A Social Evening.
Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Duplan with their little daughter Ninette, who had been invited to Place-du-Bois for supper, as well as for the evening, were seated with Thérèse in the parlor, awaiting the arrival of the cottage guests. They had left their rather distant plantation, Les Chênières, early in the afternoon, wishing as usual to make the most of these visits, which, though infrequent, were always so much enjoyed.
The room was somewhat altered since that summer day when Thérèse had sat in its cool shadows, hearing the story of David Hosmer’s life. Only with such difference, however, as the change of season called for; imparting to it a rich warmth that invited to sociability and friendly confidences. In the depths of the great chimney glowed with a steady and dignified heat, the huge back-log, whose disposal Uncle Hiram had superintended in person; and the leaping flames from the dry hickories that surrounded it, lent a very genial light to the grim-visaged Lafirmes who looked down from their elevation on the interesting group gathered about the hearth.
Conversation had never once flagged with these good friends; for, aside from much neighborhood gossip to be told and listened to, there was the always fertile topic of “crops” to be discussed in all its bearings, that touched, in its local and restricted sense, the labor question, cultivation, freight rates, and the city merchant.
With Mrs. Duplan there was a good deal to be said about the unusual mortality among “Plymouth-Rocks” owing to an alarming prevalence of “pip,” which malady, however, that lady found to be gradually yielding to a heroic treatment introduced into her _basse-cour_ by one Coulon, a piney wood sage of some repute as a mystic healer.
This was a delicate refined little woman, somewhat old-fashioned and stranded in her incapability to keep pace with the modern conduct of life; but giving her views with a pretty self-confidence, that showed her a ruler in her peculiar realm.
The young Ninette had extended herself in an easy chair, in an attitude of graceful abandonment, the earnest brown eyes looking eagerly out from under a tangle of auburn hair, and resting with absorbed admiration upon her father, whose words and movements she followed with unflagging attentiveness. The fastidious little miss was clad in a dainty gown that reached scarcely below the knees; revealing the shapely limbs that were crossed and extended to let the well shod feet rest upon the polished brass fender.
Thérèse had given what information lay within her range, concerning the company which was expected. But her confidences had plainly been insufficient to prepare Mrs. Duplan for the startling effect produced by Mrs. Worthington on that little woman in her black silk of a by-gone fashion; so splendid was Mrs. Worthington’s erect and imposing figure, so blonde her blonde hair, so bright her striking color and so comprehensive the sweep of her blue and scintillating gown. Yet was Mrs. Worthington not at ease, as might be noticed in the unnatural quaver of her high-pitched voice and the restless motion of her hands, as she seated herself with an arm studiedly resting upon the table near by.
Hosmer had met the Duplans before; on the occasion of a former visit to Place-du-Bois and again at Les Chênières when he had gone to see the planter on business connected with the lumber trade.
Fanny was a stranger to them and promised to remain such; for she acknowledged her presentation with a silent bow and retreated as far from the group as a decent concession to sociability would permit.
Thérèse with her pretty Creole tact was not long in bringing these seemingly incongruent elements into some degree of harmony. Mr. Duplan in his courteous and rather lordly way was presently imparting to Mrs. Worthington certain reminiscences of a visit to St. Louis twenty-five years before, when he and Mrs. Duplan had rather hastily traversed that interesting town during their wedding journey. Mr. Duplan’s manner had a singular effect upon Mrs. Worthington, who became dignified, subdued, and altogether unnatural in her endeavor to adjust herself to it.
Mr. Worthington seated himself beside Mrs. Duplan and was soon trying to glean information, in his eager short-sighted way, of psychological interest concerning the negro race; such effort rather bewildering that good lady, who could not bring herself to view the negro as an interesting or suitable theme to be introduced into polite conversation.
Hosmer sat and talked good-naturedly to the little girls, endeavoring to dispel the shyness with which they seemed inclined to view each other--and Thérèse crossed the room to join Fanny.
“I hope you’re feeling better,” she ventured, “you should have let me help you while Mr. Hosmer was ill.”
Fanny looked away, biting her lip, the sudden tears coming to her eyes. She answered with unsteady voice, “Oh, I was able to look after my husband myself, Mrs. Laferm.”
Thérèse reddened at finding herself so misunderstood. “I meant in your housekeeping, Mrs. Hosmer; I could have relieved you of some of that worry, whilst you were occupied with your husband.”
Fanny continued to look unhappy; her features taking on that peculiar downward droop which Thérèse had come to know and mistrust.
“Are you going to New Orleans with Mrs. Worthington?” she asked, “she told me she meant to try and persuade you.”
“No; I’m not going. Why?” looking suspiciously in Thérèse’s face.
“Well,” laughed Thérèse, “only for the sake of asking, I suppose. I thought you’d enjoy Mardi-Gras, never having seen it.”
“I’m not going anywheres unless David goes along,” she said, with an impertinent ring in her voice, and with a conviction that she was administering a stab and a rebuke. She had come prepared to watch her husband and Mrs. Lafirme, her heart swelling with jealous suspicion as she looked constantly from one to the other, endeavoring to detect signs of an understanding between them. Failing to discover such, and loth to be robbed of her morbid feast of misery, she set her failure down to their pre-determined subtlety. Thérèse was conscious of a change in Fanny’s attitude, and felt herself unable to account for it otherwise than by whim, which she knew played a not unimportant rôle in directing the manner of a large majority of women. Moreover, it was not a moment to lose herself in speculation concerning this woman’s capricious behavior. Her guests held the first claim upon her attentions. Indeed, here was Mrs. Worthington even now loudly demanding a pack of cards. “Here’s a gentleman never heard of six-handed euchre. If you’ve got a pack of cards, Mrs. Laferm, I guess I can show him quick enough that it can be done.”
“Oh, I don’t doubt Mrs. Worthington’s ability to make any startling and pleasing revelations,” rejoined the planter good humoredly, and gallantly following Mrs. Worthington who had risen with the view of putting into immediate effect her scheme of initiating these slow people into the unsuspected possibilities of euchre; a game which, however adaptable in other ways, could certainly not be indulged in by seven persons. After each one proffering, as is usual on such occasions, his readiness to assume the character of on-looker, Mr. Worthington’s claim to entire indifference, if not inability--confirmed by his wife--was accepted as the most sincere, and that gentleman was excluded and excused.
He watched them as they seated themselves at table, even lending assistance, in his own awkward way, to range the chairs in place. Then he followed the game for a while, standing behind Fanny to note the outcome of her reckless offer of “five on hearts,” with only three trumps in hand, and every indication of little assistance from her partners, Mr. Duplan and Belle Worthington.
At one end of the room was a long, low, well-filled book-case. Here had been the direction of Mr. Worthington’s secret and stolen glances the entire evening. And now towards this point he finally transported himself by gradual movements which he believed appeared unstudied and indifferent. He was confronted by a good deal of French--to him an unfamiliar language. Here a long row of Balzac; then, the Waverley Novels in faded red cloth of very old date. Racine, Moliere, Bulwer following in more modern garb; Shakespeare in a compass that promised very small type. His quick trained glance sweeping along the shelves, contracted into a little frown of resentment while he sent his hand impetuously through his scant locks, standing them quite on end.
On the very lowest shelf were five imposing volumes in dignified black and gold, bearing the simple inscription “Lives of the Saints--Rev. A. Butler.” Upon one of them, Mr. Worthington seized, opening it at hazard. He had fallen upon the history of St. Monica, mother of the great St. Austin--a woman whose habits it appears had been so closely guarded in her childhood by a pious nurse, that even the quenching of her natural thirst was permitted only within certain well defined bounds. This mentor used to say “you are now for drinking water, but when you come to be mistress of the cellar, water will be despised, but the habit of drinking will stick by you.” Highly interesting, Mr. Worthington thought, as he brushed his hair all down again the right way and seated himself the better to learn the fortunes of the good St. Monica who, curiously enough, notwithstanding those early incentives to temperance, “insensibly contracted an inclination to wine,” drinking “whole cups of it with pleasure as it came in her way.” A “dangerous intemperance” which it finally pleased Heaven to cure through the instrumentality of a maid servant taunting her mistress with being a “wine bibber.”
Mr. Worthington did not stop with the story of Saint Monica. He lost himself in those details of asceticism, martyrdom, superhuman possibilities which man is capable of attaining under peculiar conditions of life--something he had not yet “gone into.”
The voices at the card table would certainly have disturbed a man with less power of mind concentration. For Mrs. Worthington in this familiar employment was herself again--_con fuoco_. Here was Mr. Duplan in high spirits; his wife putting forth little gushes of bird-like exaltation as the fascinations of the game revealed themselves to her. Even Hosmer and Thérèse were drawn for the moment from their usual preoccupation. Fanny alone was the ghost of the feast. Her features never relaxed from their settled gloom. She played at hap-hazard, listlessly throwing down the cards or letting them fall from her hands, vaguely asking what were trumps at inopportune moments; showing that inattentiveness so exasperating to an eager player and which oftener than once drew a sharp rebuke from Belle Worthington.
“Don’t you wish we could play,” said Ninette to her companion from her comfortable perch beside the fire, and looking longingly towards the card table.
“Oh, no,” replied Lucilla briefly, gazing into the fire, with hands folded in her lap. Thin hands, showing up very white against the dull colored “convent uniform” that hung in plain, severe folds about her and reached to her very ankles.
“Oh, don’t you? I play often at home when company comes. And I play cribbage and _vingt-et-un_ with papa and win lots of money from him.”
“No, it isn’t; papa wouldn’t do it if it was wrong,” she answered decidedly. “Do you go to the convent?” she asked, looking critically at Lucilla and drawing a little nearer, so as to be confidential. “Tell me about it,” she continued, when the other had replied affirmatively. “Is it very dreadful? you know they’re going to send me soon.”
“Oh, it’s the best place in the world,” corrected Lucilla as eagerly as she could.
“Well, mamma says she was just as happy as could be there, but you see that’s so awfully long ago. It must have changed since then.”
“The convent never changes: it’s always the same. You first go to chapel to mass early in the morning.”
“Ugh!” shuddered Ninette.
“Then you have studies,” continued Lucilla. “Then breakfast, then recreation, then classes, and there’s meditation.”
“Oh, well,” interrupted Ninette, “I believe anything most would suit you, and mamma when she was little; but if I don’t like it--see here, if I tell you something will you promise never, never, to tell?”
“Is it any thing wrong?”
“Oh, no, not very; it isn’t a real mortal sin. Will you promise?”
“Yes,” agreed Lucilla; curiosity getting something the better of her pious scruples.
“Cross your heart?”
Lucilla crossed her heart carefully, though a little reluctantly.
“Hope you may die?”
“Oh!” exclaimed the little convent girl aghast.
“Oh, pshaw,” laughed Ninette, “never mind. But that’s what Polly always says when she wants me to believe her: ‘hope I may die, Miss Ninette.’ Well, this is it: I’ve been saving up money for the longest time, oh ever so long. I’ve got eighteen dollars and sixty cents, and when they send me to the convent, if I don’t like it, I’m going to run away.” This last and startling revelation was told in a tragic whisper in Lucilla’s ear, for Betsy was standing before them with a tray of chocolate and coffee that she was passing around.
“I yeard you,” proclaimed Betsy with mischievous inscrutable countenance.
“You didn’t,” said Ninette defiantly, and taking a cup of coffee.
“Yas, I did, I yeard you,” walking away.
“See here, Betsy,” cried Ninette recalling the girl, “you’re not going to tell, are you?”
“Dun know ef I isn’t gwine tell. Dun know ef I isn’t gwine tell Miss Duplan dis yere ver’ minute.”
“Oh Betsy,” entreated Ninette, “I’ll give you this dress if you don’t. I don’t want it any more.”
Betsy’s eyes glowed, but she looked down unconcernedly at the pretty gown.
“Don’t spec it fit me. An’ you know Miss T’rèse ain’t gwine let me go flyin’ roun’ wid my laigs stickin’ out dat away.”
“I’ll let the ruffle down, Betsy,” eagerly proposed Ninette.
“Betsy!” called Thérèse a little impatiently.
“Yas, ’um--I ben waitin’ fu’ de cups.”
Lucilla had made many an aspiration--many an “act” the while. This whole evening of revelry, and now this last act of wicked conspiracy seemed to have tainted her soul with a breath of sin which she would not feel wholly freed from, till she had cleansed her spirit in the waters of absolution.
The party broke up at a late hour, though the Duplans had a long distance to go, and, moreover, had to cross the high and turbid river to reach their carriage which had been left on the opposite bank, owing to the difficulty of the crossing.
Mr. Duplan took occasion of a moment aside to whisper to Hosmer with the air of a connoisseur, “fine woman that Mrs. Worthington of yours.”
Hosmer laughed at the jesting implication, whilst disclaiming it, and Fanny looked moodily at them both, jealously wondering at the cause of their good humor.
Mrs. Duplan, under the influence of a charming evening passed in such agreeable and distinguished company, was full of amiable bustle in leaving and had many pleasant parting words to say to each, in her pretty broken English.
“Oh, yes, ma’am,” said Mrs. Worthington to that lady, who had taken admiring notice of the beautiful silver “Holy Angels” medal that hung from Lucilla’s neck and rested against the dark gown. “Lucilla takes after Mr. Worthington as far as religion goes--kind of different though, for I must say it ain’t often he darkens the doors of a church.”
Mrs. Worthington always spoke of her husband present as of a husband absent. A peculiarity which he patiently endured, having no talent for repartee, that he had at one time thought of cultivating. But that time was long past.
The Duplans were the first to leave. Then Thérèse stood for a while on the veranda in the chill night air watching the others disappear across the lawn. Mr. and Mrs. Worthington and Lucilla had all shaken hands with her in saying good night. Fanny followed suit limply and grudgingly. Hosmer buttoned his coat impatiently and only lifted his hat to Thérèse as he helped his wife down the stairs.
Poor Fanny! she had already taken exception at that hand pressure which was to come and for which she watched, and now her whole small being was in a jealous turmoil--because there had been none.