The Circle of Affection and Other Pieces in Prose and Verse

by Duncan Campbell Scott


 

THE FLASHLIGHT


 

MARIE LATOURNEAU PUSHED THE FRYING-PAN to the back of the stove. The savour of its contents had grown faint on the air. The fire was dying and there seemed no reason to renew it. That was grateful, for the evening had been warm but there was now a coolness incoming from the river through the close branches of the willows. Her husband was late for supper, even beyond a not unusual lateness. She had come home from her work, had prepared supper, had waited patiently, had taken a little of the food. There was nothing more to do. The one room of her house was clean and in order. It contained all her worldly goods; the only hint of far-off comfort was a small sofa and on the floor two strips of catalan; and of far-away decoration, on the wall, two coloured prints, one of Jesus with the flaming heart on His breast, one of St. Anthony of Padua. The room represented well the qualities of the Latourneaus, Achille’s thriftlessness and Marie’s industry.

    No, there was nothing to do but wait.

    If she had given a thought to herself she would have been aware that she had returned home tired and worried, and when she had hung up her old working-dress, she had been unable to put off her weariness. It was always easy for her to do that, but this evening she was disquieted and the absence of Achille added to the feeling. Certain phrases were echoing in her memory; she could not escape them. If she thought of anything else or became absorbed in her work they returned with a dull persistence. She said, “Where did you put it?” and I said, “I don’t know,” and she said, “You must have laid it down somewhere,” and I said, “Yes, I must have,” and she, “You’re a stupid fool, I’ll keep what it cost off your money.” Terrible threat!

    Then the figure of one of the ladies for whom she did charing would rise before her, a vigorous and bony figure, heated and dusty with house-cleaning, clad in a draggled kimono, the lean little head covered with a soiled mop-cap. I said and she said, and finally the dread words, “I hold you responsible, mind you, I’ll keep it off your money.” The contemptuous accent of that you was as irritating to her memories as a grain of sand in the eye; and there was even more troublesome matter on her mind than that altercation. She was accustomed to fault-finding and nagging and usually could forget it; the moment she had lighted the fire in the stove it seemed to fly up the chimney with the first smoke. But she had done something which she hardly dared think of, which she could not reason about. If the fact merely peeped at her out of the dust and trial of her day’s work her timid heart almost stopped beating. The loss of the flashlight was one thing, she was not to blame for that; but this other, this deed! No one else but Marie Latourneau was responsible for that and the consequences, whatever they might be.

    She had gone three times to the door. Each time there was less light on the street, on the dusty leaves of the willows, on the cool brown glitter of the river. On the fourth time there was quite enough light to see Achille coming home with that dogged, slow persistence in his walk that she knew so well. “Come in, my old man, come in,” she said, taking him by the elbow. “What has my little cabbage got so fast under his arms? His supper is waiting for him and all cold.” She knew there was no use asking him any questions; when he had reached a certain stage of intoxication he was speechless. He had reached that final stage in which he was not only speechless but completely numb; he felt as if his nose were being slowly screwed on to his face; he could stand, he could walk, but every other function of his body was suspended.

    He stood in the middle of the floor; under one arm he held a dry codfish, rolled so tight that it looked like an old pair of corsets, and under the other a bunch of green onions. Marie succeeded after several attempts in getting the codfish, but he would not give up the onions. “There now, Achille dear, give me the onions!” She only broke off the tops, got her hands covered with juice, and the room was filled with the pungent smell. Laying the codfish on the stove, she began to manoeuvre the body of Achille toward the bed with the skill of one accustomed to deal with lay figures, and when he had arrived she forced him to sit down. He sat as rigid as an idol and she knelt before him and took off his boots. He was a plasterer and his boots were eloquent of his trade, hard and dry, with splotches of lime and plaster-of-Paris and little plantations of cow’s hair. They had no laces and fitted him like a pair of sabots.

    After another futile attempt to secure the onions, she lifted his feet and as easily as if he were on ball-bearings she laid him on the bed and covered him with a patchwork quilt. It was clear that the bed and its coverings were ready for just such an eventuality. Achille lay numb under the decent old quilt with his head on a white pillow-case, the onions concealed, and only his face visible—a pallid, costive-looking face with wide fixed eyes. Marie bent over him and kissed his hot, dry cheeks; then his lips moved and he whispered. She could not hear him. “What, my little cabbage, what?” He whispered again, “Joli coeur.” She repeated the words to herself, “Joli coeur,” with the tenderness of understanding and forgiveness.

    There was nothing more to be done; there was an established routine for these happenings and she had only to await the moment for the next step. It was too early to light her lamp, so she took her beads and sat in the rocking-chair before the window. But the moment she felt them that menacing form arose and the hateful dialogue prevented the well-known prayer. Her adjustment of Achille had put all the trouble out of her head. She went over it, again and again, and the monotony of the thought at last conquered the irritation of it. There was a cooling breeze from the river and the sound of ripples coming from the roots of the willows. The physical weariness of the day overcame her, but before she slept she made a prayer to St. Anthony of Padua, that guardian and discoverer of lost things, that he would restore the flashlight.

    The sleep was long and tranquil. Suddenly she was awakened by something. It was not the increased sound of water, for the breeze had not freshened; nor the mild light in the room, for the moon was making a pattern of willow leaves on the whitewashed front of the house and came through the window tempered with shadow. There had been a noise, and then on the floor was a spot of light, veiled, indistinct, yet plain enough and certainly not moonlight. Marie bent down and felt for it. Her old working-dress had fallen to the floor and shining through a fold was the gleam. In a moment she had solved the mystery. She had recovered the lost flashlight. But she did not try to understand how it had been caught and concealed in the fold of her dress, or how, when it had fallen, the bulb had been set alight. Her heart gave an exultant throb of thankfulness to St. Anthony, who had not failed her. She could no longer be held responsible or charged with its cost. In her triumph she searched every corner of her shadowy room with the flashlight and finally illuminated the face of Achille. He stirred, relaxed a little, began a smile that ended in wrinkling the bridge of his nose, and lifted his head without opening his eyes. Marie knew what he expected. She brought him a drink of cool water with a little oatmeal in it; he relapsed with a long breath. She turned back the quilt, gathered the bunch of onions and covered him snugly.

    Without lighting her lamp she undressed and lay on the sofa against the wall, leaving Achille in the odour of onions. There she lay in the dim moonlight with her eyes shut—a little brown, serious woman—and clasped to her breast she held the flashlight. Of a sudden she smiled. Now that the lost had been found that other of the day’s troubles came back again, but she smiled. The recollection of her mistress’ figure had lost its power of irritation. Now she could see only the comedy of it; the ridiculous “bidoor cap” (which was the nearest the lady could approach the pronunciation of boudoir cap), the strand of cobweb that festooned her ear, the dirty kimono, and fragmentary bedroom slippers.

    Her easy mind went back over the past and the future. Certainly she could never go back there to work. If Mrs. McGuire ever forgave her for carrying off the flashlight she could never forgive the other offence if she found out how McGuire had escaped. She would send the flashlight and demand her money. But it had been too annoying to hear the poor chap abused through the closed door; after all, he had only got drunk. It was his habit as it was Achille’s, and it did not good to lock them up. Imagine a state of domestic tyranny in which she would put poor Achille under lock and key, deny him food and drink, careless of his aching head and general misery; impossible! So when Mrs. McGuire went out at half-past four and told her to be sure to shut the back door when she went away, and gave her another harsh word about the flashlight, Marie’s indignation got the better of her.

    Well, she would send back the flashlight by Diane Gagnon’s boy; he was a polite lad. When poor Mrs. McGuire had implored her to let him out and described the state of what he called his “thurst”, she had had compassion on him; fortunately for him she had known where the key was hidden! “Shure, Mrs. Latourneau, a few of us had a drop together and I had one drink too many.” A sufficient explanation; just the “Joli coeur” again. Well she was glad she had done it when she had locked the bedroom door and had hidden the key. There was a mystery for Mrs. McGuire to solve. And right glad she was that she had done it when she found that her wage had not been left for her in the usual place. No, she would not ask Diane to let her lad go; she would get young Parent to take back the flashlight. He was a saucy young devil and would demand her money and get it too, and leave with some impudent remarks for Mrs. McGuire to remember.

    The thought gave satisfaction, and responsibility fell away from her mind. She went to sleep. The flashlight slipped from her hands and as it rolled over the light came on again. Propped and slanted against her side it threw a gleam on the wall, casting an ironic spot on the picture of St. Anthony. Till of a sudden the battery failed and the Saint was extinguished. But the room was not yet in darkness, for the moon still shone, low in the west; nor in silence, for there was still the lapping of water at the roots of the willows.