Before Toinette Girard made up her mind to marry Prosper Leclere,--you remember the man at Abbeville who had such a brave heart that he was not willing to fight with an old friend,--before Toinette perceived and understood how brave Prosper was, it seemed as if she were very much in doubt whether she did not love some one else more than she loved him, whether he and she really were made for each other, whether, in short, she cared for him enough to give herself entirely to him.
But after they had been married six weeks there was no doubt left in her mind. He was the one man in the world for her. He satisfied her to the core--although by this time she knew most of his faults. It was not so much that she loved him in spite of them, but she simply could not imagine him changed in any way without losing a part of him, and that idea was both intolerable and incredible to her. Just as he was, she clung to him and became one with him.
I know it seems ridiculous to describe a love like that, and it is certainly impossible to explain it. It is not common, nor regular, nor altogether justifiable by precept and authority. Reason is against it; and the doctors of the church have always spoken severely of the indulgence of any human affection that verges on idolatry. But the fact remains that there are a few women in the world who are capable of such a passion.
Capable? No, that is not the word. They are created for it. They cannot help it. It is not a virtue, it is simply a quality. Their whole being depends upon their love. They hang upon it, as a wreath hangs from a nail in the wall. If it breaks they are broken. If it holds they are happy. Other things interest them and amuse them, of course, but there is only one thing that really counts--to love and to be loved.
Toinette was a woman of that rare race. To the outward view she was just a pretty French Canadian girl with an oval face, brown hair, and eyes like a very dark topaz. Her hands were small, but rather red and rough. Her voice was rich and vibrant, like the middle notes of a 'cello, but she spoke a dialect that was as rustic as a cabbage. Her science was limited to enough arithmetic to enable her to keep accounts, her art to the gift of singing a very lovely contralto by ear, and her notions of history bordered on the miraculous. She was obstinate, superstitious, and at times quick-tempered. But she had a positive genius for loving. That raised her into the first rank, and enabled her to bestow as much happiness on Prosper as if she had been a queen.
It was a grief to them, of course, that they had no children. But this grief did not destroy, nor even diminish, their felicity in each other; it was like the soft shadow of a cloud passing over a landscape--the sun was still shining and the world was fair. They were too happy to be discontented. And their fortunes were thriving, too, so that they were kept pretty hard at work--which, next to love, is the best antidote for unhappiness.
After the death of the old _bonhomme_ Girard, the store fell to Prosper; and his good luck--or his cleverness, or his habit of always being ready for things, call it what you will--stuck by him. Business flourished in the _Bon Marche_ of Abbeville. Toinette helped it by her gay manners and her skill in selling. It did people good to buy of her: she made them feel that she was particularly glad that they were getting just what they needed. A pipe of the special shape which Pierre affected, a calico dress-pattern of the shade most becoming to Angelique, a brand of baking-powder which would make the batter rise up like mountains--_v'la, voisine, c'est b'en bon_! Everything that she sold had a charm with it. Consequently trade was humming, and the little wooden house beside the store was _b'en trimee_.
The only drawback to the happiness of the Lecleres was the fact that business required Prosper to go away for a fortnight twice a year to replenish his stock of goods. He went to Quebec or to Montreal, for he had a great many kinds of things to get, and he wanted good things and good bargains, and he did not trust the commercial travellers.
"Who pays those men," he said, "to run around everywhere, with big watch-chains? You and me! But why? I can buy better myself--because I understand what Abbeville wants--and I can buy cheaper."
The times of his absence were heavy and slow to Toinette. The hours were doped out of the day as reluctantly as black molasses dribbles from a jug. A professional instinct kept her up to her work in the store. She jollied the customers, looked after the accounts, made good sales, and even coquetted enough with the commercial travellers to send them away without ill-will for the establishment which refused to buy from them.
"A little _badinage_ does no harm," she said, "it keeps people from getting angry because they can't do any more business."
But in the house she was dull and absent-minded. She went about as if she had lost something. She sat in her rocking-chair, with her hands in her lap, as if she were waiting for something. The yellow light of the lamp shone upon her face and hurt her eyes. A tear fell upon her knitting. The old _tante_ Bergeron, who came in to keep house for her while she was busy with the store, diagnosed her malady and was displeased with it.
"You are love-sick," said she. "That is bad. Especially for a married woman. It is wrong to love any of God's creatures too much. Trouble will come of it--_voyons voir_."
"But, aunty," answered Toinette, "Prosper is not just any of God's creatures. He is mine. How could I love him too much? Besides, I don't do it. It does itself. How can I help it?"
"It is a malady," sighed the old woman shaking her head. "It is a malady of youth, my child. There is danger in it--and for Prosper too! You make an idol of a man and you spoil him. You upset his mind. Men are like that. You will bring trouble upon your man, if you don't take care. God will send you a warning--perhaps a countersign of death."
"What is that," cried Toinette, her heart shaking within her breast, "what do you mean with your countersign of death?"
The old woman nodded her head mysteriously and leaned forward, putting her gnarled hand on Toinette's round knee and peering with her faded eyes into the girl's wild-flower face.
"It is the word," said she, "that death speaks before he crosses the threshold. He gives a sign--sometimes one thing, and sometimes another--before he comes in. Our folk in Brittany have understood about that for a long time. My grandmother has told me. It always comes to one who has gone too far, to one who is like you. You must be careful. You must go to Mass every day and pray that your malady may be restrained."
So Toinette, having tasted of the strange chalice of fear, went to the church early every morning while Prosper was away and prayed that she might not love him so much as to make God jealous. The absurdity of such a prayer never occurred to her. She made it with childish simplicity. Probably it did no harm. For when Prosper came home she loved him more than ever. Then she went to High Mass every Sunday morning with him and prayed for other things.
After four years there came a day when Prosper must go away for a longer absence. There was an affair connected with the Department of Forests and Fisheries, which could only be arranged at Ottawa. Thither he must go to see the lawyers, and there he must stay perhaps a month, perhaps two.
You can imagine that Toinette was desolate. The draught of fear that _tante_ Bergeron had given her grew more potent and bitter in her simple heart. And the strange thing was that, although she was ignorant of it, there was apparently something true in the warning which the old woman had given. For jealousy--that vine with flying seeds and strangling creepers--had taken root in the heart of Prosper Leclere.
Yes, I know it is contrary to all the rules and to all the proverbs, but so it happened. It is not true that the strongest love is the most jealous. It is the lesser love, the love which receives more than it gives, that lies open to the floating germs of mistrust and suspicion. And so it was Prosper who began to have doubts whether Toinette thought of him as much when he was away as when he was with her; whether her gladness when he came home was not something that she put on to fool him and humour him; whether her _badinage_ with the commercial travellers (and especially with that good-looking Irishman, Flaherty from Montreal, of whom the village gossips had much to say) might not be more serious than it looked; whether--ah, well, you know, when a man begins to follow fool thoughts like that, they carry him pretty far astray in the wilderness.
Prosper was a good fellow with a touch of the prig in him. He was a Catholic with a Puritan temperament and a Gallic imagination. The idolatry of Toinette had, as a matter of fact, spoiled him a little; it was so much that he weakly questioned the reality of it, as if it were too good to be true. All the time he was in Ottawa and on the journey those fool thoughts hobbled around him and misled him and made him unhappy.
Meantime Toinette was toiling through the time of separation, with a laugh for the store, and a sigh for the lonely house, and a prayer for the church. Tired as she was at night, she did not sleep well, and her dreams were troubled by aunty Bergeron's warning against loving too much.
In the cold drab dawn of a March morning it seemed to her as if the church bell had just stopped ringing as she awaked from a dream of Prosper. She put on her clothes quickly and hurried out. The road was deserted. In the snowy fields the little fir-trees stood out as black as ink. Against the sky rose the gray-stone church like a fortress of refuge.
But as she entered the door, instead of five or six well-known neighbours, kneeling in the half-darkness, she saw that the church was filled with a strange, thick, blinding radiance, like a mist of light. Everything was blurred and confused in that luminous fog. There was not a face to be seen. Yet she felt the presence of a vast congregation all around her. There were movements in the mist. The rustling of silks, the breath of rich and strange perfumes, a low rattling as of hidden chains, came to her from every side. There were voices of men and women, young and old, rough and delicate, hoarse and sweet, all praying the same prayer in many tongues. She could not hear it clearly, but the sound of their murmurs and sighs was like the whisper of the fir-wood when the wind walks through it.
She was bewildered and frightened. Part of going to church means having people that you know near you. Her heart fluttered with a vague terror, and she sank into the first seat by the door.
She could not see the face of the priest at the altar. His voice was unfamiliar. The tinkle of the bell sounded from an infinite distance. The sound of footsteps came down the aisle. It must be some one carrying the plate for the offering. As he advanced slowly she could hear the clink of the coins dropping into it. Mechanically she put her hand in her pocket and drew out the little piece of silver and the four coppers that by chance were there.
When the man came near she saw that he was dressed in a white robe with a hood over his face. The plate was full of golden coins. She held out her poor little offering. The man in the cowl shook his head and drew back the plate.
"It is for the souls of the dead," he whispered, "the dead whom we have loved too much. Nothing but gold is good enough for this offering."
"But this is all I have," she stammered.
"There is a ring on your hand," he answered in a voice which pierced her heart.
Shivering dumbly like a dog, palsied with pain, yet compelled by an instinct which she dared not resist, she drew her wedding-ring from her finger and dropped it into the plate.
As it fell there was a clang as if a great bell had tolled; and she rose and ran from the church, never stopping until she reached her own room and fell on her knees beside her bed, sobbing as if her heart would break.
The first thing that roused her was the clatter of the dishes in the kitchen. The yellow light of morning filled the room. She wondered to find herself fully dressed and kneeling by the bed instead of sleeping in it. It was late, she had missed the hour of Mass. Her glance fell upon her left hand, lying stretched out upon the bed. The third finger was bare.
All the scene in the church rushed over her like a drive of logs in the river when the jam breaks. She felt as helpless as a little child in a canoe before the downward sweeping flood. She did not wish to cry out, to struggle--only to crouch down, and cover her eyes, and wait. Whatever was coming would come.
Then the force of youth and hope and love rose within her and she leaped to her feet. "Bah!" she said to herself, "I am a baby. It was only a dream,--the cure has told us not to be afraid of them,--I snap my fingers at that old Bergeron with her stupid countersigns,--_je m'en fricasse_! But, my ring--my ring? I have dropped it, that's all, while I was groping around the room in my sleep. After a while I will look for it and find it."
She washed her face and smoothed her hair and walked into the kitchen. Breakfast was ready and the old woman was grumbling because it had been kept waiting.
"You are lazy," she said, "a love-sick woman is good for nothing. Your eyes are red. You look bad. You have seen something. A countersign!"
She peered at the girl curiously, the wrinkles on her yellow face deepening like the cracks in drying clay, and her thin lips working as if they mumbled a delicious morsel,--a foretaste of the terrible.
"Let me alone with your silly talk," cried Toinette gaily. "I am hungry. Besides, I have a headache. You must take care of the store this morning. I will stay here. Prosper will come home to-day."
"_Frivolante_," said the old woman, with her sharp eyes fixed on the girl's left hand, "why do you think that? Where is your wedding-ring?"
"I dropped it," replied Toinette, drawing back her hand quickly and letting it fall under the table-cloth, "it must be somewhere in my room."
"She dropped it," repeated the old woman, with wagging head, "_tiens!_ what a pity! The ring that not even death should take from her finger,--she dropped it! But that is a bad sign,--the worst of all,--a countersign of----"
"Will you go? Old babbler," cried Toinette, springing up in anger, "I tell you to go to the store. I am mistress in this house."
_Tante_ Bergeron clumped sullenly away, muttering, "A mistress without a wedding-ring! Oh, la-la, la-la! There's a big misery in that."
Toinette rolled up her sleeves and washed the dishes. She tried to sing a little at her work, because she knew that Prosper liked it, but the notes seemed to stick in her throat. She wiped her eyes with the hem of her apron, and went upstairs, bare-armed, to search for her ring.
She looked and felt in every corner of the room, took up the rag-carpet rugs and shook them, moved every chair and the big chest of drawers and the wash-stand, pulled the covers and the pillows and the mattress off the bed and threw them on the floor. When she had finished the room looked as if the big north-west wind had passed through it.
Then Toinette sat down on the bed, rubbing the little white mark on her finger where the ring had been, and staring through the window at the church as if she were hypnotised. All sorts of dark and cloudy thoughts were trooping around her. Perhaps Prosper had met with an accident, or he was sick; or perhaps the suspicions and unjust reproaches with which he had sometimes wounded her lately had grown into his mind, so that he was angry with her and did not want to see her. Perhaps some one had been telling lies to him, and made him mad, and there was a fight, and a knife--she could see him lying on the floor of a tavern, in a little red puddle, with white face and staring eyes, cold and reproachful. Would he never come back, come home?
In the front of the store sleigh-bells jingled. It was probably some customer. No, she knew in her heart it was her husband!
But she could not go to him,--he must come to her, here, away from that hateful old woman. A step sounded in the hall, the door opened, Prosper stood before her. She ran to him and threw her arms around him. But he did not answer her kiss. His voice was as cold as his hands.
"Well," he said, "I come back sooner than you expected, eh? A little surprise--like a story-book."
She could not speak, her heart was beating in her throat, her arms dropped at her side.
"You are fond of your bed," he went on, "you rise late, and your room,--it looks like mad. Perhaps you had company. A party?--or a fracas?"
Her cheeks flamed, her eyes filled with tears, her mouth quivered, but no words came.
"Well," he continued, "you don't say much, but you look well. I suppose you had a good time while I was gone. Why have you taken off your wedding-ring? When a woman does that, she----"
Her face went very white, her eyes burned, she spoke with her deepest, slowest note.
"Stop, Prosper, you are unjust, something has made you crazy, some one has told you lies. You are insulting me, you are hurting me,--but I,--well, I am the one that loves you always. So I will tell you what has happened. Sit down there on the bed and be quiet. You have a right to know it all,--and I have the right to tell you."
Then she stood before him, with her right hand covering the white mark on the ring-finger, and told him the strange story of the Mass for the dead who had been too much loved. He listened with changing eyes, now full of doubt, now full of wonder and awe.
"You tell it well," he said, "and I have heard of such things before. But did this really happen to you? Is it true?"
"As God lives it is true," she answered. "I was afraid I had loved you too much. I was afraid you might be dead. That was why I gave my wedding-ring--for your soul. Look, I will swear it to you on the crucifix."
She went to the wall behind the bed where the crucifix was hanging. She lifted her hand to take it down.
There, on the little shelf at the feet of the wounded figure, she saw her wedding-ring.
Her hands trembled as she put it on her finger. Her knees trembled as she went back to Prosper and sat beside him. Her voice trembled as she said, "Here it is,--_He_ has given it back to us."
A river of shame swept over him. It seemed as if chains fell from his heart. He drew her to him. He felt her bare arms around his neck. Her head fell back, her eyes closed, her lips parted, her breath came soft and quick. He waited a moment before he dared to kiss her.
"My dove," he whispered, "the sin was not that you loved too much, but that I loved too little."