Jeanne D’Arc And the Siren Sea
JEAN-PAUL BEAUDET came home on a grey-white day when the east wind of spring was dirging in the bare trees. He got off the Quebec bus at the gates, hoisted his seaman’s bag on his shoulder, and whistling to cover the hammering of his own heart, swung down the home drive.
It was two years, and a lifetime, and foreign lands and a lost boyhood ago, but still the old, white-painted stone house with its sloping roof and long windows stood just the same under the maples. Where the orchard plunged over the river bluff, the lighthouse, painted white and red, and tended by his Gran’mere, stood. It was as he remembered it. They were all there. The home, the lighthouse, the river, the blue hills on the far shore. The same as on the night he had quarreled with his father.
He paused, consciously savoring the tranquil familiarity of a recaptured moment. The flooding
comfort of home held him. He narrowed his eyes, searching for other landmarks, and focused upon the ferry, midstream. He told himself promptly it was the ferry of Alphonse Demers with the old man himself at the helm, and perhaps there would be young Jeanne-D’Arc Fortier sitting on the railing, swinging her legs. She was a pop-eyed child, he thought with sudden amused affection. She too fitted into his growing pattern of familiarity.
He shifted his shoulder under the weight of his sea bag and stepped forward, and it was then the spring wind, constant from the east;, bearing salt and sea tang all the way across the miles here to St. Julien, sang its song for him again.
Listen to me, the wind sang for Jean-Paul, listen to me, blowing over the Gaspé heights, and the twisted harbors by the sea, over the tidal fiats, over the land old with three hundred years of
steady living. Listen to me, scratching between the boarded north walls, crumbling the stone beneath, sweeping over the bare plowed fields, humming in the branches of the leafless orchards, nudging the big bells in the white belfries up and down this Quebec land. I sing of the sea and the far wondrous places, and I sing to you as always, Jean-Paul Beaudet. Listen to me.
And the boy, not quite home yet, cocked his head to the familiar tempting song and his eyes turned to follow the road where the bus had vanished, and the river went twisting out to the sea.
IT WAS then the dog saw him, catapulted off the kitchen steps in a flurry of barks and excitement, and recognized him with love. The door swung open and his mother came out to the gallery, and behind her, his Gran’mere began to wave her apron in a remembered, excited way. Then his father came^ slowly through the arch of the new barn. Nero, the hired man, ran out.
He stood in the midst of the noise of it, smiling, wordless, watching his father approach with his deliberate step.
“C’esi ça,” Louis Beaudet said. “So you have come home.”
“How tired you must be, how hungry!” His mother’s eyes went quickly from father to son, son to father. “Come, my Jean-Paul. It must have been intuition. There is your favorite ragoût just about ready. And I have baked today, too. Come.” Before he could move there was the ring of a bicycle bell behind him on the drive and suddenly he was in the tight, embrace of his sister Genie, her schoolbooks scattered in the ruts of the drive, her bicycle half in the ditch.
“You’re wild,” Jean-Paul laughed, shaking loose. “You’re the same.”
He turned and faced the girl who had come with his sister, a slender, blond girl with startled, grey eyes. He felt a wave of near-antagonism at the sight of a stranger within this picture, whose trueness to memory had soothed him.
“You remember Jeanne-D’Arc Fortier,” Genie had his arms in hers. “Of course you must! She was always in love with—”
Quickly the girl spoke, “Welcome home, JeanPaul.”
Louis Beaudet, watching the tableau of the two young people break into life, stroked his chin in his habitual way. But as he turned to go into the house he, quite out of character, began to hum.
“Come in, my Jeanne-D’Arc,” Madame Beaudet said.
“You’ll excuse me, I know, Madame,” the girl said reluctantly. “At this moment., it is time for the family. I understand.” She looked at Jean-Paul. “I will see you tomorrow, Genie,” she said over her shoulder.
The boy still felt, his slight annoyance at this intrusion on the moment he had imagined so often. Y*e there was a sudden sense of lifelessness too when the girl had gone.
“She has grown,” he said and tried to get his bag from Genie who was dragging it down the drive. Irritably he added, “She is the only change.”
BUT when again he sat at his accustomed place at the kitchen table, from where without turning his head he could look out over the bluff to the river, the sense that he had never been away at all swept him. The fire crackled in the black stove, or leaped for freedom as his mother shifted the ket tles and pans. Above the sideboard the black crucifix hung, a little dusty beside his father’s yellowed communion certificate. His ear recognized the creak in his Gran’mere’s rocker; the smells and the sounds of the kitchen were the same; even the silent expectancy of his father which demanded but did not ask for an answer, he knew.
They waited for him to speak, he sensed.
The harder a man is held the sooner he is lost. Jeanne-D’Arc knew this, knew she had to match her love with his overwhelming love for a wild sea
When he had pushed the plate clean of gravy, he had his strategy in hand. He dived into his sea bag and emptied it of its treasures. They came close, even his mother deserting the stove, to admire the rubber native under the rubber tree from Haiti, the satin cushion inscribed to “Mother Mine” and the broach for Genie, the ivory crucifix for his Gran’mere.
As he talked, the warm familiarity of the kitchen grew into the preferred reality, his remembered voyages faded, became more and more like vaguely remembered and disturbing dreams. He t urned to smile at. his father, and Louis Beaudet stopped at packing his pipe. He smiled back.
And it was in t hat silent moment of reconciliation that through the door, open to the spring night, there came the long sound that Jean-Paul had known from his first, remembered days. He stood up abruptly, turning his mind against the call, l>ent on closing the door to it.
His Gran’mere, her black eyes intent on the boy, rose from her rocker.
“Here, regard this,” she called. “A big boat! The first boat of spring going out on t he tide.”
They rose like puppets, pulled by strings of old habit, though there was strain on the forehead of Louis Beaudet and near-tears in the eyes of his wife.
“The first boat of spring,” the old woman repeated, and they crowded behind her at the window overlooking the river, exclaiming at t he sight, that, should have lost its savor throughout t he years.
In the deepening darkness a long freighter moved. Its lights winked at the village and Genie ran to the switch and flashed back the signal.
“It must be the boat of Pierre Demers,” she shouted. “He left a week ago. He promised to signal.”
Blink, blink went the bridge lights of the ship sailing seaward. Blink, blink, answered the lights of the village of St. Julien.
And the river sang for him as the wind had sung, a song he had always known. Come, my sons, my own, I shall not leave the continent alone on ray long journey. Follow me on a spring night out to sea. Come my sons and leave the binding bonds of land, leave the clinging hands of women; it is a spring night and the ice floes darkly floating on the swift current will bear us company to the sea.
DURING the week that followed he could feel the questioning silence of his family hard about him. Well, he would not be forced into wording his decision. And to emphasize his independence he lay, most of the day, on the sofa in the best room thick with the musty smell of disuse. It was not until Sunday Jean-Paul Beaudet again found incentive for taking part in the life of his homestead and his village.
He had got up early to go to Early Mass. It was shorter and didn’t spoil the rest of the day.
“We will attend the High Mass.” Louis Beaudet was adamant. His son recognized the firmness he had defied only once.
That indescribable feeling of home which he had missed with a painful ness he could never admit to himself came to Jean-Paul sharply as he clucked at ^he horses, his hands loose on the reins.
The road twisted with the river. The old stone houses with their sloping roofs spelled out the years of settlement. The narrow farmlands ran their ribbons up from the tidal flats.
Now they rolled into the village and Jean-Paul straightened, conscious of the eyes watching him. He saw the curtains at the windows plucked aside, and he could almost hear the whispers.
And at Lalibertes’ where the curta fh swung so sharply, and where there were so many daughters of marriageable age, Jean-Paul’s too sensitive ears could hear them saying, “Here’s that JeanPaul home again. What a good farm he is the heir to! What a grand heritage there is in the Beaudet family! Now, girls, he may be flighty and adventurous but there isn’t a better catch in the village. An only son!”
He thought to himself, furiously, Felix Laliberte went to sea too. Did anyone fuss? Not at all. He was one of five brothers.
THE scent of incense, clinging to the ancient church with tenacity of two centuries, came to him as the three of them went down the high vaulted nave, Louis Beaudet leading. Here lay strong the smell of the altar flowers, the stringent tang of the votive candles. Jean-Paul genuflected and slipped into the Beaudet pew while his parents walked on to light their candles. His collar scratched and tightened as he felt his neck bulging thick above it. And then, from the pew behind, with sibilant clarity he heard the sound of his own name.
He turned to face Jeanne-D’Arc Fortier across the aisle. Her grey eyes held him. They were alive with understanding. Suddenly he realized that he was not alone and the prodigal now. He stopped. His shoulders went back. Talk, he thought, idle talk all around. He smiled at his parents as they joined him.
He looked for Jeanne-D’Arc as he jostled out with the crowd into the cool grey spring noon. Joseph Lemay climbed the churchyard wall, and JeanPaul heard his voice rising to declaim that Isaac Laliberte had an auction of farm machinery, Pierre Laliberte had left his bicycle to be sold for he had gone to sea, old Madame Dupont sought news of her strayed goat, and Leger Couture invited one and all to his daughter’s wedding the following Saturday.
I will take her there on Saturday night, Jean-Paul thought. I will take this strange new Jeanne-D’Arc Fortier and find out what has changed her.
The face of the girl and the impact of her eyes went with Jean-Paul Beaudet as the little buggy swayed homeward. The constant east wind of spring blustered behind them, turning his hands blue, whipping at the skirts of the two priests on the village street, whispering hollowly in the veils of a passing line of nuns.
THAT Saturday morning the village of St. Julien awoke to a wind from the south. There were suddenly buds in the wild cherry trees on the bluff and the wet fields dried light bright green. Overnight the Laurentides began to breathe summer.
At night Jean-Paul Beaudet cycled down to the quay and persuaded Alphonse Demers to give him a free ride over the river.
The old man and the boy sat precariously on the edge of the bridge rail. The current and tide pushed at the ferry. Night gathered in the villages on the horizons but still, above the Laurentians, the sky was bright. Sentinel gulls from L’Islet Light drew curving lines above them. A rusty freighter riding high sent them a triplet of swells.
The old man sucked his empty pipe and grumbled. “Trust the Lalibertes always to turn the best penny.” He pointed the stem of his pipe at the passing ship. “Young Felix Laliberte is a river pilot since last spring. Good money. Retirement at fifty. Then winters in the south, newfangled iceboxes in the house, curtains at the windows.”
Jean-Paul laughed with warm enjoyment. The old man’s grumbling was part of home. “I thought Felix went to sea,” he said.
“Found it too dangerous,” Alphonse spat over the side. “Too much water out there. Now he sails Montreal, Father Point. Father Point, Montreal. And the money rolls in.”
JEAN-PAUL walked up the bluff, his feet recognizing the turns and even the hollows of the darkening road, his heart as uneven with anxiety. Of course she would be out, he thought. It was Saturday night. He began to hum to himself, and the song was an old one, with a haunting minor tune that soothed.
“Isabeau s’y promene Le long de son jardin . . .” Jean-Paul sang.
A thin, sweet voice took it away from him.
“Le long de son jardin Sur le bord de Tile . .
Jean-Paul saw the shape of JeanneD’Arc in white, on the gallery of the house and he finished the song with her.
“Le long de son jardin Sur le bord de l’eau,
Sur le bord du vaisseau.”
Now he mounted the steps, laughing,
swaggering a little, swinging his shoulders as he had learned to do when uneasy on the streets of strange cities.
“Bonjour,” he started glibly. And stopped.
He stood still, clasping the railing, looking up at her with wild, wondering eyes, the dream within his mind fighting desperately as it lost foothold on reality.
Finally he said, “It was you. All the time it was you, my Jeanne-D’Arc.”
“Are you home, now, my JeanPaul?” she said softly, moving toward him, her white slim hand on the railing next to his brown one, her eyes wide and unafraid meeting the blaze of his look.
“I am home,” he said, his voice rising. “To stay.”
And with the words out for the first time, he was shaken with a compulsion to call them back.
She moved now to stand beside him on the steps.
Jean-Paul found himself breathing as though he had been running.
THE Fortier family came across the river to St. Julien for the Fete de Corpus Christi, and that was as good as an announcement of the engagement.
It also provided the opportunity Gran’mere had sought.
She took Jeanne-D’Arc imperiously by the arm when, after the big noon dinner, the men retired to rest, and the women started to clean up. “I will have your company,” she declared and led the way to the rocking chair row on the gallery.
The air was heavy with lilac now, and jasmine, and distantly the cow bells tinkled from a tidal meadow. Otherwise the Sunday silence held the afternoon motionless and held also for a long moment the girl and the old woman.
Then the Gran’mere said without preamble, “If you want to keep him, you had better listen to me. He is young. His blood is restless. And I tell you, child, it is this one quality that sets him apart for you from all the rest. Force him to dullness and you’ll find your own love dead. Certainly it hurts you when you see him look out to the tide with longing, but this hurt is the spice of your love when he turns back to you. I know. It was so with me. With the boy’s grandfather.”
“I can’t bear the thought of JeanPaul leaving me,” Jeanne-D’Arc said with a catch in her voice.
Then her firm chin jutted out a little. “I will not have it. This will be the condition of our marriage. I will make him promise.”
“You will not,” said the Gran’mere. “I suspected you meant to. I will tell you, the harder you hold, the sooner you loose. I know. Possession should always be with an invisible hand. That is its strength. You will say to the boy, lightly, ‘No my Jean-Paul, I will not marry you now. You must let the spring wind sing its song to you again, and the tide and the river have their way.”’
“But he might go then,” JeanneD’Arc cried.
The Gran’mere fixed her black eyes, burning in her old face, full upon the girl. “You will do as I say.”
Slowly Jeanne-D’Arc let her eyes fall to her hands twisting in her lap. With reluctant obedience she said, “Yes, my Gran’mere.”
SO THAT, in effect, was what JeanneD’Arc Fortier of Cap Sante said again and again to Jean-Paul Beaudet of St. Julien upon summer nights when
the moon was high above the Laurentians. She said it to him in the clear fall evenings when the color of the woods had faded with dusk. She said it as his chaloupe chugged her home across the river and the buoy lights and the lights of the passing ships made a carnival about them.
When spring finally came Jean-Paul no longer asked her.
Then one night the ice broke with great cracking and the St. Lawrence started its swirling way to sea.
It was soon after that that Jean-Paul Beaudet disappeared with not a word to anyone.
The Gran’mere and Jeanne-D’Arc had it out then. The girl came to the Beaudet homestead with her eyes angry.
“See what you have done now,” the girl cried. “My way he would still be here, he would always be here . . .”
The old woman let her have her say, then got up, leaning against the table edge to speak softly and slowly. “Would you then settle for a broken man? For a weakling with no spirit at all, holding on to the hem of your skirt and saying yes to your every order? Would you have him set you apart from his strong longing, by hiding it from you and going to it for secret succor? Wouldn’t you rather face the fact and take him as he is—for as he is you love him. Would you love him as well, changed? You’ll have a man with a hot heart if you have not held too tightly to him already. You did not make him promise—and have him flee?”
“I did not, I did not,” Jeanne-D’Arc sobbed. “I did as you told me.”
“Well, then, stop your sniveling, my girl,” said the Gran’mere. “And wait and see what happens.”
IT WAS a month later that Jean-Paul jumped off the Quebec bus at the home gate and came strolling down the drive, carrying a yellow suitcase. The wedding ring in his pocket seemed to weigh down his shoulders. Such a small gold band and so heavy, he thought, and always in my ears the sea wind over the wastes and never to know it at all. He paused to look down upon the house and the river—well, he thought, there it is. I have compromised. A pilot goes with the tide in the spring nights, but only as far as the close edge of the sea and then he must always turn back.
There was no need for explanation to his family. The uniform by itself was enough. If his father thought of the long narrow acres stretching from the river to the woods, and the two hundred years of Beaudets tilling them, he also thought of the good money from river pilot pay which would come handy during the years when the crop was poor, and of the many months when the river was closed and the boy would be home.
But that night when Jeanne-D’Arc Fortier came to the Beaudet’s with a gift of baking from her mother, JeanPaul was not at home. He had started out to see her and loitered on the quay. There was no rush now. He had all of his life neatly charted ahead of him. He no longer had to grasp impatiently at today’s life in case tomorrow sent him far afield. He stared at the working waters below him, leaving their wet print upon the side of the quay as they receded. Then he sat down on the edge and swung his legs.
That is where Alphonse Demers joined him.
Jean-Paul packed his new pipe, and Alphonse his old one from the tobacco pouch the boy held out to him, and they said nothing at all while the afterglow faded, the buoy lights came on and the stones at the bottom of the river emerged like glistening black primeval monsters of the night.
The ferryman spat and it made an arc in the dusk.
“The Pilots have it,” he grumbled. “Me, I only have the memory of a star. The wet decks and the ship listing. The bunk heaving. Alors, where will you end? Me—I am the Sailor Demers, the sea bum. No holidays in Florida for me, no newfangled iceboxes for the woman, curtains in the windows, money in the bank. That’s for the Pilots. The Pilots who go up and down the river and never see the sea. To do it again? Oh, I suppose being Alphonse Demers, I would go back to sea.”
They grinned at one another. There
was perfect understanding in the old man’s grumbling, the boy’s silence It was based in the very soil of the La uren tides. Neit her was sure whether they could ever have torn themselves away for long from this land that was their heritage, this river that was their pride. This was theirs.
But the boy and the old man had found a secret that others, to whom the wind, the tide sang, had also known.
Alphonse Demers knocked his pipe clean and shook it above the river.
He held out his hand for the tobacco pouch.
“It keeps the women in order,” he grumbled. “This, not knowing what we might do next.” ★