SHINING CROSS OF RIGAUD

When Mini was a fortnight old his mother wrapped her head and shoulders
in her ragged shawl, snatched him from the family litter of straw, and,
with a volley of cautionary objurgations to his ten brothers and
sisters, strode angrily forth into the raw November weather. She went
down the hill to the edge of the broad, dark Ottawa, where thin slices
of ice were swashing together. There sat a hopeless-looking little man
at the clumsy oars of a flat-bottomed boat.

“The little one’s feet are out,” said the man.

“So much the better! For what was another sent us?” cried Mini’s
mother.

“But the little one must be baptized,” said the father, with mild
expostulation.

“Give him to me, then,” and the man took off his own ragged coat.
Beneath it he had nothing except an equally ragged guernsey, and the
wind was keen. The woman surrendered the child carelessly, and drawing
her shawl closer, sat frowning moodily in the stern. Mini’s father
wrapped him in the wretched garment, carefully laid the infant on the
pea-straw at his feet, and rowed wearily away.

They took him to the gray church on the farther shore, whose tall cross
glittered coldly in the wintry sun. There Madame Lajeunesse, the
skilful washerwoman, angry to be taken so long from her tubs, and
Bonhomme Hamel, who never did anything but fish for _barbotes_, met
them. These highly respectable connections of Mini’s mother had a
disdain for her inferior social status, and easily made it understood
that nothing but a Christian duty would have brought them out. Where
else, indeed, could the friendless infant have found sponsors? It was
disgraceful, they remarked, that the custom of baptism at three days old
should have been violated. While they answered for Mini’s spiritual
development he was quiet, neither crying nor smiling till the old priest
crossed his brow. Then he smiled, and that, Bonhomme Hamel remarked,
was a blessed sign.

“Now he’s sure of heaven when he does die!” cried Mini’s mother, getting
home again, and tossed him down on the straw, for a conclusion to her
sentence.

But the child lived, as if by miracle. Hunger, cold, dirt, abuse, still
left him a feeble vitality. At six years old his big dark eyes wore so
sad a look that mothers of merry children often stopped to sigh over
him, frightening the child, for he did not understand sympathy. So
unresponsive and dumb was he that they called him half-witted. Three
babies younger than he had died by then, and the fourth was little
Angélique. They said she would be very like Mini, and there was reason
why in her wretched infancy. Mini’s was the only love she ever knew.
When she saw the sunny sky his weak arms carried her, and many a night
he drew over her the largest part of his deplorable coverings. She,
too, was strangely silent. For days long they lay together on the
straw, quietly suffering what they had known from the beginning. It was
something near starvation.

When Mini was eight years old his mother sent him one day to beg food
from Madame Leclaire, whose servant she had been long ago.

“It’s Lucile’s Mini,” said Madame, taking him to the door of the cosey
sitting-room, where Monsieur sat at _solitaire_.

“_Mon Dieu_, did one ever see such a child!” cried the retired notary.
“For the love of Heaven, feed him well, Marie, before you let him go!”

But Mini could scarcely eat. He trembled at the sight of so much food,
and chose a crust as the only thing familiar.

“Eat, my poor child. Have no fear,” said Madame.

“But Angélique,” said he.

“Angélique? Is it the baby?”

“Yes, Madame, if I might have something for her.”

“Poor little loving boy,” said Madame, tears in her kind eyes. But Mini
did not cry; he had known so many things so much sadder.

When Mini reached home his mother seized the basket. Her wretched
children crowded around. There were broken bread and meat in plenty.
“Here—here—and here!” She distributed crusts, and chose a well-fleshed
bone for her own teeth. Angélique could not walk, and did not cry, so
got nothing.. Mini, however, went to her with the tin pail before his
mother noticed it.

“Bring that back!” she shouted.

“Quick, baby!” cried Mini, holding it that Angélique might drink. But
the baby was not quick enough. Her mother seized the pail and tasted;
the milk was still almost warm. “Good,” said she, reaching for her
shawl.

“For the love of God, mother!” cried Mini, “Madame said it was for
Angélique.” He knew too well what new milk would trade for. The woman
laughed and flung on her shawl.

“Only a little, then; only a cupful,” cried Mini, clutching her,
struggling weakly to restrain her. “Only a little cupful for
Angélique.”

“Give her bread!” She struck him so that he reeled, and left the cabin.
_Then_ Mini cried, but not for the blow.

He placed a soft piece of bread and a thin shred of meat in Angélique’s
thin little hand, but she could not eat, she was so weak. The elder
children sat quietly devouring their food, each ravenously eyeing that
of the others. But there was so much that when the father came he also
could eat. He, too, offered Angélique bread. Then Mini lifted his hand
which held hers, and showed beneath the food she had refused.

“If she had milk!” said the boy.

“My God, if I could get some,” groaned the man, and stopped as a
shuffling and tumbling was heard at the door.

“She is very drunk,” said the man, without amazement. He helped her in,
and, too far gone to abuse them, she soon lay heavily breathing near the
child she had murdered.

Mini woke in the pale morning thinking Angélique very cold in his arms,
and, behold, she was free from all the suffering forever. So he _could_
not cry, though the mother wept when she awoke, and shrieked at his
tearlessness as hardhearted.

Little Angélique had been rowed across the great river for the last
time; night was come again, and Mini thought he must die; it could not
be that he should be made to live without Angélique! Then a wondrous
thing seemed to happen. Little Angélique had come back. He could not
doubt it next morning, for, with the slowly lessening glow from the last
brands of fire had not her face appeared?—then her form?—and lo! she was
closely held in the arms of the mild Mother whom Mini knew from her
image in the church, only she smiled more sweetly now in the hut.
Little Angélique had learned to smile, too, which was most wonderful of
all to Mini. In their heavenly looks was a meaning of which he felt
almost aware; a mysterious happiness was coming close and closer; with
the sense of ineffable touches near his brow, the boy dreamed. Nothing
more did Mini know till his mother’s voice woke him in the morning. He
sprang up with a cry of “Angélique,” and gazed round upon the familiar
squalor.

*II*

From the summit of Rigaud Mountain a mighty cross flashes sunlight all
over the great plain of Vaudreuil. The devout _habitant_, ascending
from vale to hill-top in the county of Deux Montagnes, bends to the sign
he sees across the forest leagues away. Far off on the brown Ottawa,
beyond the Cascades of Carillon and the Chute à Blondeau, the keen-eyed
_voyageur_ catches its gleam, and, for gladness to be nearing the
familiar mountain, more cheerily raises the _chanson_ he loves. Near
St. Placide the early ploughman—while yet mist wreathes the fields and
before the native Rossignol has fairly begun his plaintive
flourishes—watches the high cross of Rigaud for the first glint that
shall tell him of the yet unrisen sun. The wayfarer marks his progress
by the bearing of that great cross, the hunter looks to it for an
unfailing landmark, the weatherwise farmer prognosticates from its
appearances. The old watch it dwindle from sight at evening with long
thoughts of the well-beloved vanished, who sighed to its vanishing
through vanished years; the dying turn to its beckoning radiance; happy
is the maiden for whose bridal it wears brightness; blessed is the child
thought to be that holds out tiny hands for the glittering cross as for
a star. Even to the most worldly it often seems flinging beams of
heaven, and to all who love its shining that is a dark day when it
yields no reflection of immortal meaning.

To Mini the Cross of Rigaud had as yet been no more than an indistinct
glimmering, so far from it did he live and so dulled was he by his
sufferings. It promised him no immortal joys, for how was he to
conceive of heaven except as a cessation of weariness, starvation, and
pain? Not till Angélique had come in the vision did he gain certainty
that in heaven she would smile on him always from the mild Mother’s
arms. As days and weeks passed without that dream’s return, his
imagination was ever the more possessed by it. Though the boy looked
frailer than ever, people often remarked with amazement how his eyes
wore some unspeakable happiness.

Now it happened that one sunny day after rain Mini became aware that his
eyes were fixed on the Cross of Rigaud. He could not make out its form
distinctly, but it appeared to thrill toward him. Under his intent
watching the misty cross seemed gradually to become the centre of such a
light as had enwrapped the figures of his dream. While he gazed,
expecting his vision of the night to appear in broad day on the far
summit, the light extended, changed, rose aloft, assumed clear tints,
and shifted quickly to a great rainbow encircling the hill.

Mini believed it a token to him. That Angélique had been there by the
cross the little dreamer doubted not, and the transfiguration to that
arch of glory had some meaning that his soul yearned to apprehend. The
cross drew his thoughts miraculously; for days thereafter he dwelt with
its shining; more and more it was borne in on him that he could always
see dimly the outline of little Angélique’s face there; sometimes,
staring very steadily for minutes together, he could even believe that
she beckoned and smiled.

“Is Angélique really there, father?” he asked one day, looking toward
the hill-top.

“Yes, there,” answered his father, thinking the boy meant heaven.

“I will go to her, then,” said Mini to his heart.

Birds were not stirring when Mini stepped from the dark cabin into gray
dawn, with firm resolve to join Angélique on the summit. The Ottawa,
with whose flow he went toward Rigaud, was solemnly shrouded in
motionless mist, which began to roll slowly during the first hour of his
journey. Lifting, drifting, clinging, ever thinner and more pervaded by
sunlight, it was drawn away so that the unruffled flood reflected a sky
all blue when he had been two hours on the road. But Mini took no note
of the river’s beauty. His eyes were fixed on the cloudy hilltop,
beyond which the sun was climbing. As yet he could see nothing of the
cross, nor of his vision; yet the world had never seemed so glad, nor
his heart so light with joy. _Habitants_, in their rattling _calèches_,
were amazed by the glow in the face of a boy so ragged and forlorn.
Some told afterward how they had half doubted the reality of his rags;
for might not one, if very pure at heart, have been privileged to see
such garments of apparent meanness change to raiment of angelic texture?
Such things had been, it was said, and certainly the boy’s face was a
marvel.

His look was ever upward to where fibrous clouds shifted slowly, or
packed to level bands of mist half concealing Rigaud Hill, as the sun
wheeled higher, till at last, in mid-sky, it flung rays that trembled on
the cross, and gradually revealed the holy sign outlined in upright and
arms. Mini shivered with an awe of expectation; but no nimbus was
disclosed which his imagination could shape to glorious significance.
Yet he went rapturously onward, firm in the belief that up there he must
see Angèlique face to face.

As he journeyed the cross gradually lessened in height by disappearance
behind the nearer trees, till only a spot of light was left, which
suddenly was blotted out too. Mini drew a deep breath, and became
conscious of the greatness of the hill,—a towering mass of brown rock,
half hidden by sombre pines and the delicate greenery of birch and
poplar. But soon, because the cross was hidden, he could figure it all
the more gloriously, and entertain all the more luminously the belief
that there were heavenly presences awaiting him. He pressed on with all
his speed, and began to ascend the mountain early in the afternoon.

“Higher,” said the women gathering pearly-bloomed blueberries on the
steep hillside. “Higher,” said the path, ever leading the tired boy
upward from plateau to plateau,—”higher, to the vision and the radiant
space about the shining cross!”

Faint with hunger, worn with fatigue, in the half-trance of physical
exhaustion, Mini still dragged himself upward through the afternoon. At
last he knew he stood on the summit level very near the cross. There
the child, awed by the imminence of what he had sought, halted to
control the rapturous, fearful trembling of his heart. Would not the
heavens surely open? What words would Angélique first say? Then again
he went swiftly forward through the trees to the edge of the little
cleared space. There he stood dazed.

The cross was revealed to him at a few yards’ distance. With woful
disillusionment Mini threw himself face downward on the rock, and wept
hopelessly, sorely; wept and wept, till his sobs became fainter than the
up-borne long notes of a hermit-thrush far below on the edge of the
plain.

A tall mast, with a shorter at right angles, both covered by tin
roofing-plates, held on by nails whence rust had run in streaks,—that
was the shining Cross of Rigaud! Fragments of newspaper, crusts of
bread, empty tin cans, broken bottles, the relics of many picnics
scattered widely about the foot of the cross; rude initial letters cut
deeply into its butt where the tin had been torn away;—these had Mini
seen.

The boy ceased to move. Shadows stole slowly lengthening over the
Vaudreuil champaign; the sun swooned down in a glamour of painted
clouds; dusk covered from sight the yellows and browns and greens of the
August fields; birds stilled with the deepening night; Rigaud Mountain
loomed from the plain, a dark long mass under a flying and waning moon;
stars came out from the deep spaces overhead, and still Mini lay where
he had wept.

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