When Grégoire said to Melicent that there was no better woman in the world than his Aunt Thérèse, “W’en you do like she wants,” the statement was so incomplete as to leave one in uncomfortable doubt of the expediency of venturing within the influence of so exacting a nature. True, Thérèse required certain conduct from others, but she was willing to further its accomplishment by personal efforts, even sacrifices—that could leave no doubt of the pure unselfishness of her motive. There was hardly a soul at Place-du-Bois who had not felt the force of her will and yielded to its gentle influence.
The picture of Joçint as she had last seen him, stayed with her, till it gave form to a troubled desire moving her to see him again and speak with him. He had always been an unruly subject, inclined to a surreptitious defiance of authority. Repeatedly had he been given work on the plantation and as many times dismissed for various causes. Thérèse would have long since removed him had it not been for his old father Morico, whose long life spent on the place had established a claim upon her tolerance.
In the late afternoon, when the shadows of the magnolias were stretching in grotesque lengths across the lawn, Thérèse stood waiting for Uncle Hiram to bring her sleek bay Beauregard around to the front. The dark close fitting habit which she wore lent brilliancy to her soft blonde coloring; and there was no mark of years about her face or figure, save the settling of a thoughtful shadow upon the eyes, which joys and sorrows that were past and gone had left there.
As she rode by the cottage, Melicent came out on the porch to wave a laughing good-bye. The girl was engaged in effacing the simplicity of her rooms with certain bizarre decorations that seemed the promptings of a disordered imagination. Yards of fantastic calico had been brought up from the store, which Grégoire with hammer and tacks was amiably forming into impossible designs at the prompting of the girl. The little darkies had been enlisted to bring their contributions of palm branches, pine cones, ferns, and bright hued bird wings—and a row of those small recruits stood on the porch, gaping in wide-mouthed admiration at a sight that stirred within their breasts such remnant of savage instinct as past generations had left there in dormant survival.
One of the small audience permitted her attention to be drawn for a moment from the gorgeous in-door spectacle, to follow the movements of her mistress.
“Jis’ look Miss T’rèse how she go a lopin’ down de lane. Dere she go—dere she go—now she gone,” and she again became contemplative.
Thérèse, after crossing the railroad, for a space kept to the brow of the hill where stretched a well defined road, which by almost imperceptible degrees led deeper and always higher into the woods. Presently, leaving this road and turning into a bridle path where an unpracticed eye would have discovered no sign of travel, she rode on until reaching a small clearing among the pines, in the center of which stood a very old and weather beaten cabin.
Here she dismounted, before Morico knew of her presence, for he sat with his back partly turned to the open door. As she entered and greeted him, he arose from his chair, all trembling with excitement at her visit; the long white locks, straggling and unkept, falling about his brown visage that had grown old and weather beaten with his cabin. Sinking down into his seat—the hide covered chair that had been worn smooth by years of usefulness—he gazed well pleased at Thérèse, who seated herself beside him.
“Ah, this is quite the handsomest you have made yet, Morico,” she said addressing him in French, and taking up the fan that he was curiously fashioning of turkey feathers.
“I am taking extra pains with it,” he answered, looking complacently at his handiwork and smoothing down the glossy feathers with the ends of his withered old fingers. “I thought the American lady down at the house might want to buy it.”
Thérèse could safely assure him of Melicent’s willingness to seize on the trophy.
Then she asked why Joçint had not been to the house with news of him. “I have had chickens and eggs for you, and no way of sending them.”
At mention of his son’s name, the old man’s face clouded with displeasure and his hand trembled so that he was at some pains to place the feather which he was at the moment adding to the widening fan.
“Joçint is a bad son, madame, when even you have been able to do nothing with him. The trouble that boy has given me no one knows; but let him not think I am too old to give him a sound drubbing.”
Joçint meanwhile had returned from the mill and seeing Thérèse’s horse fastened before his door, was at first inclined to skulk back into the woods; but an impulse of defiance moved him to enter, and gave to his ugly countenance a look that was far from agreeable as he mumbled a greeting to Thérèse. His father he did not address. The old man looked from son to visitor with feeble expectancy of some good to come from her presence there.
Joçint’s straight and coarse black hair hung in a heavy mop over his low retreating forehead, almost meeting the ill-defined line of eyebrow that straggled above small dusky black eyes, that with the rest of his physique was an inheritance from his Indian mother.
Approaching the safe or garde manger, which was the most prominent piece of furniture in the room, he cut a wedge from the round loaf of heavy soggy corn bread that he found there, added a layer of fat pork, and proceeded to devour the unpalatable morsel with hungry relish.
“That is but poor fare for your old father, Joçint,” said Thérèse, looking steadily at the youth.
“Well, I got no chance me, fu’ go fine nuttin in de ’ood” (woods), he answered purposely in English, to annoy his father who did not understand the language.
“But you are earning enough to buy him something better; and you know there is always plenty at the house that I am willing to spare him.”
“I got no chance me fu’ go to de ’ouse neider,” he replied deliberately, after washing down the scant repast with a long draught from the tin bucket which he had replenished at the cistern before entering. He swallowed the water regardless of the “wiggles” whose presence was plainly visible.
“What does he say?” asked Morico scanning Thérèse’s face appealingly.
“He only says that work at the mill keeps him a good deal occupied,” she said with attempted carelessness.
As she finished speaking, Joçint put on his battered felt hat, and strode out the back door; his gun on his shoulder and a yellow cur following close at his heels.
Thérèse remained a while longer with the old man, hearing sympathetically the long drawn story of his troubles, and cheering him as no one else in the world was able to do, then she went away.
Joçint was not the only one who had seen Beauregard fastened at Morico’s door. Hosmer was making a tour of inspection that afternoon through the woods, and when he came suddenly upon Thérèse some moments after she had quitted the cabin, the meeting was not so wholly accidental as that lady fancied it was.
If there could be a situation in which Hosmer felt more than in another at ease in Thérèse’s company, it was the one in which he found himself. There was no need to seek occupation for his hands, those members being sufficiently engaged with the management of his horse. His eyes found legitimate direction in following the various details which a rider is presumed to observe; and his manner freed from the necessity of self direction took upon itself an ease which was occasional enough to mark it as noteworthy.
She told him of her visit. At mention of Joçint’s name he reddened: then followed the acknowledgment that the youth in question had caused him to lose his temper and forget his dignity during the afternoon.
“In what way?” asked Thérèse. “It would be better to dismiss him than to rail at him. He takes reproof badly and is extremely treacherous.”
“Mill hands are not plentiful, or I should send him off at once. Oh, he is an unbearable fellow. The men told me of a habit he has of letting the logs roll off the carriage, causing a good deal of annoyance and delay in replacing them. I was willing enough to believe it might be accidental, until I caught him today in the very act. I am thankful not to have knocked him down.”
Hosmer felt exhilarated. The excitement of his encounter with Joçint had not yet died away; this softly delicious atmosphere; the subtle aroma of the pines; his unlooked for meeting with Thérèse—all combined to stir him with unusual emotions.
“What a splendid creature Beauregard is,” he said, smoothing the animal’s glossy mane with the end of his riding whip. The horses were walking slowly in step, and close together.
“Of course he is,” said Thérèse proudly, patting the arched neck of her favorite. “Beauregard is a blooded animal, remember. He quite throws poor Nelson in the shade,” looking pityingly at Hosmer’s heavily built iron-grey.
“Don’t cast any slurs on Nelson, Mrs. Lafirme. He’s done me service that’s worthy of praise—worthy of better treatment than he gets.”
“I know. He deserves the best, poor fellow. When you go away you should turn him out to pasture, and forbid any one to use him.”
“It would be a good idea; but—I’m not so certain about going away.”
“Oh I beg your pardon. I fancied your movements were directed by some unchangeable laws.”
“Like the planets in their orbits? No, there is no absolute need of my going; the business which would have called me away can be done as readily by letter. If I heed my inclination it certainly holds me here.”
“I don’t understand that. It’s natural enough that I should be fond of the country; but you—I don’t believe you’ve been away for three months, have you? and city life certainly has its attractions.”
“It’s beastly,” he answered decidedly. “I greatly prefer the country—this country; though I can imagine a condition under which it would be less agreeable; insupportable, in fact.”
He was looking fixedly at Thérèse, who let her eyes rest for an instant in the unaccustomed light of his, while she asked “and the condition?”
“If you were to go away. Oh! it would take the soul out of my life.”
It was now her turn to look in all directions save the one in which his glance invited her. At a slight and imperceptible motion of the bridle, well understood by Beauregard, the horse sprang forward into a quick canter, leaving Nelson and his rider to follow as they could.
Hosmer overtook her when she stopped to let her horse drink at the side of the hill where the sparkling spring water came trickling from the moist rocks, and emptied into the long out-scooped trunk of a cypress, that served as trough. The two horses plunged their heads deep in the clear water; the proud Beauregard quivering with satisfaction, as arching his neck and shaking off the clinging moisture, he waited for his more deliberate companion.
“Doesn’t it give one a sympathetic pleasure,” said Thérèse, “to see the relish with which they drink?”
“I never thought of it,” replied Hosmer, cynically. His face was unusually flushed, and diffidence was plainly seizing him again.
Thérèse was now completely mistress of herself, and during the remainder of the ride she talked incessantly, giving him no chance for more than the briefest answers.