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George Washington Cable was an American novelist notable for the realism of his portrayals of Creole life in his native New Orleans, Louisiana. Collection of 15 Works of George Washington Cable________________________________________BonaventureBylow HillDr. SevierFamous Adventures And Prison Escapes of the Civil WarGideon's BandJohn March, SouthernerKincaid's BatteryMadame DelphineOld Creole DaysStrange True Stories of LouisianaStrong HeartsThe Amateur GardenThe CavalierThe Flower of the ChapdelainesThe Grandissimes
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The Collected Complete Works of George Washington Cable
Famous Adventures And Prison Escapes of the Civil War
John March, Southerner
Old Creole Days
Strange True Stories of Louisiana
The Amateur Garden
The Flower of the Chapdelaines
A Prose Pastoral of Acadian Louisiana
GEORGE W. CABLE
CONTENTS.CARANCRO.CHAPTER.PAGE.I.SOSTHÈNE1II.BONAVENTURE ANDZOSÉPHINE4III.ATHANASIUS9IV.THECONSCRIPTOFFICER15V.THECURÉ OFCARANCRO24VI.MISSING33VII.ANEEDLE IN AHAYSTACK42VIII.THEQUEST ENDED47IX.THEWEDDING55X.AFTERALL62GRANDE POINTE.I.ASTRANGER73II.IN ASTRANGELAND77III.THEHANDSHAKING81IV.HOW THECHILDREN RANG THEBELL86[Pg vi]V.INVITED TO LEAVE91VI.WAR OFDARKNESS ANDLIGHT98VII.LOVE ANDDUTY103VIII.ATCLAUDE’SMERCY111IX.READY116X.CONSPIRACY119XI.LIGHT,LOVE, ANDVICTORY129AU LARGE.I.THEPOT-HUNTER142II.CLAUDE147III.THETAVERNFIRESIDE152IV.MARGUERITE167V.FATHER ANDSON179VI.CONVERGINGLINES188VII.’THANASE’SVIOLIN201VIII.THESHAKINGPRAIRIE213IX.NOTBLUEEYES, NORYELLOWHAIR221X.ASTRONGTEAM226XI.HE ASKS HER AGAIN235XII.THEBEAUSOLEILS ANDST.PIERRES248XIII.THECHASE255XIV.WHO SHE WAS263XV.CAN THEY CLOSE THEBREAK?269XVI.THEOUTLAW AND THEFLOOD271XVII.WELLHIDDEN280[Pg vii]XVIII.THETORNADO286XIX.“TEARS AND SUCHTHINGS”294XX.LOVE,ANGER, ANDMISUNDERSTANDING299XXI.LOVE ANDLUCK BYELECTRICLIGHT305XXII.ADOUBLELOVE-KNOT310
Bayou Teche is the dividing line. On its left is the land of bayous, lakes, and swamps; on its right, the beautiful short-turfed prairies of Western Louisiana. The Vermilion River divides the vast prairie into the countries of Attakapas on the east and Opelousas on the west. On its west bank, at its head of navigation, lies the sorry little town of Vermilionville, near about which on the north and east the prairie rises and falls with a gentle swell, from whose crests one may, as from the top of a wave, somewhat overlook the surrounding regions.
Until a few years ago, stand on whichever one you might, the prospect stretched away, fair and distant, in broad level or gently undulating expanses of crisp, compact turf, dotted at remote intervals by farms, each with its low-roofed house nestled in a planted grove of oaks, or, oftener, Pride of China trees. Far and near [Pg 2] herds of horses and cattle roamed at will over the plain. If for a moment, as you passed from one point of view to another, the eye was shut in, it was only where in some lane you were walled in by fields of dense tall sugar-cane or cotton, or by huge green Chickasaw hedges, studded with their white-petalled, golden-centred roses. Eastward the plain broke into slight ridges, which, by comparison with the general level, were called hills; while toward the north it spread away in quieter swells, with more frequent fields and larger houses.
North, south, east, and west, far beyond the circle of these horizons, not this parish of Lafayette only, but St. Landry, St. Martin, Iberia, St. Mary’s, Vermilion,—all are the land of the Acadians. This quarter off here to northward was named by the Nova-Scotian exiles, in memory of the land from which they were driven, the Beau Bassin. These small homestead groves that dot the plain far and wide are the homes of their children. Here is this one on a smooth green billow of the land, just without the town. It is not like the rest,—a large brick house, its Greek porch half hid in a grove of oaks. On that dreadful day, more than a century ago, when the British in far-off Acadie shut into the chapel the villagers of Grand Pré, a certain widow fled with her children to the woods, and there subsisted for ten days on roots and berries, until finally, the standing crops as well as the houses being destroyed, she was compelled to accept exile, and in time found her way, with others, to these prairies. Her son founded Vermilionville. Her grandson rose [Pg 3] to power,—sat in the Senate of the United States. From early manhood to hale gray age, the people of his State were pleased to hold him, now in one capacity, now in another, in their honored service; they made him Senator, Governor, President of Convention, what you will. I have seen the portrait for which he sat in early manhood to a noted English court painter: dark waving locks; strong, well-chiselled features; fine clear eyes; an air of warm, steady-glowing intellectual energy. It hangs still in the home of which I speak. And I have seen an old ambrotype of him, taken in the days of this story: hair short-cropped, gray; eyes thoughtful, courageous; mouth firm, kind, and ready to smile.
It must have been some years before this picture was taken, that, as he issued from his stately porch,—which the oaks, young then, did not hide from view as they do now,—coming forth to mount for his regular morning ride, a weary-faced woman stood before him, holding by the hand a little toddling boy. She was sick; the child was hungry. He listened to her tale. Their conversation was in French.
“Widow, are you? And your husband was a Frenchman: yes, I see. Are you an Acadian? You haven’t the accent.”
“I am a Creole,” she said, with a perceptible flush of resentment. So that he responded amiably:—
“Yes, and, like all Creoles, proud of it, as you are right to be. But I am an Acadian of the Acadians, and never wished I was any thing else.”
He found her a haven a good half-day’s ride out [Pg 4] across the prairies north-westward, in the home of his long-time acquaintance, Sosthène Gradnego, who had no more heart than his wife had to say No to either their eminent friend or a houseless widow; and, as to children, had so many already, that one more was nothing. They did not feel the burden of her, she died so soon; but they soon found she had left with them a positive quantity in her little prattling, restless, high-tempered Bonaventure. Bonaventure Deschamps: he was just two years younger than their own little Zoséphine.
Sosthène was already a man of some note in this region,—a region named after a bird. Why would it not often be well so to name places,—for the bird that most frequents the surrounding woods or fields? How pleasant to have one’s hamlet called Nightingale, or Whippoorwill, or Goldfinch, or Oriole! The home of Zoséphine and Bonaventure’s childhood was in the district known as Carancro; in bluff English, Carrion Crow.
BONAVENTURE AND ZOSÉPHINE.
They did not live à la chapelle; that is, in the village of six or eight houses clustered about the small wooden spire and cross of the mission chapel. Sosthène’s small ground-story cottage, with garret stairs outside in front on the veranda and its five-acre farm [Pg 5] behind, was not even on a highway nor on the edge of any rich bas fond,—creek-bottom. It was au large,—far out across the smooth, unscarred turf of the immense prairie, conveniently near one of the clear circular ponds—maraises—which one sees of every size and in every direction on the seemingly level land. Here it sat, as still as a picture, within its hollow square of China-trees, which every third year yielded their limbs for fuel; as easy to overlook the first time—as easy to see the next time—as a bird sitting on her eggs. Only the practised eye could read aright the infrequent obscure signs of previous travel that showed the way to it,—sometimes no more than the occasional soilure of the short turf by a few wheels or hoofs where the route led into or across the coolées—rivulets—that from marais to marais slipped southward toward the great marshes of the distant, unseen Gulf.
When I say the parent of one of these two children and guardian of the other was a man of note, I mean, for one thing, his house was painted. That he was the owner of thousands of cattle, one need not mention, for so were others who were quite inconspicuous, living in unpainted houses, rarely seeing milk, never tasting butter; men who at call of their baptismal names would come forth from these houses barefooted and bareheaded in any weather, and, while their numerous progeny grouped themselves in the doorway one behind another in inverse order of age and stature, would either point out your lost way, or, quite as readily as Sosthène, ask you in beneath a roof where [Pg 6] the coffee-pot never went dry or grew cold by day. Nor would it distinguish him from them to say he had many horses or was always well mounted. It was a land of horsemen. One met them incessantly; men in broad hats and dull homespun, with thin, soft, untrimmed brown beards, astride of small but handsome animals, in Mexican saddles, the girths and bridles of plaited hair, sometimes a pialle or arriatte—lasso, lariat—of plaited rawhide coiled at the saddle-bow. “Adieu, Onesime”—always adieu at meeting, the same as at parting. “Adieu, François; adieu, Christophe; adieu, Lazare;” and they with their gentle, brown-eyed, wild-animal gaze, “Adjieu.”
What did make Sosthène notable was the quiet thing we call thrift, made graceful by certain rudiments of taste. To say Sosthène, means Madame Sosthène as well; and this is how it was that Zoséphine Gradnego and Bonaventure Deschamps, though they went not to school, nevertheless had “advantages.” For instance, the clean, hard-scrubbed cypress floors beneath their pattering feet; the neat round parti-colored mats at the doors that served them for towns and villages; the strips of home-woven carpet that stood for roads—this one to Mermentau, that one to Côte Gelée, a third à la chapelle; the walls of unpainted pine; the beaded joists under the ceiling; the home-made furniture, bedsteads and wardrobes of stained woods, and hickory chairs with rawhide seats, hair uppermost; the white fringed counterpanes on the high featherbeds; especially, in the principal room, the house’s one mantelpiece, of wood showily stained in three [Pg 7] colors and surmounted by a pair of gorgeous vases, beneath which the two children used to stand and feast their eyes, worth fifty cents if they were worth one,—these were as books to them indoors; and out in the tiny garden, where they played wild horse and wild cow, and lay in ambush for butterflies, they came under the spell of marigolds, prince’s-feathers, lady-slippers, immortelles, portulaca, jonquil, lavender, althæa, love-apples, sage, violets, amaryllis, and that grass ribbon they call jarretière de la vierge,—the virgin’s garter.
Time passed; the children grew. The children older than they in the same house became less and less like children, and began to disappear from the family board and roof by a mysterious process called marrying, which greatly mystified Zoséphine, but equally pleased her by the festive and jocund character of the occasions, times when there was a ravishing abundance of fried rice-cakes and boulettes—beef-balls.
To Bonaventure these affairs brought less mystery and less unalloyed pleasure. He understood them better. Some boys are born lovers. From the time they can reach out from the nurse’s arms, they must be billing and cooing and choosing a mate. Such was ardent little Bonaventure; and none of the Gradnego weddings ever got quite through its ceremony without his big blue eyes being found full of tears—tears of mingled anger and desolation—because by some unpardonable oversight he and Zoséphine were still left unmarried. So that the pretty damsel would have to take him aside, and kiss him as they clasped, and promise him, “Next time—next time, without fail!”
[Pg 8] Nevertheless, he always reaped two proud delights from these events. For one, Sosthène always took him upon his lap and introduced him as his little Creole. And the other, the ex-governor came to these demonstrations—the great governor! who lifted him to his knee and told him of those wonderful things called cities, full of people that could read and write; and about steamboats and steam-cars.
At length one day, when weddings had now pretty well thinned out the ranks of Sosthène’s family, the ex-governor made his appearance though no marriage was impending. Bonaventure, sitting on his knee, asked why he had come, and the ex-governor told him there was war.
“Do you not want to make haste and grow up and be a dragoon?”
The child was silent, and Sosthène laughed a little as he said privately in English, which tongue his exceptional thrift had put him in possession of:
“Aw, naw!”—he shook his head amusedly—“he dawn’t like hoss. Go to put him on hoss, he kick like a frog. Yass; squeal wuss’n a pig. But still, sem time, you know, he ain’t no coward; git mad in minute; fight like little ole ram. Dawn’t ondstand dat little fellah; he love flower’ like he was a gal.”
“He ought to go to school,” said the ex-governor. And Sosthène, half to himself, responded in a hopeless tone:
“Yass.” Neither Sosthène nor any of his children had ever done that.
War it was. The horsemen grew scarce on the wide prairies of Opelousas. Far away in Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, on bloody fields, many an Acadian volunteer and many a poor conscript fought and fell for a cause that was really none of theirs, simple, non-slaveholding peasants; and many died in camp and hospital—often of wounds, often of fevers, often of mere longing for home. Bonaventure and Zoséphine learned this much of war: that it was a state of affairs in which dear faces went away, and strange ones came back with tidings that brought bitter wailings from mothers and wives, and made les vieux—the old fathers—sit very silent. Three times over that was the way of it in Sosthène’s house.
It was also a condition of things that somehow changed boys into men very young. A great distance away, but still in sight south-westward across the prairie, a dot of dark green showed where dwelt a sister and brother-in-law of Sosthène’s vieille,—wife. There was not the same domestic excellence there as at Sosthène’s; yet the dooryard was very populous with fowls; within the house was always heard the hard thump, thump, of the loom, or the loud moan of the spinning-wheel; and the children were many. The eldest was Athanase. Though but fifteen he was already stalwart, and showed that intelligent [Pg 10] sympathy in the family cares that makes such offspring the mother’s comfort and the father’s hope. At that age he had done but one thing to diminish that comfort or that hope. One would have supposed an ambitious chap like him would have spent his first earnings, as other ambitious ones did, for a saddle; but ’Thanase Beausoleil had bought a fiddle.
He had hardly got it before he knew how to play it. Yet, to the father’s most welcome surprise, he remained just as bold a rider and as skilful a thrower of the arriatte as ever. He came into great demand for the Saturday-night balls. When the courier with a red kerchief on a wand came galloping round, the day before, from île to île,—for these descendants of a maritime race call their homestead groves islands,—to tell where the ball was to be, he would assert, if there was even a hope of it, that ’Thanase was to be the fiddler.
In this way ’Thanase and his pretty little jarmaine—first cousin—Zoséphine, now in her fourteenth year, grew to be well acquainted. For at thirteen, of course, she began to move in society, which meant to join in the contra-dance. ’Thanase did not dance with her, or with any one. She wondered why he did not; but many other girls had similar thoughts about themselves. He only played, his playing growing better and better, finer and finer, every time he was heard anew. As to the few other cavaliers, very willing were they to have it so. The music could not be too good, and if ’Thanase was already perceptibly a rival when hoisted up in a chair on top of a table, [Pg 11] fiddle and bow in hand, “twisting,” to borrow their own phrase—“twisting the ears of that little red beast and rubbing his abdomen with a stick,” it was just as well not to urge him to come down into the lists upon the dancing-floor. But they found one night, at length, that the music could be too good—when ’Thanase struck up something that was not a dance, and lads and damsels crowded around standing and listening and asking ever for more, and the ball turned out a failure because the concert was such a success.
The memory of that night was of course still vivid next day, Sunday, and Zoséphine’s memory was as good as any one’s. I wish you might have seen her in those days of the early bud. The time had returned when Sosthène could once more get all his household—so had marriages decimated it—into one vehicle, a thing he had not been able to do for almost these twenty years. Zoséphine and Bonaventure sat on a back seat contrived for them in the family calèche. In front were the broad-brimmed Campeachy hat of Sosthène and the meek, limp sunbonnet of la vieille. About the small figure of the daughter there was always something distinguishing, even if you rode up from behind, that told of youth, of mettle, of self-regard; a neatness of fit in the dress, a firm erectness in the little slim back, a faint proudness of neck, a glimpse of ribbon at the throat, another at the waist; a something of assertion in the slight crispness of her homespun sunbonnet, and a ravishing glint of two sparks inside it as you got one glance within—no more. [Pg 12] And as you rode on, if you were a young blade, you would be—as the soldier lads used to say—all curled up; but if you were an old mustache, you would smile inwardly and say to yourself, “She will have her way; she will make all winds blow in her chosen direction; she will please herself; she will be her own good luck and her own commander-in-chief, and, withal, nobody’s misery or humiliation, unless you count the swain after swain that will sigh in vain.” As for Bonaventure, sitting beside her, you could just see his bare feet limply pendulous under his wide palm-leaf hat. And yet he was a very real personage.
“Bonaventure,” said Zoséphine,—this was as they were returning from church, the wide rawhide straps of their huge wooden two-wheeled vehicle creaking as a new saddle would if a new saddle were as big as a house,—“Bonaventure, I wish you could learn how to dance. I am tired trying to teach you.” (This and most of the unbroken English of this story stands for Acadian French.)
Bonaventure looked meek for a moment, and then resentful as he said:
“’Thanase does not dance.”
“’Thanase! Bah! What has ’Thanase to do with it? Who was even thinking of ’Thanase? Was he there last night? Ah yes! I just remember now he was. But even he could dance if he chose; while you—you can’t learn! You vex me. ’Thanase! What do you always bring him up for? I wish you would have the kindness just not to remind me of him! [Pg 13] Why does not some one tell him how he looks, hoisted up with his feet in our faces, scratching his fiddle? Now, the fiddle, Bonaventure—the fiddle would just suit you. Ah, if you could play!” But the boy’s quick anger so flashed from his blue eyes that she checked herself and with contemplative serenity added:
“Pity nobody else can play so well as that tiresome fellow. It was positively silly, the way some girls stood listening to him last night. I’d be ashamed, or, rather, too proud, to flatter such a high-headed care-for-nobody. I wish he wasn’t my cousin!”
Bonaventure, still incensed, remarked with quiet intensity that he knew why she wished ’Thanase was not a cousin.
“It’s no such a thing!” exclaimed Zoséphine so forcibly that Madame Sosthène’s sunbonnet turned around, and a murmur of admonition came from it. But the maiden was smiling and saying blithely to Bonaventure:
“Oh, you—you can’t even guess well.” She was about to say more, but suddenly hushed. Behind them a galloping horse drew near, softly pattering along the turfy road. As he came abreast, he dropped into a quiet trot.
The rider was a boyish yet manly figure in a new suit of gray home-made linsey, the pantaloons thrust into the tops of his sturdy russet boots, and the jacket ending underneath a broad leather belt that carried a heavy revolver in its holster at one hip. A Campeachy hat shaded his face and shoulders, and a pair of Mexican spurs tinkled their little steel bells against their [Pg 14] huge five-spiked rowels on his heels. He scarcely sat in the saddle-tree—from hat to spurs you might have drawn a perpendicular line. It would have taken in shoulders, thighs, and all.
“Adjieu,” said the young centaur; and Sosthène replied from the creaking calèche, “Adjieu, ’Thanase,” while the rider bestowed his rustic smile upon the group. Madame Sosthène’s eyes met his, and her lips moved in an inaudible greeting; but the eyes of her little daughter were in her lap. Bonaventure’s gaze was hostile. A word or two passed between uncle and nephew, including a remark and admission that the cattle-thieves were getting worse than ever; and with a touch of the spur, the young horseman galloped on.
It seems enough to admit that Zoséphine’s further remarks were silly without reporting them in full.
“Look at his back! What airs! If I had looked up I should have laughed in his face!” etc. “Well,” she concluded, after much such chirruping, “there’s one comfort—he doesn’t care a cent for me. If I should die to-morrow, he would forget to come to the funeral. And you think I wouldn’t be glad? Well, you’re mistaken, as usual. I hate him, and I just know he hates me! Everybody hates me!”
The eyes of her worshipper turned upon her. But she only turned her own away across the great plain to the vast arching sky, and patted the calèche with a little foot that ached for deliverance from its Sunday shoe. Then her glance returned, and all the rest of the way home she was as sweet as the last dip of cane-juice from the boiling battery.
THE CONSCRIPT OFFICER.
By and by ’Thanase was sixteen. Eighteen was the lowest age for conscription, yet he was in the Confederate uniform. But then so was his uncle Sosthène; so was his father. It signified merely that he had been received into the home guard. The times were sadly unsettled. Every horseman, and how much more every group of horsemen, that one saw coming across the prairie, was watched by anxious eyes, from the moment they were visible specks, to see whether the uniform would turn out to be the blue or the gray. Which was the more unwelcome I shall not say, but this I can, that the blue meant invasion and the gray meant conscription. Sosthène was just beyond the limit of age, and ’Thanase two years below it; but ’Thanase’s father kept a horse saddled all the time, and slept indoors only on stormy nights.
Do not be misled: he was neither deserter nor coward; else the nickname which had quite blotted out his real name would not have been Chaouache—savage, Indian. He was needed at home, and—it was not his war. His war was against cattle-thieves and like marauders, and there was no other man in all Carancro whom these would not have had on their track rather than him. But one gray dawn they found there was another not unlike him. They had made an attempt upon Sosthène’s cattle one night; had found [Pg 16] themselves watched and discovered; had turned and fled westward half the night, and had then camped in the damp woods of a bas fond; when, just as day was breaking and they were looking to their saddles about to mount—there were seven of them—just then—listen!—a sound of hoofs!
Instantly every left foot is in stirrup; but before they can swing into the saddle a joyous cry is in their ears, and pop! pop! pop! pop! ring the revolvers as, with the glad, fierce cry still resounding, three horsemen launch in upon them—only three, but those three a whirlwind. See that riderless horse, and this one, and that one! And now for it—three honest men against four remaining thieves! Pop! pop! dodge, and fire as you dodge! Pop! pop! pop! down he goes; well done, gray-bearded Sosthène! Shoot there! Wheel here! Wounded? Never mind—ora! Another rogue reels! Collar him, Chaouache! drag him from the saddle—down he goes! What, again? Shoot there! Look out, that fellow’s getting away! Ah! down goes Sosthène’s horse, breaking his strong neck in the tumble. Up, bleeding old man—bang! bang! Ha, ha, ora! that finishes—ora! ’Twas the boy saved your life with that last shot, Sosthène, and the boy—the youth is ’Thanase.
He has not stopped to talk; he and his father are catching the horses of the dead and dying jayhawkers. Now bind up Sosthène’s head, and now ’Thanase’s hip. Now strip the dead beasts, and take the dead men’s weapons, boots, and spurs. Lift this one moaning villain into his saddle and take him along, though [Pg 17] he is going to die before ten miles are gone over. So they turn homeward, leaving high revel for the carrion-crows.
Think of Bonaventure, the slender, the intense, the reticent—with ’Thanase limping on rude but glorious crutches for four consecutive Saturdays and Sundays up and down in full sight of Zoséphine, savior of her mother from widowhood, owner of two fine captured horses, and rewarded by Sosthène with five acres of virgin prairie. If the young fiddler’s music was an attraction before, fancy its power now, when the musician had to be lifted to his chair on top of the table!
Bonaventure sought comfort of Zoséphine, and she gave it, tittering at ’Thanase behind his back, giving Bonaventure knowing looks, and sticking her sunbonnet in her mouth.
“Oh, if the bullet had only gone into the dandy’s fiddle-bow arm!” she whispered gleefully.
“I wish he might never get well!” said the boy.
The girl’s smile vanished; her eyes flashed lightning for an instant; the blood flew to her cheeks, and she bit her lip.
“Why don’t you, now while he cannot help himself—why don’t you go to him and hit him square in the face, like”—her arm flew up, and she smote him with her sunbonnet full between the eyes—“like that!” She ran away, laughing joyously, while Bonaventure sat down and wept with rage and shame.
Day by day he went about his trivial tasks and efforts at pastime with the one great longing that [Pg 18] Zoséphine would more kindly let him be her slave, and something—any thing—take ’Thanase beyond reach.
Instead of this ’Thanase got well, and began to have a perceptible down on his cheek and upper lip, to the great amusement of Zoséphine.
“He had better take care,” she said one day to Bonaventure, her eyes leaving their mirth and expanding with sudden seriousness, “or the conscript officer will be after him, though he is but sixteen.”
Unlucky word! Bonaventure’s bruised spirit seized upon the thought. They were on their way even then à la chapelle; and when they got there he knelt before Mary’s shrine and offered the longest and most earnest prayer, thus far, of his life, and rose to his feet under a burden of guilt he had never known before.
It was November. The next day the wind came hurtling over the plains out of the north-west, bitter cold. The sky was all one dark gray. At evening it was raining. Sosthène said, as he sat down to supper, that it was going to pour and blow all night. Chaouache said much the same thing to his wife as they lay down to rest. Farther away from Carancro than many of Carancro’s people had ever wandered, in the fire-lighted public room of a village tavern, twelve or fifteen men were tramping busily about, in muddy boots and big clanking spurs, looking to pistols and carbines of miscellaneous patterns, and securing them against weather under their as yet only damp and slightly bespattered great-coats, no two of which were alike. They spoke to each other sometimes in French, [Pg 19] sometimes in English that betrayed a Creole rather than an Acadian accent. A young man with a neat kepi tipped on one side of his handsome head stood with his back to the fire, a sabre dangling to the floor from beneath a captured Federal overcoat. A larger man was telling him a good story. He listened smilingly, dropped the remnant of an exhausted cigarette to the floor, put his small, neatly booted foot upon it, drew from his bosom one of those silken tobacco-bags that our sisters in war-time used to make for all the soldier boys, made a new cigarette, lighted it with the flint and tinder for which the Creole smokers have such a predilection, and put away his appliances, still hearkening to the story. He nodded his head in hearty approval as the tale was finished. It was the story of Sosthène, Chaouache, ’Thanase, and the jayhawkers. He gathered up his sabre and walked out, followed by the rest. A rattle of saddles, a splashing of hoofs, and then no sound was heard but the wind and the pouring rain. The short column went out of the village at full gallop.
Day was fully come when Chaouache rose and stepped out upon his galérie. He had thought he could venture to sleep in bed such a night; and, sure enough, here morning came, and there had been no intrusion. ’Thanase, too, was up. It was raining and blowing still. Across the prairie, as far as the eye could reach, not a movement of human life could be seen. They went in again, made a fire of a few fagots and an armful of cotton-seed, hung the kettle, and emptied the old coffee from the coffee-pot.
[Pg 20] The mother and children rose and dressed. The whole family huddled around the good, hot, cotton-seed fire. No one looked out of window or door; in such wind and rain, where was the need? In the little log stable hard by, the two favorite saddle-horses remained unsaddled and unbridled. The father’s and son’s pistol-belts, with revolvers buttoned in their holsters, hung on the bedposts by the headboards of their beds. A long sporting rifle leaned in a corner near the chimney.
Chaouache and ’Thanase got very busy plaiting a horse-hair halter, and let time go by faster than they knew. Madame Chaouache, so to call her, prepared breakfast. The children played with the dog and cat. Thus it happened that still nobody looked out into the swirling rain. Why should they? Only to see the wide deluged plain, the round drenched groves, the maraises and sinuous coolées shining with their floods, and long lines of benumbed, wet cattle seeking in patient, silent Indian file for warmer pastures. They knew it all by heart.
Yonder farthest île is Sosthène’s. The falling flood makes it almost undiscernible. Even if one looked, he would not see that a number of horsemen have come softly plashing up to Sosthène’s front fence, for Sosthène’s house and grove are themselves in the way. They spy Bonaventure. He is just going in upon the galérie with an armful of China-tree fagots. Through their guide and spokesman they utter, not the usual halloo, but a quieter hail, with a friendly beckon.
“Adjieu.” The men were bedraggled, and so wet [Pg 21] one could not make out the color of the dress. One could hardly call it a uniform, and pretty certainly it was not blue.
“Adjieu,” responded Bonaventure, with some alarm; but the spokesman smiled re-assuringly. He pointed far away south-westward, and asked if a certain green spot glimmering faintly through the rain was not Chaouache’s île; and Bonaventure, dumb in the sight of his prayer’s answer, nodded.
“And how do you get there?” the man asks, still in Acadian French; for he is well enough acquainted with prairies to be aware that one needs to know the road even to a place in full view across the plain. Bonaventure, with riot in his heart, and feeling himself drifting over the cataract of the sinfullest thing that ever in his young life he has had the chance to do, softly lays down his wood, and comes to the corner of the galérie.
It is awful to him, even while he is doing it, the ease with which he does it. If, he says, they find it troublesome crossing the marshy place by Numa’s farm,—le platin à coté d’ l’habitation à Numa,—then it will be well to virer de bord—go about, et naviguer au large—sail across the open prairie. “Adjieu.” He takes up his fagots again, and watches the spattering squad trot away in the storm, wondering why there is no storm in his own heart.
They are gone. Sosthène, inside the house, has heard nothing. The tempest suffocates all sounds not its own, and the wind is the wrong way anyhow. Now they are far out in the open. Chaouache’s île[Pg 22] still glimmers to them far ahead in the distance, but if some one should only look from the front window of its dwelling, he could see them coming. And that would spoil the fun. So they get it into line with another man’s grove nearer by, and under that cover quicken to a gallop. Away, away; splash, splash, through the coolées, around the maraises, clouds of wild fowl that there is no time to shoot into rising now on this side, now on that; snipe without number, gray as the sky, with flashes of white, trilling petulantly as they flee; giant snowy cranes lifting and floating away on waving pinions, and myriads of ducks in great eruptions of hurtling, whistling wings. On they gallop; on they splash; heads down; water pouring from soaked hats and caps; cold hands beating upon wet breasts; horses throwing steaming muzzles down to their muddy knees, and shaking the rain from their worried ears; so on and on and on.
The horse-hair halter was nearly done. The breakfast was smoking on the board. The eyes of the family group were just turning toward it with glances of placid content, when a knock sounded on the door, and almost before father or son could rise or astonishment dart from eye to eye, the door swung open, and a man stood on the threshold, all mud and water and weapons, touching the side of his cap with the edge of his palm and asking in French, with an amused smile forcing its way about his lips:—
“Can fifteen of us get something to eat, and feed our horses?”
Chaouache gave a vacant stare, and silently started [Pg 23] toward the holsters that hung from the bedpost; but the stranger’s right hand flashed around to his own belt, and, with a repeater half drawn, he cried:
“Halt!” And then, more quietly, “Look out of the door, look out the window.”
Father and son looked. The house was surrounded.
Chaouache turned upon his wife one look of silent despair. Wife and children threw themselves upon his neck, weeping and wailing. ’Thanase bore the sight a moment, maybe a full minute; then drew near, pressed the children with kind firmness aside, pushed between his father and mother, took her tenderly by the shoulders, and said in their antique dialect, with his own eyes brimming:—
“Hush! hush! he will not have to go.”
At a gentle trot the short column of horsemen moves again, but with its head the other way. The wind and rain buffet and pelt horse and rider from behind. Chaouache’s door is still open. He stands in it with his red-eyed wife beside him and the children around them, all gazing mutely, with drooping heads and many a slow tear, after the departing cavalcade.
None of the horsemen look back. Why should they? To see a barefoot man beside a woman in dingy volante and casaquin, with two or three lads of ten or twelve in front, whose feet have known sunburn and frost but never a shoe, and a damsel or two in cotton homespun dress made of one piece from collar to hem, and pantalettes of the same reaching to the ankles—all standing and looking the picture of witless [Pg 24] incapacity, and making no plea against tyranny! Is that a thing worth while to turn and look back upon? If the blow fell upon ourselves or our set, that would be different; but these illiterate and lowly ones—they are—you don’t know—so dull and insensible. Yes, it may be true that it is only some of them who feel less acutely than some of us—we admit that generously; but when you insinuate that when we overlook parental and fraternal anguish tearing at such hearts the dulness and insensibility are ours, you make those people extremely offensive to us, whereas you should not estrange them from our tolerance.
Ah, poor unpitied mother! go back to your toils; they are lightened now—a little; the cooking, the washing, the scrubbing. Spread, day by day, the smoking board, and call your spared husband and your little ones to partake; but you—your tears shall be your meat day and night, while underneath your breath you moan, “’Thanase! ’Thanase!”
THE CURÉ OF CARANCRO.
It was an unexpected and capital exchange. They had gone for a conscript; they came away with a volunteer.
Bonaventure sat by the fire in Sosthène’s cottage, silent and heavy, holding his small knees in his knit [Pg 25] hands and gazing into the flames. Zoséphine was washing the household’s few breakfast dishes. La vieille—the mother—was spinning cotton. Le vieux—Sosthène—sat sewing up a rent in a rawhide chair-bottom. He paused by and by, stretched, and went to the window. His wife caught the same spirit of relaxation, stopped her wheel, looked at the boy moping in the chimney-corner, and, passing over to his side, laid a hand upon his temple to see if he might have fever.
The lad’s eyes did not respond to her; they were following Sosthène. The husband stood gazing out through the glass for a moment, and then, without moving, swore a long, slow execration. The wife and daughter pressed quickly to his either side and looked forth.
There they came, the number increased to eighteen now, trotting leisurely through the subsiding storm. The wife asked what they were, but Sosthène made no reply; he was counting them: twelve, thirteen, fourteen—fourteen with short guns, another one who seemed to wear a sword, and three, that must be—
“Cawnscreep,” growled Sosthène, without turning his eyes. But the next moment an unusual sound at his elbow drew his glance upon Zoséphine. “Diable!” He glared at her weeping eyes, his manner demanding of her instant explanation. She retreated a step, moved her hand toward the approaching troop, and cried distressfully:
“Tu va oère!”—“You will see!”
His glance was drawn to Bonaventure. The lad [Pg 26] had turned toward them, and was sitting upright, his blue eyes widened, his face pale, and his lips apart; but ere Sosthène could speak his wife claimed his attention.
“Sosthène!” she exclaimed, pressing against the window-pane, “ah, Sosthène! Ah, ah! they have got ’Thanase!”
Father, mother, and daughter crowded against the window and one another, watching the body of horse as it drew nigh. Bonaventure went slowly and lay face downward on the bed.
Now the dripping procession is at hand. They pass along the dooryard fence. At the little garden gate they halt. Only ’Thanase dismounts. The commander exchanges a smiling word or two with him, and the youth passes through the gate, and, while his companions throw each a tired leg over the pommel and sit watching him, comes up the short, flowery walk and in at the opening door.
There is nothing to explain, the family have guessed it; he goes in his father’s stead. There is but a moment for farewells.
The prostrate boy does not move. ’Thanase strides up to the bed and looks at one burning cheek, then turns to his aunt.
“Li malade?”—“Is he ill?”
“Sa l’air a ca,” said the aunt. (Il a l’air—he seems so.)
“Bien, n’onc’ Sosthène, adjieu.” Uncle and nephew shake hands stoutly. “Adjieu,” says the [Pg 27] young soldier again to his aunt. She gives her hand and turns to hide a tear. The youth takes one step toward Zoséphine. She stands dry-eyed, smiling on her father. As the youth comes her eyes, without turning to him, fill. He puts out his hand. She lays her own on it. He gazes at her for a moment, with beseeching eye—“Adjieu.” Her eyes meet his one instant—she leaps upon his neck—his strong arms press her to his bosom—her lifted face lights up—his kiss is on her lips—it was there just now, and now—’Thanase is gone, and she has fled to an inner room.
Bonaventure stood in the middle of the floor. Why should the boy look so strange? Was it anger, or fever, or joy? He started out.
“A ou-ce-tu va Bonaventure?”—“Whereabouts are you going?”
“Va crier les vaches.”—“Going to call the cows.”
“At this time of day?” demanded la vieille, still in the same tongue. “Are you crazy?”
“Oh!—no!” the boy replied, looking dazed. “No,” he said; “I was going for some more wood.” He went out, passed the woodpile by, got round behind a corn-crib, and stood in the cold, wet gale watching the distant company lessening on the view. It was but a short, dim, dark streak, creeping across the field of vision like some slow insect on a window-glass. A spot just beyond it was a grove that would presently shut the creeping line finally from sight. They reached it, passed beyond, and disappeared; and then Bonaventure took off the small, soft-brimmed hat that hung [Pg 28] about his eyes, and, safe from the sight and hearing of all his tiny world, lifted his voice, and with face kindling with delight swung the sorry covering about his head and cried three times:
“Ora! Or-r-ra! Ora-a-a-a!”
But away in the night Madame Sosthène, hearing an unwonted noise, went to Bonaventure’s bedside and found him sobbing as if his heart had broken.
“He has had a bad dream,” she said; for he would not say a word.
The curé of Vermilionville and Carancro was a Creole gentleman who looked burly and hard when in meditation; but all that vanished when he spoke and smiled. In the pocket of his cassock there was always a deck of cards, but that was only for the game of solitaire. You have your pipe or cigar, your flute or violoncello; he had his little table under the orange-tree and his game of solitaire.
He was much loved. To see him beyond earshot talking to other men you would say he was by nature a man of affairs, whereas, when you came to hear him speak you find him quite another sort: one of the Elisha kind, as against the Elijahs; a man of the domestic sympathies, whose influence on man was personal and familiar; one of the sort that heal bitter waters with a handful of salt, make poisonous pottage wholesome with a little meal, and find easy, quiet ways to deliver poor widows from their creditors with no loss to either; a man whom men reverenced, while women loved and children trusted him.
The ex-governor was fond of his company, although [Pg 29] the curé only smiled at politics and turned the conversation back to family matters. He had a natural gift for divining men’s, women’s, children’s personal wants, and every one’s distinctively from every other one’s. So that to everybody he was an actual personal friend. He had been a long time in this region. It was he who buried Bonaventure’s mother. He was the connecting link between Bonaventure and the ex-governor. Whenever the curé met this man of worldly power, there were questions asked and answered about the lad.
A little after ’Thanase’s enlistment the priest and the ex-governor, who, if I remember right, was home only transiently from camp, met on the court-house square of Vermilionville, and stood to chat a bit, while others contemplated from across the deep mud of the street these two interesting representatives of sword and gown. Two such men standing at that time must naturally, one would say, have been talking of the strength of the defences around Richmond, or the Emperor Maximilian’s operations in Mexico, or Kirby Smith’s movements, hardly far enough away to make it seem comfortable. But in reality they were talking about ’Thanase.
“He cannot write,” said the curé; “and if he could, no one at home could read his letters.”
The ex-governor promised to look after him.
“And how,” he asked, “does Sosthène’s little orphan get on?”
The curé smiled. “He is well—physically. A queer, high-strung child; so old, yet so young. In [Pg 30] some things he will be an infant as long as he lives; in others, he has been old from the cradle. He takes every thing in as much earnest as a man of fifty. What is to become of him?”
“Oh! he will come out all right,” said the ex-governor.
“That depends. Some children are born with fixed characters: you can tell almost from the start what they are going to be. Be they much or little, they are complete in themselves, and it makes comparatively little difference into what sort of a world you drop them.”
“’Thanase, for instance,” said the ex-governor.
“Yes, you might say ’Thanase; but never Bonaventure. He is the other type; just as marked and positive traits, but those traits not yet builded into character: a loose mass of building-material, and the beauty or ugliness to which such a nature may arrive depends on who and what has the building of it into form. What he may turn out to be at last will be no mere product of circumstances; he is too original for that. Oh, he’s a study! Another boy under the same circumstances might turn out entirely different; and yet it will make an immense difference how his experiences are allowed to combine with his nature.” The speaker paused a moment, while Bonaventure’s other friend stood smiling with interest; then the priest added, “He is just now struggling with his first great experience.”
“What is that?”
“It belongs,” replied the curé, smiling in his turn, [Pg 31] “to the confidences of the confessional. But,” he added, with a little anxious look, “I can tell you what it will do; it will either sweeten his whole nature more and more, or else make it more and more bitter, from this time forth. And that is no trifle to you or me; for whether for good or bad, in a large way or in a small way, he is going to make himself felt.”
The ex-governor mused. “I’m glad the little fellow has you for a friend, father.—I’ll tell you; if Sosthène and his wife will part with him, and you will take him to live with you, and, mark you, not try too hard to make a priest of him, I will bear his expenses.”
“I will do it,” said the curé.
It required much ingenuity of argument to make the Gradnego pair see the matter in the desired light; but when the curé promised Sosthène that he would teach the lad to read and write, and then promised la vieille that Zoséphine should share this educational privilege with him, they let him go.
Zoséphine was not merely willing, but eager, to see the arrangements made. She beckoned the boy aside and spoke to him alone.
“You must go, Bonaventure. You will go, will you not—when I ask you? Think how fine that will be—to be educated! For me, I cannot endure an uneducated person. But—ah! ca sré vaillant, pour savoir lire. [It will be bully to know how to read.] Aie ya yaie!”—she stretched her eyes and bit her lip with delight—“C’est t’y gai, pour savoir écrire! [That’s fine to know how to write.] I will tell you a secret, dear Bonaventure. Any girl of sense is bound[Pg 32] to think it much greater and finer for a man to read books than to ride horses. She may not want to, but she has to do it; she can’t help herself!”
Still Bonaventure looked at her mournfully. She tried again.
“When I say any girl of sense I include myself—of course! I think more of a boy—or man, either—who can write letters than of one who can play the fiddle. There, now, I have told you! And when you have learned those things, I will be proud of you! And besides, you know, if you don’t go, you make me lose my chance of learning the same things; but if you go, we will learn them together.”
He consented. She could not understand the expression of his face. She had expected gleams of delight. There were none. He went with silent docility, and without a tear; but also without a smile. When in his new home the curé from time to time stole glances at his face fixed in unconscious revery, it was full of a grim, unhappy satisfaction.
“Self is winning, or dying hard. I wish no ill to ’Thanase; but if there is to be any bad news of him, I hope, for the sake of this boy’s soul, it will come quickly.” So spoke the curé alone, to his cards.
The war was in its last throes even when ’Thanase enlisted. Weeks and months passed. Then a soldier coming home to Carancro—home-comers were growing plentiful—brought the first news of him. An officer making up a force of picked men for an expedition to carry important despatches eastward across the Mississippi and far away into Virginia had chosen ’Thanase. The evening the speaker left for home on his leave of absence ’Thanase was still in camp, but was to start the next morning. It was just after Sunday morning mass that Sosthène and Chaouache, with their families and friends, crowded around this bearer of tidings.
“Had ’Thanase been in any battles?”
“Yes, two or three.”
“And had not been wounded?”
“No, although he was the bravest fellow in his company.”
Sosthène and Chaouache looked at each other triumphantly, smiled, and swore two simultaneous oaths of admiration. Zoséphine softly pinched her mother, and whispered something. Madame Sosthène addressed the home-comer aloud:
“Did ’Thanase send no other message except that mere ‘How-d’ye all do?’”
[Pg 34] Zoséphine leaned upon her mother’s shoulder, and softly breathed:
“He is lying.”
The mother looked around upon her daughter in astonishment. The flash of scorn was just disappearing from the girl’s eyes. She gave a little smile and chuckle, and murmured, with her glance upon the man:
“He has no leave of absence. He is a deserter.”
Then Madame Sosthène saw two things at once: that the guess was a good one, and that Zoséphine had bidden childhood a final “adjieu.”
The daughter felt Bonaventure’s eyes upon her. He was standing only a step or two away. She gave him a quick, tender look that thrilled him from head to foot, then lifted her brows and made a grimace of pretended weariness. She was growing prettier almost from day to day.
And Bonaventure, he had no playmates—no comrades—no amusements. This one thing, which no one knew but the curé, had taken possession of him. The priest sometimes seemed to himself cruel, so well did it please him to observe the magnitude Bonaventure plainly attributed to the matter. The boy seemed almost physically to bow under the burden of his sense of guilt.
“It is quickening all his faculties,” said the curé to himself. Zoséphine had hardly yet learned to read without stammering, when Bonaventure was already devouring the few French works of the curé’s small bookshelf. Silent on other subjects, on one he would [Pg 35] talk till a pink spot glowed on either cheek-bone and his blue eyes shone like a hot noon sky;—casuistry. He would debate the right and wrong of any thing, every thing, and the rights and wrongs of men in every relation of life.
Blessed was it for him then that the tactful curé was his father and mother in one, and the surgeon and physician of his mind. Thus the struggle brought him light. To the boy’s own eyes it seemed to be bringing him only darkness, but the priest saw better.
“That is but his shadow; he is standing in it; it is deepening; that shows the light is increasing.” Thus spake the curé to himself as he sat at solitaire under his orange-tree one afternoon.
The boy passed out of sight, and the curé’s eyes returned to his game of solitaire; but as he slowly laid one card upon another, now here, now there, he still thought of Bonaventure.
“There will be no peace for him, no sweetness of nature, no green pastures and still waters, within or without, while he seeks life’s adjustments through definitions of mere right and rights. No, boy; you will ever be a restless captive, pacing round and round those limits of your enclosure. Worse still if you seek those definitions only to justify your overriding another’s happiness in pursuit of your own.” The boy was not in hearing; this was apostrophe.
“Bonaventure,” he said, as the lad came by again; and Bonaventure stopped. The player pushed the cards from him, pile by pile, leaned back, ran his fingers slowly through his thin gray hair, and smiled.
[Pg 36] “Bonaventure, I have a riddle for you. It came to me as I was playing here just now. If everybody could do just as he pleased; if he had, as the governor would say, all his rights,—life, liberty, pursuit of happiness,—if everybody had this, I say, why should we still be unhappy?”
The boy was silent.
“Well, I did not suppose you would know. Would you like me to tell you? It is because happiness pursued is never overtaken. And can you guess why that is? Well, never mind, my son. But—would you like to do something for me?”
Bonaventure nodded. The curé rose, taking from his bosom as he left his chair a red silk handkerchief and a pocket-worn note-book. He laid the note-book on the table, and drawing back with a smile said:
“Here, sit down in my place, and write what I tell you, while I stretch my legs. So; never mind whether you understand or not. I am saying it for myself: it helps me to understand it better. Now, as I walk, you write. ‘Happiness pursued is never overtaken, because’—have you written that?—‘because, little as we are, God’s image makes us so large that we cannot live within ourselves, nor even for ourselves, and be satisfied.’ Have you got that down? Very well—yes—the spelling could be improved, but that is no matter. Now wait a moment; let me walk some more. Now write: ‘It is not good for man to be alone, because’—because—let me see; where—ah, yes!—‘because rightly self is the’—Ah! no, no, my boy; not a capital S for ‘self’—ah! that’s the [Pg 37] very point,—small s,—‘because rightly self is the smallest part of us. Even God found it good not to be alone, but to create’—got that?—‘to create objects for His love and benevolence.’ Yes—‘And because in my poor, small way I am made like Him, the whole world becomes a part of me’—small m, yes, that is right!” From bending a moment over the writer, the priest straightened up and took a step backward. The boy lifted his glance to where the sunlight and leaf-shadows were playing on his guardian’s face. The curé answered with a warm smile, saying:
“My boy, God is a very practical God—no, you need not write it; just listen a moment. Yes; and so when He gave us natures like His, He gave men not wives only, but brethren and sisters and companions and strangers, in order that benevolence, yes, and even self-sacrifice,—mistakenly so called,—might have no lack of direction and occupation; and then bound the whole human family together by putting every one’s happiness into some other one’s hands. I see you do not understand: never mind; it will come to you little by little. It was a long time coming to me. Let us go in to supper.”
The good man had little hope of such words taking hold. At school next day there was Zoséphine with her soft electric glances to make the boy forget all; and at the Saturday-night balls there she was again.
“Bonaventure,” her manner plainly said, “did you ever see any thing else in this wide world so tiresome as these boys about here? Stay with me; it keeps [Pg 38] them away.” She never put such thoughts into words. With an Acadian girl such a thing was impossible But girls do not need words. She drew as potently, and to all appearances as impassively, as a loadstone. All others than Bonaventure she repelled. If now and then she toyed with a heart, it was but to see her image in it once or twice and toss it aside. All got one treatment in the main. Any one of them might gallop by her father’s veranda seven times a day, but not once in all the seven would she be seen at the window glancing up at the weather or down at her flowers; nor on the veranda hanging up fresh hanks of yarn; nor at the well with the drinking-pail, getting fresh water, as she might so easily have been, had she so chosen. Yonder was Sosthène hoeing leisurely in the little garden, and possibly the sunbonnet of la vieille half seen and half hidden among her lima-beans; but for the rest there was only the house, silent at best, or, worse, sending out through its half-open door the long, scornful No-o-o! of the maiden’s unseen spinning-wheel. No matter the fame or grace of the rider. All in vain, my lad: pirouette as you will; sit your gallantest; let your hat blow off, and turn back, and at full speed lean down from the saddle, and snatch it airily from the ground, and turn again and gallop away; all is in vain. For by her estimate either you are living in fear of the conscript officer; or, if you are in the service, and here only transiently on leave of absence, your stay seems long, and it is rumored your leave has expired; or, worse, you cannot read; or, worst, your age, for all your manly airs, [Pg 39] is so near Zoséphine’s as to give your attentions strong savor of presumption. But let any fortune bring Bonaventure in any guise—sorriest horseman of all, youngest, slenderest, and stranger to all the ways that youth loves—
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