The Worker in Sandalwood


(Majorie Pickthall was a Canadian writer. She was born in England in 1883 and moved to Canada when she was seven. She was thirty-eight when she died in Vancouver in 1922

I came across this story in an English Lit course in college. It wasn’t part of our assigned reading. It was just a delightful discovery – my reward, I suppose, for poking around in the rest of the textbook. I’ve shared this story many times over the years since, including here. This is a forgotten story. It is out of print and it’s not even listed among her works in her Wikipedia entry. It shouldn’t be forgotten.

Here’s a link to a version in the Internet Achive: “The Worker in Sandalwood“. It’s slightly different to the version here.)

Part 1

I like to think of this as a true story, but you who read may please yourselves, siding with either the curé, who says Hyacinthe dreamed it all, and did the carving himself in his sleep, or with Madame. I am sure Hyacinthe thinks it true, and so does Madame, but then she has the cabinet, with the little bids and lilies carved at the corners. Monsieur le curé shrugs his patient shoulders; but then he is tainted with the infidelities of cities, good man, having been three times to Montreal, and once, in an electric car, to Saint Anne. He and Madame still talk it over whenever they meet, though it happened so many years ago, and each leaves the other forever unconvinced. Meanwhile the dust gathers in the infinite fine lines of the little birds’ feathers, and softens the lilly stamens where Madame’s duster may not go; and the wood ageing takes on a golden gleam as of immemorial sunsets: that pale red wood; heavy with the scent of the ancient East; the wood that Hyacinthe loved.

It was the only wood of that kind which had ever been seen in Terminaison.1 Pierre L’Oreillard brought it into the workshop one morning; a small heavy bundle wrapped in sacking, and then in burlap, and then in fine soft cloths. He laid it on a pile of shavings, and unwrapped it carefully and a dim sweetness filled the dark shed and hung heavily in the thin winter sunbeams.

Pierre L’Oreillard rubbed the wood respectfully with his knobby fingers. “It is sandalwood,” he explained to Hyacinth, pride of knowledge making him expansive; “a most precious wood2 that grows in warm countries, thou great goblin. Smell it, imbecile. It is sweeter than cedar. It is to make a cabinet for the old Madame at the big house. Thy great hands shall smooth the wood, nigaud,3 and I – I, Pierre the cabinet-maker, shall render it beautiful.” Then he went out, locking the door behind him.

When he was gone, Hyacinthe laid down his plane, blew on his stiff fingers, and shambled slowly over to the wood. He was a great clumsy boy of fourteen, dark-faced, very slow of speech, dull-eyed and uncared for. He was clumsy because it is impossible to move gracefully when you are growing very big and fast on quite insufficient food. He was dull-eyed because all eyes met his unlovingly; uncared for, because none knew the beauty of his soul. But his heavy young hands could carve simple things, like flowers and birds and beasts, to perfection, as the curé pointed out. Simon has a tobacco jar, carved with pine-cones and squirrels, and the curé has a pipe whose bowl is the bloom of a moccasin-flower, that I have seen. But it is all very long ago. And the facts, in these lonely villages, easily become transfigured, touched upon their gray with a golden gleam.

“Thy hands shall smooth the wood, nigaud, and I shall render it beautiful.” said Pierre L’Oreillard, and went off to drink brandy at the Cinq Chateaux.

Hyacinthe knew that the making of the cabinet would fall to him, as most of the other work did. He also touched the strange sweet wood, and at last laid his cheek against it, while the fragrance caught his breath. “How it is beautiful,” said Hyacinthe, and for a moment his eyes glowed and he was happy. Then the light passed, and with bent head he shuffled back to his bench through a foam of white shavings curling almost to his knees…

1. Terminaison: a town imagined to be part of French Canada.

2. A most precious wood: Sandalwood is still rare and precious; it is grown mainly in India and yields to exquisite detail in carving and decoration.

3. Nigaud: simpleton.

Part 2

“Madame perhaps will want this cabinet next week, for that is Christmas,” said Hyacinthe, and fell to work harder than ever, though it was so cold in the shed that his breath hung like a little silver cloud and the steel stung his hands. There was a tiny window to his right, through which, when it was clear of frost, one looked out on Terminaison, and that was cheerful and made one whistle. But to the left, through the chink in the ill-fitting door, there was nothing but the forest and the road dying away in it, and the trees moving heavily under the snow. Yet, from there came all Hyacinthe’s dumb dreams and slow reluctant fancies, which he sometimes found himself able to tell – in wood, not in words.

Brandy was good at the Cinq Chateaux, and Pierre L’Oreillard gave Hyacinthe plenty of directions, but no further help with the cabinet.

“That is to be finished for Madame on the festival, gros escargot!”4 said he, cuffing Hyacinthe’s ears furiously, “finished, and with a prettiness about the corners, hearest thou, ourson?5 I suffer from a delicacy of the constitution and a little feebleness in the legs these days, so I cannot handle the tools. I must leave this work to thee, gaucheur.6 See it is done properly, and stand up and touch a hand to thy cap when I address thee, orvet,7 great slow-worm.”

“Yes, monsieur,” said Hyacinthe wearily.

It is hard when you do all the work, to be cuffed into the bargain, and fourteen is not very old. He went to work on the cabinet with slow, exquisite skill but on the eve of Noel, he was still at work, and the cabinet unfinished. It meant a thrashing from Pierre if the morrow came and found it still unfinished, and Pierre’s thrashings were cruel. But it was growing into a thing of perfection under his slow hands, and Hyacinthe would not hurry over it.

“Then work on it all night, and show it to me all completed in the morning, or thy bones shall mourn thy idleness,” said Pierre with a flicker of his little eyes. And he shut Hyacinthe into the workshop with a smoky lamp, his tools, and the sandalwood cabinet.

It was nothing unusual. The boy had often been left before to finish a piece of work overnight while Pierre went off to his brandies. But this was Christmas Eve and he was very tired. The cold crept into the shed until the scent of the sandalwood could not make him dream himself warm, and the roof cracked sullenly in the forest. There came upon Hyacinthe one of those awful, hopeless despairs that children know. It seemed to be a living presence that caught up his soul and crushed it in black hands. “In all the world, nothing!” said he, staring at the dull flame; “no place, no heart, no love! O kind God, is there a place, a love for me in another world?”

I cannot endure to think of Hyacinthe, poor lad, shut up despairing in the workshop with his loneliness, his cold, and his hunger, on the eve of Christmas. He was but an overgrown unhappy child, and for unhappy children no aid at this season, seems to divine for faith. So Madame says, and she is very old and very wise. Hyacinthe even looked at the chisel in his hand, and thought that by a touch of that he might lose it all, all, and be at peace, somewhere not far from God; only it was forbidden. Then came the tears, and great sobs that sickened and deafened him, so that he scarcely heard the gentle rattling of the latch…

4. Gros escargot: big snail.

5. Ourson: bear cub.

6. Gacheur: bungler, spoiler.

7. Orvet: blind worm, slow worm.

Part 3

At least, I suppose it came then, but it may have been later. the story is all so vague here, so confused with fancies that have spoiled the first simplicity. I think that Hyacinthe must have gone to the door, opening it upon the still woods and the frosty stars, and the lad who stood outside must have said: “I see you are working late, comrade. May I come in?” or something like it.

Hyacinthe brushed his ragged sleeve across his eyes, and opened the door wider with a little nod to the other to enter. Those little lonely villages strung along the great river see strange wayfarers adrift inland from the sea. Hyacinthe said to himself that surely here was such a one.

Afterwards he told the curé that for a moment he had been bewildered. Dully blinking into the stanger’s eyes, he lost for a flash the first impression of youth and recieved one of some incredible age or sadness. But this also passed and he knew that the wanderer’s eyes were only quiet, very quiet, like the little pools in the wood where the wild does went to drink. As he turned within the door, smiling at Hyacinthe and shaking some snow from his fur cap, he did not seem more than sixteen or so.

“It is very cold outside,” he said. “There is a big oak tree on the edge of the field that has split in the frost and frightened all the little squirrels asleep there. Next year it will make an even better home for them. And see what I found close by!” He opened his fingers, and showed hyacinthe a little sparrow lying unruffled in his palm.

“Pauvrette!”8 said the dull Hyacinthe. “Pauvrette! Is it then dead?” He touched it with a gentle forefinger.

“No,” answered the strange boy, “it is not dead. We’ll put it here among the shavings, not far from the lamp, and it will be well by morning.”9

He smiled at Hyacinthe again, and the shambling lad felt dimly as if the scent of sandalwood had deepened, and the lamp flame burned clearer. But the stranger’s eyes were only quiet, very quiet.

“Have you come far?” asked Hyacinthe. “It is a bad season for traveling, and the wolves are out in the woods.”

“A long way,” said the other; “a long, long way. I heard a child cry…”

“There is no child here,” answered Hyacinthe, shaking his head. “Monsieur L’Oreillard is not fond of children, he says they cost too much money. But if you have come far, you must be cold and hungry, and I have no food or fire. At the Cinq Chateaux you will find both!”

The stranger looked at him with those quiet eyes and Hyacinthe fancied his face familiar. “I will stay here,” he said, “you are very late at work and you are unhappy.”

“Why as to that,” answered Hyacinthe, rubbing again at his cheeks and ashamed of his tears, “most of us are sad at one time or another, the good God knows. Stay here and welcome if it pleases you, and you may take a share of my bed, though it is no more than a pile of balsam boughs and an old blanket, in the loft. But I must work on this cabinet, for the drawer must be finished and the handles put on and these corners carved, all by the holy morning; or my wages will be paid with a stick.”

8. Pauvrette: poor little thing.

9. See Psalms 84:4.

Part 4

“You have a hard master,” put in the other boy, “if he would pay you with blows upon the feast of Noel.”

“He is hard enough,” said Hyacinthe; “but once he gave me a dinner of sausages and white wine, and once, in the summer, melons. If my eyes will stay open, I will finish this by morning, but indeed I am sleepy. Stay with me an hour or so, comrade, and talk to me of your wanderings, so that the time may pass more quickly.”

“I will tell you of the country where I was a child,” answered the stranger.

And while Hyacinthe worked, he told – of sunshine and dust; of the shadows of the vine-leaves on the flat walls of a house; of rosy doves on the flat roof; of the flowers that come in the spring, crimson and blue, and the white cyclamen in the shadows of the rocks; of the olive, the myrtle and the almond; until Hyacinthe’s slow fingers ceased working, and his sleepy eyes blinked wonderingly.

“See what you have done, comrade,” he said at last; “you have told of such pretty things that I have done no work for an hour. And now the cabinet will never be finished, and I shall be beaten.”

“Let me help you,” smiled the other; “I was also bred a carpenter.”10

At first Hyacinthe would not, fearing to trust the sweet wood out of his own hands, but at length he allowed the stranger to fit in one of the little drawers, and so deftly was the work done, that Hyacinthe pounded his fists on the bench in admiration. “You have a pretty knack,” he cried; “it seemed as if you did but hold the drawer in your hands a moment, and hey! ho! it jumped into its place!”

“Let me fit in the other little drawers, while you go and rest a while,” said the wanderer. So Hyacinthe curled up among the shavings, and the stranger fell to work upon the little cabinet of sandalwood.

Here begins what the curé will have it is a dream within a dream. Sweetest of dreams ever dreamed, if that is so. Sometimes I am forced to think with him, but again I see as clearly as with old Madame’s eyes, that have not seen the earthly light for twenty years, and with her and Hyacinthe I say, “Credo.”11

Hyacinthe said that he lay upon the shavings in the sweetness of the sandalwood, and was very tired. He thought of the country where the stranger had been a boy; of the flowers on the hills; of the laughing leaves of aspen, and poplar; of the golden flowering anise and the golden sun upon the dusty roads, until he was warm. All the time through these pictures, as though through a painted veil, he was aware of the other boy with the quiet eyes, at work on the cabinet, smoothing, fitting, polishing. “He does better work than I.” thought Hyacinthe, but he was not jealous. And again he thought, “It is growing towards morning. In a little while I will get up and help him.” But he did not, for the dream of warmth and the smell of the sandalwood held him in a sweet drowse. Also, he said that he thought the stranger was singing as he worked, for there seemed to be a sense of some music in the shed, though he could not tell whether it came from the other boy’s lips, or from the shabby old tools as he used them, or from the stars. “The stars are much paler,” thought Hyacinthe, “and soon it will be morning and the corners are not carved yet. I must get up and help this kind one in a little moment. Only I am so tired, and the music and the sweetness seem to wrap me and fold me close, so that I may not move.”

10. …bred a carpenter: See Matthew 13:55.

11. Credo: “I believe,” the opening words of the Credo section of the Catholic Mass. “Credo in unum Deum…” (“I believe in one God…”).

Part 5

He lay without moving, and behind the forest there shone a pale glow of some indescribable colour that was neither green nor blue, while in Terminaison the church bells began to ring. “Day will soon be here!” thought Hyacinthe, immovable in that deep dream of his, “and the day will come and Monsieur L’Oreillard and his stick. I must get up and help, for even yet the corners are not carved.”

But he did not get up. Instead he saw the stranger look at him again, smiling as if he loved him, and lay his brown finger upon the four empty corners of the cabinet. And Hyacinthe saw the little squares of reddish wood ripple and heave and break, as little clouds when the wind goes through the sky. And out of them thrust forth little birds, and after them the lilies, for a moment, but even while Hyacinthe looked, growing hard and reddish-brown and settling back into the sweet wood. Then the stranger smiled again, and laid all the tools neatly in order, and, opening the door quietly, went away into the woods.

Hyacinthe lay still among the shavings for a long time, and then he crept slowly to the door. The sun, not yet risen, set its first beams upon the delicate mist of frost afloat beneath the trees, and so all the world was aflame with splendid gold. Far away down the road a dim figure seemed to move amid the glory, but the glow and the splendour were such that Hyacinthe was blinded. His breath came sharply as the glow beat in great waves on the wretched shed; on the foam of shavings; on the cabinet with the little bids and the lilies carved at the corners.

He was too pure of heart to feel afraid. But “Blessed be the Lord,” whispered Hyacinthe, clasping his slow hands, “for He hath visited and redeemed His people,12 but who will believe?”

Then the sun of Christ’s day rose gloriously, and the little sparrow came from his nest among the shavings and shook his wings to the light.13

12. …His people: See Luke 1:68.

13. …wings to the light: See Malachi 4:2.

There are 4 comments.

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  1. Jim McConnell Member
    Jim McConnell

    Beautiful! Thank you for sharing it,Spaceman.

    Merry Christmas!

    • #1
  2. TC Chef Inactive
    TC Chef


    • #2
  3. Patrick McClure Coolidge
    Patrick McClure

    Thanks again Spiff. 

    • #3
  4. Marythefifth Inactive

    Delightful. Thank you.

    • #4
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