper-table without extra charge, if we lived here—and the twilight has passed, and the moon has come up over the gables and dormer-windows of the convent, and looks into the garden so invitingly that I can't help joining her. So I will put my writing by till to-morrow. The going-to-bed bell has rung, and the red lights have vanished one by one from the windows, and the nuns are asleep, and another set of ghosts is playing in the garden with the copper-colored phantoms of the Indian children of long ago. What! not Madame de la Peltrie? Oh! how do they like those little fibs of yours up in heaven?

Sunday afternoon.—As we were at the French cathedral last Sunday, we went to the English to-day; and I could easily have imagined myself in some church of Old England, hearing the royal family prayed for, and listening to the pretty poor sermon delivered with such an English brogue. The people, too, had such Englishy faces and such queer little eccentricities of dress; the young lady that sang contralto in the choir wore a scarf like a man's on her hat. The cathedral isn't much, architecturally, I suppose, but it affected me very solemnly, and I couldn't help feeling that it was as much a part of British power and grandeur as the citadel itself. Over the bishop's seat drooped the flag of a Crimean regiment, tattered by time and battles, which was hung up here with great ceremonies, in 1860, when the Prince of Wales presented them with new colors; and up in the gallery was a kind of glorified pew for royal highnesses and governor-generals and so forth, to sit in when they are here. There are tablets and monumental busts about the walls; and one to the memory of the Duke of Lenox, the governor-general who died in the middle of the last century from the bite of a fox; which seemed an odd fate for a duke, and somehow made me very sorry for him.

Fanny, of course, couldn't go to church with me, and Dick got out of it by lingering too late over the newspapers at the hotel, and so I trudged off with our Bostonian, who is still with us here. I didn't dwell much upon him in my last letter, and I don't believe now I can make him quite clear to you. He has been a good deal abroad, and he is Europeanized enough not to think much of America, though I can't find that he quite approves of Europe, and his experience seems not to have left him any particular country in either hemisphere.

He isn't the Bostonian of Uncle Jack's imagination, and I suspect he wouldn't like to be. He is rather too young, still, to have much of an antislavery record, and even if he had lived soon enough, I think that he would not have been a John Brown man. I am afraid that he believes in "vulgar and meretricious distinctions" of all sorts, and that he hasn't an atom of "magnanimous democracy" in him. In fact, I find, to my great astonishment, that some ideas which I thought were held only in England, and which I had never seriously thought of, seem actually a part of Mr. Arbuton's nature or education. He talks about the lower classes, and tradesmen, and the best people, and good families, as I supposed nobody in this country ever did,—in earnest. To be sure, I have always been reading of characters who had such opinions, but I thought they were just put into novels to eke out somebody's unhappiness,—to keep the high-born daughter from marrying beneath her for love, and so on; or else to be made fun of in the person of some silly old woman or some odious snob; and I could hardly believe at first that our Bostonian was serious in talking in that way. Such things sound so differently in real life; and I laughed at them till I found that he didn't know what to make of my laughing, and then I took leave to differ with him in some of his notions; but he never disputes anything I say, and so makes it seem rude to differ with him. I always feel, though he begins it, as if I had thrust my opinions upon him. But in spite of his weaknesses and disagreeabilities, there is something really high about him; he is so scrupulously true, so exactly just, that Uncle Jack himself couldn't be more so; though you can see that he respects his virtues as the peculiar result of some extraordinary system. Here at Quebec, though he goes round patronizing the landscape and the antiquities, and coldly smiling at my little enthusiasms, there is really a great deal that ought to be at least improving in him. I get to paying him the same respect that he pays himself, and imbues his very clothes with, till everything he has on appears to look like him and respect itself accordingly. I have often wondered what his hat, his honored hat, for instance, would do, if I should throw it out of the front window. It would make an earthquake, I believe.

He is politely curious about us; and from time to time, in a shrinking, disgusted way, he asks some leading question about Eriecreek, which he doesn't seem able to form any idea of, as much as I explain it. He clings to his original notion, that it is in the heart of the Oil Regions, of which he has seen pictures in the illustrated papers; and when I assert myself against his opinions, he treats me very gingerly, as if I were an explosive sprite, or an inflammable naiad from a torpedoed well, and it wouldn't be quite safe to oppose me, or I would disappear with a flash and a bang.

When Dick isn't able to go with me on Fanny's account, Mr. Arbuton takes his place in the expeditionary corps; and we have visited a good many points of interest together, and now and then he talks very entertainingly about his travels. But I don't think they have made him very cosmopolitan. It seems as if he went about with a little imaginary standard, and was chiefly interested in things, to see whether they fitted it or not. Trifling matters annoy him; and when he finds sublimity mixed up with absurdity, it almost makes him angry. One of the oddest and oldest-looking buildings in Quebec is a little one-story house on St. Louis Street, to which poor General Montgomery was taken after he was shot; and it is a pastry-cook's now, and the tarts and cakes in the window vexed Mr. Arbuton so much—not that he seemed to care for Montgomery—that I didn't dare to laugh.

I live very little in the nineteenth century at present, and do not care much for people who do. Still I have a few grains of affection left for Uncle Jack, which I want you to give him.

I suppose it will take about six stamps to pay this letter. I forgot to say that Dick goes to be barbered every day at the "Montcalm Shaving and Shampooing Saloon," so called because they say Montcalm held his last council of war there. It is a queer little steep-roofed house, with a flowering bean up the front, and a bit of garden, full of snap-dragons, before it.

We shall be here a week or so yet, at any rate, and then, I think, we shall go straight home, Dick has lost so much time already.

With a great deal of love,

Your Kitty.

William Dean Howells

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