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Settlers of the Marsh

Settlers of the Marsh

Penguin Modern Classics Edition
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On the road leading north from the little prairie town Minor two men were fighting their way through the gathering dusk.

Both were recent immigrants; one, Lars Nelson, a giant, of three years’ standing in the country; the other, Niels Lindstedt, slightly above medium size, but compactly built, of only three months’. Both were Swedes; and they had struck up a friendship which had led to a partnership for the winter that was coming. They had been working on a threshing gang between Minor and Balfour and were now on their way into the bush settlement to the north-east where scattered homesteads reached out into the wilderness.

It was the beginning of the month of November.

Niels carried his suitcase on his back; Nelson, his new friend’s bundle, which also held the few belongings of his own which he had along. He wore practically the same clothes winter and summer.
Above five miles from town they reached, on the north road, the point where the continuous settlement ran out into the wild, sandy land which, forming the margin of the Big Marsh, intervened between the territory of the towns and the next Russo-German settlement to the north, some twenty miles or so straight ahead.

At this point the road leapt the Muddy River and passed through its sheltering fringe of bush to strike out over a sheer waste of heath-like country covered with low, creeping brush. The wind which had been soughing through the tree tops had free sweep here; and an exceedingly fine dust of dry, powdery ice-crystals began to fly — you could hardly call it snow so far.

It did not occur to Niels to utter or even harbour apprehensions. His powerful companion knew the road; where he went, Niels could go.

They swung on, for the most part in silence.

The road became a mere trail; but for a while longer it was plainly visible in the waning light of the west; in the smooth ruts a film of white was beginning to gather.

The wind came in fits and starts, out of the hollow north-west; and with the engulfing dark an ever thickening granular shower of snow blew from the low-hanging clouds. As the trail became less and less visible, the very ground underfoot seemed to slide to the south-east.

By that time they had made about half the distance they intended to make. To turn back would have given them only the advantage of going with, instead of against, the gathering gale. Both were eager to get to work again: Nelson had undertaken to dig wells for two of the older settlers in the bush country; and he intended to clear a piece of his own land during the winter and to sell the wood which he had accumulated the year before.

They came to a fork in the trail and struck north-east. Soon after the turn Nelson stopped.

“Remember the last house?” he asked.

“Yes,” said Niels, speaking Swedish.

“From there on, for twenty miles north and for ten miles east the land is open for homestead entry. But it is no good. Mere sand that blows with the wind as soon as the brush is taken off.”

They plodded on for another hour. The trail was crossed and criss-crossed by cattle paths. Which they were on, trail or cattle path, was hard to tell.

Once more Nelson stopped. “Where’s north?”

Niels pointed.

But Nelson did not agree. “If the wind hasn’t changed, north must be there,” he said pointing over his shoulder.

The snow was coming down in ever denser waves which a relentless wind threw sideways into their faces. The ground was covered now.

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Penguin Modern Classics Edition
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It was during the midnight watch, late in September, 1763, that the English garrison of Détroit, in North America, was thrown into the utmost consternation by the sudden and mysterious introduction of a stranger within its walls. The circumstance at this moment was particularly remarkable; for the period was so fearful and pregnant with events of danger, the fort being assailed on every side by a powerful and vindictive foe, that a caution and vigilance of no common kind were unceasingly exercised by the prudent governor for the safety of those committed to his charge. A long series of hostilities had been pursued by the North-American Indians against the subjects of England, within the few years that had succeeded to the final subjection of the Canadas to her victorious arms; and many and sanguinary were the conflicts in which the devoted soldiery were made to succumb to the cunning and numbers of their savage enemies. In those lone regions, both officers and men, in their respective ranks, were, by a communionship of suffering, isolation, and peculiarity of duty, drawn towards each other with feelings of almost fraternal affection; and the fates of those who fell were lamented with sincerity of soul, and avenged, when opportunity offered, with a determination prompted equally by indignation and despair. This sentiment of union, existing even between men and officers of different corps, was, with occasional exceptions, of course doubly strengthened among those who fought under the same colours, and acknowledged the same head; and, as it often happened in Canada, during this interesting period, that a single regiment was distributed into two or three fortresses, each so far removed from the other that communication could with the utmost facility be cut off, the anxiety and uncertainty of these detachments became proportioned to the danger with which they knew themselves to be more immediately beset. The garrison of Détroit, at the date above named, consisted of a third of the ____ regiment, the remainder of which occupied the forts of Michillimackinac and Niagara, and to each division of this regiment was attached an officer’s command of artillery. It is true that no immediate overt act of hostility had for some time been perpetrated by the Indians, who were assembled in force around the former garrison; but the experienced officer to whom the command had been intrusted was too sensible of the craftiness of the surrounding hordes to be deceived, by any outward semblance of amity, into neglect of those measures of precaution which were so indispensable to the surety of his trust.

In this he pursued a line of policy happily adapted to the delicate nature of his position. Unwilling to excite the anger or wound the pride of the chiefs, by any outward manifestation of distrust, he affected to confide in the sincerity of their professions, and, by inducing his officers to mix occasionally in their councils, and his men in the amusements of the inferior warriors, contrived to impress the conviction that he reposed altogether on their faith. But, although these acts were in some degree coerced by the necessity of the times, and a perfect knowledge of all the misery that must accrue to them in the event of their provoking the Indians into acts of open hostility, the prudent governor took such precautions as were deemed efficient to defeat any treacherous attempt at violation of the tacit treaty on the part of the natives. The officers never ventured out, unless escorted by a portion of their men, who, although appearing to be dispersed among the warriors, still kept sufficiently together to be enabled, in a moment of emergency, to afford succour not only to each other but to their superiors. On these occasions, as a further security against surprise, the troops left within were instructed to be in readiness, at a moment’s warning, to render assistance, if necessary, to their companions, who seldom, on any occasion, ventured out of reach of the cannon of the fort, the gate of which was hermetically closed, while numerous supernumerary sentinels were posted along the ramparts, with a view to give the alarm if any thing extraordinary was observed to occur without.

Painful and harassing as were the precautions it was found necessary to adopt on these occasions, and little desirous as were the garrison to mingle with the natives on such terms, still the plan was pursued by the Governor from the policy already named: nay, it was absolutely essential to the future interests of England that the Indians should be won over by acts of confidence and kindness; and so little disposition had hitherto been manifested by the English to conciliate, that every thing was to be apprehended from the untameable rancour with which these people were but too well disposed to repay a neglect at once galling to their pride and injurious to their interests.

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The Tin Flute

The Tin Flute

Penguin Modern Classics Edition
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Toward noon, Florentine had taken to watching out for the young man who, yesterday, while seeming to joke around, had let her know he found her pretty. The fever of the bazaar rose in her blood, a kind of jangled nervousness mingled with the vague feeling that one day in this teeming store things would come to a halt and her life would find its goal. It never occurred to her to think she could meet her destiny anywhere but here, in the overpowering smell of caramel, before the great mirrors hung on the wall with their narrow strips of gummed paper announcing the day’s menu, to the summary clacking of the cash register, the very voice of her impatience. Everything in the place summed up for her the hasty, hectic poverty of her whole life here in St. Henri.

Over the shoulders of her half-dozen customers, her glance fled toward the counters of the store. The restaurant was at the back of the Five and Ten. In the glitter of the glassware, the chromed panels, the pots and pans, her empty, morose and expressionless ghost of a smile caught aimlessly on one glowing object after another.

Her task of waiting on the counter left her few moments in which she could return to the exciting, disturbing recollections of yesterday, except for tiny shards of time, just enough to glimpse the unknown young man’s face in her mind’s eye. The customers’ orders and the rattling of dishes didn’t always break into her reverie, which, for a second, would cause a brief tremor in her features.

Suddenly she was disconcerted, vaguely humiliated.

While she had been keeping an eye on the crowd entering the store through the glass swing-doors, the young stranger had taken a place at the imitation-marble counter and was calling her over with an impatient gesture. She went toward him, her lips slightly open, in a pout rather than a smile. How maddening that he should catch her just at the moment when she was trying to remember how he looked and sounded!

“What’s your name?” he asked abruptly.

She was irritated, less by the question than by his way of asking: familiar, bantering, almost insolent.

“What a question!” she said contemptuously, though not really as if she wanted to end the conversation. On the contrary, her voice was inviting.

“Come on,” said the young man, smiling. “Mine’s Jean. Jean Lévesque. And I know for a start yours is Florentine. Florentine this, Florentine that, Florentine’s in bad humour today, got a smile for me, Florentine? Oh, I know your first name all right. I even like it.”

He changed tone imperceptibly, his eyes hardened.

“But if I call you miss, miss who? Won’t you tell little old me?” he insisted with mock seriousness.

He leaned toward her and looked up with eyes whose impudence was apparent in a flash. It was his tough, strong-willed chin and the unbearable mockery of his dark eyes that she noticed most today, and, this made her furious. How could she have spent so much time in the last few days thinking about this boy? She straightened up with a jerk that made her little amber necklace rattle.

“And I guess after that you’ll want to know where I live and what I’m doing tonight,” she said. “I know you guys.”

“You guys? What do you mean, you guys?” he mocked, looking over his shoulder as if there were someone behind him.

“Just . . . you guys!” she said, half exasperated.

His familiar, slightly vulgar tone, which put him on her level, displeased her less than his usual behaviour and speech. Her smile returned, irritated but provocative.

“Okay, now!” she said. “What do you want today?”

Once again his look had that brutal familiarity.

“I hadn’t got around to asking what you’re doing tonight,” he said. “I wasn’t in that big a hurry. Normally I’d take another three days at least. But now you mention it. . . .”

He leaned back a little on the stool and weaved gently from side to side. As he stared at her, his eyes narrowed.

“Now then! Florentine, what’re you doing tonight?”

He saw that she was upset. Her lower lip was trembling, and she held it with her teeth. Then she busied herself pulling a paper napkin from a chrome box, unfolded it and spread it on the counter.

Her face was thin, delicate, almost childish. The effort she was making to control herself caused the small, blue veins on her temples to swell and knot, and her almost diaphanous nostrils, closing, pulled tight the skin of her cheeks, as smooth and delicate as silk. Her lips were still uncertain, still threatening to tremble, but Jean, looking in her eyes, was suddenly struck by their expression. Under the arched line of her plucked eyebrows, extended by a little streak of makeup, her lowered lids could not hide the thin bronze ray of a glance, cautious, attentive and extraordinarily eager. Then she blinked, and the whole pupil showed with a sudden gleam. Over her shoulders fell a mass of light-brown hair.

With no particular purpose the young man was watching her intently. She astonished more than she attracted him. And even this phrase he had just uttered, “What are you doing tonight?” . . . had been unexpected. It had taken shape in his mind without his knowing; he had tossed it out as one drops a pebble to test an unknown depth. But her reaction encouraged him to try again. Would I be ashamed to go out with her? he wondered. And then the idea that such a thought could intervene after he had gone this far pushed him on to greater daring. Elbows on the counter, eyes staring into Florentine’s, he was waiting, as if in a cruel game, for a move from her to which he could react.

She stiffened under his brutal scrutiny, and he was able to see her better. He saw her upper body reflected in the wall mirror, and he was struck by her thinness. She had pulled the belt of her green uniform as tight as it would go around her waist, but you could see that her clothing barely clung to her slender body. And the young man had a sudden glimpse of what her life must be like, in the rush and bustle of St. Henri, that life of spruce young girls with rouged cheeks reading fifteen-cent serial novels and burning their fingers at the wretched little fires of what they took for love.

His voice grew incisive, almost cutting.

“You’re from here? From St. Henri?” he asked.

She shrugged her shoulders, and her only reply was a vexed, ironical smile, again more like a pout.

“Me too,” he went on, with mocking condescension.

“So we can be friends, eh?”

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Green Mansions

Green Mansions

by W.H. Hudson
introduction by Margaret Atwood
illustrated by Keith Henderson
tagged : classics
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Such Is My Beloved

Such Is My Beloved

Penguin Modern Classics Edition
also available: Paperback
tagged : literary, classics
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Father Dowling took off his hat and looked around slowly as if it were most important that he find a proper place to put it. He saw the room with the faded blue flowers on the wall-paper, the thick blue curtains on the window, the wide iron bed, painted white but chipped badly at the posts, and the copper-colored carpet that had a spot worn thin near the side of the bed. There were two chairs in the room. A door led into the next room. While he was looking around, the tall fair girl, who was wearing a loose blue dress that concealed the angularity of her body, assumed a ready smile, came over beside him and began to help him off with his coat with a dreadful efficiency. And the little, dark one with the round brown eyes and the smooth soft skin and a big bunch of black hair at the nape of her neck, jumped up from her chair with the same impressive efficiency, and in the affected manner of a great lady, extended her left hand with the elbow crooked as if he would be permitted just to touch the tips of her fingers. "How do you do, Sweetie. We are so mighty pleased to see you. You can't go wrong in coming here to see me."

"Who said he was coming to you?"

"He'll want to come to me. Won't you want to come to me?"

"Take it easy, Midge. Don't be so pushing. He doesn't want you. Why, he first spoke to me. You heard him speak to me. Hell, though, if Rosy Cheeks wants you, it's all the same to me."

"I'm not trying to rush him. Let him suit himself."

As Father Dowling listened, all the words from the sermon of the old missionary priest that had been in his head were forgotten, and by this time Ronnie, the tall one, was pulling off his scarf. Holding the scarf in her hand, she stood still. She saw his Roman collar and knew he was a priest. They both looked scared for a moment, then Ronnie said, "For the love of God, Midge, look what the wind blew in."

"He can't stay here. What are you going to do with him?"

"I didn't bring him. Maybe the poor guy wants to stay."

But Father Dowling had gained confidence in the one moment while the girls were abashed, so he waited to see what they would do. Starting to laugh, Ronnie said, "Don't get nervous, Father. It's all the same to us, you know," and her brisk, efficient manner returned, the grin settled on her face and she reached out in a hurry and took hold of his arm. Midge, who was slower to speak, had stepped back, frowning and timid; then she, too, grew bolder and she began to shake her shoulders till her full breasts swayed, and coming closer to him, she said, "Are you going for Ronnie, or do you want to leave it to me?"

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Army of the Brave and Accidental

Army of the Brave and Accidental

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The Road Past Altamont

The Road Past Altamont

Penguin Modern Classics Edition
also available: Paperback Paperback
tagged : literary, classics
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I was six years old when my mother sent me to spend part of the summer with my grandmother in her village in Manitoba.
I balked slightly at going. My old grandmother frightened me a little. She was known to be so devoted to order, cleanliness, and discipline that you couldn’t leave the tiniest thing lying about at her house. With her, it seemed, it was always, “Pick up after yourself, put away your things, as the twig is bent . . .” and other admonitions of the sort. As well, nothing exasperated her so much as the tears of children, which she called “mewling” or “caterwauling.” That was another thing: her rather curious way of speaking, partly invented by herself and often far from easy to figure out. Later, however, I found several of my grandmother’s expressions in my old Littré and realized they must date back to the time when the first settlers came to Canada from France.
Yet she must have found time heavy on her hands, for it was her own idea that I should spend part of the summer in her company. “Send the little sickly one to me,” she wrote in a letter my mother showed me as proof that I would be welcome at Grandmother’s.
Those words “little sickly one” had already made me feel none too well-disposed toward my grandmother; so it was in a more or less hostile frame of mind that I set out for her house one day in July. I told her so, moreover, the moment I set foot in her house.
“I’m going to be bored here,” I said. “I’m sure of it. It’s written in the sky.”
I didn’t know that this was precisely the sort of language to amuse and beguile her. Nothing irritated her as much as the hypocrisy that is natural to so many children—”wheedling and coaxing,” she called it.
So at my dark prediction I saw something that in itself was unusual enough. She was smiling faintly.
“You’ll see. You may not be as bored as all that,” she said. “When I want to, when I really set my mind to it, I know a hundred ways to keep a child amused.”
But, for all her proud words, it was she herself who was often bored. Almost no one came to see her any more. She had swarms of grandchildren, but she seldom saw them, and her memory was failing, so it was difficult for her to tell one of them from another.
From time to time a car full of young people would slow down at the door, perhaps stop for an instant; a bevy of young girls would wave their hands, calling, “Hello, Mémère. How are you?”
Grandmother would just have time to run to the doorstep before the girls disappeared in a whirlwind of fine dust.
“Who were they?” she would ask. “Cléophas’s daughters? Or Nicolas’s? If only I’d had my spectacles I would have recognized them.”
“That,” I would inform her, “was Berthe, Alice, Graziella and Anne-Marie.”
“Ah!” she would say, struggling to remember whether these particular girls were the daughters of Nicolas, of Cléophas, or of Alberic.
The next moment she would begin to argue with herself. “But no. What am I thinking? Most of Nicolas’s children are boys.”
She would go to sit for a moment in her rocking chair beside the window to try to settle the matter once for all and make a complete inventory of her descendants. I loved seeing her like this, looking for all the world as if she were unraveling some skeins of tangled wool.
“In Cléophas’s family,” she would begin, “there’s Gertrude first, then the oldest son—now what is that big dark boy’s name? Is it Rémi?”
“No, indeed. Now let’s see,” I would answer, beginning to lose my patience. “Rémi belongs to Uncle Nicolas.”
“Ah, you don’t say,” she would remark with a vexed look.
But I noticed that little by little she became less troubled by my awareness of her infirmities—her dimming eyesight, her faulty hearing, and, what was even more irritating to her, the failure of her memory.
The following day another group of young people might descend upon us, this time by buggy, “but only for five minutes.”
Grandmother would hurry to set the table, perhaps hoping to bribe them to stay, but nothing of the sort: the moment she had gone down to the cellar to fetch a pot of gherkins, the girls in their Sunday clothes would be caroling, “We can’t wait. We’re on our way to Rathwell. . . . Bye bye, Mémère!”
She would come up, blinking a little, and ask, “Have they gone?”
From outside could be heard a great racket of departure.
“Oh these modern young people!” Grandmother would exclaim.
We were alone in the little house, listening to the lamentations of the prairie wind as it writhed interminably in the sunlight, forming and re-forming tiny rings of dust.
Grandmother would begin to talk to herself, perhaps unaware that I was listening. One day I heard her sigh at the window.
“You’re always punished by the very things you thought you wanted. I probably wished too often for comfort, to have everything neat and tidy, to be free of children clinging constantly to my skirts with their doleful wailing. I wanted just one minute to myself. Now I have a whole century to myself!”
She sighed again, then began to reproach God.
“Why does he listen to us when we ask for things that won’t suit us when we get them? He ought to have sense enough not to listen.”
Then she remembered my presence in the house and summoned me with a little gesture of the hand.
“Well, at least I know your name.”
Then she asked, “And what is your name again?”
“Christine,” I told her with some annoyance.
“Yes, that’s so. I knew. Christiane.”
And, lost in her thoughts, she asked, “And how old is that little girl?”
There was one time of day when I never failed to feel a sense of boredom and lassitude coming over me. This was the moment when the sun, just before it disappears, casts a great red light over the prairie, a remote strange light that seems to extend its vastness and at the same time empty it of all human presence, as if giving it over to wild dreams of the time when it existed in utter solitude. It seemed then that the prairie wished to have no people, no houses, no villages upon itself, that it had tried, with a single stroke, to rid itself completely of all this and be once more as it was in the old days, proud and lonely.
At Grandmother’s, moreover, there was no way to avoid this disturbing sight. The village was small and Grandmother’s house stood right at the end of it; the prairie surrounded us like the ocean on all sides except the east, where a few other little houses could be seen, our companions on what seemed to me a terrifying journey. For in the complete immobility of the prairie, one had the sense of being drawn forward on a sort of voyage across an endless land of everlasting sameness.
Suddenly, understanding neither my sorrow nor its source, I burst into loud wails.
“Oh I’m so bored, so bored, so bored!”
“Will you be still,” said Grandmother irritably. “You make me think of a coyote howling at the moon.”
I tried to be still, but soon my strange sorrow, nameless, with no cause that I could define, seized me again and I howled more loudly than ever. “Oh I’m so bored, so bored, so bored!”
“Ah, the poor Innocents!” said Grandmother.
This was always her term for unhappy children, especially when they were in the depths of their inexplicable distress. She might have been alluding to the Massacre of the Blessed Innocents— I do not know— but whenever she saw a child weeping bitterly she would exclaim, in an indignant voice, “Ah, the poor Innocents!”
In vain she offered me all the many good things to eat there were in the house, and finally, knowing no other way to distract and console me, she said, “If you’ll just stop caterwauling, I’ll make you a doll.”
Immediately my tears stopped.
I looked skeptically at my grandmother seated in her high rocking chair.
“You find dolls in stores,” I said. “You don’t make them.”
“That’s what you think,” she said, and began as usual to complain about stores and high prices and the present-day custom of buying everything ready-made.
When she had vented her anger in this way, a little glimmer came into her eyes that I had never seen there before; it was quite extraordinary, like a light suddenly kindled in a place one had believed abandoned and overgrown. What she was going to accomplish today began, however, in the simplest way in the world.
“Go to the attic,” she said, “and fetch my big scrap bag. Don’t make a mistake. Get the one that’s tied on top with string. Bring it to me and then you’ll see whether I can make what I’ve a mind to make.”
Still incredulous, but curious too and perhaps secretly hoping to catch Grandmother napping, I went in search of the big scrap bag.
From it Grandmother drew some bits of multicolored material, all clean and sweet- smelling— Grandmother’s rags were always carefully washed before they were put away—pieces of chintz, of gingham, of dimity. I recognized, as was always the way in her quilts, the remains of a dress that had belonged to one of my sisters, of a blouse of Maman’s, of one of my own dresses and of an apron whose owner I could no longer remember. It was pleasant to be able to attach so many memories to these scraps. Finally Grandmother found a piece of white cloth. She cut this into several bits, from which she made what looked like a number of little bags of different shapes, one for the trunk, others for arms and legs.
“Now I’ll need some straw or salt or oats to stuff these with. It’s up to you. Which would you prefer,” she asked, “a soft doll stuffed with straw or—?”
“Oats,” I said.
“It will be heavy,” Grandmother warned.
“That won’t matter.”
“Very well then, go to the barn. There’s a sack of oats there left over from the time when I was thinking of keeping some hens. Fetch me a little dishful.”
When I came back, the various parts of the doll’s body were all ready to be filled with the oats Mémère had saved on the chance she might have some hens. I didn’t fail to notice the way a number of odd combinations of events were all rushing today to serve my pleasure. Soon my grandmother had stitched the stuffed limbs and body together and there before my eyes was a little human form, quite nicely made, with feet, hands, and a head that was a trifle flat on top.
I began to take a keen interest in the manufacture.
“But you’ll be stumped for hair,” I said.
“For hair? That’s what you think,” she said, enlivened by the discovery that the infinite and ingenious resources of her imagination, at least, were all intact. Imagination, you might say, was our family gift.
“Go back to the attic,” she said. “Open the right-hand drawer of the old chest I put up there. No rummaging, mind. Just take a skein of yarn . . . By the way, do you want one of those blonde dolls that are all the rage these days? Or a brunette? Or how about an old woman with white hair like me?”
I hesitated over the cruel choice. I felt a strong inclination toward an elderly doll with spectacles and white hair, thinking what a novel effect this would present. But I also greatly fancied a young lady doll.
“Could you make me one with blond curly hair?”
“Nothing simpler,” said Grandmother. “Bring the color of yarn that suits you and, on your way back, fetch my curling-iron from my room. Bring the oil lamp at the same time. No, on second thought, so you won’t break something, do it in two trips.”
This I proceeded to do. Grandmother then made a lovely wig of yellow hair, waved it with her curling-iron, and fitted it over my doll’s head.
I could no longer hide my astonishment.
“Do you know how to make everything?” I asked.
“Almost everything,” she said dreamily. “Young people nowadays don’t know the joy and pride of making do with what they have at hand. They toss everything out.”
And after a moment she went on, “When I was young, I had to get along without buying things in stores. I learned. Oh yes, I learned,” she said, gazing far back into her life. . . .”But now your doll— she must have a face. Climb onto the table and see if you can stretch way up and snatch my pen and bottle of ink from the ledge.”
When I had brought her these things, she moistened her pen and drew on the still blank face of my doll the arcs of the eyebrows first, then eyes, mouth, and a completely straight, precise little nose.
I began to clap my hands and to prance about with a joy I found it impossible to contain. No doubt it was the creative talent of my grandmother that delighted me so. Indeed, whenever I have seen this gift of God at work, even if it is possessed by the humblest creature— and it is to be found in astonishing places— it has always filled me with the keenest pleasure.
“Oh but her mouth should be red,” I said.
“That’s so,” said Grandmother. “That blue mouth gives her a peaked look. This may present a bit of a problem. But we’ll manage.”
I noticed that she was beginning to associate me with her creative work and I felt prouder than ever of her talents.
“Go and look on the bureau in my room,” she said with a flash of inspiration. “See if there isn’t a tube of that stuff they call lipstick— atrocious stuff, real Indian war paint, but for once it will be of some use to us. It seems to me that Gertrude— no, I mean Anne- Marie— Ieft some here the last time she went into my room to titivate.”
I found just so, in the exact spot she had indicated, the Indian war paint.
With this, Grandmother drew the prettiest little red mouth, pursed just a trifle as if in a vague smile.
Curly-haired, a blond with blue eyes, my doll seemed to me now, with her rather mocking smile, to be completely beautiful, though she was still stark naked.
“To dress her,” said Grandmother, “I have some very nice curtain lace in the bottom drawer of the bureau in the guest room. Go and fetch it and, while you’re at it, look in the top drawer too. I think you’ll find some blue ribbon there.”
Half an hour later, my doll was wearing a pretty white dress, trimmed with ruffles and a sky-blue sash, and Grandmother was busily stitching a row of minute blue buttons down the front of the dress.
“But she’s barefoot,” I said suddenly in consternation. “Shoes will be a little harder, eh, Mémère?”
I was becoming humble, very humble indeed before her, before the grandeur of her mind, the deftness of her hands, the sense of exalted and mysterious solitude that surrounds all those who are busy with creation.
“Shoes,” she said simply. “Would you like them made of leather or satin or plush?”
“Oh, of leather!”
“Yes, it’s more durable. Well then, go and fetch the yellow leather gloves that used to belong to your uncle Nicolas. You will find them . . .”
This time too, under her directions, I put my hand without trouble on the yellow leather gloves.
“It’s store leather,” she said, turning them about and peering at them closely. “Stores sell mostly rubbish, badly stitched, badly finished. For once something handsome and of good quality has come from one of those places. Your uncle Nicolas had extravagant tastes in his youth,” she confided. “But it’s true that he bought these gloves for his wedding. Now you see how everything can be of service more than once. Yesterday for a wedding, today for dolls’ shoes. They say I keep everything, that I encumber myself, that I’m an old-fashioned old woman. But a day always comes when the things you tossed out of the window might have been put to good use.”
While she was talking, she first cut out, then put together the most adorable little dolls’ shoes I had ever seen.
“While I’m at it,” she said, “I might as well make her some gloves.”
Night came. Grandmother had me light the lamp and bring it close to her. Neither of us thought of the evening meal. The strict daily schedule to which my grandmother held so firmly for once had ceased to exist. So when something bigger than the timetable presented itself, she was quite able to ignore it. She went on working, her glasses on her nose, as happy, I am convinced, as in the days when urgent tasks claimed her from morning till night, leaving her, you might say, no moment’s respite in which to scrutinize the vast enigmatic depths of fate. Or perhaps I should say happy with a completeness she knew only when her task transcended the bare requirements of the moment.
“Have you thought of a name for her?” she asked, looking at me from under her spectacles.
They were old spectacles with steel rims.
“Yes. Anastasie.”
“Ah!” she said, and I knew that the name pleased her. “There was an Anastasie in my village in Quebec in the old days. It’s a striking name, not like these little short modern names that you forget the very next minute: Jean, Jeanne, Robert, Roberte. . . . In the old days people had names you could remember—Phidime, Viateur, Zoé, Sosthène, Zacharie. . . .”
All this time my doll was progressing. She didn’t, it might be said, need anything else, but Grandmother was undoubtedly too well launched by now to be able to stop. From some black cloth she fashioned a traveling cape, then— one thing suggesting another— painstakingly set to work with cardboard and glue to make her a little valise. To this she stitched a minute handle, which I slipped over Anastasie’s hand.
Even this wasn’t enough.
“She must have a hat,” Grandmother declared. “One doesn’t go traveling without a hat, even in these shameless modern times.”
She sent me to fetch an old straw hat from behind the door of the vestibule. She unraveled it, then, working slowly with her rheumatism-stiffened fingers— with such fingers, she told me, it was much more difficult to work with small things than with large— she knitted a new, this time tiny, dainty hat.
“What!” I cried, quite overcome. “So you know how to make hats too!”
“In the old days I made very pretty hats from the fine marsh straw not far from our house. . . . Not only that,” she told me, “I have often dressed someone— your mother, your grandfather— from head to foot. . . .”
“From head to foot, Mémère!”
“From head to foot . . . and without needing to go to the store for a single thing, except perhaps for buttons . . . And I’ve even made those out of ox horn; with an awl to pierce the holes, I managed.”
“From head to foot!” I said.
She held out my doll with her straw hat hanging from her neck by a ribbon. I was so happy that I burst into tears.
“Well, if we’re going to have that again, if I’ve done all this for nothing!” Grandmother said in grumbling tones.
But, forgetting how little she cared for effusiveness or caresses, I climbed onto her knees, flung my arms around her neck, and sobbed with a happiness that was too piercing and wide to bear, almost incredible. It seemed to me that there was no limit to the things this old woman with the face covered with a thousand wrinkles could accomplish. A sense of grandeur, of infinite solitude, came over me.
“You’re like God,” I wept into her ear. “You’re just like God. You can make things out of nothing as he does.”
She pushed me away but without too much exasperation or impatience.
‘‘I’m far from being like God,” she said. “Do you think I’d know how to make a tree, a flower, a mountain?”
“A flower, perhaps.”
She smiled a little. “I’ve certainly made plenty of them grow.”
Nevertheless, I saw that she wasn’t offended by my comparing her to God.
“For with such means and strength as he gave me,” she said after a moment’s reflection, “I have aided him not too badly in his creation. I have perhaps done all a human being could do. I have twice built a home,” she told me, “having followed your trotting horse of a grandfather from one part of this vast country to another. I began all over again here in Manitoba what I’d already made back in Quebec, made once for all, I thought— a home. That is work,” she assured me. “Yes— a house, a family—that’s so much work that if you saw it before you all at once in a single heap, you’d think it was a high mountain— a mountain you couldn’t possibly climb over.”
She realized that I was listening to her, Anastasie clutched against my heart, but perhaps thought it all passed over me—and indeed most of it did, though I kept a little of it.
“That is what life is, if you want to know,” she continued, and I no longer knew to whom she was speaking, “a mountain made of housework. It’s a good thing you don’t see it at the outset; if you did you mightn’t risk it, you’d balk. But the mountain only shows itself as you climb it. Not only that, no matter how much housework you do in your life, just as much remains for those who come after you. Life is work that’s never finished. And in spite of that, when you’re shoved into a corner to rest, not knowing what to do with your ten fingers, do you know what happens?” she asked, and, without waiting for an answer, told me, “Well, you’re bored to death; you may even miss the housework. Can you make anything out of that?”
“No,” I said.
She seemed utterly astonished to discover me, all attention, at her feet.
“Are you mad at someone?” I asked.
“Mind your own business,” she said.
But an instant later, withdrawn again into her reveries, she named for me, one by one, all those who had so bitterly offended her.
“Your grandfather Elisée . . . such a trick to play on me, the gay adventurer . . . to go first, without waiting for me, leaving me all alone on this western prairie, in exile.”
“Manitoba isn’t exile,” I said. “It’s home.”
“All the rest of you too,” she went on. “You’ll be just like the others. You’re all like him— independent, selfish, travelers every one of you. You all have to be off somewhere. . . . And God too—even he in many ways has forsaken me. Because truly, no matter what the priests say, no matter how hard they try to make reason and sense out of it, he allows too many strange worrisome things to happen to us.”
She grumbled on so that I dozed, leaning against her knees, my doll in my arms, and saw my grandmother storm into Paradise with a great many things to complain about. In my dream God the Father, with his great beard and stern expression, yielded his place to Grandmother, with her keen, shrewd, far-seeing eyes. From now on it would be she, seated in the clouds, who would take care of the world, set up wise and just laws. Now all would be well for the poor people on earth.
For a long time I was haunted by the idea that it could not possibly be a man who made the world. But perhaps an old woman with extremely capable hands.

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Street of Riches

Street of Riches

Penguin Modern Classics Edition
also available: Paperback Paperback
tagged : literary, classics
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When he built our home, my father took as model the only other house then standing on the brief length of Rue Deschambault — still unencumbered by any sidewalk, as virginal as a country path stretching through thickets of wild roses and, in April, resonant with the music of frogs. Maman was pleased with the street, with the quiet, with the good, pure air there, for the children, but she objected to the servile copying of our neighbor’s house, which was luckily not too close to ours. This neighbor, a Monsieur Guilbert, was a colleague of my father’s at the Ministry of Colonization and his political enemy to boot, for Papa had remained passionately faithful to Laurier’s memory, while Monsieur Guilbert, when the Conservative party came into power, had become a turncoat. Over this the two men quarreled momentously. My father would return home after one of these set-tos chewing on his little clay pipe. He would inform my mother: “I’m through. I’ll never set foot there again. The old jackass, with his Borden government!”

My mother concurred: “Certainly. You’d do far better to stay home than go looking for an argument wherever you stick your nose.”

Yet no more than my father could forgo his skirmishes with Monsieur Guilbert could she forgo her own with our neighbor’s wife.

This lady was from St. Hyacinth, in the Province of Quebec, and she made much of it. But above all she had a way of extolling her own children which, while lauding them, seemed to belittle Maman’s. “My Lucien is almost too conscientious,” she would say. “The Fathers tell me they have never seen a child work so hard.”

My mother would retort: “Only yesterday the Fathers told me again that my Gervais is so intelligent everything comes to him effortlessly; and apparently that’s not too good a thing, either.”

My mother was most skillful in parrying what she called Madame Guilbert’s “thrusts.” Despite all this — or perhaps because of it — our two families could scarcely get along without each other.

Often of an evening my mother would go out on the open porch in front of our big house and say to my sister Odette, “Supper is ready. Run over and tell your father; he’s still at the Guilberts’. Bring him back before any argument begins.”

Odette would sally forth across the field. When she reached the Guilberts’, there my father would be, his pipe clamped between his teeth, leaning against our neighbor’s gate and chatting peaceably with Monsieur Guilbert about rosebushes, apple trees, and asparagus. So long as the two men were on such subjects, there was no need for alarm; and here Monsieur Guilbert was willing enough to accept my father’s views, since he granted that my father knew more about gardening than he did. Then Odette would espy Gisèle’s face at one of the upstairs windows. Gisèle would call out, “Wait for me, Odette; I’m coming down. I want to show you my tatting.”

In those days they were both fanatically devoted to piano playing and to a sort of lacemaking that involved the use of a shuttle and was, if my memory serves me well, called tatting.

Then my mother would send my brother Gervais to see what on earth could be keeping my Father and Odette over there. At the field’s edge, Gervais would encounter his classmate Lucien Guilbert, and the latter would entice my brother behind an ancient barn to smoke a cigarette; needless to say, Madame Guilbert always maintained that it was Gervais who had induced Lucien to indulge this bad habit.

Out of patience, Maman would ship me off to corral them all. But I would chance to meet the Guilberts’ dog, and we would start playing in the tall grass; among us all, now at loggerheads, now so closely knit, I think that only I and the Guilbert dog were always of the same temper.

At last my mother would tear off her apron and come marching along the footpath to reprimand us. “My supper’s been ready for an hour now!”

Madame Guilbert would then appear on her own porch and graciously exclaim, “Dear, dear! Do stay here for supper, seeing as you’re all here anyway.”

For Madame Guilbert, when you yielded her her full rights to superiority and distinction, was a most amiable person. Still, it was difficult to avoid, throughout an entire evening, the subject of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, or to settle once and for all which boy had induced the other to smoke; and the consequence was that often enough we came home from these kindly visits quite out of humor with the Guilberts.
Such was our situation — getting along together happily enough, I avow — when the unknown quite fantastically entered our lives, and brought with it relationships more difficult, yet how vastly more interesting!

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