By the Author of “The Second Life,” Etc., Etc.
In 1878, Wesley Nelson opened a little shop on Tresor Street, near the Basilica, in Quebec, for the sale of stationery and newspapers. A little capital makes a large show in that kind of stock than in any other; and young Nelson had only the money he had saved from his wages as clerk on one of the small steamers plying to the lower St. Lawrence. He was a shrewd fellow, and filled his window with such a display of popular journals that the shop soon became quite a favorite.
Old Ovide Laficher, who lived at Charlesborough, had taken the boy, when he was ten years old, from the hospital at Montreal, where his mother had died, and had raised him as his own son. Wesley had been uniformly polite and good-humored in the household, as boy and man; had helped Grandmère Laficher to prepare the black bread and pot-au-feu which was the unvarying meal of the family, and had worked faithfully with Ovide on the little farm until he was old enough to earn wages for himself.
But he never, by a word or look, had shown that he was grateful to the old man for rescuing him from starvation. Young Nelson was one of those men who secretly feel a grudge against anybody who places them under an obligation. He took a quiet pleasure in standing stiffly erect in this world, untouched by any of the gentle influences to which the Lafichers surrounded him. They were Canadian French. He was a New Yorker, though he was but a year old when he was taken from the States. They were poor farmers: he meant to grow rich in trade. He kept the New York journals for sale, and read them out of a vague patriotic feeling; but nobody bought them: so, after a while, he gave them up. One cannot lose thirty cents a week for patriotism.
After Wesley had opened his shop on Tresor Street, he still went out to the farm at night, bringing in his dinner in a little pail. It saved him the expense of boarding in town. It seemed to him the usual and natural custom for a father to keep his home open to his son, even after he was in business; and had not M. Laficher adopted him as his son? It was true, also, that sons in business often shared their earnings with their aged parents. But, when he thought of this, he quickly remembered that he was not M. Laficher’s son, after all—not akin to him by a drop of blood. Mr. Nelson was a cool logician, and had an eye for both sides of a question.
There was another reason why he continued to make his home with his adopted father. As soon as he was able to support a wife, he intended to marry Lucy Laficher, Ovide’s orphan niece, with whom he had grown up under one roof, as do brothers and sisters, but for whom he felt an affection that was not at all brotherly. He was a little ashamed of the heat of this affection; but, if he was tempted to reprove himself, when sometimes he grew irritable with shop, books, and customers—so uneasy was his patience to close the windows, and lock the door, and hurry out to the farm—he restored his complacent self-approval by the remembrance that such a marriage would be a most wise and prudent one, as pretty little Lucy was already an economical housewife, and besides, probably would be joint heir with himself to her uncle’s farm, which, with the homestead, he reckoned to be worth quite four thousand dollars.
Within the last three months, Wesley frequently found, at the farm, young Pierre Drouin, the youngest of the firm of Drouin Frères, carpenters in the village of Charlesborough. One day, Pierre was busy making a lattice for Lucy’s roses; the next, he was repairing the well-curb for old Ovide, and such an idle gay joking and laughing as the fellow kept up! Wesley surlily set him down as a fool, to give his labor for nothing, except to please an old man and a girl. He grew more surly when he saw how much pleased and amused Lucy was with his jokes and his work.
“When she is Madame Nelson, I’ll have no such idle vauriens about the house,” he thought.
It was the remembrance of Pierre that hastened his movements, one warm evening in July, as he began to sort away the books, newspapers, and boxes of cigars, preparatory to closing the shop. No doubt the young spendthrift was on his way to the farm now, bringing his basket of grapes, the rarest and dearest to be found in the Champlain Market, for Mademoiselle Lucy. Wesley began to wonder whether old Madame Belles would not give him a bunch of her famous roses for a couple of last week’s newspapers. Then he could bring his little cadeau—he also! He turned to choose a couple of the oldest papers, which nobody possibly would buy, when a shadow darkened the doorway.
“Aha, Monsieur Nelson! Going to shut up the shop? Stay a little. Smoke a cigar with me. I wish to consult you on a little matter of business.”
At any other time, Wesley would have been delighted at this familiar greeting from the Attorney Vidoux, who was one of his best customers, and who was beginning to be known as one of the shrewdest of the young men at the Quebec bar. But he was eager now to give the roses to Lucy. It was very odd. He had lived in the same house with Lucy for eighteen years, and never thought of giving her roses until that fellow, Drouin, came meddling. However, he sat down, lighted the cigar which Vidoux first bought from him and then handed back, and listened with wandering attention to the story which the young attorney told. Vidoux was apt to talk of his cases to anybody who would listen. Presently Nelson’s attention was arrested. He leaned forward, the cigar went out of his mouth, and he drummed his fingers on his knees.
“If I understand you right, this property is worth five thousand pounds?”
“Yes. There will be no trouble about the title. The late owner, Louis Martel, is dead, and the property reverts to the heir of his sister, who the avocat in Marseilles advises me, is supposed to be a young girl living in or near the village of Charlesborough. Now, that is why I came to you. Do you know of any such person?”
“Martel? Martel? The name has a familiar sound,” deliberated Wesley, biting the end of his cigar nervously. Of course he knew pretty little Eloise Martel, Lucy’s friend. But he was not a man who gave away information lightly. He must first see what it was worth to the market.
“I wish you would look about, and make inquiry of Monsieur Laficher,” said Vidoux. “I am employed to look up the girl, and substantiate her claim. I’ll come down on Monday, and see if you have made any discoveries.” And he rose to go.
“Not on Monday. To-morrow is my father’s fête-day, and we always make a little jaunt up the river—at his expense. Always at his expense,” winking knowingly. “Not much of my money goes in celebrating fête-days, you may be sure of that. We will not return until Monday evening.”
“Very well,” said Vidoux. “On Tuesday, then. But do not put yourself to trouble. I can readily find her.” He spoke with a certain coolness, and, when he reached the street, gave himself a shake of disgust. “None of his money goes for the fête of the old man, who—ah! bah! Monsieur Wesley!”
Wesley sat, meanwhile, staring at the closed door, lost in thought. So little Louie was heiress! Five thousand pounds. She was a pretty girl, undoubtedly—a very pretty girl. It was lucky that she and Lucy were friends: it was always lucky to be intimate with the rich. Ah—h! Why not invite her to join the party, to-morrow? Why not strengthen the intimacy before she knew of her good fortune? Three days together on a boat!
He remained quiet for some time, thinking deeply; then rose, barred his shutters, and walked slowly homeward. But he was in no hurry now to reach the farm, and he did not make the trade for the roses. That affair of the roses and Pierre seemed quite a trivial matter, when compared with the real business of life. Twenty-five thousand dollars! What a pity such a sum should be wasted on a silly girl, who could do nothing with it.
“If I had a little capital,” he said, at supper that evening, “I should go directly home to New York, and plant it where it would bring in a big crop. Ah! the people in the States know how to push life.”
Lucy said nothing; but afterwards, when she was at work clipping her verbenas, and he came out and lounged near her, smoking, she looked up suddenly.
“You would leave Quebec, if you could?” she said.
“Yes. Why on earth should I stay? Every man from the States, that comes into my shop, says that the town is hopelessly dead.”
“But it is your home Wesley—” the soft blue eyes were fixed on his with an eager keen scrutiny.
“No. I am a New Yorker,” with an unconscious swagger. Lucy turned quickly away. Nelson followed her. Any hint of displeasure from her touched him sharply. “Of course, Lucy,” he said, gently taking the knife from her and cutting a flower, “I should not go alone.”
“You will find it difficult to persuade my uncle Ovide to leave Quebec,” she said, drily.
“I did not mean your uncle Ovide. However, no matter. Where is your friend Drouin this evening, by the way?”
“He is busy finishing some work in the next parish, so as to have to-morrow free. He is going with us up the Saguenay.”
“Drouin?” Wesley’s face darkened with rage. “I was not told of this.”
“Nor I,” said Lucy, calmly. “My uncle invited him to join the party.”
The young man controlled himself. After all, what did it matter? He had no reason to fear so contemptible a rival. And if Drouin was admitted to take part in the fête, there could be no objection to Eloise Martel.
When, therefore, the steamer swung from the pier, the next morning, the merry party numbered five, that were gathered on the very end of the bow, where they would catch all the wind and spray. Ovide’s portly figure made a rampart for the girls. They cowered behind him in their jaunty jackets and close-fitting caps, laughing, when a dash of rain flapped wet in his red round face; laughing at Pierre, who was sliding across the slippery deck, with chairs which he had captured for them; but smothering their laughter when Wesley, in his natty new clothes, actually fell sprawling at their feet. They were both in awe of Nelson.
“Tut, tut!” grumbled old Ovide, puffing with delight. “Don’t mind them, Pierre. They are silly girls, agog for a holiday. Where is the basket of wine? And the hamper? The fare on these boats is very good as to substantial meals, but one wants a morceau now and then. Lucy, my little one, where is thy heavy coat? The last time, we nearly froze to death.”
Young Nelson was a little ashamed of the fat jovial old man, with his coarse-cloak and big baskets, who called him “mon fils,” and laughed so loudly. There could be no hiding the fact that the whole party were Canadian habitants: they laughed constantly: the girls, looking down into the water, hummed, now and then, scraps of songs, into which Pierre threw a note or two of tenor, and the old man growled a melodious bass. They chattered with their neighbors, whom they had never seen before, and never would see again, as if they were old friends. They went down to every meal gay and excited, as if it were a special banquet given in their honor.
Wesley Nelson stood a little apart from them, near the groups of tourists from the States, in their waterproof cloaks and handsome traveling equipments, who were “doing the Saguenay.” How keen and successful they looked. No laughing there. Why should they laugh? Nelson thought he might be mistaken for one of them. When the boat neared Murray Bay, the square pier was crowded with the summer-boarders from that fashionable watering-place, and Nelson pushed closer into the groups of States-people, and was deaf to old Ovide’s shouts to him. At the pier lay a steam-yacht, the crew all wearing a livery of blue and scarlet.
“That is young Otger’s punt,” said one of the Americans near Nelson, to his companion. “Otger of New York, you know. I heard he was cruising about in these waters somewhere. Went to Florida in March.”
“How can he afford it?”
“Oh, his wife. Thirty thousand a year, they say. I’ve known the time Otger hadn’t twenty-five cents to pay for a ride in a bus. Had to foot it to swell parties. But he went in for a rich wife. It’s a business that pays.”
Nelson drew himself hurriedly away from the speaker, and went up to Lucy. He fancied she looked pale: had she noticed his neglect? He arranged her shawl around her shoulders, and leaned over her chair; and, as they sailed presently through the Pilgrim Islands, pointed out to her those whose names he knew. How soft was the brilliance of her blue eyes; Mlle. Martel’s were black and keen. How pretty was the outline of Lucy’s cheek, from the pink ear to the cleft chin. He had never observed that line in her face before. He would give the world to kiss her there. Would he ever kiss her? He heaved a deep sigh, lighted a cigar, and strolled back to his Americans.
Undoubtedly, all the affection of which Nelson was capable he gave to Lucy. But, in the quiet of the farm, even in the shop, he had little shop, he had little opportunity of seeing the solid value and uses of money. These countrymen of him, with their steam-yachts, their diamonds, their familiar talk of European capitals, their general air triumphant mastership, showed the results of wealth; they set new ideas to fermenting in his brain. He listened to them for awhile, and then nervously went back to Lucy.
The steamer was still ploughing its way through the misty islands, each wrapped in its airy shroud of fog, out of which green feathery trees thrust their arms, as if inviting the passing traveler to hidden fairy-nooks beneath.
“Now, if one could live on air,” said Mr. Nelson to Lucy, “or on—on love, what a home one could find here.”
Her hand was near him, on the arm of the chair. He carelessly put his over it for a moment. Never had his whole nature been so torn and divided against itself as at that moment.
Lucy drew her hand quietly away.
“You need something more to live on, Wesley, than air or love,” she said, calmly.
Was she putting him away from her finally? Here voice was kind, and there was little meaning in the words. Yet he felt that she had read him down to the lowest depths of his soul: had judged him, and was ready to give him up.
Give him up? Never. Lucy should see how he loved her: how generous and unselfish he was in offering to marry her, when five thousand pounds were lying, as it were, by the wayside, waiting for somebody to pick it up. He looked curiously at Mlle. Martel, who was opening the lunch-basket with Ovide. She was very pretty: now that her thick skin was flushed with the wind, she was almost as pretty as Lucy. There would be no harm in talking to her a little while, while he helped to unpack that basket. Ah! Wesley, if you had not crossed the deck to help unpack that basket. But he did cross it. Lucy looked after him thoughtfully a moment, and then pushed the vacant chair towards Pierre, who had been hungrily watching her for an hour.
When they all landed at Tadousac, Wesley gave his arm to Eloise, to help her up the steep walk toward the salmon-tanks. A young priest, in his long black soutane, with a pleasant kindly face, was leaning idly over the rail, and replied to Wesley’s questions about the fish:
“If madame, your wife, will go into the sheds—” he began.
But what would happen in that case, Wesley never knew; for he was stirred by the rush of color to the girl’s face. She drew her hand from his arm, trembled, looked down.
Did she— Was there a chance?
Almost as agitated as she, he walked beside her up the rocky path.
Ovide was standing with Lucy and Pierre in front of the old church, built by the Récollet Fathers when Canada was an unbroken wilderness; but Wesley was too excited to hear the legends he told. He went forward with Eloise into the dilapidated grave-yard, stopping before a black cross lettered in white, and, scarcely knowing what he did, read aloud: “Ci-git Marie, épouse de Pascal.”
“Everything dies out but love,” he said. “Nothing has come down to us of these people who lived here centuries ago, but the story that Pascal loved Marie, and lost her. Love is all.”
He fancied, during this very irrelevant speech, which he uttered in a very tender tone, that Eloise’s face grew pale. It was certainly a very intelligent face: very probably she was as prudent a housewife as Lucy. And five thousand pounds waiting for somebody to pick up!
They remained an hour or two in Tadousac, wandering up and down the roads that wound through gray rocks—roads dignified by the names of streets. Wesley stopped in front of the picturesque villa built by the Governor General. His companion looked at it with awe, being a loyal Canadian. But he sniffed contemptuously:
“Any American, with a little capital, can make a fortané in the States, in a year or two, which would enable him to live in a much more stylish house than that. It’s rather plain, to my tastes.”
“Yes. With a little capital,” he repeated.
The steamer-bell rang, and they hurried on board. Ovide and Pierre had found a seat for Lucy on the bow of the boat. Wesley took Mlle. Martel to the stern, and they remained there in spite of the old farmer’s appeals to “join forces and be jolly.”
When the boat stopped at Ha-ha Bay, for wood, Wesley hurried on shore, and engaged one of the high wooden boxes, which, turned on end, and set on wheels, the habitants called calèches. He helped Eloise to climb into this rude vehicle, gathered up the reins, and drove away up the mountain-road.
“Wesley is reckless with his money to-day,” Ovide said, laughing uneasily.
Lucy stood on the deck, looking after the calèche, smiling faintly. What did it matter, she said to herself, that Wesley was so suddenly enchanted with Louie’s black eyes and saucy wit? She was not neglected. She had her friend. Her reason told her that Pierre was more manly, and generous, and finer in grain, than Wesley. And yet—
She watched the mountain-road with a heavy weight on her heart awhile, but turned at last to take the bunches of feathery grass and packages of maple-sugar with which Pierre had come back laden from the shore.
He was so gay, so icy, and so tender with it all, that she actually forgot the mountain-road; and did not know when Wesley and his companion came on board again.
They were befogged, that night, at Chicoutimi; the boat lay at the little pier until morning. Wesley remained, all the evening, close beside Eloise. He was determined to discover how heavy was the incumbrance attached to the fortune laying at the wayside.
They next day, they sailed down the narrow black soundless river, rushing silently between gigantic gray walls of rock, bare but for black cedars atop, that waved their gnarled arms in the wind. Lucy was little affected by scenery. She was a gay home-loving little body, and thought her uncle’s kitchen-garden a finer sight than these terrible and gloomy solitudes, where Nature hides herself in her cruel moods.
But they had their effect upon her. In after-life she remembered that dark-walled passage, as a strait that lay between her old life, in which Wesley bore a part, and a new one, full of love, of certain comfort, of joy, in which he was left out.
As they approached Quebec, on the second day, Wesley grew more nervous and uneasy. If to look at Lucy’s bright face upturned to Pierre gave him a pang, it was forgotten in the consciousness that his chance was fast escaping him. There was not an hour to lose. M. Vidoux might meet them on the pier, and tell Eloise of her good-fortune. The heiress of five thousand pounds would not betroth herself to a beggarly stationer. But if she were already betrothed?
M. Vidoux did not meet them on the pier, where they landed in the red sunset. Ovide hurried to the inn-stables for the wagon and horse, but, when he returned, Wesley and Eloise were gone. Again Wesley had hired a calèche, reflecting that a few pence judiciously spent now would bring in an ample harvest hereafter.
It was late that evening before he came up on the porch of the farm-house, where Ovide sat smoking his last pipe.
“I have news for you, father,” he said, in a quick discordant voice.
“I can guess it, mon fils. You have asked little Eloise to marry you.”
“And has she consented?”
“Oh, certainly! Of course, I made sure of that before I risked anything.”
Ovide’s eyes twinkled. “It is plain you are not a Laficher. But God bless you, my boy. It will be a long betrothal, of necessity?”
“Probably not,” said Wesley, pompously. “Eloise will have a dower—something to start with in the States.”
“Heh? How’s that? I thought old Martel as poor a man as any in Charlesborough.”
Ovide waited for an answer, but Nelson made none. He was not bound to take anybody into his confidence.
“I have my little story, too, to tell,” said the old man, putting his hand on his arm. “I waited to see you. This voyage was a dangerous one for foolish children. Lucy—”
“Ah!” Nelson drew back suddenly. “She will marry that Drouin?”
“Yes. I have looked forward to it for a long time, mon fils.”
“And wished it?”
“Yes, and wished it,” said Ovide, gravely. “He is a good man, honest and kind.”
Early the next morning, Wesley opened his shop, and waited impatiently until noon for Vidoux. As the angelus rang out from the great cathedral-tower, through the still sunlit air, the avocet came bustling into the shop.
“Ah, Nelson!” he cried, “you expected me, eh? I would have been earlier, but I did not need your information. I have discovered the heir. She is a young girl in Charlesborough.”
“Yes,” said Wesley, taking up a package of papers to arrange, with affected indifference, and smiling complacently.
“And a pretty girl, too,” pursued M. Vidoux.
“So she is. Name of Martel.”
“Nothing of the kind. How could her name be Martel, when her mother was Martel’s sister? Her name is Laficher, and she is old Ovide’s niece—your adopted cousin.”
Wesley, with the package in his hand, stood staring at him.
“No wonder you are surprised. Yes, old Ovide’s niece, Lucy Laficher. By the way, Nelson, it’s a pity you and the little girl hadn’t made a match of it. Five thousand pounds would have started you in life very handsomely.”
“Yes, it would,” said Nelson, in a low voice, and he turned and put the package on the shelf.
1. French: beef stew.
2. French: good-for-nothing fellow.
3. French: gift.
4. French: lawyer.
5. In Catholic traditions, saint’s day, which is the day of the saint after which a baby is named and is celebrated much like a birthday.
6. French: a piece of bread.
7. French: my son.
8. Early missionaries in the French colonies of Canada.
9. French: “Here lies Marie, wife of Pascal.”
10. French: fortune.