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The Pomp of the Lavilettes (Chapter1)

2006-08-28 14:27

  Volume 1 Chapter I

  You could not call the place a village, nor yet could it be called a town. Viewed from the bluff, on the English side of the river, it was a long stretch of small farmhouses——some painted red, with green shutters, some painted white, with red shutters——set upon long strips of land, green, yellow, and brown, as it chanced to be pasture land, fields of grain, or "plough-land."

  These long strips of property, fenced off one from the other, so narrow and so precise, looked like pieces of ribbon laid upon a wide quilt of level country. Far back from this level land lay the dark, limestone hills, which had rambled down from Labrador, and, crossing the River St. Lawrence, stretched away into the English province. The farmhouses and the long strips of land were in such regular procession, it might almost have seemed to the eye of the whimsical spectator that the houses and the ribbon were of a piece, and had been set down there, sentinel after sentinel, like so many toy soldiers, along the banks of the great river. There was one important break in the long line of precise settlement, and that was where the Parish Church, about the middle of the line, had gathered round it a score or so of buildings. But this only added to the strength of the line rather than broke its uniformity. Wide stretches of meadow-land reached back from the Parish Church until they were lost in the darker verdure of the hills.

  On either side of the Parish Church, with its tall, stone tower, were two stout-built houses, set among trees and shrubbery. They were low set, broad and square, with heavy-studded, old-fashioned doors. The roofs were steep and high, with dormer windows and a sort of shelf at the gables.

  They were both on the highest ground in the whole settlement, a little higher than the site of the Parish Church. The one was the residence of the old seigneur, Monsieur Duhamel; the other was the Manor Casimbault, empty now of all the Casimbaults. For a year it had lain idle, until the only heir of the old family, which was held in high esteem as far back as the time of Louis Quinze, returned from his dissipations in Quebec to settle in the old place or sell it to the highest bidder.

  Behind the Manor Casimbault and the Seigneury, thus flanking the church at reverential distance, another large house completed the acute triangle, forming the apex of the solid wedge of settlement drawn about the church. This was the great farmhouse of the Lavilettes, one of the most noticeable families in the parish.

  Of the little buildings bunched beside the church, not the least important was the post-office, kept by Papin Baby, who was also keeper of the bridge which was almost at the door of the office. This bridge crossed a stream that ran into the large river, forming a harbour. It opened in the middle, permitting boats and vessels to go through. Baby worked it by a lever. A hundred yards or so above the bridge was the parish mill, and between were the Hotel France, the little house of Doctor Montmagny, the Regimental Surgeon (as he was called), the cooper shop, the blacksmith, the tinsmith and the grocery shops. Just beyond the mill, upon the banks of the river, was the most notorious, if not the most celebrated, house in the settlement. Shangois, the travelling notary, lived in it——when he was not travelling. When he was, he left it unlocked, all save one room; and people came and went through the house as they pleased, eyeing with curiosity the dusty, tattered books upon the shelves, the empty bottles in the corner, the patchwork of cheap prints, notices of sales, summonses, accounts, certificates of baptism, memoranda, receipted bills——though they were few——tacked or stuck to the wall.

  No grown-up person of the village meddled with anything, no matter how curious; for this consistent, if unspoken, trust displayed by Shangois appealed to their better instincts. Besides, they, like the children, had a wholesome fear of the disreputable, shrunken, dishevelled little notary, with the bead-like eyes, yellow stockings, hooked nose and palsied left hand. Also the knapsack and black bag he carried under his arms contained more secrets than most people wished to tempt or challenge forth. Few cared to anger the little man, whose father and grandfather had been notaries here before him.

  Like others in the settlement, Shangois was the last of his race. He could put his finger upon the secret history and private lives of nearly every person in a dozen parishes, but most of all in Bonaventure——for such this long parish was called. He knew to a hair's breadth the social value of every human being in the parish. He was too cunning and acute to be a gossip, but by direct and indirect ways he made every person feel that the Cure and the Lord might forgive their pasts, but he could never forget them, nor wished to do so. For Monsieur Duhamel, the old seigneur, for the drunken Philippe Casimbault, for the Cure, and for the Lavilettes, who owned the great farmhouse at the apex of that wedge of village life, he had a profound respect. The parish generally did not share his respect for the Lavilettes.

  Once upon a time, beyond the memories of any in the parish, the Lavilettes of Bonaventure were a great people. Disaster came, debt and difficulty followed, fire consumed the old house in which their dignity had been cherished, and at last they had no longer their seigneurial position, but that of ordinary farmers who work and toil in the field like any of the fifty-acre farmers on the banks of the St. Lawrence River.

  Monsieur Louis Lavilette, the present head of the house, had not married well. At the time when the feeling against the English was the strongest, and when his own fortunes were precarious, he had married a girl somewhat older than himself, who was half English and half French, her father having been a Hudson's Bay Company factor on the north coast of the river. In proportion as their fortunes and their popularity declined, and their once notable position as an old family became scarce a memory even, the pride of the Lavilettes increased.

  Madame Lavilette made strong efforts to secure her place; but she was not of an old French family, and this was an easy and convenient weapon against her. Besides, she had no taste, and her manners were much inferior to those of her husband. What impression he managed to make by virtue of a good deal of natural dignity, she soon unmade by her lack of tact. She had no innate breeding, though she was not vulgar. She lacked sense a little and sensitiveness much.

  The Casimbaults and the wife of the old seigneur made no friends of the Lavilettes, but the old seigneur kept up a formal habit of calling twice a year at the Lavilettes' big farmhouse, which, in spite of all misfortune, grew bigger as the years went on. Probably, in spite of everything, Monsieur Lavilette and his family would have succeeded better socially had it not been for one or two unpopular lawsuits brought by the Lavilettes against two neighbours, small farmers, one of whom was clearly in the wrong, and the other as clearly in the right.

  When, after years had gone by, and the children of the Lavilettes had grown up, young Monsieur Casimbault came from Quebec to sell his property (it seemed to the people of Bonaventure like selling his birthright), he was greatly surprised to find Monsieur Lavilette ready with ten thousand dollars, to purchase the Manor Casimbault. Before the parish had time to take breath Monsieur Casimbault had handed over the deed, pocketed the money, and leaving the ancient heritage of his family in the hands of the Lavilettes, (who forthwith prepared to enter upon it, house and land), had hurried away to Quebec again without any pangs of sentiment.

  It was a little before this time that impertinent peasants in the parish began to sing:

  "O when you hear my little silver drum,And when I blow my little gold trompette-a,You must drop your work and come,You must leave your pride at home,And duck your heads before the Lavilette-a!"

  Gatineau the miller, and Baby the keeper of the bridge, gave their own reasons for the renewed progress of the Lavilettes. They met in conference at the mill on the eve of the marriage of Sophie Lavilette to Magon Farcinelle, farrier, farmer and member of the provincial legislature, whose house lay behind the piece of maple wood, a mile or so to the right of the Lavilettes' farmhouse. Farcinelle's engagement to Sophie had come as a surprise to all, for, so far as people knew, there had been no courting. Madame Lavilette had encouraged, had even tempted, the spontaneous and jovial Farcinelle. Though he had never made a speech in the House of Assembly, and it was hard to tell why he was elected, save because everybody liked him, his official position and his popularity held an important place in Madame Lavilette's long-developed plans, which at last were to place her in a position equal to that of the old seigneur, and launch her upon society at the capital.

  They had gone more than once to the capital, where their family had been well-known fifty years before, but few doors had been opened to them. They were farmers——only farmers——and Madame Lavilette made no remarkable impression. Her dress was florid and not in excellent taste, and her accent was rather crude. Sophie had gone to school at the convent in the city, but she had no ambition. She had inherited the stolid simplicity of her English grandfather. When her schooling was finished she let her school friends drop, and came back to Bonaventure, rather stately, given to reading, and little inclined to bother her head about anybody.

  Christine, the younger sister, had gone to Quebec also, but after a week of rebellion, bad temper and sharp speaking, had come home again without ceremony, and refused to return. Despite certain likenesses to her mother, she had a deep, if unintelligible, admiration for her father, and she never tired looking at the picture of her great-grandfather in the dress of a chevalier of St. Louis——almost the only thing that had been saved from the old Manor House, destroyed so long before her time. Perhaps it was the importance she attached to her ancestry which made her impatient with their present position, and with people in the parish who would not altogether recognise their claims. It was that which made her give a little jerky bow to the miller and the postmaster when she passed the mill.

  "Come, dusty-belly," said Baby, "what's all this pom-pom of the Lavilettes?"

  The miller pursed out his lips, contracted his brows, and arranged his loose waistcoat carefully on his fat stomach.

  "Money," said he, oracularly, as though he had solved the great question of the universe.

  "La! la! But other folks have money; and they step about Bonaventure no more louder than a cat."

  "Blood," added Gatineau, corrugating his brows still more.

  "Bosh!"

  "Both together——money and blood," rejoined the miller. Overcome by his exertions, he wheezed so tremendously that great billows of excitement raised his waistcoat, and a perspiration broke out upon his mealy face, making a paste which the sun, through the open doorway, immediately began to bake into a crust.

  "Pah, the airs they have always had, those Lavilettes!" said Baby. "They will not do this because it is not polite, they will not do that because they are too proud. They say that once there was a baron in their family. Who can tell how long ago! Perhaps when John the Baptist was alive. What is that? Nothing. There is no baron now. All at once somebody die a year ago, and leave them ten thousand dollars; and then—— mais, there is the grand difference! They have save and save twenty years to pay their debts and to buy a seigneury, like that baron who live in the time of John the Baptist. Now it is to stand on a ladder to speak to them. And when all's done, they marry Ma'm'selle Sophie to a farrier, to that Magon Farcinelle——bah!"

  "Magon was at the Laval College in Quebec; he has ten thousand dollars; he is the best judge of horses in the province, and he's a Member of Parliament to boot," said the miller, puffing. "He is a great man almost."

  "He's no better judge of horses than M'sieu' Nic Lavilette——eh, that's a bully bad scamp, my Gatineau!" responded Baby. "He's the best in the family. He is a grand sport; yes. It's he that fetched Ma'm'selle Sophie to the hitching-post. Voila, he can wind them all round his finger!"

  Baby looked round to see if any one was near; then he drew the miller's head down by pulling at his collar, and whispered in his ear:

  "He's hot foot for the Rebellion; that's one good thing," he said. "If he wipes out the English——"

  "Hold your tongue," nervously interrupted Gatineau, for just then two or three loiterers of the parish came shambling around the corner of the mill.

  Baby stopped short, and as they greeted the newcomers their attention was drawn to the stage-coach from St. Croix coming over the little hill near by.

  "Here's M'sieu' Nic now——and who's with him?" said Baby, stepping about nervously in his excitement. "I knew there was something up. M'sieu' Nic's been writing long letters from Montreal."

  Baby's look suggested that he knew more than his position as postmaster entitled him to know; but the furtive droop at the corner of his eyes showed also that his secretiveness was equal to his cowardice.

  On the seat, beside the driver of the coach, was Nicolas Lavilette, black-haired, brown-eyed, athletic, reckless-looking, with a cast in his left eye, which gave him a look of drollery, in keeping with his buoyant, daring nature. Beside him was a figure much more noticeable and unusual.

  Lean, dark-featured, with keen-glancing eyes, and a body with a faculty for finding corners of ease; waving hair, streaked with grey, black moustache, and a hectic flush on the cheeks, lending to the world-wise face a wistful look-that, with near six feet of height, was the picture of his friend.

  "Who is it?" asked the miller, with bulging eyes. "An English nobleman," answered Baby. "How do you know?" asked Gatineau.

  "How do I know you are a fat, cheating miller?" replied the postmaster, with cunning care and a touch of malice. Malice was the only power Baby knew.

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