Sampson, the young colored boy who had lighted Fanny’s fire on the first day of her arrival at Place-du-Bois, and who had made such insinuating advances of friendliness towards her, had continued to attract her notice and good will. He it was who lighted her fires on such mornings as they were needed. For there had been no winter. In mid-January, the grass was fresh and green; trees and plants were putting forth tender shoots, as if in welcome to spring; roses were blossoming, and it was a veritable atmosphere of Havana rather than of central Louisiana that the dwellers at Place-du-Bois were enjoying. But finally winter made tardy assertion of its rights. One morning broke raw and black with an icy rain falling, and young Sampson arriving in the early bleakness to attend to his duties at the cottage, presented a picture of human distress to move the most hardened to pity. Though dressed comfortably in the clothing with which Fanny had apparelled him—he was ashen. Save for the chattering of his teeth, his body seemed possessed of a paralytic inability to move. He knelt before the empty fire-place as he had done on that first day, and with deep sighs and groans went about his work. Then he remained long before the warmth that he had kindled; even lying full length upon the soft rug, to bask in the generous heat that permeated and seemed to thaw his stiffened limbs.
Next, he went quietly into the bedroom to attend to the fire there. Hosmer and Fanny were still sleeping. He approached a decorated basket that hung against the wall; a receptacle for old newspapers and odds and ends. He drew something from his rather capacious coat pocket, and, satisfying himself that Hosmer slept, thrust it in the bottom of the basket, well covered by the nondescript accumulation that was there.
The house was very warm and cheerful when they arose, and after breakfasting Hosmer felt unusually reluctant to quit his fire-side and face the inclement day; for an unaccustomed fatigue hung upon his limbs and his body was sore, as from the effect of bruises. But he went, nevertheless, well encased in protective rubber; and as he turned away from the house, Fanny hastened to the hanging basket, and fumbling nervously in its depths, found what the complaisant Sampson had left for her.
The cold rain had gradually changed into a fine mist, that in descending, spread an icy coat upon every object that it touched. When Hosmer returned at noon, he did not leave the house again.
During the afternoon Thérèse knocked at Fanny’s door. She was enveloped in a long hooded cloak, her face glowing from contact with the sharp moist air, and myriad crystal drops clinging to her fluffy blonde hair that looked very golden under the dark hood that covered it. She wanted to learn how Fanny accepted this unpleasant change of atmospheric conditions, intending to bear her company for the remainder of the day if she found her depressed, as was often the case.
“Why, I didn’t know you were home,” she said, a little startled, to Hosmer who opened the door to her. “I came over to show Mrs. Hosmer something pretty that I don’t suppose she ever saw before.” It was a branch from a rose-tree, bearing two open blossoms and a multitude of buds, creamy pink, all encased in an icy transparency that gleamed like diamonds. “Isn’t it exquisite?” she said, holding the spray up for Fanny’s admiration. But she saw at a glance that the spirit of Disorder had descended and settled upon the Hosmer household.
The usually neat room was in a sad state of confusion. Some of the pictures had been taken from the walls, and were leaning here and there against chairs and tables. The mantel ornaments had been removed and deposited at random and in groups about the room. On the hearth was a pail of water in which swam a huge sponge; and Fanny sat beside the center-table that was piled with her husband’s wearing apparel, holding in her lap a coat which she had evidently been passing under inspection. Her hair had escaped from its fastenings; her collar was hooked awry; her face was flushed and her whole bearing indicated her condition.
Hosmer took the frozen spray from Thérèse’s hand, and spoke a little about the beauty of the trees, especially the young cedars that he had passed out in the hills on his way home.
“It’s all well and good to talk about flowers and things, Mrs. Laferm—sit down please—but when a person’s got the job that I’ve got on my hands, she’s something else to think about. And David here smoking one cigar after another. He knows all I’ve got to do, and goes and sends those darkies home right after dinner.”
Thérèse was so shocked that for a while she could say nothing; till for Hosmer’s sake she made a quick effort to appear at ease.
“What have you to do, Mrs. Hosmer? Let me help you, I can give you the whole afternoon,” she said with an appearance of being ready for any thing that was at hand to be done.
Fanny turned the coat over in her lap, and looked down helplessly at a stain on the collar, that she had been endeavoring to remove; at the same time pushing aside with patient repetition the wisp of hair that kept falling over her cheek.
“Belle Worthington’ll be here before we know it; her and her husband and that Lucilla of hers. David knows how Belle Worthington is, just as well as I do; there’s no use saying he don’t. If she was to see a speck of dirt in this house or on David’s clothes, or anything, why we’d never hear the last of it. I got a letter from her,” she continued, letting the coat fall to the floor, whilst she endeavored to find her pocket.
“Is she coming to visit you?” asked Thérèse who had taken up a feather brush, and was dusting and replacing the various ornaments that were scattered through the room.
“She’s going down to Muddy Graw (Mardi-Gras) her and her husband and Lucilla and she’s going to stop here a while. I had that letter—I guess I must of left it in the other room.”
“Never mind,” Thérèse hastened to say, seeing that her whole energies were centered on finding the letter.
“Let me look,” said Hosmer, making a movement towards the bedroom door, but Fanny had arisen and holding out a hand to detain him she went into the room herself, saying she knew where she’d left it.
“Is this the reason you’ve kept yourself shut up here in the house so often?” Thérèse asked of Hosmer, drawing near him. “Never telling me a word of it,” she went on, “it wasn’t right; it wasn’t kind.”
“Why should I have put any extra burden on you?” he answered, looking down at her, and feeling a joy in her presence there, that seemed like a guilty indulgence in face of his domestic shame.
“Don’t stay,” Thérèse said. “Leave me here. Go to your office or over to the house—leave me alone with her.”
Fanny returned, having found the letter, and spoke with increased vehemence of the necessity of having the house in perfect trim against the arrival of Belle Worthington, from whom they would never hear the last, and so forth.
“Well, your husband is going out, and that will give us a chance to get things righted,” said Thérèse encouragingly. “You know men are always in the way at such times.”
“It’s what he ought to done before; and left Suze and Minervy here,” she replied with grudging acquiescence.
After repeated visits to the bedroom, under various pretexts, Fanny grew utterly incapable to do more than sit and gaze stupidly at Thérèse, who busied herself in bringing the confusion of the sitting-room into some order.
She continued to talk disjointedly of Belle Worthington and her well known tyrannical characteristics in regard to cleanliness; finishing by weeping mildly at the prospect of her own inability to ever reach the high standard required by her exacting friend.
It was far in the afternoon—verging upon night, when Thérèse succeeded in persuading her that she was ill and should go to bed. She gladly seized upon the suggestion of illness; assuring Thérèse that she alone had guessed her affliction: that whatever was thought singular in her behavior must be explained by that sickness which was past being guessed at—then she went to bed.
It was late when Hosmer left his office; a rough temporary shanty, put together near the ruined mill.
He started out slowly on his long cold ride. His physical malaise of the morning had augmented as the day went on, and he was beginning to admit to himself that he was “in for it.”
But the cheerless ride was lightened by a picture that had been with him through the afternoon, and that moved him in his whole being, as the moment approached when it might be changed to reality. He knew Fanny’s habits; knew that she would be sleeping now. Thérèse would not leave her there alone in the house—of that he was sure. And he pictured Thérèse at this moment seated at his fire-side. He would find her there when he entered. His heart beat tumultuously at the thought. It was a very weak moment with him, possibly, one in which his unnerved condition stood for some account. But he felt that when he saw her there, waiting for him, he would cast himself at her feet and kiss them. He would crush her white hands against his bosom. He would bury his face in her silken hair. She should know how strong his love was, and he would hold her in his arms till she yield back tenderness to his own. But—Thérèse met him on the steps. As he was mounting them, she was descending; wrapped in her long cloak, her pretty head covered by the dark hood.
“Oh, are you going?” he asked.
She heard the note of entreaty in his voice.
“Yes,” she answered, “I shouldn’t have left her before you came; but I knew you were here; I heard your horse’s tread a moment ago. She’s asleep. Good night. Take courage and have a brave heart,” she said, pressing his hand a moment in both hers, and was gone.
The room was as he had pictured it; order restored and the fire blazing brightly. On the table was a pot of hot tea and a tempting little supper laid. But he pushed it all aside and buried his face down upon the table into his folded arms, groaning aloud. Physical suffering; thwarted love, and at the same time a feeling of self-condemnation, made him wish that life were ended for him.
Fanny awoke close upon morning, not knowing what had aroused her. She was for a little while all bewildered and unable to collect herself. She soon learned the cause of her disturbance. Hosmer was tossing about and his outstretched arm lay across her face, where it had evidently been flung with some violence. She took his hand to move it away, and it burned her like a coal of fire. As she touched him he started and began to talk incoherently. He evidently fancied himself dictating a letter to some insurance company, in no pleased terms—of which Fanny caught but snatches. Then:
“That’s too much, Mrs. Lafirme; too much—too much—Don’t let Grégoire burn—take him from the fire, some one. Thirty day’s credit—shipment made on tenth,” he rambled on at intervals in his troubled sleep.
Fanny trembled with apprehension as she heard him. Surely he has brain fever she thought, and she laid her hand gently on his burning forehead. He covered it with his own, muttering “Thérèse, Thérèse—so good—let me love you.”