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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Search for Father De Brie

By Robert Traill Spence Lowell (1816–1891)

[The New Priest in Conception Bay. 1858.—Revised Edition of 1889.]

IT was speedily arranged that they should push over to the other side of the Barrens; and while one went straight on to New Harbor, the rest should take every opening through the woods, and every path into the Barrens, and follow it out. Skipper Edward Ressle and Skipper Abram Marchant, it was said, had gone along the Bay Road, to cross from other points.

The only hasty preparations now made had been to put off every unnecessary weight to go back with the horses. Some extra coats, and several bottles of spirits, the advancing party took with them. Skipper Isaac gave the parting directions to the men who took the beasts back.

“Ef snow doesn’t come in an hour’s time, an’ keep on, then, an hour after that, again come in wi’ the horses, an’ bide an hour, or thereabouts. Ef we’m not here by that time, we shall stay a’ t’other side.”

Many had come up during the short delay, and among them came, panting, the Parson’s dog, who had not been able to keep up with his master. As they were now all foot-travellers, he had no difficulty, and went before them in the dreary path toward the great waste of snow over which the dreary wind came blowing sharply.

The dog mounted the hillock, a little way within the Barrens, and giving a short, sharp bark, plunged down the other side.

The men all rushed together; and in the gulch at the foot of the opposite rise lay, black upon the snow, fair in the mid-pathway, a still body, with the dog nozzling at it.

It was a drift two or three feet deep, in and upon which the still body lay. The cheek of the right side was next the snow; the head was bare; the left hand holding, or seeming to hold, the hat; while the right arm was curved about the head. The outside coat was partly open, from the top downwards, as if the wearer might have unbuttoned it when heated.

The whole attitude was that of one who had laid himself down to sleep at summer-noon, and the face was lovely as in sleep; the eyelids were not fast closed; there was a delicate color in the cheek, and the lips were red. There was a bright, conscious look, too, as of one that was scarcely asleep even.

“Thank God! he’s alive!” said young Mr. Urston, speaking first. “Father Ignatius!” he called, taking him by the hand; then, correcting himself, “Mister De Brie!”

“Ay! he’ll never spake to yon name, no more,” said the Protestant Jesse.

The Parson, having quickly tried the wrist, was now feeling within the clothing, over the heart, and looking anxiously into the face.

The hair was blown restlessly by the wind; but there was no waking, nor any self-moving of the body.

“N’y,” said Skipper George, gravely, “I’m afeared this is n’ livun.—Oh! Oh!”

“I saw a house not but a step or two off, ’s we come along,” said Mr. Bangs, who had been chafing the hands with brandy, and had tenderly rubbed a little, with his finger, inside the nostrils.

Mr. Wellon, rising from the snow, shook his head and turned away. “No, no,” he said, as if to the question of life;—“and he’d got into the right road!”

“Why, he’s warm, sir,” urged Urston; “certainly, he’s warm!” The Constable felt of the flesh and said nothing.

“Shall us take un to the tilt?” asked Jesse. “It’s Will Ressle’s Mr. Banks manes. He’s close by.”

“By all means!” answered the Parson. “Yes!” “Yes!” said Skipper Isaac and the bystanders.

“See, sir!” said Skipper George, “’e didn’ fall down. ’E’ve laid himself down to rest, most like, where the snow was soft, and falled asleep. That’s bin the w’y of it. I’ve bin a’most so far gone, myself, sir, afore now.”

“See how the hair is smoothed away from his temples,” said young Urston.

“’Twas the dog!” answered the old fisherman, tenderly, “wi’ tryun to bring un to. Yes,” he added, “’e was out o’ the path, when the good n’ybors from t’other side comed along, an ’e got into un agen, after—an’ ’e was tired when ’e comed to this heavy walkun, an’ so— What’ll come o’ the poor lady!”

As they lifted the body carefully out of the snow, to bear it away, a new voice spoke:

“Won’t ye put more clothing on um, for it’s blowing bitter cold?”

Father Terence had made his way from New Harbor and approached the group in silence. He offered, for a wrapper, his own great-coat, which he had taken off.

“We’ve agot store o’ wrappuns, sir; many thanks to you, sir, all the same,” answered Jesse Hill, very heartily; and others, too, made their acknowledgments. They wrapped the body, from head to foot, in their blankets, hastily.

Mr. Wellon saluted Father Terence, saying that “he had very little hope—indeed, he feared that there was no hope—of that body being restored to life.”

“Oh, dear! I fear not, I fear not!” said Father Terence, wiping gentle tears away. “Why would he come? Or why did I hinder um comin’ last night?—God have mercy upon um! Absolve, quesumus Domine, animam ejus,” he added, privately, or something to that effect.

Skipper Isaac held the body against his own; Jesse and Isaac Maffen and young Mr. Urston helped to bear it; and they went, accompanied by all the others, as fast as they could go, through the snow, toward the tilt. Skipper George bore the hat, upon which the grasp of the owner’s cold hand had not been fast. “Eppy,” who had done his dumb part before any, now followed meekly behind. Behind all came the cold, hard wind from the Barrens, whirling the snow from time to time. The sky over all was hidden by thick clouds, foreboding storm.

Within the tilt all that they knew how to do was done thoroughly. More than once some one of those engaged exclaimed that the flesh was growing warmer; but life did not come back, and the flesh grew surely colder. The body was dead; and they gave over their useless work upon it, and clothed it as before. There it lay; no priest, no layman, no husband, no father, no man!—but it was sacred, and it was reverently treated, as belonging to Christ, who would give it life again.

Some said,—among themselves,—that Father O’Toole had not stayed long.

“What more could ’e do?” asked Gilpin. “’E did more ’n many would;”—“an’ ’e spoke proper feelun, like,” said others. “Bless the old gentleman!”

Crowds had been gathering about the place where the melancholy work was going on; these the Constable and Mr. Skilton and William Frank occupied, drawing them a little apart, that there might be no hindrance, from the numbers, to those who were busy about the dead. The sad, short story stilled and saddened all. “Dead!”—“Is ’e dead?”—“so near home, too!”—“It’s pity for un!”—“But ’e died happy, however!” said different voices.

Presently snow, from the thick sky, began to be borne upon the wind.

Gilpin, at this, hastened to the door, and others, coming out, met him.

“How’ll we carry un?” the Constable asked, in a low voice. “O’ horseback?”

“We was just spakun,” said Jesse, “’twould look like mockun the dead, to take un ridun, to my seemun.”

“Ay, but we’ve got to be quick about it; the snow’s coming!”

“What’s to hender we carryun? sure it’s more feelun. We wouldn’ begredge walkun all the w’y to B’y Harbor, ef ’twas to B’y Harbor, even ef it snowed, itself.”

“It would be long waiting for a slide,” said the Constable.

“An’ we could’n have un bide in the cold, here, while we was w’itun,” said Jesse, “in course.”

It was arranged that one or two of the young men, on the best horses, should make their way at the utmost speed to James Bishop’s, the nearest neighborly house in Castle Bay, and bring his sled or “slide,” and, in the mean time, relays of bearers were to carry the body onward with what haste they could.

The crowd making a long procession, both before and behind the bearers, trampled the snow, for the most part in silence. Up the hills and down, many men taking turns at bearing the body, they made their way between the woods; while sometimes the snow fell thickly, and sometimes the thick clouds could be seen before them and overhead.

Three heavy miles they had got over, when the slide met them; and then the burden was transferred to it; a sort of dasher, or fender, of boughs was speedily set up to keep off the snow thrown by the horse’s feet; and they went on: the Parson, Skipper George, Skipper Isaac, Skipper Henry, Skipper Edward, the Constable, and others of chief authority and dignity, attended at the sides and behind the sledge; all beside giving place to them. Suddenly there was a commotion, making itself felt from the foremost; and then the whole procession opened to either side, leaving the road bare between.

“Cast off the horse!” cried Skipper George in a quick low tone, seeing who was coming. The order was obeyed, as hastily as possible, and then the slide was left alone, in the middle of the way, while the crowd at each side stood huddled upon itself, and hushed.

“Oh, I knew it! Oh!” said a woman’s voice, heard by every one, with such a moan of wretchedness that every man seemed to start, as if it were an appeal to himself. Mrs. Barrè, pale as death, with tears streaming down her cheeks, and with light snow lying upon her dark hair and on many parts of her black dress—bearing in her hand (as she had borne, hours before) a letter—rushed between the sundered crowds, and at the side of the sledge fell down across the muffled load that lay upon it. Every person near drew away.

Great passion appropriates absolutely to itself the time and place, and makes all other things and persons subordinate and accessory.

For this widowed lady’s sorrow the earth and sky were already fitted; and so were, not less, the kind hearts of these men and women.

She lay with her face buried in the folds of the cloak which Mr. Wellon had spread over her husband’s body, and uttered a fondling murmur against the wall of that desolated chamber, as, not long ago, she had murmured fondly against the strong, warm bosom of her recovered love. Many by-standers sobbed aloud.

Then she lifted her head, and turned down the covering from the face.

“Oh, Walter!” she said, clasping her two hands under the heavy head, and gazing at the stiffening features, “Oh, my noble husband!—My beautiful, noble husband!” then, shaking her head, while the tears dropped from her eyes, said, in a broken voice: “Is this all, Walter? Is this the end?—Yes, and it’s a good end!” And again she buried her face on the dead bosom. “Well!—Oh, well! I did not seek you for myself!—It never was for myself! No!—No!”

The effort to subdue the human love to the divine triumphed in the midst of tears.

By-and-by she rose up, and with streaming eyes and clasped hands turned toward the Minister and said:

“I am ready, Mr. Wellon! Let us go! God’s will be done!”

She stooped once more; looked with intense love and sorrow at the face, wiped her tears from the cold features, covered them again, carefully, and turned her face toward the rest of the way, homeward.

The Constable made a gesture to Jesse Hill and young Mr. Urston, and the horse was again harnessed to the slide. The Parson, leading his horse (which had been brought so far on the return, by one of the young men), came to Mrs. Barrè’s side and took her arm in his. He begged her to allow herself to be lifted to the saddle, and to ride. Skipper George, also, had come forward to suggest the same thing.

“It is’n fittun the lady should walk home, sir,” said he to the Pastor, apart.

Mrs. Barrè heard and understood, and answered:

“Would it make the load too heavy—?—” she finished with a longing look the sentence which was not finished with words.

The fishermen at first hesitated at the thought of her going upon the sledge that bore her husband’s corpse.

“It wouldn’t be too heavy,” one of them said; and as if no objection could be made, she went, and, putting her arm tenderly underneath, lifted the body, seated herself upon the bier, taking the muffled head in her lap, and bent over it, lost to all things else.

All other arrangements for riding and walking having been quietly made, the procession again set forward towards home faster than before. The snow at times fell fast; but in about an hour more they were descending the high hill into Castle Bay; and before them lay the great black sea, with its cold bordering of white.

They passed along the chilly beach. At one point, whether consciously or unconsciously, Mrs. Barrè lifted her head and looked toward both sea and land. On the landward side stretched a little valley, with a knoll and rock and tree at its northern edge; a sweet spot in summer, but now lonely and desolate. She gave a sort of cry, and turned from the sight.

“O my God, thou knowest!” she could be heard to say, sobbing over her husband’s body; and she looked up no more until, in another hour, with the cold stars and drifting clouds overhead, they had reached her desolate house.

“My dear brethren,” said our priest, “we have not lost our Sunday; let us close this day with prayer!”

He and all the men stood, heedless of the wintry wind, uncovered before God, and he said:

“We thank Thee, O Merciful Father, that Thou hast given to us this, our brother’s body, to lay in our hallowed ground; but, above all, for the hope that his soul, washed in the blood of the immaculate Lamb who was slain to take away the sins of the world, has been presented without spot before Thee. Give our sister, we beseech Thee, strength and peace; have her and us in Thy safe-keeping, and bring us to Thy heavenly house, through Jesus Christ, our Lord.”

The congregation having been dismissed with the blessing, our priest and the chief men reverently carried the body into the parlor, and disposed it there, amid the memorials of happy former years, and arranged a watch.