INTO THE LAND OF THE CAJUNS
days of that October were bleak. . Ever beating to the southward, the vessels
that bore the Acadians sailed at last into the
The designs and ambitions of the Governor-General of Nova
Scotia found small approval in
While the Council
argued and dispatched letters to Colonel Lawrence, some of the Acadians were
landed, to wander through the Commonwealth, vainly seeking homes and employment. In due
time, some food and medicines being forthcoming, the vessels sailed away with
the unhappy exiles, distributing
them in the ports from
an alien tongue and bound together by the bonds of a common misfortune, the
Acadians clung together, seeking their kith and kin, guided by hope or hearsay.
Friendless, homeless and needy they wandered across the mountains to the
headwaters of the
Urged by a restless longing, ever searching for Gabriel, Evangeline wandered with them, often in want and discomfort, but cheered by Father Felician, her friend arid confessor.
"Somewhere I must find him," she often said.
"We shall go on until you do," he always encouraged her.
And yet, when months had rounded out into years and no word came from Gabriel, she often sat beside some nameless grave and wondered if it might be the grave of her lover, and longed to slumber beside him.
In a fur-post on the banks of the wide
"His father was with him," said Ledoux.
"It was at the mouth of the
Evangeline pressed him for the details of that meeting.
"It was Gabriel!" she exclaimed. "He lives!"
"Of course," Father Felician agreed. "So I have always told you."
The following day they took passage on a batteau bound down the river. It was a crude, unwieldy craft, manned by Acadian boatmen. They sang as they poled or rowed, and the songs they sang were the chansons of her homeland.
"Again I see you smile," Father Felician said happily. "God is kind."
Past the mouth of the
From a boatman on the river they learned that there was a colony of Acadians on the Bayou Têche.
Slowly, through myriads of water lilies and lotus, the cumbersome barge made its way into the Têche. The waters grew sluggish. Overhead the towering cypress met in mid-air, their branches festooned with trailing garlands of Spanish moss, hanging so low in places that they touched the rippling surface of the water.
The moon rose, round and resplendent, turning the dark caverns beneath the cypress and live oaks into bowers of silver where the herons waded.
Sustained by a vision that beckoned her on, and the knowledge that through these waterways Gabriel had wandered before her, that every stroke of the oars was bringing her nearer and nearer, Evangeline stood in the prow of the boat and peered into the shadowy distance.
Like a tenuous network, narrow channels led away into the darkness. The boatmen hesitated once or twice, but at last agreed on the channel they were to take. “Sound the bugle!" one of the oarsmen urged. "Let us not pass Gabriel during the night!"
The steersman lifted his horn and blew a blast that awakened the echoes and sent them reverberating away through the leafy aisles of the forest.
At last, Evangeline slept, but the boatmen rowed on, and when they broke into song, she smiled in her sleep, dreaming it was the voice of Gabriel.
Before noon of the following day, they' emerged from the
shadowy caverns of the trees. There before them, basking in the sun, lay the
They glided past numberless islands where the Wachita willows bent low over the banks with their shade. As afternoon wore away, Evangeline was aroused by the distant strains of familiar music. She listened intently, and faintly to her sensitive ears came the indistinct, dream-like strains of an Acadian song.
The boatmen caught her excitement and bent their backs with redoubled effort. The batteau leaped ahead, and soon, clear and distinct came the lilting strains of Tous les Bourgeois de Chartres.
With heart beating wildly, Evangeline turned to Father Felician.
"It is the song of .Acadie!” she cried. Her voice trembled with joyous excitement. "Some of our people are near! Perhaps. . . at last . . . I shall find Gabriel!" Her troubled face, grown spiritual with the weary, empty years, lighted with a new, sublime hope as she listened, clutching the arm of the faithful old priest, who shared her excitement.
Five years had passed since the first Acadian exiles had come to Bayou Têche. They had built houses of logs and taken up anew their struggle with the forest, clearing land and putting it to seed.
The fertile savannas in this rich
After the long years of travail and wandering, this welcome was almost more than they could bear. In their hearts they knew they had come home. Not only had the Government welcomed them, but had given them ploughs and the nucleus of the herd that already had multiplied into abundance.
In this land of plenty, the ploughshares cut through the black loam as easily as the pirogue slipped through the water. It was always summer. No need here to prepare for the long hard winters they had known.
Always a thrifty people, they had prospered in this new land of opportunity. The soft French of Louisiana was not unlike their own. It brought them friendships and understanding.
It was a land to warm the heart of hunter and trapper, and the farmer, released from the drudgery of winter, fought the rising waters of Springtime with a smile, knowing they but made his land more fertile.
Only the fever had they to fear. The charms and cures for it were many, and they soon learned how to combat or avoid it.
Rene Leblanc, the notary of Grand-Pre, lived among them, and his letters had gradually drawn other wandering Acadians to the banks of the Têche. His eyes had grown misty with age in the years that had intervened, but the fibre of the man was apparently as tough and sturdy as ever, and as he saw Baptiste prosper in this new Acadie, the days of suffering were forgotten.
Baptiste had not married. His father knew why, and wondered if ever his son would erase from his heart his love for Evangeline. They had often spoken of it. Rene had pointed out more than one dark-eyed beauty who would have brought credit and comfort to Baptiste, but his answer was always the same: "In my heart there is room for only one."
They were the very words Evangeline had spoken to him when she refused him. Baptiste had not forgotten.
Five years to the day had passed since the Acadians had come to the Têche, and they were gathered together this afternoon to celebrate their coming with a feast of thanksgiving,
As the batteau neared the shore, Evangeline could hardly contain herself. Even placid Father Felician felt his blood pounding through his gnarled veins.
Under a blossoming oleander she saw a musician. He was bent over his fiddle and was vigorously pulling his bow back and forth across the strings, nodding and smiling to the throng of maidens and young men who curtsied and bowed in time to his music.
Evangeline stared spellbound for a moment.
“It's Michael!" she cried gaily, her voice carrying across the water to the group on shore.
The dancers stopped at her glad cry and Michael stared back at her in dumb amazement. He fussed with his glasses and finally recognized her.
"It's Evangeline!" he called, "Evangeline Bellefontaine!"
He threw down his fiddle and ran to the water's edge, his old joints as spry as ever.
From a distance Baptiste had heard him call Evangeline's name. Sure that it was only a trick that his ears had played him, he did not quicken his step as he neared his father, idly amusing himself as of old with a group of children, clamoring to hear the mysterious tick-tock of his treasured watch.
Baptiste watched the dancers running to the shore, old Michael waving his arms excitedly. He followed them with his eyes. Baptiste saw her then. He brushed his hand across his face, expecting the vision to vanish. But she did not disappear. Just in back of her he recognized Father Felician.
A cry of joy fought its way to his lips, and with a mad rush he ran toward her, calling her name and bidding her welcome.
Evangeline threw her arms about him, carried away with happiness at being back among her own people again
"We looked everywhere for you," Baptiste declared, "My father wrote many letters asking about you. No one seemed to know. But I always said you would find us.”
Evangeline smiled at him in his joy at seeing her.
He was still slender and handsome. As she studied him and let her eyes rest on his, she knew that Baptist loved her as much as he had that August afternoon when he came to ask her to be his wife.
With a pang she remembered his many favors in the dark days of their expulsion from Acadie, his unfailing loyalty and never-flagging love, and she stood there, her lips mute, impatient for news of Gabriel, yet dreading to see Baptiste wince at her question.
Michael and the others dropped to their knees as Father Felician stepped ashore and raised his hand in solemn benediction. Baptiste could only stand and stare at Evangeline.
Finally the words tumbled from her lips. "Gabriel . . . where is Gabriel?" Baptiste's throat tightened and he caught his breath. He knew she had not changed, that she would never change. The old words came back to him—“In my heart there is room for only one."
He bowed his head resignedly. Back in Grand-Pre she had been only a girl. She was a woman now, more mature and accordingly less likely to be swayed by anything he might say. The passing years had left their mark on her. She was still beautiful beyond compare, but a new and strange spirituality lay upon her face instead of the sparkling fire he had so often surprised there.
For a moment he was afraid to speak.
"He is not here, Baptiste?" Evangeline gasped, thinking he was only trying to keep something back from her.
With a heart-breaking gasp she saw Baptiste slowly shake his head. Like a stricken doe that stands at bay before the gun of the hunter, she waited for him to speak.
"Gabriel is not here. Three years ago I saw him in
"Three years ago!" Evangeline whispered. "I was there—but he had gone. He was looking for me, Baptiste?"
"Everywhere—even as I! I once heard that he had journeyed to
“I was there, but Gabriel had gone."
Rene had hurried down to greet the arrivals, and after a word of hearty welcome to Father Felician, he turned to embrace Evangeline, knowing it was for her that his son always had waited. A second glance at Baptiste warned him that already his son's hopes had been dashed to the ground.
"It's a pleasure to see you, Evangeline!" he told her. "And our good Father Felician! We shall build him a church and he will find a new flock here along the bayous. Soon we shall all be united again. Where have you been these many years?"
"Searching for Gabriel," answered Evangeline.
"Searching for Gabriel," Rene repeated. "And he is not here!"
"But we will go on until we find him," Father Felician comforted her.
"What Gabriel is this?" questioned a squat little man who only lately had come to the Têche.
"Gabriel Lajeunesse, the son of Basil, the blacksmith," said Father Felician.
"I know them both," the man declared with an air of great importance. "Basil is rich. He lives on his ranch far to the northwest among the Osages. Gabriel was there with him, only a month ago, but tired with some restless longing, and unable to abide the quiet existence of life on the ranch, was preparing to go to the west, to become a coureur-des-bois, trapping beaver and otter."
"This is good news-and doubly welcome to us in our disappointment at not finding him here," the old priest declared as he urged the man for a detailed description of the way to Basil's ranch
"It will take you several weeks," said the man.
"No matter how long it takes-we shall go!" Evangeline told him.
"But first you shall rest and join in our feasting," Baptiste pleaded. "There's so much that we have to tell you."
"We won't let them leave until to-morrow." Michael declared with a great pretense of authority. He picked up his fiddle and a lively tune broke the tenseness of the moment. Evangeline smiled wanly, understanding and appreciating his sympathetic endeavor to lighten the burden of her heart.
"We shall stay until to-morrow," she nodded.