Little Baptiste by Edward William Thomson
A STORY OF THE OTTAWA RIVER.
Ma'ame Baptiste Larocque peered
again into her cupboard and her flour
barrel, as though she might have been mistaken
in her inspection twenty minutes earlier.
"No, there is nothing, nothing at all!" said
she to her old mother-in-law. "And no more
trust at the store. Monsieur Conolly was too
cross when I went for corn-meal yesterday. For
sure, Baptiste stays very long at the shanty
"Fear nothing, Delima," answered the bright-eyed
old woman. "The good God will send a
breakfast for the little ones, and for us. In
seventy years I do not know Him to fail once,
my daughter. Baptiste may be back to-morrow,
and with more money for staying so long. No,
no; fear not, Delima! Le bon Dieu manages
all for the best."
"That is true; for so I have heard always,"
answered Delima, with conviction; "but sometimes
le bon Dieu requires one's inside to pray
very loud. Certainly I trust, like you, Memere;
but it would be pleasant if He would send the
food the day before."
"Ah, you are too anxious, like little Baptiste
here," and the old woman glanced at the boy
sitting by the cradle. "Young folks did not
talk so when I was little. Then we did not
think there was danger in trusting Monsieur le
Curé when he told us to take no heed of the
morrow. But now! to hear them talk, one
might think they had never heard of le bon
Dieu. The young people think too much, for
sure. Trust in the good God, I say. Breakfast
and dinner and supper too we shall all have
"Yes, Memere," replied the boy, who was
called little Baptiste to distinguish him from his
father. "Le bon Dieu will send an excellent
breakfast, sure enough, if I get up very early,
and find some good doré (pickerel) and catfish
on the night-line. But if I did not bait the
hooks, what then? Well, I hope there will be
more to-morrow than this morning, anyway."
"There were enough," said the old woman,
severely. "Have we not had plenty all day,
Delima made no answer. She was in doubt
about the plenty which her mother-in-law spoke
of. She wondered whether small André and
Odillon and 'Toinette, whose heavy breathing
she could hear through the thin partition, would
have been sleeping so peacefully had little
Baptiste not divided his share among them at
supper-time, with the excuse that he did not
feel very well?
Delima was young yet,—though little Baptiste
was such a big boy,—and would have rested
fully on the positively expressed trust of her
mother-in-law, in spite of the empty flour barrel,
if she had not suspected little Baptiste of sitting
However, he was such a strange boy, she
soon reflected, that perhaps going empty did
not make him feel bad! Little Baptiste was so
decided in his ways, made what in others would
have been sacrifices so much as a matter of
course, and was so much disgusted on being
offered credit or sympathy in consequence, that
his mother, not being able to understand him,
was not a little afraid of him.
He was not very formidable in appearance,
however, that clumsy boy of fourteen or so,
whose big freckled, good face was now bent
over the cradle where la petite Seraphine lay
smiling in her sleep, with soft little fingers
clutched round his rough one.
"For sure," said Delima, observing the baby's
smile, "the good angels are very near. I wonder
what they are telling her?"
"Something about her father, of course; for
so I have always heard it is when the infants
smile in sleep," answered the old woman.
Little Baptiste rose impatiently and went into
the sleeping-room. Often the simplicity and
sentimentality of his mother and grandmother
gave him strange pangs at heart; they seemed
to be the children, while he felt very old. They
were always looking for wonderful things to
happen, and expecting the saints and le bon
Dieu to help the family out of difficulties that
little Baptiste saw no way of overcoming without
the work which was then so hard to get.
His mother's remark about the angels talking to
little Seraphine pained him so much that he
would have cried had he not felt compelled to
be very much of a man during his father's
If he had been asked to name the spirit
hovering about, he would have mentioned a
very wicked one as personified in John Conolly,
the village storekeeper, the vampire of the little
hamlet a quarter of a mile distant. Conolly
owned the tavern too, and a sawmill up river,
and altogether was a very rich, powerful, and
dreadful person in little Baptiste's view. Worst
of all, he practically owned the cabin and lot of
the Larocques, for he had made big Baptiste
give him a bill of sale of the place as security
for groceries to be advanced to the family while
its head was away in the shanty; and that
afternoon Conolly had said to little Baptiste
that the credit had been exhausted, and more.
"No; you can't get any pork," said the storekeeper.
"Don't your mother know that, after
me sending her away when she wanted corn-meal
yesterday? Tell her she don't get another
cent's worth here."
"For why not? My fader always he pay,"
said the indignant boy, trying to talk English.
"Yes, indeed! Well, he ain't paid this time.
How do I know what's happened to him, as he
ain't back from the shanty? Tell you what:
I'm going to turn you all out if your mother
don't pay rent in advance for the shanty
to-morrow,—four dollars a month."
"What you talkin' so for? We doan' goin
pay no rent for our own house!"
"You doan' goin' to own no house," answered
Conolly, mimicking the boy. "The house is
mine any time I like to say so. If the store
bill ain't paid to-night, out you go to-morrow, or
else pay rent. Tell your mother that for me.
Mosey off now. 'Marche, donc!' There's
no other way."
Little Baptiste had not told his mother of
this terrible threat, for what was the use? She
had no money. He knew that she would begin
weeping and wailing, with small André and
Odillon as a puzzled, excited chorus, with
'Toinette and Seraphine adding those baby
cries that made little Baptiste want to cry himself;
with his grandmother steadily advising, in
the din, that patient trust in le bon Dieu which
he could not always entertain, though he felt
very wretched that he could not.
Moreover, he desired to spare his mother
and grandmother as long as possible. "Let
them have their good night's sleep," said he
to himself, with such thoughtfulness and pity
as a merchant might feel in concealing imminent
bankruptcy from his family. He knew
there was but one chance remaining,—that
his father might come home during the night
or next morning, with his winter's wages.
Big Baptiste had "gone up" for Rewbell the
jobber; had gone in November, to make logs
in the distant Petawawa woods, and now the
month was May. The "very magnificent"
pig he had salted down before going away had
been eaten long ago. My! what a time it
seemed now to little Baptiste since that pig-killing!
How good the boudin (the blood-puddings)
had been, and the liver and tender
bits, and what a joyful time they had had!
The barrelful of salted pike and catfish was all
gone too,—which made the fact that fish were
not biting well this year very sad indeed.
Now on top of all these troubles this new
danger of being turned out on the roadside!
For where are they to get four dollars, or two,
or one even, to stave Conolly off? Certainly
his father was away too long; but surely, surely,
thought the boy, he would get back in time to
save his home! Then he remembered with
horror, and a feeling of being disloyal to his
father for remembering, that terrible day, three
years before, when big Baptiste had come back
from his winter's work drunk, and without a
dollar, having been robbed while on a spree in
Ottawa. If that were the reason of his father's
delay now, ah, then there would be no hope,
unless le bon Dieu should indeed work a miracle
While the boy thought over the situation with
fear, his grandmother went to her bed, and soon
afterward Delima took the little Seraphine's
cradle into the sleeping-room. That left little
Baptiste so lonely that he could not sit still; nor
did he see any use of going to lie awake in bed
by André and Odillon.
So he left the cabin softly, and reaching the
river with a few steps, pushed off his flat-bottomed
boat, and was carried smartly up
stream by the shore eddy. It soon gave him
to the current, and then he drifted idly down
under the bright moon, listening to the roar of
the long rapid, near the foot of which their
cabin stood. Then he took to his oars, and
rowed to the end of his night-line, tied to the
wharf. He had an unusual fear that it might be
gone, but found it all right, stretched taut; a
slender rope, four hundred feet long, floated
here and there far away in the darkness by flat
cedar sticks,—a rope carrying short bits of line,
and forty hooks, all loaded with excellent fat,
That day little Baptiste had taken much
trouble with his night-line; he was proud of the
plentiful bait, and now, as he felt the tightened
rope with his fingers, he told himself that his
well-filled hooks must attract plenty of fish,—perhaps
a sturgeon! Wouldn't that be grand?
A big sturgeon of seventy-five pounds!
He pondered the Ottawa statement that
"there are seven kinds of meat on the head
of a sturgeon," and, enumerating the kinds, fell
into a conviction that one sturgeon at least
would surely come to his line. Had not three
been caught in one night by Pierre Mallette,
who had no sort of claim, who was too lazy to
bait more than half his hooks, altogether too
wicked to receive any special favors from le
Little Baptiste rowed home, entered the cabin
softly, and stripped for bed, almost happy in
guessing what the big fish would probably weigh.
Putting his arms around little André, he tried
to go to sleep; but the threats of Conolly came
to him with new force, and he lay awake, with
a heavy dread in his heart.
How long he had been lying thus he did not
know, when a heavy step came upon the plank
outside the door.
"Father's home!" cried little Baptiste,
springing to the floor as the door opened.
"Baptiste! my own Baptiste!" cried Delima,
putting her arms around her husband as he
stood over her.
"Did I not say," said the old woman, seizing
her son's hand, "that the good God would
send help in time?"
Little Baptiste lit the lamp. Then they saw
something in the father's face that startled them
all. He had not spoken, and now they perceived
that he was haggard, pale, wild-eyed.
"The good God!" cried big Baptiste, and
knelt by the bed, and bowed his head on his
arms, and wept so loudly that little André and
Odillon, wakening, joined his cry. "Le bon
Dieu has forgotten us! For all my winter's
work I have not one dollar! The concern is
failed. Rewbell paid not one cent of wages,
but ran away, and the timber has been seized."
Oh, the heartbreak! Oh, poor Delima!
poor children! and poor little Baptiste, with
the threats of Conolly rending his heart!
"I have walked all day," said the father,
"and eaten not a thing. Give me something,
"O holy angels!" cried the poor woman,
breaking into a wild weeping. "O Baptiste,
Baptiste, my poor man! There is nothing;
not a scrap; not any flour, not meal, not grease
even; not a pinch of tea!" but still she
searched frantically about the rooms.
"Never mind," said big Baptiste then, holding
her in his strong arms. "I am not so
hungry as tired, Delima, and I can sleep."
The old woman, who had been swaying to
and fro in her chair of rushes, rose now, and
laid her aged hands on the broad shoulders of
"My son Baptiste," she said, "you must not
say that God has forgotten us, for He has not
forgotten us. The hunger is hard to bear, I
know,—hard, hard to bear; but great plenty will
be sent in answer to our prayers. And it is
hard, hard to lose thy long winter's work; but
be patient, my son, and thankful, yes, thankful
for all thou hast."
"Behold, Delima is well and strong. See
the little Baptiste, how much a man! Yes,
that is right; kiss the little André and Odillon;
and see! how sweetly 'Toinette sleeps! All
strong and well, son Baptiste! Were one gone,
think what thou wouldst have lost! But instead,
be thankful, for behold, another has
been given,—the little Seraphine here, that
thou hast not before seen!"
Big, rough, soft-hearted Baptiste knelt by the
cradle, and kissed the babe gently.
"It is true, Memere," he answered, "and I
thank le bon Dieu for his goodness to me."
But little Baptiste, lying wide awake for
hours afterwards, was not thankful. He could
not see that matters could be much worse. A
big hard lump was in his throat as he thought
of his father's hunger, and the home-coming so
different from what they had fondly counted on.
Great slow tears came into the boy's eyes, and
he wiped them away, ashamed even in the dark
to have been guilty of such weakness.
In the gray dawn little Baptiste suddenly
awoke, with the sensation of having slept on
his post. How heavy his heart was! Why?
He sat dazed with indefinite sorrow. Ah, now
he remembered! Conolly threatening to turn
them out! and his father back penniless! No
breakfast! Well, we must see about that.
Very quietly he rose, put on his patched
clothes, and went out. Heavy mist covered the
face of the river, and somehow the rapid
seemed stilled to a deep, pervasive murmur.
As he pushed his boat off, the morning fog was
chillier than frost about him; but his heart got
lighter as he rowed toward his night-line, and
he became even eager for the pleasure of handling
his fish. He made up his mind not to be
much disappointed if there were no sturgeon,
but could not quite believe there would be
none; surely it was reasonable to expect one,
perhaps two—why not three?—among the
catfish and doré.
How very taut and heavy the rope felt as he
raised it over his gunwales, and letting the bow
swing up stream, began pulling in the line hand
over hand! He had heard of cases where
every hook had its fish; such a thing might
happen again surely! Yard after yard of rope
he passed slowly over the boat, and down into
the water it sank on his track.
Now a knot on the line told him he was nearing
the first hook; he watched for the quiver
and struggle of the fish,—probably a big one,
for there he had put a tremendous bait on and
spat on it for luck, moreover. What? the
short line hung down from the rope, and the
baited hook rose clear of the water!
Baptiste instantly made up his mind that that
hook had been placed a little too far in-shore;
he remembered thinking so before; the next
hook was in about the right place!
Hand over hand, ah! the second hook, too!
Still baited, the big worm very livid! It must
be thus because that worm was pushed up the
shank of the hook in such a queer way: he had
been rather pleased when he gave the bait that
particular twist, and now was surprised at himself;
why, any one could see it was a thing to
Hand over hand to the third,—the hook was
naked of bait! Well, that was more satisfactory;
it showed they had been biting, and, after all,
this was just about the beginning of the right
Hand over hand; now the splashing will
begin, thought little Baptiste, and out came
the fourth hook with its livid worm! He held
the rope in his hand without drawing it in for a
few moments, but could see no reasonable
objection to that last worm. His heart sank a
little, but pshaw! only four hooks out of forty
were up yet! wait till the eddy behind the shoal
was reached, then great things would be seen.
Maybe the fish had not been lying in that first
bit of current.
Hand over hand again, now! yes, certainly,
there is the right swirl! What? a losch, that
unclean semi-lizard! The boy tore it off and
flung it indignantly into the river. However,
there was good luck in a losch; that was
But the next hook, and the next, and next,
and next came up baited and fishless. He
pulled hand over hand quickly—not a fish!
and he must have gone over half the line!
Little Baptiste stopped, with his heart like lead
and his arms trembling. It was terrible! Not
a fish, and his father had no supper, and there
was no credit at the store. Poor little Baptiste!
Again he hauled hand over hand—one hook,
two, three—oh! ho! Glorious! What a delightful
sheer downward the rope took! Surely
the big sturgeon at last, trying to stay down
on the bottom with the hook! But Baptiste
would show that fish his mistake. He pulled,
pulled, stood up to pull; there was a sort of
shake, a sudden give of the rope, and little
Baptiste tumbled over backward as he jerked
his line up from under the big stone!
Then he heard the shutters clattering as
Conolly's clerk took them off the store window;
at half-past five to the minute that was always
done. Soon big Baptiste would be up, that
was certain. Again the boy began hauling in
line: baited hook! baited hook! naked hook!
baited hook!—such was still the tale.
"Surely, surely," implored little Baptiste,
silently, "I shall find some fish!" Up! up!
only four remained! The boy broke down.
Could it be? Had he not somehow skipped
many hooks? Could it be that there was to be
no breakfast for the children? Naked hook
again! Oh, for some fish! anything! three,
"Oh, send just one for my father!—my
poor, hungry father!" cried little Baptiste, and
drew up his last hook. It came full baited, and
the line was out of the water clear away to his
He let go the rope and drifted down the
river, crying as though his heart would break.
All the good hooks useless! all the labor thrown
away! all his self-confidence come to naught!
Up rose the great sun; from around the
kneeling boy drifted the last of the morning
mists; bright beams touched his bowed head
tenderly. He lifted his face and looked
up the rapid. Then he jumped to his feet
with sudden wonder; a great joy lit up his
Far up the river a low, broad, white patch appeared
on the sharp sky-line made by the level
dark summit of the long slope of tumbling
water. On this white patch stood many figures
of swaying men black against the clear morning
sky, and little Baptiste saw instantly that an
attempt was being made to "run" a "band"
of deals, or many cribs lashed together, instead
of single cribs as had been done the day
The broad strip of white changed its form
slowly, dipped over the slope, drew out like a
wide ribbon, and soon showed a distinct slant
across the mighty volume of the deep raft-channel.
When little Baptiste, acquainted as
he was with every current, eddy, and shoal in
the rapid, saw that slant, he knew that his first
impression of what was about to happen had
been correct. The pilot of the band had
allowed it to drift too far north before reaching
the rapid's head.
Now the front cribs, instead of following the
curve of the channel, had taken slower water,
while the rear cribs, impelled by the rush under
them, swung the band slowly across the current.
All along the front the standing men swayed
back and forth, plying sweeps full forty feet
long, attempting to swing into channel again,
with their strokes dashing the dark rollers
before the band into wide splashes of white.
On the rear cribs another crew pulled in the
contrary direction; about the middle of the
band stood the pilot, urging his gangs with
gestures to greater efforts.
Suddenly he made a new motion; the gang
behind drew in their oars and ran hastily
forward to double the force in front. But
they came too late! Hardly had the doubled
bow crew taken a stroke when all drew in
their oars and ran back to be out of danger.
Next moment the front cribs struck the
Then the long broad band curved downward
in the centre, the rear cribs swung into the
shallows on the opposite side of the raft-channel,
there was a great straining and
crashing, the men in front huddled together,
watching the wreck anxiously, and the band
went speedily to pieces. Soon a fringe of
single planks came down stream, then cribs and
pieces of cribs; half the band was drifting
with the currents, and half was "hung up" on
the rocks among the breakers.
Launching the big red flat-bottomed bow
boat, twenty of the raftsmen came with wild
speed down the river, and as there had been no
rush to get aboard, little Baptiste knew that the
cribs on which the men stood were so hard
aground that no lives were in danger. It
meant much to him; it meant that he was
instantly at liberty to gather in money! money,
in sums that loomed to gigantic figures before
He knew that there was an important reason
for hurrying the deals to Quebec, else the great
risk of running a band at that season would not
have been undertaken; and he knew that hard
cash would be paid down as salvage for all
planks brought ashore, and thus secured from
drifting far and wide over the lake-like expanse
below the rapid's foot. Little Baptiste plunged
his oars in and made for a clump of deals floating
in the eddy near his own shore. As he
rushed along, the raftsmen's boat crossed his
bows, going to the main raft below for ropes
and material to secure the cribs coming down
"Good boy!" shouted the foreman to
Baptiste. "Ten cents for every deal you fetch
ashore above the raft!" Ten cents! he had
expected but five! What a harvest!
Striking his pike-pole into the clump of deals,—"fifty
at least," said joyful Baptiste,—he
soon secured them to his boat, and then pulled,
pulled, pulled, till the blood rushed to his head,
and his arms ached, before he landed his
"Father!" cried he, bursting breathlessly
into the sleeping household. "Come quick! I
can't get it up without you."
"Big sturgeon?" cried the shantyman, jumping
into his trousers.
"Oh, but we shall have a good fish breakfast!"
"Did I not say the blessed le bon Dieu would
send plenty fish?" observed Memere.
"Not a fish!" cried little Baptiste, with
recovered breath. "But look! look!" and he
flung open the door. The eddy was now white
"Ten cents for each!" cried the boy. "The
foreman told me."
"Ten cents!" shouted his father. "Baptême!
it's my winter's wages!"
And the old grandmother! And Delima?
Why, they just put their arms round each other
and cried for joy.
"And yet there's no breakfast," said Delima,
starting up. "And they will work hard, hard."
At that instant who should reach the door
but Monsieur Conolly! He was a man who
respected cash wherever he found it, and
already the two Baptistes had a fine show
"Ma'ame Larocque," said Conolly, politely,
putting in his head, "of course you know I was
only joking yesterday. You can get anything
you want at the store."
What a breakfast they did have, to be sure!
the Baptistes eating while they worked. Back
and forward they dashed till late afternoon, driving
ringed spikes into the deals, running light
ropes through the rings, and, when a good
string had thus been made, going ashore to
haul in. At that hauling Delima and Memere,
even little André and Odillon gave a hand.
Everybody in the little hamlet made money
that day, but the Larocques twice as much as
any other family, because they had an eddy and
a low shore. With the help of the people
"the big Bourgeois" who owned the broken
raft got it away that evening, and saved his
fat contract after all.
"Did I not say so?" said "Memere," at
night, for the hundredth time. "Did I not
say so? Yes, indeed, le bon Dieu watches
over us all."
"Yes, indeed, grandmother," echoed little
Baptiste, thinking of his failure on the night-line.
"We may take as much trouble as we
like, but it's no use unless le bon Dieu helps
us. Only—I don' know what de big Bourgeois
say about that—his raft was all broke up so
"Ah, oui," said Memere, looking puzzled for
but a moment. "But he didn't put his trust
in le bon Dieu; that's it, for sure. Besides,
maybe le bon Dieu want to teach him a lesson;
he'll not try for run a whole band of deals
next time. You see that was a tempting of
Providence; and then—the big Bourgeois is