“David Hosmer, you are the most supremely unsatisfactory man existing.”
Hosmer had come in from his ride, and seating himself in the large wicker chair that stood in the center of the room, became at once absorbed in reflections. Being addressed, he looked up at his sister, who sat sidewards on the edge of a table slightly removed, swaying a dainty slippered foot to and fro in evident impatience.
“What crime have I committed now, Melicent, against your code?” he asked, not fully aroused from his reverie.
“You’ve committed nothing; your sin is one of omission. I absolutely believe you go through the world with your eyes, to all practical purposes, closed. Don’t you notice anything; any change?”
“To be sure I do,” said Hosmer, relying on a knowledge lent him by previous similar experiences, and taking in the clinging artistic drapery that enfolded her tall spare figure, “you’ve a new gown on. I didn’t think to mention it, but I noticed it all the same.”
This admission of a discernment that he had failed to make evident, aroused Melicent’s uncontrolled mirth.
“A new gown!” and she laughed heartily. “A threadbare remnant! A thing that holds by shreds and tatters.”
She went behind her brother’s chair, taking his face between her hands, and turning it upward, kissed him on the forehead. With his head in such position, he could not fail to observe the brilliant folds of muslin that were arranged across the ceiling to simulate the canopy of a tent. Still holding his face, she moved it sidewards, so that his eyes, knowing now what oflice was expected of them, followed the line of decorations about the room.
“It’s immense, Mel; perfectly immense. When did you do it all?”
“This afternoon, with Grégoire’s help,” she answered, looking proudly at her work. “And my poor hands are in such condition! But really, Dave,” she continued, seating herself on the side of his chair, with an arm about his neck, and he leaning his head back on the improvised cushion, “I wonder that you ever got on in business, observing things as little as you do.”
“Oh, that’s different.”
“Well, I don’t believe you see half that you ought to,” adding naively, “How did you and Mrs. Lafirme happen to come home together this evening?”
The bright lamp-light made the flush quite evident that arose to his face under her near gaze.
“We met in the woods; she was coming from Morico’s.”
“David, do you know that woman is an angel. She’s simply the most perfect creature I ever knew.”
Melicent’s emphasis of speech was a thing so recurrent, so singularly her own, as to startle an unaccustomed hearer.
“That opinion might carry some weight, Mel, if I hadn’t heard it scores of times from you, and of as many different women.”
“Indeed you have not. Mrs. Lafirme is exceptional. Really, when she stands at the end of the veranda, giving orders to those darkies, her face a little flushed, she’s positively a queen.”
“As far as queenliness may be compatible with the angelic state,” replied Hosmer, but not ill pleased with Melicent’s exaggerated praise of Thérèse.
Neither had heard a noiseless step approaching, and they only became aware of an added human presence, when Mandy’s small voice was heard to issue from Mandy’s small body which stood in the mingled light and shadow of the door-way.
“Aunt B’lindy ’low supper on de table gittin’ cole.”
“Come here, Mandy,” cried Melicent, springing after the child. But Mandy was flying back through the darkness. She was afraid of Melicent.
Laughing heartily, the girl disappeared into her bedroom, to make some needed additions to her toilet; and Hosmer, waiting for her, returned to his interrupted reflections. The words which he had spoken during a moment of emotion to Thérèse, out in the piny woods, had served a double purpose with him. They had shown him more plainly than he had quite been certain of, the depth of his feeling for her; and also had they settled his determination. He was not versed in the reading of a woman’s nature, and he found himself at a loss to interpret Thérèse’s actions. He recalled how she had looked away from him when he had spoken the few tender words that were yet whirling in his memory; how she had impetuously ridden ahead,--leaving him to follow alone; and her incessant speech that had forced him into silence. All of which might or might not be symptoms in his favor. He remembered her kind solicitude for his comfort and happiness during the past year; but he as readily recalled that he had not been the only recipient of such favors. His reflections led to no certainty, except that he loved her and meant to tell her so.
Thérèse’s door being closed, and moreover locked, Aunt Belindy, the stout negress who had superintended the laying of supper, felt free to give low speech to her wrath as she went back and forth between dining-room and kitchen.
“Suppa gittin’ dat cole ’tain’ gwine be fittin’ fu’ de dogs te’ tech. Believe half de time w’ite folks ain’t got no feelin’s, no how. If dey speck I’se gwine stan’ up heah on my two feet all night, dey’s foolin’ dey sef. I ain’t gwine do it. Git out dat doo’ you Mandy! you want me dash dis heah coffee pot at you--blockin’ up de doo’s dat away? W’ar dat good fu’ nuttin Betsy? Look yonda, how she done flung dem dere knife an forks on de table. Jis let Miss T’rèse kotch’er. Good God A’mighty, Miss T’rèse mus’ done gone asleep. G’long dar an’ see.”
There was no one on the plantation who would have felt at liberty to enter Thérèse’s bedroom without permission, the door being closed; yet she had taken the needless precaution of bringing lock and bolt to the double security of her moment of solitude. The first announcement of supper had found her still in her riding habit, with head thrown back upon the cushion of her lounging chair, and her mind steeped in a semi-stupor that it would be injustice to her brighter moments to call reflection.
Thérèse was a warm-hearted woman, and a woman of clear mental vision; a combination not found so often together as to make it ordinary. Being a woman of warm heart, she had loved her husband with the devotion which good husbands deserve; but being a clear-headed woman, she was not disposed to rebel against the changes which Time brings, when so disposed, to the human sensibilities. She was not steeped in that agony of remorse which many might consider becoming in a widow of five years’ standing at the discovery that her heart which had fitted well the holding of a treasure, was not narrowed to the holding of a memory,--the treasure being gone.
Mandy’s feeble knock at the door was answered by her mistress in person who had now banished all traces of her ride and its resultant cogitations.
The two women, with Hosmer and Grégoire, sat out on the veranda after supper as their custom was during these warm summer evenings. There was no attempt at sustained conversation; they talked by snatches to and at one another, of the day’s small events; Melicent and Grégoire having by far the most to say. The girl was half reclining in the hammock which she kept in a slow, unceasing motion by the impetus of her slender foot; he sitting some distance removed on the steps. Hosmer was noticeably silent; even Joçint as a theme failing to rouse him to more than a few words of dismissal. His will and tenacity were controlling him to one bent. He had made up his mind that he had something to say to Mrs. Lafirme, and he was impatient at any enforced delay in the telling.
Grégoire slept now in the office of the mill, as a measure of precaution. To-night, Hosmer had received certain late telegrams that necessitated a return to the mill, and his iron-grey was standing outside in the lane with Grégoire’s horse, awaiting the pleasure of his rider. When Grégoire quitted the group to go and throw the saddles across the patient animals, Melicent, who contemplated an additional hour’s chat with Thérèse, crossed over to the cottage to procure a light wrap for her sensitive shoulders against the chill night air. Hosmer, who had started to the assistance of Grégoire, seeing that Thérèse had remained alone, standing at the top of the stairs, approached her. Remaining a few steps below her, and looking up into her face, he held out his hand to say good-night, which was an unusual proceeding, for they had not shaken hands since his return to Place-du-Bois three months before. She gave him her soft hand to hold and as the warm, moist palm met his, it acted like a charged electric battery turning its subtle force upon his sensitive nerves.
“Will you let me talk to you to-morrow?” he asked.
“Yes, perhaps; if I have time.”
“Oh, you will make the time. I can’t let the day go by without telling you many things that you ought to have known long ago.” The battery was still doing its work. “And I can’t let the night go by without telling you that I love you.”
Grégoire called out that the horses were ready. Melicent was approaching in her diaphanous envelope, and Hosmer reluctantly let drop Thérèse’s hand and left her.
As the men rode away, the two women stood silently following their diminishing outlines into the darkness and listening to the creaking of the saddles and the dull regular thud of the horses’ feet upon the soft earth, until the sounds grew inaudible, when they turned to the inner shelter of the veranda. Melicent once more possessed herself of the hammock in which she now reclined fully, and Thérèse sat near enough beside her to intertwine her fingers between the tense cords.
“What a great difference in age there must be between you and your brother,” she said, breaking the silence.
“Yes--though he is younger and I older than you perhaps think. He was fifteen and the only child when I was born. I am twenty-four, so he of course is thirty-nine.”
“I certainly thought him older.”
“Just imagine, Mrs. Lafirme, I was only ten when both my parents died. We had no kindred living in the West, and I positively rebelled against being separated from David; so you see he’s had the care of me for a good many years.”
“He appears very fond of you.”
“Oh, not only that, but you’ve no idea how splendidly he’s done for me in every way. Looked after my interest and all that, so that I’m perfectly independent. Poor Dave,” she continued, heaving a profound sigh, “he’s had more than his share of trouble, if ever a man had. I wonder when his day of compensation will come.”
“Don’t you think,” ventured Thérèse, “that we make too much of our individual trials. We are all so prone to believe our own burden heavier than our neighbor’s.”
“Perhaps--but there can be no question about the weight of David’s. I’m not a bit selfish about him though; poor fellow, I only wish he’d marry again.”
Melicent’s last words stung Thérèse like an insult. Her native pride rebelled against the reticence of this man who had shared her confidence while keeping her in ignorance of so important a feature of his own life. But her dignity would not permit a show of disturbance; she only asked:--
“How long has his wife been dead?”
“Oh,” cried Melicent, in dismay. “I thought you knew of course; why--she isn’t dead at all--they were divorced two years ago.”
The girl felt intuitively that she had yielded to an indiscretion of speech. She could not know David’s will in the matter, but since he had all along left Mrs. Lafirme in ignorance of his domestic trials, she concluded it was not for her to enlighten that lady further. Her next remark was to call Thérèse’s attention to the unusual number of glow-worms that were flashing through the darkness, and to ask the sign of it, adding “every thing seems to be the sign of something down here.”
“Aunt Belindy might tell you,” replied Thérèse, “I only know that I feel the signs of being very sleepy after that ride through the woods to-day. Don’t mind if I say good night?”
“Certainly not. Good night, dear Mrs. Lafirme. Let me stay here till David comes back; I should die of fright, to go to the cottage alone.”