UPON the pleasant veranda of Père Antoine′s cottage, that adjoined the church, a young girl had long been seated, awaiting his return. It was the eve of Easter Sunday, and since early afternoon the priest had been engaged in hearing the confessions of those who wished to make their Easters the following day. The girl did not seem impatient at his delay; on the contrary, it was very restful to her to lie back in the big chair she had found there, and peep through the thick curtain of vines at the people who occasionally passed along the village street.
She was slender, with a frailness that indicated lack of wholesome and plentiful nourishment. A pathetic, uneasy look was in her gray eyes, and even faintly stamped her features, which were fine and delicate. In lieu of a hat, a barège veil covered her light brown and abundant hair. She wore a coarse white cotton "josie," and a blue calico skirt that only half concealed her tattered shoes.
As she sat there, she held carefully in her lap a parcel of eggs securely fastened in a red bandana handkerchief.
Twice already a handsome, stalwart young man in quest of the priest had entered the yard, and penetrated to where she sat. At first they had exchanged the uncompromising "howdy" of strangers, and nothing more. The second time, finding the priest still absent, he hesitated to go at once. Instead, he stood upon the step, and narrowing his brown eyes, gazed beyond the river, off towards the west, where a murky streak of mist was spreading across the sun.
"It look like mo′ rain," he remarked, slowly and carelessly.
"We done had ′bout ′nough," she replied, in much the same tone.
"It ′s no chance to thin out the cotton," he went on.
"An′ the Bon-Dieu," she resumed, "it ′s on′y to-day you can cross him on foot."
"You live yonda on the Bon-Dieu, donc ? " he asked, looking at her for the first time since he had spoken.
"Yas, by Nid d′Hibout, m′sieur."
Instinctive courtesy held him from questioning her further. But he seated himself on the step, evidently determined to wait there for the priest. He said no more, but sat scanning critically the steps, the porch, and pillar beside him, from which he occasionally tore away little pieces of detached wood, where it was beginning to rot at its base.
A click at the side gate that communicated with the churchyard soon announced Père Antoine′s return. He came hurriedly across the garden-path, between the tall, lusty rosebushes that lined either side of it, which were now fragrant with blossoms. His long, flapping cassock added something of height to his undersized, middle-aged figure, as did the skullcap which rested securely back on his head. He saw only the young man at first, who rose at his approach.
"Well, Azenor," he called cheerily in French, extending his hand. "How is this? I expected you all the week."
"Yes, monsieur; but I knew well what you wanted with me, and I was finishing the doors for Gros-Léon′s new house;" saying which, he drew back, and indicated by a motion and look that some one was present who had a prior claim upon Père Antoine′s attention.
"Ah, Lalie!" the priest exclaimed, when he had mounted to the porch, and saw her there behind the vines. "Have you been waiting here since you confessed? Surely an hour ago!"
"You should rather have made some visits in the village, child."
"I am not acquainted with any one in the village," she returned.
The priest, as he spoke, had drawn a chair, and seated himself beside her, with his hands comfortably clasping his knees. He wanted to know how things were out on the bayou.
"And how is the grandmother?" he asked. "As cross and crabbed as ever? And with that" - he added reflectively - "good for ten years yet! I said only yesterday to Butrand - you know Butrand, he works on Le Blôt′s Bon-Dieu place - ′And that Madame Zidore: how is it with her, Butrand? I believe God has forgotten her here on earth.′ ′It is n′t that, your reverence,′ said Butrand, ′but it ′s neither God nor the Devil that wants her!′ " And Père Antoine laughed with a jovial frankness that took all sting of ill-nature from his very pointed remarks.
Lalie did not reply when he spoke of her grandmother; she only pressed her lips firmly together, and picked nervously at the red bandana.
"I have come to ask, Monsieur Antoine," she began, lower than she needed to speak - for Azenor had withdrawn at once to the far end of the porch - "to ask if you will give me a little scrap of paper - a piece of writing for Monsieur Chartrand at the store over there. I want new shoes and stockings for Easter, and I have brought eggs to trade for them. He says he is willing, yes, if he was sure I would bring more every week till the shoes are paid for."
With good-natured indifference, Père Antoine wrote the order that the girl desired. He was too familiar with distress to feel keenly for a girl who was able to buy Easter shoes and pay for them with eggs.
She went immediately away then, after shaking hands with the priest, and sending a quick glance of her pathetic eyes towards Azenor, who had turned when he heard her rise, and nodded when he caught the look. Through the vines he watched her cross the village street.
"How is it that you do not know Lalie Azenor? You surely must have seen her pass your house often. It lies on her way to the Bon-Dieu."
"No, I don′t know her; I have never seen her," the young man replied, as he seated himself - after the priest - and kept his eyes absently fixed on the store across the road, where he had seen her enter.
"She is the granddaughter of that Madame Izidore" -
"What! Ma′ame Zidore whom they drove off the island last winter?"
"Yes, yes. Well, you know, they say the old woman stole wood and things, - I don′t know how true it is, - and destroyed people′s property out of pure malice."
"And she lives now on the Bon-Dieu?"
"Yes, on Le Blôt′s place, in a perfect wreck of a cabin. You see, she gets it for nothing; not a negro on the place but has refused to live in it."
"Surely, it can′t be that old abandoned hovel near the swamp, that Michon occupied ages ago?"
"That is the one, the very one."
"And the girl lives there with that old wretch?" the young man marveled.
"Old wretch to be sure, Azenor. But what can you expect from a woman who never crosses the threshold of God′s house - who even tried to hinder the child doing so as well? But I went to her. I said: ′See here, Madame Zidore,′ - you know it ′s my way to handle such people without gloves, - ′you may damn your soul if you choose,′ I told her, ′that is a privilege which we all have; but none of us has a right to imperil the salvation of another. I want to see Lalie at mass hereafter on Sundays, or you will hear from me;′ and I shook my stick under her nose. Since then the child has never missed a Sunday. But she is half starved, you can see that. You saw how shabby she is - how broken her shoes are? She is at Chartrand′s now, trading for new ones with those eggs she brought, poor thing! There is no doubt of her being ill-treated. Butraud says he thinks Madame Zidore even beats the child. I don′t know how true it is, for no power can make her utter a word against her grandmother."
Azenor, whose face was a kind and sensitive one, had paled with distress as the priest spoke; and now at these final words he quivered as though he felt the sting of a cruel blow upon his own flesh.
But no more was said of Lalie, for Père Antoine drew the young man′s attention to the carpenter-work which he wished to intrust to him. When they had talked the matter over in all its lengthy details, Azenor mounted his horse and rode away.
A moment′s gallop carried him outside the village. Then came a half-mile strip along the river to cover. Then the lane to enter, in which stood his dwelling midway, upon a low, pleasant knoll.
As Azenor turned into the lane, he saw the figure of Lalie far ahead of him. Somehow he had expected to find her there, and he watched her again as he had done through Père Antoine′s vines. When she passed his house, he wondered if she would turn to look at it. But she did not. How could she know it was his? Upon reaching it himself, he did not enter the yard, but stood there motionless, his eyes always fastened upon the girl′s figure. He could not see, away off there, how coarse her garments were. She seemed, through the distance that divided them, as slim and delicate as a flower-stalk. He stayed till she reached the turn of the lane and disappeared into the woods.
. . . . .
Mass had not yet begun when Azenor tiptoed into church on Easter morning. He did not take his place with the congregation, but stood close to the holy-water font, and watched the people who entered.
Almost every girl who passed him wore a white mull, a dotted swiss, or a fresh-starched muslin at least. They were bright with ribbons that hung from their persons, and flowers that bedecked their hats. Some carried fans and cambric handkerchiefs. Most of them wore gloves, and were odorant of poudre de riz and nice toilet-waters; while all carried gay little baskets filled with Easter-eggs.
But there was one who came empty-handed, save for the worn prayer-book which she bore. It was Lalie, the veil upon her head, and wearing the blue print and cotton bodice which she had worn the day before.
He dipped his hand into the holy water when she came, and held it out to her, though he had not thought of doing this for the others. She touched his fingers with the tips of her own, making a slight inclination as she did so; and after a deep genuflection before the Blessed Sacrament, passed on to the side. He was not sure if she had known him. He knew she had not looked into his eyes, for he would have felt it.
He was angered against other young women who passed him, because of their flowers and ribbons, when she wore none. He himself did not care, but he feared she might, and watched her narrowly to see if she did.
But it was plain that Lalie did not care. Her face, as she seated herself, settled into the same restful lines it had worn yesterday, when she sat in Père Antoine′s big chair. It seemed good to her to be there. Sometimes she looked up at the little colored panes through which the Easter sun was streaming; then at the flaming candles, like stars; or at the embowered figures of Joseph and Mary, flanking the central tabernacle which shrouded the risen Christ. Yet she liked just as well to watch the young girls in their spring freshness, or to sensuously inhale the mingled odor of flowers and incense that filled the temple.
Lalie was among the last to quit the church. When she walked down the clean pathway that led from it to the road, she looked with pleased curiosity towards the groups of men and maidens who were gayly matching their Easter-eggs under the shade of the China-berry trees.
Azenor was among them, and when he saw her coming solitary down the path, he approached her and, with a smile, extended his hat, whose crown was quite lined with the pretty colored eggs.
"You mus′ of forgot to bring aiggs," he said. "Take some o′ mine."
"Non, merci," she replied, flushing and drawing back.
But he urged them anew upon her. Much pleased, then, she bent her pretty head over the hat, and was evidently puzzled to make a selection among so many that were beautiful.
He picked out one for her, - a pink one, dotted with white clover-leaves.
"Yere," he said, handing it to her, "I think this is the pretties′; an′ it look′ strong too. I ′m sho′ it will break all of the res′." And he playfully held out another, half-hidden in his fist, for her to try its strength upon. But she refused to. She would not risk the ruin of her pretty egg. Then she walked away, without once having noticed that the girls, whom Azenor had left, were looking curiously at her.
When he rejoined them, he was hardly prepared for their greeting; it startled him.
"How come you talk to that girl? She ′s real canaille, her," was what one of them said to him.
"Who say′ so? Who say she ′s canaille? If it ′s a man, I ′ll smash ′is head!" he exclaimed, livid. They all laughed merrily at this.
"An′ if it ′s a lady, Azenor? W′at you goin′ to do ′bout it?" asked another, quizzingly.
"T ain′ no lady. No lady would say that ′bout a po′ girl, w′at she don′t even know."
He turned away, and emptying all his eggs into the hat of a little urchin who stood near, walked out of the churchyard. He did not stop to exchange another word with any one; neither with the men who stood all endimanchés before the stores, nor the women who were mounting upon horses and into vehicles, or walking in groups to their homes.
He took a short cut across the cotton-field that extended back of the town, and walking rapidly, soon reached his home. It was a pleasant house of few rooms and many windows, with fresh air blowing through from every side; his workshop was beside it. A broad strip of greensward, studded here and there with trees, sloped down to the road.
Azenor entered the kitchen, where an amiable old black woman was chopping onion and sage at a table.
"Tranquiline," he said abruptly, "they ′s a young girl goin′ to pass yere afta a w′ile. She ′s got a blue dress an′ w′ite josie on, an′ a veil on her head. W′en you see her, I want you to go to the road an′ make her res′ there on the bench, an′ ask her if she don′t want a cup o′ coffee. I saw her go to communion, me; so she did n′t eat any breakfas′. Eve′ybody else f′om out o′ town, that went to communion, got invited somew′ere another. It ′s enough to make a person sick to see such meanness."
"An′ you want me ter go down to de gate, jis′ so, an′ ax ′er pineblank ef she wants some coffee?" asked the bewildered Tranquiline.
"I don′t care if you ask her poin′ blank o′ not; but you do like I say." Tranquiline was leaning over the gate when Lalie came along.
"Howdy," offered the woman.
"Howdy," the girl returned.
"Did you see a yalla calf wid black spots a t′arin′ down de lane, missy?"
" Non ; not yalla, an′ not with black spot′. Mais I see one li′le w′ite calf tie by a rope, yonda ′roun′ the ben′."
"Dat warn′t hit. Dis heah one was yalla. I hope he done flung hisse′f down de bank an′ broke his nake. Sarve ′im right! But whar you come f′om, chile? You look plum wo′ out. Set down dah on dat bench, an′ le′ me fotch you a cup o′ coffee."
Azenor had already in his eagerness arranged a tray, upon which was a smoking cup of café au lait . He had buttered and jellied generous slices of bread, and was searching wildly for something when Tranquiline reëntered.
"W′at become o′ that half of chicken-pie, Tranquiline, that was yere in the garde manger yesterday?"
"W′at chicken-pie? W′at garde manger ? " blustered the woman.
"Like we got mo′ ′en one garde manger in the house, Tranquiline!"
"You jis′ like ole Ma′ame Azenor use′ to be, you is! You ′spec′ chicken-pie gwine las′ etarnal? W′en some′pin done sp′ilt, I flings it′ way. Dat ′s me - dat ′s Tranquiline!"
So Azenor resigned himself, - what else could he do? - and sent the tray, incomplete, as he fancied it, out to Lalie.
He trembled at thought of what he did; he, whose nerves were usually as steady as some piece of steel mechanism.
Would it anger her if she suspected? Would it please her if she knew? Would she say this or that to Tranquiline? And would Tranquiline tell him truly what she said - how she looked?
As it was Sunday, Azenor did not work that afternoon. Instead, he took a book out under the trees, as he often did, and sat reading it, from the first sound of the Vesper bell, that came faintly across the fields, till the Angelus. All that time! He turned many a page, yet in the end did not know what he had read. With his pencil he had traced "Lalie" upon every margin, and was saying it softly to himself.
. . . . .
Another Sunday Azenor saw Lalie at Mass - and again. Once he walked with her and showed her the short cut across the cotton-field. She was very glad that day, and told him she was going to work - her grandmother said she might. She was going to hoe, up in the fields with Monsieur Le Blôt′s hands. He entreated her not to; and when she asked his reason, he could not tell her, but turned and tore shyly and savagely at the elder-blossoms that grew along the fence.
Then they stopped where she was going to cross the fence from the field into the lane. He wanted to tell her that was his house which they could see not far away; but he did not dare to, since he had fed her there on the morning she was hungry.
"An′ you say yo′ gran′ma′s goin′ to let you work? She keeps you f′om workin′, donc? " He wanted to question her about her grandmother, and could think of no other way to begin.
"Po′ ole grand′mère!" she answered. "I don′ b′lieve she know mos′ time w′at she ′s doin′. Sometime she say′ I aint no betta an′ one nigga, an′ she fo′ce me to work. Then she say she know I ′m goin′ be one canaille like maman, an′ she make me set down still, like she would want to kill me if I would move. Her, she on′y want′ to be out in the wood′, day an′ night, day an′ night. She ain′ got her right head, po′ grand′mère. I know she ain′t."
Lalie had spoken low and in jerks, as if every word gave her pain. Azenor could feel her distress as plainly as he saw it. He wanted to say something to her - to do something for her. But her mere presence paralyzed him into inactivity - except his pulses, that beat like hammers when he was with her. Such a poor, shabby little thing as she was, too!
"I ′m goin′ to wait yere nex′ Sunday fo′ you, Lalie," he said, when the fence was between them. And he thought he had said something very daring.
But the next Sunday she did not come. She was neither at the appointed place of meeting in the lane, nor was she at mass. Her absence - so unexpected - affected Azenor like a calamity. Late in the afternoon, when he could stand the trouble and bewilderment of it no longer, he went and leaned over Père Antoine′s fence. The priest was picking the slugs from his roses on the other side.
"That young girl from the Bon-Dieu," said Azenor - "she was not at mass to-day. I suppose her grandmother has forgotten your warning."
"No," answered the priest. "The child is ill, I hear. Butrand tells me she has been ill for several days from overwork in the fields. I shall go out to-morrow to see about her. I would go to-day, if I could."
"The child is ill," was all Azenor heard or understood of Père Antoine′s words. He turned and walked resolutely away, like one who determines suddenly upon action after meaningless hesitation.
He walked towards his home and past it, as if it were a spot that did not concern him. He went on down the lane and into the wood where he had seen Lalie disappear that day.
Here all was shadow, for the sun had dipped too low in the west to send a single ray through the dense foliage of the forest.
Now that he found himself on the way to Lalie′s home, he strove to understand why he had not gone there before. He often visited other girls in the village and neighborhood, - why not have gone to her, as well? The answer lay too deep in his heart for him to be more than half-conscious of it. Fear had kept him, - dread to see her desolate life face to face. He did not know how he could bear it.
But now he was going to her at last. She was ill. He would stand upon that dismantled porch that he could just remember. Doubtless Ma′ame Zidore would come out to know his will, and he would tell her that Père Antoine had sent to inquire how Mamzelle Lalie was. No! Why drag in Père Antoine? He would simply stand boldly and say, "Ma′ame Zidore, I learn that Lalie is ill. I have come to know if it is true, and to see her, if I may."
When Azenor reached the cabin where Lalie dwelt, all sign of day had vanished. Dusk had fallen swiftly after the sunset. The moss that hung heavy from great live-oak branches was making fantastic silhouettes against the eastern sky that the big, round moon was beginning to light. Off in the swamp beyond the bayou, hundreds of dismal voices were droning a lullaby. Upon the hovel itself, a stillness like death rested.
Oftener than once Azenor tapped upon the door, which was closed as well as it could be, without obtaining a reply. He finally approached one of the small unglazed windows, in which coarse mosquito-netting had been fastened, and looked into the room.
By the moonlight slanting in he could see Lalie stretched upon a bed; but of Ma′ame Zidore there was no sign. "Lalie!" he called softly. "Lalie!"
The girl slightly moved her head upon the pillow. Then he boldly opened the door and entered.
Upon a wretched bed, over which was spread a cover of patched calico, Lalie lay, her frail body only half concealed by the single garment that was upon it. One hand was plunged beneath her pillow; the other, which was free, he touched. It was as hot as flame; so was her head. He knelt sobbing upon the floor beside her, and called her his love and his soul. He begged her to speak a word to him, - to look at him. But she only muttered disjointedly that the cotton was all turning to ashes in the fields, and the blades of the corn were in flames.
If he was choked with love and grief to see her so, he was moved by anger as well; rage against himself, against Père Antoine, against the people upon the plantation and in the village, who had so abandoned a helpless creature to misery and maybe death. Because she had been silent - had not lifted her voice in complaint - they believed she suffered no more than she could bear.
But surely the people could not be utterly without heart. There must be one somewhere with the spirit of Christ. Père Antoine would tell him of such a one, and he would carry Lalie to her, - out of this atmosphere of death. He was in haste to be gone with her. He fancied every moment of delay was a fresh danger threatening her life.
He folded the rude bed-cover over Lalie′s naked limbs, and lifted her in his arms. She made no resistance. She seemed only loath to withdraw her hand from beneath the pillow. When she did, he saw that she held lightly but firmly clasped in her encircling fingers the pretty Easter-egg he had given her! He uttered a low cry of exultation as the full significance of this came over him. If she had hung for hours upon his neck telling him that she loved him, he could not have known it more surely than by this sign. Azenor felt as if some mysterious bond had all at once drawn them heart to heart and made them one.
No need now to go from door to door begging admittance for her. She was his. She belonged to him. He knew now where her place was, whose roof must shelter her, and whose arms protect her.
So Azenor, with his loved one in his arms, walked through the forest, sure-footed as a panther. Once, as he walked, he could hear in the distance the weird chant which Ma′ame Zidore was crooning - to the moon, maybe - as she gathered her wood.
Once, where the water was trickling cool through rocks, he stopped to lave Lalie′s hot cheeks and hands and forehead. He had not once touched his lips to her. But now, when a sudden great fear came upon him because she did not know him, instinctively he pressed his lips upon hers that were parched and burning. He held them there till hers were soft and pliant from the healthy moisture of his own.
Then she knew him. She did not tell him so, but her stiffened fingers relaxed their tense hold upon the Easter bauble.
It fell to the ground as she twined her arm around his neck; and he understood.
. . . . .
"Stay close by her, Tranquiline," said Azenor, when he had laid Lalie upon his own couch at home. "I ′m goin′ for the doctor en′ for Père Antoine. Not because she is goin′ to die," he added hastily, seeing the awe that crept into the woman′s face at mention of the priest. "She is goin′ to live! Do you think I would let my wife die, Tranquiline?"