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Two

Rosalie was what is known to biologists as a “sport” for she was unlike anyone in her village and perhaps was a reversion to a type long before her. Her people were poor fisher-folk, but she had good pioneer blood behind her for her family name had been that of a count of France. She was an unusually pretty girl, tall and slim but strong and wiry, with black curling hair and long black eyelashes that drooped over blue eyes that had a tinge of violet. She had excellent health, and plenty of character was marked in her nose and mouth. Many of the young men desired her for their wife. She was just turned nineteen when she vanished.

For two years before that and her marriage, she had taught the village school. Quick at her books, at sixteen she had easily passed the eleventh grade examination, and in years when there was a shortage of teachers, she had been given a permissive license to teach. She enjoyed teaching children. When she was past eighteen, however, pressure was put upon her to make a decision: she could become a holy nun, or marry, or remain a school teacher. She admired the nuns with the glow of adoration in their faces, but she did not want to be shut off and shielded from the world. She had no great urge for a man and marriage. Nor could she get money from her people, always close to poverty, to attend the Normal College. “Why,” she often used to think, “can’t I be just Rosalie, a person, an individual, without belonging to anyone or any institution? I want to be just myself.” Everyone in the village liked Rosalie because she was so kind and gentle and had such a gay laugh. The women of the village advised her to marry—it was the safest life for a woman they said—and the parish priest for whom she had great reverence, added to their advice. They all told her to marry Hercule. Hercule wanted her and Hercule was the village catch. He was twenty-seven and had inherited one hundred acres and a neat white house and barn from his parents, both dead. He was big and strong—he had been appropriately named—he was the luckiest lobster fisherman along the coast and, always a good sign, he had the highest and best piled wood pile. But Hercule was not very tidy in his habits. True, he shaved and put on his best suit for Sunday Mass, but on the other days of the week he was largely rubber boots, oil-skins, fish scales and whiskers. He did not wash very often. He was on rough seas so much that he regarded water as an enemy and once a wise man had told him that hot water applied to a man’s body sapped his strength.

Rosalie admired Hercule as a decent hard-working fisherman, but truly she did not like the smell of him very much. Rosalie was instinctively dainty and always escaped out of doors when lobsters were boiling in the great black iron pot. She was only eighteen and she had seen little of the world beyond the confines of her village. Perhaps, she reflected, all strong men were a bit high.

Home conditions had not been easy for Rosalie. She was the second of nine children and she had been the little mother to the seven who had come after her, since Mother was worn and ailing through labour and too frequent childbirth. The oldest, a brother, was already in the boat with Father, and on Sundays or days of storm, he was free, but Rosalie had seldom known a holiday. There were always children to be washed, dressed, got ready for school, put to bed or nursed through those petty diseases, children must endure. Every day there was a string of flapping clothes on the wire clothes­line that ran from house corner to wood-shed that entailed endless ironing; every third day a great batch of dough must be stirred, kneaded, raised in pans and baked in the little kitchen oven; often it was after midnight before the last golden brown loaves were emptied from their pans by adroit knife thrusts along the sides. Saturday night was bath night for the whole family of eleven; then indeed the kitchen was a scene of confusion as the wash­tubs steamed before the stove; great black caldrons must be heated, and as there was no pump in the kitchen, many buckets of water carried from the yard where was the well with its great sweep, a community well that served three families. Upstairs there were but three bedrooms; father and mother occupied one, the four boys the second, the five girls the third and largest with the sloping roof close above their heads. The bedrooms were always close and airless, since in winter and spring the windows swelled and stuck and in summer and autumn one had to make a choice between fresh air and flies and mosquitos. Mother and father were always tired. For Rosalie, Sundays were hardly less busy than weekdays, for meals had still to be cooked, dishes washed and little children cared for. She felt in her heart that there must be some better, some more ordered way of life than this, and she truly longed to escape the domestic confusion. Now that her younger sisters were grown enough to tend the little ones, Rosalie felt that the household might profit by her absence.

So at last Rosalie, moved by circumstance and urged on by older women who knew little more than she, consented, and she was married to Hercule, one early morning of mid-August. After the early Mass everyone in the village came to Rosalie’s house for breakfast. There was plenty of food, but of course some had to eat standing in the yard. Everyone was sober at this hour in the morning and the breakfast went off well. Rut Rosalie felt very uneasy inside. Now, she thought, I am tied here for life; now I shall never be the true person called Rosalie. After breakfast Rosalie and Hercule drove to the county town in Hercule’s light truck that was adorned with trailing streamers of ribbons and coloured paper, looked in the shop windows, had coffee and sandwiches at a lunch counter and went to an afternoon moving picture. Hercule sat close to her and kept his arm about her. About five they drove home to Hercule’s house for the prepared dinner party and dance at the near-by hall. A good many men got drunk even before the dance started, but Hercule was only a little drunk. The dance was somewhat marred by a couple of fist-fights, and shortly after midnight Hercule and Rosalie stole away and returned to Hercule’s house. All the marriage feast had been cleared away by friendly women and the house was neat and tidy. Rosalie was very tired but they were no sooner in the great bed than the real racket of the day began. The local boys had decided to give Hercule and Rosalie a proper chivaree. They were stout sturdy fellows who confounded noise with amusement. Around and around the house they marched, shouting rustic jests that were none too delicate. There was ding-dong of bells, tooting of horns, clatter of sticks upon dish-pans, clacking of wooden rattles, and the intermittent bang­bang of shot guns. Rosalie was much alarmed and wished she were back in her narrow bed at home. The house shook with the con­tinued racket, the cups and saucers rattled in the cupboards. Dogs that love crowds and excitement above all things, gathered, from all over the parish and added their howling and barking to the general uproar. Presently someone fired a rifle shot that knocked some bricks out of Hercule’s chimney and down they clattered on the roof, just above the noses of the newly married pair. That damage to his property made Hercule very angry. He sprang out of bed, and naked, rushed down stairs and out of doors. But the local bucks were all afraid of Hercule’s great strength, and when they saw the gleam of his naked body, they hooted derisively and ran away and hid in the forest. When Hercule went indoors again, slamming the door, the local boys returned and again began the Chivaree of horns, rattles, dogs, drums and shot guns. Hercule decided to ignore them, and give all his attention to making love to Rosalie. Rosalie was sore, tired, and afraid, but she was submissive, as the older women had taught her. She did not sleep at all that night even when Hercule rose soon after dawn to go out to his boat. She lay alone, wide-eyed; so this was romance; so this was being married; she was sorry she had not become a nun.

For something strange had happened to Rosalie’s mind during the two years in which she taught the village school. In the school was a little library, for the most part children’s stories. One day someone sent as a contribution to this infant library a small bundle of books, and Rosalie opened this package without consulting either priest or inspector of village schools. She peeped into some of these books, her interest was awakened and she felt an intense desire to read them and learn something of the great world. She hid the package of books in her desk drawer and formed the habit of staying an hour after school to read them. If she heard a step on the doorway she would drop the book quickly into the desk drawer end go on working at her school register.

First she selected an odd book, full of quaint drawings, a book called “Don Quixote” written by a Spanish man named Cervantes. It was the story of a romantic old fellow, who had read so many high sounding books of chivalry, that he imagined himself a knight of the olden times, and leaving comfort and home behind, set out on his raw-boned nag, accompanied by a greedy peasant as squire, to over­come all the selfish evil in the world, to follow fleeting Romance, and to beat down all injustice. In accordance with the rules of chivalry, he had to have a lady-love for whose dear sake he endured all hardships, and in lieu of somone better he selected as his mistress a village girl whom he had hardly seen, and re­named her with a fair high-sounding name. He had no thought of trying to love her in the ordinary way, he only wanted to do great deeds for her sake and increase the glory of her name. The heated imagination of Don Quixote transmuted his pony nag into a prancing charger, his dull herds-boy into a splendid squire, his homemade lance and rusty shield into pieces of shining steel, windmills into wicked giants, and his slovenly village girl into a romantic and enchanted maiden of great beauty and plenteous possessions. Into this book were woven many romantic stories of gentle shepherds, who had endured the joys and sorrows of love.

Rosalie was so entranced with this book that she read it through three times in the two years in which she taught the village school. Often her interest was so keen that she got up early, came to the schoolhouse an hour before school opened, and while a boy was lighting the fire and sweeping up, Rosalie hidden behind her desk read eagerly until the children arrived. This book lighted something in her heart. There was a strange world, throbbing and stirring and pulsing, beyond the confines of her village.

Then from the hidden bundle, she took another book that she read with great delight, Shakespeare’s “Tempest” that told the story of the swift wooing of Ferdinand and Miranda on a magic island. How direct and certain was Miranda, how noble in her guileless choice though she had seen but two men before: one her father, and one the misshapen Callban, who had tried to attack her, and into whose mouth, for some strange reason, the poet had put such lovely nature lines. Rosalie was quite intoxicated with the beauty of words when she read aloud, “The cloud-capp’d towers the gorgeous palaces,” and felt a tug at her heart so intense that it was al­most pain. Had some of her remote ancestors, she wondered, lived in this world of chivalry and romance? How wonderful it would be, to be wooed by a prince on an island of magic!

The third book, which she read with wonder, was called “Typee”, and she was attracted to it by its queer title. It was all about the life of savages in the South Seas who knew little of white men and their ways, and was written by a sailor-man named Herman Melville, who had deserted from a New England whaler and lived among the savages. These savages lived without labour, laughed easily, stuck flowers in their hair, bathed in the clear mountain streams, plucked their food from the trees of the forest, and slept peacefully through long hot afternoons. They were happy and clean and loved beautiful things. They knew nothing of books, nothing of the industrial world, nor of science, nor factories. Here was a race free from labour. Rosalie wondered at this, for her life had been spent among, people who were in the boats before dawn. Had these Islanders of the South Seas been free from fears of taboos and witch doctors, their way of living might have approached perfection. As she read, Rosalie became aware of other ways of life beside her own.

Then she went on to another book called “Tess of the D’Urbervilles,” a sad, tragic bock by Thomas Hardy, about a poor but lovely girl named Tess who was overcome by fate and the cruel selfishness of the world about her. A strange world in which Tess lived. Rosalie could hardly understand it, but she resolved that she would never be swayed, never be mutely pushed about by men and events as Tess had been.

Last of all, she read a book in French, for Rosalie could read French more easily than English, by a great Frenchman. “Les Miserables” was its name and it was the story of a great-hearted criminal pushed about by circumstance, and a great priest, truly a saint of God, and his influence upon poor and wretched people. Here was a story of struggle, of beauty and ugliness, of good and evil. This book made a great impression upon Rosalie.

It is beyond doubt true, that if you wish to keep people as they are, you must not permit them to read great books, and all of these books were presented to Rosalie’s mind and heart at the most impressionable period of her life.

 

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Two by Dalhousie University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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