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CHAPTER 2
A new Acquaintance,—The Islands of the Sea,—Making Friends,—The Natives,—A Festival,—Efforts at Conversation in an unknown Tongue, —Corbet’s Baby Talk,—Experiments of Bart and Tim,—Pat comes to Grief.—Overthrow of the French,—Arrival of the Skipper on the Scene, —He means Business.

FINDING that their new acquaintance was so very friendly, and communicative, and all that, the boys thought that it would be a good thing to find out from him something about the various islands which they proposed visiting. Ferguson declared that he knew as much about the Gulf of St. Lawrence as any man living, and could tell them all they wanted to know.

“What sort of a place is St. Paul’s Island,” asked Arthur.

The skipper shook his head in silence. “Is St. Pierre worth visiting?”

“Well—scarcely,” said the other.

“What sort of a place is Anticosti?” asked Bruce.

“Well, you’d best not go within fifty miles of that thar island.”

“What sort of a place is Sable Island?” asked Bart.

“Sable Island!” exclaimed the skipper, staring at them in astonishment.

“Yes, Sable Island.”

“You mean Cape Sable Island.”

“No; we mean Sable Island.”

The skipper looked at them all with a solemn face.

“Well, boys,” said he, “as to visiting Sable Island, all I’ve got to say is, I hope you’ll never begin to try it on Sable Island. Why, Sable Island’s one of the places that seafarin’ men try never to visit, and pray never to get nearer than a hundred miles to. Sable Island! Boys,” he continued, after a pause, “don’t ever speak of that again; don’t even think of it. Give it up at once and forever. I only hope that you won’t be brought to pay a visit there in spite of yourselves, a thing which I’m afraid you’re very likely to do if you go cruisin’ about in an old tub like that much longer. Not but what Sable Island mightn’t be improved—that is, if the inhabitants only had any enterprise, and the government that owns it was alive to the wants of the age.”

“‘Inhabitants!” said Bart; “why, there’s only the keeper and his family.”

The skipper waved his hand.

“Grant all that,” said he. “Very well. They’re a nucleus, at any rate, and can give tone and character to the future Sable Islanders. Now, what your government ought to do with Sable Island is this. They’d ought to make a good breakwater, first and foremost, so as to have decent harbor accommodation for passing vessels. Then they’d ought to connect it with the main land with a submarine cable, so that the place needn’t be quite so isolated, and have regular lines of steamers runnin’ backard and forard. Well, then they ought to get up a judicious emigration scheme, and that thar island would begin to go ahead in a style that would make you fairly open your eyes. Why, in ten years, if this plan was carried out, they’d be building a railroad,—a thing that is needed there more than most anywheres, the island bein so uncommon long and narrow,—and that bein done, why, Sable Island would begin to come abreast of the nineteenth century, instead of hanging back in the middle ages.”

After some further conversation of a similar character, the skipper proposed to show the boys about the country, and introduce them to some of the “aristocracy.”

“And there,” said he, “is one of them, now. It’s the priest—and a precious fine fellow he is, any how, and no mistake. He is priest, governor general, magistrate, constable, policeman, Sunday school teacher, town clerk, schoolmaster, newspaper, lawyer, doctor, notary public, census taker, and fifty other things all rolled into one. He is the factotum of the Magdalen Islands. They come to him for everything: to baptize their infants, to marry their young couples, and to bury their dead. They go to mass on Sundays, and on week days they go to him for advice and assistance in everything. He visits the sick, and administers medicine as doctor, or extreme unction as priest. He settles all their quarrels better than any judge or jury, and there never ain’t any appeal thought of from his decision. Now, all this is what I call a species of despotism,—it’s one man power, but it suits these poor benighted frog-eatin heathen,—and, besides, it’s no more a despotism than the father of a family exercises. It’s patriarchal—that’s what it is. It’s wonderful, too, how much honor the young people hereabouts pay to their fathers, and grandfathers, and elders genrally. I never knowed anythin like it in all my born days. Well, now, boys, mind you, all this is goin to be upset. Some day they’ll be appointin magistrates here, and doctors will come, and lawyers; then this little community will all be sot by the ears, and—and they’ll enter upon a career of boundless progress. They’ll get the ballot-box, and the newspaper, and all the concomitants of modern civilization; the present patriarchal system’ll be played out, and the spirit of the age will reign and rule over them.”

By the time the skipper had given utterance to this, they had approached the priest. He was a mild, venerable man, with a meek face and a genial smile. He spoke English very well, shook hands with all, and listened to the skipper’s explanations about their present visit.

“And now, boys, I’ll leave you for the present,” said the skipper, “to the care of Father Leblanc, who will do the honors of the island. I’ve got to go aboard the Fawn to fix up a few things. We’ll meet again in the course of the day.”

With these words he went down to the beach. The shabbiness of the costume of the boys had already excited the remarks of the skipper, but the good Father Leblanc soon saw that in spite of this they were clever and intelligent.

“We do not often have,” said he, “at this place visitors above the rank of fishermen, and we have never before had any visitors like you. I can assure you a welcome, dear boys, from all the good people here. There is to be a f锚te to-day in honor of the marriage of two of my flock. Would you like to go? If so, I invite you most cordially, and assure you of a welcome.”

This unexpected invitation, thus kindly given, was accepted with undisguised eagerness; and thereupon the boys accompanied the priest, who first of all went to his own home, where he offered them some simple refreshments. The priest’s home was a small cottage of very unpretending exterior, and very similar to all the other cottages; but inside there were marks of refined taste and scholarly pursuits. A few Latin and Greek classics were on a small book-shelf. There was an harmonium, with some volumes of sacred music, and here and there were some volumes which were of a theological character. The entertainment of the priest consisted of some coffee, which the boys were surprised to find, and which they afterwards unanimously pronounced to be “perfectly delicious,” and some fresh eggs, with immaculate bread and butter.

After chatting with the boys for about an hour, the priest announced that it was time to start, as their destination was on the opposite side of the island. They accordingly set out at once, and walked along the slope of a hill. There was no road, but only a footpath, which served all the purposes of the Magdalen Islanders, in spite of the skipper’s theories about a railway. On the way the priest entertained them with stories of his life on these secluded islands, of the storms of winter, of the ice blockade, of the perils of the sea, of the vast solitude of the surrounding gulf, where in winter no ship ever ventures. Yet in spite of the loneliness, he affirmed that no one here had any sense of desolation, for it seemed to all of the inhabitants, just as it seems to the inhabitants of other countries, that this home of theirs was the centre of the universe, and all other lands strange, and drear, and unattractive.

At length they reached their destination. It was a cottage of rather larger size than usual, and it seemed as if the whole population of the island had gathered here. Tables were spread in the open air, and a barrel of cider was on tap. As they drew near they heard the sound of a fiddle, and saw figures moving about in a lively dance. Old men, young men, women, girls, and children were all laughing, talking, dancing, or playing. It was a scene full of a curious attractiveness, and exhibited in a striking way the irrepressible gayety that characterizes the French wherever they go.

At their approach the laughter and the dance ceased for a time, and the company welcomed the good priest with smiles and kindly words. The boys also came in for a share of the hospitable welcome, and as soon as the priest had explained who they were, they were at once received as most welcome and honored guests. Unfortunately the boys could not speak a word of French, and the people could not speak a word of English, so that there was not that freedom of intercourse between the two parties which might have been desirable; but the priest did much to bring about this interchange of feelings by acting as interpreter, and the boys also by gestures or by smiles endeavored, not without some success, to make known their feelings for themselves.

The boys soon distributed themselves about at random, and the good people never ceased to pay delicate little attentions to them by offering them coffee or cakes, by uttering a few words in the hope that they might be understood, or, if words were wanting, they took refuge in smiles. But words were not wanting, and different members of the party made violent efforts to break through the restraints which a foreign language imposed, and express their feelings more directly.

Thus Captain Corbet, who had accompanied the party, finding himself hospitably entertained by a smiling old Frenchman, endeavored to make known the joy of his heart.

“Coffee,” said he, tapping his cup and grinning.

“Oui, oui,” said the Frenchman.

“Coffee dood—pooty—nicey—O, velly nicey picey.”

Captain Corbet evidently was falling back upon his “baby talk,” under the impression that it would be more intelligible to a foreigner. But this foreigner did not quite understand him. He only shrugged his shoulders.

“Cooky—cakey—nicey,” continued Captain Corbet, in, an amiable tone. “All dood—all nicey—velly.”

And he again paused and smiled.

“Plait-il?” said the Frenchman, politely.

“Plate? O, no, no plate for me, an thank you kindly all the same.”

The Frenchman looked at him in a bewildered way, but still smiled.

“Vouley vous du pain?” he asked, at length.

“Pan?” said Captain Corbet; “pan? Course not. What’d I do with a pan?—but thankin you all the same, course.”

The Frenchman relapsed into silence.

“It was a pooty ’itile tottage,” said Captain Corbet, resuming his baby talk, “an a pooty tompany, an it was all dood—pooty—nicey.”

But the Frenchman didn’t understand a word, and so at length Captain Corbet, with a sigh, gave up the attempt.

Meanwhile the others were making similar endeavors. Tom had got hold of a French boy about his own age.

“Parley vous Fran莽ais,” said Tom, solemnly.

“Oui,” said the French boy.

“Oui, moosoo,” said Tom.

The French boy smiled.

“Merci, madame,” continued Tom, boldly.

The boy stared.

“Nong—tong—paw,” proceeded Tom, in a business-like manner.

Of this the boy could evidently make nothing.

But here Tom seemed to have reached the limit of his knowledge of French, and the conversation came to a sudden and lamentable end.

Bart had carried on for some time an interesting conversation with smiles and gestures, when he too ventured into audible words.

“Bon!” said he, in an impressive manner; and then touching the breast of the boy to whom he was speaking, he continued, “You—tu—you know—you’re bon;” then, laying his hand on his heart, he said, “me bon;” then, pointing to the cup, “coffee bon;” then sweeping his hand around, he added, “and all bon—house bon, company bon, people bon.”

“Ah, oui,” cried the boy. “Oui, je vous comprends. Aha, oui, la bonne compagnie, le bon peuple—”

“Bon company, bon people, bon company, bon people,” cried Bart, delighted at his success in getting up a conversation; “bon coffee, too; I tell you what, it’s the bonnest coffee that I’ve tasted for many a long day.”

At this the boy looked blank.

“Parley vous Fran莽ais?” asked Bart, in an anxious tone.

“Oui,” said the boy.

“Well, then, I don’t,” said Bart; “but the moment I get home I intend to study it.”

And at this stage Bart’s conversation broke down.

Pat chose another mode of accomplishing the same end. Captain Corbet had been acting on the theory that foreigners were like babies, and could understand baby talk. Pat, in addition to this, acted on the theory that they were deaf, and had to be addressed accordingly. So, as he was refreshing himself with coffee and cakes, he drew a little nearer to the old woman who had poured it out for him, and bent down his head. The old woman was at that moment intent upon her coffeepot, and did not notice Pat. Suddenly Pat, with his mouth close to her ear, shouted out with a perfect yell,—

“Bully for you! and thank you kindly, marm!”

With a shriek of terror the startled old woman sprang up and fell backward. The chair on which she had been sitting, a rather rickety affair, gave way and went down. The old lady fell with the chair upon the ground, and lay for a moment motionless. Pat, horror-struck, stood confounded, and stared in silence at the ruin he had wrought. The bystanders, alarmed at the shout and shriek, crowded around, and for a moment there was universal confusion. Among the bystanders was the priest. To him Pat turned in his despair, and tried to explain. The priest listened, and then went to see about the old woman. Fortunately she had fallen on the soft turf, and was not at all hurt. She was soon on her feet, and another chair was procured, in which she seated herself. The priest then explained the whole affair. Pat was fully forgiven, and the harmony of the festival was perfectly restored. But Pat’s laudable efforts at maintaining a conversation had received so severe a check that he did not open his mouth for the rest of the day.

The festival went on. Fun and hilarity prevailed all around. The dancing grew more and more vigorous. At length the contagion spread to the elder ones of the party, and the boys were astonished to see old men stepping forth to skip and dance about the green; then old women came forward to take a part, until, at length, all were dancing. The boys stood as spectators, until at length Bart determined to throw himself into the spirit of the scene. He therefore found a partner, and plunged into the dance. The others followed. Captain Corbet alone remained, seated near a table, viewing the scene with his usual benevolent glance.

In the midst of this festive scene the skipper approached. He walked with rapid steps, and, without hesitating an instant, seized a partner and flung himself, with all the energy of his race, into the mazy dance.

“I don’t often dance, boys,” he remarked, afterwards, “but when I do, I mean business.”

It was evident that on this occasion the skipper did mean business. He danced more vigorously than any. He jumped higher; he whirled his partner round faster; he danced with more partners than any other, for he went through the whole assemblage, and led out every female there, from the oldest woman down to the smallest girl.

Most of the time he chatted volubly, and flung out remarks which excited roars of laughter. He won all hearts. He was, in fact, an immense success. The boys wondered, for they had not imagined that he could speak French.

He alluded to this afterwards.

“We have a natral affinity with the French down in New England,” said he. “When America was first colonized, our forefathers had to fight the French all the time. The two races were thus brought into connection. Our forefathers thus caught from the French that nasal twang with which the uneducated still speak English. You find that twang among the uneducated classes all over the British provinces and New England. It’s French—that’s what it is. Corbet and I are both uneducated men, and we both speak English with the French twang. I speak French first rate; and Corbet there could speak it first rate also, if he only knew the language perfectly.”

These remarks the boys did not quite know how to take. The skipper seemed to have a bantering way with him, and spoke so oddly that it was impossible for them to make out half of the time whether he was in earnest or only in jest.



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