The Countersign Of The Cradle

by


I cannot explain to you the connection between the two parts of this story. They were divided, in their happening, by a couple of hundred miles of mountain and forest. There were no visible or audible means of communication between the two scenes. But the events occurred at the same hour, and the persons who were most concerned in them were joined by one of those vital ties of human affection which seem to elude the limitations of time and space. Perhaps that was the connection. Perhaps love worked the miracle. I do not know. I only tell you the story.


I

It begins in the peaceful, homely village of Saint Gerome, on the shore of Lake Saint John, at the edge of the vast northern wilderness. Here was the home of my guide, Pat Mullarkey, whose name was as Irish as his nature was French-Canadian, and who was so fond of children that, having lost his only one, he was willing to give up smoking in order to save money for the adoption of a baby from the foundling asylum at Quebec. How his virtue was rewarded, and how his wife, Angelique, presented him with twins of his own, to his double delight, has been told in another story. The relation of parentage to a matched brace of babies is likely to lead to further adventures.

The cradle, of course, being built for two, was a broad affair, and little Jacques and Jacqueline rolled around in it inextricably mixed, until Pat had the ingenious idea of putting a board down the middle for a partition. Then the infants rocked side by side in harmony, going up and down alternately, without a thought of debating the eternal question of superiority between the sexes. Their weight was the same. Their dark eyes and hair were alike. Their voices, whether they wept or cooed, were indistinguishable. Everybody agreed that a finer boy and girl had never been seen in Saint Gerome. But nobody except Pat and Angelique could tell them apart as they swung in the cradle, gently rising and falling, in unconscious illustration of the equivalence and balancing of male and female.

Angelique, of course, was particularly proud of the boy. As he grew, and found his feet, and began to wander about the house and the front yard, with a gait in which a funny little swagger was often interrupted by sudden and unpremeditated down-sittings, she was keen to mark all his manly traits.

"Regard him, m'sieu'," she would say to me when I dropped in at the cottage on my way home from camp--"regard this little brave. Is it not a boy of the finest? What arms! What legs! He walks already like a _voyageur_, and he does not cry when he falls. He is of a marvellous strength, and of a courage! My faith, you should see him stand up to the big rooster of the neighbour, Pigot. Come, my little one, my Jacques, my Jimmee, one day you will be able to put your father on his back--is it not?"

She laughed, and Pat laughed with her.

"That arrives to all fathers," said he, catching the little Jacqueline as she swayed past him and swinging her to his knee. "Soon or late the _bonhomme_ has to give in to his boy; and he is glad of it. But for me, I think it will not be very soon, and meantime, m'sieu', cast a good look of the eye upon this girl. Has she not the red cheeks, the white teeth, the curly hair, brown like her mother's? But she will be pretty, I tell you! And clever too, I am sure of it! She can bake the bread, and sew, and keep the house clean; she can read, and sing in the church, and drive the boys crazy--_hein_, my pretty one--what a comfort to the old _bonhomme_!"

"He goes fast," laughed Angelique; "he talks already as if she were in long dresses with her hair done up. Without doubt, m'sieu' amuses himself to hear such talk about two infants."

But the thing that amused me most was the beginning-to-talk of the twins themselves. It was natural that the mother and father should speak to me in their quaint French _patois_; and the practice of many summers had made me able to get along with it fairly well. But that these scraps of humanity should begin their adventures in language with French, and such French, old-fashioned as a Breton song, always seemed to me surprising and wonderfully smart. I could not get over the foolish impression that it was extraordinary. There is something magical about the sound of a baby voice babbling a tongue that is strange to you; it sets you thinking about the primary difficulties in the way of human intercourse and wondering just how it was that people began to talk to each other.

Long before the twins outgrew their French baby talk the famous cradle was too small to hold their sturdy bodies, and they were promoted to a trundle-bed on the floor. The cradle was an awkward bit of furniture in such a little house, and Angelique was for giving it away or breaking it up for kindling-wood.

"But no!" said Pat. "We have plenty of wood for kindlings in this country without burning the cradle. Besides, this wood means more to us than any old tree--it has rocked our hopes. Let us put it in the corner of the kitchen--what? Come--perhaps we may find a use for it, who knows?"

"Go along," said Angelique, giving him a friendly box on the ear, "you old joker! Off with you, _vieux bavasseur_--put the cradle where you like."

So there it stood, in the corner beside the stove, on the night of my story. Pat had gone down to Quebec on the first of June (three days ahead of time) to meet me there and help in packing the goods for a long trip up the Peribonca River. Angelique was sleeping the sleep of the innocent and the just in the bedroom, with the twins in their trundle-bed beside her, and the door into the kitchen half-open.

What it was that waked her she did not know--perhaps a bad dream, for Pat had given her a bit of trouble that spring, with a sudden inclination for drinking and carousing, and she was uneasy about his long absence. A man in the middle years sometimes has a bit of folly, and a woman worries about him without knowing exactly why. At all events, Angelique came wide awake in the night with a sense of fear in her heart, as if she had just heard something terrible about her husband which she could not remember.

She listened to the breathing of the twins in the darkness. It was soft and steady as the falling of tiny ripples upon the beach. But presently she was aware of a louder sound in the kitchen. It was regular and even, like the ticking of a clock. There was a roll and a creak in it, as if somebody was sitting in the rocking-chair and balancing back and forth.

She slipped out of bed and opened the door a little wider. There was a faint streak of moonlight slanting through the kitchen window, and she could see the tall back of the chair, with its red-and-white tidy, vacant and motionless.

In the corner was the cradle, with the children's clothes hanging over the head of it and their two ragged dolls tucked away within. It was rocking evenly and slowly, as if moved by some unseen force.

Her eyes followed the ray of the moon. On the rocker of the cradle she saw a man's foot with the turned-up toe of a _botte sauvage_. It seemed as if the smoke of a familiar pipe was in the room. She heard her husband's voice softly humming:


"Petit rocher de la haute montagne,
Je viens finir ici cette campagne.
Ah, doux echos, entendez mes soupirs;
En languissant je vais bientot mourir!
"


Trembling, she entered the room, with a cry on her lips.

"Ah! Pat, _mon ami_, what is it? How camest thou here?"

As she spoke, the cradle ceased rocking, the moon-ray faded on the bare floor, the room was silent.

She fell upon her knees, sobbing.

"My God, I have seen his double, his ghost. My man is dead!"


II

In the steep street of Quebec which is called "Side of the Mountain," there is a great descending curve; and from this curve, at the right, there drops a break-neck flight of steps, leading by the shortest way to the Lower Town.

As I came down these steps, after dining comfortably at the Chateau Frontenac, on the same night when Angelique was sleeping alone beside the twins in the little house of Saint Gerome, I was aware of a merry fracas below me in the narrow lane called "Under the Fort." The gas lamps glimmered yellow in the gulf; the old stone houses almost touched their gray foreheads across the roadway; and in the cleft between them a dozen roystering companions, men and girls, were shouting, laughing, swearing, quarrelling, pushing this way and that way, like the waves on a turbulent eddy of the river before it decides which direction to follow. In the centre of the noisy group was a big fellow with a black mustache.

"I tell you, my boys," he cried, "we go to the Rue Champlain, to the _Moulin Gris_ of old Trudel. There is good stuff to drink there; we'll make a night of it! My m'sieu' comes to seek me, but he will not find me until to-morrow. Shut your mouth, you Louis. What do we care for the police? Come, Suzanne, _marchons_!"

Then he broke out into song:


"Ce n'est point du raisin pourri,
C'est le bon vin qui danse!
C'est le bon vin qui danse ici,
C'est le bon vin qui danse!
"


Even through its too evident disguise in liquor I knew the voice of my errant Pat. Would it be wise to accost him at such a moment, in such company? The streets of the Lower Town were none too peaceful after dark. And yet, if he were not altogether out of his head, it would be a good thing to stop him from going further and getting into trouble. At least it was worth trying.

"Good-evening, Pat," I cried.

He turned as if a pebble had struck him, and saw me standing under the flickering lamp. He stared for a moment in bewilderment, then a smile came over his face, and he pulled off his hat.

"There is my m'sieu'," he said; "my faith, but that is droll! You go on, you others. I must speak to him a little. See you later--Rue Champlain--the old place."

The befogged company rolled away in the darkness and Pat rolled over to me. His greeting was a bit unsteady, but his natural politeness and good-fellowship did not fail him.

"But how I am happy to see m'sieu'!" said he; "it is a little sooner than I expected, but so much the better! And how well m'sieu' carries himself--in full health, is it not? You have the air of it--all ready for the Peribonca, I suppose? _Bateche_, that will be a great voyage, and we shall have plenty of the good luck."

"Yes," I answered, "it looks to me like a good trip, if we get started right. I want to talk with you about it. Can you leave your friends for a while?"

His face reddened visibly under its dark coat of tan, and he stammered as he replied:

"But certainly, m'sieu'--they are not my friends--that is to say--well, I know them a little--they can wait--I am perfectly at the service of m'sieu'."

So we walked around the corner into the open square (which, by the way, is shaped like a triangle), at one side of which there is an old-fashioned French hotel, with a double _galerie_ across its face, and green-shuttered windows. There were tables in front of it, and at one of these I invited Pat to join me in having some coffee.

His conversation at first was decidedly vague and woolly, though polite as ever. There was a thickness about his words as if they were a little swollen, and his ideas had loose edges, and would not fit together. However, he did his best to pull himself up and make good talk. But his _r_'s rolled like an unstrung drum, and his _n_'s twanged like a cracked banjo. On the subject of the proper amount of provisions to take with us for our six weeks' camping trip he wandered wildly. Without doubt we must take enough--in grand quantity--one must live well--else one could not carry the load on the portages--very long portages--not good for heavy packs--we must take very little stuff--small rations, a little pork and flour--we can get plenty to eat with our guns and m'sieu's rod--a splendid country for sport--and those little fishes in tin boxes which m'sieu' loves so well--for sure we must take plenty of them!

It was impossible to get anything definite out of him in regard to the outfit of the camp, and I knew it beforehand; but I wanted to keep him talking while the coffee got in its good work, and I knew that his courtesy would not let him break away while I was asking questions. By the time I had poured him the second cup of the black brain-clearer he was distinctly more steady. His laugh was quieter and his eyes grew more thoughtful.

"And the bread," said I; "we must carry two or three loaves of good _habitant_ bread, just for the first week out. I can't do without that. Do you suppose, by any chance, that Angelique would bake it for us? Or perhaps those lady friends of yours who have just left you--eh?"

A look of shame and protest flushed in Pat's face. He dropped his head, and lifted it again, glancing quickly at me to read a hidden meaning in the question. Then he turned away and stared across the square toward the slender spire of the little church at the other end.

"I assure you," he said slowly, "they are not of my friends, those--those--bah! what do those people know about making bread? I beg m'sieu' not to speak of those girls there in the same breath with my Angelique!"

"Good!" I answered. "Pardon me, I will not do it again. I did not understand. They are bad people, I suppose. But how are you so thick with them?"

"If they are bad," said he, shrugging his shoulders--"if they are bad! But why should I judge them? That is God's affair. There are all kinds of people in His world. I do not like it that m'sieu' has found me with that kind. But a man must make a little fun sometimes, you comprehend, and sometimes he makes himself a damn fool, do you see? I have been with those people last night and to-day--and now I have promised--I have won the money of Pierre Goujon, and he must have his revenge--and I have promised that Suzanne Gravel--well, I must keep my word of honour and go to them for to-night. M'sieu' will excuse me now?"

He rose from the table, but I sat still.

"Wait a moment," I said; "there is no hurry. Let us have another pot of coffee and some of those little cakes with melted white sugar on them, like Angelique used to make." (He started slightly at the name.) "Come, sit down again. I want you to tell me something about that pretty old church across the square. See how the moonlight sparkles on the tin spire. What is the name of it?"

"Our Lady of the Victories," he answered, seating himself unwillingly. "They say it is the most old of the churches of Quebec."

"It is a fine name," said I. "What does it mean? What victories?"

"The French over the English, I suppose, long ago. It does not interest me now. I must be on my road to the _Moulin Gris_."

"Will you stop on your way to say a prayer at the door of the church of Our Lady of the Victories?"

His eyes dropped and he shook his head.

"Well, then, on your way back in the morning perhaps you will stop at the church and go in to confess?"

He nodded his head and spoke heavily. "Who knows? Perhaps yes--perhaps no. There may be fighting to-night. Pierre is very mad and ugly. I am not afraid. But it is evident that m'sieu' makes the conversation to detain me. We are old friends. Why not speak frank?"

"Old friends we are, Pat, and frank it is. I do not want you to go to the Gray Mill. You have been drinking--stronger stuff than coffee. Those people will pluck you, do you up, perhaps stick a knife in you. Then what will become of Angelique and the twins? Stay here a while; I want to talk to you about the twins. How are they? You have not told me a word about them yet."

His face sombered and brightened again. He poured himself another cup of coffee and put in three spoonfuls of sugar, smiling as he stirred it.

"Ah," said he, "that is something good to speak of--those twins! It is easily seen that m'sieu' knows how to make the conversation. I could talk of those twins for a long time. They are better than ever--strong, fat, and good--and pretty, too--you may believe it! I pretend to make nothing of the boy, just to tease my wife; and she pretends to make nothing of the girl, just to tease me. But they are a pair--I tell you, a pair of marvels!"

He went on telling me about their growth, their adventures, their clever tricks, as if the subject were inexhaustible. I offered him a cigar. But no, he preferred his pipe--with a _pipee_ of the good tobacco from the Upper Town, if I would oblige him? The smoke wreaths curled over our heads. The other tables were gradually deserted. The sleepy waiter had received payment for the coffee and cleared away the cups. The moon slipped behind the lofty cliff of the Citadel, and the little square lay in soft shadow with the church spire shining dimly above it. Pat continued the _memoires intimes_ of Jacques and Jacqueline.

"And the cradle," I asked, "that famous cradle built for two--what has become of it? Doubtless it exists no more."

"But it is there," he cried warmly. "Angelique said it was in the way, but I persuaded her to keep it. You see, perhaps we might need it--what? Ha, ha, that would be droll. But anyway it is good for the twins to put their dolls to sleep in. It is a cradle so easy to rock. You do not need to touch it with your hand. It goes like this."

He put out his right foot with its _botte sauvage_, the round toe turned up, the low heel resting on the ground, and moved it slowly down and up as if it pressed an unseen rocker.

"_Comme ca, m'sieu'_," he said. "It demands no effort, only the tranquillity of soul. One can smoke a little, one can sing, one can dream of the days to come. That is a pleasant inn to stay at--the Sign of the Cradle. How many good hours I have passed there--the happiest of my life--I thank God for them. I can never forget them."

A crash as of sudden thunder--a ripping, rending roar of swift, unknown disaster--filled the air, and shook the quiet houses around our Lady of the Victories with nameless terror. After it, ten seconds of thrilling silence, and then the distant sound of shrieking and wailing. We sprang to our feet, trembling and horror-stricken.

"It is in the Rue Champlain," cried Pat. "Come!"

We darted across the square, turned a corner to the right, a corner to the left, and ran down the long dingy street that skirts the foot of the precipice on which the Citadel is enthroned. The ramshackle houses, grey and grimy, huddled against the cliff that frowned above them with black scorn and menace. High against the stars loomed the impregnable walls of the fortress. Low in the shadow crouched the frail habitations of the poor, the miserable tenements, the tiny shops, the dusky drinking-dens.

The narrow way was already full of distracted people--some running toward us to escape from danger--some running with us to see what had happened.

"The Gray Mill," gasped my comrade; "a hundred yards farther--come on--we must get there at all hazards! Push through!"

When we came at last to the place, there was a gap in the wall of houses that leaned against the cliff; a horrible confusion of shattered roofs and walls hurled across the street; and above it an immense scar on the face of the precipice. Ten thousand tons of rock, loosened secretly by the frost and the rain, had plunged without warning on the doomed habitations below and buried the Gray Mill in overwhelming ruin.

Pat trembled like a branch caught among the rocks in a swift current of the river. He buried his face in his hands.

"My God," he muttered, "was it as close as that? How was I spared? My God, pardon for all poor sinners!"

We worked for hours among the houses that had been more lightly struck and where there was still hope of rescuing the wounded. The Church of Our Lady of the Victories was quickly opened to receive them, and the priests ministered to the suffering and the dying as we carried them in.

As the pale dawn crept through the narrow windows, I saw Pat rise from his knees at the altar and come down the aisle to stand with me in the doorway.

"Well," said I, "it is all over, and here we are in the church this morning, after all."

"Yes," he answered; "it is the best place. It is where we all need to come. I have given my money to the priest--it was not mine--I have left it all for prayers to be said for the poor souls of those--of those--those friends of mine."

He brought out the words with brave humility, an avowal and a plea for pardon.

"We must send a telegram," I said, putting my hand on his shoulder. "Angelique will be frightened if she hears of this. We must tranquillise her. How will this do? 'Safe and well. Coming home to-morrow to you and twins.' That makes just ten words."

"It is perfectly correct, m'sieu'." he replied gravely. "She will be glad to get that message. But--if it would not cost too much--only a few words more,--I should like to put in something to say, 'God bless you and forgive me.'"


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