Produced by Jonathan Ingram, Bradley Norton and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team.
A DRAMA OF THREE
LA GRANDE DEMOISELLE
THE MIRACLE CHAPEL
THE STORY OF A DAY
ANNE MARIE AND JEANNE MARIE
A CRIPPLED HOPE
“ONE OF US”
THE LITTLE CONVENT GIRL
THE OLD LADY’S RESTORATION
A DELICATE AFFAIR
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
“WALKING AWAY WITH A SHRUG OF THE SHOULDERS”
“WHERE IS THAT IDIOT, THAT DOLT, THAT SLUGGARD, THAT SNAIL, WITH MY MAIL?”
“I WEPT, I WEPT, I WEPT”
“HER HEART DROVE HER TO THE WINDOW”
“ALL THAT DAY WAS DESPONDENCY, DEJECTION”
“THIS TIME WE HAVE CAUGHT IT!”
“THE QUIET, DIM-LIGHTED ROOM OF A CONVALESCENT”
“TO POSE IN ABJECT PATIENCE AND AWKWARDNESS”
THE SISTERS BID HER GOOD-BY
WATCHING A LANDING
“TURNED TO HER DOMESTIC DUTIES”
THE ROOM IN THE OLD GALLERY
THE FIRST COMMUNION
There is much of life passed on the balcony in a country where the summer unrolls in six moon-lengths, and where the nights have to come with a double endowment of vastness and splendor to compensate for the tedious, sun-parched days.
And in that country the women love to sit and talk together of summer nights, on balconies, in their vague, loose, white garments,–men are not balcony sitters,–with their sleeping children within easy hearing, the stars breaking the cool darkness, or the moon making a show of light–oh, such a discreet show of light!–through the vines. And the children inside, waking to go from one sleep into another, hear the low, soft mother-voices on the balcony, talking about this person and that, old times, old friends, old experiences; and it seems to them, hovering a moment in wakefulness, that there is no end of the world or time, or of the mother-knowledge; but, illimitable as it is, the mother-voices and the mother-love and protection fill it all,–with their mother’s hand in theirs, children are not afraid even of God,–and they drift into slumber again, their little dreams taking all kinds of pretty reflections from the great unknown horizon outside, as their fragile soap-bubbles take on reflections from the sun and clouds.
Experiences, reminiscences, episodes, picked up as only women know how to pick them up from other women’s lives,–or other women’s destinies, as they prefer to call them,–and told as only women know how to relate them; what God has done or is doing with some other woman whom they have known–that is what interests women once embarked on their own lives,–the embarkation takes place at marriage, or after the marriageable time,–or, rather, that is what interests the women who sit of summer nights on balconies. For in those long-moon countries life is open and accessible, and romances seem to be furnished real and gratis, in order to save, in a languor-breeding climate, the ennui of reading and writing books. Each woman has a different way of picking up and relating her stories, as each one selects different pieces, and has a personal way of playing them on the piano.
Each story _is_ different, or appears so to her; each has some unique and peculiar pathos in it. And so she dramatizes and inflects it, trying to make the point visible to her apparent also to her hearers. Sometimes the pathos and interest to the hearers lie only in this–that the relater has observed it, and gathered it, and finds it worth telling. For do we not gather what we have not, and is not our own lacking our one motive? It may be so, for it often appears so.
And if a child inside be wakeful and precocious it is not dreams alone that take on reflections from the balcony outside: through the half-open shutters the still, quiet eyes look across the dim forms on the balcony to the star-spangled or the moon-brightened heavens beyond; while memory makes stores for the future, and germs are sown, out of which the slow, clambering vine of thought issues, one day, to decorate or hide, as it may be, the structures or ruins of life.
A DRAMA OF THREE
It was a regular dramatic performance every first of the month in the little cottage of the old General and Madame B—-.
It began with the waking up of the General by his wife, standing at the bedside with a cup of black coffee.
“He! Ah! Oh, Honorine! Yes; the first of the month, and affairs–affairs to be transacted.”
On those mornings when affairs were to be transacted there was not much leisure for the household; and it was Honorine who constituted the household. Not the old dressing-gown and slippers, the old, old trousers, and the antediluvian neck-foulard of other days! Far from it. It was a case of warm water (with even a fling of cologne in it), of the trimming of beard and mustache by Honorine, and the black broadcloth suit, and the brown satin stock, and that _je ne sais quoi de degage_ which no one could possess or assume like the old General. Whether he possessed or assumed it is an uncertainty which hung over the fine manners of all the gentlemen of his day, who were kept through their youth in Paris to cultivate _bon ton_ and an education.
It was also something of a gala-day for Madame la Generale too, as it must be a gala-day for all old wives to see their husbands pranked in the manners and graces that had conquered their maidenhood, and exhaling once more that ambrosial fragrance which once so well incensed their compelling presence.
Ah, to the end a woman loves to celebrate her conquest! It is the last touch of misfortune with her to lose in the old, the ugly, and the commonplace her youthful lord and master. If one could look under the gray hairs and wrinkles with which time thatches old women, one would be surprised to see the flutterings, the quiverings, the thrills, the emotions, the coals of the heart-fires which death alone extinguishes, when he commands the tenant to vacate.
Honorine’s hands chilled with the ice of sixteen as she approached scissors to the white mustache and beard. When her finger-tips brushed those lips, still well formed and roseate, she felt it, strange to say, on her lips. When she asperged the warm water with cologne,–it was her secret delight and greatest effort of economy to buy this cologne,–she always had one little moment of what she called faintness–that faintness which had veiled her eyes, and chained her hands, and stilled her throbbing bosom, when as a bride she came from the church with him. It was then she noticed the faint fragrance of the cologne bath. Her lips would open as they did then, and she would stand for a moment and think thoughts to which, it must be confessed, she looked forward from month to month. What a man he had been! In truth he belonged to a period that would accept nothing less from Nature than physical beauty; and Nature is ever subservient to the period. If it is to-day all small men, and to-morrow gnomes and dwarfs, we may know that the period is demanding them from Nature.
When the General had completed–let it be called no less than the ceremony of–his toilet, he took his chocolate and his _pain de Paris_. Honorine could not imagine him breakfasting on anything but _pain de Paris._ Then he sat himself in his large arm-chair before his escritoire, and began transacting his affairs with the usual–
“But where is that idiot, that dolt, that sluggard, that snail, with my mail?” Honorine, busy in the breakfast-room:
[Illustration: “WHERE IS THAT IDIOT, THAT DOLT, THAT SLUGGARD, THAT SNAIL, WITH MY MAIL?”]
“In a moment, husband. In a moment.”
“But he should be here now. It is the first of the month, it is nine o’clock, I am ready; he should be here.”
“It is not yet nine o’clock, husband.”
“Not yet nine! Not yet nine! Am I not up? Am I not dressed? Have I not breakfasted before nine?”
“That is so, husband. That is so.” Honorine’s voice, prompt in cheerful acquiescence, came from the next room, where she was washing his cup, saucer, and spoon.
“It is getting worse and worse every day. I tell you, Honorine, Pompey must be discharged. He is worthless. He is trifling. Discharge him! Discharge him! Do not have him about! Chase him out of the yard! Chase him as soon as he makes his appearance! Do you hear, Honorine?”
“You must have a little patience, husband.”
It was perhaps the only reproach one could make to Madame Honorine, that she never learned by experience.
“Patience! Patience! Patience is the invention of dullards and sluggards. In a well-regulated world there should be no need of such a thing as patience. Patience should be punished as a crime, or at least as a breach of the peace. Wherever patience is found police investigation should be made as for smallpox. Patience! Patience! I never heard the word–I assure you, I never heard the word in Paris. What do you think would be said there to the messenger who craved patience of you? Oh, they know too well in Paris–a rataplan from the walking-stick on his back, that would be the answer; and a, ‘My good fellow, we are not hiring professors of patience, but legs.'”
“But, husband, you must remember we do not hire Pompey. He only does it to oblige us, out of his kindness.”
“Oblige us! Oblige me! Kindness! A negro oblige me! Kind to me! That is it; that is it. That is the way to talk under the new regime. It is favor, and oblige, and education, and monsieur, and madame, now. What child’s play to call this a country–a government! I would not be surprised”–jumping to his next position on this ever-recurring first of the month theme–“I would not be surprised if Pompey has failed to find the letter in the box. How do I know that the mail has not been tampered with? From day to day I expect to hear it. What is to prevent? Who is to interpose? The honesty of the officials? Honesty of the officials–that is good! What a farce–honesty of officials! That is evidently what has happened. The thought has not occurred to me in vain. Pompey has gone. He has not found the letter, and–well; that is the end.”
But the General had still another theory to account for the delay in the appearance of his mail which he always posed abruptly after the exhaustion of the arraignment of the post-office.
“And why not Journel?” Journel was their landlord, a fellow of means, but no extraction, and a favorite aversion of the old gentleman’s. “Journel himself? You think he is above it, _he_? You think Journel would not do such a thing? Ha! your simplicity, Honorine–your simplicity is incredible. It is miraculous. I tell you, I have known the Journels, from father to son, for–yes, for seventy-five years. Was not his grandfather the overseer on my father’s plantation? I was not five years old when I began to know the Journels. And this fellow, I know him better than he knows himself. I know him as well as God knows him. I have made up my mind. I have made it up carefully that the first time that letter fails on the first of the month I shall have Journel arrested as a thief. I shall land him in the penitentiary. What! You think I shall submit to have my mail tampered with by a Journel? Their contents appropriated? What! You think there was no coincidence in Journel’s offering me his post-office box just the month–just the month, before those letters began to arrive? You think he did not have some inkling of them? Mark my words, Honorine, he did–by some of his subterranean methods. And all these five years he has been arranging his plans–that is all. He was arranging theft, which no doubt has been consummated to-day. Oh, I have regretted it–I assure you I have regretted it, that I did not promptly reject his proposition, that, in fact, I ever had anything to do with the fellow.”
It was almost invariably, so regularly do events run in this world,–it was almost invariably that the negro messenger made his appearance at this point. For five years the General had perhaps not been interrupted as many times, either above or below the last sentence. The mail, or rather the letter, was opened, and the usual amount–three ten-dollar bills–was carefully extracted and counted. And as if he scented the bills, even as the General said he did, within ten minutes after their delivery, Journel made his appearance to collect the rent.
It could only have been in Paris, among that old retired nobility, who counted their names back, as they expressed it, “au de ca du deluge,” that could have been acquired the proper manner of treating a “roturier” landlord: to measure him with the eyes from head to foot; to hand the rent–the ten-dollar bill–with the tips of the fingers; to scorn a look at the humbly tendered receipt; to say: “The cistern needs repairing, the roof leaks; I must warn you that unless such notifications meet with more prompt attention than in the past, you must look for another tenant,” etc., in the monotonous tone of supremacy, and in the French, not of Journel’s dictionary, nor of the dictionary of any such as he, but in the French of Racine and Corneille; in the French of the above suggested circle, which inclosed the General’s memory, if it had not inclosed–as he never tired of recounting–his star-like personality.
A sheet of paper always infolded the bank-notes. It always bore, in fine but sexless tracery, “From one who owes you much.”
There, that was it, that sentence, which, like a locomotive, bore the General and his wife far on these firsts of the month to two opposite points of the horizon, in fact, one from the other–“From one who owes you much.”
The old gentleman would toss the paper aside with the bill receipt. In the man to whom the bright New Orleans itself almost owed its brightness, it was a paltry act to search and pick for a debtor. Friends had betrayed and deserted him; relatives had forgotten him; merchants had failed with his money; bank presidents had stooped to deceive him; for he was an old man, and had about run the gamut of human disappointments–a gamut that had begun with a C major of trust, hope, happiness, and money.
His political party had thrown him aside. Neither for ambassador, plenipotentiary, senator, congressman, not even for a clerkship, could he be nominated by it. Certes! “From one who owed him much.” He had fitted the cap to a new head, the first of every month, for five years, and still the list was not exhausted. Indeed, it would have been hard for the General to look anywhere and not see some one whose obligations to him far exceeded this thirty dollars a month. Could he avoid being happy with such eyes?
But poor Madame Honorine! She who always gathered up the receipts, and the “From one who owes you much”; who could at an instant’s warning produce the particular ones for any month of the past half-decade. She kept them filed, not only in her armoire, but the scrawled papers–skewered, as it were, somewhere else–where women from time immemorial have skewered such unsigned papers. She was not original in her thoughts–no more, for the matter of that, than the General was. Tapped at any time on the first of the month, when she would pause in her drudgery to reimpale her heart by a sight of the written characters on the scrap of paper, her thoughts would have been found flowing thus, “One can give everything, and yet be sure of nothing.”
When Madame Honorine said “everything,” she did not, as women in such cases often do, exaggerate. When she married the General, she in reality gave the youth of sixteen, the beauty (ah, do not trust the denial of those wrinkles, the thin hair, the faded eyes!) of an angel, the dot of an heiress. Alas! It was too little at the time. Had she in her own person united all the youth, all the beauty, all the wealth, sprinkled parsimoniously so far and wide over all the women in this land, would she at that time have done aught else with this than immolate it on the burning pyre of the General’s affection? “And yet be sure of nothing.”
It is not necessary, perhaps, to explain that last clause. It is very little consolation for wives that their husbands have forgotten, when some one else remembers. Some one else! Ah! there could be so many some one Else’s in the General’s life, for in truth he had been irresistible to excess. But this was one particular some one else who had been faithful for five years. Which one?
When Madame Honorine solves that enigma she has made up her mind how to act.
As for Journel, it amused him more and more. He would go away from the little cottage rubbing his hands with pleasure (he never saw Madame Honorine, by the way, only the General). He would have given far more than thirty dollars a month for this drama; for he was not only rich, but a great _farceur_.
LA GRANDE DEMOISELLE
That was what she was called by everybody as soon as she was seen or described. Her name, besides baptismal titles, was Idalie Sainte Foy Mortemart des Islets. When she came into society, in the brilliant little world of New Orleans, it was the event of the season, and after she came in, whatever she did became also events. Whether she went, or did not go; what she said, or did not say; what she wore, and did not wear–all these became important matters of discussion, quoted as much or more than what the president said, or the governor thought. And in those days, the days of ’59, New Orleans was not, as it is now, a one-heiress place, but it may be said that one could find heiresses then as one finds type-writing girls now.
Mademoiselle Idalie received her birth, and what education she had, on her parents’ plantation, the famed old Reine Sainte Foy place, and it is no secret that, like the ancient kings of France, her birth exceeded her education.
It was a plantation, the Reine Sainte Foy, the richness and luxury of which are really well described in those fervid pictures of tropical life, at one time the passion of philanthropic imaginations, excited and exciting over the horrors of slavery. Although these pictures were then often accused of being purposely exaggerated, they seem now to fall short of, instead of surpassing, the truth. Stately walls, acres of roses, miles of oranges, unmeasured fields of cane, colossal sugar-house–they were all there, and all the rest of it, with the slaves, slaves, slaves everywhere, whole villages of negro cabins. And there were also, most noticeable to the natural, as well as to the visionary, eye–there were the ease, idleness, extravagance, self-indulgence, pomp, pride, arrogance, in short the whole enumeration, the moral _sine qua non_, as some people considered it, of the wealthy slaveholder of aristocratic descent and tastes.
What Mademoiselle Idalie cared to learn she studied, what she did not she ignored; and she followed the same simple rule untrammeled in her eating, drinking, dressing, and comportment generally; and whatever discipline may have been exercised on the place, either in fact or fiction, most assuredly none of it, even so much as in a threat, ever attended her sacred person. When she was just turned sixteen, Mademoiselle Idalie made up her mind to go into society. Whether she was beautiful or not, it is hard to say. It is almost impossible to appreciate properly the beauty of the rich, the very rich. The unfettered development, the limitless choice of accessories, the confidence, the self-esteem, the sureness of expression, the simplicity of purpose, the ease of execution–all these produce a certain effect of beauty behind which one really cannot get to measure length of nose, or brilliancy of eye. This much can be said: there was nothing in her that positively contradicted any assumption of beauty on her part, or credit of it on the part of others. She was very tall and very thin with small head, long neck, black eyes, and abundant straight black hair,–for which her hair-dresser deserved more praise than she,–good teeth, of course, and a mouth that, even in prayer, talked nothing but commands; that is about all she had _en fait d’ornements_, as the modesties say. It may be added that she walked as if the Reine Sainte Foy plantation extended over the whole earth, and the soil of it were too vile for her tread. Of course she did not buy her toilets in New Orleans. Everything was ordered from Paris, and came as regularly through the custom-house as the modes and robes to the milliners. She was furnished by a certain house there, just as one of a royal family would be at the present day. As this had lasted from her layette up to her sixteenth year, it may be imagined what took place when she determined to make her debut. Then it was literally, not metaphorically, _carte blanche_, at least so it got to the ears of society. She took a sheet of note-paper, wrote the date at the top, added, “I make my debut in November,” signed her name at the extreme end of the sheet, addressed it to her dressmaker in Paris, and sent it.
It was said that in her dresses the very handsomest silks were used for linings, and that real lace was used where others put imitation,–around the bottoms of the skirts, for instance,–and silk ribbons of the best quality served the purposes of ordinary tapes; and sometimes the buttons were of real gold and silver, sometimes set with precious stones. Not that she ordered these particulars, but the dressmakers, when given _carte blanche_ by those who do not condescend to details, so soon exhaust the outside limits of garments that perforce they take to plastering them inside with gold, so to speak, and, when the bill goes in, they depend upon the furnishings to carry out a certain amount of the contract in justifying the price. And it was said that these costly dresses, after being worn once or twice, were cast aside, thrown upon the floor, given to the negroes–anything to get them out of sight. Not an inch of the real lace, not one of the jeweled buttons, not a scrap of ribbon, was ripped off to save. And it was said that if she wanted to romp with her dogs in all her finery, she did it; she was known to have ridden horseback, one moonlight night, all around the plantation in a white silk dinner-dress flounced with Alencon. And at night, when she came from the balls, tired, tired to death as only balls can render one, she would throw herself down upon her bed in her tulle skirts,–on top, or not, of the exquisite flowers, she did not care,–and make her maid undress her in that position; often having her bodices cut off her, because she was too tired to turn over and have them unlaced.
That she was admired, raved about, loved even, goes without saying. After the first month she held the refusal of half the beaux of New Orleans. Men did absurd, undignified, preposterous things for her; and she? Love? Marry? The idea never occurred to her. She treated the most exquisite of her pretenders no better than she treated her Paris gowns, for the matter of that. She could not even bring herself to listen to a proposal patiently; whistling to her dogs, in the middle of the most ardent protestations, or jumping up and walking away with a shrug of the shoulders, and a “Bah!”
[Illustration: “WALKING AWAY WITH A SHRUG OF THE SHOULDERS.”]
Well! Every one knows what happened after ’59. There is no need to repeat. The history of one is the history of all. But there was this difference–for there is every shade of difference in misfortune, as there is every shade of resemblance in happiness. Mortemart des Islets went off to fight. That was natural; his family had been doing that, he thought, or said, ever since Charlemagne. Just as naturally he was killed in the first engagement. They, his family, were always among the first killed; so much so that it began to be considered assassination to fight a duel with any of them. All that was in the ordinary course of events. One difference in their misfortunes lay in that after the city was captured, their plantation, so near, convenient, and rich in all kinds of provisions, was selected to receive a contingent of troops–a colored company. If it had been a colored company raised in Louisiana it might have been different; and these negroes mixed with the negroes in the neighborhood,–and negroes are no better than whites, for the proportion of good and bad among them,–and the officers were always off duty when they should have been on, and on when they should have been off.
One night the dwelling caught fire. There was an immediate rush to save the ladies. Oh, there was no hesitation about that! They were seized in their beds, and carried out in the very arms of their enemies; carried away off to the sugar-house, and deposited there. No danger of their doing anything but keep very quiet and still in their _chemises de nuit_, and their one sheet apiece, which was about all that was saved from the conflagration–that is, for them. But it must be remembered that this is all hearsay. When one has not been present, one knows nothing of one’s own knowledge; one can only repeat. It has been repeated, however, that although the house was burned to the ground, and everything in it destroyed, wherever, for a year afterward, a man of that company or of that neighborhood was found, there could have been found also, without search-warrant, property that had belonged to the Des Islets. That is the story; and it is believed or not, exactly according to prejudice.
How the ladies ever got out of the sugar-house, history does not relate; nor what they did. It was not a time for sociability, either personal or epistolary. At one offensive word your letter, and you, very likely, examined; and Ship Island for a hotel, with soldiers for hostesses! Madame Des Islets died very soon after the accident–of rage, they say; and that was about all the public knew.
Indeed, at that time the society of New Orleans had other things to think about than the fate of the Des Islets. As for _la grande demoiselle_, she had prepared for her own oblivion in the hearts of her female friends. And the gentlemen,–her _preux chevaliers_,–they were burning with other passions than those which had driven them to her knees, encountering a little more serious response than “bahs” and shrugs. And, after all, a woman seems the quickest thing forgotten when once the important affairs of life come to men for consideration.
It might have been ten years according to some calculations, or ten eternities,–the heart and the almanac never agree about time,–but one morning old Champigny (they used to call him Champignon) was walking along his levee front, calculating how soon the water would come over, and drown him out, as the Louisianians say. It was before a seven-o’clock breakfast, cold, wet, rainy, and discouraging. The road was knee-deep in mud, and so broken up with hauling, that it was like walking upon waves to get over it. A shower poured down. Old Champigny was hurrying in when he saw a figure approaching. He had to stop to look at it, for it was worth while. The head was hidden by a green barege veil, which the showers had plentifully besprinkled with dew; a tall, thin figure. Figure! No; not even could it be called a figure: straight up and down, like a finger or a post; high-shouldered, and a step–a step like a plow-man’s. No umbrella; no–nothing more, in fact. It does not sound so peculiar as when first related–something must be forgotten. The feet–oh, yes, the feet–they were like waffle-irons, or frying-pans, or anything of that shape.
Old Champigny did not care for women–he never had; they simply did not exist for him in the order of nature. He had been married once, it is true, about a half century before; but that was not reckoned against the existence of his prejudice, because he was _celibataire_ to his finger-tips, as any one could see a mile away. But that woman _intrigue’d_ him.
He had no servant to inquire from. He performed all of his own domestic work in the wretched little cabin that replaced his old home. For Champigny also belonged to the great majority of the _nouveaux pauvres_. He went out into the rice-field, where were one or two hands that worked on shares with him, and he asked them. They knew immediately; there is nothing connected with the parish that a field-hand does not know at once. She was the teacher of the colored public school some three or four miles away. “Ah,” thought Champigny, “some Northern lady on a mission.” He watched to see her return in the evening, which she did, of course; in a blinding rain. Imagine the green barege veil then; for it remained always down over her face.
Old Champigny could not get over it that he had never seen her before. But he must have seen her, and, with his abstraction and old age, not have noticed her, for he found out from the negroes that she had been teaching four or five years there. And he found out also–how, is not important–that she was Idalie Sainte Foy Mortemart des Islets. _La grande demoiselle_! He had never known her in the old days, owing to his uncomplimentary attitude toward women, but he knew of her, of course, and of her family. It should have been said that his plantation was about fifty miles higher up the river, and on the opposite bank to Reine Sainte Foy. It seemed terrible. The old gentleman had had reverses of his own, which would bear the telling, but nothing was more shocking to him than this–that Idalie Sainte Foy Mortemart des Islets should be teaching a public colored school for–it makes one blush to name it–seven dollars and a half a month. For seven dollars and a half a month to teach a set of–well! He found out where she lived, a little cabin–not so much worse than his own, for that matter–in the corner of a field; no companion, no servant, nothing but food and shelter. Her clothes have been described.
Only the good God himself knows what passed in Champigny’s mind on the subject. We know only the results. He went and married _la grande demoiselle_. How? Only the good God knows that too. Every first of the month, when he goes to the city to buy provisions, he takes her with him–in fact, he takes her everywhere with him.
Passengers on the railroad know them well, and they always have a chance to see her face. When she passes her old plantation _la grande demoiselle_ always lifts her veil for one instant–the inevitable green barege veil. What a face! Thin, long, sallow, petrified! And the neck! If she would only tie something around the neck! And her plain, coarse cottonade gown! The negro women about her were better dressed than she.
Poor old Champignon! It was not an act of charity to himself, no doubt cross and disagreeable, besides being ugly. And as for love, gratitude!
This how she told about it, sitting in her little room,–her bridal chamber,–not larger, really not larger than sufficed for the bed there, the armoire here, the bureau opposite, and the washstand behind the door, the corners all touching. But a nice set of furniture, quite _comme il faut_,–handsome, in fact,–as a bride of good family should have. And she was dressed very prettily, too, in her long white _negligee_, with plenty of lace and ruffles and blue ribbons,–such as only the Creole girls can make, and brides, alas! wear,–the pretty honeymoon costume that suggests, that suggests–well! to proceed. “The poor little cat!” as one could not help calling her, so _mignonne_, so blond, with the pretty black eyes, and the rosebud of a mouth,–whenever she closed it,–a perfect kiss.
“But you know, Louise,” she said, beginning quite seriously at the beginning, “papa would never have consented, never, never–poor papa! Indeed, I should never have asked him; it would only have been one humiliation more for him, poor papa! So it was well he was dead, if it was God’s will for it to be. Of course I had my dreams, like everybody. I was so blond, so blond, and so small; it seemed like a law I should marry a _brun_, a tall, handsome _brun_, with a mustache and a fine barytone voice. That was how I always arranged it, and–you will laugh–but a large, large house, and numbers of servants, and a good cook, but a superlatively good cuisine, and wine and all that, and long, trailing silk dresses, and theater every night, and voyages to Europe, and–well, everything God had to give, in fact. You know, I get that from papa, wanting everything God has to give! Poor papa! It seemed to me I was to meet him at any time, my handsome _brun_. I used to look for him positively on my way to school, and back home again, and whenever I would think of him I would try and walk so prettily, and look so pretty! _Mon Dieu!_ I was not ten years old yet! And afterward it was only for that that I went into society. What should girls go into society for otherwise but to meet their _brun_ or their blond? Do you think it is amusing, to economize and economize, and sew and sew, just to go to a party to dance? No! I assure you, I went into society only for that; and I do not believe what girls say–they go into society only for that too.
“You know at school how we used to _tirer la bonne aventure._ Well, every time he was not _brun, riche, avenant_, Jules, or Raoul, or Guy, I simply would not accept it, but would go on drawing until I obtained what I wanted. As I tell you, I thought it was my destiny. And when I would try with a flower to see if he loved me,–_Il m’aime, un peu, beaucoup, passionement, pas du tout_,–if it were _pas du tout_, I would always throw the flower away, and begin tearing off the leaves from another one immediately. _Passionement_ was what I wanted, and I always got it in the end.
[Footnote 1: _La bonne aventure_ is or was generally a very much battered foolscap copy-book, which contained a list of all possible elements of future (school-girl) happiness. Each item answered a question, and had a number affixed to it. To draw one’s fortune consisted in asking question after question, and guessing a number, a companion volunteering to read the answers. To avoid cheating, the books were revised from time to time, and the numbers changed.]
“But papa, poor papa, he never knew anything of that, of course. He would get furious when any one would come to see me, and sometimes, when he would take me in society, if I danced with a ‘nobody,’–as he called no matter whom I danced with,–he would come up and take me away with such an air–such an air! It would seem that papa thought himself better than everybody in the world. But it went worse and worse with papa, not only in the affairs of the world, but in health. Always thinner and thinner, always a cough; in fact, you know, I am a little feeble-chested myself, from papa. And Clementine! Clementine with her children–just think, Louise, eight! I thank God my mama had only me, if papa’s second wife had to have so many. And so naughty! I assure you, they were all devils; and no correction, no punishment, no education–but you know Clementine! I tell you, sometimes on account of those children I used to think myself in ‘ell [making the Creole’s attempt and failure to pronounce the h], and Clementine had no pride about them. If they had shoes, well; if they had not shoes, well also.
“‘But Clementine!’ I would expostulate, I would pray–
“‘But do not be a fool, Mimi,’ she would say. ‘Am I God? Can I do miracles? Or must I humiliate your papa?’
“That was true. Poor papa! It would have humiliated papa. When he had money he gave; only it was a pity he had no money. As for what he observed, he thought it was Clementine’s negligence. For, it is true, Clementine had no order, no industry, in the best of fortune as in the worst. But to do her justice, it was not her fault this time, only she let him believe it, to save his pride; and Clementine, you know, has a genius for stories. I assure you, Louise, I was desperate. I prayed to God to help me, to advise me. I could not teach–I had no education; I could not go into a shop–that would be dishonoring papa–and _enfin_, I was too pretty. ‘And proclaim to the world,’ Clementine would cry, ‘that your papa does not make money for his family.’ That was true. The world is so malicious. You know, Louise, sometimes it seems to me the world is glad to hear that a man cannot support his family; it compliments those who can. As if papa had not intelligence, and honor, and honesty! But they do not count now as in old times, ‘before the war.’
“And so, when I thought of that, I laughed and talked and played the thoughtless like Clementine, and made bills. We made bills–we had to–for everything; we could do that, you know, on our old name and family. But it is too long! I am sure it is too long and tiresome! What egotism on my part! Come, we will take a glass of anisette, and talk of something else–your trip, your family. No? no? You are only asking me out of politeness! You are so _aimable_, so kind. Well, if you are not _ennuyee_–in fact, I want to tell you. It was too long to write, and I detest a pen. To me there is no instrument of torture like a pen.
“Well, the lady next door, she was an American, and common, very common, according to papa. In comparison to us she had no family whatever. Our little children were forbidden even to associate with her little children. I thought that was ridiculous–not that I am a democrat, but I thought it ridiculous. But the children cared; they were so disobedient and they were always next door, and they always had something nice to eat over there. I sometimes thought Clementine used to encourage their disobedience, just for the good things they got to eat over there. But papa was always making fun of them; you know what a sharp tongue he had. The gentleman was a clerk; and, according to papa, the only true gentlemen in the world had family and a profession. We did not dare allow ourselves to think it, but Clementine and I knew that they, in fact, were in more comfortable circumstances than we.
“The lady, who also had a great number of children, sent one day, with all the discretion and delicacy possible, and asked me if I would be so kind as to–guess what, Louise! But only guess! But you never could! Well, to darn some of her children’s stockings for her. It was God who inspired her, I am sure, on account of my praying so much to him. You will be shocked, Louise, when I tell you. It sounds like a sin, but I was not in despair when papa died. It was a grief,–yes, it seized the heart, but it was not despair. Men ought not to be subjected to the humiliation of life; they are not like women, you know. We are made to stand things; they have their pride,–their _orgueil_, as we say in French,–and that is the point of honor with some men. And Clementine and I, we could not have concealed it much longer. In fact, the truth was crying out everywhere, in the children, in the house, in our own persons, in our faces. The darning did not provide a superfluity, I guarantee you!
“Poor papa! He caught cold. He was condemned from the first. And so all his fine qualities died; for he had fine qualities–they were too fine for this age, that was all. Yes; it was a kindness of God to take him before he found out. If it was to be, it was better. Just so with Clementine as with me. After the funeral–crack! everything went to pieces. We were at the four corners for the necessaries of life, and the bills came in–my dear, the bills that came in! What memories! what memories! Clementine and I exclaimed; there were some bills that we had completely forgotten about. The lady next door sent her brother over when papa died. He sat up all night, that night, and he assisted us in all our arrangements. And he came in afterward, every evening. If papa had been there, there would have been a fine scene over it; he would have had to take the door, very likely. But now there was no one to make objections. And so when, as I say, we were at the four corners for the necessaries of life, he asked Clementine’s permission to ask me to marry him.
“I give you my word, Louise, I had forgotten there was such a thing as marriage in the world for me! I had forgotten it as completely as the chronology of the Merovingian dynasty, alas! with all the other school things forgotten. And I do not believe Clementine remembered there was such a possibility in the world for me. _Mon Dieu!_ when a girl is poor she may have all the beauty in the world–not that I had beauty, only a little prettiness. But you should have seen Clementine! She screamed for joy when she told me. Oh, there was but one answer according to her, and according to everybody she could consult, in her haste. They all said it was a dispensation of Providence in my favor. He was young, he was strong; he did not make a fortune, it was true, but he made a good living. And what an assistance to have a man in the family!–an assistance for Clementine and the children. But the principal thing, after all, was, he wanted to marry me. Nobody had ever wanted that before, my dear!
“Quick, quick, it was all arranged. All my friends did something for me. One made my _peignoirs_ for me, one this, one that–_ma foi!_ I did not recognize myself. One made all the toilet of the bureau, another of the bed, and we all sewed on the wedding-dress together. And you should have seen Clementine, going out in all her great mourning, looking for a house, looking for a servant! But the wedding was private on account of poor papa. But you know, Loulou, I had never time to think, except about Clementine and the children, and when I thought of all those poor little children, poor papa’s children, I said ‘Quick, quick,’ like the rest.
“It was the next day, the morning after the wedding, I had time to think. I was sitting here, just as you see me now, in my pretty new _negligee_. I had been looking at all the pretty presents I have shown you, and my trousseau, and my furniture,–it is not bad, as you see,–my dress, my veil, my ring, and–I do not know–I do not know–but, all of a sudden, from everywhere came the thought of my _brun_, my handsome _brun_ with the mustache, and the _bonne aventure, ricke, avenant_, the Jules, Raoul, Guy, and the flower leaves, and ‘_il m’aime, un pen, beaucoup, pas du tout,’ passionnement_, and the way I expected to meet him walking to and from school, walking as if I were dancing the steps, and oh, my plans, my plans, my plans,–silk dresses, theater, voyages to Europe,–and poor papa, so fine, so tall, so aristocratic. I cannot tell you how it all came; it seized my heart, and, _mon Dieu!_ I cried out, and I wept, I wept, I wept. How I wept! It pains me here now to remember it. Hours, hours it lasted, until I had no tears in my body, and I had to weep without them, with sobs and moans. But this, I have always observed, is the time for reflection–after the tears are all out. And I am sure God himself gave me my thoughts. ‘Poor little Mimi!’ I thought, ‘_fi done_! You are going to make a fool of yourself now when it is all over, because why? It is God who manages the world, and not you. You pray to God to help you in your despair, and he has helped you. He has sent you a good, kind husband who adores you; who asks only to be a brother to your sisters and brothers, and son to Clementine; who has given you more than you ever possessed in your life–but because he did not come out of the _bonne aventure_–and who gets a husband out of the _bonne aventure?_–and would your _brun_ have come to you in your misfortune?’ I am sure God inspired those thoughts in me.
[Illustration: “I wept, I wept, I wept.”]
“I tell you, I rose from that bed–naturally I had thrown myself upon it. Quick I washed my face, I brushed my hair, and, you see these bows of ribbons,–look, here are the marks of the tears,–I turned them. _He,_ Loulou, it occurs to me, that if you examined the blue bows on a bride’s _negligee_, you might always find tears on the other side; for do they not all have to marry whom God sends? and am I the only one who had dreams? It is the end of dreams, marriage; and that is the good thing about it. God lets us dream to keep us quiet, but he knows when to wake us up, I tell you. The blue bows knew! And now, you see, I prefer my husband to my _brun_; in fact, Loulou, I adore him, and I am furiously jealous about him. And he is so good to Clementine and the poor little children; and see his photograph–a blond, and not good-looking, and small!
“But poor papa! If he had been alive, I am sure he never would have agreed with God about my marriage.”
THE MIRACLE CHAPEL
Every heart has a miracle to pray for. Every life holds that which only a miracle can cure. To prove that there have never been, that there can never be, miracles does not alter the matter. So long as there is something hoped for,–that does not come in the legitimate channel of possible events,–so long as something does come not to be hoped or expected in the legitimate channel of possible events, just so long will the miracle be prayed for.
The rich and the prosperous, it would seem, do not depend upon God so much, do not need miracles, as the poor do. They do not have to pray for the extra crust when starvation hovers near; for the softening of an obdurate landlord’s heart; for strength in temptation, light in darkness, salvation from vice; for a friend in friendlessness; for that miracle of miracles, an opportunity to struggling ambition; for the ending of a dark night, the breaking of day; and, oh! for God’s own miracle to the bedside-watchers–the change for the better, when death is there and the apothecary’s skill too far, far away. The poor, the miserable, the unhappy, they can show their miracles by the score; that is why God is called the poor man’s friend. He does not mind, so they say, going in the face of logic and reason to relieve them; for often the kind and charitable are sadly hampered by the fetters of logic and reason, which hold them, as it were, away from their own benevolence.
But the rich have their miracles, no doubt, even in that beautiful empyrean of moneyed ease in which the poor place them. Their money cannot buy all they enjoy, and God knows how much of their sorrow it assuages. As it is, one hears now and then of accidents among them, conversions to better thoughts, warding off of danger, rescue of life; and heirs are sometimes born, and husbands provided, and fortunes saved, in such surprising ways, that even the rich, feeling their limitations in spite of their money, must ascribe it privately if not publicly to other potencies than their own. These cathedral _tours de force_, however, do not, if the truth be told, convince like the miracles of the obscure little chapel.
There is always a more and a most obscure little miracle chapel, and as faith seems ever to lead unhesitatingly to the latter one, there is ever rising out of humility and obscurity, as in response to a demand, some new shrine, to replace the wear and tear and loss of other shrines by prosperity. For, alas! it is hard even for a chapel to remain obscure and humble in the face of prosperity and popularity. And how to prevent such popularity and prosperity? As soon as the noise of a real miracle in it gets abroad, every one is for hurrying thither at once with their needs and their prayers, their candles and their picayunes; and the little miracle chapel, perhaps despite itself, becomes with mushroom growth a church, and the church a cathedral, from whose resplendent altars the cheap, humble ex-voto tablets, the modest beginnings of its ecclesiastical fortunes, are before long banished to dimly lighted lateral shrines.
The miracle chapel in question lay at the end of a very confusing but still intelligible route. It is not in truth a chapel at all, but a consecrated chamber in a very small, very lowly cottage, which stands, or one might appropriately, if not with absolute novelty, say which kneels, in the center of a large garden, a garden primeval in rusticity and size, its limits being defined by no lesser boundaries than the four intersecting streets outside, and its culture showing only the careless, shiftless culture of nature. The streets outside were miracles themselves in that, with their liquid contents, they were streets and not bayous. However, they protected their island chapel almost as well as a six-foot moat could have done. There was a small paved space on the sidewalk that served to the pedestrian as an indication of the spot in the tall, long, broad fence where a gate might be sought. It was a small gate with a strong latch. It required a strong hand to open it. At the sound of the click it made, the little street ragamuffin, who stood near, peeping through the fence, looked up. He had worked quite a hole between the boards with his fingers. Such an anxious expression passed over his face that even a casual passer-by could not help relieving it by a question–any question:
“Is this the miracle chapel, little boy?”
“Yes, ma’am; yes.” Then his expression changed to one of eagerness, yet hardly less anxious.
“Here. Take this–“
He did not hold out his hand, the coin had to seek it. At its touch he refused to take it.
“I ain’t begging.”
“What are you looking at so through the fence?” He was all sadness now.
“Is there anything to see inside?”
He did not answer. The interrogation was repeated.
“I can’t see nothing. I’m blind,” putting his eyes again to the hole, first one, then the other.
“Come, won’t you tell me how this came to be a miracle chapel?”
“Oh, ma’am,”–he turned his face from the fence, and clasped his hands in excitement,–“it was a poor widow woman who come here with her baby that was a-dying, and she prayed to the Virgin Mary, and the Virgin Mary made the baby live–“
He dropped his voice, the words falling slower and slower. As he raised his face, one could see then that he was blind, and the accident that had happened to him, in fording the street. What sightless eyes! What a wet, muddy little skeleton! Ten? No; hardly ten years of age.
“The widow woman she picked up her baby, and she run down the walk here, and out into the street screaming–she was so glad,”–putting his eyes to the peep-hole again,–“and the Virgin Mary come down the walk after her, and come through the gate, too; and that was all she seed–the widow woman.”
“Did you know the widow woman?”
He shook his head.
“How do you know it?”
“That was what they told me. And they told me, the birds all begun to sing at once, and the flowers all lighted up like the sun was shining on them. They seed her. And she come down the walk, and through the gate,” his voice lowering again to a whisper.
Aye, how the birds must have sung, and the flowers shone, to the widowed mother as she ran, nay, leaped, down that rose-hedged walk, with her restored baby clasped to her bosom!
“_They_ seed her,” repeated the little fellow. “And that is why you stand here–to see her, too?”
His shoulder turned uneasily in the clasp upon it.
“They seed her, and they ain’t got no eyes.”
“Have you no mother?”
“Ain’t never had no mother.” A thought struck him. “Would that count, ma’am? Would that count? The little baby that was dying–yes, ma’am, it had a mother; and it’s the mothers that come here constant with their children; I sometimes hear ’em dragging them in by the hand.”
“How long have you been coming here?”
“Ever since the first time I heard it, ma’am.”
Street ragamuffins do not cry: it would be better if they did so, when they are so young and so blind; it would be easier for the spectator, the auditor.
“They seed her–I might see her ef–ef I could see her once–ef–ef I could see anything once.” His voice faltered; but he stiffened it instantly. “She might see me. She can’t pass through this gate without seeing me; and–and–ef she seed me–and I didn’t even see her–oh, I’m so tired of being blind!”
“Did you never go inside to pray?” How embarrassing such a question is, even to a child!
“No, ma’am. Does that count, too? The little baby didn’t pray, the flowers didn’t go inside, nor the birds. And they say the birds broke out singing all at once, and the flowers shined, like the sun was shining on ’em–like the sun was shining in ’em,” he corrected himself. “The birds they can see, and the flowers they can’t see, and they seed her.” He shivered with the damp cold–and perhaps too with hunger.
“Where do you live?”
He wouldn’t answer.
“What do you live on?”
He shook his head.
“Come with me.” He could not resist the grasp on his shoulder, and the firm directing of his bare, muddy feet through the gate, up the walk, and into the chamber which the Virgin found that day. He was turned to the altar, and pressed down on his knees.
One should not look at the face of a blind child praying to the Virgin for sight. Only the Virgin herself should see that–and if she once saw that little boy! There were hearts, feet, hands, and eyes enough hanging around to warrant hope at least, if not faith; the effigies of the human aches and pains that had here found relief, if not surcease; feet and hands beholden to no physician for their exorcism of rheumatism; eyes and ears indebted to no oculist or aurist; and the hearts,–they are always in excess,–and, to the most skeptical, there is something sweetly comforting in the sight of so many cured hearts, with their thanks cut deep, as they should be, in the very marble thereof. Where the bed must have stood was the altar, rising by easy gradations, brave in ecclesiastical deckings, to the plaster figure of her whom those yearning hearts were seeing, whom those murmuring lips were addressing. Hearts must be all alike to her at such a distance, but the faces to the looker-on were so different. The eyes straining to look through all the experiences and troubles that their life has held to plead, as only eyes can plead, to one who can, if she will, perform their miracle for them. And the mouths,–the sensitive human mouths,–each one distorted by the tragedy against which it was praying.
Their miracles! their miracles! what trifles to divinity! Perhaps hardly more to humanity! How far a simple looker-on could supply them if so minded! Perhaps a liberal exercise of love and charity by not more than half a dozen well-to-do people could answer every prayer in the room! But what a miracle that would be, and how the Virgin’s heart would gladden thereat, and jubilate over her restored heart-dying children, even as the widowed mother did over her one dying babe!
And the little boy had stopped praying. The futility of it–perhaps his own impotence–had overcome him. He was crying, and past the shame of showing it–crying helplessly, hopelessly. Tears were rolling out of his sightless eyes over his wordless lips. He could not pray; he could only cry. What better, after all, can any of us do? But what a prayer to a woman–to even the plaster figure of a woman! And the Virgin did hear him; for she had him taken without loss of a moment to the hospital, and how easy she made it for the physician to remove the disability! To her be the credit.
THE STORY OF A DAY
It is really not much, the story; it is only the arrangement of it, as we would say of our dresses and our drawing-rooms.
It began with the dawn, of course; and the skiff for our voyage, silvered with dew, waiting in the mist for us, as if it had floated down in a cloud from heaven to the bayou. When repeated, this sounds like poor poetry; but that is the way one thinks at day dawn, when the dew is yet, as it were, upon our brains, and our ideas are still half dreams, and our waking hearts, alas! as innocent as waking babies playing with their toes.
Our oars waked the waters of the bayou, as motionless as a sleeping snake under its misty covert–to continue the poetical language or thought. The ripples ran frightened and shivering into the rooty thicknesses of the sedge-grown banks, startling the little birds bathing there into darting to the nearest, highest rush-top, where, without losing their hold on their swaying, balancing perches, they burst into all sorts of incoherent songs, in their excitement to divert attention from the near-hidden nests: bird mothers are so much like women mothers!
It soon became day enough for the mist to rise. The eyes that saw it ought to be able to speak to tell fittingly about it.
Not all at once, nor all together, but a thinning, a lifting, a breaking, a wearing away; a little withdrawing here, a little withdrawing there; and now a peep, and now a peep; a bride lifting her veil to her husband! Blue! White! Lilies! Blue lilies! White lilies! Blue and white lilies! And still blue and white lilies! And still! And still! Wherever the veil lifted, still and always the bride!
Not in clumps and bunches, not in spots and patches, not in banks, meadows, acres, but in–yes; for still it lifted beyond and beyond and beyond; the eye could not touch the limit of them, for the eye can touch only the limit of vision; and the lilies filled the whole sea-marsh, for that is the way spring comes to the sea-marshes.
The sedge-roots might have been unsightly along the water’s edge, but there were morning-glories, all colors, all shades–oh, such morning-glories as we of the city never see! Our city morning-glories must dream of them, as we dream of angels. Only God could be so lavish! Dropping from the tall spear-heads to the water, into the water, under the water. And then, the reflection of them, in all their colors, blue, white, pink, purple, red, rose, violet!
To think of an obscure little Acadian bayou waking to flow the first thing in the morning not only through banks of new-blown morning-glories, but sown also to its depths with such reflections as must make it think itself a bayou in heaven, instead of in Paroisse St. Martin. Perhaps that is the reason the poor poets think themselves poets, on account of the beautiful things that are only reflected into their minds from what is above? Besides the reflections, there were alligators in the bayou, trying to slip away before we could see them, and watching us with their stupid, senile eyes, sometimes from under the thickest, prettiest flowery bowers; and turtles splashing into the water ahead of us; and fish (silver-sided perch), looking like reflections themselves, floating through the flower reflections, nibbling their breakfast.
Our bayou had been running through swamp only a little more solid than itself; in fact, there was no solidity but what came from the roots of grasses. Now, the banks began to get firmer, from real soil in them. We could see cattle in the distance, up to their necks in the lilies, their heads and sharp-pointed horns coming up and going down in the blue and white. Nothing makes cattle’s heads appear handsomer, with the sun just rising far, far away on the other side of them. The sea-marsh cattle turned loose to pasture in the lush spring beauty–turned loose in Elysium!
But the land was only partly land yet, and the cattle still cattle to us. The rising sun made revelations, as our bayou carried us through a drove in their Elysium, or it might have always been an Elysium to us. It was not all pasturage, all enjoyment. The rising and falling feeding head was entirely different, as we could now see, from the rising and falling agonized head of the bogged–the buried alive. It is well that the lilies grow taller and thicker over the more treacherous places; but, misery! misery! not much of the process was concealed from us, for the cattle have to come to the bayou for water. Such a splendid black head that had just yielded breath! The wide-spreading ebony horns thrown back among the morning-glories, the mouth open from the last sigh, the glassy eyes staring straight at the beautiful blue sky above, where a ghostly moon still lingered, the velvet neck ridged with veins and muscles, the body already buried in black ooze. And such a pretty red-and-white-spotted heifer, lying on her side, opening and shutting her eyes, breathing softly in meek resignation to her horrible calamity! And, again, another one was plunging and battling in the act of realizing her doom: a fierce, furious, red cow, glaring and bellowing at the soft, yielding inexorable abysm under her, the bustards settling afar off, and her own species browsing securely just out of reach.
They understand that much, the sea-marsh cattle, to keep out of reach of the dead combatant. In the delirium of anguish, relief cannot be distinguished from attack, and rescue of the victim has been proved to mean goring of the rescuer.
The bayou turned from it at last, from our beautiful lily world about which our pleasant thoughts had ceased to flow even in bad poetry.
Our voyage was for information, which might be obtained at a certain habitation; if not there, at a second one, or surely at a third and most distant settlement.
The bayou narrowed into a canal, then widened into a bayou again, and the low, level swamp and prairie advanced into woodland and forest. Oak-trees began, our beautiful oak-trees! Great branches bent down almost to the water,–quite even with high water,–covered with forests of oak, parasites, lichens, and with vines that swept our heads as we passed under them, drooping now and then to trail in the water, a plaything for the fishes, and a landing-place for amphibious insects. The sun speckled the water with its flickering patterns, showering us with light and heat. We have no spring suns; our sun, even in December, is a summer one.
And so, with all its grace of curve and bend, and so–the description is longer than the voyage–we come to our first stopping-place. To the side, in front of the well-kept fertile fields, like a proud little showman, stood the little house. Its pointed shingle roof covered it like the top of a chafing-dish, reaching down to the windows, which peeped out from under it like little eyes.
A woman came out of the door to meet us. She had had time during our graceful winding approach to prepare for us. What an irrevocable vow to old maidenhood! At least twenty-five, almost a possible grandmother, according to Acadian computation, and well in the grip of advancing years. She was dressed in a stiff, dark red calico gown, with a white apron. Her black hair, smooth and glossy under a varnish of grease, was plaited high in the back, and dropped regular ringlets, six in all, over her forehead. That was the epoch when her calamity came to her, when the hair was worn in that fashion. A woman seldom alters her coiffure after a calamity of a certain nature happens to her. The figure had taken a compact rigidity, an unfaltering inflexibility, all the world away from the elasticity of matronhood; and her eyes were clear and fixed like her figure, neither falling, nor rising, nor puzzling under other eyes. Her lips, her hands, her slim feet, were conspicuously single, too, in their intent, neither reaching, nor feeling, nor running for those other lips, hands, and feet which should have doubled their single life.
That was Adorine Merionaux, otherwise the most industrious Acadian and the best cottonade-weaver in the parish. It had been short, her story. A woman’s love is still with those people her story. She was thirteen when she met him. That is the age for an Acadian girl to meet him, because, you know, the large families–the thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, twenty children–take up the years; and when one wishes to know one’s great-great-grandchildren (which is the dream of the Acadian girl) one must not delay one’s story.
She had one month to love him in, and in one week they were to have the wedding. The Acadians believe that marriage must come _au point_, as cooks say their sauces must be served. Standing on the bayou-bank in front of the Merionaux, one could say “Good day” with the eyes to the Zeverin Theriots–that was the name of the parents of the young bridegroom. Looking under the branches of the oaks, one could see across the prairie,–prairie and sea-marsh it was,–and clearly distinguish another little red-washed house like the Merionaux, with a painted roof hanging over the windows, and a staircase going up outside to the garret. With the sun shining in the proper direction, one might distinguish more, and with love shining like the sun in the eyes, one might see, one might see–a heart full.
It was only the eyes, however, which could make such a quick voyage to the Zeverin Theriots; a skiff had a long day’s journey to reach them. The bayou sauntered along over the country like a negro on a Sunday’s pleasuring, trusting to God for time, and to the devil for means.
Oh, nothing can travel quickly over a bayou! Ask any one who has waited on a bayou-bank for a physician or a life-and-death message. Thought refuses to travel and turn and double over it; thought, like the eye, takes the shortest cut–straight over the sea-marsh; and in the spring of the year, when the lilies are in bloom, thought could not take a more heavenly way, even from beloved to beloved.
It was the week before marriage, that week when, more than one’s whole life afterward, one’s heart feels most longing–most–well, in fact, it was the week before marriage. From Sunday to Sunday, that was all the time to be passed. Adorine–women live through this week by the grace of God, or perhaps they would be as unreasonable as the men–Adorine could look across the prairie to the little red roof during the day, and could think across it during the night, and get up before day to look across again–longing, longing all the time. Of course one must supply all this from one’s own imagination or experience.
But Adorine could sing, and she sang. One might hear, in a favorable wind, a gunshot, or the barking of a dog from one place to the other, so that singing, as to effect, was nothing more than the voicing of her looking and thinking and longing.
When one loves, it is as if everything was known of and seen by the other; not only all that passes in the head and heart, which would in all conscience be more than enough to occupy the other, but the talking, the dressing, the conduct. It was then that the back hair was braided and the front curled more and more beautifully every day, and that the calico dresses became stiffer and stiffer, and the white crochet lace collar broader and lower in the neck. At thirteen she was beautiful enough to startle one, they say, but that was nothing; she spent time and care upon these things, as if, like other women, her fate seriously depended upon them. There is no self-abnegation like that of a woman in love.
It was her singing, however, which most showed that other existence in her existence. When she sang at her spinning-wheel or her loom, or knelt battling clothes on the bank of the bayou, her lips would kiss out the words, and the tune would rise and fall and tremble, as if Zepherin were just across there, anywhere; in fact, as if every blue and white lily might hide an ear of him.
It was the time of the new moon, fortunately, when all sit up late in the country. The family would stop in their talking about the wedding to listen to her. She did not know it herself, but it–the singing–was getting louder and clearer, and, poor little thing, it told everything. And after the family went to bed they could still hear her, sitting on the bank of the bayou, or up in her window, singing and looking at the moon traveling across the lily prairie–for all its beauty and brightness no more beautiful and bright than a heart in love.
It was just past the middle of the week, a Thursday night. The moon was so bright the colors of the lilies could be seen, and the singing, so sweet, so far-reaching–it was the essence of the longing of love. Then it was that the miracle happened to her. Miracles are always happening to the Acadians. She could not sleep, she could not stay in bed. Her heart drove her to the window, and kept her there, and–among the civilized it could not take place, but here she could sing as she pleased in the middle of the night; it was nobody’s affair, nobody’s disturbance. “Saint Ann! Saint Joseph! Saint Mary!” She heard her song answered! She held her heart, she bent forward, she sang again. Oh, the air was full of music! It was all music! She fell on her knees; she listened, looking at the moon; and, with her face in her hands, looking at Zepherin. It was God’s choir of angels, she thought, and one with a voice like Zepherin! Whenever it died away she would sing again, and again, and again–
[Illustration: “HER HEART DROVE HER TO THE WINDOW”.]
But the sun came, and the sun is not created, like the moon, for lovers, and whatever happened in the night, there was work to be done in the day. Adorine worked like one in a trance, her face as radiant as the upturned face of a saint. They did not know what it was, or rather they thought it was love. Love is so different out there, they make all kinds of allowances for it. But, in truth, Adorine was still hearing her celestial voices or voice. If the cackling of the chickens, the whir of the spinning-wheel, or the “bum bum” of the loom effaced it a moment, she had only to go to some still place, round her hand over her ear, and give the line of a song, and–it was Zepherin–Zepherin she heard.
She walked in a dream until night. When the moon came up she was at the window, and still it continued, so faint, so sweet, that answer to her song. Echo never did anything more exquisite, but she knew nothing of such a heathen as Echo. Human nature became exhausted. She fell asleep where she was, in the window, and dreamed as only a bride can dream of her groom. When she awoke, “Adorine! Adorine!” the beautiful angel voices called to her; “Zepherin! Zepherin!” she answered, as if she, too, were an angel, signaling another angel in heaven. It was too much. She wept, and that broke the charm. She could hear nothing more after that. All that day was despondency, dejection, tear-bedewed eyes, and tremulous lips, the commonplace reaction, as all know, of love exaltation. Adorine’s family, Acadian peasants though they were, knew as much about it as any one else, and all that any one knows about it is that marriage is the cure-all, and the only cure-all, for love.
[Illustration: “ALL THAT DAY WAS DESPONDENCY, DEJECTION.”]
And Zepherin? A man could better describe his side of that week; for it, too, has mostly to be described from imagination or experience. What is inferred is that what Adorine longed and thought and looked in silence and resignation, according to woman’s way, he suffered equally, but in a man’s way, which is not one of silence or resignation,–at least when one is a man of eighteen,–the last interview, the near wedding, her beauty, his love, her house in sight, the full moon, the long, wakeful nights.
He took his pirogue; but the bayou played with his impatience, maddened his passion, bringing him so near, to meander with him again so far away. There was only a short prairie between him and —-, a prairie thick with lily-roots–one could almost walk over their heads, so close, and gleaming in the moonlight. But this is all only inference.
The pirogue was found tethered to the paddle stuck upright in the soft bank, and–Adorine’s parents related the rest. Nothing else was found until the summer drought had bared the swamp.
There was a little girl in the house when we arrived–all else were in the field–a stupid, solemn, pretty child, the child of a brother. How she kept away from Adorine, and how much that testified!
It would have been too painful. The little arms around her neck, the head nestling to her bosom, sleepily pressing against it. And the little one might ask to be sung to sleep. Sung to sleep!
The little bed-chamber, with its high mattressed bed, covered with the Acadian home-spun quilt, trimmed with netting fringe, its bit of mirror over the bureau, the bottle of perfumed grease to keep the locks black and glossy, the prayer-beads and blessed palms hanging on the wall, the low, black polished spinning-wheel, the loom,–the _metier d’ Adorine_ famed throughout the parish,–the ever goodly store of cotton and yarn hanks swinging from the ceiling, and the little square, open window which looked under the mossy oak-branches to look over the prairie; and once again all blue and white lilies–they were all there, as Adorine was there; but there was more–not there.
ANNE MARIE AND JEANNE MARIE
Old Jeanne Marie leaned her hand against the house, and the tears rolled down her cheeks. She had not wept since she buried her last child. With her it was one trouble, one weeping, no more; and her wrinkled, hard, polished skin so far had known only the tears that come after death. The trouble in her heart now was almost exactly like the trouble caused by death; although she knew it was not so bad as death, yet, when she thought of this to console herself, the tears rolled all the faster. She took the end of the red cotton kerchief tied over her head, and wiped them away; for the furrows in her face did not merely run up and down–they ran in all directions, and carried her tears all over her face at once. She could understand death, but she could not understand this.
It came about in this way: Anne Marie and she lived in the little red-washed cabin against which she leaned; had lived there alone with each other for fifty years, ever since Jeanne Marie’s husband had died, and the three children after him, in the fever epidemic.
The little two-roomed cabin, the stable where there used to be a cow, the patch of ground planted with onions, had all been bought and paid for by the husband; for he was a thrifty, hard-working Gascon, and had he lived there would not have been one better off, or with a larger family, either in that quarter or in any of the red-washed suburbs with which Gascony has surrounded New Orleans. His women, however,–the wife and sister-in-law,–had done their share in the work: a man’s share apiece, for with the Gascon women there is no discrimination of sex when it comes to work.
And they worked on just the same after he died, tending the cow, digging, hoeing, planting, watering. The day following the funeral, by daylight Jeanne Marie was shouldering around the yoke of milk-cans to his patrons, while Anne Marie carried the vegetables to market; and so on for fifty years.
They were old women now,–seventy-five years old,–and, as they expressed it, they had always been twins. In twins there is always one lucky and one unlucky one: Jeanne Marie was the lucky one, Anne Marie the unlucky one. So much so, that it was even she who had to catch the rheumatism, and to lie now bedridden, months at a time, while Jeanne Marie was as active in her sabots as she had ever been.
In spite of the age of both, and the infirmity of one, every Saturday night there was some little thing to put under the brick in the hearth, for taxes and license, and the never-to-be-forgotten funeral provision. In the husband’s time gold pieces used to go in, but they had all gone to pay for the four funerals and the quadrupled doctor’s bill. The women laid in silver pieces; the coins, however, grew smaller and smaller, and represented more and more not so much the gain from onions as the saving from food.
It had been explained to them how they might, all at once, make a year’s gain in the lottery; and it had become their custom always, at the end of every month, to put aside one silver coin apiece, to buy a lottery ticket with–one ticket each, not for the great, but for the twenty-five-cent, prizes. Anne Marie would buy hers round about the market; Jeanne Marie would stop anywhere along her milk course and buy hers, and they would go together in the afternoon to stand with the little crowd watching the placard upon which the winning numbers were to be written. And when they were written, it was curious, Jeanne Marie’s numbers would come out twice as often as Anne Marie’s. Not that she ever won anything, for she was not lucky enough to have them come out in the order to win; they only came out here and there, singly: but it was sufficient to make old Anne Marie cross and ugly for a day or two, and injure the sale of the onion-basket. When she became bedridden, Jeanne Marie bought the ticket for both, on the numbers, however, that Anne Marie gave her; and Anne Marie had to lie in bed and wait, while Jeanne Marie went out to watch the placard.
One evening, watching it, Jeanne Marie saw the ticket-agent write out the numbers as they came on her ticket, in such a way that they drew a prize–forty dollars.
When the old woman saw it she felt such a happiness; just as she used to feel in the old times right after the birth of a baby. She thought of that instantly. Without saying a word to any one, she clattered over the _banquette_ as fast as she could in her sabots, to tell the good news to Anne Marie. But she did not go so fast as not to have time to dispose of her forty dollars over and over again. Forty dollars! That was a great deal of money. She had often in her mind, when she was expecting a prize, spent twenty dollars; for she had never thought it could be more than that. But forty dollars! A new gown apiece, and black silk kerchiefs to tie over their heads instead of red cotton, and the little cabin new red-washed, and soup in the pot, and a garlic sausage, and a bottle of good, costly liniment for Anne Marie’s legs; and still a pile of gold to go under the hearth-brick–a pile of gold that would have made the eyes of the defunct husband glisten.
She pushed open the picket-gate, and came into the room where her sister lay in bed.
“Eh, Anne Marie, my girl,” she called in her thick, pebbly voice, apparently made purposely to suit her rough Gascon accent; “this time we have caught it!”
[Illustration: “THIS TIME WE HAVE CAUGHT IT!”]
“Whose ticket?” asked Anne Marie, instantly.
In a flash all Anne Marie’s ill luck ran through Jeanne Marie’s mind; how her promised husband had proved unfaithful, and Jeanne Marie’s faithful; and how, ever since, even to the coming out of her lottery numbers, even to the selling of vegetables, even to the catching of the rheumatism, she had been the loser. But above all, as she looked at Anne Marie in the bed, all the misery came over Jeanne Marie of her sister’s not being able, in all her poor old seventy-five years of life, to remember the pressure of the arms of a husband about her waist, nor the mouth of a child on her breast.
As soon as Anne Marie had asked her question, Jeanne Marie answered it.
“But your ticket, _Coton-Mai!_”
[Footnote 1: _Coton-Mai_ is an innocent oath invented by the good, pious priest as a substitute for one more harmful.]
“Where? Give it here! Give it here!”
The old woman, who had not been able to move her back for weeks, sat bolt upright in bed, and stretched out her great bony fingers, with the long nails as hard and black as rake-prongs from groveling in the earth.
Jeanne Marie poured the money out of her cotton handkerchief into them.
Anne Marie counted it, looked at it; looked at it, counted it; and if she had not been so old, so infirm, so toothless, the smile that passed over her face would have made it beautiful.
Jeanne Marie had to leave her to draw water from the well to water the plants, and to get her vegetables ready for next morning. She felt even happier now than if she had just had a child, happier even than if her husband had just returned to her.
“Ill luck! _Coton-Mai!_ Ill luck! There’s a way to turn ill luck!” And her smile also should have beautified her face, wrinkled and ugly though it was.
She did not think any more of the spending of the money, only of the pleasure Anne Marie would take in spending it.
The water was low in the well, and there had been a long drought. There are not many old women of seventy-five who could have watered so much ground as abundantly as she did; but whenever she thought of the forty dollars and Anne Marie’s smile she would give the thirsting plant an extra bucketful.
The twilight was gaining. She paused. “_Coton-Mai_” she exclaimed aloud. “But I must see the old woman smile again over her good luck.”
Although it was “my girl” face to face, it was always “the old woman” behind each other’s back.
There was a knot-hole in the plank walls of the house. In spite of Anne Marie’s rheumatism they would never stop it up, needing it, they said, for light and air. Jeanne Marie slipped her feet out of her sabots and crept easily toward it, smiling, and saying “_Coton-Mai_!” to herself all the way. She put her eye to the hole. Anne Marie was not in the bed, she who had not left her bed for two months! Jeanne Marie looked through the dim light of the room until she found her.
Anne Marie, in her short petticoat and nightsack, with bare legs and feet, was on her knees in the corner, pulling up a plank, hiding–peasants know hiding when they see it–hiding her money away–away–away from whom?–muttering to herself and shaking her old grayhaired head. Hiding her money away from Jeanne Marie!
And this was why Jeanne Marie leaned her head against the side of the house and wept. It seemed to her that she had never known her twin sister at all.
A CRIPPLED HOPE
You must picture to yourself the quiet, dim-lighted room of a convalescent; outside, the dreary, bleak days of winter in a sparsely settled, distant country parish; inside, a slow, smoldering log-fire, a curtained bed, the infant sleeping well enough, the mother wakeful, restless, thought-driven, as a mother must be, unfortunately, nowadays, particularly in that parish, where cotton worms and overflows have acquired such a monopoly of one’s future.
[Illustration: “THE QUIET, DIM-LIGHTED ROOM OF A CONVALESCENT.”]
God is always pretty near a sick woman’s couch; but nearer even than God seems the sick-nurse–at least in that part of the country, under those circumstances. It is so good to look through the dimness and uncertainty, moral and physical, and to meet those little black, steadfast, all-seeing eyes; to feel those smooth, soft, all-soothing hands; to hear, across one’s sleep, that three-footed step–the flat-soled left foot, the tiptoe right, and the padded end of the broomstick; and when one is so wakeful and restless and thought-driven, to have another’s story given one. God, depend upon it, grows stories and lives as he does herbs, each with a mission of balm to some woe.
She said she had, and in truth she had, no other name than “little Mammy”; and that was the name of her nature. Pure African, but bronze rather than pure black, and full-sized only in width, her growth having been hampered as to height by an injury to her hip, which had lamed her, pulling her figure awry, and burdening her with a protuberance of the joint. Her mother caused it by dropping her when a baby, and concealing it, for fear of punishment, until the dislocation became irremediable. All the animosity of which little Mammy was capable centered upon this unknown but never-to-be-forgotten mother of hers; out of this hatred had grown her love–that is, her destiny, a woman’s love being her destiny. Little Mammy’s love was for children.
The birth and infancy (the one as accidental as the other, one would infer) took place in–it sounds like the “Arabian Nights” now!–took place in the great room, caravansary, stable, behind a negro-trader’s auction-mart, where human beings underwent literally the daily buying and selling of which the world now complains in a figure of speech–a great, square, dusty chamber where, sitting cross-legged, leaning against the wall, or lying on foul blanket pallets on the floor, the bargains of to-day made their brief sojourn, awaiting transformation into the profits of the morrow.
The place can be pointed out now, is often pointed out; but no emotion arises at sight of it. It is so plain, so matter-of-fact an edifice that emotion only comes afterward in thinking about it, and then in the reflection that such an edifice could be, then as now, plain and matter-of-fact.
For the slave-trader there was no capital so valuable as the physical soundness of his stock; the moral was easily enough forged or counterfeited. Little Mammy’s good-for-nothing mother was sold as readily as a vote, in the parlance of to-day; but no one would pay for a crippled baby. The mother herself would not have taken her as a gift, had it been in the nature of a negro-trader to give away anything. Some doctoring was done,–so little Mammy heard traditionally,–some effort made to get her marketable. There were attempts to pair her off as a twin sister of various correspondencies in age, size, and color, and to palm her off, as a substitute, at migratory, bereaved, overfull breasts. Nothing equaled a negro-trader’s will and power for fraud, except the hereditary distrust and watchfulness which it bred and maintained. And so, in the even balance between the two categories, the little cripple remained a fixture in the stream of life that passed through that back room, in the fluxes and refluxes of buying and selling; not valueless, however–rely upon a negro-trader for discovering values as substitutes, as panaceas. She earned her nourishment, and Providence did not let it kill the little animal before the emancipation of weaning arrived.
[Illustration: “LITTLE MAMMY.”]
How much circumstances evoked, how much instinct responded, belongs to the secrets which nature seems to intend keeping. As a baby she had eyes, attention, solely for other babies. One cannot say while she was still crawling, for she could only crawl years after she should have been walking, but, before even precocious walking-time, tradition or the old gray-haired negro janitor relates, she would creep from baby to baby to play with it, put it to sleep, pat it, rub its stomach (a negro baby, you know, is all stomach, and generally aching stomach at that). And before she had a lap, she managed to force one for some ailing nursling. It was then that they began to call her “little Mammy.” In the transitory population of the “pen” no one stayed long enough to give her another name; and no one ever stayed short enough to give her another one.
Her first recollection of herself was that she could not walk–she was past crawling; she cradled herself along, as she called sitting down flat, and working herself about with her hands and her one strong leg. Babbling babies walked all around her,–many walking before they babbled,–and still she did not walk, imitate them as she might and did. She would sit and “study” about it, make another trial, fall; sit and study some more, make another trial, fall again. Negroes, who believe that they must give a reason for everything even if they have to invent one, were convinced that it was all this studying upon her lameness that gave her such a large head.
And now she began secretly turning up the clothes of every negro child that came into that pen, and examining its legs, and still more secretly examining her own, stretched out before her on the ground. How long it took she does not remember; in fact, she could not have known, for she had no way of measuring time except by her thoughts and feelings. But in her own way and time the due process of deliberation was fulfilled, and the quotient made clear that, bowed or not, all children’s legs were of equal length except her own, and all were alike, not one full, strong, hard, the other soft, flabby, wrinkled, growing out of a knot at the hip. A whole psychological period apparently lay between that conclusion and–a broom-handle walking-stick; but the broomstick came, as it was bound to come,–thank heaven!–from that premise, and what with stretching one limb to make it longer, and doubling up the other to make it shorter, she invented that form of locomotion which is still carrying her through life, and with no more exaggerated leg-crookedness than many careless negroes born with straight limbs display. This must have been when she was about eight or nine. Hobbling on a broomstick, with, no doubt, the same weird, wizened face as now, an innate sense of the fitness of things must have suggested the kerchief tied around her big head, and the burlaps rag of an apron in front of her linsey-woolsey rag of a gown, and the bit of broken pipe-stem in the corner of her mouth, where the pipe should have been, and where it was in after years. That is the way she recollected herself, and that is the way one recalls her now, with a few modifications.
The others came and went, but she was always there. It wasn’t long before she became “little Mammy” to the grown folks too; and the newest inmates soon learned to cry: “Where’s little Mammy?” “Oh, little Mammy! little Mammy! Such a misery in my head [or my back, or my stomach]! Can’t you help me, little Mammy?” It was curious what a quick eye she had for symptoms and ailments, and what a quick ear for suffering, and how apt she was at picking up, remembering, and inventing remedies. It never occurred to her not to crouch at the head or the foot of a sick pallet, day and night through. As for the nights, she said she dared not close her eyes of nights. The room they were in was so vast, and sometimes the negroes lay so thick on the floor, rolled in their blankets (you know, even in the summer they sleep under blankets), all snoring so loudly, she would never have heard a groan or a whimper any more than they did, if she had slept, too. And negro mothers are so careless and such heavy sleepers. All night she would creep at regular intervals to the different pallets, and draw the little babies from under, or away from, the heavy, inert impending mother forms. There is no telling how many she thus saved from being overlaid and smothered, or, what was worse, maimed and crippled.
Whenever a physician came in, as he was sometimes called, to look at a valuable investment or to furbish up some piece of damaged goods, she always managed to get near to hear the directions; and she generally was the one to apply them also, for negroes always would steal medicines most scurvily one from the other. And when death at times would slip into the pen, despite the trader’s utmost alertness and precautions,–as death often “had to do,” little Mammy said,–when the time of some of them came to die, and when the rest of the negroes, with African greed of eye for the horrible, would press around the lowly couch where the agonizing form of a slave lay writhing out of life, she would always to the last give medicines, and wipe the cold forehead, and soothe the clutching, fearsome hands, hoping to the end, and trying to inspire the hope that his or her “time” had not come yet; for, as she said, “Our time doesn’t come just as often as it does come.”
And in those sad last offices, which somehow have always been under reproach as a kind of shame, no matter how young she was, she was always too old to have the childish avoidance of them. On the contrary, to her a corpse was only a kind of baby, and she always strove, she said, to make one, like the other, easy and comfortable.
And in other emergencies she divined the mysteries of the flesh, as other precocities divine the mysteries of painting and music, and so become child wonders.
Others came and went. She alone remained there. Babies of her babyhood–the toddlers she, a toddler, had nursed–were having babies themselves now; the middle-aged had had time to grow old and die. Every week new families were coming into the great back chamber; every week they passed out: babies, boys, girls, buxom wenches, stalwart youths, and the middle-aged–the grave, serious ones whom misfortune had driven from their old masters, and the ill-reputed ones, the trickish, thievish, lazy, whom the cunning of the negro-trader alone could keep in circulation. All were marketable, all were bought and sold, all passed in one door and out the other–all except her, little Mammy. As with her lameness, it took time for her to recognize, to understand, the fact. She could study over her lameness, she could in the dull course of time think out the broomstick way of palliation. It would have been almost better, under the circumstances, for God to have kept the truth from her; only–God keeps so little of the truth from us women. It is his system.
Poor little thing! It was not now that her master _could_ not sell her, but he _would_ not! Out of her own intelligence she had forged her chains; the lameness was a hobble merely in comparison. She had become too valuable to the negro-trader by her services among his crew, and offers only solidified his determination not to sell her. Visiting physicians, after short acquaintance with her capacities, would offer what were called fancy prices for her. Planters who heard of her through their purchases would come to the city purposely to secure, at any cost, so inestimable an adjunct to their plantations. Even ladies–refined, delicate ladies–sometimes came to the pen personally to back money with influence. In vain. Little Mammy was worth more to the negro-trader, simply as a kind of insurance against accidents, than any sum, however glittering the figure, and he was no ignorant expert in human wares. She can tell it; no one else can for her. Remember that at times she had seen the streets outside. Remember that she could hear of the outside world daily from the passing chattels–of the plantations, farms, families; the green fields, Sunday woods, running streams; the camp-meetings, corn-shuckings, cotton-pickings, sugar-grindings; the baptisms, marriages, funerals, prayer-meetings; the holidays and holy days. Remember that, whether for liberty or whether for love, passion effloresces in the human being–no matter when, where, or how–with every spring’s return. Remember that she was, even in middle age, young and vigorous. But no; do not remember anything. There is no need to heighten the coloring.
It would be tedious to relate, although it was not tedious to hear her relate it, the desperations and hopes of her life then. Hardly a day passed that she did not see, looking for purchases (rummaging among goods on a counter for bargains), some master whom she could have loved, some mistress whom she could have adored. Always her favorite mistresses were there–tall, delicate matrons, who came themselves, with great fatigue, to select kindly-faced women for nurses; languid-looking ladies with smooth hair standing out in wide _bandeaux_ from their heads, and lace shawls dropping from their sloping shoulders, silk dresses carelessly held up in thumb and finger from embroidered petticoats that were spread out like tents over huge hoops which covered whole groups of swarming piccaninnies on the dirty floor; ladies, pale from illnesses that she might have nursed, and over-burdened with children whom she might have reared! And not a lady of that kind saw her face but wanted her, yearned for her, pleaded for her, coming back secretly to slip silver, and sometimes gold, pieces into her hand, patting her turbaned head, calling her “little Mammy” too, instantly, by inspiration, and making the negro-trader give them, with all sorts of assurances, the refusal of her. She had no need for the whispered “Buy me, master!” “Buy me, mistress!” “You’ll see how I can work, master!” “You’ll never be sorry, mistress!” of the others. The negro-trader–like hangmen, negro-traders are fitted by nature for their profession–it came into his head–he had no heart, not even a negro-trader’s heart–that it would be more judicious to seclude her during these shopping visits, so to speak. She could not have had any hopes then at all; it must have been all desperations.
That auction-block, that executioner’s block, about which so much has been written–Jacob’s ladder, in his dream, was nothing to what that block appeared nightly in her dreams to her; and the climbers up and down–well, perhaps Jacob’s angels were his hopes, too.
At times she determined to depreciate her usefulness, mar her value, by renouncing her heart, denying her purpose. For days she would tie her kerchief over her ears and eyes, and crouch in a corner, strangling her impulses. She even malingered, refused food, became dumb. And she might have succeeded in making herself salable through incipient lunacy, if through no other way, had she been able to maintain her role long enough. But some woman or baby always was falling into some emergency of pain and illness.
How it might have ended one does not like to think. Fortunately, one does not need to think.
There came a night. She sat alone in the vast, dark caravansary–alone for the first time in her life. Empty rags and blankets lay strewn over the floor, no snoring, no tossing in them more. A sacrificial sale that day had cleared the counters. Alarm-bells rang in the streets, but she did not know them for alarm-bells; alarm brooded in the dim space around her, but she did not even recognize that. Her protracted tension of heart had made her fear-blind to all but one peradventure.
Once or twice she forgot herself, and limped over to some heap to relieve an imaginary struggling babe or moaning sleeper. Morning came. She had dozed. She looked to see the rag-heaps stir; they lay as still as corpses. The alarm-bells had ceased. She looked to see a new gang enter the far door. She listened for the gathering buzzing of voices in the next room, around the auction-block. She waited for the trader. She waited for the janitor. At nightfall a file of soldiers entered. They drove her forth, ordering her in the voice, in the tone, of the negro-trader. That was the only familiar thing in the chaos of incomprehensibility about her. She hobbled through the auction-room. Posters, advertisements, papers, lay on the floor, and in the torch-light glared from the wall. Her Jacob’s ladder, her stepping-stone to her hopes, lay overturned in a corner.
You divine it. The negro-trader’s trade was abolished, and he had vanished in the din and smoke of a war which he had not been entirely guiltless of producing, leaving little Mammy locked up behind him. Had he forgotten her? One cannot even hope so. She hobbled out into the street, leaning on her nine-year-old broomstick (she had grown only slightly beyond it; could still use it by bending over it), her head tied in a rag kerchief, a rag for a gown, a rag for an apron.
Free, she was free! But she had not hoped for freedom. The plantation, the household, the delicate ladies, the teeming children,–broomsticks they were in comparison to freedom, but,–that was what she had asked, what she had prayed for. God, she said, had let her drop, just as her mother had done. More than ever she grieved, as she crept down the street, that she had never mounted the auctioneer’s block. An ownerless free negro! She knew no one whose duty it was to help her; no one knew her to help her. In the whole world (it was all she had asked) there was no white child to call her mammy, no white lackey or gentleman (it was the extent of her dreams) beholden to her as to a nurse. And all her innumerable black beneficiaries! Even the janitor, whom she had tended as the others, had deserted her like his white prototype.
She tried to find a place for herself, but she had no indorsers, no recommenders. She dared not mention the name of the negro-trader; it banished her not only from the households of the whites, but from those of the genteel of her own color. And everywhere soldiers sentineled the streets–soldiers whose tone and accent reminded her of the negro-trader.
Her sufferings, whether imaginary or real, were sufficiently acute to drive her into the only form of escape which once had been possible to friendless negroes. She became a runaway. With a bundle tied to the end of a stick over her shoulder, just as the old prints represent it, she fled from her homelessness and loneliness, from her ignoble past, and the heart-disappointing termination of it. Following a railroad track, journeying afoot, sleeping by the roadside, she lived on until she came to the one familiar landmark in life to her–a sick woman, but a white one. And so, progressing from patient to patient (it was a time when sick white women studded the country like mile-posts), she arrived at a little town, a kind of a refuge for soldiers’ wives and widows. She never traveled further. She could not. Always, as in the pen, some emergency of pain and illness held her.
That is all. She is still there. The poor, poor women of that stricken region say that little Mammy was the only alleviation God left them after Sheridan passed through; and the richer ones say very much the same thing–
But one should hear her tell it herself, as has been said, on a cold, gloomy winter day in the country, the fire glimmering on the hearth; the overworked husband in the fields; the baby quiet at last; the mother uneasy, restless, thought-driven; the soft black hand rubbing backward and forward, rubbing out aches and frets and nervousness.
The eyelids droop; the firelight plays fantasies on the bed-curtains; the ear drops words, sentences; one gets confused–one sleeps–one dreams.
“ONE OF US”
At the first glance one might have been inclined to doubt; but at the second anybody would have recognized her–that is, with a little mental rehabilitation: the bright little rouge spots in the hollow of her cheek, the eyebrows well accentuated with paint, the thin lips rose-tinted, and the dull, straight hair frizzed and curled and twisted and turned by that consummate rascal and artist, the official beautifier and rectifier of stage humanity, Robert, the opera _coiffeur_. Who in the world knows better than he the gulf between the real and the ideal, the limitations between the natural and the romantic?
Yes, one could see her, in that time-honored thin silk dress of hers stiffened into brocade by buckram underneath; the high, low-necked waist, hiding any evidences of breast, if there were such evidences to hide, and bringing the long neck into such faulty prominence; and the sleeves, crisp puffs of tulle divided by bands of red velvet, through which the poor lean arm runs like a wire, stringing them together like beads. Yes, it was she, the whilom _dugazon_ of the opera troupe. Not that she ever was a _dugazon_, but that was what her voice once aspired to be: a _dugazon manquee_ would better describe her.
What a ghost! But they always appeared like mere evaporations of real women. For what woman of flesh and blood can seriously maintain through life the role of sham attendant on sham sensations, and play public celebrant of other women’s loves and lovers, singing, or rather saying, nothing more enlivening than: “Oh, madame!” and “Ah, madame!” and “_Quelle ivresse!_” or “_Quelle horreur!_” or, in recitative, detailing whatever dreary platitudes and inanities the librettist and Heaven connive to put upon the tongues of confidantes and attendants?
[Illustration: “TO POSE IN ABJECT PATIENCE AND AWKWARDNESS.”]
Looking at her–how it came over one! The music, the lights, the scene; the fat soprano confiding to her the fact of the “amour extreme” she bears for the tenor, to which she, the _dugazon_, does not even try to listen; her eyes wandering listlessly over the audience. The calorous secret out, and in her possession, how she stumbles over her train to the back of the stage, there to pose in abject patience and awkwardness, while the gallant baritone, touching his sword, and flinging his cape over his shoulder, defies the world and the tenor, who is just recovering from his “ut de poitrine” behind the scenes.
She was talking to me all the time, apologizing for the intrusion, explaining her mission, which involved a short story of her life, as women’s intrusions and missions usually do. But my thoughts, also as usual, distracted me from listening, as so often they have distracted me from following what was perhaps more profitable.
The composer, of course, wastes no music upon her; flinging to her only an occasional recitative in two notes, but always ending in a reef of a scale, trill, or roulade, for her to wreck her voice on before the audience. The _chef d’orchestre_, if he is charitable, starts her off with a contribution from his own lusty lungs, and then she–oh, her voice is always thinner and more osseous than her arms, and her smile no more graceful than her train!
As well think of the simulated trees, water-falls, and chateaux leaving the stage, as the _dugazon_! One always imagines them singing on into dimness, dustiness, unsteadiness, and uselessness, until, like any other piece of stage property, they are at last put aside and simply left there at the end of some season–there seems to be a superstition against selling or burning useless and dilapidated stage property. As it came to me, the idea was not an impossibility.