One agreeable afternoon in late autumn two young men stood together on Canal Street, closing a conversation that had evidently begun within the club-house which they had just quitted.
“There’s big money in it, Offdean,” said the elder of the two. “I wouldn’t have you touch it if there wasn’t. Why, they tell me Patchly’s pulled a hundred thousand out of the concern a’ready.”
“That may be,” replied Offdean, who had been politely attentive to the words addressed to him, but whose face bore a look indicating that he was closed to conviction. He leaned back upon the clumsy stick which he carried, and continued: “It’s all true, I dare say, Fitch; but a decision of that sort would mean more to me than you’d believe if I were to tell you. The beggarly twenty-five thousand’s all I have, and I want to sleep with it under pillow a couple of months at least before I drop it into a slot.”
“You’ll drop it into Harding & Offdean’s mill to grind out the pitiful two and a half per cent commission racket; that’s what you’ll do in the end, old fellow – see if you don’t.”
“Perhaps I shall; but it’s more than likely I shan’t. We’ll talk about it when get back. You know I’m off to north Louisiana in the morning” –
“No! What the deuce” –
“Oh, business of the firm.”
“Write me from Shreveport, then; or wherever it is .”
“Not as far as that. But don’t expect to hear from me till you see me. I can’t say when that will be.”
Then they shook hands and parted. The rather portly Fitch boarded a Prytania Street car, and Mr. Wallace Offdean hurried to the bank in order to replenish his portemonnaie, which had been materially lightened at the club through the medium of unpropitious jack-pots and bobtail flushes.
He was a sure-footed fellow, this young Offdean, despite an occasional fall in slippery places. What he wanted, now that he had reached his twenty-sixth year and his inheritance, was to get his feet well planted on solid ground, and to keep his head cool and clear.
With his early youth he had certain shadowy intentions of shaping his life on intellectual lines. That is, he wanted to, and he meant to use his faculties intelligently, which means more than is at once apparent. Above all, he would keep clear of the maelstroms of sordid work and senseless pleasure in which the average American business man may be said alternately to exist, and which reduce him, naturally, to a rather ragged condition of soul.
Offdean had done, in a temperate way, the usual things which young men do who happen to belong to good society, and are possessed of moderate means and healthy instincts. He had gone to college, had traveled a little at home and abroad, had frequented society and the clubs, and had worked in his uncle’s commission-house; in all of which employments he had expended much time and a modicum of energy.
But he felt all through that he was simply in a preliminary stage of being, one that would develop later into something tangible and intelligent, as he liked to tell himself. With his patrimony of twenty-five thousand dollars came what he felt to be the turning-point in his life, - the time when it behooved him to choose a course, and to get himself into proper trim to follow it manfully and consistently.
When Messrs. Harding and Offdean determined to have some one look after what they called “a troublesome piece of land on Red River,” Wallace Offdean requested to be intrusted with that special commission of land-inspector.
A shadowy, ill-defined piece of land in an unfamiliar part of his native State, might, he hoped, prove a sort of closet into which he could retire and take counsel with his inner and better self.
What Harding & Offdean had called a piece of land on Red River was better known to the people of Natchitoches parish as “the old Santien place.”
In the days of Lucien Santien and his hundred slaves, it had been very splendid in the wealth of its thousand acres. But the war did its work, of course. Then Jules Santien was not the man to mend such damage as the war had left. His three sons were even less able than he had been to bear the weighty inheritance of debt that came to them with the dismantled plantation; so it was a deliverance to all when Harding & Offdean, the New Orleans creditors, relieved them of the place with the responsibility and indebtedness which its ownership had entailed.
Hector, the eldest, and Grégoire, the youngest of these Santien boys, had gone each his way. Placide alone tried to keep a desultory foothold upon the land which had been his and his forefathers’. But he too was given to wandering – within a radius, however, which rarely took him so far that he could not reach the old place in an afternoon of travel, when he felt so inclined.
There were acres of open land cultivated in a slovenly fashion, but so rich that cotton and corn and weed and “cocoa-grass” grew rampant if they had only the semblance of a chance. The negro quarters were at the far end of this open stretch, and consisted of a long row of old and very crippled cabins. Directly back of these a dense wood grew, and held much mystery, and witchery of sound and shadow, and strange lights when the sun shone. Of a gin-house there was left scarcely a trace; only so much as could serve as inadequate shelter to the miserable dozen cattle that huddled within it in wintertime.
A dozen rods or more from the Red River bank stood the dwelling-house, and nowhere upon the plantation had time touched so sadly as here. The steep, black, moss-covered roof sat like an extinguisher above the eight large rooms that it covered, and had come to do its office so poorly that not more than half of these were habitable when the rain fell. Perhaps the live-oaks made too thick and close a shelter about it. The verandas were long and broad and inviting; but it was well to know that the brick pillar was crumbling away under one corner, that the railing was insecure at another, and that still another had long ago been condemned as unsafe. But that, of course, was not the corner in which Wallace Offdean sat the day following his arrival at the Santien place. This one was comparatively secure. A gloire-de-Dijon, thick leaved and charged with huge creamy blossoms, grew and spread here like a hardy vine upon the wires that stretched from post to post. The scent of the blossoms was delicious; and the stillness that surrounded Offdean agreeably fitted his humor that asked for rest. His old host, Pierre Manton, the manager of the place, sat talking to him in a soft, rhythmic monotone; but his speech was hardly more of an interruption than the hum of the bees among the roses. He was saying: -
“If it would been me myse’f, I would nevair grumb’. W’en a chimbly breck, I take one, two de boys; we patch ‘im up bes’ we know how. We keep on men’ de fence’, firs’ one place, anudder; an’ if it wouldn’ be fer dem mule’ of Lacroix – tonnere! I don’ wan’ to talk ‘bout dem mule’. But me, I wouldn’ grumb’. It’s Euphrasie, hair. She say dat’s all fool nonsense fer rich man lack Hardin’-Offde’n to let a piece o’ lan’ goin’ lack dat.”
“Euphrasie?” questioned Offdean, in some surprise; for he had not yet heard of any such person.
“Euphrasie, my li’le chile. Escuse me one minute,” Pierre added, remembering that he was in his shirt-sleeves, and rising to reach for his coat, which hung upon a peg near by. He was a small, square man, with mild, kindly face, brown and roughened from healthy exposure. His hair hung gray and long beneath the soft felt hat that he wore. When he had seated himself, Offdean asked:-
“Where is your little child? I haven’t seen her,” inwardly marveling that a little child should have uttered such words of wisdom as those recorded of her.
“She yonder to Mme. Duplan on Cane River. I been kine espectin’ hair sence yistiday – hair an’ Placide,” casting an unconscious glance down the long plantation road. “But Mme. Duplan she nevair want to let Euphrasie go. You know it’s hair raise’ Euphrasie sence hair po’ ma die’, Mr. Offde’n. She teck dat li’le chile, an raise it, sem lack she raisin’ Ninette. But it’s mo’ ‘an a year now Euphrasie say dat’s all fool nonsense to leave me livin’ ‘lone lack day, wid nuttin’ ‘cep’ dem nigger’ – an Placide once a w’ile. An’ she came yair bossin’! My goodness!” The old man chuckled, “Dat’s hair been writin’ all dem letter’ to Hardin’-Offde’n. If it would been me myse’f”-
Placide seemed to have had a foreboding of ill from the start when he found that Euphrasie began to interest herself in the condition of the plantation. This ill feeling voiced itself partly when he told her it was none of her lookout if the place went to the dogs. “It’s good enough for Joe Duplan to run things en grand seigneur, Euphrasie; that’s w’at’s spoiled you.”
Placide might have done much single-handed to keep the old place in better trim, if he had wished. For there was no one more clever than he to do a hand’s turn at any and every thing. He could mend a saddle or bridle while he stood whistling a tune. If a wagon required a brace or a bolt, it was nothing for him to step into a shop and turn out one as deftly as the most skilled blacksmith. Any one seeing him at work with plane and rule and chisel would have declared him a born carpenter. And as for mixing paints, and giving a fine and lasting coat to the side of a house or barn, he had not his equal in the country.
This last talent he exercised little in his native parish. It was in a neighboring one, where he spent the greater part of his time, that his fame as a painter was established. There, in the village of Orville, he owned a little shell of a house, and during odd times it was Placide’s great delight to tinker at this small home, inventing daily new beauties and conveniences to add to it. Lately it had become a precious possession to him, for in the spring he was to bring Euphrasie there as his wife. Maybe it was because of his talent, and his indifference in turning it to good, that he was often called “a no-account creole” by thriftier souls than himself. But no-account creole or not, painter, carpenter, blacksmith, and whatever else he might be at times, he was a Santien always, with the best blood in the country running in his veins. And many thought his choice had fallen in very low places when he engaged himself to marry little Euphrasie, the daughter of old Pierre Manton and a problematic mother a good deal less than nobody.
Placide might have married almost any one, too; for it was the easiest thing in the world for a girl to fall in love with him, - sometimes the hardest thing in the world not to, he was such a splendid fellow, such a careless, happy, handsome fellow. And he did not seem to mind in the least that young men who had grown up with him were lawyers now, and planters, and members of Shakespeare clubs in town. No one ever expected anything quite so humdrum as that of the Santien boys. As youngsters, all three had been the despair of the country schoolmaster; then of the private tutor who had come to shackle them, and had failed in his design. And the state of mutiny and revolt that they had brought about at the college of Grand Coteau when their father, in a moment of weak concession to prejudice, had sent them there, is a thing yet remembered in Natchitoches.
And now Placide was going to marry Euphrasie. He could not recall the time when he had not loved her. Somehow he felt that it began the day when he was six years old, and Pierre, his father’s overseer, had called him from play to come and make her acquaintance. He was permitted to hold her in his arms a moment, and it was with silent awe that he did so. She was the first white-faced baby he remembered having seen, and he straightaway believed she had been sent to him as a birthday gift to be his little playmate and friend. If he loved her, there was no great wonder; every one did, from the time she took her first dainty step, which was a brave one, too.
She was the gentlest little lady ever born in old Natchitoches parish, and the happiest and merriest. She never cried or whimpered for a hurt. Placide never did, why should she? When she wept, it was when she did what was wrong, or when he did; for that was to be a coward, she felt. When she was ten, and her mother was dead, Mme. Duplan, the Lady Bountiful of the parish, had driven across from her plantation, Les Chêniers, to old Pierre’s very door, and there had gathered up this precious little maid, and carried her away, to do with as she would.
And she did with the child much as she herself had been done by. Euphrasie went to the convent soon, and was taught all gentle things, the pretty arts of manner and speech that the ladies of the “Sacred Heart” can teach so well. When she quitted them, she left a trail of love behind her; she always did.
Placide continued to see her at intervals, and to love her always. One day he told her so; he could not help it. She stood under one of the big oaks at Les Chêniers. It was midsummer time, and the tangled sunbeams had enmeshed her in a golden fretwork. When he saw her standing there in the sun’s glamour, which was like a glory upon her, he trembled. He seemed to see her for the first time. He could only look at her, and wonder why her hair gleamed so, as it fell in those thick chestnut waves about her ears and neck. He had looked a thousand times into her eyes before; was it only to-day they held that sleepy, wistful light in them that invites love? How had he not seen it before? Why had he not known before that her lips were red, and cut in fine, strong curves? that her flesh was like cream? How had he not seen that she was beautiful? “Euphrasie,” he said, taking her hands, - “Euphrasie, I love you!”
She looked at him with a little astonishment. “Yes; I know, Placide.” She spoke with the soft intonation of the creole.
“No, you don’t, Euphrasie. I didn’ know myse’f how much tell jus’ now.”
Perhaps he did only what was natural when he asked her next if she loved him. He still held her hands. She looked thoughtfully away, unready to answer.
“Do you love anybody better?” he asked jealously. “Any one jus’ as well as me?”
“You know I love papa better, Placide, an’ Maman Duplan jus’ as well.”
Yet she saw no reason why she should not be his wife when he asked her to.
Only a few months before this, Euphrasie had returned to live with her father. The step had cut her off from everything that girls of eighteen call pleasure. If it cost her one regret, no one could have guessed it. She went often to visit the Duplans, however; and Placide had gone to bring her home from Les Chêniers the very day of Offdean’s arrival at the plantation.
They had traveled by rail to Natchitoches, where they found Pierre’s no-top buggy awaiting them, for there was a drive of five miles to be made through the pine woods before the plantation was reached. When they were at their journey’s end, and had driven some distance up the long plantation road that led to the house in the rear, Euphrasie exclaimed: -
“W’y, there’s some one on the gall’ry with papa, Placide!”
“Yes; I see.”
“It looks like some one f’om town. It mus’ be Mr. Gus Adams; but I don’ see his horse.”
“’T ain’t no one f’om town that I know. It’s boun’ to be some one f’om the city.”
“Oh, Placide, I should n’ wonder if Harding & Offdean have sent some one to look after the place at las’,” she exclaimed a little excitedly.
They were near enough to see that the stranger was a young man of very pleasing appearance. Without apparent reason, a chilly depression took hold of Placide.
“I tole you it was n’ yo’ lookout f’om the firs’, Euphrasie,” he said to her.
Wallace Offdean remembered Euphrasie at once as a young person whom he had assisted to a very high perch on his club-house balcony the previous Mardi Gras night. He had thought her pretty and attractive then, and for the space of a day or two wondered who she might be. But he had not made even so fleeting an impression upon her; seeing which, he did not refer to any former meeting when Pierre introduced them.
She took the chair which he offered her, and asked him very simply when he had come, if his journey had been pleasant, and if he had not found the road from Natchitoches in very good condition.
“Mr. Offde’n only come sence yistiday, Euphrasie,” interposed Pierre. “We been talk’ plenty ‘bout de place, him an’ me. I been tole ‘im all ‘bout it – va! An’ if Mr. Offde’n want to escuse me now, I b’lieve I go he’p Placide wid dat hoss an’ buggy;” and he descended the steps slowly, and walked lazily with his bent figure in the direction of the shed beneath which Placide had driven, after depositing Euphrasie at the door.
“I dare say you find it strange,” began Offdean, “that the owners of this place have neglected it so long and shamefully. But you see,” he added, smiling, “the management of a plantation does n’t enter into the routine of a commission merchant’s business. The place has already cost them more than they hope to get from it, and naturally they have n’t the wish to sink further money into it.” He did not know why he was saying these things to a mere girl, but he went on: “I’m authorized to sell the plantation if I can get anything like a reasonable price for it.” Euphrasie laughed in a way that made him uncomfortable, and he thought he would say no more at present, - not till he knew her better, anyhow.
“Well,” she said in a very decided fashion, “I know you’ll fin’ one or two persons in town who’ll begin by running down the lan’ till you would n’ want it as a gif’, Mr. Offdean; and who will en’ by offering to take it off yo’ han’s for the promise of a song, with the lan’ as security again.”
They both laughed, and Placide, who was approaching, scowled. But before he reached the steps his instinctive sense of the courtesy due to a stranger had banished the look of ill humor. His bearing was so frank and graceful, and his face such a marvel of beauty, with its dark rich coloring and soft lines, that the well-clipped and groomed Offdean felt his astonishment to be more than half admiration when they shook hands. He knew that the Santiens had been the former owners of this plantation which he had come to look after, and naturally he expected some sort of cooperation or direct assistance from Placide in his efforts at reconstruction. But Placide proved non-committal, and exhibited an indifference and ignorance concerning the condition of affairs that savored surprisingly of affectation.
He had positively nothing to say so long as the talk touched upon matters concerning Offdean’s business there. He was only a little less taciturn when one or more general topics were approached, and directly after supper he saddled his horse and went away. He would not wait until morning, for the moon would be rising about midnight, and he knew the road as well as by night as by day. He knew just where the best fords were across the bayous, and the safest paths across the hills. He knew for a certainty whose plantations he might traverse, and whose fences he might derail. But, for that matter, he would derail what he liked, and cross where he pleased.
Euphrasie walked with him to the shed when he went for his horse. She was bewildered at his sudden determination, and wanted it explained.
“I don’ like that man,” he admitted frankly; “I can’t stan’ him. Sen’ me word w’en he’s gone, Euphrasie.”
She was patting and rubbing the pony, which knew her well. Only their dim outlines were discernable in the thick darkness.
“You are foolish, Placide,” she replied in French. “You would do better to stay and help him. No one knows the place so well as you”-
“The place is n’t mine, and it’s nothing to me,” he answered bitterly. He took her hands and kissed them passionately, but stooping, she pressed her lips upon his forehead.
“Oh!” he exclaimed rapturously, “you do love me, Euphrasie?” His arms were holding her, and his lips brushing her hair and cheeks as they eagerly but ineffectually sought hers.
“Of co’se I love you, Placide. Ain’t I going to marry you nex’ spring? You foolish boy!” she replied, disengaging herself from his clasp.
When he was mounted, he stooped to say, “See yere, Euphrasie, don’t have too much to do with that d— Yankee.”
“But, Placide, he is n’t a-a-‘d— Yankee;’ he’s a Southerner, like you, - a New Orleans man.”
“Oh, well, he looks like a Yankee.” But Placide laughed, for he was happy since Euphrasie had kissed him, and he whistled softly as he urged his horse to a canter and disappeared in the darkness.
The girl stood awhile with clasped hands, trying to understand a little sigh that rose in her throat, and that was not one of regret. When she regained the house, she went directly to her room, and left her father talking to Offdean in the quiet and perfumed night.
When two weeks had passed, Offdean felt very much at home with old Pierre and his daughter, and found the business that had called him to the country so engrossing that he had given no thought to those personal questions he had hoped to solve in going there.
The old man had driven him around in the no-top buggy to show him how dismantled the fences and barns were. He could see for himself that the house was a constant menace to human life. In the evenings the three would sit out on the gallery and talk of the land and its strong points and its weak ones, till he came to know it as if it had been his own.
Of the rickety condition of the cabins he got a fair notion, for he and Euphrasie passed them almost daily on horseback, on their way to the woods. It was seldom that their appearance together did not rouse comment among the darkies who happened to be loitering about.
La Chatte, a broad black woman with ends of white wool sticking out from under her tignon, stood with arms akimbo watching them as they disappeared one day. Then she turned and said to a young woman who sat in the cabin door:-
“Dat young man, ef he want to listen to me, he gwine quit data r caperin’ roun’ Miss ‘Phrasie.”
The young woman in the doorway laughed, and showed her white teeth, and tossed her head, and fingered the blue beads at her throat, in a way to indicate that she was in hearty sympathy with any question that touched upon gallantry.
“Law! La Chatte, you ain’ gwine hinder a gemman f’om payin’ intentions to a young lady w’en he a mine to.”
“Dat all I got to say,” returned La Chatte, seating herself lazily and heavily on the doorstep. “Nobody don’ know dem Sanchun boys bettah ‘an I does. Did n’ I done part raise ‘em? W’at you reckon my ha’r all tu’n plumb w’ite dat-a-way ef it warn’t dat Placide w’at done it?”
“How come he make yo’ ha’r tu’n w’ite, La Chatte?”
“Dev’ment, pu’ dev’ment, Rose. Did n’ he come in dat same cabin one day, w’en he warn’t no bigga ‘an dat Pres’dent Hayes w’at you sees gwine ‘long de road wid dat cotton sack ‘crost ‘im? He come an’ sets down by de do’, on dat same t’ree-laigged stool w’at you’s a-settin’ on now, wid his gun in his han’, an he say: ‘La Chatte, I wants some croquignoles, an’ I wants ‘em quick, too.’ I ‘low: ‘G’ ‘way f’om dah, boy. Don’ you see I’s flutin’ you’ ma’s petticoat?’ He say: ‘La Chatte, put ‘side data r flutin’-i’on an’ dat ar petticoat;’ an’ he cock dat gun an’ p’int it to my head. ‘Dat de ba’el,’ he say; ‘git out dat flour, git out dat butta an’ dat aigs; step roun’ dah, ole ‘oman. Dis heah gun don’ quit yo’ head tell dem croquignoles is on de table, wid a w’ite table clof an’ a cup o’ coffee.’ Ef I goes to de ba’el, de gun ‘s a-p’intin’. Ef I goes to de fiah, de gun ‘s a-p’intin’. W’en I rolls out de dough, de gun ‘s a-p’intin’; an’ him neva say nuttin’, an’ me a-trim’lin’ like ole Uncle Noah w’en de mis’ry strike ‘im.”
“Lordy! w’at you reckon he do ef he tu’n roun’ an’git mad wid dat young gemman f’om de city?”
“I don’ reckon nuttin’; I knows w’at he gwine do, - same w’at his pa done.”
“W’at his pa done, La Chatte?”
“G’ ‘long ‘bout yo’ business; you’s axin’ too many questions.” And La Chatte arose slowly and went to gather her party-colored wash that hung drying on the jagged and irregular points of a dilapidated picket-fence.
But the darkies were mistaken in supposing that Offdean was paying attention to Euphrasie. Those little jaunts in the wood were purely of a business character. Offdean had made a contract with a neighboring mill for fencing, in exchange for a certain amount of uncut timber. He had made it his work – with the assistance of Euphrasie – to decide upon what trees he wanted felled, and to mark such for the woodsman’s axe.
If they sometimes forgot what they had gone into the woods for, it was because there was so much to talk about and to laugh about. Often, when Offdean had blazed a tree with the sharp hatchet which he carried at his pommel, and had further discharged his duty by calling it “a fine piece of timber,” they would sit upon some fallen and decaying trunk, maybe listen to a chorus of mocking-birds above their heads, or to exchange confidences, as young people will.
Euphrasie thought she had never heard any one talk quite so pleasantly as Offdean did. She could not decide whether it was his manner or the tone of his voice, or the earnest glance of his dark and deep-set blue eyes, that gave such meaning to everything he said; for she found herself afterward thinking of his every word.
One afternoon it rained in torrents, and Rose was forced to drag buckets and tubs into Offdean’s room to catch the streams that threatened to flood it. Euphrasie said she was glad of it; now he could see for himself.
And when he had seen for himself, he went to join her out on a corner of the gallery, where she stood with a cloak around her, close up against the house. He leaned against the house, too, and they stood thus together, gazing upon as desolate a scene as it is easy to imagine.
The whole landscape was gray, seen through the driving rain. Far away the dreary cabins seemed to sink and sink to earth in abject misery. Above their heads the live-oak branches were beating with sad monotony against the blackened roof. Great pools of water had formed in the yard, which was deserted by every living thing; for the little darkies had scampered away to their cabins, the dogs had run to their kennels, and the hens were puffing big with wretchedness under the scanty shelter of a fallen wagon-body.
Certainly a situation to make a young man groan with ennui, if he is used to his daily stroll on Canal Street, and pleasant afternoons at the club. But Offdean thought it delightful. He only wondered that he had never known, or some one had never told him, how charming a place an old, dismantled plantation can be – when it rains. But as well as he liked it, he could not linger there forever. Business called him back to New Orleans, and after a few days he went away.
The interest which he felt in the improvement of this plantation was of so deep a nature, however, that he found himself thinking of it constantly. He wondered if the timber had all been felled, and how the fencing was coming on. So great was his desire to know such things that much correspondence was required between himself and Euphrasie, and he watched eagerly for those letters that told him of her trails and vexations with carpenters, bricklayers, and shingle-bearers. But in the midst of it, Offdean suddenly lost interest in the progress of work on the plantation. Singularly enough, it happened simultaneously with the arrival of a letter from Euphrasie which announced in a modest postscript that she was going down to the city with the Duplans for Mardi Gras.
When Offdean learned that Euphrasie was coming to New Orleans, he was delighted to think he would have an opportunity to make some return for the hospitality which he had received from her father. He decided at once that she must see everything: day processions and night parades, balls and tableaux, operas and plays. He would arrange for it all, and he went to the length of begging to be relieved of certain duties that had been assigned him at the club, in order that he might feel himself perfectly free to do so.
The evening following Euphrasie’s arrival, Offdean hastened to call upon her, away down on Esplanade Street. She and the Duplans were staying there with old Mme. Carantelle, Mrs. Duplan’s mother, a delightfully conservative old lady who had not “crossed Canal Street” for many years.
He found a number of people gathered in the long high-ceiled drawing room, - young people and old people, all talking French, and some talking louder than they would have done if Madame Carantelle had not been so very deaf.
When Offdean entered, the old lady was greeting some one who had come in just before him. It was Placide, and she was calling him Grégoire, and wanting to know how the crops were up on Red River. She met every one from the country with this stereotyped inquiry, which placed her at once on the agreeable and easy footing she liked.
Somehow Offdean had not counted on finding Euphrasie so well provided with entertainment, and he spent much of the evening in trying to persuade himself that the fact was a pleasing one in itself. But he wondered why Placide was with her, and sat so persistently beside her, and danced so repeatedly with her when Mrs. Duplan played upon the piano. Then he could not see by what right these young creoles had already arranged for the Proteus ball, and every other entertainment that he had meant to provide for her.
He went away without having had a word alone with the girl whom he had gone to see. The evening had proved a failure. He did not go to the club as usual, but went to his rooms in a mood which inclined him to read a few pages from a stoic philosopher whom he sometimes affected. But the words of wisdom that had often before helped him over disagreeable places left no impress to-night. They were powerless to banish from his thoughts the look of a pair of brown eyes, or to drown the tones of a girl’s voice that kept singing in his soul.
Placide was not very well acquainted with the city; but that made no difference to him so long as he was at Euphrasie’s side. His brother Hector, who lived in some obscure corner of the town, would willingly have made his knowledge a more intimate one; but Placide did not choose to learn the lessons that Hector was ready to teach. He asked nothing better than to walk with Euphrasie along the streets, holding her parasol at an agreeable angle over her pretty head, or to sit beside her in the evening at the play, sharing her frank delight.
When the night of the Mardi Gras ball came, he felt like a lost spirit during the hours he was forced to remain away from her. He stood in the dense crowd on the street gazing up at her, where she sat on the club-house balcony amid a bevy of gaily dressed women. It was not easy to distinguish her, but he could think of no more agreeable occupation than to stand down there on the street trying to do so.
She seemed during all this pleasant time to be entirely his own, too. It made him very fierce to think of the possibility of her not being entirely his own. But he had no cause whatever to think this. She had grown conscious and thoughtful of late about him and their relationship. She often communed with herself, and as a result tried to act toward him as an engaged girl would toward her fiancé. Yet a wistful look came sometimes into the brown eyes when she walked the streets with Placide, and eagerly scanned the faces of passers-by.
Offdean had written her a note, very studied, very formal, asking to see her a certain day and hour, to consult about matters on the plantation, saying he had found it so difficult to obtain a word with her, that he was forced to adopt this means, which he trusted would not be offensive.
This seemed perfectly right to Euphrasie. She agreed to see him one afternoon – the day before leaving town – in the long, stately drawing-room, quite alone.
It was a sleepy day, too warm for the season. Gusts of moist air were sweeping lazily through the long corridors, rattling the slats of the half-closed green shutters, and bringing a delicious perfume from the courtyard where old Charlot was watering the spreading palms and brilliant parterres. A group of little children had stood awhile quarreling noisily under the windows, but had moving on down the street and left quietness reigning.
Offdean had not long to wait before Euphrasie came to him. She had lost some of that ease which had marked her manner during their first acquaintance. Now, when she seated herself before him, she showed a disposition to plunge at once into the subject that had brought him there. He was willing enough that it should play some rôle, since it had been his pretext for coming; but he soon dismissed it, and with much restraint that had held him till now. He simply looked into her eyes, with a gaze that made her shiver a little, and began to complain because she was going away next day and he had seen nothing of her; because he had wanted to do so many things when she came – why had she not let him?
“You fo’get I’m no stranger here,” she told him. “I know many people. I’ve been coming so often with Mme. Duplan. I wanted to see mo’ of you, Mr. Offdean” –
“Then you ought to have managed it; you could have done so. It’s – it’s aggravating,” he said, far more bitterly than the subject warranted, “when a man has so set his heart upon something.”
“But it was n’ anything ver’ important,” she interposed: and they both laughed, and got safely over a situation that would soon have been strained, if not critcal.
Waves of happiness were sweeping through the soul and body of the girl as she sat there in the drowsy afternoon near the man whom she loved. It mattered not what they talked about, or whether they talked at all. They were both scintillant with feeling. If Offdean had taken Euphrasie’s hands in his and leaned forward and kissed her lips, it would have seemed to both only the rational outcome of things that stirred them. But he did not do this. He knew now that over whelming passion was taking possession of him. He had not to heap more coals upon the fire; on the contrary, it was a moment to put on the brakes, and he was a young gentleman able to do this when circumstances required.
However, he held her hand longer than he needed to when he bade her good-by. For he got entangled in explaining why he should have to go back to the plantation to see how matters stood there, and he dropped her hand only when the rambling speech was ended.
He left her sitting by the window in a big brocaded armchair. She drew the lace curtain aside to watch him pass in the street. He lifted his hat and smiled when he saw her. Any other man she knew would have done the same thing, but this simple act caused the blood to surge to her cheeks. She let the curtain drop, and sat there like one dreaming. Her eyes, intense with the unnatural light that glowed in them, looked steadily into vacancy, and her lips stayed parted in the half-smile that did not want to leave them.
Placide found her thus, a good while afterward, when he came in, full of bustle, with theatre tickets in his pocket for the last night. She started up, and went eagerly to meet him.
“W’ere have you been, Placide?” she asked with unsteady voice, placing her hands on his shoulders with a freedom that was new and strange to him.
He appeared to her suddenly as a refuge from something, she did not know what, and she rested her hot cheek against his breast. This made him mad, and he lifted her face and kissed her passionately upon the lips.
She crept from his arms after that, and went away to her room, and locked herself in. Her poor little inexperienced soul was torn and sore. She knelt down beside her bed, and sobbed a little and prayed a little. She felt that she had sinned, she did not know exactly in what; but a fine nature warned her that it was in Placide’s kiss.
The spring came early in Orville, and so subtly that no one could tell exactly when it began. But one morning the roses were so luscious in Placide’s sunny parterres, the peas and bean-vines and borders of strawberries so rank in his trim vegetable patches, that he called out lustily, “No mo’ winta, Judge!” to the staid Judge Blount, who went ambling by on his gray pony.
“There’s right smart o’ folks don’t know it, Santien,” responded the judge, with occult meaning that might be applied to certain indebted clients back on the bayou who had not broken land yet. Ten minutes later the judge observed sententiously, and apropos of nothing to a group that stood waiting for the post-office to open:-
“I see Santien’s got that noo fence o’ his painted. And a pretty piece of work it is,” he added reflectively.
“Look lack Placide goin’ pent mo’ ‘an de fence,” sagaciously snickered ‘Tit-Edouard, a strolling maigre-échine of indefinite occupation. “I seen ‘im, me, pesterin’ wid all kine o’ pent on a piece o’ bo’d yistiday.”
“I knows he gwine paint mo’ ‘an de fence,” emphatically announced Uncle Abner, in a tone that carried conviction. “He gwine paint de house; dat what he gwine do. Did n’ Marse Luke Williams orda de paints? An’ did n’ I done kyar’ ‘em up dah myse’f?”
Seeing the deference with which this positive piece of knowledge was received, the judge coolly changed the subject by announcing that Luke William’s Durham bull had broken a leg the night before in Luke’s new pasture ditch, - a piece of news that fell among his hearers with telling, if paralytic effect.
But most people wanted to see for themselves these astonishing things that Placide was doing. And the young ladies of the village strolled slowly by of afternoons in couples and arm in arm. If Placide happened to see them, he would leave his work to hand them a fine rose or a bunch of geraniums over the dazzling white fence. But if it chanced to be ‘Tit-Edouard or Luke Williams, or any of the young men of Orville, he pretended not to see them, or to hear the ingratiating cough that accompanied their lingering footsteps.
In his eagerness to have his home sweet and attractive for Euphrasie’s coming, Placide had gone less frequently than ever before up to Natchitoches. He worked and whistled and sang until the yearning for the girl’s presence became a driving need; then he would put away his tools and mount his horse as the day was closing, and away he would go across bayous and hills and fields until he was with her again. She had never seemed to Placide as lovable as she was then. She had grown more womanly and thoughtful. Her cheek had lost much of its color, and the light in her eyes flashed less often. But her manner had gained a something of pathetic tenderness toward her lover that moved him with an intoxicating happiness. He could hardly wait with patience for that day in early April which would see the fulfillment of his lifelong hopes.
After Euphrasie’s departure from New Orleans, Offdean told himself honestly that he loved the girl. But being yet unsettled in life, he felt it was no time to think of marrying, and, like the worldly-wise gentleman that he was, resolved to forget the little Natchitoches girl. He knew it would be an affair of some difficulty, but not an impossible thing, so he set about forgetting her.
The effort made him singularly irascible. At the office he was gloomy and taciturn; at the club he was a bear. A few young ladies whom he called upon were astonished and distressed at the cynical views of life which he had so suddenly adopted.
When he had endured a week or more of such humor, and inflicted it upon others, he abruptly changed his tactics. He decided not fight against his love for Euphrasie. He would not marry her, - certainly not; but he would let himself love her to his heart’s bent, until that love should die a natural death, and not a violent one as he had designed. He abandoned himself completely to his passion, and dreamed of the girl by day and thought of her by night. How delicious had been the scent of her hair, the warmth of her breath, the nearness of her body, that rainy day when they stood close together upon the veranda! He recalled the glance of her honest, beautiful eyes, that told him things which made his heart beat fast now when he thought of them. And then her voice! Was there another like it when she laughed or when she talked! Was there another woman in the world possessed of so alluring a charm as this one he loved!
He was not bearish now, with these sweet thoughts crowding his brain and thrilling his blood; but he sighed deeply, and worked languidly, and enjoyed himself listlessly.
One day he sat in his room puffing the air thick with sighs and smoke, when a thought came suddenly to him – an inspiration, a very message from heaven, to judge from the cry of joy with which he greeted it. He sent his cigar whirling through the window, over the stone paving of the street, and he let his head fall down upon his arms, folded upon the table.
It had happened to him, as it does to many, that the solution of a vexed question flashed upon him when he was hoping least for it. He positively laughed aloud, and somewhat hysterically. In the space of a moment he saw the whole delicious future which a kind fate had mapped out for him: those rich acres upon the Red River his own, bought and embellished with his inheritance; and Euphrasie, whom he loved, his wife and companion throughtout a life such as he knew now he had craved for, - a life that, imposing bodily activity, admits the intellectual repose in which thought unfolds.
Wallace Offdean was like one to whom a divinity had revealed his vocation in life, - no less a divinity because it was love. If doubts assailed him of Euphrasie’s consent, they were soon stilled. For had they not spoken over and over to each other the mute and subtile language of reciprocal love – out under the forest trees, and in the quiet night-time on the plantation when the stars shone? And never so plainly as in the stately old drawing-room down on Esplanade Street. Surely no other speech was needed then, save such as their eyes told. Oh, he knew that she loved him; he was sure of it! The knowledge made him all the more eager now to hasten to her, to tell her that he wanted her for his very own.
If Offdean had stopped in Natchitoches on his way to the plantation, he would have heard something there to astonish him, to say the very least; for the whole town was talking of Euphrasie’s wedding, which was to take place in a few days. But he did not linger. After securing a horse at the stable, he pushed on with all the speed of which the animal was capable, and only in such company as his eager thoughts afforded him.
The plantation was very quiet, with that stillness which broods over broad, clean acres that furnish no refuge for as much as a bird that sings. The negroes were scattered about the fields at work, with hoe and plow, under the sun, and old Pierre, on his horse, was far off in the midst of them.
Placide had arrived in the morning, after traveling all night, and had gone to his room for an hour or two of rest. He had drawn the lounge close up to the window to get what air he might through the closed shutters. He was just beginning to doze when he heard Euphrasie’s light footsteps approaching. She stopped and seated herself so near that he could have touched her if he had but reached out his hand. Her nearness banished all desire to sleep, and he lay there content to rest his limbs and think of her.
The portion of the gallery on which Euphrasie sat was facing the river, and away from the road by which Offdean had reached the house. After fastening his horse, he mounted the steps, and traversed the broad hall that intersected the house from end to end, and that was open wide. He found Euphrasie engaged upon a piece of sewing. She was hardly aware of his presence before he had seated himself beside her.
She could not speak. She only looked at him with frightened eyes, as if his presence were that of some disembodied spirit.
“Are you not glad that I have come?” he asked her. “Have I made a mistake in coming?” He was gazing into her eyes, seeking to read the meaning of their new and strange expression.
“Am I glad?” she faltered. “I don’ know. W’at has that to do? You’ve come to see the work, of co’se. It’s – it’s only half done, Mr. Offdean. They would n’ listen to me or to papa, an’ you did n’ seem to care.”
“I have n’t come to see the work,” he said, with a smile of love and confidence. “I am here only to see you, - to say how much I want you, and need you – to tell you how I love you.”
She rose, half choking with words she could not utter. But he seized her hands and held her there.
“The plantation is mine, Euphrasie, - or it will be when you say that you will be my wife,” he went on excitedly. “I know that you love me”-
“I do not!” she exclaimed wildly. “W’at do you mean? How do you dare,” she gasped, “to say such things w’en you know that in two days I shall be married to Placide?” The last was said in a whisper; it was like a wail.
“Married to Placide!” he echoed, as if striving to understand, - to grasp some part of his own stupendous folly and blindness. “I knew nothing of it,” he said hoarsely. “Married to Placide! I would never have spoken to you as I did, if I had known. You believe me, I hope? Please say that you forgive me.”
He spoke with long silences between his utterances.
“Oh, there is n’ anything to fo’give. You’ve only made a mistake. Please leave me, Mr. Offdean. Papa is out in the fiel’, I think, if you would like to speak with him. Placide is somew’ere on the place.”
“I shall mount my horse and go see what work has been done,” said Offdean, rising. An unusual pallor had overspread his face, and his mouth was drawn with suppressed pain. “I must turn my fool’s errand to some practical good,” he added, with a sad attempt at playfulness; and with no further word he walked quickly away.
She listened to his going. Then all the wretchedness of the past months, together with the sharp distress of the moment, voiced itself in a sob: “O God – O my God, he’p me!”
But she could not stay out there in the broad day for any chance comer to look upon her uncovered sorrow.
Placide heard her rise and go to her room. When he had heard the key turn in the lock, he got up, and with quiet deliberation prepared to go out. He drew on his boots, then his coat. He took his pistol from the dressing-bureau, where he had placed it a while before, and after examining its chambers carefully, thrust it into his pocket. He had certain work to do with the weapon before night. But for Euphrasie’s presence he might have accomplished it very surely a moment ago, when the hound – as he called them – stood outside his window. He did not wish her to know anything of his movements, and he left his room as quietly as possible, and mounted his horse, as Offdean had done.
“La Chatte,” called Placide to the old woman, who stood in her yard at the washtub, “w’ich way did that man go?”
“W’at man dat? I is n’ studyin’ ‘bout no mans; I got ‘nough to do wid dis heah washin’. ‘Fo God, I don’ know w’at man you’s talkin’ ‘bout”-
“La Chatte, w’ich way did that man go? Quick, now!” with the deliberate tone and glance that had always quelled her.
“Ef you’s talkin’ ‘bout dat Noo Orleans man, I could ‘a’ tole you dat. He done tuck de road to de cocoa-patch,” plunging her black arms into the tub with unnecessary energy and disturbance.
“That’s enough. I know now he’s gone into the woods. You always was a liar, La Chatte.”
“Dat his own lookout, de smoove-tongue’ raskil,” soliloquized the woman a moment later. “I done said he did n’ have no call to come heah, caperin’ roun’ Miss ‘Phrasie.”
Placide was possessed by only one thought, which was a want as well, - to put an end to this man who had come between him and his love. It was the same brute passion that drives the beast to slay when he sees the object of his own desire laid hold of by another.
He had heard Euphrasie tell the man she did not love him, but what of that? Had he not heard her sobs, and guessed what her distress was? It needed no very flexible mind to guess as much, when a hundred signs besides, unheeded before, came surging to his memory. Jealously held him, and rage and despair.
Offdean, as he rode along under the trees in apathetic despondency, heard some one approaching him on horseback, and turned aside to make room in the narrow pathway.
It was not a moment for punctilious scruples, and Placide had not been hindered by such from sending a bullet into the back of his rival. The only thing that stayed him was that Offdean must know why he had to die.
“Mr. Offdean,” Placide said, reining his horse with one hand, while he held his pistol openly in the other, “I was in my room ‘w’ile ago, and yeared w’at you said to Euphrasie. I would ‘a’ killed you then if she had n’ been ‘longside o’ you. I could ‘a’ killed you jus’ now w’en I come up behine you.”
“Well, why did n’t you?” asked Offdean, meanwhile gathering his faculties to think how he had best deal with this madman.
“Because I wanted you to know who done it, an’ w’at he done it for.”
“Mr. Santien, I suppose to a person in your frame of mind it will make no difference to know that I’m unarmed. But if you make any attempt on my life, I shall certainly defend myself as best as I can.”
“Defen’ yo’se’f, then.”
“You must be mad,” said Offdean, quickly, and looking straight into Placide’s eyes, “to want to soil your happiness with murder. I thought a creole knew better than that how to love a woman.”
“By —! are you goin’ to learn me how to love a woman?”
“No, Placide,” said Offdean eagerly, as they rode slowly along; “your own honor is going to tell you that. The way to love a woman is to think first of her happiness. If you love Euphrasie, you must go to her clean. I love her myself enough to want you to do that. I shall leave this place tomorrow; you will never see me again if I can help it. Is n’t that enough for you? I’m going to turn here and leave you. Shoot me in the back if you like; but I know you won’t.” And Offdean held out his hand.
“I don’ want to shake hands with you,” said Placide sulkily. “Go ‘way f’om me.”
He stayed motionless watching Offdean ride away. He looked at the pistol in his hand, and replaced it slowly in his pocket; then he removed the broad felt hat which he wore, and wiped away the moisture that had gathered upon his forehead.
Offdean’s words had touched some chord within him and made it vibrant; but they made him hate the man no less.
“The way to love a woman is to think firs’ of her happiness,” he muttered reflectively. “He thought a creole knew how to love. Does he reckon he’s goin’ to learn a creole how to love?”
His face was white and set with despair now. The rage had all left it as he rode deeper on into the wood.
Offdean rose early, wishing to take the morning train to the city. But he was not before Euphrasie, whom he found in the large hall arranging the breakfast table. Old Pierre was there too, walking slowly about with hands folded behind him, and with bowed head.
A restraint hung upon all of them, and the girl turned to her father and asked him if Placide were up, seemingly for want of something to say. The old man fell heavily into a chair, and gazed upon her in the deepest distress.
“Oh, my po’ li’le Euphrasie! my po’ li’le chile! Mr. Offde’n, you ain’t no stranger.”
“Bon Dieu! Papa!” cried the girl sharply, seized with a vague terror. She quitted her occupation at the table, and stood in nervous apprehension of what might follow.
“I yeared people say Placide was one no-‘count creole. I nevair want to believe dat, me. Now I know dat’s true. Mr. Offde’n, you ain’t no stranger, you.”
Offdean was gazing upon the old man in amazement.
“In de night,” Pierre continued, “I yaired some noise on de winder. I go open, an’ dere Placide, standin’ wid his big boot’ on, an’ his w’ip w’at he knocked wid on de winder, an’ his hoss all saddle’. Oh, my po’ li’le chile! He say, ‘Pierre, I yaired say Mr. Luke William’ want his house pent down in Orville. I reckon I go git de job befo’ somebody else teck it.’ I say, ‘You come straight back, Placide? He say, ‘Don’ look fer me.’ An’ w’en I ax ‘im w’at I goin’ tell to my li’le chile, he say, ‘Tell Euphrasie Placide know better ‘an anybody livin’ w’at goin’ make her happy.’ An’ he start ‘way; den he come back an’ say, ‘Tell dat man’ – I don’ know who he was talk’ ‘bout – ‘tell ‘im he ain’t goin’ learn nuttin’ to a creole.’ Mon Dieu! Mon Dieu! I don’ know w’at all dat mean.”
He was holding the half-fainting Euphrasie in his arms, and stroking her hair.
“I always yaired say he was one no-‘count creole. I nevair want to believe dat.”
“Don’t – don’t say that again, papa,” she whisperingly entreated, speaking in French. “Placide has saved me!”
“He has save’ you f’om w’at, Euphrasie?” asked her father, in dazed astonishment.
“From sin,” she replied to him under her breath.
“I don’ know w’at all dat mean,” the old man muttered, bewildered, as he arose and walked out on the gallery.
Offdean had taken coffee in his room, and would not wait for breakfast. When he went to bid Euphrasie good-by, she sat beside the table with her head bowed upon her arm.
He took her hand and said good-by to her, but she did not look up.
“Euphrasie,” he asked eagerly, “I may come back? Say that I may – after a while.”
She gave him no answer, and he leaned down and pressed his cheek caressingly and entreatingly against her soft thick hair.
“May I, Euphrasie?” he begged. “So long as you do not tell me no, I shall come back, dearest one.”
She still made him no reply, but she did not tell him no.
So he kissed her hand and her cheek, - what he could touch of it, that peeped out from her folded arm, - and went away.
An hour later, when Offdean passed through Natchitoches, the old town was already ringing with the startling news that Placide had been dismissed by his fiancée, and the wedding was off, information which the young creole was taking the trouble to scatter broadcast as he went.
Return to the Kate Chopin library , or . . . Read the next short story; A Pair of Silk Stockings