And other Sketches
Seranus (Susie Frances Harrison)
The Story of Delle Josephine Boulanger.
Delle Josephine Boulanger, Miss Josephine Baker; Miss Josephine Baker, Delle Josephine Boulanger. What a difference it makes, the language! What a transformation! I thought this to myself as I stood on the opposite side of the street looking at the sign. Te be sure, it was only printed in French and sad little letters they were that composed the name, but my mind quickly translated them into the more prosaic English as I stood and gazed. Delle Josephine was a milliner and I had been recommended to try and get a little room “sous les toits” that she sometimes had to let, during my stay in the dismal Canadian village with the grand and inappropriate name of Bonheur du Roi. Bonneroi, or Benneroy, it was usually called. Such a dismal place it seemed to be; one long street of whitewashed or dirty wooden houses, two raw red brick “stores,” and the inevitable Roman Catholic Church, Convent and offices, still and orderly and gray, with the quite priests walking about and the occasional sound of the unmistakable convent bell. I arrived on a sleety winter’s day early in December. Everything was gray, or colorless or white; the people’s faces were pinched and pale, the sky was a leaden gray in hue, and I thought as I stood opposite to my future abode under Delle Josephine’s roof that the only bit of “local color” so far was to be found in her window. I could distinctly see from where I stood the most extraordinary hat I had ever seen. I immediately crossed the road to examine it. It was a triumph in lobster-color. In shape like a very large Gainsborough, it was made of shirred [page 49] scarlet satin with large bows of satin ribbon of the same intense color and adorned with a bird of paradise. I can see it now and can recall the images it suggested to my mind at the time. These were of cardinals and kings, of sealing-wax and wafers, of tropic noons and tangled marshes, of hell and judgment and the conventional Zamiel. It looked fit to be worn by a Mrs. Zamiel, if there be such a person. I looked so long and earnestly that I evidently push back the faded red curtain that veiled the interior and a queer little visage appeared regarding me with something I thought of distrust. Did I look as if I might break the glass and run off with the hat? Perhaps I did, so I entered the shop immediately and said in a reasoning tone,
“I am looking for rooms in the village, Mademoiselle, and hear you have one to let. Can I see it now, if not too much trouble?”
“You come from Morréall?”
This I learnt was meant for Montreal.
“Yes,” I returned.
“You are by yourself, Monsieur, you are sure? No ladees, eh?”
“O dear! no” said I laughing. “I am making some studies—sketches in this locality and am entirely alone. Do you find ladies a trouble?”
“Oh, perhaps not always. But there was one Mees I had. I did not like her, and so I said—we will have no more Mees, but again and always Messieurs.” She was frank enough but not unpleasant in her manner. A little bit of a woman, thin and shrivelled, with one shoulder slightly higher than the other, black beads for eyes, and the ugliest mouthful of teeth that I had ever seen on any one. Had it not been that her expression was honest and good natured and her manner bright and intelligent, I should have recoiled before the yellow tusks of eye-teeth, and the blackened stumps and shrunken gums revealed to me every time she spoke. She wore a print dress made neatly enough which was very clean, and a black crape ruff round her sallow neck. The shop was small but clean and at the back I saw a kind of little sitting room. Into this I went while she ran up-stairs to prepare the room for my inspection. The carpet was the usual horribly ingenious affair of red squares inside green octagons, and green squares inside red octagons, varied by lengthwise stripes of bright [page 50] purple. The walls were plain white, covered with many prints in vivid colors of the Crucifixion, the Annunciation and the Holy Family; also three pictures of three wonderful white kittens which adorn so many nurseries and kitchens. There were no ornaments, but there was a large looking glass framed in walnut, and over it a dismal wreath of roses and their leaves done in human gray hair. The glass was opposite the door and I saw Delle Joesphine descending to meet me just as I was turning away from this suggestive “in memoriam.” A crooked little stairway brought me to a small landing, and three more steps to my room. I may call it that, for I took it on the spot. It was large enough for my wants and seemed clean and when the paper blinds, yellow, with a black landscape on them, were raised, rather cheerful. We were opposite the chief “epicerie,” the only “merchandise sèches,” and a blacksmith, whose jolly red fire I could sometimes catch a glimpse of.
Now, this is really a true story of French Canadian life, or rather let me say, a true story of one of my own French Canadian experiences, and so I must confess that once installed in my little room chez Delle Josephine Boulanger, nothing whatever of any interest took place until I had been there quite a week. I lived most regularly and monotonously; rising at eight I partook of coffee made by my landlady, accompanied by tinned fruit for which I formed a great taste. Then I went out, getting my mid-day meal where I could, eggs and bacon at a farmhouse, or tough steak at the hotel, and sometimes not getting anything at all until I returned ravenously hungry to my lodging. On these occasions the little Frenchwoman showed herself equal to the extent of cooking a chicken or liver and bacon very creditably and then I would write and read in my own room till eleven. I must not forget to say that I never failed to look at the wonderful scarlet hat in the window every time I went out or came in. Purchasers for it would be rare I thought; I half formed the idea of buying it myself when I went away as a “Souvenir.”
One day I came home very tired. After walking about, vainly wanting for a terrific snowstorm to pass over that I might go on with my work—the frozen fall of Montmorenci, framed in the dark pines and sombre rocks that made such a back ground for its glittering thread of ice, I gave it up, chilled in every limb, and began to consider whether I was not a fool for pains. Although I started quite early in the afternoon on my homeward [page 51] walk, the snow, piled in great masses everywhere along the route, impeded my progress to such an extent that it was nearly seven o’clock and pitch-dark when I got into the village. Bonneroy was very quite. Shutters were up to every shop, nobody was out except a dog or two and the snow kept falling, falling, still in as persistent a fashion as if it had not been doing the same thing for six hours already. I found the shop shut up and the door locked. I looked everywhere for a bell or knocker of some description. There was neither, so I began to thump as hard as I could with my feet against the door. In a minute or two I heard Delle Josephine coming. Perhaps I had alarmed the poor soul. She did look troubled on opening the door and admitted me hurriedly, even suspiciously, I thought. The door of the little sitting-room was closed, so fancying that perhaps she had a visitor I refrained from much talking and asking her to cook me some eggs presently and bring them up, I went to my room.
These cold days I had to keep a fire in the small open “Franklin” stove going almost constantly. She had not forgotten to supply it with coals during my absence, and lighting my two lamps I was soon fairly comfortable. How it did snow! Lifting the blind I could actually look down on an ever-increasing drift below my window and dimly wonder if I should get out at all on the morrow. If not, I proposed to return to Montreal at once. I should gain nothing by being confined in the house at Bonneroy. Delle Josephine appeared with eggs and tea—green tea, alas for that village shortcoming—there was no black tea to be found in it, and I looked narrowly at her as she set it down, wondering if anything was amiss with her. But she seemed all right again and I conjectured that I had simply interrupted a tète-a-tète with some visitor in the sitting-room at the time of my fire. Those little open “Franklin” stoves are almost equal to a fireplace; they show a great deal of fire and you can fancy your flame on an English hearth very easily—if you have any imagination. As I sat there, it suddenly came home to me what a curious life this was for me; living quite alone over a tiny village shop in Le Bas Canada, with a queer little spinster like Delle Josephine. Snowed up with her too! To-morrow I would certainly have to go and shovel that snow away from the front door and take down the shutters and discover again to the world the contents of the one window, particularly that frightful hat! I [page 52] would—here I started it must be confessed almost out of my seat, as turning my head suddenly I saw on a chair behind the door the identical hat I was thinking about! I sat up and looked at it. It must have been there all the time I was eating my tea. I still sat and looked. I felt vaguely uncomfortable for a moment, then my common sense asserted itself and told me that Delle Josephine must have been altering it or something of that kind and had forgotten to take it away. I wondered if she sat in my room when I was away. I had rather she did not . Just as I was about to rise and look at it more closely, a tap came at my door. I rose and admitted Delle Josephine. She took the tea-things away in her usual placid manner, but came back the next moment as if she had forgotten something, clearly the hat. With a slight deprecatory laugh she removed it and went hurriedly down the stair. Whatever had she been doing with it, I thought, and settled with a sigh of satisfaction once more to my work, now that the nightmare in red, a kind of mute scarlet “Raven,” was gone from my room. How very quiet it was. Not a single sleigh passed, no sounds came from the houses opposite or from next door, the whole world seemed smothered in the soft thick pillows of snow quietly gathering upon it. After a while, however, I could distinctly hear the sound of voices downstairs. Delle Josephine had a visitor, undoubtedly. Was it a man or a woman? Not a large company I gathered; it seemed like one person besides herself. I opened my door, it sounded so comfortably in my lonely bachelor ear to catch in that strange little house anything so cheerful as the murmur of voices. My curiosity once aroused, did not stop here. I went outside the door, not exactly to listen, but as one does sometimes in a lazy yet inquisitive mood, when anything is going on at all unusual. This was an unusual occurrence. If Delle Josephine had visitors often, I was not aware of it. Never before had I noticed the slightest sound proceed from her sitting-room after dusk. So I waited a bit listening. Yes there was talking going on, but in French. As I did not understand her patois very clearly, I thought there would be no harm in overhearing, and further I thought I should like to have a peep at her and her companion. I could see that the door was partly open. Taking off my slippers, I ran softly down and found it wide enough open to admit of my seeing the entire room and occupants in the looking-glass, that being opposite. It was quite dark in the hall and I [page 53] should be unobserved. So I crept—most rudely I am willing to say—into the furthest shadow of this hall and looked straight before me.
I saw none but Delle Josephine herself. But she was a sight for the gods. Seated on a kind of ottoman, directly in front of the looking class, she was holding an animated conversation with herself, wearing a large white antimacassar—one of those crocheted things all in wheels—pinned under her chin and falling away at the back like a cloak, and upon her head—the wonderful scarlet hat! I was amazed, startled, dismayed. To see that shrivelled little old woman so travestying her hideous charms, smiling at and bowing to herself, her yellow skin forming a frightful contrast to the intense red of her immense hat and her bright black eyes, was a pitiful and unique spectacle. I had intended but to take a peep at the supposed visitor and then go back to my room, but the present sight was one which fascinated me to such an extent that I could only look and wonder. She spoke softly to herself in French, appearing to be carrying on a conversation with her image in the glass. The feathers of the bird of paradise swept over her shoulder—the one that was higher than the other—and mingled with the wheels of the while antimacassar. I looked as long as I dared and then, fearing from her movements that the strange scene would soon be over I went softly again to my room. But I thought about it all evening, all night in fact. The natural inquiry was—was the poor girl a maniac? Even if only a harmless one, it would be well to know. As I sat down again by my fire I considered the matter in every light. It was a queer prospect. Outside the snow still fell. Inside, the fire languished and the time wore on till at half-past ten I really was compelled to call on my landlady for more coal. I could hear the muttered French still going on, but I did not know where the coal was and could not fetch it myself. I must break in upon h er rhapsodizing.
“Delle Boulanger!” I called from my open door. “Delle Boulanger!”
The talking stopped. In a few moments Delle Josephine appeared, calm and smiling, minus the hat and the antimacassar. “Coming, monsieur.”
“I shall want some more coal,” said I, “It is getting colder, I think, every minute!”
“Mais oui, monsieur; il fait fret, il fait bien fret ce soir, and [page 54] de snow—oh! it is comme—de old winter years ago, dat I remember, monsieur, but not you. Eh! bien, the coal!”
I discovered nothing morbid about her manner; she was amiable and respectful as usual, if a little more garrulous. The French will talk at all times about anything, but our conversation always came to a sudden stop the moment one of us relapsed into the mother tongue. As long as a sort of common maccaronic was kept to we managed to understand one another. After I made up my fire I sat up till long past twelve. I heard no more talking downstairs but I could fancy her still arrayed in those festive yet ghastly things, seated opposite her own reflection, intent as a mummy and not like one restored in modern costume. Pulling the blind aside before going to bed, I could see with awe the arching snowdrifts outside my window. If it went on snowing, I sould not be able to open it on the morrow. [page 55]
My prediction was verified in the morning. The snow had ceased falling, but lay piled up against the lower half of my window. On the level there appeared to be about three feet, while the drifts showed from six to twenty feet. I had never seen anything like it, and was for sometime lost in admiration. Across the road the children of the epicier and the good man himself were already busy trying to shovel some of it away from the door. It seemed at first sight a hopeless task and I, looking down at Delle. Josephine’s door, wondered how on earth we were ever to get out of it when not a particle of it was to be seen. Not all that day did I get out of the house, and but for the absorbing interest I suddenly found centred in Delle Josephine I would have chafed terribly at being so shut up. Trains were blockaded of course, it was the great fall of ’81, and interrupted travel for half of a week. All that day I waited so to speak for the evening. Snow-boys there were many; customers none. The little Frenchwoman brought me some dinner at one o’clock, pork, tinned tomatoes, and a cup of coffee. About five o’clock I strolled down into the shop. It was lighted very meagrely with three oil lamps. Delle. Josephine was seated on a high chair behind the one counter at work on some ribbon, white ribbon. She was quilling it, and looked up with some astonishment as I walked up to her.
“Do you object a visitor Miss Josephine?” said I with the most amiable manner I could muster. Poor soul! I should have thought she would have welcomed one.
“Mais non Monsieur, but I speak so little English.”
“And I so little French. But we can manage to understand each other a little, I think. What do you say to the weather? When shall I be able to go out?”
Delle Josephine laughed. She went on quilling the ribbon that looked so white against her yellow hands.
“O Monsieur could go out dis day if he like, but de snow ver bad, very thick.” [page 56]
“Do you ever go out, Miss Josephine?”
“Non Monsieur. I have not been out for what you call a valk—it will be five years that I have not been.”
“But you go to church, I suppose?”
“Mais oui Monsieur, but that is so near. And the good Père Le Jeune—he come to see me. He is all the frien Delle Josepine has, ah! oui Monsieur.”
“Ah! Bonneroi is’nt much of a place, is it? Have you ever been to Quebec or Montreal?”
“Ah! Quebec—oui, I live there once, many years ago. I was taken when I was ver young by Madame de la Corne de la Columbière pour une bonne; vous comprenez?”
“Oh! bonne, yes, we use that word too. It means a nursemaid, eh! Were there children in the family?”
Delle Josephine dropped her ribbon and threw up her hands.
“Mon Dieu! les enfants! Mais oui, Monsieur, they were nine children! There was Maamselle Louise and Maamselle Angelique with the tempaire of the diable himself oui Monsieur, and François and Réné and l’ptite Catherine, and the rest I forget Monsieur. And dey live in a fine château, with horse and carridge and everything as it would be if they were in their own France. Monsieur has been in France?”
Only in Paris, I told her; a spasmodic run across the Channel—Paris in eight hours. Two days there then return—“that does not give one much idea of France.”
“Nou, non, Monsieur. But there is no countree like France dey say dat familee—and that is true, eh, Monsieur?”
“I am afraid I cannot agree with you, Delle Josephine,” said I. “To me there is no country like England, but that may be because I am an Englishman. Tell me how long did you live in Quebec with this family?” “I was there ten year Monsieur. Then one day, I had a great accidence—oh! a ver sad ting, ver sad!” The Frenchwoman laid down the ribbon and went on. “A ver sad ting happen to me and the bébé Catherine. We were out l’ptite and me, for a valk, and we come to a part of the town ver slant, ver hilly. L’ptite Catherine was in her carridge and I let go, and she go all down, Monsieur, and I too over the hill—the cleef, you call it—but the bébé was killed and I Monsieur, I was alive, but like this!” showing her shoulder. “And what did hey do?”
“At the château? Ah, figure-toi, monsieur, the agony of dat [page 57] pauvre dame! I was sent away, she would not see me, and I left Québec at once. I was no more bonne, monsieur; Delle Josephine was enough dat. I could make de hats and de bonnets for de ladees, so I come away out to Bonneroi, and I haf made de hats and de bonnets for the ladees of Bonneroi for twenty year.”
“Is it possible?” I said, much touched by the little story. “And the ladies of Bonneroi, are they hard to please?”
Delle Josephine, who had spoken with the customary vim and gesture of the French while telling her tale, resumed her quilling and said, with a shrug of one shoulder,
“They do not know much, and dat is true.” I laughed at the ironical tone.
“And you—provide the modes?”
“I haf been to Québec,” she said quietly.
“Twenty years ago,” I thought, but had too much respect for the queer little soul to say it aloud.
“I see amongst other things,” I went on, “a most—remarkable—a very pretty, I should say—hat in your window. The red one, you know, with the bird of paradise.”
Delle Josephine looked up quickly. “Dat is not for sale, monsieur.”
“No? Why, I had some idea of perhaps purchasing it for a friend of mine. Did you make that hat yourself?”
She nodded with a sort of conscious pride. Yet it was not for sale! I wondered why. The strange scene of the foregoing evening came into my mind, and I began to understand this singular case of monomania. It must be that having lived so many years in almost solitary confinement, one might say, her mind had slightly given away, and she found her only excitement and relaxation in posing before the glass in that extraordinary manner. I hardly knew whether it would be an act of kindness to remove the hat; she talked quite rationally and cheerfully, and remembering the innate variety of the French as a nation, I concluded to let the matter rest. That night I heard no talking in the sitting-room. I slept profoundly, and woke up later than usual. We were not dug out yet, though two snow-boys with their shovels were doing their best to unearth us. I waited some time for Delle Josephine to appear with the tray; but she too was late, evidently, for at ten o’clock she had not come. I dressed and went down stairs. As I passed the sitting room I saw her tricked out as before in the hat and the antimicassar seated on [page 58] the ottoman in front of the looking-glass. Heavens, she looked more frightful than ever! I made up my mind to speak to her at once, and see if I could not stop such hideous mummery. But when I advanced I perceived that indeed I had come too late. The figure on the ottoman was rigid in death. How it ever held itself up at all I could never think, for I gave a loud cry, and rushing from the room knocked against the open door and fell down senseless.
Outside, I suppose, the snow-boys shovelled away as hard as ever. When I came to myself I did not need to look around; I knew in a flash where I was, and remembered what had happened. I ran to the shop door and hammered with all my might.
“Let me out!” I cried. “Open the door! open the door! for Heaven’s sake!” Then I ran upstairs, and did the same at my window. It seemed years of time till they were enabled to open the door and let me out. I rushed out bare-headed, forgetful of the intense cold, thinking first of all of the priest Père Le Jeune, so strong is habit, so potent are traditions. I knew where he lived, up the first turning in a small red brick house next the church of St. Jean Baptiste. I told him the facts of the case as well as I could and he came back at once with me. There was nothing to be done. Visitation of God or whatever the cause of death Delle Josephine Boulanger was dead. The priest lifted his hands in horror when he saw the ghostly hat. I asked him what he knew about her, but he seemed ignorant of everything concerning the poor thing, except the aves she repeated and the number of times she came to confession. But when we came to look over her personal effects in the drawers and boxes of the shop, there could be no doubt but that she had been thoroughly though harmlessly insane. We found I should think about one hundred and fifty boxes: from tiny little ones of pasteboard to large square ones of deal, full of rows and rows of white quilled ribbon, similar to the piece I had seen her working at on that last night of her life on earth. Some of the ribbon was yellow with age, others fresher looking, but in each box was a folded bit of paper with these words written inside,
Pour l’ptite Catherine.
What money there was, Père Le Jeune must have appropriated for I saw nothing of any. After the dismal funeral, to which I went, I gathered my effects together and went to the hotel. The first [page 59] day I could proceed, I returned to Montreal and have not visited Bonneroi since. The family of de la Corne de La Columbière still reside somewhere near Quebec, I believe. The château is called be the charming name of Port Joli, and perhaps some day I may feel called upon to tell them of the strange fate which befell their poor Josephine. Whether the melancholy accident which partly bereft her of her reason was the result of carelessness I cannot say but I shall be able, I think, to prove to them that she never forgot the circumstance, and was to the day of her death occupied in making ready for the little coffin and shroud of her “ptite Catherine.” My sketch of the frost bound Montmorenci was never finished, and indeed my winter sketching fell through altogether after that unhappy visit to Bonneroy. I was for weeks haunted by that terrible sight, half ludicrous, half awful, and I have, now that I am married, a strong dislike to scarlet in the gowns of head-gear of my wife and daughter. [page 60]
[back to Index / Next]