Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1176
Late in October of 1697, the last ship leaves Quebec to return to France, and the colony of New France is isolated from the world until the arrival of the fleet in June or July of the following year. One of those who watch as the last vessel passes out of sight down the St. Lawrence River is Euclide Auclair, the apothecary in Quebec.
Auclair lives on the street that winds up the slope and connects the Upper Town on the cliff with the Lower Town, which clusters along the shore of the river at the foot of the mountain. In his home behind his shop, Auclair and his daughter Cécile do their best to re-create the atmosphere they knew in France. So successful are they that many people come to the shop merely to visit and get a breath of the France they left behind.
Cécile is only twelve years old and her mother has been dead for several years. Although she is content to remain in Canada, her father seems to live only for the time when he can return to France with his patron, the governor of the colony, Count Frontenac. Auclair, who has served the count for many years, is a trusted friend of the governor as well as his apothecary.
A few weeks after the last ship departs, Cécile goes to see the count to ask his aid in obtaining some shoes for a little orphan boy. The governor is glad to see her, for too many of the people who come to him are anxious only to help themselves. He says that when he makes his will he will leave the girl a bowl of glass fruit that she always admires.
The first days of December bring a heavy fall of snow that ushers in a reality of life in Canada, the long, dark winter. The snow also reminds Cécile of the boxes of Christmas presents that were sent to her by aunts in France the previous summer. On the twenty-fourth of December, the Auclairs bring the boxes out of their storage place. In one is a crèche to be set up in their living room. The crèche is the crowning point of Christmas for many of their friends, for the French colonists are, as a rule, very devout.
One day in March, Father Hector Saint-Cyr puts in his appearance. The priest spends several evenings recounting to the Auclairs stories of the missionaries, the Indians, and the hardships of backwoods life. When he leaves, Auclair wonders if, after all, the gifts of an educated man such as Father Saint-Cyr might not be going to waste in misplaced heroism among the Canadian missions to the Indians.
About the middle of March, the weather changes. There is a continuous downpour of rain that the snow soaks up as if it were a gigantic sponge. The ice in the St. Lawrence breaks up and floats downstream in huge gray blocks. It is a season of sickness, and the apothecary is busy from morning until night, acting as doctor to many of the inhabitants of the town. Cécile catches a cold and is in bed for several days.
One evening while Cécile is ill, Auclair has a strange visit with a misshapen hunchback who secures water and wood for the Auclairs in return for a bowl of soup and a small glass of brandy each evening. Blinker, as the hunchback is called, tells Auclair that as a boy he was an apprentice to his father, one of the king’s torturers at Rouen. Blinker tortured an old woman into admitting that she murdered her son. Some months after her execution, the son returned. The shock of what he did was too great for the apprentice. He ran away, took ship, and went to Quebec to begin a new life. Nevertheless, visions of the old woman haunt him so that he cannot sleep. Filled with sympathy, the apothecary gives Blinker some laudanum so that he might have a little untroubled rest.
One day, while Cécile regains her strength, her father wraps her in a blanket and carries her to the door. There, outside the door, Cécile sees the first swallow hunting for its old nest in the wall of the cliff that rises sharply to the chateau above. Delighted at this sign, Cécile has her father inform old Bishop Laval of the bird’s appearance. The old man kept a record of the changing seasons for thirty-eight years, and he always includes the date of the first swallow’s arrival.
On the first day of June, the leaves begin to bud, and the hunters arrive from the woods with their loads of pelts. Among the first hunters to reach Quebec is Pierre Charron, an old friend of the apothecary and his daughter. Pierre, the son of a rich family in Montreal, was disappointed in love. His sweetheart decided to build a chapel with her dowry and enter the Church as a recluse. After she took her vows, Pierre became a hunter traveling through the wilderness as far as Michilimackinac and Lake Superior in his quest for furs and forgetfulness. During the spring, Pierre takes Cécile with him to visit some friends on the Isle d’Orleans, in the St. Lawrence four miles below Quebec. The squalid and primitive life there disgusts Cécile.
Early in July, the ships from France arrive. The count requested the king to recall him from Canada, and he promised that he would take the Auclairs back to France with him. As each ship arrives through the summer, the Auclairs wait for word of the governor’s recall. When late October arrives, the count calls Auclair to the chateau to warn him that the king’s request will never come. When the count offers to send the Auclairs back to France, Auclair refuses, assuring the count that he cannot leave while his patron is forced to remain in Quebec.
The last ship leaves Quebec in October. Shortly afterward, Count Frontenac becomes ill. Auclair knows that his patient cannot live through the winter. When the count dies, Auclair carries out his patron’s last wish. He seals the count’s heart in a lead box and sends it with a missionary priest to the English colonies in the south. From there, it is returned to France for burial.
The death of the count is a great blow to the Auclairs, for security seems to have gone from their lives. Thinking of returning to France that year, they did not even lay in a proper supply of food to last through the winter. Fortunately for them, Pierre arrives in Quebec with an offer of help. Later he marries Cécile. Pierre has not the authority of documents and seals that the count had to protect them, but he has his knowledge of the woods and the people, which is as good or better in the wilds of Canada. The future is safe.
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