More than two hundred years ago there lived in Acadia, as Nova Scotia was then called, a beautiful maiden named Evangeline. Benedict Bellefontaine, Evangeline’s father, was the wealthiest farmer in the neighborhood. His goodly acres were somewhat apart from the little village of Grand-Pré, but near enough for Evangeline not to feel lonely.
The people of Grand-Pré were simple and kindly, and dwelt together in the love of God and man. They had neither locks to their doors nor bars to their windows; visitors were always welcome, and all gave of their best to whoever might come.
The house of Benedict Bellefontaine, firmly builded with rafters of oak, was on a hill commanding the sea. The barns stood toward the north, shielding the house from storms. They were bursting with hay and corn, and were so numerous as to form almost a village by themselves. The horses, the cattle, the sheep and the poultry were all well-fed and well cared for. At Benedict Bellefontaine’s there was comfort and plenty. The men and the maids never grumbled. All men were equal, all were brothers and sisters. In Acadia the richest man was poor, but the poorest lived in abundance.
Evangeline was her father’s housekeeper; her mother was dead. Benedict was seventy years old, but he was hale and hearty and managed his prosperous farm himself. His hair was as white as snow and his face was as brown as oak leaves. Evangeline’s hair was dark brown and her eyes were black. She was the loveliest girl in Grand-Pré and many a lad was in love with her.
Among all Evangeline’s suitors only one was welcome, and he was Gabriel Lajeunesse, son of Basil the blacksmith. Gabriel and Evangeline had grown up together like brother and sister. The priest had taught them their letters out of the selfsame book, and together they had learned their hymns and their verses. Together they had watched Basil at his forge and with wondering eyes had seen him handle the hoof of a horse as easily as a plaything, taking it into his lap and nailing on the shoe. Together they had ridden on sledges in winter and hunted birds’ nests in summer, seeking eagerly that marvellous stone which the swallow is said to bring from the shore of the sea to restore the sight of its fledglings. Lucky is he who finds that stone!
And now they were man and woman. Benedict and Basil were old friends and they desired the marriage of the children. They were ready to marry. The young men of the village had built them a house and a barn. The barn was filled with hay and the house was stored with food enough to last a year.
One beautiful evening in Indian summer Evangeline and Gabriel were betrothed.
Benedict was sitting in-doors by the wide-mouthed fireplace singing fragments of songs such as his fathers before him had sung in their orchards in sunny France, and Evangeline was close beside him at her wheel industriously spinning flax for her loom. Up-stairs there was a chest filled with strong white linen which Evangeline would take to her new home. Every thread of it had been spun and woven by the maiden.
As they sat by the fireside, footsteps were heard, and the wooden latch was suddenly lifted. Benedict knew by the hob-nailed shoes that it was Basil the blacksmith, and Evangeline knew by her beating heart that Gabriel was with him.
“Welcome,” said Benedict the farmer, “welcome, Basil, my friend. Come and take thy place on the settle close by the chimney-side. Take thy pipe and the box of tobacco from the shelf overhead. Never art thou so much thyself as when through the curling smoke of the pipe or the forge thy friendly and jovial face gleams as round and red as the harvest moon through the mist of the marshes.”
“Benedict Bellefontaine, thou art always joking. Thou art cheerful even when others are grave and anxious,” answered Basil.
He paused to take the pipe which Evangeline was handing him, and lighted it with a coal from the embers.
“For four days the English ships have ridden at their anchors in the Gaspereau’s mouth, and their cannon are pointed against us. What they are here for we do not know, but we are all commanded to meet in church to-morrow to hear his Majesty’s will proclaimed as law in the land. Alas! in the meantime the hearts of the people are full of fears of evil,” continued the blacksmith.
“Perhaps some friendly purpose brings these ships to our shores,” replied the farmer. “Perhaps the harvests in England have been blighted and they have come to buy our grain and hay.”
“The people in the village do not think so,” said Basil, gravely shaking his head. “They remember that the English are our enemies. Some have fled already to the forest, and lurk on its outskirts waiting anxiously to hear to-morrow’s news. If the news is not to be bad why have our weapons been taken from us? Only the blacksmith’s sledge and the scythes of the mowers have been left.”
“We are safer unarmed,” answered the cheerful farmer, who as usual made the best of everything. “What can harm us here in the midst of our flocks and our corn-fields? Fear no evil, my friend, and, above all, may no shadow fall on this house and hearth to-night. It is the night of the contract. René Leblanc will be here presently with his papers and inkhorn. Shall we not be glad and rejoice in the happiness of our children?”
Evangeline and her lover were standing by the window. They heard the words of the farmer and the maiden blushed. Hardly had he spoken when the worthy notary entered the room.
René Leblanc was bent with age. His hair was yellow, his forehead was high, and he looked very wise, with his great spectacles sitting astride on his nose. He was the father of twenty children, and more than a hundred grandchildren rode on his knee. All children loved him for he could tell them wonderful fairy tales and strange stories of the forest. He told them of the goblins that came at night to water the horses, of how the oxen talked in their stalls on Christmas Eve, of how a spider shut up in a nutshell could cure the fever, and of the marvellous powers possessed by horse shoes and four-leaved clover. He knew more strange things than twenty other men.
As soon as Basil saw the notary he asked him about the English ships.
“Father Leblanc, thou hast heard the talk of the village. Perhaps, thou canst tell us something about the ships and their errand.”
“I have heard enough talk,” answered the notary, “but I am none the wiser. Yet I am not one of those who think that the ships are here to do us evil. We are at peace and, why then, should they harm us?”
“Must we in all things look for the how and the why and wherefore?” shouted the hasty and somewhat excitable blacksmith. “Injustice is often done and might is the right of the strongest.”
“Man is unjust,” replied the notary, “but God is just, and finally justice triumphs. I remember a story that has often consoled me when things have seemed to be going wrong.
“Once in an ancient city, whose name I have forgotten, there stood high on a marble column, in the public square, a brazen statue of Justice holding her scales in her left hand and a sword in her right. This meant that justice reigned over the land and in the hearts and the homes of the people. Yet in the course of time the laws of the land were corrupted and might took the place of right, the weak were oppressed, and the mighty ruled with a rod of iron. By and by, birds built their nests in the scales of Justice; they were not afraid of the sword that flashed in the sunshine above them.
“It happened that in the palace of a wealthy nobleman a necklace of pearls disappeared. Suspicion fell on a poor orphan girl, who was arrested and sentenced to be hanged right at the foot of the statue of Justice.
“The girl was put to death, but as her innocent spirit ascended to heaven a great storm arose and lightning struck the statue, angrily hurling the scales from the left hand of the figure of Justice. They fell to the pavement with a clatter and in one of the shattered nests was found the pearl necklace. It had been stolen by a magpie who had cunningly woven the string of pearls into the clay wall of her babies’ cradle. So the poor girl was proven innocent and the people of that city were taught to be more careful of justice.”
This story silenced the blacksmith but did not drive away his forebodings of evil. Evangeline lighted the brazen lamp on the table and filled the great pewter tankard with home-brewed nut brown ale. The notary drew from his pocket his papers and his inkhorn and began to write the contract of marriage. In spite of his age his hand was steady, He set down the names and the ages of the parties and the amount of Evangeline’s dowry in flocks of sheep and in cattle. All was done in accordance with the law and the paper was signed and sealed. Benedict took from his leathern pouch three times the notary’s fee in solid pieces of silver. The old man arose and blessed the bride and the bridegroom, and then lifted aloft the tankard of ale and drank to their health. Then wiping the foam from his lip, he bowed solemnly and went away.
The others sat quietly by the fireside until Evangeline brought the draught-board to her father and Basil and arranged the pieces for them. They were soon deep in the game, while Evangeline and her lover sat apart in the embrasure of a window and whispered together as they watched the moon rise over the sea. Their hearts were full of happiness as they looked into the future, believing that they would be together.
At nine o’clock the guests rose to depart, but Gabriel lingered on the doorstep with many farewell words and sweet good-nights. When he was gone Evangeline carefully covered the fire and noiselessly followed her father up-stairs. Out in the orchard Gabriel waited and watched for the gleam of her lamp and her shadow as she moved about behind her snowy curtains. She did not know that he was so near, yet her thoughts were of him.
The next day the betrothal feast was held in Benedict’s house and the orchard. There were good Benedict and sturdy Basil the blacksmith and there were the priest and the notary. Beautiful Evangeline welcomed the guests with a smiling face and words of gladness. Then Michael the fiddler took a seat under the trees and he sang and played for the company to dance, sometimes beating time to the music with his wooden shoes.
Merrily, merrily whirled the dancers, old and young together, and the children among them. Fairest of all the maidens was Evangeline, and Gabriel was the noblest of all the youths.
So the morning passed away. A loud summons sounded from the church tower and from the drums of the soldiers. The men thronged to the church leaving the women outside in the church yard.
The church doors were closed, and the crowd silently awaited the will of the soldiers. Then the commander arose and spoke from the steps of the altar.
How dreadful were the words spoken from that holy place! The lands and dwellings and the cattle of all kinds, of the people were to be given up to the King of England whom they had to obey for he had conquered the French. They were to be driven from their homes and Englishmen were to be allowed to take possession of Acadia.
The commander declared the men prisoners, but overcome with sorrow and anger, they rushed to the door-way. Basil, the hot-headed blacksmith, cried out, “Down with the tyrants of England!” but a soldier struck him on the mouth and dragged him down to the pavement.
Then Father Felician, the priest, spoke to his people, and tried to quiet them. His words were few, but they sank deep in the hearts of his flock.
“O Father, forgive them,” they cried, as the crucified Christ had cried centuries before them.
The evening service followed and the people fell on their knees and were comforted.
Evangeline waited for her father at his door. She had set the table and his supper was ready for him. On the white cloth were the wheaten bread, the fragrant honey, the tankard of ale, and fresh cheese, just brought from the dairy, but Benedict did not come. At last the girl went back to the church and called aloud the names of her father and Gabriel. There was no answer. Back to the empty house she went, feeling desolate. It began to rain; then the lightning flashed and it thundered, but Evangeline was not frightened, for she remembered that God was in Heaven and that He governs the world that He created. She thought of the story that she had heard the night before of the justice of Heaven and, trusting in God, she went to bed and slept peacefully until morning.
The men were kept prisoners in the church for four days and nights. On the fifth day the women and the children were bidden to take their household goods to the seashore and there they were joined by the long-imprisoned but patient Acadian farmers.
When Evangeline saw Gabriel she ran to him and whispered, “Gabriel, be of good cheer, for if we love each other nothing can harm us, whatever mischances may happen.”
Then she saw her father. He was sadly changed: the fire was gone from his eyes and his footstep was heavy and slow. With a full heart she embraced him, feeling that words of comfort would do no good.
The Acadians were hurried on board the ships and in the confusion families were separated. Mothers were torn from their children and wives from their husbands. Basil was put on one ship and Gabriel on another, while Evangeline stood on the shore with her father. When night came not half the work of embarking was done. The people on shore camped on the beach in the midst of their household goods and their wagons.
None could escape, for the soldiers were watching them.
The priest moved about in the moonlight trying to comfort the people. He laid his hand on Evangeline’s head and blessed her. Suddenly columns of shining smoke arose and flashes of flame were seen in the direction of Grand-Pré. The village was on fire. The people felt that they could never return to their homes and their hearts were swelled with anguish. Evangeline and the priest turned to Benedict. He was motionless, his soul had gone to Heaven.
There on the beach, with the light of the burning village for a torch, they buried the farmer of Grand-Pré, and the priest repeated the burial service to the accompaniment of the roaring sea.
In the morning the work of embarking was finished and toward night the ships sailed out of the harbor leaving the dead on the shore and the village in ruins.
The Acadians were scattered all over the land from north to south and from the bleak shores of the ocean even to the banks of the Mississippi River. Evangeline wandered from place to place looking for Gabriel Lajeunesse, and Gabriel sought Evangeline as earnestly. Sometimes they heard of one another but through long years they never met.
Evangeline was growing old and her hair showed faint streaks of gray when at last she made her home in Philadelphia. She became a Sister of Mercy and by day and by night ministered to the sick and the dying.
A pestilence fell on the city, carrying away rich and poor alike.
Evangeline lovingly tended the very poorest, and each day she went to the almshouse on her errand of mercy.
One morning she came to a pallet on which lay an old man, thin and gray. As she looked at him his face seemed to assume the form of earlier manhood. With a cry she fell on her knees.
“Gabriel, my beloved!”
The old man heard the voice and it carried him back to the home of his childhood, to happiness and Evangeline. He opened his eyes. Evangeline was kneeling beside him. At last they were together.
Ah yes the depressingly slow hand of justice.. Thanks for this. Echoes of a time when everything moved as slowly as a spider in a nutshell.
James K Beach