The journey South had not been without attractions for Fanny. She had that consciousness so pleasing to the feminine mind of being well dressed; for her husband had been exceedingly liberal in furnishing her the means to satisfy her fancy in that regard. Moreover the change holding out a promise of novelty, irritated her to a feeble expectancy. The air, that came to her in puffs through the car window, was deliciously soft and mild; steeped with the rich languor of the Indian summer, that had already touched the tree tops, the sloping hill-side, and the very air, with russet and gold.
Hosmer sat beside her, curiously inattentive to his newspaper; observant of her small needs, and anticipating her timid half expressed wishes. Was there some mysterious power that had so soon taught the man such methods to a woman’s heart, or was he not rather on guard and schooling himself for the rôle which was to be acted out to the end? But as the day was approaching its close, Fanny became tired and languid; a certain mistrust was creeping into her heart with the nearing darkness. It had grown sultry and close, and the view from the car window was no longer cheerful, as they whirled through forests, gloomy with trailing moss, or sped over an unfamiliar country whose features were strange and held no promise of a welcome for her.
They were nearing Place-du-Bois, and Hosmer’s spirits had risen almost to the point of gaiety as he began to recognize the faces of those who loitered about the stations at which they stopped. At the Centerville station, five miles before reaching their own, he had even gone out on the platform to shake hands with the rather mystified agent who had not known of his absence. And he had waved a salute to the little French priest of Centerville who stood out in the open beside his horse, booted, spurred and all equipped for bad weather, waiting for certain consignments which were to come with the train, and who answered Hosmer’s greeting with a sober and uncompromising sweep of the hand. When the whistle sounded for Place-du-Bois, it was nearly dark. Hosmer hurried Fanny on to the platform, where stood Henry, his clerk. There were a great many negroes loitering about, some of whom offered him a cordial “how’dy Mr. Hosma,” and pushing through was Grégoire, meeting them with the ease of a courtier, and acknowledging Hosmer’s introduction of his wife, with a friendly hand shake.
“Aunt Thérèse sent the buggy down fur you,” he said, “we had rain this mornin’ and the road’s putty heavy. Come this way. Mine out fur that ba’el, Mrs. Hosma, it’s got molasses in. Hiurm bring that buggy ova yere.”
“What’s the news, Grégoire?” asked Hosmer, as they waited for Hiram to turn the horses about.
“Jus’ about the same’s ev’a. Miss Melicent wasn’t ver’ well a few days back; but she’s some betta. I reckon you’re all plum wore out,” he added, taking in Fanny’s listless attitude, and thinking her very pretty as far as he could discover in the dim light.
They drove directly to the cottage, and on the porch Thérèse was waiting for them. She took Fanny’s two hands and pressed them warmly between her own; then led her into the house with an arm passed about her waist. She shook hands with Hosmer, and stood for a while in cheerful conversation, before leaving them.
The cottage was fully equipped for their reception, with Minervy in possession of the kitchen and the formerly reluctant Suze as housemaid: though Thérèse had been silent as to the methods which she had employed to prevail with these unwilling damsels.
Hosmer then went out to look after their baggage, and when he returned, Fanny sat with her head pillowed on the sofa, sobbing bitterly. He knelt beside her, putting his arm around her, and asked the cause of her distress.
“Oh it’s so lonesome, and dreadful, I don’t believe I can stand it,” she answered haltingly through her tears.
And here was he thinking it was so home-like and comforting, and tasting the first joy that he had known since he had gone away.
“It’s all strange and new to you, Fanny; try to bear up for a day or two. Come now, don’t be a baby—take courage. It will all seem quite different by and by, when the sun shines.”
A knock at the door was followed by the entrance of a young colored boy carrying an armful of wood.
“Miss T’rèse sont me kin’le fiar fu’ Miss Hosma; ’low he tu’nin’ cole,” he said depositing his load on the hearth; and Fanny, drying her eyes, turned to watch him at his work.
He went very deliberately about it, tearing off thin slathers from the fat pine, and arranging them into a light frame-work, beneath a topping of kindling and logs that he placed on the massive brass andirons. He crawled about on hands and knees, picking up the stray bits of chips and moss that had fallen from his arms when he came in. Then sitting back on his heels he looked meditatively into the blaze which he had kindled and scratched his nose with a splinter of pine wood. When Hosmer presently left the room, he rolled his big black eyes towards Fanny, without turning his head, and remarked in a tone plainly inviting conversation “yo’ all come f’om way yonda?”
He was intensely black, and if Fanny had been a woman with the slightest sense of humor, she could not but have been amused at the picture which he presented in the revealing fire-light with his elfish and ape like body much too small to fill out the tattered and ill-fitting garments that hung about it. But she only wondered at him and his rags, and at his motive for addressing her.
“We’re come from St. Louis,” she replied, taking him with a seriousness which in no wise daunted him.
“Yo’ all brung de rain,” he went on sociably, leaving off the scratching of his nose, to pass his black yellow-palmed hand slowly through the now raging fire, a feat which filled her with consternation. After prevailing upon him to desist from this salamander like exhibition, she was moved to ask if he were not very poor to be thus shabbily clad.
“No ’um,” he laughed, “I got some sto’ close yonda home. Dis yere coat w’at Mista Grégor gi’me,” looking critically down at its length, which swept the floor as he remained on his knees. “He done all to’e tu pieces time he gi’ him tu me, whar he scuffle wid Joçint yonda tu de mill. Mammy ’low she gwine mek him de same like new w’en she kin kotch de time.”
The entrance of Minervy bearing a tray temptingly arranged with a dainty supper, served to silence the boy, who at seeing her, threw himself upon all fours and appeared to be busy with the fire. The woman, a big raw-boned field hand, set her burden awkwardly down on a table, and after staring comprehensively around, addressed the boy in a low rich voice, “Dar ain’t no mo’ call to bodda wid dat fiar, you Sampson; how come Miss T’rèse sont you lazy piece in yere tu buil’ fiar?”
“Don’ know how come,” he replied, vanishing with an air of the utmost self-depreciation.
Hosmer and Fanny took tea together before the cheerful fire and he told her something of methods on the plantation, and made her further acquainted with the various people whom she had thus far encountered. She listened apathetically; taking little interest in what he said, and asking few questions. She did express a little bewilderment at the servant problem. Mrs. Lafirme, during their short conversation, had deplored her inability to procure more than two servants for her; and Fanny could not understand why it should require so many to do the work which at home was accomplished by one. But she was tired—very tired, and early sought her bed, and Hosmer went in quest of his sister whom he had not yet seen.
Melicent had been told of his marriage some days previously, and had been thrown into such a state of nerves by the intelligence, as to seriously alarm those who surrounded her and whose experience with hysterical girls had been inadequate.
Poor Grégoire had betaken himself with the speed of the wind to the store to procure bromide, valerian, and whatever else should be thought available in prevailing with a malady of this distressing nature. But she was “some betta,” as he told Hosmer, who found her walking in the darkness of one of the long verandas, all enveloped in filmy white wool. He was a little prepared for a cool reception from her, and ten minutes before she might have received him with a studied indifference. But her mood had veered about and touched the point which moved her to fall upon his neck, and in a manner, condole with him; seasoning her sympathy with a few tears.
“Whatever possessed you, David? I have been thinking, and thinking, and I can see no reason which should have driven you to do this thing. Of course I can’t meet her; you surely don’t expect it?”
He took her arm and joined her in her slow walk.
“Yes, I do expect it, Melicent, and if you have the least regard for me, I expect more. I want you to be good to her, and patient, and show yourself her friend. No one can do such things more amiably than you, when you try.”
“But David, I had hoped for something so different.”
“You couldn’t have expected me to marry Mrs. Lafirme, a Catholic,” he said, making no pretense of misunderstanding her.
“I think that woman would have given up religion—anything for you.”
“Then you don’t know her, little sister.”
It must have been far in the night when Fanny awoke suddenly. She could not have told whether she had been awakened by the long, wailing cry of a traveler across the narrow river, vainly trying to rouse the ferryman; or the creaking of a heavy wagon that labored slowly by in the road and moved Hector to noisy enquiry. Was it not rather the pattering rain that the wind was driving against the window panes? The lamp burned dimly upon the high old-fashioned mantel-piece and her husband had thoughtfully placed an improvised screen before it, to protect her against its disturbance. He himself was not beside her, nor was he in the room. She slid from her bed and moved softly on her bare feet over to the open sitting-room door.
The fire had all burned away. Only the embers lay in a glowing heap, and while she looked, the last stick that lay across the andirons, broke through its tapering center and fell amongst them, stirring a fitful light by which she discovered her husband seated and bowed like a man who has been stricken. Uncomprehending, she stood a moment speechless, then crept back noiselessly to bed.