In The Forest of Bourg-Marie, originally published in 1898, Toronto author and musician S. Frances Harrison draws together a highly mythologized image of Quebec society and the forms of Gothic literature that were already familiar to her English-speaking audience. It tells the story of a fourteen-year-old French Canadian who is lured to the United States by the promise of financial reward, only to be rejected by his grandfather upon his return. In doing so, the novel offers a powerful critique of the personal and cultural consequences of emigration out of Canada. In her afterword, Cynthia Sugars considers how The Forest of Bourg-Marie reimagines the Gothic tradition from a settler Canadian perspective, turning to a French-Canadian setting with distinctly New-World overtones. Harrison's twist on the traditional Gothic plotline offers an inversion of such Gothic motifs as the decadent aristocrat and ancestral curse by playing on questions of illegitimacy and cultural preservation.
S. Frances Harrison (1859-1935) was a Toronto-based author and musician. She was the author of a book of poems, a book of sketches, and two novels, including The Forest of Bourg-Marie (1898).
'The simple inherit folly.'
The little narrative which the young man Nicolas Laurière had told old Caron was quite true. He himself rather envied Magloire. Two or three times he had been on the point of relinquishing the plain fare, the hard work, the inclement climate, to try for a living somewhere else. He was not the enthusiast Mikel was. He and Joncas were trappers because their fathers had been trappers-they had to be; there was nothing else for them to be. Yes, he quite envied Magloire, though he understood fully that whereas at Bourg-Marie one was one's own master, that would be all very different in another place. About the same age as Magloire, at the time of the latter's disappearance the same temptations attracted him, for tidings of the great world outside were slowly colouring the life and minds of his native countryside. Here and there an ambitious maiden of eighteen, who found her way up to the large English-speaking towns and became a waitress, a nursemaid, a maid-of-all-work, would return at rare intervals and pour into the ears of her family tales of the opulence, the size, and the population of Three Rivers or St. John's.* Sometimes a paper would arrive bearing in rough-marked edges witness of a young stripling from a farm or 'shanty' who had found friends and fortune in the Upper Province or in the States, and this paper would be handed about from house to house as the rarest of literary treasures. And whenever this kind of thing overtook Laurière he would grow restive and moody, walk away from the company, and, staring blankly at the flat dull landscape, go for a walk of ten miles to Mad Dog Creek, and return hungry and cured.
On this cold night Nicolas was discontented, although no distinctions of caste troubled him. He strode away from the ranger's little dwelling along the hard gray rutted road at a great pace. On either side of him stretched the forest, dark, inscrutable, yet not forbidding to one who so often, both with Caron and by himself, had threaded the edge of its cavernous recesses. The road lay perfectly straight for a mile, then turned sharply round, disclosing the sullen river, not yet frozen, but soon to be, so black and opaque it lay beneath the faintly glimmering stars. A dog appeared, running swiftly.
It approached Laurière, smelt him, seemed to approve, wagged his tail, and returned whence he came, followed by the trapper. In a few moments the red light of one window appeared sharply in the gloom, and Nicolas, vaulting over the low snake-fence, rapped upon the door of the cabin belonging to the widow Péron, the mother of Louis and Jack, the travellers who were now home for a holiday from the high pressure and other modern disabilities of life in Milwaukee. The door was opened by Pacifique, the third and youngest son. He had never left his mother nor his native valley, and bore with Nicolas a striking contrast to the other three young men who were lounging in the small kitchen. The shortest of these was Jack Péron, fat, olive-skinned almost to lividness, with podgy hands and a laughing mouth. The next to him was his brother Louis, thinner, slightly gaunt and weird, with a suggestion of the traditional stage Lucifer in his pointed eyebrows, beard, and chin. The tallest of the three, however, Magloire Caron himself, exceeded his companions in appointments, dress, and general bearing, as much as in height. He was, indeed, unusually and exceptionally tall. His hair, of that harsh jet-black stiff kind so frequently found among his countrymen, was parted in the middle, and, after being drawn away to either side in two well-marked horns, was plastered down everywhere else with the newest thing in pomatum, a preparation of castor-oil, bay-rum, and attar of roses. His costume was an English tweed of not unprepossessing pattern, considered alongside the preposterous gray and claret check that Louis and Jack had both chosen as best calculated to display their knowledge of correct fashion, and to please their devoted mother. His cravat (Magloire's) was of pale pink linen, worn over a striped navy-blue and white cotton shirt. His jewellery was very much en evidence, and a silk handkerchief, in which purple figured on a saffron ground, completed the iridescent nature of his apparel. And although this quasi-picturesque garb did not offend so keenly in his case as it would have done in that of a more purely prosaic type, still, on comparing his pretentious vulgarity with the admirably careless and characteristic appearance of Laurière, it seemed a pity that his magnificent proportions, his glistening teeth, his night-black hair, and his sombre but healthful complexion, were lost, if not indeed made ridiculous, by his affectation of a foreign style. In the sombrero and cloak of the Mexican, in the jacket and cap of the Spaniard, in the ample linen and glowing sash of the Greek, or even in the high-crowned hat wound round by a scarlet ribbon, the flannel shirt and earrings of his own despised countrymen, he had been handsome. In his imported English cheviot, his cheap jewellery, and his ill-assorted colours, he narrowly escaped being absurd.
Yet he was very much admired. Louis and Jack, who had done well in Milwaukee, but not as well as Magloire himself, admired him intensely, and, it might be added, despairingly. In fact, after that meeting on the main street, when the vision of their old friend and playmate flashed past them, clothed in black bearskins and importance, the brothers made an idol of him, and formed themselves upon him in every respect.
Pacifique admired him. So tall, and Pacifique was short; so regular-featured, and Pacifique was crooked; so self-possessed and graceful, and Pacifique was stunted, crippled, worn, and shy. The veuve Péron admired him. Had he not been the means of setting up her own boys? and, although they did not appear to have brought home very much ready-money, still they were beautifully dressed, and altogether different from the young men in the village, and spoke about an account in the savings-bank. What more could the widow ask? Admire Magloire? Bien ouai-for a splendid fellow!
Nicolas Laurière admired him perhaps most of all. As Magloire was, so he, Laurière, should be some day. He had no grandfather with medieval notions to threaten his peace or interfere with his projects. He would leave this place, come what might. And just as he reached this decision-for the hundredth time-Magloire, seeing him enter, beckoned him to his side by the fire, around which the little circle was gathered. His manner was nonchalant, yet assertive, and impressed Laurière more than ever with its novelty and importance.
'Say, then, you,' he said, 'Nicolas Laurière,' relapsing into his native Franco-Canadian, for he spoke English all the time when in Milwaukee, 'have you seen the grandfather?'
Laurière recounted in the same tongue the outlines of the conversation. Delicacy for, and admiration of, Magloire prevented him from disclosing the whole state of the old man's feelings. But Magloire was quick, and able to see through a simple type like Laurière at once. He laughed, and his laugh was not altogether pleasant to hear. He crossed his long legs in evident comfort before the widow's fire, and taking from his pocket a penknife, commenced to cut and clean his nails. He had been reminded of a little dirt in them by the sight of the aggregate contained in those of Laurière. 'Speak English,' he said to the latter.
'We don't hear much French out West, do we, Jack? So my grandfather knows I was a coachman that time. Well, I tell him myself yet as well as you tell him for me. He was angry, eh?'
Laurière nodded. He watched his friend clean, pare, file, and polish his finger-nails without it ever occurring to him similarly to treat his own. A law unto himself is every man in Bourg-Marie.
'Why,' said Magloire, finishing his nail-toilet, and beginning on a cigar, which he produced with a grand air from an inner mysterious pocket, and lit with a perfumed match, 'you are all behind here, and that is the truth. Me and other fellows that goes to the States, we see life, we see the world, we grow, we improve, we watch, we find out how things are done. We do not care to stop in Bourg-Marie all our lives, nor even in Three Rivers. Ah!-bah! that is a small place, that Three Rivers, anyhow!'
Rank heresy in the ears of Widow Péron and Nicolas Laurière; yet, only half comprehending the foreign tongue, they listen respectfully, timidly. Pacifique squats by the corner of the fireplace. He does not understand the English at all, but is thinking what present he can make Magloire when he leaves them. Snowshoes-raquettes?-no; a carved pipe?-no, that young gentleman buys cigars. Well, it will come into his head, his stupid head, presently.
'Me and other fellows,' continues Magloire, conscious of his admiring audience, 'well, such as Jack and Louis. And there was one Amable Blondeau-le cousin-'
'Ah, ouai!' exclaimed the widow hurriedly; 'le cousin de notre Blondeau.'
She stopped apologetically, and Magloire condescendingly went on:
'The cousin of this Blondeau the trapper. Well, we have learnt a great deal since we go to the States. There every man is free! You understand that. There is no man that is not free. That is, he can do, he can go, just...