IT was that moment in the end of March when the firm Canadian snow roads suddenly change their surface, and become a chain of miniature rivers and lakes, interspersed by islands and hogs.
A young priest had started out of the city of Montreal to walk to the suburb of Point St. Charles. He was in great haste, so he kilted up bis long black petticoats, and hopped and skipped at a brisk pace. The hard problems of life bad not yet assailed him ; he had that set of the shoulders that belongs to a good conscience and an easy mind ; his face was rosy-cheeked and serene.
Behind him lay the hillside city, with its gray towers and spires and snowclad mountain. All along his way, budding maple-trees swayed their branches over his head ; on the twigs of some there was the scarlet moss of opening flowers, some were tipped with red buds, and some were gray. The March wind was surging through them ; the March clouds were flying overhead, — light gray clouds, with no rain in them, veil of mist above veil, and each filmy web traveling at a pace of its own. The road began as a street, crossed railway tracks and a canal, ran between fields, and again was bordered by houses. The houses were of brick or stone, poor and ugly; the snow in the fields was sodden with water ; the road —
“ I wish that the holy prophet Elijah would come to tins Jordan with his mantle,” thought the priest to himself, “ or Joshua, or Moses.”
These were pious thoughts, and he skipped and splashed and waded along conscientiously. He had been sent on an errand, and bad to return to discharge a still more important duty in the same afternoon.
This suburb consisted chiefly of workmen’s houses and factories, hut there were some ambitious-looking terraces. The priest stopped at a brick dwelling of fair size ; it had an aspect of flaunting respectability. Lintel and casements were shining with varnish, cheap starched curtains decked every window. When the priest had rung a bell which jingled inside, the door was opened by a young woman. She was not a servant ; her dress was furbelowed, and her hair was most elaborately dressed ; she was, moreover, evidently Protestant. She held the door, and surveyed the visitor with an air that was meant to show easy independence of manner, but was in fact insolent.
The priest had a slip of paper in his hand and referred to it. “ Mrs. O’Brien ? ” he asked.
” I ’m not Mrs. O’Brien,” she replied, looking at something which interested her in the street.
A loud voice, belonging as it seemed to a middle-aged woman, made itself heard. “ Louisy, if it ’s a Cath’lic priest, take him right in to your gran’ma ; it’s him she’s expecting.”
A moment’s stare of surprise and contempt, and the young woman led the way through a gay and cheaply furnished parlor, past the door of a best, bedroom which stood open to show the frills on the pillows, into a room in the back wing. She opened the door with a jerk, and stared again as the priest passed her. She was a handsome girl; the young priest did not like to be despised ; within his heart he sighed, and said a short prayer for the virtue of patience.
He entered a room that had nothing of the attempt at elegance of the front part of the house : plain as a cottage kitchen, it was warm and comfortable withal. A large bed with patchwork quilt stood in a corner, and in an iron stove logs crackled and sparked. The air was hot and dry, but the priest, being accustomed to the atmosphere of stoves, did not mind it; indeed, he noticed nothing but the room’s one inmate, who from the first moment compelled his whole attention.
In a wooden armchair, dressed in a black petticoat and a scarlet bedgown, sat a strong old woman. Weakness was there as well, certainly, for she could not leave her chair, and the palsy of excitement was shaking her head ; but the one idea conveyed to the eye in every wrinkle of the aged face and hands, in every line of the bowed figure, was strength. One brown, toil-worn hand held the head of a thick walking-stick, which she rested on the floor, well in front of her, as if about to rise and walk forward. Her brown face, nose and chin strongly defined, was stretched forward as the visitor entered ; her eyes, black and commanding, carried with them something of that authoritative spell that is commonly attributed to a commanding mind. Great physical size or power this woman apparently had never had, but she looked the very embodiment of a superior strength.
“ Shut the door ; shut the door behind ye.” These were the first words that the youthful confessor heard; and then, as he advanced, “ You ‘re young,” she said, peering into his face. Without a moment’s intermission further orders were given him: “ Be seated, be seated. Take a chair by the fire, and put up your wet feet. It is from Father Macleod, of St. Patrick’s Church, that ye ’ve come ? ”
The young man, whose boots were well soaked with ice-water, was not loath to put them up on the edge of the stove. It was not at all his idea of a priestly visit to a woman who had represented herself as dying, but it is a large part of wisdom to take things as they come, until it is necessary to interfere.
“You wrote, I think, to Father Macleod, saying that as the priests of this parish are French, and you speak English ” —
She seemed to be hurried into the midst of what she had to say by some current of excitement that pushed her onward, as a hurricane compels the speed of bodies that fly before it.
“ ’T was Father Maloney — him that had St. Patrick’s before Father Macleod — who married me ; so I just thought, before I died, I’d let one of ye know a thing concerning that marriage that I ’ve never told to mortal soul. Sit ye still and keep your feet to the fire ; there’s no need for a young man like you to be taking your death with the wet because I’ve a thing to say to ye.”
“ You are not a Catholic now ? ” said he, raising his eyebrows with intelligence as he glanced at a Bible and hymn-book that lay on the floor beside her.
He was not unaccustomed to meeting perverts ; it was impossible to have any intense emotion about so frequent an occurrence ; her manner of treating him had already made clear that religious help was not the object of this appointed interview. He had had a long walk, and the hot air of the room made him somewhat sleepy; if it had not been for the fever and excitement of her mind, he might not have picked up more than the main facts of the information she gave. As it was, his attention wandered for some minutes from the words that came from the palsied lips. It did not wander from her; he was thinking who she might be, and whether she was really about to die or not, and whether he had not better ask Father Macleod to come and see her himself. This last thought indicated that she impressed him as a person of more importance and interest than had been supposed when he had been sent to hear what she had to say.
All the time, fired by a resolution to tell a tale for the first and last time, the old woman, steadying as much as she might her shaking head, and leaning forward to look at the priest with bleared yet flashing eyes, was pouring out words whose articulation was often indistinct. Her hand upon her staff was constantly moving, as if she were going to rise and walk ; her body seemed about to spring forward with the impulse of her thoughts ; the very folds of the scarlet bedgown were instinct with excitement.
The priest’s attention returned to her words.
“ Yes, marry, and marry, and marry, — that’s what you priests, in my young days, were forever preaching to us poor folk. It was our duty to multiply and fill the new land with good Cath’lics. Father Maloney, that was his doctrine, and me a young girl, just come out from the old country with my parents and six children younger than me. Had n’t I had enough of young children to nurse, and me wanting to begin life in a new place respectable, and get up a bit in the world ? Oh yes ; but Father Maloney, he was on the lookout for a wife for Terry O’Brien. He was a widow man with five little helpless things, and drunk most of the time was Terry, and with no spirit in him to do better. Oh, but what did that matter to Father Maloney, when it was the good of the Church he was looking for, wanting O’Brien’s family looked after ? O’Brien was a good, kind fellow, so Father Maloney said, and you ’ll never hear me say a word against that. So Father Maloney got round my mother and my father and me, and married me to O’Brien ; and the first year I had a baby, and the second year I had another, so on and so on, and there’s not a soul in this world can say but that I did well by the five that were in the house when I came to it.
“ Oh, house ! D’ ye think it was one house he kept over our heads ? No, but we moved from one room to another, not paying the rent. Well, and what sort of a training could the children get? Father Maloney, he talked fine about bringing them up for the Church. Did he come in and wash them when I was abed ? Did he put clothes on their backs ? No, and fine and angry he was when I told him that that was what he ought to have done! Oh, but Father Maloney and I went at it up and down many a day; for when I was wore out with the anger inside me, I’d go and tell him what I thought of the marriage he ’d made, and in a passion he ’d get at a poor thing like me teaching him duty!
“ Not that I was ever more than half sorry for the marriage myself, because of O’Brien’s children, poor things, that he had before I came to them; likely young ones they were, too, and handsome. What would they have done if I had n’t been there to put them out of the way when O’Brien was drunk and knocking them round, or to put a bit of stuff together to keep them from nakedness ?
“‘Well,’ said Father Maloney to me, ‘why is n’t it to O’Brien that you talk with your scolding tongue ? ’ Faix, and what good was it to speak to O’Brien, I’d like to know ? Did you ever try to cut water with a knife, or to hurt a feather-bed by striking at it with your fist ? A nice good-natured man was Terry O’Brien, — I ’ll never say that he was n’t that, except when he was drunk, which was most of the time ; but he ’d no more backbone to him than a worm. That was the sort of husband Father Maloney married me to !
“ The children kept a-coming till we’d nine of them, — that’s with the five I found ready to hand, — and the elder ones getting up and needing to be set out in the world ; and what prospect was there for them ? What could I do for them, me always with an infant in my arms ? Yet’t was me, and no other, that gave them the bit and sup they had, for I went out to work ; but how could I save anything to fit decent clothes on them, and it was n’t much work I could do, what with the babies always coming, and sick and ailing they were half the time. The Sisters would come from the convent to give me charity. ’T was precious little they gave, and lectured me, too, for not being more submiss’ ! And I did n’t want their charity ; I wanted to get up in the world. I ’d wanted that before I was married, and now I wanted it for the children. Likely girls the two eldest were, and the boy just beginning to go the way of his father ; but he had ten times more spirit in him.”
She came to a sudden stop, and breathed hard ; the strong old face was still stretched out to the priest in her eagerness; the staff was swaying to and fro beneath the tremulous hand. She had poured out her words so quickly that there was in his own chest a feeling of answering breathlessness, yet he still sat regarding her placidly, with the serenity of healthy youth.
She did not give him long rest. “What did I see around me ? ” she demanded. “ I saw people that had begun life no better than myself getting up and getting up, having a shop, maybe, or sending their children to the Normal School to learn to be teachers, or getting them into this business or that, and mine with never so much as knowing how to read, for they had n’t the shoes to put on. And I had n’t it in me to better them and myself. I knew I ’d be strong if it was n’t for the babies, and I knew too that I ’d do a kinder thing for each child I had to strangle it at its birth than to bring it on to know nothing and be nothing but a poor wretched thing like Terry O’Brien himself.”
At the word “strangle” the young priest took his feet from the ledge in front of the fire and changed his easy attitude, sitting up straight and looking severe.
“ It’s not that I blamed O’Brien overmuch ; he’d just had the same sort of bringing-up himself, and his father before him, and when he was sober a very nice man he was ; it was spiritiness he lacked; but if he’d had more spiritiness, he’d have been a wickeder man, for what is there to give a man sense in a rearing like that? If he ’d been a wickeder man. I ’d have had more fear to do with him the thing I did. But he was just a good sort of creature, without sense enough to keep steady, or to know what the children were wanting ; not a notion he had n’t but that they’d got all they needed, and I had it in me to better them. Will ye dare to say that I had n’t?
“After Terry O’Brien went, I had them all set out in the world, married or put to work with the best, and they ’ve got ahead. All but O’Brien’s eldest son, every one of them have got ahead of things. I could n’t put the spirit into him as I could into the littler ones and into the girls. Well, but he’s the only black sheep of the seven; for two of them died. All that’s living but him are doing well, doing well,” — she nodded her head in triumph, — “ and their children doing better than them, as ought to be. Some of them are ladies and gentlemen, real quality. Oh, ye need n’t think I don’t know the difference ! ” Some thought expressed in the priest’s face had evidently made its way with lightning speed to her brain. “ My daughter that lives here is all well enough, and her girl handsome and able to make her way, but I tell you there ’s some of my grandchildren that’s as much above her in the world as she is above poor Terry O’Brien, — young people that speak soft when they come to see their poor old granny, and read books. Oh, I know the difference ! Oh, I know very well ! Not but what my daughter here is well-to-do, and there ’s not one of them all but has a respect for me.”She nodded again triumphantly, and her eyes flashed. “ They know, they know very well how I set them out in the world. And they come back for advice to me, old as I am, and see that I want for nothing. I’ve been a good mother to them, and a good mother makes good children, and grandchildren too.”
There was another pause, in which she breathed hard. The priest grasped the point of the story. He asked, “ What became of O’Brien ? ”
“ I drowned him.”
The priest stood up in a rigid and clerical attitude.
“ I tell you I drowned him.”
She had changed her position to suit his, and with the supreme excitement of telling what she had never told there seemed to come to her the power to sit erect. Her eagerness was not that of self-vindication ; it was the feverish exaltation with which old age glories over bygone achievement.
“I’d never have thought of it if it had n’t been O’Brien himself that put it into my head. But the children had a dog; ’t was little enough they had to play with, and the beast was useful in his way, too, for he could mind the baby at times. But he took to ailing, — like enough it was from want of food; and I was for nursing him up a bit and bringing him round, but O’Brien said that he’d put him into the canal. ’T was one Sunday that he was at home sober, for when he was drunk I could handle him so that he could n’t do much harm. So says I, ‘ And why is he to be put in the canal ? ’
“ Says he, ‘ Because he ’s doing no good here.’
“ So says I, ‘ Let the poor beast live, for he does no harm.’
“ Then says he, ‘ But it’s harm he does taking the children’s meat and their place by the fire.
“ And says I, ‘ Are ye not afraid to hurry an innocent creature into the next world? ’ For the dog had that sense he was like one of the children to me.
“ Then said Terry O’Brien, for he had a wit of his own, ‘ And if he’s an innocent creature, he '11 fare well where he goes.’
“Then said I, ‘He’s done his sins like the rest of us, no doubt.’
“ Then says he, ‘ The sooner he ’s put where he can do no more, the better.’
“ So with that he put a string round the poor thing’s neck, and took him away to where there was holes in the ice of the canal, just as there is to-day, for it was the same season of the year; and the children all cried, and thinks I to myself, ‘ If it was the dog that was going to put their father into the water, they would cry less,’for he had a peevish temper in drink, which was most of the time.
“ So then I knew what I would do. ’T was for the sake of the children that were crying about me that I did it; and I looked up to the sky, and I said to God and the holy saints that for Terry O’Brien and his children ’t was the best deed I could do ; and the words that we said about the poor beast rang in my head, for they fitted to O’Brien himself, every one of them.
“ So you see it was just the time when the ice was still thick on the water, — six inches thick, maybe ; but where anything had happened to break it, the edges were melting into large holes. And the next night, when it was late and dark, I went to the tavern myself to fetch O’Brien home.
“He was just in that state that he could walk, but he had n’t the sense of a child, and we came by the canal, for there’s a road along it all winter long ; but there were places where, if you went off the road, you fell in, and there were placards up saying to take care, but Terry O’Brien had n’t the sense to remember them. I led him to the edge, and then I came on without him. He was too drunk to feel the pain of the gasping. So I went home.
“ There was n’t a creature lived near for a mile then, and in the morning I gave out that I was afraid he’d got drowned, so they broke the ice and took him up. And I had a little money laid by, and I buried him well. There was just one person that grieved for Terry O’Brien. Many’s the day I grieved for him, for I was accustomed to have him about me, and I missed him, like, and I wore blacks, as a widow should, and I said in my heart, ’Terry, wherever ye may be, I have done the best deed for you and your children; for if you were innocent, you have gone to a better place, and if it were sin to live as you did, the less of it you have on your soul the better for you; and as for the children, poor lambs, I can give them a start in the world, now I am rid of you.’ That’s what I said in my heart to O’Brien at first when I grieved for him; and then the years passed, and I worked too hard to be thinking of him.
“And now when I sit here facing the death for myself, and can look out of my windows there back and see the canal, I say to Terry again, as if I was coming face to face with him, that I did the best deed that I could do for him and his. I broke with the Cath’lic Church long ago, for I could n’t go to confess ; and many ’s the year that I never thought of religion. But now that I’m going to die, I try to read the books my daughter’s minister gives me, and I look to God and say that I’ve sins on my soul, but the drowning of O’Brien, as far as I know right from wrong, is n’t one of them.”
The young priest had an idea that the occasion demanded some strong form of speech, but precisely what he did not know. "Woman,” he said, "what have you told me this for? ”
The strength of her excitement was subsiding. In its wane the afflictions of her age seemed to be let loose upon her again. Her words came more thickly, her gaunt frame trembled more, but not for one moment did her eye flinch before his youthful severity.
“I hear that you priests are at it yet. Marry, and marry, and marry, — that’s what ye teach the poor folks that will do your bidding, in order that the new country may be filled with Cath’lics ; and I thought, before I died, I’d just let ye know how one such marriage turned out; and, as he did n’t come himself, you may go home and tell Father Macleod that, God helping me, I have told you the truth.”
The next day an elderly priest approached the door of the same house. His hair was gray, his shoulders were bent, his face was furrowed with those benign lines which tell that the pain which has graven them is that sympathy which accepts as its own the sorrows of others. Father Macleod had come far, because he had a word to say, a word of pity and of sympathy, that he hoped might yet touch an unrepentant heart, and which he felt was due to this wandering soul from the Church he represented, whether repentance should be the result or not.
When he rang the bell, it was not the young girl, but her mother, who answered the door. Her face, which told of ordinary comfort and good cheer, bore marks of recent tears.
“ Do you know,” asked the Father curiously, "what statement it was that your mother communicated to my friend who was here yesterday ? ”
“ No, sir. I do not.”
“ Your mother was yesterday in her usual health and sound mind ? ” he interrogated gently.
“ She was indeed, sir,” and she wiped a tear.
“ I should like to see your mother,” persisted he ; “ but first, are you in distress ? ”
“ She had a stroke in the night, sir; she ’s lying easy now, but she knows no one, and the doctor says she ’ll never hear, or see, or speak again.”
The old man sighed deeply.
“ If I may make so bold, sir, will you tell me what business it was my mother had with the young man yesterday, or with yourself ? ”
“ It is not well that I should tell you,” he replied ; and he went away.