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The Sentiment of Montreal
THE FEELING of foreign travel for which our tourists had striven throughout their journey, and which they had known in some degree at Kingston and all the way down the river, was intensified from the first moment in Montreal; and it was so welcome that they were almost glad to lose money on their greenbacks, which the conductor of the omnibus would take only at a discount of twenty cents. At breakfast next morning they could hardly tell on what country they had fallen. The waiters had but a thin varnish of English speech upon their native French, and they spoke their own tongue with each other; but most of the meats were cooked to the English taste, and the whole was a poor imitation of an American hotel. During their stay the same commingling of usages and races bewildered them; the shops were English and the clerks were commonly French; the carriage-drivers were often Irish, and up and down the streets with their pious old-fashioned names, tinkled American horse-cars. Everywhere were churches and convents that recalled the ecclesiastical and feudal origin of the city; the great tubular bridge, the superb water-front with its long array of docks only surpassed by those of Liverpool, the solid blocks of business houses, and the substantial mansions on the quieter streets, proclaimed the succession of Protestant thrift and energy.
Our friends cared far less for the modern splendor of Montreal than for the remnants of its past, and for the features that identified it with another faith and another people than their own. Isabel would almost have confessed to any one of the black-robed priests upon the street; Basil could easily have gone down upon his knees to the white-hooded, pale-faced nuns gliding among the crowd. It was rapture to take a carriage, and drive, not to the cemetery, not to the public library, not to the rooms of the Young Men's Christian Association, or the grain elevators, or the new park just tricked out with rockwork and sprigs of evergreen,--not to any of the charming resorts of our own cities, but as in Europe to the churches, the churches of a pitiless superstition, the churches with their atrocious pictures and statues, their lingering smell of the morning's incense, their confessionals, their fee-taking sacristans, their worshippers dropped here and there upon their knees about the aisles, and saying their prayers with shut or wandering eyes according as they were old women or young! I do not defend the feeble sentimentality,--call it wickedness if you like,--but I understand it, and I forgive it from my soul.
They went first, of course, to the French cathedral, pausing on their way to alight and walk through the Bonsecours Market, where the habitans have all come in their carts, with their various stores of poultry, fruit, and vegetables, and where every cart is a study. Here is a simple-faced young peasant-couple with butter and eggs and chickens ravishingly displayed; here is a smooth-cheeked, black-eyed, black-haired young girl, looking as if an infusion of Indian blood had darkened the red of her cheeks, presiding over a stock of onions, potatoes, beets, and turnips; there an old woman with a face carven like a walnut behind a flattering array of cherries and pears; yonder a whole family trafficking in loaves of brown-bread and maple-sugar in many shapes of pious and grotesque device. There are gay shows of bright scarfs and kerchiefs and van-colored yarns, and sad shows of old clothes and second-hand merchandise of other sorts; but above all prevails the abundance of orchard and garden, while within the fine edifice are the stalls of the butchers, and in the basement below a world of household utensils, glass-ware, hardware, and wooden-ware. As in other Latin countries, each peasant has given a personal interest to his wares, but the bargains are not clamored over as in Latin lands abroad. Whatever protest and concession and invocation of the saints attend the transaction of business at Bonsecours Market are in a subdued tone. The fat huckster-women drowsing beside their wares, scarce send their voices beyond the borders of their broad-brimmed straw hats, as they softly haggle with purchasers, or tranquilly gossip together.
At the cathedral there are, perhaps, the worst paintings in the world, and the massive pine-board pillars are unscrupulously smoked to look like marble; but our tourists enjoyed it as if it had been St. Peter's; in fact it has something of the barn-like immensity and impressiveness of St. Peter's. They did not ask it to be beautiful or grand; they desired it only to recall the beloved ugliness, the fondly cherished hideousness and incongruity of the average Catholic churches of their remembrance, and it did this and more: it added an effect of its own; it offered the spectacle of a swarthy old Indian kneeling before the high altar, telling his beads, and saying with many sighs and tears the prayers which it cost so much martyrdom and heroism to teach his race. "Oh, it is only a savage man," said the little French boy who was showing them the place, impatient of their interest in a thing so un-worthy as this groaning barbarian. He ran swiftly about from object to object, rapidly lecturing their inattention. "It is now time to go up into the tower," said he, and they gladly made that toilsome ascent, though it is doubtful if the ascent of towers is not too much like the ascent of mountains ever to be compensatory. From the top of Notre Dame is certainly to be had a prospect upon which, but for his fluttered nerves and trembling muscles and troubled respiration, the traveller might well look with delight, and as it is must behold with wonder. So far as the eye reaches it dwells only upon what is magnificent. All the features of that landscape are grand. Below you spreads the city, which has less that is merely mean in it than any other city of our continent, and which is everywhere ennobled by stately civic edifices, adorned by tasteful churches, and skirted by full-foliaged avenues of mansions and villas. Behind it rises the beautiful mountain, green with woods and gardens to its crest, and flanked on the east by an endless fertile plain, and on the west by anotner expanse, through which the Ottawa rushes, turbid and dark, to its confluence with the St. Lawrence. Then these two mighty streams commingled flow past the city, lighting up the vast champagne country to the south, while upon the utmost southern verge, as on the northern, rise the cloudy summits of far-off mountains.
As our travellers gazed upon all this grandeur, their hearts were humbled to the tacit admission that the colonial metropolis was not only worthy of its seat, but had traits of a solid prosperity not excelled by any of the abounding and boastful cities of the Republic. Long before they quitted Montreal they had rallied from this weakness, but they delighted still to honor her superb beauty.
The tower is naturally bescribbled to its top with the names of those who have climbed it, and most of these are Americans, who flock in great numbers to Canada in summer. They modify its hotel life, and the objects of interest thrive upon their bounty. Our friends met them at every turn, and knew them at a glance from the native populations, who are also easily distinguishable from each other. The French Canadians are nearly always of a peasant-like commonness, or where they rise above this, have a bourgeois commonness of face and manner; and the English Canadians are to be known from the many English sojourners by the effort to look much more English than the latter. The social heart of the colony clings fast to the mother-country, that is plain, whatever the political tendency may be; and the public monuments and inscriptions celebrate this affectionate union.
At the English cathedral the effect is deepened by the epitaphs of those whose lives were passed in the joint service of England and her loyal child; and our travellers, whatever their want of sympathy with the sentiment, had to own to a certain beauty in that attitude of proud reverence. Here, at least, was a people not cut off from its past, but holding, unbroken in life and death, the ties which exist for us only in history. It gave a glamour of olden time to the new land; it touched the prosaic democratic present with the waning poetic light of the aristocratic and monarchical tradition. There was here and there a title on the tablets, and there was everywhere the formal language of loyalty and of veneration for things we have tumbled into the dust. It is a beautiful church, of admirable English Gothic; if you are so happy, you are rather curtly told you may enter by a burly English figure in some kind of sombre ecclesiastical drapery, and within its quiet precincts you may feel yourself in England if you like,-which, for my part, I do not. Neither did our friends enjoy it so much as the Church of the Jesuits, with its more than tolerable painting, its coldly frescoed ceiling, its architectural taste of subdued Renaissance, and its black-eyed peasant-girl telling her beads before a side altar, just as in the enviably deplorable countries we all love; nor so much even as the Irish cathedral which they next visited. That is a very gorgeous cathedral indeed, painted and gilded à merveille, and everywhere stuck about with big and little saints and crucifixes, and pictures incredibly bad--but for those in the French cathedral. There is, of course, a series representing Christ's progress to Calvary; and there was a very tattered old man,--an old man whose voice had been long ago drowned in whiskey, and who now spoke in a ghostly whisper,--who, when he saw Basil's eye fall upon the series, made him go the round of them, and tediously explained them.
"Why did you let that old wretch bore you, and then pay him for it?" Isabel asked.
"Oh, it reminded me so sweetly of the swindles of other lands and days, that I couldn't help it," he answered; and straightway in the eyes of both that poor, whiskeyfied, Irish tatterdemalion stood transfigured to the glorious likeness of an Italian beggar.
They were always doing something of this kind, those absurd ly sentimental people, whom yet I cannot find it in my heart to blame for their folly, though I could name ever so many reasons for rebuking it. Why, in fact, should we wish to find America like Europe? Are the ruins and impostures and miseries and superstitions which beset the traveller abroad so precious, that he desire to imagine them at every step in his own hemisphere? Or have we then of our own no effective shapes of ignorance and want and incredibility, that we must forever seek an alien contrast to our native intelligence and comfort? Some such questions this guilty couple put to each other, and then drove off to visit the convent of the Gray Nuns with a joyful expectation which I suppose the prospect of the finest public-school exhibition in Boston could never have inspired. But, indeed, since there must be Gray Nuns, is it not well that there are sentimentalists to take a mournful pleasure in their sad, pallid existence?
The convent is at a good distance from the Irish cathedral, and in going to it the tourists made their driver carry them through one of the few old French streets which still remain in Montreal. Fires and improvements had made havoc among the quaint houses since Basil's first visit; but at last they came upon a narrow, ancient Rue Saint Antoine,-or whatever other saint it was called after,-in which there was no English face or house to be seen. The doors of the little one-story dwellings opened from the pavement, and within you saw fat madame the mother moving about her domestic affairs, and spare monsieur the elderly husband smoking beside the open window; French babies crawled about the tidy floors; French martyrs (let us believe Lalement or Brébeuf, who gave up their heroic lives for the conversion of Canada) lifted their eyes in high-colored lithographs on the wall; among the flower-pots in the dormer-window looking from every tin roof sat and sewed a smooth-haired young girl, I hope,-the romance of each little mansion. The antique and foreign character of the place was accented by the inscription upon a wall of "Sirop adoucissant de Madame Winslow."
Ever since 1692 the Gray Nuns have made a refuge within the ample borders of their convent for infirm old people and for foundling children, and it is now in the regular course of sightseeing for the traveller to visit their hospital at noonday, when he beholds the Sisters at their devotions in the chapel. It is a bare, white-walled, cold-looking chapel, with the usual paraphernalia of pictures and crucifixes. Seated upon low benches on either side of the aisle were the curious or the devout; the former in greater number and chiefly Americans, who were now and then whispered silent by an old pauper zealous for the sanctity of the place. At the stroke of twelve the Sisters entered two by two, followed by the lady-superior with a prayer-book in her hand. She clapped the leaves of this together in signal for them to kneel, to rise, to kneel again and rise, while they repeated in rather harsh voices their prayers, and then clattered out of the chapel as they had clattered in, with resounding shoes. The two young girls at the head were very pretty, and all the pale faces had a corpse-like peace. As Basil looked at their pensive sameness, it seemed to him that those prettiest girls might very well be the twain that he had seen there so many years ago, stricken forever young in their joyless beauty. The ungraceful gowns of coarse gray, the blue checked aprons, the black crape caps, were the same; they came and went with the same quick tread, touching their brows with holy water and kneeling and rising now as then with the same constrained and ordered movements. Would it be too cruel if they were really the same persons? or would it be yet more cruel if every year two girls so young and fair were self-doomed to renew the likeness of that youthful death?
The visitors went about the hospital, and saw the old men and the little children to whom these good pure lives were given, and they could only blame the system, not the instruments or their work. Perhaps they did not judge wisely of the amount of self-sacrifice involved, for they judged from hearts to which love was the whole of earth and heaven; but nevertheless they pitied the Gray Nuns amidst the unhomelike comfort of their convent, the unnatural care of those alien little ones. Poor Soeurs Grises! in their narrow cells; at the bedside of sickness and age and sorrow; kneeling with clasped hands and yearning eyes before the bloody spectacle of the cross !-the power of your Church is shown far more subtly and mightily in such as you, than in her grandest fanes or the sight of her most august ceremonies, with praying priests, swinging censers, tapers and pictures and images, under a gloomy heaven of cathedral arches. There, indeed, the faithtul have given their substance; but here the nun has given up the most precious part of her woman's nature, and all the tenderness that clings about the thought of wife and mother.
"There are some things that always greatly afflict me in the idea of a new country," said Basil, as they loitered slowly through the grounds of the convent towards the gate. "Of course, it's absurd to think of men as other than men, as having changed their natures with their skies; but a new land always does seem at first thoughts like a new chance afforded the race for goodness and happiness, for health and life. So I grieve for the earliest dead at Plymouth more than for the multitude that the plague swept away in London; I shudder over the crime of the first guilty man, the sin of the first wicked woman in a new country; the trouble of the first youth or maiden crossed in love there is intolerable. All should be hope and freedom and prosperous life upon that virgin soil. It never was so since Eden; but none the less I feel it ought to be; and I am oppressed by the thought that among the earliest walls which rose upon this broad meadow of Montreal were those built to immure the innocence of such young girls as these, and shut them from the life we find so fair. Wouldn't you like to know who was the first that took the veil in this wild new country? Who was she, poor soul, and what was her deep sorrow or lofty rapture? You can fancy her some Indian maiden lured to the renunciation by the splendor of symbols and promises seen vaguely through the lingering mists of her native superstitions; or some weary soul, sick from the vanities and vices, the bloodshed and the tears of the Old World, and eager for a silence pro-founder than that of the wilderness into which she had fled. Well, the Church knows and God. She was dust long ago."
From time to time there had fallen little fitful showers during the morning. Now as the wedding-journeyers passed out of the convent gate the rain dropped soft and thin, and the gray clouds that floated through the sky so swiftly were as far-seen Gray Sisters in flight for heaven.
"We shall have time for the drive round the mountain before dinner," said Basil, as they got into their carriage again; and he was giving the order to the driver, when Isabel asked how far it was.
"Oh, then we can't think of going with one horse. You know," she added, "that we always intended to have two horses for going round the mountain."
"No," said Basil, not yet used to having his decisions reached without his knowledge. "And I don't see why we should. Everybody goes with one. You don't suppose we're too heavy, do you?"
"I had a party from the States, ma'am, yesterday," interposed the driver; "two ladies, real heavy ones, two gentlemen, weighin' two hundred apiece, and a stout young man on the box with me. You'd 'a' thought the horse was drawin' an empty carriage, the way she darted along."
"Then his horse must be perfectly worn out to-day," said Isabel, refusing to admit the poor fellow directly even to the honors of a defeat. He had proved too much, and was put out of court with no hope of repairing his error.
"Why, it seems a pity," whispered Basil, dispassionately, "to turn this man adrift, when he had a reasonable hope of being with us all day, and has been so civil and obliging."
"Oh yes, Basil, sentimentalize him, do! Why don't you sentimentalize his helpless, overworked horse?--all in a reek of perspiration."
"Perspiration! Why, my dear, it's the rain!"
"Well, rain or shine, darling, I don't want to go round the mountain with one horse; and it's very unkind of you to insist now, when you've tacitly promised me all along to take two."
"Now, this is a little too much, Isabel. You know we never mentioned the matter till this moment."
"It's the same as a promise, your not saying you wouldn't. But I don't ask you to keep your word. I don't want to go round the mountain. I'd much rather go to the hotel. I'm tired."
"Very well, then, Isabel, I'll leave you at the hotel."
In a moment it had come, the first serious dispute of their wedded life. It had come as all such calamities come, from nothing, and it was on them in full disaster ere they knew. Such a very little while ago, there in the convent garden, their lives had been drawn closer in sympathy than ever before; and now that blessed time seemed ages since, and they were further asunder than those who have never been friends. "I thought," bitterly mused Isabel, "that he would have done anything for me." "Who could have dreamed that a woman of her sense would be so unreasonable," he wondered. Both had tempers, as I know my dearest reader has (if a lady), and neither would yield; and so, presently, they could hardly tell how, for they were aghast at it all, Isabel was alone in her room amidst the ruins of her life, and Basil alone in the one-horse carriage, trying to drive away from the wreck of his happiness. All was over; the dream was past; the charm was broken. The sweetness of their love was turned to gall; whatever had pleased them in their loving moods was loathsome now, and the things they had praised a moment before were hateful. In that baleful light, which seemed to dwell upon all they ever said or did in mutual enjoyment, how poor and stupid and empty looked their wedding-journey! Basil spent five minutes in arraigning his wife and convicting her of every folly and fault. His soul was in a whirl,--
"For to be wroth with one we love
Doth work like madness in the brain."
In the midst of his bitter and furious upbraidings he found himself suddenly become her ardent advocate, and ready to denounce her judge as a heartless monster. "On our wedding journey, too! Good heavens, what an incredible brute I am!" Then he said, "What an ass I am!" And the pathos of the case having yielded to its absurdity, he was helpless. In five minutes more he was at Isabel's side, the one-horse carriage driver disniissed with a handsome pour-boire, and a pair of lusty bays with a glittering barouche waiting at the door below. He swiftly accounted for his presence, which she seemed to find the most natural thing that could be, and she met his surrender with the openness of a heart that forgives but does not forget, if indeed the most gracious art is the only one unknown to the sex.
She rose with a smile from the ruins of her life, amidst which she had heart~brokenly sat down with all her things on. "I knew you'd come back," she said.
"So did I," he answered. "I am much too good and noble to sacrifice my preference to my duty."
"I didn't care particularly for the two horses, Basil," she said, as they descended to the barouche. "It was your refusing them that hurt me."
"And I didn't want the one-horse carriage. It was your insisting so that provoked me."
"Do you think people ever quarrelled before on a wedding journey?" asked Isabel as they drove gayly out of the city.
"Never! I can't conceive of it. I suppose if this were written down, nobody would believe it."
"No, nobody could," said Isabel, musingly; and she added after a pause, "I wish you would tell me just what you thought of me, dearest. Did you feel as you did when our little affair was broken oft, long ago? Did you hate me?"
"I did, most cordially; but not half so much as I despised myself the next moment. As to its being like a lover's quarrel, it wasn't. It was more bitter: so much more love than lovers ever give had to be taken back. Besides, it had no dignity, and a lover's quarrel always has. A lover's quarrel always springs from a more serious cause, and has an air of romantic tragedy. This had no grace of the kind. It was a poor shabby little squabble."
"Oh, don't call it so, Basil! I should like you to respect even a quarrel of ours more than that. It was tragical enough with me, for I didn't see how it could ever be made up. I knew I couldn't make the advances. I don't think it is quite feminine to be the first to forgive, is it?"
"I'm sure I can't say. Perhaps it would be rather unladylike."
"Well, you see, dearest, what I am trying to get at is this: whether we shall love each other the more or the less for it. I think we shall get on all the better for a while, on account of it. But I should have said it was totally out of character. It's something you might have expected of a very young bridal couple; but after what we've been through, it seems too improbable."
"Very well," said Basil, who, having made all the concessions, could not enjoy the quarrel as she did, simply because it was theirs; "let's behave as if it had never been."
"Oh no, we can't. To me, it's as if we had just won each other."
In fact it gave a wonderful zest and freshness to that ride round the mountain, and shed a beneficent glow upon the rest of their journey. The sun came out through the thin clouds, and lighted up the vast plain that swept away north and east, with the purple heights against the eastern sky. The royal mountain lifted its graceful mass beside them, and hid the city wholly from sight. Peasant-villages, in the shade of beautiful elms, dotted the plain in every direction, and at intervals crept up to the side of the road along which they drove. But these had been corrupted by a more ambitious architecture since Basil saw them last, and were no longer purely French in appearance. Then, nearly every house was a tannery in a modest way, and poetically published the fact by the display of a sheep's tail over the front door, like a bush at a wine-shop. Now, if the tanneries still existed, the poetry of the sheep's tails had vanished from the portals. But our friends were consoled by meeting numbers of the peasants jolting home from market in the painted carts, which are doubtless of the pattern of the carts first built there two hundred years ago. They were grateful for the immortal old women, crooked and brown with the labor of the fields, who abounded in these vehicles; when a huge girl jumped from the tail of her cart, and showed the thick, clumsy ankles of a true peasant-maid, they could only sigh out their unspeakable satisfaction.
Gardens embowered and perfumed the low cottages, through the open doors of which they could see the exquisite neatness of the life within. One of the doors opened into a school-house, where they beheld with rapture the schoolmistress, book in hand, and with a quaint cap on her gray head, and encircled by her flock of little boys and girls.
By and by it began to rain again; and now while their driver stopped to put up the top of the barouche, they entered a country church which had taken their fancy, and walked up the aisle with the steps that blend with silence rather than break it, while they heard only the soft whisper of the shower without. There was no one there but themselves. The urn of holy water seemed not to have been troubled that day, and no penitent knelt at the shrine, before which twinkled so faintly one lighted lamp. The white roof swelled into dim arches over their heads; the pale day like a visible hush stole through the painted windows; they heard themselves breathe as they crept from picture to picture.
A narrow door opened at the side of the high altar, and a slender young priest appeared in a long black robe, and with shaven head. He, too, as he moved with noiseless feet, seemed a part of the silence; and when he approached with dreamy black eyes fixed upon them, and bowed courteously, it seemed impossible he should speak. But he spoke, the pale young priest, the dark-robed tradition, the tonsured vision of an age and a church that are passing.
"Do you understand French, monsieur?"
"A very little, monsieur."
"A very little is more than my English," he said, yet he politely went the round of the pictures with them, and gave them the names of the painters between his crossings at the different altars. At the high altar there was a very fair Crucifixion; before this the priest bent one knee. "Fine picture, fine altar, fine church," he said in English. At last they stopped near the poor-box. As their coins clinked against those within, he smiled serenely upon the good heretics. Then he bowed, and, as if he had relapsed into the past, he vanished through the narrow door by which he had entered.
Basil and Isabel stood speechless a moment on the church steps. Then she cried,--
"Oh, why didn't something happen?"
"Ah, my dear! what could have been half so good as the nothing that did happen? Suppose we knew him to have taken orders because of a disappointment in love: how common it would have made him; everybody has been crossed in love once or twice." He bade the driver take them back to the hotel. "This is the very bouquet of adventure: why should we care for the grosser body? I dare say if we knew all about yonder pale young priest, we should not think him half so interesting as we do now."
At dinner they spent the intervals of the courses in guessing the nationality of the different persons, and in wondering if the Canadians did not make it a matter of conscientious loyalty to out-English the English even in the matter of pale-ale and sherry, and in rotundity of person and freshness of face, just as they emulated them in the cut of their clothes and whiskers. Must they found even their health upon the health of the mother-country?
Our friends began to detect something servile in it all, and but that they were such amiable persons, the loyally perfect digestion of Montreal would have gone far to impair their own.
The loyalty, which had already appeared to them in the cathedral, suggested itself in many ways upon the street, when they went out after dinner to do that little shopping which Isabel had planned to do in Montreal. The booksellers' windows were full of Canadian editions of our authors, and English copies of English works, instead of our pirated editions; the dry-goods stores were gay with fabrics in the London taste and garments of the London shape; here was the sign of a photographer to the queen, there of a hatter to H. R. H., the Prince of Wales; a barber was "under the patronage of H. R. H., the Prince of Wales, H. E., the Duke of Cambridge, and the gentry of Montreal." Ich dien was the motto of a restaurateur; a hosier had gallantly labelled his stock in trade with Honi soit qui maly pense. Again they noted the English solidity of the civic edifices, and already they had observed in the foreign population a difference from that at home. They saw no German faces on the streets, and the Irish faces had not that truculence which they wear sometimes with us. They had not lost their native simpleness and kindliness; the Irishmen who drove the public carriages were as civil as our own Boston hackmen, and behaved as respectfully under the shadow of England here, as they would have done under it in Ireland. The problem which vexes us seems to have been solved pleasantly enough in Canada. Is it because the Celt cannot brook equality; and where he has not an established and recognized caste above him, longs to trample on those about him; and if he cannot be lowest, will at least be highest?
However, our friends did not suffer this or any other advantage of the colonial relation to divert them from the opinion to which their observation was gradually bringing them, that its overweening loyalty placed a great country like Canada in a very silly attitude, the attitude of an overgrown, unmanly boy, clinging to the maternal skirts, and though spoilt and wilful, without any character of his own. The constant reference of local hopes to that remote centre beyond seas, the test of success by the criterions of a necessarily different civilization, the social and intellectual dependence implied by traits that meet the most hurried glance in the Dominion, give an effect of meanness to the whole fabric. Doubtless it is a life of comfort, of peace, of irresponsibility they live there, but it lacks the grandeur which no sum of material prosperity can give; it is ignoble, like all voluntarily subordinate things. Somehow, one feels that it has no basis in the New World, and that till it is shaken loose from England it cannot have.
It would be a pity, however, if it should be parted from the parent country merely to be joined to an unsympathetic half-brother like ourselves; and nothing, fortunately, seems to be further from the Canadian mind. There are some experiments no longer possible to us which could still be tried there to the advantage of civilization, and we were better two great nations side by side than a union of discordant traditions and ideas. But none the less does the American traveller, swelling with forgetfulness of the shabby despots who govern New York, and the swindling railroad kings whose word is law to the whole land, feel like saying to the hulking young giant beyond St. Lawrence and the Lakes,
"Sever the apron-strings of allegiance, and try to be yourself, whatever you are."
Something of this sort Basil said, though of course not in apostrophic phrase, nor with Isabel's entire concurrence, when he explained to her that it was to the colonial dependence of Canada she owed the ability to buy things so cheaply there.
The fact is that the ladies' parlor at the hotel had been after dinner no better than a den of smugglers, in which the fair contra-bandists had debated the best means of evading the laws of their country. At heart every man is a smuggler, and how much more every woman! She would have no scruple in ruining the silk and woollen interest throughout the United States. She is a free-trader by intuitive perception of right, and is limited in practice by nothing but fear of the statute. What could be taken into the States without detection, was the subject before that wicked conclave; and next, what it would pay to buy in Canada. It seemed that silk umbrellas were most eligible wares; and in the display of such purchases the parlor was given the appearance of a violent thunder-storm. Gloves it was not advisable to get; they were better at home, as were many kinds of fine woollen goods. But laces, which you could carry about you, were excellent; and so was any kind of silk. Could it be carried if simply cut, and not made up? There was a difference about this: the friend of one lady had taken home half a trunkful of cut silks; the friend of another had "run up the breadths" of one lone little silk skirt, and then lost it by the rapacity of the customs officers. It was pretty much luck, and whether the officers happened to be in good humor or not. You must not try to take in anything out of season, however. One had heard of a Boston lady going home in July, who "had the furs taken off her back," in that inclement month. Best get everything seasonable, and put it on at once. "And then, you know, if they ask you, you can say it's been worn." To this black wisdom came the combined knowledge of those miscreants. Basil could not repress a shudder at the innate depravity of the female heart. Here were virgins nurtured in the most spotless purity oflife, here were virtuous mothers of families, here were venerable matrons, patterns in society and the church,--smugglers to a woman, and eager for any guilty subterfuge! He glanced at Isabel to see what effect the evil conversation had upon her. Her eyes sparkled; her cheeks glowed; all the woman was on fire for smuggling. He sighed heavily and went out with her to do the little shopping.
Shall I follow them upon their excursion? Shopping in Montreal is very much what it is in Boston or New York, I imagine, except that the clerks have a more honeyed sweetness of manners towards the ladies of our nation, and are surprisingly generous constructionists of our revenue laws. Isabel had profited by every word that she had heard in the ladies' parlor, and she would not venture upon unsafe ground; but her tender eyes looked her unutterable longing to believe in the charming possibilities that the clerks suggested. She bemoaned herself before the corded silks, which there was no time to have made up; the piece-velvets and the linens smote her to the heart. But they also stimulated her invention, and she bought and bought of the made-up wares in real or fancied needs, till Basil represented that neither their purses nor their trunks could stand any more. "O, don't be troubled about the trunks, dearest," she cried, with that gayety which nothing but shopping can kindle in a woman's heart; while he faltered on from counter to counter, wondering at which he should finally swoon from fatigue. At last, after she had declared repeatedly, "There, now, I am done," she briskly led the way back to the hotel to pack up her purchases.
Basil parted with her at the door. He was a man of high principle himself, and that scene in the smugglers' den, and his wife's preparation for transgression, were revelations for which nothing could have consoled him but a paragon umbrella for five dollars and an excellent business suit of Scotch goods for twenty.
When some hours later he sat with Isabel on the forward promenade of the steamboat for Quebec, and summed up the profits of their shopping, they were both in the kindliest mood towards the poor Canadians, who had built the admirable city before them.
For miles the water front of Montreal is superbly faced with quays and locks of solid stone masonry, and thus she is clean and beautiful to the very feet. Stately piles of architecture, instead of the foul old tumble-down warehouses that dishonor the water-side in most cities, rise from the broad wharves; behind these spring the twin towers of Notre Dame, and the steeples of the other churches above the city roofs.
"It's noble, yes, it's noble, after the best that Europe can show," said Isabel, with enthusiasm; "and what a pleasant day we've had here! Doesn't even our quarrel show couleur de rose in this light?"
"One side of it," answered Basil, dreamily, "but all the rest is black."
"What do you mean, my dear?"
"Why, the Nelson Monument, with the sunset on it, at the head of the street there."
The effect was so fine that Isabel could not be angry with him for failing to heed what she had said, and she mused a moment with him.
"It seems rather far-fetched," she said presently, "to erect a monument to Nelson in Montreal, doesn't it? But then, it's a very absurd monument when you're near it," she added, thoughtfully.
Basil did not answer at once, for gazing on this Nelson column in Jacques Cartier Square, his thoughts wandered away, not to the hero of the Nile, but to the doughty old Breton navigator, the first white man who ever set foot upon that shore, and who more than three hundred years ago explored the St. Lawrence as far as Montreal, and in the splendid autumn weather climbed to the top of her green height and named it. The scene that Jacques Cartier then beheld, like a mirage of the past projected upon the present, floated before him, and he saw at the mountain's foot the Indian city of Hochelaga, with its vast and populous lodges ofbark, its encircling palisades, and its wide outlying fields of yellow maize. He heard with Jacques Cartier's sense the blare of his followers' trumpets down in the open square of the barbarous city, where the soldiers of many an Old-World fight, "with moustached lip and bearded chin, with arquebuse and glittering halberd, helmet, and cuirass," moved among the plumed and painted savages; then he lifted Jacques Cartier's eyes, and looked out upon the magnificent landscape. "East, west, and south, the mantling forest was over all, and the broad blue ribbon of the great river glistened amid a realm of verdure. Beyond, to the bounds of Mexico, stretched a leafy desert, and the vast hive of industry, the mighty battle-ground of later centuries, lay sunk in savage torpor, wrapped in illimitable woods."
A vaguer picture of Champlain, who, seeking a westward route to China and the East, some three quarters of a century later, had fixed the first trading-post at Montreal, and camped upon the spot where the convent of the Gray Nuns now stands, appeared before him, and vanished with all its fleets of fur-traders' boats and hunters' birch canoes, and the watch-fires of both; and then in the sweet light of the spring morning, he saw Maisonneuve leaping ashore upon the green meadows, that spread all gay with early flowers where Hochelaga once stood, and with the black-robed Jesuits, the high-born, delicately nurtured, and devoted nuns, and the steel-clad soldiers of his train, kneeling about the altar raised there in the wilderness, and silent amidst the silence of nature at the lifted Host.
He painted a semblance of all this for Isabel, using the colors of the historian who has made these scenes the beautiful inheritance of all dreamers, and sketched the battles, the miracles, the sufferings, and the penances through which the pious colony was preserved and prospered, till they both grew impatient of modern Montreal, and would fain have had the ancient Villemarie back in its place.
"Think of Maisonneuve, dearest, climbing in mid-winter to the top of the mountain there, under a heavy cross set with the bones of saints, and planting it on the summit, in fulfilment of a vow to do so if Villemarie were saved from the freshet; and then of Madame de la Peltrie romantically receiving the sacrament there, while all Villemarie fell down adoring! Ah, that was a picturesque people! When did ever a Boston governor climb to the top of Beacon Hill in fulfilment of avow? To be sure, we may yet see a New York governor doing something of the kind-if he can find a hill. But this ridiculous column to Nelson, who never had anything to do with Montreal," he continued; "it really seems to me the perfect expression of snobbish colonial dependence and sentimentality, seeking always to identify itself with the mother-country, and ignoring the local past and its heroic figures. A column to Nelson in Jacques Cartier Square, on the ground that was trodden by Champlain, and won for its present masters by the death of Wolfe!"
The boat departed on her trip to Quebec. During supper they were served by French waiters, who, without apparent English of their own, miraculously understood that of the passengers, except in the case of the furious gentleman who wanted English breakfast tea; to so much English as that their inspiration did not reach, and they forced him to compromise on coffee. It was a French boat, owned by a French company, and seemed to be officered by Frenchmen throughout; certainly, as our tourists in the joy of their good appetites affirmed, the cook was of that culinarily delightful nation.
The boat was almost as large as those of the Hudson, but it was not so lavishly splendid, though it had everything that could minister to the comfort and self-respect of the passengers. These were of all nations, but chiefly Americans, with some French Canadians. The former gathered on the forward promenade, enjoying what little of the landscape the growing night left visible, and the latter made society after their manner in the saloon. They were plain-looking men and women, mostly, and provincial, it was evident, to their inmost hearts; provincial in origin, provincial by inheritance, by all their circumstances, social and political. Their relation with France was not a proud one, but it was not like submersion by the slip-slop of English colonial loyalty; yet they seem to be troubled by no memories of their hundred years' dominion of the land that they rescued from the wilderness, and that was wrested from them by war. It is a strange fate for any people thus to have been cut off from the parent-country, and abandoned to whatever destiny their conquerors chose to reserve for them; and if each of the race wore the sadness and strangeness of that fate in his countenance it would not be wonderful. Perhaps it is wonderful that none of them shows anything of the kind. In their desertion they have multiplied and prospered; they may have a national grief, but they hide it well; and probably they have none.
Later, one of them appeared to Isabel in the person of the pale, slender young ecclesiastic who had shown her and Basil the pictures in the country church. She was confessing to the priest, and she was not at all surprised to find that he was Basil in a suit of medieval armor. He had an immense cross on his shoulder.
"To get this cross to the top of the mountain," thought Isabel, "we must have two horses. Basil," she added, aloud, "we must have two horses!"
"Ten, if you like, my dear," answered his voice, cheerfully, "though I think we'd better ride up in the omnibus."
She opened her eyes, and saw him smiling. "We're in sight of Quebec," he said. "Come out as soon as you can,--come out into the seventeenth century."