ALEXIS COQUILLARD, the fur-merchant, took a long look at the bundles which were beginning to mount up. It would not be a good winter for furs, he speculated. The woods and forests were becoming stripped of the little animals that had so long been the source of his riches. And what few Indians were left were uncooperative, sullen, broken in spirit, filled with a sense of injustice. Years ago, before their forced migration, the Indians had been his good friends. He had treated them squarely. He had no cause for regret, except now and then perhaps, when he had given them a bit of brandy for some extra fine furs; or that time when he had trounced a redskin for beating his squaw and torturing his children. But no one blamed him for that.
No, it would not be a good winter for furs. But if he suffered from lack of business, so would his rivals. Lathrop Taylor would feel the pinch, too. But what of it! Both he and his rival had accumulated considerable wealth, more than either of them could spend in this outpost of civilization. He had a certain measure of comfort. He had his home, his wife, his reputation for honesty and straight-forward dealing. He had his six-year-old son, too, whom he called Alexis Theodore. And his nephew, Alexis Coquillard. Young Alexis was beginning to be a problem. A good boy, thought the older man, but unless something were done with him soon! The uncle shook his head, as he remembered how, lately, the boy had shown signs of laziness and petulance. Too much freedom, thought the old man, too much time on his hands! He ought to be in school! He must not grow up like a savage!
"No!" said the elder Alexis, as he banged shut the door of the cabin containing the furs. "No, par Dieu, not one of those sals sauvages!" He was talking to himself aloud. He stamped his boots on the packed snow-path that led across the clearing to his house. "No! I must do something about the boy!"
As he lifted his eyes, and squinted in the brilliantly reflected sun, he saw the boy. "Par Dieu, he is big," he muttered to himself. "Seventeen!" Young Alexis was on the other edge of the clearing. He had a box overturned, and was pounding straight some crooked nails. When he had them straightened, he would use them to attach the runners to the box. The runners he had gotten from an Indian boy. He did not want his uncle to know that. His uncle would be angry. Most of the time these days, it seemed, his uncle was angry and cold toward him. Now, he knew his uncle saw him. He could hear his shoes crunch in the snow, and he knew that his uncle had stopped and was looking at him. But he did not look up.
"Eh bien, qu'est que tu fais? What you do?" His uncle asked the question, not as though he expected to receive an answer. No matter what answer the young Alexis should give, he knew that his uncle would grunt and go in the house. So, without lifting his eyes, the nephew mumbled something unintelligible. Sure enough. Uncle Alexis growled, turned toward the house, and went through the door.
It was bitter cold for the end of November, although at this moment the sun was shining. The ground was covered with the first snows of the year, perhaps six inches of snow. The morning had been grey, as had been the previous days, and so cold and wintry that it had been painful for Aunt Françoise to step outside for even one moment. And the clearing was somewhat sheltered from the snap of the north wind. As the boy worked, the sweat began to pour from under his fur cap. He took it off, and wiped his forehead on the sleeve of his jacket. He glanced toward the house. Perhaps his aunt might be watching him. She was always after him about soiling his jacket. And about catching cold, too. He put his cap back on, and wiped his sleeve on the side of his jacket as though to erase the tell-tale smear of sweat. When he had finished his sled, he thought he might go out to Ste.-Marie-des-Lacs, and ask M. Charron if there were any furs for his uncle. The lakes would be entirely frozen.
He went on hammering, the hard, brittle sounds echoing through the clearing. Once he paused and there came to his ears something that made him curiously lift his head. It was the sound of crunching wheels, and the snort of a horse just south of the clearing. As he moved the better to see, a team of horses, steaming at the nostrils, and drawing a laden coach, came around the bend of the narrow forest road. With much huffing and puffing, the red-faced driver steadied the horses and called out: "Eh, boy, where's your paw?"
"'Tain't my paw. It's my uncle," retorted the lad.
Before the driver had time to answer, the door of the house opened and Alexis the elder appeared. Just then, too, there stepped from inside the coach a tall, gaunt figure, clothed in a black soutane, his gigantic frame draped in a long black cape. From beneath his fur hat, his jet hair hung long behind his neck, his piercing black eyes resting first on the fur-trader, then on the boy, then back again to the boy's uncle. Old Alexis stepped toward the carriage.
"Père Sorin?" he questioned, as he held out his hand. "The Bishop wrote me about you."
"Oui, c'est moi!" And the two shook hands. Then, four other men, all of them smaller than the priest, but all clothed in black, disentangled themselves from the conveyance, which was heavily laden with furniture and gear. They stood grouped around the fur-trader and the priest. Madame Coquillard was framed in the window while her husband shook hands with each of the strange men, and as they began to move toward the house, she ran to the door and opened it wide.
"Welcome, welcome!" she cried as the priest came to the threshold. Alexis stood aside as he motioned each one through the door. Then, as he himself was about to enter, he turned to his nephew on the other side of the clearing and called:
"Don't go away, now. I may need you!"
Alexis went back to pounding nails.
Inside the simple home, Coquillard sought to make his guests comfortable, and his booming voice addressed now one, now another, asking them of their journey, making inquiries of their birth-place, and assuring them that they would like it at Ste.-Marie-des-Lacs. His wife bustled about preparing soup, and cutting bread. The old gran'mère deaf and nearly blind, sat by the fire-place, her feeble voice raised to question the cause of all this hullabaloo.
"Ce sont des prêtres!" shouted Madame Coquillard, her mouth close to the old woman's ear. She brushed her hands on her apron, and turned to smile at the group of religious that had invaded her home.
"She is deaf, oh, very deaf!" said the wife of the fur-trader, smiling her apology for shouting. Father Sorin, glancing first at Alexis, moved toward the old lady. He touched her hand, and said to her loudly: "I am Father Sorin." Then gran'mère eagerly grasped his fingers, and brought them to her lips.
After these strangers in black had partaken of hot soup and bread, they were anxious to be on their way. In vain, old Alexis urged them to rest awhile.
"No, we must see the place where we are to live. There is much to do. We must prepare for the night." These things Father Sorin said. And immediately the Brothers began to bustle and move around.
"You will not be able to stay at the lake tonight," said Alexis. "M. Charron, the interpreter who lives there, will have nothing ready. In deed," he laughed, "there is nothing for him to get ready. The log cabin chapel is empty!"
"Yes," said Father Sorin, "things will probably be in very bad condition, but we wish to have a look and see what we shall need. If someone can direct us, perhaps?"
"Certainement!" The fur-trader opened the door.
"Alexis!" he shouted. "Viens! Come 'ere!"
The boy had been sitting on the up-turned sled. He rose and came slowly.
"Look!" continued the elder man. "This is Father Sorin, and the Brothers who are going to live at the lakes."
Young Alexis, struck with embarrassment, merely looked at the black-clad group and said nothing.
"I want you to take them to M. Charron. Stay with them until they have finished their inspection. Then bring them back, for they will not be able to stay there tonight!"
Father Sorin protested that they might arrange to be comfortable for the night.
"No, no, no! You must come back. We will expect you. We arrange everything for you here!" And Madame Coquillard, too, raised her voice, assuring Father Sorin that they would he no trouble, they would be most welcome, and that she would have something good and hot for them when they returned.
So they set off. Young Alexis climbed on the box with the driver, and waved toward the crude road north of the clearing. After they had gone a short distance through the woods, the trees suddenly ended and the road rapidly descended to the frozen river. Cautiously, the driver creaked to the edge of the ice-locked St. Joseph. All of them dismounted and waited for a moment until the driver, grasping the bridle of one of the horses, started across. Father Sorin and the Brothers followed, stepping lightly as though fearful of the ice. In five minutes, they were safely across. It was necessary for four of them to put their shoulders to the coach to help the horses up the steep road. Once they reached the top of the bank, they were almost immediately in dense forest. For two miles they traveled over the rutty road, snow shaking from the branches and dropping softly on the coach. Then, with a suddenness that was startling, they came upon a clearing. Beyond the clearing the lake lay frozen before them, a small lake whose shores were thickly surrounded with the deep shade of oak trees capped with snow.
"Is this it?" asked Father Sorin.
The boy nodded.
"Let us get out, Brothers!"
They dismounted. There were exclamations from the Brothers. "Oh, how beautiful!" "A magnificent site!" "This should make a grand home!" And immediately, the Brothers began to hasten away, some in one direction, some in another. Father Sorin walked to a little cabin where lived M. Charron and his wife. M. Charron had lived here some time. He had been the interpreter for the missionaries of previous days. Father Sorin glanced at the log chapel near the edge of the lake. Without asking, he knew that there Badin, Deseille and Petit had labored before him.
M. Charron, a half-breed, had heard the commotion and was coming from his cabin, together with his half-breed wife. They advanced a few paces, and stopped. Father Sorin was the first to speak. After a few words of greeting, the priest suggested that M. Charron accompany him and one of the Brothers. They went first in a westerly direction, for about five hundred yards. Then they retraced their steps, until they were again near the chapel.
"Let us go in the chapel," said Father Sorin.
M. Charron pushed open the door. Inside, it was bleak and cold. At the end, the eastern end, there was an altar, and a tiny strip of brown worn carpet that covered a space before the altar.
The half-breed stopped and pointed to the floor.
"Priest die here. Buried here!" he said.
Father Sorin understood that this was the grave of Father Deseille. He knelt on the cold floor, blessed himself, and prayed, while M. Charron stood passively by.
When he arose, the interpreter pointed to the loft.
"Place to sleep up there," he said.
Father Sorin climbed the ladder-like stairs to the loft. It was dark and extremely cold. One of the Brothers remarked that it would require some fixing to make it comfortable.
Descending, they found the rest of the Brothers assembled. All began to tell the different things they had seen. Father Sorin noted that each of them was enthusiastic.
Charron and Alexis stood in the door of the chapel watching the priest. It was very cold. Father Sorin spoke in a low voice to the Brothers, one of them was shivering slightly, and another, blowing on his hands. Alexis could not hear what they were saying, although he caught phrases -- "Mère de Dieu," "La Très Sainte Vierge," and finally, "Notre-Dame-du-Lac." Then Father Sorin, spreading his cap about the shoulders of two of the Brothers, motioned with his head toward the center of the chapel until they stood over the grave of Father Deseille. Kneeling, and with hands joined in prayer, their heads close together, the Brothers listened while Father Sorin, his eyes closed, whispered. Young Coquillard hesitated, removed his cap and dropped on one knee. In a moment, the priest stood up. He came toward the door and held out his hand to Alexis.
"Allons, mon fils! Let us go back to your uncle's house!" The boy felt a surge of warmth for this priest whose hand rested so lightly on his shoulder. Not for months had anyone spoken so gently to him.
As they made their way to the coach, from which the Brothers had already taken the load of moveables, the priest paused and looked into the face of Alexis Coquillard. Father Sorin's eyes were black and sparkling. Alexis heard him say: "And you, mon fils, you will be our first student!" Immediately the boy answered: "Oui, mon Père!" and then suddenly, his freedom-loving soul recoiled as from a trap. "School!" he thought. "Now, I've done it!"
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