In the Village of Viger

by Duncan Campbell Scott


 

JOSEPHINE LABROSSE


"JOSEPHINE," said Madame Labrosse, quietly, through her tears—"Josephine, we must set up a little shop."
    Said Josephine, with a movement of despair, "Everyone sets up a little shop."
    "True, and what everyone does we must do."
    "But not everyone succeeds, and ours would be a very little shop."
    "There are some other things we could do."
    "Mamma," said Josephine, "do not dare!  Let us set up a little shop."
    And accordingly the front room was cleared out and transformed.  What care they took!  How clean it all was when they were at last ready for customers, even to a diminutive sign.
    "My daughter, who will wait?" asked Madame Labrosse. [Page 83]
    "I will wait," answered Josephine, and she hung her bird in the window, put the door ajar, and waited.
    That was in the early summer, before the Blanche had forgotten its spring song.
    "Mother," said Josephine, "we belong to the people who do not succeed."
    "True!" replied Madame Labrosse, disconsolately.  "But we must live, and there is the mother," and she cast her eyes to the corner where her own mother sat, drawing on her pipe, so dark and withered as to look like a piece of punk that had caught fire and was going off in smoke.  "But there are some things we can do."
    "Mamma, do not dare!"
    But this time Madame Labrosse dared, and she put on her cloak and went into the city.  When she came back her face was radiant, but Josephine cried herself to sleep that night.
    All this was in the early March, before the Blanche had learned its spring song.
    In truth, if the shopkeeping had been a failure, was it the fault of Josephine or Madame Labrosse?  Their window was brighter than other shop-windows, and one would have thought that people would have come in, if only to look at the sweet eyes of Josephine and hear her bird sing.  But, no!  In vain for months had the candy hearts and the red-and-white walking-sticks hung in the window.  It was the crumble and crash of one of these same walking-sticks that had startled Josephine into the confession that the shop was not a success.  In vain had [Page 84] Madame Labrosse placed steaming plates of pork and beans in the window.  Their savour only went up and rested in beads on the pane, making a veil behind which they could stiffen and grow cold in protest against an unappreciative public.  In vain she had made latire golden-brown, crisp, and delicate; it only grew mealy and unresisting, and Josephine was in danger of utterly spoiling her complexion by eating it.
    "There must be something wrong with the window," said Madame Labrosse.
    "Well, I will walk out and see," said Josephine, and she came sauntering past with as little concern as possible.
    "Mother, there is nothing wrong with the window."
    "Wait!  I will try," said Madame Labrosse, and she in turn came sauntering by.  But Josephine had stood in the door, and her mother, chancing first to catch sight of her, lost her view of the window in her surprise at the anxious beauty of her daughter's face.
    "Well! mamma."
    "Josephine, why did you stand in the door?" asked her mother, kissing her on either cheek.
    "But the window?" persisted Josephine.
    "Let the fiend fly away with the window!" said her mother; and Josephine's bird, catching the defiance of the accent, burst into a snatch of restless song.

   Now that Madame Labrosse had dared so much, Josephine was not to be outdone, and she commenced to [Page 85] sew.  Her mother always went away early in the morning and came back before noon, and one day she caught Josephine sewing.  She snatched the work.
    "Josephine, do not dare!"  When she next found her at work, she said nothing, but instead of kissing her cheek, kissed her fingers.
    But why was it that trouble seemed never very far away?  Josephine sewed so hard that she commenced to take stitches in her side, and of a sudden Madame Labrosse fell sick—so sick that she could not do her work, and Josephine had to go to the city with a message.  Her heart beat as she passed the office-doors covered with strange names; her heart stopped beating when she came to the right one.  She tapped timidly.  Someone called out, "Come in!" and Josephine pushed open the door.  There was a sudden stir in the room.  The lawyers' clerks looked up, and then tried to go on with their work.  A supercilious young man minced forward, and Josephine gave her message.  The clerks pretended to write, but the only one who was working wrote Josephine's words into a lease that he was drawing—"the said party of the second part cannot come."
    When she went away, he leaned over the supercilious young man and asked: "Where did she say she lived?"
    "At St. Renard," said the young man; at which everyone laughed, except his inquirer.  He sat back in his chair peering through his glasses at the place where Josephine had stood.  St. Renard—St. Renard; was there ever such a [Page 86] saint in the calendar? was there ever such a suburb to the city?  When he left the office he walked as straight home as he could go.  He kept repeating Josephine's words to himself: "My mother, Madame Labrosse, being sick, cannot come; she lives at"—St. Renard?  No, no; not St. Renard.  When he had arrived at the house, where he had boarded for ten years, he went up to his room, and did not come down until the next morning.  When he had shut himself in, he commenced to rummage in his trunk, and at last, after tossing everything about, he gave a cry of joy and pulled out a flat, thin book.  He spread this out on the table and turned the leaves.  On the first page were some verses, copied by himself.  The rest of the book was full of silhouettes, cut from black paper and pasted on the white.  He found a fragment of this paper, and taking his scissors he commenced to cut it.  It took the form of a face; but, alas! not the face that was in his mind, and he let it drop in despair.  Then he tried to sleep, but he could not sleep.  Through his head kept running Josephine's message, and he would hesitate at St. Renard, trying to remember what she had said.  At last he slept and had a dream.  He dreamed that he was sailing down a stream which grew narrower and narrower.  At last his boat stopped amid a tangle of weeds and water-lilies.  All around him on the broad leaves was seated a chorus of frogs, singing out something at the top of their voices.  He listened.  Then, little by little, whatever the word was, it grew more distinct until one huge fellow opened his mouth and roared out "VIGER!" which brought him wide awake. [Page 87]  He repeated the word aloud, and it echoed in his ears, growing softer and softer until it grew beautiful enough to fill a place in his recollections and complete the sentence—"My mother, Madame Labrosse, being sick, cannot come; she lives at Viger."
    The next Sunday, Victor dressed himself with care.  He put on a new puce-velvet coat, which had just come home from the tailor's, and started for Viger.  What he said when he found Madame Labrosse's he could never distinctly remember.  The first impression he received, after a return of consciousness, was of a bird singing very loudly—so loudly that it seemed as if its cage was his head, and that, in addition to singing, it was beating against the bars.  He was less nervous the next time he came, and the oftener he came the more he wondered at the sweetness of Josephine's face.  At last he grew dumb with admiration.
    "He is very quiet, this Victor of yours."
    "Mamma!" said Josephine, consciously.
    "Does he never say a word?"
    "Why, yes."
    "Now, what does he say?"
    "Mamma, how can I remember?"
    "Well, try, Josephine."
    "He said that now the leaves were on the trees he could not see so far as he used to.  That before, he could see our house from the Côte Rouge, but not now."
    "Well, and what else?"
    "Mamma, how can I remember?  He said that the [Page 88] birds had their nests all built now.  He said that he wondered if any birds boarded out; that he had boarded out for ten years.  Mamma, what are you laughing at?  How cruel!"
    "My little José, the dear timid one is in love."
    "Mamma, with whom?"
    "How can I tell?  I think he will tell you some day."
    But the "some day" seemed to recede; and all the days of May had gone and June had begun, and still Josephine did not know.
    Victor grew more timid than ever.  Josephine thought a great deal about his silence, and once her mother caught her blushing when he chanced to stir in his chair.  She intended to ask her about it, but her memory was completely unhinged by a letter she received.  It was evidently written with great labour, and it caused the greatest excitement in the house.
    "Mon Dieu!" Madame Labrosse exclaimed, "François Xavier comes to dine tomorrow!"  And preparations were at once commenced for the reception of this François Xavier, who was Madame Labrosse's favourite cousin.
    His full name was François Xavier Beaugrand de Champagne.  He had just come down from his winter's work up the river, and on the morning of the day he was to dine with his cousin he stood leaning against the brick wall of a small hotel in the suburbs.  The sunlight was streaming down on him, reflected up from the pavement and back from the house, and he basked in the heat with his eyes half shut.  His face was burned to a fiery brown; [Page 89] but as he had just lost his full beard, his chin was a sort of whitish-blue.  He was evidently dressed with great care, in a completely new outfit.  He appeared as if forced into a suit of dark-brown cloth; on his feet he wore a tight pair of low shoes, with high heels, and red socks; his arms protruded from his coat-sleeves, showing a glimpse of white cuffs and a flash of red under-clothes.  His necktie was a remarkable arrangement of red and blue silks mixed with brass rings.  On his head he wore a large, gum-coloured, soft felt hat.  He had little gold ear-rings in his ears, and a large ring on his finger.  As he leaned against the wall he had thrust his fingers into his pockets, and the sun had eased him into a sort of gloomy doze; for he knew he had to go to Madame Labrosse's for dinner, and he was not entirely willing to leave his pleasures in the first flush of their novelty.  He had made arrangements to break away from the restraint early in the evening, which softened his displeasure somewhat; but when his friends came for him he was loath to go.
    How beautiful Josephine had grown, how kind that cousin was, and how quickly the time went
—now dinner, now tea; and who is this that comes in after tea?  This is Victor Lucier.  And who is this that sits so cheerfully, filling half the room with his hugeness?  This is François Xavier Beaugrand de Champagne; he has just returned.  Just returned!  Just returned from where?  What right has he to return?  Who is this François Xavier, who returns suddenly and fills the whole room?  Can it be so?  A vague feeling of jealousy springs up in Victor.  Can this [Page 90] be the one of Josephine's choosing?  Yes, true it is; he calls her José.  José, just like Madame Labrosse.
   But he is going now, and he is very loath to go; but he will be back some day soon, and off he goes.  And by and by away goes Madame Labrosse, "just for a moment," she says.  They are alone now as they have never been before.  Josephine sits with the blood coming into her face, wondering what Victor will say.  Victor also wonders what he will say.
   Josephine's bird gives a faint, sleepy twitter.  They both look up, then he hops down from his perch and pecks at his seed-font.  Suddenly he gives a few sharp cries, as if to try his voice.  They both start to their feet.  Now he commences to sing.  What a burst of rapture!  In a moment Josephine is in Victor's arms, her cheek is against the velvet coat.  Is it her own heart she hears, or is it Victor's?  No need of words now.  How the bird sings!  High and clear he shakes out his song in a passionate burst, as if all his life were for love.  And they seem to talk together in sweet unsaid words until he ceases.  Now they are seated on the sofa, and Madame Labrosse comes in. 
   "Josephine!"
   "Mamma, how can I help it?" and the tears of joy creep out on her eyelashes.
   Suddenly the grandmother, catching sight, through her half-blind eyes, of Victor and Josephine on the sofa, cries out and menaces him with her shrivelled fist, when they all rush upon her with kisses and pacify her with her pipe.
   And now, what is this noise that breaks the quiet? [Page 91]  It is a wild song from the street, echoing in the room.  There is a shout, and a cab draws up at the door.  It is François Xavier, returned for the second time.  He stands swaying in the middle of the floor.  There is a vinous lustre in his eyes.  His coat is thrown back from his shoulder.  Someone has been dancing on his hat, for it is all crushed and dusty.  He mutters the words of the song which the chorus is roaring outside—"C'est dans la vill' de Bytown."  Madame Labrosse implores him with words to come some other time.  Josephine implores him with her eyes, clinging to Victor, who has his arm around her.  But François Xavier stands unimpressed.  Suddenly he makes an advance on Josephine, who retreats behind Victor.
    "Scoundrel! base one," calls out Victor, "leave the house, or I myself will put you out!"  François Xavier gazes for a moment on the little figure peering at him so fiercely through his spectacles.  Then, as the chorus lulls for a moment, a smile of childish tenderness mantles all his face, and with the gesture of a father reclaiming his long-lost son he stretches his arms toward Victor.  He folds him to his breast, and, lifting him from the floor, despite his struggles he carries him out into the night, where the chorus bursts out anew—"C'est dans la vill' de Bytown."
    It is late when Victor at last escapes, and hears them go roaring away as he flees, hatless, through the fields to his home.  It is still later when he falls asleep, overcome by excitement and the stimulants which have been administered [Page 92] to him; and through his feverish dreams runs the sound of singing, of Josephine's voice, inexpressibly sweet and tender, like the voice of a happy angel, but the song that she sings is—"C'est dans la vill' de Bytown." [Page 93]