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Thirteen

It was a blustery night in March when Rosalie and the little old lady came to the end of “Les Miserables” in that passage beautiful in its simplicity, that describes the last resting place of Jean Valjean.

 

There is, in the cemetery of Pere Lachaise, in the neigh­borhood of the Potter’s field, far from the elegant quarter of that city of sepulchres, far from all those fantastic tombs, which display in the presence of eternity the hideous fashion of death, in a deserted corner, beside an old wall, beneath a great yew on which the bind-weed climbs, among the dog-grass and the mosses, a stone. This stone is exempt no more than the rest from the leprosy of time, from the mould, the lichen, and the droppings of birds. The air turns it black, the water green. It is near no path, and people do not like to go in that direction, because the grass is high, and they would wet their feet. When there is a little sunshine, the lizards come out. There is, all about, a rustling of wild oats. In the Spring linnets sing in the tree.

The stone is entirely blank. The only thought in cutting it, was of the essentials of the grave, and there was no other care, than to make the stone long enough and narrow enough to cover a man. No name can be read there. Only many years ago, a hand wrote upon it in pencil these four lines, which have gradually become illegible under the rain and the dust, and which are probably effaced;

 

Il dort. Quoique le sort fut pour lui bien etrange,

Il vivait. Il mourut quand il n’eut plus son ange.

La chose simplement d’elle-mene arriva,

Comme la nuit se fait lorsque le jour s’en va.

 

“I’m sorry to come to the end of this wonderful book,” said Rosalie. “It will always be my book, perhaps it is more wonderful than “Don Quixote”. I suppose it has to come to an end with the death of the hero.”

“No great book ever comes to an end, it simply pauses with death or marriage. It cannot end; even when the hero and other chief characters are gone, it flows on in the lesser people in it. You always want more; you are satisfied and yet hungry.”

“And I suppose,” said Rosalie, “it flows on in people’s minds too. It will always flow on in mine.”

“A great book, flows on like a big river. It seems to be lost in the sea, but fifty miles off shore you can dip up a good bucket of water from the Amazon, a little brackish perhaps but still fresh water. Then the burning sun catches up the waters from the sea, and the clouds carry them back to the mountain streams, and the river of great and lovely thoughts flow again through the minds and hearts of other, inspired writers.”

“I’ve learned a lot from you Old Lady,” said Rosalie, “I think you’re better than a year in college. I never had anyone talk to me about great books before.”

“You will only fully understand them when you’ve lived your life. My life on the infinite sea, my ten years of learning and practicing—for that’s the only way one really learns—taught me all I know. I’ve had many years to reflect and hash it all over.”

“How could you ever bear to marry again after you’d had Mat?” Asked Rosalie, “How could you bear it, Little Old Lady?”

“Shall I tell you about my two other husbands, Rosalie?”

“Please do,” said Rosalie. “Only I’m afraid they’ll be a bit of a come-down after Mat.”

“They certainly were. Their stories are what writers call an anti-climax—I know plenty of big and learned words; I fooled you at first, didn’t I, when I talked rough country words over killing the skunk—and a good story should be told the other way about; the best should come last.”

“You did fool me at first, Old lady. I thought for a little while you were only a little whizzened up-country woman, but I knew you were kind, and I must have been sent to you.”

“Well, I was home and a widow at twenty-nine, and it seemed I’d lived all my life. I was very well off too, for I had a third of the Arethusa, Mat’s savings and his insurance money. But soon I was bored to tears, for the life of my home village, after what I’d seen and enjoyed and suffered, seemed dull and trifling. For five years I lived with father and mother till they died within a month of one another, and I was left alone in the big house on the hill. Five years of boredom and stagnation, I can tell you, and I missed Mat more every day and the thrill of excitement on the sea, and I could see no way of escape.

“So I married Charlie Chisolm. He had a store and was comfortably off and I’d known him ever since he was a boy. He was fat and good-natured, always laughing; good company but no good as a lover; he never wanted me that way at all.

“He never asked me to marry him, perhaps I decided and suggested it to him. He just said one day, in a kind of joking way, as we were talking on the bridge; ‘You’re lonely Kitty. You’re well off, and I’m pretty well off too. Why don’t we hook up and join fortunes?’

“ ‘Charlie,’ I said, to him, ‘I don’t love you at all, you know I couldn’t really love anyone after Mat.’

“ ‘Sure, Kitty,’ said he, ‘I understand that, but we’ve always been good friends and had fun together.’

“ ‘I’II do it Charlie,’ said I, ‘if you’ll move me away from this pinch­ing small-talk little village, if you’ll move to the University town near the sea.’ For I was not only bored with village life but tired of the little river, and the hills pressed in and cramped me. I wanted to be near a great library and listen to some talk by some people who understood that our world was only a little planet circling round a second-rate star and more than six thousand years old.

“He agreed and sold out his business in the village, and we moved away to the town I had suggested. Really, I married Charlie because I needed company, and wanted to get away. There were some things I liked about him. I could depend on him, he was no liar, he was industrious and liked to get up at the crack of dawn—you’d expect a fat man to be lazy, wouldn’t you—and he had a passion, not for women, but a passion just the same. People with a passion for something, whose minds are set one way, are the interesting people in the world.”

“What was Charlie’s passion?” asked Rosalie.

“Guess.”

“Liquor?”

“No.”

“Gambling?”

“No and he never caught a fish or built anything in all his life.”

“Horses?” asked Rosalie, remembering Johnny Allen.

“He was too fat to ever mount a horse; he hardly knew one end of a horse from the other. And when we talked of ships and boats, he was a dead loss, he never could remember which end the bow-sprit was on.”

“I give up,” said Rosalie, “You see I don’t know so much about the world yet.”

“Well, his passion was trading. He had a passion moving about and trading anything; he always wanted to try his wits against somebody else and he was a keen one. He always had a store with reliable clerks, middle-aged men, that he could trust and he always made money. But that wasn’t enough, he had to be on the road early and late in his big red truck, and his delight and was to haul a load of wood to some place where there was a scarcity, trade it off for a load of fish, sell that, and then carry a ton of potatoes from somewhere to somewhere else. That was his flair, trading.

“He travelled along the roads for a hundred miles to and fro buying and selling. He had hardly any general knowledge at all. Julius Caesar, Cleopatra and Napoleon were all Jim Spinks to him, but he was kind, laughing and generous. HHHe always brought back funny stories from the road, roared with laughter at his own jokes, and let me alone. I spent those years pretty well for I read every day in the great library and listened to plenty of lectures, and learned all I could about mathematics, science, the stars and the races of men. I even learned to look through a micro­scope, Rosalie, and see the little world, for you must know, my dear, that there’s the great universe of the stars and then innumerable little hidden universes so tiny that most people are not aware of them at all.”

“Oh, Little Old Lady,” said Rosalie “I’ll never be wise like you,”

“I always had a thirst for learning. Charlie used to laugh at me and tease me good-naturedly; all he wanted was to get a load of spuds from a farmer and to lug them to some rocky place where fishermen lived, and where potatoes didn’t grow. Once I said to him, ‘Charlie, what’s your principle in trading?’

“ ‘It’s very simple,’ said he, ‘I buy as low as I can and sell as high

as I can.’

“He never pretended, you see, he was just a good business man. That’s how the business world gets on, by buying low and selling high. ‘You see’ he explained, ‘I always have more knowledge of markets than the fellow I’m buying from or selling to, and that’s why I get on. I love to make money, Kitty. People are great fools about buying. The ordinary person thinks an article is no good unless it’s got a high price.’

“He had a natural genius for buying, and just before Christmas he used to go over to Boston and buy trinkets for the Christmas trade in his stores, for after we married he had a chain of little stores. Once he told me he got a bargain in good neckties that were a little out of fashion; five hundred of them at fifteen cents a piece. He had them put in the windows of his stores and marked them thirty cents. None of them sold. He took them down, put them away for a month, and showed them again in the windows, this time marked one dollar and a quarter. They sold like hot cakes.

“I couldn’t help but be amused at Charlie’s tricks, he was good-natured, full of smiles, and in ten years we never quarreled—that was because I never loved him. You always quarrel at times with those you love or care about intensely. I used to often pitch into Mat because I loved him so.

“They were ten comfortable but rather gray years that I spent with Charlie. He had a bad heart, and one day they found his truck by the roadside, fifty bushels of potatoes aboard, and Charlie smiling but dead, holding fast to the wheel. Poor Charlie, he was a good soul.

“So here I was again a widow at thirty-nine, richer than ever and with thirty-one years to live in the normal span.

“Lonely again I was, and that’s why I married the preacher, that’s why I live here, in this little yellow house, that’s why the church by the gate has a scorched and twisted tower.

“He taught in the college, and was by way of being a scholar and that attracted me, and I was sorry for him, for he was in many ways a child. He was a tall, gaunt man with a wandering eye, a little older than I, and he had a passion too, and that was to Christianize the whole world in one generation.

“He decided to give up his teaching and wanted to be a kind of missionary preacher and live among the poorest people. That was all right and an idea clean out of the New Testament.

“ ‘Very well,’ said I, ‘I’II try anything once; we’ll see if it works.’ So we came to this poor settlement. He wanted to be a good man but he was really very lazy and sensual. He’d taught so long that he was all theory that he never could apply.

“He never had any sense of saving up for a great event. Every night he was after me and when he had finished as a lover, instead of lying quiet and breathing in great breaths of peace and contentment, he’d begin to groan and call upon God and say, ‘I am not a man of God; I am a carnal man and love the things of the flesh.’ ‘Never mind,’ I used to say to him. ‘Be happy, that’s the way God has made men and women and the whole of creation. There’s no harm in that. Doesn’t the Bible say ‘Be fruitful and multiply,’ ‘It’s only pure pleasure.’

“But he’d groan and call upon God, until his mind changed and like Oliver Twist, he was asking for more.

“This was indeed a poor lonely circuit, and truly I soon tired of my bargain. I don’t know what I should have done but for my books—I’d bought a great many by this time, they’re all stored away in the attic, my eyes are dim now for reading—and the restless sea that washed our shore.

“He thought by hard labour and living among the very poor he could conquer what he called his carnal desires, that it seemed had pestered him all his life. But I was still pretty and well-formed at forty-two, and poor man, he had his work cut out for him.

“He tried hard to labour, to tend a garden, to cut wood and haul kelp and eel-grass like the others, but he was really bone-lazy, and soon tired of labour. That’s half the trouble with preachers, they’re lazy and don’t have enough to do. He really loved to pray and groan and call upon the Lord, for the sins of this ungracious generation. He’d never lived among sailor-men, nor knew their ways as I had. He used to sit by his study window, that looked out over the sea to the big island, and there compose strange complicated sermons full of high-sounding words. At first, he used to call on the fisher people and sit and chat with them as they mended their nets or overhauled trawls, but after a while he tired of that, because as he said, they were carnal and worldly. ‘They understand nothing of the life of the spirit, he used to say.

“When he was young he had planned to be a medical missionary, and go forth to carry the cross to the Chinese or Malays or Zulus, races that he knew nothing about. I should have liked to have seen him converting Benguela. However, he’d picked up some slight knowledge of drugs, and as half the fishermen and members of their families had asthma, he set himself to cure them. ‘God,’ he said, ‘has revealed to me a magic formula in a dream,’ and he mixed up his foul-smelling medicine in a wash-tub in the cellar. I don’t know what he put in it but he certainly achieved the world’s worst stink. Skunks were pleasant perfumes compared to his asthma cure. Some of the drugs were expensive, five or six dollars a pound, but that didn’t matter for I was rich, and looked well after my money, and really treated him as if he were a child with a toy. Asafoetida, I remember, was one drug he used. I tell you, Rosalie, that the days of the medicine-man, faith-healer and witch-doctor are over, though many people don’t know it. We’re coming in to the age of science and knowledge. Do you know that, Rosalie?”

“Not very well,” said Rosalie. “You see I was brought up on charms, candles and miracles.”

“In the middle ages, religion and the finest knowledge were one. Now ever since men found the earth was not the centre, religion has lagged behind. Learning and religion are far apart now; the parsons had better hop to it, for the world can’t afford to lose any remnant of saintliness.”

“Can we be religious and read great books and know science, too?” asked Rosalie, anxiously.

“Of course, the laws and rules and order of science are the thoughts of God.

“Poor Eric, that was his name, poor feckless man with a feckless name—don’t ever name a child Eric, Rosalie.

“Eric mixed and stirred and mixed again his evil-smelling purple medicine, and carried it about to the fisher people. He used to get raging wild with them if they didn’t respond, and get well after two bottles of God’s Formula. And do you know, I believe some did get better through sheer fright of his rolling hypnotic eye. The mind has a great effect on the body and even the best doctor can’t cure a patient that’s determined to die. He mixed and mixed and filled the house with foul smells, certainly God had a strange taste in odours. Then when his medicines began to fail, he suddenly tired of the whole business, and began to preach wilder and wilder sermons and rail at the people, and shout that a sacrifice was necessary, perhaps a human sacrifice, till people were quite afraid of him. He began to get queerer and queerer. One evening he rushed into my sitting room, his eyes all dilated and said in an excited voice, ‘Did you see the little black man that ran in here? He was about that high,’ and he held his hand a foot from the ground. ‘No,’ I said, ‘no black men of that height have come in here.’

“ ‘Well’ he said, ‘he certainly left my study and popped in your door, Kitty’—this very sternly—‘you don’t have m n about the house do you?’

“ ‘None but you’, I said.

“For an hour he hunted, the house from attic to cellar for that little dark man a foot and a half high. I was not in the least afraid; I had passed too many dangers to fear a half-mad parson, but I got out one of the Arethusa revolvers, oiled and loaded it and put it in a drawer by my bed­side. There had been a good deal of talk of human sacrifice being necessary to cure the world and please an angry God, and I didn’t propose to be the lamb led to the sacrificial altar.”

“Oh, Old Lady,” said Rosalie, “I should have been afraid and run

away.”

“How would I be afraid after I’d brought the Arethusa home with a driveling coward mate and a tricky crew? Not me!

“He used to keep his sermons tied up in bundles, and one day I noticed that he was beginning to carry these sermon bundles down to the church.

“ ‘What are you doing?’ I asked him.

“ ‘I’m storing my sermons in God’s house,’ he replied.

“He got queerer and queerer, but still I had no fear of him. He was always gentle with me, but he kept calling upon God in a loud voice for a sacrifice, and he seemed possessed by a spirit like a demon of evil. Then one day he carried to the church at the foot of the lane his last bundle of sermons and a can of oil. He said, ‘I’m going to fill the lamps of the sanctuary.’

“A half hour after he left, the cry went up that the church was on fire, and the men of the neighbourhood rushed in with buckets and ladders. The tide was high and they formed a bucket-line to the shore, and got the fire out when the church was half-burnt. But Eric was charred and dead; he had piled chairs, pews and his bundles of sermons all around him, thrown oil over all and his own clothing. That was the end of Eric, half-mad, of course. A fanatical passion for the forms of any religion—not goodness, not saintli­ness—is the worst kind of passion, and has caused half the trouble in the world.

“The people wanted that church no more; they were afraid of it. So I bought from them church and land and manse, and let the half-burnt stand with its crooked, twisted tower pointing awry at the sky, not fair on the zenith, for it seemed a fitting memorial to him.

“That was thirty years ago; I was forty-six then and I seemed to have come to a time in my­ life when my whole nature changed. I was well-off and I wanted no more men; three I had had and three had met tragic death. Perhaps I was fatal to men; perhaps I too was ‘the face that sunk a thousand ships.’ At any rate, I was now content to be alone and work and read and live far from people. I had no relatives and I was half-forgotten in the village of my birth, moreover I could not return and live among smug village people. Even at forty-six most of your contemporaries who have been friends have died or have disappeared. A woman can have but one great lover, Rosalie, perhaps two lesser ones, but certainly not more than that. I have not been lonely here, only lately, only in the last two or three years, I have craved company and I have been waiting for you to come.”

“Perhaps I’ll stay always,” said Rosalie.

“No, no, I have still a thousand stories to tell you but May will move you on

“Rummy?” said the old lady, “gin or Oklahoma?”

“Gin”, laughed Rosalie.

There was an exchange of twenty cents that night before they put out the lights.

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

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