MADAME Valtour had been in the sitting- room some time before she noticed the absence of the Dresden china figure from the corner of the mantel-piece, where it had stood for years. Aside from the intrinsic value of the piece, there were some very sad and tender memories associated with it. A baby's lips that were now forever still had loved once to kiss the painted "pitty 'ady"; and the baby arms had often held it in a close and smothered embrace.
Madame Valtour gave a rapid, startled glance around the room, to see perchance if it had been misplaced; but she failed to discover it.
Viny, the house-maid, when summoned, remembered having carefully dusted it that morning, and was rather indignantly positive that she had not broken the thing to bits and secreted the pieces.
"Who has been in the room during my absence?" questioned Madame Valtour, with asperity. Viny abandoned herself to a moment's reflection.
"Pa-Jeff comed in yere wid de mail - " If she had said St. Peter came in with the mail, the fact would have had as little bearing on the case from Madame Valtour's point of view.
Pa-Jeff's uprightness and honesty were so long and firmly established as to have become proverbial on the plantation. He had not served the family faithfully since boyhood and been all through the war with "old Marse Valtour" to descend at his time of life to tampering with household bric-a-brac.
"Has any one else been here?" Madame Valtour naturally inquired.
"On'y Agapie w'at brung you some Creole aiggs. I tole 'er to sot 'em down in de hall. I don' know she comed in de settin'-room o' not."
Yes, there they were; eight, fresh "Creole eggs" reposing on the muslin in the sewing basket. Viny herself had been seated on the gallery brushing her mistress' gowns during the hours of that lady's absence, and could think of no one else having penetrated to the sitting-room.
Madame Valtour did not entertain the thought that Agapie had stolen the relic. Her worst fear was, that the girl, finding herself alone in the room, had handled the frail bit of porcelain and inadvertently broken it.
Agapie came often to the house to play with the children and amuse them - she loved nothing better. Indeed, no other spot known to her on earth so closely embodied her confused idea of paradise, as this home with its atmosphere of love, comfort and good cheer. She was, herself, a cheery bit of humanity, overflowing with kind impulses and animal spirits.
Madame Valtour recalled the fact that Agapie had often admired this Dresden figure (but what had she not admired!); and she remembered having heard the girl's assurance that if ever she became possessed of "fo' bits" to spend as she liked, she would have some one buy her just such a china doll in town or in the city.
Before night, the fact that the Dresden lady had strayed from her proud eminence on the sitting-room mantel, became, through Viny's indiscreet babbling, pretty well known on the place.
The following morning Madame Valtour crossed the field and went over to the Bedauts' cabin. The cabins on the plantation were not grouped; but each stood isolated upon the section of land which its occupants cultivated. Pa-Jeff's cabin was the only one near enough to the Bedauts to admit of neighborly intercourse.
Seraphine Bedaut was sitting on her small gallery, stringing red peppers, when Madame Valtour approached.
"I'm so distressed, Madame Bedaut," began the planter's wife, abruptly. But the 'Cadian woman arose politely and interrupted, offering her visitor a chair.
"Come in, set down, Ma'me Valtour."
"No, no; it's only for a moment. You know, Madame Bedaut, yesterday when I returned from making a visit, I found that an ornament was missing from my sitting-room mantel- piece. It's a thing I prize very, very much - " with sudden tears filling her eyes - "and I would not willingly part with it for many times its value." Seraphine Bedaut was listening, with her mouth partly open, looking, in truth, stupidly puzzled.
"No one entered the room during my absence," continued Madame Valtour, "but Agapie." Seraphine's mouth snapped like a steel trap and her black eyes gleamed with a flash of anger.
"You wan' say Agapie stole some'in' in yo' house!" she cried out in a shrill voice, tremulous from passion.
"No; oh no! I'm sure Agapie is an honest girl and we all love her; but you know how children are. It was a small Dresden figure. She may have handled and broken the thing and perhaps is afraid to say so. She may have thoughtlessly misplaced it; oh, I don't know what! I want to ask if she saw it."
"Come in; you got to come in, Ma'me Valtour," stubbornly insisted Seraphine, leading the way into the cabin. "I sen' 'er to de house yistiddy wid some Creole aiggs," she went on in her rasping voice, "like I all time do, because you all say you can't eat dem sto' aiggs no mo.' Yere de basket w'at I sen' 'em in," reaching for an Indian basket which hung against the wall - and which was partly filled with cotton seed.
"Oh, never mind," interrupted Madame Valtour, now thoroughly distressed at witnessing the woman's agitation.
"Ah, bien non. I got to show you, Agapie en't no mo' thief 'an yo' own child'en is." She led the way into the adjoining room of the hut.
"Yere all her things w'at she 'muse herse'f wid," continued Seraphin, pointing to a soapbox which stood on the floor just beneath the open window. The box was filled with an indescribable assortment of odds and ends, mostly doll-rags. A catechism and a blue-backed speller poked dog-eared corners from out of the confusion; for the Valtour children were making heroic and patient efforts toward Agapie's training.
Seraphine cast herself upon her knees before the box and dived her thin brown hands among its contents. "I wan' show you; I goin' show you," she kept repeating excitedly. Madame Valtour was standing beside her.
Suddenly the woman drew forth from among the rags, the Dresden lady, as dapper, sound, and smiling as ever. Seraphine's hand shook so violently that she was in danger of letting the image fall to the floor. Madame Valtour reached out and took it very quietly from her. Then Seraphine rose tremblingly to her feet and broke into a sob that was pitiful to hear.
Agapie was approaching the cabin. She was a chubby girl of twelve. She walked with bare, callous feet over the rough ground and bare-headed under the hot sun. Her thick, short, black hair covered her head like a mane. She had been dancing along the path, but slackened her pace upon catching sight of the two women who had returned to the gallery. But when she perceived that her mother was crying she darted impetuously forward. In an instant she had her arms around her mother's neck, clinging so tenaciously in her youthful strength as to make the frail woman totter.
Agapie had seen the Dresden figure in Madame Valtour's possession and at once guessed the whole accusation.
"It en't so! I tell you, maman, it en't so! I neva touch' it. Stop cryin'; stop cryin'!" and she began to cry most piteously herself.
"But Agapie, we fine it in yo' box," moaned Seraphine through her sobs.
"Then somebody put it there. Can't you see somebody put it there? 'Ten't so, I tell you."
The scene was extremely painful to Madame Valtour. Whatever she might tell these two later, for the time she felt herself powerless to say anything befitting, and she walked away. But she turned to remark, with a hardness of expression and intention which she seldom displayed: "No one will know of this through me. But, Agapie, you must not come into my house again; on account of the children; I could not allow it."
As she walked away she could hear Agapie comforting her mother with renewed protestations of innocence.
Pa-Jeff began to fail visibly that year. No wonder, considering his great age, which he computed to be about one hundred. It was, in fact, some ten years less than that, but a good old age all the same. It was seldom that he got out into the field; and then, never to do any heavy work - only a little light hoeing. There were days when the "misery" doubled him up and nailed him down to his chair so that he could not set foot beyond the door of his cabin. He would sit there courting the sunshine and blinking, as he gazed across the fields with the patience of the savage.
The Bedauts seemed to know almost instinctively when Pa-Jeff was sick. Agapie would shade her eyes and look searchingly towards the old man's cabin.
"I don' see Pa-Jeff this mo'nin'," or "Pa- Jeff en't open his winda," or "I didn' see no smoke yet yonda to Pa-Jeff's." And in a little while the girl would be over there with a pail of soup or coffee, or whatever there was at hand which she thought the old negro might fancy. She had lost all the color out of her cheeks and was pining like a sick bird. She often sat on the steps of the gallery and talked with the old man while she waited for him to finish his soup from her tin pail.
"I tell you, Pa-Jeff, its neva been no thief in the Bedaut family. My pa say he couldn' hole up his head if he think I been a thief, me. An' maman say it would make her sick in bed, she don' know she could ever git up. Sosthene tell me the chil'en been cryin' fo' me up yonda. Li'le Lulu cry so hard M'sieur Valtour want sen' afta me, an' Ma'me Valtour say no."
And with this, Agapie flung herself at length upon the gallery with her face buried in her arms, and began to cry so hysterically as seriously to alarm Pa-Jeff. It was well he had finished his soup, for he could not have eaten another mouthful.
"Hole up yo' head, chile. God save us! W'at you kiarrin' on dat away?" he exclaimed in great distress. "You gwine to take a fit? Hole up yo' head."
Agapie rose slowly to her feet, and drying her eyes upon the sleeve of her "josie," reached out for the tin bucket. Pa-Jeff handed it to her, but without relinquishing his hold upon it.
"War hit you w'at tuck it?" he questioned in a whisper. "I isn' gwine tell; you knows I isn' gwine tell." She only shook her head, attempting to draw the pail forcibly away from the old man.
"Le' me go, Pa-Jeff. W'at you doin'! Gi' me my bucket!"
He kept his old blinking eyes fastened for a while questioningly upon her disturbed and tear-stained face. Then he let her go and she turned and ran swiftly away towards her home.
He sat very still watching her disappear; only his furrowed old face twitched convulsively, moved by an unaccustomed train of reasoning that was at work in him.
"She w'ite, I is black," he muttered calculatingly. "She young, I is ole; sho I is ole. She good to Pa-Jeff like I her own kin an' color." This line of thought seemed to possess him to the exclusion of every other. Late in the night he was still muttering.
"Sho I is ole. She good to Pa-Jeff, yas."
A few days later, when Pa-Jeff happened to be feeling comparatively well, he presented himself at the house just as the family had assembled at their early dinner. Looking up suddenly, Monsieur Valtour was astonished to see him standing there in the room near the open door. He leaned upon his cane and his grizzled head was bowed upon his breast. There was general satisfaction expressed at seeing Pa-Jeff on his legs once more.
"Why, old man, I'm glad to see you out again," exclaimed the planter, cordially, pouring a glass of wine, which he instructed Viny to hand to the old fellow. Pa-Jeff accepted the glass and set it solemnly down upon a small table near by.
"Marse Albert," he said, "I is come heah to-day fo' to make a statement of de rights an' de wrongs w'at is done hang heavy on my soul dis heah long time. Arter you heahs me an' de missus heahs me an' de chillun an' ev'body, den ef you says: 'Pa-Jeff you kin tech yo' lips to dat glass o' wine,' all well an' right.' "
His manner was impressive and caused the family to exchange surprised and troubled glances. Foreseeing that his recital might be long, a chair was offered to him, but he declined it.
"One day," he began, "w'en I ben hoein' de madam's flower bed close to de fence, Sosthene he ride up, he say: 'Heah, Pa-Jeff, heah de mail.' I takes de mail f'om 'im an' I calls out to Viny w'at settin' on de gallery: 'Heah Marse Albert's mail, gal; come git it.'
"But Viny she answer, pert-like - des like Viny: 'You is got two laigs, Pa-Jeff, des well as me.' I ain't no hen' fo' disputin' wid gals, so I brace up an' I come 'long to de house an' goes on in dat settin'-room dah, naix' to de dinin'-room. I lays dat mail down on Marse Albert's table; den I looks roun'.
"Ev'thing do look putty, sho! De lace cu'tains was a-flappin' an' de flowers was a-smellin' sweet, an' de pictures a-settin' back on de wall. I keep on lookin' roun'. To reckly my eye hit fall on de li'le gal w'at al'ays sets on de een' o' de mantel-shelf. She do look mighty sassy dat day, wid 'er toe a-stickin' out, des so; an' holdin' her skirt des dat away; an' lookin' at me wid her head twis'.
"I laff out. Viny mus' heahed me. I say, 'g'long 'way f'om dah, gal.' She keep on smilin'. I reaches out my han'. Den Satan an' de good Sperrit, dey begins to wrastle in me. De Sperrit say: 'You ole fool-nigga, you; mine w'at you about.' Satan keep on shovin' my han' - des so - keep on shovin'. Satan he mighty powerful dat day, an' he win de fight. I kiar dat li'le trick home in my pocket."
Pa-Jeff lowered his head for a moment in bitter confusion. His hearers were moved with distressful astonishment. They would have had him stop the recital right there, but Pa-Jeff resumed, with an effort:
"Come dat night I heah tell how dat li'le trick, wo'th heap money; how madam, she cryin' 'cause her li'le blessed lamb was use' to play wid cat, an' kiar-on ov' it. Den I git scared. I say, 'w'at I gwine do?' An' up jump Satan an' de Sperrit a-wrastlin' again.
"De Sperrit say: 'Kiar hit back whar it come f'om, Pa-Jeff.' Satan 'low: 'Fling it in de bayeh, you ole fool.' De Sperrit say: 'You won't fling dat in de bayeh, whar de madam kain't neva sot eyes on hit no mo'?' Den Satan he kine give in; he 'low he plumb sick o' disputin' so long; tell me go hide it some 'eres whar dey nachelly gwine fine it. Satan he win dat fight.
"Des w'en de day g'ine break, I creeps out an' goes 'long de fiel' road. I pass by Ma'me Bedaut's house. I riclic how dey says li'le Bedaut gal ben in de sittin'-room, too, day befo'. De winda war open. Ev'body sleepin'. I tres' in my head, des like a dog w'at shame hisse'f. I sees dat box o' rags befo' my eyes; an' I drops dat li'le imp'dence 'mongst dem rags.
"Mebby yo' all t'ink Satan an' de Sperrit lef' me 'lone, arter dat?" continued Pa-Jeff, straightening himself from the relaxed position in which his members seemed to have settled.
"No, suh; dey ben desputin' straight 'long. Las' night dey come nigh onto en'in' me up. De Sperrit say: 'Come 'long, I gittin' tired dis heah, you g'long up yonda an' tell de truf an' shame de devil.' Satan 'low: 'Stay whar you is; you heah me!' Dey clutches me. Dey twis'es an' twines me. Dey dashes me down an' jerks me up. But de Sperrit he win dat fight in de en', an' heah I is, mist'ess, master, chillun'; heah I is."
Years later Pa-Jeff was still telling the story of his temptation and fall. The negroes especially seemed never to tire of hearing him relate it. He enlarged greatly upon the theme as he went, adding new and dramatic features which gave fresh interest to its every telling.
Agapie grew up to deserve the confidence and favors of the family. She redoubled her acts of kindness toward Pa-Jeff; but somehow she could not look into his face again.
Yet she need not have feared. Long before the end came, poor old Pa-Jeff, confused, bewildered, believed the story himself as firmly as those who had heard him tell it over and over for so many years.