It was often said that Polydore was the stupidest boy to be found "from the mouth of Cane river plumb to Natchitoches." Hence it was an easy matter to persuade him, as meddlesome and mischievous people sometimes tried to do, that he was an overworked and much abused individual.
It occurred one morning to Polydore to wonder what would happen if he did not get up. He hardly expected the world to stop turning on its axis; but he did in a way believe that the machinery of the whole plantation would come to a standstill.
He had awakened at the usual hour,-about daybreak,-and instead of getting up at once, as was his custom, he re-settled himself between the sheets. There he lay, peering out through the dormer window into the gray morning that was deliciously cool after the hot summer night, listening to familiar sounds that came from the barn-yard, the fields and woods beyond, heralding the approach of day.
A little later there were other sounds, no less familiar or significant; the roll of the wagon-wheels; the distant call of a negro's voice; Aunt Siney's shuffling step as she crossed the gallery, bearing to Mamzelle Adélaïde and old Monsieur José their early coffee.
Polydore had formed no plan and had thought only vaguely upon results. He lay in a half-slumber awaiting developments, and philosophically resigned to any turn which the affair might take. Still he was not quite ready with an answer when Jude came and thrust his head in at the door.
"Mista Polydore! O Mista Polydore! You 'sleep?"
"W'at you want?"
"Dan 'low he ain' gwine wait yonda wid de wagon all day. Say does you inspect 'im to pack dat freight f'om de landing by hisse'f?"
"I reckon he got it to do, Jude. I ain' going to get up, me."
"You ain' gwine git up?"
"No; I'm sick. I'm going stay in bed. Go 'long and le' me sleep."
The next one to invade Polydore's privacy was Mamzelle Adélaïde herself. It was no small effort for her to mount the steep, narrow stairway to Polydore's room. She seldom penetrated to these regions under the roof. He could hear the stairs creak beneath her weight, and knew that she was panting at every step. Her presence seemed to crowd the small room; for she was stout and rather tall, and her flowing muslin wrapper swept majestically from side to side as she walked.
Mamzelle Adélaïde had reached middle age, but her face was still fresh with its mignon features; and her brown eyes at the moment were round with astonishment and alarm.
"W'at's that I hear, Polydore? They tell me you're sick!" She went and stood beside the bed, lifting the mosquito bar that settled upon her head and fell about her like a veil.
Polydore's eyes blinked, and he made no attempt to answer. She felt his wrist softly with the tips of her fingers, and rested her hand for a moment on his low forehead beneath the shock of black hair.
"But you don't seem to have any fever, Polydore!"
"No," hesitatingly, feeling himself forced to make some reply. "It's a kine of - a kine of pain, like you might say. It kitch me yere in the knee, and it goes 'long like you stickin' a knife clean down in my heel. Aie! Oh, la-la!" expressions of pain wrung from him by Mamzelle Adélaïde gently pushing aside the covering to examine the afflicted member.
"My patience! but that leg is swollen, yes, Polydore." The limb, in fact, seemed dropsical, but if Mamzelle Adélaïde had bethought her of comparing it with the other one, she would have found the two corresponding in their proportions to a nicety. Her kind face expressed the utmost concern, and she quitted Polydore feeling pained and ill at ease.
For one of the aims of Mamzelle Adélaïde's existence was to do the right thing by this boy, whose mother, a 'Cadian hill woman, had begged her with dying breath to watch over the temporal and spiritual welfare of her son; above all, to see that he did not follow in the slothful footsteps of an over-indolent father.
Polydore's scheme worked so marvellously to his comfort and pleasure that he wondered at not having thought of it before. He ate with keen relish the breakfast which Jude brought to him on a tray. Even old Monsieur José was concerned, and made his way up to Polydore, bringing a number of picture-papers for his entertainment, a palm-leaf fan and a cow-bell, with which to summon Jude when necessary and which he placed within easy reach.
As Polydore lay on his back fanning luxuriously, it seemed to him that he was enjoying a foretaste of paradise. Only once did he shudder with apprehension. It was when he heard Aunt Siney, with lifted voice, recommending to "wrop the laig up in bacon fat; de oniest way to draw out de misery."
The thought of a healthy leg swathed in bacon fat on a hot day in July was enough to intimidate a braver heart than Polydore's. But the suggestion was evidently not adopted, for he heard no more of the bacon fat. In its stead he became acquainted with the not unpleasant sting of a soothing liniment which Jude rubbed into the leg at intervals during the day.
He kept the limb propped on a pillow, stiff and motionless, even when alone and unobserved. Toward evening he fancied that it really showed signs of inflammation, and he was quite sure it pained him.
It was a satisfaction to all to see Polydore appear down-stairs the following afternoon. He limped painfully, it is true, and clutched wildly at anything in his way that offered a momentary support. His acting was clumsily overdrawn; and by less guileless souls than Mamzelle Adélaïde and her father would have surely been suspected. But these two only thought with deep concern of means to make him comfortable.
They seated him on the shady back gallery in an easy-chair, with his leg propped up before him.
"He inhe'its dat rheumatism," proclaimed Aunt Siney, who affected the manner of an oracle. "I see dat boy's granpap, many times, all twis' up wid rheumatism twell his head sot down on his body, hine side befo'. He got to keep outen de jew in de mo'nin's, and he 'bleege to w'ar red flannen."
Monsieur José, with flowing white locks enframing his aged face, leaned upon his cane and contemplated the boy with unflagging attention. Polydore was beginning to believe himself a worthy object as a center of interest.
Mamzelle Adélaïde had but just returned from a long drive in the open buggy, from a mission which would have fallen to Polydore had he not been disabled by this unlooked-for illness. She had thoughtlessly driven across the country at an hour when the sun was hottest, and now she sat panting and fanning herself; her face, which she mopped incessantly with her handkerchief, was inflamed from the heat.
Mamzelle Adélaïde ate no supper that night, and went to bed early, with a compress of eau sédative bound tightly around her head. She thought it was a simple headache, and that she would be rid of it in the morning; but she was not better in the morning.
She kept her bed that day, and late in the afternoon Jude rode over to town for the doctor, and stopped on the way to tell Mamzelle Adélaïde's married sister that she was quite ill, and would like to have her come down to the plantation for a day or two.
Polydore made round, serious eyes and forgot to limp. He wanted to go for the doctor in Jude's stead; but Aunt Siney, assuming a brief authority, forced him to sit still by the kitchen door and talked further of bacon fat.
Old Monsieur José moved about uneasily and restlessly, in and out of his daughter's room. He looked vacantly at Polydore now, as if the stout young boy in blue jeans and a calico shirt were a sort of a transparency.
A dawning anxiety, coupled to the inertia of the past two days, deprived Polydore of his usual healthful night's rest. The slightest noises awoke him. Once it was the married sister breaking ice down on the gallery. One of the hands had been sent with the cart for ice late in the afternoon; and Polydore himself had wrapped the huge chunk in an old blanket and set it outside of Mamzelle Adélaïde's door.
Troubled and wakeful, he arose from bed and went and stood by the open window. There was a round moon in the sky, shedding its pale glamor over all the country; and the live-oak branches, stirred by the restless breeze, flung quivering, grotesque shadows slanting across the old roof. A mocking-bird had been singing for hours near Polydore's window, and farther away there were frogs croaking. He could see as through a silvery gauze the level stretch of the cotton-field, ripe and white; a gleam of water beyond, - that was the bend of the river, - and farther yet, the gentle rise of the pine hill.
There was a cabin up there on the hill that Polydore remembered well. Negroes were living in it now, but it had been his home once. Life had been pinched and wretched enough up there with the little chap. The bright days had been the days when his godmother, Mamzelle Adélaïde, would come driving her old white horse over the pine needles and crackling fallen twigs of the deserted hill-road. Her presence was connected with the earliest recollections of whatever he had known of comfort and well-being.
And one day when death had taken his mother from him, Mamzelle Adélaïde had brought him home to live with her always. Now she was sick down there in her room; very sick, for the doctor had said so, and the married sister had put on her longest face.
Polydore did not think of these things in any connected or very intelligent way. They were only impressions that penetrated him and made his heart swell, and the tears well up to his eyes. He wiped his eyes on the sleeve of his night-gown. The mosquitoes were stinging him and raising great welts on his brown legs. He went and crept back under the mosquito-bar, and soon he was asleep and dreaming that his nénaine was dead and he left alone in the cabin upon the pine hill.
In the morning, after the doctor had seen Mamzelle Adélaïde, he went and turned his horse into the lot and prepared to stay with his patient until he could feel it would be prudent to leave her.
Polydore tiptoed into her room and stood at the foot of the bed. Nobody noticed now whether he limped or not. She was talking very loud, and he could not believe at first that she could be as ill as they said, with such strength of voice. But her tones were unnatural, and what she said conveyed no meaning to his ears.
He understood, however, when she thought she was talking to his mother. She was in a manner apologizing for his illness; and seemed to be troubled with the idea that she had in a way been the indirect cause of it by some oversight or neglect.
Polydore felt ashamed, and went outside and stood by himself near the cistern till some one told him to go and attend to the doctor's horse.
Then there was confusion in the household, when mornings and afternoons seemed turned around; and meals, which were scarcely tasted, were served at irregular and unseasonable hours. And there came one awful night, when they did not know if Mamzelle Adélaïde would live or die.
Nobody slept. The doctor snatched moments of rest in the hammock. He and the priest, who had been summoned, talked a little together with professional callousness about the dry weather and the crops.
Old monsieur walked, walked, like a restless, caged animal. The married sister came out on the gallery every now and then and leaned up against the post and sobbed in her handkerchief. There were many negroes around, sitting on the steps and standing in small groups in the yard.
Polydore crouched on the gallery. It had finally come to him to comprehend the cause of his nénaine's sickness - that drive in the sweltering afternoon, when he was shamming illness. No one there could have comprehended the horror of himself, the terror that possessed him, squatting there outside her door like a savage. If she died - but he could not think of that. It was the point at which his reason was stunned and seemed to swoon.
A week or two later Mamzelle Adélaïde was sitting outside for the first time since her convalescence began. They had brought her own rocker around to the side where she could get a sight and whiff of the flower-garden and the blossom-laden rose-vine twining in and out of the banisters. Her former plumpness had not yet returned, and she looked much older, for the wrinkles were visible.
She was watching Polydore cross the yard. He had been putting up his pony. He approached with his heavy, clumsy walk; his round, simple face was hot and flushed from the ride. When he had mounted to the gallery he went and leaned against the railing, facing Mamzelle Adélaïde, mopping his face, his hands and neck with his handkerchief. Then he removed his hat and began to fan himself with it.
"You seem to be perfec'ly cu'ed of yo' rheumatism, Polydore. It doesn' hurt you any mo', my boy?" she questioned.
He stamped the foot and extended the leg violently, in proof of its perfect soundness.
"You know w'ere I been, nénaine?" he said. "I been to confession."
"That's right. Now you mus' rememba and not take a drink of water to-morrow morning, as you did las' time, and miss yo' communion, my boy. You are a good child, Polydore, to go like that to confession without bein told."
"No, I ain' good," he returned, doggedly. He began to twirl his hat on one finger. "Père Cassimelle say he always yeard I was stupid, but he never knew befo' how bad I been."
"Indeed!" muttered Mamzelle Adélaïde, not over well pleased with the priest's estimate of her protégé.
"He gave me a long penance," continued Polydore. "The 'Litany of the Saint' and the 'Litany of the Blessed Virgin,' and three 'Our Father' and three 'Hail Mary' to say ev'ry mo'ning fo' a week. But he say' that ain' enough."
"My patience! W'at does he expec' mo' from you, I like to know?" Polydore was now creasing and scanning his hat attentively.
"He say' w'at I need, it's to be wo' out with the raw-hide. He say' he knows M'sieur José is too ole and feeble to give it to me like I deserve; and if you want, he say' he's willing to give me a good taste of the raw-hide himse'f."
Mamzelle Adélaïde found it impossible to disguise her indignation:
"Père Cassimelle sho'ly fo'gets himse'f, Polydore. Don't repeat to me any further his inconsid'ate remarks."
"He's right, nénaine. Père Cassimelle is right."
Since the night he crouched outside her door, Polydore had lived with the weight of his unconfessed fault oppressing every moment of existence. He had tried to rid himself of it in going to Father Cassimelle; but that had only helped by indicating the way. He was awkward and unaccustomed to express emotions with coherent speech. The words would not come.
Suddenly he flung his hat to the ground, and falling on his knees, began to sob, with his face pressed down in Mamzelle Adélaïde's lap. She had never seen him cry before, and in her weak condition it made her tremble.
Then somehow he got it out; he told the whole story of his deceit. He told it simply, in a way that bared his heart to her for the first time. She said nothing; only held his hand close and stroked his hair. But she felt as if a kind of miracle had happened. Hitherto her first thought in caring for this boy had been a desire to fulfill his dead mother's wishes.
But now he seemed to belong to herself, and to be her very own. She knew that a bond of love had been forged that would hold them together always.
"I know I can't he'p being stupid," sighed Polydore, "but it's no call fo' me to be bad."
"Neva mine, Polydore; neva mine, my boy," and she drew him close to her and kissed him as mothers kiss.