In the Village of Viger

by Duncan Campbell Scott


 

THE WOOING OF MONSIEUR CUERRIER


IT HAD been one of those days that go astray in the year, and carry the genius of their own month into the alien ground of another.  This one had mistaken the last month of spring for the last month of summer, and had lighted a May day with an August sun.  The tender foliage of the trees threw almost transparent shadows, and the leaves seemed to burn with a green liquid fire in the windless air.  Toward noon the damp fields commenced to exhale a moist haze that spread, gauze-like, across the woods.  Growing things seemed to shrink from this heavy burden of sun, and if one could have forgotten that there were yet trilliums in the woods, he might have expected summer sounds on the summer air.  After the sun had set the atmosphere hung dense, falling into darkness without a movement, and when night had come the sultry air was broken by flashes of pale light, that played fitfully and without direction.  People sat on their door-steps for air, [Page 25] or paced the walks languidly.  It was not a usual thing for Monsieur Cuerrier to go out after nightfall; his shop was a general rendezvous, and the news and the gossip of the neighbourhood came to him without his search.  But something had been troubling him all day, and at last, when his evening mail was closed, he put on his boots and went out.  He sauntered down the street in his shirt sleeves, with his fingers in his vest pockets.  His face did not lose its gravity until he had seated himself opposite his friend Alexis Girouard, and put a pipe between his teeth.  Then he looked over the candle which stood between them, and something gleamed in his eye; he nursed his elbow and surveyed his friend.  Alexis Girouard was a small man, with brown side-whiskers; his face was so round, and the movements of his person so rapid, that he looked like a squirrel whose cheeks are distended with nuts.  By occupation he was a buyer of butter and eggs, and went about the country in a calash, driving his bargains.  This shrewd fellow, whom no one could get the better of at trade, was ruled by his maiden sister with a rod of iron.  He even enjoyed the friendship of Cuerrier by sufferance; their interviews were carried on almost clandestinely, with the figure of the terrible Diana always imminent.
    When a sufficient cloud of smoke was spread around the room, Cuerrier asked, "Where is she?"  Alexis darted a glance in the direction of the village, removing his pipe and pointing to the same quarter; then he heaved a relieved sigh, and commenced smoking again. [Page 26]
    "So you are sure she's out?" said Cuerrier.
    Alexis looked uneasy.  "No," he answered, "I can't be sure she's out."
    Cuerrier burst into a hearty laugh.  Alexis stepped to the door and listened; when he came back and sat down, Cuerrier said, without looking at him, "Look here, Alexis, I'm going to get married."
    His companion started so that he knocked some of the ashes from his pipe, then with a nervous jump he snatched the candle and went into the kitchen.  Cuerrier, left in the dark, shook with silent laughter.  Alexis came back after making sure that Diana was not there, and before seating himself he held the candle close to his friend's face and surveyed him shrewdly.
    "So, are you not mad?"
    "No, I'm not mad."
    Alexis sat down, very much troubled in mind.  "You see," said Cuerrier, "I'm not young, and the mother is getting old—see?  Now, last week she fell down into the kitchen."
    "Well, your getting married won't prevent her falling into the kitchen."
    "It is not that so much, Alexis, my good friend, but if you had no one to look after things—" here Alexis winced—"you would perhaps think of it, too."
    "But you are old—how old?"
    Cuerrier took his pipe from his mouth and traced in the air what to Alexis's eyes looked like the figure fifty.  Cuerrier offered him the candle.  "There is not a grey [Page 27] hair in my head."  Girouard took the light and glanced down on his friend's shock of brown hair so finely disordered.  He sat down satisfied.
    "To whom now—tell me what charming girl is to be the postmistress of Viger; is it the Madame Laroque?"
    Cuerrier broke again into one of his valiant laughs.
    "Guess again," he cried, "you are near it.  You'll burn yourself next time."
    "Not the second cousin—not possible—not Césarine Angers?"
    Cuerrier, grown more sober, had made various signs of acquiescence.
    "And what will your friend the widow say?"
    "See here, Alexis, she's—" he was going to say something violent—"she's one of the troubles."
    "Bah!  Who's afraid of her!  If you had Diana to deal with, now."
    "Well, Alexis, my good friend, that is it.  Could you not drop a little hint to the widow some time?  Something like this—" he was silent.
    "Something like a dumb man, eh?"
    "Paufh!  I have no way with the women, you will make a little hint to the widow."
    Just then there was a sound of footsteps on the walk.  Alexis promptly blew out the candle, grasped his friend by the arm, and hurried him through the dark to the door.  There he thrust his hat into the hand, and saying in his ear, "Good-night—good luck," bolted the door after him.
    The night had changed its mood.  A gentle breeze, [Page 28] laden with soft moisture, blew from the dark woods; the mist was piled in a grey mass along the horizon; and in spaces of sky as delicately blue as blanched violets, small stars flashed clearly.
    Cuerrier pursed up his lips and whistled the only tune he knew, one from "La Fille de Madame Angot."  He was uneasy, too uneasy to follow the intricacies of his tune, and he stopped whistling.  He had told his friend that he was going to marry, and had mentioned the lady's name; but what right had he to do that?  "Old fool!" he said to himself.  He remembered his feuds with his love's guardian, some of them of years' standing; he thought of his age, he ran through the years he might expect to live, and ended by calculating how much he was worth, valuing his three farms in an instant.  He felt proud after that, and Césarine Angers did not seem quite so far off.  He resolved, just before sleep caught him, to open the campaign at once, with the help of Alexis Girouard; but in the dream that followed he found himself successfully wooing the widow, wooing her with sneers and gibes, and rehearsals of the old quarrels that seemed to draw her smilingly toward him, as if there was some malign influence at work translating his words into irresistible phrases of endearment.

    Monsieur Cuerrier commenced to wear a gallant blue waistcoat all dotted with white spots, and a silk necktie with fringed ends.  "You see, I am in the fashion now," he explained to his friends.  Villeblanc, the superannuated [Page 29] hairdresser, eyed him critically and commenced to suspect him.  He blew a whistle of gratification when, one evening in mid-June, he saw the shy Cuerrier drop a rose, full blown, at the feet of Césarine Angers.  His gratification was not unmixed when he saw Césarine pick it up and carry it away, blushing delicately.  Cuerrier tried to whistle "La Fille de Madame Angot," but his heart leaped into his throat, and his lips curled into a nervous smile.
    "So—so!" said Villeblanc.  "So—so!  I think I'll curl my gentleman's wig for him."
    He was not unheedful of the beauty of Césarine.  He spoke a word of enigmatical warning to the widow.  "You had better put off your weeds.  Are we not going to have a wedding?"
    This seed fell upon ready ground, and bore an unexpected shoot.  From that day the widow wore her best cap on week days.  Then along came the good friend, Alexis Girouard, with his little hint.  "My friend Cuerrier wants to get married; he's as shy as a bird, but don't be hard no him."  The plant blossomed at once.  The widow shook her finger at her image in the glass, took on all the colours of the rainbow, and dusted off a guitar of her youth.
    Cuerrier came in the evenings and sat awhile with the widow, and that discreet second cousin, hiding her withered rose; sometimes also with a stunted farmer from near Viger, who wore shoe-packs and smelt of native tobacco and oiled leather.  This farmer was designed by the widow for that rebel Césarine, who still resisted behind her [Page 30] barricade, now strengthened by secret supplies of roses from an official of the government itself.
    "But it is high time to speak," thought Cuerrier, and one night, when there was not a hint of native tobacco in the air, he said:
    "Madame Laroque, I am thinking now of what I would like to happen to me before I grow an old man, and I think to be married would be a good thing.  If you make no objection, I would marry the beautiful Césarine here."
    The widow gathered her bitter fruit.  "Old beast!" she cried, stamping on the guitar; "old enough to be her great-grandfather!"
    She drove the bewildered postmaster out of the house, and locked Césarine into her room.  She let her come down to work, but watched her like a cat.  Forty times a day she cried out, "The old scoundrel!" and sometimes she would break a silence with a laugh of high mockery, that ended with the phrase, "The idea!" that was like the knot to a whip-lash.  She even derided Cuerrier from her chamber window if he dared to walk the street.  The postmaster bore it; he pursed up his lips to whistle, and said, "Wait."  He also went to see his friend Alexis.  "I have a plan, Alexis," he said, "if Diana were only out of the road."  But Diana was in the road, she was in league with the widow.  "Fancy!" she cried, fiercely, "what is to become of us when old men behave so.  Why, the next thing I know, Alexis—Alexis will want to get married." [Page 31]
    Whatever Cuerrier's plan was, he got no chance to impart it.  Diana was always in the road, and reported everything to the widow; she, in turn, watched Césarine.  But one night, when Alexis was supposed to be away, he appeared suddenly in Cuerrier's presence.  He had come back unexpectedly, and had not gone home first.  The plan was imparted to him.  "But to bring the calash out of the yard at half-past twelve at night without Diana hearing, never—never—she has ears like a watch-dog."  But he pledged himself to try.  The widow saw him depart, and she and Diana expected a coup-d'état.  Madame Laroque turned the key on Césarine, and fed her on bread and water; Diana locked her brother's door every night, when she knew he was in bed, much to Alexis's perplexity.
    The lane that separated the widow's house from Cuerrier's was just nine feet wide.  The  postmaster had reason to know that; Madame Laroque had fought him for years, saying that he had built on her land.  At last they had got a surveyor from the city, who measured it with his chain.  The widow flew at him.  He shrugged his shoulders.  "The Almighty made this nine feet," he said, "you cannot turn the world upside down."
    "Nine feet," said Cuerrier to himself, "nine feet, and two are eleven."  With that length in his head he walked over to the carpenter's.  That evening he contemplated a two-inch plank eleven feet long in his kitchen.  The same evening Alexis was deep in dissimulation.  He was holding up an image of garrulous innocence to Diana, who glared at it suspiciously. [Page 32]
    The postmaster bored a small hole through the plank about two inches from one end, through this he ran the end of a long rope and knotted it firmly.  Then he carried the plank upstairs into a small room over the store.  Opposite the window of this room there was a window in Madame Laroque's house.
    "Good-night, sweet dreams," cried Alexis to Diana, as, cold with excitement, he staggered upstairs.  He made all the movements of undressing, but he did not undress; then he gradually quieted down and sat shivering near the window.  In a short time Diana crept up and locked his door.  It took him an hour to gain courage enough to throw his boots out of the window; he followed them, slipping down the post of the veranda.  He crept cautiously into the stable; his horse was ready harnessed and he led her out, quaking lest she should whinny.  The calash was farther back in the yard than usual; to drive out he would have to pass Diana's window.  Just as he took the reins in his hand the horse gave a loud, fretful neigh; he struck her with the whip, but she would not stir.  He struck her again, and, as she bounded past the window it was raised, and something white appeared.  Alexis, glancing over his shoulder, gave a hoarse shout, to relieve his excitement; he had seen the head of the chaste Diana.
    Cuerrier let down the top window-sash about two inches, then he raised the lower sash almost to its full height, and passed the end of the rope from the outside through the upper aperture into the room, and tied it to a nail.  Then he pushed the plank out of the window, and [Page 33] let it drop until it swung by the rope; then he lifted it up hand over hand till the end rested on the sill.  Adjusting it so as to leave a good four inches to rest on the opposite ledge, he lowered away his rope until the end of the plank reached the opposite side, and there was a strong bridge from Madame Laroque's house to his own.  He took a stout pole and tapped gently on the window.  Césarine was stretched on her bed, sleeping lightly.  The tapping woke her; she rose on her elbow; the sound came again; she went to the window and raised a corner of the curtain.  Cuerrier flashed his lantern across the glass.  Césarine put up the window quietly.  She heard Cuerrier calling her assuringly.  She crept out on the plank, and put the window down.  Then she stood up, and, aided by the stout pole, which the postmaster held firmly, she was soon across the abyss.  The plank was pulled in, the window shut down, and all trace of the exploit had vanished.
    At sunrise, pausing after the ascent of a hill, they looked back, and Césarine thought she saw, like a little silver point in the rosy light, the steeple of the far St. Joseph's, and below them, from a hollow filled with mist, concealing the houses, rose the tower and dome of the parish church of St. Valérie.
    A week after, when the farmer from near Viger came into the post office for his mail, bearing the familiar odour of native tobacco, the new postmistress of Viger, setting the tips of her fingers on the counter, and leaning on her pretty wrists until four dimples appeared on the back of each of her hands, said, "I have nothing for you." [Page 34]
    The rage of Madame Laroque was less than her curiosity to know how Césarine had effected her escape.  She made friends with her, and wore a cheerful face, but Césarine was silent.  "Tell her 'birds fly,'" said Cuerrier.  Exasperated, at last, the widow commenced a petty revenge.  She cooked a favourite dinner of Cuerrier's, and left her kitchen windows open to fill his house with the odour.  But, early that morning, the postmaster had gone off to St. Valérie to draw up a lease, and had taken his wife with him.  About noon he had stopped to water his horse, and had climbed out of his calash to pluck some asters; Césarine decked her hat with them, and sang a light song—she had learned the air from "La Fille de Madame Angot." [Page 35]