Thérèse Crosses the River.
To shirk any serious duties of life would have been entirely foreign to Thérèse’s methods or even instincts. But there did come to her moments of rebellion--or repulsion, against the small demands that presented themselves with an unfailing recurrence; and from such, she at times indulged herself with the privilege of running away. When Fanny left her alone--a pathetic little droop took possession of the corners of her mouth that might not have come there if she had not been alone. She laid the flowers, only half arranged, on the bench beside her, as a child would put aside a toy that no longer interested it. She looked towards the house and could see the servants going back and forth. She knew if she entered, she would be met by appeals from one and the other. The overseer would soon be along, with his crib keys, and stable keys; his account of the day’s doings and consultations for to-morrow’s work, and for the moment, she would have none of it.
“Come, Hector--come, old boy,” she said rising abruptly; and crossing the lawn she soon gained the gravel path that led to the outer road. This road brought her by a mild descent to the river bank. The water, seldom stationary for any long period, was at present running low and sluggishly between its red banks.
Tied to the landing was a huge flat-boat, that was managed by the aid of a stout cable reaching quite across the river; and beside it nestled a small light skiff. In this Thérèse seated herself, and proceeded to row across the stream, Hector plunging into the water and swimming in advance of her.
The banks on the opposite shore were almost perpendicular; and their summit to be reached only by the artificial road that had been cut into them: broad and of easy ascent. This river front was a standing worry to Thérèse, for when the water was high and rapid, the banks caved constantly, carrying away great sections from the land. Almost every year, the fences in places had to be moved back, not only for security, but to allow a margin for the road that on this side followed the course of the small river.
High up and perilously near the edge, stood a small cabin. It had once been far removed from the river, which had now, however, eaten its way close up to it--leaving no space for the road-way. The house was somewhat more pretentious than others of its class, being fashioned of planed painted boards, and having a brick chimney that stood fully exposed at one end. A great rose tree climbed and spread generously over one side, and the big red roses grew by hundreds amid the dark green setting of their leaves.
At the gate of this cabin Thérèse stopped, calling out, “_Grosse tante!--oh, Grosse tante!_”
The sound of her voice brought to the door a negress--coal black and so enormously fat that she moved about with evident difficulty. She was dressed in a loosely hanging purple calico garment of the mother Hubbard type--known as a _volante_ amongst Louisiana Creoles; and on her head was knotted and fantastically twisted a bright _tignon_. Her glistening good-natured countenance illumined at the sight of Thérèse.
“_Quo faire to pas woulez rentrer, Tite maîtresse?_” and Thérèse answered in the same Creole dialect: “Not now, _Grosse tante_--I shall be back in half an hour to drink a cup of coffee with you.” No English words can convey the soft music of that speech, seemingly made for tenderness and endearment.
As Thérèse turned away from the gate, the black woman re-entered the house, and as briskly as her cumbersome size would permit, began preparations for her mistress’ visit. Milk and butter were taken from the safe; eggs, from the India rush basket that hung against the wall; and flour, from the half barrel that stood in convenient readiness in the corner: for _Tite maîtresse_ was to be treated to a dish of _croquignoles_. Coffee was always an accomplished fact at hand in the chimney corner.
_Grosse tante_, or more properly, Marie Louise, was a Creole--Thérèse’s nurse and attendant from infancy, and the only one of the family servants who had come with her mistress from New Orleans to Place-du-Bois at that lady’s marriage with Jérôme Lafirme. But her ever increasing weight had long since removed her from the possibility of usefulness, otherwise than in supervising her small farm yard. She had little use for “_ces néges Américains_,” as she called the plantation hands--a restless lot forever shifting about and changing quarters.
It was seldom now that she crossed the river; only two occasions being considered of sufficient importance to induce her to such effort. One was in the event of her mistress’ illness, when she would install herself at her bedside as a fixture, not to be dislodged by any less inducement than Thérèse’s full recovery. The other was when a dinner of importance was to be given: then Marie Louise consented to act as _chef de cuisine_, for there was no more famous cook than she in the State; her instructor having been no less a personage than old Lucien Santien--a _gourmet_ famed for his ultra Parisian tastes.
Seated at the base of a great China-berry on whose gnarled protruding roots she rested an arm languidly, Thérèse looked out over the river and gave herself up to doubts and misgivings. She first took exception with herself for that constant interference in the concerns of other people. Might not this propensity be carried too far at times? Did the good accruing counterbalance the personal discomfort into which she was often driven by her own agency? What reason had she to know that a policy of non-interference in the affairs of others might not after all be the judicious one? As much as she tried to vaguely generalize, she found her reasoning applying itself to her relation with Hosmer.
The look which she had surprised in Fanny’s face had been a painful revelation to her. Yet could she have expected other, and should she have hoped for less, than that Fanny should love her husband and he in turn should come to love his wife?
Had she married Hosmer herself! Here she smiled to think of the storm of indignation that such a marriage would have roused in the parish. Yet, even facing the impossibility of such contingency, it pleased her to indulge in a short dream of what might have been.
If it were her right instead of another’s to watch for his coming and rejoice at it! Hers to call him husband and lavish on him the love that awoke so strongly when she permitted herself, as she was doing now, to invoke it! She felt what capability lay within her of rousing the man to new interests in life. She pictured the dawn of an unsuspected happiness coming to him: broadening; illuminating; growing in him to answer to her own big-heartedness.
Were Fanny, and her own prejudices, worth the sacrifice which she and Hosmer had made? This was the doubt that bade fair to unsettle her; that called for a sharp, strong out-putting of the will before she could bring herself to face the situation without its accessions of personalities. Such communing with herself could not be condemned as a weakness with Thérèse, for the effect which it left upon her strong nature was one of added courage and determination.
When she reached Marie Louise’s cabin again, twilight, which is so brief in the South, was giving place to the night.
Within the cabin, the lamp had already been lighted, and Marie Louise was growing restless at Thérèse’s long delay.
“Ah _Grosse tante_, I’m so tired,” she said, falling into a chair near the door; not relishing the warmth of the room after her quick walk, and wishing to delay as long as possible the necessity of sitting at table. At another time she might have found the dish of golden brown _croquignoles_ very tempting with its accessory of fragrant coffee; but not to-day.
“Why do you run about so much, _Tite maîtresse_? You are always going this way and that way; on horseback, on foot--through the house. Make those lazy niggers work more. You spoil them. I tell you if it was old mistress that had to deal with them, they would see something different.”
She had taken all the pins from Thérèse’s hair which fell in a gleaming, heavy mass; and with her big soft hands she was stroking her head as gently as if those hands had been of the whitest and most delicate.
“I know that look in your eyes, it means headache. It’s time for me to make you some more _eau sédative_--I am sure you haven’t any more; you’ve given it away as you give away every thing.”
“_Grosse tante_,” said Thérèse seated at table and sipping her coffee; _Grosse tante_ also drinking her cup--but seated apart, “I am going to insist on having your cabin moved back; it is silly to be so stubborn about such a small matter. Some day you will find yourself out in the middle of the river--and what am I going to do then?--no one to nurse me when I am sick--no one to scold me--nobody to love me.”
“Don’t say that, _Tite maîtresse_, all the world loves you--it isn’t only Marie Louise. But no. You must remember the last time poor Monsieur Jérôme moved me, and said with a laugh that I can never forget, ‘well, _Grosse tante_, I know we have got you far enough this time out of danger,’ away back in Dumont’s field you recollect? I said then, Marie Louise will move no more; she’s too old. If the good God does not want to take care of me, then it’s time for me to go.”
“Ah but, _Grosse tante_, remember--God does not want all the trouble on his own shoulders,” Thérèse answered humoring the woman, in her conception of the Deity. “He wants us to do our share, too.”
“Well, I have done my share. Nothing is going to harm Marie Louise. I thought about all that, do not fret. So the last time Père Antoine passed in the road--going down to see that poor Pierre Pardou at the Mouth--I called him in, and he blessed the whole house inside and out, with holy water--notice how the roses have bloomed since then--and gave me medals of the holy Virgin to hang about. Look over the door, _Tite maîtresse_, how it shines, like a silver star.”
“If you will not have your cabin removed, _Grosse tante_, then come live with me. Old Hatton has wanted work at Place-du-Bois, the longest time. We will have him build you a room wherever you choose, a pretty little house like those in the city.”
“_Non--non, Tite maîtresse, Marie Louise ’prè créver icite avé tous son butin, si faut_” (no, no, _Tite maîtresse_, Marie Louise will die here with all her belongings if it must be).
The servants were instructed that when their mistress was not at home at a given hour, her absence should cause no delay in the household arrangements. She did not choose that her humor or her movements be hampered by a necessity of regularity which she owed to no one. When she reached home supper had long been over.
Nearing the house she heard the scraping of Nathan’s violin, the noise of shuffling feet and unconstrained laughter. These festive sounds came from the back veranda. She entered the dining-room, and from its obscurity looked out on a curious scene. The veranda was lighted by a lamp suspended from one of its pillars. In a corner sat Nathan; serious, dignified, scraping out a monotonous but rhythmic minor strain to which two young negroes from the lower quarters--famous dancers--were keeping time in marvelous shuffling and pigeon-wings; twisting their supple joints into astonishing contortions and the sweat rolling from their black visages. A crowd of darkies stood at a respectful distance an appreciative and encouraging audience. And seated on the broad rail of the veranda were Melicent and Grégoire, patting Juba and singing a loud accompaniment to the breakdown.
Was this the Grégoire who had only yesterday wept such bitter tears on his aunt’s bosom?
Thérèse turning away from the scene, the doubt assailed her whether it were after all worth while to strive against the sorrows of life that can be so readily put aside.