The Uncollected Short Stories of Duncan Campbell Scott

By Duncan Campbell Scott, edited by Tracy Ware



Sister Ste
Colombe

[Part One]

    There was one person in Niger who believed that he had seen a vision. It was old Pierre Moreau. He was a fisherman, at least he spent most of his time in fishing, and lived on the edge of a little marsh near the Blanche. He had built his hut from slabs and untrimmed logs, and he lived there utterly alone. He had come to the village when he was already old, and because he had pulled two fish out of the deep pool under the bridge he thought he could not do better than stay for the summer. He ended by staying altogether. He had grown so old that in the winter he lived by charity as he could do no work. No one paid much attention to him, no one thought of his being sick; but one winter he lay in his hovel and would have died if someone had not noticed the untrodden snow piled around his cabin. It was then that he had seen the vision. He was never tired of telling the story, and once some boys who had stolen on him unnoticed heard him repeating it to himself as if he was saying his prayers. He would tell it to anyone who would listen, as he leant against a pier of the bridge with his line dangling in the water, or sat before his door smoking. This is what he would say: “I’m old now, but when I was young you couldn’t hold me, so I ran off and did nothing but tramp round. But I got tired, anyone would get tired, and I brought up here. I never did any harm to anyone, but I never went to church, and that is why the good God sent His angel to save me. One winter I would have died. I could see the snow getting higher and higher on my window, and one night I expected to die. All of a sudden I was walking in one of the places where I had lived, and the bells were ringing. Crowds of people were going to church, and I went to church; but then I saw the sea before me; then it changed and I knew nothing. Soon I thought I was back home, and my father was playing the fiddle and keeping time with his foot. Then everything got dark, and I thought I was going, when the place seemed bright as day, and I looked up and saw one of the angels of the good God bending over me. I thought I was dead at first, but [Page 53] I saw that I was in my own hut and the good angel of God made me better, and I have never been sick since.” This was the story as he at first told it, but he added a clause afterwards which he raised his voice in delivering: “You say that this one lived on the earth before and that she is still here. I know that she is still here, but she came first to me and she may stay, but she is the good angel of God all the same.” This good angel of God that came in a vision to old Pierre Moreau was Sister Ste Colombe.
    “Hush, child!” said Madame LeBlanc to her granddaughter; “hush! here comes Sister Ste Colombe.” “What makes her so pale?”
    “She sits up all night with the sick.”
    “Why do they call her Sister Ste Colombe?”
    “I don’t know; perhaps it is because she is so quiet.”
    “I know; old Pierre Moreau told me; it is because she flew down from heaven like a dove.”
    “Well, who knows? God is good.”
    “If I got sick would Sister Ste Colombe come to nurse me?”
    “If you had no one to take care of you she would.”
    “When I grow up I’d like to be like Sister Ste Colombe.”
    “Well, not everyone can be good like her; but who knows?”
    “But I’m better than Tertulien.”
    “Yes, but Tertulien is a very little boy.”
    “Well, if he was to grow up naughty, if I was as good as Sister Ste Colombe, I could pray for him.”
    “Perhaps it is so with Sister Ste Colombe; who knows?”
    The next afternoon the small Tertulien Dorion rushed in to his mother. He had been wandering away from home all the morning, and now came in full of some marvel to soften the fact of his return.
    “Come, look here; there’s a man in our yard.”
    “Mon dieu, the boy has come back! Tertulien, where have you been?”
    “And he’s lying down,” said Tertulien, ignoring the question.
    Sure enough, when his mother went out to see, there was a man in the yard, and he was lying on his back, with his hands over his eyes to keep off the sun. He could not speak when she asked him who he was, and for very pity she had her husband carry him in and lay him on a rough mattress beside the kitchen stove.

[Part Two]

    The man was sick and wasted, and he looked as if he was not far from death. Tertulien stopped running away, and commenced to take a great interest in him. “Look, here,” said he, “have you got a knife? I know you [Page 54] haven’t, because I’ve got it,” pulling it out of his pocket. “You dropped it when you were coming in. Do you want it back? Look here, did your mother ever whip you for running off?” The man stirred under the coverlet.
    “My sister tells on me sometimes; that little girl that comes in here; did your sister ever tell on you?” The man never answered; he brought his arms over his chest and drew them tight. “I don’t mind that,” said Tertulien. “How yellow you are, and your face is full of holes. Why aren’t you fat, like me? You’re just like old Pierre Moreau. Perhaps Sister Ste Colombe might come and take care of you if you haven’t been bad?”
    The child prattled on, the man watching him with dull eyes, but never speaking. He had not opened his lips since he came in. He kept his teeth clenched so that the muscles of his jaws stood out under his skin. He lay propped up by the back of a chair with a pillow for his head. He never seemed to sleep.
    Madame Dorion sent for the curé, but the man hardly looked at him. He would not answer the questions; the grip of his hands and jaws only got a trifle tighter. Father Campeau sat down beside him quietly, and stayed for an hour; neither he nor the man spoke. The neighbours came in by twos and threes to look and wonder at him. The women were half frightened at his grimness and his silence. Tertulien brought in all the neighbours’ children one by one and exhibited him to them. “See his eyes,” said Tertulien; “this is his knife, he gave it to me; you needn’t be afraid. He can’t speak, but he’s a good old man.”
    The third day Tertulien was alone with him, when he raised his arms, and waved them about in the air. Then they dropped on the coverlet, his eyelids sank, he seemed to sleep. His breathing was gentle and regular, his eyes were not quite shut, his hands had relaxed by his side. Tertulien crept close up to him; he had never seen him asleep before, and he peered into his face. The man commenced to talk, in his waking doze. He saw Tertulien. “You are brave, go and see for yourself. Anyone will show you the way. The house has a gable and there is a dove-cote in the yard.”
    Tertulien was afraid to move; he was fascinated by the gleam through the half-shut lids. “There is no need for so much noise. Good-bye, we say, and we never come back.” Then the eyes shut and the man slept. He slept soundly, and when Tertulien came back he had slipped away from the chair and pillow. He went and told his mother. She stooped over the sleeper to raise him. His rough shirt was open. She noticed a sort of little hollow on his breast, chaffed and callous, where something must have pressed; slipping out of sight down his side was a leather cord. She raised him gently and smoothed the hair back from his forehead. [Page 55]
    That night, when the sun had commenced to go down, the man woke. Tertulien had just come in and was standing close to him. He reached out his hand suddenly and caught the little boy by the arm and drew him close. Then he kissed him once firmly and let him go. Tertulien did not move; he threw his arms about the man’s neck and gave him a child’s kiss, full on the lips. Then such a strange look stole across the worn face, that Tertulien in fear ran for his mother.
    “Mon Dieu,” she said, “run, run for someone.” Tertulien ran to the door and his mother hurried after him. “Run, Tertulien; call Sister Ste Colombe.” She was coming up the street with a bowl in her hands. The sunlight had glorified everything about her; even the bowl that she held was gilded. Her wan, transparent face shone beneath her wimple. Sparrows fluttered across her path. Tertulien, half-abashed, could only point to the door where his mother stood, and Sister Ste Colombe hurried on. Madame Dorion went back to prepare the man. She found him with his head resting on the floor, and, with a cry, she knelt behind him, raising his head and letting it rest in the hollow of her hands. Sister Ste Colombe was coming along the passage. She put down her bowl. Tertulien was pulling at her dress. She reached the door. She saw Madame Dorion holding up the half-dead face. She tottered and sank down, holding her hands to her side. One sharp pang seemed to cross her face, her lips moved. Tertulien, who was lingering at the door, heard some half-articulated name, and the look of pain was transfigured to a smile of ineffable peace.
    “Jesu, pity us,” cried Madame Dorion, but added softly, as she dropped her eyes to the head in her hands, and caught the light that shone from the face, “Hush, hush; he has seen heaven.”
    Outside the last light lingered in the sky. The vesper bell rang softly from St. Joseph’s. The disturbed swallows, eddying far into the glow, swept round the steeple, their sharp twitterings seeming to fall from each bell stroke like a shower of sparks from a whirling torch; until the ringing ceased and they slipped one by one into their vibrating nests. Then the drowsy hum of the bell faded off, with the waning light, leaving the night voiceless and dim.

    And Sister Ste Colombe?
    She was in very truth a good angel of God.
[Page 56]