‘Each bend reveals new, austere grandeur of stupendous granite capes'
HELEN E. WILLIAMSJune11927
The River of Mystery
‘Each bend reveals new, austere grandeur of stupendous granite capes'
HELEN E. WILLIAMS
A WESTERING sun is softening the grim capes, as the Richelieu rounds Deadman’s Point and enters the Saguenay.
It has been likened to the river Styx, to a watery canyon threading mountains rent assunder before Christianity was preached, or England a name; to a sanctuary of silence where the soul of the wilderness is embodied in voiceless granite; to the wonderland of the world. Perhaps it is the composite of all these things. It is so great—and so simple!—and in that failing light, played upon by an orchestra of colors, so beyond power of words to express, so hypnotically beautiful! It is wilder than the Hudson. It has no snow-capped peaks like Lugano. Yet both on the Hudson and on the Swiss lake one finds oneself recalling the Saguenay.
Cape Eternity is approached and the Bay of the Trinity sombre as the tide of Acheron. For miles the white figure of the Virgin is visible on Cape Eternity, in that profundity of solitude, the sight of her evoking an indescribable emotion. Almost imperceptibly she emerges into the shadows of twilight . . . Beyond yellow-brown floating logs the lights of St. Alphonse glimmer nearer and more near, quite a busy little place, village and church near the waterfront, where a dark barge and some old boats lie at anchor. A luring road winds away beneath a wooded cliff toward scattered farm-houses and emerald hills.
The village, white road, waterfront and yellow logs— all these are seen in diminishing perspective as the Richelieu starts back the next morning. It is necessary to cling to the railing, so strong is the breeze going to the prow of the upper deck. But once there, seated, it is glorious. Mist shapes, shot with opalescent tints, are rising like spirits from the Saguenay. Each bend reveals new austere grandeur of stupendous granite capes or wild indented bays. Cape Eternity appears deceptively near. Some of the men throw pebbles in a futile attempt to hit it. The whistle is blown, awakening echoes far and near.
The Richelieu sails on.
Every curve of this River of Mystery brings it nearer its end. Even now can be glimpsed its mountain cape which, entering, looked like a mammoth helmet, clamped down on an invisible giant’s head . . . Even now the river wharf is sliding by . . . Tadousac’s shrill little whistle answering the Richelieu's sonorous salute.
Slowly we float into the wharf, which is crowded with what looks like the entire community, flanked by two-seated gigs. So may the Indians have watched Jacques Cartier and Champlain land. With this hushed expectancy, Bishop Laval was welcomed when he made his pastoral visit in 1668. Ropes are flung, caught, fastened
as at Murray Bay, Cap a l’Aigle, St. Simeon and St. Alphonse. But this time you do not watch the gangplank lowered and the precarious, fascinating rush of boys propelling trucks up and down. This is Tadousac, not a dot on a map, but alive—and green and blue and gold.
Echoes of the Past
WE HAVE, it seems, an hour here. Many go up to see the two hundred odd-year old Chapel, built on the site of the first Church in America—a birchbark wigwam. You look round the little plain, blue-ceilinged edifice, with its two rows of straight-backed wooden seats, divided by a narrow aisle. The oldest paintings —‘The Guardian Angel,’ 1730, and ‘Presented in the Temple,’ painted by Bauvais, in 1754—have been removed to the Parish Church. But a St. Charles Borremeo still adorns the wall. On the altar, before which is stretched a worn strip of yellow, black and red catalogne, is the Stone of Sacrifice, brought from France three hundred years ago. In a glass case is a wax Bambino, dressed by Anne of Austria, and presented by King Louis XIV, in 1648. A cupboard in the room behind contains antiquated old kettles used by Father Brosse a century later, and in the drawers of a bureau are ornate robes.
The Chapel bell rings a few quavering notes and is still. It was first hung on a balsam tree beside the Montagnais wigwam. For centuries it was heard and responded to by Indians tenting in Tadousac.
It has outrung the vicissitudes of history.
It is the voice of the Past.
“I am going to the Tadousac Hotel,” you announce, suddenly, “to see if I can get a room.”
How fervently to be pitied are those unfortunates whom you meet hurrying back to the Richelieu, as you leave it in the wake of a boy carrying your suitcase.
Here is the unexpected. Here is Adventure. Actually to be in Tadousac—alone—free to explore the wilds of the Saguenay and learn, mayhap, her mystery.
Your room is first floor front with bath, and lunch combines Saguenay Salmon with Indian Chapel view. Changing into walking togs, you sally forth. Something there is about that little narrow, rough road that touches like a homely, honest face. It has the pathos of people who have no existence save for work. It takes perhaps five minutes to walk down and up the hills in whose fold the wee house of the yellow-black funnel nestles; past a rambling, brown house—which belonged originally to Colonel Fletcher, Secretary to Lord Dufferin, when he was Governor-General—past a store with coils of rope like molasses candy in the window, past two old wrecks high and dry on the beach, over what was once the rounded side of another wreck, up—up the evergreened slope to the Saguenay.
There she lies—the river of mystery—smiling in the sun. So near, so beautiful that you thrill to the wonder of her; and run over the moss-ringed rocks, along ledge after ledge, with purple irises and unknown pink and white flowers growing in fissures, till you find a jumpered retreat, where the sweep of the river shows the ‘Giant’s Helmet’ in one direction, and far ocean liners on the St. Lawrence in the other. At the base of the cape across perches a white, pink-roofed lighthouse. On a lower ledge at your feet, an old habitant is skinning porpoises, and tossing them into a barrel of brine. Every second minute their survivors’ ‘white whales,’ circle above the brown water.
A barge of wood passes slowly.
A motor-driven dory chugs down river, and disappears round the point.
It has been averred that the distinction of the aged mind is not that it does not think, but that it does not think new thoughts; that its energy runs to ruts and builds no new roads. The Saguenay is like that —and it isn’t. About those scarred and barren capes hangs the atmosphere of Basque and Breton fishermen and Montagnais trapper, of discoverer and missionary. But the flowing river is new as Nature is ever new. Pulling down the over-panopling green spruces, you bury your nose in their fragrant tips and close your eyes . . .
Upon Giant’s Helmet a shadow has fallen. Swiftly it spreads, darkening river and capes. The sky is overcast. How threateningly still it is! And is that—a sprinkle?
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A quick scramble brings you to the hotel before the storm breaks. Stepping out of your window on to the upper veranda its approach can be seen—and heard. Far up the Saguenay the muttering menace of thunder grows momentarily louder; more awful. Lightning flashes. With deafening concussions the stupendous capes echo peal for peal—hurl back crash for crash. In the din, rocks appear to spring to life—valleys to become vocal.
Advancing, the storm awakens the nearer solitudes with its detonations. They roar with a human simulation of despair.
Nimbus clouds marshal swiftly.
The bay darkens, as if thinking of ancient wrongs.
Big drops paw the water. Rain falls in blowing sheets.
The bay is obliterated . . . Deadman’s Point . . . The Saguenay . . .
Everything is dyed lemon. With miraculous rapidity twin rainbows paint twin arcs across the sky; perfect arcs. The outer fades ever so little, and the inner deepens in intensity, one end merging into the St. Lawrence, the other into the green cliff above the Indian Chapel. Within this frame fantastic clouds are ever changing, fairy brushings like Aurora Borealis etching themselves. Again the Saguenay is radiant with afterglow; the bay painted magenta.
A drab houseboat appears from nowhere, and crawls over the water. Two canoes, a lone paddler in each, shoot toward the shore, land, push off again, full.
From the Church of Sainte-Croix the Angelus chimes.
The color pageant fades.
It grows dark.
Tadousac seems utterly shut off from the world. Bay, river, capes, village take on the brooding look of age grown introspective. Again one feels the Past like a visible presence; is obsessed with alien loves, hates, passions, cruelties. The patois floating up is a language now extinct. The dim figures in the canoes and on shore are Indian hunters from uncharted regions beyond Chicoutimi. They are bringing furs and pelts to trade for tobacco, knives, biscuits and beads. For winter, when words freeze as soon as spoken, is over, and the dusky children of the forest can set up wigwams, and in the birch bark chapel worship the white man’s God.
''T'HE morning sunshine dispels all this
as though it had never been. It is high tide. The bay, with its curving lines of creamy spray, is all a-sparkle. The pineneedle path, winding upward through Dwight Park, opens upon a view, whose grandeur suggests Lake Como from Bellagio’s heights. Under a smiling sun the Saguenay mountains wear their graygreen dress with a joyous air. The St. Lawrence River flows silver, save where its waters meet the Saguenay’s in a rough embrace. The sands of the beach shine gold. A two-wheeled, red cart crawls along, its driver collecting the tidal harvest. At your feet, literally surrounded by a semi-circle of hills, drowses Tadousac.
Driving round the concession, with its still defined old beaches and sand-dunes— deposits, geologists aver, of terrific storms when the1 sea covered all these regions— one sees thatched cottages, hears the hum of the spinning wheel, the snapping of the clock reel, the whack-whack of the loom.
At one cottage door a comely girl is sitting carding wool for etoffe. At another, a typically rotund old habitant woman stands leaning slightly forward by a spinning wheel. When she has spun six skeins, she has walked twenty miles.
Presently you find yourself again climbing Deadman’s Point. This time you go straight to the top, where the flagstaff rises. From this eminence Tadousac is seen from a different perspective. Through wind-scraggled spruces can be glimpsed a vista of the St. Lawrence, blue-shaded. Somewhere below is the filled-in cave where the skeletons of Indians were found. Drawn up on the cove shore are more disintegrating wrecks. And yet, exploring, you happen upon mossy bowers, enclosed by spruces. Here are inch-high blueberries and juniper, and through the spruces a vignette of capes—and hundreds of white, scarlet and yellow butterflies, a-flutter. The spell of the Saguenay is compounded of these contrasts. Tadousac abounds in them. Crossing some lichened rocks, there is old Giant’s Helmet, and the inscrutable river with its moods of color. Porpoises whiten and disappear. The afternoon light plays violet, blue, purple and green variations on river and capes. You meditate upon the pantheism of the Redman, who identified Nature with Deity and in this river, these mountains, saw spirits to be appeased.
The Cape Diamond is scheduled to dock late in the afternoon.
On the river wharf two young habitants wait, looking eagerly toward the Point round which the boat will appear. One is very dark, dressed in navy blue, with yellow stripes across the back of his sweater. The other correspondingly fair, in boots, khaki shirt and knee breeches. Blue says something to Khaki, and they start back through the crowd and buses, run down the stony beach, looking like veriest pygmies against the towering, perpendicular cape—stained yellow and green by laving tides. Jump into a scarlet canoe and paddle out to the point, where they can see up river. Then they paddle back and report:—
“Le bateau, he come.”
They are forgotten in the business of getting aboard. But, presently, out on deck, your eyes wander from six nuns, gowned in brown and white, to two figures carrying a little shiny trunk between them moving down the beach. They set the trunk down near the water’s edge, and Khaki runs quickly up over the stones again, soon reappearing, his femme on his arm. Carefully guiding her down the rough way, he hands her into the scarlet canoe, with the air of a grand seigneur. Swiftly he darts back, this time returning with a barrel, which he deposits in a second canoe. After he and three little boys have stored away sundry other parcels, both canoes push off and glide across the river toward St. Catharines.
The six nuns, meanwhile, accompanied by two curés, are chugged away by Blue in a naphtha launch.
As the Cape Diamond sails out of the Saguenay for Quebec, the sun is setting over all. It sheds a glory upon the mighty capes, and paints the River of Mystery the color of dreams. One of the curés stands up and gesticulates. At that distance the nuns in the crowded boat look like men. The curé seems to be pointing where to plant the cross—to be taking possession of the land in the name of Louis XIV, king of France.
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