When Melicent came to visit her brother, Mrs. Lafirme persuaded him to abandon his uncomfortable quarters at the mill and take up his residence in the cottage, which stood just beyond the lawn of the big house. This cottage had been furnished de pied en cap many years before, in readiness against an excess of visitors, which in days gone by was not of infrequent occurrence at Place-du-Bois. It was Melicent’s delighted intention to keep house here. And she foresaw no obstacle in the way of procuring the needed domestic aid in a place which was clearly swarming with idle women and children.
“Got a cook yet, Mel?” was Hosmer’s daily enquiry on returning home, to which Melicent was as often forced to admit that she had no cook, but was not without abundant hope of procuring one.
Betsy’s Aunt Cynthy had promised with a sincerity which admitted not of doubt, that “de Lord willin’ ” she would “be on han’ Monday, time to make de mornin’ coffee.” Which assurance had afforded Melicent a Sunday free of disturbing doubts concerning the future of her undertaking. But who may know what the morrow will bring forth? Cynthy had been “tuck sick in de night.” So ran the statement of the wee pickaninny who appeared at Melicent’s gate many hours later than morning coffee time: delivering his message in a high voice of complaint, and disappearing like a vision without further word.
Uncle Hiram, then called to the breach, had staked his patriarchal honor on the appearance of his niece Suze on Tuesday. Melicent and Thérèse meeting Suze some days later in a field path, asked the cause of her bad faith. The girl showed them all the white teeth which nature had lavished on her, saying with the best natured laugh in the world: “I don’ know how come I didn’ git dere Chewsday like I promise.”
If the ladies were not disposed to consider that an all-sufficient reason, so much the worse, for Suze had no other to offer.
From Mose’s wife, Minervy, better things might have been expected. But after a solemn engagement to take charge of Melicent’s kitchen on Wednesday, the dusky matron suddenly awoke to the need of “holpin’ Mose hoe out dat co’n in the stiff lan.”
Thérèse, seeing that the girl was really eager to play in the brief role of housekeeper had used her powers, persuasive and authoritative, to procure servants for her, but without avail. She herself was not without an abundance of them, from the white-haired Hiram, whose position on the place had long been a sinecure, down to the little brown legged tot Mandy, much given to falling asleep in the sun, when not chasing venturesome poultry off forbidden ground, or stirring gentle breezes with an enormous palm leaf fan about her mistress during that lady’s after dinner nap.
When pressed to give a reason for this apparent disinclination of the negroes to work for the Hosmers, Nathan, who was at the moment being interviewed on the front veranda by Thérèse and Melicent, spoke out.
“Dey ’low ’roun’ yere, dat you’s mean to de black folks, ma’am: dat what dey says—I don’ know me.”
“Mean,” cried Melicent, amazed, “in what way, pray?”
“Oh, all sort o’ ways,” he admitted, with a certain shy brazenness; determined to go through with the ordeal.
“Dey ’low you wants to cut de little gals’ plaits off, an’ sich—I don’ know me.”
“Do you suppose, Nathan,” said Thérèse attempting but poorly to hide her amusement at Melicent’s look of dismay, “that Miss Hosmer would bother herself with darkies’ plaits?”
“Dat’s w’at I tink m’sef. Anyways, I’ll sen’ Ar’minty ’roun’ to-morrow, sho.”
Melicent was not without the guilty remembrance of having one day playfully seized one of the small Mandy’s bristling plaits, daintily between finger and thumb, threatening to cut them all away with the scissors which she carried. Yet she could not but believe that there was some deeper motive underlying this systematic reluctance of the negroes to give their work in exchange for the very good pay which she offered. Thérèse soon enlightened her with the information that the negroes were very averse to working for Northern people whose speech, manners, and attitude towards themselves were unfamiliar. She was given the consoling assurance of not being the only victim of this boycott, as Thérèse recalled many examples of strangers whom she knew to have met with a like cavalier treatment at the darkies’ hands.
Needless to say, Araminty never appeared.
Hosmer and Melicent were induced to accept Mrs. Lafirme’s generous hospitality; and one of that lady’s many supernumeraries was detailed each morning to “do up” Miss Melicent’s rooms, but not without the previous understanding that the work formed part of Miss T’rèse’s system.
Nothing which had happened during the year of his residence at Place-du-Bois had furnished Hosmer such amusement as these misadventures of his sister Melicent, he having had no like experience with his mill hands.
It is not unlikely that his good humor was partly due to the acceptable arrangement which assured him the daily society of Thérèse, whose presence was growing into a need with him.