Melicent knew that there were exchanges of confidence going on between her brother and Mrs. Lafirme, from which she was excluded. She had noted certain lengthy conferences held in remote corners of the verandas. The two had deliberately withdrawn one moonlight evening to pace to and fro the length of gravel walk that stretched from door front to lane; and Melicent had fancied that they rather lingered when under the deep shadow of the two great live-oaks that overarched the gate. But that of course was fancy; a young girl’s weakness to think the world must go as she would want it to.
She was quite sure of having heard Mrs. Lafirme say “I will help you.” Could it be that David had fallen into financial straights and wanted assistance from Thérèse? No, that was improbable and furthermore, distasteful, so Melicent would not burden herself with the suspicion. It was far more agreeable to believe that affairs were shaping themselves according to her wishes regarding her brother and her friend. Yet her mystification was in no wise made clearer, when David left them to go to St. Louis.
Melicent was not ready or willing to leave with him. She had not had her “visit out” as she informed him, when he proposed it to her. To remain in the cottage during his absence was out of the question, so she removed herself and all her pretty belongings over to the house, taking possession of one of the many spare rooms. The act of removal furnished her much entertainment of a mild sort, into which, however, she successfully infused something of her own intensity by making the occasion one to bring a large detachment of the plantation force into her capricious service.
Melicent was going out, and she stood before her mirror to make sure that she looked properly. She was black from head to foot. From the great ostrich plume that nodded over her wide-brimmed hat, to the pointed toe of the patent leather boot that peeped from under her gown—a filmy gauzy thing setting loosely to her slender shapely figure. She laughed at the somberness of her reflection, which she at once set about relieving with a great bunch of geraniums—big and scarlet and long-stemmed, that she thrust slantwise through her belt.
Melicent, always charming, was very pretty when she laughed. She thought so herself and laughed a second time into the depths of her dark handsome eyes. One corner of the large mouth turned saucily upward, and the lips holding their own crimson and all that the cheeks were lacking, parted only a little over the gleaming whiteness of her teeth. As she looked at herself critically, she thought that a few more pounds of flesh would have well become her. It had been only the other day that her slimness was altogether to her liking; but at present she was in love with plumpness as typified in Mrs. Lafirme. However, on the whole, she was not ill pleased with her appearance, and gathering up her gloves and parasol, she quitted the room.
It was “broad day,” one of the requirements which Grégoire had named as essential for taking Melicent to visit old McFarlane’s grave. But the sun was not “shining mighty bright,” the second condition, and whose absence they were willing enough to overlook, seeing that the month was September.
They had climbed quite to the top of the hill, and stood on the very brink of the deep toilsome railroad cut all fringed with matted grass and young pines, that had but lately sprung there. Up and down the track, as far as they could see on either side the steel rails glittered on into gradual dimness. There were patches of the field before them, white with bursting cotton which scores of negroes, men, women and children were dexterously picking and thrusting into great bags that hung from their shoulders and dragged beside them on the ground; no machine having yet been found to surpass the sufficiency of five human fingers for wrenching the cotton from its tenacious hold. Elsewhere, there were squads “pulling fodder” from the dry corn stalks; hot and distasteful work enough. In the nearest field, where the cotton was young and green, with no show of ripening, the overseer rode slowly between the rows, sprinkling plentifully the dry powder of paris green from two muslin bags attached to the ends of a short pole that lay before him across the saddle.
Grégoire’s presence would be needed later in the day, when the cotton was hauled to gin to be weighed; when the mules were brought to stable, to see them properly fed and cared for, and the gearing all put in place. In the meanwhile he was deliciously idle with Melicent.
They retreated into the woods, soon losing sight of everything but the trees that surrounded them and the underbrush, that was scant and scattered over the turf which the height of the trees permitted to grow green and luxuriant.
There, on the far slope of the hill they found McFarlane’s grave, which they knew to be such only by the battered and weather-worn cross of wood, that lurched disreputably to one side—there being no hand in all the world that cared enough to make it straight—and from which all lettering had long since been washed away. This cross was all that marked the abiding place of that mist-like form, so often seen at dark to stalk down the hill with threatening stride, or of moonlight nights to cross the lake in a pirogue, whose substance though visible was nought; with sound of dipping oars that made no ripple on the lake’s smooth surface. On stormy nights, some more gifted with spiritual insight than their neighbors, and with hearing better sharpened to delicate intonations of the supernatural, had not only seen the mist figure mounted and flying across the hills, but had heard the panting of the blood-hounds, as the invisible pack swept by in hot pursuit of the slave so long ago at rest.
But it was “broad day,” and here was nothing sinister to cause Melicent the least little thrill of awe. No owl, no bat, no ill-omened creature hovering near; only a mocking bird high up in the branches of a tall pine tree, gushing forth his shrill staccatoes as blithely as though he sang paeans to a translated soul in paradise.
“Poor old McFarlane,” said Melicent, “I’ll pay a little tribute to his memory; I dare say his spirit has listened to nothing but abuse of himself there in the other world, since it left his body here on the hill;” and she took one of the long-stemmed blood-red flowers and laid it beside the toppling cross.
“I reckon he’s in a place w’ere flowers don’t git much waterin’, if they got any there.”
“Shame to talk so cruelly; I don’t believe in such places.”
“You don’t believe in hell?” he asked in blank surprise.
“Certainly not. I’m a Unitarian.”
“Well, that’s new to me,” was his only comment.
“Do you believe in spirits, Grégoire? I don’t—in day time.”
“Neva mine ’bout spirits,” he answered, taking her arm and leading her off, “let’s git away f’om yere.”
They soon found a smooth and gentle slope where Melicent sat herself comfortably down, her back against the broad support of a tree trunk, and Grégoire lay prone upon the ground with—his head in Melicent’s lap.
When Melicent first met Grégoire, his peculiarities of speech, so unfamiliar to her, seemed to remove him at once from the possibility of her consideration. She was not then awake to certain fine psychological differences distinguishing man from man; precluding the possibility of naming and classifying him in the moral as one might in the animal kingdom. But short-comings of language, which finally seemed not to detract from a definite inheritance of good breeding, touched his personality as a physical deformation might, adding to it certainly no charm, yet from its pathological aspect not without a species of fascination, for a certain order of misregulated mind.
She bore with him, and then she liked him. Finally, whilst indulging in a little introspection; making a diagnosis of various symptoms, indicative by no means of a deep-seated malady, she decided that she was in love with Grégoire. But the admission embraced the understanding with herself, that nothing could come of it. She accepted it as a phase of that relentless fate which in pessimistic moments she was inclined to believe pursued her.
It could not be thought of, that she should marry a man whose eccentricity of speech would certainly not adapt itself to the requirements of polite society.
He had kissed her one day. Whatever there was about the kiss—possibly an over exuberance—it was not to her liking, and she forbade that he ever repeat it, under pain of losing her affection. Indeed, on the few occasions when Melicent had been engaged, kissing had been excluded as superfluous to the relationship, except in the case of the young lieutenant out at Fort Leavenworth who read Tennyson to her, as an angel might be supposed to read, and who in moments of rapturous self-forgetfulness, was permitted to kiss her under the ear: a proceeding not positively distasteful to Melicent, except in so much as it tickled her.
Grégoire’s hair was soft, not so dark as her own, and possessed an inclination to curl about her slender fingers.
“Grégoire,” she said, “you told me once that the Santien boys were a hard lot; what did you mean by that?”
“Oh no,” he answered, laughing good-humoredly up into her eyes, “you did’n year me right. W’at I said was that we had a hard name in the country. I don’ see w’y eitha, excep’ we all’ays done putty much like we wanted. But my! a man can live like a saint yere at Place-du-Bois, they ain’t no temptations o’ no kine.”
“There’s little merit in your right doing, if you have no temptations to withstand,” delivering the time worn aphorism with the air and tone of a pretty sage, giving utterance to an inspired truth.
Melicent felt that she did not fully know Grégoire; that he had always been more or less under restraint with her, and she was troubled by something other than curiosity to get at the truth concerning him. One day when she was arranging a vase of flowers at a table on the back porch, Aunt Belindy, who was scouring knives at the same table, had followed Grégoire with her glance, when he walked away after exchanging a few words with Melicent.
“God! but dats a diffunt man sence you come heah.”
“Different?” questioned the girl eagerly, and casting a quick sideward look at Aunt Belindy.
“Lord yas honey, ’f you warn’t heah dat same Mista Grégor ’d be in Centaville ev’y Sunday, a raisin’ Cain. Humph—I knows ’im.”
Melicent would not permit herself to ask more, but picked up her vase of flowers and walked with it into the house; her comprehension of Grégoire in no wise advanced by the newly acquired knowledge that he was liable to “raise Cain” during her absence—a proceeding which she could not too hastily condemn, considering her imperfect apprehension of what it might imply.
Meanwhile she would not allow her doubts to interfere with the kindness which she lavished on him, seeing that he loved her to desperation. Was he not at this very moment looking up into her eyes, and talking of his misery and her cruelty? turning his face downward in her lap—as she knew to cry—for had she not already seen him lie on the ground in an agony of tears, when she had told him he should never kiss her again?
And so they lingered in the woods, these two curious lovers, till the shadows grew so deep about old McFarlane’s grave that they passed it by with hurried step and averted glance.