At Fault

by Kate Chopin

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Part 2 - VI. One Night.

One Night.

“Grégoire was right: do you know those nasty creatures have gone and left every speck of the supper dishes unwashed? I’ve got half a mind to give them both warning to-morrow morning.”

Fanny had come in from the kitchen to the sitting-room, and the above homily was addressed to her husband who stood lighting his cigar. He had lately taken to smoking.

“You’d better do nothing of the kind; you wouldn’t find it easy to replace them. Put up a little with their vagaries: this sort of thing only happens once a year.”

“How do you know it won’t be something else just as ridiculous to-morrow? And that idiot of a Minervy; what do you suppose she told me when I insisted on her staying to wash up things? She says, last whatever you call it, her husband wanted to act hard-headed and staid out after dark, and when he was crossing the bayou, the spirits jerked him off his horse and dragged him up and down in the water, till he was nearly drowned. I don’t see what you’re laughing at; I guess you’d like to make out that they’re in the right.”

Hosmer was perfectly aware that Fanny had had a drink, and he rightly guessed that Morico had given it to her. But he was at a loss to account for the increasing symptoms of intoxication that she showed. He tried to persuade her to go to bed; but his efforts to that end remained unheeded, till she had eased her mind of an accumulation of grievances, mostly fancied. He had much difficulty in preventing her from going over to give Melicent a piece of her mind about her lofty airs and arrogance in thinking herself better than other people. And she was very eager to tell Thérèse that she meant to do as she liked, and would stand no poking of noses in her business. It was a good while before she fell into a heavy sleep, after shedding a few maudlin tears over the conviction that he intended to leave her again, and clinging to his neck with beseeching enquiry whether he loved her.

He went out on the veranda feeling much as if he had been wrestling with a strong adversary who had mastered him, and whom he was glad to be freed of, even at the cost of coming inglorious from the conflict. The night was so dark, so hushed, that if ever the dead had wished to step from their graves and take a stroll above ground, they could not have found a more fitting hour. Hosmer walked very long in the soothing quiet. He would have liked to walk the night through. The last three hours had been like an acute physical pain, that was over for the moment, and that being over, left his mind free to return to the delicious consciousness, that he had needed to be reminded of, that Thérèse loved him after all. When his measured tread upon the veranda finally ceased to mark the passing hours, a quiet that was almost pulseless fell upon the plantation. Place-du-Bois slept. Perhaps the only night in the year that some or other of the negroes did not lurk in fence corners, or make exchange of nocturnal visits.

But out in the hills there was no such unearthly stillness reigning. Those restless wood-dwellers, that never sleep, were sending startling gruesome calls to each other. Bats were flapping and whirling and darting hither and thither; the gliding serpent making quick rustle amid the dry, crisp leaves, and over all sounded the murmur of the great pine trees, telling their mystic secrets to the night.

A human creature was there too, feeling a close fellowship with these spirits of night and darkness; with no more fear in his heart than the unheeded serpent crossing his path. Every inch of the ground he knew. He wanted no daylight to guide him. Had his eyes been blinded he would no doubt have bent his body close to earth and scented his way along like the human hound that he was. Over his shoulder hung the polished rifle that sent dull and sudden gleamings into the dark. A large tin pail swung from his hand. He was very careful of this pail--or its contents, for he feared to lose a drop. And when he accidentally struck an intervening tree and spilled some upon the ground, he muttered a curse against his own awkwardness.

Twice since leaving his cabin up in the clearing, he had turned to drive back his yellow skulking dog that followed him. Each time the brute had fled in abject terror, only to come creeping again into his master’s footsteps, when he thought himself forgotten. Here was a companion whom neither Joçint nor his mission required. Exasperated, he seated himself on a fallen tree and whistled softly. The dog, who had been holding back, dashed to his side, trembling with eagerness, and striving to twist his head around to lick the hand that patted him. Joçint’s other hand glided quickly into his pocket, from which he drew forth a coil of thin rope that he flung deftly over the animal’s head, drawing it close and tight about the homely, shaggy throat. So quickly was the action done, that no sound was uttered, and Joçint continued his way untroubled by his old and faithful friend, whom he left hanging to the limb of a tree.

He was following the same path that he traversed daily to and from the mill, and which soon brought him out into the level with its soft tufted grass and clumps of squat thorn trees. There was no longer the protecting wood to screen him; but of such there was no need, for the darkness hung about him like the magic mantle of story. Nearing the mill he grew cautious, creeping along with the tread of a stealthy beast, and halting at intervals to listen for sounds that he wished not to hear. He knew there was no one on guard tonight. A movement in the bushes near by, made him fall quick and sprawling to earth. It was only Grégoire’s horse munching the soft grass. Joçint drew near and laid his hand on the horse’s back. It was hot and reeking with sweat. Here was a fact to make him more wary. Horses were not found in such condition from quietly grazing of a cool autumn night. He seated himself upon the ground, with his hands clasped about his knees, all doubled up in a little heap, and waited there with the patience of the savage, letting an hour go by, whilst he made no movement.

The hour past, he stole towards the mill, and began his work of sprinkling the contents of his pail here and there along the dry timbers at well calculated distances, with care that no drop should be lost. Then, he drew together a great heap of crisp shavings and slathers, plentifully besprinkling it with what remained in the can. When he had struck a match against his rough trousers and placed it carefully in the midst of this small pyramid, he found that he had done his work but too surely. The quick flame sprang into life, seizing at once all it could reach. Leaping over intervals; effacing the darkness that had shrouded him; seeming to mock him as a fool and point him out as a target for heaven and earth to hurl destruction at if they would. Where should he hide himself? He only thought now of how he might have done the deed differently, and with safety to himself. He stood with great beams and loose planks surrounding him; quaking with a premonition of evil. He wanted to fly in one direction; then thought it best to follow the opposite; but a force outside of himself seemed to hold him fast to one spot. When turning suddenly about, he knew it was too late, he felt that all was lost, for there was Grégoire, not twenty paces away--covering him with the muzzle of a pistol and--cursed luck--his own rifle along with the empty pail in the raging fire.

Thérèse was passing a restless night. She had lain long awake, dwelling on the insistent thoughts that the day’s happenings had given rise to. The sleep which finally came to her was troubled by dreams--demoniac--grotesque. Hosmer was in a danger from which she was striving with physical effort to rescue him, and when she dragged him painfully from the peril that menaced him, she turned to see that it was Fanny whom she had saved--laughing at her derisively, and Hosmer had been left to perish. The dream was agonizing; like an appalling nightmare. She awoke in a fever of distress, and raised herself in bed to shake off the unnatural impression which such a dream can leave. The curtains were drawn aside from the window that faced her bed, and looking out she saw a long tongue of flame, reaching far up into the sky--away over the tree tops and the whole Southern horizon a glow. She knew at once that the mill was burning, and it was the affair of a moment with her to spring from her bed and don slippers and wrapper. She knocked on Melicent’s door to acquaint her with the startling news; then hurried out into the back yard and rang the plantation bell.

Next she was at the cottage rousing Hosmer. But the alarm of the bell had already awakened him, and he was dressed and out on the porch almost as soon as Thérèse had called. Melicent joined them, highly agitated, and prepared to contribute her share towards any scene that might be going forward. But she found little encouragement for heroics with Hosmer. In saddling his horse rather hastily he was as unmoved as though preparing for an uneventful morning canter. He stood at the foot of the stairs preparing to mount when Grégoire rode up as if pursued by furies; checking his horse with a quick, violent wrench that set it quivering in its taut limbs.

“Well,” said Hosmer, “I guess it’s done for. How did it happen? who did it?”

“Joçint’s work,” answered Grégoire bitingly.

“The damned scoundrel,” muttered Hosmer, “where is he?”

“Don’ botha ’bout Joçint; he ain’t goin’ to set no mo’ mill afire,” saying which, he turned his horse and the two rode furiously away.

Melicent grasped Thérèse’s arm convulsively.

“What does he mean?” she asked in a frightened whisper.

“I--I don’t know,” Thérèse faltered. She had clasped her hands spasmodically together, at Grégoire’s words, trembling with horror of what must be their meaning.

“May be he arrested him,” suggested the girl.

“I hope so. Come; let’s go to bed: there’s no use staying out here in the cold and dark.”

Hosmer had left the sitting-room door open, and Thérèse entered. She approached Fanny’s door and knocked twice: not brusquely, but sufficiently loud to be heard from within, by any one who was awake. No answer came, and she went away, knowing that Fanny slept.

The unusual sound of the bell, ringing two hours past midnight--that very deadest hour of the night--had roused the whole plantation. On all sides squads of men and a few venturesome women were hurrying towards the fire; the dread of supernatural encounters overcome for the moment by such strong reality and by the confidence lent them in each other’s company.

There were many already gathered around the mill, when Grégoire and Hosmer reached it. All effort to save anything had been abandoned as useless. The books and valuables had been removed from the office. The few householders--mill-hands--whose homes were close by, had carried their scant belongings to places of safety, but everything else was given over to the devouring flames.

The heat from this big raging fire was intense, and had driven most of the gaping spectators gradually back--almost into the woods. But there, to one side, where the fire was rapidly gaining, and making itself already uncomfortably felt, stood a small awe-stricken group talking in whispers; their ignorance and superstition making them irresolute to lay a hand upon the dead Joçint. His body lay amongst the heavy timbers, across a huge beam, with arms outstretched and head hanging down upon the ground. The glazed eyes were staring up into the red sky, and on his swarthy visage was yet the horror which had come there, when he looked in the face of death.

“In God’s name, what are you doing?” cried Hosmer. “Can’t some of you carry that boy’s body to a place of safety?”

Grégoire had followed, and was looking down indifferently at the dead. “Come, len’ a han’ there; this is gittin’ too durn hot,” he said, stooping to raise the lifeless form. Hosmer was preparing to help him. But there was some one staggering through the crowd; pushing men to right and left. With now a hand upon the breast of both Hosmer and Grégoire, and thrusting them with such force and violence, as to lay them prone amongst the timbers. It was the father. It was old Morico. He had awakened in the night and missed his boy. He had seen the fire; indeed close enough that he could hear its roaring; and he knew everything. The whole story was plain to him as if it had been told by a revealing angel. The strength of his youth had come back to speed him over the ground.

“Murderers!” he cried looking about him with hate in his face. He did not know who had done it; no one knew yet, and he saw in every man he looked upon the possible slayer of his child.

So here he stood over the prostrate figure; his old gray jeans hanging loosely about him; wild eyed--with bare head clasped between his claw-like hands, which the white disheveled hair swept over. Hosmer approached again, offering gently to help him carry his son away.

“Stand back,” he hurled at him. But he had understood the offer. His boy must not be left to burn like a log of wood. He bent down and strove to lift the heavy body, but the effort was beyond his strength. Seeing this he stooped again and this time grasped it beneath the arms; then slowly, draggingly, with halting step, began to move backward.

The fire claimed no more attention. All eyes were fastened upon this weird picture; a sight which moved the most callous to offer again and again assistance, that was each time spurned with an added defiance.

Hosmer stood looking on, with folded arms; moved by the grandeur and majesty of the scene. The devouring element, loosed in its awful recklessness there in the heart of this lonely forest. The motley group of black and white standing out in the great red light, powerless to do more than wait and watch. But more was he stirred to the depths of his being, by the sight of this human tragedy enacted before his eyes.

Once, the old man stops in his backward journey. Will he give over? has his strength deserted him? is the thought that seizes every on-looker. But no--with renewed effort he begins again his slow retreat, till at last a sigh of relief comes from the whole watching multitude. Morico with his burden has reached a spot of safety. What will he do next? They watch in breathless suspense. But Morico does nothing. He only stands immovable as a carved image. Suddenly there is a cry that reaches far above the roar of fire and crash of falling timbers: “_Mon fils! mon garçon!_” and the old man totters and falls backward to earth, still clinging to the lifeless body of his son. All hasten towards him. Hosmer reaches him first. And when he gently lifts the dead Joçint, the father this time makes no hinderance, for he too has gone beyond the knowledge of all earthly happenings.

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