A Lover of Music
by Henry van Dyke
He entered the backwoods village of Bytown literally on the wings of the wind. It whirled him along like a big snowflake, and dropped him at the door of Moody’s “Sportsmen’s Retreat,” as if he were a New Year’s gift from the North Pole. His coming seemed a mere chance; but perhaps there was something more in it, after all. At all events, you shall hear, if you will, the time and the manner of his arrival.
It was the last night of December, some thirty-five years ago. All the city sportsmen who had hunted the deer under Bill Moody’s direction had long since retreated to their homes, leaving the little settlement on the border of the Adirondack wilderness wholly under the social direction of the natives.
The annual ball was in full swing in the dining-room of the hotel. At one side of the room the tables and chairs were piled up, with their legs projecting in the air like a thicket of very dead trees.
The huge stove in the southeast corner was blushing a rosy red through its thin coat of whitewash, and exhaling a furious dry heat flavoured with the smell of baked iron. At the north end, however, winter reigned; and there were tiny ridges of fine snow on the floor, sifted in by the wind through the cracks in the window- frames.
But the bouncing girls and the heavy-footed guides and lumbermen who filled the ball-room did not appear to mind the heat or the cold. They balanced and “sashayed” from the tropics to the arctic circle. They swung at corners and made “ladies’ change” all through the temperate zone. They stamped their feet and did double-shuffles until the floor trembled beneath them. The tin lamp-reflectors on the walls rattled like castanets.
There was only one drawback to the hilarity of the occasion. The band, which was usually imported from Sandy River Forks for such festivities,–a fiddle, a cornet, a flute, and an accordion,–had not arrived. There was a general idea that the mail-sleigh, in which the musicians were to travel, had been delayed by the storm, and might break its way through the snow-drifts and arrive at any moment. But Bill Moody, who was naturally of a pessimistic temperament, had offered a different explanation.
“I tell ye, old Baker’s got that blame’ band down to his hotel at the Falls now, makin’ ’em play fer his party. Them music fellers is onsartin; can’t trust ’em to keep anythin’ ‘cept the toon, and they don’t alluz keep that. Guess we might uz well shet up this ball, or go to work playin’ games.”
At this proposal a thick gloom had fallen over the assembly; but it had been dispersed by Serena Moody’s cheerful offer to have the small melodion brought out of the parlour, and to play for dancing as well as she could. The company agreed that she was a smart girl, and prepared to accept her performance with enthusiasm. As the dance went on, there were frequent comments of approval to encourage her in the labour of love.
“Sereny’s doin’ splendid, ain’t she?” said the other girls.
To which the men replied, “You bet! The playin’ ‘s reel nice, and good ‘nough fer anybody–outside o’ city folks.”
But Serena’s repertory was weak, though her spirit was willing. There was an unspoken sentiment among the men that “The Sweet By and By” was not quite the best tune in the world for a quadrille. A Sunday-school hymn, no matter how rapidly it was rendered, seemed to fall short of the necessary vivacity for a polka. Besides, the wheezy little organ positively refused to go faster than a certain gait. Hose Ransom expressed the popular opinion of the instrument, after a figure in which he and his partner had been half a bar ahead of the music from start to finish, when he said:
“By Jolly! that old maloney may be chock full o’ relijun and po’try; but it ain’t got no DANCE into it, no more ‘n a saw-mill.”
This was the situation of affairs inside of Moody’s tavern on New Year’s Eve. But outside of the house the snow lay two feet deep on the level, and shoulder-high in the drifts. The sky was at last swept clean of clouds. The shivering stars and the shrunken moon looked infinitely remote in the black vault of heaven. The frozen lake, on which the ice was three feet thick and solid as rock, was like a vast, smooth bed, covered with a white counterpane. The cruel wind still poured out of the northwest, driving the dry snow along with it like a mist of powdered diamonds.
Enveloped in this dazzling, pungent atmosphere, half blinded and bewildered by it, buffeted and yet supported by the onrushing torrent of air, a man on snow-shoes, with a light pack on his shoulders, emerged from the shelter of the Three Sisters’ Islands, and staggered straight on, down the lake. He passed the headland of the bay where Moody’s tavern is ensconced, and probably would have drifted on beyond it, to the marsh at the lower end of the lake, but for the yellow glare of the ball-room windows and the sound of music and dancing which came out to him suddenly through a lull in the wind.
He turned to the right, climbed over the low wall of broken ice- blocks that bordered the lake, and pushed up the gentle slope to the open passageway by which the two parts of the rambling house were joined together. Crossing the porch with the last remnant of his strength, he lifted his hand to knock, and fell heavily against the side door.
The noise, heard through the confusion within, awakened curiosity and conjecture.
Just as when a letter comes to a forest cabin, it is turned over and over, and many guesses are made as to the handwriting and the authorship before it occurs to any one to open it and see who sent it, so was this rude knocking at the gate the occasion of argument among the rustic revellers as to what it might portend. Some thought it was the arrival of the belated band. Others supposed the sound betokened a descent of the Corey clan from the Upper Lake, or a change of heart on the part of old Dan Dunning, who had refused to attend the ball because they would not allow him to call out the figures. The guesses were various; but no one thought of the possible arrival of a stranger at such an hour on such a night, until Serena suggested that it would he a good plan to open the door. Then the unbidden guest was discovered lying benumbed along the threshold.
There was no want of knowledge as to what should be done with a half-frozen man, and no lack of ready hands to do it. They carried him not to the warm stove, but into the semi-arctic region of the parlour. They rubbed his face and his hands vigorously with snow. They gave him a drink of hot tea flavoured with whiskey–or perhaps it was a drink of whiskey with a little hot tea in it–and then, as his senses began to return to him, they rolled him in a blanket and left him on a sofa to thaw out gradually, while they went on with the dance.
Naturally, he was the favourite subject of conversation for the next hour.
“Who is he, anyhow? I never seen ‘im before. Where’d he come from?” asked the girls.
“I dunno,” said Bill Moody; “he didn’t say much. Talk seemed all froze up. Frenchy, ‘cordin’ to what he did say. Guess he must a come from Canady, workin’ on a lumber job up Raquette River way. Got bounced out o’ the camp, p’raps. All them Frenchies is queer.”
This summary of national character appeared to command general assent.
“Yaas,” said Hose Ransom, “did ye take note how he hung on to that pack o’ his’n all the time? Wouldn’t let go on it. Wonder what ‘t wuz? Seemed kinder holler ‘n light, fer all ‘twuz so big an’ wropped up in lots o’ coverin’s.”
“What’s the use of wonderin’?” said one of the younger boys; “find out later on. Now’s the time fer dancin’. Whoop ‘er up!”
So the sound of revelry swept on again in full flood. The men and maids went careering up and down the room. Serena’s willing fingers laboured patiently over the yellow keys of the reluctant melodion. But the ancient instrument was weakening under the strain; the bellows creaked; the notes grew more and more asthmatic.
“Hold the Fort” was the tune, “Money Musk” was the dance; and it was a preposterously bad fit. The figure was tangled up like a fishing- line after trolling all day without a swivel. The dancers were doing their best, determined to be happy, as cheerful as possible, but all out of time. The organ was whirring and gasping and groaning for breath.
Suddenly a new music filled the room.
The right tune–the real old joyful “Money Musk,” played jubilantly, triumphantly, irresistibly–on a fiddle!
The melodion gave one final gasp of surprise and was dumb.
Every one looked up. There, in the parlour door, stood the stranger, with his coat off, his violin hugged close under his chin, his right arm making the bow fly over the strings, his black eyes sparkling, and his stockinged feet marking time to the tune.
“DANSEZ! DANSEZ,” he cried, “EN AVANT! Don’ spik’. Don’ res’! Ah’ll goin’ play de feedle fo’ yo’ jess moch yo’ lak’, eef yo’ h’only DANSE!”
The music gushed from the bow like water from the rock when Moses touched it. Tune followed tune with endless fluency and variety– polkas, galops, reels, jigs, quadrilles; fragments of airs from many lands–“The Fisher’s Hornpipe,” “Charlie is my Darling,” “Marianne s’en va-t-au Moulin,” “Petit Jean,” “Jordan is a Hard Road to Trabbel,” woven together after the strangest fashion and set to the liveliest cadence.
It was a magical performance. No one could withstand it. They all danced together, like the leaves on the shivering poplars when the wind blows through them. The gentle Serena was swept away from her stool at the organ as if she were a little canoe drawn into the rapids, and Bill Moody stepped high and cut pigeon-wings that had been forgotten for a generation. It was long after midnight when the dancers paused, breathless and exhausted.
“Waal,” said Hose Ransom, “that’s jess the hightonedest music we ever had to Bytown. You ‘re a reel player, Frenchy, that’s what you are. What’s your name? Where’d you come from? Where you goin’ to? What brought you here, anyhow?”
“MOI?” said the fiddler, dropping his bow and taking a long breath. “Mah nem Jacques Tremblay. Ah’ll ben come fraum Kebeck. W’ere goin’? Ah donno. Prob’ly Ah’ll stop dis place, eef yo’ lak’ dat feedle so moch, hein?”
His hand passed caressingly over the smooth brown wood of the violin. He drew it up close to his face again, as if he would have kissed it, while his eyes wandered timidly around the circle of listeners, and rested at last, with a question in them, on the face of the hotel-keeper. Moody was fairly warmed, for once, out of his customary temper of mistrust and indecision. He spoke up promptly.
“You kin stop here jess long’s you like. We don’ care where you come from, an’ you need n’t to go no fu’ther, less you wanter. But we ain’t got no use for French names round here. Guess we ‘ll call him Fiddlin’ Jack, hey, Sereny? He kin do the chores in the day- time, an’ play the fiddle at night.”
This was the way in which Bytown came to have a lover of music among its permanent inhabitants.
Jacques dropped into his place and filled it as if it had been made for him. There was something in his disposition that seemed to fit him for just the role that was vacant in the social drama of the settlement. It was not a serious, important, responsible part, like that of a farmer, or a store-keeper, or a professional hunter. It was rather an addition to the regular programme of existence, something unannounced and voluntary, and therefore not weighted with too heavy responsibilities. There was a touch of the transient and uncertain about it. He seemed like a perpetual visitor; and yet he stayed on as steadily as a native, never showing, from the first, the slightest wish or intention to leave the woodland village.
I do not mean that he was an idler. Bytown had not yet arrived at that stage of civilization in which an ornamental element is supported at the public expense.
He worked for his living, and earned it. He was full of a quick, cheerful industry; and there was nothing that needed to be done about Moody’s establishment, from the wood-pile to the ice-house, at which he did not bear a hand willingly and well.
“He kin work like a beaver,” said Bill Moody, talking the stranger over down at the post-office one day; “but I don’t b’lieve he’s got much ambition. Jess does his work and takes his wages, and then gits his fiddle out and plays.”
“Tell ye what,” said Hose Ransom, who set up for the village philosopher, “he ain’t got no ‘magination. That’s what makes men slack. He don’t know what it means to rise in the world; don’t care fer anythin’ ez much ez he does fer his music. He’s jess like a bird; let him have ‘nough to eat and a chance to sing, and he’s all right. What’s he ‘magine about a house of his own, and a barn, and sich things?”
Hosea’s illustration was suggested by his own experience. He had just put the profits of his last summer’s guiding into a new barn, and his imagination was already at work planning an addition to his house in the shape of a kitchen L.
But in spite of his tone of contempt, he had a kindly feeling for the unambitious fiddler. Indeed, this was the attitude of pretty much every one in the community. A few men of the rougher sort had made fun of him at first, and there had been one or two attempts at rude handling. But Jacques was determined to take no offence; and he was so good-humoured, so obliging, so pleasant in his way of whistling and singing about his work, that all unfriendliness soon died out.
He had literally played his way into the affections of the village. The winter seemed to pass more swiftly and merrily than it had done before the violin was there. He was always ready to bring it out, and draw all kinds of music from its strings, as long as any one wanted to listen or to dance.
It made no difference whether there was a roomful of listeners, or only a couple, Fiddlin’ Jack was just as glad to play. With a little, quiet audience, he loved to try the quaint, plaintive airs of the old French songs–“A la Claire Fontaine,” “Un Canadien Errant,” and “Isabeau s’y Promene”–and bits of simple melody from the great composers, and familiar Scotch and English ballads–things that he had picked up heaven knows where, and into which he put a world of meaning, sad and sweet.
He was at his best in this vein when he was alone with Serena in the kitchen–she with a piece of sewing in her lap, sitting beside the lamp; he in the corner by the stove, with the brown violin tucked under his chin, wandering on from one air to another, and perfectly content if she looked up now and then from her work and told him that she liked the tune.
Serena was a pretty girl, with smooth, silky hair, end eyes of the colour of the nodding harebells that blossom on the edge of the woods. She was slight and delicate. The neighbours called her sickly; and a great doctor from Philadelphia who had spent a summer at Bytown had put his ear to her chest, and looked grave, and said that she ought to winter in a mild climate. That was before people had discovered the Adirondacks as a sanitarium for consumptives.
But the inhabitants of Bytown were not in the way of paying much attention to the theories of physicians in regard to climate. They held that if you were rugged, it was a great advantage, almost a virtue; but if you were sickly, you just had to make the best of it, and get along with the weather as well as you could.
So Serena stayed at home and adapted herself very cheerfully to the situation. She kept indoors in winter more than the other girls, and had a quieter way about her; but you would never have called her an invalid. There was only a clearer blue in her eyes, and a smoother lustre on her brown hair, and a brighter spot of red on her cheek. She was particularly fond of reading and of music. It was this that made her so glad of the arrival of the violin. The violin’s master knew it, and turned to her as a sympathetic soul. I think he liked her eyes too, and the soft tones of her voice. He was a sentimentalist, this little Canadian, for all he was so merry; and love–but that comes later.
“Where’d you get your fiddle, Jack? said Serena, one night as they sat together in the kitchen.
“Ah’ll get heem in Kebeck,” answered Jacques, passing his hand lightly over the instrument, as he always did when any one spoke of it. “Vair’ nice VIOLON, hein? W’at you t’ink? Ma h’ole teacher, to de College, he was gif’ me dat VIOLON, w’en Ah was gone away to de woods.”
“I want to know! Were you in the College? What’d you go off to the woods for?”
“Ah’ll get tire’ fraum dat teachin’–read, read, read, h’all taim’. Ah’ll not lak’ dat so moch. Rader be out-door–run aroun’–paddle de CANOT–go wid de boys in de woods–mek’ dem dance at ma MUSIQUE. A-a-ah! Dat was fon! P’raps you t’ink dat not good, hem? You t’ink Jacques one beeg fool, Ah suppose?”
“I dunno,” said Serena, declining to commit herself, but pressing on gently, as women do, to the point she had in view when she began the talk. “Dunno’s you’re any more foolish than a man that keeps on doin’ what he don’t like. But what made you come away from the boys in the woods and travel down this way?”
A shade passed over the face of Jacques. He turned away from the lamp and bent over the violin on his knees, fingering the strings nervously. Then he spoke, in a changed, shaken voice.
“Ah’l tole you somet’ing, Ma’amselle Serene. You ma frien’. Don’ you h’ask me dat reason of it no more. Dat’s somet’ing vair’ bad, bad, bad. Ah can’t nevair tole dat–nevair.”
There was something in the way he said it that gave a check to her gentle curiosity and turned it into pity. A man with a secret in his life? It was a new element in her experience; like a chapter in a book. She was lady enough at heart to respect his silence. She kept away from the forbidden ground. But the knowledge that it was there gave a new interest to Jacques and his music. She embroidered some strange romances around that secret while she sat in the kitchen sewing.
Other people at Bytown were less forbearing. They tried their best to find out something about Fiddlin’ Jack’s past, but he was not communicative. He talked about Canada. All Canadians do. But about himself? No.
If the questions became too pressing, he would try to play himself away from his inquisitors with new tunes. If that did not succeed, he would take the violin under his arm and slip quickly out of the room. And if you had followed him at such a time, you would have heard him drawing strange, melancholy music from the instrument, sitting alone in the barn, or in the darkness of his own room in the garret.
Once, and only once, he seemed to come near betraying himself. This was how it happened.
There was a party at Moody’s one night, and Bull Corey had come down from the Upper Lake and filled himself up with whiskey.
Bull was an ugly-tempered fellow. The more he drank, up to a certain point, the steadier he got on his legs, and the more necessary it seemed for him to fight somebody. The tide of his pugnacity that night took a straight set toward Fiddlin’ Jack.
Bull began with musical criticisms. The fiddling did not suit him at all. It was too quick, or else it was too slow. He failed to perceive how any one could tolerate such music even in the infernal regions, and he expressed himself in plain words to that effect. In fact, he damned the performance without even the faintest praise.
But the majority of the audience gave him no support. On the contrary, they told him to shut up. And Jack fiddled along cheerfully.
Then Bull returned to the attack, after having fortified himself in the bar-room. And now he took national grounds. The French were, in his opinion, a most despicable race. They were not a patch on the noble American race. They talked too much, and their language was ridiculous. They had a condemned, fool habit of taking off their hats when they spoke to a lady. They ate frogs.
Having delivered himself of these sentiments in a loud voice, much to the interruption of the music, he marched over to the table on which Fiddlin’ Jack was sitting, and grabbed the violin from his hands.
“Gimme that dam’ fiddle,” he cried, “till I see if there’s a frog in it.”
Jacques leaped from the table, transported with rage. His face was convulsed. His eyes blazed. He snatched a carving-knife from the dresser behind him, and sprang at Corey.
“TORT DIEU!” he shrieked, “MON VIOLON! Ah’ll keel you, beast!”
But he could not reach the enemy. Bill Moody’s long arms were flung around the struggling fiddler, and a pair of brawny guides had Corey pinned by the elbows, hustling him backward. Half a dozen men thrust themselves between the would-be combatants. There was a dead silence, a scuffling of feet on the bare floor; then the danger was past, and a tumult of talk burst forth.
But a strange alteration had passed over Jacques. He trembled. He turned white. Tears poured down his cheeks. As Moody let him go, he dropped on his knees, hid his face in his hands, and prayed in his own tongue.
“My God, it is here again! Was it not enough that I must be tempted once before? Must I have the madness yet another time? My God, show the mercy toward me, for the Blessed Virgin’s sake. I am a sinner, but not the second time; for the love of Jesus, not the second time! Ave Maria, gratia plena, ora pro me!”
The others did not understand what he was saying. Indeed, they paid little attention to him. They saw he was frightened, and thought it was with fear. They were already discussing what ought to be done about the fracas.
It was plain that Bull Corey, whose liquor had now taken effect suddenly, and made him as limp as a strip of cedar bark, must be thrown out of the door, and left to cool off on the beach. But what to do with Fiddlin’ Jack for his attempt at knifing–a detested crime? He might have gone at Bull with a gun, or with a club, or with a chair, or with any recognized weapon. But with a carving- knife! That was a serious offence. Arrest him, and send him to jail at the Forks? Take him out, and duck him in the lake? Lick him, and drive him out of the town?
There was a multitude of counsellors, but it was Hose Ransom who settled the case. He was a well-known fighting-man, and a respected philosopher. He swung his broad frame in front of the fiddler.
“Tell ye what we’ll do. Jess nothin’! Ain’t Bull Corey the blowin’est and the mos’ trouble-us cuss ’round these hull woods? And would n’t it be a fust-rate thing ef some o’ the wind was let out ‘n him?”
General assent greeted this pointed inquiry.
“And wa’n’t Fiddlin’ Jack peacerble ‘nough ‘s long ‘s he was let alone? What’s the matter with lettin’ him alone now?”
The argument seemed to carry weight. Hose saw his advantage, and clinched it.
“Ain’t he given us a lot o’ fun here this winter in a innercent kind o’ way, with his old fiddle? I guess there ain’t nothin’ on airth he loves better ‘n that holler piece o’ wood, and the toons that’s inside o’ it. It’s jess like a wife or a child to him. Where’s that fiddle, anyhow?”
Some one had picked it deftly out of Corey’s hand during the scuffle, and now passed it up to Hose.
“Here, Frenchy, take yer long-necked, pot-bellied music-gourd. And I want you boys to understand, ef any one teches that fiddle ag’in, I’ll knock hell out ‘n him.”
So the recording angel dropped another tear upon the record of Hosea Ransom, and the books were closed for the night.
For some weeks after the incident of the violin and the carving- knife, it looked as if a permanent cloud had settled upon the spirits of Fiddlin’ Jack. He was sad and nervous; if any one touched him, or even spoke to him suddenly, he would jump like a deer. He kept out of everybody’s way as much as possible, sat out in the wood-shed when he was not at work, and could not be persuaded to bring down his fiddle. He seemed in a fair way to be transformed into “the melancholy Jaques.”
It was Serena who broke the spell; and she did it in a woman’s way, the simplest way in the world–by taking no notice of it.
“Ain’t you goin’ to play for me to-night?” she asked one evening, as Jacques passed through the kitchen. Whereupon the evil spirit was exorcised, and the violin came back again to its place in the life of the house.
But there was less time for music now than there had been in the winter. As the snow vanished from the woods, and the frost leaked out of the ground, and the ice on the lake was honeycombed, breaking away from the shore, and finally going to pieces altogether in a warm southeast storm, the Sportsmen’s Retreat began to prepare for business. There was a garden to be planted, and there were boats to be painted. The rotten old wharf in front of the house stood badly in need of repairs. The fiddler proved himself a Jack-of-all-trades and master of more than one.
In the middle of May the anglers began to arrive at the Retreat–a quiet, sociable, friendly set of men, most of whom were old-time acquaintances, and familiar lovers of the woods. They belonged to the “early Adirondack period,” these disciples of Walton. They were not very rich, and they did not put on much style, but they understood how to have a good time; and what they did not know about fishing was not worth knowing.
Jacques fitted into their scheme of life as a well-made reel fits the butt of a good rod. He was a steady oarsman, a lucky fisherman, with a real genius for the use of the landing-net, and a cheerful companion, who did not insist upon giving his views about artificial flies and advice about casting, on every occasion. By the end of June he found himself in steady employment as a guide.
He liked best to go with the anglers who were not too energetic, but were satisfied to fish for a few hours in the morning and again at sunset, after a long rest in the middle of the afternoon. This was just the time for the violin; and if Jacques had his way, he would take it with him, carefully tucked away in its case in the bow of the boat; and when the pipes were lit after lunch, on the shore of Round Island or at the mouth of Cold Brook, he would discourse sweet music until the declining sun drew near the tree-tops and the veery rang his silver bell for vespers. Then it was time to fish again, and the flies danced merrily over the water, and the great speckled trout leaped eagerly to catch them. For trolling all day long for lake-trout Jacques had little liking.
“Dat is not de sport,” he would say, “to hol’ one r-r-ope in de ‘and, an’ den pool heem in wid one feesh on t’ree hook, h’all tangle h’up in hees mout’–dat is not de sport. Bisside, dat leef not taim’ for la musique.”
Midsummer brought a new set of guests to the Retreat, and filled the ramshackle old house to overflowing. The fishing fell off, but there were picnics and camping-parties in abundance, and Jacques was in demand. The ladies liked him; his manners were so pleasant, and they took a great interest in his music. Moody bought a piano for the parlour that summer; and there were two or three good players in the house, to whom Jacques would listen with delight, sitting on a pile of logs outside the parlour windows in the warm August evenings.
Some one asked him whether he did not prefer the piano to the violin.
“NON,” he answered, very decidedly; “dat piano, he vairee smart; he got plentee word, lak’ de leetle yellow bird in de cage–‘ow you call heem–de cannarie. He spik’ moch. Bot dat violon, he spik’ more deep, to de heart, lak’ de Rossignol. He mak’ me feel more glad, more sorree–dat fo’ w’at Ah lak’ heem de bes’!”
Through all the occupations and pleasures of the summer Jacques kept as near as he could to Serena. If he learned a new tune, by listening to the piano–some simple, artful air of Mozart, some melancholy echo of a nocturne of Chopin, some tender, passionate love-song of Schubert–it was to her that he would play it first. If he could persuade her to a boat-ride with him on the lake, Sunday evening, the week was complete. He even learned to know the more shy and delicate forest-blossoms that she preferred, and would come in from a day’s guiding with a tiny bunch of belated twin-flowers, or a few purple-fringed orchids, or a handful of nodding stalks of the fragrant pyrola, for her.
So the summer passed, and the autumn, with its longer hunting expeditions into the depth of the wilderness; and by the time winter came around again, Fiddlin’ Jack was well settled at Moody’s as a regular Adirondack guide of the old-fashioned type, but with a difference. He improved in his English. Something of that missing quality which Moody called ambition, and to which Hose Ransom gave the name of imagination, seemed to awaken within him. He saved his wages. He went into business for himself in a modest way, and made a good turn in the manufacture of deerskin mittens and snow-shoes. By the spring he had nearly three hundred dollars laid by, and bought a piece of land from Ransom on the bank of the river just above the village.
The second summer of guiding brought him in enough to commence building a little house. It was of logs, neatly squared at the corners; and there was a door exactly in the middle of the facade, with a square window at either side, and another at each end of the house, according to the common style of architecture at Bytown.
But it was in the roof that the touch of distinction appeared. For this, Jacques had modelled after his memory of an old Canadian roof. There was a delicate concave sweep in it, as it sloped downward from the peak, and the eaves projected pleasantly over the front door, making a strip of shade wherein it would be good to rest when the afternoon sun shone hot.
He took great pride in this effort of the builder’s art. One day at the beginning of May, when the house was nearly finished, he asked old Moody and Serena to stop on their way home from the village and see what he had done. He showed them the kitchen, and the living- room, with the bed-room partitioned off from it, and sharing half of its side window. Here was a place where a door could be cut at the back, and a shed built for a summer kitchen–for the coolness, you understand. And here were two stoves–one for the cooking, and the other in the living-room for the warming, both of the newest.
“An’ look dat roof. Dat’s lak’ we make dem in Canada. De rain ron off easy, and de sun not shine too strong at de door. Ain’t dat nice? You lak’ dat roof, Ma’amselle Serene, hein?”
Thus the imagination of Jacques unfolded itself, and his ambition appeared to be making plans for its accomplishment. I do not want any one to suppose that there was a crisis in his affair of the heart. There was none. Indeed, it is very doubtful whether anybody in the village, even Serena herself, ever dreamed that there was such an affair. Up to the point when the house was finished and furnished, it was to be a secret between Jacques and his violin; and they found no difficulty in keeping it.
Bytown was a Yankee village. Jacques was, after all, nothing but a Frenchman. The native tone of religion, what there was of it, was strongly Methodist. Jacques never went to church, and if he was anything, was probably a Roman Catholic. Serena was something of a sentimentalist, and a great reader of novels; but the international love-story had not yet been invented, and the idea of getting married to a foreigner never entered her head. I do not say that she suspected nothing in the wild flowers, and the Sunday evening boat-rides, and the music. She was a woman. I have said already that she liked Jacques very much, and his violin pleased her to the heart. But the new building by the river? I am sure she never even thought of it once, in the way that he did.
Well, in the end of June, just after the furniture had come for the house with the curved roof, Serena was married to Hose Ransom. He was a young widower without children, and altogether the best fellow, as well as the most prosperous, in the settlement. His house stood up on the hill, across the road from the lot which Jacques had bought. It was painted white, and it had a narrow front porch, with a scroll-saw fringe around the edge of it; and there was a little garden fenced in with white palings, in which Sweet Williams and pansies and blue lupines and pink bleeding-hearts were planted.
The wedding was at the Sportsmen’s Retreat, and Jacques was there, of course. There was nothing of the disconsolate lover about him. The noun he might have confessed to, in a confidential moment of intercourse with his violin; but the adjective was not in his line.
The strongest impulse in his nature was to be a giver of entertaininent, a source of joy in others, a recognized element of delight in the little world where he moved. He had the artistic temperament in its most primitive and naive form. Nothing pleased him so much as the act of pleasing. Music was the means which Nature had given him to fulfil this desire. He played, as you might say, out of a certain kind of selfishness, because he enjoyed making other people happy. He was selfish enough, in his way, to want the pleasure of making everybody feel the same delight that he felt in the clear tones, the merry cadences, the tender and caressing flow of his violin. That was consolation. That was power. That was success.
And especially was he selfish enough to want to feel his ability to give Serena a pleasure at her wedding–a pleasure that nobody else could give her. When she asked him to play, he consented gladly. Never had he drawn the bow across the strings with a more magical touch. The wedding guests danced as if they were enchanted. The big bridegroom came up and clapped him on the back, with the nearest approach to a gesture of affection that backwoods etiquette allows between men.
“Jack, you’re the boss fiddler o’ this hull county. Have a drink now? I guess you ‘re mighty dry.”
“MERCI, NON,” said Jacques. “I drink only de museek dis night. Eef I drink two t’ings, I get dronk.”
In between the dances, and while the supper was going on, he played quieter tunes–ballads and songs that he knew Serena liked. After supper came the final reel; and when that was wound up, with immense hilarity, the company ran out to the side door of the tavern to shout a noisy farewell to the bridal buggy, as it drove down the road toward the house with the white palings. When they came back, the fiddler was gone. He had slipped away to the little cabin with the curved roof.
All night long he sat there playing in the dark. Every tune that he had ever known came back to him–grave and merry, light and sad. He played them over and over again, passing round and round among them as a leaf on a stream follows the eddies, now backward, now forward, and returning most frequently to an echo of a certain theme from Chopin–you remember the NOCTURNE IN G MINOR, the second one? He did not know who Chopin was. Perhaps he did not even know the name of the music. But the air had fallen upon his ear somewhere, and had stayed in his memory; and now it seemed to say something to him that had an especial meaning.
At last he let the bow fall. He patted the brown wood of the violin after his old fashion, loosened the strings a little, wrapped it in its green baize cover, and hung it on the wall.
“Hang thou there, thou little violin,” he murmured. “It is now that I shall take the good care of thee, as never before; for thou art the wife of Jacques Tremblay. And the wife of ‘Osee Ransom, she is a friend to us, both of us; and we will make the music for her many years, I tell thee, many years–for her, and for her good man, and for the children–yes?”
But Serena did not have many years to listen to the playing of Jacques Tremblay: on the white porch, in the summer evenings, with bleeding-hearts abloom in the garden; or by the winter fire, while the pale blue moonlight lay on the snow without, and the yellow lamplight filled the room with homely radiance. In the fourth year after her marriage she died, and Jacques stood beside Hose at the funeral.
There was a child–a little boy–delicate and blue-eyed, the living image of his mother. Jacques appointed himself general attendant, nurse in extraordinary, and court musician to this child. He gave up his work as a guide. It took him too much away from home. He was tired of it. Besides, what did he want of so much money? He had his house. He could gain enough for all his needs by making snow-shoes and the deerskin mittens at home. Then he could be near little Billy. It was pleasanter so.
When Hose was away on a long trip in the woods, Jacques would move up to the white house and stay on guard. His fiddle learned how to sing the prettiest slumber songs. Moreover, it could crow in the morning, just like the cock; and it could make a noise like a mouse, and like the cat, too; and there were more tunes inside of it than in any music-box in the world.
As the boy grew older, the little cabin with the curved roof became his favourite playground. It was near the river, and Fiddlin’ Jack was always ready to make a boat for him, or help him catch minnows in the mill-dam. The child had a taste for music, too, and learned some of the old Canadian songs, which he sang in a curious broken patois, while his delighted teacher accompanied him on the violin. But it was a great day when he was eight years old, and Jacques brought out a small fiddle, for which he had secretly sent to Albany, and presented it to the boy.
“You see dat feedle, Billee? Dat’s for you! You mek’ your lesson on dat. When you kin mek’ de museek, den you play on de violon– lak’ dis one–listen!”
Then he drew the bow across the strings and dashed into a medley of the jolliest airs imaginable.
The boy took to his instruction as kindly as could have been expected. School interrupted it a good deal; and play with the other boys carried him away often; but, after all, there was nothing that he liked much better than to sit in the little cabin on a winter evening and pick out a simple tune after his teacher. He must have had some talent for it, too; for Jacques was very proud of his pupil, and prophesied great things of him.
“You know dat little Billee of ‘Ose Ransom,” the fiddler would say to a circle of people at the hotel, where he still went to play for parties; “you know dat small Ransom boy? Well, I ‘m tichin’ heem play de feedle; an’ I tell you, one day he play better dan hees ticher. Ah, dat ‘s gr-r-reat t’ing, de museek, ain’t it? Mek’ you laugh, mek’ you cry, mek’ you dance! Now, you dance. Tek’ your pardnerre. EN AVANT! Kip’ step to de museek!”
Thirty years brought many changes to Bytown. The wild woodland flavour evaporated out of the place almost entirely; and instead of an independent centre of rustic life, it became an annex to great cities. It was exploited as a summer resort, and discovered as a winter resort. Three or four big hotels were planted there, and in their shadow a score of boarding-houses alternately languished and flourished. The summer cottage also appeared and multiplied; and with it came many of the peculiar features which man elaborates in his struggle toward the finest civilization–afternoon teas, and amateur theatricals, and claw-hammer coats, and a casino, and even a few servants in livery.
The very name of Bytown was discarded as being too American and commonplace. An Indian name was discovered, and considered much more romantic and appropriate. You will look in vain for Bytown on the map now. Nor will you find the old saw-mill there any longer, wasting a vast water-power to turn its dripping wheel and cut up a few pine-logs into fragrant boards. There is a big steam-mill a little farther up the river, which rips out thousands of feet of lumber in a day; but there are no more pine-logs, only sticks of spruce which the old lumbermen would have thought hardly worth cutting. And down below the dam there is a pulp-mill, to chew up the little trees and turn them into paper, and a chair factory, and two or three industrial establishments, with quite a little colony of French-Canadians employed in them as workmen.
Hose Ransom sold his place on the hill to one of the hotel companies, and a huge caravansary occupied the site of the house with the white palings. There were no more bleeding-hearts in the garden. There were beds of flaring red geraniums, which looked as if they were painted; and across the circle of smooth lawn in front of the piazza the name of the hotel was printed in alleged ornamental plants letters two feet long, immensely ugly. Hose had been elevated to the office of postmaster, and lived in a Queen Antic cottage on the main street. Little Billy Ransom had grown up into a very interesting young man, with a decided musical genius, and a tenor voice, which being discovered by an enterprising patron of genius, from Boston, Billy was sent away to Paris to learn to sing. Some day you will hear of his debut in grand opera, as Monsieur Guillaume Rancon.
But Fiddlin’ Jack lived on in the little house with the curved roof, beside the river, refusing all the good offers which were made to him for his piece of land.
“NON,” he said; “what for shall I sell dis house? I lak’ her, she lak’ me. All dese walls got full from museek, jus’ lak’ de wood of dis violon. He play bettair dan de new feedle, becos’ I play heem so long. I lak’ to lissen to dat rivaire in de night. She sing from long taim’ ago–jus’ de same song w’en I firs come here. W’at for I go away? W’at I get? W’at you can gif’ me lak’ dat?”
He was still the favourite musician of the county-side, in great request at parties and weddings; but he had extended the sphere of his influence a little. He was not willing to go to church, though there were now several to choose from; but a young minister of liberal views who had come to take charge of the new Episcopal chapel had persuaded Jacques into the Sunday-school, to lead the children’s singing with his violin. He did it so well that the school became the most popular in the village. It was much pleasanter to sing than to listen to long addresses.
Jacques grew old gracefully, but he certainly grew old rapidly. His beard was white; his shoulders were stooping; he suffered a good deal in damp days from rheumatism–fortunately not in his hands, but in his legs. One spring there was a long spell of abominable weather, just between freezing and thawing. He caught a heavy cold and took to his bed. Hose came over to look after him.
For a few days the old fiddler kept up his courage, and would sit up in the bed trying to play; then his strength and his spirit seemed to fail together. He grew silent and indifferent. When Hose came in he would find Jacques with his face turned to the wall, where there was a tiny brass crucifix hanging below the violin, and his lips moving quietly.
“Don’t ye want the fiddle, Jack? I ‘d like ter hear some o’ them old-time tunes ag’in.”
But the artifice failed. Jacques shook his head. His mind seemed to turn back to the time of his first arrival in the village, and beyond it. When he spoke at all, it was of something connected with this early time.
“Dat was bad taim’ when I near keel Bull Corey, hein?”
Hose nodded gravely.
“Dat was beeg storm, dat night when I come to Bytown. You remember dat?”
Yes, Hose remembered it very well. It was a real old-fashioned storm.
“Ah, but befo dose taim’, dere was wuss taim’ dan dat–in Canada. Nobody don’ know ’bout dat. I lak to tell you, ‘Ose, but I can’t. No, it is not possible to tell dat, nevair!”
It came into Hose’s mind that the case was serious. Jack was going to die. He never went to church, but perhaps the Sunday-school might count for something. He was only a Frenchman, after all, and Frenchmen had their own ways of doing things. He certainly ought to see some kind of a preacher before he went out of the wilderness. There was a Canadian priest in town that week, who had come down to see about getting up a church for the French people who worked in the mills. Perhaps Jack would like to talk with him.
His face lighted up at the proposal. He asked to have the room tidied up, and a clean shirt put on him, and the violin laid open in its case on a table beside the bed, and a few other preparations made for the visit. Then the visitor came, a tall, friendly, quiet- looking man about Jacques’s age, with a smooth face and a long black cassock. The door was shut, and they were left alone together.
“I am comforted that you are come, mon pere,” said the sick man, “for I have the heavy heart. There is a secret that I have kept for many years. Sometimes I had almost forgotten that it must be told at the last; but now it is the time to speak. I have a sin to confess–a sin of the most grievous, of the most unpardonable.”
The listener soothed him with gracious words; spoke of the mercy that waits for all the penitent; urged him to open his heart without delay.
“Well, then, mon pere, it is this that makes me fear to die. Long since, in Canada, before I came to this place, I have killed a man. It was–”
The voice stopped. The little round clock on the window-sill ticked very distinctly and rapidly, as if it were in a hurry.
“I will speak as short as I can. It was in the camp of ‘Poleon Gautier, on the river St. Maurice. The big Baptiste Lacombe, that crazy boy who wants always to fight, he mocks me when I play, he snatches my violin, he goes to break him on the stove. There is a knife in my belt. I spring to Baptiste. I see no more what it is that I do. I cut him in the neck–once, twice. The blood flies out. He falls down. He cries, ‘I die.’ I grab my violin from the floor, quick; then I run to the woods. No one can catch me. A blanket, the axe, some food, I get from a hiding-place down the river. Then I travel, travel, travel through the woods, how many days I know not, till I come here. No one knows me. I give myself the name Tremblay. I make the music for them. With my violin I live. I am happy. I forget. But it all returns to me–now–at the last. I have murdered. Is there a forgiveness for me, mon pere?”
The priest’s face had changed very swiftly at the mention of the camp on the St. Maurice. As the story went on, he grew strangely excited. His lips twitched. His hands trembled. At the end he sank on his knees, close by the bed, and looked into the countenance of the sick man, searching it as a forester searches in the undergrowth for a lost trail. Then his eyes lighted up as he found it.
“My son,” said he, clasping the old fiddler’s hand in his own, “you are Jacques Dellaire. And I–do you know me now?–I am Baptiste Lacombe. See those two scars upon my neck. But it was not death. You have not murdered. You have given the stroke that changed my heart. Your sin is forgiven–AND MINE ALSO–by the mercy of God!”
The round clock ticked louder and louder. A level ray from the setting sun–red gold–came in through the dusty window, and lay across the clasped hands on the bed. A white-throated sparrow, the first of the season, on his way to the woods beyond the St. Lawrence, whistled so clearly and tenderly that it seemed as if he were repeating to these two gray-haired exiles the name of their homeland. “sweet–sweet–Canada, Canada, Canada!” But there was a sweeter sound than that in the quiet room.
It was the sound of the prayer which begins, in every language spoken by men, with the name of that Unseen One who rules over life’s chances, and pities its discords, and tunes it back again into harmony. Yes, this prayer of the little children who are only learning how to play the first notes of life’s music, turns to the great Master musician who knows it all and who loves to bring a melody out of every instrument that He has made; and it seems to lay the soul in His hands to play upon as He will, while it calls Him, OUR FATHER!
Some day, perhaps, you will go to the busy place where Bytown used to be; and if you do, you must take the street by the river to the white wooden church of St. Jacques. It stands on the very spot where there was once a cabin with a curved roof. There is a gilt cross on the top of the church. The door is usually open, and the interior is quite gay with vases of china and brass, and paper flowers of many colours; but if you go through to the sacristy at the rear, you will see a brown violin hanging on the wall.
Pere Baptiste, if he is there, will take it down and show it to you. He calls it a remarkable instrument–one of the best, of the most sweet.
But he will not let any one play upon it. He says it is a relic.