In the Village of Viger

by Duncan Campbell Scott


 

THE LITTLE MILLINER


IT WAS too true that the city was growing rapidly.  As yet its arms were not long enough to embrace the little village of Viger, but before long they would be, and it was not a time that the inhabitants looked forward to with any pleasure.  It was not to be wondered at, for few places were more pleasant to live in.  The houses, half-hidden amid the trees, clustered around the slim steeple of St. Joseph's, which flashed like a naked poniard in the sun.  They were old, and the village was sleepy, almost dozing, since the mill, behind the rise of land, on the Blanche had shut down.  The miller had died; and who would trouble to grind what little grist came to the mill, when flour was so cheap?  But while the beech-groves lasted, and the Blanche continued to run, it seemed impossible that [Page 1] any change could come.  The change was coming, however, rapidly enough.  Even now, on still nights, above the nose of the frogs in the pools, you could hear the rumble of the street-cars and the faint tinkle of their bells, and when the air was moist the whole southern sky was luminous with the reflection of thousands of gas-lamps.  But when the time came for Viger to be mentioned in the city papers as one of the outlying wards, what a change there would be!  There would be no unfenced fields, full of little inequalities and covered with short grass; there would be no deep pools, where the quarries had been, and where the boys pelted the frogs; there would be no more beech-groves, where the children could gather nuts; and the dread pool, which had filled the shaft where old Daigneau, years ago, mined for gold, would cease to exist.  But in the meantime, the boys of Viger roamed over the unclosed fields and pelted the frogs, and the boldest ventured to roll huge stones into Daigneau's pit, and only waited to see the green slime come working up to the surface before scampering away, their flesh creeping with the idea that it was old Daigneau himself who was stirring up the water in a rage.
    New houses had already commenced to spring up in all directions, and there was a large influx of the labouring population which overflows from large cities.  Even on the main street of Viger, on a lot which had been vacant ever since it was a lot, the workmen had built a foundation.  After a while it was finished, when men from the city came and put up the oddest wooden house that one could [Page 2] imagine.  It was perfectly square; there was a window and a door in front, a window at the side, and a window upstairs.  There were many surmises as to the probably occupant of such a diminutive habitation; and the widow Laroque, who made dresses and trimmed hats, and whose shop was directly opposite, and next door to the Post Office, suffered greatly from unsatisfied curiosity.  No one who looked like the proprietor was ever seen near the place.  The foreman of the labourers who were working at the house seemed to know nothing; all that he said, in answer to questions, was: "I have my orders."
    At last the house was ready; it was painted within and without, and Madame Laroque could scarcely believe her eyes when, one morning, a man came from the city with a small sign under his arm and nailed it above the door.  It bore these words: "Mademoiselle Viau, Milliner."  "Ah!" said Madame Laroque, "the bread is to be taken out of my mouth."  The next day came a load of furniture—not a very large load, as there was only a small stove, two tables, a bedstead, three chairs, a sort of lounge, and two large boxes.  The man who brought the things put them in the house, and locked the door on them when he went away; then nothing happened for two weeks, but Madame Laroque watched.  Such a queer little house it was, as it stood there so new in its coat of gum-coloured paint.  It looked just like a square bandbox which some Titan had made for his wife; and there seemed no doubt that if you took hold of the chimney and lifted the roof off, you would see the gigantic bonnet, with its strings and [Page 3] ribbons, which the Titaness could wear to church on Sundays.
    Madame Laroque wondered how Mademoiselle Viau would come, whether in a cab, with her trunks and boxes piled around her, or on foot, and have her belongings on a cart.  She watched every approaching vehicle for two weeks in vain; but one morning she saw that a curtain had been put up on the window opposite, that it was party raised, and that a geranium was standing on the sill.  For one hour she never took her eyes off the door, and at last had the satisfaction of seeing it open.  A trim little person, not very young, dressed in grey, stepped out on the platform with her apron full of crumbs and cast them down for the birds.  Then, without looking around, she went in and closed the door.  It was Mademoiselle Viau.  "The bird is in its nest," thought the old postmaster, who lived alone with his mother.  All that Madame Laroque said was: "Ah!"
    Mademoiselle Viau did not stir out that day, but on the next she went to the baker's and the butcher's, and came over the road to Monsieur Cuerrier, the postmaster, who also kept a grocery.
    That evening, according to her custom, Madame Laroque called on Madame Cuerrier.
    "We have a neighbour," she said.
    "Yes."
    "She was making purchases today."
    "Yes."
    "Tomorrow she will expect people to make purchases." [Page 4]
    "Without doubt."
    "It is very tormenting, this, to have these irresponsible girls, that no one knows anything about, setting up shops under our very noses.  Why does she live alone?"
    "I did not ask her," answered Cuerrier, to whom the question was addressed.
    "You are very cool, Monsieur Cuerrier; but if it was a young man and a postmaster, instead of a young woman and a milliner, you would not relish it."
    "There can only be one postmaster," said Cuerrier.
    "In Paris, where I practised my art," said Monsieur Villeblanc, who was a retired hairdresser, "there were whole rows of tonsorial parlours, and everyone had enough to do."  Madame Laroque sniffed, as she always did in his presence.
    "Did you see her hat?" she asked.
    "I did, and it was very nice."
    "Nice! with the flowers all on one side?  I wouldn't go to St. Thérèse with it on."  St. Thérèse was the postmaster's native place.
    "The girl has no taste," she continued.
    "Well, if she hasn't, you needn't be afraid of her."
    "There will be no choice between you," said the retired hairdresser, maliciously.
    But there was a choice between them, and all the young girls of Viger chose Mademoiselle Viau.  It was said she had such an eye; she would take a hat and pin a bow on here, and loop a ribbon there, and cast a flower on somewhere else, all the time surveying her work with [Page 5] her head on one side and her mouth bristling with pins.  "There, how do you like that?—put it on—no, it is not becoming—wait!" and in a trice the desired change was made.  She had no lack of work from the first; soon she had too much to do.  At all hours of the day she could be seen sitting at her window, working, and "she must be making money fast," argued Madame Laroque, "for she spends nothing."  In truth, she spent very little—she lived so plainly.  Three times a week she took a fresh twist from the baker, once a day the milkman left a pint of milk, and once every week mademoiselle herself stepped out to the butcher's and bought a pound of steak.  Occasionally she mailed a letter, which she always gave into the hands of the postmaster; if he was not there she asked for a pound of tea or something else that she needed.  She was fast friends with Cuerrier, but with no one else, as she never received visitors.  Once only did a young man call on her.  It was young Jourdain, the clerk in the dry-goods store.  He had knocked at the door and was admitted.  "Ah!" said Madame Laroque, "it is the young men who can conquer."  But the next moment Monsieur Jourdain came out, and, strangely enough, was so bewildered as to forget to put on his hat.  It was not this young man who could conquer.
    "There is something mysterious about that young person," said Madame Laroque between her teeth.
    "Yes," replied Cuerrier, "very mysterious—she minds her own business."
    "Bah!" said the widow, "who can tell what her [Page 6] business is, she who comes from no one knows where?  But I'll find out what all this secrecy means, trust me!"
    So the widow watched the little house and its occupant very closely, and these are some of the things she saw: every morning an open door and crumbs for the birds, the watering of the geranium, which was just going to flower, a small figure going in and out, dressed in grey, and, oftener than anything else, the same figure sitting at the window, working.  This continued for a year with little variation, but still the widow watched.  Everyone else had accepted the presence of the new resident as a benefaction.  They got accustomed to her.  They called her "the little milliner."  Old Cuerrier called her "the little one in grey."  But she was not yet adjusted in the widow's system of things.  She laid a plot with her second cousin, which was that the cousin should get a hat made by Mademoiselle Viau, and that she should ask her some questions.
    "Mademoiselle Viau, were you born in the city?"
    "I do not think, Mademoiselle, that green will become you."
    "No, perhaps not.  Where did you live before you came here?"
    "Mademoiselle, this grey shape is very pretty."  And so on.
    That plan would not work.
    But before long something very suspicious happened.  One evening, just about dusk, as Madame Laroque was walking up and down in front of her door, a man of a [Page 7] youthful appearance came quickly up the street, stepped upon Mademoiselle Viau's platform, opened the door without knocking, and walked in.  Mademoiselle was working in the last vestige of daylight, and the widow watched her like a lynx.  She worked on unconcernedly, and when it became so dark that she could not see she lit her lamp and pulled down the curtain.  That night Madame Laroque did not go into Cuerrier's.  It commenced to rain, but she put on a large frieze coat of the deceased Laroque and crouched in the dark.  She was very much interested in this case, but her interest brought no additional knowledge.  She had seen the man go on; he was rather young and about the medium height, and had a black moustache; she could remember him distinctly, but she did not see him come out.
    The next morning Mademoiselle Viau's curtain went up as usual, and as it was her day to go to the butcher's she went out.  While she was away Madame Laroque took a long look in at the side window, but there was nothing to see except the lounge and the table.
    While Madame Laroque had been watching in the rain, Cuerrier was reading to Villeblanc from Le Monde.  "Hello!" said he, and then went on reading to himself.
    "Have you lost your voice?" asked Villeblanc, getting nettled.
    "No, no; listen to this—'Daring Jewel Robbery.  A Thief in the Night.'"  These were the headings of the column, and then followed the particulars.  In the morning the widow borrowed the paper, as she had been too busy [Page 8] the night before to come and hear it read.  She looked over the front page, when her eye caught the heading, "Daring Jewel Robbery," and she read the whole story.  As she neared the end her eyebrows commenced to travel up her forehead, as if they were going to hide in her hair, and with an expression of surprise she tossed the paper to her second cousin.
    "Look here!" she said, "read this out to me."
    The second cousin commenced to read at the top.
    "No, no! right here."
    "'The man Durocher, who is suspected of the crime, is not tall, wears a heavy moustache, has grey eyes, and wears an ear-ring in his left ear.  He has not been seen since Saturday.'"
    "I told you so!" exclaimed the widow.
    "You told me nothing of the kind," said the second cousin.
    "He had no ear-ring in his ear," said the widow—"but—but—but it was the right ear that I saw.  Hand me my shawl!"
    "Where are you going?"
    "I have business; never mind!"  She took the paper with her and went straight to the constable.
    "But," said he, "I cannot come."
    "There is no time to be lost; you must come now."
    "But he will be desperate; he will face me like a lion."
    "Never mind! you will have the reward."
    "Well, wait!"  And the constable went upstairs to get his pistol. [Page 9]
    He came down with his blue coat on.  He was a very fat man, and was out of breath when he came to the little milliner's.
    "But who shall I ask for?" he inquired of Madame Laroque.
    "Just search the house, and I will see that he does not escape by the back door."  She had forgotten that there was no back door.
    "Do you want a bonnet?" asked Mademoiselle Viau.  She was on excellent terms with the constable.
    "No!" said he, sternly.  "You have a man in this house, and I have come to find him."
    "Indeed?" said mademoiselle, very stiffly.  "Will you be pleased to proceed?"
    "Yes," said he, taking out his pistol and cocking it.  "I will first look downstairs."  He did so, and only frightened a cat from under the stove.  No one knew that Mademoiselle Viau had a cat.
    "Lead the way upstairs!" commanded the constable.
    "I am afraid of your pistol, will you not go first?"
    He went first and entered at once the only room, for there was no hall.  In the meantime Madame Laroque had found out that there was no back door, and had come into the lower flat and reinspected it, looking under everything.
    "Open that closet!" said the constable, as he levelled his pistol at the door.
    Mademoiselle threw open the door and sprang away, [Page 10] with her hands over her ears.  There was no one there; neither was there anyone under the bed.
    "Open that trunk!" eyeing the little leather-covered box.
    "Monsieur, you will respect—but—as you will."  She stooped over the trunk and threw back the lid; on the top was a dainty white skirt, embroidered beautifully.  The little milliner was blushing violently.
    "That will do!" said the constable.  "There is no one there."
    "Get out of the road!" he cried to the knot of people who had collected at the door.  "I have been for my wife's bonnet; it is not finished."  But the people looked at his pistol, which he had forgotten to put away.  He went across to the widow's.
    "Look here!" he said, "you had better stop this or I'll have the law on you—no words now!  Making a fool of me before the people—getting me to put on my coat and bring my pistol to frighten a cat from under the stove.  No words now!"
    "Monsieur Cuerrier," inquired Madame Laroque that night, "who is it that Mademoiselle Viau writes to?"
    "I am an official of the government.  I do not tell state secrets."
    "State secrets, indeed!  Depend upon it, there are secrets in those letters which the state would like to know."
    "That is not my business.  I only send the letters where they are posted, and refuse to tell amiable widows where they go." [Page 11]
    The hairdresser, forgetting his constant fear of disarranging his attire, threw back his head and laughed wildly.
    "Trust a barber to laugh," said the widow.  Villeblanc sobered up and looked sadly at Cuerrier; he could not bear to be called a barber.
    "And you uphold her in this—a person who comes from no one knows where, and writes to no one knows whom—"
    "I know whom she writes to—"  The widow got furious.
    "Yes, whom she writes to—yes, of course you do—that person who comes out of her house without ever having gone into it, and who is visited by men who go in and never come out—"
    "How do you know he went in?"
    "I saw him."
    "How do you know he never came out?"
    "I didn't see him."
    "Ah! then you were watching?"
    "Well, what if I was!  The devil has a hand in it."
    "I have no doubt," said Cuerrier, insinuatingly.
    "Enough, fool!" exclaimed the widow—"but wait, I have not done yet!"
    "You had better rest, or you will have the law on you."
    The widow was afraid of the law.
    About six months after this, when the snow was coming on, a messenger came from the city with a telegram for Monsieur Cuerrier—at least, it was in his care.  He [Page 12] very seldom went out, but he got his boots and went across to Mademoiselle Viau's.  The telegram was for her.  When she had read it she crushed it in her hand and leaned against the wall.  But she recovered herself.
    "Monsieur Cuerrier, you have always been a good friend to me—help me!  I must go away—you will watch my little place when I am gone!"
    The postmaster was struck with pity, and he assisted her.  She left that night.
    "Accomplice!" the widow hissed in his ear the first chance she got.
    About three weeks after this, when Madame Laroque asked for Le Monde, Cuerrier refused to give it to her.
    "Where is it?"
    "It has been lost."
    "Lost!" said the widow, derisively.  "Well, I will find it."  In an hour she came back with the paper.
    "There!" said she, thrusting it under the postmaster's nose so that he could not get his pipe back to his mouth.  Cuerrier looked consciously at the paragraph which she had pointed out.  He had seen it before.
    "Our readers will remember that the police, while attempting to arrest one Ellwell for the jewel-robbery which occurred in the city some time ago, were compelled to fire on the man in self-defence.  He died last night in the arms of a female relative, who had been sent for at his request.  He was known by various names—Durocher, Gillet, etc.—and the police have had much trouble with him." [Page 13]
    "There!" said the widow.
    "Well, what of that?"
    "He died in the arms of a female relative."
    "Well, were you the relative?"
    "Indeed! my fine fellow, be careful!  Do you think I would be the female relative of a convict?  Do you not know any of these names?"  The postmaster felt guilty; he did know one of the names.
    "They are common enough," he replied.  "The name of my aunt's second husband was Durocher."
    "It will not do!" said the widow.  "Somebody builds a house, no one knows who; people come and go, no one knows how; and you, a stupid postmaster, shut your eyes and help things along."
    Three days after this, Mademoiselle Viau came home.  She was no longer the little one in grey; she was the little one in black.  She came straight to Monsieur Cuerrier to get her cat.  Then she went home.  The widow watched her go in.  "Now," she said, "we will not see her come out again."
    Mademoiselle Viau refused to take any more work.  She was sick, she said; she wanted to rest.  She rested for two weeks, and Monsieur Cuerrier brought her food ready cooked.  Then he stopped; she was better.  One evening Madame Laroque peeped in at the side window.  She was the little milliner quite distinctly.  She was on her knees, her face was hidden in her arms.  The fire was very bright, and the lamp was lighted.
    Two days after that the widow said to Cuerrier: "It is [Page 14] very strange there is no smoke.  Has Mademoiselle Viau gone away?"
    "Yes, she has gone."
    "Did you see her go?"
    "No."
    "It is as she said—no one has seen her go.  But wait, she will come back; and no one will see her come."
    That was three years ago, and she has not come back.  All the white curtains are pulled down.  Between the one that covers the front window and the sash stands the pot in which grew the geranium.  It only had one blossom all the time it was alive, and it is dead now and looks like a dry stick.  No one knows what will become of the house.  Madame Laroque thinks that Monsieur Cuerrier knows.  She expects, some morning, to look across and see the little milliner cast down crumbs for the birds.  In the meantime, in every corner of the house the spiders are weaving webs, and an enterprising caterpillar has blocked up the key-hole with his cocoon. [Page 15]