Melicent Hears the News.
It was talked about and wept about at Place-du-Bois, that Grégoire should be dead. It seemed to them all so unbelievable. Yet, whatever hesitancy they had in accepting the fact of his death, was perforce removed by the convincing proof of Father O’Dowd’s letter.
None could remember but sweetness and kindness of him. Even Nathan, who had been one day felled to earth by a crowbar in Grégoire’s hand, had come himself to look at that deed as not altogether blamable in light of the provocation that had called it forth.
Fanny remembered those bouquets which had been daily offered to her forlornness at her arrival; and the conversations in which they had understood each other so well. The conviction that he was gone away beyond the possibility of knowing him further, moved her to tears. Hosmer, too, was grieved and shocked, without being able to view the event in the light of a calamity.
No one was left unmoved by the tidings which brought a lowering cloud even upon the brow of Aunt Belindy, to rest there the whole day. Deep were the mutterings she hurled at a fate that could have been so short-sighted as to remove from earth so bright an ornament as Grégoire. Her grief further spent much of itself upon the inoffensive Betsy, who, for some inscrutable reason was for twenty-four hours debarred entrance to the kitchen.
Thérèse seated at her desk, devoted a morning to the writing of letters, acquainting various members of the family with the unhappy intelligence. She wrote first to Madame Santien, living now her lazy life in Paris, with eyes closed to the duties that lay before her and heart choked up with an egoism that withered even the mother instincts. It was very difficult to withhold the reproach which she felt inclined to deal her; hard to refrain from upbraiding a selfishness which for a life-time had appeared to Thérèse as criminal.
It was a matter less nice, less difficult, to write to the brothers--one up on the Red River plantation living as best he could; the other idling on the New Orleans streets. But it was after all a short and simple story to tell. There was no lingering illness to describe; no moment even of consciousness in which harrowing last words were to be gathered and recorded. Only a hot senseless quarrel to be told about; the speeding of a bullet with very sure aim, and--quick death.
Of course, masses must be said. Father O’Dowd was properly instructed. Père Antoine in Centerville was addressed on the subject. The Bishop of Natchitoches, respectfully asked to perform this last sad office for the departed soul. And the good old priest and friend at the New Orleans Cathedral, was informed of her desires. Not that Thérèse held very strongly to this saying of masses for the dead; but it had been a custom holding for generations in the family and which she was not disposed to abandon now, even if she had thought of it.
The last letter was sent to Melicent. Thérèse made it purposely short and pointed, with a bare statement of facts--a dry, unemotional telling, that sounded heartless when she read it over; but she let it go.
* * * * *
Melicent was standing in her small, quaint sitting-room, her back to the fire, and her hands clasped behind her. How handsome was this Melicent! Pouting now, and with eyes half covered by the dark shaded lids, as they gazed moodily out at the wild snowflakes that were hurrying like crazy things against the warm window pane and meeting their end there. A loose tea-gown clung in long folds about her. A dull colored thing, save for the two broad bands of sapphire plush hanging straight before, from throat to toe. Melicent was plainly dejected; not troubled, nor sad, only dejected, and very much bored; a condition that had made her yawn several times while she looked at the falling snow.
She was philosophizing a little. Wondering if the world this morning were really the unpleasant place that it appeared, or if these conditions of unpleasantness lay not rather within her own mental vision; a train of thought that might be supposed to have furnished her some degree of entertainment had she continued in its pursuit. But she chose rather to dwell on her causes of unhappiness, and thus convince herself that that unhappiness was indeed outside of her and around her and not by any possibility to be avoided or circumvented. There lay now a letter in her desk from David, filled with admonitions if not reproof which she felt to be not entirely unjust, on the disagreeable subject of Expenses. Looking around the pretty room she conceded to herself that here had been temptations which she could not reasonably have been expected to withstand. The temptation to lodge herself in this charming little flat; furnish it after her own liking; and install that delightful little old poverty-stricken English woman as keeper of Proprieties, with her irresistible white starched caps and her altogether delightful way of inquiring daily after that “poor, dear, kind Mr. Hosmer.” It had all cost a little more than she had foreseen. But the worst of it, the very worst of it was, that she had already begun to ask herself if, for instance, it were not very irritating to see every day, that same branching palm, posing by the window, in that same yellow jardinière. If those draperies that confronted her were not becoming positively offensive in the monotony of their solemn folds. If the cuteness and quaintness of the poverty-stricken little English woman were not after all a source of entertainment that she would willingly forego on occasion. The answer to these questions was a sigh that ended in another yawn.
Then Melicent threw herself into a low easy chair by the table, took up her visiting book, and bending lazily with her arms resting on her knees, began to turn over its pages. The names which she saw there recalled to her mind an entertainment at which she had assisted on the previous afternoon. A progressive euchre party; and the remembrance of what she had there endured now filled her soul with horror.
She thought of those hundred cackling women--of course women are never cackling, it was Melicent’s exaggerated way of expressing herself--packed into those small overheated rooms, around those twenty-five little tables; and how by no chance had she once found herself with a congenial set. And how that Mrs. Van Wycke had cheated! It was plain to Melicent that she had taken advantage of having fat Miss Bloomdale for a partner, who went to euchre parties only to show her hands and rings. And little Mrs. Brinke playing against her. Little Mrs. Brinke! A woman who only the other day had read an original paper entitled: “An Hour with Hegel” before her philosophy class; who had published that dry mystical affair “Light on the Inscrutable in Dante.” How could such a one by any possibility be supposed to observe the disgusting action of Mrs. Van Wycke in throwing off on her partner’s trump and swooping down on the last trick with her right bower? Melicent would have thought it beneath her to more than look her contempt as Mrs. Van Wycke rose with a triumphant laugh to take her place at a higher table, dragging the plastic Bloomdale with her. But she did mutter to herself now, “nasty thief.”
“Johannah,” Melicent called to her maid who sat sewing in the next room.
“You know Mrs. Van Wycke?”
“Mrs. Van Wycke, Miss? the lady with the pinted nose that I caught a-feeling of the curtains?”
“Yes, when she calls again I’m not at home. Do you understand? not at home.”
It was gratifying enough to have thus summarily disposed of Mrs. Van Wycke; but it was a source of entertainment which was soon ended. Melicent continued to turn over the pages of her visiting book during which employment she came to the conclusion that these people whom she frequented were all very tiresome. All, all of them, except Miss Drake who had been absent in Europe for the past six months. Perhaps Mrs. Manning too, who was so seldom at home when Melicent called. Who when at home, usually rushed down with her bonnet on, breathless with “I can only spare you a moment, dear. It’s very sweet of you to come.” She was always just going to the “Home” where things had got into such a muddle whilst she was away for a week. Or it was that “Hospital” meeting where she thought certain members were secretly conniving at her removal from the presidency which she had held for so many years. She was always reading minutes at assemblages which Melicent knew nothing about; or introducing distinguished guests to Guild room meetings. Altogether Melicent saw very little of Mrs. Manning.
“Johannah, don’t you hear the bell?”
“Yes, Miss,” said Johannah, coming into the room and depositing a gown on which she had been working, on the back of a chair. “It’s that postman,” she said, as she fastened her needle to the bosom of her dress. “And such a one as he is, thinking that people must fly when he so much as touches the bell, and going off a writing of ‘no answer to bell,’ and me with my hand on the very door-knob.”
“I notice that always happens when I’m out, Johannah; he’s ringing again.”
It was Thérèse’s letter, and as Melicent turned it about and looked critically at the neatly written address, it was not without a hope that the reading of it might furnish her a moment’s diversion. She did not faint. The letter did not “fall from her nerveless clasp.” She rather held it very steadily. But she grew a shade paler and looked long into the fire. When she had read it three times she folded it slowly and carefully and locked it away in her desk.
“Put that gown away; I shan’t need it.”
“Yes, Miss; and all the beautiful passmantry that you bought?”
“It makes no difference, I shan’t use it. What’s become of that black camel’s-hair that Mrs. Gauche spoiled so last winter?”
“It’s laid away, Miss, the same in the cedar chest as the day it came home from her hands and no more fit, that I’d be a shame meself and no claims to a dress-maker. And there’s many a lady that she never would have seen a cent, let alone making herself pay for the spiling of it.”
“Well, well, Johannah, never mind. Get it out, we’ll see what can be done with it. I’ve had some painful news, and I shall wear mourning for a long, long time.”
“Oh, Miss, it’s not Mr. David! nor yet one of those sweet relations in Utica? leastways not I hope that beautiful Miss Gertrude, with such hair as I never see for the goldness of it and not dyed, except me cousin that’s a nun, that her mother actually cried when it was cut off?”
“No, Johannah; only a very dear friend.”
There were a few social engagements to be cancelled; and regrets to be sent out, which she attended to immediately. Then she turned again to look long into the fire. That crime for which she had scorned him, was wiped out now by expiation. For a long time--how long she could not yet determine--she would wrap herself in garb of mourning and move about in sorrowing--giving evasive answer to the curious who questioned her. Now might she live again through those summer months with Grégoire--those golden afternoons in the pine woods--whose aroma even now came back to her. She might look again into his loving brown eyes; feel beneath her touch the softness of his curls. She recalled a day when he had said, “Neva to see you--my God!” and how he had trembled. She recalled--strangely enough and for the first time--that one kiss, and a little tremor brought the hot color to her cheek.
Was she in love with Grégoire now that he was dead? Perhaps. At all events, for the next month, Melicent would not be bored.