In the Village of Viger

by Duncan Campbell Scott


 

THE PEDLER


HE USED to come in the early spring-time, when, in sunny hollows, banks of coarse snow lie thawing, shrinking with almost inaudible tinklings, when the upper grass-banks are covered thickly with the film left by the melted snow, when the old leaves about the grey trees are wet and sodden, when the pools lie bare and clear, without grasses, very limpid with snow-water, when the swollen streams rush insolently by, when the grosbeaks try the cedar buds shyly, and a colony of little birds take a sunny tree slope, and sing songs there.
    He used to come with the awakening of life in the woods, with the strange cohosh, and the dog-tooth violet, piercing the damp leaf which it would wear as a ruff about its neck in blossom time.  He used to come up the road from St. Valérie, trudging heavily, bearing his packs.  To most of the Viger people he seemed to appear suddenly in the midst of the street, clothed with power, and surrounded by [Page 95] an attentive crowd of boys, and a whirling fringe of dogs, barking and throwing up dust. 
    I speak of what has become tradition, for the pedler walks no more up the St. Valérie road, bearing those magical baskets of his.
    There was something powerful, compelling, about him; his short, heavy figure, his hair-covered, expressionless face, the quick hands in which he seemed to weigh everything that he touched, his voluminous, indescribable clothes, the great umbrella he carried strapped to his back, the green spectacles that hid his eyes, all these commanded attention.  But his powers seemed to lie in those inscrutable guards to his eyes.  They were such goggles as are commonly used by threshers, and were bound firmly about his face by a leather lace; with their setting of iron they completely covered his eye-sockets, not permitting a glimpse of those eyes that seemed to glare out of their depths.  They seemed never to have been removed, but to have grown there, rooted by time in his cheek-bones.   
    He carried a large wicker-basket covered with oiled cloth, slung to his shoulder by a strap; in one hand he carried a light stick, in the other a large oval bandbox of black shiny cloth.  From the initials "J. F.," which appeared in faded white letters on the bandbox, the village people had christened him Jean-François.
    Coming into the village, he stopped in the middle of the road, set his bandbox between his feet, and took the oiled cloth from the basket.  He never went from house to house, his customers came to him.  He stood there and [Page 96] sold, almost without a word, as calm as a sphinx, and as powerful.  There was something compelling about him; the people bought things they did not want, but they had to buy.  The goods lay before them, the handkerchiefs, the laces, the jewelry, the little sacred pictures, matches in coloured boxes, little cased looking-glasses, combs, mouth-organs, pins, and hairpins; and over all, this figure with the inscrutable eyes.  As he took in the money and made change, he uttered the word, "Good," continually, "good, good."  There was something exciting in the way he pronounced that word, something that goaded the hearers into extravagance. 
    It happened one day in April, when the weather was doubtful and moody, and storms flew low, scattering cold rain, and after that day Jean-François, the pedler, was a shape in memory, a fact no longer.  He was blown into the village unwetted by a shower that left the streets untouched, and that went through the northern fields sharply, and lost itself in the far woods.  He stopped in front of the post office.  The Widow Laroque slammed her door and went upstairs to peep through the curtain; "these pedlers spoiled trade," she said, and hated them in consequence.  Soon a crowd collected, and great talk arose, with laughter and some jostling.  Everyone tried to see into the basket, those behind stood on tiptoe and asked questions, those in front held the crowd back and tried to look at the goods.  The air was full of the staccato of surprise and admiration.  The late comers on the edge of the crowd commenced to jostle, and somebody tossed a [Page 97] handful of dust into the air over the group.  "What a wretched wind," cried someone, "it blows all ways."
    The dust seemed to irritate the pedler, besides, no one had bought anything.  He called out sharply, "Buy—buy."  He sold two papers of hair-pins, a little brass shrine of La Bonne St. Anne, a coloured handkerchief, a horn comb, and a mouth-organ.  While these purchases were going on, Henri Lamoureux was eyeing the little red purses, and fingering a coin in his pocket.  The coin was a doubtful one, and he was weighing carefully the chances of passing it.  At last he said, carelessly, "How much?" touching the purses.  The pedler's answer called out the coin from his pocket; it lay in the man's hand.  Henri took the purse and moved hurriedly back.  At once the pedler grasped after him, reaching as well as his basket would allow; he caught him by the coat; but Henri's dog darted in, nipped the pedler's leg, and got away, showing his teeth.  Lamoureux struggled, the pedler swore; in a moment everyone was jostling to get out of the way, wondering what was the matter.  As Henri swung his arm around he swept his hand across the pedler's eyes; the shoe-string gave way, and the green goggles fell into the basket.  Then a curious change came over the man.  He let his enemy go, and stood dazed for a moment; he passed his hand across his eyes, and in that interval of quiet the people saw, where they expected to see flash the two rapacious eyes of their imaginings, only the seared, fleshy seams where those eyes should have been.
    That was the vision of a moment, for the pedler, like a [Page 98] fiend in fury, threw up his long arms and cursed in a voice so powerful and sudden that the dismayed crowd shrunk away, clinging to one another and looking over their shoulders at the violent figure.  "God have mercy!—Holy St. Anne protect us!—He curses his Baptism!" screamed the women.  In a second he was alone; the dog that had assailed him was snarling from under the sidewalk, and the women were in the nearest houses.  Henri Lamoureux, in the nearest lane, stood pale, with a stone in his hand.  It was only for one moment; in the second, the pedler had gathered his things, blind as he was, had turned his back, and was striding up the street; in the third, one of the sudden storms had gathered the dust at the end of the village and came down with it, driving everyone indoors.  It shrouded the retreating figure, and a crack of unexpected thunder came like a pistol shot, and then the pelting rain.
    Some venturesome souls who looked out when the storm was nearly over, declared they saw, large on the hills, the figure of the pedler, walking enraged in the fringes of the storm.  One of these was Henri Lamoureux, who, to this day, has never found the little red purse.
    "I would have sworn I had it in this hand when he caught me; but I felt it fly away like a bird."
    "But what made the man curse everyone so when you just bought that little purse—say that?"
    "Well, I know not, do you?  Anyway he has my quarter, and he was blind—blind as a stone fence."
    "Blind!  Not he!" cried the Widow Laroque.  "He [Page 99] was the Old Boy himself, I told you—it is always as I say, you see now—it was the old Devil himself."
    However that might be, there are yet people in Viger who, when the dust blows, and a sharp storm comes up from the south-east, see the figure of the enraged pedler, large upon the hills, striding violently along the fringes of the storm. [Page 100]