At the Mermaid Inn

The Globe, Toronto: May 6, 1893


Sister St. Colombe.

       There was one person in Niger who believed that he had seen a vision. It was old Pierre Moreau. He was a fisherman, at least he spent most of his time in fishing, and lived on the edge of a little marsh near the Blanche. He had built his hut from slabs and untrimmed logs, and he lived there utterly alone. He had come to the village when he was already old, and because he had pulled two fish out of the deep pool under the bridge he thought he could not do better than stay for the summer. He ended by staying altogether. He had grown so old that in the winter he lived by charity, as he could do no work. No one paid much attention, no one thought of his being sick; but one winter he lay in his hovel and would have died if some one had not noticed the untrodden snow piled around his cabin. It was then that he had seen the vision. He was never tired of telling the story, and once some boys who had stolen on him unnoticed heard him repeating it to himself as if he was saying his prayers. He would tell it to anyone who would listen, as he leant against a pier of the bridge with his line dangling in the water, or sat before his door smoking. That is what he would say:—"I'm old now, but when I was young you couldn't hold me, so I ran off and did nothing but tramp round. But I got tired, anyone would get tired, and I brought up here. I never did any harm to anyone, but I never went to church, and that is why the good God sent His angel to save me. One winter I would have died. I could see the snow getting higher and higher on my window, and one night I expected to die. All of a sudden I was walking in one of the places where I had lived, and the bells were ringing. Crowds of people were going to church, and I went to church; but then I saw the sea before me; then it changed and I knew nothing. Soon I thought I was back home, and my father was playing the fiddle and keeping time with his foot. Then everything got dark, and I thought I was going, when the places seemed bright as day, and I looked up and saw one of the angels of the good God bending over me. I thought I was dead at first, but I saw that I was in my own hut and the good angel of God made me better, and I have never been sick since." This was the story as he at first told it, but he added a clause afterwards which he raised his voice in delivering:—"You say that this one lived on the earth before and that she is still here. I know that she is still here, but she came first to me and she may stay, but she is the good angel of God all the same." This good angel of God that came in a vision to old Peter Moreau was Sister St. Colombe.
       "Hush, child!" said Madame LeBlanc to her granddaughter; "hush! here comes Sister St. Colombe." "What makes her so pale?"
       "She sits up all night with the sick."
       "Why do they call her Sister St. Colombe?"
       "I don't know; perhaps it is because she is so quiet."
       "I know; old Pierre Moreau told me; it is because she flew down from heaven like a dove."
       "Well, who knows? God is good."
       "If I got sick would Sister St. Colombe come to nurse me?"
       "If you had no one to take care of you she would."
       "When I grow up I'd like to be like Sister St. Colombe."
       "Well, not every one can be good like her; but who knows?"
       "But I'm better than Tertulien."
       "Yes, but Tertulien is a very little boy."
       "Well, if he was to grow up naughty, if I was as good as Sister St. Colombe, I could pray for him."
       "Perhaps it is so with Sister St. Colombe; who knows?"

       The next afternoon the small Tertulien Dorion rushed in to his mother. He had been wandering away from home all the morning, and now came in full of some marvel to soften the fact of his return.
       "Come, look here; there's a man in our yard."
       "Mon dieu, the boy has come back! Tertulien, where have you been?"
       "And he's lying down," said Tertulien, ignoring the question.

       Sure enough, when his mother went out to see, there was a man in the yard, and he was lying on his back, with his hands over his eyes to keep off the sun. He could not speak when she asked him who he was, and for very pity she had her husband carry him in and lay him on a rough mattress beside the kitchen stove.
                                                 (To be continued.)

       To me it is a great privilege to be able to live in the country. There instead of acres of wood, brick and stone walls your horizon is limited by woods and fields and skies alone. Instead of monotonous plank sidewalks your foot feels the yielding turf or the cool and cleanly earth. Everywhere the eye wanders or the foot goes some new object of interest or some new beauty comes into view. The skies are always changing, or the woodlands or pastures putting on new variations of form or color. Though the glory of autumn is my favorite amid the beauties of the round year, yet there is an ever-abiding beauty and mystery in the spring. Everywhere the one note, the one hint, is reviving life. On every bush, field and tree hope hangs out her banners, and joy fills both morning and night with her exhilarating music. What voyagers you will meet on a bright May morning in the span of a child's walk to the nearest fence. From the quick, vanishing butterfly that is lost while you look in the misty sunlight to the drowsy brown caterpillar curled up on the gravel walk, all life is astir, or at least dreaming about it.
       Even on the coldest and wettest of spring days, when the season of bud and blossom would seem to be simulating her sister autumn, she can scarce hide her identity. For she ever carries about her unconscious evidences of her true character. She may muffle in grey, veil herself in misty rains and coax the northeast wind, who is but a surly lover at best, knowing her true love to be the soft southwest, but somewhere a peeping spire of green or a looped, white, curling bud like cream from under the matted leaves will betray her. Even in Canada, where she acts most scandalously in her flirtations with bluff winter, spring is spring, the season of returning life. People who live in the country rise earlier than their kindred of the cities and towns, chiefly because their cares and duties call them out often before the peep o' dawn. While the city man lies abed and waits to be called about 8 or 9 o'clock the rural dweller needs no monitor, but is up betimes, brushing the dews from the grassy lawn, helping to provide the city man's breakfast. Each seems resigned to this strange partnership. But the balance is met when the city man sits up worrying or carousing into the small hours, while his rural cousin is sleeping the sleep of the weary. As to which is the happiest life depends on temperament. Men as a rule like to be what they are, especially if they smoke and have a good digestion. But there is no doubt as to which is the healthiest and most natural. If all things were fair and equal in this much-deranged world according to the philosophers and theologians the rural life would be an ideal one. It is over-toil and lack of culture that degenerates the husbandman into a clodhopper. Some of the most intelligent men I ever talked to were New England and Canadian farmers, and I know that in all instances they were enjoying, especially in the New Englander's case, the advantages of a heredity developed in close contact with outside nature. I thoroughly believe that this same class of men would deteriorate in a city or town, though they might put on some of that miserable gloss which is falsely called culture. All the fine outward deportment and manners in the world won't change a brute into a kindly, gentle man. This is where the country has the advantage in the long run, given she has the proper material to work on. The city attends to the manners and clothes, the country acts on the heart and intellect. This is the difference between the going to sleep at sunset and at the going out of the electric light, or the waking to the sound of horse cars or to the song of a meadow lark—all the difference in the world. It is the difference between pinchbeck and pure gold, the difference between a cellar plant and one grown out in God's pure air. Let men talk about religions and theologies, but the greatest and best church ever built is walled by nature's horizon and roofed by the great dome of sky, at night or morning, summer or winter, where the liturgies are eternal in runeless books of earth and sky, where the choirs are never desecrate or out of tune, in the endless chancels of wood and meadowcroft, where the preachers are eternal, unconscious influences for ever at work. Out in such a temple as this for a man to be irreligious, in the loftiest and holiest sense, is to bespeak him as less than a clod, for even the clod blossoms or girdles itself with green if left to the influences that nature has linked it to.

       We are all interested in the pursuit of the ideal. There is no one of us so prosaic or so matter of fact that he cannot match his neighbor with something to which he aspires, something which is apart from all other things and above them, like the flag on the citadel, which is pulled down last of all by the enemy, if we allow him to get that far. But even after it is pulled down and some false flag floats there for a degenerate ideal, there stands the pole certifying to something which was there and has departed. How often do we see men who have failed in life still flying a rag of bunting to let us know they have not capitulated, that they have the ideal still. I am not given to thinking that the world is becoming materialized, and that we are forgetting our social ideals in the general posture before Mammon, but there are some things which make one pause to think whether we have not forgotten some ideals which it would be well to recall. Is our sense of justice as fine as it used to be, or rather as it should be? Are we as true to the disinterested motive which should not endeavor to sway judgments? Have we not, partly at least, removed the bandage which blindfolded the goddess and allowed her to look at the scales? Does not society seem willing more and more to allow to the most fortunate of its members immunities which it would deny with rudeness to those less powerful? I think we must answer all the questions in the affirmative; and if so, are we not drifting away from the safe ideals which hold that an offence against society is equally dangerous whether committed by a rich man or a poor man? I am not sure that our ideals of sympathy are not undergoing a change for the worse and are not taking on a mawkish and sentimental tone which, if allowed to work out its course, would very speedily let every rascal who was clever enough to work upon the nerves of the public go free. We are asked more and more frequently to concern ourselves with the woes which have been brought upon the families and friends of people who have thought the ordinary rules of conduct too arduous for them and who have endeavored to announce a new edition of the ten commandments, specially revised and annotated. But we would do well to keep our sympathies clear, not to let them go too far afield, and to allow the burdens to be borne justly by those who have been thoughtlessly loaded with them. With our daily papers we have everybody's trouble on our breakfast table every morning, and yet I do not find that our humanity has improved or that the millennium is anywhere dawning. Then, as "Ouida" was saying the other day, we have fallen into too great sympathizings and lamentations over Cain, forgetting Abel altogether, forgetting the agony of the man who loses his life in commiseration for the man who deprives him of it. It would be well for us to remember our ideal of justice here, and at the same time recollect that society is responsible to a very great extent, if not to the whole extent, for every crime that is committed. As social ideals spring from individual beliefs, it would be safe to have a re-examination of these last from time to time to find whether they have not become tarnished with neglect, or whether, perchance, they were only pot-metal and not genuine bronze at all, and need to be cast out and broken to pieces under the wheels on the great roadway of life.

       The exhibition number of Scribner's Magazine contains the following exquisite bit of verse by T.B. Aldrich. Among the late fugitive poems by America's most artistic poet, I have seen nothing that equals this little poem. The subject is the pathetic suicide in London some time ago of Amy Levy, the poor young Jewish poetess. Amy Levy was a true genius, and had she lived might have ranked high among current women writers:—

                     Broken Music.

I know not in what fashion she was made,
       Nor what her voice was, when she used to speak,
Nor if the silken lashes threw a shade
       On wan or rosy cheek.

I picture her with sorrowful, vague eyes,
       Illumined with such strange gleams of inner light
As linger in the drift of London skies
       Ere twilight turns to night.

I know not; I conjecture. 'Twas a girl
       That with her own most gentle, desperate hand
From out God's mystic setting plucked life's pearl—
       'Tis hard to understand.

So precious life is! Even to the old
       The hours are as a miser's coins, and she—
Within her hands lay youth's unminted gold
       And all felicity.

The winged, impetuous spirit, the white flame
       That was her soul once, whither has it flown?
Above her brow grey lichens blot her name
       Upon the carven stone.

This is her book of verse—wren-like notes,
       Shy, franknesses blind gropings, haunting fears;
At times across the chords abruptly floats
       A mist of passionate tears.

A fragile lyre, too tensely keyed and strung,
       A broken music, weirdly incomplete;
Here a proud mind, self-baffled and self-stung,
       Lies coiled in dark defeat.