A Fateful Solution.
Hosmer passed the day with a great pain at his heart. His hasty and violent passion of the morning had added another weight for his spirit to drag about, and which he could not cast off. No feeling of resentment remained with him; only wonder at his wife’s misshapen knowledge and keen self-rebuke of his own momentary forgetfulness. Even knowing Fanny as he did, he could not rid himself of the haunting dread of having wounded her nature cruelly. He felt much as a man who in a moment of anger inflicts an irreparable hurt upon some small, weak, irresponsible creature, and must bear regret for his madness. The only reparation that lay within his power--true, one that seemed inadequate--was an open and manly apology and confession of wrong. He would feel better when it was made. He would perhaps find relief in discovering that the wound he had inflicted was not so deep--so dangerous as he feared.
With such end in view he came home early in the afternoon. His wife was not there. The house was deserted. Even the servants had disappeared. It took but a moment for him to search the various rooms and find them one after the other, unoccupied. He went out on the porch and looked around. The raw air chilled him. The wind was blowing violently, bringing dashes of rain along with it from massed clouds that hung leaden between sky and earth. Could she have gone over to the house? It was unlikely, for he knew her to have avoided Mrs. Lafirme of late, with a persistence that had puzzled him to seek its cause, which had only fully revealed itself in the morning Yet, where else could she be? An undefined terror was laying hold of him. His sensitive nature, in exaggerating its own heartlessness, was blindly overestimating the delicacy of hers. To what may he not have driven her? What hitherto untouched chord may he not have started into painful quivering? Was it for him to gauge the endurance of a woman’s spirit? Fanny was not now the wife whom he hated; his own act of the morning had changed her into the human being, the weak creature whom he had wronged.
In quitting the house she must have gone unprepared for the inclement weather, for there hung her heavy wrap in its accustomed place, with her umbrella beside it. He seized both and buttoning his own great coat about him, hurried away and over to Mrs. Lafirme’s. He found that lady in the sitting-room.
“Isn’t Fanny here?” he asked abruptly, with no word of greeting.
“No,” she answered looking up at him, and seeing the evident uneasiness in his face. “Isn’t she at home? Is anything wrong?”
“Oh, everything is wrong,” he returned desperately, “But the immediate wrong is that she has disappeared--I must find her.”
Thérèse arose at once and called to Betsy who was occupied on the front veranda.
“Yas, um,” the girl answered to her mistress’ enquiry. “I seed ma’am Hosma goin’ to’ads de riva good hour ’go. She mus’ crost w’en Nathan tuck dat load ova. I yain’t seed ’er comin’ back yit.”
Hosmer left the house hastily, hardly reassured by Betsy’s information. Thérèse’s glance--speculating and uneasy--followed his hurrying figure till it disappeared from sight.
The crossing was an affair of extreme difficulty, and which Nathan was reluctant to undertake until he should have gathered a “load” that would justify him in making it. In his estimation, Hosmer did not meet such requirement, even taken in company with the solitary individual who had been sitting on his horse with Egyptian patience for long unheeded moments, the rain beating down upon his back, while he waited the ferryman’s pleasure. But Nathan’s determination was not proof against the substantial inducements which Hosmer held out to him; and soon they were launched, all hands assisting in the toilsome passage.
The water, in rising to an unaccustomed height, had taken on an added and tremendous swiftness. The red turbid stream was eddying and bulging and hurrying with terrific swiftness between its shallow banks, striking with an immensity of power against the projection of land on which stood Marie Louise’s cabin, and rebounding in great circling waves that spread and lost themselves in the seething turmoil. The cable used in crossing the unwieldly flat had long been submerged and the posts which held it wrenched from their fastenings. The three men, each with his long heavy oar in hand began to pull up stream, using a force that brought the swelling veins like iron tracings upon their foreheads where the sweat had gathered as if the day were midsummer. They made their toilsome way by slow inches, that finally landed them breathless and exhausted on the opposite side.
What could have been the inducement to call Fanny out on such a day and such a venture? The answer came only too readily from Hosmer’s reproaching conscience. And now, where to seek her? There was nothing to guide him; to indicate the course she might have taken. The rain was falling heavily and in gusts and through it he looked about at the small cabins standing dreary in their dismantled fields. Marie Louise’s was the nearest at hand and towards it he directed his steps.
The big good-natured negress had seen his approach from the window, for she opened the door to him before he had time to knock, and entering he saw Fanny seated before the fire holding a pair of very wet smoking feet to dry. His first sensation was one of relief at finding her safe and housed. His next, one of uncertainty as to the kind and degree of resentment which he felt confident must now show itself. But this last was soon dispelled, for turning, she greeted him with a laugh. He would have rather a blow. That laugh said so many things--too many things. True, it removed the dread which had been haunting him all day, but it shattered what seemed to have been now his last illusion regarding this woman. That unsounded chord which he feared he had touched was after all but one in harmony with the rest of her common nature. He saw too at a glance that her dominant passion had been leading and now controlled her. And by one of those rapid trains of thought in which odd and detached fancies, facts, impressions and observations form themselves into an orderly sequence leading to a final conviction--all was made plain to him that before had puzzled him. She need not have told him her reason for crossing the river, he knew it. He dismissed at once the attitude with which he had thought to approach her. Here was no forgiveness to be asked of dulled senses. No bending in expiation of faults committed. He was here as master.
“Fanny, what does this mean?” he asked in cold anger; with no heat now, no passion.
“Yaas, me tell madame, she goin’ fur ketch cole si she don’ mine out. Dat not fur play dat kine wedder, no. Teck chair, M’sieur; dry you’se’f leet beet. Me mek you one cup coffee.”
Hosmer declined the good Marie Louise’s kind proffer of coffee, but he seated himself and waited for Fanny to speak.
“You know if you want a thing done in this place, you’ve got to do it yourself. I’ve heard you say it myself, time and time again about those people at the mill,” she said.
“Could it have been so urgent as to call you out on a day like this, and with such a perilous crossing? Couldn’t you have found some one else to come for you?”
“Who? I’d like to know. Just tell me who? It’s nothing to you if we’re without servants, but I’m not going to stand it. I ain’t going to let Samp_son_ act like that without knowing what he means,” said Fanny sharply.
“Dat Samp_son_, he one leet dev’,” proffered Marie Louise, with laudable design of shifting blame upon the easy shoulders of Sampson, in event of the domestic jar which she anticipated. “No use try do nuttin’ ’id Sampson, M’sieur.”
“I had to know something, one way or the other,” Fanny said in a tone which carried apology, rather by courtesy than by what she considered due.
Hosmer walked to the window where he looked out upon the dreary, desolate scene, little calculated to cheer him. The river was just below; and from this window he could gaze down upon the rushing current as it swept around the bend further up and came striking against this projection with a force all its own. The rain was falling still; steadily, blindingly, with wild clatter against the shingled roof so close above their heads. It coursed in little swift rivulets down the furrows of the almost perpendicular banks. It mingled in a demon dance with the dull, red water. There was something inviting to Hosmer in the scene. He wanted to be outside there making a part of it. He wanted to feel that rain and wind beating upon him. Within, it was stifling, maddening; with his wife’s presence there, charging the room with an atmosphere of hate that was possessing him and beginning to course through his veins as it had never done before.
“Do you want to go home?” he asked bluntly, turning half around.
“You must be crazy,” she replied, with a slow, upward glance out the window, then down at her feet that were still poised on the low stool that Marie Louise had placed for her.
“You’d better come.” He could not have said what moved him, unless it were recklessness and defiance.
“I guess you’re dreaming, or something, David. You go on home if you want. Nobody asked you to come after me any way. I’m able to take care of myself, I guess. Ain’t you going to take the umbrella?” she added, seeing him start for the door empty handed.
“Oh, it doesn’t matter about the rain,” he answered without a look back as he went out and slammed the door after him.
“M’sieur look lak he not please,” said Marie Louise, with plain regret at the turn of affairs. “You see he no lak you go out in dat kine wedder, me know dat.”
“Oh, bother,” was Fanny’s careless reply. “This suits me well enough; I don’t care how long it lasts.”
She was in Marie Louise’s big rocker, balancing comfortably back and forth with a swing that had become automatic. She felt “good,” as she would have termed it herself; her visit to Sampson’s hut having not been without results tending to that condition. The warmth of the room was very agreeable in contrast to the bleakness of out-doors. She felt free and moved to exercise a looseness of tongue with the amiable old negress which was not common with her. The occurrences of the morning were gradually withdrawing themselves into a distant perspective that left her in the attitude of a spectator rather than that of an actor. And she laughed and talked with Marie Louise, and rocked, and rocked herself on into drowsiness.
Hosmer had no intention of returning home without his wife. He only wanted to be out under the sky; he wanted to breathe, to use his muscles again. He would go and help cross the flat if need be; an occupation that promised him relief in physical effort. He joined Nathan, whom he found standing under a big live-oak, disputing with an old colored woman who wanted to cross to get back to her family before supper time.
“You didn’ have no call to come ova in de fus’ place,” he was saying to her, “you womens is alluz runnin’ back’ards and for’ards like skeard rabbit in de co’n fiel’.”
“I don’ stan’ no sich talk is dat f’om you. Ef you kiant tin’ to yo’ business o’ totin’ folks w’en dey wants, you betta quit. You done cheat Mose out o’ de job, anyways; we all knows dat.”
“Mine out, woman, you gwine git hu’t. Jis’ le’me see Mose han’le dat ’ar flat onct: Jis’ le’me. He lan’ you down to de Mouf ’fo’ you knows it.”
“Let me tell you, Nathan,” said Hosmer, looking at his watch, “say you wait a quarter of an hour and if no one else comes, we’ll cross Aunt Agnes anyway.”
“Dat ’nudda t’ing ef you wants to go back, suh.”
Aunt Agnes was grumbling now at Hosmer’s proposal that promised to keep her another quarter of an hour from her expectant family, when a big lumbering creaking wagon drove up, with its load of baled cotton all covered with tarpaulins.
“Dah!” exclaimed Nathan at sight of the wagon, “ef I’d ’a listened to yo’ jawin’--what?”
“Ef you’d listen to me, you’d ’tin’ to yo’ business betta ’an you does,” replied Aunt Agnes, raising a very battered umbrella over her grotesquely apparelled figure, as she stepped from under the shelter of the tree to take her place in the flat.
But she still met with obstacles, for the wagon must needs go first. When it had rolled heavily into place with much loud and needless swearing on the part of the driver who, being a white man, considered Hosmer’s presence no hindrance, they let go the chain, and once again pulled out. The crossing was even more difficult now, owing to the extra weight of the wagon.
“I guess you earn your money, Nathan,” said Hosmer bending and quivering with the efforts he put forth.
“Yas, suh, I does; an’ dis job’s wuf mo’ ’an I gits fu’ it.”
“All de same you done lef’ off wurking crap sence you start it,” mumbled Aunt Agnes.
“You gwine git hu’t, woman; I done tole you dat; don’ wan’ listen,” returned Nathan with halting breath.
“Who gwine hu’t me?”
Whether from tardy gallantry or from pre-occupation with his arduous work, Nathan offered no reply to this challenge, and his silence left Aunt Agnes in possession of the field.
They were in full mid-stream. Hosmer and the teamster were in the fore end of the boat; Nathan in the rear, and Aunt Agnes standing in the center between the wagon and the protecting railing, against which she leaned her clasped hands that still upheld the semblance of umbrella.
The ill-mated horses stood motionless, letting fall their dejected heads with apathetic droop. The rain was dripping from their glistening coats, and making a great patter as it fell upon the tarpaulins covering the cotton bales.
Suddenly came an exclamation: “Gret God!” from Aunt Agnes, so genuine in its amazement and dismay, that the three men with one accord looked quickly up at her, then at the point on which her terrified gaze was fixed. Almost on the instant of the woman’s cry, was heard a shrill, piercing, feminine scream.
What they saw was the section of land on which stood Marie Louise’s cabin, undermined--broken away from the main body and gradually gliding into the water. It must have sunk with a first abrupt wrench, for the brick chimney was shaken from its foundation, the smoke issuing in dense clouds from its shattered sides, the house toppling and the roof caving. For a moment Hosmer lost his senses. He could but look, as if at some awful apparition that must soon pass from sight and leave him again in possession of his reason. The leaning house was half submerged when Fanny appeared at the door, like a figure in a dream; seeming a natural part of the awfulness of it. He only gazed on. The two negroes uttered loud lamentations.
“Pull with the current!” cried the teamster, first to regain his presence of mind. It had needed but this, to awaken Hosmer to the situation.
“Leave off,” he cried at Nathan, who was wringing his hands. “Take hold that oar or I’ll throw you overboard.” The trembling ashen negro obeyed on the instant.
“Hold fast--for God’s sake--hold fast!” he shouted to Fanny, who was clinging with swaying figure to the door post. Of Marie Louise there was no sign.
The caved bank now remained fixed; but Hosmer knew that at any instant it was liable to disappear before his riveted gaze.
How heavy the flat was! And the horses had caught the contagion of terror and were plunging madly.
“Whip those horses and their load into the river,” called Hosmer, “we’ve got to lighten at any price.”
“Them horses an’ cotton’s worth money,” interposed the alarmed teamster.
“Force them into the river, I say; I’ll pay you twice their value.”
“You ’low to pay fur the cotton, too?”
“Into the river with them or I’ll brain you!” he cried, maddened at the weight and delay that were holding them back.
The frightened animals seemed to ask nothing more than to plunge into the troubled water; dragging their load with them.
They were speeding rapidly towards the scene of catastrophe; but to Hosmer they crawled--the moments were hours. “Hold on! hold fast!” he called again and again to his wife. But even as he cried out, the detached section of earth swayed, lurched to one side--plunged to the other, and the whole mass was submerged--leaving the water above it in wild agitation.
A cry of horror went up from the spectators--all but Hosmer. He cast aside his oar--threw off his coat and hat; worked an instant without avail at his wet clinging boots, and with a leap was in the water, swimming towards the spot where the cabin had gone down. The current bore him on without much effort of his own. The flat was close up with him; but he could think of it no longer as a means of rescue. Detached pieces of timber from the ruined house were beginning to rise to the surface. Then something floating softly on the water: a woman’s dress, but too far for him to reach it.
When Fanny appeared again, Hosmer was close beside her. His left arm was quickly thrown about her. She was insensible, and he remembered that it was best so, for had she been in possession of her reason, she might have struggled and impeded his movements. He held her fast--close to him and turned to regain the shore. Another horrified shriek went up from the occupants of the flat-boat not far away, and Hosmer knew no more--for a great plunging beam struck him full upon the forehead.
When consciousness came back to him, he found that he lay extended in the flat, which was fastened to the shore. The confused sound of many voices mingled with a ringing din that filled his ears. A warm stream was trickling down over his cheek. Another body lay beside him. Now they were lifting him. Thérèse’s face was somewhere--very near, he saw it dimly and that it was white--and he fell again into insensibility.