When the Habitant Weds and Old Customs Still Prevail
( Originally Published 1907 )
WHEN old Narcisse had deposited the tinette of butter in the hangard, made all the polite inquiries as to the health of the various members of the family, had swallowed his coup of whiskey blanc with many declarations of approval of the quality of that liquor as a throat scratcher, (grate la gorge), he then, with very many apologies for so presuming, begged the honor of our presence at the marriage of his daughter, Marie Ange to Victor Content on the following Monday. "You love the old customs of our country," added Narcisse, "come and you will see that we have not all of us forgotten the former ways of our people."
We promised, but as the drive was one of some twenty-five miles from the city, and as the marriage ceremony at the church took place at 7 a.m., it was agreed that we should only be expected at the house.
"Do not forget that it is for three days," was Narcisse's parting injunction.
At the dawn of a beautiful June morning, only such a morning as is gifted to high latitudes, cool and clear, fragrant of the budding summer, and in glorious greens to the very mountain tops. The city slept, not even a convent bell announced the opening day as we drove across the Dorchester Bridge and away into the little mountain parish of St. "No-Name." When we turned off the macadamized road and its line of populous, comfortable houses, rich fields of growing grass and grain, and sleek herds of cattle, and began the long ascent into the mountains, the scene changed rapidly. The farms grew rough and stony, the houses dwindled into the rough log ones of the pioneer, the barns became sheds, and the few cattle looked rather weather beaten and poor—the one unfailing crop that brings happiness, to every French Canadian homestead be it ever so poor, was much in evidence at every doorstep as we passed, the numbers of ruddy, sturdy and smiling children who popped out like peas out of a pod to see us drive by. The poorer the father and the larger the family, the richer does he feel in world's wealth.
Along the road was stacked great lengths of well piled cord wood, hundreds and hundreds of birch logs and long spruce timbers, both squared and round, which was a forcible reminder that. not alone by farming were these dwellers upon the mountain sides enabled to eke out a scant subsistence. The bush and its lumbering are the mainstay. They either depend upon the cut from their own lands, or they take contracts from the big lumber firms to get out spruce logs in winter, on the latter's limits, and these are then called jobbers. Were it not for the lumber interests it is questionable whether these out-dwellers of the lands could subsist on their farms alone. Come rain, come shine, they are, however, the happiest and most contented people in the world.
There was a gay display of flags before the door at Narcisse's, and from a flag-staff flew the tricolor of France—the flag of Lower Canada, if one might judge from its prevalence throughout the Province.
Two old dames were in possession of the house and busy completing the preparation for the great dejeuner. After stabling our horse we amused ourselves by looking over the premises. Like all the houses of its class throughout the province, it was a cube of square logs, chinked with moss and lime. Clapboarding it had none. The lower floor was of two rooms divided by a board partition, and in an opening of this stood the great three decker iron stove, with a capacity for three feet wood in winter; in summer it serves as the store closet for the daily provisions for all summer cooking was done in a small outside shed.
The kitchen served also as dining room and parlour on all ordinary occasions. The second room, which was the family bedroom, contained an old-fashioned four poster bedstead, while under it were several low cribs which are hauled out at night for the kidlets. A settle bed, a combination affair of bench by day and bed at night for the large children, was pushed against the wall. The more grown-ups climbed a sort of ladder and slept in the garret. Crude coloured pictures of a religious character adorned the wall, while a crucifix hung over a low shelf with the string of beads. Some deal tables, wooden rockers and chairs and a corner cupboard completed the furnishings. Several pairs of snow-shoes and a curious old gun with powder horn and shot bag, hung on the kitchen walls. We must not forget the spinning wheel which had its place of honor.
The breakfast was to be served on a long board table under a group of sighing poplars. The two rooms in the house were to be given up to dancing.
The rattle of buckboards and the lively notes of a concertina announced the coming of the marriage train. There was a mad race down the hill, a cloud of dust and out of it the groom gallantly lifted his blushing bride from the voiture and deposited her on the doorstep. The concertina fairly shrieked and the fiddle made a lively second. As the guest of honor we were politely accorded the privilege of kissing the bride, and having, as the Yankees say "got our hand in," we insisted upon also kissing the bridesmaid, which excited considerable merriment. There was no delay in serving the breakfast and a merrier crowd never gathered at a festive board. The fare, if rude, was generous in quantity. A huge roasted fresh ham graced one end of the table, and at the other a great dish of ragout divided the honors. There were meat pies, preserve pies, molasses pies, croquignoles, pyramids of hard-boiled eggs, Boswell's bottled beer for the men, and tea for the women and children. A "square-face" of gin was first passed around for un coup to the health, prosperity and large family of the young couple, with many sly jokes interposed by all the elders and much laughter from the others.
After the breakfast the first day's drive into the seventh concession was made by the entire party. The violin in one trap and the concertina in another, alternately accompanied the singers. At every house a salute was fired from the old family musket, with another running fire of badinage. When we came to the house of a relation we all stopped and had more refreshments, danced a while, then away again. Finally we turned back so as to reach the house in time for an al fresco supper and the enjoyment of the real entertainment that was to follow.
When the afterglow had faded into the long twilight of a June night, we were all bidden into the house. The bride and groom now took their seats at one end of the room, holding hand in hand, the guests grouped at the other end. Out of the crowd advanced, with a dancing step towards the newly-married couple, the celebrated Pelouse, the chanteur, whose word improvizations to some old French air, and his local hits, gave him great vogue at all entertainments.
With a sweeping bow he commenced his song, which first treated of the joys and responsibility of married life. Then turning to the bride he ad-dressed one particular stanza to her in which she is implored to be in all things what a good wife should be. The groom next received his attention and got some good advice and several digs in the ribs.
The mother now seated herself between the couple and sang a long complainte setting forth her grief at losing so good a daughter, and congratulating the groom upon a wife of so many virtues.
The proceedings at this stage were interrupted by the cry of fire. The men, headed by Narcisse, rushed out of doors, only to discover that some prankish youths had set fire to several bundles of straw. A larky guest seized the tall beaver of another guest and made an auto de fe of it, and the owner wept maudlin tears over it as it was slowly consumed. An innocent youth was seized as the supposed ring leader of the mischievous gang, and was soundly cuffed before he was rightly discovered.
After all this excitement it is found necessary to pass round the "square-face" before a return to the house. To restore good humor the chanteur again steps forth and sings an improvised song in which all the guests in turn are referred to for some peculiarity. This excites the utmost hilarity at the expense of the one who is hardest hit. The man of the lost beaver hat caught the following rap :
Jean Rouleau, now his castor is burned,
and another at random.
Joe Baton sold a pig in town,
The raillery, if crude, was never offensively coarse.
The concertina now took possession of one room and the fiddle the other and dancing began, the bride and groom always remaining seated in the one place. Quadrilles alternated with cotillions and country jigs. All were vigorously danced but with perfect decorum. Between each dance some local orator addressed the bride in humorous or serious strain.
At length the bride is called upon for a song. Remaining seated, but taking the hand of her blushing swain, she launched forth into a plaintive recital of her grief at being torn from the arms of her loving parents and her beautiful home, but trusting with God's help to build up another. In the meantime an unmarried sister standing out-side a window has taken up the refrain. It was all inexpressibly touching and there were many tearful eyes. But it is no time for tears—away goes the fiddle and the concertina, and away go the dancers in their whirl. But even dancers grow weary for a time, and fiddlers dry. At this juncture another important individual came upon the scene, the conteur (the story-teller). When all was quiet and the lights turned low, he began his story of a long-tailed devil who tries his utmost to create discord between a newly-married couple, but in the end gets signally worsted and disappears in a cloud of sulphurous smoke. His hearers are all duly impressed. His next story is of a bashful lover who has fallen in love with a maid in the Cure's house. Whenever he meets her he trembles like the leaves on the aspen, and he would never have had the courage to propose to her had she not helped him out. "This," concluded the conteur, "shows the necessity for all maidens with bashful lovers to bring them to the point without delay."
This piece of wisdom appeared to meet with the general acceptance from all the young people present.
Dancing is again resumed, and more supper follows. No one thinks of sleep until rosy dawn comes smiling, then the tired crowd melt away into nooks and corners for a few hours' rest before commencing the round once more.
We plead urgent affairs in town as an excuse for our departure, but with many assurances of our delight at all we had seen and heard Narcisse and the bride and groom waved us a last farewell.