The Lane that had No Turning/Times were Hard in Pontiac
TIMES WERE HARD IN PONTIAC
IT was soon after the Rebellion, and there was little food to be had and less money, and winter was at hand. Pontiac, ever most loyal to old France, though obedient to the English, had herself sent few recruits to be shot down by Colborne; but she had emptied her pockets in sending to the front the fulness of her barns and the best cattle of her fields. She gave her all; she was frank in giving, hid nothing; and when her own trouble came there was no voice calling on her behalf. And Pontiac would rather starve than beg. So, as the winter went on, she starved in silence, and no one had more than sour milk and bread and a potato now and then. The Curé, the Avocat, and the Little Chemist fared no better than the habitants; for they gave all they had right and left, and themselves often went hungry to bed. And the truth is that few outside Pontiac knew of her suffering; she kept the secret of it close.
It seemed at last, however, to the Curé that he must, after all, write to the world outside for help. That was when he saw the faces of the children get pale and drawn. There never was a time when there were so few fish in the river and so little game in the woods. At last, from the altar steps one Sunday, the Curé, with a calm, sad voice, told the people that, for "the dear children’s sake," they must sink their pride and ask help from without. He would write first to the Bishop of Quebec; "for," said he, "Mother Church will help us; she will give us food, and money to buy seed in the spring; and, please God, we will pay all back in a year or two!" He paused a minute, then continued: "Some one must go, to speak plainly and wisely of our trouble, that there be no mistake—we are not beggars, we are only borrowers. Who will go? I may not myself, for who would give the Blessed Sacrament, and speak to the sick, or say Mass and comfort you?"
There was silence in the church for a moment, and many faces meanwhile turned instinctively to M. Garon the Avocat, and some to the Little Chemist.
"Who will go?" asked the Curé again. "It is a bitter journey, but our pride must not be our shame in the end. Who will go?"
Every one expected that the Avocat or the Little Chemist would rise; but while they looked at each other, waiting and sorrowful, and the Avocat’s fingers fluttered to the seat in front of him, to draw himself up, a voice came from the corner opposite, saying:
"M’sieu’ le Curé, I will go."
A strange, painful silence fell on the people for a moment, and then went round an almost incredulous whisper: "Parpon the dwarf!”
Parpon’s deep eyes were fixed on the Curé, his hunched body leaning on the railing in front of him, his long, strong arms stretched out as if he were begging for some good thing. The murmur among the people increased, but the Curé raised his hand to command silence, and his eyes gazed steadily at the dwarf. It might seem that he was noting the huge head, the shaggy hair, the overhanging brows, the weird face of this distortion of a thing made in God’s own image. But he was thinking instead of how the angel and the devil may live side by side in a man, and neither be entirely driven out—and the angel conquer in great times and seasons.
He beckoned to Parpon to come over, and the dwarf trotted with a sidelong motion to the chancel steps. Every face in the congregation was eager, and some were mystified, even anxious. They all knew the singular power of the little man—his knowledge, his deep wit, his judgment, his occasional fierceness, his infrequent malice; but he was kind to children and the sick, and the Curé and the Avocat and their little coterie respected him. Once everybody had worshipped him: that was when he had sung in the Mass, the day of the funeral of the wife of Farette the miller, for whom he worked. It had been rumoured that in his hut by the Rock of Red Pigeons, up at Dalgrothe Mountain, a voice of most wonderful power and sweetness had been heard singing; but this was only rumour. Yet when the body of the miller’s wife lay in the church, he had sung so that men and women wept and held each other’s hands for joy. He had never sung since, however; his voice of silver was locked away in the cabinet of secret purposes which every man has somewhere in his own soul.
"What will you say to the Bishop, Parpon?" asked the Curé.
The congregation stirred in their seats, for they saw that the Curé intended Parpon to go.
Parpon went up two steps of the chancel quietly and caught the arm of the Curé, drawing him down to whisper in his ear.
A flush and then a peculiar soft light passed over the Curé’s face, and he raised his hand over Parpon’s head in benediction and said: "Go, my son, and the blessing of God and of His dear Son be with you."
Then suddenly he turned to the altar, and, raising his hands, he tried to speak, but only said: "O Lord, Thou knowest our pride and our vanity, hear us, and——"
Soon afterwards, with tearful eyes, he preached from the text:
"And the Light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehendeth it not."
Five days later a little, uncouth man took off his hat in the chief street of Quebec, and began to sing a song of Picardy to an air which no man in French Canada had ever heard. Little farmers on their way to the market by the Place de Cathedral stopped, listening, though every moment’s delay lessened their chances of getting a stand in the market-place. Butchers and milkmen loitered, regardless of waiting customers; a little company of soldiers caught up the chorus, and, to avoid involuntary revolt, their sergeant halted them, that they might listen. Gentlemen strolling by—doctor, lawyer, officer, idler—paused and forgot the raw climate, for this marvellous voice in the unshapely body warmed them, and they pushed in among the fast-gathering crowd. Ladies hurrying by in their sleighs lost their hearts to the thrilling notes of:
"Little grey fisherman,
Where is your daughter?
Where is your daughter so sweet?
Little grey man who comes Over the water,
I have knelt down at her feet,
Knelt at your Gabrielle’s feet—ci ci!"
Presently the wife of the governor stepped out from her sleigh, and, coming over, quickly took Parpon’s cap from his hand and went round among the crowd with it, gathering money.
"He is hungry, he is poor," she said, with tears in her eyes. She had known the song in her childhood, and he who used to sing it to her was in her sight no more. In vain the gentlemen would have taken the cap from her; she gathered the money herself, and others followed, and Parpon sang on.
A night later a crowd gathered in the great hall of the city, filling it to the doors, to hear the dwarf sing. He came on the platform dressed as he had entered the city, with heavy, home-made coat and trousers, and moccasins, and a red woollen comforter about his neck—but this comforter he took off when he began to sing. Old France and New France, and the loves and hates and joys and sorrows of all lands, met that night in the soul of this dwarf with the divine voice, who did not give them his name, so that they called him, for want of a better title, the Provençal. And again two nights afterwards it was the same, and yet again a third night and a fourth, and the simple folk, and wise folk also, went mad after Parpon the dwarf.
Then, suddenly, he disappeared from Quebec City, and the next Sunday morning, while the Curé was saying the last words of the Mass, he entered the Church of St. Saviour’s at Pontiac. Going up to the chancel steps he waited. The murmuring of the people drew the Curé’s attention, and then, seeing Parpon, he came forward.
Parpon drew from his breast a bag, and put it in his hands, and beckoning down the Curé’s head, he whispered.
The Curé turned to the altar and raised the bag towards it in ascription and thanksgiving, then he turned to Parpon again, but the dwarf was trotting away down the aisle and from the church.
"Dear children," said the Curé, "we are saved, and we are not shamed." He held up the bag. "Parpon has brought us two thousand dollars: we shall have food to eat, and there shall be more money against seed-time. The giver of this good gift demands that his name be not known. Such is all true charity. Let us pray."
So hard times passed from Pontiac as the months went on; but none save the Curé and the Avocat knew who had helped her in her hour of need.