In the Village of Viger

by Duncan Campbell Scott


 

PAUL FARLOTTE


NEAR THE outskirts of Viger, to the west, far away from the Blanche, but having a country outlook of their own, and a glimpse of a shadowy range of hills, stood two houses which would have attracted attention by their contrast, if for no other reason.  One was a low cottage, surrounded by a garden, and covered with roses, which formed jalousies for the encircling veranda.  The garden was laid out with the care and completeness that told of a master hand.  The cottage itself had the air of having been secured from the inroads of time as thoroughly as paint and a nail in the right place at the right time could effect that end.  The other was a large gaunt-looking house, narrow and high, with many windows, some of which were boarded up, as if there was no further use for the chambers into which they had once admitted light.  Standing on a rough piece of ground it seemed given over to the rudeness of decay.  It appeared  to have been the intention of its builder to [Page 101] veneer it with brick; but it stood there a wooden shell, discoloured by the weather, disjointed by the frost, and with the wind fluttering the rags of tar-paper which had been intended as a protection against the cold, but which now hung in patches and ribbons.  But despite this dilapidation it had a sort of martial air about it, and seemed to watch over its embowered companion, warding off tempests and gradually falling to pieces on guard, like a faithful soldier who suffers at his post.  In the road, just between the two, stood a beautiful Lombardy poplar.  Its shadow fell upon the little cottage in the morning, and travelled across the garden, and in the evening touched the corner of the tall house, and faded out with the sun, only to float there again in the moonlight, or to commence the journey next morning with the dawn.  This shadow seemed, with its constant movement, to figure the connection that existed between the two houses.
    The garden of the cottage was a marvel; there the finest roses in the parish grew, roses which people came miles to see, and parterres of old-fashioned flowers, the seed of which came from France, and which in consequence seemed to blow with a rarer colour and more delicate perfume.  This garden was a striking contrast to the stony ground about the neighbouring house, where only the commonest weeds grew unregarded; but its master had been born a gardener, just as another man is born a musician or a poet.  There was a superstition in the village that all he had to do was to put anything, even a dry stick, into the ground, and it would grow.  He was the village schoolmaster, [Page 102] and Madame Laroque would remark spitefully enough that if Monsieur Paul Farlotte had been as successful in planting knowledge in the heads of his scholars as he was in planting roses in his garden Viger would have been celebrated the world over.  But he was born a gardener, not a teacher; and he made the best of the fate which compelled him to depend for his living on something he disliked.  He looked almost as dry as one of his own hyacinth bulbs; but like it he had life at his heart.  He was a very small man, and frail, and looked older than he was.  It was strange, but you rarely seemed to see his face; for he was bent with weeding and digging, and it seemed an effort for him to raise his head and look at you with the full glance of his eye.  But when he did, you saw the eye was honest and full of light.  He was not careful of his personal appearance, clinging to his old garments with a fondness which often laid him open to ridicule, which he was willing to bear for the sake of the comfort of an old pair of shoes, or a hat which had accommodated itself to the irregularities of his head.  On the street he wore a curious skirt-coat that seemed to be made of some indestructible material, for he had worn it for years, and might be buried in it.  It received an extra brush for Sundays and holidays, and always looked as good as new.  He made a quaint picture, as he came down the road from the school.  He had a hesitating walk, and constantly stopped and looked behind him; for he always fancied he heard a voice calling him by his name.  He would be working in his flower-beds when he would hear it over his [Page 103] shoulder, "Paul"; or when he went to draw water from his well, "Paul"; or when he was reading by his fire, someone calling him softly, "Paul, Paul"; or in the dead of night, when nothing moved in his cottage he would hear it out of the dark, "Paul."  So it came to be a sort of companionship for him, this haunting voice; and sometimes one could have seen him in his garden stretch out his hand and smile, as if he were welcoming an invisible guest.  Sometimes the guest was not invisible, but took body and shape, and was a real presence; and often Paul was greeted with visions of things that had been, or that would be, and saw figures where, for other eyes, hung only the impalpable air.
    He had one other passion besides his garden, and that was Montaigne.  He delved in one in the summer, in the other in the winter.  With his feet on his stove he would become so absorbed with his author that he would burn his slippers and come to himself disturbed by the smell of the singed leather.  He had only one great ambition, that was to return to France to see his mother before she died; and he had for years been trying to save enough money to take the journey.  People who did not know him called him stingy, and said the saving for his journey was only a pretext to cover his miserly habits.  It was strange, he had been saving for years, and yet he had not saved enough.  Whenever anyone would ask him, "Well, Monsieur Farlotte, when do you go to France?" he would answer, "Next year—next year."  So when he announced one spring that he was actually going, and when people [Page 104] saw that he was not making his garden with his accustomed care, it became the talk of the village: "Monsieur Farlotte is going to France"; "Monsieur Farlotte has saved enough money, true, true, he is going to France."
    His proposed visit gave no one so much pleasure as it gave his neighbours in the gaunt, unkempt house which seemed to watch over his own; and no one would have imagined what a joy it was to Marie St. Denis, the tall girl who was mother to her orphan brothers and sisters, to hear Monsieur Farlotte say, "When I am in France"; for she knew what none of the villagers knew, that, if it had not been for her and her troubles, Monsieur Farlotte would have seen France many years before.  How often she would recall the time when her father, who was in the employ of the great match factory near Viger, used to drive about collecting the little paper match-boxes which were made by hundreds of women in the village and the country around; how he had conceived the idea of making a machine in which a strip of paper would go in at one end, and the completed match-boxes would fall out at the other; how he had given up his situation and devoted his whole time and energy to the invention of this machine; how he had failed time and again, but continued with a perseverance which at last became a frantic passion; and how, to keep the family together, her mother, herself, and the children joined that army of workers which was making the match-boxes by hand.  She would think of what would have [Page 105] happened to them if Monsieur Farlotte had not been there with his help, or what would have happened when her mother died, worn out, and her father, overcome with disappointment, gave up his life and his task together, in despair.  But whenever she would try to speak of these things Monsieur Farlotte would prevent her with a gesture, "Well, but what would you have me do—besides, I will go some day—now who knows, next year, perhaps."  So here was the "next year," which she had so longed to see, and Monsieur Farlotte was giving her a daily lecture on how to treat the tulips after they had done flowering, preluding everything he had to say with, "When I am in France," for his heart was already there.
    He had two places to visit, one was his old home, the other was the birthplace of his beloved Montaigne.  He had often described to Marie the little cottage where he was born, with the vine arbours and the long garden walks, the lilac-bushes, with their cool dark-green leaves, the white eaves where the swallows nested, and the poplar, sentinel over all.  "You see," he would say, "I have tried to make this little place like it; and my memory may have played me a trick, but I often fancy myself at home.  That poplar and this long walk and the vines on the arbour—sometimes when I see the tulips by the border I fancy it is all in France."
    Marie was going over his scant wardrobe, mending with her skilful fingers, putting a stitch in the trusty old coat, and securing its buttons.  She was anxious that Monsieur Farlotte should get a new suit before he went on his journey; but he would not hear to it.  "Not a bit of it," he would say, "if I made my appearance in a new suit, [Page 106] they would think I had been making money; and when they would find out that I had not enough to buy cabbage for the soup there would be a disappointment."  She could not get him to write that he was coming.  "No, no," he would say, "if I do that they will expect me."  "Well, and why not—why not?"  "Well, they would think about it—in ten days Paul comes home, then in five days Paul comes home, and then when I came they would set the dogs on me.  No, I will just walk in—so—and when they are staring at my old coat I will just sit down in a corner, and my old mother will commence to cry.  Oh, I have it all arranged."
    So Marie let him have his own way; but she was fixed on having her way in some things.  To save Monsieur Farlotte the heavier work, and allow him to keep his strength for the journey, she would make her brother Guy do the spading in the garden, much to his disgust, and that of Monsieur Farlotte, who would stand by and interfere, taking the spade into his own hands with infinite satisfaction.  "See," he would say, "go deeper and turn it over so."  And when Guy would dig in his own clumsy way, he would go off in despair, with the words, "God help us, nothing will grow there."
    When Monsieur Farlotte insisted on taking his clothes in an old box covered with raw-hide, with his initials in brass tacks on the cover, Marie would not consent to it, and made Guy carry off the box without his knowledge and hide it.  She had a tin trunk which had belonged to her mother, which she knew where to find in the attic, [Page 107] and which would contain everything Monsieur Farlotte had to carry.  Poor Marie never went into this attic without a shudder, for occupying most of the space was her father's work bench, and that complicated wheel, the model of his invention, which he had tried so hard to perfect, and which stood there like a monument of his failure.  She had made Guy promise never to move it, fearing lest he might be tempted to finish what his father had begun—a fear that was almost an apprehension, so like him he was growing.  He was tall and large-boned, with a dark restless eye, set under an overhanging forehead. He had long arms, out of proportion to his height, and he hung his head when he walked.  His likeness to his father made him seem a man before his time.  He felt himself a man; for he had a good position in the match factory, and was like a father to his little brothers and sisters.
    Although the model had always had a strange fascination for him, the lad kept his promise to his sister, and had never touched the mechanism which had literally taken his father's life.  Often when he went into the attic he would stand and gaze at the model and wonder why it had not succeeded, and recall his father bending over his work, with his compass and pencil.  But he had a dread of it, too, and sometimes would hurry away, afraid lest its fascination would conquer him. 
    Monsieur Farlotte was to leave as soon as his school closed, but weeks before that he had everything ready, and could enjoy his roses in peace.  After school hours he would walk in his garden, to and fro, to and fro, with his [Page 108] hands behind his back, and his eyes upon the ground, meditating; and once in a while he would pause and smile, or look over his shoulder when the haunting voice would call his name.  His scholars had commenced to view him with additional interest, now that he was going to take such a prodigious journey; and two or three of them could always be seen peering through the palings, watching him as he walked up and down the path; and Marie would watch him, too, and wonder what he would say when he found that his trunk had disappeared.  He missed it fully a month before he could expect to start; but he had resolved to pack that very evening.
    "But there is plenty of time," remonstrated Marie.
    "That's always the way," he answered.  "Would you expect me to leave everything until the last moment?"
    "But, Monsieur Farlotte, in ten minutes everything goes into the trunk."
    "So, and in the same ten minutes something is left out of the trunk, and I am in France, and my shoes are in Viger, that will be the end of it."
   So, to pacify him, she had to ask Guy to bring down the trunk from the attic.  It was not yet dark there; the sunset threw a great colour into the room, touching all the familiar objects with transfiguring light, and giving the shadows a rich depth.  Guy saw the model glowing like some magic golden wheel, the metal points upon it gleaming like jewels in the light.  As he passed he touched it, and with a musical click something dropped from it.  He picked it up: it was one of the little paper match-boxes, but the [Page 109] defect that he remembered to have heard talked of was there.  He held it in his hand and examined it; then he pulled it apart and spread it out.  "Ah," he said to himself, "the fault was in the cutting."  Then he turned the wheel, and one by one the imperfect boxes dropped out, until the strip of paper was exhausted.  "But why,"—the question rose in his mind—"why could not that little difficulty be overcome?
    He took the trunk down to Marie, who at last persuaded Monsieur Farlotte to let her pack his clothes in it.  He did so with a protestation, "Well, I know how it will be with a fine box like that, some fellow will whip it off when I am looking the other way, and that will be the end of it."
    As soon as he could do so without attracting Marie's attention Guy returned to the attic with a lamp.  When Marie had finished packing Monsieur Farlotte's wardrobe, she went home to put her children to bed; but when she saw that light in the attic window she nearly fainted from apprehension.  When she pushed open the door of that room which she had entered so often with the scant meals she used to bring her father, she saw Guy bending over the model, examining every part of it.  "Guy, she said, trying to command her voice, "you have broken your promise."  He looked up quickly.  "Marie, I am going to find it out—I can understand it—there is just one thing, if I can get that we will make a fortune out of it."
    "Guy, don't delude yourself; those were father's words, and day after day I brought him his meals here, when he [Page 110] was too busy even to come downstairs; but nothing came of it, and while he was trying to make a machine for the boxes, we were making them with our fingers.  O Guy," she cried, with her voice rising into a sob, "remember those days, remember what Monsieur Farlotte did for us, and what he would have to do again if you lost your place!"
    "That's all nonsense, Marie.  Two weeks will do it, and after that I could send Monsieur Farlotte home with a pocket full of gold."
    "Guy, you are making a terrible mistake.  That wheel was our curse, and it will follow us if you don't leave it alone.  And think of Monsieur Farlotte; if he finds out what you are working at he will not go to France—I know him; he will believe it his duty to stay here and help us, as he did when father was alive.  Guy, Guy, listen to me!"
    But Guy was bending over the model, absorbed in its labyrinths.  In vain did Marie argue with him, try to persuade him, and threaten him; she attempted to lock the attic door and keep him out, but he twisted the lock off, and after that the door was always open.  Then she resolved to break the wheel into a thousand pieces; but when she went upstairs, when Guy was away, she could not strike it with the axe she held.  It seemed like a human thing that cried out with a hundred tongues against the murder she would do; and she could only sink down sobbing, and pray.  Then failing everything else she simulated an interest in the thing, and tried to lead Guy to work at it moderately, and not give up his whole time to it. [Page 111]
    But he seemed to take up his father's passion where he had laid it down.  Marie could do nothing with him; and the younger children, at first hanging around the attic door, as if he were their father come back again, gradually ventured into the room, and whispered together as they watched their rapt and unobservant brother working at his task.  Marie's one thought was to devise a means of keeping the fact from Monsieur Farlotte; and she told him blankly that Guy had been sent away on business, and would not be back for six weeks.  She hoped that by that time Monsieur Farlotte would be safely started on his journey.  But night after night he saw a light in the attic window. In the past years it had been constant there, and he could only connect it with one cause. But he could get no answer from Marie when he asked her the reason; and the next night the distracted girl draped the window so that no ray of light could find its way out into the night.  But Monsieur Farlotte was not satisfied; and a few evenings afterwards, as it was growing dusk, he went quietly into the house, and upstairs into the attic.  There he saw Guy stretched along the work bench, his head in his hands, using the last light to ponder over a sketch he was making, and beside him, figured very clearly in the thick gold air of the sunset, the form of his father, bending over him, with the old eager, haggard look in his eyes.  Monsieur Farlotte watched the two figures for a moment as they glowed in their rich atmosphere; then the apparition turned his head slowly, and warned him away with a motion of his hand. [Page 112]
    All night long Monsieur Farlotte walked in his garden, patient and undisturbed, fixing his duty so that nothing could root it out.  He found the comfort that comes to those who give up some exceeding deep desire of the heart, and when next morning the market-gardener from St. Valérie, driving by as the matin bell was clanging from St. Joseph's, and seeing the old teacher as if he were taking an early look at his growing roses, asked him, "Well, Monsieur Farlotte, when do you go to France?" he was able to answer cheerfully, "Next year—next year."
    Marie could not unfix his determination.  "No," he said, "they do not expect me.  No one will be disappointed.  I am too old to travel.  I might be lost in the sea.  Until Guy makes his invention we must not be apart."
    At first the villagers thought that he was only joking, and that they would some morning wake up and find him gone; but when the holidays came, and when enough time had elapsed for him to make his journey twice over they began to think he was in earnest.  When they knew that Guy St. Denis was chained to his father's invention, and when they saw that Marie and the children had commenced to make match-boxes again, they shook their heads.  Some of them at least seemed to understand why Monsieur Farlotte had not gone to France. 
    But he never repined.  He took up his garden again, was as contented as ever, and comforted himself with the wisdom of Montaigne.  The people dropped the old question, "When are you going to France?"  Only his [Page 113] companion voice called him more loudly, and more often he saw figures in the air that no one else could see.
    Early one morning, as he was working in his garden around a growing pear-tree, he fell into a sort of stupor, and sinking down quietly on his knees he leaned against the slender stem for support.  He saw a garden much like his own, flooded with the clear sunlight, in the shade of an arbour an old woman in a white cap was leaning back in a wheeled chair, her eyes were closed, she seemed asleep.  A young woman was seated beside her holding her hand.  Suddenly the old woman was seated beside her holding her hand.  Suddenly the old woman smiled, a childish smile, as if she were well pleased.  "Paul," she murmured, "Paul, Paul."  A moment later her companion started up with a cry; but she did not move, she was silent and tranquil.  Then the young woman fell on her knees and wept, hiding her face.  But the aged face was inexpressibly calm in the shadow, with the smile lingering upon it, fixed by the deeper sleep into which she had fallen.
    Gradually the vision faded away, and Paul Farlotte found himself leaning against his pear-tree, which was almost too young as yet to support his weight.  The bell was ringing from St. Joseph's, and had shaken the swallows from their nests in the steeple into the clean air.  He heard their cries as they flew into his garden, and he heard the voices of his neighbour children as they played around the house.
    Later in the day he told Marie that his mother had died that morning, and she wondered how he knew. [Page 114]