Whatever may have been Torpedo’s characteristics in days gone by, at this advanced period in his history he possessed none so striking as a stoical inaptitude for being moved. Another of his distinguishing traits was a propensity for grazing which he was prone to indulge at inopportune moments. Such points taken in conjunction with a gait closely resembling that of the camel in the desert, might give much cause to wonder at Thérèse’s motive in recommending him as a suitable mount for the unfortunate Fanny, were it not for his wide-spread reputation of angelic inoffensiveness.
The ride which Melicent had arranged and in which she held out such promises of a “lark” proved after all but a desultory affair. For with Fanny making but a sorry equestrian debut and Hosmer creeping along at her side; Thérèse unable to hold Beauregard within conventional limits, and Melicent and Grégoire vanishing utterly from the scene, sociability was a feature entirely lacking to the excursion.
“David, I can’t go another step: I just can’t, so that settles it.”
The look of unhappiness in Fanny’s face and attitude, would have moved the proverbial stone.
“I think if you change horses with me, Fanny, you’ll find it more comfortable, and we’ll turn about and go home.”
“I wouldn’t get on that horse’s back, David Hosmer, if I had to die right here in the woods, I wouldn’t.”
“Do you think you could manage to walk back that distance then? I can lead the horses,” he suggested as a _pis aller_.
“I guess I’ll haf to; but goodness knows if I’ll ever get there alive.”
They were far up on the hill, which spot they had reached by painfully slow and labored stages, each refraining from mention of a discomfort that might interfere with the supposed enjoyment of the other, till Fanny’s note of protest.
Hosmer cast about him for some expedient that might lighten the unpleasantness of the situation, when a happy thought occurred to him.
“If you’ll try to bear up, a few yards further, you can dismount at old Morico’s cabin and I’ll hurry back and get the buggy. It can be driven this far anyway: and it’s only a short walk from here through the woods.”
So Hosmer set her down before Morico’s door: her long riding skirt, borrowed for the occasion, twisting awkwardly around her legs, and every joint in her body aching.
Partly by pantomimic signs interwoven with a few French words which he had picked up within the last year, Hosmer succeeded in making himself understood to the old man, and rode away leaving Fanny in his care.
Morico fussily preceded her into the house and placed a great clumsy home-made rocker at her disposal, into which she cast herself with every appearance of bodily distress. He then busied himself in tidying up the room out of deference to his guest; gathering up the scissors, waxen thread and turkey feathers which had fallen from his lap in his disturbance, and laying them on the table. He knocked the ashes from his corn-cob pipe which he now rested on a projection of the brick chimney that extended into the room and that served as mantel-piece. All the while he cast snatched glances at Fanny, who sat pale and tired. Her appearance seemed to move him to make an effort towards relieving it. He took a key from his pocket and unlocking a side of the _garde manger_, drew forth a small flask of whisky. Fanny had closed her eyes and was not aware of his action, till she heard him at her elbow saying in his feeble quavering voice:--
“_Tenez madame; goutez un peu: ça va vous faire du bien,_” and opening her eyes she saw that he held a glass half filled with strong “toddy” for her acceptance.
She thrust out her hand to ward it away as though it had been a reptile that menaced her with its sting.
Morico looked nonplussed and a little abashed: but he had much faith in the healing qualities of his remedy and urged it on her anew. She trembled a little, and looked away with rather excited eyes.
“_Je vous assure madame, ça ne peut pas vous faire du mal._”
Fanny took the glass from his hand, and rising went and placed it on the table, then walked to the open door and looked eagerly out, as though hoping for the impossibility of her husband’s return.
She did not seat herself again, but walked restlessly about the room, intently examining its meager details. The circuit of inspection bringing her again to the table, she picked up Morico’s turkey fan, looking at it long and critically. When she laid it down, it was to seize the glass of “toddy” which she unhesitatingly put to her lips and drained at a draught. All uneasiness and fatigue seemed to leave her on the instant as though by magic. She went back to her chair and reseated herself composedly. Her eyes now rested on her old host with a certain quizzical curiosity strange to them.
He was plainly demoralized by her presence, and still made pretense of occupying himself with the arrangement of the room.
Presently she said to him: “Your remedy did me more good than I’d expected,” but not understanding her, he only smiled and looked at her blankly.
She laughed good-humoredly back at him, then went to the table and poured from the flask which he had left standing there, liquor to the depth of two fingers, this time drinking it more deliberately. After that she tried to talk to Morico and thought it very amusing that he could not understand her.
Presently Joçint came home and accepted her presence there very indifferently. He went to the _garde manger_ to stay his hunger, much as he had done on the occasion of Thérèse’s visit; talked in grum abrupt utterances to his father, and disappeared into the adjoining room where Fanny could hear him and occasionally see him polishing and oiling his cherished rifle.
Morico, more accustomed to foreign sounds in the woods than she, was the first to detect the approach of Grégoire, whom he went out hurriedly to meet, glad of the relief from the supposed necessity of entertaining his puzzling visitor. When he was fairly out of the room, she arose quickly, approached the table and reaching for the flask of liquor, thrust it hastily into her pocket, then went to join him. At the moment that Grégoire came up, Joçint issued from a side door and stood looking at the group.
“Well, Mrs. Hosma, yere I am. I reckon you was tired waitin’. The buggy’s yonda in the road.”
He shook hands cordially with Morico saying something to him in French which made the old man laugh heartily.
“Why didn’t David come? I thought he said he was coming; that’s the way he does,” said Fanny complainingly.
“That’s a po’ compliment to me, Mrs. Hosrma. Can’t you stan’ my company for that li’le distance?” returned Grégoire gallantly. “Mr. Hosma had a good deal to do w’en he got back, that’s w’y he sent me. An’ we betta hurry up if we expec’ to git any suppa’ to-night. Like as not you’ll fine your kitchen cleaned out.”
Fanny looked her inquiry for his meaning.
“Why, don’t you know this is ‘Tous-saint’ eve--w’en the dead git out o’ their graves an’ walk about? You wouldn’t ketch a nigga out o’ his cabin to-night afta dark to save his soul. They all gittin’ ready now to hustle back to the quartas.”
“That’s nonsense,” said Fanny, drawing on her gloves, “you ought to have more sense than to repeat such things.”
Grégoire laughed, looking surprised at her unusual energy of speech and manner. Then he turned to Joçint, whose presence he had thus far ignored, and asked in a peremptory tone:
“W’at did Woodson say ’bout watchin’ at the mill to-night? Did you ask him like I tole you?”
“Yaas, me ax um: ee’ low ee an’ goin’. Say how Sylveste d’wan’ watch lak alluz. Say ee an’ goin’. Me don’ blem ’im neida, don’ ketch me out de ’ouse night lak dat fu no man.”
“_Sacré imbécile_,” muttered Grégoire, between his teeth, and vouchsafed him no other answer, but nodded to Morico and turned away. Fanny followed with a freedom of movement quite unlike that of her coming.
Morico went into the house and coming back hastily to the door called to Joçint:
“Bring back that flask of whisky that you took off the table.”
“You’re a liar: you know I have no use for whisky. That’s one of your damned tricks to make me buy you more.” And he seated himself on an over-turned tub and with his small black eyes half closed, looked moodily out into the solemn darkening woods. The old man showed no resentment at the harshness and disrespect of his son’s speech, being evidently used to such. He passed his hand slowly over his white long hair and turned bewildered into the house.
“Is it just this same old thing year in and year out, Grégoire? Don’t any one ever get up a dance, or a card party or anything?”
“Jus’ as you say; the same old thing f’om one yea’s en’ to the otha. I used to think it was putty lonesome myse’f w’en I firs’ come yere. Then you see they’s no neighbo’s right roun’ yere. In Natchitoches now; that’s the place to have a right down good time. But see yere; I didn’ know you was fon’ o’ dancin’ an’ such things.”
“Why, of course, I just dearly love to dance. But it’s as much as my life’s worth to say that before David; he’s such a stick; but I guess you know that by this time,” with a laugh, as he had never heard from her before--so unconstrained; at the same time drawing nearer to him and looking merrily into his face.
“The little lady’s been having a ‘toddy’ at Morico’s, that makes her lively,” thought Grégoire. But the knowledge did not abash him in the least. He accommodated himself at once to the situation with that adaptability common to the American youth, whether of the South, North, East or West.
“Where abouts did you leave David when you come away?” she asked with a studied indifference.
“Hol’ on there, Buckskin--w’ere you takin’ us? W’y, I lef’ him at the sto’ mailin’ lettas.”
“Had the others all got back? Mrs. Laferm? Melicent? did they all stop at the store, too?”
“Who? Aunt Thrérèse? no, she was up at the house w’en I lef’--I reckon Miss Melicent was there too. Talkin’ ’bout fun,--it’s to git into one o’ them big spring wagons on a moonlight night, like they do in Centaville sometimes; jus’ packed down with young folks--and start out fur a dance up the coast. They ain’t nothin’ to beat it as fah as fun goes.”
“It must be just jolly. I guess you’re a pretty good dancer, Grégoire?”
“Well--’taint fur me to say. But they ain’t many can out dance me: not in Natchitoches pa’ish, anyway. I can say that much.”
If such a thing could have been, Fanny would have startled Grégoire more than once during the drive home. Before its close she had obtained a promise from him to take her up to Natchitoches for the very next entertainment,--averring that she didn’t care what David said. If he wanted to bury himself that was his own look out. And if Mrs. Laferm took people to be angels that they could live in a place like that, and give up everything and not have any kind of enjoyment out of life, why, she was mistaken and that’s all there was to it. To all of which freely expressed views Grégoire emphatically assented.
Hosmer had very soon disembarrassed himself of Torpedo, knowing that the animal would unerringly find his way to the corn crib by supper time. He continued his own way now untrammelled, and at an agreeable speed which soon brought him to the spring at the road side. Here he found Thérèse, half seated against a projection of rock, in her hand a bunch of ferns which she had evidently dismounted to gather, and holding Beauregard’s bridle while he munched at the cool wet tufts of grass that grew everywhere.
As Hosmer rode up at a rapid pace, he swung himself from his horse almost before the animal came to a full stop. He removed his hat, mopped his forehead, stamped about a little to relax his limbs and turned to answer the enquiry with which Thérèse met him.
“Left her at Morico’s. I’ll have to send the buggy back for her.”
“I can’t forgive myself for such a blunder,” said Thérèse regretfully, “indeed I had no idea of that miserable beast’s character. I never was on him you know--only the little darkies, and they never complained: they’d as well ride cows as not.”
“Oh, it’s mainly from her being unaccustomed to riding, I believe.”
This was the first time that Hosmer and Thérèse had met alone since his return from St. Louis. They looked at each other with full consciousness of what lay in the other’s mind. Thérèse felt that however adroitly another woman might have managed the situation, for herself, it would have been a piece of affectation to completely ignore it at this moment.
“Mr. Hosmer, perhaps I ought to have said something before this, to you--about what you’ve done.”
“Oh, yes, congratulated me--complimented me,” he replied with a pretense at a laugh.
“Well, the latter, perhaps. I think we all like to have our good and right actions recognized for their worth.”
He flushed, looked at her with a smile, then laughed out-right--this time it was no pretense.
“So I’ve been a good boy; have done as my mistress bade me and now I’m to receive a condescending little pat on the head--and of course must say thank you. Do you know, Mrs. Lafirme--and I don’t see why a woman like you oughtn’t to know it--it’s one of those things to drive a man mad, the sweet complaisance with which women accept situations, or inflict situations that it takes the utmost of a man’s strength to endure.”
“Well, Mr. Hosmer,” said Thérèse plainly discomposed, “you must concede you decided it was the right thing to do.”
“I didn’t do it because I thought it was right, but because you thought it was right. But that makes no difference.”
“Then remember your wife is going to do the right thing herself--she admitted as much to me.”
“Don’t you fool yourself, as Melicent says, about what Mrs. Hosmer means to do. I take no account of it. But you take it so easily; so as a matter of course. That’s what exasperates me. That you, you, you, shouldn’t have a suspicion of the torture of it; the loathsomeness of it. But how could you--how could any woman understand it? Oh forgive me, Thérèse--I wouldn’t want you to. There’s no brute so brutal as a man,” he cried, seeing the pain in her face and knowing he had caused it. “But you know you promised to help me--oh I’m talking like an idiot.”
“And I do,” returned Thérèse, “that is, I want to, I mean to.”
“Then don’t tell me again that I have done right. Only look at me sometimes a little differently than you do at Hiram or the gate post. Let me once in a while see a look in your face that tells me that you understand--if it’s only a little bit.”
Thérèse thought it best to interrupt the situation; so, pale and silently she prepared to mount her horse. He came to her assistance of course, and when she was seated she drew off her loose riding glove and held out her hand to him. He pressed it gratefully, then touched it with his lips; then turned it and kissed the half open palm.
She did not leave him this time, but rode at his side in silence with a frown and little line of thought between her blue eyes.
As they were nearing the store she said diffidently: “Mr. Hosmer, I wonder if it wouldn’t be best for you to put the mill in some one else’s charge--and go away from Place-du-Bois.”
“I believe you always speak with a purpose, Mrs. Lafirme: you have somebody’s ultimate good in view, when you say that. Is it your own, or mine or whose is it?”
“Oh! not mine.”
“I will leave Place-du-Bois, certainly, if you wish it.”
As she looked at him she was forced to admit that she had never seen him look as he did now. His face, usually serious, had a whole unwritten tragedy in it. And she felt altogether sore and puzzled and exasperated over man’s problematic nature.
“I don’t think it should be left entirely to me to say. Doesn’t your own reason suggest a proper course in the matter?”
“My reason is utterly unable to determine anything in which you are concerned. Mrs. Lafirme,” he said checking his horse and laying a restraining hand on her bridle, “let me speak to you one moment. I know you are a woman to whom one may speak the truth. Of course, you remember that you prevailed upon me to go back to my wife. To you it seemed the right thing--to me it seemed certainly hard--but no more nor less than taking up the old unhappy routine of life, where I had left it when I quitted her. I reasoned much like a stupid child who thinks the colors in his kaleidoscope may fall twice into the same design. In place of the old, I found an entirely new situation--horrid, sickening, requiring such a strain upon my energies to live through it, that I believe it’s an absurdity to waste so much moral force for so poor an aim--there would be more dignity in putting an end to my life. It doesn’t make it any the more bearable to feel that the cause of this unlooked for change lies within myself--my altered feelings. But it seems to me that I have the right to ask you not to take yourself out of my life; your moral support; your bodily atmosphere. I hope not to give way to the weakness of speaking of these things again: but before you leave me, tell me, do you understand a little better why I need you?”
“Yes, I understand now; and I thank you for talking so openly to me. Don’t go away from Place-du-Bois: it would make me very wretched.”
She said no more and he was glad of it, for her last words held almost the force of action for him; as though she had let him feel for an instant her heart beat against his own with an echoing pain.
Their ways now diverged. She went in the direction of the house and he to the store where he found Grégoire, whom he sent for his wife.