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Canadian Wonder Tales by  Cyrus MacMillan


 

 

THE SHROVE TUESDAY VISITOR

[162]

I
N olden times in Canada, Shrove Tuesday, the day before the beginning of Lent, was more strictly observed than it is to-day. The night was always one of great merriment and feasting. Boys and girls of the villages and country places gathered there for the last time before the long period of quiet. They danced until midnight, but the youth or maiden who dared to dance after the hour of twelve was henceforth followed with little luck. This rule was not often broken, for when it was broken the Spirits of Evil always walked the earth and brought disaster to the youthful dancers.


[Illustration]

THE NIGHT WAS ALWAYS ONE OF GREAT MERRIMENT AND FEASTING.

In a remote village on the banks of a great river there dwelt in the seventeenth century a French peasant, a kind and devout old man. He had but one child, a daughter. She was a handsome girl, and naturally enough she had many suitors among the young men of the place. One of these she prized above all the others, and she had promised to become his wife. On the evening of the Shrove Tuesday before the date set for the wedding, as was the custom, the young people of the village gathered at her home. It was a simple but joyous gathering, the last which the girl could attend before her marriage. Right merrily the dance went [163] on, and all the guests were in high spirits. Soon after eleven o'clock a sleigh drawn by a great coal-black horse stopped at the door. It contained but one man. Without knocking at the door, the new-comer entered. The rooms were crowded, but the rumour soon spread whisperingly around that a new presence had appeared, and the simple villagers strove to get a look at the tall figure in fine clothes. The old man of the house received the stranger kindly and offered him the best he had in his home, for such was the custom in the old days. One thing the gathering particularly noted—the stranger kept his fur cap on his head, and he did not remove his gloves; but as the night was cold this caused but little wonder.

After the silence caused by the stranger's entrance the music swelled, and again the dance went on. The new-comer chose the old man's daughter as his partner. He came to her and said, "My pretty lass, I hope you will dance with me to-night, and more than once, too." "Certainly," replied the girl, well pleased with the honour, and knowing that her friends would envy her. During the remainder of the evening the stranger never left her side, and dance after dance they had together. From a corner of the room the girl's lover watched the pair in silence and anger.

In a small room opening from that in which the dancers were gathered was an old and pious woman seated on a chest at the foot of a bed, praying fervently. She was the girl's [164] aunt. In one hand she held her beads, with the other she beckoned to her niece to come to her.

"It is very wrong of you," she said, "to forsake your lover for this stranger; his manner is not pleasing to me. Each time I utter the name of the Saviour or the Virgin Mary as he passes the door, he turns from me with a look of anger." But the girl paid no heed to her aunt's advice.

At last it was midnight, and Lent had come. The old man gave the signal for the dance to cease. "Let us have one more dance," said the stranger. "Just one more," pleaded the girl; "my last dance before my marriage." And the old man, wishing to please his only child,—for he loved her well,—consented, and although it was already Ash Wednesday the dance went on. The stranger again danced with the girl. "You have been mine all the evening," he whispered; "why should you not be mine for ever?" But the girl laughed at his question. "I am a strange fellow," said the stranger, "and when I will to do a thing it must be done. Only say yes, and nothing can ever separate us." The girl cast a glance towards her dejected lover in the corner of the room. "I understand," said the stranger. "I am too late; you love him."

"Yes," answered the girl, "I love him, or rather I did love him once," for the girl's head had been turned by the attentions of the stranger.

"That is well," said the stranger; "I will arrange all, and overcome all difficulties. Give me your hand to seal our plight."

[165] She placed her hand in his, but at once she withdrew it with a low cry of pain. She had felt in her flesh the point of some sharp instrument as if the stranger held a knife in his hand. In great terror she fainted and was carried to a couch. At once the dance was stopped and the dancers gathered around her, wondering at the sudden happenings. At the same time two villagers came in and called the old man to the door to see a strange sight without. The deep snow for many yards around the stranger's horse and sleigh had melted in the hour since his arrival, and a large patch of bare ground was now showing. Terror soon spread among the guests; they spoke in whispers of fear, and shrank from the centre of the room to the walls as if eager to escape; but the old man begged them not to leave him. The stranger looked with a cold smile upon the dread of the company. He kept close to the couch where the girl was slowly coming back to life. He took from his pocket a beautiful necklace, and said to her, "Take off the glass beads you wear, and for my sake take this beautiful necklace." But to her glass beads was attached a little cross which she did not want to part with, and she refused to take his gift.

Meanwhile, in the home of the priest, some distance away, there was a strange happening. While he prayed for his flock the old priest had fallen asleep. He saw in his slumber a vision of the old man's home and what was happening there. He started quickly from his sleep and called his [166] servant and told him to harness his horse at once, for not far away a soul was in danger of eternal death. He hurried to the old man's home. When he reached there, the stranger had already unfastened the beads from the girl's neck and was about to place his own necklace upon her and to seize her in his arms. But the old priest was too quick for him. He passed his sacred stole around the girl's neck and drew her towards him, and turning to the stranger he said, "What art thou, Evil One, doing among Christians?" At this remark terror was renewed among the guests; some fell to their knees in prayer; all were weeping, for they knew now that the stranger with the stately presence and the velvet clothes was the Spirit of Evil and Death. And the stranger answered, "I do not know as Christians those who forget their faith by dancing on holy days. This fair girl has chosen to be mine. With the blood that flowed from her hand she sealed the compact which binds her to me for ever."

In answer, the old curé struck the stranger hard across the face with his stole, and repeated some Latin words which none of the guests understood. There was a great crash, as if it thundered, and in a moment amid the noise the stranger disappeared; with his horse and sleigh he had vanished as mysteriously and quickly as he had come.

The guests were long in recovering from their fear, and all night they prayed with the curé that their evil deeds [167] might be forgiven. That she might be cleansed from her sins and that her promise to the stranger might be rightly broken, the girl entered a convent to pass the remainder of her life. A few years later she died. And since that day in her little village on the banks of the great river, the Shrove Tuesday dancers have always stopped their dance at midnight; for youths and maidens still keep in mind the strange dancer in the fine clothes who wooed the peasant's only daughter and almost carried her off.


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