David Hosmer sat alone in his little office of roughly fashioned pine board. So small a place, that with his desk and his clerk’s desk, a narrow bed in one corner, and two chairs, there was scant room for a man to more than turn himself comfortably about. He had just dispatched his clerk with the daily bundle of letters to the post-office, two miles away in the Lafirme store, and he now turned with the air of a man who had well earned his moment of leisure, to the questionable relaxation of adding columns and columns of figures.
The mill’s unceasing buzz made pleasant music to his ears and stirred reflections of a most agreeable nature. A year had gone by since Mrs. Lafirme had consented to Hosmer’s proposal; and already the business more than gave promise of justifying the venture. Orders came in from the North and West more rapidly than they could be filled. That “Cypresse Funerall” which stands in grim majesty through the dense forests of Louisiana had already won its just recognition; and Hosmer’s appreciation of a successful business venture was showing itself in a little more pronounced stoop of shoulder, a deepening of pre-occupation and a few additional lines about mouth and forehead.
Hardly had the clerk gone with his letters than a light footstep sounded on the narrow porch; the quick tap of a parasol was heard on the door-sill; a pleasant voice asking, “Any admission except on business?” and Thérèse crossed the small room and seated herself beside Hosmer’s desk before giving him time to arise.
She laid her hand and arm,—bare to the elbow—across his work, and said, looking at him reproachfully:—
“Is this the way you keep a promise?”
“A promise?” he questioned, smiling awkwardly and looking furtively at the white arm, then very earnestly at the ink-stand beyond.
“Yes. Didn’t you promise to do no work after five o’clock?”
“But this is merely pastime,” he said, touching the paper, yet leaving it undisturbed beneath the fair weight that was pressing it down. “My work is finished: you must have met Henry with the letters.”
“No, I suppose he went through the woods; we came on the hand-car. Oh, dear! It’s an ungrateful task, this one of reform,” and she leaned back, fanning leisurely, whilst he proceeded to throw the contents of his desk into hopeless disorder by pretended efforts at arrangement.
“My husband used sometimes to say, and no doubt with reason,” she continued, “that in my eagerness for the rest of mankind to do right, I was often in danger of losing sight of such necessity for myself.”
“Oh, there could be no fear of that,” said Hosmer with a short laugh. There was no further pretext for continued occupation with his pens and pencils and rulers, so he turned towards Thérèse, rested an arm on the desk, pulled absently at his black moustache, and crossing his knee, gazed with deep concern at the toe of his boot, and set of his trouser about the ankle.
“You are not what my friend Homeyer would call an individualist,” he ventured, “since you don’t grant a man the right to follow the promptings of his character.”
“No, I’m no individualist, if to be one is to permit men to fall into hurtful habits without offering protest against it. I’m losing faith in that friend Homeyer, who I strongly suspect is a mythical apology for your own short-comings.”
“Indeed he’s no myth; but a friend who is fond of going into such things and allows me the benefit of his deeper perceptions.”
“You having no time, well understood. But if his influence has had the merit of drawing your thoughts from business once in a while we won’t quarrel with it.”
“Mrs. Lafirme,” said Hosmer, seeming moved to pursue the subject, and addressing the spray of white blossoms that adorned Thérèse’s black hat, “you admit, I suppose, that in urging your views upon me, you have in mind the advancement of my happiness?”
“Then why wish to substitute some other form of enjoyment for the one which I find in following my inclinations?”
“Because there is an unsuspected selfishness in your inclinations that works harm to yourself and to those around you. I want you to know,” she continued warmly, “the good things of life that cheer and warm, that are always at hand.”
“Do you think the happiness of Melicent or—or others could be materially lessened by my fondness for money getting?” he asked dryly, with a faint elevation of eyebrow.
“Yes, in proportion as it deprives them of a charm which any man’s society loses, when pursuing one object in life, he grows insensible to every other. But I’ll not scold any more. I’ve made myself troublesome enough for one day. You haven’t asked about Melicent. It’s true,” she laughed, “I haven’t given you much chance. She’s out on the lake with Grégoire.”
“Yes, in the pirogue. A dangerous little craft, I’m afraid; but she tells me she can swim. I suppose it’s all right.”
“Oh, Melicent will look after herself.”
Hosmer had great faith in his sister Melicent’s ability to look after herself; and it must be granted that the young lady fully justified his belief in her.
“She enjoys her visit more than I thought she would,” he said.
“Melicent’s a dear girl,” replied Thérèse cordially, “and a wise one too in guarding herself against a somber influence that I know,” with a meaning glance at Hosmer, who was preparing to close his desk.
She suddenly perceived the picture of a handsome boy, far back in one of the pigeon-holes, and with the familiarity born of country intercourse, she looked intently at it, remarking upon the boy’s beauty.
“A child whom I loved very much,” said Hosmer. “He’s dead,” and he closed the desk, turning the key in the lock with a sharp click which seemed to add—“and buried.”
Thérèse then approached the open door, leaned her back against its casing, and turned her pretty profile towards Hosmer, who, it need not be supposed, was averse to looking at it—only to being caught in the act.
“I want to look in at the mill before work closes,” she said; and not waiting for an answer she went on to ask—moved by some association of ideas:—
“How is Joçint doing?”
“Always unruly, the foreman tells me. I don’t believe we shall be able to keep him.”
Hosmer then spoke a few words through the telephone which connected with the agent’s desk at the station, put on his great slouch hat, and thrusting keys and hands into his pocket, joined Thérèse in the door-way.
Quitting the office and making a sharp turn to the left, they came in direct sight of the great mill. She quickly made her way past the huge piles of sawed timber, not waiting for her companion, who loitered at each step of the way, with observant watchfulness. Then mounting the steep stairs that led to the upper portions of the mill, she went at once to her favorite spot, quite on the edge of the open platform that overhung the dam. Here she watched with fascinated delight the great logs hauled dripping from the water, following each till it had changed to the clean symmetry of sawed planks. The unending work made her giddy. For no one was there a moment of rest, and she could well understand the open revolt of the surly Joçint; for he rode the day long on that narrow car, back and forth, back and forth, with his heart in the pine hills and knowing that his little Creole pony was roaming the woods in vicious idleness and his rifle gathering an unsightly rust on the cabin wall at home.
The boy gave but ugly acknowledgment to Thérèse’s amiable nod; for he thought she was one upon whom partly rested the fault of this intrusive Industry which had come to fire the souls of indolent fathers with a greedy ambition for gain, at the sore expense of revolting youth.