COMING OF AGE
Québec is a city in the Province of Québec in Canada. It is a walled city. Québec was built at the top of the steep cliffs rising from the St. Lawrence River. It was once a fort. When Québec was a fort, Canada was only a part of what was once known as the New World.
On the plains above the cliffs, the Plains of Abraham, overlooking the St. Lawrence, outside the walls of the fort, the British General Wolfe, defeated the French General Montcalm and claimed all of Canada for England.
However, while the French army was defeated, the language was not; the culture was not; and the religion was not. Québec is now two cities. One is Upper Town, Haute-Ville, on the upper banks. The other is the portion of the city huddled on the sliver of land at the foot of the cliffs. Lower Town.—Basse-Ville.
Though the city is no longer a fort, the wall is still intact. Cannons still stand guard along the ramparts. Canons still stand guard along the rampart. However, the city has grown both in size and in population. It now extends beyond the walls to the St. Charles in the north. To the west, it pushes back the frontier; it abuts the unknown. Its population swells with the arrival of immigrants and with people from the countryside looking for work during hard times. It swells as the heart swells with tired blood; and, as with the heart, it pumps the people, the lifeblood of the New World, out again, into the body of land that will become a nation.
It is a Catholic city. Its sections proudly bear such names as St. John Ward, St. Lewis Ward. In
St. Sauveur Village, the streets run: St. Michel, St. Augustin, St. George, and on and on.
In Québec, in Upper Town, in winter, the steel blades of the cariole cut effortlessly through the snow. The windows of houses are frosted; warm air in candlelight frozen, glistening in the cold. Through the windows of these many homes, when the frost is wiped away, the snow can be seen glistening.
In Lower Town, Basse-Ville, in winter, on any of the narrow winding streets, there are few if any tracks in the snow made by the runners of a cariole—only many footprints. Along the sides of these streets, the snow is piled high with only a narrow path leading to each doorway. In the evenings as the light fades, the snow turns grey, glistening only beneath the gas lamps. In the snow, the many footprints seem to lead everywhere: to homes, to jobs, and to taverns; and to nowhere.
When the seasons begin to change, the snow disappears, but the temperature at night still drops to very low, dry cold that numbs the senses without chilling the body—that stiffens the outer layer of flesh. Footsteps are crisp echoes trapped inside little boxes; and now, there are millions of unseen footprints—and the cold. A silent waiting death.
Robert Duval stands alone on one of the narrow streets of Québec Upper Town feeling the chill of the evening as it settles into the fibre of his clothes. Lamplighters are beginning their rounds. The crowd of those heading home from work is beginning to thin out.
Robert Duval scrapes the last few flakes of tobacco from a crumpled packet, carefully sprinkles them over the small piece of paper he holds carefully between his grimy, calloused fingers, and with the skill of a surgeon, rolls the paper into a very thin cigarette.
“Damn wind,” he mutters as he huddles close to the grey stone wall of a building to light the cigarette. “I’d better get something out of this.”
He inhales deeply, then sits down on the bottom step of a stoop and pulls a newspaper from his coat pocket. The newspaper is two days old.
FIRE IN ST. SAUVEUR VILLAGE
Robert rereads the story. Long, difficult words he says aloud. Slowly. He goes up there looking for a job when new houses are being built; but there he is told what everyone is told. There is no work.
He thinks about the fire and feels reassured. He is not alone. There are more who feel the way he, Robert Duval, feels. He is so deep in thought that he doesn’t notice the arrival of the man he is waiting to meet:
Robert jumped up. Though he was standing up one step, he still had to look up to look into the chiseled face framed by a shaggy mane of black, curly hair—the face of Tom Priou.
He felt threatened by Tom’s height, broad shoulders, and piercing, coal-black eyes.
“Yes.” was all he could utter.
“I’m here. What do you want?”
Robert looked up and down the street. “Can we go somewhere to talk?”
“I—I want to join.”
Tom Priou’s face was blank.
“You do have an organisation,” Robert stated, attempting to sound sure of himself; to convince Priou he was worth considering. “Don’t you?”
Robert failed. He felt his stomach sink. He felt like a plod of manure stuck to the heel of Priou’s boot, something about to be scraped off against the curb.
However, as Tom Priou turned to leave, Duval grasped at the sleeve of his coat and blurted, “St. Sauveur Village.”
Priou stopped, turned his head, and started down at Duval.
“What about it?”
Robert felt desperate. He thrust his jaw forward and squared his shoulders. “That organisation.”
Tom knew it was possible for Duval to know that an organisation existed, but not that he was connected. He’d argued with Pierre about this meeting. The election was too close.
“Come. Let’s go where we can talk.”
Robert walked quickly, attempting longer strides and a faster pace to keep abreast of Priou. Up Rue St. John, through the Gate of Hop, Robert watched as they walked, hoping to memorise the directions to a secret hide-away; but the brisk walked ended at an alley. At the end of the alley was a large oak door bearing a sign: Le Baptiste. A tavern.
Inside, Le Baptiste is one large room. Windows to let in light are too high to see though to the outside. In the middle of the room is a large, wood burning stove. Around the stove is a cluster of tables. Around each table is a cluster of men. The bar is to the left—the length of the room. Waiters in leather aprons carry pitchers of ale, loaves of bread, and wedges of cheese to the patrons. The mood of the patrons, unlike the mood of those in the street, is happy. Troubles are left at the door. Here, for a few cents, each man can fill his belly and drown his sorrow. Tom held up two fingers. A waiter nodded. When they found seats at the edge of the crowd, Tom spoke. “Now then, what is all this about an organisation?”
Robert Duval took a deep breath. The beer arrived in time for him to pause, to think, to drink. Tom Priou waited. Finally, Duval spoke.
“I was at La Rouge. I was there with a friend. I heard you talking in the meeting room.”
Tom lit a long, narrow cheroot and puffed. “Was that friend Jean Duffet?”
Robert nodded. He sipped his beer. A mistake, he thought, mentioning Duffet’s name. Still, Tom had to have checked to know, but it was the only way to get Tom’s attention.
“I remember what you said about joining together.”
Tom remembered the speech. A unity speech. He had been trying desperately to gain support from the conservative Catholics while trying desperately to get money from the Anglais
Tom looked at Robert’s large, beefy hands, thick neck, and broad chest. His worn coat was stretched over him. Expensive but worn. Too small. Duffet’s coat.
“There are many organisations; but I am not the leader of some secret society. I was telling the privileged few at La Rouge that divided we cannot stand. It will hurt us all. I am sure you know that better than your good friend Duffet.”
Robert was quiet. He drank. Tom Priou slid a packet of tobacco and some papers across the table. Robert muttered a barely audible ‘merci’.
“Let me buy you another.” Tom signaled the waiter. He could see Robert was visibly shaken. Humiliated. Tom knew that in a moment this would turn to resentment, then to anger, and then boil to the surface. Tom drained his beer. The waiter brought two more. Robert fooled Priou. His response was controlled. Measured.
“I know you have to be careful; but, I can be very useful.”
“The fire in St. Sauveur.”
“What about it?”
“I could have set it.”
“Did you?” Tom knew the answer.
“No, but I could have.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“I was planning it. Someone got to it first.”
Tom was quiet. He could have asked Duval why he didn’t start another. He didn’t.
“That is why organisation is important. The workers can’t do it alone.”
Tom recognised the words from the Manifest of Marx being circulated privately among the students at University.
“And what would you want in exchange for this support you are prepared to offer?”
Duval spoke slowly. “A job. Food. A warm coat.”
“You planned to burn down a house. Why not plan to steal a coat?”
“Would that find me a job?”
Jesuits, Tom thought. “Jobs are hard to find.”
“I know there is an organisation. Are you going to help me or not?”
Tom paused to contemplate Duval’s sincerity and stupidity. Then, he leaned back and laughed. “Salue.” He raised his glass and swallowed up its content. Then he leaned across the table.
“To deny it is useless. You wouldn’t believe me. But to announce it to the world is foolish. It’s how men get killed. I will tell you this much. There are many organisations. Perhaps I can find someone willing to admit it and to put you up for membership; but I can’t make you any promises. I can’t find you a job that does not exist. Jobs are scarce. That is why there are so many organisations. People are busy not working. Be patient. It will take time. Trust me. Tell no one you spoke to me. Not even Jean Duffet.
Outside, Robert Duval stood erect, squared his shoulders, and strolled boldly back the way he came. He passed again through the Gate of Hope; but from there went to the Esplanade, to the Gate of Louis Quatorze, to Rue St. Louis, to D’Ursule, to Rue Ste. Genevieve, to the house of Jean Paul Duffet; but Jean Paul was out. Robert left a message. I was here. I will be home. That was all he wrote; but as he walked away, he hoped it would be enough to get him a decent meal; and with the taste of beer still in his mouth—more to drink. Robert walked across the park, past the Haldimand, and down the hill, braced against the cold wind blowing from the north.
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Copyright © 2011 Slim Fairview