Authors: Willa Cather
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary, #literature
This web edition published by
Rendered into HTML by
Last updated Wed Sep 22 17:58:35 2010.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence
). You are
free: to copy, distribute, display, and perform the work, and to make derivative works under the following conditions: you
must attribute the work in the manner specified by the licensor; you may not use this work for commercial purposes; if you
alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
For any reuse or distribution, you must make clear to others the license terms of this work. Any of these conditions can be
waived if you get permission from the licensor. Your fair use and other rights are in no way affected by the above.
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005
Vous me demandez des graines de fleurs de ce pays. Nous en faisons venir de France pour notre jardin, n’y en ayant pas
ici de fort rares ni de fort belles. Tout y est sauvage, les fleurs aussi bien que les hommes.
Marie de l’Incarnation
(Lettre à une de ses soeurs)
Québec, le 12 août, 1653
Last updated on Tue Jan 11 23:28:57 2011 for
One afternoon late in October of the year 1697, Euclide Auclair, the philosopher apothecary of Quebec, stood on the top
of Cap Diamant gazing down the broad, empty river far beneath him. Empty, because an hour ago the flash of retreating sails
had disappeared behind the green island that splits the St. Lawrence below Quebec, and the last of the summer ships from
France had started on her long voyage home.
As long as La Bonne Espérance was still in sight, many of Auclair’s friends and neighbours had kept him company on the
hill-top; but when the last tip of white slid behind the curving shore, they went back to their shops and their kitchens to
face the stern realities of life. Now for eight months the French colony on this rock in the North would be entirely cut off
from Europe, from the world. This was October; not a sail would come up that wide waterway before next July. No supplies;
not a cask of wine or a sack of flour, no gunpowder, or leather, or cloth, or iron tools. Not a letter, even — no news of
what went on at home. There might be new wars, floods, conflagrations, epidemics, but the colonists would never know of them
until next summer. People sometimes said that if King Louis died, the Minister would send word by the English ships that
came to New York all winter, and the Dutch traders at Fort Orange would dispatch couriers to Montreal.
The apothecary lingered on the hill-top long after his fellow townsmen had gone back to their affairs; for him this
severance from the world grew every year harder to bear. It was a strange thing, indeed, that a man of his mild and
thoughtful disposition, city-bred and most conventional in his habits, should be found on a grey rock in the Canadian
wilderness. Cap Diamant, where he stood, was merely the highest ledge of that fortified cliff which was “Kebec,” — a
triangular headland wedged in by the joining of two rivers, and girdled about by the greater river as by an encircling arm.
Directly under his feet was the French stronghold, — scattered spires and slated roofs flashing in the rich, autumnal
sunlight; the little capital which was just then the subject of so much discussion in Europe, and the goal of so many
Auclair thought this rock-set town like nothing so much as one of those little artificial mountains which were made in
the churches at home to present a theatric scene of the Nativity; cardboard mountains, broken up into cliffs and ledges and
hollows to accommodate groups of figures on their way to the manger; angels and shepherds and horsemen and camels, set on
peaks, sheltered in grottoes, clustered about the base.
Divest your mind of Oriental colour, and you saw here very much such a mountain rock, cunningly built over with churches,
convents, fortifications, gardens, following the natural irregularities of the headland on which they stood; some high, some
low, some thrust up on a spur, some nestling in a hollow, some sprawling unevenly along a declivity. The Château
Saint–Louis, grey stone with steep dormer roofs, on the very edge of the cliff overlooking the river, sat level; but just
beside it the convent and church of the Récollet friars ran downhill, as if it were sliding backwards. To landward, in a
low, well-sheltered spot, lay the Convent of the Ursulines . . . lower still stood the massive foundation of the Jesuits,
facing the Cathedral. Immediately behind the Cathedral the cliff ran up sheer again, shot out into a jutting spur, and
there, high in the blue air, between heaven and earth, rose old Bishop Laval’s Seminary. Beneath it the rock fell away in a
succession of terraces like a circular staircase; on one of these was the new Bishop’s new Palace, its gardens on the
Not one building on the rock was on the same level with any other, — and two hundred feet below them all was the Lower
Town, crowded along the narrow strip of beach between the river’s edge and the perpendicular face of the cliff. The Lower
Town was so directly underneath the Upper Town that one could stand on the terrace of the Château Saint–Louis and throw a
stone down into the narrow streets below.
These heavy grey buildings, monasteries and churches, steep-pitched and dormered, with spires and slated roofs, were
roughly Norman Gothic in effect. They were made by people from the north of France who knew no other way of building. The
settlement looked like something cut off from one of the ruder towns of Normandy or Brittany, and brought over. It was
indeed a rude beginning of a “new France,” of a Saint–Malo or Rouen or Dieppe, anchored here in the ever-changing northern
light and weather. At its feet, curving about its base, flowed the mighty St. Lawrence, rolling north toward the purple line
of the Laurentian mountains, toward frowning Cap Tourmente which rose dark against the soft blue of the October sky. The Île
d’Orléans, out in the middle of the river, was like a hilly map, with downs and fields and pastures lying in folds above the
On the opposite shore of the river, just across from the proud rock of Quebec, the black pine forest came down to the
water’s edge; and on the west, behind the town, the forest stretched no living man knew how far. That was the dead, sealed
world of the vegetable kingdom, an uncharted continent choked with interlocking trees, living, dead, half-dead, their roots
in bogs and swamps, strangling each other in a slow agony that had lasted for centuries. The forest was suffocation,
annihilation; there European man was quickly swallowed up in silence, distance, mould, black mud, and the stinging swarms of
insect life that bred in it. The only avenue of escape was along the river. The river was the one thing that lived, moved,
glittered, changed, — a highway along which men could travel, taste the sun and open air, feel freedom, join their fellows,
reach the open sea . . . reach the world, even!
After all, the world still existed, Auclair was thinking, as he stood looking up the way by which La Bonne Espérance had
gone out only an hour ago. He was not of the proper stuff for a colonist, and he knew it. He was a slender, rather frail man
of about fifty, a little stooped, a little grey, with a short beard cut in a point, and a fair complexion delicately flushed
with pink about his cheeks and ears. His blue eyes were warm and interested, even in reflection, — they often had a kindling
gleam as if his thoughts were pictures. Except for this lively and inquiring spirit in his glance, everything about him was
modest and retiring. He was clearly not a man of action, no Indian-fighter or explorer. The only remarkable thing about his
life was that he had not lived it to the end exactly where his father and grandfather had lived theirs, — in a little
apothecary shop on the Quai des Célestins, in Paris.
The apothecary at last turned his back to the river. He was glancing up at the sun to reckon the time of day, when he saw
a soldier coming up the grassy slope of Cap Diamant by the irregular earth path that led to the redoubt. The soldier touched
his hat and called to him.
“I thought I recognized your figure up here, Monsieur Euclide. The Governor requires your presence and has sent a man
down to your shop to fetch you.”
Auclair thanked him for his trouble and went down the hill with him to the Château. The Governor was his patron, the
Count de Frontenac, in whose service he had come out to Canada.
It was late in the afternoon when Auclair left the Château and made his way through the garden of the Recollet friars,
past the new Bishop’s Palace, and down to his own house. He lived on the steep, winding street called Mountain Hill, which
was the one and only thoroughfare connecting the Upper Town with the Lower. The Lower Town clustered on the strip of beach
at the foot of the cliff, the Upper Town crowned its summit. Down the face of the cliff there was but this one path, which
had probably been a mere watercourse when Champlain and his men first climbed up it to plant the French lilies on the crest
of the naked rock. The watercourse was now a steep, stony street, with shops on one side and the retaining walls of the
Bishop’s Palace on the other. Auclair lived there for two reasons: to be close at hand where Count Frontenac could summon
him quickly to the Château, and because, thus situated on the winding stairway connecting the two halves of Quebec, his
services were equally accessible to the citizens of both.
On entering his door the apothecary found the front shop empty, lit by a single candle. In the living-room behind, which
was partly shut off from the shop by a partition made of shelves and cabinets, a fire burned in the fireplace, and the round
dining-table was already set with a white cloth, silver candlesticks, glasses, and two clear decanters, one of red wine and
one of white.
Behind the living-room there was a small, low-roofed kitchen, built of stone, though the house itself was built of wood
in the earliest Quebec manner, — double walls, with sawdust and ashes filling in the space between the two frames, making a
protection nearly four feet thick against the winter cold. From this stone kitchen at the back two pleasant emanations
greeted the chemist: the rich odour of roasting fowl, and a child’s voice, singing. When he closed the heavy wooden door
behind him, the voice called: “Is it you, Papa?”
His daughter ran in from the kitchen, — a little girl of twelve, beginning to grow tall, wearing a short skirt and a
sailor’s jersey, with her brown hair shingled like a boy’s.
Auclair stooped to kiss her flushed cheek. “Pas de clients?” he asked.
“Mais, oui! Beaucoup de clients. But they all wanted very simple things. I found them quite easily and made notes of
them. But why were you gone so long? Is Monsieur le Comte ill?”
“Not ill, exactly, but there is troublesome news from Montreal.”
“Please change your coat now, Papa, and light the candles. I am so anxious about the poulet. Mère Laflamme tried hard to
sell me a cock, but I told her my father always complained of a cock.” The daughter’s eyes were shaped like her father’s,
but were much darker, a very dark blue, almost black when she was excited, as she was now about the roast. Her mother had
died two years ago, and she made the ménage for her father.
Contrary to the custom of his neighbours, Auclair dined at six o’clock in winter and seven in summer, after the day’s
work was over, as he was used to do in Paris, — though even there almost everyone dined at midday. He now dropped the
curtains over his two shop windows, a sign to his neighbours that he was not to be disturbed unless for serious reasons.
Having put on his indoor coat, he lit the candles and carried in the heavy soup tureen for his daughter.
They ate their soup in appreciative silence, both were a little tired. While his daughter was bringing in the roast,
Auclair poured a glass of red wine for her and one of white for himself.
“Papa,” she said as he began to carve, “what is the earliest possible time that Aunt Clothilde and Aunt Blanche can get
Auclair deliberated. Every fall the colonists asked the same question of one another and reckoned it all anew. “Well, if
La Bonne Espérance has good luck, she can make La Rochelle in six weeks. Of course, it has been done in five. But let us say
six; then, if the roads are bad, and they are likely to be in December, we must count on a week to Paris.”
“And if she does not have good luck?”
“Ah, then who can say? But unless she meets with very heavy storms, she can do it in two months. With this west wind,
which we can always count on, she will get out of the river and through the Gulf very speedily, and that is sometimes the
most tedious part of the voyage. When we came over with the Count, we were a month coming from Percé to Quebec. That was
because we were sailing against this same autumn wind which will be carrying La Bonne Espérance out to sea.”
“But surely the aunts will have our letters by New Year’s, and then they will know how glad I was of my béret and my
jerseys, and how we can hardly wait to open the box upstairs. I can remember my Aunt Blanche a little, because she was young
and pretty, and used to play with me. I suppose she is not young now, any more; it is eight years.”
“Not young, exactly, but she will always have high spirits. And she is well married, and has three children who are a
great joy to her.”
“Three little cousins whom I have never seen, and one of them is named for me! Cécile, André, Rachel.” She spoke their
names softly. These little cousins were almost like playfellows. Their mother wrote such long letters about them that Cécile
felt she knew them and all their ways, their individual faults and merits. Cousin Cécile was seven, very studious, bien
sérieuse, already prepared for confirmation; but she would eat only sweets and highly spiced food. André was five, truthful
and courageous, but he bit his nails. Rachel was a baby, in the midst of teething when they last heard of her.
Cécile would have preferred to live with Aunt Blanche and her children when she should go back to France; but by her
mother’s wish she was destined for Aunt Clothilde, who had long been a widow of handsome means and was much interested in
the education of young girls. The face of this aunt Cécile could never remember, though she could see her figure clearly, —
standing against the light, she always seemed to be, a massive woman, short and heavy though not exactly fat, — square,
rather, like a great piece of oak furniture; always in black, widow’s black that smelled of dye, with gold rings on her
fingers and a very white handkerchief in her hand. Cécile could see her head, too, carried well back on a short neck, like a
general or a statesman sitting for his portrait; but the face was a blank, just as if the aunt were standing in a doorway
with blinding sunlight behind her. Cécile was once more trying to recall that face when her father interrupted her.
“What are we having for dessert tonight, my dear?”
“We have the cream cheese you brought from market yesterday, and whichever conserve you prefer; the plums, the wild
strawberries, or the gooseberries.”
“Oh, the gooseberries, by all means, after chicken.”
“But, Papa, you prefer the gooseberries after almost everything! It is lucky for us we can get all the sugar we want from
the Count. Our neighbours cannot afford to make conserves, with sugar so dear. And gooseberries take more than anything
“There is something very palatable about the flavour of these gooseberries, a bitter tang that is good for one. At home
the gooseberries are much larger and finer, but I have come to like this bitter taste.”
“En France nous avons tous les légumes, jusqu’aux dattes,” murmured Cécile. She had never seen a date, but she had
learned that phrase from a book, when she went to day-school at the Ursulines.
Immediately after dinner the apothecary went into the front shop to post his ledger, while his daughter washed the dishes
with the hot water left in an iron kettle on the stove, where the birch-wood fire was now smouldering coals. She had
scarcely begun when she heard a soft scratching at the single window of her kitchen. Through the small panes of glass a face
was looking in, — a terrifying face, but one that she expected. She nodded and beckoned with her finger. A short, heavy man
shuffled into the kitchen. He seemed loath to enter, yet drawn by some desire stronger than his reluctance. Cécile went to
the stove and filled a bowl.
“There is your soup for you, Blinker.”
“Merci, Ma’m’selle.” The man spoke out of the side of his mouth, as he looked out of the side of his face. He was so
terribly cross-eyed that Cécile had never really looked into his eyes at all, — this was why he was called Blinker. He took
a half-loaf from his coat-pocket and began to eat the soup eagerly, trying not to make a noise. Eating was difficult for
him, — he had once had an abscess in his lower jaw, it had suppurated, and pieces of the bone had come out. His face was
badly shrunken on that side, under the old scars. He knew it distressed Cécile if he gurgled his soup; so he struggled
between greed and caution, dipping his bread to make it easy chewing.
This poor mis-shapen fellow worked next door, tended the oven fires for Nicholas Pigeon, the baker, so that the baker
could get his night’s sleep. His wages were the baker’s old clothes, two pairs of boots a year, a pint of red wine daily,
and all the bread he could eat. But he got no soup there, Madame Pigeon had too many children to feed.
When he had finished his bowl and loaf, he rose and without saying anything took up two large wooden pails. One was full
of refuse from the day’s cooking, the other full of dish-water. These he carried down Mountain Hill, through the market
square to the edge of the shore, and there emptied them into the river. When he came back, he found a very small glass of
brandy waiting for him on the table.
“Merci, Ma’m’selle, merci beaucoup,” he muttered. He sat down and sipped it slowly, watching Cécile arrange the kitchen
for the night. He lingered while the floor was swept, the last dish put in place on the shelves, the dish-towels hung to dry
on a wire above the stove, following all these operations intently with his crooked eyes. When she took up her candle, he
must go. He put down his glass, got up, and opened the back door, but his feet seemed nailed to the sill. He stood blinking
with that incredibly stupid air, blinking out of the side of his face, and Cécile could not be sure that he saw her or
anything else. He made a fumbling as if to button his coat, though there were no buttons on it.
“Bon soir, Ma’m’selle,” he muttered.
Since this happened every night, Cécile thought nothing of it. Her mother had begun to look out for Blinker a little
before she became so ill, and he was one of the cares the daughter had inherited. He had come out to the colony four years
ago, and like many others who came he had no trade. He was strong, but so ill-favoured that nobody wanted him about.
Neighbour Pigeon found he was faithful and dependable, and taught him to stoke the wood fire and tend the oven between
midnight and morning. Madame Auclair felt sorry for the poor fellow and got into the way of giving him his soup at night and
letting him do the heavy work, such as carrying in wood and water and taking away the garbage. She had always called Blinker
by his real name, Jules. He had a cave up in the rocky cliff behind the bakery, where he kept his chest, — he slept there in
mild weather. In winter he slept anywhere about the ovens that he could find room to lie down, and his clothes and woolly
red hair were usually white with ashes. Many people were afraid of him, felt that he must have crooked thoughts behind such
crooked eyes. But the Pigeons and Auclairs had got used to him and saw no harm in him. The baker said he could never
discover how the fellow made a living at home, or why he had come out to Canada. Many unserviceable men had come, to be
sure, but they were usually adventurers who disliked honest work, — wanted to fight the Iroquois or traffic in beaver-skins,
or live a free life hunting game in the woods. This Blinker had never had a gun in his hands. He had such a horror of the
forest that he would not even go into the near-by woods to help fell trees for firewood, and his fear of Indians was one of
the bywords of Mountain Hill. Pigeon used to tell his customers that if the Count went to chastise the Iroquois beyond
Cataraqui, Blinker would hide in his cave in Quebec. Blinker protested he had been warned in a dream that he would be taken
prisoner and tortured by the Indians.
Dinner was the important event of the day in the apothecary’s household. The luncheon was a mere goûter. Breakfast was a
pot of chocolate, which he prepared very carefully himself, and a fresh loaf which Pigeon’s oldest boy brought to the door.
But his dinner Auclair regarded as the thing that kept him a civilized man and a Frenchman. It put him in a mellow mood, and
he and his daughter usually spent the long evening very happily without visitors. She read aloud to him, the fables of La
Fontaine or his favourite Plutarch, and he corrected her accent so that she would not be ashamed when she returned home to
the guardianship of that intelligent and exacting Aunt Clothilde. It was only in the evening that her father had time to
talk to her. All day he was compounding remedies, or visiting the sick, or making notes for a work on the medicinal
properties of Canadian plants which he meant to publish after his return to Paris. But in the evening he was free, and while
he enjoyed his Spanish snuff their talk would sometimes lead far away and bring out long stories of the past. Her father
would try to recall to her their old shop on the Quai des Célestins, where he had grown up and where she herself was born.
She thought she could remember it a little, though she was only four years old when they sailed with the Count for the New
World. It was a narrow wedge, that shop, built in next to the carriage court of the town house of the Frontenacs. Auclair’s
little chamber, where he slept from his sixth year until his marriage, was on the third floor, under the roof. Its one
window looked out upon the carriage court and across it to the front of the mansion, which had only a blind wall on the
street and faced upon its own court.
When he was a little boy, he used to tell Cécile, nothing ever changed next door, except that after a rain the cobbles in
the yard were whiter, and the ivy on the walls was greener. Every morning he looked out from his window on the same
stillness; the shuttered windows behind their iron grilles, the steps under the porte-cochère green with moss, pale grass
growing up between the stones in the court, the empty stables at the back, the great wooden carriage gates that never
opened, — though in one of them a small door was cut, through which the old caretaker came and went.