IT happened just as everyone had predicted. Tante Cat'rinette was beside herself with rage and indignation when she learned that the town authorities had for some reason condemned her house and intended to demolish it.
"Dat house w'at Vieumaite gi' me his own se'f, out his own mout', w'en he gi' me my freedom! All wrote down en regle befo' de cote! Bon dieu Seigneur, w'at dey talkin' 'bout!"
Tante Cat'rinette stood in the doorway of her home, resting a gaunt black hand against the jamb. In the other hand she held her corncob pipe. She was a tall, large-boned woman of a pronounced Congo type. The house in question had been substantial enough in its time. It contained four rooms: the lower two of brick, the upper ones of adobe. A dilapidated gallery projected from the upper story and slanted over the narrow banquette, to the peril of passers-by.
"I don't think I ever heard why the property was given to you in the first place, Tante Cat'rinette," observed Lawyer Paxton, who had stopped in passing, as so many others did, to talk the matter over with the old negress. The affair was attracting some attention in town, and its development was being watched with a good deal of interest. Tante Cat'rinette asked nothing better than to satisfy the lawyer's curiosity.
"Vieumaite all time say Cat'rinette wort' gole to 'im; de way I make dem nigga' walk chalk. But," she continued, with recovered seriousness, "w'en I nuss 'is li'le gal w'at all de doctor' 'low it 's goin' die, an' I make it well, me, den Vieumaite, he can't do 'nough, him. He name' dat li'le gal Cat'rine fo' me. Das Miss Kitty w'at marry Miché Raymond yon' by Gran' Eco'. Den he gi' me my freedom; he got plenty slave', him; one don' count in his pocket. An' he gi' me dat house w'at I'm stan'in' in de do'; he got plenty house' an' lan', him. Now dey want pay me t'ousan' dolla', w'at I don' axen' fo', an' tu'n me out dat house! I waitin' fo' 'em, Miche Paxtone," and a wicked gleam shot into the woman's small, dusky eyes. "I got my axe grine fine. Fus' man w'at touch Cat'rinette fo' tu'n her out dat house, he git 'is head bus' like I bust a gode."
"Dat's nice day, ainty, Miché Paxtone? Fine wedda fo' dry my close." Upon the gallery above hung an array of shirts, which gleamed white in the sunshine, and flapped in the rippling breeze.
The spectacle of Tante Cattrinette defying the authorities was one which offered much diversion to the children of the neighborhood. They played numberless pranks at her expense; daily serving upon her fictitious notices purporting to be to the last degree official. One youngster, in a moment of inspiration, composed a couplet, which they recited, sang, shouted at all hours, beneath her windows.
"Tante Cat'rinette, she go to town;
W'en she come back, her house pull' down."
So ran the production. She heard it many times during the day, but, far from offending her, she accepted it as a warning, - a prediction, as it were, - and she took heed not to offer to fate the conditions for its fulfillment. She no longer quitted her house even for a moment, so great was her fear and so firm her belief that the town authorities were lying in wait to possess themselves of it. She would not cross the street to visit a neighbor. She waylaid passers-by and pressed them into service to do her errands and small shopping. She grew distrustful and suspicious, ever on the alert to scent a plot in the most innocent endeavor to induce her to leave the house.
One morning, as Tante Cat'rinette was hanging out her latest batch of washing, Eusèbe, a "free mulatto" from Red River, stopped his pony beneath her gallery.
"Hé, Tante Cat'rinette!" he called up to her.
She turned to the railing just as she was, in her bare arms and neck that gleamed ebony-like against the unbleached cotton of her chemise. A coarse skirt was fastened about her waist, and a string of many-colored beads knotted around her throat. She held her smoking pipe between her yellow teeth.
"How you all come on, Miché Eusèbe?" she questioned, pleasantly.
"We all middlin', Tante Cat'rinette. But Miss Kitty, she putty bad off out yon'a. I see Mista Raymond dis mo'nin' w'en I pass by his house; he say look like de feva don' wan' to quit 'er. She been axen' fo' you all t'rough de night. He 'low he reckon I betta tell you. Nice wedda we got fo' plantin', Tante Cat'rinette."
"Nice wedda fo' lies, Miché Eusèbe," and she spat contemptuously down upon the banquette. She turned away without noticing the man further, and proceeded to hang one of Lawyer Paxton's fine linen shirts upon the line.
"She been axen' fo' you all t'rough de night."
Somehow Tante Cat'rinette could not get that refrain out of her head. She would not willingly believe that Eusèbe had spoken the truth, but - "She been axen fo' you all t'rough de night - all t'rough de night." The words kept ringing in her ears, as she came and went about her daily tasks. But by degrees she dismissed Eusèbe and his message from her mind. It was Miss Kitty's voice that she could hear in fancy following her, calling out through the night, "W'ere Tante Cat'rinette? W'y Tante Cat'rinette don' come? W'y she don' come - w'y she don' come?"
All day the woman muttered and mumbled to herself in her Creole patois; invoking council of "Vieumaite," as she always did in her troubles. Tante Cat'rinette's religion was peculiarly her own; she turned to heaven with her grievances, it is true, but she felt that there was no one in Paradise with whom she was quite so well acquainted as with "Vieumaite."
Late in the afternoon she went and stood on her doorstep, and looked uneasily and anxiously out upon the almost deserted street. When a little girl came walking by, - a sweet child with a frank and innocent face, upon whose word she knew she could rely, - Tante Cat'rinette invited her to enter.
"Come yere see Tante Cat'rinette, Lolo. It's long time you en't come see Tante Cat'rine; you gittin' proud." She made the little one sit down, and offered her a couple of cookies, which the child accepted with pretty avidity.
"You putty good li'le gal, you, Lolo. You keep on go confession all de time?"
"Oh, yes. I'm goin' make my firs' communion firs' of May, Tante Cat'rinette." A dog-eared catechism was sticking out of Lolo's apron pocket.
"Des right; be good li'le gal. Mine yo' maman ev't'ing she say; an' neva tell no story. It's nuttin' bad in dis worl' like tellin' lies. You know Eusèbe?"
"Yes; dat li'le ole Red River free m'latto. Uh, uh! dat one man w'at kin tell lies, yas! He come tell me Miss Kitty down sick yon'a. You ev' yeard such big story like dat, Lolo?"
The child looked a little bewildered, but she answered promptly, " 'Tain't no story, Tante Cat'rinette. I yeard papa sayin', dinner time, Mr. Raymond sen' fo' Dr. Chalon. An' Dr. Chalon says he ain't got time to go yonda. An' papa says it's because Dr. Chalon on'y want to go w'ere it's rich people; an' he's 'fraid Mista Raymond ain' goin' pay 'im."
Tante Cat'rinette admired the little girl's pretty gingham dress, and asked her who had ironed it. She stroked her brown curls, and talked of all manner of things quite foreign to the subject of Eusèbe and his wicked propensity for telling lies.
She was not restless as she had been during the early part of the day, and she no longer mumbled and muttered as she had been doing over her work.
At night she lighted her coal-oil lamp, and placed it near a window where its light could be seen from the street through the half-closed shutters. Then she sat herself down, erect and motionless, in a chair.
When it was near upon midnight, Tante Cat'rinette arose, and looked cautiously, very cautiously, out of the door. Her house lay in the line of deep shadow that extended along the street. The other side was bathed in the pale light of the declining moon. The night was agreeably mild, profoundly still, but pregnant with the subtle quivering life of early spring. The earth seemed asleep and breathing, - a scent-laden breath that blew in soft puffs against Tante Cat'rinette's face as she emerged from the house. She closed and locked her door noiselessly; then she crept slowly away, treading softly, stealthily as a cat, in the deep shadow.
There were but few people abroad at that hour. Once she ran upon a gay party of ladies and gentlemen who had been spending the evening over cards and anisette. They did not notice Tante Cat'rinette almost effacing herself against the black wall of the cathedral. She breathed freely and ventured from her retreat only when they had disappeared from view. Once a man saw her quite plainly, as she darted across a narrow strip of moonlight. But Tante Cat'rinette need not have gasped with fright as she did. He was too drunk to know if she were a thing of flesh, or only one of the fantastic, maddening shadows that the moon was casting across his path to bewilder him. When she reached the outskirts of the town, and had to cross the broad piece of open country which stretched out toward the pine wood, an almost paralyzing terror came over her. But she crouched low, and hurried through the marsh and weeds, avoiding the open road. She could have been mistaken for one of the beasts browsing there where she passed.
But once in the Grand Ecore road that lay through the pine wood, she felt secure and free to move as she pleased. Tante Cat'rinette straightened herself, stiffened herself in fact, and unconsciously assuming the attitude of the professional sprinter, she sped rapidly beneath the Gothic interlacing branches of the pines. She talked constantly to herself as she went, and to the animate and inanimate objects around her. But her speech, far from intelligent, was hardly intelligible.
She addressed herself to the moon, which she apostrophized as an impertinent busybody spying upon her actions. She pictured all manner of troublesome animals, snakes, rabbits, frogs, pursuing her, but she defied them to catch Cat'rinette, who was hurrying toward Miss Kitty. "Pa capab trapé Cat'rinette, vouzot; mo pé couri vite coté Miss Kitty." She called up to a mocking-bird warbling upon a lofty limb of a pine tree, asking why it cried out so, and threatening to secure it and put it into a cage. "Ca to pé crié comme ça, ti céléra? Arete, mo trapé zozos la, mo mété li den ain bon lacage." Indeed, Tante Cat'rinette seemed on very familiar terms with the night, with the forest, and with all the flying, creeping, crawling things that inhabit it. At the speed with which she traveled she soon had covered the few miles of wooded road, and before long had reached her destination.
The sleeping-room of Miss Kitty opened upon the long outside gallery, as did all the rooms of the unpretentious frame house which was her home. The place could hardly be called a plantation; it was too small for that. Nevertheless Raymond was trying to plant; trying to teach school between times, in the end room; and sometimes, when he found himself in a tight place, trying to clerk for Mr. Jacobs over in Campte, across Red River.
Tante Cat'rinette mounted the creaking steps, crossed the gallery, and entered Miss Kitty's room as though she were returning to it after a few moments' absence. There was a lamp burning dimly upon the high mantelpiece. Raymond had evidently not been to bed; he was in shirt sleeves, rocking the baby's cradle. It was the same mahogany cradle which had held Miss Kitty thirty-five years before, when Tante Cat'rinette had rocked it. The cradle had been bought then to match the bed, - the big, beautiful bed on which Miss Kitty lay now in a restless half slumber. There was a fine French clock on the mantel, still telling the hours as it had told them years ago. But there was no carpets or rugs on the floors. There was no servant in the house.
Raymond uttered an exclamation of amazement when he saw Tante Cat'rinette enter.
"How you do, Miché Raymond?" she said, quietly, "I yeard Miss Kitty been sick; Eusèbe tell me dat di mo'nin'."
She moved toward the bed as lightly as though shod with velvet, and seated herself there. Miss Kitty's hand lay outside the coverlid; a shapely hand, which her few days of illness and rest had not yet softened. The negress laid her own black hand upon it. At the touch Miss Kitty instinctively turned her palm upward.
"It's Tante Cat'rinette!" she exclaimed, with a note of satisfaction in her feeble voice. "W'en did you come, Tante Cat'rinette? They all said you wouldn' come."
"I'm goin' come ev'y night, cher coeur, ev'y night tell you be well. Tante Cat'rinette can't come daytime no mo'."
"Raymond tole me about it. They doin' you mighty mean in town, Tante Cat'rinette."
"Nev' mine, ti chou. I know how take care dat w'at Cieumaite gi' me. You go sleep now. Cat'rinette goin' set yere an' mine you. She don' wan' no céléra doctor. We drive 'em out wid a stick, day come roun' yere.
Miss Kitty was soon sleeping more restfully than she had done since her illness began. Raymond had finally succeeded in quieting the baby, and he tiptoed into the adjoining room, where the other children lay, to snatch a few hours of much-needed rest for himself. Cat'rinette sat faithfully beside her charge, administering at intervals to the sick woman's wants.
But the thought of regaining her home before daybreak, and of the urgent necessity for doing so, did not leave Tante Cat'rinette's mind for an instant.
In the profound darkness, the deep stillness of the night that comes before dawn, she was walking again through the woods, on her way back to town.
The mocking-birds were asleep, and so were the frogs and the snakes; and the moon was gone, and so was the breeze. She walked now in utter silence but for the heavy guttural breathing that accompanied her rapid footsteps. She walked with a desperate determination along the road, every foot of which was familiar to her.
When she at last emerged from the woods, the earth about her was faintly, very faintly, beinning to reveal itself in the tremulous, gray, uncertain light of approaching day. She staggered and plunged onward with beating pulses quickened by fear.
A sudden turn, and Tante Cat'rinette stood facing the river. She stopped abruptly, as if at command of some unseen power that forced her. For an instant she pressed a black hand against her tired, burning eyes, and stared fixedly ahead of her.
Tante Cat'rinette had always believed that Paradise was up there overhead where the sun and stars and moon are, and that "Vieumaite" inhabited that region of splendor. She never for a moment doubted this. It would be difficult, perhaps unsatisfying, to explain why Tante Cat'rinette, on that particular morning, when a vision of the rising day broke suddenly upon her, should have believed that she stood in face of a heavenly revelation. But why not, after all? Since she talked so familiarly herself to the unseen, why should it not respond to her when the time came?
Across the narrow, quivering line of water, the delicate budding branches of young trees were limned black against the gold, orange, - what word is there to tell the color of that morning sky! And steeped in the splendor of it hung one pale star; there was not another in the whole heaven.
Tante Cat'rinette stood with her eyes fixed intently upon that star, which held her like a hypnotic spell. She stammered breathlessly:
"Mo pé couté, Vieumaite. Cat'rinette pé couté." (I am listening, Vieumaite. Cat'rinette hears you.)
She stayed there motionless upon the brink of the river till the star melted into the brightness of the day and became part of it.
When Tante Cat'rinette entered Miss Kitty's room for the second time, the aspect of things had changed somewhat. Miss Kitty was with much difficulty holding the baby while Raymond mixed a saucer of food for the little one. Their oldest daughter, a child of twelve, had come into the room with an apronful of chips from the woodpile, and was striving to start a fire on the hearth, to make the morning coffee. The room seemed bare and almost squalid in the daylight.
"Well, yere Tante Cat'rinette come back," she said, quietly announcing herself.
They could not well understand why she was back; but it was good to have her there, and they did not question.
She took the baby from its mother, and, seating herself, began to feed it from the saucer which Raymond placed beside her on a chair.
"Yas," she said, "Cat'rinette goin' stay; dis time she en't nev' goin' 'way no mo'."
Husband and wife looked at each other with surprised, questioning eyes.
"Miché Raymond," remarked the woman, turning her head up to him with a certain comical shrewdness in her glance, "if somebody want len' you t'ousan' dolla', w'at you goin' say? Even if it's ole nigga 'oman?"
The man's face flushed with sudden emotion. "I would say that person was our bes' frien', Tante Cat'rinette. An'," he added, with a smile, "I would give her a mortgage on the place, of co'se, to secu' her f'om loss."
"Des right," agreed the woman practically.
"Den Cat'rinette goin' len' you t'ousan' dolla'. Dat w'at Vieumaite give her, dat b'long to her; don' b'long to nobody else. An' we go yon'a to town, Miché Raymond, you an' me. You care me befo' Miché Paxtone. I want 'im fo' put down in writin' befo' de cote dat w'at Cat'rinette got, it fo' Miss Kitty w'en I be dead."
Miss Kitty was crying softly in the depths of her pillow.
"I en't got no head fo' all dat, me," laughed Tante Cat'rinette, good humoredly, as she held a spoonful of pap up to the baby's eager lips. "It's Vieumaite tell me all dat clair an' plain dis mo'nin', w'en I comin 'long de Gran' Eco' road."