OLD MAN SAVARIN
And Other Stories

by Edward William Thomson



THE SHINING CROSS OF RIGAUD.


I.

    When Mini was a fortnight old his mother wrapped her head and shoulders in her ragged shawl, snatched him from the family litter of straw, and, with a volley of cautionary objurgations to his ten brothers and sisters, strode angrily forth into the raw November weather.  She went down the hill to the edge of the broad, dark Ottawa, where thin slices of ice were swashing together.  There sat a hopeless-looking little man at the clumsy oars of a flat-bottomed boat.
    “The little one’s feet are out,” said the man.
    “So much the better!  For what was another sent us?” cried Mini’s mother.
    “But the little one must be baptized,” said the father, with mild expostulation. [Page 109]
    “Give him to me, then,” and the man took off his own ragged coat.  Beneath it he had nothing except an equally ragged Guernsey, and the wind was keen.  The woman surrendered the child carelessly, and drawing her shawl closer, sat frowning moodily in the stern.  Mini’s father wrapped him in the wretched garment, carefully laid the infant on the pea-straw at his feet, and rowed wearily away.
    They took him to the gray church on the farther shore, whose tall cross glittered coldly in the wintry sun.  There Madame Lajeunesse, the skilful washerwoman, angry to be taken so long from her tubs, and Bonhomme Hamel, who never did anything but fish for barbotes, met them.  These highly respectable connections of Mini’s mother had a disdain for her inferior social status, and easily made it understood that nothing but a Christian duty would have brought them out.  Where else, indeed, could the friendless infant have found sponsors?  It was disgraceful, they remarked, that the [Page 110] custom of baptism at three days old should have been violated.  While they answered for Mini’s spiritual development he was quiet, neither crying nor smiling till the old priest crossed his brow.  Then he smiled, and that, Bonhomme Hamel remarked, was a blessed sign. 
    “Now he’s sure of heaven when he does die!” cried Mini’s mother, getting home again, and tossed him down on the straw, for a conclusion to her sentence.
    But the child lived, as if by miracle.  Hunger, cold, dirt, abuse, still left him a feeble vitality.  At six years old his big dark eyes wore so sad a look that mothers of merry children often stopped to sigh over him, frightening the child, for he did not understand sympathy.  So unresponsive and dumb was he that they called him half-witted.  Three babies younger than he had died by then, and the fourth was little Angélique.  They said she would be very like Mini, and there was reason why in her wretched [Page 111] infancy.  Mini’s was the only love she ever knew.  When she saw the sunny sky his weak arms carried her, and many a night he drew over her the largest part of his deplorable coverings.  She, too, was strangely silent.  For days long they lay together on the straw, quietly suffering what they had known from the beginning.  It was something near starvation. 
    When Mini was eight years old his mother sent him one day to beg food from Madame Leclaire, whose servant she had been long ago.
    “It’s Lucile’s Mini,” said Madame, taking him to the door of the cosey sitting-room, where Monsieur sat at solitaire.
    “Mon Dieu, did one ever see such a child!” cried the retired notary.  “For the love of Heaven, feed him well, Marie, before you let him go!”
    But Mini could scarcely eat.  He trembled at the sight of so much food, and chose a crust as the only thing familiar.
    “Eat, my poor child.  Have no fear,” said Madame. 
    “But Angélique,” said he.
    “Angélique?  Is it the baby?”
    “Yes, Madame, if I might have something for her.”
    “Poor little loving boy,” said Madame, tears in her kind eyes.  But Mini did not cry; he had known so many things so much sadder.
    When Mini reached home his mother seized the basket.  Her wretched children crowded around.  There were broken bread and meat in plenty.  “Here—here—and here!”  She distributed crusts, and chose a well-fleshed bone for her own teeth.  Angélique could not walk, and did not cry, so got nothing.  Mini, however, went to her with the tin pail before his mother noticed it.
    “Bring that back!” she shouted.
    “Quick, baby!” cried Mini, holding it that Angélique might drink.  But the baby was not quick enough.  Her mother seized the pail and tasted; the milk was still almost warm.  “Good,” said she, reaching for her shawl. [Page 113]
    “For the love of God, mother!” cried Mini, “Madame said it was for Angélique.”  He knew too well what new milk would trade for.  The woman laughed and flung on her shawl.
    “Only a little, then; only a cupful,” cried Mini, clutching her, struggling weakly to restrain her.  “Only a little cupful for Angélique,”
    “Give her bread!”  She struck him so that he reeled, and left the cabin.  Then Mini cried, but not for the blow.
    He placed a soft piece of bread and a thin shred of meat in Angélique’s thin little hand, but she could not eat, she was so weak.  The elder children sat quietly devouring their food, each ravenously eying that of the others.  But there was so much that when the father came he also could eat.  He, too, offered Angélique bread.  Then Mini lifted his hand which held hers, and showed beneath the food she had refused.
    “If she had milk!” said the boy.
    “My God, if I could get some,” groaned the [Page 114] man, and stopped as a shuffling and tumbling was heard at the door.
    “She is very drunk,” said the man, without amazement.  He helped her in, and, too far gone to abuse them, she soon lay heavily breathing near the child she had murdered.
    Mini woke in the pale morning thinking Angélique very cold in his arms, and, behold, she was free from all the suffering forever.  So he could not cry, though the mother wept when she woke, and shrieked at his tearlessness as hardhearted.
    Little Angélique had been rowed across the great river for the last time; night was come again, and Mini thought he must die; it could not be that he should be made to live without Angélique!  Then a wondrous thing seemed to happen.  Little Angélique had come back.  He could not doubt it next morning, for, with the slowly lessening glow from the last brands of fire had not her face appeared?—then her form?—and lo! she was closely held in the [Page 115] arms of the mild Mother whom Mini knew from her image in the church, only she smiled more sweetly now in the hut.  Little Angélique had learned to smile, too, which was most wonderful of all to Mini.  In their heavenly looks was a meaning of which he felt almost aware; a mysterious happiness was coming close and closer; with the sense of ineffable touches near his brow, the boy dreamed.  Nothing more did Mini know till his mother’s voice woke him in the morning.  He sprang up with a cry of “Angélique,” and gazed round upon the familiar squalor.
        
                                                             II.

    From the summit of Rigaud Mountain a mighty cross flashes sunlight all over the great plain of Vaudreuil.  The devout habitant, ascending from vale to hill-top in the county of Deux Montagnes, bends to the sign he sees across the forest leagues away.  Far off on the [Page 116] brown Ottawa, beyond the Cascades of Carillon and the Chute à Blondeau, the keen-eyed voyageur catches its gleam, and, for gladness to be nearing the familiar mountain, more cheerily raises the chanson he loves.  Near St. Placide the early ploughman—while yet mist wreathes the fields and before the native Rossignol has fairly begun his plaintive flourishes—watches the high cross of Rigaud for the first glint that shall tell him of the yet unrisen sun.  The wayfarer marks his progress by the bearing of that great cross, the hunter looks to it for an unfailing landmark, the weatherwise farmer prognosticates from its appearances.  The old watch it dwindle from sight at evening with long thoughts of the well-beloved vanished, who sighed to its vanishing through vanished years; the dying turn to its beckoning radiance; happy is the maiden for whose bridal it wears brightness; blessed is the child thought to be that holds out tiny hands for the glittering cross as for a star.  Even to the most [Page 117] worldly it often seems flinging beams of heaven, and to all who love its shining that is a dark day when it yields no reflection of immortal meaning.
    To Mini the Cross of Rigaud had as yet been no more than an indistinct glimmering, so far from it did he live and so dulled was he by his sufferings.  It promised him no immortal joys, for how was he to conceive of heaven except as a cessation of weariness, starvation, and pain?  Not till Angélique had come in the vision did he gain certainty that in heaven she would smile on him always from the mild Mother’s arms.  As days and weeks passed without that dream’s return, his imagination was ever the more possessed by it.  Though the boy looked frailer than ever, people often remarked with amazement how his eyes wore some unspeakable happiness.
    Now it happened that one sunny day after rain Mini became aware that his eyes were fixed on the Cross of Rigaud.  He could not [Page 118] make out its form distinctly, but it appeared to thrill toward him.  Under his intent watching the misty cross seemed gradually to become the centre of such a light as had enwrapped the figures of his dream.  While he gazed, expecting his vision of the night to appear in broad day on the far summit, the light extended, changed, rose aloft, assumed clear tints, and shifted quickly to a great rainbow encircling the hill.
    Mini believed it a token to him.  That Angélique had been there by the cross the little dreamer doubted not, and the transfiguration to that arch of glory had some meaning that his soul yearned to apprehend.  The cross drew his thoughts miraculously; for days thereafter he dwelt with its shining; more and more it was borne in on him that he could always see dimly the outline of little Angélique’s face there; sometimes, staring very steadily for minutes together, he could even believe that she beckoned and smiled. [Page 119]
    “Is Angélique really there, father?” he asked one day, looking toward the hill-top.
    “Yes, there,” answered his father, thinking the boy meant heaven.
    “I will go to her, then,” said Mini to his heart.

    Birds were not stirring when Mini stepped from the dark cabin into gray dawn, with firm resolve to join Angélique on the summit.  The Ottawa, with whose flow he went toward Rigaud, was solemnly shrouded in motionless mist, which began to roll slowly during the first hour of his journey.  Lifting, drifting, clinging, ever thinner and more pervaded by sunlight, it was drawn away so that the unruffled flood reflected a sky all blue when he had been two hours on the road.  But Mini took no note of the river’s beauty.  His eyes were fixed on the cloudy hill-top, beyond which the sun was climbing.  As yet he could see nothing of the cross, nor of his vision; yet the world had never seemed so [Page 120] glad, nor his heart so light with joy.  Habitants, in their rattling calèches, were amazed by the glow in the face of a boy so ragged and forlorn.  Some told afterward how they had half doubted the reality of his rags; for might not one, if very pure at heart, have been privileged to see such garments of apparent meanness change to raiment of angelic texture?  Such things had been, it was said, and certainly the boy’s face was a marvel.
    His look was ever upward to where fibrous clouds shifted slowly, or packed to level bands of mist half concealing Rigaud Hill, as the sun wheeled higher, till at last, in mid-sky, it flung rays that trembled on the cross, and gradually revealed the holy sign outlined in upright and arms.  Mini shivered with an awe of expectation; but no nimbus was disclosed which his imagination could shape to glorious significance.  Yet he went rapturously onward, firm in the belief that up there he must see Angélique face to face. [Page 121]
    As he journeyed the cross gradually lessened in height by disappearance behind the nearer trees, till only a spot of light was left, which suddenly was blotted out too.  Mini drew a deep breath, and became conscious of the greatness of the hill,—a towering mass of brown rock, half hidden by sombre pines and the delicate greenery of birch and poplar.  But soon, because the cross was hidden, he could figure it all the more gloriously, and entertain all the more luminously the belief that there were heavenly presences awaiting him.  He pressed on with all his speed, and began to ascend the mountain early in the afternoon.
    “Higher,” said the woman gathering pearly-bloomed blueberries on the steep hillside.  “Higher,” said the path, ever leading the tired boy upward from plateau to plateau,—“higher, to the vision and the radiant space about the shining cross!”
    Faint with hunger, worn with fatigue, in the half-trance of physical exhaustion, Mini still [Page 122] dragged himself upward through the afternoon.  At last he knew he stood on the summit level very near the cross.  There the child, awed by the imminence of what he had sought, halted to control the rapturous, fearful trembling of his heart.  Would not the heavens surely open?  What words would Angélique first say?  Then again he went swiftly forward through the trees to the edge of the little cleared space.  There he stood dazed.
    The cross was revealed to him at a few yards’ distance.  With woful disillusionment Mini threw himself face downward on the rock, and wept hopelessly, sorely; wept and wept, till his sobs became fainter than the up-borne long notes of a hermit-thrush far below on the edge of the plain.
    A tall mast, with a shorter at right angles, both covered by tin roofing-plates, held on by nails whence rust had run in streaks,—that was the shining Cross of Rigaud!  Fragments of newspaper, crusts of bread, empty tin cans, [Page 123] broken bottles, the relics of many picnics scattered widely about the foot of the cross; rude initial letters cut deeply into its butt where the tin had been torn away;—these Mini seen.
    The boy ceased to move.  Shadows stole slowly lengthening over the Vaudreuil champaign; the sun swooned down in a glamour of painted clouds; dusk covered from sight the yellows and browns and greens of the August fields; birds stilled with the deepening night; Rigaud Mountain loomed from the plain, a dark long mass under a flying and waning moon; stars came out from the deep spaces overhead, and still Mini lay where he had wept. [Page 124]