Melicent Leaves Place-du-Bois.
There had been no witness to the killing of Joçint; but there were few who did not recognize Grégoire’s hand in the affair. When met with the accusation, he denied it, or acknowledged it, or evaded the charge with a jest, as he felt for the moment inclined. It was a deed characteristic of any one of the Santien boys, and if not altogether laudable--Joçint having been at the time of the shooting unarmed--yet was it thought in a measure justified by the heinousness of his offense, and beyond dispute, a benefit to the community.
Hosmer reserved the expression of his opinion. The occurrence once over, with the emotions which it had awakened, he was inclined to look at it from one of those philosophic stand-points of his friend Homeyer. Heredity and pathology had to be considered in relation with the slayer’s character. He saw in it one of those interesting problems of human existence that are ever turning up for man’s contemplation, but hardly for the exercise of man’s individual judgment. He was conscious of an inward repulsion which this action of Grégoire’s awakened in him,--much the same as a feeling of disgust for an animal whose instinct drives it to the doing of violent deeds,--yet he made no difference in his manner towards him.
Thérèse was deeply distressed over this double tragedy: feeling keenly the unhappy ending of old Morico. But her chief sorrow came from the callousness of Grégoire, whom she could not move even to an avowal of regret. He could not understand that he should receive any thing but praise for having rid the community of so offensive and dangerous a personage as Joçint; and seemed utterly blind to the moral aspect of his deed.
An event at once so exciting and dramatic as this conflagration, with the attendant deaths of Morico and his son, was much discussed amongst the negroes. They were a good deal of one opinion in regard to Joçint having been only properly served in getting “w’at he done ben lookin’ fu’ dis long time.” Grégoire was rather looked upon as a clever instrument in the Lord’s service; and the occurrence pointed a moral which they were not likely to forget.
The burning of the mill entailed much work upon Hosmer, to which he turned with a zest--an absorption that for the time excluded everything else.
Melicent had shunned Grégoire since the shooting. She had avoided speaking with him--even looking at him. During the turmoil which closely followed upon the tragic event, this change in the girl had escaped his notice. On the next day he suspected it only. But the third day brought him the terrible conviction. He did not know that she was making preparations to leave for St. Louis, and quite accidentally overheard Hosmer giving an order to one of the unemployed mill hands to call for her baggage on the following morning before train time.
As much as he had expected her departure, and looked painfully forward to it, this certainty--that she was leaving on the morrow and without a word to him--bewildered him. He abandoned at once the work that was occupying him.
“I didn’ know Miss Melicent was goin’ away to-morrow,” he said in a strange pleading voice to Hosmer.
“Why, yes,” Hosmer answered, “I thought you knew. She’s been talking about it for a couple of days.”
“No, I didn’ know nothin’ ’tall ’bout it,” he said, turning away and reaching for his hat, but with such nerveless hand that he almost dropped it before placing it on his head.
“If you’re going to the house,” Hosmer called after him, “tell Melicent that Woodson won’t go for her trunks before morning. She thought she’d need to have them ready to-night.”
“Yes, if I go to the house. I don’ know if I’m goin’ to the house or not,” he replied, walking listlessly away.
Hosmer looked after the young man, and thought of him for a moment: of his soft voice and gentle manner--perplexed that he should be the same who had expressed in confidence the single regret that he had not been able to kill Joçint more than once.
Grégoire went directly to the house, and approached that end of the veranda on which Melicent’s room opened. A trunk had already been packed and fastened and stood outside, just beneath the low-silled window that was open. Within the room, and also beneath the window, was another trunk, before which Melicent kneeled, filling it more or less systematically from an abundance of woman’s toggery that lay in a cumbrous heap on the floor beside her. Grégoire stopped at the window to tell her, with a sad attempt at indifference:
“Yo’ brotha says don’t hurry packin’; Woodson ain’t goin’ to come fur your trunks tell mornin’.”
“All right, thank you,” glancing towards him for an instant carelessly and going on with her work.
“I didn’ know you was goin’ away.”
“That’s absurd: you knew all along I was going away,” she returned, with countenance as expressionless as feminine subtlety could make it.
“W’y don’t you let somebody else do that? Can’t you come out yere a w’ile?”
“No, I prefer doing it myself; and I don’t care to go out.”
What could he do? what could he say? There were no convenient depths in his mind from which he might draw at will, apt and telling speeches to taunt her with. His heart was swelling and choking him, at sight of the eyes that looked anywhere, but in his own; at sight of the lips that he had one time kissed, pressed into an icy silence. She went on with her task of packing, unmoved. He stood a while longer, silently watching her, his hat in his hands that were clasped behind him, and a stupor of grief holding him vise-like. Then he walked away. He felt somewhat as he remembered to have felt oftentimes as a boy, when ill and suffering, his mother would put him to bed and send him a cup of bouillon perhaps, and a little negro to sit beside him. It seemed very cruel to him now that some one should not do something for him--that he should be left to suffer this way. He walked across the lawn over to the cottage, where he saw Fanny pacing slowly up and down the porch.
She saw him approach and stood in a patch of sunlight to wait for him. He really had nothing to say to her as he stood grasping two of the balustrades and looking up at her. He wanted somebody to talk to him about Melicent.
“Did you know Miss Melicent was goin’ away?”
Had it been Hosmer or Thérèse asking her the question she would have replied simply “yes,” but to Grégoire she said “yes; thank Goodness,” as frankly as though she had been speaking to Belle Worthington. “I don’t see what’s kept her down here all this time, anyway.”
“You don’t like her?” he asked, stupefied at the strange possibility of any one not loving Melicent to distraction.
“No. You wouldn’t either, if you knew her as well as I do. If she likes a person she goes on like a lunatic over them as long as it lasts; then good-bye John! she’ll throw them aside as she would an old dress.”
“Oh, I believe she thinks a heap of Aunt Thérèse.”
“All right; you’ll see how much she thinks of Aunt Thérèse. And the people she’s been engaged to! There ain’t a worse flirt in the city of St. Louis; and always some excuse or other to break it off at the last minute. I haven’t got any use for her, Lord knows. There ain’t much love lost between us.”
“Well, I reckon she knows they ain’t anybody born, good enough fur her?” he said, thinking of those engagements that she had shattered.
“What was David doing?” Fanny asked abruptly.
“Writin’ lettas at the sto’.”
“Did he say when he was coming?”
“Do you guess he’ll come pretty soon?”
“No, I reckon not fur a good w’ile.”
“Is Melicent with Mrs. Laferm?”
“No; she’s packin’ her things.”
“I guess I’ll go sit with Mrs. Laferm, d’you think she’ll mind?”
“No, she’ll be glad to have you.”
Fanny crossed over to go join Thérèse. She liked to be with her when there was no danger of interruption from Melicent, and Grégoire went wandering aimlessly about the plantation.
He staked great hopes on what the night might bring for him. She would melt, perhaps, to the extent of a smile or one of her old glances. He was almost cheerful when he seated himself at table; only he and his aunt and Melicent. He had never seen her look so handsome as now, in a woolen gown that she had not worn before, of warm rich tint, that brought out a certain regal splendor that he had not suspected in her. A something that she seemed to have held in reserve till this final moment. But she had nothing for him--nothing. All her conversation was addressed to Thérèse; and she hurried away from table at the close of the meal, under pretext of completing her arrangements for departure.
“Doesn’t she mean to speak to me?” he asked fiercely of Thérèse.
“Oh, Grégoire, I see so much trouble around me; so many sad mistakes, and I feel so powerless to right them; as if my hands were tied. I can’t help you in this; not now. But let me help you in other ways. Will you listen to me?”
“If you want to help me, Aunt,” he said stabbing his fork into a piece of bread before him, “go and ask her if she doesn’t mean to talk to me: if she won’t come out on the gallery a minute.”
“Grégoire wants to know if you won’t go out and speak to him a moment, Melicent,” said Thérèse entering the girl’s room. “Do as you wish, of course. But remember you are going away to-morrow; you’ll likely never see him again. A friendly word from you now, may do more good than you imagine. I believe he’s as unhappy at this moment as a creature can be!”
Melicent looked at her horrified. “I don’t understand you at all, Mrs. Lafirme. Think what he’s done; murdered a defenseless man! How can you have him near you--seated at your table? I don’t know what nerves you have in your bodies, you and David. There’s David, hobnobbing with him. Even that Fanny talking to him as if he were blameless. Never! If he were dying I wouldn’t go near him.”
“Haven’t you a spark of humanity in you?” asked Thérèse, flushing violently.
“Oh, this is something physical,” she replied, shivering, “let me alone.”
Thérèse went out to Grégoire, who stood waiting on the veranda. She only took his hand and pressed it telling him good-night, and he knew that it was a dismissal.
There may be lovers, who, under the circumstances, would have felt sufficient pride to refrain from going to the depôt on the following morning, but Grégoire was not one of them. He was there. He who only a week before had thought that nothing but her constant presence could reconcile him with life, had narrowed down the conditions for his life’s happiness now to a glance or a kind word. He stood close to the steps of the Pullman car that she was about to enter, and as she passed him he held out his hand, saying “Good-bye.” But he held his hand to no purpose. She was much occupied in taking her valise from the conductor who had hoisted her up, and who was now shouting in stentorian tones “All aboard,” though there was not a soul with the slightest intention of boarding the train but herself.
She leaned forward to wave good-bye to Hosmer, and Fanny, and Thérèse, who were on the platform; then she was gone.
Grégoire stood looking stupidly at the vanishing train.
“Are you going back with us?” Hosmer asked him. Fanny and Thérèse had walked ahead.
“No,” he replied, looking at Hosmer with ashen face, “I got to go fine my hoss.”