The Circle of Affection and Other Pieces in Prose and Verse

by Duncan Campbell Scott


 

THE RETURN


 

IT WAS AN EVENING in January. It had been thawing all day, but after sundown the wind had changed, and was bringing a storm-cloud over Viger heavy with snow. The first flakes, as large and as light a moths, were fluttering into the village. It grew colder and colder. The weather-wise thrust their heads into their tuques and glanced at the few stars and at the impenetrable blackness in the north-east and whistled between their teeth, for they knew the signs meant mischief. In Madame Desrocher’s cottage the doors were shut, and a fire roared in the great double stove. Thérèse was gathering up the tea things, for that meal was just over. She was singing carelessly, dropping her song, and humming it over, and taking it up full-throated.

“Souvenirs du jeune age
Sont graves dans mon coeur,
Et je pense au village,
Pour rever le bonheur.”

Her mother sat knitting in her chair before the fire. She heaved a deep sigh.

    “Mon Dieu, Mamma, what is the matter? You sigh as if you had the sins of the whole parish on your shoulders.”

    “Well, my dear, you are like a bird, always on the wing and always ready for a song. But you are young, and we old people have our troubles.”

    I know, thought Thérèse, you are thinking of Pierre. “Well, Mamma,” she said, “I would not be downhearted; we have plenty of things to make us cheerful, and why not think of them?”

    “Yes, so we have; but I would remember this year for ever if it would only bring poor Pierre back again.”

    “There, I knew it was Pierre you were thinking of; but do you think he will ever come back, Mamma? Think how long it is since he went away.”

    “Yes, it is a long time; but then it seems like a day to me; and sometimes I think he must come back.”

    “I wonder what he would be like if he did come home. He was always wild, that Pierre.”

    “Yes, but not bad-hearted; there was nothing bad-hearted about Pierre.”

    “Mamma, Mamma, I have heard you tell the truth about him when you have been angry with his goings-on.”

    Madame Desrocher looked up incredulously from her knitting and shook her head. Thérèse commenced her singing again; she did not notice when her mother rose and went up-stairs, and she sang on, thinking of Pierre, how rough he used to be, and how he would never stay at home, but loved to wander about and sleep out in the fields, like an animal. By-and-bye she took her dishes and went into the kitchen. The storm was rising, and every now and then an eddy of wind around the house corner would shriek, and whistle off into the silence. From the street came the sound of sleigh bells and the shouts of the drivers. There was the soft, long sound of the fire in the room.

    Suddenly the street door opened and a man entered. He wore an old blue tuque without a tassel, a rough overcoat bulging about him and drawn together by a leather strap, and light trousers torn about the ankles. His feet were covered—but not protected—by a pair of broken boots. Over his shoulder he carried a bundle wrapped in a piece of jute. He had not endeavoured to announce his arrival, and when he found the room empty he went over to the fire with the instinct to warm himself, for he was cold, bitterly cold. He threw his pack on a wooden settle near the stove, and put one of his feet on the fire-pan. His face, which was covered with an unkempt beard, was rather attractive, but he had a look of deep cunning in his eyes, and the marks of fatigue and dissipation were deeply trenched upon his cheek. He stood there warming himself and glancing rapidly about the room, with an eye that lost no detail of the arrangement.

    He found it little changed, but it awoke only a feeling of bitterness for the comfort of it, when he was so cold. He had not returned with any love for his old home, but had drifted there as a ship might put out of the storm into the haven where she was built, without purpose, except for safety and temporary shelter. He was evidently careless whether he was discovered or not, but as the moments passed the desire to see what he could find became too strong to be resisted, and he moved over to a large dresser which occupied one corner of the room. Above it hung several pictures of saints; there was St. Christopher with his great staff, and St. John Baptist; there was the divine Christ Himself with His heart upon His breast. On the shelf of the dresser were some trinkets, amongst them a little shrine in brass of the good Ste. Anne, and a leaden image of St. Anthony of Padua. It had belonged to him; it had been his chief treasure. How well he remembered it, and the day he bought it at Ste. Anne de Beauprè. It had not changed an atom. There he stood, the good saint, his mild face beaming on the child which rested upon the open book in his hand.

    He had just pulled out one of the drawers, and his roving eye caught sight of some notes and silver in one corner, when he saw a small photograph which he had not before observed. As he picked it up he recognized the face of his old sweetheart; he muttered her name. With this portrait in his hand he remembered some things he had forgotten so long ago that the memory of them surprised him. He forgot that he was cold and hungry; that he might be discovered.

    Suddenly he heard a voice singing in another room. He stopped to listen, and had barely time to put down the picture and return to the stove when Thérèse entered. She half screamed when she saw this burly figure, standing with impudent assurance, in the middle of the room.

    “You needn’t be frightened, Mademoiselle,” he said, with a cunning smile.

    “I am not frightened. I am never frightened of tramps,” answered Thérèse.

    “How do you know I am a tramp?”

    “Well, anyone could tell you that. What do you want?”

    “I want to warm myself. I’m cold.”

    “Are you hungry?”

    “Well, maybe I am.”

    “Sit down, and I’ll get you something to eat—not there!” — as the man attempted to take her mother’s rocking chair,— “here;” placing another chair for him.

    While she was gone the man unloosened his belt, and his old coat fell apart. He had that feeling which so often comes to men of his class, who have known better days, when they come into contact with the kitchens of civilization, a feeling mingled of envy, hatred, disgust, and a sort of amusement, as if the occurrence were a passage of comedy in the play. His face wore a dogged expression and he sat there waiting, as he had often waited before. She does not recognize me, he thought, but what do I care? I’ll get warm, have a bite, and be off again.

    In a moment Thérèse returned with a bowl of milk and a half a loaf of bread. The man took the bowl on his knees and slowly broke the bread into the milk; then he pressed it down and tasted it. Thérèse leaned against the table and watched him. Well, well, she thought, I wonder if Pierre is like that. He had taken a mouthful, when he turned around and said quietly, “This is good Mademoiselle, it’s a year since I’ve had any bread and milk, but my mother used to give me nutmeg in mine.” There was something in the tone of his voice as well as the words he had spoken which suddenly linked him with the human race. A moment before Thérèse had thought of him as a tramp; after she had fed him, he would go and she would sweep over his tracks, scour the chair he had sat upon, and let in the burly January wind to swallow the very air he had breathed. His words have her mind a sudden shock. She had a vision of the hearth at which this being could have sat, and of the mother who could have studied his palate. The remark had the accent of a request, and she brought the nutmeg and grater. It crossed her mind,—how strange! Mamma has often said that Pierre used to like nutmeg in his bread and milk. She stood and grated the nutmeg into the bowl. The man stirred and tasted until his palate was satisfied. “There,” he said.

    Just at that moment Madame Desrocher came downstairs. She had the group straight before her. The man glanced up at her. “Thérèse!” she cried. “It’s only a hungry tramp, Mamma,” said Thérèse. “A tramp Thérèse, it’s—yes—Thérèse—it’s Pierre—Pierre—Pierre.” She threw herself down beside him with a mighty cry. “It’s you, isn’t it Pierre?”

    “There, Mother, there! You’ve made me spill the milk on my trousers—they’re the best ones I’ve got,” he said, growling it out with a grim smile. He held the bowl high in both hands.

    “Do you hear, Thérèse, he called me ‘Mother,’” cried Madame Desrocher, wildly.

    “I didn’t know you, Pierre,” said Thérèse. “I thought you were a tramp.”

    “Well, I am a tramp.”

    “No, no, Pierre,” cried Madame Desrocher, “but how wet you are! Your feet are wet, wet. Take off your boots.”

    “No, I’m all right. I must be off in a minute.” He tried to resume his spoon, but his mother took the bowl away from him.

    “Off!” she said, with a terrified accent. “Where?”

    “Why, anywhere, I’m not particular.”

    “Pierre, you mustn’t go away any more—never again.”

    “I mustn’t eh!” he said, roughly.

    “No, no, I can’t let you. You don’t know how long we’ve waited for you.”

    “I guess it’s too late, I’m too hard a ticket. You would not want me around here.”

    “Wait, Pierre, wait until I get you some warm clothes, and then you’ll have something better than bread and milk to eat,” said Madame Desrocher eagerly, running up stairs.

    “What made you stay away so long, Pierre?” asked Thérèse.

    “I don’t know, I couldn’t help it. I’m not like other people. I have to be on the move.”

    “But you must get tired.”

    “Well, yes; but that’s not so bad as being in one place. I’d rather be tired, dead tired, than to always be like a tree, in once place. Besides no one wants me here; everyone was down on me, it was always ‘that rascal Pierre,’ if anything went wrong.”

    He began to enjoy talking and the rare delight of complaining to the well-fed of his kind.

    “I’ve tried that ‘being good.’ I stayed in a refuge once for two months, but no man could stand that. Everything was tied down, and I got sick of it. An old mate of mine said there was something in our heels that kept us on the move; it may sleep for a while but when it’s awake you’ve got to go.”

    He was beginning to feel thoroughly warmed by the fire, and he stretched himself comfortably. “Well,” he said, “you people have a good time,” then he mused a while.

    “You might have it too, Pierre, if you liked,” ventured Thérèse.

    “How?” he asked.

    “Well, you could find plenty to do if you stayed at home!”

    “To do!” he cried fiercely, “I don’t want anything to do. I hate work. Besides there’s no use in working. That’s true what that man told me in Chicago. There’s no use in working, the men at the top get everything, and we at the bottom get nothing, and so long as you people keep on working, things will be the same.”

    He was so vehement that poor Thérèse was frightened into silence. But, after this explosion, Pierre began to think that perhaps he might stay; the warmth and light were having an effect upon him, and he felt rested. Madame Desrocher was not long gone and she coaxed Pierre to go upstairs and put on some clean clothes. The moment he was gone, she commenced to bustle about and get something for him to eat.

    “We must keep him,” she said to Thérèse, excitedly. “We must be good to him and he will stay at home.”

    “He seems very rough, Mamma,” said Thérèse.

    “Yes, but wait till you see him in those clean, warm clothes; and he has been a long time from home. Poor Pierre!”

    When Pierre came down stairs he looked a different man, and he felt the change himself. His manner seemed less rough. He was clothed in a suit of grey homespun that fitted him loosely. On his feet he wore a pair of shoepacks.

    “Those are warm socks,” he said with a grin, “and a good pair of shoepacks.”

    “Why, Pierre! you look like a prince.”

    “Did a prince ever wear shoepacks, Mamma?” said Thérèse, gaily. Her mother did not answer her; she spoke to Pierre:

    “See, Pierre, come and have some supper.”

    He sat down at the table, and, as he ate, he began to ask questions about his brothers and sisters and his old friends. When he had finished, he pulled out his pipe and commenced to cut his tobacco. From his movements, his mother knew that there was something on his mind, but she was afraid to ask him any questions, lest she might break the charm which was gradually bringing him nearer to a resolve to remain at home. There was a shamefast expression on his face, as, with a great show of cleaning and arranging his pipe, he asked if Olivine Charbonneau was still in Viger.

    “Yes,” said Madame Desrocher, “she is still at home, and what a good girl she is.”

    Pierre sat and smoked contemplatively; for years he had not had such thoughts as were now passing through his mind. He thought of his old sweetheart, and the promise she had made always to be true, and how he heard his mother telling him that she was a good girl and had waited for him. He was gradually losing sight of his old life, forgetting it; he seemed to be in some pleasant dream. He rose, and went over to the stove. Sitting on the chair, facing its back, with his arms leaning on it, he gazed at the hole in the damper about which the fire played and purred.

    Madame Desrocher motioned to Thérèse to go and bring Olivine, and Pierre heard the storm leap in at the door as she went out. If I could see Olivine, he thought, well! but it is too late now. That sound of the storm charging the house jarred his dream. He thought swiftly. Yes, he could stay. He would marry Olivine and settle down. But then the storm would shoulder against the door, and he could hear the clink of the snow as it sprang from the edge of the drift upon the window. Something seemed to be calling him; tapping the pane to attract his attention. His mother watched him, wondering.

    Thérèse and Olivine came in so quietly that Pierre never made a move, and Thérèse motioned Olivine to put her hands over his eyes. It was the old, childish play, and with it the years rolled away like mist from the pleasant vale of youth.

    “Guess,” said Olivine, faintly. Pierre caught her wrists and took her hands away from his eyes. They stood up face to face. Olivine shrank away, Pierre saw that she was afraid of him.

    “You needn’t be frightened of me,” he said.

    “Oh, Pierre! you’re so different, I didn’t think you would be so different.”

    “Well, there’s not use crying,” he said, with a roughish tenderness. “I’m a hard lot; I’m nothing but a tramp in clean clothes.”

    “But you’re going to settle down now, Pierre?” asked his mother. “You know every ship has its harbour.”

    The words somehow attracted him—“every ship has its harbour”, kept running in his head.

    “Well, well!” he said, “we’ll see. I’ve led a hard life, but— —”

    He hardly heard the storm now, only the long breath of the fire and the voices around him. He went over to the table, and put his head on his arms. He was tired and sleepy; he remembered he must have walked twenty miles that day in the wet road. He heard the women’s voices far away; he thought his mother said, “Every ship has its harbour”, and the words soothed him again. Yes, he thought, I’ll stay at home now, and I’ll marry Olivine; he dozed off. A pleasant picture filled his mind. He remembered a rich farmer who used to drive to mass with his wife, his stout carriage drawn by two fat horses, his many children wedged about him. Yes, he would stay at home and become rich also, and drive to mass, and everyone would take off his hat respectfully. Once the storm disturbed him; he heard it calling and striking the pane, but he heard the words again – “every ship has its harbour” –and they knew by his breathing that he was fast asleep.

    “There, do you hear that?” said Madame Desrocher, under her breath. “He’s tired, tired; he used to breathe like that when he was a little, little boy.”

    The girls sat close together and whispered. Olivine glanced every now and then at Pierre’s head lying upon his arm. He was breathing loudly and irregularly. Suddenly a panting sound came with his breath. Madame Desrocher was getting uneasy.

    “Hush,” she said; “it was like me to let him fall asleep where there is a draught from the door.”

    She took off the shawl she was wearing, went softly to Pierre and put it over his shoulders. She stepped back, but she had disturbed him. From the midst of some horrid dream he rose up with a snarl, clutching the table, glaring down at the floor, and uttering an oath. Madame Desrocher cowered away from him, and the girls ran to her side and held her hands. Pierre did not see them for an instant, and when he glanced at the women timorously crowded together, he sank into his chair and muttered: “I didn’t know where I was… I thought…”, then he slouched his head down on the table and pretended to sleep. He heard his mother say: “What was it, Thérèse, what did I do?” She was still trembling. “There, Mother, Pierre was dreaming, he did not know where he was.” The girls were frightened and they coaxed Madame Desrocher to go with them into the other room.

    Pierre, with his head on the table, simulating sleep, had had a moment to reflect. That oath he had uttered when was disturbed in his slumbers had thrown him back into his old self, and, as he twitched the shawl off his shoulders and rose to his feet, his face was altered with passion. The effect of the warmth and his physical comfort had vanished. His one idea was to get away. He rose noiselessly. His movements were quick decided. His thoughts were out on the road. His demon was again mounted, and only the world’s end was his desire. He threw on his old overcoat and strapped it in, drew his tuque over his ears, threw his pack upon his shoulder. Then he remembered the money in the dresser. Two steps brought him before the drawer. He opened it; he hesitated. But it was only while the eyelid moves; he had never been a sneak-thief. The next moment he was out in the storm; it was mounting about him wildly, and he plunged into it, and onward to where the little lights of the village showed the great gulf of the night, his hand deep down in his pocket, clutching only the small, leaden image of St. Anthony of Padua.

    When Thérèse and Olivine succeeded in quieting Madame Desrocher the former returned to the room. Pierre was gone. Before she could think what to do, her mother, followed by Olivine came in.

    “Pierre!” cried Madam Desrocher, “Pierre! Where is he, Olivine? Pierre!” she cried, going to the foot of the stairway. There was no answer.

    “Mamma,” said Thérèse, “don’t be frightened, Pierre has only gone to the village to look up some of his old companions. See he has left his boots and his mittens, and he will back again.” She pointed to the wet boots and mittens, steaming underneath the stove.

    “Yes, do you think so?” answered the old woman, ready to believe anything, so that it assured her that Pierre would come back. She sank into her chair and took her knitting from Thérèse.

    “Yes, yes, to be sure,” she said simply, gazing at the wet things. “He has left his boots, he will surely come back.”

    The explanation satisfied her and she went on with her knitting. Outside the snow rose above the house in an impenetrable mass, hissing, seething, blown every way with a sound of shrieking in the blackness above. Madame Desrocher knitted and rocked. She thought, Yes, my poor Pierre, he will come back; he will come back again. There was a sound of bells struggling with the storm. She raised her head and listened. Then she smiled and went on with her knitting.