Tidings That Sting.
Thérèse felt that the room was growing oppressive. She had been sitting all morning alone before the fire, passing in review a great heap of household linen that lay piled beside her on the floor, alternating this occupation with occasional careful and tender offices bestowed upon a wee lamb that had been brought to her some hours before, and that now lay wounded and half lifeless upon a pile of coffee sacks before the blaze.
A fire was hardly needed, except to dispel the dampness that had even made its insistent way indoors, covering walls and furniture with a clammy film. Outside, the moisture was dripping from the glistening magnolia leaves and from the pointed polished leaves of the live-oaks, and the sun that had come out with intense suddenness was drawing it steaming from the shingled roof-tops.
When Thérèse, finally aware of the closeness of the room, opened the door and went out on the veranda, she saw a man, a stranger, riding towards the house and she stood to await his approach. He belonged to what is rather indiscriminately known in that section of the State as the “piney-woods” genus. A rawboned fellow, lank and long of leg; as ungroomed with his scraggy yellow hair and beard as the scrubby little Texas pony which he rode. His big soft felt hat had done unreasonable service as a head-piece; and the “store clothes” that hung upon his lean person could never in their remotest freshness have masqueraded under the character of “all wool.” He was in transit, as the bulging saddle-bags that hung across his horse indicated, as well as the rough brown blanket strapped behind him to the animal’s back. He rode up close to the rail of the veranda near which Thérèse stood, and nodded to her without offering to raise or touch his hat. She was prepared for the drawl with which he addressed her, and even guessed at what his first words would be.
“You’re Mrs. Laferm I ’low?”
Thérèse acknowledged her identity with a bow.
“My name’s Jimson; Rufe Jimson,” he went on, settling himself on the pony and folding his long knotty hands over the hickory switch that he carried in guise of whip.
“Do you wish to speak to me? won’t you dismount?” Thérèse asked.
“I hed my dinner down to the store,” he said taking her proposal as an invitation to dine, and turning to expectorate a mouth full of tobacco juice before continuing. “Capital sardines them air,” passing his hand over his mouth and beard in unctuous remembrance of the oily dainties.
“I’m just from Cornstalk, Texas, on mu way to Grant. An’ them roads as I’ve traversed isn’t what I’d call the best in a fair and square talk.”
His manner bore not the slightest mark of deference. He spoke to Thérèse as he might have spoken to one of her black servants, or as he would have addressed a princess of royal blood if fate had ever brought him into such unlikely contact, so clearly was the sense of human equality native to him.
Thérèse knew her animal, and waited patiently for his business to unfold itself.
“I reckon thar hain’t no ford hereabouts?” he asked, looking at her with a certain challenge.
“Oh, no; its even difficult crossing in the flat,” she answered.
“Wall, I hed calc’lated continooing on this near side. Reckon I could make it?” challenging her again to an answer.
“There’s no road on this side,” she said, turning away to fasten more securely the escaped branches of a rose-bush that twined about a column near which she stood.
Whether there were a road on this side or on the other side, or no road at all, appeared to be matter of equal indifference to Mr. Jimson, so far as his manner showed. He continued imperturbably “I ’lowed to stop here on a little matter o’ business. ’Tis some out o’ mu way; more’n I’d calc’lated. You couldn’t tell the ixact distance from here to Colfax, could you?”
Thérèse rather impatiently gave him the desired information, and begged that he would disclose his business with her.
“Wall,” he said, “onpleasant news ’ll keep most times tell you’re ready fur it. Thet’s my way o’ lookin’ at it.”
“Unpleasant news for me?” she inquired, startled from her indifference and listlessness.
“Rather onpleasant ez I take it. I hain’t a makin’ no misstatement to persume thet Grégor Sanchun was your nephew?”
“Yes, yes,” responded Thérèse, now thoroughly alarmed, and approaching as close to Mr. Rufe Jimson as the dividing rail would permit, “What of him, please?”
He turned again to discharge an accumulation of tobacco juice into a thick border of violets, and resumed.
“You see a hot-blooded young feller, ez wouldn’t take no more ’an give no odds, stranger or no stranger in the town, he couldn’t ixpect civil treatment; leastways not from Colonel Bill Klayton. Ez I said to Tozier--”
“Please tell me as quickly as possible what has happened,” demanded Thérèse with trembling eagerness; steadying herself with both hands on the railing before her.
“You see it all riz out o’ a little altercation ’twixt him and Colonel Klayton in the colonel’s store. Some says he’d ben drinkin’; others denies it. Howsomever they did hev words risin’ out o’ the colonel addressing your nephew under the title o’ ‘Frenchy’; which most takes ez a insufficient cause for rilin’.”
“He’s dead?” gasped Thérèse, looking at the dispassionate Texan with horrified eyes.
“Wall, yes,” an admission which he seemed not yet willing to leave unqualified; for he went on “It don’t do to alluz speak out open an’ above boards, leastways not thar in Cornstalk. But I’ll ’low to you, it’s my opinion the colonel acted hasty. It’s true ’nough, the young feller hed drawed, but ez I said to Tozier, thet’s no reason to persume it was his intention to use his gun.”
So Grégoire was dead. She understood it all now. The manner of his death was plain to her as if she had seen it, out there in some disorderly settlement. Killed by the hand of a stranger with whom perhaps the taking of a man’s life counted as little as it had once counted with his victim. This flood of sudden and painful intelligence staggered her, and leaning against the column she covered her eyes with both hands, for a while forgetting the presence of the man who had brought the sad tidings.
But he had never ceased his monotonous unwinding. “Thar hain’t no manner o’ doubt, marm,” he was saying, “thet he did hev the sympathy o’ the intire community--ez far ez they was free to express it--barrin’ a few. Fur he was a likely young chap, that warn’t no two opinions o’ that. Free with his money--alluz ready to set up fur a friend. Here’s a bit o’ writin’ thet’ll larn you more o’ the pertic’lars,” drawing a letter from his pocket, “writ by the Catholic priest, by name of O’Dowd. He ’lowed you mought want proyer meetin’s and sich.”
“Masses,” corrected Thérèse, holding out her hand for the letter. With the other hand she was wiping away the tears that had gathered thick in her eyes.
“Thar’s a couple more little tricks thet he sont,” continued Rufe Jimson, apparently dislocating his joints to reach the depths of his trouser pocket, from which he drew a battered pocket book wrapped around with an infinity of string. From the grimy folds of this receptacle he took a small paper parcel which he placed in her hand. It was partly unfastened, and as she opened it fully, the pent-up tears came blindingly--for before her lay a few curling rings of soft brown hair, and a pair of scapulars, one of which was pierced by a tell-tale bullet hole.
“Won’t you dismount?” she presently asked again, this time a little more kindly.
“No, marm,” said the Texan, jerking his hitherto patient pony by the bridle till it performed feats of which an impartial observer could scarcely have suspected it.
“Don’t reckon I could make Colfax before dark, do you?”
“Hardly,” she said, turning away, “I’m much obliged to you, Mr. Jimson, for having taken this trouble--if the flat is on the other side, you need only call for it.”
“Wall, good day, marm--I wish you luck,” he added, with a touch of gallantry which her tears and sweet feminine presence had inspired. Then turning, he loped his horse rapidly forward, leaning well back in the saddle and his elbows sawing the air.